Gayle's Reviews > What Money Can't Buy: The Moral Limits of Markets

What Money Can't Buy by Michael J. Sandel
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Jun 16, 12


I don’t quite know where to start with this book. In many ways it is exactly the book that I expected, but there are so many surprises that it left me speechless—actually depressed would be a better word.

Even though I grew up in the 50s and 60s, I’ve never been one to pine for “the good ‘ole days.” I remember vividly how blacks were spit on and abused by whites where I lived, and were even required to leave town before sundown. I remember how women were expected to stay in their “place,” and how the ones who did not were ridiculed and put down. I remember my gay friends from school who were such caring and wonderful people, but who were not allowed to just be. I even remember the uproar about having a president who was “governed by the pope.” Those and other equally horrid things remind me that I have no desire to go back. Those were not simpler times, unless of course you were a WASP male. There was absolutely nothing simple about those times even, I suspect, for a few WASP males.

I’m not certain how I would have turned out had my school been sponsored by Hershey’s Chocolate providing curriculum materials that promoted their product. After all, my parents owned a grocery store giving me access to all the Hershey’s chocolate my stomach desired and that was a lot! What about my classmates? Would they have desired more Hershey’s chocolate? What if we’d had Channel One in our classrooms providing corporate advertisers a young captive audience for 2 minutes out of every school day? “The biggest selling point to advertisers [is that] we are forcing kids to watch two minutes of commercials. The advertiser gets a group of kids who cannot go to the bathroom, who cannot change the station, who cannot listen to their mother yell in the background, who cannot be playing Nintendo, who cannot have their headsets on.” (Quote of a Channel One executive, p. 197). What I would like to know is, did this person say this with a straight face? Have we become so insensitive that an adult can talk about our children in this manner publically, with apparently no embarrassment?

Or what about the curriculum materials for fourth graders provided to schools by Scholastic (a well known educational publisher) and which were funded by the American Coal Foundation, extolling the benefits of coal while failing to mention any of the negative aspects such as mining accidents, pollution, toxic waste, etc? Oh, and my favorite, a “science” experiment funded by Campbell Soup in which the students were shown how to prove that Campbell’s Prego spaghetti sauce is surely thicker than General Mill’s Ragu! (Duh! It’s the taste, stupid!) This would be hilarious, if it weren’t so sad. From what I know about teens, there were probably more than a few saying, “Really? You want me to do what?”

In Mr. Sandel’s view, what is reprehensible about the above examples is that it is “at odds with the purpose of schools.” Education is meant to provide us with the means to reflect upon our choices and make wise decisions, while advertising’s whole purpose is to prevent that from happening. “Buy this! Don’t think about it! Buy it now!” He also states that “The purpose of advertising is to recruit consumers; the purpose of public schools is to cultivate citizens.”

A theme throughout Mr. Sandel’s book that I’ve never thought about before is the difference between a “fee” and a “fine.” A fee implies something a person chooses to pay above and beyond the cost of something in order to receive a good or service that she wants. A fine, on the other hand, is not a choice and sometimes carries with it a moral message of sorts. People are embarrassed, or at the very least are required to reflect, by a fine, but feel vindicated and non-reflective when they pay a fee. A couple of the examples he mentions are the Shakespeare in the Park series in New York City. This is a free venue provided by the city—through taxes collected—so that all New Yorkers have access to live theatre. It still requires a ticket in order to limit the number of people in the venue at one time, for safety. However, when the cast includes well known performers, the tickets show up online in places like craigslist for hundreds of dollars, and as you might imagine people will buy them. This is a fee. He also uses the example of a day care center, concerned about rude parents who showed up after closing time to collect their children, forcing teachers to stay after and miss time with their families. The center charged parents a fine according to how late they arrived. Still parents arrived late, so the center decided to raise the amount considerably for those parents to make showing up late less attractive. The mistake they made though was to call the charge a “fee,” rather than a “fine.” Suddenly the number of late parents increased! Now that parents thought they were paying a fee for service, there was no moral obligation to show up on time. “I’m paying for it, therefore it’s mine to use.” Mr. Sandel’s argument is that we’ve become acclimated to paying the fee and not having to suffer the moral embarrassment of paying the fine. In fact, we seem to have decided that the former is preferable to the latter. The questions the author thinks that we should consider are, where is this taking us morally, is it worth it, and are there appropriate and non-appropriate moments for just paying the fee with no consideration of the moral? In the examples with the schools, the “fee” paid is the minds and hearts of our children.

There were many points mentioned where the people who can afford to pay the fee obviously get preferential treatment, some we all know about such as the airport security “line-jumpers” who are either first-or business-class passengers, or who simply pay more for their tickets. This infuriates me because of what it says about our “security.” Oh, OK, I want to blow up a plane, hey just pay more for the ticket! Duh. There were also some that surprised me. For example, I recently visited my grown children in Northern California. My daughter was driving us on I80 in that horrendous traffic that California is infamous for, and people in cars with only one person were whizzing by us in the HOV lane. She and I were discussing the fact that this was illegal. Well, turns out it isn’t. People there can pay a yearly fee and drive the HOV lanes to their little, I-don’t-give-a-damn-about-the-environment heart’s content! Gee, and California! Imagine that! The state where people are so concerned about the environment as to make the rest of us feel dirty! Sorry, I digress. In California’s defense, San Francisco, San Diego, and Los Angeles are not the only places you can pay and play on the freeway, there’s also Minneapolis, Houston, (Hey, I used to live in Houston, and I don’t think I’d have the nerve to pass up angry people stopped in traffic on the freeway, no matter how much I paid for the privilege!), Denver, Miami and Seattle.

This is one of those books that will encourage conversations and reflection. That is if we’re not too busy buying to reflect.
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