First appeared in print in The Rhinoceros Times, Greensboro, NC
Are We the Bad Guy?
Back in the days before television, before radio, before movies -- before my parents -- one of the favorite entertainments of the American people was to go to a play, and the favorite plays were the melodramas.
The traditional villain was the landlord or banker who was planning to evict the heroine or foreclose on her house. Audiences recognized him immediately, and hissed and booed when he came on stage.
We knew who the bad guys were.
And today, for many nations in the world, the bad guy is ...
Technically, of course, it's not the United States at all. It's the International Monetary Fund. The World Bank. Some financial entity that is not controlled by laws enacted by the U.S. Congress.
But the IMF does what American financial leaders want it to do.
It demands that national governments that want to keep getting foreign investments take firm steps to get their economic houses in order. Make the tough decisions, the IMF tells presidents, or watch your international credit dry up completely.
The trouble is, this only works in strong dictatorships or one-party states, where the government can force unpopular measures on the people and make them stick.
More fragile governments either can't pass the draconian measures demanded by the IMF at all, or when they do make such policy decisions, the government quickly topples.
But even when the IMF gets its way, the results can be devastating. You see, when a nation is financially sick, the IMF regards a devastating economic depression as part of the cure.
Take your medicine like a good child, says the IMF. Let thousands -- millions -- of your people lose their job or take drastic wage cuts. Let your economy go down the toilet, let proud, hardworking people be reduced to begging in the streets to feed their families, shatter the middle class of your country and leave all the power in the hands of the few people rich enough (in foreign investments, of course) to ride out the crisis.
In other words, the IMF gives them a good stiff dose of what America suffered in the 1930s. You know, the devastating financial hole that World War II dug us out of -- years so terrible that the generation that lived through them vowed that it would never happen again.
So American financial policy has been geared toward making sure that strict rules and regulations kept our financial institutions and investment and trade systems from behaving in their normal, selfish, irresponsible fashion, making their normal stupid mistakes that are always paid for by the common people.
The practice of having the government protect the people from big money and big business in its most naked and terrible form began with Teddy Roosevelt's trust-busting campaign at the turn of the last century.
Since then, there has been a constant give-and-take between government, business, labor, and other interests, one team getting the upper hand in this decade, another team in the next. Each one of the players, when they have too much power, immediately begin to act to the detriment of the public. But in the balancing act among them, the American public has fared rather well.
We're in a recession right now, but except for the relatively few people who have lost their jobs, most of us have to read about it in the papers. And since some people lose their jobs and some companies fail even in the best of times, even the jobless see plenty of prosperity around them.
But Argentina is going through a depression, a financial shock of proportions we haven't seen in America since my parents' generation.
And the immediate cause of that depression is ...
The banker who foreclosed. The IMF. The bad guy. The United States.
Don't boo at us, Argentina! We're not really the bad guy! We're just an actor, playing the bad guy for your entertainment!
In the long run, you'll thank us!
Well, no, they won't thank us. Because it doesn't have to be this way. The IMF's policies aren't engraved in stone, they merely reflect a couple of current fads in the thinking of American economists, who are, as everyone knows, invariably wrong about almost everything -- like weather forecasters, who collect enormous amounts of information but still can't tell you whether it'll be snow, sleet, freezing rain, rain, or nothing at all as a winter storm slides through.
Right now the fad is to worship the "free market."
Well, here's a clue: A truly free market would freeze our bones with fear. Corporations exist to protect investors from the cruel machinations of the free market. Labor unions are designed to protect workers from the harsh free market. Governments either protect the people -- the "consumers" -- from the free market or, in the long run, they fall.
We all hate the free market. In a free market you can't plan for the future. Anything can fail. Boom or bust.
American economists nod wisely and say, "But such things are natural correctives. In the long run, the market evens everything out, weeds out the weak companies, and strengthens the best companies."
Sure, and in the long run there is no day or night, summer or winter, just twilight and 55-degree temperatures.
We don't buy clothes and food or make house payments in the long run. We do it this month, this week, today.
The natural tendency of the free market is to destroy itself. In that much-vaunted long run, the free market concentrates power in the hands of one dominant company, which, without government intervention, will invariably try to protect itself against the free market by buying or wrecking all its competitors.
The resulting monopoly (Hello, Bill Gates!) then acts against the interests of the public, caring nothing about innovation, quality, or price, but only about maintaining its increasingly government-like bureaucracy and protecting top management's jobs and owners' wealth against the vicissitudes of the dreaded free market.
Government regulation can go too far -- ludicrously far, as when the do-gooders at OSHA mandated to the inch just how far fire extinguishers had to be from doorways. Labor, when it controlled Congress, pushed so mindlessly to protect workers that now a huge portion of our incomes goes to a government that is bloated and incompetent in large part because nobody outside the military can be fired.
The free-marketeers present themselves as the "cure" for monster government and monster labor. Which is rather like a crocodile offering to help us keep the mice and rats from eating our food ... and all they ask in return is that we let them eat our children. (Which will be good for us, because then our existing food supplies will run a surplus!)
What they call "the free market" is simply their plan to protect the financial interests that control the IMF from the real free market, which terrifies them as it terrifies everyone.
Meanwhile, Americans are being held responsible for the damage they do in other countries.
So look at newspapers and magazines and read what you can about the current situation in Argentina.
There are those who think the same economic "remedies" should be applied to us. For our own good, of course.
Here's what really works: Keep a rough balance among the monsters and never let any one of them take control. As long as they're struggling with each other, they won't eat us.
Copyright © 2002 by Orson Scott Card.
Reproduction in whole or in part without permission is prohibited.