“Opiates of the Masses” by J. A. Bernstein

ar 15

On February 28, 2018, The New York Times featured what was, at least for it, a fairly typical assortment of headlines, most of them in response to the recent Parkland school shooting, where seventeen students were killed. These included: “A Top Retailer Halts All Sales of Assault-Style Weapons,” “Cutting N.R.A. Ties Pits Companies Against the G.O.P.,” and a slew of op-eds, including one by Andrew Rosenthal, the former Times Editorial Page Editor, called “Gun Smoke and Mirrors,” where he explains:

The real problem with gun violence is not about mental hospitals, armed teachers, bump stocks or age requirements. The real problem is that there are far too many firearms in America — more than 300 million, according to Congress. They are too easy to obtain and they are becoming ever more lethal.

Buried beneath the headlines were two other articles of note: one on a teacher’s strike in West Virginia, where the governor convinced the teachers to return to the classroom in exchange for a five percent pay raise and vague promises to address the rising costs of insurance; and an op-ed by Alan Krueger and Eric Posner, two prominent academics, in which they accuse corporations like Jimmy John’s of making workers’ wages noncompetitive by forcing them to sign non-compete agreements, a practice the authors decry as illegal and, indeed, contrary to “free market ideals.”

It’s always interesting to hear the term “free market” used in The New York Times, as well as other major media outlets. It’s rarely, if ever, done in a negative sense. In this latter piece, the free market serves as an ideal, a rallying point around which to unite both Republicans and Democrats in alleviating the workers’ plight. In the former piece, Rosenthal’s, the market is seen as problematic in so far as it drives the sales of guns and thus fuels the epidemic of gun violence, though the solution, in his account, is greater restrictions on sales.

Yet the question immediately arises at what point if any do Times readers—or editors, or writers, for that matter—begin to wonder whether the free market itself is not to blame for tragedies like the Parkland school shooting, or the depression of wages in West Virginia, including teachers’, or the litany of other social ills plaguing the United States, not least of all the opioid crisis, the resurgence of hate crimes, chronic obesity, inadequate healthcare, and any number of issues afflicting (primarily) the working class.

Obviously it would be simplistic to explain any of these issues purely in terms of economics. After all, gun violence, addiction, rural poverty, disease, and racial intolerance are as old as the nation, albeit much heightened in recent years. They are also not unique to America, even if America seems to have much higher rates of gun violence, opioid addiction, hate crimes, and infant mortality than nearly every other wealthy state. (Not coincidentally, America also has, by most measures, the highest rate of economic inequality among the wealthier states). It would also be self-serving to criticize writers like Rosenthal, Krueger, and Posner for advocating restrictions on guns and corporate malfeasance, since they’re undoubtedly right. Yet the bigger issue remains: whether these kinds of restrictions don’t overlook the broader problem, namely the free market itself, and whether Rosenthal, Krueger, and Posner, not to mention the countless others espousing an implicit defense of the free market, albeit with corrective measures, aren’t in some way directly responsible for the violence meted out on a daily basis by capitalism, whether that takes the form of the Parkland school shooting, the 115 Americans who are estimated to die each day from marketed drugs like fentanyl, and the millions more who live in intolerable, slow-death situations, which is essentially what living in rural America is.

To cite two examples of the underlying element of class: a 2017 Pew Survey reveals that three-quarters of all gun owners in the U.S. lack a college degree—in itself a prerequisite for attaining most middle-class jobs—and roughly half reside in rural areas, where the dearth of decent jobs is amply documented. Among opioid addicts, the death-rate rises in any given county by 3.6 percent, and emergency room visits by seven percent, for every one-percent rise in unemployment, according to a 2015 National Bureau of Economic Research study. It doesn’t take a Ph.D. to realize why people self-medicate or venture to chamber a round. Nor is it probably necessary to point out that Rosenthal (the son of a New York Times senior executive), Posner (the son of a prominent judge), and Krueger (the son of an accountant and businessman), are probably not the most equipped to assess these kinds of living conditions.

The question, then, is not why people buy guns or take fentanyl. Anyone who has worked at a Jimmy John’s, or taught in a public school in West Virginia, can probably account for that. Nor is the question whether limiting guns or regulating wages can help. Certainly they’d reduce availability and make life a little more tolerable for those on the fringe, which is to say, the roughly half of all Americans who are living in or near poverty. Rather, the question is how long it will take until the bulk of the professional class, that is, the network of managers, editors, academics, executives, and the political flunkies who serve them, realize that these are simply stopgap measures and that the real problem, the only problem, in fact, is the very market they seek to prop up. As Noam Chomsky, one of the few dissenting public intellectuals, noted in a recent interview, the average wage for non-supervisor workers in the U.S. in 2016 was four percent lower than in 1973, and that is in spite of average labor productivity having more than doubled during the same period. The situation is even bleaker for minorities. A 2018 Economic Policy Institute Report points out that homeownership, incarceration, and unemployment rates among African-Americans have experienced no net gain in fifty years, which should dispel any myths about the Obama Administration and its success in achieving racial equality. Finally, these facts, and these facts alone, should it make plainly obvious why a superficially antiestablishment figure like Trump, albeit one hawking false promises about bringing back jobs and restoring the nation’s integrity, got elected in ’16, and why more of his ilk will arise. The market is not sustainable. It never has been, in some sense, but for the better part of the last fifty years, the country has sustained itself by exploiting its natural resources (oil, coal, and gas), offshoring labor, or seizing plunder abroad. That so many intellectuals have overlooked or, worse, masked these disparities probably accounts for the growing resentment of intellectuals, and professionals as a whole, among workers, on which Trump has undoubtedly seized.

Remarking on things like this is considered heresy within the realm of American economics, and certainly The New York Times, from which anti-capitalists like Chomsky have been effectively banned. Yet many academics, even those working in economics and indoctrinated on Friedman or Keynes, realize there are no surefire correctives; that the free market kills; and it’s only a matter of time until the economic system, if not the biosphere, implodes, though, like most Americans, they tend to prefer a secure job and rarely question a system from which they derive minor benefits—in their case, things like tenure and trips. It isn’t so much dishonesty as much as a latent fear, or perhaps a derived ignorance, that compels much of the educated class to reject claims of the sort I have made; after all, it would run utterly contrary to their class interest, as Marx would point out, to suggest that capitalism, and not guns or drugs or intolerance, is to blame. And it’s much easier to blame the individuals themselves, be them corporate managers, perpetrators of school killings, indigent racists, or the hapless teachers themselves, rather than to look in the mirror once or twice and ask: Am I, through my beliefs, or my faith in the market system, not in some small way to blame?




Author Photo - Bernstein
J. A. Bernstein is the author of a forthcoming novel, Rachel’s Tomb (New Issues 2019), which won the AWP Award Series, Hackney, and Knut House Prizes; and a forthcoming story collection, Stick-Light (Eyewear, 2019). His work has appeared in Shenandoah, Boston Review, Kenyon Review Online, Chicago Quarterly Review, and other journals, and won the Wilhelmus Award at Southern Indiana Review and the Gunyon Prize at Crab Orchard Review. A Chicago native and graduate of the University of Illinois at Chicago’s Program for Writers, he teaches in the Center for Writers at the University of Southern Mississippi and is the fiction editor of Tikkun. writingwar.com