Sunday, June 10, 2012

Stop Me If You've Heard This One...

A well-heeled man is sitting alone in a hotel bar when a well-endowed young woman walks in and sits nearby.  After having a friendly conversation for a while, the man asks the young woman if she would sleep with him for a million dollars.  She readily agrees.  He follows up by asking if she would do so for a dollar.  “Of course not,” she replies.  “What kind of girl do you think I am?”

“We’ve already established that,” says the man.  “Now, we are just haggling over the price.”

In Michael Sandel's new book, What Money Can't Buy, he posits that capitalist theory has so invaded our culture that our values are now in question.  They have been replaced by the practice of putting a price on everything. 

Residents of the state prison in California can buy cell upgrades for $82 a night.  One can contract for the services of a surrogate mother in India for $6,250.  Doctors have established “concierge” services that provide superior responsiveness to their wealthy patients, denying such service to those less well off.  Lobbyists pay line-standing companies to wait in line so they get a seat at Congressional hearings, denying the public access to the process of governing. 

If everything is for sale, Sandel asks, what does that say about the character of our society?  Is it okay to pay kids to read books or get good grades?  Should good healthcare be available only to those who can afford it?  Good people can disagree on the answers to these questions.  But, almost everyone would agree that a line must be drawn somewhere.  For example, we might all agree that it is not okay to sell a child.

Sandel traces the commoditization of almost everything to the 80’s, a decade during which the Soviet Union crumbled and the market theories of Reagan/Thatcher were vindicated.  (He is not critical of those two leaders or of capitalist theory.  He is just questioning the extent to which the concept has inculcated society.)

In this country, it is a concept grounded in our origins.  The Age of Enlightenment, which gave rise to both the French and American revolutions, espoused the theory that principled behavior arises from the nature of human beings not from the authority of the church.  This philosophy formed the basis of Thomas Jefferson’s secular approach to the Declaration of Independence and the U.S. Constitution.

Thomas Paine
Thomas Paine who authored the Age of Reason was perhaps the most prominent of Americans promoting these beliefs.  Paine criticized the church which he saw as corrupt.  His writing style appealed to the masses and made secular philosophy a part of American culture.  To that time, the crowned heads of Europe derived their authority from the “Divine Right of Kings” granted them by the church.  Coupled with the market theories of Adam Smith, American culture was grounded in the self-reliance of free enterprise. 

It seems logical that capitalist market theory would be embraced the world over in the wake of the Soviet collapse.  But, if Sandel is correct – if everything is for sale and ethical behavior has no bearing – then the pendulum has swung too far in the wrong direction.  It is within this framework that our elected officials must spend vast amounts of time raising money from well-heeled donors and wealthy individuals fund SuperPAC’s that espouse their views.  Is our government for sale too?

During the last thirty years, we have had three two-term Presidents – Reagan, Clinton and Bush – who found a way to galvanize support, not by their policies but rather by delivering a message that voters identified with.  For Reagan, it was that “government is not the solution; government is the problem”.  Clinton pledged a “new beginning” and positioned himself as a New Democrat – liberal on social issues but pro-business.  Bush’s leadership centered on the War on Terror and defeating the “axis of evil”. 

Each of these Presidents was controversial in their time.  They each had their loyal fans and their detractors.  But, love them or hate them, there is no denying their success.  They each had their way with Congresses of the opposite party; and, they did so by delivering a message that resonated with the public.

I am left to wonder which of this year’s candidates will deliver a resonant message – a message that conveys the character of society, a national ethic that people will embrace. Thus far, all we have heard are the attacks intended to mischaracterize the other guy. 

Each candidate has well thought out economic, social and foreign policies, as well they should.  However, pollsters tell us that, in the end, it won’t matter whose policies are most valid.  It will matter whose message the American voting public most identifies with.  That is how elections are won.  The candidate who best defines the national character garners the support of the governed.

If neither candidate can galvanize public support in that way, it will be the Super-PAC’s and big money interests that win.  So, I ask you…  

What kind of nation do you think we are?  Will our character prevail?  Or, are we now just haggling over the price?



  1. John Slegers • .

    You guys need a new revolution to finish what your founding fathers started.

    Meanwhile, you might want to start reading some of the following authors :







    Let me know when you have. Then we can do some serious debating ;-)

  2. @John

    What fun! I must confess that the only of these philosophers with which I am familiar are Postman and, of course, Kaczynski. I doubt we'll have a new revolution here. Everyone is too fat and happy. We might complain a lot but life is still pretty good this side of the Atlantic.

    How are things over there?

  3. John Slegers • @ John Calia :

    " How are things over there? "

    You have your banking crisis. We have ours.

    You have your flood of Mexican immigrants. We have our flood of Arab immigrants.

    Your political scene is dominated by ignorant Christian-fundamentalists. Our political scene is dominated by ignorant Liberals.

    You have your flawed two-party system. We have our flawed multi-party system.

    You have an increase of the gap between rich and poor. We have the same.

    Your quality of education is decreasing. Ours is decreasing.


    In the end, our problems are the same. We're both gradually sinking into the same abyss...

  4. Brian Chiasson • @John Siegers.

    I actually thought that our political scene is dominated by ignorant Liberals also.

    I pray for the day when Christian Fundamentalists dominated politics, ignorant or fully informed.

    I am not elitist so I would definitely not deny ignorant people from getting involved, whether they be Christian, or atheist, or neither.

  5. John Slegers • @ Brian Chiasson :

    " I actually thought that our political scene is dominated by ignorant Liberals also. "

    In California, yes. In a typical Bible belt hillbilly village, no.

    " I pray for the day when Christian Fundamentalists dominated politics "

    Here in Europe, we've had centuries dominated by Christian Fundamentalists. The consequence thereof was totalitarian control, ignorance and persecution of everyone who thought differently. Most Western-Europeans are pretty happy the tyranny of Christianity is over and our society has largely secularised. Christianity is in many ways even worse than Liberalism.

  6. Brian Chiasson • @John.

    I now see why you view Christianity in such a negative light. And, it makes perfect sense.

    You equate Christianity with religion. And, this is a shame. But, I understand it.

    Congratulations on your freedom from religion. Sincerely.

  7. John Slegers • @ Brian Chiasson :

    Christianity is one of many religions. It's a conceptual framework that was created by man to make sense of the world at a time when science was barely practiced at all and to manipulate and dominate other men.

    You may think of Christianity as nothing but your own personal relationship with your imaginary friends, but without centuries of Christian indoctrination you may not even have had any imaginary friends.

    It is literature written by religious figureheads that you use to label your imaginary friends as "God" or "Jesus" and to interpret what your imaginary friends whisper in your mind. While you may not belong to any specific church or religious domination, your perception remains heavilty colored by religion.

  8. Brian Chiasson • @John.

    Your views are completely understandable now. Thanks. No sarcasm intended.

  9. @John

    I would be very interested in your take on the article below. It was published by Stratfor yesterday. If you don't know, Stratfor is an American consulting group focused on geopolitics. They have A-list clients in the US and abroad. I hope enjoy it and I am sure you will have some pithy thoughts to share.

  10. John Slegers • @ John Calia :

    Here are a few remarks that should give you an idea of my opinion on the issue :

    * The more centralisation, the more tyranny. Europeans never wanted the EU and never were happy with it. It is a threat to our national sovereignty, our economy, the little democracy we had, our culture, out freedom of speech, etc.

    * There's no reason nations should loan at interest other than profit for the banks they loan from. It's perfectly possible and reasonable for nations to issue their own money debtfree without causing economic instability.

    * Governments tend to be most stable and perceived as more freedom-loving when there's a primary culture of which the great majority of its citizens consider themselves member. The more culturally and ethnically diverse your nation, the more difficult it gets to satisfy everyone.

  11. @john

    Very concise and well stated. The last sentence stings a bit as it describes the current political disease on this side of the pond.

    It has always been my impression that the Euro best served the interest of Germany. What they couldn't accomplish in WW II by military means, they have now accomplished by economic means. They got away with it for a long while by lending to those who they now label as profligate.

    That said, there is no one that needs the Euro more than Germany.

  12. John Slegers • @ John Calia :

    Ever since WW2, the BDR (German Bund Republic) has been a lap dog of the US and Israel. It's hardly the Nazi regime all over again. That couldn't be further from the truth.

    With regards to the Euro and Germany... I don't see the benefit, really. The DMark was a very strong currency. The Euro doesn't even come close. How exactly does Germany benefit?

  13. Germany benefits by creating a viable export market for its manufactured goods. Governments that would have inflated their way out of debt before the Euro lost the ability to do that once they joined the currency union. So, a Euro in Athens bought the same product as a Euro in Munich for the same price.

    In the past, Greece would have had their central bank create more Drachmas to buy their own debt (much as the US Fed has done). They no longer have that power.

  14. John Slegers • @ John Calia :

    In the past, Germany was barely afftected at all by economic problems in Spain or Greece. Today, every European country with economic problems directly impacts everyone else with thier problems. I'm not sure this can be compensated by the few benefits that come from the Euro.

    But even if Germany does profit.... In the end, it's only the very top of the capitalist food chain who really profits while everyone else loses....

  15. I agree with your first paragraph but not the second. Germany profits by creating an expanded market for its exports and every German worker has benefited by the resulting expansion of the German economy -- from executives down to apprentices.

  16. John Slegers • @ John Calia :

    " I agree with your first paragraph but not the second. Germany profits by creating an expanded market for its exports and every German worker has benefited by the resulting expansion of the German economy -- from executives down to apprentices. "

    Germany already had a large export market before the Euro. It also had a more stable economy.

    Like any other Western country, Germany is being bled dry by the "happy few" who treat everyone else like they own us.

    * The gap between rich and poor are increasing and the middle class is gradually disappearing
    * Mass immigrations by mostly poorly educated economic refugees leads to numerous economic, social and cultural problems.
    * Unemployment is increasing for various reasons
    * Jobs are offering increasingly less income for more work when considering inflation
    * .....

  17. Hah! Sounds like you are talking about the US.

  18. John Slegers • @ John Calia :

    The US and Western-Europe are very similar in terms of economical and political system.

  19. Point One: Europe or even Western Europe cannot be lumped in the same boat any more than Canada, the United States and Mexico can be lumped in the same "North America" boat. Spain and Sweden, Ireland and Italy - each are apart in economic wealth, unemployment, roles of church and state, and worker productivity. Even a casual visitor to Denmark and Portugal, for instance, can quickly see the deep differences between the two nations.
    Point Two: As a Californian, we understand that we (and New York, perhaps) get knocked around more than most states for our "liberal" views. Yet, despite the economic suffering all 50 stares are enduring, we top every Bible State in living standards,worker productivity, and education. There's a reason real estate costs here are among the highest in the country: we remain a desirable state in which to live; Alabama isn't.
    Point Three: Among the developed nations, we have - by a wide and growing margin - the most unequal distribution of wealth - far, far outstripping Japan, South Korea, Australia, New Zealand, Canada, Mexico, and any nation in Europe. And yet we rank at or near the bottom of those nations in infant mortality and life expectency, and very low in education.

    Bruce Scottow