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Bill Sharon

What Needs To Go Right by Bill Sharon

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06/23/08 The Market by Bill Sharon

George Will was on NPR (National Public Radio) one night last week when I was searching the dial to fill an evening when the New York Mets were not playing baseball (and therefore not loosing) and I was in need of some background conversation.  Mr. Will, for those of you not in the United States, is a conservative columnist and a regular on a Sunday talk show.  He is a well groomed fellow who wears wire rimmed glasses and a bow ties and he speaks with a certainty that I associate with my grandfather.  It’s a very comforting certainty, almost narcotic in its effect.


Mr. Will believes in the marketplace.  It is, in his opinion, the panacea for all ailments.  The US automobile industry is suffering because it should – it makes lousy cars that no one wants to buy.  Oil prices reflect demand – drill more, increase supply and the price will go down.  There is something very absolute in his views.  Simply behave in the manner he proscribes and all will be well.  All will be well if you look down from 50,000 feet, but on the ground things don’t seem to operate with the seductive simplicity that Mr. Will insists on.


When we think of the market most of us think about the stock market.  Putting the latest index prices for the exchanges in New York, Tokyo, London and Frankfurt on one’s home page is a simple matter and our spirits can be dashed or buoyed by the red or black numbers that we see.  Unfortunately, as we have discovered in fits and starts over the past year, the stock exchanges are really no longer the place where most trading occurs.  There are unregulated markets for “structured financial products” which include mortgage backed securities, insurance on those securities and a whole range of other derivative instruments.  The face value of these instruments dwarfs the value (several times over) of all the stocks and bonds traded on the regulated financial markets.


The unraveling of this system of derivatives is ongoing and it might be reasonable to assume that Mr. Will would instruct us not to be circumspect in our definition of the market.  He might tell us that the credit squeeze, the foreclosures and the unemployment resulting from the financial losses in seemingly tangential treasury functions of corporations is but an example of the marketplace  working its magic, regulated or not.  Here the simplicity of the concept begins to get tangled up in human suffering but life is tough.  You get what you pay for.  The market is the great leveler of man’s folly.


No doubt that the competitive attitude required to play in the capitalist system has generated tremendous advances in the standard of living and the ability for humans to live in hope and see a brighter future.  While that future seems increasingly in question the issue is not whether the market works but whether or not we have evolved as human beings since the 18th century.  Commerce is but one part of our lives.  Many cultures embrace that idea and incorporate relationships, family, art, science and religion or spirituality and give them equal or greater importance.  We here in the United States tend to look askance at those folks.  They ought to stop hanging around and get to work.


This idea that the lives of people, their aspirations, health and wellbeing had no value in commerce was informally codified in the United States in the early 90”s when virtually all corporations broke the social contract and subsequent legislation allowed them to terminate anyone and everyone for any or no reason at all.  This ability to reduce or expand “headcount” without having to deal with external agencies or mandatory severance made us more nimble and efficient.  The problem with all this, however, is that employees quickly understood the game and began to see their current employment as a place to build a resume in anticipation of the next job.  Identification with the company and the strategy has fractured along with all of the built in risk management attributes that were so valuable when employees were valuable.  Most theft these days occurs inside companies, not from external 3rd parties.


Hard times often results in a reevaluation of what is important and what is not.  The market, whose only metric is profit, has defined what is valuable for the past three decades.  We have an opportunity to think that through again.


I suppose Mr. Will and I do share something in common; a love of baseball and the manner in which it is a metaphor for American life.  The game seems to embody every aspect of our culture.  There is cheating and stealing and there are umpires who can’t seem to see a foul pole or a strike zone.  There are also acrobatic catches, clutch hitting and tremendous heart and determination, individually and collectively.  We Americans are all those things and we seem to gyrate back and forth between the good and the ugly in a wave that has greater amplitude in their expression than in most other countries.  But there is a growing sense that we might be on the verge of fixing some things.


I believe Mr. Will’s team is the St. Louis Cardinals.  They aren’t doing so well either.  


It has been brought to our attention that Margaret is being portrayed as a psychic on $1.99 sites. These sites are doing so without Margaret's permission. Margaret has not claimed she is a psychic. - MW