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"The famous Socratic 1,000-student 'Justice course' at Harvard" (Tom Friedman NYT 3/06/13) by Michael Sandel,
nutshelled in a public lecture titled "The Perils of Thinking Like an Economist" at Harvard Law on Feb. 7, 2013, 5:30-7
(did the "Refreshments" ever "be available"?)
-
A ramblin' review by Phil Hyde

Well, fuzzy thinking deserves a ramblin' review, I guess, and here it is. Though Sandel replaced economese with, not politicese, not dense legalese, but maybe a Unitarian-like morality- & justice-orbiting academic jargon, he came off rather sounding as if he himself thinks like an economist, albeit dealing from a weak hand of morality and ethics, of preachment rather than pricing. This may have been why there was a dribble of people leaving throughout= the lecture was not sounding as killer-powerful and -relevant as they hoped from the title. Examples:

So, my notes:
Asked what he would do if he ruled the world, Sandel said he'd rewrite the economic textbooks, presumably the basic "principles texts." (And he'd war on the word "incentivize", or was it "incentivate." Audience laughed :-) but, oy, another word warrior :-( ... this is like the questioners at the end who spend 5 minutes on thanks for taking their question, thereby excluding other questioners from the limited Q&A period.)
He granted that he began in his youth by loving economics' value-neutrality (shades of Sir William Petty's "Political Arithmetick"). But while still claiming value-neutrality, economists have gone on to make their subject deeply flawed with two false but widely held below-the-radar assumptions that they rarely explain or defend:
  1. Markets are inert in the sense that they don't touch or taint the objects of their activity - this is presumably Sandel's later-in-his-life, more vulnerable formulation of "value-neutrality".
  2. Markets save us from squandering ___, solidarity and civic virtue. Later in the lecture, Sandel will associate "efficiency" with this point without ever bringing up the growth-clobbering "efficiency" of downsizing = leansizing = rightsizing (or asking if there's an alternative).
So he comes to The Question, which for him is: What should be the role of money in markets in our society? (maybe he meant society instead of markets?)
Rather a clumsy formulation if he really meant markets, that evokes outburst, "Role of MONEY in MARKETS? why, EVERYTHING, of course!" (unless you're talkin' barter) but we'll want to rewrite this initial formulation of The Question as we find out what the heck is really bugging him anyway. This may turn out to be a kind of contradictory quest like the quest of some housewives for some kind of respect or Valuing from...economists? ...The Market?
His short answer is, Less of a role that it has today, relative to other things like ___, family, procreation, ... - at least the two things I scrawled down here relate directly to the fundamental game of The Universe; namely, continuity, and of Evolutionary Natural Selection; namely, whatever continues better, CONTINUES BETTER! A truly simple and humble original origin for our great and pompous species.
He then observed that most economists prefer to avoid moral questions - their job is "to explain, not to judge." Note that this puts "judging" - right or wrong, better or worse - in the ballpark of morality, which can easily shade into religion, the very thing that William Petty invented economics to get beyond because religious dissension caused so much suffering in Ireland when Cromwell sent Petty over there as his chief medical officer (and of course, Cromwell's puritanism vs. Ireland's papism was the major problem).
Economists' price system "allocates according to preferences [or cutting to the chase, sales, or deeper, spending money] and does not assess those preferences." (Ah, the phrase "price system" enters the picture, as in maverick economist Veblen's last book, "The Engineers and the Price System.")
But, Sandel maintains, economics has become entangled in morality anyway because of a change in the world and a change in economists' understanding of their subject.
The change in the world, he said, was the increasing use of the price system to allocate goods (and services), and the change in economists' understanding of their subject was to make economics at once more abstract (we'd just say more quantitative than qualitative) and more ambitious (we'd say, more realizing of its potential as a whole new power dialect with its own vocabulary, separate from politicese, for talking about our human "reality"). In the past, he said, (presumably before the mathematicization really took off with Pareto around 1900), ("political"!) economists were only concerned with interest rates and commodities and insights about production and consumption. Recently however, he said, they've turned their discipline into a whole big science of human behavior, especially Gary Becker of Chicago with his 1975 "Human Capital" book. Maverick Veblen-heir John Kenneth Galbraith went so far as to call economics a religion, and basically rare-female economist Joan Robinson's 1962 book, Economic Philosophy, could have been called Economic Religion, implying the increep of unquestioned and unquestionable assumptions.
But still, Sandel said, economists claim that economics doesn't require morality (or value decisions): it does not bother with how we would like the world to be work but only with how the world actually does work.
Well, all this is not hugely informative but it does fit with our view that we're gradually moving from one power dialect to another as the centuries roll by: the power dialect within English and the other European languages was politicese, now it's economese and soon we hope it will be ecologese. Economese replaced politicese starting with The Political Arithmetick in 1690 because it settled nettled questions quicker by numbing out the inflammatory overlay of religion, politics and mere opinion with numbers, quantification, mathematics as a second language. But as economists stepped further and further away from politics, and went from the Separation of Church and State to the Separation of State and Market, it became obvious that the nettled questions they were settling were unextended in self-interest and in time frame; that is, they were narrowly self-interested (just MY company or MY executive level) and short term (just the next quarterly report for companies or next weekend for employees). But they jumped ANYWAY into the quantification of problems more and more completely and started using their mathematical whizbang as a power lever to intimidate decision-makers (aka politicians) and everyone else, ever forgetful of the qualitative, linguistic header on the top of every column of figures they were following.
Sandel comes to the conclusion that the more economists' "markets" extend their reach, the more they get entangled with morality, or as we would say, slip back into politics and transparently paraphrased politicese.
At this point he should ask why or how this is happening. And we would say it's because we are slipping back from democracy (one person, one vote/voice) to plutocracy (one dollar/wealth unit, one vote), which sacrifices a lot of system adaptabilty because to the wealthy decision-makers, the status quo seems to be working fine and "if it works, don't fix it!" And when we apply the economist's typical short-term and narrowly interested blinder to this picture, we get decisions made to favor the wealthy "one percent" in the immediate or short term, notwithstanding global warming or other looong-term, whooole-earth interests.
And how is this happening? We'd say because of a deepening, officially obscured-denied-ignored labor surplus, most of which economists have externalized (so they can focus on spot skill-shortages billed as labor shortages due corporate training budget cuts) from the repeatedly diluted unemployment rate to welfare, disability, incarceration, homelessness, suicide, and face-saving self-"employment" regardless of clients or lack thereof. And whence this wage-depressing labor surplus? Well apart from the Democrats' repeated jumpups of immigration quotas and amnesties for illegals to get grateful voters starting in the 1960s, the labor shortage of World War II was pretty well done by the 1970s because the postwar babyboomers had grown up and entered the job market, thus effectively restoring the labor surplus of the Great Depression and at first, stymying, then depressing, general wage levels. Where did the growing percentage of the national income go that wasn't not going into wages? It funneled up into the upper brackets, the One Percent and especially the 1% of the 1%. And then all kinds of dislocations start happening because the wealthy spend and donate a smaller percentage of their money than any other bracket, relying more and more on government as their spending arm - meaning diminishing monetary circulation - and then if they go into a snit about taxes and government spending, we get slower and slower economic "growth," oftener unmaskable recessions, or currently, a slower and slower "recovery," relying more and more on the "conservative" makework campaign, "defense" and its huge, getting-awfully-close babydaughter, "homeland security."
And the big underlying reason for this wage-and-spending-pummeling labor surplus is seldom mentioned. We're having repeated tidal waves of worksaving technology wash over the economy since 1940, but instead of responding to them with employment&spending-maintaining workweek decreases, weekend increases, and vacation lengthening as we did from 1840 to 1940 when we somehow got the workweek down from over 80 hours a week to 40, our management schools and economists and CEOs have been preaching and practicing a contradiction: they've been talking the talk of Growth = upsizing and walking the walk of downsizing. While the employer-perceived labor shortage survived between 1945 and 1970, unions could sortof keep this under control. Once the labor shortage ended in the 1970s, unions took a beating and began to shrink from 35% of the workforce they had in the mid-1950s to the 12% they have now, mostly in the public sector, though that's now getting reamed. They kinda deserved it though cuz they slipped off their power issue, shorter hours to avoid labor surplus, and jumped into their impotence issue, higher pay, which just tacked an arbitrarily-artificially-nonmarket high price on a surplus commodity = them. Dumba dumbdumb - for all of us including the wealthy who have now concentrated so big a percentage of the money supply in so small a percentage of the population that there are no fundamentals (buying&selling=$circulation) to support the financial sector (investments), so it's all become a pyramid scheme, a downward spiral of bubbles, pop pop pop.
Fatal derailment on Sandel's part. Instead of all this relevance, he goes off on a comfortingly irrelevant academic question:
Are there some social goods or practices that money should not be able to buy and ifso, how decide which? - or a prior "shoehorn" question:
Are there some things money can't buy.
This is all very lovely but he's running wide. He winds up entertaining instead of enlightening with an actual problem solution or answer to his own question(s). And he is rightfully nailed in the question period by one of his Harvard peers(?) for wanting to dump economists' ambitious mathematicized worldview without having a developed alternative to replace it with.
So blah blah blah, he's narrowly focused relative to jobs...mentions friendship...Nobels...honorary degrees or whatever can't be bought or if they can they're different and not as good...slicing and dicing the questions, different categories, blahdee blahblah...marketing alias commodification alias commercialization crowding out things worth caring about, nonmarket values...daycare in Israel...Swiss nuclear wastedump locating...blood donation...here's where the demonization of incentive$ comes in...markets mar social practices (remember "whoever meddles, mars"? in Sandel's view, markets mar)...markets change the character of social practices...forces economists to wade into morality...to ask how way moral effect...Adam Smith was a moral philosopher (but we insist, Smith was not the father of economics, Petty was)...
Nevermind that arguing from morality or ethics plunges us back into squishy matters of opinion and even of mood that Petty invented economics to get away from in the tortured case of Ireland. And back into potentially very very narrow self-interest and shortness of term masked with rhetoric and sophistry and bolstered with all manner of spectral and anecdotal evidence, unquestioned and unquestionable.
How or why we want to know. He should be rolling out and unveiling the great unexamined metaphors = sports and games. "Level the playing field." Beat the competetion. Try/work harder/longer to get ahead (nevermind smarter/shorter). Win. Hush about technology doing it. Nevermind years of service. Hush up time taken. Productivity per team member, not worker hour. Nevermind time, the great equalizer. Nevermind boundaries twixt on duty and off. No off. Ever on call. No compensation for that. Just an extra $10-20 million compensation to Chainsaw Dunlap or for ruining another company or two. Then it creeps right into the financial sector with Lee taking down Barrons, the Whale taking down whatever in London...
What is the supreme playing field? The mgmt-labor bargaining table, based on the (im)balance between supply of socially-politically-valved labor and Market-valved supply of natural employment, preferably private-sector. What UN-levels the playing field. Job loss. What LEVELS the playing field? Worker time loss by plague (Black Death...), non-drone warfare, or ... worktime per person regulation - Bob LaJeunesse's 2009 book title says it all, "Work Time Regulation as Sustainable Full Employment Strategy: The Social Effort Bargain." What would dynamically balance the two sides? A market-determined workweek based on technology-permitted downsizing, i.e., comprehensive un(der)employment: as long as unemployment is too high, the workweek is too long, and overtime is not transforming smoothly enough into training and hiring.
Sandel fails to notice that the game of economics is different from real games, like Monopoly, which have a way to END = winner take all, while the economy needs to continue, to be sustainable. So for the economy, "I just want MY SHARE = I just want IT ALL" is fatal. Raising the question, what is my share? and, share of what? Our answer, my share of natural market-demanded employment dba working hours, especially hours per week, aka workweek. We need to reverse growing inequality in that variable not necessarily by equalizing on a point (stifling) but on a range, and then we need to figure out how to non-arbitrarily set the bottom and the top of that range. We suggest setting the bottom by referendum, and setting the top by if there's too much or many below the bottom.
Sandel fails to notice that the sport of economists and business is quite different from any real sports in that economics lacks a reset, every since ancient Israel quit their periodic jubilees, the Haida quit their potlatches and the Hopi quit their dances (waitaminit, the Haida and the Hopi are still doin it), in that every team in every sports at the start of every season goes back to zero games won. If it didn't, the league would soon stretch so far apart, every endofseason trophy would be predictable - reminiscent of something ... what could it be ... ohyeah, just like the economy year after year, getting more and more obscenely unequal. Sports have an annual reset. The economy needs a running reset that keeps things like jobseekers and jobopenings in balance (= employer-perceived jobseeker shortage) throughout the year - without stifling initiative...so, generally...not over-specifically micromanagingly leading by the nose or by the ear or by spoonfeeding. What could it be? Reuther called it "fluctuating adjustment of the workweek against unemployment," but it could equally well be against low wages or low consumer-spending or income- or wealth- poverty.
Sandel speaks of two key false tenets of economists' Market Faith:
commercializing an activity does not change it, and
everyone has freedom to choose cuz markets make people better off without making anyone worse off (so anyone who IS worse off has CHOSEN to be worse off)
He moves on to the corrollary for economists to the effect that virtue or generosity or love is a scarce commodity that must be carefully husbanded and preserved rather than a phenomenon that increases with use and can be expended freely and spread. Economists push everything toward: the more we use, the less we have.
This is generally true in one dimension: time, specifically lifetime aka longevity, Biblically pegged at 70 years, pegged by insurance companies in terms of life expectancy at an increasing figure, longer for women than for men - and probably starting downward with the current funneling of quality of life in America.
If time is a special case of momentum, the limited lifetime of a human is overshadowed by the accelerator effect of energy, just as Mv=e (Momenturm times velocity is energy; note that mv=M where m=mass, such that mvv=e; substituting c for v, we get mcc=e or mc(2)=e). And economic energy is money. Or marketable productivity. Mozart had more luxury-market-able productivity in his 35 years than most people in 70, and if we include his posthumously general-market-able productivity so far (1791-2013) in his 35 years, he accomplished more than most people who live 95 years.
Sandel admits at some point that background inequality worsens the problems he's interested in, but he neither reckons how huge inequality's effect it, nor suggests a solution, nor suggests an approach such as, let's break inequality down into parts and prioritize the parts we're going to attack and solve, one after another. It's still kindof "jumping on the white horse and riding off in all directions."
But hey, the guy has huge classes...at Harvard (cue the lilght show!)...gets on the big-mike TV shows...pulls the big bucks...but basically, like economists say they do as a virtue! leaves the status quo untouched (i.e., worsening for 99%, including the biosphere).
2/08/2013/ph3
For more details, see our "social software" manual dba campaign piece, Timesizing, Not Downsizing, which is available online from *Amazon.com and at the *Porter Square Bookstore in Cambridge, Mass., USA.

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