Today, the old cliché that money can buy anything is more true than ever. The going rate for an Indian woman's womb is about $8,000, the right to emit a metric ton of carbon dioxide costs $10.50, and for $15 to $20 an hour, a man will stand in line overnight for a lobbyist who wishes to attend a congressional hearing. On the one hand, it's a testament to the power of the modern market, where efficiency rules and anything is open to free exchange. But should everything be for sale? That is the burning question posed by Harvard University professor Michael Sandel, who has emerged as the world's foremost critic of the rush toward "commodification."
The problem with putting a price on everything, Sandel argues in his new book, What Money Can't Buy, is twofold. First, it exacerbates inequality: When more and more goods and services -- including health care, education, and political access -- can be bought and sold like gold or oil futures, the rich can accumulate them in greater amounts. Second, placing objects and ideas on the free market, Sandel argues, often degrades their social value. Think, for example, of the growing practice of paying students to read. In our quest to boost test scores, are we recasting learning as a chore rather than a joy?
At Harvard, Sandel teaches one of the university's most popular courses -- simply titled "Justice" -- which in a single semester has drawn upwards of 800 students, to whom he poses vexing moral dilemmas. A runaway train is hurtling toward a fork in the track. On one side, Gandhi lies tied to the rails; on the other, two ordinary individuals. Should you save Gandhi or save the two others? What if 10 people were on the other side? Sandel has also become an international phenomenon and a pioneer in the democratization of a world-class education: His class is now an internationally syndicated television show, making him a minor rock star in China, Japan, and South Korea, where his open-ended teaching style and focus on big questions are far from the norm. The introductory lecture for "Justice" has tallied more than 4 million views on YouTube. Who knew a philosophy-minded professor's tough questions about Bentham and Kant could compete with cat videos and "Gangnam Style"?
Reading list: The Syrian Rebellion, by Fouad Ajami; Strings Attached: Untangling the Ethics of Incentives, by Ruth W. Grant; How Much Is Enough? Money and the Good Life, by Robert and Edward Skidelsky.
John Brennan has been at war with al Qaeda longer than any other top U.S. official, and he has learned a trick or two along the way. The 25-year CIA veteran has gone from a supporter of "enhanced interrogation techniques" under George W. Bush to the architect of Barack Obama's counterterrorism strategy, emphasizing pinpoint strikes and commando raids over grandiose attempts to transform the cultures of distant lands. And he has reframed Bush's expansive war on terror as a more focused mission to dismantle specific terrorist groups in places like Somalia and Yemen.
Brennan no longer operates only from the shadows. He has mounted a public defense of the White House's reliance on drone strikes, which have emerged as Obama's signature tool in hunting terrorists, as "legal, ethical, and wise," in a bid to convince skeptics that the administration has wielded its extraordinary powers responsibly. And he has largely won the argument: More than 60 percent of Americans support drone strikes to target terrorists abroad.
Brennan, reportedly the last man in the room with Obama before the president decides to order a strike, doesn't take these life-or-death decisions lightly. The man whom colleagues refer to as the "priest" of the counterterrorism effort has formulated a moral blueprint for when to call in the drones. "It is the option of last recourse," he explained this year. Obama "wants to make sure that we go through a rigorous checklist: the infeasibility of capture, the certainty of the intelligence base, the imminence of the threat, all of these things."
Barack Obama has turned drones into his signature counterterrorism tool, even personally selecting targets from a "kill list" as he has deployed this new sort of air force to rain death down on terrorists across two continents and bludgeon al Qaeda into submission. But far too much of the U.S. president's secret assassination program has been shielded from legal scrutiny -- and Jameel Jaffer, an influential lawyer for the American Civil Liberties Union specializing in national security issues, is working to change that.
"[T]he legal foundation of the targeted killing campaign is not simply shaky, but rotten," Jaffer wrote this year. For the first time, he's forcing the CIA to justify its veil of secrecy: In a landmark court case, he's challenging its consistent refusal, over several years, to confirm or deny the drone program's existence. Even as multiple U.S. officials -- from Obama on down -- have spoken publicly about the strikes, America's top spies still refuse to say whether they have records about the drone program, let alone share them.
Jaffer, who played a central role in challenging the warrantless wiretapping program and use of torture under George W. Bush, isn't giving Obama a pass either. "Remember outcry after Bush detained Americans as [enemy combatants]?" Jaffer recently tweeted. "Imagine the outcry if he'd proposed killing them (secretly!) instead."Reading list: The New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration in the Age of Colorblindness, by Michelle Alexander; Mating, by Norman Rush; NW, by Zadie Smith. Best idea: The Arab Spring was a good idea, and still is. Worst idea: Canada's decision to close its embassy in Iran. American decline or American renewal? Private opulence and public squalor (as John K. Galbraith said). More Europe or less? More would be good, but less is more likely. To tweet or not to tweet? Tweet, but regret it constantly.