Recently, I was having a discussion with a conservative guy on a mutual friend's facebook status about capitalism and regulating markets and all that stuff. Now, if you've read anything I've posted here that isn't about movies or music, you know that I have a love/hate relationship with capitalism and the free market. I love fair market capitalism, I love a free market that plays by the rules, I love real competition and lots of it, in every industry. I hate monopolistic collusion, I hate megacorps and the way they circumvent what few anti-trust laws are still left to form what are essentially monopolies, but since they're made up of 5 or 6 companies instead of 1, it's ok. I hate market manipulation, particularly when it comes to energy and food market speculation. I hate the idea that a struggling, middle class family has to seriously make the choice between a gallon of milk and a gallon of gas just so some Wall St. jerkoff can grow his hedge fund a little more.
So, I'm having this back and forth, quite civilly and rationally, with this conservative guy, and the conversation begins to divert from talk about regulating the market to regulating all business in general. Suddenly, I'm not being indicted for wanting a fair market, I'm being indicted for wanting to regulate business itself into the ground. This isn't the first time a discourse between myself and a conservative person about market regulation has degenerated into an accusation that I am attacking business owners and seeking to impose sanctions on business in order to make life better for "lazy bums" who just don't want to work as hard, but expect the same rewards. However, what made this particular conversation different was that this person used a term I hadn't heard before, "Maximum Wage."
The implication is that I wanted to impose a wage ceiling on business and the wealthy in this country. That all my talk of regulation and oversight was little more than left-wing slang for wanting to create a socialist redistribution of the wealth, whereby once a business or individual made a certain amount of money, everything else should be taken from them and given to the "have-nots."
I was surprised at this assertion, for a number of reasons. First, I've never said anything about a wage ceiling or imposing a maximum wage or anything like that, ever. I'm not opposed to how much money a person makes. My problem isn't with wealth, my problem is with greed. Rich people can be some of the most generous people in the world when it comes to philanthropic donations, helping out their fellow Americans, creating jobs and opportunities for the less fortunate, and so on. Rich people can also be the worst people in the world and do things that destroy competition, hurt the working class, and ruin people's lives, simply for their own enrichment. The determining factor isn't how much money they make, it's the kind of person they are. I know some businessmen in my area who are amazing people, incredibly and selflessly generous and who have done a lot to improve the quality of life for people in this area, so to simply dismiss my calls for regulation, my issues with the corruption of capitalism and the unfair manipulation of the market as "envy economics" or wanting to punish the rich is at best unfair and at worst just way off base.
I've said it before and I'll say it again, I'm not anti-business and I'm not anti-rich. I'm anti-greed.
I understand greed is a basic human emotion and it exists in all of us to some degree. It's like the old lost wallet scenario. You know, the one where you're asked "If you found a wallet on the ground with $500 in it, would you keep the money or turn it in?" Now, if asked publicly, most people would probably say they'd turn it in, but privately, all but a very few of us would keep the money and walk away. It's because of this that I feel regulation is essential for our markets. If you let people play around with trillions of dollars worth of other people's money, how can you not expect them to do whatever they can to keep as much of it as they can get away with for themselves? Greed is going to happen, especially when you're dealing with the kind of money that moves through our stock exchange and world financial markets on a daily basis, so how do you stop people from giving in to their most basic instinct to take that which isn't theirs as long as they don't think they will get caught? For me, the answer is simple - you regulate the markets better. You impose rules that make it harder for people to do that. You put watchdogs in place who actually watch, not inept pawns like the SEC. Every game needs a referee, the investment game is no different.
For some reason, to most conservatives, that sounds like I'm saying we need to regulate businesses, raise taxes, redistribute wealth and punish success. Now, I don't know if that's just the knee-jerk result of decades of spoon-fed conservative spin or a genuine failure to understand the words that are coming out of my mouth - or off my fingers as the case may be. However, let me assure you that I do not want to do any of those things. What I want to do is see real regulatory reform in the stock market.
I want to see the reinstatement of Glass/Steagal. I want to see stronger anti-trust laws that prevent vertical mergers that allow a handful of megacorps to control the majority of almost every major industry in the country. I want to see laws that encourage competition, not discourage it. I want to see this current state of 5 or 6 companies dominating every major industry broken down into 15-20 companies or more. I want to see small businesses be allowed to play on equal footing with the big boys. If you think that's socialism, then buy a dictionary, because the definition of socialism is when all industry is controlled by the government, and when you have 5 or 6 bloated "too big to fail" companies who use our tax money as a rainy day fund when they can't manage their billions in profits correctly, that's more socialist than anything I will ever propose on this blog. What I want to see is regulatory enforcement of true fair market competition. I want to see a guy with a 50-person soda company in Washington State see his products on the shelf next to Coca Cola without having to worry about being bought out or crushed by price undercutting he can't possibly compete with. If you think about what I'm saying, my ideas create more jobs, because - as conservatives are quick to point out - small business creates the majority of jobs in this country, so any regulations, any government incentives that foster more small business competition, more entrepreneurship, more innovation and the creation of new industries, those all benefit the middle class. Those all create opportunity for the middle class, which is a commodity far more valuable than gold or money, because opportunity creates wealth. Opportunity allowed Mark Zuckerberg to create Facebook and become a billionaire. Opportunity allowed Steve Jobs to create Apple and become a billionaire, and so on. Opportunity allows average Americans with a good idea and ambition to become true success stories.
Right now, it's not the hoarding of money that bothers me so much, it's the hoarding of opportunity. Now, I've said this before in a previous blog post, but it still applies. I don't want a redistribution of the wealth, I want a redistribution of opportunity, and the best way to do that is to start regulating the markets, start breaking up these neo-trust megacorps, start imposing regulations that allow small businesses to enter the free market and compete with big business fairly and equally. I just want every American with a good idea to have a fair chance to turn that idea into a success story. That's about as pro-business as you can get, I think.