Children for Sale

Should you be able to buy and sell babies?  Should you be able to buy and sell votes?

These are the sort of questions posed in the excellent ‘What Money Can’t Buy: The Moral Limits to Markets’ by Michael Sandel.  His basic premise is that we’ve moved from a market economy to a market society.  That the Rules of Economics rule.

He covers lots of themes within the book raised by this basic premise – like the coercive and corruptive nature of money and the issue of democracy.  One area is the use of incentives.  Economics say that incentives are a good thing because if you put a price on something then it encourages people to act in the ways you want.  So, paying children to read a book, or the offer of money to work hard to get a high grade.

What this does, which he eloquently points out is that by incentivising something, you run the risk of ‘crowding out’ the social norm that currently exists, to the detriment of society.

So, in America, like here in the UK, people donate blood.  They did this because they saw it as their civic duty.  It was then realised you could make money buying and selling blood.  So, you can now either get paid to give blood (typically done by poor people who are being coerced into doing so because they have little money) or donate blood.  What’s happened is that fewer people donate blood.  As he says “Commercialisation and profit in blood has been driving out the voluntary donor” and that “once people begin to view blood as a commodity that is routinely bought and sold, they are less likely to feel a moral responsibility to donate it”.  Further, “it is likely that a decline in the spirit of altruism on one sphere of human activities will be accompanied by similar changes in attitudes, motives and relationships in other spheres”.

That last statement sounds like a leap, but he’s got 203 pages of why that may well be true.

Another example is nuclear waste in Switzerland.  The government did their research and found out that the most appropriate place to build the waste site was near the small mountain village of Wolfenschiessen (pop. 2,100).  51% of residents said that they would accept it.  The economists added a sweetner to try and get the % up.  They offered money of an annual monetary payment.  The result?  The financial incentive cut the rate of acceptance in half to 25%.  Why?  In the world of economics, increasing the incentive should have increased demand.  So, why did it go down?  “For many villagers, willingness to accept the nuclear waste site reflected public spirit – a recognition that the country as a whole depended on nuclear energy and that the nuclear waste had to be stored somewhere.  If their community was found to be the safest storage site, they were willing to bear the burden.  Against this backdrop of civic commitment, the offer of case felt like a bribe – an effort to buy their vote.”

Sandel uses example after example to drive home the point that we should examine the line where economic thinking is impacting on our sense of civic duty and the ideals of democracy: paying to jump the queue, executive boxes at sports stadiums, paying to be late to pick up your kids, bribes to lose weight, carbon offset, paying to kill endangered species, life insurance, corporate naming rights in sports stadiums, advertising in schools etc. etc.

We decided that buying and selling people (slavery) was morally incorrect, yet there seems to be little to no public debate about what else should or shouldn’t be bought or sold.  So, you may well be able to go into a store soon and say “I’d like to buy two children” although Madonna and Branjelina may have already passed that line.

A very timely book.

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“It’s just the beginning….”

Errr, another one of those ‘we’re in for a very bumpy ride’ posts.  This time it’s a radio interview with Australian Economist Steve Keen.

He predicted the 2008 crash, continues to run the numbers and his outlook is not good.  Especially for the UK.  He reckons that Britain is about a third of the way through the crisis (i.e. a lot of pain to go) and so we’d better get prepared for things to get a whole lot worse.

He’s pretty punchy and has some interesting thoughts as to why he doesn’t get listened to more.  However, off the back of this I’m reviewing my finances.  Meeting next week.


Tree gives birth to hut. Or vice versa

Was in Hong Kong (or Honky Konky or Honkers Bonkers) on the way back through from NZ a couple of weeks ago and in-between the crazy building-site/sky-scrapers, came across this:

To me it looks like the hut is either the fruit of the tree or the hut is the seed that the tree grew out of.  Man and Nature in harmony?  It might just happen.

Good news – Your life can be perfect

Okay, so the ad says that Life can be Perfect if you buy Bollinger.  This is clear.

But the ad is also saying Life can’t be Perfect if you don’t buy Bollinger.  So, in seeing this ad, at some level, it is telling you that your life, no matter how well it’s going now and how well it might go in the future can never be perfect.  Not unless you buy and drink a £50 bottle of champagne.  Sorry about that.

Not only this, the word ‘can’ says that it still might not happen even if you do.   That drinking Bolly might lead to perfection, but maybe it won’t.  Perfection can be reached if you reach out far enough.  Just a little further….

Is this right for them to do this?  Is it right for a brand to co-opt the concept of life perfection and say that if you don’t buy their brand you have no chance of attaining it?

Am I being pedantic?  Am I splitting hairs?  Am I being anti-democratic?  Am I not giving consumers enough credit because it’s only an ad?

I just askin’ the question.  Is it right?

Well, if he believes it…

So, if Einstein believes this, it must be true.  Or rather, I’m hedging my bets that he’s more on the money than the way we’re ‘supposed’ to think and live today.   However, it is quite annoying to come to realise that the life I/we have been living can be considered a ‘prison’.  The Matrix indeed.

”A human being is a part of this whole, called by us ‘universe‘, a part limited in time and space. he experiences himself, his thoughts and feelings as something separated from the rest… a kind of optical delusion of consciousness. This delusion is a kind of prison for us, restricting us to our personal desires and to apportion for a few people nearest to us. Our task must be to free ourselves from this prison by widening our circle of compassion to embrace all living creatures and the whole of nature in its beauty.“  Albert Einstein.


Thought for the day – from Frankie Boyle, of all people…..

In many North American indigenous cultures, generosity is a central behaviour in a broader social and economic system. One anecdotal account examined what happened when boys from white and Lakota communities received a pair of lollipops each. The white boys put the second one in their pockets, while the Native American boys presented it to the nearest boy who didn’t have one.

Raj Patel, The Value of Nothing

How much is enough?

Following on from my Ethiopia experience, a recurrent question is ‘How much is enough?’

This already sounds really boring and worthy, but curiously, it is quite an interesting question.  If I take ‘media/entertainment’ items and remember what we had in our family home (four people) 25 years ago and compare them to what is in a family home now, I end up with a couple of lists like this:

25 years ago

One television (in the living room)

A couple of radios (in the kitchen and in the bedroom)

A couple of Hi-Fi’s (one in the living room and the other in a bedroom)

A VHS player (in the living room)

Two telephones (one downstairs and one upstairs)

A Walkman (because I was really cool)

So about 9 items

Okay then, was that enough?  Too much?  Not enough?  Does it matter?


Five televisions (living room, kitchen and three bedrooms)

Two landlines (downstairs and upstairs)

Five mobiles (one for everyone plus one more)

Three laptops (family one, one parent and one child)

Two games consoles (Wii and one more)

Two handheld (e.g. DS or PSP)

DVD Player

Sky/Digital TV box

One kindle or ipad

Four ipods

I make that 26

Okay then, is that enough?  Is that too much?  Not enough?  Does it matter?

The number has grown two and half times in 25 years.  If it grew by two and a half times in the next 25 years, that would make it about 70 items in a household.

Is that enough?  Is that too much?  Not enough?  Does it matter?

(70 sounds ridiculous to me, but then I guess saying that everyone is going to have a TV, a phone and a personal music player would have sounded ridiculous 25 years ago.)

This is the bit where it does get annoying (if it hasn’t already) is if I ask if the ‘How much is enough?’ question in relation to other areas of my life and the lives I see of those around me?

One answer this is see how many self-storage places that have sprung up in recent years.  Created to provide space for all the stuff that you don’t use.  What a genius business.

But, more importantly, does anyone have an answer to ‘How much is enough?’  How much economic growth is enough? How much removal of the rainforest is enough?  Perhaps even more importantly, is anyone even asking the question?  All I know is that if you keep on with an unstoppable increase in what you do, it normally doesn’t have a happy ending.

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Everyone is Right

Another one of those ‘not quite sure what I’m saying posts’ but here goes:

So, you’ve got more religions than you can shake a stick at.  The Christians, the Mormons, the Buddhists, the Muslims, the Catholics, etc. etc.  They all, presumably, believe that their religion is ‘right’.   But, each religions definition of ‘right’ is different from the next.   How can they all be right?  They can’t, can they?  Well, they can be right, if you believe it to be right.  It can be ‘right’ from where you’re standing.

To me, different religions provide a great example of the observation that Everyone is Right.  The world that I/someone else see and experience is based entirely on what I/someone else believes to be correct.

So, the colour of the wall in the pub.  It’s blue. I like the colour, but the person I’m with doesn’t.  It’s the same colour, but I bring my own bias and personality to the pub; to the wall.  Previous experience and taste means that whilst everyone can agree that the wall is blue, everyone’s opinion about the colour is different.  That difference is based on who we are as individuals.

Continuing on the pub tip, say my friend and I get talking to someone neither of us has met before.  After they’ve left, I say I didn’t like them and my friend they said they did.  But we both had the same conversation.  Again, our personalities and history determine whether or not we enjoyed the strangers company or not.  They could have gone on to a friend for my friend but not for me.  The stranger was the same person, but we experience them differently.  Again, our experience of the experience is determined by our different, individual personalities.

I can continue on like this for hours, but the point is that ones entire experience of reality is based entirely on ones personality.  There are the facts – that the wall is blue, but everyone’s experience of that blue wall is determined by who they are and because everyone is different everyone’s experience of the wall, of a meeting, of a TV programme of a conversation is different, created in their heads based on their history.

When a deviation in explanation of the same event occurs between two people then that’s due to a difference in personality and personal upbringing and beliefs.  In this, everyone believes that they’re ‘right’.  But they’re only ‘right’ to themselves based on their upbringing and experience.  They are no more ‘right’ than the next person who has a different upbringing and experience (although most people believe that they’re more ‘right’ than the next person of course!).

So, there is no objective ‘right’.  Instead everyone has their own version of what they believe to be right.

For the power hungry, the task is convince as many other people as possible to believe your version of what you believe to be ‘right’.  (America (used to) do a very good job here)

So, why is this at all interesting?  Not sure really, other than to realise that what I see and believe to be true and the way that the world works – what I believe to be ‘right’ – is merely a reflection of who I am rather than actually the way the world works.  And that no-one else is ‘right’ either – they’re just coming from where they are as well.

Of course this view is, to me ‘right’, but then it’s bought to you by my personality so I would say that, wouldn’t I?!

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Super Sad True Love Story


A great book, courtesy of Eric.  Set in the very near future – 5 years?  10 years?  20 years?  It’s primarily told through the lens of Lenny Abramov, a New Yorker who works for ‘Post-Human Services’, the company that, if you have the money, can extend your life through medical ‘enhancements’.

What’s fantastic about the book is that Shteyngart has taken a few key things about America now (book written in 2010) and extrapolated them out.  So, there are war vets coming back from a conflict with Venezuela, you want your dollars to be pegged to the yuan, people are split into HNWI (High Net Worth Individuals) and LNWI’s, they’ve stopped publishing books, Lenny travels on UnitedContinentalDeltamerican and the good jobs are in Media and Credit.

So, the culture and what people deem important (or not) is entirely believable given where America’s at at the moment.  He then overlays some understandably self-centred and vacuous people trying to cope with some momentous events.  It’s very funny and entirely plausible.

I am recycled

I am recycled

So are you.  So is everybody.  We all used to be something else.

That’s in a similar vein to the fact that the total amount of water in the world is unchanging. It is forever recycled.  So, the water in my next glass of water might once have been peed out by Jesus.  Or by Tommy Cooper.  Or by a penguin.  Or by all three.   Weird.

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