It’s ecology, stupid.

Kudzu covering a house

Consider the kudzu plant. It’s a beautiful plant, really, until you realize its nature. If you drive through Eastern Tennessee, you’ll surely notice its distinct features. On any hillside where it is allowed to take root, every other form of life is covered by the kudzu, choked to death and deprived of the resources it needs to survive. The kudzu has become like an unstoppable plague in certain areas. Sunlight, water, and nutrients in the soil are used to further its own growth. The survival of anything else depends on what is left.

Now consider our economic landscape. Is it the gentle meadow of textbook examples with cooperative interactions or is it the domination by the few, like the kudzu? How are resources divided among our citizens? An analogy may help. If the total wealth of the United States was represented by a tank containing 1,000 gallons of water, how much do you think would be given to the poorest 40% or about 120 million people? They would have 3 gallons of water total to divide amongst themselves or 0.000000025 gallons per person. It is hard to imagine this is a just distribution of goods.

This level of disparity is what exists with our current level of regulation. Yet, many economic plans propose that we deregulate and let the economy fix itself. But what might this approach require? You would need balancing mechanisms. Market forces would need the ability to stabilize, to change, to retaliate, and much more. Such things happen quite nicely in the meadows of textbooks. But is the patch of grass or even the sturdy shrub able to alter the course of kudzu? The picture sold to us about a self-policing economy is built upon the idea of the meadow. And yet, we are already so much like a hill in Tennessee. Why should we think further deregulation will not take us closer and closer toward the same ultimate end? The lucky few will thrive amazingly well, while everything else may, if it’s lucky, survive on what remains.

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7 thoughts on “It’s ecology, stupid.

  1. …and why should we think further *regulation* will not take us closer and closer toward the same end? Maybe more regulation makes more power-aggregating deals happen in back rooms instead of out in the open. I don’t know the answer, but I believe the answer is neither obvious nor intuitive.

    • Katy,

      I don’t know the answer either, but I’m not specifically arguing for more regulation. I just think the idea of deregulation to a major extent is built on a faulty notion of how it provides benefit. I think things like back room deals actually support that our economic landscape is more like the hill in Tennessee.

      • But if we deregulate (meaning fewer, simpler regulations — not *no* regulations), then there will be fewer “regulators” to buy off.

        That said, I’m trying to find somewhere on the internet where anyone is arguing that deregulation is the key to reversing the trends of income inequality. I can’t tie the two together myself. Deregulation can create jobs, but that’s not a direct correlation to the income inequality problem. So, I’m not sure what argument this article is trying to counter.

        The Kudzu analogy has a major flaw with regards to income inequality — the rich are *not* choking us out of existence. For the most part it’s a symbiotic relationship. The stats which say the rich are getting richer while the poor are getting poorer are questionable — see http://cafehayek.com/2011/10/the-top-1.html — looks like everyone is losing money these days.

  2. Katy,

    Sorry if I was unclear. I don’t know of anyone saying deregulation is the key to fixing income inequality. I’m saying that there are people who want to move as close to a free market as possible and the economy will by those means essentially fix itself. I think it’s possibly true that allowing a much freer economy will bring in ore dollars, but what happens when those dollars come in? They are funneled heavily toward the top (I think it’s still around 40% of new wealth to the top 0.1%). So, I’m saying that using this method to “fix” the economy would probably make this inequality worse, given the kudzu nature of things (a hyperbole, sure). This brings up all sorts of interesting questions, including: Should we fix the economy first and then worry about the inequality? Should we worry about inequality that much at all?

    I have a few more things to say, but they’ll have to wait until after work. Hopefully that helps to clarify.

    Thanks for the comments.

  3. “I think it’s possibly true that allowing a much freer economy will bring in ore dollars, but what happens when those dollars come in? They are funneled heavily toward the top (I think it’s still around 40% of new wealth to the top 0.1%)” — as a Libertarian that is a question I keep coming back to myself. I really don’t know what would happen. I’m hoping that someday we can live in a libertarian society so we can find out, as I don’t think there is any other way to know. Whether you believe in deregulation and smaller government (which to me means more power to smaller governments) or not, either way it’s just speculation until we test it.

    • I think an ideal society would have a libertarian type of system. The problem is that I think you need the ideal society first and then the system. I don’t think putting the system into an unjust society will transform it into an ideal one. Rather, I think it would make certain things worse. One of those things would be the well being of the least well off, who I think we ought to protect. I side with John Rawls on that point.

      • I completely agree. Responsibility must come before freedom.

        Many libertarians will argue, however, that freedom teaches responsibility as a necessity for survival in a free environment. Some will even agree with us, yet claim that, in practice, the government’s interference is often misguided or corrupt and produces even worse results than a free system would. But I read these criticisms as suggestions for balancing and perfecting our methods, not reasons to abandon them altogether. I just don’t think that our growing knowledge of the human brain and psychology supports anything like the Homo economicus model for most of us; consequently, libertarianism seems incredibly dangerous to me. Still, many libertarian arguments are interesting and appeal to the rationality of those of us who most resemble Homo economicus, so I’m not at all surprised that a lot of intelligent people support it.

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