Four Books on Money in Politics
WHAT MONEY CAN’T BUY: THE MORAL LIMITS OF MARKETS
by Michael J. Sandel
Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2012
PITY THE BILLIONAIRE: THE HARD TIMES SWINDLE AND THE UNLIKELY COMEBACK OF THE RIGHT
by Thomas Frank
Metropolitan Books, 2012
TWILIGHT OF THE ELITES: AMERICA AFTER MERITOCRACY
by Christopher Hayes
Turns out there’s not much that money can’t buy in contemporary America in the era of market triumphalism. Money buys access to the carpool lane while driving solo, the services of a surrogate mother to carry a pregnancy, the right to immigrate to the United States, quicker access to concierge doctors, a kidney when your own fails, a baby from an adoption agency, entrance into many elite colleges, and abundant sex. Moral philosopher Michael J. Sandel describes dozens of situations in which market values are squeezing out moral values in our daily lives. He cautions against the attempt to force citizens to “leave their moral and spiritual convictions behind when they enter the public square,” warning that this effort has “drained public discourse of moral and civic energy, and contributed to the technocratic, managerial politics that afflicts many societies today.” Written in an easily accessible style, this book is one of the most effective critiques of marketplace capitalism produced in decades.
If you need further evidence of the corruption produced by the capitalist economy, Thomas Frank’s Pity the Billionaire presents the data for a strong conclusion. “Our leaders have been chasing the free-market dream for thirty-some years now,” he writes, “and for every step closer they’ve brought us, the more inequality has grown.” Frank makes clear that Democrats have not been more politically successful largely due to their commitment to the ideology of the capitalist marketplace rather than to serious populism.
Christopher Hayes tells us that to change our society, we need to distinguish between the institutionalists and the insurrectionists. Institutionalists believe that preserving the existing economic, political, and social institutions is the best way to create or maintain the good life (think David Brooks of the New York Times). They believe our system is “meritocratic” in the sense that those who rise to wealth and power deserve to be there. Insurrectionists, on the other hand, believe that our institutions are fundamentally broken and seek to rethink our fundamental presuppositions. Hayes sympathizes with the latter group and shows how the elites have failed us. He writes, “Our educational system, the federal government, the national security state, and Wall Street must be confronted and reformed.”
Chuck Collins and the New Economy Working Group show us how to carry out Hayes’s vision. After a powerful analysis of how inequality wrecks everything we believe in, Collins goes on to present a series of steps that would definitely “change the playing field.” Collins’ suggestions are precisely what a serious populist wing of the Democratic Party would be talking about, if such a wing existed. Unfortunately, Collins’s group misses the spiritual dimension of human needs and comes off as a bit too technocratic—but that’s a story we tell in other ways in Tikkun.
(To return to the Fall 2012 Table of Contents, click here.)