Is there something wrong with a world in which everything is up for sale? 

That's the core question that world-renowned political philosopher and best-selling author Michael Sandel tackles in "What Money Can't Buy: The Moral Limits of Markets."

And it's the core question we'll explore in our film -- which is inspired by that book -- and Professor Sandel's last book -- the hugely successful "Justice: What's The Right Thing To Do?"

Our film is a story about the social and political implications of living in a time when marketplace values have come to govern our lives as never before.  It's a story of how -- over the past 30 years -- market reasoning and market mechanisms have moved beyond the economic realm and seeped into all aspects of our lives -- taking root in health care, the justice system, environmental policy, education, public safety, sports, art, and even national security.

But at what cost to society, and the common good?

Sandel's main argument is that when market values and market reasoning dominate everywhere, they tend to crowd out, and sometimes corrupt, other values we care deeply about -- like personal, community, and civic values -- which can be degraded if treated as mere commodities.  They lose their deeper meaning to society.  Which is why we don't allow citizens to buy their way out of jury duty, or offer their votes for sale.

So there still are some things that money can't buy.  But these days not many.


Consider the case of Vicki Rice.  She was married to Michael, a Walmart Assistant Manager who died at 48 after a sudden heart attack  Then Vicki discovered that an insurance policy on Michael's life paid out $300,000.  But it didn't go to her and their kids.  It went to Walmart, which had purchased the policy on Michael's life and named itself as the beneficiary. 

Should companies really have the right to profit from the death of their employees?

Some say yes.  They say that markets have no moral content, nor should they.   That they're simply a mechanism to allocate the greatest good to the greatest number of people in a classic utilitarian way.

Or consider the irate Michigan investor who purchased another man's life insurance policy.  That man was Kendall Morrison, a New Yorker with AIDS who was desperately ill and desperate for cash when the investor made his purchase.  But thanks to new drugs, Morrison returned to health, much to the investor's dismay.  "I've never felt like anybody wanted me dead before," said Morrison.  "They kept sending me these FedExes and calling.   It was like, 'Are you still alive?'" 

The drugs were a blessing for people like Morrison, but a curse for investors who found themselves stuck paying premiums on policies that failed to "mature" as promptly as expected. 

This is not an isolated event.  An entire "life settlement" industry has arisen to place bets on the lives of strangers for profit.  Hedge funds and financial heavyweights like Credit Suisse and Deutsche Bank have spent billions buying the life insurance policies of senior citizens in a high finance version of the death bet game.  Not to be outdone, Wall Street investment banks recently announced plans to buy life settlements, slice and dice and package them into bonds, and resell them to institutional investors.  Sound familiar?

Making a death bet on a stranger's life may be legal, but it degrades the humanity of the person you're betting on, reducing him or her to a mere market transaction.  That's the same reason we're queasy about human slavery, or buying and selling babies.

Vicki and Kendall's stories are just the tip of the iceberg of what we'll explore in the film to viscerally illustrate Sandel's point -- that some of the good things in life, some of the civc values and social practices that we care about deeply, can be corrupted or degraded when we treat them as commodities to be bought and sold.

These themes will be explored through the eyes of a dozen characters whose stories animate the book version of "What Money Can't Buy."   Incredible stories about ordinary people who've each had an extraordinary markets-vs.-morals moment.  In intimate interviews, we'll learn about their motivations, and how their lives or attitudes have changed since the incident.  And we'll bring their stories alive on screen with visually evocative re-creations.

Their stories will challenge us to answer some tough questions, like:

•  Should we really be hiring mercenaries in large numbers to fight America's wars?

•  Or putting a price on human life to decide how much toxic pollution to allow in the air? 

•  How about allowing people to exceed the speed limit for a fee?

•  Or cash-strapped communities selling ads on police cars and fire hydrants?

Is it efficient?  Will it make money?  That's all the market cares about.  But the good society needs to care about more.  Doesn't it?

•  How do you feel about sending inmates to privately owned prisons?

•  Or allowing commercial advertising inside public schools?

•  Or paying people to donate their organs?

•  Or selling citizenship to immigrants who can afford it?

These are not hypothetical questions.  They describe practices that are widespread in America, and around the world.  Practices that are revealed in the book's many colorful characters whose sometimes amazing stories vividly demonstrate what happens when real people collide with what Sandel calls Market Triumphalism -- with results that range from the humorous, to the tragic, to the outrageous and even shocking.  But always deeply thought provoking.

Ever since the financial crisis hit us four years ago, it's become clear that markets have become detached from morals and that we need somehow to reconnect them.  But it’s not obvious what that would mean, or how we should go about it.  Learning how to navigate our way through these troubled waters is the subject of this film.

But before we can decide where markets belong and where they don't, we first have to decide how to value the underlying goods and services and values that are being affected.   And in order to do that, we need a roadmap to help us think through exactly what's at stake.

Enter "Justice: What's The Right Thing To Do" -- which will help infuse the film with the key concepts of moral and political philosophy, and how these principles and reasoning tools can be used by everyone -- regardless of educational level -- as we reflect on whether there are certain social goods, and community values, and measures of happiness that shouldn't be computed in dollars -- that can't be properly honored using marketplace values.

Philosophical principles we can also use in considering all moral, social, and political issues. 

And to help us decide which hat to wear when we make these judgments -- consumer or citizen?



In addition to the interviews and re-creations that tell the stories of our main characters, the film will also include several dramatic devices and other cinematic elements to further illuminate -- and entertain.

--DRAMATIC VIGNETTES -- will convey the philosophy nuggets in a series of scripted vignettes with actors.  In his "Justice" book, Sandel offers up an array of hypothetical scenarios about hot button issues that call for tough moral and political choices.  But to help his students, his readers, and us -- he makes them fun, often in the form of smile-inducing brain teasers -- then releases the tension by explaining the key philosophical reasoning tools we can use to help make our choices wisely.  We'll do something similar by dramatizing the moral dilemmas in a way the average person can relate to.  And alternately be riveted or amused by.

--VIRTUAL AGORA --  Sandel will occasionally speak to us from what appears to be the ancient Athenian Agora.  In 500 B.C., the Agora was the heart of public life in Athens.  It was the main marketplace, as well as a gathering place where citizens would learn about and discuss the latest news, and gather for military duty.  This dual function -- both commercial and communal -- is a most fitting setting for the film's markets-vs.-morals theme, and will feature Sandel, on a custom-built set on a green screen stage, addressing us, the viewers, as if we were standing in the square with him back in the birthplace of democracy.

--GREEK CHORUS -- continuing our Athenian theme, a small chorus of gifted female singers will appear intermittently in the film to offer up bits of original songs that comment on scenarios and themes presented -- sometimes with a serious tone, sometime humorous.  But always a delight -- a brief breather between headier segments that need a moment to sink in. 

--ACTOR READINGS -- in his books, Sandel underscores certain points by quoting influential public figures of the past, using relevant excerpts from their books, articles, speeches, etc.  We'll bring their comments to life via readings by actors -- for both dramatic and comedic effect.

--CELEBRITY INTERVIEWS -- Sandel has many prominent fans who we'll interview.  Likely prospects include Thomas Friedman, Stephen Colbert, George Will, E.J. Dionne, John Cusack, Walter Isaacson, Charlie Rose, Natalie Portman, Alan Simpson, Lawrence Summers, and more.

By applying the philosophical reasoning techniques of "Justice," to the moral and civic questions raised in "What Money Can't Buy," the film will feature the best of both books -- brought to cinematic life with creative elements and dramatic devices designed to resonate with viewers, and everyone concerned about a good society.



It's rare to find a subject for a documentary that is both socially important and likely to attract a large audience.  But that is precisely what we have in Michael Sandel, often referred to as the most popular professor in the world. 

His 2010 book -- "Justice: What's The Right Thing To Do?" -- was a phenomenon.  Based on his legendary Harvard course, the book sold over 2 million copies -- and was turned into a 12-part PBS series of the same name.  On YouTube alone, his videos have generated over 4 million views, and counting -- for 60-minute lectures -- from a philosophy professor!

The "Justice" series also spun off wildly popular international version throughout Asia, and elsewhere.  Here's an excerpt from a 2011 New York Times piece called "Justice Goes Global" from columnist Thomas Friedman, one of Sandel's biggest boosters.

"You probably missed the recent special issue of China Newsweek, so let me bring you up to date.  Who do you think was on the cover  --  named the “most influential foreign figure” of the year in China?  Barack Obama?  No.  Bill Gates?  No.  Warren Buffett?  No. O.K., I’ll give you a hint:  He’s a rock star in Asia, and people in China, Japan and South Korea scalp tickets to hear him.  Give up?   It was Michael J. Sandel, the Harvard University political philosopher."

Chinese versions of his lectures online have attracted millions of viewers.  Same thing in Japan.  When NHK TV aired its version of the PBS series, it "sparked a philosophy craze in Japan and prompted the University of Tokyo to create a course based on Sandel's."  Similar reaction in South Korea, and in India, and throughout Europe -- and, of course, back in the USA, not least in the elegant Sanders Theater at Harvard, where over 1000 students at a time fill the hall for every lecture, all semester long.

His talks are incredibly empowering, and even entertaining, as they feel more like a concert or play than a lecture.  Or as one of Sandel's biggest boosters, columnist Thomas Friedman, puts it: "Besides being educational, the classes make great theater."  It's a full immersion interactive journey into moral reasoning, with Sandel as the professor we always wished we had.

In "Justice," Sandel showed himself to be a master at illuminating the hard moral and philosophical questions that lie behind the most vexing issues of the day -- while decoding the insights of the great philosophers to help us answer those questionsAnd along the way, he built a massive and loyal global audience.

In "What Money Can't Buy," he takes on a root-level premise that's been sorely missing in our political discourse.  He questions whether free markets alone should be the vehicle for achieving the public good.  And he asks us to question it as well. 

With money playing such a huge and clearly corrupting role in all aspects of our politics -- and when trust in our freewheeling financial markets are at all time lows -- and with the fierce debate about the role and cost of government at the root of our poisonous polarization and government gridlock -- nothing could be more timely and important than a very public conversation about when and where markets serve the public good and where they don't. 

In other words -- what are the moral limits of markets?

Let's make a movie and find out.

What Money Can't Buy
The Moral Limits of Markets
based on the book of the same name by Michael J. Sandel
and his last -- "Justice: What's The Right Thing To Do?"
Project Description
A Film by Jeffrey Abelson