How do we determine value?

Each summer, New York City public theater puts on free performances of Shakespeare (sometimes featuring famous actors) for the public in Central Park. Tickets are extremely limited and a long line of eager people can usually be seen around 1 pm, intent on snatching the city’s generous treat. After all, who wouldn’t want to see free Shakespeare?

But for some, waiting in line is not at all feasible. It is hot and humiliating and also a ton of work. An ingenious plan is then hatched by these lazy individuals, arrogant individuals (I’m clearly generalizing here). They will pay another person (sometimes up to $125) to stand in line for them and get the much coveted free ticket.

This is ticket scalping.

When the city found out about this scheme, it was outraged. A representative from the Public Theater lamented it was “not in the spirit of Shakespeare” and that the ticket scalpers were taking away the opportunity for other people. After all, the performances by the Public Theater was a gift from the city to its citizens. Free of charge. And to make a business out of it behind closed doors somehow felt wrong.

This is a real-life example Dr. Michael Sandel asks us to ponder in his book What Money Can’t Buy: The Moral Limit of Markets. Why is ticket scalping wrong in the situation presented above? After all, the economist would argue that scalping is actually an efficient way of distributing the good (the play) to those who value it most. If you are willing to pay $125 for a free ticket, then it follows you must really value seeing a Shakespeare performance. This increases net utility because both the scalper and the person who gets the ticket are happy. Win win. Not quite, says Sandel.

He asks the question: Is market logic right about how human beings should value goods? Is it right, in essence, to say the amount an individual will pay for a good is reflective of his/her value of that particular good?

Sandel argues this is not the case, because paying for a good assumes the individual is capable, not just willing. Consider another example. Several cities in California have what are referred to as Lexus Lanes in their highway system. If you are caught in traffic, you can simply pay a fee to take a quicker lane. The nickname for these lanes are ‘Lexus Lanes’ because you would seldom see a moderately priced car on these lanes – obviously because their owners are not capable of paying to get out of traffic.

There seems to be something inherently unfair about this system, a sour taste if you like, a certain perverted aroma. If you thought people cutting you off on the highway was infuriating, then how about rich people paying to cut you off legally.

But is it so different from the Public Theater example in New York? The economist would once again argue this is perfectly fine. Those who will pay more are doing so because they put a higher value for that good.

Again, I think Sandel has a profound point when he points out the faulty assumption of market logic. Paying for a good you value assumes you are able to pay for it.

But he goes deeper. Sandel insists we cannot measure value in just monetary terms. He gives the example of wealthy people who buy first class tickets to see baseball game, but show up late and leave early, or don’t wear the team jersey. Do they really value the game more than a young boy who knows every single player on his favorite team, but sits in the back because he cannot pay for a closer seat? Probably not. The same reasoning applies to the Shakespeare play. Would we really say that a person who had stood in line since morning for a ticket values the performance less than a rich individual throwing his $125 pocket change to a scalper? Of course not. Sandel argues for caution when it comes applying market logic to all questions of value. I for one, think he has the right of it.

While the economist insists that everything in this world has a price, and the amount we are willing to pay it determines its value, I disagree. There are certain things that money cannot buy and there are certain things – such as the free Shakespeare tickets meant for the public – that money should not buy.

This is the discussion we should be having in the modern age, when market logic has pervaded a perturbed society unable to deal with its complex questions and consequences.

If we begin this much needed conversation, we will be able to find the line between market logic and human morality.

Then, that poor man who had been standing in line to see a free performance will not be cheated out of his right by frigid, 21st century economics.


Cables, a short story

Sleep. Adam found it to be the undisputed master of all living men and women and it lay its tyrannical hand on him now. The book in his hands was on the verge of slipping away. The train roared as it always did and the gloominess outside the window pressed him deeper into a melancholy doze. His head drooped and his eyes burned with special acuteness. Just as he was about to close them however, the train slowed. Sleep’s spell was broken as he hit his head on the seat in front. Incoherent words could be heard from the announcement system.

He was home.

With great effort, he dragged his indolent frame from his seat. It took an equally monumental effort to swing his book bag onto his shoulder. These difficult tasks completed, he strolled in languid fashion out of the train and towards the stairs. No he could not take the stairs, they were quite exhausting. A quick glance at the elevator. DO NOT USE it read. Adam groaned.

His parents waited outside in a shabby car – not that its shabbiness mattered to Adam. He saw the utility of things, not their outward form and in this, he prided himself an insightful and non-materialistic individual, clearly a level above his peers. He fancied himself a hero too, for did not Thomas Carlyle say of the hero that “ .. he looks through the shows of things into things.”? Adam looked into things quite often, an intellectual man – though a part of him did yearn for a personal car. He was a college student after all.

Adam took the wheel – the first time he had done so in a month – and adjusted himself in the seat. His parents asked him questions and made an effort at conversation. Their words were wind, passing through his tired mind. It was evening and that general gloom following that inevitable hour pervaded the station, morphing it into a dark and unwelcoming place of shifting shadow, swaying lights and eerie silence, disturbed only by the occasional bus rolling by.

He gently pressed the gas and the car lurched like a sick horse. It made a pathetic sound, and proceeded to move. It was then that Adam noticed a man waving furiously at him. He stood on the side of the road and came closer. Adam slowed.

“What are you doing dear! This be a mad person Oh go go leave him.” his mother said in her rough tongue. She was an immigrant and the plainness of the stranger manifest in his gray hoodie, baggy pants and unnatural gait disturbed her greatly. She thought him a beggar or a trouble maker. Adam had stopped and the man stood now opposite his window.

“Cable! Yo man you got a cable?” He wrung his hands wildly and made desperate motions.
“Ma car bro you can help me out?” Adam spied a car several feet in front of him. Its hood was up. But his mother did not seem to understand.

“Go!” she protested. “Go! You are very tired and I fear this man means you harm! Go go dear lord go!” She became rather incessant and loud. Adam hesitated and a fire suddenly ignited in his heart. Did he even have a cable in the car? He could stop and check. It would not take long. It really would not. But what to do about his mother and what to do with himself? Adam furiously weighed his decisions in a manner of seconds, but as he did so, some unknown impulse acted on him. Perhaps it was the impulse of fear. Perhaps that of annoyance or indifference. Perhaps even that of cruelty or selfishness. Whatever it was, Adam slammed the gas, and sped away, leaving the man gaping.

“Is there a jumper cable in the back?” he asked his mother. She nodded, quite ignorant of the purpose of the question. As he passed the stranger’s car, a wave of regret flooded him for what he had done. The remorse grew as he got closer to home until he felt almost drowned. But he would not be consumed by it. Being the supreme intellectual he was, he left the car and entered his house. And in that short time, he had substituted regret with indifference, softness with coldness and pity with arrogance.

It was unfortunate – what had happened. But it could not be helped. Nothing could be helped. Comforted by such callous a thought, he darted straight to his room and fell onto his bed.

His sleep comforted him with nightmares.

Stubborn Rock

Linus vs a stubborn boulder (An excerpt from my non existant novel)

Credits: Daz18

A large boulder stood stubbornly in their path. The Marmara howled in an angry and unpleasant manner and Linus felt sweat soaking his back, even though he was wearing at least ten layers under his unwieldy and heavy Akinci robe.
For the past hour, the Noueddin had been sitting in a snowy corner and muttering to himself.
Linus finally kicked the boulder in fury.
“Good God! Someone use Geomancy or whatever it is that you all do to move this devil!” He said in distaste.
“It’s just one boulder!”
The Noueddin grew impatient with him.
“One boulder? Such arrogance dear boy! What obligation does it have to obey you pray tell. ” He snapped. “When I can convince it and Alwen – most high, most gracious-
, then it will move! Till then keep your voice down you fiery lad.” The old King gave Linus a sharp look and returned to his silent meditation amidst the howling snow.

Linus scowled and kicked the boulder again, but a sharp pain rattled through him this time.
“You stupid rock! Hitting back are you?” He hissed.
The rock creaked and moved a centimeter as if to reply in the positive.