Friday, April 25, 2014

Thinking About Markets

It is time to talk about markets. Differently.

One may think there may be nothing new to talk about markets. After all, we have been talking about this endlessly for thirty years now. Markets as the mantra for everything under the sun, the panacea for all our ills etc. Or, if you are negatively inclined, for all the problems we have. Including a new word, to be spoken every time with the same disdain Lady Thatcher used for the word 'socialist', 'marketisation'. What more can there possibly be to talk about the markets?

For many, the last few years have shaken the unquestioning magic of the markets: It does not seem to solve all our problems after all. In fact, it can make things quite ugly. Many of the words, 'ethics' prominently among them, which were becoming antiquities have been brought back to use. On the other hand, there is little appetite to revive the old socialist past as we knew it: No one could yet come up with a satisfactory explanation why Soviet Union failed so spectacularly and why Communist Parties around the world continue to run out of ideas. So, a new conversation may indeed be needed, on both sides.

For me, the iconic figure of the market economy is not Margaret Thatcher, or Friedrich Hayek, but rather the 18 year old Miriam Weeks, or as the media likes to call her, Belle Knox. This is the student at Duke University who became a porn star to pay her tuition. (read her first interview here) Obviously, the university is red-faced about it: The whole academic establishment is embarrassed about her. The embarrassment isn't about the fact that they use market mechanisms to 'price' education so that it has gone beyond someone who both has the intellectual ability (otherwise she won't get into Duke) and the desire (otherwise she won't go that far) to pursue a college degree: The embarrassment seems to be that a woman using market mechanism on her body. The problem, if there is one, is not about sex: The college life is full of it (read Tom Wolfe's I Am Charlotte Simmons or follow the case of Duke's own Lacrosse team) and pornography is legal too. One may say it is about markets going too far, but those same people would take issues about the claim that markets should be kept out of education.

Miriam Weeks may indeed be recognised as a Feminist icon and the debate will revolve around the main issue - her right to her body: However, she also represents a frontier figure in the debate about the market, and the limits of it. It is unlikely to stop the march of the markets, and for most people, the fuss is completely pointless. But for those who settled on markets as the answer for everything, her case may present a particular dilemma which needs to be addressed.

Indeed, we must also pay heed to the broader discussion about the record of the markets. Those who seem to think, markets are behind all the marvels of the modern technology, and primarily responsible for the mankind escaping the Malthusian trap, are indeed distorting the record, perhaps intentionally. They are consciously ignoring the fact that the progress of technology happened on the back of massive public efforts in research and development and education, between the 1840s and 1970s, and if anything, leaving the market as the sole driver of our progress from this point onwards leave us with a serious risk of getting back to the Malthusian trap.

So, I return to my initial proposition: It is time to think about markets, differently. It is one of the wonderful human inventions, that happened without the 5-year planners and management experts having a say: It is therefore unlikely to go away. However, this is one of the many formats of organising activity available in human repertoire, and should be recognised as such. People such as Miriam Weeks should push us into thinking that there may be, should be, a limit to the market, and this may not be about pornography at all. 

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