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The Costs of Living Paperback – March 10, 2001
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From Library Journal
Schwartz (psychology, Swarthmore) here applies the Socratic maxim that the unexamined life is not worth living. For him, the contemporary inquiry is personal, encompassing education, business, sports, and religion. The illusion in vogue is that we can "have it all." "I would like" becomes "I want," which becomes "I need." Inevitably, reality and illusion crash. Such is the stuff of moral philosophy and the substance of Schwartz's book, which concludes that the "continued spread of economic objectives and tactics into domains of life that people have traditionally regarded as governed by other goals and rules are turning social life into a jungle." Perhaps so. Among the phenomena Schwartz points to is the "guilding" of the white-collar professions, which has not always been for the better. Whether one agrees with Schwartz or not, his book bears reading because it addresses key issues of today and asks questions seldom raised.
Steven Silkunas, Southeastern Pennsylvania Transportation Authority, Philadelphia
Copyright 1994 Reed Business Information, Inc. --This text refers to an out of print or unavailable edition of this title.
From Kirkus Reviews
This broad-brush essay starts from the premise that ``there can be too much freedom in life, and that too much freedom has a serious moral, social, and emotional price.'' Schwartz (Psychology/Swarthmore) is concerned with the darker side of the seemingly limitless choices of middle-class American life. Addressing the psychic toll exacted by too fervent a pursuit of money, power, and position, he catalogues many disturbing features of our time: predatory corporations, the status of medicine and law as self-regulating monopolies, the commercialization of professional sports. Ultimately, he concludes that we must sacrifice some individual freedom for community values and ``reform our institutions so that being a good person is less costly.'' The author is at his best is when he draws on his psychological expertise to make arguments about human nature, our attitudes toward consumption and status, the components of love, the value of work, and the importance of classroom attitudes that foster lifelong learning. Schwartz's grasp of politics and economics is less solid--he doesn't mention the communitarian movement, whose critique of individualism and advocacy of a sense of social responsibility would seem to make it a natural ally. Similarly, he offers only sketchy analyses of what's needed to reorient law and medicine, how to revamp college sports or foster model retail outlets such as consumer cooperatives. He offers an absorbing discussion of his own return to Judaism through a congregation rife with conflict over the relation between religion and politics, but he might also have explored whether institutions other than religious ones can help us ``reintroduce the language of responsibility and morality into our public life.'' Schwartz's ambitious reach understandably exceeds his grasp. But his effort is worthy, and his conclusions contain much sense. -- Copyright ©1994, Kirkus Associates, LP. All rights reserved. --This text refers to an out of print or unavailable edition of this title.
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In addition to looking at the is of modern society, Schwartz also critiques what we economists often call "the economic way of thinking." That is, he regrets that economists like to talk about opportunity costs even in non-market settings, such as being conscious of the potential career cost of spending a night with friends. He also regrets the way political economists have examined the selfish motivations of politicians instead of assuming all elected officials serve only the public interest, because he thinks this "economic imperialism" has served to cheapest public service and crowd out actual selfless devotion to good policy.
I think Schwartz misunderstands the economic way of thinking, and he focuses on an extreme version of the way we think. I think it's valuable to recognize that politicians almost always have at least some selfish interests ("I want to get reelected, so I'm going to vote for this proposal that's popular with my constituents even though I think it's the wrong policy in the long run"), but that doesn't mean the politician never wants to do the right thing for its own sake, or that politicians are always just trying to line their own pockets. Similarly, when I choose to spend an evening working because it's important to get a project done at work, I think about the opportunity cost of this work being a lack of time bonding with my spouse or friends, and I know that repeated decisions to work extra hours could cost me things I value in my relationships, and these may well be more important to my well-being than career advancement. Schwartz seems to assume that economic thinking always favors work and financial transactions over other ways we might spend our time, but in fact economic thinking can and should go the other direction too.
A highly relevant book for those of us who like to think about how best to make important choices in life, and how best to design social institutions to support us in those important choices.
It's an enchanting but difficult read. Barry Schwartz, whose more recent Paradox of Choice garnered a New Yorker review and positive press for dealing with the same topics on the level of the individual, here demonstrates instead the powerlessness of the individual to stop the relentless advance of market forces into every domain of life. Moving from business to medicine to law to sports to love to education to democracy, Schawrtz shows how the things we purport to value most in life are now subject to market influence--and argues, persuasively, that they are far worse for it.
This is enchanting because Schwartz is a fantastic writer, good at using examples to make his points and capable of humor and serious concern in equal measure. The reading is made difficult by the fact that the book was written in 1994. Rather than the doomsday prophet that Schwartz surely seemed upon publication, he now appears oddly prescient about the continuing advances the market would make into all spheres of life if people did not band together to stop it. While he could not have anticipated the ways in which people's yearning for community in the face of these forces would be exploited by politicians willing to wield those communities' principles as marketable commodities--and how those politicians would use their resulting power to help the market forces advance ever faster--the ingredients of that recipe for disaster are all quite plain to the reader with benefit of knowledge of the ensuing decade.
Can we still turn things around? The task is undoubtedly even more difficult now than Schwartz suggested it would be ten years ago. But we ought to try, and Costs of Living still offers a good way to start constructing the framework by which we might begin to do so. Highly recommended.