What Money Can't Buy

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Now and then I pick up a book by someone on the Other Side. Maybe I'm trying to demonstrate, at least to myself, that I have an open mind. Or maybe I'm trying to figure out what makes the Other Side tick. In this case, I was spurred to pick up What Money Can't Buy from the University Near Here's Dimond Library by this Reason book review by Tom Palmer. Palmer's review was very negative, so (in this case) I was also wondering: could it really be that bad? The book's author, Michael Sandel, is a famous Harvard philosophy professor, after all.

I was wrong to doubt Palmer. Sandel's book really is that bad.

I asked the Google's Autocomplete to weigh in:

what google says money can't buy

But (as it turns out) Sandel's book isn't about that at all. The subtitle is "The Moral Limits of Markets". A more accurate title would have been What Money Shouldn't Be Able To Buy. Even more on-target: What I Don't Think Money Should Be Able To Buy. But nobody asked me.

Sandel is disquieted by a number of things. For example, in the book's final chapter, he reminisces about getting Harmon Killebrew's autograph (for free) when he was a kid and attending Game 7 of the 1965 World Series at Minneapolis's Metropolitan Stadium for $8.

But nowadays, the Twins play at the corporate-named Target Field. The Mall of America now stands on the gravesite of Metropolitan Field. A kid can probably find a ball player who will give a free autograph, but that's not the way to bet. And the Twins haven't been in the World Series since 1991, but if they somehow ever do again, a ticket would set you back more than $8.

On the other hand, by all accounts, Target Field is a much nicer place to watch and play baseball than Metropolitan Field or its successor, the HHH Metrodome.

But I digress. But so does Sandel. Sandel bemoans corporate intrusion and big money into all aspects of life: stadium names; skyboxes for the fat cats who can afford them; big athlete salaries; the explosion of the sports memorabilia market; even how the economic analysis of baseball player quality has resulted in longer at-bats, more pitching changes, fewer base-stealing attempts, resulting in a less-interesting game. And more.

[He doesn't mention the "Amica Pitch Zone" on the NESN Red Sox game broadcasts, an automated computer-generated replay of where a pitch fell in relation to the strike zone. Don and Jerry probably utter that phrase 20-30 times in your average game.]

And that's just in one chapter. It's almost like listening to some old codger reminisce about the good old days, and how these modern times are just no damned good.

Generally speaking, Sandel dislikes what he sees as the encroachment of markets and money into areas where they were previously less common. He views this encroachment as corrupting, corrosive, crowding out non-pecuniary values. To a lesser extent, it can also be coercive, when a person is "forced" into the marketplace (selling a kidney, for example) when he has no better alternatives.

Sandel's examples are interesting, but too often his critiques are fuzzy handwaving to people (like me) who don't share his values. In fact, Sandel never bothers to deal seriously with the fact that there are people who don't share his values. And he doesn't seem to recognize the problems inherent in non-market systems for allocating goods and services.

He (probably wisely) avoids specifically advocating any legislation to limit the commercialization and commodification he deplores. But one can't help but think that's just around the corner from all the moralizing.