Blowin’ in the wind

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Global free market economics is a superstition and a myth, writes Bob Ellis, which has no grounding in the chaotic, uncertain, world in which we live.

As I write this, volcanic ash is preventing planes from leaving Bali, or going to Bali, and the tourist industry is being damaged.

Four years ago, an earthquake, tsunami and nuclear meltdown at Fukushima ruined every business in that region and endangered the entire Japanese economy, then the third largest in the world.

Ten years ago, an oil spill ruined the seaside businesses and swamped the economy of Louisiana, obliterating tourism there for three years. A month ago, earthquakes ended, perhaps forever, the mountain-climbing tourist economy of Nepal.

Floods ruined provincial Queensland, fires provincial Victoria, in the past four to six years. Regions have been rebuilt, with massive government assistance, from the ground up. This has happened also in Christchurch, a museum city laid low by not just one, but successive earthquakes.

And yet we are told there is a "level playing field" in a "global free market" where "the market" will make "all necessary adjustments", in a spontaneous way, that will ensure the greatest possible happiness to the world population — and there is no alternative to this.

A moment’s thought will show that this is a fantasy. In 80 years, Milton Friedman did not have that moment’s thought.

What is happening is what has happened through history: a state of war on frequent "events" that disrupt a nation’s economy by governments ever more interventionist in a wild and difficult world.

American drones are bombing Pakistan and destroying the economies of mountain villages. Islamic State is beheading foreigners and damaging tourism in Syria. Egypt is hanging its president and reducing the numbers of daily camel rides to the pyramids.

And yet we are told there is something called "global free trade" and the market will ‘adjust’ to, say, the next hundred years of air-bombing in Gaza.

It is surprising how many Labor people sign up to this nonsense. And believe, say, there should be no tariffs on anything. And by competing with the slaves of Bangladesh we will win sufficient victories – exporting Akubra hats, or whatever – to save the day.

It is not like that. It is not how things are. We are at war, economically, not just with adjacent nation states but with storms and earthquakes, and oil spills, and beheading terrorists also. The "free market" is not free — and it never was.

Tariffs worked for five thousand years, and in Japan and the U.S. are working still. Government’s subsidised industries – like the Pentagon and the BBC – still make huge amounts of money because the marketplace for them is taxpayer-fed.

I could write a book about this. But it would change no minds. They are so religiously stuck in a damn fool superstition – as dumb-assed as the belief in "leechcraft" as a cure-all the Middle Ages – that argument is wearying.

Global free market economics exist on a planet without volcano ash, or bushfires, or earthquakes, or tsunamis. It exists on a clean, sunlit, windless planet without local wars or local slavery. Ergo, it does not exist.

It is a dead parrot. It is deceased. It has gone to its maker. It is no more.

It is a tale told by an idiot, full of sound and fury, signifying nothing.

And the answer, my friend?

Well take a look round you at the emergency services at work in snowdrift, shattered cities, ebola-stricken provinces. At air-sea rescue and the volunteers who in desolate African countries care for children with AIDS. Look at Save The Children. Look at UNESCO. That’s what we need. We need something like that.

It’s called government. It’s there to look after us. To repel our enemies when they come beating at the gate with cheap labour and cheap goods, wanting to take our world away.

It is government. It is we, the people.

And it’s time, and it’s time, and it’s time it were reasserted. In time of storm, vicissitude and earthquakes. And economic invasion.

Which is now.

Read also managing editor David Donovan's five part series: 'Why everything you think you know about economics is probably wrong'.

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