Tom Friedman: Where Have You Been Hiding?

campo-de-fiori-market

Tom Friedman the noted author and NYTimes columnist often has a byline from some exotic place. He is one of the most peripatetic journalists around, so I was quite surprised that he was surprised by the dark side of capitalism exposed in Michael Sandel’s recent book. Friedman is the guy who noticed that the “Earth is Flat, but missed what has been happening in his back yard. He starts his column with,

PORING through Harvard philosopher Michael Sandel’s new book, “What Money Can’t Buy: The Moral Limits of Markets,” I found myself over and over again turning pages and saying, “I had no idea.”

I had no idea that in the year 2000, as Sandel notes, “a Russian rocket emblazoned with a giant Pizza Hut logo carried advertising into outer space,” or that in 2001, the British novelist Fay Weldon wrote a book commissioned by the jewelry company Bulgari and that, in exchange for payment, “the author agreed to mention Bulgari jewelry in the novel at least a dozen times.” I knew that stadiums are now named for corporations, but had no idea that now “even sliding into home is a corporate-sponsored event,” writes Sandel. “New York Life Insurance Company has a deal with 10 Major League Baseball teams that triggers a promotional plug every time a player slides safely into base. When the umpire calls the runner safe at home plate, a corporate logo appears on the television screen, and the play-by-play announcer must say, ‘Safe at home. Safe and secure. New York Life.’ ”

If he had been reading my blog, he would have already discovered the incredible reach of market capitalism.It’s not just the ubiquity of advertising, it’s the insidious intrusion of markets into places where they have no business being. I just posted a blog on the conversion of what were relational services to market transactions. “Wantologists” can be hired to coach people to buy, buy, buy without guilt or anxiety. This strange sounding new profession has arisen alongside of the “outsourcing,” as Arlie Hochschild writes, of activities that used to be performed among people who knew one another.

I have just returned from a week spent in Italy, first in Florence attending a conference, and then a few more days in Rome touring with my wife and one of my grandchildren. In just this short time, I was conscious of a difference in the way people relate to one another. In Rome we walked everywhere, seeing the antiquities, the influence of the papacy, and eating, eating, eating. The absence of the fast food chains is quite evident. The culture supports the individuality of small, often family-owned restaurants. Meals are an occasion. We felt a pride of place in many of the establishments. Of course it is much easier to feel proud of one’s place when it is situated in a block that is over 1000 years old. Rome is special; it is hard to walk more than just a few blocks without passing through a garden or plaza, filled with people.

This is the same Italy that is being castigated in the business press as inefficient and economically asleep. It didn’t feel that way; just the opposite. I felt a vibrancy missing from city life in the states. Maybe this is the way it should be. I think so. So does Sandel, although arguing from a different perspective. Friedman continues:

Because, Sandel argues, market values are crowding out civic practices. When public schools are plastered with commercial advertising, they teach students to be consumers rather than citizens. When we outsource war to private military contractors, and when we have separate, shorter lines for airport security for those who can afford them, the result is that the affluent and those of modest means live increasingly separate lives, and the class-mixing institutions and public spaces that forge a sense of common experience and shared citizenship get eroded.

The first sentence in this last quote is very important. Public spaces and the dialogues that flow through them are the lifeblood of a society. Our kind of markets are impersonal and the goods and services that are passed along are highly commodified. Our markets are about as far from the traditional bazaars that teem with life and are a part of the public sphere. Sandel is a political philosopher and thinks about the whole of societies, particularly the conditions that are essential to democracy and justice. I have been more focused on the individual and how he or she fares in this unsustainable world. The marketization that destroys public life also destroys the humanity of the individual. The combination of “outsourcing” and the incessant and loud barrage of advertising and other forms of persuasion make it almost impossible to make authentic choices. The transformation of caring human beings to needy havers is almost complete. It seems almost foolish to talk about sustainability-as-flourishing in this context, but maybe those who are the so-called thought leaders will come out of hiding and begin to tell us the truth about the world we live in.

(The photo is of the Campo Dei Fiori market square in Rome)

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