"Whenever I go into a restaurant, I order both a chicken and an egg to see which comes first"

Sunday, May 13, 2012

Market Realities - The Nineteenth Century Is Over

Thomas Friedman in today’s (5.13.12) New York Times http://www.nytimes.com/2012/05/13/opinion/sunday/friedman-this-column-is-not-sponsored-by-anyone.html?_r=1&ref=opinion has written a book review on “What Money Can’t Buy: The Moral Limits of Markets” by Michael Sandel and laments the commercialization of America – that there are fewer and fewer places to hide from the intrusion of the market.

Throughout our society, we are losing the places and institutions that used to bring people together from different walks of life. Sandel calls this the “skyboxification of American life,” and it is troubling. Unless the rich and poor encounter one another in everyday life, it is hard to think of ourselves as engaged in a common project. At a time when to fix our society we need to do big, hard things together, the marketization of public life becomes one more thing pulling us apart. “The great missing debate in contemporary politics,” Sandel writes, “is about the role and reach of markets.” We should be asking where markets serve the public good, and where they don’t belong, he argues. And we should be asking how to rebuild class-mixing institutions.

‘Rebuilding class-mixing institutions’ is another way of saying that government should intervene to engineer a more socially equal society.  We would all be better off if the rich rubbed elbows with the poor; but the market, encouraging the free movement of labor and capital inconveniently interferes with this utopian vision.  Friedman highlights the  ‘intrusion’ of the commercial sector into public education, citing corporate sponsorship/support of schools and the consequent advertising in school; but indirectly refers to the more pernicious trend of privatization of the public school system. 

The public schools were once supposed to be the crucible of democracy, mixing all social classes, but they have long since been transformed into repositories of the poor, dysfunctional, and less able.  The marketplace has drawn the more talented and/or wealthy students to the private sector, and left inner-city schools racially, economically, and socially segregated. Friedman would like to reverse this trend and return the schools to their 19th century ideals. 

However, the issue is not the reestablishment of a classless school environment, but the improvement of basic education.  One of the reasons that educational performance has progressively deteriorated is because it is no longer the single and most important objective of school.  School administrators, principals, and teachers are now required to do much more and to address social issues of respect, gender equity, cooperation, and many other well-meaning but diluting interventions.  In other words, market forces, already at work despite the reluctance if not obstruction of the educational establishment and labor unions, are already enabling the more talented and motivated students to escape the stultifying and retrograde environment of today’s public schools.  The schools will never again be the classless mixing bowls of yesteryear.

Friedman does not just focus on the schools, but the what he and the book author perceive as the pernicious and corrosive forces of commercialization in society.  In other words, there are fewer quiet 19th Century Walden Ponds, no time for introspection and consideration of life and soul.

“Over the last three decades,” Sandel states, “we have drifted from having a market economy to becoming a market society. A market economy is a tool — a valuable and effective tool — for organizing productive activity. But a ‘market society’ is a place where everything is up for sale. It is a way of life where market values govern every sphere of life.”

Friedman cites baseball as one of the most egregious examples of commercialization:

I knew that stadiums are now named for corporations, but had no idea that now “even sliding into home is a corporate-sponsored event,” writes Sandel. “New York Life Insurance Company has a deal with 10 Major League Baseball teams that triggers a promotional plug every time a player slides safely into base. When the umpire calls the runner safe at home plate, a corporate logo appears on the television screen, and the play-by-play announcer must say, ‘Safe at home. Safe and secure. New York Life.’ ”

I am not sure what this has got to do with the atomizing of American society, corroding the principles of the Founding Fathers, or creating a faceless, corporate vision of life.  The more money generated for a team through advertising results in larger payrolls, better players, better teams, and more fan interest.  I love watching the Yankees because I see the best players (usually) in baseball on the field.  I am a key factor in promoting commercialism because I support the result of corporate financing.  I am complicit, I am happy that I am a Yankee fan. 

The idealistic view of baseball – already idealized and sanctified by college professors, conservative political analysts, and historians – ignores the way society changes, mutates, develops new adaptive skills, and survives quite well.  I am not immune to the hundreds of banners and pop-up ads I see on the many websites I visit every day, but I have learned how to block them out with my own brain filter.  I focus without distraction on my Google search, my literary criticism, and my communication.  I am sure that younger media users are even more adept at this process of subliminal selection.

The same can be said of televised football, basketball, or hockey.  There are unwanted intrusions via ‘commercial time-outs”, but not only have we have come to accept ‘free’ television, but we like to watch the ads.  To the serious sports fan, the noise of bling, off-the-field-hype and shameless commercial promotion is an irritating background and nothing more.  I flip the channel to the Orioles when an ad is on during a Nationals game.  I have learned the art of media negotiation.

Finally Friedman gets to the point of how creeping commercialism erodes the national fabric – one which should be tightly woven because of common social interests but instead is fraying because of lesser product values:

Why worry about this trend? Because, Sandel argues, market values are crowding out civic practices. When public schools are plastered with commercial advertising, they teach students to be consumers rather than citizens. When we outsource war to private military contractors, and when we have separate, shorter lines for airport security for those who can afford them, the result is that the affluent and those of modest means live increasingly separate lives, and the class-mixing institutions and public spaces that forge a sense of common experience and shared citizenship get eroded.

This supposedly compelling paragraph is too loosely-argued to make any sense.  The ‘plastering’ of advertising in the schools has nothing to do with shorter lines in airports for those who pay.  Most importantly the affluent and those of modest means have always led separate lives – perhaps even more so before the dominance of corporate interest in social and political life.  ‘The rich are different from you and me’, F. Scott Fitzgerald famously wrote as he described the world of the wealthy in the Flapper Era; and their estates still grace the shores of Long Island as they did in in his day.  Those of ‘modest means’ may work with the more well-to-do in the offices on K Street, but at the end of the day they take the East-West busses to their modest means houses while their bosses head uptown to Northwest or Chevy Chase. 

Where is it written in the Constitution that social equality means social integration?  Our country is founded on the principle that every citizen has the right to life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness; but nowhere does it say together with someone else.  Aggregations of individuals will always take place along class, racial, social, and ethnic lines; and it is the great leveling and integrating force in America – money – which will eventually break down these temporary barriers. 

Friedman’s simplistic contentions assume that commercial enterprise is bad.  It is insidiously destroying the essentially good qualities of American life that began in 1776.  That while he is not against the powerful entrepreneurial spirit of the United States, he is against its ‘excesses’.  What exactly are those?  Society is more fragmented and atomized through Facebook, the I-Pod, and other individualized media connections that limit ‘real’ human interaction.

This commercial wedge being driven between people according to Friedman, is there because we the American consumers have asked for it, demanded it, and cannot do without it.  There would be no Apple without ads for Apple, just as there would no be the 2012 version of the Bronx Bombers without ‘Safe at Home” brought to you by NY Life.  There would be no I-pods, I-phones, or I-pads without private investment, canny marketing, and insatiable consumer demand. 

These commercial enterprises if anything have brought people more together, if in unexpected modern ways.  Who is to say that LinkedIn, Facebook, Pinterest and other social networks are not as powerful tools for social mobility and integration as 19th century pre-media institutions?  Of course we will choose our electronic friends in the same way as we do in the ‘real’ world – by class, race, etc.; but the commercially-driven Internet certainly does not degrade our ability to move within these divisions.

Would I prefer to have ad-free flights, Metro rides, and websites?  Yes; but that is because I have not fully learned how to tune them out or to selectively listen to them; and I understand that in the United States where the business of America is business, all the seemingly miraculous innovations that link me to the world’s intellectual resources as well as friends, colleagues, and associates, are because of corporate, profit-driven interest.  You can’t have it both ways.  Ads and corporate clutter are a part of the often chaotic-seeming evolution of new ideas, products, and services; but if we look at the end result – a limitless potential of individual self-realization and the possibility of infinite groupings – we can quickly learn to them and move on.

Sandel argues that this reach of markets into every aspect of life was partly a result of the end of the cold war, he argues, when America’s victory was interpreted as a victory for unfettered markets, thus propelling the notion that markets are the primary instruments for achieving the public good. It was also the result of Americans wanting more public services than they were willing to pay taxes for, thus inviting corporations to fill in the gap with school gyms brought to you by ShopRite.

This is a true statement, but the implication that this is a bad trend is wrong.  Americans now want to pay fewer taxes, thus giving them the freedom to choose how their dollars are to be spent, not the government.  A recent program on This American Life described the efforts of a town in Colorado which decided to eliminate government – so much so that it required individual families to buy and pay for a their own street lighting.  This exaggerated parody was an excellent example of where this no taxes-but-public services paradigm logically ends up – the same chaotic, unplanned, and conflicting society that occurred in the early days of our nation before local government. 

The point is there will always be a balance between government and private sector interests.  All civilizations have evolved governments; and all have had a private sector.  The ascendancy of one – in this case corporate interests – does not mean the permanent destruction of the other, just a reconfiguration.  Most importantly and addressing the contentions of Friedman, these reconfigurations do not atomize, factionalize, dehumanize society but simply change the way it functions.

Thomas Friedman is usually a restrained and reasonably objective observer of the socio-political scene; but in this book review he has fallen into a familiar liberal morass of government social engineering. 

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