You heard it first on The Rick Smith Show!
Last night, while guest hosting Rick's show, I used the need for rules in water polo — to prevent players from ripping off each other's swimsuits and Speedos underwater — as a metaphor for the fact that we need regulations and government policy to achieve "good" competition in our economy (based on productivity, quality, service, and innovation).
Then this morning, The New York Times has a story titled "Underwater, Overexposed: In Water Polo, Battle Below Can Be Revealing."
I'm fond of the water polo example because my youngest daughter, Tess, plays water polo at the University of St. Andrews in Scotland. She began playing in her freshman year three years ago. She clued us into the fact that girls wear two suits so that when the first layer comes off they are not indecently exposed. (Guess who paid for the extra suits?)
In these London Olympics, the underwater cameras are giving the world a good view of the mugging below the surface that is a routine part of water polo. Calling penalties ("exclusion fouls") — that lead to a 20-second power play ("man up") for the team fouled — is one way the game reins in the roughhousing. You see, water polo is a better game if it rewards swimming speed, agility, passing, catching, and shooting than if it degenerates into a group dunking contest.
Every single competitive sport self-consciously modifies rules to keep games fluid and appealing to play and watch. The National Basketball Association, for example, has a "competition committee."
Yet when it comes to our economy, neoliberal philosophy continues to promote the flawed idea that "competition" — the "free market" — is an all-or-nothing choice and that we should "deregulate" across the board. When policymakers do weaken regulations (e.g., the minimum wage, collective bargaining, local zoning rules on factory farms or fracking) to let the free market roar, we too often get economic competition that assaults our middle class and environment. It's as if we suddenly decided to allow helmet-to-helmet tackles in football, spikes-up ankle tackles in soccer, flagrant fouls in basketball, beanballs in baseball, bodyline bowling in cricket ... OK, I lost you with that last one, but you get the general idea.
The lack of adequate economic rules doesn't just harm the working families caught in markets with destructive competition. It also lowers U.S. living standards over time. Because the secret to long-run growth is productivity growth and innovation. And companies don't innovate as much if they're focused partly on squeezing workers and dumping toxic waste.
This is why we still need New Rules for a New Economy.