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BBC The Apprentice – The Final: Ricky gives them what Thor.

 

 

New Tricks Teacher + Old Dog

 

 

The Apprentice – The Final: Ricky gives them what Thor.

 

Professor Michael Sandel*, in his excellent new book What Money Can’t Buy – The Moral Limits of Markets makes some very useful distinctions. Both professional Economist and Philosopher, Sandel remarks:

“without quite realizing it we drifted from having a market economy to being a market society. The difference: a market economy is a tool – a valuable and effective tool – for organising productive activity. A market society is a way of life in which market values seep into every aspect of human endeavour. It’s a place where social relations are made over in the image of the market.”

Like all good philosophers, or indeed I guess economists, Sandel illustrates his arguments with loads of telling examples. He points out that when unfettered markets and therefore money, determine the distribution of all of society’s ‘goods’, the things we value, two morally questionable consequences ensue: first it is unfair as it favours the well-off or wealthy against the rest. Second and deeper: the value we attach to some social goods becomes corrupted, degraded by the very fact of having been reduced to monetary value.

A good example of the first is that every year in New York’s Central Park the city funds open air performances of Shakespeare with tickets free on a first come first serve basis. Much in demand, people stand for hours queueing for the limited number of tickets. There are now companies who hire down-and-outs or students to stand in line for the hours required, pay them a few $ and then sell on the ‘free’ tickets. Apparently the same ‘market’ in the limited seats for Congressional Hearings of Congress has developed with lobbyists buying access. I wonder how many people attending any of the lottery ticketed Diamond Jubilee celebrations bought their attendance?

Sandel gives many examples of the second: from selling sporting hero autographs to paying for blood donation as in the US or appealing to altruistic motives as in the UK system. His most graphic relates to the opportunity to buy the right to shoot a walrus – a protected species. When protection legislation for Walruses was introduced in Canada the indigenous Inuit people, because of the role of this largely harmless-to-humans creature in their traditional culture, were allowed a concession to kill a quota each year. Cleverly some might say, the Inuit sought and obtained permission to sell their concession to kill walruses to the highest bidders. It now costs about $6,000 for this macho ‘treat’. And you can do the same with the Black Rhino in South Africa ($150,000 a pop). Both examples are said to offer a net benefit to conservation.

This is a long way from a harmless enough TV show like The Apprentice. As several of you have, rightly, pointed out this is a game show with nothing much to do with business at all: despite its constant pretensions and protestations otherwise.

It would also be churlish not to recognize the general feeling of bonhomie at the end of this year’s show. Lord Barley was at his crinkly, wrinkly, Sid Jamesian best. Ricky was able to drop the act and become simply Richard the ex-wrestler with the doting Mum and who has apparently learned the difference between bravado and braggadocio. Jade thanks be, may abandon her plan to open not only the biggest but probably the most obnoxious call centre in the history of the world; in favour of trying to make a living from exploring her ‘creativity’. Nick, if he can escape the distracting clutches of adoring ladies, will probably come up with a better idea than the on-line recipe AP. And Tom, just the latest, best candidate on the show not to win, will no doubt achieve wealth through the thoroughly modern aspiration to monetise the value of fine wine into a financial product through which the rich can protect and increase their wealth.

Stripped of the clown’s uniforms the creators of The Apprentice product require them to wear, the class of 2012 were about the most likeable bunch ever. Alan Sugar (do all peers introduce themselves on the phone as ‘Lord X here’?) stayed true to his prejudices and insecurities throughout. However attracted he must have been to the big profits from Tom’s Wine Hedging, the combination of an intellect he couldn’t match and knowledge of a posh product he couldn’t hope to emulate made Tom a definite no-go no-no.

It was nice to see most of the candidates this year clued up about the difference between who they are and what the programme wants them to be. I didn’t see anyone who refused the ritualistic ‘Lord Sugar’ mantra but in one of many little signals this year, Jade wished the guys left “good luck” after she had been fired.

Leaving aside the slightly guilty aftertaste of 12 weeks of relishing schadenfreude I still feel uneasy for example at any intelligent, attractive, strong young woman feeling passionate about the money she can make from setting up a call centre where each caller will be targeted to make 200 calls a day. It still troubles me that devoting imagination, commitment and articulacy into buying cheap tat churned out by the poor in 3rd world countries and puffing it up, re-naming it as retro or worse retro-chic or any other gem from the lexicon of marketer’s weasel words, should be lauded as business ‘acumen’. ‘Buy cheap, sell dear’ isn’t the definition of an entrepreneur – it’s the slogan of the spiv.

The point of Sandel’s book is to suggest that we have a choice: we can allow ourselves to drift further into a market society; or choose not to reduce all our human and social values to money. I see no reason why that should not apply to the rightly passionate aspirations of young people; or even dare we say it, a richer, more socially worthwhile concept of an ‘entrepreneur’.

Too often on The Apprentice young people are encouraged to embrace in Sandel’s sense, a corrupted, degraded conception of business. What is too often lacking is the awareness that business is based at heart upon human relationships; making promises and standing by them; and the true value, social and personal, is not just defined quantitatively by the financial outcome – profit; but also qualitatively by the moral sensibility and values respected in the way it is conducted.

But then it’s just a quasi-reality game show – right? On that basis, like Big Brother etc before it, the candidates are now so knowing about the process that their considered performances rob the programme of one of its most entertaining features – instinctive, often hilarious cock-ups generated by too much stress, too little sleep and a carefully manufactured group dynamic.

Thanks for reading my ramblings of the past 12 weeks.

Now when is Strictly back? I need something serious to get my teeth into.


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* Sandel’s explorations of some of these issues are still available as BBC Podcasts.

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