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6 Things Money Shouldn’t Be Able to Buy

From cushy prison cells to human kidneys, some things just shouldn't be for sale.
 
 
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Need a womb? You can rent one from an Indian surrogate mother for $8,000. Want to make millions? Do like Natalie Dylan did and auction off your virginity online.

Before the financial crash sounded a high-decibel wakeup call, Americans had gone decades without serious public discussion about the intersection of markets and morals. Sold on Reagan-era market worship and frenzied deregulation, we looked more and more to markets to solve our problems and enhance our lives. But that’s slowly starting to change. We're beginning to ask the question: When everything is for sale, how much does it really cost us?

Economists, religious leaders and philosophers are getting into the conversation. The Institute for New Economic Thinking and Union Theological Seminary are conducting a series of panels exploring questions about markets and their ability to give us the things we want and need in life. Political philosopher Michael J. Sandel, author of What Money Can't Buy: The Moral Limits of Markets, discussed the implications of a price-tag driven society in a recent issue of the Altantic. “Today, the logic of buying and selling no longer applies to material goods alone,” writes Sandel. “It increasingly governs the whole of life.”

What has changed in recent years, Sandel argues, is not so much an increase in human greed, but the rapid extension of markets into areas of life like healthcare, politics, education, procreation, and the criminal justice system -- areas where they may do more harm than good.

In allowing ourselves to think that markets alone "decide" what can be bought and sold, we have forgotten that markets exist to serve human beings – not the other way around. We're finding out that in a society where everything is for sale, corruption and inequality tend to increase, which creates social unrest.

Here’s a list of some things that are currently for sale that shouldn’t be.

1. Prison Cell Upgrade

In America’s two-tiered justice system, the rich get access to high-priced attorneys and special privileges, even in the form of a more comfortable prison cell.

In Santa Ana, Calif., they call it “pay-to-stay,” a system in which those arrested for relatively minor crimes can pay around $100 a night for a clean, quiet, less-crowded alternative to a squalid county jail. Money can buy you amenities like iPods, exercise bikes, cell phones, and even work-release programs. According to Prison Legal News, a Pasadena program advertises to “clients” in brochures inviting them to “Serve your time in our clean, safe secure facility! ... We are the finest jail in Southern California.” The price tag? $135 per day.

As the New York Timesreported in 2007, the self-pay jails “operate like secret velvet-roped nightclubs” where “administrators can operate like bouncers, rejecting anyone they wish.”

Strapped local and state governments argue that the pay-to-stay programs generate much-needed cash. But what about fairness? Apparently that's expendable.

2. Internships

It has long been easier for children of the wealthy to secure internships in hot industries, whether through the indirect financial contributions of their parents or the luxury of being able to take unpaid positions. But outright purchase? That's the new normal.

Mocking any remaining illusions that America is a meritocracy, internships for sale have gone from disturbing anomaly to national trend. Parents are shelling out cash to for-profit companies to place their college-age kids in interships that are usually unpaid. Some are buying internships in online charity auctions. The Wall Street Journal has reported on organizations like fundraising Web site CharityFolks.com, which offers internships for sale to companies including Rolling Stone,Elle magazine and Atlantic Records. In the New Republic, Timothy Noah laments a growing trend in which “internships, a principal avenue for upward mobility in our economy, have become a commodity to be sold to the highest bidder.”