April 7, 2013


Lunch with the FT: Michael Sandel (Edward Luce, 4/05/13, Financial Times)

I ask him about his latest book, What Money Can't Buy: The Moral Limits of Markets (Penguin), in which he argues that the US and other countries are turning from market economies into market societies, as Lionel Jospin, the former French prime minister, once put it. Sandel argues that we live in a time of deepening "market faith" in which fewer and fewer exceptions are permitted to the prevailing culture of transaction. The book has infuriated some economists, whom he sees as practitioners of a "spurious science".

He has been at loggerheads with the profession for many years. In 1997, he enraged economists when he attacked the Kyoto protocol on global warming as having removed "moral stigma" from bad activity by turning the right to pollute into a tradeable permit. Economists said he misunderstood why markets work. Sandel retorts that they know the price of everything and the value of nothing. To judge by his sellout lecture tours, he has clearly tapped into a larger disquiet about the commodification of life.

[H]e gives me a quick sketch of "the rise of market reasoning", from the triumphalism of Ronald Reagan and Margaret Thatcher through Bill Clinton and Tony Blair up to the present day. "What Blair and Clinton did - and I'm using them not to blame them but as emblematic of this tendency - was they moderated but also consolidated the assumption that markets are the primary instrument for achieving the good life," he says. "So we never really had a debate." 

Still gently toying with his burger, Sandel's tone takes on a note of regretfulness when I mention Obama, who in the philosopher's view has promised so much and delivered so little. "During the healthcare debate in 2009 there was a long angry summer. I was listening to Obama on C-Span and I heard him make the case for healthcare reform by saying we have to 'bend the cost curve in the out years'. [...]

 "I think you could say that the weakness of my argument is that I'm arguing against an overarching singular way of thinking about all questions - 'an economic way of looking at life', as Gary Becker [the Chicago economist and Nobel Prize winner] described it," Sandel replies. "I'm arguing against that not by putting my own overarching singular philosophy but by saying that is a mistake and we must value goods case by case. So the answer may be one thing on the environment and the right way of dealing with nature, and a different one with education and on whether we should offer financial incentive to kids to do their homework, for example, and different still if we're arguing against a free market in kidneys and surrogate pregnancy."
Still not entirely convinced, I ask Sandel whether he does anything in his own life to make the world less money-minded. He begins a couple of answers but peters out. I suggest that he makes all his lectures free online. "Yes, that's one thing," he agrees. After our lunch I see that Sandel is listed on Royce Carlton, a speaker's agency, as one of its big names (without apparent irony, a posting by the agency last year said Sandel was available to lecture "at a reduced fee in conjunction with his new book, What Money Can't Buy").

But it is talking about the free stuff that gets him going. Sandel says he was recently approached by a Silicon Valley tech company, which he did not name, that has developed the technology to support interactive global lectures. He recently did a pilot run with simultaneous live audiences in Cambridge Massachusetts, Rio de Janeiro, New Delhi, Shanghai and Tokyo. Cisco TelePresence charges hundreds of thousands of dollars per session, says Sandel. This new method costs only a couple of thousand. The drop in price could change everything. "We could see them and they could see us. I could call out to a student in Delhi, and ask a student in the fifth row of a theatre in Harvard to reply to someone in São Paulo and someone in Shanghai - and it worked. The technology worked."

It is, of course, the market that worked to make the commodity that is Mr. Sandel's lecture cheaper.

Posted by at April 7, 2013 7:34 AM

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