June 20, 2023
Of course, the New York Times did not headline a piece this way, but that would have been a more accurate headline of an article it ran last weekend discussing a turn away from “neo-liberal” policies. As I pointed out in a quick Twitter thread, that piece misrepresented a set of policies that have the effect of redistributing income upward as “free market” policies.
This is wrong in a way that is very convenient for the proponents of these policies. The massive upward redistribution of income in the last four decades is not really a debatable point. However, as a political matter, it is far more salable to say that this upward redistribution was the result of the forces of technology and globalization than of policies designed to make the rich richer.
While it should be obvious that the policies of this period were not “free market” (the free market doesn’t give us government-granted patent and copyright monopolies), it seems totally obligatory in media outlets to insist that they are. This was the case in prior decades when publications like the New York Times and Washington Post were pushing these policies, and it apparently is still standard policy when governments seem to be moving away from these policies.
While it’s obvious why the people who benefitted from this upward redistribution would insist that the causes were the natural forces of globalization and technology, it is difficult to understand why opponents of these policies largely accept this framing. This matters not just as a matter of attributing blame but also in designing better policies going forward.
For example, while it may be a good policy to subsidize the development of more advanced computer chips and the spread of clean technologies, it will matter hugely who gets control of the intellectual products created due to these subsidies. The government created at least five Moderna billionaires by paying the company nearly $1 billion to develop a COVID vaccine and then letting it keep control of the distribution of the vaccine.
It could have insisted that, as a condition of getting the money, all the technology would be in the public domain. This would mean that Moderna would get no patent monopolies or related protections, and its non-disclosure agreements for its employees would not be binding.
As I point out in the tweet thread, who gets rich is not a result of the market but how we structure the market. If we are going to design good policy, we have to recognize that the structure of the market is literally up for grabs; it is not a question of whether the government is going to intervene to alter market outcomes.
I know this point can’t be made in the NYT or other major media outlets, but why are so few progressives interested in this obvious fact?