A Free Market Isn’t Pain Free

More than two years of Trump’s presidency have passed since I wrote this op-ed that ran in the Roanoke Times (Feb. 5, 2017). The only thing that is surprising about the last two years is that there are few surprises about Trump. The personality that Michael Cohen sketched out to Congress — an enigma, a larger-than-life mix of bad and good but underneath, a con man and a cheat — was always there for all to see.

(To update references to our three children at the end of this: Our oldest has helped build Austin Coding Academy into a profitable business; our second son is now teaching welding at the community college where he studied it; and our daughter skipped Columbia J school to deal with health issues that have put her on a more creative path of songwriting, journaling and observing the miracle of this life in our world.)

I tell people I have a great future behind me.

I learned news reporting the old-fashioned way: on-the-job training in high-energy newsrooms. I was lucky to cover a number of beats in Raleigh, Providence and Atlanta during 25 of the best years ever for American newspapers.

So why was I studying for the Graduate Record Exam, and on one cold dark morning, driving off to take this entrance exam at some obscure little strip mall? Why was I leaving Atlanta, uprooting myself, my wife and our three children, a good job and good salary, to get a Ph.D. in mass communication at UNC in Chapel Hill?

This is the way things are with free-market capitalism. The news business was changing — in many ways, for the better, but it was definitely disruptive. And I wasn’t getting any younger. So I took the leap, the cut in pay, the pain of change. A few years later, old-style newsroom refugees like me who had scaled the ivory tower were joking about newspapers as “buggy whips,” an industrial product that had been overtaken by technological and economic progress. It was interesting to study this, and welcome it, from the classroom.

All this talk now about “bringing back” good jobs in manufacturing, coal and oil production has made me wonder if some people just don’t understand the bargain we make with a healthy capitalist system. It’s a beautiful system that brings creative ideas, improved technology, competitive prices, cultural innovation, choices and economic freedom. But it can be painfully disruptive, forcing unwanted change. “Who doesn’t get this?” as Garrison Keillor put it, writing in the Washington Post about President Trump’s inaugural address.

Free-market capitalism is our winning horse. Looked at historically, there has always been something wild and dangerous about it. It has always been global, from the Industrial Revolution onward. It has always needed to be put in harness to do us good, to help the nations and to pull us in the direction we want to go. (We don’t even need the buggy whips).

Adam Smith explained the beauty of the free market’s “invisible hand,” which is the paradox of the common good being served by individuals with “moral sentiment” pursuing selfish interests. His “Wealth of Nations,” a good companion to our Declaration of Independence with both from 1776, saw the necessity of regulations — from fire codes to workers’ protections — and the need to adapt this progressive force to national interests.

Regulation has been the way we have harnessed the wild stallion of capitalism. The traces were created by 200 years of trial and error: trust-busting reforms, government inspection of meat, a check on patent medicine advertising, clean air standards, worker safety and so on. Now, the Trump administration wants to flip that around. Regulation is no longer seen as the bridle and harness on capitalism, but a stranglehold. He says we can cut 75 percent of regulations. No doubt, that will goad the powerful beast in some ways that our forebears witnessed already.

And what will be the new check on the pain that capitalism tends to cause in its creative wake? Trump wants the very thing that Adam Smith warned against, what used to be called mercantilism: isolation, tariffs and government bullying of business.

It may sound strange to call our new businessman president an enemy of free market capitalism. But that’s the way it looks, with his promise to bring back dying industries and court a trade war.

Making America great “again” is a backward longing. It’s not facing the dislocations and generative energy of the market. I know the forward look is hard and risky. But I’m proud to see that our three children, the ones I uprooted to go for my Ph.D., are facing the reality of today’s economy with courage and imagination.

One son is helping build a business in Austin teaching computer coding on a night schedule that allows older students to learn these skills without having to quit their day jobs. Another son is studying welding at a community college on the GI bill, with the goal of welding at the brave heights of cell phone towers.

And our daughter, our youngest, has been accepted at Columbia University’s School of Journalism for a master’s degree. It turns out, this is an exciting time to become a new-media journalist.


About Doug Cumming

Writer, W&L journalism professor emeritus
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