Twenty-Five Years a Sucker!

I happened to read a commentary in the Wall Street Journal yesterday, only because it was about the Prius -- a car that I own. The photo of the author, Holman W. Jenkins, Jr., had that sneering look that free-marketers often adopt before they are indicted for tax fraud or accounting irregularities. I have to say that Junior did not disappoint. He belittled Prius drivers for having fallen for Hybrid Synergy Drive hype, sneered at the "emotional" relationship Prius drivers seem to have with their vehicles, and eventually got around (toward the end of the piece) to calling Prius drivers "suckers." Junior caused me to reflect upon my Prius, and to compare it to the other cars I've bought in the last eight years -- a Chevy diesel truck, a Mazda van, a Saab, a Subaru Outback sedan, and, of course, the Prius. All of these cars cost between twenty and twenty-five grand. I still have the truck. It once had a sudden stopping problem that got fixed after the dealer rummaged through the paperwork and found an old recall notice, but it's been fine since. The Mazda van gave me serious back pain, so I bought the Saab. The Saab rode very rough. Every bump was like a pothole, so I bought the Outback, which had a very smooth ride, but only got about twenty miles to the gallon. When I tried the Prius, which rode nearly as well as the Outback, cost less, and had more cargo room and leg room in the backseat, I decided that the two were comparable, as cars go.

The Prius has been entirely reliable, comfortable, and useful. There have been recalls -- Toyota notified me and fixed the potential problems during regular servicing. As far as I can tell, the Prius's only disadvantage is that if the dogs aren't looking at you when you are backing up, they don't realize that you are coming toward them (since it backs up silently, on electric power). Since all my cars have seemed comparable to me, I have not felt like a "sucker" in the Prius. And when I am driving on the highway and the car tells me it is getting 53 or 54 miles to the gallon and when I am driving around my neighborhood, which is hilly, and it tells me I am getting 41-43 miles to the gallon, and when I was stuck in traffic in LA it told me I was getting 72 miles to the gallon, it seems more like a bonus and a pleasure than the reason I bought the Prius, which cost me more than the Saab and less than the Mazda and the Subaru. I like how it looks, too -- I am tall, and it fits me.

Junior Jenkins doesn't say what sort of car he drives in his satire upon Prius drivers, but no doubt his car reflects something about who he thinks he is, and if I am to go by the article he wrote, his only value is money. He writes as though he is a dedicated comparison shopper, never settling for less than the most he can get for his money. In that case, I am sure he drives a Dodge or a GM, which he probably bought when those less than successful companies lured some people that you might call "suckers" into the showrooms with big rebates and financing deals. He congratulates himself everyday on what a good deal he got, and no doubt Junior keeps a running tab on how much he is paying for gas in comparison to how much he saved on the deal he made.

The problem with Junior, though, is that he epitomizes more than just the sneering, know-it-all attitude of the free market conservatives who pride themselves on gaming the system to their own advantage. He epitomizes the greedy egotism that is their only value and is the only value that they attribute to everyone else.

Personally, I'm in favor of government regulation of economic life. I think the deregulation fad of the 1980s was the beginning of the end of American democracy. One of my favorite injustices is a small one -- it's the way that economics professors at places like the University of Chicago prescibe "creative destruction," economic insecurity, and low wages for others but reserve special treatment (tenure, for example) for themselves. At any rate, the reason I am in favor of government regulation is that intellectual leaders who promote free market orthodoxy, like Junior Jenkins, are so shallow, and theorizing about the free market has made them that way.

Oh, those free marketers always give lip-service to actual freedom in the market -- the idea that people like me might be willing to pay a premium for some other value than getting the most for your money. I also pay a premium for free range chickens, grass-fed beef, and organically grown produce. I pay the premium not only because I believe in genetic and environmental diversity, good flavor, and boosting my family's omega-3 fatty acids, but also so that those who are doing the growing can make a living and refine their techniques on the off-chance that in the future, such a large premium will not have to be paid. I would prefer, in fact, that the government had regulated the big agricultural companies so that they had never contaminated the plant gene pool, the water systems, the soil, and our own DNA to begin with, but it's too late for that now. In fact, every free market correction comes after the fact. In addition to "creative destruction," of course, there is "destructive destruction," but get some orthodox free marketer to talk about that!

Likewise, I wish that government regulation had preserved us from the melting Greenland ice cap, the freshening North Atlantic that is endangering the Gulf Stream, the melting permafrost in Siberia that is giving off extra methane, and Dick Cheney's 2001 Energy Taskforce, which seems to have made him think that the war in Iraq was a good idea. I wish we had used less oil in the last twenty years. I once had another sucker car -- an '86 Toyota Tercel wagon that got 45 miles to the gallon on the highway without hybrid synergy drive. It was totally reliable -- once I checked the oil and left the cap off, then drove 240 miles. Five of the six quarts of oil blew out of the engine, but it was fine. "It's a Toyota," said the dealer. It was so obviously the car of the future. But greed (of the oil companies and the automakers) said otherwise.

At the very most basic level, government regulation describes what sort of society citizens want to live in, whether or not all the regulations work or all of them are wise ones. I would like to live in a society where the government says to the corporations, "first, do no harm":

"Don't sell poison and call it food"
"Don't pay your workers such a low wage that they can't have both food and lodging"
"Don't leave millions of citizens without elementary healthcare"
"Leave the natural world better than you found it."
"Don't cheat on your taxes, your accounting, or your business practices."
"Don't steal elections."
"All citizens have basic human worth."

Instead, thanks to the theorists of the free market, we live in a country where the corporations tell the government -- "We are going to do whatever we want, and you are going to do whatever we want, too. Citizens will be valued according to their financial assets. The natural world will be ruthlessly mined for 'wealth creation.' And everyone is going pretend that this is not only more profitable for us, it is morally better."

What sort of people produce Wal-Mart? Why, people like Junior Jenkins, people for whom cheapness is all, no matter what the cost. Every time Junior sees a Prius (or a working stiff), he sees only a price tag. And even though, in the absence of decent regulations, people like me, Prince Charles, and Larry David have to actually fund new ideas (and shop at Costco), Junior laughs at us. He points out that even though we aren't using as much fuel or giving off as many emissions, the oil "is not saved." Well, no, it isn't, right now. But let's try an analogous argument -- just because Junior isn't as promiscuous as he used to be, that doesn't mean any fewer girls (or guys) are having sex.

Junior Jenkins has only one value (getting the most for his money) and one fear (of getting suckered), but he doesn't have to be our model citizen. Until the glorious era of re-regulation dawns, I am going to pretend, in spite of the Wall Street Journal, that the free market is on my side. I am going to drive my Prius and eat my organic veggies and vote against the Diebold/Republican axis of evil on, as long as I can procure it, my paper ballot. Actually, the free market has left me no choice.