A couple of weekends ago, a photo appeared in The New York Times that captured a story’s essence better than the article it was attached to. The picture showed a red fire hydrant, like you’d see in any city or town, with some changes: The cap of the hydrant was covered with an empty bucket of chicken, reading “New Fiery Grilled Wings.” On the hydrant column was Colonel Sanders, and below him a KFC logo. The town of Brazil, Indiana, allowed KFC to repair and emblazon its fire hydrants because it couldn’t afford to repair them itself. Around the same time in 2010, Indianapolis accepted fire extinguishers and smoke detectors from KFC to put in its public recreation centers and gyms.
The Times story also included these examples: Baltimore, facing the closure of three firehouses, is considering selling ad space on fire engines; Cleveland has renamed a bus line with money from a hospital (there’s the Red Line, Green Line, Blue Line, and… HealthLine). Michael Sandel’s new book, What Money Can’t Buy, includes instances of prisons selling wall space to bail bondsmen. A story from last year found various school districts selling space on children’s buses to pizza joints, among other businesses.
This all resembles nothing so much as the movie Idiocracy, a dystopian comedy where water fountains are replaced with pseudo-Gatorade stations and the president’s middle name is “Mountain Dew.” Certainly our own nonfictional society has become more used to the omnipresence of advertisements, but that doesn’t change what allowing fast-food chains to place logos on public smoke detectors is: an embarrassment.
What’s the objective harm in selling and degrading public spaces? It’s not just a matter of aesthetics, as some might contend. Sandel makes what he calls the “corruption” argument—that plastering ads on a school bus, say, corrupts the nature of what that public good is supposed to be: a neutral way to transport children. Certainly we could plaster a community gym with as many ads as a Nike store, but it ruins more than the beauty of the walls: It alters the intended purpose of the institution as a place for recreation, not market transactions.
It goes beyond the corruption of the public. In his saner years, Mickey Kaus prescribed an unusual solution to rising income inequality in his book The End of Equality. If, as Kaus believed, rising disparities in income were unavoidable in a post-industrial society, then government could ameliorate the effects by focusing on producing quality public spaces and services. Creating accessible, affordable areas that everyone uses makes the money one has matter less. As Kaus puts it: “Instead of trying to suppress inequality of money, [civic liberalism] would try to restrict the sphere of life in which money matters, and enlarge the sphere in which money doesn’t matter.” There’s no reason why rich and poor can’t visit the same clean parks, travel on the same convenient buses, and walk in the same safe downtowns.
Unfortunately, what we’ve learned in recent years is that the reverse is also true. If public places become low-quality, glorified ad-deliverers, then money matters more. Cheapening public spaces through ads or disinvestment ensures that those wealthy enough to opt out will. When the parks are crummy, the buses don’t run on time, and public schools can’t afford books, it’s only the rich that can pay for country clubs, Lexuses, and private schools—and they don’t need to resort to McDonald’s branding or KFC sponsorship. The result is that income inequality breeds civic inequality. A difference in paycheck becomes a difference in the area ones lives in, in the places one walks, and in the people one interacts with. Sandel and political philosopher Michael Walzer have made similar points for years.
It’s become vogue in recent years for pundits to argue that government’s goal should only be equality of opportunity, not equality of outcome. It’s been one of the only points that liberals and conservatives agree on. But in some places, we do want equality of outcome. The same fire trucks go to the houses of poor and rich; the same police cars; the same ambulances. True, an influential CEO’s pothole might get fixed first, but these are sectors where egalitarian outcomes are what people rightly expect and demand. And in the same way that the wealthy can counteract an incompetent police force by hiring security guards, they can counteract low-quality public goods by buying their own private versions.
Conservatives will bring up a few predictable points: Governments have too-generous pensions for public employees, too-generous welfare for the poor, too-generous entitlements for the middle class. Some of these critiques are probably true some of the time; certainly many city governments that have begun auctioning off public spaces are run by Democratic politicians, so blaming Republicans for all of this would be silly and wrong.
But we cannot trust conservatives to fix the problems in public institutions, because ultimately they do not believe in them. The more libertarian strain of conservative thought that has risen in the past 20 years sees public parks as land to be sold and public schools as inefficiencies to be privatized. You’d no sooner trust Rand Paul to fix a civic space than rely on Karl Marx to fix your private business.
So what’s to be done? It’s difficult to say. These municipalities aren’t sacrificing civic spaces because they’re anti-government ogres, but because of a combination of recession-crippled budgets and constant fear of increasing taxes. A race-to-the-bottom between states for the lowest rates even makes tax phobia somewhat understandable. In another way, a gutting of publicly provided goods is the logical conclusion of a starve-the-beast conservative philosophy: The sanctity of a park must seem an easy cut when faced with Medicaid benefit reductions or hefty tax increases. And sometimes letting a pizza joint sponsor a school bus might really be the best option. Politicians and progressives shouldn’t forget that incomes aren’t the only things that can be unequal, and selling ads in a prison or community center is often just as regressive as a tax.