Branded Police Cars and Other Unsettling Notions

In his new book What Money Can’t Buy: The Moral Limits of Markets, Harvard professor Michael J. Sandel gives disturbing examples of financial privilege and markets intruding into ever more areas of American life.

Sandel shows how there’s a way for the wealthy to buy their way out of nearly any tedious task. Tired of standing in security lines at the airport? By paying extra, you can be whisked to the front of the queue. Want to get a free ticket to Shakespeare in the Park in New York, but you don’t want to stand in line all night for the box office to open? Simply contract with a company that hires homeless people to stand in line on your behalf. For that matter, if you’re in jail in Santa Ana, California, but would rather not mix with the riff-raff, you can buy an upgraded prison cell for only $82 a night.

Sandel describes new instances of market forces widening the divide between the haves and the have-nots – what he calls “the sky-boxification” of American society. But the chapters of his book that I found most disturbing were the efforts by corporations to market themselves through the purchase of basic civic institutions.

It’s one thing to buy the naming rights to a baseball or football stadium. We’ve grown used to that, and stadia are, usually, privately-owned entities to begin with. But now corporations are buying the names of the subway stations serving those arenas. They are also buying the names of public school sports fields, fire hydrants, nature trails, and even police cars. (Does the notion of a police car with the logo of a fast-food restaurant chain emblazoned on it like some Nascar Chevy bother you as much as it bothers me?) And cash-strapped communities can hardly be blamed for cutting these deals. If a corporation will build your town a new school in exchange for naming rights, it’s tough to say no. So don’t be surprised if your grandchildren end up graduating from PepsiCo Elementary.

What bugs me is the economic contrast between the impoverished local governments and their corporate benefactors. If companies have the wherewithal to buy branded police cars or schools, that’s an indication that they’re sitting on a pile of money. The corporation is dispensing the funds through its marketing/charitable branch, building public awareness and good will and brand identity. (The way in which corporate charity and marketing have merged to a depressing degree is analyzed in another thought-provoking book, Mara Einstein’s Compassion, Inc.) But wouldn’t it be a more efficient and genuinely community-minded process if the corporation simply paid higher taxes to allow the communities to buy police cars and build schools in the first place? (Quiz question: What do General Electric, DuPont, and Wells Fargo have in common? Answer: None of them paid a penny in federal income taxes in the last three years.)

If you think I’m slipping into a populist rant, you’re right. And yes, tax policy is complicated, changing it could create all sorts of unforeseen consequences, not all tax dollars are used effectively, more money for the feds does not equal more money in the hands of the local school board or cities, and all of us should be wary of painting the situation with too broad a brush. Got it.

And yet: communities are prostituting themselves to the highest corporate bidder in order to provide core services – police protection, public schools, public transportation – that  an earlier generation simply would have presumed to be both the responsibility of the taxpayers and a source of community pride. The change is unsettling, to say the least.

I was at a philanthropy conference recently where a speaker said, “Americans are the most generous people on earth.”

I’ve heard that line a dozen times before, and I had never thought twice about it. But this time it struck a sour note with me, perhaps because moments earlier I had been sitting at lunch with two young women who worked for an organization that fights hunger in their state. They had been telling me how some of the in-school meal programs had learned to serve extra food on Mondays, because the children were so hungry from not eating over the weekend, and on Friday, because the children filled their pockets with extra food for the days to come. It occurred to me that if we were indeed the most generous nation on earth, we as a society wouldn’t allow children born to poor families to go hungry.

Yes, Americans as individuals give more to charity than any other people on earth. That should be a point of pride, but it doesn’t necessarily lead to a fair society and opportunity for all. We have to recognize that the charities that gobble up the lion’s share of those contributions often service the very wealthy. Prestigious prep schools and universities. Major museums and opera houses and symphonies. Major charitable giving rarely goes to schools in low-income neighborhoods or soup kitchens or drug rehab centers or homeless shelters.

Support for those core services traditionally fell to government. But over the last thirty-plus years, as the belief has taken hold that government is inherently bad and that free enterprise is inherently good, we have seen a distortion in how we fund – or fail to fund – our core community services. As a country we complain mightily about our high taxes, yet our tax burden, as a percentage of our Gross Domestic Product, is the lowest in the developed world. And many people mistakenly think the resulting unmet social problems can be left to nonprofits to clean up.

Free enterprise is central to what has built America, but market mechanisms are not appropriate for every setting. The markets are lousy at providing core services to needy families. And they surely are not the best way to buy police cars.

Copyright Alan Cantor 2012. All rights reserved.


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3 Comments. Leave new

  • City of Manchester and probably other communities as well are currently considering allowing advertising in the schools as a way of meeting the budget shortfalls. So in the School Cafeteria we might see ads for snack foods, soda, gee- maybe condoms and Red Bull? Where would it stop? Who would monitor what is appropriate and inappropriate. I totally agree with you Alan.

  • Loretta Prescott
    October 16, 2012 1:57 pm

    I’d like seconds of that rant please. How about taking a look at truly generous corporate giving models and keep asking why others can’t be this creative? I think that the “government is bad” mantra is merely political posturing, and that most individuals think social service agencies solve other people’s problems, so the disconnect as you point out is critical. This forces a desperate environment, where the corporate sharks feed happily, no longer responsible for merely giving charitably, but now relating everything to the Marketing line item in the budget. Thanks for the insight, as always..

  • Most people, when they hear “taxes” think only about the money leaving their wallets. Or maybe they think “entitlements”, as though social security is now an unaffordable luxury rather than a wise safety net for the elderly. Rarely do they think safety and security, roads and bridges, libraries, schools, and other public needs that cannot be funded consistently and adequately by philanthropy. We need a new lexicon of tax necessity and benefits, one that enlightens citizenry, rather than turn them off.


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