I Beg to Differ

In a Coloradan article, I found this thought-provoking quote from Dr. Janice Peck:

“The triumph of this kind of thinking [neoliberalism] is that we now imagine all problems can be solved by the marketplace or the individual. Problem with water table pollution? Go buy bottled water. Failing schools? Open a charter school. We have no public, collective way to address problems anymore. Government is just the ‘problem,’ and that thinking has emerged in the last 25 years.”

I don’t think it’s as simple as that. Or that the neoliberalism ideas made popular in Reagan’s time are as bankrupt as Dr. Peck’s examples would imply.

The marketplace is functioning to solve some problems. Consumers reacting to the high price of gas put healthy market pressures on auto manufacturers. The growing availability of organic products is a case study for the economic power of The Big Green Purse. Look at the boom of eco-entrepreneurs — in South Carolina’s Technology incubator you’ll find companies aimed at solving social and environmental problems: biofuels and hydrogen fuel cells for green energy, healthcare for aging populations and in rural communities, and yes, even drinking water.

Individuals are able to make a difference. Look at Doctors Without Borders, started in 1971, and Habitat for Humanity, started in 1976. Over the last 25 years, millions of individuals have donated to those charities and thousands have given their time in the field, solving real problems for hundreds of thousands of people in the world.

What about the boom in social networking technologies? The Obama campaign is a great example of how they are being harnessed to mobilize the collective. Facebook has over 700,000 members in one of its Obama groups. Look at the huge volume of comments on the headquarters blog on MyBarackObama.com. And that doesn’t count all of the individuals who started their own blogs there. I know one person who started with an Obama blog, and is now working for the campaign. Social networking is generating donations and manpower for the Obama campaign, which has at its core the idea that both individuals and government can solve problems. “Yes We Can” seems terribly trite, but the idea behind it is rather powerful.

Finally, look at the current financial crisis. Here we are, watching a credit crisis that we’re told is frighteningly similar to the crisis Bernanke and other scholars believed was primary contributor to the Great Depression. In a move that still stuns me for its irony, the Republican administration is strongly advocating using taxpayer dollars to solve the problem with a multi-billion dollar bailout as well as better regulation. This is Reagan’s party, mind you.

No, Dr. Peck, I think that the real lesson of the last 25 years of neoliberalism is this: we now understand that individuals and markets and the government all have roles to play in solving problems.

P.S. And for those of you who made it this far, in honor of the echoes of the Great Depression in today’s news stories, may I remind you that Everything Old is New Again. (Turn the volume up — or down — before you click.)

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