“A short visit to the U S is enough to convince one that wealth, competition, and free institutions provide no safeguards against the prevalence of appalling standards not only of environment in city and suburb but also in journalism and broadcasting entertainment. The opportunities for increasing social welfare through raising standards of taste and appreciation are not easily to be tapped in a highly commercial society.”

Read for a moment the above quote from a distinguished British economist. Is this perhaps an attack on the failures of the Bush years or a nudge to President Obama that a modest reform to Healthcare only goes a small way towards the creation of a fairer society? Is it also pointing to the fact that a media market where profits and the wish to create political advantage are the dominant goals creates low standards and Fox News type bias? Is it a modern day reminder that of the world’s most well-established capitalist economies only the United States has been heavily biased towards free enterprise and the power of the markets over and above any wish to provide federal or even State level support for, and help to, those in need? Well the quote certainly can be used for these important tasks – but the shocking truth is that it is not a modern day quote at all. It comes from Professor E.J. Mishan’s book “Growth: the price we pay” and it was first published in 1969 when Richard Nixon was in his first term as President.

The reason that it is a shocking truth is that the quote is nearly forty years old – and yet it could be contemporary. There have been six presidents since Nixon, including the incumbent, but America remains as divided as ever. And the implications of the “appalling standards not only of environment in city and suburb” about which Mishan railed are far more serious than when he first expressed his views. It is a cliché, but it is true, to say that America in two societies. One overwhelmingly white, middle and higher income, Republican voting and in the main beneficiaries of the “hands-off” imperative by which America’s economy has always been ruled. They do not live in the polluted cities or struggle with the inadequate public transportation systems. They protect themselves from crime by being able to afford security and to live in risk-free zones. They can protect themselves from the consequences of ill health by spending a proportion of their substantial incomes on private health insurance (or their employers do that for them). The other society, by contrast, is predominantly black and Hispanic (although there are also millions of very poor whites as well) and they live where they can afford to – and they have to be far less fussy about environmental and crime risks. And if they fall ill they have to settle for suffering in silence (or dying quietly) because they can’t afford the healthcare which prices them out of the market. They voted for Obama and always vote Democrat – despite that fact that Carter and Clinton did little for them.

Ezra Mishan’s contention was that a society where standards are high will provide a fillip to social welfare. These standards include journalism and broadcasting and whilst there were plenty of great broadcasters and journalists back in 1969 – just as there are today – the overall standards were then deplorable – just as they are today. And remember that in 1969 Rupert Murdoch hadn’t even arrived in America with his chequebook waving and his venal ambition. And it is also the case that political standards have been depressingly low as well. The nadir was George W Bush but in truth since 1969 nobody has tried intently to provide the necessary changes to an economic system that was utterly regressive. Even when the system demonstrably failed – as with Enron – nothing was done to bring the self-indulgences, the greed and the ignorance of business leaders to account. Indeed within a few years of the Enron scandal we saw Wall Street, mortgage lenders and the banking system as a whole move into the biggest crisis that America’s dysfunctional economy had ever know. And one that had devastating global implications – from Delhi to Dubai, Athens to London and Reykjavik to Rio de Janeiro. 

The election of President Obama just has to be America’s last chance to bring its economy more into line with the social welfare richer countries of the rest of the developed and civilised world. It is a scandal that the world’s richest country has some of the world’s poorest and underprivileged citizens. It is deplorable that the need to protect the environment can be met not just with scepticism but with bigoted and ignorant rants from people who should know better. I’m sure that Sarah Palin will not change her obscene chant “Drill, baby, drill” despite that pollution of the coast of Louisiana from BP’s exploded Deepwater Horizon rig.

Forty years ago Professor Mishan pointed the finger at the United States and all too presciently showed how lack of regulation and the untrammelled “rushing for growth” that categorises US society fails completely to achieve a more equitable distribution of wealth. Trickle down economics were voodoo economics – and only an utterly uncaring administration would leave all to the markets.  Obama has to care more than any of his recent predecessors – or the vacated moral highground that America once populated will be lost for ever.

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