Tag Archives: Michael Sandel

Best Posts of Jeremiah Stanghini’s Blog in 2014

If you read last year’s “best of” post, you’ll notice that there’s some overlap with this year’s “best of” post. However, some of the posts that didn’t overlap surprised me. Similar to last year, at first, I’m inclined to do a best of 2014 and a best of all-time, but after looking at the statistics, the best of 2014 and the best of all-time are pretty close, so it won’t be all that interesting to do separate posts. As a result, I decided to just do the one post of the best posts of 2014. I also considered picking a bunch of articles and calling them “underrated” because they hadn’t garnered the views that some of the other posts had. I might still do that, but not in the next few weeks.

Before revealing the top 6 posts along with an excerpt, there is one thing to keep in mind. On this site, I specifically chose a theme where folks wouldn’t have to click a link to view the whole post (only to share or comment because those links are on the post’s page). As a result, the statistics for the most popular posts are sure to be skewed because people may have read a certain post more than another, but without them clicking the link for the post, there’s no way (that I know of) for me to know. On top of that, the theme I’ve chosen here allows the viewer to scroll (all the way to the first post!) What does that mean? When you’re on the homepage, you can continue to scroll down and more posts will load… all the way ’til you get to the first post. And in looking at the statistics of the top posts, it’s clear that “scrolling down” is far and away the most popular “post” on this site (this was true last year and the year before and will probably be true for as long as the site’s theme remains the same). With that in mind, here they are with an excerpt for each:

The Official Final Jeopardy Spelling Rules [UPDATED]

If you know me, you know that I’m really good at finding things on the Internet. After doing a couple of cursory google searches (Final Jeopardy RulesOfficial Final Jeopardy RulesOfficial Jeopardy Rules), I was surprised that I couldn’t find them. Sometimes, the site that hosts a document like this doesn’t do a good job of using keywords. So, I thought I’d poke around the official Jeopardy site — nothing.

After some more derivations of “Rules of Jeopardy,” I was beginning to think that maybe the rules aren’t online. I thought that maybe the contestants were handed a paper copy that they signed before going on the show and that document wasn’t online. Having never been a contestant on Jeopardy (though I’d like to be some time!) I couldn’t confirm whether this was true. However, given that it’s a game show, I’m sure they signed something before going on the show. Regardless, I didn’t have access to that document.

Sheldon Cooper Presents “Fun With Flags”: A YouTube Series of Podcasts

The other day I happened to be eating lunch and staring off out the window. While that may not seem important, it is. Most of the time, I like to be reading or doing something, while I’m eating. I completely understand that it’s probably better to not do this, but I often can’t help myself. Anyway, as I was sitting and justeating, an idea came to me. (Don’t you find that ideas come to you when you’re not thinking about them?) The idea, as the title of this post suggests, a web series from one of The Big Bang Theory’s main cast members: Sheldon Cooper.

Advancing America’s Public Transportation System: High-Speed Rail in the USA

When it was first announced that the US was going to work on , I was very excited! Growing up in the , I am very familiar with the value of public transportation. I often rode a bus to and from school. As I matured and wanted to explore downtown with my friends, we’d ride the  to get there from the suburban area we lived. Beyond that, when I needed to make trips between Detroit and Toronto, I would ride the  between Toronto and Windsor instead of taking the 45 minute flight. Public transportation is a great way, in my opinion, to feel better about reducing one’s .

Chapter 2 – Fines vs. Fees: What Money Can[‘t] Buy, Part 2

In the first post in this series, I chewed on the material from chapter 1 of Professor Michael Sandel‘s book, What Money Can’t Buy. The first chapter was all about jumping the line (or budding, as I remember it from my elementary school days). In Chapter 2, the theme was incentives.

In The End, Everything Will Be OK – If It’s Not OK, It’s Not Yet The End

It’s no secret that I like quotes. Since converting my Facebook profile to a Facebook page, I’ve gotten into the habit of sharing a “quote of the day.” If my calculations are correct, I’ve been sharing quotes of the day for over 80 days now. As you’ll notice that I also have a quotes category, I’ve shared a number of quotes here on this site, too. And if I think back to the days of AIM (AOL Instant Manager), I often had quotes as my “away” message. And even before then, I remember really liking quotes in high school and in elementary (or grade) school. So, like I said, it’s no secret that I like quotes.

Chapter 3 – Fairness and Inequality: What Money Can[‘t] Buy, Part 3

It’s been a couple of weeks since I last finished a chapter in Michael Sandel’s book, What Money Can’t Buy. I recently completed chapter 3 a couple of nights ago and there were some intriguing things to think about. Let’s get right to it!

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The Problem With Facebook: Is It Really Out of Room to Grow?

I rarely read the front page of YouTube, but today when I typed in YouTube to my address bar (with the intention of finding some music to listen to while I worked), one of the videos I saw on the front page was titled “The Problem With Facebook.” Truth be told, I thought it was a video by MinutePhysics and thought that there was going to be some scientific explanation of Facebook’s problems, but it turns out the video was by 2veritasium. (I guess MinutePhysics may have liked the video, so that’s why I saw their name or maybe they had just come out with another video, who knows.)

Anyway, if you have Facebook (or had Facebook) or know anything about Facebook, I’d say it’s worth the 6 and a half minutes to watch it:

I’m not sure what the fellow’s name is, but it reminds me of when George Takei went on a bit of a rant about Facebook not letting him reach all of his fans on Facebook. At the time, I think I still had a Facebook profile (rather than the page I have now) and I thought that was strange that your posts weren’t reaching all of your friends — by design.

The fellow in this video makes that same point, but he does it in a more thorough way than I remember Takei doing it (which is not to say Takei didn’t do it), and he also juxtaposes Facebook with YouTube. He makes a rather compelling argument, but something I don’t think he highlights is that he kind of has a vested interest in YouTube being more successful — his videos are hosted on YouTube! Now, this doesn’t really take anything away from the argument — it’s sound — but I think it’s worth noting.

Throughout the video, he talks about the incentives. I wonder what Michael Sandel would say about the incentives in this situation. Would he say that the incentives have been perverted? It’s tough to say because Facebook is trying to make money and there’s nothing inherently wrong with that, but I wonder if maybe they’ve strayed a bit too far from the original purpose of the site.

There’s one last thing I want to highlight from the video — in part — because it dovetails nicely with something that I’ve been trumpeting on here for awhile. He argues that Facebook has already maxed out, with regard to the amount of time people spend on the site per day (approximately 30 minutes) and that Facebook has already reached just about everyone in the developing world. When it comes to online video, however, he argues that there is still lots of room to grow based on the fact that people still don’t watch that much of it when compared to television. I might not put it in those words exactly, but I think he’s on the right track.

If even the President of the United States knows that Facebook is becoming or already is unpopular with young folks, I have to think that the smart people over at Facebook know this, too. As they’ve got a fiduciary duty to their shareholders, I’m sure they’ve been hard at work trying to figure out just how they’re going to capture more value — translation: how they are going to make more money.

Who knows… maybe Facebook will soon go the way of the social networks that have gone before it. Remember MySpace?

Would You Rather Pay Fees or Taxes?

A little over a week ago, Matt Yglesias wrote a post on Slate about how to balance the budget while slashing taxes. The solution: call everything a fee.

Well we could solve an awful lot of problems that way. For example, I’d love to see us impose a greenhouse gas emissions fee to internalize the social cost of carbon dioxide. On top of that, I think a small additional fee on the use of gasoline would be justified. And of course road congestion fees on crowded highways. I used to think we should raise the alcoholic beverages tax, but now I think we should eliminate it entirely. Instead, let’s put an “alcohol fee” in place that just happens to be higher than the current tax. Do the same for cigarettes. Legalize marijuana, but subject its sale to a rather hefty fee. It actually turns out that we could replace most taxes on labor and capital with a land occupancy fee, especially if we call it a “land occupancy fee” rather than a “land value tax.”

After reading this post, it made me think of Michael Sandel’s chapter about fines versus fees. Maybe some of the things that Yglesias is talking about in this post should actually be labeled fines and not fees. For instances, if we’re talking about internalizing the social cost of carbon dioxide, isn’t there a moral piece to it? That is, shouldn’t we call this a fine, then? You may disagree, but the nomenclature in this case does matter.

It seems a bit absurd to think that people would be more amenable to paying money for something merely by changing the label from ‘tax’ to ‘fee,’ but labels matter.

While it’s certainly a creative idea to start charging fees and lower taxes, there is an important bit to consider here. Namely, the control of these fees. Have you ever had to pay a fee to get your license renewed? Do you know how much it costs the government to ‘actually’ renew your license? I don’t. But I know that I get charged close to $100 to renew it. Josh Barro solidifies the point:

Politicians tend to regard fees as more palatable than taxes, and more focused too. If a state needs to finance an infrastructure to oversee fishing, why shouldn’t fishermen foot the bill? But groups like the nonpartisan Tax Foundation in Washington worry that governments are now using fees to shore up budget shortfalls rather than cover specific costs incurred by specific users.

“When it comes to paying for bananas, you’ve got the market as a mechanism to make sure you’re paying a fair price,” says Josh Barro, a staff economist at the Tax Foundation. “But when it comes to getting your driver’s license renewed, the government has a monopoly, and you have no idea what it costs the state or what it’s doing with the money.”

The moral of the story: maybe taxes aren’t so bad after all.

What Do You Do When You’re THAT Much Better Than The Competition?

The Miami Heat have won the last two NBA championships and they’ve been to the finals for the last three years (losing in Game 7 of the finals before winning back-to-back championships). So far this year, they’re one of two teams in the Eastern Conference (as of this writing) to have a winning record. The other team being the Indiana Pacers, whom many think will challenge the Heat for the best team in the Eastern Conference this season. If we take a peek at the Western Conference, we see that there are quite a few more teams with winning records. In fact, there are five times as many winning teams in the West than in the East.

I’m not here to talk about the parity in the NBA conferences, even though it’s clear that there is, but instead, about the Heat and their competition. That is, they’ll play most of their games against the Eastern conference, of which there are only two teams with winning records. Given that the Heat have been an elite team for the last three years, it’s not surprising that a they’d have to resort to “games within games” to stay focused.

After reading that article on SB Nation, I thought to myself how difficult it must be for the Miami Heat coach (Erik Spoelstra) to keep his players focused, not only as each season wears on, but as each game wears on and each quarter wears on. The Heat have played 23 games so far this season and have won 17 of them. While they’re not in first place in the conference (that title belongs to the other winning team in the East, the Pacers), they’re well above the 3rd place team in the conference. For a team that plays that much better than its opponents on a nightly basis, one can see how it might be easy for the players to lose focus. Heck, it’s possible that a few of those six losses came as a result of the team losing focus after having outplayed the other team through the first few quarters of the game.

The reason I’ve raised this issue is because I was thinking about the success of a “games within games” strategy. For instance, let’s say that the “game inside the game” for today’s game is that we’re going to try to get the ball to the guy down low. That is, the strategy is to beat this team by using a certain player in a certain way. I wonder what happens when it gets down to near the end of the game and the score is close — do you abandon that strategy? And if you do, how do you get the players who hadn’t been as involved ready to go now that it’s the key time in the game?

A games within games strategy can be successful, but I worry at what cost.

This also reminds me of one of the chapters in Michael Sandel’s book that we reviewed about 6 months ago — the idea of fines and fees. In particular, the idea that parents pay their kids to read. By doing so, parents are incentivizing a certain behaviour. The worry, from some, is that by paying their kids to read, the kids will no longer derive the same joy out of reading if there’s no incentive involved. If we apply that to this situation, I wonder if the strategy of using the one player in that one game might pervert the incentives for the team. And not just in that game, but over the long haul. Maybe the players don’t then have the same incentives as before when there aren’t games within games.

Of course, I’m not an NBA basketball coach (or even a high school basketball coach), but I think it’s still an idea worth considering.

Markets and Morality: Why We Shouldn’t Trust Markets with Our Civic Life

About a month ago, I finished up a series about Michael Sandel’s book, What Money Can’t Buy. I really enjoyed reading through the chapters and chewing on the material. As you may recall, I also highly recommended watching Prof. Sandel’s course: Justice. A few day ago, I noticed that one of Sandel’s more recent TEDTalks was published online. After watching it, I thought I’d pass it along to you as a great way to get a quick understanding of some of the things that Sandel talks about in his book. The talk was filmed this past summer.

As I think about markets and morals, I can’t help but seem to agree with much of what Sandel is saying. I’m also aware that not everyone shares his opinion about markets and morality. Do you agree? Do you think that allowing markets to decide everything is crowding out morals? I’d be really interested to hear your opinions.

I do as best I can to take in opinions and information that is contrary to my opinions, but it can be difficult. Especially in the internet environment, it’s quite easy to get caught up in the echo chamber of your own thoughts and beliefs. That’s part of the reason that I try to write posts that provide a new perspective on issues.

On this matter in particular, I’d like to your opinions on Prof. Sandel’s idea of markets and morality. In fact, I’m hoping that some of you disagree with Prof. Sandel and you think that markets are truly the answer to everything. I’m hoping that you think that markets should operate in every part of our lives. I’m hoping that you think what Prof. Sandel is saying is wrong. Most of all, I’m hoping that you can offer a cogent response that’s at least half as well-sourced as Prof. Sandel’s book.

Chapter 5 – The Commercialization of Everything: What Money Can[’t] Buy, Part 5

About a week ago, I got back to the series I was doing about the chapters in Michael Sandel‘s book, What Money Can’t Buy. In the first chapter, we looked at things like when it’s okay to jump the line. In the second chapter, we looked at the difference between fines and fees. In the third chapter, we looked at fairness and inequality. In last week’s post, the fourth chapter, we looked at corporate-owned life insurance and placebos. In today’s post, the fifth and final chapter, we’ll look at the commercialization of everything.

I wasn’t expecting to come across sports in this book, so I was pleasantly surprised when the first few pages were about stadiums being renamed by corporate sponsors. I didn’t realize that this was a fairly new thing. In 1988 only three sports stadiums had been renamed by corporate sponsors. Sixteen years later, in 2004, there were sixty-six. The amount of money went up significantly, too. In 1988, the deals totaled $25 million, while in 2004, the amount came to a whopping $3.6 billion! In 2010, over 100 stadiums in the United States were named for corporate sponsors. So, in the span of less than 25 years, we went from 3 corporate-sponsored stadiums to more than 100.

Having grown up in Toronto, I still find myself referring to Rogers Centre as Skydome. 

This chapter also discussed the idea of athletes selling their autograph. In the old days, this wasn’t even something to be considered. Many athletes willingly signed cards and sports equipment (i.e. baseball, hockey pucks, etc.) for fans. Near the same time that stadiums were being renamed, some athletes were beginning to sell their autographs rather than giving them away. This may seem greedy at first, but consider that athletes from before the 80s weren’t necessarily making lucrative contracts. In fact, athletes back then were not only often paid much worse than athletes today, but they were more on par with what you’d be paid to be an employee at a “normal job.”

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The chapter then moves into a discussion of — in my words — the commercialization of everything.We’re now seeing advertisements and commercials in places we wouldn’t have ever imagined. For instance, when you pump gas, there’s a TV above the pump feeding you advertisements. Or how about when you’re driving down the highway. It’s kind of hard to ignore some of those catchy billboards, isn’t it? Then, there’s the always in vogue idea of product placement. Some of the places you find product placement was a bit surprising. I didn’t know that police stations were in talks to have cars with advertisements on them nor did I realize that in some state parks around the US are there advertisements for things like North Face.

I was surprised to read about some of the commercialization in the US, especially when I know that in some states, there’s a ban on billboards (Alaska, Hawaii, Maine, and Vermont). Moving outside of the US, I know that some countries (or maybe the citizens of those countries) have a real aversion to commercials seeping into unwanted places. For instance, São Paulo in Brazil hasn’t allowed public advertising since 2006. I also know that TV commercials in Germany aren’t nearly as frequent as they are in the US. On most German TV stations, there can’t be more than 20 minutes of commercials (before 8pm).

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The last part of the chapter ends the book almost exactly the way I would have [Emphasis added]:

Once we see that markets and commerce change the character of the goods they touch, we have to ask where markets belong — and where they don’t. And we can’t answer this question without deliberating about the meaning and purpose of goods, and the values that should govern them.

Such deliberations touch, unavoidably, on competing conceptions of the good life. This is terrain on which we sometimes fear to tread. For fear of disagreement, we hesitate to bring our moral and spiritual convictions into the public square. But shrinking from these questions does not leave them undecided. It simply means that markets will decide them for us. This is the lesson of the last three decades. The era of market triumphalism has coincided with a time when public discourse has been largely empty of moral and spiritual substance. Our only hope of keeping markets in their place is to deliberate openly and publicly about the meaning of the goods and social practices we prize.

In addition to debating the meaning of this good or that good, we also need to ask a bigger question, about the kind of society in which we wish to live…

At a time of rising inequality, the marketization of everything means that people of affluence and people of modest means lead increasingly separate lives. We live and work and shop and play in different places. Our children go to different schools. You might call it the skyboxification of American life. It’s not good for democracy, nor is it a satisfying way to live.

Democracy does not require perfect equality, but it does require that citizens share a common life. What matters is that people of different backgrounds and social positions encounter one another, and bump up against one another, in the course of everyday life. For this is how we learn to negotiate and abide by our differences, and how we come to care for the common good.

So, if you prefer not to get too deep into a discussion of inequality that focuses on wealth, then I’d encourage you to think about the ideas that Prof. Sandel is talking about here at the end of the book. He’s just spent the last 200 pages explaining how markets (in some places), to some people, are corroding the value of these goods. Regardless of which side of the fence you fall down on, maybe it’s time we start talking about this. Maybe it’s time to have a dialogue in the public square of more moral and spiritual substance. Of course, this might not be as easy as it sounds, as he says, the last three decades have been void of this.

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If you liked this paper/series, you might want to check out some of the other papers/series I’ve posted.

 

Chapter 4 – Corporate-Owned Life Insurance and Placebos: What Money Can[‘t] Buy, Part 4

It’s been more than a month since I last completed a post in this series. To refresh your memory: we were looking at the chapters in Michael Sandel‘s book, What Money Can’t Buy. In the first chapter, we looked at things like when it’s okay to jump the line. In the second chapter, we looked at the difference between fines and fees. In the third chapter, we looked at fairness and inequality. In today’s post, the fourth chapter, we’ll look at the markets in life and death.

As with previous chapters, I’ve learned something that I didn’t even know existed. In this chapter, I learned about something called “janitors insurance.” This is another way of saying corporate-owned life insurance. Meaning, a company takes out a life insurance policy on its workers. Now, you may have already assumed (or thought) that companies might take out a life insurance policy on the CEO, as the time and energy that would need to go into finding a new CEO should the current one die suddenly, but would you have considered that some companies take out life insurance policies on workers much lower on the organizational chart?

I’m a little uneasy with this idea and I’m not sure which side I’d come down on if forced to choose. It’s certainly a delicate subject.

This chapter also talked about people being able to sell their life insurance policies. Let’s say a man (or woman) is the breadwinner in the family and takes out life insurance when he’s (or she’s) in his (or her) early 30s. The life insurance is really *only* important to the family through the breadwinner’s working years. So, when the person turns 65 (or when they retire), they feel that they no longer need that insurance — and sell it. Do you think that’s ethical? Is it unethical to prevent someone from selling it?

Again, I’m really not sure what’s right in this situation. For some reason, it feels a little more ethical that the people are willingly selling the life insurance that they had previously bought rather than if someone took out life insurance without their knowledge. Though, I’m aware that this may just be the contrast effect at play.

There were other variations on this theme throughout the chapter, but the one thing that I kept thinking about in response to this idea is the variations on the placebo effect that I’ve written about before. We know how powerful our own thoughts can be for ourselves (example) and how powerful our thoughts can be for others (example) — don’t you think that someone buying life insurance (i.e. buying stock in our eventual death) is a bit like sending negative thoughts to a person? Maybe that’s a little extreme.