Addicts on All Sides

I like the name of this hosting website (, although I’m unsure that anyone would recognize free capitalism even if it bit him.

I say this after perusing the first section of today’s New York Times. (Living in Silicon Valley, I receive the “national edition.”) Here is a selection of headlines: “The Drug War Shifts to Africa, Hub for Cartels”; “At 40, Steering a Vast Machine of G.O.P. Money”; “U.S, Stymied at U.N., Works to Oust Assad”; “China’s Communist Elders Take Backroom Intrigue to the Beach”; “U.S. Cutting Military Aid to Rwanda”; “Literary Festival in Italy Gives Voice to Authors and Residents in Fight Against the Mafia”; “In New Exhibit, Disney Lends Its Star Power to Reagan, and Vice Versa”; “For Coast Guard Patrol North of Alaska, Much to Learn in a Remote New Place”; and the list goes on.

After reading these headlines, one gathers that free capitalism is a mere fantasy in our 21st-century world of state capitalism. Is there any hope for respite from the unholy alliance between money and the state?

The first headline mentioned above leads an article about Mr. William R. Brownfield, an assistant secretary of state, and his architecture of new, “commando-style” anti-drug strategies in Africa. A quote from Mr. Brownfield: “We have to be doing operational stuff right now because things are actually happening right now.” Another quote from the article comes from Mr. Jeffrey P. Beeden, the chief of the D.E.A.’s Europe, Asia, and Africa section: “[Africa]’s a place that we need to get ahead of – we’re already behind the curve in some ways, and we need to catch up.”

The language of these drug warriors is illuminating: “We have to be doing,” “We need to catch up.” This is the language of desperation, of lack of control. One almost expects to hear: “Hurry, hurry, I need my fix.” Obviously, the drug users are not the only addicts of this war. In fact, the real victims, the users, are never mentioned in the entire twenty-three paragraph article.

Many believe the solution to the drug war is just to stop fighting – to let the market work. But a market that enslaves its customers is no free market. I fervently hope that twenty-first century technology and medicine can start eliminating addictions, and so make the market for all addictive substances truly free. And if one eliminates substance addiction, then one stops the drug war, right?

Unfortunately, no. Vastly more money is spent by the U.S. government for interdiction than for elimination of addiction. This is because drug warriors such as Mr. Brownfield and Mr. Beeden are also addicted – to the war itself, to the power it brings them, to the attention it brings them, to its violence, to its speed.

As the above headlines attest, if there is to be hope for free capitalism, the addiction to power is the addiction that needs to be eliminated.

A Thank-you to Banks?

One of my all-time favorite TV shows is the BBC’s “Chef!” with Lenny Henry. Episode 4 of season 1 (“The Big Cheese”) is almost perfect: unpasteurized Stilton, Rachmaninoff, Albert Roux, and of course amazingly witty repartee.

Lenny Henry plays Gareth Blackstock, Chef de Cuisine of Le Chateau Anglais. The underlying storyline of season 1 is the impending bankruptcy of the restaurant, and the resulting need for the Blackstocks to purchase the restaurant to preserve Gareth’s job.

Of course, the Blackstocks don’t have sufficient capital to buy the restaurant, so they see a loan officer. Since nothing is more important to Gareth than his cooking, he despises having to admit that it is up to a bank to decide whether he should continue as chef. Gareth thus harangues the officer about how he, Gareth, is the important one in the deal since he is the one “at the coal face” while the loan officer merely “lollygags” in his “tilt and swivel.”

After Gareth’s wife calms him down (by threatening divorce), Gareth finally admits that the deal requires two sides: the “unreasonable” side taking risks, and the “reasonable” side that must weigh the risks objectively.

And thus the point of this blog post: at a time when banks are being vilified by all sides – and they do deserve much vilification (LIBOR, mortgage crises, the Great Recession) – they also deserve some credit for controlling inflation. When governments betray the public trust by printing literally trillions of dollars, someone has to assume the reasonable side and weigh the risks. By (finally!) controlling their loan activity, the banks are protecting the dollar from the massive onslaught of government presses.

In an age of automated production, marketing blitzes, and paper money, a market cannot function for long without ever more discerning consumers. The banks are finally playing that role.