Thursday, September 27, 2012

Markets vs. Morals? The mistaken worry that money and morality are at odds

BOOK REVIEW: What Money Can’t Buy: The Moral Limits of Markets, by Michael J. Sandel, Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 256 pages, $27

Michael Sandel knows something about money. After all, the Harvard political philosopher exchanges his ideas for money—a lot of money, in fact. Now Sandel has written a book (available for $27) about what things should not be for sale.

Sandel’s basic warning goes like this: Markets—by which he means the use of prices expressed in money—lead inevitably to commodification, which "corrupts" and "crowds out" the moral norms that should otherwise guide our interactions. In What Money Can’t Buy: The Moral Limits of Markets, Sandel looks upon other people’s purchases and frowns. Important things in life—tickets to rock concerts, private medical consultations, access to shorter airline check-in lines—are being exchanged for money, he reports. "The reach of markets, and market-oriented thinking, into aspects of life traditionally governed by nonmarket norms is one of the most significant developments of our time," he writes, necessitating "a public debate about what it means to keep markets in their place."

Although Sandel is fuzzy on the specifics, he wants an enlightened debate to determine whether other people should be allowed to use prices when they cooperate or allocate scarce goods. "Democracy does not require perfect equality, but it does require that citizens share in a common life," he writes. "And so, in the end, the question of markets is really a question about how we want to live together." Let’s see where that takes us.

What Sandel offers as a moral/philosophical analysis of this alleged problem amounts to little more than an exploration of his own moral intuitions, unencumbered by critical self-scrutiny. Thus, "Treating religious rituals, or natural wonders, as marketable commodities is a failure of respect. Turning sacred goods into instruments of profit values them in the wrong way." This flat assertion may come as news to much of organized religion.

Synagogues regularly sell seats for the Days of Awe, or High Holy Days, which helps finance religious activities. One of my great aunts, a conservative French Catholic, sent me cards when I was a boy that said she had given money to an order of nuns to pray for me. Sikhs pay for scholars to read from their holy book. The candles one lights in Catholic cathedrals when saying a prayer are priced (not given away free); guests at traditional Polish weddings pin paper money on the dress of the bride in exchange for a dance. Do these practices show a lack of respect for religion and the sacrament of marriage? Should the collective "we" (Sandel uses the term a great deal in all of his books) prohibit the use of money to allocate synagogue seats, prayers, holy readings, candles, and dances with the bride? Or should those decisions be made by members of the respective synagogues, churches, and temples?

Sandel never once in his book entertains the idea that maybe we should let people sort such matters out for themselves, without having the decision made for them by "us." Instead, his own tastes are presented as suitable for everyone else. There’s a serious danger with such intuitive collectivism: It disguises restatements of one’s own unacknowledged and unexamined prejudices as a philosophical investigation and then imposes them on everyone else.

For Sandel, not deciding collectively on "competing conceptions of the good life" does not leave such questions undecided. Instead, "It simply means that markets will decide them for us." This statement is both ominous and incoherent. "Markets" are not some kind of omnipotent, singular, malevolent intelligence. When people exchange goods and services we use the term market. When the exchanges take place through the medium of money, the exchange ratios of goods against money are called prices. Sandel confuses prices with markets and then suggests that the question of whether something should be exchanged on markets will be "decided" by markets, which is a singular bit of confusion.

Sandel at least recognizes that a common alternative to pricing is waiting in line. But bizarrely, he seems rather fond of queues. He devotes a chapter to "Jumping the Queue," with subsections on "Markets Versus Queues" and "The Ethic of the Queue," and quotes approvingly a writer who moans that "gone are the days when the theme-park queue was the great equalizer, where every vacationing family waited its turn in democratic fashion." Sandel claims there are two arguments favoring prices over queues: "a libertarian argument…that people should be free to buy and sell whatever they please, as long as they don’t violate anyone’s rights," and a utilitarian economic argument. He then proceeds to ignore the libertarian argument while misunderstanding the economic.

Sandel acknowledges that "as markets allocate goods based on the ability and willingness to pay, queues allocate goods based on the ability and willingness to wait." Moreover, "there is no reason to assume that the willingness to pay for a good is a better measure of its value to a person than the willingness to wait."

Sandel thinks he has scored a fatal blow against the economic case for markets here, but what he doesn’t get is that the price mechanism provides a decentralized system of signals and incentives that help us to better coordinate our behavior. Consider that a longer queue without prices sends no signal to producers to make more of the product for which people are queuing. Using prices, rather than queues, has the advantage of disseminating information about supply and demand. Sandel sees no coordinating advantages to price allocation and bemoans "the tendency of markets to displace queues and other nonmarket ways of allocating goods." He describes substitution of prices for queues as "places that markets have invaded."

Sandel is right that the use of prices can have disadvantages, which is the core insight of Ronald Coase’s theory of the firm. If market pricing is so great, why are there firms? Because using the price system has costs. Firms, teams, and organizations are islands of nonprice allocation and coordination in a wider sea of price allocation. Price coordination co-exists with nonprice coordination. The issue is not which system will award scarce goods to those who value them the most but which will coordinate behavior better in which situations. Sometimes it’s queues and sometimes it’s prices, and sometimes it’s both. (I’m in a Starbucks now, and the system here is first come, first served, probably because it would be too costly to have an auction on who gets served first. Still, the coffee is exchanged for money.)

Bakers of communion wafers generally sell them to churches for money. The churches provide them as part of a sacrament for which the faithful queue. Whether to use prices or queues and at which point is really none of Sandel’s business.

Sandel is not only rhapsodic about queues but again invokes the collective we when he states: "Of course, markets and queues are not the only ways of allocating things. Some goods we distribute by merit, others by need, still others by lottery or chance." He’s not just pro-queue but rather strongly against prices, which seem to him somehow dirty ("corrosive") as a coordinating mechanism. Never addressed is whether some of "us" should be allowed to work out for ourselves our own solutions, without having one imposed on all.

Sandel explains that some things "can’t be bought," e.g., friendship. Aristotle may beg to differ; the Greek philosopher discussed "friendship for advantage" in Book 8 of the Nicomachean Ethics, declaring them one kind of friendship, though not the highest. Still, we may insult friends when we reward a favor with money; sometimes "the monetary exchange spoils the good being bought." That sounds right to me, if not all that original or deep.



Fed Declares War on Canadian Economy- Rest of the World Too

The financial world cheered when Bernanke announced QE3 until it works (which is essentially forever, because it never will work).

Bruce Stewart, writing for the Winnipeg Free Press, is one of few who figured out QE for what it really is: A Beggar-Thy-Neighbor competitive currency debasement policy hoping to sink the US dollar.

Not that QE would work anyway, but one problem for Bernanke, is most of the rest of the world is doing the same thing.

Please consider "Bernanke declares war on Canadian economy":
Did you smile or cheer when U.S. Federal Reserve Chairman Ben Bernanke announced Quantitative Easing III (and the markets went up)? He just declared war on your job, and the whole Canadian economy.

Of course, so did the European Central Bank, the central bank of the Peoples' Republic of China and others. All of them are engaged in the same practice. They're printing money. Gobs of it, in programs that have no end point.

Some are doing it to apply stimulus to revive their economies. Some are doing it to play extend-and-pretend games to hold their banks together.

For a country like Canada, with an economy in reasonably good shape, a government that's not out of control, banks that are healthy and dependent on exports, it's a declaration of war.

The game everyone else is playing is "beggar thy neighbour." All this excess cash, whatever its stated purpose, is designed to bring their currencies down.

Well, we could play the game: Mark Carney could drop our interest rates to zero, and print money like it's going out of style. The government could launch a larger Economic Action Plan II and rack up the deficits. Both would lower the Canadian dollar.

It would also send the price of a litre of gasoline and a week's groceries through the roof - food and fuel have gone up 35 to 40 per cent in the countries that are playing the "print and hope" game -- and anyone living on a fixed income, or anyone planning to collect their pension, would be in deep trouble. It's hard to live on zero interest.

But there is something else we can do. Think quality. Follow, in other words, the model the Germans used to become a high wage, high prosperity country.

It means running our businesses differently. You don't have to compete with call centres parked in Asian countries on cost if your business answers the phone and its employees are empowered to provide service on the spot. You don't have to compete with low-cost labour in other locations if you produce a product of such high quality and strong features that labour costs are a tiny fraction of its worth.

High service -- high quality products. These have a market in Canada (where the value of the Canadian dollar is a plus, if some components or tools must be imported), and as well as abroad because of their quality. ...
Global Beggar-Thy-Neighbor Currency Debasement

It's an interesting article well worth a read in entirety. However, Stewart dramatically underestimates what a housing bubble crash will do to Canada, and what a European collapse in trade will do to Germany.

Nonetheless, Stewart hits the nail on the head with his thesis about beggar-thy-neighbor tactics.

Economists in general do not howl about Bernanke, but they all bitch about China pegging the yuan to the dollar. It's all blatant beggar-thy-neighbor manipulation, and a great reason to get rid of central banks.

None of these tactics will create a single job.



Should Advocates of Small Government Escape to Canada?

Back in 2010, I wrote about the Free State Project, which is based on the idea that libertarians should all move to New Hampshire and turn the state into a free market experiment.

I was impressed when I spoke at one of their conferences and gave them a plug, but more recently I’m running into people who are so discouraged about America’s fiscal outlook that they’re thinking of moving to some other nation.

Wealthy people seem to prefer Switzerland and the Cayman Islands, while middle-class people mostly talk about Australia and Latin America (mainly Costa Rica or Panama).

But maybe Canada is the place to go. It’s now the 5th-freest economy in the world, while the United States has dropped to 18th place.

I’m a big fan of Canada’s fiscal reforms. On several occasions, I’ve explained how Canadian lawmakers boosted economic and fiscal performance by restraining the growth of government spending.

Indeed, Canada is my main example when I explain why the United States should follow my Golden Rule of fiscal policy.

By allowing the private sector to grow faster than the government, Canada has also been able to implement big tax cuts. Heck, they even privatized their air traffic control system.

Canada’s reforms got some positive attention in today’s Wall Street Journal from Mary Anastasia O’Grady.
Former Canadian Prime Minister Paul Martin has a stern warning for the U.S. political class: Get real about the gap between federal revenues and spending, or get ready for disaster. Mr. Martin knows of what he speaks. In 1993, when he was Canada’s finance minister, his country faced a daunting fiscal crisis. …When the Liberal Party government of Prime Minister Jean Chrétien took power in October 1993, Mr. Martin was charged with pulling his nation out of the fiscal death spiral. He did it with deep cuts in federal spending over two years that amounted to 10% of the budget, excluding interest costs. Nothing was spared. Even federal transfers to the provinces to fund Canada’s sacred national health-care system got hit. The federal government also cut and block-granted money for welfare programs to the provinces, giving them almost full control over how the money would be spent. In the 1997 election, the Liberals increased their majority in parliament. The Chrétien government followed with tax cuts starting in 1998 and one of the largest tax cuts—both corporate and personal—in the history of the country in 2000. The Liberals won again in 2000.
In the U.S., by contrast, we’ve degenerated to the point where the central bank is now financing a disturbingly large share of the deficit.
Market discipline doesn’t exist in Washington, which has the "privilege" of an accommodating central bank issuing the world’s reserve currency. The big spenders don’t need to pay attention to pesky numbers. …the Fed bought 77% of all new federal debt last year. It is doing so at rock-bottom interest rates. By holding the short-term fed-funds rate low while it buys up long-term securities, Mr. Bernanke is helping our political class ignore the real cost of rising federal indebtedness.
This doesn’t mean we’re at near-term risk of becoming another Argentina or Zimbabwe, but I definitely don’t like the trend. No wonder the Canadian dollar is now stronger than the dollar.

But that’s a separate issue. This post is mostly about fiscal policy and Canada’s outlook.

In the short run, Canada’s a good bet. Reforms have been implemented, and they happened under a left-of-center government and have been continued more recently by a right-of-center government.

We’ve had bipartisanship in the United States as well, but the wrong kind. For the past 12 years, we’ve endured big spenders from both parties. No wonder Canada now ranks higher.

In the long run, though, I’m not sure Canada’s the right choice. I joke about the cold weather, but I’m more concerned about the fact that the burden of government spending remains too high, consuming about 42 percent of economic output. And even though Canada has implemented some pension reforms, it has a government-run healthcare system that will become a greater burden on taxpayers as the population ages.

This doesn’t mean I’m optimistic about the long-run outlook in the United States. Yes, we can fix our fiscal problems if we cap the growth of spending and implement entitlement reform to address the long-run problem, but I’m not holding my breath expecting those policies.




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The Big Lie of the late 20th century was that Nazism was Rightist. It was in fact typical of the Leftism of its day. It was only to the Right of Stalin's Communism. The very word "Nazi" is a German abbreviation for "National Socialist" (Nationalsozialist) and the full name of Hitler's political party (translated) was "The National Socialist German Workers' Party" (In German: Nationalsozialistische Deutsche Arbeiterpartei)


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