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

Saturday, July 14, 2012

Everything In Life Is….For Sale

The complaint that everything in life is now for sale is not new; and many critics, especially those from the old-school Park Avenue elites, have seen with today’s rampant commercialism an erosion of American values.  There is an overarching value, they argue, to an unsullied environment by which they mean one without corporate intrusion. It is all right to make your money from Exxon Mobil, IBM, or McDonald’s; but it is another thing altogether to see their names everywhere.  In the good English tradition of keeping talk of your personal finances private, thus affecting indifference and an image of higher thought, shameless corporate self-promotion is simply not done. Criticism of such a display of money and financial influence is often a thinly-veiled appeal to keep the Jews out of English primrose gardens.

I have followed with interest the attempts by many older residents of a tony island destination off Cape Cod to resist any form of intrusion by commercial interests.  Any new ‘outside’ development, they say, would despoil the pristine nature of the island which has remained the same clapboard, gardened summer colony for the New England WASP elite for generations, and more recently has become the go-to place for the intellectual, artistic, and political elite.  The proposal for a new golf club, for example, was considered the worst sort of assault on ‘our way of life’, a rape of old English values and culture, a deflowering of the environmental virginity of the island, and worse. 

The WASP elites will soon be things of the past.  While their commitment to service, a rigorous sense of morals and ethics, and a worthy noblesse oblige will be missed, their insular, arrogant, and self-important ways will not.  As these elites fade from public memory, so will all islands of 19th Century calm and propriety.

Ferdinand Mount has written a review of two books on the commercialization of public life in the Times Literary Supplement http://www.the-tls.co.uk/tls/public/article1079083.ece The first review (What Money Can’t Buy) is particularly interesting because of its focus on history (absent, says the reviewer, from the books themselves) - the commercialization of ‘public goods’ is not at all new.  The review also is interesting for its focus on the benefits of corporate sponsorship – i.e., while few people prefer the extra logos, billboards, and ‘Brought to you by’ sponsorship advertisements, the infusion of private dollars into a tax revenue poor environment is a win-win situation for penurious governments and tax-weary citizens.

Michael J. Sandel [the author of  What Money Can’t Buy] begins briskly. Today, he says, almost everything is up for sale. “The most fateful change that unfolded during the past three decades was not an increase in greed. It was the expansion of markets, and of market values, into spheres of life where they don’t belong.” Today, private contractors run schools, hospitals and prisons for profit. Coca-Cola, Campbell’s Soup and McDonald’s spatter their logos and their products all over schools and college campuses. Naming rights to parks and public space are up for grabs to the highest commercial bidder. Companies and nations buy and sell the right to pollute. Pregnancy is outsourced for cash to surrogate mothers, usually in poorer countries. The United States has a system of campaign finance that comes close to permitting elections to be bought and sold. All this was “for the most part unheard of thirty years ago”.

This wry and graceful polemic comes attended by a flock of shocking, delicious and absurd examples. In Santa Ana, California, you can buy a prison cell upgrade for $82 a night. For $150,000 in South Africa you can buy the right to shoot an endangered black rhino. Air New Zealand hires people to shave their heads and emblazon temporary tattoos on their foreheads with the slogan “Need a change? Head down to New Zealand”. Nor are such transactions confined to the West. In overcrowded Chinese hospitals, there is a hot market in appointment tickets to see the doctor, and the touts charge Wimbledon prices. In the US, you can buy the life insurance policy of an ailing old person, pay the premiums and then collect when he or she dies. The sooner the oldie croaks, the more you collect. This betting on a stranger’s death is now a $30 billion business and bears the charming name of “the viatical industry” – after the Latin word for the money and provisions supplied to Roman officials setting out on a journey, and by extension to the journey across the Styx.

The domination of private interests in America dates back to the founding of the nation.  Schools, medical care, infrastructure were all private.  In the expansion west, it was the private entrepreneur and  private investment companies which laid out new towns and sold parcels to eager consumers.  These private interests built roads, ports, and railways. Government came only later.  In the UK the tradition was the same in its earliest days, but government soon became the prime mover of the nation’s economy and social welfare.  The United States has gone through periods of public sector fervor, but has never lost its reliance on and trust in private enterprise. 

Nor is the cash nexus a novelty in politics. The idea that elections have been bought or sold only in the late twentieth century would have seemed laughable to Dickens or Mark Twain (is there a modern novel which equals The Gilded Age’s picture of a Washington riddled with lobbyists?). As for naming rights, it was forty years ago that Isaac Wolfson, the mogul of Great Universal Stores, became the first man since Jesus Christ to have a college named after him at both Oxford and Cambridge. Sandel’s own university took its name from its first great benefactor, John Harvard, and Sandel is himself the Anne T. and Robert M. Bass Professor of Government there. The Bass family are Texas oil billionaires.

It’s not much easier either to detect a historical moment at which Commerce first raised her unlovely head in our holy places. We tend to think of the Middle Ages as the most sacralized period in Western history. Yet people then were often less squeamish in this respect. Squinny-eyed merchants squeezed their likenesses on to the wings of altarpieces they had paid for. Aisle chapels were as likely to be named after the bankers who had financed their decoration as after the saints to whom they were dedicated or the mere artisans who had frescoed them. In allowing space inside parish churches for shops, bazaars, plays and commercial events, cash-strapped vicars today may be returning to medieval tradition rather than defiling it.

The most important question, asks the reviewer is”does the intrusion of the market increase or reduce the quantity of the good or service to be provided? And does it improve or damage the quality of that good or service?”  In most cases corporate sponsorship is either neutral relative to quantity and quality or positive.  There is no harm done in AT&T sponsoring a sports stadium and naming it after itself since its financing has reduced the tax liability.  The new stadiums built today are indeed monuments not only to baseball but to corporate interests.  They are festooned with oversized, multi-colored, animated advertisements for commercial products; and to the old-fashioned fan, are a distraction from the purity and elegance of the game.  Yet the younger generation, brought up in a commercialized multi-media world, take the promotions for granted.  In their multi-tasking, multi-media way they tune in and tune out both game and commercial diversions.

While corporate sponsorship of national parks is not yet a reality, discussions are ongoing; but corporations are unlikely to intrude too far into their value center – the pristine wilderness.  Corporate signs and logos will certainly be present at park entrances, on admission tickets, at lodges and hotels, on directional signs, etc., but executives will understand that if they destroy the value of the commodity they are sponsoring, they destroy the value of the investment.

Sandel also fails to distinguish between the two broad sorts of non-market provision: by the State on the one hand and by charitable agencies and individual volunteers on the other…The State, with its limitless power to tax and regulate, can in theory at least ensure adequacy of provision and equality of access. Charity, or the Third Sector as we now call it, can boast purity of motive and can claim to bind us closer together by the encouragement of mutual aid – “the Big Society”. Yet neither non-market system has ever lacked its critics. The State, it is said, is patronizing and high-handed; it is also repeatedly compelled or tempted to restrict supplies and ration treatment. Similarly, the Left has argued until very recently that the charitable sector is high-handed and demeaning in a different sense, generating resentment among those on the receiving end, as well as being patchy and erratic in its coverage.

While this criticism may be accurate, it misses the point that the State – at least in America – is no longer in the position to sponsor anything.  If it were not for corporate sponsorship, many public institutions would go bust or hurting.  Secondly, Mount fails to mention the role of private foundations as possible alternatives to corporate sponsorship of formerly public goods.  The Gates and Buffett Foundations, among others, have the resources to support national parks, but have chosen to invest their money in more rewarding social enterprises, such as the eradication of disease.

Mount also misses the point that at least in America, we simply don’t care about the so-called ‘intrusion’ of corporate interests into our lives.  The number of television advertisements seen every day by the average American in a year is staggering.  Ads are on busses, subways, trains, kiosks, stores….everywhere.  They are as much a part of the American landscape as automobiles.  What we care about is whether or not commercial sponsorship and advertising affects the quantity or quality of the product or service promoted; and whether or not the advertising itself erodes a community environment.  This consumer market reaction is normal and natural, and is a guarantor of public goods.

The principal contention of the second book reviewed, How Much Is Enough? by father and son Skidelsky is:

“An argument against insatiability”, and it is “chiefly directed at the rich parts of the world, which may be reasonably thought to have enough wealth for a decent collective life”. On the following page, they go a step further and hazard that “it may be the case that rich societies already have too much GDP” (their italics). That being so, they ask us to “imagine a world in which most people worked only fifteen hours a week. They would be paid as much, or even more than they now are, because the fruits of their labour would be distributed more evenly across society. The automatic expectation of growth every year would be a thing of the past, and so would the restless search for it.”

The Skidelskys lament the passing of a value-rich culture, such as the one reflected by the Keynesian economic model which promoted public sector investment and deficit spending to improve the lives of citizens.  The Skidelskys are less concerned about the intrusion of corporate interests in our lives than the loss of traditional community values.

The good life had been a universal of human thought, cropping up independently all over the world, in classical and Christian civilizations alike. “We alone have seen fit to eliminate it.”

The reviewer dismisses this argument out of hand:

I should have thought that the moral imperatives of our time were as strongly marked in public discourse as at any time in the past: the insistence that we must treat all human beings equally, regardless of race, creed, sex or class; the expectation that the old, the crippled and the sick are to be looked after; the commandment that we should care thoroughly and tenderly for our children; that it is our duty to earn an honest crust and that “sturdy beggars” will not be tolerated; we are to look after our planet, tread lightly upon it and take our litter home; we are to look after our own bodies too (a classical precept this, not a Christian one): we must not eat or drink too much and we must not smoke at all. So relentlessly are these precepts preached that resentful libertines complain of political correctness and health fascism.

What Mount finds even more perplexing is the Skidelskys’ facile assumption about human values – i.e. the values that should be enduring but are being eroded, degraded, and lost:

It is when we come to their own recipes for the good life that the plot becomes hazier. They list seven basic goods: health, security, respect, personality (by which they mean autonomy, in particular the unfettered possession of property), harmony with nature, friendship and leisure. These basic goods, they tell us, “are not just means to, or capabilities for, a good life; they are the good life”.

Which is a curious way of putting it. For these goods are mostly things to be enjoyed. They are the constituents of a lucky life, rather than one which is shaped and striven for. Certainly it is a life that fits G. E. Moore’s famous recipe in Principia Ethica: “by far the most valuable things we know or can imagine are certain states of consciousness which may be roughly described as the pleasures of human intercourse and the enjoyment of beautiful objects”. It was only for the sake of those things that anyone could be justified in performing any public or private duty.

He is exactly right.  These ‘basic goods’ are far more the object of individual pursuit than the components of a more general good life, i.e., one good for all.  The Framers of the Constitution were careful to define the basic principles of the new American Republic.  The ‘pursuit of happiness’ expressed in the Declaration of Independence did not refer to the attainment of individual venal goals, but the well-being of society as a whole.  If we as Americans have lost anything, we have lost a respect for and a real understanding of the importance of civic values – values that have endured since the beginnings of Western and Asian civilization. 

What is absent is any recognition that strenuousness might be an intrinsic element in the good life, not merely a wearisome means to its enjoyment. Yet effort and personal sacrifice are essential in the classical version of the good life. There is an imperative to live, and if need be die, for the city, just as it is part of the Christian ethos that only “in thy service is perfect freedom”

In conclusion, the introduction of corporate interests into public life should only be judged on how the affect the quality and quantity of the product being sold or sponsored, not the peripheral ‘environmental’ effects that it produces.  In other words, is the baseball stadium, national park, zoo, or museum better off – or at least no worse – for corporate sponsorship.  Complaints about noisy, intrusive, crass commercialism are misplaced because of the nature of American culture today – one that takes such multi-media corporate visibility for granted.

Secondly, no transcendent values have been compromised by such ‘commercialization’.  If there is in fact a loss of a sense of the common weal, or civic duty; or an erosion of the traditional values of honesty, honor, service, and duty, it is not because of AT&T Stadium but because of both a failure of leadership to espouse these values and a New Individualism which harkens back to the laissez-faire days of the early Twentieth Century.

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