Tuesday, May 15, 2012

The "moral limits of markets" and the Atlantic Yards impact: naming rights, sponsorships, and visas for sale

Upate: Also see Michael Ignatieff's review in The New Republic, which criticizes the author for not explaining how "a politics of money beat a politics of public goods" and how "the republic came to depend more heavily on corporations and wealthy individuals to provide public goods" (hence naming rights). His conclusion: "Without a politics—of redistributive taxation, public goods investment for growth, and rules controlling money in politics—any critique of what money has done to American life is just moralizing."


Yes, the luxury suites and sponsorships needed to pay for the enormously expensive Barclays Center are part of a questionable trend. So is the credit to the Barclays Nets Community Alliance for playgrounds it has helped refurbished. And so is the green-cards-for-jobs scheme used to save Atlantic Yards developer tens of millions of dollars.

In case you missed it, New York Times columnist Thomas Friedman on Sunday wrote This Column Is Not Sponsored by Anyone, taking off from Harvard philosopher Michael Sandel’s new book, What Money Can’t Buy: The Moral Limits of Markets. (Here's an excerpt from The Atlantic)

Sandel might be thought of as the anti-Brett Yormark, as the Nets/Barclays Center CEO has tried to monetize nearly everything to do with the team/arena, and, in the wake of experience finding sponsors for soccer jerseys and NASCAR gear, is ready to sell sponsorship space on NBA uniforms.

He told Sports Business Daily, "You can monetize this in ways you can’t monetize any other kind of marketing inventory." Indeed. Because the arena and team are, in the words of developer Bruce Ratner, a "civic" endeavor.

Reasons for concern

And while Friedman's professed shock at the proliferation of sponsorships and logos seems a little strained, the trend identified by Sandel--a childhood friend of the columnist, by the way--deserves recognition, and concern:
 “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.”
Why worry about this trend? Because, Sandel argues, market values are crowding out civic practices. When public schools are plastered with commercial advertising, 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.
Sandel, and by extension Friedman, lament the “skyboxification of American life,” which keeps rich and poor from each other. Indeed, the much-lauded Brooklyn Dodgers did not separate fans into luxury suites and cheap seats.

Diminished public sector

But, as Sandel points out--and so do some Times commenters--this proliferation of sponsorships results from an increasingly diminished public sector. One commenter wrote:
I imagine that many Americans will think that "skyboxification" is inevitable, but it doesn't have to be this way. One has only to spend time in the more egalitarian parts of Europe - the Netherlands, say - to see a social compact that does a much better job of making life experience not quite so predestined by the circumstances of one's birth.
It's not a perfect system: inequality is more widely reviled as a vice, but entrepreneurship is less ingrained as a virtue. The market is not all-powerful, but the bureaucracy is more entrenched.
Still, education and health care are excellent in the "social compact" countries. These are the two main pillars of a modern existence, the two major human rights of the modern age. 
Cheap seats

One Times commenter wrote:
Wouldn't it have been a good idea if New York City, as part of the deal for supporting the new Yankee Stadium, had required the Yankees to make 1000 seats available at every game to school age kids for $5.00?
Indeed, Forest City Ratner promised that 2000 seats per game would be available for $15. None of those seats are currently available for season tickets. (See screenshot at right, and click to enlarge.)

It's not clear whether they will be made available later for season tickets, because the team is currently pushing more expensive seats, or whether they'll be available as individual, per-game tickets.

I'm betting on the former, though I suspect a fraction of individual tickets might be available.

The naming rights proliferation

Sandel's book cites a 5/30/04 New York Times article, At (Your Name Here) Arena, Money Talks, about the proliferation of naming rights:
"In 1988, there were only three naming-rights deals with a total contract value of $25 million,'' said Dean Bonham, the chairman and chief executive of the Bonham Group, a sports marketing company based in Denver that has negotiated many naming agreements. "Today, there are 66 deals worth $3.6 billion.''
That means that more than half the arenas and stadiums in professional baseball, football, basketball and hockey now bear corporate names, creating new cultural touchpoints that may be difficult for fans accustomed to the sound of a Fenway Park or a Yankee Stadium.
The article does raise a couple of troublesome issues: naming rights sponsors come and go with corporate gyrations, and some shareholder watchdogs wonder if the spending is wise.

Sharing the wealth?

But a key question was not raised: shouldn't sports facilities that are publicly owned, or get public funding, share some of the naming rights revenue? Or, if not, shouldn't potential naming rights revenue be explicitly calculated as a subsidy?

The Atlantic Yards arena, now known as the Barclays Center, is nominally publicly owned, for the purposes of a devilishly clever funding scheme, but privately operated. The state gave away the naming rights. Neither the city nor the state calculated the sale--announced at $400 million over 20 years, likely closer to $200 million--as a subsidy.

The market society

In his book, Sandel asks, "Why worry that we are moving toward a society in which everything is up for sale?"

His answer:
"It is not about inequality and fairness but about the corrosive tendency of markets. Putting a price on the good things in life can corrupt them. That's because markets don't only allocate goods; they also express and promote certain attitudes toward the goods being exchanged."
He gives a good example from baseball. Once it was the norm to return a ball hit to set a record to the holder of that record. Now that such a ball is marketed, "presenting it to the player who hit it is no longer a simple gesture of decency. it is either a heroic act of generosity or a foolish act of profligacy."

Selling green cards

Sandel points to how economist Gary Becker "first proposed selling the right to immigrate in 1987," and "in an age of rising market faith, the gist of the Becker-[Julian] Simon proposal soon found its way into law."

That law, in 1990, established the EB-5 program, in which immigrant investors in purportedly job-creating enterprises, could get green cards for themselves and their families.

Sandel does not mention an important--and, to my mind, not unreasonable--spur to the law: the competition with Canada and Australia for expected high net worth immigrants from jittery Hong Kong, facing an incorporation into China.

Nor does he mention how the use of the EB-5 program has boomed as developers and other entrepreneurs have discovered a source of cheap financing, with rather vague requirements to prove job creation.

Rhapsodizing about sports

Writing about sports, Sandel the scholar channels his inner George Will:
Like few other institutions in American life, baseball, football, basketball, and hockey are a source of social glue and civic pride. From Yankee Stadium in New York to Candlestick Park in San Francisi\co, sports stadiums are the cathedrals of our civil religion, public spaces that gather people from different walks of life in rituals of loss and hope, profanity and prayer.
He recognizes, however, that there are limits to the "civic" nature of sports:
Of course, sports stadiums are mainly places where people gather to watch athletic events. When fans go to the ballpark or arena, they don't go primarily for the sake of a civic experience. They go to see David Ortiz hit a home run in the bottom of the ninth, or to see Tom Brady throw a touchdown pass in the final seconds of the game. But the public character of the setting imparts a civic teaching--that we are all in this together, that for a few hours at least, we share a sense of place and civic pride. As stadiums become less like landmarks and more like billboards, their public character fades. So perhaps, do the social bonds and civic sentiments they inspire.
The civic teaching of sports is eroded even more powerfully by a trend that has accompanied the rise of corporate naming rights--the proliferation of luxury skyboxes... The advent of skybox suites high above the field of play has separated the affluent and the privileged from the common folk in the stands below.
Even though, in the late 1980s, Congress cut back on the tax deductions for skybox expenses, that didn't stop the trend.

Moreover, as Sandel notes, the naming rights trend has extended to nature trails and subway stations. Yes, the Barclays Center naming of the Atlantic Avenue/Pacific Street station gets a mention.

And just today we learned that the MTA, at least on the first cut, sloppily excised Pacific Street from the D/N/R/ station name and left it as the misleading Atlantic Av-Barclays Ctr.

A lament

Sandel concludes:
Commercialism does not destroy everything it touches... Sports fans can still root for the home team in Bank of America Stadium, AT&T Park, and Lincoln Financial Field, even if few of us can name the teams that call those places home.
Nevertheless, imprinting things with corporate logos changes their meaning... These are, I admit, contestable judgments... In fact, we disagree about the norms appropriate to many of the domains that markets have invaded--family life, friendship, sex, procreation, health, education, nature, art, citizenship, sports, and the way we contend with the prospect of death. But that's my point: once we see that markets and commerce change the character of the goods they touch, we have to ask where markets belong--and where they don't.
Commercialism, he warns, erodes commonality, the sharing of experiences and a shared search for the common good.

And a contrarian take

One reviewer writes:
What Money Can't Buy will tap into a widespread unease about having to limit government and accept a larger private domain in this age of austerity; and about crass commercialisation when unemployment and inequality are too high. But it does not offer a clear guide to which markets are repugnant, and why.
Indeed, as the critic points out, Sandel's own job is as "Anne T. and Robert M. Bass Professor of Government."

There is a distinction, though perhaps a fine one. The donors--at least in most cases--aren't selling something, nor do they ask for control. They're being honored for generosity. But it would make a difference, wouldn't it, if the donor were a corporation, and, indeed, there are corporate-sponsored professorships.

Another impact

The trend has another impact, I would add. The more commercialism, the more "normal" it seems. I remember entering the Brooklyn Public Library with some European visitors, who registered shock when we saw a banner at the Brooklyn Public Library hailing all the sponsors of Summer Reading.

Even the New York City Independent Budget Office didn't calculate the value of naming rights to the arena.

And commercialism teaches kids there's a price on everything, a price to be paid by a "presenting sponsor," no matter whether the product is good or not, or whether it misleads straphangers or not.

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