‘What Money Can’t Buy’ explores The downside of money

Phoenix Webb

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It takes a brave individual to show others the error of their ways with money. That is what author Michael J. Sandel does in his 2012 book “What Money Can’t Buy.”

“There are some things money can’t buy, but these days, not many. Today, almost everything is up for sale.” These are the first sentences of the introduction. The following 203 pages follows through with an economic reality check.

“What Money Can’t Buy” is a short and easy read. Sandel cites examples of how American society has used money to create markets that had not existed before and it has widened the gap between the wealthy and everyone else.

Americans assign a value and pay for concierge doctors, degrees, blood, a price on employees’ lives, bets on national leaders’ deaths, memorabilia and anything else people will pay for.

In 2012, America was struggling to come out of the recession, which was symptomatic of bad financial decisions. Sandel sheds a bright, comprehensive light at what Americans have done to financial markets, “Some years ago, Judge Richard Posner, a leading figure in the ‘law and economics’ movement, proposed the use of markets to allocate babies put up for adoption. He acknowledged that more desirable babies would command higher prices than less desirable ones. But he argued that the free market would do a better job of allocating babies than the current system of adoption, which allows adoption agencies to charge certain fees but not to auction babies or charge a market price.”

Sandel points out in his book that economists argue their sole job is to study the economy based on decisions made by households (human behavior) without judging the behavior. Morality calls for judgement.

Economics is the dog and morals are the tail. The question that is posed by Sandel in every example is, who wags who-the dog or the tail?

This book was recommended by City College faculty member Masahiro Omae, who teaches comparative politics. It is a great read. Not only does the writer show how the purchasing decisions of Americans have changed the financial markets, it also shows how attitudes and behaviors have changed in American society.

The book makes Americans look at their monetary decisions and what purchasing does to markets. This book should be read by everyone, especially anyone interested in economics, history, journalism, or political science.

It’s not presented as a textbook. Rather, the book is like a knowledgeable uncle advising readers as to what happened to financial markets. Hopefully, that history won’t be repeated.

Michael J. Sandel is a political philosopher. He teaches government at Harvard University and is the author of other works, including his bestseller “Justice: What’s the Right Thing to Do?”

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