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The NS Profile: Michael Sandel

A public intellectual, he delivers lectures at Harvard that are wildly popular. He preaches that the

Urban legend has it that the man chosen by the BBC to deliver this year’s Reith Lectures was the real-world inspiration for a character in The Simpsons. Montgomery Burns, the desiccated and occasionally malevolent owner of the Springfield Nuclear Power Plant, is said to have been modelled, in his phy­sical characteristics if nothing else, on Michael Sandel, Bass Professor of Government at Harvard University. Many Simpsons writers have been Harvard alumni, and giving Mr Burns, one of Springfield’s least morally upstanding citizens, Sandel’s broad forehead and thin lips was a kind of Harvardian in-joke: for nearly 30 years now, Sandel has taught the university’s most popular undergraduate course – “Justice”.

Each year Justice, or Moral Reasoning 22, to give it its alternative title, a course in moral and political philosophy, draws more than 1,200 students, and the university has to requisition its largest lecture theatre to accommodate them. One of the most visited pages on the Harvard website carries a video in which Sandel addresses, without notes, a rapt audience on so-called “trolley problems”, imaginary dilemmas dreamt up by philosophers in order to get people to reflect on their intuitions about the relationship between action and intention. James Crabtree, now managing editor of Prospect magazine, was a teaching fellow (or graduate teaching assistant) on Justice between 2004 and 2006. He remembers the first time he saw Sandel lecture.

“It was pretty extraordinary. They were turning people away at the door. He’s a great lecturer – very engaging.”

A Harvard PhD candidate, Andrew Schroeder, also a former teaching fellow on Justice (the English-born political writer and blogger Andrew Sullivan is another), thinks the key to Sandel’s popularity with successive generations of undergraduates lies in his readiness to eschew the fantastic thought-experiments that are a staple of contemporary moral philosophy.

“His greatest strength, and one of the reasons Justice [is] so popular, is his ability to find real-world cases that show the depth and difficulty of issues in moral and political philosophy. Many discussions in moral philosophy are inspired by a single real-world example, and then move very quickly to focus on an abstract question. Sandel, though, can brilliantly marshal a huge range of examples to show how pervasive and difficult [an issue] is. That, I think, is what makes the class so popular and really inspires the students to work at the material,” Schroeder says. “I imagine Sandel reading the New York Times every day, cutting out articles that may have philosophical relevance and putting them in a file somewhere, to be summoned as necessary.”

Sandel doesn’t just read the New York Times, however; he is also a regular contributor to the paper’s op-ed pages, as well as to a number of other major American periodicals (including the Atlantic Monthly and the New Republic). Indeed, one assumes that it was his status as a “public” philosopher or intellectual – and not merely his reputation as a lecturer – that first caught the eye of the BBC.

For the past 15 years, Sandel has written as often for his fellow citizens as for his academic colleagues. His work, which has broached an impressively wide range of issues (from stem-cell research and affirmative action to the branding of sporting events and the use of commercial logos in schools), blurs the distinction between political commentary and political philosophy – and that is one of its strengths.

We met at Claridge’s, in central London, a couple of days after he had delivered “Markets and Morals”, the first of four Reith Lectures that will be broadcast on Radio 4 this month. He was dressed casually in a black polo neck, grey woollen slacks and expensive sneakers, like an East Coast academic in a Woody Allen movie.

Sandel sees his obligations as a philosopher as being continuous with his responsibilities as a citizen. For him, political philosophy is engaged or it is nothing. “The responsibility of political philosophy that tries to engage with practice is to be clear, or at least accessible – clear enough that its arguments and concerns can be accessible to a non-academic public. Otherwise, it’s not possible really for political philosophers to generate debate that could possibly challenge existing understandings.”

What is striking about this conception of the task of the public philosopher is just how ambitious it is. Where, for many of his contemporaries, the job of the philosopher is merely to tease out the abstract principles underlying public debate and deliberation, for Sandel it is to intervene in the debates themselves. “Public philosophy is set apart from academic political philosophy, in that it means not only to be about prevailing practices and assumptions, but also to address them,” he says. “To address fellow citizens about them and to try to provoke discussion and critical reflection among the public generally. So that political philosophy isn’t only about public things, but engages public things and, if it’s successful, reorients the way people relate to politics and the public realm.”

All of Sandel’s work, the academic treatises as much as the op-eds and magazine articles, circles obsessively around just this question: the nature and extent of the public realm. (The Reith Lectures are being delivered under the general heading “A New Citizenship” and culminate in a sketch of what Sandel calls “A New Politics of the Common Good”.) He traces these concerns back to a trip to southern Spain he took in the mid-1970s, at the end of his first term as a Rhodes scholar at Oxford, where he had gone to read for a DPhil after graduating Phi Beta Kappa from Brandeis University, in Massachusetts.“At the time, I thought I might pursue economics,” he tells me. “I was interested in welfare economics and the extent to which economic models could incorporate a concern for equality. I went to Spain with an economist, and we were going to try to work this out in a paper.”

One of his tutors at Oxford, Alan Montefiore, suggested to Sandel that he also take some books with him to Spain. He ended up taking four: John Rawls’s Theory of Justice, Kant’s Critique of Pure Reason, Robert Nozick’s Anarchy, State and Utopia and The Human Condition by Hannah Arendt. The idea was that Sandel would spend the days reading; he and his economist friend would work on their article in the evenings. Very soon, what he was reading by day caused the projected article on economics to unravel.

The “dismal science” of economics, he now thought, was excessively pessimistic about human beings, conceiving of them as little more than bundles of preferences and desires. This was a picture it inherited from utilitarianism, for which all moral and political principles are justified to the extent that they promote the greatest happiness of the greatest number. What Sandel took from reading Rawls and Kant was a “devastating and convincing critique of utilitarianism”.

Michael Sandel: the CV

1953 Born 5 March in Minneapolis, Minnesota
1975 Graduates from Brandeis University
1981 Earns doctorate from Balliol College, Oxford, where he is a Rhodes scholar
1980 Begins teaching contemporary political philosophy at Harvard University. To date, more than 14,000 undergraduate students have enrolled on his Justice course, an introduction to moral and political philosophy
1982 Liberalism and the Limits of Justiceis published
1985 Receives the Harvard-Radcliffe Phi Beta Kappa Teaching Prize
1999 Becomes full professor at Harvard
2001 Works as visiting professor at the Sorbonne in Paris
2002 Named the inaugural Anne T and Robert M Bass Professor of Government at Harvard University
2005 Public Philosophy: Essays on Morality In Politics is published
2005-2007 Advises the Bush administration on the ethical implications of biomedical new technologies
2008 Honoured by the American
Political Science Association for his excellence in teaching
2009 Delivers the Reith Lectures on
“A New Citizenship”
Research by Tara Graham

In A Theory of Justice, which ignited a dramatic renewal of political philosophy in the US and Britain following its publication in 1971, Rawls had argued that by focusing exclusively on the promotion of the general welfare, utilitarians such as Jeremy Bentham and John Stuart Mill miss an equally significant dimension of moral and political life.

Political rights, for example, are important, Rawls said, not only because they tend to promote human happiness, but also because they protect individual human beings against being used as a means to some end or other, however desirable that end might be. Moreover, according to Rawls, basic rights and fundamental principles of justice could be derived in such a way that all reasonable people would endorse them, irrespective of their differing moral and religious beliefs – and that was crucial in modern, pluralistic societies such as the United States, which are characterised by profound ethical disagreements about the nature of the good life.

Though reading Rawls may have been what set Sandel on the path from economics to poli­tical philosophy, his academic reputation in the US was secured by his first book, Liberalism and the Limits of Justice (1982), based on his Oxford thesis – which was a full-frontal attack on the version of liberalism set out in A Theory of Justice. Under the influence of a notably heterodox group of philosophers at Oxford, which included Stuart Hampshire, Charles Taylor (with whom he recently co-taught a graduate class at Harvard) and Leszek Kolakowski, Sandel began to formulate deep misgivings about the Rawlsian model, which seemed to him to make the surrendering of the moral and religious convictions that people hold most dear a condition of access to the public sphere.

The effects of emptying public life of moral and religious discourse have been disastrous, Sandel tells me. “It’s contributed to a moral vacuum that has been filled by narrow, intolerant moralisms. It has allowed the Christian right to have more appeal than it might otherwise have had, precisely because the field was cleared.” Sandel’s argument is that political progressives, of whom he is one, should actively engage people’s deepest beliefs, rather than ignore them. “As recently as the 1950s and 1960s, in American politics it was the left, more than the right, which broached moral and religious themes. Think about Martin Luther King and his ‘Letter from Birmingham Jail’ – that drew unabashedly on Christian themes, as well as universal ones.”

Sandel thinks Barack Obama, for one, has recognised this. “He is trying to articulate a politics of the common good and, unlike a lot of politicians, particularly those to the left of centre, he does not shy away from engaging with moral and spiritual language. He has brought moral and religious sensibilities back into politics, against a background in which such themes have been monopolised by the Christian right. Progressives have reacted, not by engaging the Christian right, but by trying to keep morality and religion out of politics altogether.”

Sandel’s prescriptions for a “remoralisation” of the language of progressive politics appear to be striking a chord here, as well as in the United States. Leading politicians of all parties, including Ed Miliband, David Willetts and Dame Shirley Williams, were present to hear him deliver his first lecture, and the MP Jon Cruddas, one of the few philosophically curious occupants of the Labour back benches, thinks they are right to be listening.

“Sandel’s challenge is to the whole architecture of neoliberalism,” Cruddas tells me. “And not just to liberalism in an economic sense, but to liberalism more generally. What he is saying is that a particular conception of the individual is being challenged in the current economic crisis.”He is right: Sandel’s work is an uncomfortable reminder of what we lost when we threw in our lot with a vision of politics as little more than the pursuit of economic growth and the protection of individual choice.

The Reith Lectures by Michael Sandel begin on BBC Radio 4 on 9 June (9am)

Jonathan Derbyshire is Managing Editor of Prospect. He was formerly Culture Editor of the New Statesman.

Photo: Getty
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Enough to educate 17 million children: the true cost of Brazil’s Car Wash scandal

As a new Netflix series dramatises one of the world’s largest corruption cases, Global Witness puts a figure on the cost of the scandal.

In the 1980s, Alberto Youssef was, alongside an older sister, smuggling whisky and electronic products from Paraguay to Brazil. Once, while being chased at a high-speed by police, VCRs kept falling out of the pick-up truck he was driving. Few would have guessed that this almost comical character would, one day, become a key player in what has been called the biggest corruption scandal in history. But then, the Car Wash, or as it’s known in Portuguese, Lava Jato, stretched far and wide across Brazil at a huge cost.

New research by Global Witness shows the damage caused by the Car Wash scandal far exceeds the sums stolen. The cost to the Brazilian treasury may be nearly eight times higher than the £1.4bn actually taken, enough to cover the salaries of more than a million nurses or provide a year’s education for over 17 million children.

Police only began to uncover the extent of the Car Wash scandal in 2013, when they became suspicious about the sheer quantity of cash churning through a bureau de change in a humble petrol station in the country's capital Brasilia. That led to the arrest of Youssef, which in turn led to further arrests. It soon became clear that this was no ordinary money laundering operation. Police had stumbled upon a racket that would involve at least 28 major corporations and 20 political parties, resulting in over 100 convictions. The list of those implicated reads like a Who’s Who of the Brazilian political elite, including two of the country's presidents.

Former Brazilian president Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva has been sentenced to more than 12 years, after it emerged he took bribes for helping a construction company win contracts with Petrobras. Lula says the case is politically motivated and remains free while appealing it. A ruling in a federal court on Monday, however, could send him behind bars, even as he takes the case to the Supreme Court.

Current president Michel Temer has also been at the centre of corruption investigations, most recently over allegations of bribery concerning a deal for operating services at the Port of Santos, Latin America’s largest container port. Congress has twice blocked Temer from standing trial on corruption charges while in office, and he denies the allegations.

The scandal has also inspired The Mechanism, a new Netflix drama from the director behind the biopic of Pablo Escobar, Narcos. The sums of money involved in Car Wash were almost at Escobar levels, but the billions lost to Brazil’s hard-pressed public services mean the scam might also have caused harm on a scale comparable to the druglord’s activities.

The fraud revolved around Petrobras, Brazil’s state-owned oil company. Instead of awarding huge contracts for construction projects, oil rigs, shipping and so on in the normal manner, the work was rotated around a cartel of companies in orderly fashion. Petrobras would over-pay the companies by at least 3 per cent, with the extra money forming a kickback to the directors responsible for awarding them the contracts. These directors would pocket some of the money, and hand the rest to the politicians who had appointed them to their lucrative posts. The money then went to the campaigns of Brazil’s political parties and provided backdoor funds that kept otherwise unstable governing coalitions together.

The result was a Byzantine racket of astonishing intricacy and scale in which everyone took a cut. Bribes came in the form of bricks of cash, expensive art works, aircraft and yachts; anonymously-owned companies in tax havens and foreign bank accounts helped launder the loot. One Petrobras director alone channelled €20m to banks in Monaco from accounts in the Bahamas, Panama and elsewhere.

“Once the mechanism is established, only the corrupt can take part,” says José Padilha, the Brazilian writer and director of The Mechanism. “If you’re an honest politician you’re doomed. The honest businessman will not get any contracts. There are only crooks.”

This “mechanism” had been running uninterrupted for at least 12 years.

Was this really the biggest corruption scandal of all time? Virtually every Car Wash explainer in the UK press poses the question – but none provides an answer. That’s probably because it’s notoriously hard to quantify value throughout history. In 193 AD, the Roman Praetorian Guard assassinated their emperor and held a fraudulent auction to appoint his successor, striking a deal worth 250 pieces of gold for each soldier in the army. (The empire was not theirs to sell). If not the earliest documented fraud, it was surely the most audacious – but trying to convert the ransom into modern currency is a fool’s errand.

But Padhila has no doubt. “It’s the biggest corruption scandal in the history of mankind,” he says. “It involves a mechanism which has been operating in Brazil in one form or another since at least the Eighties. Too many Brazilians fall into the trap of ideology, but the mechanism has no ideology. It is left wing and right wing. The whole political system is corrupted. Democracy has failed.”

Regardless of whether Car Wash is the biggest bribery case of all time, it certainly features in the ranks of the world’s corruption mega-scandals, sitting alongside mammoth state-thieving operations such as Malaysia’s recent “1MDB scandal” – US lawsuits claim an estimated $4.5bn has gone missing from a state development fund – and France’s Elf scandal, which shook the body politic and in which at least $400m was creamed off international oil contracts. All these scandals were linked to illicit political funding.

Taking a look at the cost of Car Wash to Brazil, first off there is the amount filched from the state oil company in improper payments. A Federal Police report seen by Global Witness conservatively estimates this at £1.4bn – all of which had to be laundered, sometimes moved physically. To put this logistical feat in context, if withdrawn in £10 notes the sum would make a stack eight miles high equivalent to almost 16 Burj Khalifas, the tallest building in the world (or, if you like, 343 Christ the Redeemers). The 119 tonnes of cash would take a fleet of 97 Ford Transit vans to deliver.

Then there is the £2.1bn fine Petrobras has agreed to settle a US investors’ class action, already bigger than the amount actually stolen. But both the theft and the losses are dwarfed by (and reflected in) the collapse in Petrobras’s share price. Before the scandal broke in September 2014, shares were at $19.33 but as of March 2018 they had dropped to $14.07. The government suffered a paper loss of £14.1bn for its 29 per cent stake in the company.

September 2014 was also the moment that global oil prices began a long decline, but the damage was too great for Petrobras to hide. “I would say 90 per cent of the fall in share price is due to Car Wash,” says Tiago Cavalcanti, a Brazilian economist at the University of Cambridge.

Petrobras’s 3.7 billion shares are supposed to furnish Brazil with a healthy income, and in the three years before Car Wash exploded, they provided Brazil with an average annual dividend of £360m. No dividend was paid in 2015, 2016 or 2017, costing the country £1.1bn.

Then comes the kicker. So vast was the upheaval  with billions slashed in investment   that some believe it helped bring about the worst recession in Brazil since records began. In March 2014, when the first Car Wash arrests were made, the Brazilian unemployment rate was 7.1 per cent. By last summer it was at 13 per cent. São Paulo consultancy GO Associados, headed by economist Gesner Oliveira, calculated that the fallout from Car Wash hit GDP by 2.5 per cent in each year the investigation was going on, from 2015 to 2017. The consultancy has now told Global Witness it has revised those figures up to an extraordinary 3.6 per cent — which would mean almost the entire drop in output during 2015 and 2016 was accounted for by Car Wash.

GO Associados said that would imply an annual $4.6bn (£3.3bn) in lost tax for each of the three years the fallout from Car Wash was at its most extreme £9.9bn. This figure would appear to be on the conservative side: it is based on the hit to the economy from Petrobras’s reduction in spending plans  but does not take into account the wider impact on Brazil’s giant construction companies, many of which lost contracts elsewhere in Latin America as a result of the scandal. Such firms were also banned from any public contracts in Brazil. The figure also fails to include the reduction in foreign investment in Brazil as a result of the political turmoil.

So even setting aside Brazil’s paper loss – Petrobras shares may well continue to rise  Lava Jato could have cost the government at least £11bn in revenue in lost tax and lost dividends from its stake in the company. That’s almost eight times the amount stolen from Petrobras in the first place.

“That number sounds very plausible and the calculation is logical,” says Cavalcanti, who has himself calculated that without Car Wash and other governmental policies Brazilian GDP would have grown by 1.2 per cent in 2015 and 2016 (as opposed to an actual fall of 3.8 per cent and 3.6 per cent). “Another reason for the recession was the falling price of commodities, but Peru and Chile did not have the fall Brazil had. Certainly Car Wash was a very big factor in the recession.”

Who knows the real difference that £11bn could have made in a country where universal healthcare is still some way off and about 7 per cent remain illiterate. The real price of Car Wash is incalculable.

“I feel disgust and exasperation,” says Padilha.

You might think that at such terrible cost, the Brazilian public would rather the fraud had never been exposed. But a recent poll suggests 94 per cent of Brazilians think the investigations should continue despite the current turmoil. For many, this is a golden opportunity to tackle the corruption that has afflicted the Brazilian body politic for decades before the mechanism started turning.

Because according to the filmmaker, Petrobras is the tip of the iceberg.

“There is no public contract in any village, town, city or state that is not affected, from the tiniest new road to the biggest government project,” he says. “All are corrupted - and none of this is exposed yet. In my country you can turn any stone and there will be cockroaches underneath.”

Ed Davey is an investigative journalist for Global Witness.