Morality of Markets

I’ve previously introduced Michael Sandel’s lectures on Justice in Harvard. I haven’t finished the series despite great interest in it but I recently watched another of his lectures, one at Chautauqua where he talks about the Morality of Markets. In some sense, I was particularly interested in this issue and believe that all those trained in Economics should be made to study it. After all, Adam Smith was a Moral Philosopher. The philosophical element of Economics is becoming lost in our study of it today.

Markets Corrupts?

That is what makes this particular Michael Sandel lecture extremely insightful. He starts with the idea that we’re now plagued by market triumphalism and he tries to question what is wrong with that. As often in his lectures, he poses a scenario either hypothetical or based on actual proposals in the real world and then solicits opinions from the audience. He eventually surfaces his points and ideas from the responses of the audience and does a brilliant summary of the issue.

He gives a good and important point in his conclusion of this lecture that explains why we should not allow markets to expand indefinitely in our lives. In other words, there are areas where markets can, indeed serve the best interests of the societies especially when we all can agree that the market system gives an accurate and fair valuation of the good or service involved. Unfortunately there are values out of the consideration of the market that we might cherish and therefore we should not allow particular goods or services to become commodities to be traded and transacted. The danger of the markets is that it leaves its mark on the commodities that are traded; the values that we cherish becomes diluted, corrupted by the market system.

The example of paying a child to read is important in illustrating this. We should cherish reading not because of the monetary gains but the intrinsic value derived from joy of reading and learning. Therefore when we start paying children to read, it sends out the wrong messages and distorts the valuation of reading. The trick then, perhaps is a solution around this limitation of the market, to be able to remove that mark that market leaves on the thing traded. Unfortunately there’s no easy solution and possibly none. This is a strong argument against markets and while it is applied to a small group of tricky issues, they are worth pondering over.

Michael Sandel makes Political Philosophy and Moral Philosophy not only accessible to the public and ordinary, non-philosophy students but also makes extremely relevant connections between traditional Western Philosophy and the issues plaguing us in the modern world. It’s really fortunate that we are able to access his lectures even though we are not studying in Harvard or in America. There are other videos of his public lectures available on


A Dip seems fun...

Clive Thompson from Wired wrote a great piece on Groupthink; the main question is whether you can persuade people to like something by convincing them that others also like it?

And the experiments cited in the article gave interesting results that leaves us somehow worrying if our ‘destinies’ are determined by pure luck. It appears that for the very best and very worst, evolutionary forces would more or less elevate or eliminate them in long run but for most of the ones in the middle, their fate could be a matter of chance.

The article seem to imply there’s little way out of the problem of groupthink of such grand scale; it is suggested that the use of social cues for many decision-making is wired into our nature.

Free Market Madness

Free Market Madness
Market for Sanity

I was looking for George Arkelof and Robert Shiller’s Animal Spirits in the library but it was on loan so I decided to look for something else in the Call Number 330 (which some library-goers might note is the ‘Economics’ section) area. I stumbled on ‘Free Market Madness‘ by Peter Ubel.

Ubel’s book is a pretty simple and short one, I took only one and a half day of on-and-off reading to finish it, one of my fastest timing for a non-fiction. Admittedly, the text and paragraph spacings are pretty wide and the book is thin for a hard-cover one. It is largely about behavioural economics, a topic which I hardly have a hard time understanding so the speed by which I finished the book didn’t really surprise me. Nevertheless, I hardly consider Ubel’s Free Market Madness to be that good a book.

For a start, I understand that Ubel is trying to make a case for government intervention in the economy for markets where consumers are ill-placed to make wise choices and where market imperfections like the inadequacy of useful information and the apparent misalignment of producer’s interests and consumer’s interests are significant. He focuses on the case of junk food causing obesity though he touched on other cases such as insufficient retirement funding and overspending on branded drugs. Unfortunately, while he makes a good case for the fact that humans are not entirely rational (something we all know at least implicitly), based mainly on the study of other behavioural scientists and economists, he didn’t give very outstanding or original proposals on how to get around this problems. Even then, he fails to make a good connection with how the conflict between the short-term-self and long-term-self can be resolved by the governments; the question of what sort of happiness/well-being (long term or short term) the ‘Big Brother’ he is advocating should maximize it left to speculation by the reader.

The little technical issues in the examples he cited in his book is by and large criticized by David Gordon, senior fellow of the Mises Institute. Austrian School economists probably think that no one can be innocently obese; it takes two hands to clap and producers and consumers must agree on the transaction for it to take place. In other words, people are obese through a process of attempting to maximize utility within their own accounting. On the other hand, Ubel thinks that the faculty accounting on the part of the consumers need to be rectified – in other words, internalities need to be addressed. The problem is we cannot exactly agree on which accounting is correct; after all, if one’s belief in the goodness of a product can provide additional positive experience in consuming it, the faculty accounting can have such a self-fulfilling effect. I believe I have the tendency to agree with the ordinary economists that humans would have a fair degree of foresight and self-control and in an event where they lack such discipline and ability, the market punishes them very much in the way evolution eliminates those who lack the fitness.

His proposals are rather unoriginal, citing stuff like fat taxes once mentioned in The Economist, default options, persuasion campaigns (largely moral suasion) and possibly outright ban. He did discuss implications on liberty and such but doesn’t dwell much on it – often it seems to me like he’s saying ‘I just want everything to be good and right, I don’t care how’.

I do agree with Ubel, that humans in our age needs more self-control and the public’s awareness of the ills of the markets, the ills of different products that are so ubiquitous in our world today needs to be improved. This self-improvement in discipline and improvement of public knowledge can come from bottom-up rather than top-down. After all, given the circumstances today, it is likely that the group with better knowledge of the markets, those making wiser market decisions and the ones who have better self-control is going to thrive. Parents will have to recognize that and respond accordingly (not too much to hope for given the limited rationality of humans I hope) when educating their children and developing them. And I must have to say that in markets like healthcare and pharmaceutical products, doctors like Ubel himself will have to take the responsibility of protecting their patients from the ills of the market/industry. The imperfect information is really too serious in this market and Ubel is right to say that doctors are practically making decisions for patients – doctors’ recommendations are almost equals to patients’ choice (doctors can’t possibly give their diagnosis to patients and get them to choose medicine for themselves). The government can only do so much to protect the doctors from manipulation by the industry and thus defend the interests of the patients. Physicians themselves will have to take the big step to be responsible doctors.

On the whole, Free Market Madness gives us good idea of how behavioural economics came into being and how traditional economic analysis of indifference is difficult to apply in today’s complex world. As a result, rationality of human beings becomes undermined today. Beyond that, it makes a good alert on the problems humans might have with markets that makes us poor economic agents – in long run we will get exploited somehow. We will need to exploit back by becoming producers of certain exploitive products ourselves or try to defend ourselves through self-restraint and aggressive self-education. Otherwise, if the book is hoping to inspire any sort of action, it might need to be much more.

Shock Doctrine

Shock Doctrine
Got shot by shock

I’ve previously read Shock Doctrine and written a review on my personal blog; it was a time before ERPZ started and became active. Here’s a reproduction of the original review:

After 2 months of reading I finally finished Naomi Klein’s powerful book, Shock Doctrine. It was a long ride deep into the dark old mines of history on the different ‘economic revolutions’ all around the world: Argentina, Chile, China, Russia, Bolivia and Poland. It was a book that was written with intentions to put down Milton Friedman, clearly anti-corporatist and in some sense, anti-globalization. From this book I understand finally how the term ‘anti-globalization’ have been mis-interpreted by so many people, even myself. I once thought that it means being against the integration of cultures, economies and companies but then I realised it gets way deeper than that.

The idea of anti-globalization is usually used to mean being against the way the phenomena is taking place in our world, that inequality is rising and corporates are like taking over the world while people in poor countries work in sweatshops, suffer in silence and endure the hardship only to realise generations later that nothing changes. It is the discovery of a certain helplessness in the bottom layer of the world. Shock Doctrine is clearly about that, and more.

In a clear but otherwise way too long writing, Naomi presented a very complete picture of how pure ideology-driven economist are used by corporates and government to advance their self-interest. And of course, in a capitalistic perspective, self-interest is just profit and money. She didn’t over turn free market theories on how a perfectly free market is able to dilute power and increase freedom but she did show that the approach that allows for extreme free market is not exactly compatible with democracy and worst of all, economist have been naive about how a free market can be brought to exist. Case after case cited in the book, firms are privatize just be selling it out to the private sector without proper valuation of the assets and this hasty act would not only delay the attainment of a market equilibrium that would be at least more socially optimal but also create new forces that increases the inertia of the market. In other words, it makes the market less free.

In the area of corporate America and politics, Naomi is suggesting that the corporate people have penetrated politics too deeply with CEOs becoming civil servants in top positions of the government and politicians being lobbied by powerful companies with CEOs receiving incomes more than 400 times the average person on the street. And because of that, government becomes ran like corporations, public sector jobs being slashed and direct public spending is reduced while outsourcing (locally, giving contracts to companies) all the functions that can be done by the private sector. Worst, it is infected by a touch of cronyism; and this probably explains why contracts are rarely distributed by bidding and that the contracts concentrate in the hands of the few big firms that are always ‘aiding the government’ with ‘planning’.

It has been a good read anyways and while Naomi Klein has a rather extreme stance, my reading of Joseph Stiglitz (Globlization & its Discontents as well as Making Globalization Work) have helped me appreciate the gravity of the matters she was talking about and I could understand her thinking. As always, the writer do give us a gleamer of hope about what the future may turn out to be when the ‘Shock Wears Off’ and how we can prevent similar stuff from happening again. I would recommend this book for people who have no fear of heavy non-fiction reading, a thorough interest in learning how and why corporate America is seen in bad light.

The Big Zero

Null, nothing

Paul Krugman’s article, published in The Straits Times, regarding the 2000s, gives quite a bit for thought. Paul Krugman is a famed American economist from Princeton who was awarded the Nobel Memorial Prize in Economics in 2008 for his theories on trade and economic geography. I have always loved to read his articles in The Straits Times because they have always been very insightful and succintly written, and always hit the nail on the head. This article that I introduce here is no different, but it’s slightly different in tone from what he writes.

Usually, he adopts a rather neutral or slightly positive tone in his writings, even if they are regarding the economic crisis today (he studies economic crises, hence his expertise in commenting on them). But in this article he takes a rather pessimistic, negative view towards the decade that just passed us: the Noughties (2000s). He proposes calling it ‘The Big Zero’ because ‘nothing good happened’ and ‘none of the optimistic things we were supposed to believe turned out to be true’.

And then he justifies with some general statistics based on America: almost zero job creation, private-sector employment decline, fall in median household income after adjustment for inflation, zero gains for houseowners, zero gains for stocks. Read the article for moredetails, but we all have seemed to come back to square 1, in 1999, or gotten worse off. So what’s with all that optimism about the economy?

By right things were supposed to go well. There was confidence in the financial system, expressed by Lawrence Summers in 1999. Summers is, by the way, the current administration’s top economist and in 1999 then deputy Treasury secretary. He believed then that America had ‘honest corporate accounting’, but this seemed to just vapourise if we look at this century. Even before the current financial meltdown, much earlier on there was Enron and WorldCom, two large and supposedly reliable firms that were exposed for dishonesty.

And then American politics does not seem to have a solution to the problem. The Democrats try to seek compromise in what they seek and their ideas are vehemently opposed by many as being too socialist, while the Republicans seem to believe that the solution to the problems caused by ‘tax cuts and deregulation’ is more ‘tax cuts and deregulation’.

Certainly not a very inspiring decade. But this restricts itself to America of course. I must say that for most other countries it was probably not this bad. If we take the example of China, to call this decade The Big Zero would be to forget its ascent onto the global arena as a superpower. So… the Americans have it bleak but the Asians are having it better.