I really didn't want to write an article during Covid-19 so as not to add to the firehose of information and opinion doing the rounds. But having read an opinion piece last evening, I just had to share it. I want to acknowledge up-front though that much of my article here, including the headline, draws from the recent opinion piece by Michael Sandel in the NY Times (13 April 2020).
You see right now I am spending a couple of hours each day, remotely of course, with Professor Sandel of Harvard. Big questions, hard questions, recurring questions, in and around morals, ethics, the organisation of society, ways of viewing the world, and Justice. On a personal level it's all in the interests of deliberate self-examination and creating what's ‘next’ personally and professionally. I have a couple of his books heading my way too, and am thoroughly enjoying the Justice experience. So as you'd appreciate I am at times searching for Sandel’s opinions beyond the prescribed coursework.
Sandel is a rockstar professor of philosophy, has been honing his craft for nigh on 40 years, and is a master of the Socratic Method. But I digress.
Sandel’s recent NY Times opinion piece is compelling and asks important questions about the post crises state of the US. Having had more time than usual to think about these issues per se and to think about them in the Australian context the same suite of questions, maybe with slightly different complexion and points of emphasis, has application to our society, to our economy, to our citizenship, to our future.
Ponder this extract:
The coronavirus pandemic has suddenly forced us to reconsider what social and economic roles matter most.
Many of the essential workers during this crisis are performing jobs that do not require college degrees; they are truckers, warehouse workers, delivery workers, police officers, firefighters, utility maintenance workers, sanitation workers, supermarket cashiers, stock clerks, nurse assistants, hospital orderlies and home care providers. They lack the luxury of working from the safety of their homes and holding meetings on Zoom. They, along with the doctors and nurses caring for the afflicted in overcrowded hospitals, are the ones who are putting their health at risk so the rest of us can seek refuge from contagion. Beyond thanking them for their service, we should reconfigure our economy and society to accord such workers the compensation and recognition that reflects the true value of their contributions — not only in an emergency but in our everyday lives.
Such a reconfiguration involves more than familiar debates about how generous or austere the welfare state should be. It requires deliberating as democratic citizens about what constitutes a contribution to the common good, and how such contributions should be rewarded — without assuming that markets can decide these questions on their own.
What roles matter most? Reconfiguring the economy and society to reflect true value of contribution. What constitutes a contribution to the common good? Compelling questions, don't you think?
Earlier in the piece, Sandel goes here:
As economic activity has shifted from making things to managing money, as society has lavished outsize rewards on hedge fund managers and Wall Street bankers, the esteem accorded to traditional work has become fragile and uncertain. At a time when finance has claimed a greater share of corporate profits, many who labor in the real economy, producing useful goods and services, have not only endured stagnant wages and uncertain job prospects; they have also come to feel that society accords less respect to the kind of work they do.
Issues of reward and relative size of reward, worker esteem, share of the fruits of labour, job certainty v uncertainty, societal respect. Compelling stuff.
If you do happen to travel to the NY Times to read Sandel’s article in full, as you get toward the end of it, pause here:
The real question is not when but what: What kind of economy will emerge from the crisis? Will it be one that continues to create inequalities that poison our politics and undermine any sense of national community? Or will it be one that honors the dignity of work, rewards contributions to the real economy, gives workers a meaningful voice and shares the risks of ill health and hard times?
We need to ask whether reopening the economy means going back to a system that, over the past four decades, pulled us apart, or whether we can emerge from this crisis with an economy that enables us to say, and to believe, that we are all in this together”.
I am trying to find a profound way to finish this piece, but that would require me to compete with Prof Sandel. So, I will take the under-labourer path this time I think, and simply ask: Are we all (truly) in this together?