Economic value check: How much is enough?

Adriene Hill and David Weinberg Jun 14, 2013

Economic value check: How much is enough?

Adriene Hill and David Weinberg Jun 14, 2013

Since the dawn of man, we’ve basically always wanted more.

We’re going to introduce you to two cavemen. Ig and Ook. Ig is a super-great hunter-gatherer. His cave is full of stuff — there’s meat everywhere. Ook, not so much. He’s kind of a loafer. He didn’t gather as much as Ig.

Here’s what happens (you know where this is going): Ig lived. Ig had a ton to eat. But Ook did not survive the winter. He died. And so all of us – we’re likely the descendants of Ig. At least, that’s what scientists think.

 We’re the descendants of the caveman who was really good at getting all that caveman stuff.

You can see that today in that we have an internal desire for more.

“The ancient philosophers knew of insatiability — the myth of Midas–the man who wants to turn everything into gold. That’s clearly about insatiability,” says Edward Skidelsky, a philosopher and, with his father, the historian Robert Skidelsky, author of “How Much Is Enough? Money and the Good Life.”

Another way of thinking about that insatiability is that it’s our inner Ig. But this inner Ig is all amped up, Skidelsky says.

“What’s happened under capitalism is that the old moral restraints on insatiability have all been lifted. So, capitalism inflames insatiability, through marketing, through advertising. It’s an endless kindling of new needs.”

But he says there’s something else that drives us; each other. “You want things not because you need them in an absolute sense, but because other people have them. Or because they don’t have them.”

We see this in the rise of McMansions, personal trainers for kids, but we also see this in other facets of our life

 Can we afford the consumer economy? Marketplace explores how we consume, what we get from it, what it costs and whether we can keep it up. 

Explore the whole series here.

Two very different flights

 We wanted to know the costs of all this buying and lusting for more, so we flew to Boston to talk with Harvard professor Michael Sandel. He wrote “What Money Can’t Buy, The Moral Limits of Markets.” It tells the story of how we’ve gone from having a market economy, to being a market society where everything is for sale.

ADRIENE: On our way to visit Sandel, we wanted to have two super different experiences at the airport. David would get to buy all the upgrades, and I would fly on regular ticket. The first big difference was the security line.

DAVID: It wasn’t a velvet rope, but there was literally a rope that was opened up for me and I breezed right through security, meanwhile…

ADRIENE: I watched David breeze through security as I twisted around in a snaking queue and tried to wave at David.

DAVID: I couldn’t see her. I was already through security. While Adriene was twisting through that line, I had some time to kill ,so I went to the food court and ordered some coffee.

ADRIENE: He bought me coffee, which was sweet, because then he went to his fancy lounge.

DAVID: Right, so then I got to go to the Premiere Club, which was this nice quiet room with wood-panel walls and dark lighting. It was kind of like the lobby of a hotel. It was my first time in a premium lounge, and I realized I could have saved a few bucks on coffee, since it was free in the lounge.

ADRIENE: I took my coffee to a gate that was so packed with people I couldn’t sit down.

Once we got to Boston, we asked Sandel what he thought about all this. He says buying a better seat, paying to board early like I did, there’s nothing wrong with that. “That’s a convenience, a service that the airlines are free to sell, and it’s not so terrible that money governs that.”

But quicker access to the security line, that’s different.Because that, after all, is not a consumer service.  It’s for the common good. It’s for the sake of everyone flying, for national security,” Sandel points out.

This is just one example — and it’s not a big one, it’s one most of us are familiar with — of the way we live in a market society.

The markets in baseball games

Take another example – America’s favorite pastime, baseball. This is a great place to see the market at work. And so that’s exactly what we did. We took Sandel to a Red Sox game.

Sandel points out all sorts of ways money has changed the game. One of them, the way corporate sponsorship has worked its way into the very language of the game.

“The insurance company New York Life,” he says, “has a deal with several teams that requires announcers to say the following line whenever there’s a close call at the plate: ‘Safe at home. Safe and secure, New York Life.’”

At first it’s just kind of irritating. But Sandel argues that the result of this constant intrusion of paid product announcements is that “the language of the game, the lyrical quality of the broadcast, is diminished.”

When that happens, “we lose our direct unfiltered relationship to the game, to the sounds, the rhythm of it. It’s just one more part of life that’s invaded and dominated by commercial values.”

The skyboxification of American life

Sandel thinks we’ve lost a relationship to something else, too — to each other. One of the consequences of living in a market society is that we don’t hang out with each other the way we used to. Sandel calls this the skyboxification of American life.

To see this in action, we snuck Sandel into a luxury skybox at Fenway. From high above the huddled masses, we kicked back in our glass-enclosed perch. Until security came.

We did this for a very specific reason. Sandel worries that the wealthy in our modern society can lead very separate lives.

“It’s no longer the case that everyone still stands in the same long lines for the restroom, or eats the same pretty inadequate food, and it’s no longer true that when it rains, everyone gets wet,” he says.

This wouldn’t really matter if we were talking about just baseball games and airports. But when you add up all these examples, not to mention access to better health care and education, Sandel says it creates a problem for us.

“Democracy doesn’t require perfect equality, but it does require that men and women from different backgrounds,  different walks of life, encounter one another, bump up against one another in the course of ordinary life. Because this is what gives us a sense that we are all in this together — that sense of being engaged in a common project. Without that experience of a shared civic life, it’s very difficult to think and act as democratic citizens.”

Sandel says we should at the very least be talking about these choices. We should have a public debate about how we decide what and how much to consume. and whether we should even have these choices.

Because even if we can sustain this consumption in the short run, it’s not without costs.

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