Platform address by Dr. Joseph Chuman, February 2014
Last December I had a conversation that I often—perhaps I might say, too often—engage in these days. A gentleman who was about my age met me in my office to arrange funeral plans for his mother, who had died just a few days before. His mother had had a passing relationship with Ethical Culture in that she had served as a personal assistant to Algernon Black in the 1970s, who was a famed leader of the New York Society.
Though our paths may have crossed back then, in no sense did I know his mother. When such is the case, as it often is, I use these sessions to get as much background as I can on the person I am asked to eulogize in order to do so in the most knowledgeable, accurate, and, I hope, respectful way. I almost always discover that these discussions have a secondary and very beneficial effect for the bereaved people with whom I meet. Recalling and recounting the life, even if in a small way, of the loved one they have just lost, helps the person who is suffering to begin to come to terms with their loss. In other words, though not intended, telling the story of their beloved parent, spouse, sibling or other loved one is in some sense therapeutic.
In meeting with this gentleman, who was clear-spoken and very earnest, I was deeply moved by the admiration and love he expressed for his 90-year-old mother, a love that was sustained by an ongoing relationship he cherished, even though she lived in Florida while he resided in Connecticut. After an hour and a half of very significant conversation, he brought the discussion to an end by responsibly asking me what my fee was for the service. The funeral service was to be in Greenwich, Connecticut, and the burial in Paramus. All told, it would take the better part of a day, and when I add to it the time we had met, together with that needed to reflect on and compose the eulogy, the time expended would be considerably greater.
But this man’s perfectly reasonable and respectful question leads me to make a public confession. In my 45 years as a professional Ethical Culture leader, when asked how much my services are for composing a eulogy and officiating at a funeral, I become tongue-tied. I engage in the mental equivalent of stuttering and stammering, because the question presents a dilemma that makes me uncomfortable and that I have never been able to resolve. After mulling it over for a moment, and because I felt very comfortable with this gentleman, I half-jokingly answered, “I don’t know what to charge you, because the bedrock reality is that my service for officiating at your mother’s funeral is priceless.”
His smile indicated to me that he understood the value that I was trying to convey, which while on the surface sounded self-aggrandizing, was really pointing to something that I believe is rather profound. When we—as we do at a funeral—enter that moment when we stand before the sacredness of life and the eternity of death, we have moved far beyond the realm of the market. And the intrusion of market values into the reverence due the worth of human life and the loss occasioned by death, which is forever, is a defilement, if not an obscenity.
With regret, and perhaps by necessity, we did move the discussion from the sacred to the profane, and recognizing, as he did, that I need to put bread on the table, I said to him, “You might want to look at this way. Given the distance I need to travel, the cost of gas and tolls, and the time I will be devoting to composing your mother’s eulogy, if one were to give the officiant $35, we might construe that as problematic. On the other hand, an honorarium of $1,000 would also be problematic.” Without divulging specifics, the compensation I received fell somewhere between these two extremes.
The beginning of our greatest class disparity
This long anecdote serves as an introduction to my theme of the morning. Let me start with a little bit of history. As I have expressed from the platform before, I believe that Ronald Reagan, with the possible exception of Franklin Roosevelt, was the most successful president of the 20th century. He was the most successful if we measure success by how greatly our chief executive is able to apply his vision and values to the transformation of American society. In my view Reagan’s greatest contribution, which to my way of thinking was a phenomenally destructive one, was to let out the stops on the free market and deregulate our economy with the effect of elevating the power of corporations, virtually deifying business values, fomenting contempt for government, starting us on the road to the greatest class disparity in American history, transforming consumerism into a virtue, and beginning the process of rampant privatization, the fruits of which have reached a feverous pitch in our generation. It is this process of privatization that is my focus this morning.
In simplest terms, we live out our lives in a world characterized by market and non-market values: There are things that money can buy, and things that money cannot buy. The ravenous problem we confront is that today virtually everything is for sale, and the market is spreading like an oil spill, while the universe of non-market values is growing smaller. Things previously not for sale are steadily being transformed into purchasable commodities and with it the corruption of our cultural and spiritual values. It is a trend that also threatens our democracy.
What are non-market values? Among the most obvious are love, friendship, compassion, caring, service to others, support and help to people in need. We cannot buy and sell these values, nor can we affix a price to them. Take friendship, for example. Let’s assume I aspire to increase my circle of friendship. One thing I might contrive to do is to hire other people to be my friends. But the contradiction of this becomes instantaneously apparent. By purchasing the service of friendship, I immediately destroy the concept of what friendship means. I might pay a friend to do a particular service, such as watch my cat while I am away, but I cannot buy a friend himself.
Let’s present a somewhat more ambiguous case. Ought children to be for sale? In extremely impoverished countries, people in extreme cases, out of desperation do, in fact, sell their children in order to survive. But let’s look hypothetically at a rich country such as ours. Adopting a child is always an expensive endeavor. But what if we changed the paradigm and bought and sold children outright? What if child-selling agencies, dealing with orphans, were to sell the most attractive children to those childless couples willing and able to pay the highest price for them? What would be wrong with that? The wealthy childless couple would fulfill their parental longings for a lovely child. The child most likely would enter a family that could comfortably support and raise him or her. And the entrepreneurs would be content because they could generate a lucrative profit while making others happy. The market would end up providing a neat solution to the wellbeing of orphaned, otherwise abandoned children.
Fairness says children are not commodities
But there are several problems with this. One has to do with fairness. Such a market scheme would shut out poorer potential parents from access to more attractive children. In short, they would be left with the more problematic, cheapest and least desirable kids. But secondly, and perhaps even more compellingly, by turning children into commodities we would be corrupting the norm of unconditional love, which is the sacred bond between parent and child. We would be sending the message to the child and the world at-large that the value of a child is dependent on his or her race, sex, intellectual potential, physical abilities or disabilities and other characteristics, which erode the unconditional love that goes to the defining essence of the parent-child relationship. In simplest terms, children are beings to be loved, not objects to be bought.
Here is a third example, which is even more ethically ambiguous, but a very real one, indeed. And that has to do with sale of bodily organs, especially kidneys, of which there is a lucrative international trade. This is truly ethically problematic. Person A in a rich country is suffering from kidney failure and needs a donated kidney or he will die. Person B, who lives in extreme poverty in the developing world, is willing to sell one of his kidneys, and by doing so will earn more from selling his kidney than he would earn in a year of hard, backbreaking labor.
Again, the market works to create what seems to be a win-win situation. A human life is saved that would otherwise be lost—no small thing. And a desperately poor man earns a chance to earn more money in short order than he could hope to earn in months or years of labor.
But on the other side of the equation, there are countervailing arguments. First, is the choice to donate a kidney by someone who is desperately poor, perhaps on the verge of starvation, truly a free, voluntary choice? Or, is it one that in fact is coerced by the pressure of desperate economic circumstance? These transactions always go from the very poor as donors to the wealthy as recipients. And second, is the process morally degrading in that it objectifies the human being in such a way as to reduce a person to little more than a collection of spare parts? It is one thing to donate a kidney to a person whom you love. But it seems to be quite another to harvest one’s organs and sell them as commodities on the impersonal market.
The market can degrade and corrupt
Michael Sandel, an immensely popular professor of government at Harvard, has written on this topic of the transformation of non-market into market values, with a cornucopia of examples large and small. And he, too, is concerned about the consequences of this growing trend. Sandel notes that most economists believe that the open market is value-neutral. But Sandel challenges this notion in several ways. By turning otherwise non-market activities and values into commodities to be purchased, we create problems of fairness as well as degrade and corrupt their purposes.
One of many examples he gives involves the New York City Shakespeare Festival that takes place each year in Central Park. Here the public at-large, both the rich as well as the poor, can come to enjoy Shakespeare for free. The event is very popular, but the number of seats is, of course, limited. Often, the wait for a free ticket can be hours long. This was especially true a few years ago when Al Pacino played Shylock in The Merchant of Venice. In order to avoid the inconvenience of waiting on long lines, those who can afford it will pay others, often homeless people, up to $125 to wait in line for them. This practice became a cottage industry, with ads on Craigslist looking for line standers. It also began to alarm the officials who were overseeing the Shakespeare in the Park Festival.
From the point of view of the free market there is nothing wrong with this practice, in fact, perhaps there is a lot to be gained. Libertarians will argue that it is totally voluntary. Others will argue that the market will attract the greatest Shakespeare lovers, as demonstrated by their willingness to shell out $125. This argument, it should be said, is most likely false since all it demonstrates is that such people are rich enough to spent $125, not that they appreciate Shakespeare more than people who cannot afford to hire a line waiter for them. And, of course, the poor person will benefit because he earns what for him or her is a handsome sum for simply -spending a few hours waiting on a line. Again, the market seems to have created a win-win situation.
But as Sandel points out, there are major problems with this trend. The first is one of fairness. Given that there are more people who want to see the play than there are seats, those who can afford to pay for someone to wait in line for them will crowd out those who can’t afford it for what is supposed to a free event. It creates an uneven, and therefore unfair, playing field. But more to the point of my talk, it corrupts the very purpose and spirit of the event.
The Shakespeare in the Park Festival is intended to be a gift that the city gives to itself. As Sandel remarks, “The Public Theater sees its free outdoor performances as a public festival, a kind of civic celebration…the idea is to make Shakespeare freely available to everyone, without regard to ability to pay. Charging for admission, or allowing scalpers to profit from what is meant to be a gift, is at odds with this end. It changes a public festival into a business, a tool for private gain. It would be as if the City made people pay to watch fireworks on the Fourth of July.”
In short, this practice turns a free, public festival into a market commodity, and thus, again, corrupts its purpose.
Private commodities in the public domain
Sandel lists a long catalog of ways in which activities construed to be public, and in some sense to be experienced and enjoyed by all of us, are being transformed into private commodities. Some seem trivial, others are very serious.
For example, in Santa Ana, California, non-violent offenders can pay for better accommodations, a clean, quiet jail cell away from the cells of non-paying prisoners, at $84 a night. One would assume that equal justice implies equal punishment, and is not something you can buy your way out of for a private fee. But I suspect that this opportunity, which puts more revenue in financially strapped government coffers, is a piece of a much larger trend toward the privatization of prisons. Today, if you are punished for an infraction you have committed against society, your incarceration in addition to a being an expression of public outrage for your crime becomes, with the emergence of private prisons, a vehicle for greedy entrepreneurs to make a profit on your misery and suffering. In my view, the privatization of prisons is an affront to democracy and a moral abomination added to a criminal justice system that has enough abomination to go around.
In Minneapolis and elsewhere, in an effort to ease traffic congestion, solo drivers are now permitted to use car-pool lanes at a rush hour for a price of $8. Sitting in traffic, one would assume, is a democratizing experience we should all endure—unless you can buy your way out of it.
War, as we know, has become increasingly privatized, despite the fact that our Constitution tells us that a purpose of the national government is to provide for the common defense. You can now be paid by private military contractors from $250 a week to $1,000 a day to fight in Afghanistan or Somalia. When we had 170,000 troops in Iraq, we had an equal number of private contractors making very big bucks off of war. War is moving from being a civic obligation, with all the honor courage implied by patriotism and its rhetoric, to being a gargantuan investment opportunity for mammoth corporations
Do you want to get your child into a prestigious university? Top college administrators told the Wall Street Journal that they will accept less than stellar students if their parents are wealthy and will to make a generous financial contribution. Tell that to a struggling, very bright student from a modest home who is burning the midnight oil and has her heart set on getting into a first-rate college.
Getting back to the queue, Sandel reports that a lobbyist who wants to attend a hearing on Capitol Hill can pay a poor person $15-$20 an hour to stand in line overnight for him so he can get in. In fact there are companies that identify and hire homeless and other people to do the line-standing. So much for the open nature of government and the ethos of democracy.
Betting on the lives of strangers
If you think that human life is sacred, you can now buy a life insurance policy of an ailing or elderly person, pay the annual premiums while the person is alive, then collect the death benefit when he or she dies, potentially equaling out to millions of dollars. This form or betting on the lives of strangers, Sandel tells us, has become a $30 billion industry. The sooner the stranger dies, the more the investor makes. Friends, each one of us in this room, unbeknownst to us, might have been turned into a commodity by some unknown predator who hopes that you die sooner rather than later and will have much to celebrate when he gets the happy news that you have departed this world. I can only contrast the coarseness of this obscenity with my own discomfort in asking a grieving son for a modest fee to officiate at his mother’s funeral to recognize how I live in an alternative ethical universe—not one, if I may be frank, I am ashamed to occupy.
Today is the Super Bowl, so let’s talk about sports. When I was kid baseball seemed to be a game. Today it is a huge business. When I was kid, Ernie Banks, the great shortstop for the Chicago Cubs, I believe made an annual salary of about $40,000, which is less money than many of our multimillion dollar players earn in three innings of a single game. Paraphernalia—from balls and bats, players’ autographs and baseball cards, to even samples of dirt from the former Yankee Stadium—have been corporatized and are bought and sold at rarefied prices.
Talking about naming rights and stadiums, most major league teams now sell stadium naming rights to the highest bidder, including banks, energy companies, airlines, technology firms, and other companies willing to pay huge sums for their corporate visibility. So the White Sox now play in Cellular Field, the San Diego Padres play in Petco Park, named for the pet supply company. The Minnesota Twins play in Target Field, and, of course the New York Mets new stadium is Citi Field, that marvelous symbol of Citigroup, which the taxpayer had to bail out during the financial crisis of 2008.
Corporate sponsorship has extended far beyond the naming rights of stadiums. Increasingly, according to Sandel, it extends to the words the broadcasters use to describe the action on the field. Let me permit Sandel to speak for himself, because this is truly amazing.
When a bank bought the right to name the Arizona Diamondback’s stadium Bank One Ballpark, the deal also required that the team’s broadcasters call each Arizona home run a “Bank One blast.” Most teams don’t yet have corporate sponsored homeruns. But some have naming rights to pitching changes. When the manager heads to the mound to bring in a new pitcher, some broadcasters are contractually obligated to announce the move as an “AT&T call to the bullpen.”
Even sliding into home is a corporate-sponsored event. 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 a base. So, for example, when an umpire calls a 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.” This is not a commercial message that appears between innings; it is a corporate-sponsored way of announcing the game itself. “This message integrates naturally into the action of the ball game,” explains the corporate vice-president and advertising director of New York Life. “It is a great reminder to fans who are cheering for their favorite players to reach bases safely, that they too can be safe and secure with the largest mutual life insurance company in the United States.”
One more word about sports. Spectator sports were great levelers, where the corporate executive used to sit next to the blue-collar worker. But not anymore. When I was a kid, you could sit in the bleachers at Yankee Stadium for 75 cents, and the difference in cost between the bleachers and the box seats was only a few dollars. Today stadiums provide skyboxes that allow the super-rich to segregate themselves from the public at large. The Boston Red Sox have a waiting list for its 40 luxury suites at Fenway Park, which cost up to $350,000 per season.
‘Less like landmarks and more like billboards’
All this gets to the point. Spectator sports are among the last great civic events in American life that bring large numbers of people together for a shared experience. Quoting Michael Sandel again, …”sports stadiums are the cathedrals of our civic religion, public spaces that gather people from different walks of life in rituals of loss and hope, profanity and prayer…They are sources of civic pride, and as they become less like landmarks and more like billboards, their public character fades. So perhaps do the social bonds and civic sentiments they inspire.”
Which leads me to my final and most public of venues. In the early 2000s, a North Carolina-based company offered to sell cash-strapped municipalities police cars for $1 a year provided that they would be covered with advertising logos hawking various products and commercial chains. The public fortunately came to its senses, including members of the law enforcement community who argued that it was undignified to have police cars festooned with ads for Kentucky Fried Chicken and Dunkin Donuts. Besides, it suggested potential favoritism. Do the police first respond to the emergency at the local McDonalds or Burger King? Perhaps the one that they are promoting, or so it may appear. The police after all, carry a deep public trust to protect and serve all of us, and being co-opted by corporate interests diverts it from its mission. The idea was eventually dropped, but has been picked up by several fire companies around the country.
From schools to jails to national parks, all are being invaded and transformed, and I would argue, corrupted from their primary purposes by the insinuation and takeover by private commercial interests. Schools exist to teach children citizenship and not how to be more ravenous consumers.
But I want to end with an example that really galls me personally. I grew up in New York City, and from the time I was 11 years old I rode the New York City subways. I might be an outlier, but I loved the subway, and I still do—except during rush hour. I still get a slight twinge of frisson as the A train express comes barreling through the station at 50 miles an hour. I am amazed at the complexity of a system with more than 460 stations, and I believe the New York City subway remains the only one in the world, except for occasional work stoppages and a freakish weather event, that never stops. It runs 24/7 all year. And unlike other systems, it is not zoned. Buy your one ticket and you can ride forever.
The subway is a great public utility, where people of all kinds bump up against one another, white and black, Latinos and every ethnic and immigrant group imaginable, Wall Streeters and beggars, rich and poor. And though I have never had the personal experience , one can occasionally spy riding the subway the Hollywood actor Hillary Swank, Caroline Kennedy and even Michael Bloomberg. It is the most public of places, as are city buses. The word “bus,” by the way, is a shortened form of the Latin word “omnibus,” meaning “for all.” But this public character is beginning to change also. In 2009, the MTA sold Barclay’s Bank the right to put its name on one of the oldest and busiest stations in Brooklyn for $4 million over 20 years. And I am sure there will be more to come.
Commercial activity I do not want
But here is the coup de grace. I have in my pocket Exhibit A and Exhibit B. Exhibit A is the standard-issue Metrocard. It is yellow in color and has “MTA” inscribed on it in prominent letters. There is no doubt that its intended use is to ride on New York’s subways and buses. A short while ago, I needed to replenish my card. I went to one of the automatic kiosks located in each subway station. I insert my Metrocard and debit card, and punched in my usual $20 amount. Rather than returning the card I inserted, the machine spit out a card that inspired a reaction of “What the hell is this?” Rather than the utilitarian card I was used to and has been in service since the MTA shifted from tokens to the Metrocard system, was a card advertising “Empire City Casino,” with related designs on front and back. The back of the card features directions by public transit to reach the casino, and the only inscription identifying this object as a Metrocard is a telephone number in small letters one can use for customer service. A proud and venerable public utility is moving closer to privatization, and each time I use the subway, I am now subject to commercialized activity I did not ask for and do not want.
But what is at stake in all this? Bill DeBlasio ran his campaign with the message that New York is a “Tale of Two Cities.” A city of the privileged and increasingly privatized rich, and the rest us. And we live not only in two cities but in two different worlds. And what applies to New York City certainly applies to American society as a whole.
The super-rich do not share our world and they do not share our public spaces. They do not need our public schools, because their children go to elite private schools. They do not need our public streets because they live in gated communities, effectively walled off from us, with their own private streets, and can buy their own security services and other services, as well. They do not need to congregate in public parks because they have their own private country clubs. They do not have to squeeze into economy seats on overcrowded airplanes because they have their own private jets. And if they don’t, they don’t have to bother with the wait and the indignity of security lines. For a fee they can get elite treatment that enables them to go to their own special queues and bypass all that soulless activity that the rest of us have to put up with.
And here is the payoff, and it is not good: Our common world is shrinking and the public character of our lives is becoming diminished. At a time when inequality grows more rampant the marketization of everything means that people of affluence and people of modest means lead increasingly separate lives. This, friends, I contend, is not a good way to live, and it certainly is not good for the health of democracy.
As Michael Sandel says, “Democracy does not require perfect equality, but it does require that citizens share a common life. What matters is that people of different backgrounds and social positions encounter one another and bump up against one another in the course of everyday life. For this is how we learn to negotiate and abide our differences, and how we come to care for the common good.”
As Ethical Culturists, we are assuredly attuned to the importance, indeed the supreme importance, of non-market values, be it the preservation of human dignity, compassion for others, the importance of justice and attempting to do good for others and the strengthening of the common good. Inspired by those values, we need to ask ourselves “What kind of world do we want to live in”? And once we have reflected on that question, we need to go forward and make the right choices, so that that world will be preserved for us and for our children.
Dr. Joseph Chuman is leader of the Ethical Culture Society of Bergen County.