Capitalism is falling apart. Tires explode, utility rates skyrocket, pharmaceuticals kill patients, telephone service is a mess, airports are gridlocked, broadcasters rip off scarce airwave spectrum for free and salmon in the Northwest are becoming transgendered and unable to breed. Even successful dot-commers are an endangered species.
Yes, Virginia, we do need government regulation. Not to build socialism but to save capitalism, because the market mechanism left to its own devices inevitably spirals out of control. Recognition of that reality has guided this country to prosperity ever since Franklin D. Roosevelt pulled us out of the Great Depression.
But in recent decades, conservative economists and their fat-cat corporate sponsors have led us down the yellow brick road of deregulation. Getting government out of the market would free creativity and investment, leading us to the magic kingdom of Oz, where all would prosper. If anything went wrong, the wizard of Oz–a k a Alan Greenspan–would make it all better.
Well, in real life, Greenspan is a competent fellow, but he knows better than anyone that, while fiddling with interest rates can modulate the business cycle, it is hardly an adequate remedy for all of the problems of a modern economy. Setting the interest rate does not ensure safe water, air, tires or medicines.
Suddenly we are confronted with a series of crises resulting from the deregulation craze, from energy policy to telecommunications, from financial markets to food and drugs. In 1996, the California Legislature deregulated the energy market. The result is now bordering on the catastrophic, with utility companies demanding enormous rate increases or they will declare bankruptcy.
Those are the same utility companies that a scant four years ago assured Californians that deregulation would lead to sharply lowered energy prices. Today, the bright spots in California are the publicly run utilities, which are not part of the deregulation scam and which, in places like Los Angeles, remain solvent and supply relatively low-cost electricity.
The same thoughtless rush to deregulation led the US Congress, also in 1996, to deregulate the telecommunications industry. The result has been across-the-board chaos in the once-efficient telephone industry: mergers of the AOL-Time Warner sort, which seriously threaten to destroy the free marketplace of ideas through corporate concentration; ballooning cable costs; the giveaway of valuable airwave spectrum to broadcasters; and the grabbing of blocks of phone numbers, creating a false area-code shortage.
Last year, Congress passed the Financial Services Modernization Act, which ended a sixty-five-year ban on the merging of banks, insurance companies and stock brokerages. One consequence is that those companies also can merge your financial, medical and credit records to market your personal profile–the most sweeping invasion of personal privacy in the nation's history.
The deregulation virus is wreaking mayhem everywhere. Last week, the Los Angeles Times carried a devastating investigative story on how the US Food and Drug Administration transformed itself into a partner of the pharmaceutical industry instead of its time-honored role as watchdog over the production of medications. The Times concluded after an exhaustive two-year investigation that the "seven deadly drugs" that were approved after this expedited review process was in place are suspected in causing more than 1,000 deaths.
The mad cow epidemic in Europe and the genetic altering of US foods are both stark reminders that the rampant changes in economic production induced by scientific breakthroughs are particularly demanding of government scrutiny. Yet at a time of such change, the free-market ideologues have done everything they can to leave the public unprotected.
Those true believers in unregulated markets are abundantly represented in the forthcoming Bush Administration. They will be buttressed in their zeal to further dismantle government protection of the consumer by a vast army of lobbyists, who provide the main financial backing for both parties. For example, AT&T, which has pushed for much of the telecommunications deregulation, is the largest donor to the Republican Party and the second largest to the Democrats. The Financial Service Modernization Act passed with overwhelming bipartisan support after the most lavishly funded lobbying effort ever.
What this all adds up to is a compelling argument for mitigating the corrupting influence of corporate money over our political system.
Passage of the McCain-Feingold campaign finance reform bill would be one place to start. The revival of the consumer movement is another. We need more, not less, regulation in the public interest.
Throughout our history, when corporate greed has gotten out of hand, the public has demanded that government act. Let this be one of those times.