Monday, September 23, 2013

Limits of markets - III

There has been an announcement of compensation to rape victims in West Bengal, a proposal to pay salary to housewives or the issue of gene patents. Does monetary payment  only compensate the relevant people? Or do they end up corrupting the good in question - a woman's dignity and right over her body, family relationships and a product of millions of years of evolution respectively? (There was an interesting comment in the  last link: "If they patent the gene, shouldn’t this make them legally responsible for the cancer?")

Or take the issue of water privatisation. It sounds sensible that since costs are involved in purifying and distributing water, people should be made to pay for it. It is argued that this will reduce wastage but does it? The answer is not so clear-cut. Apart from the inherent inequality involved in making available a resource that nobody can live without - have money, will get water - it also promotes a certain attitude.

The feeling of those who can afford it is -'I have paid for it so I can do what I want with it. So what if I waste it? It is my money.' Is this the attitude we want to promote for a scarce resource that everybody needs? I think wasteful use of water (especially drinking water) by anybody for any purpose, howsoever it is acquired, should carry a social stigma.

Or take the issue of Narendra Modi. There is the tendency to say that his performance on the economic front trumps everything else. It may never be proved whether he had a direct role in the Gujarat riots but that doesn't mean the riots should be forgotten. I have little sympathy with arguments like 'it has been a long time', 'Gujarat has made great economic strides', 'all sections have progressed', 'it is time to move on'...

One of the aims of punishment is that it should act as a deterrent to anybody contemplating such acts in the future. That is why you still see doddering old Nazis being dragged dragged to court even though they can't harm a fly now. The message that is sought to be sent is that if you indulge in certain kinds of activities, you will never be allowed to live in peace no matter how long it takes, no matter where you live, no matter what you do. It is hoped that this will prevent such crimes in future. The same argument applies regarding the anti-Sikh riots of 1984. The cases have to be pursued no matter how long it takes. I don't know the legal position here but I don't think  the statute of limitations applies in these cases.

I heard the head honcho of some corporate say that one of his achievements was a reduction in the workforce by 30%. It is undeniable that some companies have a bloated workforce and they need to shed some flab in order to remain competitive. If it had been described as a 'painful necessity', it would have been OK but 'an achievement'? How can inflicting pain on a large number of people be called 'an acievement'?

You can say that it is just a question of semantics but this reflects a mindset that is increasingly prevalent. Excess of market thinking leads people to view employees as nothing more than statistics to be manipulated in order to beautify the balance sheet. Such a mindset seems to to be apparent  in the case of  "janitors' insurance". It converts a safety net for families of employees  into an instrument of corporate finance. (I saw an interesting video called The Wisdom of Psychopaths.)

When market norms govern all aspects of life, it leads to the kind of response apparently given by Mukesh Ambani. (I will not elaborate on the lady's question which is another symptom of a market society.) Do people really think like this in making decisions about interpersonal relationships? It is all right for making mathematical models of human relationships in the same sense as moths 'assuming' parallel light rays the difference being that humans can do the assuming while moths presumably cannot. When such market calculations enter into human relationships, it corrupts their meaning.If market variables are used to analyse a personal relationship, you shouldn't expect anything more than a business partnership. I saw a strange statement by Larry Summers quoted in What Money Can't Buy:

"We all have only so much altruism in us. Economists like me think of altruism as a valuable and rare good that needs conserrving. Far better to conserve it by designing a system in which people's wants will be  satisfied by individuals being selfish, and saving that altruism for our families, our friends, and the many social problems in in this world that markets cannot solve."

Altruism is a 'rare good'? I have been surviving on altruism for over 14 years and have never felt that it was so rare. In this context, listen to a podcast on Radiolab called The Good show.

PS: A BBC Radio 4 podcast series, The Public Philosopher

1 comment:

  1. I enjoyed reading Mukesh Ambani's honest and candid response. I am so glad that he mentioned the fact that the lady in question has the opportunity to make the wealth herself rather than hunt for the person with wealth as her husband.
    I continue to enjoy your blog. keep it going please