The Christmas season strikes me as an especially appropriate time to consider the issues raised in this video by Michael Sandel, a professor of political philosophy at Harvard University and Senior Fellow at the Institute for New Economic Thinking (INET). Having just watched the video and been deeply impressed (I’d strongly recommend watching the entire 49 minutes), I thought I’d take an initial shot at this, which marks my first blog post in more than a year…
Personally, I’ve always found the Christmas season a bit strange, in that it simultaneously intensifies two seemingly conflicting sets of human tendencies.
Given the nature of the holiday, it’s not surprising that one of these threads of human nature is tied closely to the life and message of Jesus Christ, which embody the values of love, generosity and compassion, and remind us to extract the beam in our own eye before condemning our neighbor for the mote in his.
The second and very different human tendency aroused during the Christmas season is an intense and even obsessive focus on buying, selling and marketing, and for economists, journalists and politicians, on measuring how such activity translates into merchandise sales and corporate profits.
Though there is some overlap between these two “Christmas spirits” (e.g., the joy of gift-giving, especially to loved ones and the needy), the mob-level activity on Black Friday (and now even on Thanksgiving Day), the shortened tempers in stores and parking lots, the mawkish, manipulative and relentless marketing, and the intense media focus on sales and profit metrics, makes one wonder whether Jesus, were he physically present to witness them, might respond as he did when he drove money changers from the temple for having turned it, during an important religious holiday, into a “den of thieves.”
By intensifying both these tendencies at the same time, the Christmas season provides a unique backdrop for examining the issues raised in Sandel’s talk, which begins with the question “What should be the role of money and markets in our society,” and ends by asking whether “altruism, generosity, solidarity and civic spirit [are]…commodities that are depleted with use” or are “more like…muscles that grow stronger with exercise.”
To provide a concrete example that suggests where he stands on the latter question, Sandel asks:
[Should] a loving couple…treat one another…when they can, in a calculating fashion, so as to save their love for the moments when they really need it…Or would it turn out that loving acts toward one another would increase this resource?
While this “loving couple” example triggered some laughter from Sandel’s audience, he was nevertheless presenting a serious critique of mainstream economics and many of its leading practitioners. Among these is Sandel’s Harvard colleague Larry Summers, one of the nation’s (and probably the world’s) most influential economists, who, among other things, has served as Treasury Secretary, Chief Economist at the World Bank and, most recently, director of President Obama’s National Economic Council.
Near the end of his talk, Sandel quotes Summers, who was then president of Harvard and had been invited to give the morning prayer in the university’s Memorial Church. The theme of Summers’ talk was “what economics can contribute to thinking about moral questions.”
As Sandel explains, Summers ended his commentary by saying:
Economists like me think of altruism as a valuable and rare good that needs conserving. Far better to conserve it by designing a system in which people’s wants will be satisfied by individuals being selfish and saving that altruism for our families, our friends and the many social problems in this world that markets cannot solve.