Reading notes (2020, week 50) — On the Zoom gaze, work ethic, and the shift from moral to market sentiments

Image for post
Image for post
“Once you come close to the renovated Museum of Fine Arts, Steven Holl has you in his hold. From the time you approach the new translucent glass façade, you are under his spell,” Nick Mafi writes in The 11 Most Anticipated Buildings of the Year. (Photograph: The Nancy and Rich Kinder Building by Steven Holl Architects, photograph by Richard Barnes)

Reading notes is a weekly curation of my tweets. It is, as Michel de Montaigne so beautifully wrote, “a posy of other men’s flowers and nothing but the thread that binds them is mine own.”

The Zoom gaze

“Zoom, like most video-conferencing systems, defaults to presenting you with an image of yourself staring back at yourself (assuming you grant it access to your device’s camera),” Autumm Caines writes in The Zoom Gaze.

“This immediately confronts you with your own visibility: That is, you are forced to see yourself being seen. In a sense, the screen becomes a mirror, invoking earlier encounters with mirrors that (according to Lacanian theory) lay the foundation for you to subjectively recognize yourself as an object for others. In a Zoom call, however, this effect is magnified, because other people are not theoretical but right there, seeing the objectified you as well. This reflected self persists, accompanying us through our interactions unless we deliberately dismiss it. You watch yourself as you speak, as you move … oops, that piece of hair is out of place. You are self-aware and self-correcting in real time. Does my face look funny when I say ‘core competency’?

This foregrounded sense of our visibility can make us acutely conscious of matters of self-presentation, opening a gap between how we wish to be perceived and how we know ourselves to actually be. It can posit the idea of an ‘authentic’ or ‘real’ self that is showing a strategic or artificial self to others. This is one aspect of the Zoom gaze: By defaulting to and normalizing a kind of self-surveillance, the platform routinizes this kind of alienation.

But the objectification of the self doesn’t stop with the live image of you the camera captures. Being on camera turns the space you inhabit into a personal stage and everything that appears in it (including who you share space with) into props. The background you choose or the environment you are in inevitably communicates something about your identity; on Zoom these will likely be interpreted as deliberate choices. Even if you turn your camera off, your little square might become a profile picture — another choice,” Caines writes.

“Zoom presumes that we wish to be persistent objects of perception and invites the idea that everything about our appearance can be customized and personally controlled. Its defaults create the impression that we are free to choose how we appear. We can even choose virtual backgrounds that widely expand what we might want to signal about our identity. But this technology is far from perfect. At times, virtual backgrounds in Zoom were erasing Black skin altogether. It is hard to be in control of how you’re perceived when the software renders your head invisible. But even when the tech works as expected, it can’t correct for how others see you. It can only expose you to endless interpretation. This is another aspect of the Zoom gaze: It imposes an illusion of individual control over conversational conditions that actually vary from person to person, and conceals some of the interpersonal dynamics and prejudices that may be in play.”

Image for post
Image for post
“Unlike with face-to-face encounters, there can be meetings within meetings within meetings. So much is unknown and so much personal control taken away, it is easy for meetings to feel uneasy and anxious. The Zoom gaze instantiates an intensified paranoia about how conversations are administered, who is paying attention, and who will control the documentation of discussions that can no longer be off the record,” Autumm Caines writes in The Zoom Gaze. (Photograph: Zoom founder Eric Yuan at the Nasdaq opening bell ceremony on April 18, 2019 in New York City, by Kena Betancur. Courtesy of Getty Images)

“The power dynamics of a conversation are complex. In video conferencing, the software itself can assign power relations that may or may not map onto existing social relations. The Zoom gaze ultimately comprises how the software’s programmers see users in the abstract, a perspective that can condition all the other possible perspectives within a video conference. Software envisions us through the programmers’ decisions about what to allow and restrict, and what the defaults are. It encodes who the company regards as the primary customers for its product by prioritizing certain ways of seeing and normalizing certain assumption of how users should behave.

With Zoom, it seems clear that the technology is created for environments of hierarchical control. Those who created it decided to differentiate permissions between hosts, co-hosts, and participants. What if video conferencing tools worked more like a telephone in that everyone on the call has equal permissions? Big video conferencing platforms like Zoom always value and give the most power to those who established the meeting. The platform’s design seems to assume that this person is benevolent and has only the best of intentions, but there is no guarantee of that. The truth is that the host is simply the customer (or employee of the customer) who has purchased a tool to administer the control the software affords,” Caines notes.

“Even though the Zoom gaze existed pre-pandemic, its effects are now amplified, thanks not only to the increased volume of video calls but also the diversity of situations in which they have been adopted. As the pandemic pushes us to use these technologies for what we can’t do in person, let’s not forget what we are giving up to do so. Thinking about the gaze — who is watching and how we are watched; who controls the watching environment and how power dynamics are systematized — allows us to look beyond how companies would like us to see their products. Zoom would like to habituate us to these new power alignments until we regard them as normal and natural, but we do not have to accept this uncritically. We should question these alignments and resist such habituation now, so that we may more thoughtfully shape what we want togetherness to look like when the social is no longer distant.”

Beyond bullshit jobs

In October 2019, the American philosopher Elizabeth Anderson gave a talk on work ethic at an event organised by The Philosopher.

Most of Anderson’s references are to the American-style work ethic, because America has internalised the Protestant work ethic more fully than practically any other society. Other forms of work ethic, for example the kind you find in Japan, are ideologically quite different. “The American-style work ethic means that what you do for a living is central to your personal identity, a strong belief that disciplined work builds character. American workers are often on call at all hours and take that for granted. This feeds into what I’ll call ‘performative workaholism’ — showing up at work and demonstrating you’re working harder than anybody else in the office. Additionally, there is a very strong stigma on unemployment and getting ‘free stuff’ from the government,” Anderson says.

According to Anderson, one of the most prominent recent critics of the work ethic is David Graeber, the author of Bullshit Jobs: A Theory who died aged 59 last September.

“Graeber is working in a long tradition of criticising the work ethic that started, at least, with Max Weber, the great German social theorist who put the work ethic on the map as a serious moral question in his 1920 work The Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism. For Weber, the Protestant work ethic ended up rationalising capitalist exploitation of workers’ willingness to work. He didn’t think that this is why it was invented, however. Rather he argues that it was invented for theological reasons, but over time it got secularised. While workers had originally been caught up in religious beliefs, these habits survived the secularisation of society. Capitalists took advantage of the high work motivation built by habit and internalised by the workers, and generated a very exploitative system.”

But Anderson tells “a different story about the religious origins of the work ethic from within the tradition of Anglo-American political thought, starting with the very famous 17th century Puritan minister Richard Baxter. For Baxter, the chief duty of the work ethic is to engage in disciplined work in a calling, that is, a specialised occupation to which God has called you to dedicate your working life. Puritanism is an ascetic doctrine with plenty of self-denial, so Baxter’s work ethic abhors any wasted time, any idleness, any wasting of material goods, any indulgence in vanity projects or worldly pleasures — that’s all sinful. However, alongside and potentially in conflict with some elements of ascetic picture, Baxter also argued that each man must ‘frugally getteth and saveth as much as he can,’ that given a choice between a higher paying and lower paying calling, you should always choose the higher paying one.

​But why adopt the work ethic? Baxter’s justification is theological: you work hard in order to prove you have faith, and faith is of course the requirement for salvation. Any moment of idleness is a sign that you are backsliding in your faith and headed for damnation. The internal anxiety to ensure yourself of your salvation is what motivates people to work very hard in this disciplined way without any backsliding. Weber argued that over time the Protestant work ethic got secularised, but in a very conservative way that is harsh towards workers,” Anderson says. In Baxter and his fellow Puritan, she finds another side of the work ethic. One that has a remarkably pro-worker side to it.

“One of Baxter’s colleagues, the minister Robert Sanderson, had a very popular lecture that was reprinted multiple times about how one finds out what one’s calling is. Sanderson says that God is not simply going to come down in a dream and reveal to you what your occupation ought to be. Rather, you find out your calling by looking at what your talents are, seeing what education you have, what skills you have developed, consulting your tastes and considering what kind of work you enjoy or find fulfilling. Additionally, you can talk to your parents because they love you and know you and they probably have some good advice. In other words, in this sermon Sanderson invented modern career counselling!

A wonderful thing about this is that Puritans had a way of turning duties into rights. Everyone has a strict duty to find the calling that God has called them to undertake, but that turns into a right to free occupational choice because it’s your right to consult your own tastes and your own aspirations as a worker to discover your calling, and so to follow whatever occupation heightens your interest.”

Image for post
Image for post
David Graeber defines «bullshit jobs» as “a form of paid employment that is so completely pointless, unnecessary, or pernicious that even the employee cannot justify its existence even though, as part of the conditions of employment, the employee feels obliged to pretend that this is not the case.” These jobs tend to be middle-class, managerial white-collar work, often with higher prestige and with a decent income and decent job security. Yet, they are utterly pointless or even pernicious. (Photograph: David Vintiner for The Guardian)

“Baxter also had a lot of stern things to say to the rich. They have very strict duties and a chief duty is productive labour. In other words, he’s criticising the idle rich, which is what essentially all the rich were in the 17th century. Just as God commanded Adam after the fall to work by the sweat of his brow to the end of his days, so Baxter tells the aristocrats that they too have this responsibility: ‘God has strictly commanded [labour] to all,’ even if they could afford to live off their rents. Furthermore, Baxter criticises activity that just consists in extracting wealth from the system or from other people. He says that this kind of activity is ‘a prison and a constant calamity,’ that it is an ethical disaster for somebody just to be extracting wealth from other people. It’s a calamity ‘to be tied to spend one’s life in doing little good at all to others, though he should grow rich by it himself.’ He has a whole chapter on what he calls ‘oppression,’ which basically amounts to unfair and exploitative business models. To the rich he says, ‘don’t tread on [your] brethren as stepping stones of [your] own advancement.’ Do not ‘injure [your] inferiors who are unable to resist’ — in other words, you can’t bargain hard with desperate, poor and vulnerable people, but rather you have to give them decent and fair terms in a contract. He railed against monopolists, usurers, all kinds of hucksters and engrossers — all those who try to make profit by cornering a market in some good. He argued against unfair evictions of tenants (today we would look at gentrification). He said specifically that if your tenants have been used to a certain rent for their land, you’re not allowed to suddenly hike it even if the market could bear that price as that would be unfair to them.

​So there’s also a pro-worker side to the Protestant work ethic. Over time this too got secularised. You can see some of these themes arising in the classical liberals like Adam Smith and (my favourite) Thomas Paine. Elements of this work ethic were also picked up by Karl Marx, by the labour movement, and ultimately by social democracy,” Anderson says.

But since the labour movement and social democracy have weakened, “what has come to the fore in contemporary neoliberalism is a reinforced version of the conservative work ethic. We’ve lost sight of the pro-worker work ethic that was advanced by these other traditions. The United States has the greatest inequality of any rich capitalist democracy in the world. There’s a major inflection point in the early 70s. From the post-World War Two era up to about 1972, workers’ wages were rising at exactly the same rate as productivity growth. Workers were enjoying the high and rising wages that Adam Smith thought were every worker’s legitimate expectation. The point at which productivity growth and hourly compensation growth start to separate is also the occasion for the rise of the ideology of shareholder capitalism, the idea that the purpose of a corporation is solely to serve the shareholders and not the workers or consumers. At this point, workers’ hourly compensation stagnates even as productivity continues to grow immensely. The gap that opens up is the increasing share of income that’s captured by capital or by the top executives of the firm.

​CEO pay has leapt far ahead of productivity growth. A lot of top CEOs will justify this by pointing out how hard they are working, that they are not like the aristocrats of old who just idly sat by collecting rents. The idea is that if they are working really hard, harder in fact than ordinary line workers, do they not deserve however many million dollars per year by way of compensation? Here I want to channel Richard Baxter and argue that we shouldn’t confuse being very busy with actually engaging in work that enhances the welfare of people other than one’s self and maybe some idle shareholders. There are all kinds of people who are very busy, but we wouldn’t consider to be engaged in productive work. Consider, for instance, the counterfeiter. They might spend a lot of time perfecting the engraving on a fake hundred-dollar bill, so they are indisputably very busy. But this does not mean that they are adding value or promoting social welfare; they’re just lining their own pockets with some fraudulent scheme. I think a lot of the activity and overtime that the top CEOs put in these days in advanced capitalist countries similarly involves a lot of busy-ness but minimal actual labour that enhances social welfare.”

Image for post
Image for post
According to Elizabeth Anderson, “[we] shouldn’t confuse being «very busy» with actually engaging in work that enhances the welfare of people other than one’s self and maybe some idle shareholders. There are all kinds of people who are very busy, but we wouldn’t consider to be engaged in productive work.” (Photograph: David Vintiner for The Guardian)

At the end of her talk, Anderson returns to Graeber.

‘For Graeber,” she says, “bullshit jobs inflict a kind of spiritual violence on the workers who work at them. He cites the indignity of being consigned to useless busy-ness as undermining peoples’ agency, as they are not able to do work that is actually useful to anyone. It’s also humiliating to be ordered to perform tasks that are really worthless, maybe just to slake their employer’s vanity. He points to the phenomenon that in prisons, depriving prisoners of work, even if it’s menial work like working in the prison laundry, is considered punishment by the prisoners. It seems to me that those thoughts are better motivated by the pro-worker worth ethic, than they are by Graeber’s own leisure ideal. Graeber thinks that if [based on surveys in the US, the UK and the Netherlands] 40% of all work is bullshit work, then we should introduce the leisure society by just dropping all of those jobs, installing a more generous welfare state, and then everybody could work half the hours they current work.

But it seems to me that deep down underneath these complaints about spiritual violence is the thought that it really is a prison and a calamity to have a life where one isn’t useful to people. And that is exactly the thought behind the progressive work ethic. By all means we have to abolish the predatory and exploitative business models. But it’s also really important and meaningful to be engaged in activity that is socially necessary and useful. This is very different from the ideal of the leisure society where life becomes a playground and we minimise labour altogether. If it conforms to the pro-worker work ethic, work is a significant source of meaning for peoples’ lives. What we should wish for is that all jobs really are meaningful. Indeed, I don’t think we are even in a good position to introduce the leisure society, at least not yet, because humanity is facing the great crisis of climate change. This is going to require all hands on deck as we will have to completely change the infrastructure of energy, transportation, and manufacturing.

There’s plenty of meaningful work to be done in order to save humanity and the planet. If there is going to be a leisure ideal, I think it will be at least a century or two in the future before we’ll be able to think about what that might be. Our aim, then, should be to replace oppressive and meaningless work with work that actually enhances peoples’ lives, other people as well as the people who are engaged in that work.”

From moral to market sentiments

In this year’s Reith Lectures, former Bank of England governor Mark Carney charts how we have come to esteem financial value over human value and how we have gone from market economies to market societies.

In the first lecture, From Moral to Market Sentiments, Carney reflects that whenever he could step back from what felt like daily crisis management, the same deeper issues loomed. What is value? How does the way we assess value both shape our values and constrain our choices? How do the valuations of markets affect the values of our society? Carney argues that society has come to embody Oscar Wilde’s old aphorism: “knowing the price of everything but the value of nothing.”

Image for post
Image for post
“Consider three paradoxes of value. Great minds from Plato to Adam Smith have pondered why water, which is essential for life, is virtually free, but diamonds, which have limited utility beyond their beauty, are so expensive. Why do financial markets rate Amazon as one of the world’s most valuable companies, but the value of the vast region of the Amazon appears on no ledger until it’s stripped of its foliage and converted into farmland? And how can we reconcile our celebrations of the extraordinary values of public service dedication and the heroism of healthcare workers with their low wages and perilous working conditions? These are all issues of how we get what we value.” — Mark Carney in the first of his four Reith Lectures, From Moral to Market Sentiments. (Photograph courtesy of the BBC).

The following transcript was typed from the recording and not copied from the original script.

“At some point, every North American child learns a sentimental story by an American writer, O. Henry. It tells the tale of a newlywed couple one Christmas eve, penniless and frantic to find a gift for her husband, Jim, Della sells her long tresses of hair and uses the proceeds to buy a chain for his beloved watch. When they’re reunited for dinner in their small apartment that evening, she discovers that Jim has just sold his watch to buy a set of combs for her hair. He has no watch, she has cropped her hair. And although they’re left with gifts that neither can use, they realise how priceless their love really is. Now, when I first heard that story, it had its desired effect. I momentarily forgot about the hockey stick I’d been coveting and thought more about my mother’s need for new slippers. It’s in the giving that we receive. Of course, I was only eight then, and I hadn’t yet learned the true economic meaning of Christmas. I’ll come back to that later.

For now, I want to take you on a journey from grotto to Glasgow, the city where these lectures begin and end. They start in Glasgow at the height of the 18th-century Scottish enlightenment, the dawn of the industrial revolution and the home of the father of modern economics, Adam Smith. To many, this marks the rise of the market economy. The beginning of Smith’s triumphs of his best-known idea, how the invisible hand works through markets to create prosperity. These lectures will end in the Glasgow of COP26, the United Nations Climate Change Conference of the Parties where the world will gather a year from now to try to put right what has gone so wrong, to turn what the industrial revolution has wrought into the sustainable revolution. These lectures will chart how Smith’s moral sentiments turned into market sentiments, how societies’ values became equated with financial value, how this contributed to this century’s crises of credit, COVID and climate and how we can turn this around.

Consider three paradoxes of value. Great minds from Plato to Adam Smith have pondered why water, which is essential for life, is virtually free, but diamonds, which have limited utility beyond their beauty, are so expensive. Why do financial markets rate Amazon as one of the world’s most valuable companies, but the value of the vast region of the Amazon appears on no ledger until it’s stripped of its foliage and converted into farmland? And how can we reconcile our celebrations of the extraordinary values of public service dedication and the heroism of healthcare workers with their low wages and perilous working conditions? These are all issues of how we get what we value. Concepts of value are rooted in philosophy, and more recently and narrowly in economic and financial theory. Values and value are related but distinct. Values represent principles or standards of behaviour, their judgements of what is important in life, such as fairness, responsibility, sustainability, solidarity, dynamism, resilience and humility.

Value is the regard that something is held to deserve, its importance, its worth, its usefulness. Value isn’t necessarily constant but, rather, specific to time and situation. So think of Shakespeare’s Richard III who despairs in battle, ‘A horse, a horse, my kingdom for a horse,’ or the value that we have placed on daily essentials during the pandemic. Over the centuries, there have been two broad schools of thought about what determines economic value. Objective and subjective. Objective theories contend that the underlying value of a product is derived from how that product is produced, and those theories focus on how that, in turn, affects wages, profits and rents. Proponents of objective value theory span Aristotle, Adam Smith, David Ricardo and Karl Marx. These last three classical economists lived during a period of unprecedented urbanisation, industrialisation and globalisation, and they placed the growth and distribution of value squarely in the context of the enormous social and technological changes then underway. All three would have found profoundly alien the view, widespread today, that economics is a neutral, technical discipline to be pursued in isolation of such dynamics.

Adam Smith published two magisterial works. His second, The Wealth of Nations, is the most purchased, often cited and, arguably, least-read book in economics. To understand the totality of Smith’s thinking we should consider it alongside its less famous predecessor, The Theory of Moral Sentiments. Smith’s writings warn of the mistakes of equating money with capital and divorcing economic capital from its social partner. Such errors can arise from reading a few, admittedly brilliant, pages of The Wealth of Nations. This leads to the portrait of Smith as the father of laissez-faire where individuals have full freedom to transact business without any interference. But this is a caricature that grossly devalues this most considered and universal of the worldly philosophers. The phrase ‘invisible hand’ appears only once in that book, but three times in Smith’s collective writings. The central concept that links all of Smith’s works is the idea that continuous exchange forms part of all human interactions. Exchanges of goods in markets, exchanges of meanings in language and exchanges of regard and esteem in the formation of moral and social norms.

Smith believed that we form our norms or values by wishing to be loved and lovely. That is, to be well thought of or well regarded. We receive feedback from perceiving how others judge us, creating incentives to achieve mutual sympathy of sentiments. This leads people to develop habits and then principles of behaviour. So moral sentiments are not inherent. To use the modern terminology of Richard Dawkins, they’re social memes that are learned, imitated and passed on. Like genetic memes, they can mutate in behavioural cascades and tipping points. Smith’s conception of markets, like all his economics, must be seen in their broader social context. Markets are living institutions embedded in the culture, practice and tradition and trust of their day. Those markets determine the distribution of value, which he believed, as did Ricardo and Marx after him, is fundamentally derived from labour. In the late 19th and early 20th centuries a group of economists known as the neo-classicists launched an upheaval in value theory, comparable to the Copernican revolution in science. Copernicus transformed astronomy by moving its axis from the earth to the sun, and the neo-classicist shifted the axis of value theory from the factors of production, like labour, to the perceived value of goods to the consumer. In other words, from the objective to the subjective.”

Image for post
Image for post
“The central concept that links all of Smith’s works is the idea that continuous exchange forms part of all human interactions. Exchanges of goods in markets, exchanges of meanings in language and exchanges of regard and esteem in the formation of moral and social norms.” — A portrait of the political economist and philosopher Adam Smith (1723–1790) by an unknown artist, known as ‘The Muir portrait’; oil on canvas, 77.9 x 64.5 cm. Collection of the National Galleries of Scotland.

“According to this new group, people value goods that satisfy specific wants. It’s only because people value these goods that the inputs that go into making them have value. Labour does not give goods value, labour is valued because the good it helped to create is valuable. Value is in the eye of the beholder, not in the sweat of the labourer. In the century since the neo-classicist, subjective value theory has gone mainstream, and the combination of this subjective value theory, in which price equals value, and a cursory understanding of the invisible hand, in which markets yield optimal outcomes supported by unseen and unchanging moral sentiments, promotes a view that all market outcomes equal value creation and, through them, the growth of the wealth and welfare of nations. The concept of value, synonymous with economic theory a century ago, is now barely discussed. But in her magisterial book, The Value of Everything, the economist, Mariana Mazzucato, makes the case forcefully that we need a contested debate on value. So let’s have one.

The starting point is the right balance between the market and the state, and this has shifted in recent decades with markets gaining in stature and influence. The market is becoming the organising framework, not only for economies, but also increasingly for broader human relations with its reach extending well into civic and family life. In parallel, the social constraints on unbridled capitalism, religion and the tacit social contract have been steadily eased. The Thatcher/Reagan revolution fundamentally shifted the dividing line between markets and governments. This change in direction was long overdue and their reforms unleashed a new dynamism. With the fall of communism at the end of the 1980s, the spread of the market grew unchecked. And so by the time I joined the G7 as the Deputy Central Bank Governor in the early 2000s, the conventional wisdom of market efficiency reigned supreme. Policymakers like myself had nothing to tell the market, they only had to listen and learn. Put it another way, the market was always right. But as my central bank colleague, and later Italian Minister of Finance, Tommaso Padoa-Schioppa once observed, when we grant an entity infinite wisdom, we enter the realm of faith. Faith can guide life, but blind policy, and such cognitive capture led to the self-cancellation of the policymakers’ judgement as only the market knows. And such trust dictated that the only solutions proposed to market failures were to add more markets or to reduce regulation further. And we’ll examine the fallout from this approach in the next lecture [From Credit Crisis to Resilience].

For now, let’s concentrate on three related risks that the combination of subjective value and market fundamentalism encouraged. Now all economic theories are based on a number of assumptions, and subjective value theory is no different. At its core, it assumes an idealised world of perfect competition, commodity goods, complete markets and rational consumers and financiers. The many cases when these assumptions don’t hold drive a wedge between private and social value. For example, when one or just a few companies control a market, prices are too high and production is too low. Or if markets are incomplete or suddenly collapse under stress, small shocks can lead to widespread damage to asset prices, to jobs and to welfare. Or when there are externalities, that is when there are costs or benefits that we bear over which we have no control, individual actions can drive social disasters, like the climate crisis.

Now the second set of risks relate to human frailties. Behavioural science has demonstrated we’re far from perfectly rational when making decisions. We tend to support our past decisions, even if new information suggests they’re wrong. We tend to think of examples that come readily to mind and think that they’re more common than they actually are. And we’re irrationally impatient. In this context, it’s important that subjective values are time and situation-specific. Ice cream on a hot summer afternoon is more valuable than on a cold winter morning. Water in a desert is essential, as are healthcare workers, ventilators and testing capacity during a pandemic. If we value the present much more than the future, then we’re less likely to make the necessary investments today to reduce risk tomorrow. So despite a history of financial crises that stretches back centuries, banks didn’t build adequate rainy day buffers in advance of the global financial crisis. Or despite overwhelming scientific evidence, society is still underinvesting in addressing climate change, even though actions today will be less costly than those required in the future. And despite varied and amplewarnings, we didn’t invest adequately in preparedness or healthcare capacity for a pandemic. These tragedies of the horizon won’t be addressed by fixing market imperfections alone.

The third and most profound set of risks arise from the drift from moral to market sentiments. They include the undercutting of the social foundations of the market, the corrosion of values arising from the pricing of goods, services and civic virtues, that have been traditionally outside the market, and the flattening of values by forcing decisions to be made according to utilitarian calculations. Let’s take the first of these drifts, the changing nature of markets. Now of course markets don’t exist in a vacuum, the market is a social construct whose effectiveness is determined partly by the rules of the state and partly by the values of society. It requires the right institutions, a supportive culture and the maintenance of social licence. Values of trust, integrity and fairness are critical to effective market functioning, and these values have increasingly been taken for granted. Milton Friedman’s classic pion to shareholder value includes the following caveat: A corporate executive’s responsibility is to make as much money as possible, while conforming to the basic rules of society, both those embedded in law and in ethical custom.

And where do these basic rules come from? Economic and political philosophers from Adam Smith to Friedrich Hayek have long recognised that beliefs are part of the inherited social capital which provides the social framework for the free market. That social capital is the product of both formal institutions and culture, including what the Nobel laureate, Douglass North, referred to as incentives embodied in belief systems. The question is whether the expansion of the market, an expansion that Friedman helped unleash, is changing the underlying social contract on which it has been based. Could the emphasis on the individual over the community or on our selfish traits over our altruistic ones imperil both the market’s effectiveness in determining value and ultimately society’s values? In short, in moving from a market economy to a market society, are we consuming the social capital necessary to create economic and human capital? The ethical customs that Friedman assumes can change. Indeed, many of those necessary to support market functioning are corroded when financial returns become disembodied from their impact on other stakeholders. Friedman himself revealingly acknowledged the importance of such moral sentiments when he observed that a company might devote resources to provide amenities to its community, but only in the expectation of attracting employees, and that it could engage in such hypocritical window dressing by calling this social responsibility lest it, and I quote, ‘Harm the foundations of the free market to admit that this fraud was all in the pursuit of profit alone.’ This is how corrosion happens, and did happen in the ensuing decades.”

Image for post
Image for post
“One of the great mistakes is to judge policies and programs by their intentions rather than their results.” — Milton Friedman in Living Within Our Means, an interview from 1975 with Richard D. Heffner (Photograph of Milton Friedman, 2004, courtesy of EdChoice, formerly the Friedman Foundation for Educational Choice)

“And that brings me to the second drift, which is the way the spread of market mechanisms can change and corrode society’s values. A traditional concern is what happens to our values when we have a hierarchy based only on wealth, whereas the novelist, Tom Wolfe, might have put it, ‘Boom, a statisphere built on money.’ Smith’s theory of moral sentiments argued that people form their norms and values by wishing to be well thought of or well regarded, yet, increasingly, the value of something, some act or someone is equated with its monetary value, a monetary value that is determined by the market. The logic of buying and selling no longer applies only to material goods, but increasingly it governs the whole of life from the allocation of healthcare, education, public safety and environmental protection. Standard economic reasoning is that the spread of market exchanges increases efficiency without moral cost, but when everything becomes relative is anything immutable?

The philosopher, Michael Sandel, takes the view that market values and reasoning are reaching into spheres of life previously governed by non-market norms, including procreation, child-rearing, health and education, sports, criminal justice, environmental protection, military service, political campaigns, public spaces and civic life. There is considerable evidence that commodification, putting a good or service up for sale, can corrode the value of the activity being priced. Take the celebrated study of how to incentivise children who are raising money for charity, would students raise more money if they were paid? In fact, the group of children motivated only by charitable and civic virtue raised the most. Similarly, fines for late pick-ups of children from daycare are viewed as a fee for extra hours, and voluntary blood donations in the UK out pay blood for sale in the US. In all these cases money crowds out civic norms. A moral error of many mainstream economists is to treat civic and social virtues as scarce commodities. This ignores the extensive evidence that civic virtue and public spirit atrophy with disuse would grow like muscles with regular exercise. As Aristotle observed, virtue is something we cultivate with practise, we become just by doing just acts, temperate by doing temperate acts, brave by doing brave acts.

This observation will be familiar with the civic response to COVID. No-one paid the groups that spontaneously volunteered to sew and donate makeshift PPE and protective masks. No citizen drew on government payment to help elderly neighbours or the homeless in their communities. And no government fiat told over one million people to volunteer for the NHS. Solidarity during the first lockdown was, yes, contagious. When we outsource civic virtue to pay third party providers, we narrow the scope of society and encourage people to withdraw from it. There is extensive evidence of a commercialisation effect. When people are engaged in an activity that they see as intrinsically valuable, offering them money weakens their motivation. By depreciating, we’ve been crowding out the intrinsic interest or commitments. In these ways, the spread of the market can undermine community, one of the most important determinants of happiness.

Now the final corrosion of the drift from moral to market sentiments is how the spread of subjective value flattens values when we make decisions. An advantage of the subjective approach to value is that it is neutral. Most things can be compared by a common, widely available standard, that is, the market price. The disadvantage is that it sets in train a process in which welfare is interpreted simply as the sum of all prices. This flattens values, adding them up with no hierarchy or consideration of their distribution. As we shall see, it encourages trade-offs of growth today and crisis tomorrow. Trade-offs of health and economics, trade-offs of planet and profit. And this is compounded by something which should be a familiar problem, that subjectivism implies that anything not priced is not valuable. This encourages bringing more goods and activities into markets, a process that can affect perceptions of their value. The alternative is to have many assessments of the costs and benefits of new policies that infer prices because there isn’t a market. But as we shall see in the third lecture, how reasonable are complex and literally vital estimates of the value of life? Moreover, our general failure to put a price on social infrastructure and social capital can lead to underinvestment in what matters for wellbeing.

In standard GDP accounting, government contributes no value add beyond public sector salaries. But what captures performance during the crisis? The pay of the healthcare worker or their heroic efforts throughout? There are two ways to address the gap in these calculations, both of which originated in the 19th century, the utilitarian approach of Jeremy Bentham and the welfarist approach of John Stuart Mill. Bentham defined utility as that property in any object whereby it tends to produce benefit, advantage, pleasure, good or happiness, or to prevent the happening of mischief, pain, evil or unhappiness to the party whose interest is considered. The very idea of happiness needs to be defined, purely hedonic measures of welfare, that is, pleasure and pain, are inadequate. Mill described what Bentham’s calculations missed, including a sense of honour and personal dignity, the love of beauty, the passion of the artist, the love of order, of congruity, of consistency in all things, the love of action and the love of ease. Mills’ intuition is backed by extensive research into the science of wellbeing which finds that a wide range of determinants of human happiness aren’t priced, and these include mental and physical health, human relationships, community, dignity and the general social climate. These can be hard to calculate and, again, efforts to calculate them can be corrosive.

And a final point, distribution matters. When there are large benefits for disadvantaged groups, and only small costs for others, a policy may enhance welfare, despite what market values suggest. A Christmas bonus of £1,000 pounds means less to Mark Zuckerberg then £500 does to someone on a minimum wage. Which, as promised, brings me back to the season of goodwill. To many economists, this gift-giving is fraught with inefficiencies. Joel Waldfogel has calculated the loss in utility that results from imperfect gifts in kind, rather than efficient gifts in cash, and he attributes the practice of presents over-payments to the stigma over cash giving. He calls this the deadweight loss of Christmas. His article, published in the most prestigious economic journal [The American Economic Review], fails to consider that the stigma against monetary gifts reflects norms worth honouring and encouraging, like attentiveness and thoughtfulness. And it’s this juxtaposition of the magi and the merchant that captures much of the story of value thus far. Today, the subjective approach to value has spread widely. Market value is taken to represent intrinsic value, and if a good or activity is not in the market, it is not valued. We’re approaching the extremes of commodification as commerce expands deep into the personal and civic realms. The price of everything becomes the value of everything.”

In the remaing lectures, Carney explores how these dynamics contributed to a series of crises of credit, COVID and climate and how, by recognising these dynamics, we can build a society that better works for all.

And also this…

“The motive for all media use,” Mack Hagood argues in Emotional Rescue, “can be found in the pages of Spinoza’s Ethics. Conceiving of humans as bodies that contend with the constant churn of cause and effect, he writes that we experience three basic affects: joy (when the world enlivens and enables us), sadness (when it diminishes and disables us), and desire (for the things we believe will bring joy and prevent sadness). Media are the servants of desire. If we live in media today, it is because we have spent many decades — if not thousands of years — trying to secure a joyful enclosure.

Our failure to understand media in this way sets up the joyless paradox the West now seems to find itself in. Media are defined as means for transmitting information, and an informed populace is thought to be the foundation of liberal democracy. So it is bewildering to find that increased information availability has actually fragmented any shared understanding of the world and amplified enmity between those inhabiting increasingly differentiated dataspaces.”

Almost inhumanly prolific, Cole Porter produced a new kind of American lyric — and language, Adam Gopnik writes in The Pleasure and Pain of Being Cole Porter, a beautiful essay for The new Yorker about one of the greatest 20th-century American composers and songwriters.

“All art aspires to the condition of music, Walter Pater wrote; within music itself, all music dreams of becoming another kind of music. Art songs dream of becoming pop songs and pop songs dream of becoming folk songs, too familiar to need an author. We hear Porter now without knowing that itʼs Porter weʼre hearing. Like Stephen Foster, he sublimated his suffering into his songs, until the songs are all we have, thereby achieving every artistʼs dream, to cease to be a suffering self and become just one of those things we share.”

Image for post
Image for post
“Cole Porter’s genial and productive surface masked turbulent waters,” Adam Gopnik writes in The Pleasure and Pain of Being Cole Porter. (Photograph by Horst P Horst)

At the time when “Nebuchadnezzar II is plundering Jerusalem, Solon ruling Athens, Phoenician seafarers circumnavigating the African continent for the first time, and Anaximander postulating that an indefinite primal matter is the origin of all things and that the soul is air-like in nature, Sappho writes:”

He seems to me equal to the gods that man
whoever he is who opposite you
sits and listens close
….to your sweet speaking

and lovely laughing — oh it
puts the heart in my chest on wings
for when I look at you, even a moment, no speaking
….is left in me

no: tongue breaks and thin
fire is racing under skin
and in eyes no sight and drumming
….fills ears

and cold sweat holds me and shaking
grips me all, greener than grass
I am and dead — or almost
….I seem to me.

But all is to be dared, because even a person of poverty …

(Fragment 31, translated by Anne Carson, from If Not, Winter)

From What We Know of Sappho, by Judith Schalansky (The Paris Review, December 8, 2020)

Image for post
Image for post
“There are not many surviving literary works older than the songs of Sappho: the down-to-earth Epic of Gilgamesh, the first ethereal hymns of the Rigveda, the inexhaustible epic poems of Homer and the many-stranded myths of Hesiod, in which it is written that the Muses know everything. ‘They know all that has been, is, and will be.’ Their father is Zeus, their mother Mnemosyne, a titaness, the goddess of memory,” Judith Schalansky writes in What We Know of Sappho. (Photograph: Marble head of woman, copy by an unknown artist, probably from a statue of Sappho by Silanion, ca. 340–330 BC. Collection of the Glyptothek, Munich)

In 2010, The Guardian published two new translations of Rainer Maria Rilke’s sonnet Archäischer Torso Apollos by Sarah Stutt; one closer to Rilke’s original, the other a looser version.

According to Carol Rumens, “The looser version […] is more impressionistic. The preoccupation now is with creating a soundscape by using assonantal rhymes, often quite distant ones. The lines are shorter, the movement brisker. Rhythmically, the brevity works well. I find the last three lines of the second stanza effective, even while liking the more elaborate imagery of steering and gliding in the first translation. ‘A lump of rock with no vision’ is particularly striking, a jolt that thrusts us up against the raw material as it was before the artist transformed it. We seem to meet a younger Apollo in this version, a decisive, sexy god whose ‘lion’s mane’ reminds us he is a god of the sun.”

Here’s the second, looser translation.

Apollo’s Archaic Torso

We will never know his magnificent head,
the ebb and flow of his youth -
an orchard of ripening fruit,
yet his fire has not diminished,

incandescent light radiates
from his torso, and in the curve
of his loins, a smile turns
towards the centre of creation.

Or else this body would be disfigured -
a lump of rock with no vision,
unable to glisten like a lion’s mane.

It would not burst out of its skin
like a star: for its searing gaze
penetrates your soul, the way you live.

Image for post
Image for post
Marble torso of the so-called Apollo Lykeios, 130–161 A.D.; Roman copy of a Greek bronze statue of the mid-4th century B.C. often attributed to Praxiteles. Collection of The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York.
Image for post
Image for post
“A report by Swiss bank UBS [titled Riding the Storm] found that billionaires increased their wealth by more than a quarter (27.5%) at the height of the crisis from April to July.” Although it “did not rank the fortunes of the world’s wealth, but the richest person on the planet is Jeff Bezos, the founder and chief executive of Amazon, with $189bn. Bezos’s wealth has increased by $74bn so far this year, according to the Bloomberg billionaires index, due to the surge in Amazon’s share price as more people turned to the company,” Rupert Neate writes inThe wealth of the world’s billionaires has risen by more then $10t since the start of the pandemic (Photograph of Jeff Bezos by Christopher Patey, courtesy of Getty Images)

“The debate over market v government serves to distract the public from the underlying realities of how the rules are generated and changed, from the power of the moneyed interests over this process, and the extent to which they gain from the results. In other words, not only do these ‘free market’ advocates want the public to agree with them about the superiority of the market, but also about the central importance of the interminable and distracting debate over whether the market or the government should prevail.

Reading notes will be back next week, if fortune allows, of course. In the meantime, if you want to know more about my work with senior executives and leadership teams, please visit markstorm.nl. You can also browse through my writings and follow me on Twitter.

Written by

helping leaders navigate complexity with confidence & clarity of thought | varius multiplex multiformis

Get the Medium app

A button that says 'Download on the App Store', and if clicked it will lead you to the iOS App store
A button that says 'Get it on, Google Play', and if clicked it will lead you to the Google Play store