WSJ: Speaking in tounges

Up until a few years ago, I figured the Wall Street Journal was merely a boring business paper — a publication by and for business people, covering money issues. I assumed that if it did cover politics, it did so only in the context of how a party or policy might affect a certain business sector.

It turns out I was very naive.

I started reading the WSJ opinion pages a few years ago, having been inspired by a piece in the New York Times about the dangers of seeking out information that merely echoes one’s own opinion. I was quite surprised to find not drab businessmen writing for the WSJ, but instead fervent believers, preaching and worshiping.

The opinion page at the WSJ doesn’t actually have much in the way of business specifics. Instead readers find two types of pieces, those comdeming the Obama administration as the worse thing to happen in the history of mankind, and those praising the magically benevolent powers of free-market capitalism.

Naturally a business paper is bound to find some faults with a democratic policy, so the pieces criticizing the Obama administration are remarkable only for their hysterical pitch. What surprised me are the soaring tributes. It surprised me because I thought that the lesson of the last few years is that strong government regulation is an essential part of a successful capitalistic society. After all, the largest economy on earth was almost taken down because Wall Street was furiously selling toxic mortgage dept to itself. Critics of laissez-faire economics could not ask for a better demonstration of the dangers of unregulated capitalism.

Furthermore, as a result of the mortgage madness that Wall Street engaged in, many of the biggest and previously successful financial entities had to be rescued by the taxpayers. In other words Wall Street — the supposed master of all money matters — fumbled so colossally and proved itself to be so incredibly greedy and short sighted that  it had to beg for public money in order to stay in business.

Between these two things — being exposed as incompetent and having to be bailed out by the government, I expected some degree of humility — some degree of moderation in the pages of the Wall Street Journal. I expected some reflection. I expected some acknowledgement that perhaps we’ve removed too much regulation and oversight from the American economic system over the last thirty years. And maybe — just maybe, I expected an occasional hint of gratitude, if not to American government, then to the American tax payer.

Nothing doing. If anything the sound of trumpets is louder now than ever.

Consider a recent piece by Danniel Henninger called Capitalism Saved the Miners, that essentially argues that without capitalism there is no technical innovation, and without technical innovation there is no way to save the 33 Chilean miners who were trapped 2000 feet underground until last week. This is, as one commenter puts it “like having a party for the innovation that plugged the gulf well.”

Henninger’s argument is nonsense, but crafting a rebuttal is tough because it’s hard to know where to start. Yes, the critical equipment  used to save the miners came from a for-profit US company. And yes, this equipment was the result of technical innovation. But the miners were 2000 feet below the surface of the earth in the first place due to technical innovation. The same technical innovations that freed them got them down there.

And what’s more, the same profit-seeking forces send hundreds of miners around the world to their deaths every year. If capitalism deserves credit for saving the miners, then it deserves at least some of the blame for the miners that regularly do not make it to the surface alive. The US alone loses more than 33 miners in a typical year. And the only reason that there aren’t more mining deaths is because of government-imposed safely rules and and work condition regulations.

Technology is a tool, and as such can be used for both good and evil. Capitalism, like technology, is a tool, and therefore can be used for good and for evil. To cherry-pick some benefits to showcase the positive impact is advertising, and excusing capitalism’s failures is damage control.

But the problem doesn’t stop there. The Wall Street Journal (and conservatives in general) seem to be convinced that technical innovation is somehow dependent on capitalism. The two undoubtedly work well together, but they are in fact separate forces. After all, we have the public sector to thank for some of the most radical leaps in technology known to man. Consider nuclear energy, or the space program, both of which are entirely the result of public money. Oh, and the Internet. (Google DARPA if you think that capitalism invented the Internet.)

Capitalism is enormously powerful, and it’s potential for good is massive. We all know that. But power always has the potential for destruction, and there is no better evidence than the current economic crisis. Capitalism is very much like nuclear power — it’s enormously powerful and therefore must be watched very, very carefully.

The trouble is that the folks at the Wall Street Journal believe in Capitalism in the same way that evangelicals believe in God. They believe it’s a purely benevolent power. They believe that if it does do any harm, it is harm that is somehow necessary. They believe that any interference by the government is  not only undesirable, but an abomination. To interfere with the invisible hand of the free market is sacrilege, and must be fought at all costs.

Just as we wouldn’t think of building a nuclear plant without a robust monitoring and cooling system, we cannot leave capitalism solely in the hands of corporate interests. This recession could have been completely avoided if only the regulatory agencies had had the means to stop everything as soon as Wall Street started inventing investment tools that no one could explain. And yet — a mere two years into the crisis, all lessons have apparently been forgotten. Not only has there been no national discussion of how and why our system failed us, but we’re putting government back in the hands of people that essentially consider all government regulation to be evil.

Recently I’ve stopped reading the Wall Street Journal opinion page. I have several reasons. First, each installment is largely the same, and I’ve read enough to get the point. Second, Thomas Frank, the only opinion columnist at the WSJ who made any sense, was fired in August. And third, because they began limiting access to paid WSJ subscribers, and paying to read the WSJ is very much out of the question.

And besides, it may be a good exercise to seek opinions that counter your own, but it’s also decidedly bad for one’s stress level.

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