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Journalist explores rise of 'transaction society' in Tanner Lectures at Stanford

In a series of lectures and discussions, "New Yorker" staff writer Nicholas Lemann traced the origins and consequences of what he termed the transaction society in American life.

Charles Russo Nicholas Lemann

Journalist Nicholas Lemann speaks during this year's Tanner Lectures on Human Values.

In the mid-20th century, joining the workforce meant becoming part of a large, stable organization – such as a corporate firm or trade union – and remaining with that institution for the rest of one's professional life.  In recent decades, a new model has emerged. Strong institutions have given way to more decentralized networks of one-off transactions among individuals and firms, bringing about important shifts not only in the economy but in society at large.

"The shift from an institutional to a transactional perspective may be significantly responsible for the substantial rise in economic and social inequality that has been one of the main changes in American society over the last generation," Nicholas Lemann said in this year's Tanner Lectures on Human Values, which were held at Stanford last week.

A staff writer at The New Yorker and former dean of Columbia University's Graduate School of Journalism, Lemann argued that the transition from organizations oriented toward the good of their members to a transaction-dominated culture has shaped – and been shaped by – significant changes in the balance of power within American society.

Lemann's lectures were accompanied by two public discussion sessions, with remarks from  four commentators: political scientists Theda Skocpol and Paul Pierson; historian and strategy consultant Brook Manville; and novelist Joshua Ferris.

Lemann's lectures developed, in part, out of his 2012 campaign-trail profile of Governor Mitt Romney, which appeared in The New Yorker under the title "Transaction Man."  If Mitt Romney's father George – who served as president of American Motors before becoming governor of Michigan – was the quintessential "organization man," then Mitt himself – as head of Bain Capital – was best understood as a "transaction man."

 "(He's) someone who moves assets around with a speed and force that leaves many of the rest of us bewildered," Lemann wrote.

Lemann characterized the broad turn against strong institutions – private corporations and public bureaucracies alike – among mid-century American intellectuals. He detailed the lasting effects of this shift on various social, economic and legal arrangements.

The Center for Ethics in Society collaborates with The Office of the President to host the Tanner Lectures. Comprised of annual lectures and seminars across nine universities, the Tanner Lectures were established by the late American scholar, industrialist and philanthropist Obert Clark Tanner in hopes that the series would bring about "a better understanding of human behavior and human values" and that it might "eventually have practical consequences for the quality of personal and social life."

Lemann's selection honors his extensive work, "tackling important issues, such as our legacy of racial injustice, the nature of individualism, the dilemmas of meritocracy, and the role of a free press," said Debra Satz, a philosophy professor, senior associate dean for the Humanities and Arts and director of the McCoy Family Center for Ethics in Society. "All these issues raise questions of ethics, and Lemann's take on them is always interesting, learned, and swings at the big picture," she said.

Past Tanner speakers at Stanford include Jared Diamond, Dorothy Allison, Paul Krugman, Mary Robinson, Harry Frankfurt, Avishai Margalit, David Brion Davis, Glenn Loury, Mark Danner, Elinor Ostrom, John Cooper and William Bowen.

Lemann's lectures will appear alongside the prepared comments in an annual volume published by the University of Utah Press. Video of the lectures will be available on the Center for Ethics in Society's website.

Alex Levitov is a postdoctoral teaching fellow at the Center for Ethics in Society.