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May 2nd, 2023

It Was Never About Free Markets

Here’s something to think about next time you read a news article about DeSantis feuding with Disney, and trying to take its Reedy Creek Improvement District away. You hear a lot from the republican side about how everything would be so much better for all Americans if only the free market could be released from the chains of Big Government. Government is not the solution, government is the problem. The more government intrudes on the marketplace, the worse it makes everything. If only businesses were allowed to managed their own affairs without government interference, the invisible hand of the marketplace would reward the most efficient, the best able to meet customer needs, and everyone would prosper. Actually, Reedy Creek is a good example of how that might actually work.

You notice it right away the moment you drive into the parks. Everything is immaculately maintained. The roads are all in good condition. The lawns are perfectly manicured. There is no litter, trash is picked up and there are handy trash cans everywhere that are seldom full, let alone overflowing. The power grid is stable, as are the water and sewage services. I did a backstage tour once and the guides told us about how trash and sewage were managed and they were visibly proud of the fact that not a single piece of trash or drop of raw sewage ever left the park despite the yearly torrent of visitors. Everything was reused or recycled. Reclaimed water was used in the park wide sprinkler system. Solids were sterilized and remanufactured into fertilizer the company packaged and sold. Recyclables were sorted, packaged, and handed off to local recycling companies (every room in a Disney hotel has separate trash cans for recycling). The rest was burned in clean incinerators to power the electric grid.

The rhetoric coming from DeSantis about Disney not paying its fair share of taxes due to its special district is tactical bullshit. Disney doesn’t pay taxes to the state of Florida to maintain its infrastructure, it pays for its own roads, its own water, sewer and electrical grid, it’s own fire department and EMTs, its own security forces, all of it, via Reedy Creek. The state of Florida pays for none of it, and it gets all the sales tax from that hundreds of thousands of yearly visitors, which amounts to billions in yearly income for the state of Florida. Reedy Creek is a way for Disney to essentially tax itself for all its infrastructure, which it is continually making improvements to. 

Improvements like this…

That’s a solar farm they built a few years ago, nearby to Epcot. Disney does all this through Reedy Creek, which, prior to DeSantis trying to fuck with it, would manage improvements and bill (tax) Disney Corp for the costs. This is Disney basically taxing itself for the infrastructure maintenance, which it could then do with a mostly free hand. That is, without the state of Florida always butting in. And it was Walt Disney’s original plans for Epcot that prompted him ask for, and get from the state of Florida, that special improvement district.

Originally it was supposed to be E.P.C.O.T.: the Experimental Prototype Community Of Tomorrow…

This article from How Stuff Works describes it in a nutshell:

Among the remarkable components of Disney’s EPCOT would be a community of 20,000 residents living in neighborhoods that would double as a showcase of industrial and civic ingenuity — a running experiment in planning, building design, management and governance. There would be a 1,000-acre office park for developing new technologies, and when, say, an innovation in refrigerator design would be developed, every household in EPCOT would be the first to receive and test the product before it was released for the rest of the world.

An airport would enable anyone to fly directly to Disney World, while a “vacation land” would provide resort accommodations for visitors. A central arrival complex included a 30-story hotel and convention center, with the downtown featuring a weather-protected zone of themed shops.

EPCOT’s more modest wage-earners would be able to live nearby in a ring of high-rise apartment buildings. And there would be a park belt and recreational zone surrounding this downtown area, separating the low-density, cul-de-sac neighborhoods beyond that would house the majority of residents. There would be no unemployment, and it was not to be a retirement community.

“I don’t believe there is a challenge anywhere in the world that’s more important to people everywhere than finding solutions to the problems of our cities,” Disney said.

The promotional film Walt Disney made to sell his visionary living experiment in emerging technologies is there at the link above. Go read the whole thing, it places Disney’s experiment in the context of other planned communities then springing up all over the country, but also explains how Disney’s vision was completely different from the others. His E.P.C.O.T. was to be a living thing, always changing to test and prove new technologies for city and suburban living before they were deployed into the wild. The people living in it would be buying into becoming part of a living experiment and proving ground. They wouldn’t own their own property because it would be changing constantly. You might go to work one morning, and come back home to find your kitchen had been completely updated with the latest appliances and technologies. This was not to be a static vision of urban utopia. Walt Disney was an always moving forward kinda guy. E.P.C.O.T. would be a statement against such utopias. There is no utopia there is only progress gained through experiment and test.

And for that, he needed complete control over the maintenance of its infrastructure. That is what Reedy Creek was initially for. Then cigarettes killed him and it passed to his brother Roy to do what he could with what was left of Walt’s vision. He got Magic Kingdom finished and then he passed away. After that, E.P.C.O.T. became Epcot…another theme park, but at least one dedicated to Walt Disney’s vision. One half of Epcot is that perpetual world’s fair that was to be a centerpiece of E.P.C.O.T.. The other, Future World, is theme park rides, and exhibits, most until recently centered around Walt Disney’s vision of what emerging technologies could do to benefit our lives.

Eventually all the land Disney bought there in Florida, much of it Florida swamp, became Walt Disney World. But Reedy Creek remained Disney’s special improvement district. And if it’s not a living experiment in new technologies, it is if you look at it through the lens of American politics, an experiment in letting business manage its own land resources. A pretty successful one actually.

Usually taking the regulations off big business results in a race to the bottom. Everything goes to hell in the pursuit of stock market value. But in this one stunning case, it actually works. Spectacularly. You could argue that this is a special case because Walt Disney World is a tourist destination and of course they want everything working and looking nice or else the tourists won’t come. But that was always what the invisible hand of the marketplace was supposed to do; reward good product, penalize bad product. How often can we really say it’s worked that way?

Here’s what I think: it depends on the character of the people in charge. And really that’s how it goes with every one of us. Do you take pride in your work, your neighborhood, your country, or do you just want the money and to hell with the customer, let alone the neighborhood, let alone the country. Yes, yes, Disney Corp has its dark side too…but just imagine what it would look like if Trump was running it. Or DeSantis. Or any republican you can think of babbling all the time about Freedom and Free Markets and Deregulation.

Why is that? Where’s the disconnect there? Look back up at the top of this blog post, at that sign in the window. There’s the disconnect. There’s the deception. Free Markets and Capitalism are euphemisms, delicate little fig leaves over the prerogative of their hate, like State’s Rights and War Of Yankee Aggression are for old time and modern Confederates alike. Their Peculiar Institution. It’s not about freeing business from onerous government meddling. Onerous government meddling is just dandy with them so long as it’s punishment for treating all their customers equally. They like free markets to the degree that’s about freeing business to discriminate against minorities, keep them out of neighborhoods, deny them jobs and opportunities to grow and prosper.

To the degree that business can and does do that, they’re all for deregulation. The instant companies start acting “woke” it’s another story. Then come the new laws and regulations telling businesses what they can and cannot do, and especially that they cannot do business with the hated Other without even more government regulation. All that free market capitalism rhetoric ever amounted to was a thin veneer over bitter, venomous resentment that everyone they hate was getting their place in the American dream too. Can’t be having that!

And if you think that’s overly dramatic, reflect for a moment how DeSantis and the republicans exploded when Disney merely voiced…voiced mind you…objections to DeSantis’ Don’t Say Gay law, and then immediately began doing their best to destroy not only the biggest generator of tax revenue in the state, it’s biggest single employer, it’s biggest draw of tourism, but also one very good example of how letting business mind its own business could actually work. Why would they do that if they really believed in free enterprise? Because they don’t.

Sticking it to the hated Other doesn’t just matter more then economic freedom, it’s the only thing animating them. Don’t believe it? Look at what is happening in Florida. Then take a step back and look at, really look at, the economic damage they’re busy trying to inflict on American to get their way in the culture war. This country is about to default on paying its bills because republicans are using the debt ceiling as a weapon in their political and culture wars. It will cause wholesale economic chaos when the rest of the world realizes that the United States cannot be trusted to pay its bills. And with our default, comes many other defaults, all countries and businesses depending on the United States to pay its bills, so they can in turn pay theirs. Dominos will fall, taking down the entire world economy with it. And the republicans? They think they can just blame it all on democrats, and through that harvest votes for the next election. They Just Don’t Care About The Economy. They don’t care about free markets What do they care about? It’s in the picture at the top of this post. That’s what they care about.

Looking at all this, can you still tell yourself that republicans are the party of big business? What sort of businessman doesn’t pay their bills? 

Well…okay…he’s a crook not a businessman. But he freed the republicans from that loathsome pretense of believing in deregulation. And in a sense, they’re all crooks. They benefit from our labor, our productivity, our creativity and our imagination, and in return they spit in our faces. Free enterprise? Free markets? It was never about any of that. What you’re seeing isn’t hypocrisy. It’s the mask dropping. 


3 Responses to “It Was Never About Free Markets”

  1. Steve Boese Says:

    Promote the hell out of this piece, Bruce. One of your best ever. The most poignant, thoughtful, comprehensive on the whole Disney/DeSantis debacle.

  2. Lauretta Nagel Says:

    Very, very well-put.

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