By Donella Meadows
–January 4, 1996–
The other day I saw a cartoon in which a puzzled housewife, ready to plug in her vacuum cleaner, is confronted with a dozen plugs on the wall. Each has a company logo — “Captain Jolt,” “Flower Power,” “Zapco,” “Super Dude Electric.” Behind the woman an ad blats from the TV. “Hi! Crazy Pete here with a friendly plug for Pete’s Power. Lowest price per kilowatt hour! We shock the competition!”
Utility executives assure me that when the great wave of deregulation hits the electricity industry, there will still be only one plug on the wall. There will surely be ads, though. As if phone company ads weren’t enough!
Am I the only one to view with skepticism this rush to loose the miraculous forces of competition?
Is there anyone else out there who has better things to do than shop for a doctor, a phone service, electricity?
Have I missed the burst of lower cost and better service that was to come from deregulating airlines and banks?
What I have noticed as the “free market” takes over the world is more noisy advertising (for which we pay through the price of the product or service), a cheapening of quality, a charge for services that used to be free (such as directory assistance and actual, live bank tellers), millions of layoffs, more investment in the image of the company and less in its long-term performance, profit-sharing redirected from workers to executives and stockholders, and (since the government has virtually stopped administering the anti-trust laws) big firms swallowing small ones, conglomerating the economy into a few huge, distant providers, whose oligopolies effectively end the market system.
The cheery economists on TV tell us to rejoice in these trends. The stock market soars. But I’m sorry, I don’t think this is a better world.
When newspapers eat each other up so there’s only one in a city, and then they merge so there are only a few newspaper owners in the world (one of them the cynical Rupert Murdoch), then our information comes through the filter of those few owners. It gets worse when newspapers, television, radio, movies are controlled by three or four companies, all of whom have more interest in money than in decent, honest, or intelligent programming, much less the democratic expression of all points of view.
Information should not be privatized. It should be accessible to all. The means of distributing it should be in many hands — profit, nonprofit, community, government.
When hospitals swallow each other up and are responsible to bankers rather than patients, then we get untrained temps doling out medicines, mothers with new babies kicked out after 24 hours, overscheduled doctors turned into zombies, a third of the population unable to afford health care, and patients attended not by doctors, but by what my local hospital calls “physician extenders” (a term that for some reason makes the nurses double up with laughter).
Life-and-death services should not be privatized.
As business moves into schools, we get ads in the classroom, McDonalds lunches, computer programs instead of teachers.
Schools should not be privatized. Kids should not be profit centers. Education should be run by families, communities, nonprofits, not companies.
Anything that requires long-term stewardship, such as land and resources, shouldn’t be subject to short-term profit calculations or debt squeezes.
Anything that requires care and understanding, such as day care and nursing homes, should be run by families and communities, not CEOs responsible to stockholders.
Anything that is essential to everyone, such as health care, electricity, water, sanitation, should not be controlled by corporations who must, by the nature of the market, allocate their product according to who has dollars, rather than who has need.
Anything we value for its own sake, such as nature or our children or the integrity of our government or the neighborliness of our communities, should be strictly separated from the market, which can count only what can be measured in money.
The market is not a cure-all, not a religion, not endowed with wisdom or a conscience or a soul. It’s just a social tool, good for limited purposes — choosing in the short term the most efficient way of doing some things, stimulating entrepreneurial creativity in certain directions, rewarding those who do what people with money are willing to pay for. It is not good for — it is, I submit, actively bad for — ensuring fairness, transmitting culture, maintaining community, reinforcing values, protecting the environment, or making long-term choices.
Therefore even what is privatized should be regulated, to be sure that the market does not destroy either society or itself. The market works properly only when full costs (including costs to nature, workers, communities) are charged, when there are firmly enforced quality standards, when there is a relatively even distribution of income, when there is an honest information system for consumers, when there is very broad ownership of capital, when securities markets are investment sources and not casinos, and when anti-trust has teeth.
Those are the conditions that need to be established before electricity or anything else is turned over to market competition — however many plugs there will be.
Copyright Sustainability Institute 1996