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What Money Can’t Buy

August 8, 2012 Leave a comment

I wrote a post last Saturday, Skyboxification, taking off from a review by Jeremy Waldron of Michael Sandel’s recent book, What Money Can’t Buy: The Moral Limits of Markets. On finishing the post, I thought that maybe I should read the book. Sunday I downloaded it and today I finished it. Not hard to do, given how short the book is. It reads more like an extended essay.

As Waldron pointed out, the book is loaded with examples in which money and markets have been introduced (or intrude) into parts of life that might better be kept free of them. This is what motivated me to turn to the book itself. Waldron discussed a handful of examples, all intriguing, and I was curious to see more.

One family of examples has to do with fines becoming fees. A particular case to which Sandel returns from time to time is a daycare in Israel that decided to fine parents who were late to pick up their children. The surprise effect? Tardy pickups increased. Without fines, parents felt properly guilty about keeping the daycare staff at work after hours. With the introduction of fines, tardiness was monetized and parents stopped feeling guilty. They could simply pay for being late — or so one imagines they reasoned, consciously or unconsciously — and they were happy to do so. How the staff felt is another matter.

Or what about gift cards? Giving someone a gift shows thought, interest, a connection. Sandel reviews arguments from economists that giving cash would be better, since the recipient can make better use of the money. But this doesn’t feel right to many. Are gift cards different? Apparently so. The gift card business has been booming. What’s up with that?

Sandel doesn’t so much offer answers to every situation. Rather, he describes the monetization of a traditionally non-economic behavior, discusses what may feel wrong about it, and often analyzes it in the twin contexts of fairness and corruption. For example, in discussing college admissions, he writes:

The idea of selling admission is open to two objections. One is about fairness; the other is about corruption. The fairness objection says that admitting children of wealthy donors in exchange for a handsome donation to the college fund is unfair to applicants who lacked the good judgment to be born to affluent parents. This objection views a college education as a source of opportunity and access, and worries that giving an edge to children of the wealthy perpetuates social and economic inequality.

The corruption argument is about institutional integrity. This objection points out that higher education not only equips students for remunerative jobs; it also embodies certain ideals — the pursuit of truth, the promotion of scholarly and scientific excellence, the advancement of humane teaching and learning, the cultivation of civic virtue. … allowing fund-raising needs to predominate runs the risk of distorting these ends and corrupting the norms that give universities their reason for being.

This is one case where perhaps the appeal to fairness is more compelling than the appeal to corruption. But what about developing a futures market on terrorism: a gambling site where people can place bets on terrorist attacks on certain targets? The logic for suggesting this, as the Defense department’s research organization DARPA did a few years ago, is that such a market would provide useful intelligence. Yet, betting on death makes many people queasy. Sandel devotes an entire chapter to death bets, with numerous examples, including basic life insurance, which was outlawed in many cultures for centuries.

A final chapter addresses naming rights: sports stadiums, schools, police cars, and many more. This happens to connect to the subject of a post I intended to write two falls ago. Perhaps I still will, so let me not try to produce a version of it here. The starting point was to be the line with which Waldron opens his review of Sandel’s book, “Pecunia non olet,” or “Money doesn’t stink.” Let’s turn to wikipedia for a quick review of the meaning:

The phrase is ascribed to the Roman emperor Vespasian (ruled 69-79 CE). Vespasian imposed a Urine Tax (Latin: vectigal urinae) on the distribution of urine from public urinals in Rome’s Cloaca Maxima (great sewer) system. (The Roman lower classes urinated into pots which were emptied into cesspools.) The urine collected from public urinals was sold as an ingredient for several chemical processes. It was used in tanning, and also by launderers as a source of ammonia to clean and whiten woollen togas. The buyers of the urine paid the tax.

The Roman historian Suetonius reports that when Vespasian’s son Titus complained about the disgusting nature of the tax, his father held up a gold coin and asked, whether he felt offended by smell. When Titus said “No,” he replied, “Yet it comes from urine.”

The phrase Pecunia non olet is still used today to say that the value of money is not tainted by its origins.

My never-finished post was inspired in part* by a NYT article on the transformation of MIT’s campus by top architects. Working my way through an accompanying slide show, I came upon the David H. Koch Institute for Integrative Cancer Research. Yes, that David Koch, the libertarian multibillionaire whose political contributions have propped up the Tea Party movement and had a corrosive effect on our politics. (See Jane Mayer’s New Yorker article from two years ago for background on the Koch brothers.) Koch’s name is also on the former New York State Theater in Lincoln Center, home to the New York City Ballet.

*I need to credit my son, Joel, for further inspiration for the still-to-be-written post. He introduced me to the Latin phrase in a different context.

Which gets us back to naming rights. A deal with the devil? Dirty money? Or just good economic sense? I’m not talking specifically about the MIT and Lincoln Center buildings to which Koch has contributed generously. Rather, I’m raising the question in general.

You must have your favorite example of a building you wish had its traditional name, or at least some name that wasn’t changing every few years as companies go out of business, are sold, or fail to keep their end of a naming deal. (Remember Enron Field, the original name of the Houston Astros’ home when it opened in 2000? No doubt millions of people first heard of Enron thanks to this naming deal. The name didn’t last. The field is now Minute Maid Park.) Sandel asks us not to decry this trend, or applaud it, but instead to think through what a suitable basis would be for objecting to monetization. He offers guidance, leaving us to engage in the process ourselves.

In closing, Sandel returns to sports stadiums, which have not only commercial names attached, but also skyboxes and frightful ticket prices. Like him, I remember the days just a few decades ago when all tickets were affordable. He writes about the modest pricing of tickets for Minnesota Twins baseball games. In the early 1970s, when I was a student, I would buy Celtics tickets just before game time at Boston’s North Station. They never sold out. You could just walk up to the counter a few minutes before the game, next to the train ticket windows, and pay $2, $3, $4, $5, or $6. (I sure wish I splurged for those $6 tickets just once.) Now that seems like a dream.

Sandel concludes that we

need to ask a bigger question, about the kind of society in which we wish to live. As naming rights and municipal marketing appropriate the common world, they diminish its public character. … commercialism erodes commonality. The more things money can buy, the fewer the occasions when people from different walks of life encounter one another. We see this when we go to a baseball game and gaze up at the skyboxes, or down from them, as the case may be. The disappearance of the class-mixing experience once found at the ballpark represents a loss not only for those looking up but for those looking down.

Something similar has been happening throughout our society. At a time of rising inequality, the marketization of everything means that people of affluence and people of modest means lead increasingly separate lives. We live and work and shop and play in different places. Our children go to different schools. You might call it the skyboxification of American life. It’s not good for democracy, nor is it a satisfying way to live.

Democracy does not require perfect equality, but it does require that citizens share in a common life. What matters is that people of different backgrounds and social positions encounter one another, and bump up against one another, in the course of everyday life. For this is how we learn to negotiate and abide our differences, and how we come to care for the common good.

And so, in the end, the question of markets is really a question about how we want to live together. Do we want a society where everything is up for sale? Or are there certain moral and civic goods that markets do not honor and money cannot buy?

Polo Grounds, New York, 1922

Whether you agree or not, you will find it a worthwhile exercise to work through Sandel’s examples. We learn in the Acknowledgments that Sandel has himself tested them in joint classes with economists who argue the other side. Those would be rewarding discussions to listen in on.**

**But why must Sandel make it a point to tell us that all these people are his friends? For example, he co-taught a course at Harvard with Larry Summers in 2005, and they were “joined for some sessions by my friend Thomas Friedman,” Summers having already been described in the text as a friend. And on occasion, “my friend Richard Posner … has joined me … for debates about the moral limits of markets.” Should I point out that I was once friends with Summers’ future wife? Really, I was. But so what?

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Skyboxification

August 4, 2012 Leave a comment

Toronto skybox

On opening the current New York Review of Books a week ago, I found Jeremy Waldron’s review* of Michael Sandel’s What Money Can’t Buy: The Moral Limits of Markets of particular interest. The book appears to be a provocative treatment of the border between economics and morality, as is Waldron’s review.

(Unfortunately, the review is behind the NYR paywall, so you can’t see it in full. Consolation recommmendation: Joyce Carol Oates’ review of Claire Tomalin’s Charles Dickens: A Life. I wasn’t inspired to read the biography, but I’m eager to read a Dickens novel or two some time soon.)

Waldron poses the core issue at the outset:

Pecunia non olet, we are told. Money doesn’t stink. All it does is open up the way to making exchanges; it’s a liberating medium for connecting one set of preferences to another. But doesn’t money taint the goods it is exchanged for, when those goods have not normally been distributed in the marketplace?

Among the more obvious examples, Waldron suggests, are baby selling and prostitution. But Sandel describes many more.

Michael Sandel’s new book presents, by my count, more than a hundred examples like the ones I have given, of what appear to be intrusions of money and markets into parts of life where they do not belong. Many of these examples I had never heard of before, though they are culled mainly from newspapers. Some of them are quite disturbing and I think they are presented by Sandel for that reason.

There are, for instance, cities in California that offer prison cell upgrades for as much as $127 per night—clean, one-person cells away from the general prison population (most of whom cannot dream of affording that amount). “Our sales pitch at the time was, ‘Bad things happen to good people,’” Janet Givens, a spokeswoman for the Pasadena Police Department, told The New York Times, and other jail officials added that the typical pay-to-stay client is a man in his late thirties who has been convicted of driving while intoxicated.

Another example: an outfit called LineStanding.com offers clients in Washington, D.C., a “premier concierge service where standers wait at a designation of your choosing until they are able to rendezvous with you, the attendee.” Congressional hearings are open to the public, but space is limited on a first-come first-served basis. Many Capitol Hill lobbyists say that they are too busy to wait in line: queuing, it is said, “discriminates in favor of people who have the most free time.” The “standers,” apparently, are mostly retirees or, increasingly, homeless people. They accept $15–$20 an hour to wait in line and then, as the time arrives for the hearing to begin, their suited clients hook up with the them, and many ordinary citizens who have been patiently waiting for a seat are crowded out by the well-funded lobbyists.

Later, Waldron introduces an issue that particularly intrigued me. (Emphasis below is mine)

The other way in which Sandel helps get a debate underway is by identifying a number of distinct lines of thought that often get tangled up in our misgivings about money and markets.

One line of thought focuses on the voluntary nature of transactions. …

A second set of concerns is about unfairness. When scarce or quality goods are allocated, should they always go to the highest bidder? Should poor people be crowded out? …

Sandel makes an excellent point in this regard, when he says that in a society where everything is for sale, life is much harder for the poor:

The more money can buy, the more affluence (or the lack of it) matters. If the only advantage of affluence were the ability to buy yachts, sports cars, and fancy vacations, inequalities of income and wealth would not matter very much. But as money comes to buy more and more … the distribution of income and wealth looms larger and larger.

The effects of economic inequality of wealth or income are mitigated by the fact that some goods are provided on a basis that has nothing to do with money. It need not be egalitarian or collective provision, but just a shared sense that an unequal distribution won’t always reflect inequality in income. That’s the point about the line for the congressional hearings. Some get in and some don’t, but it is not mainly determined by what money you can offer, at least until linestanding.com enters the picture.

This rarely gets discussed by our political candidates. Everyone on both sides of the aisle is so eager to praise the fruits of capitalism that issues of fairness and proper means of redress get shoved under the rug. Shouldn’t this be the central issue underlying the health care debate? Or regulation of Wall Street? Yet Obama, for one, so rarely comes at the issue directly. The crazed right wing is busy calling him a socialist, yet he is so right of what once was the center that he doesn’t speak out on issues that were historically in the Democratic mainstream.

Or, as Waldron concludes:

Sandel is a baseball fan and, in one last example, he cites the “skyboxification” of our society as an incident of money’s baneful influence. People pay money at ballparks to isolate themselves from others in the experience of watching a baseball game. It is a sort of a metaphor for something more pervasive: “At a time of rising inequality, the marketization of everything means that people of affluence and people of modest means lead increasingly separate lives.” If Sandel is right, that phenomenon is bound to make it harder for us to have the public debate that is called for in this important book.

——-
One last note. In examining the Amazon listing of Sandel’s book, I happened to notice a review by the retired University of Massachusetts economist Herbert Gintis. He takes Sandel to task for Sandel’s critique of economics, and what he has to say is well worth reading.

Categories: Books, Economics, Philosophy

Coffee Ritual

March 22, 2011 Leave a comment

Gary Wills reviews Hubert Dreyfus and Dorrance Kelly’s All Things Shining: Reading the Western Classics to Find Meaning in a Secular Age in the current issue of the New York Review of Books, and what a review it is! Wills wastes no time getting to the point, describing the book as ” inept and shallow.” Wills explains that

The authors set about to solve the problems of a modern secular culture. The greatest problem, as they see it, is a certain anxiety of choosing. In the Middle Ages, everyone shared the same frame of values. One could offend against that frame by sinning, but the sins were clear, their place in the overall scheme of things ratified by consensus. Now that we do not share such a frame of reference, each person must forge his or her own view of the universe in order to make choices that accord with it. But few people have the will or ability to think the universe through from scratch.

So how can one make intelligent choices? Hubert Dreyfus and Sean Dorrance Kelly call modern nihilism “the idea that there is no reason to prefer any answer to any other.” They propose what they think is a wise and accepting superficiality. By not trying to get to the bottom of things, one can get glimpses of the sacred from the surface of what they call “whoosh” moments—from the presence of charismatic persons to the shared excitement of a sports event.

Not having read the book, I don’t have a clue how fair or accurate Wills is in his depiction of it. But the part of the review I really love is the passage near the end, which includes a quote from the book itself.

They argue for the calmer joys of craftsmanship. They take us through five pages on the sacred craft of the wheelwright and then through four pages of the “revered domain” of making the proper cup of coffee—the sacred beans, the sacred cup lovingly tended, the company worthy to share this holy communion. The liturgy takes patient experiment and rapt devotion:

If it is the warmth of the coffee on a winter’s day that you like, then drinking it in a cozy corner of the house, perhaps by a fire with a blanket, in a cup that transmits the warmth to your hands might well help to bring out the best in this ritual. If it is the striking black color of the coffee that attracts your eye and enhances the aroma, then perhaps a cup with a shiny white ceramic interior will bring this out. But there is no single answer to the question of what makes the ritual appealing, and it takes experimentation and observation, with its risks and rewards, to discover the meaningful distinctions yourself.

This experimentation with and observation of the coffee ultimately develops in you the skill for seeing the relevant features of the ritual and ultimately develops the skills for bringing them out at their best. These skills are manifold: the skill for knowing how to pick exactly the right coffee, exactly the right cup, exactly the right place to drink it, and to cultivate exactly the right companions to drink it with. When one has learned these skills and cultivated one’s environment so that it is precisely suited to them, then one has a ritual rather than a routine, a meaningful celebration of oneself and of one’s environment rather than a generic and meaningless performance of a function.

Thank God we have been delivered from the meaningless inwardness of Augustine and Dante, to worship at the shining caffeine altar.

As someone who has never drunk coffee, yet must accommodate to the coffee needs of those around me, I couldn’t help but enjoy this passage. Maybe I should learn from it, but instead I feel blessed that I’m free of the ritual, and pleased that I can continue to bask in righteous superiority.

Categories: Books, Philosophy

Stanley Cavell

October 18, 2010 Leave a comment

Last month, Stanford University Press published Stanley Cavell‘s autobiography, LIttle Did I Know: Excerpts from Memory. I might have missed out on this if not for a cover story about him in last week’s Chronicle Review. I’m not a very consistent Chronicle reader anymore. I bring it each one in and dump it on top of the others, giving attention first to the parallel mounting piles of New Yorkers and New York Reviews. When I brought last week’s issue in, I didn’t even notice Cavell staring at me. I went back to the issue only after seeing a reference to the article in some blog post two days ago. (I don’t remember which blog, so I can’t give a proper hat tip.)

I just read the article, and now I’m about to order the autobiography, which I don’t want to receive too soon. After all, I have other reading to do.

I have long wanted to read Cavell. When I was an undergraduate, I came to understand that he was brilliant, a giant of the Philosophy department. (But they were all giants.) But I never understood what he did or why he was considered brilliant. I understood, among his colleagues, what John Rawls did and why he was brilliant. And Hilary Putnam. At least I presumed to understand. And I took courses from both of them. But Cavell was a mystery.

When the opportunity arose my final semester to apply for a spot in a seminar with him, I leapt. It was for majors only, or “concentrators”, to use the local terminology, and as a math and philosophy concentrator, I was eligible. I was doubly eager to take it, both to learn from Cavell and to learn more about NIetzsche, the subject of the seminar, having read many of his books, but never having studied him formally. I got in, and I viewed this as a perfect way to conclude my philosophy studies.

Alas, I didn’t get much out of the seminar. Cavell’s genius eluded me. Nietzsche’s too. Was it because I was insufficiently mature as a student? Or human? Or was it simply because the course was at best fourth among my priorities that term? No doubt a little of each. Ranking ahead of the seminar in my priorities were my senior thesis, my graduate real analysis course, and crew. Maybe not in that order. A true ordering, with another item thrown in, might be: crew, [big gap here], waiting to hear from graduate schools, senior thesis, real analysis, Nietzsche. Which is too bad. I really wanted the seminar to be special.

Now I get another chance. I can read Cavell’s autobiography and get a glimpse of what I was missing. Here’s a hint, from Thomas Hibbs’ Chronicle piece:

The recovery of the ordinary is Cavell’s way of responding to the dilemma of modern philosophy, which finds itself vacillating between peremptory certitude and despairing skepticism. . . . as a student at Harvard, Cavell would find himself elated as he listened to Austin’s lectures on such seemingly pedestrian topics as the language of excuses. What was it in these lectures that prompted in him such an exuberant response? It was, quite simply, an appreciation of the philosophical significance of the drama of ordinary speech. Austin’s philosophical manner arises out of a “perpetual imagination” of “what is said when, why a thing is said, hence how, in what context.” That is quite similar to Cavell’s description of his own experience working on Lear as “overtly and continuously demanding explicit and systematic exercise of imagination and articulation.” As was true in Austin’s classroom, so too in the theater you must “weigh with others every word.” Cavell would later call this, in an essay he would write for Austin’s class, the “theatricality of everyday life,” the way in which practical deliberation and language are suffused with a dramatic sense of how we understand where we are, where we have come from, and what we do next.

. . .

Asked to reflect on the therapeutic value of writing and publishing his autobiography, Cavell responds, “The process of composing the autobiography has provided me with some distinct reassurance, I might say inspiration, in my bid for certain lines of liberation in imagining that I am an acceptable participant in the human family.” That humble and grateful disposition toward his own work has been characteristic as well of Cavell’s attitude toward the various academic disciplines, arts, and human inquiries that have drawn his attention over many decades. Despite his at times oracular and prolix style, Cavell’s books will, for quite some time, provide readers the occasion to “begin again,” to discover philosophy not just as a discipline but also as a worldview to probe what Cavell, after Wittgenstein, calls “the uncanniness of the ordinary.”

Categories: Books, Philosophy