Monday, October 14, 2013


Michael Sandel is a professor of Government at Harvard, and has written extensively about the relationships between ethics, government, economics and justice.  His latest book is What Money Can't Buy:  The Moral Limits of Markets.  His primary assertion is that America no longer operates in a market economy, where capitalistic methods are just the driving force of the economic strata of our lives; but that we now live in a market society, where markets are the primary means for achieving the public good -- and government does not hold the key to prosperity and freedom.  He has many examples of economic principles being inappropriately applied to other elements of the social fabric, such as health, education, and even government itself.

This belief in market triumphalism is playing out in spades these days.  A large segment of the American populace views government as a hindrance to 'the American dream', that ephemeral notion that everyone has an equal opportunity to rise in economic status, and those that cannot succeed just do not have the personal initiative to do so.  Such thinking believes that government only gets in the way and needs to be scaled back -- the 'us and them' that defines 'us' as the people and 'them' as government, as if government were not an element of the social fabric.

Sandel highlights the potential failings of this structure.  Best thing is just to read the book, but I quote some of the summary below.

In addition to debating the meaning of this or that good, we also need to ask a bigger question, about the kind of society in which we wish to live.....Beyond the damage it does to particular goods, commercialism erodes commonality.  The more things money can buy, the fewer the occasions when people from different walks of life encounter one another.  We see this when we go to a baseball game and gaze up at the skyboxes, or down from them, as the case may be.  The disappearance of the class-mixing experience once found at the ballpark represents a loss not only for those looking up but also for those looking down.

Something similar has been happening throughout our society.  At a time of rising inequality, the marketization of everything means that people of affluence and people of modest means lead increasingly separate lives.  We live and work and ship and play in different places.  Our children go to different schools.  You might call it the skyboxification of American life.  It’s not good for democracy, nor is it a satisfying way to live.

Democracy does not require perfect equality, but it does require that citizens share in a common life.  What matters is that people of different backgrounds and social positions encounter one another, and bump up against one another, in the course of everyday life.  For this is how we learn to negotiate and abide our differences, and how we come to care for the common good.
                                Michael Sandel, What Money Can't Buy

Sunday, March 17, 2013


‘All this time I was leading another life
and it is clear now which was the shadow and which
was the substance…’
                         Gerald Stern, ‘Crosshatching’

I have memories that make me cringe.  They run the gamut from acts to statements, from truly harmful to simply stupid. Some get dug up from childhood, some may have occurred in the past few days.

Throwing dirt in a brother’s face.  Hateful things said to a loved one. Flunking a test because I didn’t study.  Failing to show up to meet someone when I said I would be there.  Dumb things I did as an exchange student.  Procrastinating on a task to the point where someone else has to pick it up.

These memories pop up at the oddest times, and for no particular reason.  My brain must be lazy and it wants to throw ugly reminders over the wall.  Or they show up in nightmares, with people and places and timeframes mixed up, out of order, or thrown in with the latest movie themes just for the dramatics.

These are long shadows that trail us on our path, glued forever to our soles – and souls. 

But they don’t have to stay attached.  Certainly, we carry our blemishes, bruises and mistakes with us.  They become part of who we are as characters, as personalities, as people.  We learn from them, we try not to replicate them.

And we try to overwhelm them with the positive aspects of a life worth living.

Stern’s poem steers away from the negative theory of such shadows:

‘…though I particularly hate the word
shadow to describe it since a shadow
itself is a substance and shadows are lovely and stretch
across my lawn at six in the evening and they
take different forms—when it comes to painting—and one
is a mass in the foreground, one is a shake of likeness,
simply defined, a true state of color’

Rather than the black hole of bad memories, I prefer this latter description of shadows and their use.  Stretched across the lawn in the rising sun.  The statue of a likeness in a true state of color.  An image simply defined.

Friend Jane likes to take shadow pictures.  She places a group of people with the sun to their backs and takes a photo of the shape created by the shadow on the ground.  In a photograph, the shadow becomes a piece of whimsy, a straightforward representation of our shape in the sun, reflected in the grass. 

That’s a better image than the blackness of bad memories.

Sunday, March 10, 2013

The civic cost of Inequality

From Michael Sandel's book, Justice:  What's the Right Thing to Do?

Too great a gap between rich and poor undermines the solidarity that democratic citizenship requires.  Here's how:  As inequality deepens, rich and poor live increasingly separate lives.  The affluent send their children to private schools (or to public schools in wealthy suburbs), leaving urban public schools to the children of families who have no alternative.  A similar trend leads to the secession by the privileged from other public institutions and facilities. Private health clubs replace municipal recreation centers and swimming pools.  Upscale residential communities hire private security guards and rely less on public police protection.  A second or third car removes the need to rely on public transportion.  And so on.  The affluent secede from public places and services, leaving them to those who can't afford anything else.

This has two bad effects, one fiscal, the other civic.  First, public services deteriorate, as those who no longer use those services become less willing to support them with their taxes.  Second, public institutions such as schools, parks, playgrounds, and community centers cease to be places where citizens from different walks of life encounter one another.  Institutions that once gathered people together and served as informal schools of civic virtue become few and far between.  The hollowing out of the public realm makes it difficult to cultivate the solidarity and sense of community on which democratic citizenship depends.  (Sandel, Michael.  Justice: What's the Right Thing to Do?, Farrar, Straus and Giroux.)


'The hollowing out of the public realm.'  As government is increasingly viewed as 'the problem', rather than part of our society that provides governance and contributes to the social fabric, we are reaching that condition.