Monday, May 21, 2012

Is market life sucking the meaning out of real life?

Are too many things available to buy? That seems to be a theme of much recent literature that, at its worst, regrets how the economy has sucked the meaning out of life ever since the invention of trade and agriculture. The idea is that economic life weakens the close bonds with kin and community we used to build while we helped each other ward off starvation.

Markets are not the only focus of that concern: the expansion of cities and the encroachment of technology are others. For technology, think of the internet and social media, but don't forget the earlier effects of the automobile and the phonograph. As for  what you can buy these days with money, and the growth of markets, don't forget bottle feeding and washing machines, and women in the labor force.

But even if we have no nostalgia for the bad old days, it doesn't hurt to be aware of how the increasing scope of markets, like the growth of cities and technology, changes how we relate to one another.

In a recent NY Times Op Ed, the sociologist Arlie Russell Hochschild, who teaches at Berkeley, writes of her concerns about the increased reach of markets, The Outsourced Life. The article is accompanied by pictures of ads for all sorts of services that can now be bought and sold, from birthday party planners to cooking coaches, to upgraded accommodations in a private prison, to someone offering a service called "rent a dad."

The article announces her new book on the subject, The Outsourced Self: Intimate Life in Market Times

I recently received a review copy (one of the few signs that the world notices a blog).

It is a thoughtful book, on a topic in which I have a professional interest, but I wasn't encouraged when it began by regretting the loss of small town community that the author experienced as a child visiting her grandmother's farm. She visited from the city, a life her parents had chosen, and which she later chose herself. But the book is saved from nostalgia for the lost world by the acknowledgement of how much easier it would have been to take care of her elderly grandmother, years later when she was frail, if only she had lived near a city and the services that money could buy, and which a granddaughter could not easily deliver from far away.

So, and here is the interesting part of this kind of discussion, the loss of community isn't just something that happens because people choose to move to cities for the better opportunities and bigger markets they offer (even though they may regret, at least in memory, leaving the town behind). Loss of community is also something that happens to those left behind, as the towns are thinned out by those who moved on, so less community remains. Professor Hochschild and her parents chose to move away from the farm, and didn't ever really want to go back, but there's no going back even if they did want to: that old community isn't there anymore.

Of course, some of it was never really there. The book compares her grandfather's courtship of two sisters, one of whom became her grandmother and the other who apparently made a poor marriage (to "a n'er-do-well farmer"), with today's internet dating. Internet dating also doesn't always work out, it seems. Her grandmother did better with the old fashioned process, but it wasn't so great for her great-aunt.

Closely related is Michael Sandel's book What Money Can't Buy: The Moral Limits of Markets (about which and whom I have blogged before). While Hoschschild's lost world is that of her grandparents' youth, Sandel regrets the changes he sees since he was young himself: here's a recent review (whose title is a summary of it's contents):.
What Money Can't Buy: The Moral Limits of Markets, By Michael Sandel: Should you pay to jump the queue – or for a new kidney? It's hard to define where cash has no place.

Sandel turns out to be a childhood friend of NY Times columnist Thomas Friedman, who writes about Sandel's book in a May 12 column called This Column Is Not Sponsored by Anyone
" Seen in isolation, these commercial encroachments seem innocuous enough. But Sandel sees them as signs of a bad trend: “Over the last three decades,” he states, “we have drifted from having a market economy to becoming a market society. A market economy is a tool — a valuable and effective tool — for organizing productive activity. But a ‘market society’ is a place where everything is up for sale. It is a way of life where market values govern every sphere of life.”

"Why worry about this trend? Because, Sandel argues, market values are crowding out civic practices. When public schools are plastered with commercial advertising, they teach students to be consumers rather than citizens. When we outsource war to private military contractors, and when we have separate, shorter lines for airport security for those who can afford them, the result is that the affluent and those of modest means live increasingly separate lives, and the class-mixing institutions and public spaces that forge a sense of common experience and shared citizenship get eroded."

Tim Harford shared his thoughts on Sandel on markets on Google+:  He asks, "Why oh why is Michael Sandel so famous?"

The role of markets in life, how these have changed over time, and peoples' perceptions of these things, are well worth the attention of economists. I initially organized my thoughts on the subject in my 2007 article Repugnance as a constraint on markets, and it's a subject I return to often in blog posts on repugnance and repugnant transactions.

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