At what cost?

by | Apr 5, 2013 | Book Reviews

What Money Can’t Buy
The Moral Limits of Markets
Michael J. Sandel
Farrar, Strauss, and Girouz 2012
244 Pages, $27
ISBN 978-0-374-20303-0

Michael Sandel is a charismatic political philosopher and professor of government at Harvard. His course, Justice, has been taken by more than 15,000 students and his BBC and PBS TV series and accompanying book, Justice: What’s the Right Thing to Do? has been praised by liberals and conservatives alike.

We all know that money can and can’t buy happiness. For people who live on less than $2.50 per day seemingly small increases in income does lead to a profound increase in happiness. Most rich countries have reported increases in happiness as they become richer; with one strange exception. Despite the fact that the U.S. is nearly three times as wealthy as it was a quarter of a century ago, Americans are no happier than they were back then, principally due to the unequal participation experienced in the increase in wealth.

The title of Sandel’s latest book, What Money Can’t Buy, while not dealing with the question of happiness, concerns itself with his basic premise: Markets lead to “commodification,” which leads to corruption and “crowds out” moral norms. By commodification Sandel refers to Americans increasing predilection for treating every aspect of life—from medicine to art, from sports to family life, from law to personal relations—as a commodity to be purchased, traded, and marketed, however unseemly and, from his philosophical standpoint, however immoral.

Readers may take issue with Sandel’s caviling over some of his examples, adopting a kind of libertarian view that people should be free to buy and sell what they please as long as rights are not violated. Certainly the person who can afford an expensive automobile ought to be able to consult a “boutique” medical practice that provides a more responsive level of care. Or should he? Is this just a form of jumping the line? What about buying scalped tickets to rock concerts? What about buying an aliyah in shul? Or a donated kidney? Is it ethical to pay a person to donate an organ or to test a new drug? Is it strange that in America voluntary blood donation is a dying form of philanthropy with most blood donations being paid for and most donors being from the lowest socioeconomic strata of our society?

What is disarming about this book is that Sandel takes us from a seemingly insignificant if technically ethically questionable practice to much more grim scenarios. Back in the day, in the “house that Ruth built” (the first Yankee Stadium), there were roughly 70,000 seats. The difference in price between a grandstand seat and a box seat was a couple of dollars. The wealthy sat cheek by jowl with the hoi polloi. There are now only 56,000 seats; but now there are sky-boxes that cost up to $500,000 for the season and the cosseted few watch the game in air-conditioned, well-fed splendor. Up until fairly recently, they were paid for by those taxpayers in the “cheap seats” as corporations wrote them off as business expenses. What he terms the “skyboxification” of America is, he fears, a serious issue of de-democratization. In some communities kids are paid for reading books. Other kids are paid for good grades.

In some communities one can pay to drive alone in the HOV lanes. One can buy a professionally written wedding toast. Corporations can trade pollution allowances; some colleges are auctioning admissions; people are being paid to become human billboards with ads on forehead and body. Which of these, if any, are harmless or do they all exist on a slippery ethical or moral slope? After all, so what if the Washington Redskins play in FedEx Field or the New York Mets in Citi Field?

Perhaps Sandel’s most telling chapter deals with Markets in Life and Death. At what point does the well accepted “key man” insurance become what has been termed “janitor’s insurance?” In the 1980s the insurance industry lobbied state legislatures to relax insurance laws and allow companies to buy life insurance on the lives of all employees “from the CEO to the mailroom clerk.”

“By the 1990s major companies were investing millions in corporate-owned life insurance (COLI) policies, creating what amounted to a multibillion-dollar death futures industry. Among the companies that bought policies on there workers were AT&T, Dow Chemical, Nestle USA, Pitney Bowes, Procter & Gamble, Walmart, Walt Disney and the Winn-Dixie supermarket chain. Companies were drawn to this morbid form of investment by favorable tax treatment.”

By the beginning of the 21st century COLI amounted to over 25 percent of total life insurance sales and employees generally were not aware that the policies on their lives even existed. It may be argued that the COLI frequently stretched the concept of “insurable interest” a bit far. The author then goes on to discuss the short lived “stranger-originated life insurance,” STOLI, as it came to be called, wherein the client bought and immediately sold policies on his or her life, for a fee, which were then packaged and marketed to investors. By 2009, STOLI were banned in most states, but brokers were permitted to continue trading in policies from ill or elderly people. How far is this from “death pools,” the author asks?

Sandel asks if there is something wrong with a world in which everything is for sale? His answers are rooted in his personal sense of morality, one which may not be subscribed to by all.

In one respect, his slim volume is a series of excellent lectures. One might wish he had expanded it a bit by including more of what might be called “opposing rationale.”