What Money Can’t Buy

What Money Can’t Buy was probably one of the first books I read after I moved to Sweden, and it’s been in my library ever since. Every time my eye passed over the title when looking for something new to read, I tried to remember what the book was about and couldn’t; mostly I just remembered being underwhelmed. I thought about it even more often after I finished Debt: The First 5,000 Years back in January this year and decided this time I would be more diligent about putting down my impressions.

Michael J. Sandel hit the popular philosophy market with the book Justice: What’s the Right Thing to Do? based on a long-running course he had been teaching at Harvard. What Money Can’t Buy: The Moral Limits of Markets is a follow-up that focuses on how moral judgments and free market practices are entangled, based on an article he wrote for The Atlantic on the same topic.

I think what I found frustrating in 2013 was the way Sandel shrugs and seems to just give up on a providing an answer or at least a clear-cut condemnation. (Except in the case of baseball. That’s a topic where Sandel finds the courage of his convictions.) Most of What Money Can’t Buy consists of lists of things that can be purchased, sorted into five rough categories: queue jumping, incentives (which he often compares to bribes, “the cost of doing business,” or indulgences), relationships, advertising (which he calls “naming rights”) and corporate-originated life insurance and the “life settlement” market. The question for each category is then whether or not these things should be available for purchase. Which instance of queue jumping or advertising is permissible? Which isn’t? What’s the difference between them? Most of the time Sandel doesn’t present a particularly strong opinion either way and just reminds the reader that the two main objections to purchasing certain kinds of things are either based in “unfairness” or “corruption.”

What I found frustrating in 2023 was the lack of context and historical consideration for some of the problems he raises, taking certain problems to just be natural facts of life rather than something that can be addressed or prevented, or that have a specific material history behind them. When highlighting Project Prevention, for example, Sandel glosses over the (very fair) criticism of the project as a form of eugenics and instead credulously rehashes the 1980s moral panic of “crack babies,” even though by the time he was writing in the Atlantic in 2012 the entire phenomenon had been called into question.

Or when discussing carbon offsets and credits, Sandel argues that emitting carbon dioxide is “in itself” a morally neutral act. After all, we all do that every time we breathe! Such an assertion is such a patently facile rhetorical trick that you almost wonder if he’s being facetious. But no, Sandel is seriously attempting to equate the human need to breathe with the act of burning fossil fuels to ship consumer goods from “low-cost” countries to rich nations because you don’t want to pay workers a decent wage or the carbon cost of maintaining the US military apparatus. And even when he goes on to admit that yes, carbon dioxide emissions en masse constitute a serious problem for everyone on this planet, he sidesteps the fact that almost none of the countries and communities that are already bearing the brunt of climate change are the ones actually causing the carbon dioxide emissions in the first place.

Milquetoast moments like these deflate everything Sandel is trying to say, which already feels like an article-length thought padded out to meet the minimum page count for a standalone book. The thesis that market thinking can “crowd out” morals and social norms is a compelling and defensible one, but What Money Can’t Buy ends up being a feeble “could we have a civil discussion about this, guys?” rather than any kind of clarion call to action or bold moral assertion.

Except when it comes to baseball. Sandel’s not afraid to make moral assertions there: Billy Beane definitely ruined baseball.

Debt: The First 5,000 Years

Here’s the rare “book off the TBR” win! Of course, Debt: The First 5,000 Years was a relevantly recent TBR addition that has not undergone the shameful, years-long limbo that other titles have, but any progress is progress.

If you look back at the non-fiction I read in 2022 (especially the non-fiction I read and enjoyed in 2022), you can see something of a common denominator:

A small collage of book covers that I rated 5/5 stars during the year.

Caliban and the WitchJakartametoden and Handels: Maktelitens Skola all go a very long way towards explaining how capitalism as we know it came to be and how its current norms and structure are maintained. Project Censored’s State of the Free Press 2022 is reportage often aimed at critiquing those norms and structure and, if you want to stretch the conceit, ancient Rome is where we like to start the story of Europe, and it is Europe from which springs everything else the other selections touch on. (Temples of the Sky is the odd one out, a niche hobby read.)

Whether this trend is due to the natural progression of my interests, the years I’ve now spent absorbed in financial reports, the turbulent times we live in, or some other constellation of factors, who can say. Regardless, it continued straight away into 2022 with Debt.

I’m not lucid enough a thinker to provide a pat nutshell summary of my own, so I’ll lift the one on the book’s Archive.org page:

[Debt] explores the historical relationship of debt with social institutions such as barter, marriage, friendship, slavery, law, religion, war and government; in short, much of the fabric of human life in society. It draws on the history and anthropology of a number of civilizations, large and small, from the first known records of debt from Sumer, in 3500 BC until the present.

And then the one from the back of the book itself:

Before there was money, there was debt. For more than 5,000 years, since the beginnings of the first agrarian empires, humans have used elaborate credit systems to buy and sell goods—that is, long before the invention of coins or cash. It is in this era that we also first encounter a society divided into debtors and creditors—which lives on in full force to this day.

So says anthropologist David Graeber in a stunning reversal of conventional wisdom. He shows that arguments about debt and debt forgiveness have been at the center of political debates from Renaissance Italy to Imperial China, as well as sparking innumerable insurrections. He also brilliantly demonstrates that the language of the ancient works of law and religion (words like “guilt,” “sin,” and “redemption”) derive in large part from ancient debates about debt, and shape even our most basic ideas of right and wrong.

We are still fighting these battles today.

This is the best kind of nonfiction: written by a knowledgeable academic for a lay audience without insulting their intelligence or devolving into jargon and obscure terminology, with a heaping helping of works cited at the end.

In many ways, this is the less crackpot-y, more grounded and more academic answer to Sacred Economics, which I read a few years ago and which helped keep me oriented in Debt. A lot of what Eisenstein describes as “gifts” seems to overlap with what Graeber describes as the favors that, with the advent of currency, turn into debt. Neither of them mention each other, however. Both books came out in 2011*, so I’m not sure whether it’s Graeber or Eisenstein who should be referring to the other. (Graeber might have felt that Eisenstein wasn’t nearly academically rigorous enough to cite and too out-there to be worth engaging with otherwise, and I can’t say I would have blamed him.) They definitely draw from at least a few of the same sources, such as Marcel Mauss.

I expect I will end up re-reading it later in the year, as it’s so dense with information and argumentation that there’s no way you can absorb it all at once. (Maybe you can. I can’t.) For now, time to give my brain a bit of a break.

*I think. It’s hard to tell, precisely, with Sacred Economics beyond “before 2012.”

My Favorite Books of 2018, According to GoodReads

Other years I’ve had to split my 5-star books into two posts, but this year I think they can comfortably be combined into one. Here were my reading highlights of 2018!

Cover of Reza Aslan's "Zealot: The Life and Times of Jesus of Nazareth"

Zealot: The Life and Times of Jesus of Nazareth

My criterion for rating a nonfiction book 5 stars on GoodReads is that it has the potential for widespread appeal, or that it masterfully addresses a major social or everyday question. Reza Aslan has done an excellent job of outlining the historical context of early Christianity and Jesus Christ.

Cover of Rien où poser sa tête


Rien où poser sa tête

I stumbled across this thanks to the review of the English translation in Asymptote. Its chance rescue from obscurity mirrors, almost too well, Frenkel’s own brushes with death in Vichy France. Out of all my reading in 2018, this one was probably the most relevant to today’s events and politics.

Cover of Proust and the Squid by Maryanne Wolf
Image courtesy Icon Books, Limited

Proust and the Squid

I waffled on whether to give Proust and the Squid 5 stars rather than 4, but decided in the end to be generous. While the story of the brain learns how to read isn’t the same urgent issue as Nazis or Christianity, it’s something almost all of us do and whose complexity we should all appreciate.

Cover of Sacred Economics by Charles Eisenstein
Sacred Economics

While Eisenstein might be more optimistic and naive than warranted, his explanation of economics, credit and inflation is the most cogent I’ve read and he dramatically shifted my attitude towards money and how I save and spend it. That’s what earned this book 5 stars from me, despite Eisenstein’s occasional lapse into conspiracy-adjacent tangents.

Ancillary Justice by Ann Leckie

Ancillary Justice

This one was a selection for Austin Feminist Sci-Fi Book Club, and it’s books like this that make me glad I’m allowed to lurk as a satellite member in Stockholm. Leckie’s world building and vision of technology is polished and nuanced. This is how space opera should be.

I mentioned before that 2018 was a weird year for my reading, and that’s reflected pretty clearly in the fact that I only gave one novel a 5-star rating. Historically, I’ve done much better than that. Thanks to studying for DipTrans and Kammarkollegiet, my way forward in nonfiction is pretty clear and structured at this point (though ironically none of those 5-star titles are related to translation!); my way forward in fiction is still grasping at random and hoping to find something good. All while trying to finish Ulysses, at that!