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beta-testing on a grand scale

About a week ago, I heard a radio commentator whose beat is the stock market exclaim, “The market is broken!” What struck me about this is that nearly all such market commentators, whether on NPR or Fox, are free marketeers who at most pay lip service to what one might call ‘regulation lite’. So I found myself wondering in what possible sense could the present crisis be construed to mean that the free market is broken? On the contrary, isn’t this a classic example of a (substantially) free market working… freely? Notably, the mess around credit default swaps and other new derivatives has happened in precisely the least regulated areas of the market. I’m no economist myself, but I have to wonder what it means when something that operates as it’s supposed to is nonetheless taken to be broken, not by its critics but by its adherents. For one thing, it suggests that a good many people who argue for free markets actually don’t understand the concept (taking the promise of good outcomes on faith, an economic religion) or engage in self-deception, preferring to look only at the upside. I suspect that either position–the faith or the self-deception–is enabled by belonging to the safer zones of the middle class and becomes harder to sustain the closer you get to the economic margins.

Speaking of credit default swaps, it occurs to me that the slew of such financial instruments being invented over the last decade constitutes a new technology of money, and that what the banks that promulgated them have been doing is beta-testing them on us. Forced, de facto beta-testing is nothing new (think Microsoft Vista), but I wonder if one consequence of the computer era is that we have internalized the idea that such beta-testing of new technologies without consent of the testees is socially acceptable. If Microsoft can do it to its user base, AIG can do it to, in effect, everyone. Bioengineering is another obvious example of a field in which citizens have been beta-tested (through their food) without prior consent. To put it another way, free market capitalism normalizes large-scale beta-testing as as an opt-out rather than an opt-in system–but without any easy way to opt out.

We’ve had several hundred years of beta-testing free market capitalism. I hereby volunteer as a beta-tester for a true American social democracy.