Tag Archives: What Money Can’t Buy

Chapter 5 – The Commercialization of Everything: What Money Can[’t] Buy, Part 5

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.”

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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).

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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.

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If you liked this paper/series, you might want to check out some of the other papers/series I’ve posted.

 

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Chapter 4 – Corporate-Owned Life Insurance and Placebos: What Money Can[‘t] Buy, Part 4

It’s been more than a month since I last completed a post in this series. To refresh your memory: we were looking at 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 today’s post, the fourth chapter, we’ll look at the markets in life and death.

As with previous chapters, I’ve learned something that I didn’t even know existed. In this chapter, I learned about something called “janitors insurance.” This is another way of saying corporate-owned life insurance. Meaning, a company takes out a life insurance policy on its workers. Now, you may have already assumed (or thought) that companies might take out a life insurance policy on the CEO, as the time and energy that would need to go into finding a new CEO should the current one die suddenly, but would you have considered that some companies take out life insurance policies on workers much lower on the organizational chart?

I’m a little uneasy with this idea and I’m not sure which side I’d come down on if forced to choose. It’s certainly a delicate subject.

This chapter also talked about people being able to sell their life insurance policies. Let’s say a man (or woman) is the breadwinner in the family and takes out life insurance when he’s (or she’s) in his (or her) early 30s. The life insurance is really *only* important to the family through the breadwinner’s working years. So, when the person turns 65 (or when they retire), they feel that they no longer need that insurance — and sell it. Do you think that’s ethical? Is it unethical to prevent someone from selling it?

Again, I’m really not sure what’s right in this situation. For some reason, it feels a little more ethical that the people are willingly selling the life insurance that they had previously bought rather than if someone took out life insurance without their knowledge. Though, I’m aware that this may just be the contrast effect at play.

There were other variations on this theme throughout the chapter, but the one thing that I kept thinking about in response to this idea is the variations on the placebo effect that I’ve written about before. We know how powerful our own thoughts can be for ourselves (example) and how powerful our thoughts can be for others (example) — don’t you think that someone buying life insurance (i.e. buying stock in our eventual death) is a bit like sending negative thoughts to a person? Maybe that’s a little extreme.

Chapter 3 – Fairness and Inequality: What Money Can[‘t] Buy, Part 3

It’s been a couple of weeks since I last finished a chapter in Michael Sandel’s book, What Money Can’t Buy. I recently completed chapter 3 a couple of nights ago and there were some intriguing things to think about. Let’s get right to it!

For me, there were two important parts to the chapter. The first is the explanation of the two objections to markets. Prof. Sandel explains that the two kinds of objections to markets are fairness and inequality:

The fairness objection points to the injustice that can arise when people buy and sell things under conditions of inequality or dire economic necessity. According to this objection, market exchanges are not always as voluntary as market enthusiasts suggest… [The corruption objection] points to the degrading effect of market valuation and exchange on certain goods and practices. According to this objection, certain moral and civic goods are diminished or corrupted if bought and sold. [Emphasis added]

A few pages later, Prof. Sandel explains further what he means:

The fairness and corruption objections differ in their implications for markets: The fairness argument does not object to marketizing certain goods on the grounds that they are precious or sacred or priceless; it objects to buying and selling goods against a background of inequality severe enough to create unfair bargaining conditions… The corruption argument focuses on the character of the goods themselves and the norms that should govern them. So it cannot be met simply by establishing fair bargaining conditions. [Emphasis added]

Reading this was a bit tough to swallow. It seemed unlikely that all arguments against markets could be filtered into one of two categories. Then, I thought about his course that I watched last year, “Justice,” and how many of the students seemed to want to argue for nuance around the edges. While there was still nuance, the arguments they put forth still, for the most part, seemed to fall into a way of thinking that had already been espoused by a philosopher.

Later in the chapter, Prof. Sandel discusses three cases where the marketization of a good crowds out nonmarket norms. That was a bit wordy. Prof. Sandel shares cases where adding a market-like aspect (where there previously wasn’t), changed the way people interacted with the good. One of these cases I found particularly surprising (at least at first).

The case comes from Switzerland in the early 1990s. The country was looking for a place to store its nuclear waste. Of course, no town really wanted to house the nuclear waste, but there was a small village that was picked. Some economists surveyed the village to see if they’d accept it, if the Swiss parliament decided that it was the place to put the waste. Fifty-one percent of residents said they’d accept it. The economists then asked another question. If the parliament also paid each resident, would you then accept it? The idea being that, money is the king incentive for everyone, so adding money to this equation should only get more people accepting of the waste, right? Wrong. By adding the monetary sweetener, support collapsed from 51% to 25%! Even when they added more money, that didn’t seem to affect the outcome. Why?

For many villagers, willingness to accept the nuclear waste site reflected public spirit — a recognition that the country as a whole depended on nuclear energy and that the nuclear waste had to be stored somewhere. If their community was found to be the safest storage site, they were willing to bear the burden. Against the background of this civic commitment, the offer of cash to residents of the village felt like a bribe, an effort to buy their vote.

This seemed like an incredible story with an important lesson — money isn’t always the solution. There were two other examples, but none that were as powerful for me as this one.

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The second important part of this chapter is the explanation of the “two tenets of market faith”:

The first is that commercializing an activity doesn’t change it. On this assumption, money never corrupts, and market relations never crowd out nonmarket norms… The second tenet of market faith is that ethical behavior is a commodity that needs to be economized. The idea is this: we should not rely too heavily on altruism, generosity, solidarity, or civic duty, because these moral sentiments are scarce resources that are depleted with use. [Emphasis added]

Prof. Sandel already showed earlier in the chapter that money can crowd out nonmarket norms. After this above quoted section, he goes on to show that things like altruism and generosity are not scarce resources and that they are not depleted with use. In fact, it’s quite the opposite. Fields like positive psychology have done research on these areas and shown that there’s almost a multiplier effect with things like altruism and generosity.

If you liked this post, you might like one of the other posts in this series:

 

Chapter 2 – Fines vs. Fees: What Money Can[‘t] Buy, Part 2

In the first post in this series, I chewed on the material from chapter 1 of Professor Michael Sandel‘s book, What Money Can’t Buy. The first chapter was all about jumping the line (or budding, as I remember it from my elementary school days). In Chapter 2, the theme was incentives.

I had finished reading chapter 2 a little while ago, but I’d been busy recounting the bits from that paper over the last several days, so I’d sidelined a post about chapter 2. Now that I’ve finished the paper (A Collection of Scriptures for Guidance), I thought I’d chew on the material from chapter 2.

As I said, the title of chapter 2 was incentives. There were a few things that I wanted to highlight (though, I thought the whole chapter was fascinating). In particular what stood out to me were three things: incentives (and the perverting of incentives), fines vs. fees, and paying kids to read. Let’s start with the last one, which will link to the first one.

Nowadays, some parents pay their kids to read. In fact, some schools encourage the idea of rewarding children for reading. At first, this seems like a great use of the free market, right? Incentivizing the reading of books to get kids to read more books. Except, what if part of the pleasure of reading is the pure desire to read? By paying kids to read, it robs them of that intrinsic motivation. In fact, by paying kids to read, it could de-incentivize them from reading when there is no reward involved (perverting the incentives).

In thinking about this example, it made me contemplate just how hard it can be for lawmakers (i.e. Congresspeople, Members of Parliament, etc.) to write legislation that will properly incentivize the citizens to act in a way that is best for themselves (and the town/city/county/country, etc.). Paying kids to read seems like an easy way to get kids to read, but when one plays out the incentive and considers the unintended consequences, one can see how this perverts the intent of getting kids to read.

The next piece I wanted to talk about was fines vs. fees. This part was really interesting to contemplate. From the book:

What is the difference between a fine and a fee? It’s worth pondering the distinction. Fines register moral disapproval, whereas fees are simply prices that imply no moral judgment. When we impose a fine for littering, we’re saying that littering is wrong… It reflects a bad attitude that we as society want to discourage. Suppose the fine is $100 [for littering] and a wealthy hiker decides it’s worth the convenience of not having to carry his empties out of the park. He treats the fine as a fee and tosses his beer cans into the Grand Canyon. Even though he pays up, we consider that he’s done something wrong. By treating the Grand Canyon as a dumpster, he has failed to appreciate it in an appropriate way.

Sandel goes on to talk about how this fines vs. fees attitude can also be applied to disabled parking spaces, speeding, the subway/metro, renting videos, and many others. I found this discussion especially interesting because of the moral-ness to it. When one is creating fines, one is (whether one means to or not) using morals. We don’t think it’s morally right to litter and that’s why there’s a fine for littering. Paying to park your car in a garage is a fee.

There’s one more passage that I think was really important to remember from this chapter:

But why does this mean that moral philosophy must enter the picture? For the following reason:

Where markets erode nonmarket norms, the economist (or someone) has to decide whether this represents a loss worth caring about… The answer will vary from case to case. But the question carries us beyond predicting whether a financial incentive will work. It requires that we make a moral assessment: What is the moral importance of the attitudes and norms that money may erode or crowd out?

If you liked this post, you might like one of the other posts in this series:

Chapter 1 – When is it OK to Jump the Line: What Money Can[‘t] Buy, Part 1

I recently read a post from somewhere (I want to say that it was Farnam Street or Barking Up The Wrong Tree, but I’m not sure), that talked about “how” to read. That is, the essential point was that most of us don’t remember most of the things that we read. Instead, we read them and forget about them. To rectify this, the research shows that we need to engage with each chapter to really register the material with our memory. So, I thought what better way to experiment with this than to start a new series!

One of the books that I’ve started reading: What Money Can’t Buy. I already wrote something a few weeks ago about a passage from the introduction. Let’s call that the prelude or maybe the foreword? Today, however, I’m going to share thoughts on Chapter 1. In the coming weeks/(months?) I’ll share thoughts on the remaining chapters when I finish reading them.

The first chapter was all about jumping the queue. When is it fair to jump the line? Is budding never fair? There were some intriguing examples put forth about some people who purchase the services of people who are ‘handicapped’ to be their tour guide when they go to amusement parks, so that they can head straight to the front of the line. Is that ethical?

What about those towns/counties/states that allow cars to purchase stickers that permit them to drive in the carpool lane even though they’re driving solo? Is that ethical? How about doctors that sell their services to the highest bidder?

The first chapter was a good introduction to differences between markets and queues. I don’t know that I have anything profound to say about the first chapter, but some examples sure made me think about what I thought was right and wrong and what other people might think is right and wrong. It reminded me of Kohlberg’s stages of moral development. I wondered how people who were at different stages might react differently to the perceived injustices.

If I had to summarize chapter 1, it’d be that some “goods” are better suited for markets and others are better suited for queues. Though, I don’t know that it’s easy to tell the difference. That seems to depend on the person and the person’s philosophical bent. I presume that in future chapters, Sandel might help guide us to a solution.