American English is such an impoverished language that any use of a passive construction is an obvious tell. Thanks to the Nixon administration, everyone now gets that “mistakes were made” means “I messed up, but I’m too scared to accept responsibility.”
Passivity has spread far beyond attempts to evade the consequences of our actions. It turns up in what the misreading of Adam Smith’s throwaway invisible-hand comment has wrought. That gave us a religious cult whose adherents proudly evangelize their submission to infallible, omnipotent market forces. Except that markets are social, not natural, constructs. They operate according to rules that we either choose or allow to be imposed on us. And they change over time — in The Merchant of Venice, Shakespeare shows us a world where capital is only available to those who accept real personal risks. Nowadays? Not so much.
This submissiveness empowers bad actors — Wall Street leading up to the crisis of 2006-07; a grifter looking to live off our tax money in exchange for some vacuous spiel about educating kids; Purdue Pharma, with tens of thousands of deaths and millions of ruined lives on their conscience; Amazon, laying waste to South Tunnel Road and its jobs without even noticing.
Centuries of history teach us that there have always been bad actors: that however efficient or responsive the markets we were taught about in Econ 101 might be, there will always be people working to subvert them because, as anyone who stayed awake during class knows, a free and open market is one in which no one makes a lasting profit.
Over the last 30 years, the share of our economy claimed by corporate profits has tripled. So there can be no doubt — we do not live in an economy characterized by free and open markets, and the discipline they supposedly provide is absent. Instead, our mixture of oligopolies and monopolies empowers grifters looking only for their next free lunch.
Yet any economy beyond subsistence agriculture is built on skills that have to be learned over the long term. Those skills can be found in three ways: We could import finished products containing the fruits of other people’s skills. We could welcome immigrants who bring their skills with them. Or we could work on strengthening our public libraries, schools and out-of-school programs as investments in our kids’ — and our own — futures.
It seems like much of the country, the state and our neighbors are passively choosing “none of the above” and drifting toward a future of Pythonesque mud-farming. They’re perfectly entitled to do so. But if we care about our city’s future, we need to ignore them and plow ahead on our own. After all, when we succeed, the leeches will be back.
— Geoff Kemmish