Monday, June 25, 2007

What’s Your Market Value?

Keywords: market; self; commercialization; Adam Smith; Viktor Frankl; moral philosophy; mudita; sociology; comparisons; David Riesman

Today’s blog entry is my letter to a dear friend, a well-known woman sociologist who writes about the of personal relationships. We used to talk on the phone about once a week about our research. Yesterday she sent me a new article and the outline for the book she’s working on now. I won’t divulge her name here – at least not until the book is finished. Here goes:

I was glad to have a chance to read the article you sent because it gives me a different insight on your work. Maybe it’s only my construction, but it makes more sense than my previous understanding of what you are up to, so I’ll throw it out there and see if it “sticks.”

Clearly, the notion of commercialization and the sticks in your craw. It has been the big issue for you for many years. We’ve talked about it a lot because it doesn’t bother me at all, so I probably missed what it was in capitalism that I too should be concerned about.

In the past, I thought that what bothered you was the notion of money: that people buy and sell certain activities that ought to be done only out of spontaneous and authentic affection or other types of human affinity. So to you, buying a birthday cake was somehow a threat to familial solidarity, etc. and one should not pay people to care for children and elders, etc. because that would undermine real relationships. I never saw that as a danger, as you will recall from our past conversations, so I never worried about commercialization or the exchange of money for services.

But this last paper (and maybe your book as you are casting it now) seem to be pointing to a different kind of problem – one that I can actually take seriously. I may be wrong, though, because I did not completely follow the initial theoretical half of the paper. It came alive for me when you started giving examples of what bothers you.

I think you’re really dealing with a problem in , but you’re trying to address it as a sociological problem. Or maybe, to put it even more provocatively, you’re dealing with a conundrum but trying to solve it as an . Either way, you haven’t provided a solution in this particular paper. I cannot imagine what solution you may offer in the book itself.

The underlying problematic that I see in your work today is this: the market is dangerous because people can unwisely internalize its criteria as the basis for appraising the value of human activities and even of the self. It is no longer that is the root of evil, but something more abstract: the market, whether or not what is being assigned a value is given a dollar value or some other. Your only implied solution is to somehow abolish the market economy, but of course you don’t actually say that because that would be impossible, or you’d have to propose an alternative type of economy, whereas nothing promising is available, since socialism has been discredited. So you don’t offer any solution at all, at least in the paper. It seems to me that you need to propose something. Here’s what I would propose — though you probably won’t like it because it is a moral or even a spiritual approach rather than one involving social structural reforms.

Thank God for the market! As a system for allocating scarce commodities and eliciting the innovation and production of new ones that meet human needs (or at least the effective demand of buyers) the market system is absolutely unmatched. It is a self-regulating system that relies on price signals to tell producers what to manufacture and how much of it to make so as to best satisfy the desires of buyers. No planned economy has ever been able to do such a thing. It is because of the market system that productivity and efficiency have improved, human life expectancy has tripled, and hunger and pain have diminished on this planet. I would fight hard to oppose any curbing of the workings of the market.

Of course, as you rightly point out, there are some things (e.g. human organs) that we say should not be bought and sold. But as for the things that are appropriately exchanged through the market, the system works brilliantly except when other factors distort the market itself (e.g. monopolies, cartels, insider trading, and other corrupt practices, plus inappropriate government influences, including the price distortions of government purchasing power). Adam Smith’s “invisible hand” was a wonderful metaphor to depict how an economic system can function optimally while all the participants actually pursue their own interests instead of behaving with altruism.

So don’t knock the market.

Both the best thing and the worst thing about the market is that it depends entirely on relative . Suppose you’re selling your house. When you put it “on the market,” you submit it for the appraisal of a whole bunch of people who are looking at other houses. The market value is a dollar figure that objectively assigns a ranking to your house among the other houses that are up for sale. It is derived from the buyers’ collective subjective opinions, but it is itself “objective”; it would be pointless to argue against it, as you might argue with an individual who comes to look your house over.

Now this business of having an “objective” status that the market produces is a morally problematic, spiritually unhealthy experience — especially when it is you, yourself, who is on the market, being appraised by others. And we sometimes are. When we look for a job, we are appraised by comparing us to the other applicants. When we are looking for a lover or spouse, we evaluate our various dates and they evaluate us, as if we were a commodity on the market. When we get old, we notice (at least I do) that fewer people are competing to get our attention socially, say, or to nominate us to chair a civic organization. Our “market value” has objectively declined. This can be depressing if we think that this market value actually reflects our own true value in the greater scheme of things. Nevertheless, the market in human interactions is here to stay. You cannot make it stop. You have to handle it , not by changing the social structure.

In fact, the other aspect of the human market is also harmful to the soul, if you’ll permit me to use that term. When our market value is high, that’s a danger too. We can believe that it is a true measure of our worth, and that conclusion is just as dangerous as believing in our market value when it is sinking fast. But the question is: what other criterion can we use to determine how well we are doing in life? This is the deepest moral — or actually religious — question. I do care about answering it, but I don’t go about it by a futile effort to stop the rating game. I just say that one must not take the market very seriously. It is an excellent means of assigning relative values to scarce commodities, but human beings are far more than their relative rankings.

The secret of happiness is to stop making comparisons. Examples:

• Why do people commit suicide on Christmas? Because they are alone and comparing themselves to others who are supposedly holidaying joyfully among friends and family. By that standard, they are failures.

• Movie stars who have been nominated for an Oscar but who did not win it have five years less than Oscar-winners. Five years! This is a true fact. It’s certainly evidence that comparing oneself to others in a system of relative rankings can be devastating. Apparently the winners get such an inflated sense of their importance that their life expectancy increases, as compared to the “losers.” Both winners and losers are caught up in a foolish system of evaluation. Well, not “foolish,” exactly, but one that they are applying inappropriately to appraise worth of the self.

• Your market value and Ann’s, as sociologists, are higher than mine. I can either envy you for that or I can take vicarious pleasure in your success. (“,” in the language of Buddhism, is the opposite of ; it means rejoicing about the well-being of others). However, I neither envy nor “mudita” you, since I know that your high ranks and my low-rank are based on comparisons, whereas I try not to compare. (Sometimes I slip up and have to correct myself.) Instead, I generally think in terms of whether we three are all pursuing our own distinct, valuable projects, and whether we are all making progress toward those goals. My own projects are not particularly sociological, but I think they are of value to humankind and I think I am progressing pretty well, so I am satisfied most of the time. Our market value rankings are still there, but I don’t judge us in terms of them.

Where do I get my goals and how do I know whether they are the right ones? Certainly not by asking other people. In that respect, I am definitely not a sociologist, and I don’t think anyone can make valid moral appraisals on the basis of others’ opinions, whereas that is the basic axiom of . Remember ’s experiment where people were asked to judge the length of two very unequal lines, and most people wouldn’t say which was longer when the other people in the group didn’t do so? Now if people can’t even tell which line is longer by using their own eyes, how are they going to discover the right goals to aim toward in life by asking the opinions of others?

The trouble is, sociologists have no alternative method to offer. was right in saying that we’ve become “” instead of “inner-directed,” but as I recall he didn’t say where the people get their values. If we’re not going to take our “” score to heart, what can we use to ask how we’re doing? I think you need to answer that if you’re going to advise against commercialism as a self-defining process. But I don’t think your answers are the same as mine.

Probably most inner-directed people (which I try to be but not always successfully) believe that there are values that do not come from relative comparisons. In the past, they were probably religious people who believed that the church or some religious authorities defined the goals that they should adopt and internalize. That’s a dangerous approach, as we all can see today; it is conductive to fanaticism and intolerance.

Yet I think one has to find purpose in some other way, and be just as faithful to it as the religious virtuosos of whom Weber wrote. I think the “calling” one receives must be similar to theirs in some sense. You as an atheist won’t appreciate this, but I think I receive assignments that are similar to the old-fashioned vocations. Like , I don’t mind saying that "Life is giving me this responsibility to carry out” but inwardly I think that “God” is assigning it to me. It doesn’t matter much, I guess, how one describes it. What matters is that we get some sense of what to do without depending on an index derived from the collective appraisals of others. They can go on making market judgments, and when it comes to buying a used car I will refer to the “blue book” without hesitation. I just won’t pay much attention to my own value — or yours — on the human market.

There remains the question: How can I tell whether I am doing well in terms of my “God-given assignments”? Suppose I think, for example, that I had a duty to write Two Aspirins and a Comedy. But it isn’t a huge popular seller. Therefore, must I conclude that I did a bad job? Or that I was mistaken in believing that it was my assignment? Not necessarily. I certainly do wish it had been a big success, but I can’t know what will come from it. Maybe in 50 years, someone will discover a copy in the city dump and read it and get something from it that will enable him to contribute to humankind. All I know is that I should do what seems right and then trust that the universe is all working out as it should.

Finally, even in terms material commodities, it seems to me that there is such a thing as “enough.” What was it that said? That a person can live comfortably in a small house until someone builds a big house next door. Then the owner thinks his little house is a tiny shack. Your answer to the marketized self has to be this: “Stop comparing yourself to others. Ask yourself only what your own real needs are and whether you have enough. And if you do, enjoy!”

I’ll speak to you tomorrow.


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