Sunday, March 18, 2012

Are We Not Brands?

In the current issue of The Atlantic, Michael J. Sandel, a political philosopher at Harvard, asks the question, "What Isn't For Sale?" (the article is from his book What Money Can't Buy: The Moral Limits of Markets).

He asks rhetorically, "What is the difference between a market economy and a market society?"  His answer:

The difference is this: A market economy is a tool--a valuable and effective tool--for organizing productive activity.  A market society is a way of life in which market values seep into every aspect of human endeavor.  It's a place where social relations are made over in the image of the market..
Here are my thoughts on the matter:

The ideology of the market economy, which I take to mean the free-market Chicago School market economy, where all that matters is a buyer, a seller, a price and a good or service, has permeated every aspect of our lives as citizens.  Public policy, the common good--all that has been monetized.

In a market economy, profit is all.  When every transaction has a price, everything becomes a commodity, quantifiable rather than qualitative.  No one questions the race to the bottom on labor costs.  It's only the disinterested market working its invisible hand.  Worth and value become measured in terms of largess.  It is internalized.  The wealthy believe the tautology; they are better than the rest because they have more money and they have more money because they are better than the rest.

Free market ideology is very simplistic.  It does not account for corporations sucking at the government teat in tax breaks or simply unlimited access to the Treasury window.  Aka corporate welfare.  What does "free market" mean when companies like Walmart pay their seasoned employees so little they have to go on government benefits to care for their kids?

Privatization is the catchword, preferable to government spending simply for its own sake, not by virtue of any credible proof of cost efficiencies.  Witness the CityTime scandal involving a contractor who was hired to modernize the NYC payroll system.  The company's budget ballooned from $73 million to over $700 million and the payroll system is still screwed up.  Let's see if CityTime pays the $500 million in penalties and restitution it owes the good citizens of NYC.

Medicare spends 2% of its government budget on administrative expenses whereas private health insurers pay upwards of 20% on their administrative expenditures and their shareholders benefit when the insurer pays out fewer claims.  In fact, there is a market metric based on how few claims private health insurers pay.  The fewer they pay, the higher the stock price.

There are many areas that bind our society together which exist to serve the people, not the profits.  Instead of mindlessly believing that market good, government bad, let's have an open discussion:

[T]o decide where the market belongs, and where it should be kept at a distance, we have to decide how to value the goods in question--health, education, family life, nature, art, civic duties, and so on.
The degradation of a market society is evident, especially at a time when human labor is commodified in a race to the bottom.  People turn themselves into "things" to survive:

Sell space on your forehead to display commercial advertising: $10,000.
A single mother in Utah who needed money for her son's education was paid $10,000 by an online casino to install a permanent tattoo of the casino's web address on her forehead.

Serve as a human guinea pig in a drug-safety trial for a pharmaceutical company: $7,500.
The pay can be higher or lower, depending on the invasiveness of the procedure used to test the drug's effect, [its potentially lethal effect] and the discomfort involved.

Stand in line overnight on Capitol Hill to hold a place for a lobbyist who wants to attend a congressional hearing: $15-20 an hour.  Lobbyists pay line-standing companies, who hire homeless people and others to queue up.

Even the hipster companies associated with South by Southwest paid homeless men $20 to become human wi-fi routers.  No one even notices the dehumanization.