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Moving from a market economy to a market society raises many questions for public debate

Posted: June 2, 2013 - 12:09am

Did you know that in Santa Ana, Calif., and some other cities, one can pay $82 per night for a prison cell upgrade? Instead of prisoners being treated in accordance to the crime, wealthy offenders can now get a clean, quiet jail cell away from the crowds of nonpaying offenders.

Are you aware that even without Immigration Reform, foreigners who invest $500,000 and create at least 10 jobs in an area of high unemployment can get a green card setting them up for permanent residency? In other words, wealthy foreigners can go to the front of the line ahead of immigrants whose families have been in the U.S. for decades and some of whom have even served in the military.

Would it surprise you to know that there is a whole business sector called “death futures business?” This is where an investor buys the life insurance policy of an ailing or elderly person who happens to be in need of hard cash, then pays the annual premium while the person is alive only to collect the death benefit when the person dies; potentially making a hundred thousand or a million depending on the policy. Apparently this form of taking advantage of people in dire straits, then betting on their time of death is now a $30 billion industry.

If that’s not surprising to you, what about paying kids to go through the motions of learning? That’s what is happening in some middle schools in Washington, D.C., where students receive cash rewards for attendance, turning in homework and/or displaying good behavior. Apparently, the average student in this school district collected about $500 a year just to do what is minimally expected of middle school students here in Juneau.

If none of this sounds right to you by now, consider the growth of concierge doctor services wherein patients can pay $1,500 to $25,000 annually for the assurance of getting same-day appointments, leisurely consultations and easy access to specialists. Concierge doctor services are becoming more popular despite shunting everyone else into crowded waiting rooms for doctors with excessive patient loads.

Are you at all concerned to learn that the number of private security guards in the United States is more than twice the number of public police officers? I am. Yet, I did not know about any of these market realities until I read What Money Can’t Buy, the Moral Limits of Markets by Michael Sandel, professor of Government at Harvard University. In his book, Professor Sandel lays out the case, example by example, of how the reach of markets have gone where no economists ever expected them to go — into areas of society traditionally governed by nonmarket norms.

“Consider the reach of commercial advertising into public schools; the sale of “naming rights” to parks and civic spaces; the marketing of “designer” eggs and sperm for assisted reproduction; the outsourcing of pregnancy to surrogate mothers in the developing world; the buying and selling, by companies and countries of the right to pollute; a system of campaign finance that comes close to permitting the buying and selling of elections,” notes Sandel as he makes the case that the reach of markets detached from moral limits is one of the most significant developments of our time. According to Professor Sandel we have drifted from having a market economy to being a market society where everything is for sale, and we should be asking, “is this what we want”?

A market economy is a valuable and effective tool for organizing productive activity and appropriating goods and services while a “market society is a way of life which [allows] market values [to] seep into every aspect of human endeavor. It’s a place where social relations are made over in the image of the market,” explains Sandel. Professor Sandel’s book aims to stir up the great missing debate in our politics — do we want a market society and what role should markets play in public life (education, medicine, government, law etc.) and in personal relations?

This is a debate completely missing here in Alaska. Instead we seem to be on the other end; debating what more government can do to enhance the profitability of large multinational companies. And as such, will it be only a matter of time, when our budget strapped school districts follow the example of a Colorado school district and sell advertising space on report cards and school buses? In the abstract, this scenario of Alaska’s schools dependent on corporate largesse may seem unlikely. Yet, according to Professor Sandel, it is exactly the type of public debate we should be having before circumstance and the pervasiveness of a market society decide them for us.

Troll is a long-time Alaskan with more than 22 years of experience in fisheries, coastal policy and energy policy. She resides in Douglas.

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