About a week ago, I got back to the series I was doing about the chapters in Michael Sandel‘s book, What Money Can’t Buy. In the first chapter, we looked at things like when it’s okay to jump the line. In the second chapter, we looked at the difference between fines and fees. In the third chapter, we looked at fairness and inequality. In last week’s post, the fourth chapter, we looked at corporate-owned life insurance and placebos. In today’s post, the fifth and final chapter, we’ll look at the commercialization of everything.
I wasn’t expecting to come across sports in this book, so I was pleasantly surprised when the first few pages were about stadiums being renamed by corporate sponsors. I didn’t realize that this was a fairly new thing. In 1988 only three sports stadiums had been renamed by corporate sponsors. Sixteen years later, in 2004, there were sixty-six. The amount of money went up significantly, too. In 1988, the deals totaled $25 million, while in 2004, the amount came to a whopping $3.6 billion! In 2010, over 100 stadiums in the United States were named for corporate sponsors. So, in the span of less than 25 years, we went from 3 corporate-sponsored stadiums to more than 100.
Having grown up in Toronto, I still find myself referring to Rogers Centre as Skydome.
This chapter also discussed the idea of athletes selling their autograph. In the old days, this wasn’t even something to be considered. Many athletes willingly signed cards and sports equipment (i.e. baseball, hockey pucks, etc.) for fans. Near the same time that stadiums were being renamed, some athletes were beginning to sell their autographs rather than giving them away. This may seem greedy at first, but consider that athletes from before the 80s weren’t necessarily making lucrative contracts. In fact, athletes back then were not only often paid much worse than athletes today, but they were more on par with what you’d be paid to be an employee at a “normal job.”
The chapter then moves into a discussion of — in my words — the commercialization of everything.We’re now seeing advertisements and commercials in places we wouldn’t have ever imagined. For instance, when you pump gas, there’s a TV above the pump feeding you advertisements. Or how about when you’re driving down the highway. It’s kind of hard to ignore some of those catchy billboards, isn’t it? Then, there’s the always in vogue idea of product placement. Some of the places you find product placement was a bit surprising. I didn’t know that police stations were in talks to have cars with advertisements on them nor did I realize that in some state parks around the US are there advertisements for things like North Face.
I was surprised to read about some of the commercialization in the US, especially when I know that in some states, there’s a ban on billboards (Alaska, Hawaii, Maine, and Vermont). Moving outside of the US, I know that some countries (or maybe the citizens of those countries) have a real aversion to commercials seeping into unwanted places. For instance, São Paulo in Brazil hasn’t allowed public advertising since 2006. I also know that TV commercials in Germany aren’t nearly as frequent as they are in the US. On most German TV stations, there can’t be more than 20 minutes of commercials (before 8pm).
The last part of the chapter ends the book almost exactly the way I would have [Emphasis added]:
Once we see that markets and commerce change the character of the goods they touch, we have to ask where markets belong — and where they don’t. And we can’t answer this question without deliberating about the meaning and purpose of goods, and the values that should govern them.
Such deliberations touch, unavoidably, on competing conceptions of the good life. This is terrain on which we sometimes fear to tread. For fear of disagreement, we hesitate to bring our moral and spiritual convictions into the public square. But shrinking from these questions does not leave them undecided. It simply means that markets will decide them for us. This is the lesson of the last three decades. The era of market triumphalism has coincided with a time when public discourse has been largely empty of moral and spiritual substance. Our only hope of keeping markets in their place is to deliberate openly and publicly about the meaning of the goods and social practices we prize.
In addition to debating the meaning of this good or that good, we also need to ask a bigger question, about the kind of society in which we wish to live…
At a time of rising inequality, the marketization of everything means that people of affluence and people of modest means lead increasingly separate lives. We live and work and shop and play in different places. Our children go to different schools. You might call it the skyboxification of American life. It’s not good for democracy, nor is it a satisfying way to live.
Democracy does not require perfect equality, but it does require that citizens share a common life. What matters is that people of different backgrounds and social positions encounter one another, and bump up against one another, in the course of everyday life. For this is how we learn to negotiate and abide by our differences, and how we come to care for the common good.
So, if you prefer not to get too deep into a discussion of inequality that focuses on wealth, then I’d encourage you to think about the ideas that Prof. Sandel is talking about here at the end of the book. He’s just spent the last 200 pages explaining how markets (in some places), to some people, are corroding the value of these goods. Regardless of which side of the fence you fall down on, maybe it’s time we start talking about this. Maybe it’s time to have a dialogue in the public square of more moral and spiritual substance. Of course, this might not be as easy as it sounds, as he says, the last three decades have been void of this.
If you liked this paper/series, you might want to check out some of the other papers/series I’ve posted.