PORTLAND – Harvard professor Michael Sandel’s recent book “What Money Can’t Buy: The Moral Limits of Markets” laments the growing use of assigning a monetary value to behavior or public properties known previously for their virtue or public good. Doing so runs the risk of robbing them of deeper meaning and purpose.

For example, he is most critical of efforts by states allowing advertising in public schools. One Florida elementary school issued report cards inserted in envelopes advertising McDonald’s. Other states have allowed advertisements on school walls, floors and locker rooms. With shrinking public tax revenues, such states are obviously hungry for new income sources.

But does this change the purpose of public education? Dr. Sandel argues, “Advertising encourages people to want things and to satisfy their desires. Education encourages people to reflect critically on their desires or to elevate them. The purpose of advertising is to recruit consumers. The purpose of education is to cultivate citizens.”

Another of his concerns involves the selling of “naming rights” for public buildings and public sites. The recent decision to sell naming rights for the soon-to-be-renovated Cumberland County Civic Center makes his work relevant to our community. All too often, we make decisions based on the bottom line economically without considering deeper issues of moral society and life’s virtues. But greater questions need to be addressed.

Last year, a substantial majority (58 percent) of county voters approved a $33 million referendum bond to renovate the civic center. County taxpayers (individuals and businesses) will now ante up the funds for this necessary renovation.

These voters supported the referendum because they believed that the civic center’s presence and renovation can contribute mightily to the good of the whole county. Voters took a responsible ownership in their civic center, endorsing the value of a public arena where people gather for multiple purposes.

The sale of naming rights will almost certainly provide the civic center more financial resources without taxing the public further. Therefore, that decision can be considered responsible by those trusted with the care of this building.

But how does the sale of naming rights honor the $33 million commitment voters made to their civic center? Will the corporate name of the highest bidder diminish the value voters placed in their civic center? Have these questions been considered?

Let me give a “fictional” example from my life as a Catholic priest. My darker cynical moments imagine the Catholic Church selling naming rights for the holiest days of our liturgical year.

This nightmare unfolds as: “Ben’s Seafood Restaurant Holy Thursday: Where your Last Supper, First Supper or Any Supper will be Long Remembered.” This is followed by “Cut-Rate Funeral Services Good Friday: For All Your Burial Needs at Lowest Cost to You.”

No matter how much church coffers may benefit, the sacred is quickly and permanently trivialized. All meaning of “the holy” is extinguished. For us as Catholics, it is the devil’s bargain.

The civic center may not have a divine purpose, but it does have multiple public purposes. Sporting events, concerts, graduations, political rallies and other events will draw the public there with a paid ticket or free admission.

Dr. Sandel states in his book, “In deciding whether to commodify a good, we must therefore consider more than efficiency and distributive justice. We must also ask whether market norms will crowd out nonmarket norms, and if so, whether this represents a loss worth caring about … And so, in the end, the question of markets is really a question about how we want to live together. Do we want a society where everything is up for sale? Or are there certain moral and civic goods that markets do not honor and money cannot buy?”

Currently, downtown public space and public access are hotly debated items in the city of Portland. This is an important debate, with both sides expressing good and moral use for the space in question.

The naming of the civic center needs to be included in this discussion of how “public space” is honored. These issues need not divide us. Rather, a “civil” civic dialogue can yield creative paths of resolution and the building of community.

The Rev. Michael J. Seavey is a Portland resident and a Catholic priest.


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