The Future Is Now
§ Develop an industrial policy for essential needs. Economic deregulation produced real economic gains, like stimulating technological innovation, but it also fed inequality in sly ways. The deregulated system raised costs for the least affluent, while larger business customers were able to bargain for lower prices. Financial deregulation (enacted by Democrats in 1980) legalized usurious lending and created a large pool of families (now around 12 million) who can't afford a bank account and get ripped off by predatory lenders. Deregulation of electric u tilities led to Enron and the price-rigging scandals. That sector, meanwhile, notoriously ignores its culpability for producing global warming.
The point is, some consumer goods are too essential to be left to the profit-seeking enthusiasms--and reckless disruptions--of private enterprise. People need them to live and are thus always prey to exploitation. Family finances will benefit and so will the environment if government selectively re-regulates industrial sectors producing for essential needs: banking and finance, energy, elements of transportation and telecommunications, for starters.
The basic approach is restoring a franchise relationship in which firms accept government-imposed obligations in exchange for limited competition and an assurance of moderate profits. Market space can be preserved for smaller, innovative firms. New rules can avoid the inflexibilities of the old system. But the notion that corporations have a right to annex common public assets and turn them into profitable commodities has to be stopped. Companies are buying the water. What's next--selling us clean air?
A prime candidate for essential-needs regulation is the drug industry. Among its many outrages, the drug companies ride free on the expensive basic research financed by government, then convert it into private, overpriced products--paying nothing at all back to the original financiers, the taxpayers. If citizens ever understood this scam, they would be angry enough to demand a nationalized drug industry. At the very least, citizens are entitled to reasonable pricing and a share of the profits from the medicine they paid to create.
Re-regulation of commerce also requires some rules accepted as everyday practice in business. When government hands out public money to a company, it should demand an enforceable contract: written agreement from the corporate recipient about what the public gets in return and the right to recover the money if the agreement isn't fulfilled. When government puts up public capital for a private development as tax breaks or infrastructure, it should get equity in return. If businesses don't like these terms, they don't have to take the public's money.
These ideas and others can gain political traction if reformers reclaim the language of freedom. It starts with a liberating message for people: The failure lies in the system, not yourselves. When the conservative order stripped away government protections for society, control was handed over to another master--the marketplace--that is even more remote from accountability and far less sympathetic to the human condition. That old order is collapsing. Now life and liberty can be restored. Government helps by creating the proper foundations. People will do the rest for themselves.