Is it time to weaponize the marketplace?


Asking for a friend.

By now I think it’s safe to assume that the so-called free market forces (that want anything but a truly free market) have all their bases covered. Thanks to powerful and heavily funded lobbies, regulatory capture, and decades of savvy state-level politicking, they’ve got Congress, the presidency, and a fairly friendly court in SCOTUS. They’ve got us on the bad end of a game of Whack-a-Mole. We (whoever we are one issue to the next) make some minor progress on one issue, get embroiled in partisan and internal squabbles, and they, those nefarious free market warriors who can’t see the long con of privatizing profits while socializing losses just knock ’em down. We might make some long term gains, even, gains that help define us as a people, a nation…while decrying nationalism, at least the way they do it…whoever they are.

For the sake of argument, let’s say those longer term gains we actually manage to make are absolutely important. But other than treating the symptoms of plutocracy, what are those gains doing to cure it? We tinker with our election systems without addressing the manifold Sophie’s Choices with which we’re presented. Do we vote for this out-of-touch candidate or that one? It’s important, because whoever wins will probably not spend a lot of time actually writing the kinds of laws that get ahead of problems. They will, however, find plenty of time to campaign for our support next election, though, and they’ll get their names associated very publicly with anything that looks good back home and play down all the times they sell us out.

Except campaign finance reform. That’s kryptonite. Now and then someone will trot out some half-hearted effort, knowing full well it’ll go nowhere meaningful by the time half-hearted is whittled down to 1/8th-hearted and so riddled with poison pills that it dies before making it to a vote.

Term limits. Can’t have those.

Ethics. What’s that?

We damned well can’t expect they’ll ever do anything meaningful about their self-dealing, or the great many coincidental ingenious investing decisions made by friends and peers days before some market-shaking announcement is made.

Either what we’ve got is just as described in this video, or so close as to make little difference.

They, the powers that be, have much reason to feel complacent. They’ve sold enough of us the bill of goods about free markets that have been freed from factoring in labor and externalities that they have fairly solid control of all the ways to rein in their power. We’re effectively denied at the polls and in the halls of power. As for the courts, this is America. We get the justice we can afford. When we can afford it, we don’t have standing. If our courts were the gateway to hell, there’d only be ham sandwiches there.

Government mostly out of the way, bought and paid for, that free market can now sell us just about anything on any terms it wants. We pay for their infrastructure. They make their product, fouling whatever they touch along the way.  They cut labor expenses because happy investors and executive bonuses don’t grow on trees. They organize among themselves in the form of powerful lobbies that don’t think workers should have the same right to organize. They don’t need “solidarity” among themselves for their collective self-serving behaviors to achieve their goals. That’s just the way business is done. But if labor shows solidarity with plumbers in the East standing with carpenters in the South with longshoremen in the Northwest, that’s just communism or something.

Their products don’t even have to work as advertised or even be what they present themselves as. Organic salt, anyone? Oh, sure, if you’re one of the Very Best Sort of People, that’ll never be an issue. The rest of us? It would take less time to mention things that aren’t screwed up. Savings accounts with interest rates hovering at 1% while inflation is at 2.1%? Accounts with banks that can call the fines and settlements for outright fraud the cost of doing business, and that with nary a head rolling?

Take a look at Wells Fargo. Right now, after a shocking! shocking! I say dump, they’re still at a point higher than they’d ever been before. How the hell is that even possible when you’re caught red handed inventing accounts for customers out of thin air and and screwing them every which way but Tuesday?

Oh, sure, if you buy a gizmo that doesn’t work, there’s returns, but good luck taking a company to task if they’re hiding behind some mandatory arbitration clauses tucked somewhere between a slew of hold harmless clauses and a severability clause. Depending on the product, you might not even own the thing you think you bought unless you’re willing to be a felon for unlocking your phone or hacking your car’s on-board computers.

If enough people are killed or wounded by a thing that it costs the companies more to pay suits and settlements than it does to recall, they’ll recall. Thanks, Fight Club. If things aren’t that bad for them yet, what do they care if your airbag might give you a face full of shrapnel? That’s your coin toss, not theirs. But if it’s lawn darts, we can by golly ban those full stop because there’s no Lawn Dart Amendment to get in the way and who cares? It’s just lawn darts.

This is the world we live in, with our necks under the heels of this so-called free market. We stand a better chance of finding an AR loaded with Fentanyl rounds than we do of finding a Cuban cigar at an abortion clinic. The makers of Instant Pot stand a better chance of collapsing than does Wells Fargo.

We have no candidates, because they’re stacked against us in elections that are stacked against us using election systems that are stacked against us to defend us from the collective corporate interests that are stacked against us in the halls of power that are stacked against us, and if we rebel in the streets we find that enforcement is also stacked against us.

It’s almost like they’ve taken our last real weapons of self defense.

But they missed one.

In propping up their too-big-to-fail banks, by making them virtually unassailable from the halls of power, they [waves hands wildly like a wild-eyed conspiracy theorist] placed the banks front and center, and the banks are happy to be in the middle of it all because their whole profit model is based on taking slices of everyone else’s pie…the more imaginary the pie, the better because they somehow many to extract real slices from it anyway.

The whole rotten network of nefarious corporate control depends on the banks to keep the pipeline of money flowing freely. Hardly a thing comes out of the ground, gets processed, turned into anything else, or finds its way from factory to stockroom to consumer without the banks greasing those skids with loans.

Now, we’ve seen the power of mass mobilization before. We have those movements to thank for everything from the 5-day work week to improved, if still underwhelming, voting rights. We’ve also seen nascent movements crushed by a neoliberal-loving enforcement regime filled with Pepper Spray Cop clones. We’ve seen movements like #metoo start taking down predators, but I hope I’m not being too pessimistic when I suggest that their successes will fall short of the kind of enforcement, prosecution, judicial, and penal reforms it would take to keep the promising young Brocks of the world behind bars where they belong.

Even more recently, we’ve seen the power of angry teenagers to start shaping the world around them. I agree with some of that they say, grimace at a few things, and whole-heartedly support their right to and expression of their 1st Amendment freedoms. What’s most notable here to me is that they have managed to fuel some truly field-leveling changes. They’ve exposed some chinks in corporate America’s armor.

What do you do when you can’t effectively boycott a thing? They can’t really boycott certain types of firearms when they were never going to buy them anyway and the makers and sellers know that. That’s not bargaining power. They figured out, maybe better than anyone else yet, that when the going gets mob, you get don. They’ve been disrespected, and now they’re going after families.

Do business with the real enemy, Company A? There’s a price for that. That price requires no legislator to write a law, or legislature to pass it. It requires no executive authority or regulatory agency. It requires no writ from the courts. It doesn’t even require that the market be driven by rational actors.

It requires one simple understanding. Now that we’ve apotheosized the shareholder, it’s time we learned how to appease that golden calf. In their neutral, disinterested, all-powerful way, they have cared not at all about child slaves picking our chocolate or mining our cobalt. What the hell will they care about you? The high priests of this golden calf, in monastic orders we call institutional investors, read the entrails of corporate annual reports and dividend statements, and as long as those numbers are pleasing, anything goes.

We know how to make those numbers smell like death to the false god. We know that profit = revenues – expenses. That’s the two columns and the arch of the gateway into the inner sanctum of the golden calf. We’ve tried going after the arch. No direct assault on their profits has any lasting effect. Those assaults require laws and executives and judges and enforcement to work.

But we can monkeywrench their revenues. We can discombobulate their expenses.

At first, I thought it could be summed up as a 1 Day Event, something like National Bankout Day where, all at once, everyone shows up at their banks and closes their accounts, only to take those funds and move them to a different bank and open an account there, instead, preferably a small local bank or a credit union.

Ten people doing that wouldn’t even itch. A movement doing that? Now the banks might pay attention. Millions of “rational actors” making rational decisions would, at the very least, make the furtive priestly entrail readings more menacing. In a regulatory regime, revenues from fees can come and go. Depending on which sources a person looks at, that alone can account for 5-20% of a bank’s revenues.

But they get so much more revenue from lending out your money $10 to your $1 at interest rates you get to pay but never earn. That’s the principle joy of the fractional banking free money press, and in today’s regulatory climate they’ll be held to less and less stringent standards on things like being able to cover their bets.

We now know that banks have cozy lending relationships with pretty much every damned economic predator in the market, from small arms manufacturers to industrial polluters. We know that other businesses, like Delta and Fred Meyers, can be compelled to change their relationships based on whether or not those relationships cost them more money than they’re worth. Can we do the same with banks?

I think that’ll take more than a one-day, one-time event, but I think it can be done because markets hate unpredictable volatility. It would also involved sustained effort, which showing up that one time at a march won’t cover. It might even involve tedium and discomfort instead of the powerful social vibe of solidarity felt at one-off public gatherings. Worse, it might involve longer-lasting inconvenience, or maybe a point of interest in the wrong direction for earnings or interest. In a country founded in part on the willingness of people of means to stake their every last earthly possession on the worth and success of their vision, I can understand how the difference of .08%, paperwork, and bad bank coffee might keep people from acting. I’m a misanthropist, after all.

But it’s possible. Inject billions of dollars of volatility into consumer banking and make it clear you won’t stop until they stop extending loans to Bad Guy #1, then Bad Guy #2, and so on. Don’t make it a one-day event. Pick a day this month, close your direct deposit account, and tell them why. Open a new account at the next bank. Tell HR to keep copies of their direct deposit form handy because you’ll need several this year.

Next month, do it again. Next month, do it again. Rinse, repeat.

Multiply that by a million people…just a single million. NRA has 5 million members, so c’mon, you can’t do at least a million? You should be striving for 10.

That’s maybe $6 billion in bank fees you’re monkeywrenching. How can banks forecast fees when they can’t even forecast customers, give or take 1-10 million?

Your bi-weekly direct deposit of $1500, magnified by a mass movement of a million righteously indignant souls willing to suffer the pinpricks of inconvenience if not the muskets and cannons of fortune, would be a $1.5 billion rejigger. Get 10 million and we’re talking a $15 billion upending of meaningful augury.

The high priests who read the entrails of the marketplace will not like how that bodes for Shareholder’s optimized returns. Shareholder will be offended at the rank smell of their offerings and will turn against them. Shareholder won’t care what’s involved. “Bring me sweet cash offerings!” it will boom, and the earth itself will tremble.

And it will do that because that $15 billion in customer account instability translates into what, $150 billion in predictable lending. And all the banks have to do to get the trembling to stop is cut business ties with a few million in loans here, a few million in loans there. Not the whole damned market, just the exceptionally cancerous parts…excise them with surgical precision, cut them off from Shareholder’s benevolence, and let them wither where they stand.

Then we can get back to a life of normalcy where the worst thing that can happen is your airbag turning your face into cube stake on the way to the hospital from your Instant Pot disaster, knowing that it doesn’t matter the medical bills are going to bankrupt you because the student loan bill, mortgage, and car note already were, just in a manageable way.

What’s the point of dreaming small?