Let the market decide

I figured they’d make good decisions for me, since they had money on the line and wanted to see their investment appreciate. - Kenneth Michael Merrill, “KmikeyM”

In February, 2008, Kenneth Michael Merrill sold shares in his life to investors, offering them the opportunity to reap the rewards of his successes, and have a say in the process. Merrill’s story, and a number of the key decisions made by investor votes since the initial public offering (and their impact) are well outlined by Joshua Davis in Wired Magazine. The story provides a unique perspective on profit-driven decision-making and its outcomes. It proves that the market is neither “bad,” nor “wrong,” nor, “infallible”. Shares continue to be bought and sold in the publicly traded individual, KmikeyM, which would seem to indicate that Merrill believes his fundraising scheme, which has become his lifestyle, is worth continuing, and people continue to invest in him. One shareholder wrote about his experience in the comments following the article:

Also, as a shareholder, I get access to him for "free" consulting. Even if he doesn't have a direct vote in my personal decisions, his argument for why he could/should have gotten a vasectomy (something I hope he puts before the shareholders again for a new vote)... it got me thinking more seriously about doing it myself, which I did shortly after turning 33. I've also found myself making new friends with other shareholders...

That’s right, shareholders got to vote on Merrill’s decision about whether or not to get a vasectomy. The outcome of the decision doesn’t matter, I don’t think. The real question is the rationality, the rightness, maybe of letting a bunch of for-profit stakeholders make that kind of decision. Really?

I think just about any emotionally mature person, regardless of political leanings, would share my unease with this. Given that, why is it so acceptable to leave big decisions regarding, say, the earth’s climate, in the hands of people looking to make a buck? (Economic) growth-oriented publications like The Economist and the Financial Times point to the fallibility of human-designed policies to push alternative energies to justify letting the market decide. However, both of these publications at least acknowledge that it is human-beings who decide the shape of markets, and given that, offer a carbon-tax as an appropriate solution.

There’s also the perspective offered by the Neo-environmentalist. Paul Kingsnorth describes this philosophy in his fantastic article “Dark Ecology.”  As Kingsnorth explains, the neo-environmentalist looks at saving the planet in purely utilitarian terms, with:

an excitable enthusiasm for markets. They like to put a price on things like trees, lakes, mist, crocodiles, rainforests, and watersheds, all of which can deliver “ecosystem services,” which can be bought and sold, measured and totted up. Tied in with this is an almost religious attitude toward the scientific method. Everything that matters can be measured by science and priced by markets, and any claims without numbers attached can be easily dismissed. This is presented as “pragmatism” but is actually something rather different: an attempt to exclude from the green debate any interventions based on morality, emotion, intuition, spiritual connection, or simple human feeling.

It is all too clear that this perspective is in fact dominant in our society. The fact that a young man’s willingness to leave his reproductive fate up to profit-makers is basically considered acceptable, if not a bit quirky, is proof that we’ve accepted the same deal. KmikeyM’s bargain is in fact very similar to the bargains we strike every day when it comes to the big decisions that shape all of our lives and futures. The more I think about it, the more the story seems to be a sign of illness, not so much in one person or all the people buying into him, but in our society as a whole.
 

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