Obama visited South Korea recently in part to discuss another "free trade agreement" the US government is attempting to push throughout the region with as little public attention as possible, but with plenty of corporate input. The text of the pending Trans Pacific Partnership, or TPP, is secret, though some of it has been published by Wikileaks.
It is unknown how negotiations went with South Korea. Obama got a cool welcome in Japan. But, he seems close with President Park and—despite enormous public protest—South Korea has long given in to their congenital ally. It is most likely that the TPP will succeed and that long after the deal has already been struck and the signatures are dry the public will be informed and protests will once again erupt. This seems to be the ritual. From the start Korean citizens have been both the benefactors and victims of forces powerful but unseen. But, they aren't alone.
Adam Smith's book The Wealth of Nations is to modern capitalism what the Bible is to modern Christianity—everybody quotes it, but nobody reads it. The single most important concept culled from its pages is that of the "invisible hand of the market." Left alone, this law of economics suggests, markets will reach a point of stable equilibrium guided by an "invisible hand." Not only did this concept engender free-market capitalism with a quasi-religious undertone, but it also cast a manmade system as one rooted in the natural world, controlled by natural, unseen forces. Ironically, those most in favor of laissez-faire economics are often those most at fault for constantly manipulating the economy with their own invisible hands.
These invisible hands manipulate nearly every aspect of the contemporary capitalist/corporate/consumption-based economic order. Far from a natural force, the hands at work on the system are human and real. They are the hands of the CEO greeting a president. They are the hands of the military general agreeing to secure a Free Trade Zone. They are the hands of bank managers colluding with their peers on illegal transactions. They are the hands of technocrats typing away in secret, developing plans that will affect laws around the globe. These are the invisible hands that truly shape our economy.
This is not about conspiracy theory, this is about recognizing the corporate milieu that is defining our lives and benefiting from our participation whether we understand it or are aware of it. Rather than a free-market, we have a market shaped by corporate lobbyists, by marketing teams, and by managers attempting to exploit workers whether they are in sweatshops or in cubicles. Each are acting rationally according to the dictates of the system in which they function. That the current system is broken is a fact agreed on by large cross-sections of society. The ever-increasing gap between the moneyed class and the rest of us is by now common knowledge. Governments around the world recognize the impending danger of rising food prices paired with stagnate wages. Thomas Piketty's book, Capitalism in the Twenty-First Century, has meticulously demonstrated that inherited wealth grows faster than earned wealth and that the result is the unfair system that we see. Upward mobility is largely a myth. What to do about it is open for debate. But, it seems time to loosen the grip the invisible hands have on our lives.
And so enough with the fine print. In The Post American #7—The Filthy Lucre Issue, we offer more fiction than fact as we explore the economics of our lives. Please join us as we stumble through transactions big and small, but mostly small. Thanks as always to our contributors and readers alike. If we could pay you, we would. If you could pay us, that would be even better.
This month's cover features an illustration by Olivia McNair.