The Encroachment of the Market

I’ve taken a break from my major reading projects to focus on a little book I got for Christmas called Calculated Futures: Theology, Ethics and Economics.  In Calculated Futures, theology professor D. Stephen Long and economics professor Nancy Ruth Fox engage in an extended dialog about the interplay of their two fields.

Naturally, this is right up my alley.

In the opening chapter, Fox observes that theologians feel that the market is aggressive, even encroaching on traditionally non-economic areas.  Long takes this critique of the market to its fullest limits, arguing that the global market has become a counter-church: the global agency to which individuals look for salvation, albeit a salvation redefined along economic lines.

At one point, Fox points out that this claim is baffling to her.  Long responds:

At a general level we would all agree that family life should not be thought of primarily in terms of its monetary value.  But when we move  from the general to the particular, economists and theologians soon part company. For instance, should the distribution of health, sex, body organs, and infants be conceded a value that allows them to be efficiently exchanged through a market mechanism?  We find neoclassical [that is, neoliberal or libertarian] economists who argue in favor of commodifying all four of these goods.  But are not these goods precisely related to family life?  If the economic facts suggest that a more efficient method of distributing body organs, sex, health, and unwanted infants is through the market, then are not those theologians (such as myself) who fear the encroachment of the market in all aspects of life justified? 


I find this point very compelling.

For my part, I can see the market encroaching on my own family life and my mother’s medical experience.  My mother is undergoing her third round of chemotherapy right now, for her second of two unrelated cancers (first lung and then breast).  Chemotherapy is very effective in treating certain cancers, like leukemia.  But in the treatment of multiple myeloma, soft-tissue sarcoma, melanoma of the skin and cancers of the pancreas, uterus, prostate, bladder and kidney, chemotherapy has no measurable effect.

In treating non-small-cell lung cancer (which my mother had), a chemotherapy regime costs around $40,000 and is shown to extend life by an average of two months (src).

Why would an oncologist prescribe such a ravaging, painful treatment for such dismal final results?  Well, there are a couple of reasons.  Firs,t these statistics aren’t the ones that oncologists hand out.  But even with hard numbers like these, cancer patients want to survive, even if it’s a long shot, even if those last two months are unbearably painful.

But the main reason is that over 50% of oncologists annual income is paid for referrals to chemotherapy.  They make money if they convince a patient to undergo chemo, and they don’t make money if they don’t.  The incentives are misaligned, and the chemotherapy companies are only marketable if they keep those incentives misaligned.  In the same way, they are only marketable if they lobby legislators to subsidize them, generally in the name of a “war on cancer.”

Naomi Klein, in her breakout first book No Logo, highlighted many further encroachments of the market, especially into public schools and universities.  Just one of dozens of examples she cites is the case of Mike Cameron, a student who jokingly wore a Pepsi shirt to school on Coke Day (the school’s bid to win a $10,000 prize awarded by Coca-Cola) and was suspended for it.

And again, in my own life, I conducted an experiment recently to see if I could go a full week without advertising for any company.  It’s easy enough to cut the labels off my water bottles.  I can even duct tape over the brand name on my shoes, but if I want to use a cell phone, or post on Xanga, or drive a car, things become more complicated.  Our lives, it seems, are sponsored whether we like it or not.

Most frightening of all, I believe, is the way the church has picked up this marketing logic, advertising itself on billboards, imitating the corporate strategies of Starbucks and Wal-Mart, learning the lessons of leadership from powerful CEOs.  Church Marketing was even a required class for my pastoral ministry degree.

What do think?  Does all of this represent the encroachment of the market into all aspects of our lives?  If so, is it a bad thing, a good thing, or simply neutral?  Are there any alternatives?


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