In 2018, I spoke at the Oslo Business Forum. The day opened with CNN anchor Richard Quest and also included Andrew McAfeefrom MIT, but the star attraction for the 3,000 business leaders who came to the one-day event was Barack Obama. (He’s on a four-day swing through the Scandinavian lecture circuit this weekend.)

My main message to this audience was that if we want to really understand the driving forces behind everything that’s going on in the world today, then we need to grasp two things, simultaneously: the realities and the possibilities of the present.

By focusing on the realities of the present, we see the unstoppable forces that are transforming the economy and society. Forces like automation. The opportunities to replace humans by machines and algorithms are multiplying rapidly for every employer. The “returns on investment” and “payback periods” (key metrics for any investment decisions) were already attractive. Now, they look so good that it is irrational not to automate. (Here’s a concrete example I know: a large bank recently took a single business process that employed 51 people and eliminated half of those jobs through a combination of chatbots, robots and machine learning. Within just seven months, the labour cost savings paid for the technology investment.)

The incentive that each individual company faces to automate whatever it can is, at the level of the whole economy, obliterating well-paying “middle class” jobs. These are the jobs that once made it possible for people without advanced degrees to still enjoy a “middle-class” lifestyle (i.e., to buy a good house and put the kids through school). Many of us resist this trend, but the reality is—to a large extent—it has already happened.

That’s just one of the realities of the present.

If instead we focus on the possibilities of the present, we see evidence of humanity’s unquenchable fire. We see evidence of our willingness to reach beyond what is, maybe to risk everything, in order to achieve some new, intangible, higher state of justice, or goodness, or equity, or prosperity. To blow up how society thinks and what society values in a glorious collision with the unstoppable forces.

We can see this fire today in the clashes between female empowerment and male privilege, or between “the traditional” and “the modern” family. In the contest between isolationism and globalism. In the geopolitical fight to defend democratic chaos or spread authoritarian orderliness. We can see this fire in the battles between private ownership and public regulation of technology platforms. In the contest between my right to amass wealth for myself, and the social movement to guarantee a minimum income for everyone. And maybe, most fundamentally, in the contest to define what’s real: enlightenment values of collective reason on the one hand, faith-in-the-strongman on the other.

The single biggest question of our time is simply: What happens when the unstoppable forces meet the unquenchable fire?

And I think the answer is leadership. Leadership is what happens. And by leadership, I mean the courage to stand in the midst of this collision and try to figure out what to preserve and what to reinvent. What to accelerate and what to annihilate. (I then went on to lay out a “leadership manifesto.” I won’t bore you with it here. Email me if you want a copy—but then I’ll ask you to critique it with me.)

What Money Can’t Buy

One of my inspirations for telling this story about economic realities vs moral possibilities was another book by Harvard philosopher Michael Sandel I read this past summer: What Money Can’t Buy: The Moral Limits of Markets (2012).

In short, it’s a book in which Michael notices that money and markets have now penetrated many areas and activities of society where, previously, they didn’t belong. His examples range from the small: amusement parks, where premium passes are now sold that permit you to jump the queue (“Cut to the FRONT at all rides, shows and attractions!”); scalping tickets for campsites at Yosemite; and giving ghost-written toasts at your best friend’s wedding. To larger examples: paying drug-addicted women cash incentives to undergo sterilization or long-term birth control; public programs that pay kids who raise their test results in school; selling permanent residency or citizenship to foreign investors; or selling pollution permits and carbon offsets, i.e., selling the right to indulge in pollution.

Many of our moral choices have now been converted into market exchanges. Perhaps this is a good thing. After all, the market is an efficient way of allocating society’s resources. Many things in society—from Yosemite campsites to hospital beds to residency visas—are scarce, so the question becomes who should get them? The market is one way of answering that question, by holding an endless auction that distributes them by willingness to pay.

Crude Logic

Or perhaps, our moral choices have not just been converted, but downgraded. This is Michael’s view. First, he challenges the notion that the auction-logic of the market yields an “efficient” outcome for society as a whole. I think back to my day at Wimbledon this summer. Some of the best seats, which had sold for the highest price, were empty. Why? Because the people who had bought those seats didn’t value them enough to be there on the day—unlike the thousands who had been queueing outside since the day before. Maybe society would have been better served if those seats had been sold at a pittance to youth who might take inspiration away from watching champions play.

Whenever we use markets to solve the problem of who gets what, Michael argues, then we need to be on guard for two new problems. The first, obviously, is inequality. “The more money can buy, the more affluence (or the lack of it) matters.”

The second problem is that we run the risk of corrupting the thing itself. If we pay kids to get better grades, are they internalizing a love for learning, or are we training their brains to respond to external incentives? If citizenship is sold to wealthy foreigners, do they approach their new community with a citizen’s sense of duty and responsibility—or with a property owner’s sense of entitlement? (At an Oxford alumni forum last week, I coined the (awkward) word “crudification” to describe this idea. If I let Dominos tattoo its logo on my body in exchange for free pizza for life, I don’t just monetize, I crudify, my nature as a unique human being. (And yet…tempting!)

Crude Conversations

Said the Harvard economist Greg Mankiw:

There is no mystery to what an ‘economy’ is. An economy is just a group of people interacting with one another as they go about their lives.

When we convert our choices from moral logics into market logics, we are changing the nature of our interactions with one another.

The broadest implication of this trend, Michael thinks, is that our public discourse is being bled of moral content:

The problem with our politics is not too much moral argument but too little. Our politics is overheated because it is mostly vacant, empty of moral and spiritual content. It fails to engage with big questions that people care about.

(I wonder if Michael watched the Brett Kavanaugh circus on Thursday…)

Take immigration—one of the most heated topics in our politics today. Anti-immigrant protestors cast their objections in utilitarian terms: safety, security, jobs. Immigration advocates do the same. So the debate over whether to build walls or windows around our society is crudified (there’s that awkward word again!) down to a debate over what either choice would mean for incidents of violent crime, for wages and unemployment, for taxes paid versus welfare benefits consumed.

But those are very different debates from the moral logic that, for example, graces the Statue of Liberty:

Give me your tired, your poor,
Your huddled masses yearning to breathe free,
The wretched refuse of your teeming shore.
Send these, the homeless, tempest-tossed to me,
I lift my lamp beside the golden door!

It’s true that taking in more, or fewer, refugees has labour-market consequences. But why does so much of our public debate focus on what these consequences are? Wouldn’t a healthier—and certainly, richer—public debate invite the many other dimensions of this question? What happens to “our” culture when more or fewer “outsiders” come in? If we widen our sense of “we” to include “them,” does that somehow make us better (the cosmopolitan’s view of the world) or does that somehow make us confused and corrupted (the nationalist’s view of the world)? And: Do we have a moral responsibility toward refugees that outweighs these profound cultural questions? If so, from where does that responsibility come: our faith? our common humanity? enlightened self-interest? And if so, what are the limits of that responsibility? How do we balance our needs against the needs of the “homeless, tempest-tosssed”?

Crowding Out Morality

The “marketization of society,” Michael thinks, is to blame for the growing absence of these sorts of conversations from public discourse. The immigration debate is just one instance of a society-wide falling out of the habit of moral reasoning. As the share of our interactions with one another that take place in the market grows and grows, market logics become our go-to argument for why we should, or should not, do anything.

And once market logics enter our conversations, moral logics tend to get crowded out. One of the appealing features of markets is that “they don’t pass judgement on the preferences they satisfy.” If you are willing to sell X and someone else is willing to pay your price for X, does it matter what X is? That’s your business. (Subtext: market logics apply.) Who is anyone to judge? (Subtext: moral logics don’t.)

In this way, the market has become an instrument for advancing personal freedom against conventional constraints. And maybe that is why the expansion of the market into more and more parts of our lives seems inexorable. Seems to be an unstoppable force. Because the market not only competes with our conception of “the good.” It has become part of our conception of the good.

(As an aside, it’s worth remarking how persistent the appeal of the market is. September was the 10-year anniversary of the collapse of Lehman Brothers and the global financial crisis. If you want to explore (a) the spectacular scope of that market collapse and (b) how little it did to dampen our faith in the power of markets to steer society in the right direction, I recommend my friend Ian Goldin’s fantastic new BBC five-part radio series on the financial crisis, After The Crash. A must-listen.)

An Unquenchable Fire Comes To London

I have trouble imagining how to practically do what Michael argues we must do for the wellbeing of our society: namely, to arrest the monetization of everything, to rollback market forces, and to resurrect a wider role for morality in how we interact with one another.

Fortunately for me, my friend Professor Dr. Alejandro Jadad has been in London this week, and we had a chance to meet up again. Alex has a lifetime of experience standing in the path of unstoppable, “cartel” forces—from his childhood in Columbia to his present efforts to upend the global healthcare industry.

Alex has held two distinguished Canada Research Chairs (“a Canada Research Loveseat,” he jokes), is the founding director of a global e-health innovation centre at the University of Toronto, and has more honorary letters behind his name than I have letters in my name. He is enormously successful, along every conventional dimension of success. And he’s a radical. “I am fearless in my beliefs and not afraid to die for them,” he told me on Friday as we waded, mischievously, through the reflecting pond at the V&A Museum. I believe him.

That combination makes him dangerous. “Those who challenge society’s current models put themselves at risk every day. They are harassed all the time,” he said in an interview a few years back. But Alex is one of those people who refuses to be cowed into silence and, given his conventional successes in a world that equates success with credibility, he cannot easily be ignored when he speaks.

If we’re looking for where and how to start pushing back against the monetization of everything, for Alex the answers are numerous and obvious. (I’m now hitting my word limit, so I’ll just briefly tease three of his biggest ones, then list some Further Reading if you want to dig deeper.)

1. “Development”

Alex has written:

I dislike the word ‘development’ because it was created, in the sense we use it today, in the 1940s as a means to emphasize the need to live like we do in North America or Western Europe. And so it divides the world between those who have material goods that money can buy, and those who do not. You need money for roads, you need money for houses, you need a car like mine. When you get enough money and get these things, and are able to live like me, then you become ‘developed’ like me. Until then, you remain ‘underdeveloped’.

How would our concept of “development” be different if market logics played less of a role in shaping our understanding of it? First, we would recognize other dimensions of abundance—of talent, of energy, of wisdom and other types of resources—that exists in almost every community in the world, regardless of how much money they have available. And second, we would recognize other dimensions of need—physical, mental, social. In short we would understand development in richer, fuller terms: as a process of moving towards human flourishing, and away from suffering. We would more fully harness our creativity and diversity as individuals or communities to achieve that end. And we would more fully recognize the possibility that a community with lower GDP per person could be more “developed” than a community whose GDP per person is higher.

2. “Philanthropy”

Alex, who like me is fascinated with the origin of words, likes to point out that “philanthropy” literally means “to love + human beings.” Philanthropy should, at root, be about giving love. But it’s not anymore:

Go to a modern dictionary. “Philanthropy” is described as the donation of money to good causes. The definition goes straight to money. Somehow the meaning of the word morphed into a transactional activity in which money is the main thing that is transferred, from a place of abundance to a place of scarcity. People or organizations or countries that have an abundance of money transfer that money to a group that is in deficit, with the assumption that money will make things right.

The original meaning of philanthropy has been corrupted—crudified—by monetization. Or, as Alex memorably puts it: “Yes, I might have money, but I have many other things, too. If as a philanthropist, I just give money, when I could be loving more—then I am doing a half-assed job.”

How would our concept of “philanthropy” be different if the market played less of a role in our understanding of it? We would probably blur the distinction between “philanthropy” and “volunteerism.” We might start to recognize that philanthropy, as a transfer from my abundance to your scarcity, is about so much more than money. We might start to recognize more kinds of affluence within ourselves—and more kinds of scarcity in others. And maybe we would miss fewer opportunities to share our affluence with those in need.

3. “Health”

“Health” is the field where Alex spends most of his professional time, and where he has achieved global eminence. In 2008 he started a global conversation on the meaning of health among his peers, sponsored by the British Medical Journal. His argument: “Health” has become a market good—something that we can possess if we can afford to pay for it. Along the way, we have sacrificed the notion of health as an ability to achieve wellbeing for ourselves. Another memorable Jadad-ism: “Our sense of health is being squeezed between the merchants of death (i.e., drugs, alcohol) and the merchants of immortality” (i.e., the healthcare industry).

How would our concept of health be different if the market played less of a role in our understanding of it? We would, Alex argues, once again see health as an ability that we possess and, just like other abilities, can develop. Even as we age. Even as we suffer from chronic illnesses.

We might also start to see death differently. In Alex’s mind, the market has so penetrated our notion of “health” that it has now also corrupted the nobility of death and dying. Death was once the ultimate human equalizer: an honour that was afforded equally to every human being. The French philosopher Michel de Montaigne (1533-1592) wrote that “Death is part of you. Your life’s continual task is to build your death.” But now it is the ultimate symbol of affluence or poverty—of how much time aboveground we each can afford.

Unstoppable Force Or Unquenchable Fire?

So: Who wins when the unstoppable force of economic reality meets the unquenchable fire of human morality?

As for Alex, he is a self-described “cheerful pessimist.” Pessimistic, because he knows better than most people how powerful these unstoppable forces can be. Cheerful, because, for him, happiness doesn’t depend on what other people choose to do. He invites people to act according to very different logics than pure market thinking would dictate. But he doesn’t expect them to.

“I only want to do beautiful, magical things,” Alex tells me quietly.

Will he? Will we?

That’s the big open question of the now.

Further Reading

Here are a few digital gems that Alex has hidden on the interwebs…