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.  

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