Posted in America, Politics, tagged America, Capitalism, Ethics, MarketWatch, Michael Sandel, Money, Morals, Naming Rights, Politics, The Wall Street Journal, What Money Can't Buy: The Moral Limits of Markets on April 28, 2013 |
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Is everything for sale in America? Have we reached the point where the pursuit of the Almighty Dollar has become too all-consuming?
An article in MarketWatch, published by The Wall Street Journal, discusses the teaching of Harvard philosopher Michael Sandel, author of the recent book What Money Can’t Buy: The Moral Limits of Markets. Sandel posits that at some point over the past 30 years America crossed the line from a market economy to a “market society” in which virtually everything, such as naming rights to public buildings, ad space in school cafeterias, and carbon offsets, is for sale to the highest bidder. A market economy is a tool for organizing activity in the most productive way, but a market society is one in which market values — rather than morals, ethics, religion, or other non-money-oriented concepts or belief systems — intrudes upon and governs our relationships and our behavior generally.
I’m a big fan of capitalism as an economic system. Human history has proven that it is the most fair and effective way of allowing people to control their own destinies and create wealth, and no other system even comes close. But Sandel has a point — there are some lines that shouldn’t be crossed. When capitalism crosses those lines, the effect is corrupting and defeating of any selfless impulses that motivated the activity in the first place. When public money is used to erect a public building and the structure is named after whichever large corporation or wealthy individual ponies up the most money for the naming rights, it detracts from the important public, communal element of the endeavor. When a couple decides to have a child but pays a hefty price to a clinic to try to genetically engineer the perfect offspring, what are they really trying to accomplish?
I disagree with Sandel on one fundamental point. He is quoted in the article as saying: “We did not arrive at this condition through any deliberate choice. It is almost as if it came upon us.” I don’t buy that — no pun intended. I think part of the witches’ brew of developments that is leading us down the road to perdition is the notion that the public is never to blame for anything, that we are trapped and buffeted by forces beyond our control. I think people can make a difference and can act morally and ethically; the thousands of acts of kindness and human decency that occurred after the Boston Marathon bombing, where strangers acted purely out of concern for their fellow man rather than concern for the bottom line, prove it. Our challenge is to bring more, much more, of that same sense of ethical behavior to the public arena and to our everyday lives.
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An interesting debate is occurring in Great Britain about assisted suicide and right to die laws. Previously, much of the coverage has been about a woman named Debbie Purdy, who suffers from multiple sclerosis and who has led a fight to clarify Britain’s assisted suicide laws. Now, a prominent scientist who, like Ms. Purdy, has multiple sclerosis, weighs in on the opposite side of the debate. His basic message? People should be talking about how to live, not how to die.
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When it comes to Rep. Charles Rangel, House Speaker Nancy Pelosi is a bit of a wuss. Even though Rangel, the chair of the House Ways and Means Committee, has been dogged by his unseemly failure to list many of his assets on financial disclosure forms — so much so that even the Washington Post has called for him to yield his chairmanship — Pelosi apparently is unwilling to oust him. She is concerned that booting Rangel will upset members of the Congressional Black Caucus, and she also is concerned that she doesn’t really have any good candidates to replace him.
Why don’t politicians just ‘fess up? In reality, they don’t care about ethics — at least, not about the ethical lapses of the people on their team. Ethics is hauled out only when it is a problem for the other party; it is disregarded when enforcing ethical behavior involves any meaningful political cost. If Nancy Pelosi won’t enforce ethical behavior when a powerful Congressman grossly flouts his disclosure obligations, then she isn’t much of a Speaker. And, if the Democrats don’t take meaningful action against Rangel, then they will have no credibility the next time they protest when, as will inevitably be the case, a Republican is found to have acted unethically.
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Rep. Charles Rangel
The ongoing stories about Congressman Charles Rangel’s failure to disclose significant assets and transactions, and even checking and brokerage accounts, in his congressional disclosure forms is just another example of the culture of contempt for the rules and disdain for the little guy that is so sickeningly pervasive in Washington, D.C.
The whole purpose of congressional disclosure rules is to report assets, outside income, and other financial data that could suggest corruption with respect to the industries Congress is regulating. Rangel is the Chairman of the Ways and Means Committee, which is responsible for tax litigation in the House of Representatives. What position could be a more likely focus of special treatment and sweetheart deals designed to obtain undue influence? If the congressional self-reporting system were intended to be a meaningful regulatory regime, you would think it would be especially attentive to proper, full, and complete disclosure by the heads of powerful committees — yet Rangel grossly understated his income and net worth and failed to disclose lucractive transactions for years. Once his omissions were disclosed, he promptly amended his forms and no doubt will claim “no harm, no foul.” Care to bet whether he will be disciplined in any way by the House Ethics Committee for his chronic flouting of the disclosure rules? Don’t hold your breath.
Frankly, it gets boring writing about the personal greed, negligence and ethical vacuity of our elected representatives, but if informed citizens don’t do so the corruption problem won’t get any better. People like Chairman Rangel need to know that some people are paying attention, even if the voters who routinely return him to Congress apparently aren’t.
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The New York Times has reported that one of its reporters who was captured by the Taliban and has been held captive for seven months has escaped. What makes the story particularly interesting is that the Times kept the story of the reporter’s capture confidential during that entire time because it was advised that disclosure of the capture would endanger the reporter. The Times therefore was confronted with a choice between printing what was a newsworthy story or refraining from doing so because printing the story could be fatal to its subject. The situation presented a question of journalistic ethics, and I think the Times clearly made the right choice.
When I attended the Ohio State University School of Journalism, ethics was part of the curriculum — not a major part, but at least a topic that was discussed. I was surprised to learn that there really are no hard and fast standards that apply to all members of the news media. Instead, every newspaper and every reporter had to make their own rough cuts. One of my journalism professors said his particular rule of thumb was never to accept a gift that could not be consumed in one sitting.
For reporters, the ethical questions can arise in countless different scenarios. If a kidnapping occurs, do you follow the requests of the police and the family on what to print and when? I think most journalists and editors would agree to do so, because no story is worth a life. Do you offer a source anonymity when you suspect that they may be leaking to pursue a political agenda? I think most journalists would say yes, if the reporter had done enough checking to believe in the truth of the source’s information and there was no other way to get the story. Do you accept a free meal or round of golf from someone trying to garner some favorable press? I think most reporters would permit themselves to do so, and believe that they could maintain their objectivity — but what if it turns into many meals, rounds of golf, and maybe a junket to an exotic location? Some lines are easier to draw than others.
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