Seems Like a No-Brainer

I am glad that Michael Sandel’s new book is getting lots of review coverage. He’s an Ivy League philosophy professor, telling us that we shouldn’t let market thinking invade and corrupt our most meaningful, human, experiences.

Hunh. Really?

It’s one of those books where you hear the premise and think, in the parlance of my youth, “no doy!”

But when he piles on the examples of our shift from a “market economy” to a “market society,” it starts to seem less trite and more threatening.

For example, from the article linked above:

Today there are lots of new ways to make money. If you need to earn some extra cash, here are some novel possibilities:

Sell space on your forehead to display commercial advertising: $10,000. A single mother in Utah who needed money for her son’s education was paid $10,000 by an online casino to install a permanent tattoo of the casino’s Web address on her forehead. Temporary tattoo ads earn less.

• Serve as a human guinea pig in a drug-safety trial for a pharmaceutical company: $7,500. The pay can be higher or lower, depending on the invasiveness of the procedure used to test the drug’s effect and the discomfort involved.

• Fight in Somalia or Afghanistan for a private military contractor: up to $1,000 a day. The pay varies according to qualifications, experience, and nationality.

• Stand in line overnight on Capitol Hill to hold a place for a lobbyist who wants to attend a congressional hearing: $15–$20 an hour. Lobbyists pay line-standing companies, who hire homeless people and others to queue up.

If you are a second-grader in an underachieving Dallas school, read a book: $2. To encourage reading, schools pay kids for each book they read.

And that’s only half the list. And that’s only from the magazine article version of the book. This stuff isn’t new–novelists, at least, have been fretting about the commercialization of every corner of our society for a long time.

But he does make the case that it’s hit a saturation point that is threatening our democracy.

And here’s something unrelated but amusing: Sandel’s magazine article is a bazillion times easier to read than every single review of the book that I have tried to forge through. I’m not even going to link to any. They’re all the same: amusing anecdote proving the point of the book, then really really really dull review of it. Mostly positive, even from the Wall Street Journal.

Skip the reviews. Just read the excerpt above. Because he fits it all in: this shift to market society, the causes, the dangers, and also, to understand the phenomenon more clearly, the allure:

Part of the appeal of markets is that they don’t pass judgment on the preferences they satisfy. They don’t ask whether some ways of valuing goods are higher, or worthier, than others. If someone is willing to pay for sex, or a kidney, and a consenting adult is willing to sell, the only question the economist asks is “How much?” Markets don’t wag fingers. They don’t discriminate between worthy preferences and unworthy ones. Each party to a deal decides for him- or herself what value to place on the things being exchanged. This nonjudgmental stance toward values lies at the heart of market reasoning, and explains much of its appeal.

Absolutely. If we forget about the people involved, there is a captivating beauty to this idea of a completely value-neutral market. I imagine that the free market commandos are influenced at least in some small part by this.

But it’s important to remember, of course, (do I really even have to type this?) that goods, services, and the people producing and consuming it all, are never value-neutral. Exchanges depend on messiness and create messiness in our lives. And it’s that “consenting adult” that may be “willing to sell.” There’s a lot of presumption in that “consent” and “willing”ness. A lot of willful disillusion about what maybe be restricting, limiting, or pressuring that consent. Making it no free choice at all. And, therefore, no free market.

If we need a Harvard philosopher to remind us that, actually, bribing children to read is not only impractical but also morally freakin WRONG WRONG WRONG WHO ARE YOU PEOPLE AND HOW CAN YOU CALL YOURSELVES EDUCATORS????!!?!??!?!?!?!? then thank you, Harvard.

But also, really? A Harvard PHILOSOPHY professor is more fun to read than legions of book reviewers? I may have reached my own moral limit today.

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2 thoughts on “Seems Like a No-Brainer

  1. stacylavin says:

    How would you describe what the following exemplifies: “amusing anecdote proving the point of the book, then really really really dull review of it”? Stripping narrative down to rhetorical structure? Whatever you call it, I love it.

    I bet kids would be more eager to read if they were doing it with a shiny electronic tablet rather than paper books; if Dallas would provide higher tech teaching resources to their underachieving schools, they could save their 2 bucks and likely achieve a better outcome. Not saying that bling is a better incentive than money, but I think it makes reading even less sexy when every time you do it, you’re reminded that you are not worth the investment of the high-tech educational tools that your wealthier peers seem to be. (OK, I’m assuming that the underachieving schools are in less wealthy districts….am I wrong?)

    • Elizabeth says:

      You know, I did a little research with people who thought of themselves as bad at school. One of them said that the terrible facilities and lack of resources made her feel that the school didn’t care about her, so why should she care about school? It was the worst result possible of our school system, right?

      But paying kids to read seems so contemptuous of both teachers and students. Teachers, because we don’t expect them to be able to do their jobs. Students, because we assume that their imaginations are so poor and their self-esteem so weak that they won’t want to learn it for its own sake.

      On the other hand, there are the readers who get to make money off of something they’d do anyway. Maybe I’m too much of a doomsayer.

      Any educators out there to weigh in?

      And also, thanks for your comment, Stacy!

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