Should Everything have a Price?

Michael Sandel in his recent book “What Money Can’t Buy: The Moral Limits of Markets” writes excellently on how the market economy has turned into the “market society”. This view echoes Galbraith and “The Affluent Society”. Galbraith’s warning from the 1950’s has not been heeded – we are now subject to the “market” in everything we do – anything and everything has a price.

 

Sandel cites many examples – such as someone selling their organs, someone saving a place in a queue, schools being sponsored by companies and many others.

 

It could be argued that it was always so. Slavery, the selling of humans in the marketplace, was a common market phenomenon and still exists. Bribery and corruption – the selling of favours or ensuring something goes in your favour – remains common and Iraq and Afghanistan are riven by corruption on the grandest scale. Russia and much of Eastern Europe are held to be gangster nations – like much of the USA in the time of prohibition. Somalian pirates resort to kidnapping as an outcome of pure economic theory.

 

Yet, society does, from time to time, attempt to apply limits in a world where it seems that everything has a monetary price.

 

Market domination

 

The libertarian view that the market should be allowed to rule means that we abrogate our responsibilities. It is the role and duty of civil society (usually through Government) to judge where market rules and where other forms of decision-making are paramount.

 

We make those judgments continually. The right to be safe on the streets is, in most developed societies, made possible by laws which are enacted through general agreement by citizens. It is enforced, where needed, by legal systems and enforcement agencies – again, only there by the general agreement of civil society. In those countries where the market and price dominate, then the danger is that laws and police forces can be bought off. This is the case in many eastern European countries and many countries in Africa. Bribery and corruption rule through what may be called the market society – against the agreement of most of its citizens. As Sandel points out, this is against the best outcome for society – and by a long way.

 

Libertarians may argue that a legal system and an “open society” are the foundations for market economies to work, but the world is a global economy and it is no longer possible for one country to be cut off from the rest. The market domination into so many areas of life is a threat if basic norms do not exist.

 

The market versus societal norms

 

Sandel does not go too much into how society develops its norms – where market pricing should not intrude. We are in danger, of course, of taking on pricing into every form of our lives and there are plans to price our natural resources and to ensure that accounting incorporates aspects of social life into accounting rules – for example, through the Prince’s Accounting for Sustainability Project; through the Natural Capital Committee – which will report into the UK Government’s Economic Affairs Committee, chaired by the Chancellor of the Exchequor.

 

While this acknowledges the problem in one respect (i.e. we are not properly accounting for externalities like pollution, the loss of natural capital – our rivers, forests and such) it is perhaps giving up the struggle against the market society. By the very nature of accounting in terms of numbers for such “externalities”, we subscribe to the essential condition for market pricing of everything – the market society is allowed to dominate.

 

Our focus on GDP and numbers betrays a failing of society – our inability to see anything outside of numbers – so-called economic wealth. GDP, which rewards only that which can be measured, has been a poor simulation of real “wealth”. Our drive to economic success (measured by how many unnecessary items we make and buy) takes no account of what is really important. Ability to buy is all that “counts” – literally.

 

Societal norms are now up for sale. Instead of a rearguard action against the market society (as against market economics) where we defend those areas of society against pricing (as they should be beyond price), we succumb to pricing everything. This leads to everything having a price – an accounting-driven doctrine, a market society doctrine.

 

Beyond economics

 

Of course, this may be the price (!) we are paying for economic growth and relative economic success. As we become more economically successful and as the world derives basic economic success, maybe our brains are becoming hard-wired to numbers as the only register of what is successful. The left-hand side of the brain is assuming victory over the right.

 

There is no question that the discovery of numbers has made the human successful and to understand and control large areas of science. We have changed the world entirely. Our ability to count is now dominating our lives. Since the dawn of accounting (when we counted our grain), numbers now “account” for everything.

 

Where has been the debate to question the way we account? If numbers dominate everything we do, what outcomes do we envisage, what changes result? If all our successes depend on numbers, then what lives will we lead?

 

This is now beyond economics – which, as George Soros has recently outlined, http://www.georgesoros.com/interviews-speeches/entry/remarks_at_the_festival_of_economics_trento_italy/

has been shown to be terribly mistaken in its misunderstanding of the world. His analysis, that economics, in trying to copy the rules of science has travelled the wrong path. Economics is a social science and, as such, does not have definitive outcomes. But, the situation is worse than Soros makes out.  Macroeconomics is being subsumed beneath a torrent of numbers so that, worse than following a quasi-scientific path, we are now following an accounting outcome for everything.

 

Where are the norms for society? Who are the guardians?

 

The financial crash of 2008, which is still playing out in 2012, opened up severe cracks in our economic system. It is also opening up divisions in society between the very wealthy and the large swathe of middle-income earners who make up most of civil society. These divisions show how we are valuing society and show clearly that pricing is not working. The value given to bankers and bonuses (no risk activities for the individuals who can only lose their jobs, not their wealth and no risk activities for the banks, who are too big to fail) shows a dramatic failing in pricing – in which we apparently put all our trust.

 

Pricing mechanisms are not working successfully, yet we place more and more of our faith in pricing as the only arbiter of success.

 

We now price (or will soon be attempting to price) everything – from CO2 to education, from healthcare to shoes, from our rivers to our right to pollute – everything with a price.

 

Yet, macro-economics (the economics of society) is a social science – it is not based on rigid rules. It is (as Soros rightly states) bound up in decisions and thoughts of men and women.

 

Pricing is one outcome of a social science that is not unquestionably right in every case – it is actually, mostly wrong and most economists are only good at describing what has passed (i.e. rear view mirror gazers).

 

Accounting was originally a micro-based activity – to help regulate and tax individuals and firms. It is now being used to price everything.

 

Are there any alternatives to pricing everything?

 

Of course there are, but it is becoming tougher. The Bribery Act in the UK (following a mere 34 years after the Foreign Corrupt Practices Act in the US) is an example. Society has (at least in the UK) decided that winning contracts or influencing economic decisions should not be subject to corruption. In China, as Jonathan Fenby’s excellent “Tiger Head Snake Tails” so ably describes, bribery and corruption have existed for many years but (at least at home) it is not considered acceptable. In many other countries in the developing world, it is.

 

But, we know that price is in play throughout society. The best lawyers cost huge sums and only the wealthy can afford them – so, our legal system is subject to pricing. The best education is paid for; the best healthcare is paid for.

 

With wealth divisions becoming wider, pricing is everything. It is time for a real debate in society on how economics needs to be changed to reflect reality and how accounting for everything (and a price for anything) may not be the answer. The invisible hand of the market should not be allowed to grab everything.

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Politics – the battle lines between citizens and the state

 

Why the party system is breaking down

Communications leads to changes

 

Types of government have changed with changes in communications. When communications was by word of mouth, strong central government through despotic leaders was the norm.

 

With the advent of the printing press, information could be made more available and (certainly in the West) education could be obtained more widely, leading to different forms of government and wider emancipation.

 

Now, with the dramatic communication changes wrought through mobile telephony and the internet, information (of all types, good and bad, intelligent and unintelligent) is made available throughout the world and the strains in our current governing structures are made worse.

 

The Arab Spring erupted for a variety of reasons but spread through new communication devices and systems. The organization of mass campaigns becomes easier and the attempts to stifle protests by shutting down websites and demanding changes to other, online capabilities is progressively harder.

 

Is the Party over?

 

Political parties are now finding it tougher to piece together coherent and wide-ranging policies that appeal to more than a small percentage of a nation’s population. In a word of communication possibilities, single-issue lobbying is becoming the norm. Politicians in the west continuously argue for choice but the choice that is now on offer, between major political parties without a cause (such as labour rights in the early 20th Century) is not welcomed.

 

As wealth increases (as we develop into the Affluent Society of Galbraith – see:   https://jeffkaye.wordpress.com/2012/05/06/the-affluent-society-and-social-balance/

 

so do the opportunities to connect with a wide range of issues – be they environmental, health, sport, education, self-help, business, charitable or whatever. The numbers of people that engage with politics becomes less because people are engaging with single issues. Parties rarely have a key message that intoxicates any more and are driven to compromise on a wide range of issues that appeal to no-one in particular. This means that voting may be on single issues or they are watered down to choose a party that is less bad than the others.

 

 

 

 

Greece – democracy’s floundering founder

 

In Greece, so dismally rent by bad government and economic disaster, the situation is playing out. Here, the people cannot elect a majority party to power and are being forced to vote again until they do. The party system is broken in Greece and single-issue politics dominates to the extent that the people have made their choice but the politicians don’t like it and tell them to do it again.

 

This makes a mockery of democracy in the home of democracy – an irony that is surely not lost on anyone but a potential disaster. The problem is that even if the Greek people are forced to make a different decision in a few weeks’ time, there is no guarantee that the result will be accepted by them and the demonstrations will begin again. The parties need to adapt to the will of the people by ensuring that the single-issues are wrapped into an acceptable set of policies that the majority are willing to accept – they should have done this first time around and it speaks volumes about the paucity of leadership in Greece that this has not happened.

 

Centralisation no longer works

 

A problem with the European Community which has been exacerbated by the Euro is that political judgements made after the end of the Second World War are not relevant to the 21st Century. While trading blocks are an economic decision, a political block (aimed at tying Germany into a framework which would prevent it from the belligerence of two world wars and providing Europe with a seat at any political table for many years to come) becomes a heavy weight to bear in a world that is likely to eschew centralization.

 

Vastly improved communications (including air travel) means that real globalization is the norm. Opportunities are now in place for a dramatic de-centralisation of political power in many countries and between them. Even if we need the UN, the WTO and other world-wide organisations, they are based on a 19th Century division based on the nation-state. We witness daily the huge challenges that this brings in places like Sudan or Iraq – nation states drawn by the pencils and rulers of 19th Century European civil servants, where older affiliations strike at the heart of the state philosophy.

 

In developed nations, the struggle is less severe but the economic stresses that are beginning to tear at countries like Greece, Spain (where half of the young people are unemployed), Ireland (the scene of a mass exodus after so many years of its reversal) are leading to a disenfranchisement. Italy, with an unelected government of “technocrats”, is surely not the model for the future – where votes are wasted and bankers rule from the centre.

 

A New Model needed?

 

New Model politics has to take into account the needs of a better-educated and often single-issue motivated people who need politicians that are there for them.

 

The political parties have to show themselves to be free from corruption and independent of being in politics for what they can get out of it.

 

The parties have to work together where needed and confront the problems of the past that means that each party opposes each other.

 

In the UK, this has been shown very clearly when, after a hundred years of parties being set up to oppose others, the Coalition of Tories and Liberal Democrats is set upon by many (especially a quixotic press) because they are trying to work together!

 

This is likely to be the norm. It means that coalitions will be the norm. This will be the political “new normal” to go with the new normal posited for our economic future.

 

Single-issues dominate our thinking and generate enthusiasm more than any political party in the developed world. It is only where democracy is new that parties with major and wide-ranging programmes gain real enthusiasm – which is usually dissipated quickly. Elsewhere, massive disenfranchisement is continuous and leads to a dissatisfaction with politics and politicians.

 

Parties are now the vested interests that need to change. We should see a situation where each party’s manifesto shows clearly what they would do together if that is the way it turns out – not be scared of the prospect because it may lose some votes early on. This is a big change but essential as voters’ (citizens’) needs over single issues dominate and they have no way to select a range of issues from those on offer – only a range of parties with massive ranges of policies.

 

In a world of perceived “choice”, the parties need to change to excite and enthuse or we will suffer the continued estrangement of citizens and political parties that will not result well.

Strangling Inherent Dignity – How we retain (regain) Self-Respect

Orhan Pamuk, today on the BBC, talked about how the military in Turkey have been moved away from the centre of political decision-making. Their threat has been diminished, resulting in a feeling of relief or release. He also remarked on the Arab Spring and how in Tunisia and elsewhere people had regained some dignity – maybe threatened by Islamic re-awakening (but “that would be the people’s decision”).

In China, the escape of Chen Guangcheng from house arrest and his televised pleas to Wen Jiabao to halt the rampant corruption in China points to a state that is gnawing away at its soul.

In the USA, the economy is dangerously tilted towards the highest 1% who now own around 50% of its assets.

In Spain, 24.4% of people who are seeking work are without a job.

Charles Taylor is found guilty of by the International Criminal Court of aiding war crimes – yet, he remains popular in much of Liberia for his ability to dole out cheap bread at the right times to local populations.

Organisations and People – The fight for Dignity

 

Whether as individuals or members of an organization or a region or a nation, the human instinct is to reach for a minimum level of dignity. The need to attain a degree of self-respect is fundamental to the human condition. Whatever our economic attainment (whether we are wealthy or poor) each of us retains the need for self-dignity and the self-respect of those closest to us.

Attainment of dignity is a basic need and we continuously fight for it.

The Universal Declaration of Human Rights starts its preamble with the following:

“Whereas recognition of the inherent dignity and of the equal and inalienable rights of all members of the human family is the foundation of freedom, justice and peace in the world”

Yet, across the world, as we grow economically across a wider population, there is little evidence that we understand much more about a central issue that continuously confronts us – the attainment of “inherent dignity”.

If dignity means the attainment of freedom, justice and peace as the most important elements of our civilization (and we should be careful to ensure that our freedom does not blind us to the needs of a wider responsibility – to the planet as a whole), then what do we do daily that reminds us of our need to provide dignity and who is it who has this responsibility?

Responsibility

Leaders – whether of nations, businesses, local authorities , families or whatever – have a responsibility to those that they lead. This responsibility includes the establishment or reinforcement of cultural norms that strengthen the central idea of dignity to all its members.

This central tenet has been forgotten – we hear it infrequently amongst the babble of noise that comes from politicians and economists, business leaders and social leaders.

There is no question that where poverty is extensive, a crucial role for leaders is to ensure that economic growth is secured and poverty is minimized.

There is no question that where health and safety is jeopardized that better ways have to be found to minimize danger and secure life.

There is no question that where housing is poor that people must be housed and clothed.

But, the basic needs of food, shelter, clothing and safety are at one with the need for self-respect or dignity. The drive for better gross domestic product (GDP) has, in our enthusiasm to generate more wealth, left behind the basic understanding of what it is that propels the human spirit.

Setting dignity at the centre

While this is not a simple issue (dignity may be seen have different connotations to different people) the need for self-respect is the driver that propels individuals to fight back in so many cases.

The lack of dignity of those who are deprived of respect range widely. We see it constantly as we mentally note how individuals compare to certain societal norms – those who are poor are given less respect than those who are wealthy; those who have special needs are likely to be given less respect than those who are “OK”; those who are amongst the led are given less respect than those in power; those without the vote are seen as demanding less respect than those commanding political heights; the unwell lose dignity when maltreated; the unemployed lose dignity by the nature of unemployment and an assumption of laziness – the list goes on.

The problem is that self-respect is not normally a subject that is discussed or considered when key decisions are made. We are trampled by the rush to mend economic fences so easily that we ignore the affects. An example is Iraq. Here, not only was the rationale for entering Iraq wrong – there were no weapons of mass destruction – but the dignity of the Iraqis as a nation (or several nations within borders created by Europeans who cared nothing for the self-respect of those within them) was not an issue despite what should have been the lessons of history. Economics (through oil) and maybe the stated threat of terrorism (maybe) dampened the pressure to think through the impact of a complete eradication of self-respect amongst the Iraqi people – a self-respect oddly (to us in the west) retained with a strong man at the helm (Saddam Hussein) and then not replaced. In Afghanistan, self-respect has, through the ages, turned out many who would think to rule the country. It is the demand to self-rule that has been constant.

Corruption tears away at dignity

The danger in China is that corruption (an economic and power game) is tearing away at the nation’s credibility and self-respect. Recently, university students in Beijing were asked by the BBC what careers they wanted and one answered they wanted to be a senior local politician because that is where the money (through corruption) goes. The lack of self-respect that enables this response is intense and is leading to a potential fracture of the system in China as recent events in Chongqing highlight.

In India, one of its best-known websites is www.Ipaidabribe.com . This is a self-understanding of the rampant corruption in the country and mirrors a loss of dignity that brutalizes that society.

As a result of its alleged dealings in Mexico, Wal-Mart is under investigation by the US authorities through the Foreign corrupt practices act (FCPA) over millions of $’s of facilitation payments (not in themselves individually illegal under the FCPA but maybe through the gross flouting of corporate norms will be found to be). Mexico, riven by many drug cartels and corruption, lacks a dignity and self-respect because money is at the centre and seen as the only response. Wal-Mart helps to encourage that loss of self-respect.

National dignity or the dignity and self-respect of any business or individual is destroyed by corruption. When dignity is destroyed, then the basic ability to enjoy a life of “freedom, justice and peace” is also destroyed.

Economics cannot be isolated from self-respect

A cornerstone of self-respect is the ability of individuals to reach a level of basic self-attainment – the ability to feed oneself and one’s family; to house and clothe at least. In the rush towards austerity the macro-economic arguments are destroying the micro-economic disasters that are being generated. Poverty in wealthy nations is on the increase and the unevenness of wealth is growing. This is leading to a loss of self-respect amongst large sections of society. The impact of this change is uncertain – but, we can judge that the effects will not be positive.

John Rawls, one of the best-known and best-respected philosophers of the 20th Century considered self-respect as “perhaps the most important primary good” and how lack of self-respect leads to a growing disenchantment with the society and an estrangement with its ideals.

In the UK, maybe more prosaically, Ian Duncan Smith has highlighted the need for self-esteem amongst those on welfare and why jobs are the answer to bringing them out of the cycle of poverty.  This cycle of poverty is being exacerbated by the sovereign debt crisis which has transferred bank debt to national debt and enabled bankers to reap the rewards.

This crisis is now endemic in Europe and threatens stability and progress. The lack of dignity of nations (Greece, Spain, Portugal) as the Eurozone centre demands they commit to more austerity is misunderstood or ignored at the Eurozone’s peril. It is a fall-off in self-respect that eventually reaches a tipping point. It was a fall-off in national self-respect that catalyzed the German nation towards fascism in the 1930’s – a lack of national dignity that was caused by the war reparations following the 1st World War and heightened by the torments of the depression of the 1930’s. At some point, shattered self-respect will require repair – sometimes in brutal ways.

Democracy, Corruption, transparency and Economics

There are many ways in which dignity is destroyed – through lack of involvement in decisions, through corruption and lack of a chance for basic economic fairness.

There is no single answer but the key problems facing us today should all consider the issue of dignity before the answer comes rattling out. Clearly, real democracy, eradication of corruption, better knowledge of and openness about what is being done (transparency) and a new economics based on an understanding of the economics of self-respect are overall responses to ensure that we enjoy the basic dignities enshrined in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights.

“Whereas recognition of the inherent dignity and of the equal and inalienable rights of all members of the human family is the foundation of freedom, justice and peace in the world”