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Feb 09, 2011

“… Trust the Invisible Hand”

Perhaps you saw the Sunday Doonesbury cartoon yesterday.  After one character points out, with some exasperation, that the top 400 richest families hold as much wealth as the bottom 50% of the population, the other character notes, “[I]f each group has the same amount, what exactly is the problem?  Sounds totally fair to me !”  When the first interlocutor begins to question this foxy logic, the second cuts him off, “It’s all good … Trust the invisible hand.”

The numbers here are astonishing, to say the least.  And they don’t get any better when we recognize that between 2008 and 2010, as working Americans on average lost 25% of their 401K accounts to the recent recession, the richest 400 Americans increased their wealth by $30 billion. At no time in our nation’s history has the inequality of wealth been higher.  Not even close.  And so one has to wonder how the invisible hand actually works.

The photograph above, which appeared online in the WSJ, is captioned “Off the Hook” and it offers one possible account.  It is important to note that we don’t see very many photographs in the mainstream media that call attention to the palpable disparity between rich and poor as indicated by the numbers above.  Yes, we see photographs of people standing online at job fairs desperately seeking employment, and we see photographs of factories and home foreclosure signs, and even the occasional tent city, but such images all imply that everyone is sharing in the recession with some degree of equity.  What we don’t see are the machinations of the invisible hand.  And what especially we don’t see is how the market makes the numbers above possible, not just as mathematical abstractions, but as a moral reality that somehow legitimates such inequities as in any way fair or socially desirable.  Instead we are encouraged to have faith in an idol that we cannot see.

And so back to the picture.  With no hand in sight, the phone is “off the hook.”  Does this mean that the hand of the market has abandoned any and all logic?  Incapable of communicating any sense of moral or economic direction?  Or does it mean that the market abjures all responsibility for how it has been interpreted and used, literally taking itself “off the hook.”  There is no way to know, of course, but then that’s the point.  For as with any idol, the invisibility of its logic is its most potent attribute making it impossible to challenge. But not to worry. After all, “It’s all good ….”

Photo Credit:  Lucas Jackson/Reuters


“… Trust the Invisible Hand”


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