The phrase that defines our age: 'market society.'

Every once in a while, you hear a word or a phrase that encapsulates some enormous idea, an idea that changes your perception of the world. That happened to me today.

I was listening to a podcast -- the BBC's Start the Week ( ) -- featuring Harvard political philosopher Michael Sandel, who described the concept of the "market society."

The idea behind that phrase is that a certain type of economic system called a "market economy" -- in my opinion, the best kind given the alternatives -- can grow in power and influence to the point where its values and imperatives expand outside the economic realm and start dictating other realms. At that point, you end up with not just a "market economy," but also a "market society."

In a "market society," everything is for sale. Sandel gives examples in his book, What Money Can't Buy: The Moral Limits of Markets ( ).

* A Santa Ana, California, allows prison inmates to upgrade their cell for $82 per night.

* Doctors are making their cell phone numbers to patients for a fee, ranging from $1,500 to $25,000 per year.

* Second graders at a Dallas elementary school are paid $2 for every book they read.

He gives other examples. I have a few examples of my own.

For example, I believe the health crisis is fueled in part by our slide into a "market society." Nearly all food must be a branded product. And branded products must evolve into better products (cheaper, more addictive, more calories, longer shelf life, more colorful, etc.), which tends to make them worse food. They must be marketed with ever more effective psychological techniques, and engineered for maximum addiction.

Movie and TV product placements are rampant, and increasingly accepted by the public. Stadiums are universally named after corporations. Schools are given much-needed funds for the rights to expose kids to vending-machine and cafeteria junk food. Churches that are run as profitable businesses are on the rise. Hip hop lyrics are riddled with brand references. Teen rebellion is now just something they buy at the mall. Etc.

So what do you think? Are we living in a "market society"?

Can we have a strong capitalist economy, and also protect non-economic spheres from encroachment by the needs of the marketplace? Should we even try? If so, how?

Where is all this going?

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