What’s It Worth?

A man sits next to an attractive women at a bar and offers to buy her a drink. She accepts with a smile and while they’re waiting for the drinks they start chatting. At one point he asks her if she would sleep with him for $5,000.00 and she laughs and says she probably would. After the drinks arrive and they have had a few sips he asks her is she would sleep with him for $1,000.00. After a pause she smiles and says “probably I would, after a drink or two.” He than asks if she would sleep with him for $500.00 and she responds angrily: “Of course not, what do you take me for, a whore?” He quietly responds: “We’ve already established what you are. I am just trying to determine what your price is.”

A joke, to be sure. But it reflects the fact that in this country, as the popular movies tell us, “everything has its price.” In fact Nicholas Kristof has recently written a review of a book in the New York Times that develops this idea  in an interesting way. Everything in our culture, increasingly, does seem to have a price. As Kristof notes, Michael Sandel, the Harvard political theorist, . . . argues that in recent years we have been slipping without much reflection into relying upon markets in ways that undermine the fairness of our society.

Kristof notes the bizarre case of a woman in Utah who agreed to have the logo of an online casino tattooed on her forehead for $10,000 in order to have enough money to send her son to college. The U.S. sells visas for half a million dollars to would-be immigrants. Massachusetts recently considered selling the naming rights to its state parks to corporations. And we don’t need Kristof to tell us that schools and school buses have corporate logos prominently displayed and the school halls are filled with machines dispensing unhealthy foods; TVs broadcast news, complete with commercial messages, to the classrooms.  And we all know ball parks, athletic fields, and civic arenas now bear the names of corporations as well. Athletes sell out to the highest bidder and coaches regularly jump contracts for a better deal — and they are widely applauded: “who wouldn’t?” Kids leave college and “turn pro” for millions of dollars, thereby undermining their future prospects. In fact, there seems to be no limit to the number of things that have a price tag — including our integrity. And that’s the point. Kristof and Sandel wonder if there are limits, as do I.

We moan about the economic problem in this country, and well we should. The infamous 1% of the obscenely wealthy (who number among themselves virtually all of the members of the Senate and most of the members of the House of Representatives) now control 40% of the wealth in this country — more than the lower 90% put together. In effect, they own the country. The remaining 9% aspire to become part of the 1%. The country, as Joseph Stiglitz has been saying for years, has become radically split between the very wealthy and the growing number of poor and it increasingly resembles a third-world country — while a number of those countries, ironically, struggle for greater economic equality. We worry aloud about the national debt, the number of people unemployed, the homeless, the undernourished, and the rising costs of the things we need; we might do better to ponder the real economic problems in this country.

They are twofold: (1) the growing disparity between the rich and the poor, and (2) our increasing willingness to sacrifice morals for money. As our preoccupation with money grows — perhaps as a consequence of the disparity mentioned in point #1 —  our sense of morality wanes. As Kristof asks, quoting his source, Do we want a society where everything is up for sale? Or are there certain moral and civic goods that markets do not honor and money cannot buy? The obscenely rich want to keep it that way — in the name of “free markets,” or more accurately “market fundamentalism.”

This issue goes to the heart of fairness in our country. There has been much discussion recently about economic inequality, but almost no conversation about the way the spread of markets nurtures a broader, systemic inequality. It has been called “market fundamentalism,” which is . . . the dogma that helped lead to bank deregulation and the current economic mess. And anyone who honestly believes that low taxes and unfettered free markets are always best should consider moving to Pakistan’s tribal areas. They are a triumph of limited government, negligible taxes, no “burdensome regulation” and free markets for everything from drugs to AK-47s.

Call it “systemic inequality,” or “market fundamentalism,” or “free markets.” By any name it is a crass materialism that puts a price on everything under the sun. Indeed, I would argue that this is not only the major economic problem in our country; it is a serious moral problem as well.

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2 thoughts on “What’s It Worth?

  1. Hi Hugh! I wrote about Sandel’s book and the skyboxification of America about a month ago, but you gave it much more justice, as I would expect from a philosophy professor ;-). Thanks for covering an important topic.

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