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OpEdNews Op Eds    H3'ed 5/13/12

Damn it, Are You Still Alive? Should We Allow Market Forces to Invade Our Lives?

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Would you be outraged if someone called you every once in a while and asked you if you were still alive? It is perfectly permissible in this country for someone to lure you into signing a contract that gives you a lump sum of money in exchange for your life insurance policy, and then the person waits impatiently for you to die so that he can cash in and collect on your death benefits. The sooner you die, the higher the return on his investment. One can imagine that this person will be very disappointed if you refuse to die because that is preventing him from making any money from his wager on your life. Welcome to the world of viatical industry, a legitimate offspring of free-for-all capitalism. Your employer may also collect a large sum of cash if you die of any cause, work related or not, because companies can take out life insurance policies on their employees without their consent or knowledge and name the company as the beneficiary. Who said companies are not people and thus cannot be made the beneficiaries of a life insurance policy? Sadly, this interesting arrangement may come down to your living your everyday life not knowing who or how many people wish you were dead!

Borrowing a phrase used in many television commercials: "But wait, there's more." Can you imagine a business paying a sum of money to place an ad on your forehead or on the stomach of a pregnant woman? It is now a popular trend for post middle-aged men, particularly in some minorities, to use their riches to buy a younger wife from overseas and import her to the U.S. So the next time you see an old man with a young lady in a grocery store, be advised, she may not be his daughter but rather his wife. It is not hard to notice that potency drugs are the most heavily advertised product, especially during prime time news programs, as if ED (erectile dysfunction) was a relentless epidemic in this country and the loss of his sexual drive is the only problem a man should be worried about.   If you don't want to camp outside a venue for many hours to catch a glimpse of your favorite celebrity who is in town, you can hire someone to stand in line for you, thus buying you the right to cut in line before everyone else for a price. If you are a lax religious believer who is not performing your required religious rituals, you don't have to worry because your surviving heirs will be able to buy a place in heaven for you after you die. All they need to do is hire someone to perform the missed rituals for you in exchange for money. If you think you can continue living a healthy life with one kidney, in some countries, most notably in Iran, you can sell one of your kidneys to the highest bidder either directly to a needy patient or to a human organ middleman. Can you think of anything that money cannot buy these days? If your answer is politicians, good luck telling that to Mr. Will Rogers! In Iran, there used to be a Farsi saying: "You can even build a bird's nest on the top of the Shah's head if you have the money."   As absurd as some of these example may seem, they are realities of our time.

Capitalism, devoid of morality and ethical values, is heading in a scary direction. The proliferation of strange ways to make money in this country has made some people wonder if the free-enterprise system is devolving and being dragged into denigrating territory due to our obliviousness to the reckless deeds of greedy people who are taking us for a dangerous ride again. Everything is up for sale in real or virtual markets. As economists say, as long as there is a demand there will be a supply. Is that what capitalism is supposed to be all about? Is money the only way to get ahead of others and the primary means of solving our problems?

Isn't it time for us to ask, is money all that there is? Isn't it time to question the appropriateness of market transactions involving things that should not be commoditized and their merit should be judged solely by moral and ethical standards? Should society place limits on what money can buy?   Such concerns are becoming important, especially in the aftermath of the recent financial crisis--itself an outcome of deceitful practices--that plunged this economy into the deepest recession ever recorded. Although greed has been named as the main culprit, something more critical is happening in this economy, namely the infiltration of monetary forces into every aspect of our lives, creating a market that is overtaking society with its relentless material pursuits. The economic crooks who defrauded millions of us in the recent past and screwed up this economy, are coming back again with a vengeance, fobbing us off with new deceptive, more elaborate tactics. We have come to a very important crossroad and we have to make critical decisions. Which way we should go next and what kind of coping mechanisms are there to protect us from the possible fallout?

Portentously, economists have low or no sympathy for non-market considerations such as ethical and moral values. The primary reason is that they want to make economics a positive, non-judgmental science. They tell us that economics does not make judgments about the preferences of consumers, what they wish to buy or not buy, or the merits of what is being traded in a market. Strict economics does not attach any non-economic worth to the goods and services we buy or sell. A dollar spent on education has the same merit as a dollar spent on harmful products like cigarettes. Economics just reports what happens and how people may change or modify their behavior in response to monetary incentives. It only analyzes people's actions the way they are, not the way they ought to be. And, the primary function of the price system is to serve as a rationing mechanism when it comes to allocation of goods and services, and to balance the two sides of the market: demand and supply. If people have to stand in a long line to buy food, for example, this signifies a shortage of food supplies and thus the failure of the market. However, this may very well be a temporary phenomenon. At the heart of this argument, is an assumption that flexibility of market forces, especially of prices, serves to restore the balance between supply and demand thus eliminating shortages. All we need to do is to wait. But, what happens if the inherent inflexibility in some cases results in a continuous shortage and/or some consumers are not willing to wait? For instance, what happens if there are a limited number of seats available for a popular concert or a sporting event, a number far below the number of diehard fans who wish to buy tickets at any price?   Some of them may be willing to pay ten times more for a ticket purchased from a scalper. Should society allow that to happen? Is there anything wrong with people using their monetary might to get ahead of others?

Is it unethical to let monetary forces of the market dictate who gets what and how income and wealth are distributed? To many non-economists, there are some fundamental problems with such a system. First, even though it has the appearance of free choice, it actually undermines free choice in some cases in the sense that it coerces people into doing something for money that they otherwise would not do, such as selling a kidney to pay their bills. Second, it is unfair to those who do not have the money to influence the outcome of the market system and thus are deprived of having access to something that is supposed to be available to them at no cost. Some examples of this are being denied access to public goods/services because politicians are being paid by campaign donors and lobbyists to change rules and regulations to favor them rather than society as a whole, or the rich buying admission for their unqualified children to a top-rated state school thus denying admission to qualified students who cannot pay.   Third, it promotes corruption and makes the market vulnerable to bribery and cronyism. Paying money to entice someone with little money to do something they wouldn't normally do is tantamount to bribing them. Fourth, such an approach will exacerbate divisions in an already polarized society. The rich can use their financial resources to buy rights as well as privileges. They can afford to live an opulent life separated from the rest of us. And finally, allowing monetary influence to go unchecked sets a dangerous direction and opens a can of worms, so to speak. It becomes difficult, if not impossible, to prevent money from more widely and deeply invading our lives. It makes me wonder what is next, perhaps buying your prison sentence for a price?  

The commoditization of everything in life is not something that we should condone. It is demeaning and alters the intention and the nature of many things that should not be objects of material gain, such as the right to vote, human organs, civic responsibilities, human life, children, romance, moral obligations, to name a few.   These should not be viewed as ordinary pieces of regular assets that can be traded in a market. These are not properties; they are revered duties or inalienable rights of citizens.

Should we reconsider the roles and the realms of markets, especially after the financial turmoil of 2008 and the havoc that befell us due to the malicious deeds of profiteering entrepreneurs? Should we still trust the market to function fairly and equitably if left to its own device? Should we let our concern for freedom and individualism undermine the need for egalitarianism and respect for morality and ethical norms? And more importantly, why didn't the crisis of 2008 impassion us to reevaluate the boundaries of the market so as to prevent it from taking us down the same destructive path again? Why don't our government and politicians implement the critical barriers needed so that the evils we kicked out of the door cannot come back through the window?   These are serious questions that need serious answers because we, as individuals and as a nation, cannot afford to sit idly by while we are "sold down the river" by greed-driven, self-serving opportunists.  


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Reza Varjavand (Ph.D., University of Oklahoma) is associate professor of economics and finance at the Graham School of management, Saint Xavier University, of Chicago. He has been an avid participant in many professional organizations and active in (more...)
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