The latest example of a powerful trend in American life has happened right here in Richmond, VA. The Landmark Theater, formerly the Mosque, will soon be The Altria Theater.
The renaming is only costing the corporate giant $10 million. It seems to be a good deal for all: big bucks toward reaching a goal of $50 million to renovate the local icon and a chance for the corporation to remind all of us of its largesse for worthy community projects.
Richmond Times-Dispatch columnist Michael Paul Williams reminds us that much of that money comes from tobacco, and thus our beautiful theater will now be funded in part on the deaths of many people from lung disease. (See tdmet01-michael-paul-williams-renaming-landmark-th-ar-2061897) That may be why the theater management was quick to say that there would be no advertising for Altria products. [For the record, Altria provides financial support, and leadership, for many important community projects. Also, of course, the various companies within the giant make products other than tobacco ones.]
But I am less concerned about any of that today than what I think is a broader trend in our society.
Everything is for sale.
Surely, our politics are now open to the highest bidder–thanks, in part, to the Supreme Court’s decision in Citizens United. And now seven states allow corporate advertising on the sides of school buses. Pete Rose, the banished former baseball hero, sells memorabilia of his disgrace–$500 gets you an autographed copy of the document casting him out–on his web site. Don’t want to stand in line at airport security? No problem. Just join a special club by paying the airline of your choice more money.
Sure, the difference between the rich and the rest of us is that the rich have more money. No news there.
But does it seem to you, as it does to me, that “the market” is now running everything? You hear the mantra all the time these days. Got a social problem you want solved? Find a market-based solution.
Don’t get me wrong. I agree with Thomas Friedman, the New York Times columnist who wrote on this topic recently (see friedman-this-column-is-not-sponsored-by-anyone.html?_r=1 ). He said, “the market is a tool–a valuable and effective tool–for organizing productive activity.” Amen.
But it can’t do everything. We can’t turn all our moral decision-making over to market forces. Profit for investors cannot be the only benchmark we use to solve our common problems.
Markets are by nature selective–casting aside that which does not make an adequate return on investment. That is how they work, in order to produce profit.
That may be why we have 50 million or so Americans without health insurance. Some of them–the young mostly, who think they are invincible–don’t want to buy; but quite a few others simply can’t afford the cost, or the insurance market thinks the risk they pose to profit is too high.
Does that not help our ability to compete in global markets? Sometimes, you see, we have to pitch together to make sure we all get our baseline needs met. And, voila! there are economic benefits from that. The profit comes in not being governed by short-term profit, but seeing the big picture.
Maybe the day will come when Altria will ask for naming rights for healthy individuals–paying people to wear, every day, a sweatshirt or t-shirt that reads, “This space, and my heart, belongs to Altria, because they helped me stop smoking.”
Just for the record, this blog is not sponsored by anyone . . . yet. The way things are going, though, you never know.