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We are acclimated to a world defined by commercial transactions, of endless choices and constant imperatives to change.

Everything Has a Price

Dec. 1, 2019
We have built an engine of commerce. It may run forever, but markets seldom operate that way.

It’s December, the season for economic forecasts, “open enrollment,” and online bargain hunting, though in fact two of these are constant, not seasonal. For decades there was a secondary custom of commentators decrying “the commercialization of Christmas,” but I doubt anyone can fathom what that might mean now.  Buying things and collecting “experiences” like totems are the ways we forge our identities in the present civilization. We do not revive traditions that connect us to our personal, familial, and cultural histories so much as we engage these routines to fulfill our role in the datasphere.

Seamless economic transactions set the rhythm of our lives. Commerce keeps the order between nations, or business, or each other. We’d be in constant conflict if conflict were not so expensive and time-consuming. Fighting over principles is rarely worth the cost or trouble, though vanity, self-pity, pettiness, and vulgarity seem to have been restored as effective character traits, especially for people in the continuum of celebrity (business, arts, sports, academia, politics) who present themselves as brands. They know this is a buyers’ market and their aim is for us to associate ourselves with their brand.

This is how I have come to understand the presidential primary process underway this December, but actually in development and production for years and destined to run forever. We may never be free to return to private endeavors as long as the big questions like who’s a good guy or a bad guy must be dished and devoured.

Most of us have been around long enough to remember when politics and economics ran on parallel tracks: “It’s the economy, stupid,” was meant to remind us that peace and prosperity were valuable and measurable, and that a candidate who fulfilled those basic objectives could be rewarded with voters’ trust.

That’s changed now, too. U.S. GDP increased 3.0% year-over-year in 2018 and is on track to increase 2.2% more this year. Employment rates are steadily low, and consumer product inflation is nominal. But none of this is in debate and seemingly will play no role in guiding voters, because the selection process is now guided by likes and dislikes.

The candidates themselves are not especially impressive, so they attach themselves to ideas they expect will stimulate our receptors. If market economics is just the atmosphere we live in, surely some intriguing alternative will attract more followers to the brand, right?

This is the simplest way to understand the fashion for economic radicalism being displayed this primary season.  The subjects in discussion are mainly phrased as appeals to justice and reason, common-sense approaches to problems most people have never fully grasped, like using tax penalties to end carbon emissions and insuring the health-care costs of every person from coast to coast. "It’s really simple if you’d just drop your unreasonable opposition!"

Politics, like everything else, is a buyers’ market, and the buyers want something different than they have had in the past, or that everyone else has had. If candidates are selling messages that seem impossible or worse, it’s because there is a demand for those impossible (or worse) things.

So let’s be careful to consider why some notable number of Americans are ready for “free” health-care for everyone, outlawing some fuel sources, and instituting property confiscation from some designated villains. They are open to these things because they have acclimated themselves to a world defined by commercial transactions, of endless choices and constant imperatives to change.

We have changed. We know the price of everything and the value of nothing, as Oscar Wilde quipped. Rather than maintain a stable system of ordered liberties, we have built an engine of commerce. It runs beautifully, but no one is content. We have pushed every decision out to the potential buyers, and made them responsible for the consequences. It may run forever, but markets seldom operate that way.