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I Had No Idea

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.’ ”


I had no idea that in 2001 an elementary school in New Jersey became America’s first public school “to sell naming rights to a corporate sponsor,” Sandel writes. “In exchange for a $100,000 donation from a local supermarket, it renamed its gym ‘ShopRite of Brooklawn Center.’ … A high school in Newburyport, Mass., offered naming rights to the principal’s office for $10,000. … By 2011, seven states had approved advertising on the sides of school buses.”

In his book, Sandel sees these commercial encroachments as signs of a bad trend: “Over the last three decades,” he states, “we have drifted from having a market economy to becoming a market society. A market economy is a tool — a valuable and effective tool — for organizing productive activity. But a ‘market society’ is a place where everything is up for sale. It is a way of life where market values govern every sphere of life.”

So why worry? Civic behavior and practices are losing out war to market values. “When public schools are plastered with commercial advertising,” Friedman writes, “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.”

Still curious? Buy the book.


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