Victims of the Free Market: Predatory Speculation

Civil War in Libya. Oil speculators crowding into the market. For nearly a week running, network TV news has led with the story of rising gas prices and the “threat to the economy”. Really? The Federal Reserve core inflation excludes food and energy, on the basis that price spikes moderate and in any event (barring revolutionaries gaining foothold in Saudi Arabia) speculators come and go, exchanging futures for paintings by Michaelangelo. The price of gas goes from $3.14 to $3.55, and suddenly we are atwitter about tapping the national oil reserve?

In the week before TV news began to focus on gas prices, the Administration announced the jobless rate fell to 8.9 percent. The emerging story line is that rising fuel prices are threatening the economic “recovery”. That’s not why the seams are coming apart.

2008 report by the US DOE notes that petroleum accounts for only 37 percent of total energy consumption. Libya accounts for about 2 percent of global oil supply. The narrative that strikes me as more resonant is that US industrial, financial and housing policies, virtually without criticism by the fourth estate, created a perfect storm from the mid 1990’s to mid 2000s, allowing speculative bubbles in the stock market and real estate development to inflate an appearance of economic prosperity while Wall Street and the entire Growth Machine looted the banks until the whole scheme came crashing down like the Hindenberg.

There has been no accountability, and maybe that is what is unsettling TV viewers. To watch poor Arabs taking up arms against rich dictators armed to the teeth fuels some domestic agitation that is yet unrecognized. Americans’ obsessive “right to bear arms” looks like thin gruel in news clips of machine guns in the hands of disorganized Libyan rebels firing into the blue sky. After this exercise, maybe the American National Rifle Association needs to lobby for citizens’ right to bear surface-to-air-missiles. While gas prices lead the news, what goes unreported is how the snake oil salesmen are flourishing in the United States.

In the 19th century, as the Robber Barons were consolidating political and economic power around the railroads, the salesmen held forth medicines to cure intestinal worms in bottles filled with alcohol clear as rain. Their prescriptions are in the same vein as our own, newer ones; “the ownership society” or Tea Party’ers attacking “job killing environmental regulations” like the witches of Eastwick. No one has gone to jail, not Angelo Mozilo of Countrywide, the giant mortgage company that made the highest virtue of signing to a home mortgage anyone who could fog a mirror. In Florida, in Miami-Dade county and the state capitol, Tallahassee, the Angelo Mozilo School of Thievery and Disguise is well attended. The GOP elites are busy in legislative Hogwarts assembling the most radical policies to consolidate power since the 1880’s.

The polluters are on the warpath to eliminate already miserable protections of public health and the environment. But we don’t get that news: how they thump their Bibles, wear their American Flag pins on their lapels and sculpt their hair to look like marble busts in the rotunda. On 60 Minutes last Sunday, the lead story was the massive increase in public school students who are homeless. In one Florida county, the number of homeless students appearing in public schools is increasing from 15 to 30 students per day! Our response? Cut their funding. They don’t have any? Cut it more!

60 Minutes noted that many Americans are opening their homes to shelter these victims of the “free” market. But for the most part, the mainstream media is staying far, far away from reporting the new callous America. It gravitates instead toward gas prices. The unrest in Libya pushed the unrest in Wisconsin and in the states, where local government officials are proving incapable of coping with municipal debt loads, off the front page and the news cycle, but for how long? How long before our own evangelicals answer the questions, where does the Bible make a fetish of small, limited government or tax cuts favoring the money changers?

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