The perils of economic fundamentalism


I AM LESS sympathetic than most people as to the pain Enron executives have foisted on their employees. The Enron middle managers I met one night prided themselves on keeping at bay the very government regulators who might have saved their pensions.

A few years ago, when I was teaching at the University of Houston, I was invited to participate in a "Great Conversations" fund-raiser. People largely from the business community would pay to have dinner and conversation with a faculty expert.

At my table, we were to talk about "community in Houston." I was facilitating a discussion with eight midlevel executives from Enron, all affluent, college-educated, pleasant and, as it turned out, the most narrow-minded group I've ever had the chance to talk with about social problems and public issues.

They believed and uttered the most conservative clichM-is. Their roots spanned from Utah to the United Kingdom, but they put forward what seemed an inflexible party line: On the subject of poverty, they asserted that poor people were poor because of their own failings. What distinguished the poor from the affluent was that the latter were risk-takers. If the poor were risk-takers, they wouldn't be poor.

Oh, really? What risks do the upper middle class take that compare to living in a slum, or to strategizing each day about making ends meet, protecting children, battling illness without health care?

These Enron executives also argued that there was no role for the public sector except in national defense. Look at the U.S. Postal Service, they said, and the public schools, public libraries and public parks: The public sector was corrupt, inefficient and without incentive. An unimpeded private sector could do everything better, from running prisons to delivering mail, from schooling children to making national parks profitable.

I was stunned - not by the conservative arguments, which I'd heard before, but by the uniformity of the managers' voices. Their narrow view of the world left no room for other ideas, even moderate ones, about the need in capitalist societies for even a modest role for the public sector, not to mention public regulation of the private sector.

I was sitting at a table with economic fundamentalists, adherents to a single-minded ideology of libertarian economics, worshipers in the church of the free market, readers of the gospel according to economist Milton Friedman and then-Enron CEO Ken Lay.

With daily revelations on the continuing debacle at Enron, not to mention the external threat we face from fanatical religious fundamentalism abroad, that evening seems even more haunting in retrospect.

I am horrified by the economic disaster perpetrated by Enron on the people of Houston and on the world. I am horrified that what seems like an offshore pyramiding scheme financed and influenced so much of American politics.

But I am not surprised it all started in Houston.

Houston is the classic free-enterprise city. The fourth-largest city in the nation, it sees itself as a zoning-free Mecca for developers.

It has the worst air pollution in the United States - in response to which local business executives and former Gov. George W. Bush proposed letting oil companies self-regulate their worst sources of pollution.

Of course, free enterprise also means trying to cut business costs and risks.

So Houston owes much of its economic success to big government projects, such as the Houston Ship Channel, one of the busiest waterways in the United States; NASA's Johnson Space Center; and most recently, the baseball (Enron Field) and football-rodeo (Reliant) stadiums.

But economic fundamentalism is not limited to Houston. Economic fundamentalism - contemporary laissez-faire economics - is seen worldwide as common sense ever since the Reagan/Thatcher era. Like any fundamentalism, the concept is dangerous because it is too simplistic.

You don't have to be John Maynard Keynes to understand the essential place in our economic life for public regulation and initiatives. You don't have to be Karl Marx to understand the need in our post-Sept. 11 world for a vision of public life more complex than simply serving the bottom line.

Best-case scenario? Enron's collapse will break the economic fundamentalist stranglehold on our cities and nation. Now, that would be a great conversation.

Robert Fisher is professor and director of the urban and community studies program at the University of Connecticut. This article first appeared in The Hartford Courant, a Tribune Publishing company.

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