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‘Sorrow floats’: The healthy-deregulated-capitalism myth just keeps resurfacing

“Sorrow floats.” Perhaps the line from a John Irving novel — in which “Sorrow,” the stuffed family dog preserved by a taxidermist, floats to the surface of the lake after a plane crash — helps explain what is happening in America.

Something dear to the American family died one year ago last September-October. Prior to the series of chilling events of that period, most of us had lived with the illusion of relative economic and financial health. Then Sorrow was rushed to the emergency room for government resuscitation.

Since then our memories of that pre-September 2008 world have taken a turn that families often take at funerals when the eulogies bear little resemblance to the reality of the deceased. We’re quarreling over what was real and what is mythical reconstruction.

Following the plane wreck that takes the lives of the Berry family parents in Irving’s “The Hotel New Hampshire,” the stuffed family pet bobs to the surface of the lake, floating among the wreckage. Sorrow floats. So does the thing we lost last fall. 

What died? A ruling assumption
What died last year was the ruling assumption that an unregulated free-market system was the best way to organize an economy and that laissez-faire capitalism is democracy’s natural ally. The market almost crashed. It didn’t crash only because the federal government intervened to prevent a repeat of the crash of 1929. Sometime between mid-September and Oct. 7, when Congress passed its bill to stabilize the financial markets, the myth of the virtue of deregulated capitalism died. It was stuffed by the taxidermy of government intervention, but it still floats.

When a conviction or a myth dies, it doesn’t go away. It continues to bob to the surface. Sometimes, as in the case of the Berry family, the old dog is much easier to love after it is dead. Sorrow — obese, lethargic, and persistently flatulent in its old age — no longer waddles through the dining room to foul the air and ruin everyone’s dinner. In the public psyche, the unpleasant memories of the real life Sorrow give way to the stuffed Sorrow, a thing of nostalgia that lives on … even after it’s dead, and long after the plane has crashed.

Over and over, we forget
Sorrow and its old illusions float every time the reconstructed memory, forgetting the real Sorrow, barks about “socialism.” Sorrow floats every time we shout each other down in town-hall meetings. Sorrow floats every time nostalgia forgets that it was only by government intervention that Sorrow is still around. Sorrow floats every time we forget the voracious appetite, unscrupulous predatory practices, insatiable greed, and the obesity that led to the deaths of Lehmann Brothers, Merrill Lynch and Bear Stearns, not to mention insurance giant AIG and all the banks that had taken the plunge into a market of deregulated derivatives and mortgages that led to the epidemic of home foreclosures, bankruptcies, pension-fund collapses and job losses. Sorrow, the old dog that failed us, still floats and still barks a year after the crash when the mind forgets and nostalgically remembers a system we thought was working in our interest.

Old ideas and convictions die hard. The powerful economic forces that grew fat during the years when government was viewed as the people’s enemy will stoke the fires of public anxiety and anger, taking advantage of the floating Sorrow that reminds us of something that we love more in retrospect than we did the day it died of its own obesity. 

The Rev. Gordon C. Stewart is pastor of Shepherd of the Hill Presbyterian Church in Chaska. He is the moderator of Shepherd of the Hill Dialogues and former executive director of the Legal Rights Center. The views expressed in this article are his own and do not represent the views of anyone else.

Comments (12)

  1. Submitted by Rod Loper on 09/10/2009 - 09:23 am.

    Thank you pastor. I see Sorrow floating in the
    Mississipi just downstream from the 35W bridge.
    He also floats on WCCO radio Friday mornings in the
    chats of Governor Tim.

  2. Submitted by Thomas Swift on 09/10/2009 - 10:17 am.

    Sorrow floats in the rain filled pot holes in the weed choked parking lots of the failed businesses that give lie to the idea that the trillions of borrowed Chinese dollars that have been tossed into the air have made any difference at all.

    Sorrow floats in the kool-aid of people that believe it was deregulation rather than governmental misuse of regulation to pursue another foolish experiment in socio-economic alchemy that wrecked the economy.

  3. Submitted by myles spicer on 09/10/2009 - 10:53 am.

    Capitalism works best when there is intelligent, well thought out partnerships between public and private entities. Obama made that important point last night, and idealogues who fail to understand that are actually harming the growth of Capitalism.

  4. Submitted by Joshua Abell on 09/10/2009 - 11:56 am.

    I beg to differ Reverend. Your basic premise is flawed. This country has not had anything close to “an unregulated free-market system” for almost a hundred years! I can’t say whether that’s a good thing or a bad thing, but it’s certainly true that the banking system, and the market in general have been highly regulated since at least the 30s. Check out this page, and I’m sure it’s just the tip of the iceberg. http://www.bankersonline.com/abcsoup/abcsoup.html

    The free market may have its problems – every economic system does! but one thing it avoids is the cronyism that comes when the government is in charge of large swaths of the economy. Example du Jour is John Murtha Airport, named after a sitting congressman! They named this useless airport after him after he paid for it with OUR money!

    The ironic thing is that nobody hates the free market more than big business. It makes them have to compete. They’d much rather have endless regulations that they can afford to follow that also keep new competition from arising.

  5. Submitted by Joel Jensen on 09/10/2009 - 04:03 pm.

    Joshua: Would you agree that government must regulate to protect the market for the benefit of all legitimate actors in that market from the manipulatin of which you speak?

    “The free market may have its problems – every economic system does! but one thing it avoids is the cronyism that comes when the government is in charge of large swaths of the economy.”

    “The ironic thing is that nobody hates the free market more than big business. It makes them have to compete. They’d much rather have endless regulations that they can afford to follow that also keep new competition from arising.”

    A free market might avoid cronyism if it could continue as a free market of its own accord, but as you seem to imply, what we experienced in the last 20 years is the growth of government regulatory control guided (manipulated) by a small but influential segment of those largest and most powerful businesses involved in the segments of the economy over which the government was supposedly excercising control on our behalf.

    In other words, for a significant portion of our economy it was not a free market but a free racket in which the largest and most powerful of the actors distorted and perverted the market for their own benefit by working directly through their own unfettered actions and indirectly through for their ability to influence our government officials through lobbying, campaign contributions and outright graft.

    Many of their direct anticompetitive activities would traditionally have been regulated (and prohibited) by the body of basic regulations enacted to protect the operation of the free market. Through their excessive influence on government, this small group of economic actors put that watch-dog to sleep.

    At the same time they used that influence over the government to create policies that favored their positions and profits over those of both other smaller or more “innocent” businesses.

    It was the pushing of those anticompetitive activities to levels unprecedented since the late 1800s and early 1900s that brought this economy to the verge of collapse and by doing so placed not only our economy but our democracy at risk.

    As an example, in large part it was the dismantling of the regulations governing banking enacted after the Great Depression that allowed the financial industry to set off on its relatively recent and highly destructive binge.

    And now, after being relegated to the position of servers at this 20 year-long orgiastic party of greed and manipulation, the ordinary people, small businesses and honest business folk get handed the bill. (How many airports do you suppose we could build for $23.7 Trillion. http://www.ft.com/cms/s/0/ab533a38-757a-11de-9ed5-00144feabdc0.html?nclick_check=1)

    Who knows, the free market may have prevented that. We will never know.

    What we do know is that self-regulation in regards to protecting the market from this kind of corruption and distortion was recognized as inadequate even by Adam Smith.

  6. Submitted by Joshua Abell on 09/10/2009 - 06:46 pm.

    Joel,
    Thanks for your thoughtful response. I would not agree that “government must regulate to protect the market for the benefit of all legitimate actors in that market from the manipulation of which you speak.” but I differ by only one word. I would say that “government should regulate” I think it’s possible that absolutely unregulated capitalism could be better than what we have today. Unfortunately I think it’s also possible that this could lead to such powerful entities that they would have as much power as any corrupt government.

    The primary point I was trying to make is that there is as much danger from government as there is from unregulated free markets. No system is perfect, but I think that somewhere in between laissez faire capitalism and strong government is an ideal we should strive for.

    Another example of over powerful government – average federal civilian employee pay: $79,197. Or so says the department of commerce. http://www.bea.gov/national/nipaweb/TableView.asp?SelectedTable=201&Freq=Year&FirstYear=2007&LastYear=2008

  7. Submitted by Richard Schulze on 09/10/2009 - 09:34 pm.

    Reverend Gordon, I like where your heart is at…. It was nice to read what you had written to share with us.

    Here are some data points and of course the proverbial “facts” to add some context to your premise. Something that # 2 is lacking in his soliloquy.

    Although tomorrow is the anniversary date of 9/11. I have to wonder how many will note the passing of Lehman Bros this past September 14. Which followed the October 2007 decline in the markets.

    Here is a mind blowing stat: Stocks have lost over 12 trillion dollars in market value since the October 2007 peak.

    This is based on the Dow Jones Wilshire 5000 index, which includes nearly every U.S.-listed stock. Losses since the start of 2009 are $2.6 trillion. Nearly half of all stocks in the index are now trading at less than $5, and 37% are under $3.

    Nearly 50% of all stocks in the Wilshire 5000, the broadest index of U.S. equities, are trading for less than $5 per share, and 37% are under $3.

    This is a good example of things reaching their logical conclusion.. if you reward myopic and greedy optimizations, you will ultimately experience the results of your actions.

  8. Submitted by Gordon Stewart on 09/11/2009 - 07:35 am.

    I appreciate the thoughtful comments and criticisms. “Sorrow Floats” is more about mythology than it is about facts. It’s more about the mind and heart than it is about real economics. My concern is unexamined convictions – beliefs of a sort that are so precious that we’ll die for them. Linguistic philosopher Willem Zuurdeeg, author of “An Analytical Philosophy of Religion,” was interested in the way human beings order their worlds, i.e. how we give meaning to our lives. These are the “Ordered Homes,” the “convictional” worlds we create to make us safe – the worlds we vulnerable creatures build to assuage anxiety. They are comprised of convictions that appear so self-evident that meaningful life itself hinges on them.

    The deepest convictions are the ones whose power remains below the level of conscious examination; they remain silent and, therefore, unchallenged. These convictions are impervious to facts – they are similar to myths and legends; they are the stories, ideas and values out of which we live. In terms of “Sorrow Floats,” it’s the idea and the myth of the free market as Godly that led to increasing de-regulation and to the view that “government” and “government regulation” are the enemies of freedom and democracy.

    In the Hebrew and Christian scriptures, naming things gives them their reality. Putting a name on something gives a thing its identity and knowing the name gives power over it. Until underlying convictions are named and exposed in their raw power, until they are publicly “named”, they shout out like the deranged Gerasene demoniac who lives in grief among the tombs of a cemetery over the collapse of his society in the Gospel of Mark. His Ordered Home had collapsed. The old convictions, hopes, and dreams had failed him and had left him in despair. Only after Jesus drew near to get the name – the source of sorrow that was destroying him and causing to act so irrationally and angrily – could the man enter his rightful mind. In the collapsing convictional worlds of our time, Sorrow floats in all of us in some way or another. Until the ruling myths, illusions, and convictions are named, sorrow and foolishness will rule the day. It’s all about naming reality.

  9. Submitted by Steve Shoemaker on 09/11/2009 - 01:38 pm.

    Reading “Sorrow Floats” on 9-11-09 was moving…
    Peaceful Tomorrows” is a group of families of 9-11 victims who oppose the wars that some claim came as a response to the original violence.
    I wish for a peaceful discussion of a health care system for all in the U.S.A. such as offered by Gordon Stewart: imaginative & passionate, yet calm & reasoned.

  10. Submitted by Rod Loper on 09/14/2009 - 08:34 am.

    I just watched the Independent Lens investigation
    on TPT of the ENRON debacle which was going on
    in 2001. The lax regulation in the energy markets
    and the casino that is the trading culture on Wall Street were all there and should have been
    a warning of our current meltdown. If 9-11 had
    not happened would Bush @ Co. have gotten closer
    inspection by Congress and the press?

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