Sunday, May 25, 2014

'What Money Can't Buy' - Agreement with Asterisks

I first heard about Michael J. Sandel, a 'rockstar academic,' only very recently. He was travelling through the city on a promotional tour for his book,  'What Money Can't Buy.' I read a couple of his interviews, attended his Asia Society Lecture (which was massively oversubscribed) and was intrigued enough by his thesis to buy his book.

Sandel is a philosopher who unpacks the moral implications of the assumptions that underlie economic theory in general and free-market thinking in particular. I suppose this is tricky terrain in the United States and Sandel seems to have his fair share of critics and lecture-circuit adversaries. In India, the idea that money can't buy everything certainly stops well short of being provocative. We're a people who have embarked on the market experiment relatively recently, and there's been protest and skepticism every step of the way, and rightly so. At the very least, the bewildering diversities and disparities of this country should (and hopefully do) compel us to think about the consequences and implications of economic policy as experienced by people whose financial circumstances are very different than ours. Any failure to do so is a failure of imagination. But I digress.

Sandel argues that we are moving from being societies that have markets, to becoming societies driven by market values. Market principles and practices are encroaching on relationships, values, ideology, civic spirit, health-care, sexuality - areas, he believes, where market values have no place. What is the designated domain of the market, then? How do we decide?

The book is not so much about defining where the market belongs, as it is about describing where it doesn't. To make his case, Sandel argues (easily, logically, expertly) by example, undermining supposedly self-evident economic 'truths' over five chapters and two hundred odd pages. Markets are not value-neutral, commerce can change the nature and meaning of what is traded when it commoditizes what should be a non-commodity. Markets do not always auto-correct to create level playing fields  - a person's ability to pay for something is not always a proxy for their desire for a commodity and is not always the fairest or most value-neutral way of allocating a good or a service. Transactions of consent are sometimes implicitly coercive. Putting a price on something is not necessarily the appropriate way to value it. Emotions and values such as civic-mindedness and empathy are not in limited stock, humanity will not deplete its goodness every time it demonstrates it. 

All of this makes eminent sense. It makes so much sense, in fact, that the most interesting way to read this book is through the eyes of someone who thinks it doesn't. It helped me understand the dominance and the force of market thinking in American society in a way no editorial or essay has.

But one of Sandel's contentions does make me uneasy. He claims that markets can 'corrupt' or 'debase' our values and ideals through the simple fact of trafficking in things that aren't - or shouldn't be - run of the mill commodities, goods and services. I believe this, I really do. But he doesn't address a central issue - where do our notions of what constitutes 'corruption' become less about morality, ethics and equity, and more about taste? I'm going to use an example to illustrate.

Sandel thinks the commodization of the life insurance business is a moral morass. The viaticals industry exists to take out policies on the critically ill, in the hope that they will die soon enough that encashing the policy will yield a profit. In the less morbid industry of life-settlements, seniors are being encouraged to sell policies they were intending to lapse on, in exchange for large one-time payments. Other seniors are not only being asked to sell existing policies, but to take on new ones and 'flip' them at a price to investors.

Viaticals are clearly a distasteful business - they give one person a stake in the early death of another. But they can also serve a purpose, which is to ease the financial burden on those who are dying  - a gap perhaps opened up by inadequate government insurance. Life settlements, on the other hand, can undermine the metrics on which the life insurance business works, making policies more expensive for everyone (including genuine buyers) in the long term. What is corruption, in this context? A question of morality or a question of market mechanisms?  

Similarly, can the case against death bonds be extended to advertising in baseball parks, on metros, in wildlife preserves and team tactics? Sandel doesn't like the concept of moneyball - a statistics driven approach to winning baseball games. He says it makes baseball more efficient without making it better. Do we have to make a trade-off between efficiency and improvement - and who gets to say which is which? And isn't moneyball just a textbook instance of market innovation, one that will run its due course in time?

No one enjoys omnipresent and grating advertising, and I say this even though I work in advertising. Advertising in national natural parks can be construed as an infringement of the public's experience of the park, because people go to parks to experience pristine natural beauty. That is the parks' purpose. But can one really make the argument that a train commute is sacrosanct? That advertising can undermine the purpose of the metro station and 'corrupt' the experience of a shared civic space? Doesn't advertising subsidize costs for the public in a day and age when US municipalities are struggling to balance their books? Is it really 'corruption' if something changes the quality of an experience without altering the content of it?

There's a point somewhere in the last chapter where the case against markets really becomes a case for nostalgia, a case for aesthetics. Of which I am very wary, because questions of taste are essentially polite questions about class.*

What Money Can't Buy is an important book. It makes important points and cautions us against easy, one-size-fits-all market thinking. It asks all the right questions and starts some good debates. But it doesn't go far enough in articulating the answers. Maybe in 21st century America, asking the questions is enough?

*More on this in a separate post.  

Sunday, May 18, 2014

Here's Hoping

After the heat and the dust, the allegations and counter-allegations, the millions of reams and bytes of declamation, discussion and debate, the surprisingly stirring spectacle of the world's largest electoral exercise comes to its conclusion. 

And over the last couple of days, I seem to have come to some conclusions too. 

In 2009, 2009 looked like a tipping point, a coming of age. In 2014, this year of records broken and unprecedented firsts and a parliamentary overhaul, 2009 begins to look like nothing more than an opportunity squandered (if you're feeling charitable) or something of a con-job in the making (if you aren't). 

In 2009, I thought I could read the papers and follow blogs and go to websites and talk to friends and develop a legitimate sense of what people wanted and how things would unfold. In 2014,  I realize that many of us belong to charmed circles, so entrenched in our world-views and so confident of our intrinsic superiority that we think we get to proclaim the indefensibility of opposing views via FB status updates and Whatsapp messages. Smug and self-assured as we are, maybe 2014 is a timely reminder that participating in a democracy is about learning that Other People - whatever our definitions of that other might be - have as much of a right as anyone else to chart this country's course. In constructing our notions of what our political and/or ideological 'others' look and sound like, have we equally considered how we might look and sound to them? 

I'm not saying that one shouldn't have strength of conviction, or that beliefs and values should be infinitely negotiable - of course not. But everyone gets to choose, and everyone's choice is equally valid (and in numerical terms, equally valuable). That's the premise that underlies democracy, universal adult franchise, free and fair elections. Once every five years, we are compelled to contend with each other - biases, prejudices and all - and we reluctantly realize that we have a stake and a say in a shared future no matter how vehemently we disagree. 

No one said democracy was going to be comfortable. And so, in the spirit of being constructive rather than cynical, here's hoping:

Here's hoping we have a government that honours its mandate
Here's hoping that it isn't business as usual
Here's hoping that our collective expectations energize and animate its actions
Here's hoping we have an opposition that is responsible and rises above rabble-rousing
Here's hoping the Congress finds a semblance of its soul. And then searches it 
Here's hoping that the people of this country - wherever they might slot themselves on a political spectrum - continue to feel less and less obliged to put their aspirations and ambitions on slow-burn 

You know what they say about hope. It springs eternal. 

It gets you every time. 

Sunday, May 4, 2014

The Democracy of Doing

I'm paging my way through Daily Rituals by Mason Currey - a collection of accounts of the creative process as experienced and enacted by over 160 artists, writers, poets, philosophers, scientists and composers. In his introduction to the book, Currey talks about how these accounts - culled from biographies, autobiographies, interviews, letters and personal journals - can seem superficial, concerned more with the production of great work than with any analysis or appreciation of the work itself. He also uses the term 'small-bore portraits' to describe the perspective taken on personalities such as Jung, Marx, Freud, Voltaire, de Beauvoir, Mozart, Beethoven, Fellini and Matisse (to name just a few).

It sounds promising, although there is always the lingering doubt that this kind of portraiture, determined to charm, will devolve into something saccharine and slightly precious.

I'm only about 40 pages and a couple of dozen accounts into the book, and those doubts have been firmly dispelled. I'm not sure how Currey's managed it, but he's taken some of history's best known figures and fixations and shown them in an idiosyncratic and humane light that is simultaneously inspiring, endearing and reassuring.
Inspiring because there isn't a single instance of genius documented here that isn't accompanied by a commensurate measure of grit and gumption. The doing of work has always been difficult, and yet there is evidence to show that it can, in fact, be done. And that it must be done, even if it has to be endured. Inspiring also because in hearing these first and second hand accounts of work and working, we get a sense of what it means to be driven, moved and animated by a love for what one does.  

Endearing because everyone is portrayed in the context of their relationships and immediate domestic environments. I learn that Beethoven's method, involving the slopping of liters of water on his arms and face, aroused much laughter among his household help, that Toulouse-Lautrec came up with cocktail recipes to create the feeling of 'a peacock's tail in the mouth,' that Kierkegaard's coffee was a treacly treat that made his fingers 'tingle,' that Jung enjoyed big breakfasts and Bergman, cornflakes for lunch. There's something to be said for the ordinariness of routine and the light it throws on a person, no matter how complex and idealized he or she is otherwise.

And reassuring because the struggle involved in creating something memorable and worthwhile has evidently, always been the same. The devices we use to trick ourselves into states of productivity and creativity are part of a long, illustrious tradition that predates anodyne notions of 'time management.'  

Reading this book, I realize in a way that I haven't before that time is not something to be 'managed.' It is neither to be saved nor squandered but spent choicefully, and learning how to make those choices well is the essential challenge. But at the end of that series of challenging choices is a body of work.

And what about those of us who are neither poets, painters nor philosophers engaged in solitary pursuits? Whose schedules depend on bosses, clients, children? Maybe there is no body of work to show at the end - just books read, movies watched, connections made, health regained, maybe even money made on the stock-market.

But there's no absolving oneself from making the choice, from opening up the necessary windows of opportunity to do.  Read about Mozart (p. 16) who courted patrons and Constanze and composed in between. Or Anthony Trollope (p.23) who held down a post-master's job while writing over twenty books. Or Bergman (p.13), who would spent eight to ten hours on a set to get three minutes of film.

Reassuring because doing is, ultimately, democratic. Harder for some than others, but doable (and done) nonetheless.  

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