Money can’t buy a queue jump in Denmark

samfloy~19 October 2019 /Denmark

This week a post about my first real experience of feeling the oft-spoken “Danish equality”, at the cost of getting drenched on a Friday night.

The “potato holiday”

It’s all started because Danes love potatoes.

The second week in October in Denmark is a school holiday, historically because all hands were needed in the fields to help with the potato harvest.

Even though less of the population is required to pick spuds, the holiday continues. 26 years ago the city of Copenhagen decided to start a cultural evening to mark the beginning of the school break. 

Kulturenatten (The culture night)

For one night only hundreds of typically closed off buildings are made open for the public (a bit like Open House in London).

This year Camilla and I attended.

People buy a general admission ticket DKK 95 (~£11) which takes the form of a badge. These are bought from one of the many 7/11s in the city and also entitle the wearer to free transport on the metro for the evening.

There’s a long list of places open and it’s a case of travelling around to find something you’re interested in and then turning up.

Each place is different, but it is typically a guided tour of a place you wouldn’t ordinarily get access to, such as the High Courts, “behind the scenes” at museums, or government buildings.

Kulturenatten 2019: the rainy one

The weather this year was foul.

Getting off the metro to go to DR (Danish Radio, the main media organisation in Denmark, a bit like the BBC) we were hit with a heavy grey sky and rain descending.

After looking around some of the recording studios/ production rooms we decided to head over to get a tour of Maersk, the big Danish shipping firm.

By now it was chucking it down, and we saw a long stretch of people lined up huddling by puddles.

After checking with someone official-looking that this a) was the right queue and b) he didn’t know long it would take we decided to suck it up, tag on the back and periodically shuffle forward.

The introduction of markets

One of my favourite books in recent years is What Money Can’t Buy: The Moral Limits of Markets.

It’s written by Michael Sandel and describes how over the past 10-20 years markets have entered almost all realms of public and civic life (in the US, at least), and how this isn’t necessarily a good thing.

At university I studied economics, and have been programmed to see markets (allowing willing people to trade things) as virtuous: if one person has lots of apples and other textiles, both would be better if they could exchange their surpluses.

Nowadays people use money (rather than bags of apples) to buy and sell and things, though the principle still applies: if someone has money to buy a new jacket, and another is willing to sell it, then it’s a good thing to facilitate the exchange (hence the growth in marketplace websites like eBay and Etsy).

Markets in public life

Sandel’s book documents how in recent years this market thinking mentality has spread from simple goods and services and into other forms of civic life.

An example is corporate boxes at sports games. In years gone by, all supporters would stand together in the terraces. As the saying goes, the CEO would be next to the janitor come rain or shine.

Even though the former had more money than the latter, s/he could not pay for a more comfortable set up because there wasn’t a market for it. The CEO may have wanted to buy access to a cosy suite with a great view of the pitch, but the clubs weren’t willing (or didn’t consider) to sell it.

The market positivist in me begins to itch: that’s so inefficient! 

By creating a new category of ticket (the corporate suite) then those who are willing to pay more can do so, the stadium (when lots of sports clubs are going out of business) can generate necessary funds to stay in business, and people who value watching the team can still watch the game.

Everyone’s a winner?

Sandel says no.

The arguments against using markets are:

  1. Inequality: it means some are excluded because they don’t have purchasing power
  2. “Corruption”: trading a good reduces it to a commodity and it loses its moral value

From the book:

Consider inequality. In a society where everything is for sale, life is harder for those of modest means. The more money can buy, the more affluence (or the lack of it) matters… as money comes to buy more and more – political influence, good medical care, a home in a safe neighbourhood rather than a crime-ridden one, access to elite schools rather than failing ones – the distribution of income and wealth looms larger and larger… The second reason we should hesitate to put everything up for sale is more difficult to describe. It is not about inequality and fairness but about the corrosive tendency of markets. Putting a price on the good things in life can corrupt them. That’s because markets don’t only allocate goods; they also express and promote certain attitudes toward the goods being exchanged. 

For 1., the creation of the corporate suite means there are fewer seats available for “real fans”. They are being shunned from seeing their team play in favour of people in suits there more for the prestige of drinking champagne at the stadium.

For 2., e.g. it’s possible to buy wedding speeches online. There are willing buyers (ineloquent best men) and sellers (good speechwriters) though giving a speech at your best friend’s wedding that wasn’t penned by you degrades its authenticity.

Whilst “market fundamentalism,” says markets create value wherever they go, Sandel believes there has been unaccounted cost with this behaviour. His book aims to shine a light on it.

Stuck in the rain

Back to the cold, miserable Friday evening queuing up for the tour.

We were resolutely out in the rain and there was nothing that could be done (other than go home).

The market positivist in me started getting angsty that there wasn’t an opportunity to resolve the situation. Economics 101 states that queues are a bad thing, and that a price mechanism should be introduced to separate those who really value the product/ service from those who don’t.

But that wasn’t on offer.

Everyone remained next to each other under umbrellas getting steadily soaked until, after just over an hour, we were admitted into the building to begin the tour. 

Despite the cold, there was an unspoken camaraderie between everyone getting through the ordeal as we then got on with the tour.

Danish equality

A lot is said about Danish equality which, to date, I haven’t really noticed that much: there are still big houses/ fancy cars vs dodgy apartment/ people struggling.

Queuin’ in the rain, however, was a stark example of how the psyche in Denmark (or at least absence of markets) is different to, say, the world of the US where it feels like the ability to buy a queue jump pass would have been on offer.

It’s not a perfect comparison, but more of a feeling. That, or that by now, Danes are perfectly content to put up with the miserable weather on a Friday night…

In other news…

I’ve been getting into a new podcast recently: The Secret History of the Future.

It looks at how people reacted to new innovations in the past (cars, telephones), and what that can tell us about the debates of today (driverless cars, social media).

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