2012-07-24

Still Playing Out the Reagan Revolution

The market – all our practices of buying and selling – is an important part of life. But it’s not the only part of life. And there’s been a real shift in the last 30 years – since about 1980. With the Reagan presidency a lot of changes began that are still playing out – subtly reinforcing or reinforced by the slow extension of the market into more and more areas that used to be outside the market sphere.

If it’s strange what you can buy these days, it’s at least as strange what you can sell. Some examples (from Michael Sandel's "What Isn't For Sale?" in Atlantic Monthly: see here):

You can get $10,000 from selling the space on your forehead. A woman in Utah was paid $10,000 by an online casino to install a permanent tattoo of the casino’s Web address on her forehead. Temporary tattoos bring less.

You can get $7,500 for serving as a human guinea pig in a drug-safety trial for a pharmaceutical company.

You can get up to $1,000 a day as a mercenary soldier, fighting in Somalia or Afghanistan for a private military contractor. Soldiers, certainly, should get paid – but should they be doing it for the pay so much so that they’ll fight for a country that isn’t their own?

You can get $15 to $20 an hour for standing in line overnight on Capitol Hill. Lobbyists pay line-standing companies, who hire homeless people and others to hold a place for a lobbyist who wants to attend a congressional hearing. It’s OK to hold a place in line for a friend, but something’s gone wrong when we’re just hiring people to stand in line for us. ("Linestanding.com" claims it "has been a leader in the Congressional line standing business since 1985," and produces "high quality line standing services for Congressional hearings or other events.")

One underachieving Dallas school is trying to encourage reading. They’re paying second-graders $2 per book read.

We can now buy things that 30 years ago weren't buy-able (see previous), and sell things that 30 years ago weren't sell-able. In these 30-some years we have seen the for-profit sector encroaching more and more into areas that used to be in either the public sector or the not-for-profit sector.

We have seen, for instance, the rise of the for-profit hospital, replacing the traditional hospital that was nonprofit. The nonprofit sector, of course, is not divorced from market realities. Apart from a few Catholic hospitals staffed mostly by Nuns who had taken a vow of poverty, the standard nonprofit hospital still paid living wages to its staff and kept up its physical plant. They had to meet payroll and maintenance costs. What they didn't pay, however, were profits to shareholders.

As market creep moved into healthcare, market logic said that everything was about the money. Market logic says that money is not just a tool for carrying out a mission, but that making more money either is the mission or is the only measure of the value of the mission. Market logic carried us from, “the hospital has to bring in money to carry out its mission,” to “therefore people can invest in the hospital's ability to bring in money, and reap dividends.”

We sold a part of our soul when we accepted the notion that a hospital’s central purpose was to make money, and caring for people was the means to that end -- rather than that the central purpose was caring for people and the money was the means to that end. Now, if the people are getting better, cheaper care, well, we got a bargain on that sale of our soul. But are people getting better care?

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This is Part 3 of "Not For Sale"

Next: Part 4: "What Shall It For-Profit Us?"
Previous: Part 2: "Some Unusual Gift Ideas"
Beginning: Part 1: "Marketplace Creep"