In the 1950s, Mad Magazine ran a satire with commercials on postage stamps. How preposterous. But with stamps already featuring pop figures, it's only a matter of time before product pitches on stamps will be sold.
In our era, commerce is making steady incursions almost everywhere and any public space that has not sold its name is a wasting asset. Sports arenas with quaint place names have given way to ones named for corporate sponsors. Universities no longer merely invite bigwigs to endow chairs. They sell the names of graduate schools and undergraduate colleges, not to mention buildings.
Cultural institutions now increasingly carry corporate names. Here in Massachusetts, Great Woods, long a rural concert space, is now the Tweeter Center. What will they rename Tanglewood?
If you've been in a hospital lately, you've noticed that they endow smaller and smaller items with the names of the benefactors. The Grungeheimer family memorial elevator. The Mulligan waiting area.
Public schools, public squares, public buildings and public spaces were once named for civic figures. But why call it Boston Logan airport when you could have, say, Fidelity airport? That might pay for a new runway. Instead of Stuyvesant High, a hoary name that realizes not a cent of revenue, school names could be sold to honor our current, entrepreneurial heroes.
Where did you go? Gates High.
The recent redesign of our money is merely ugly. The next redesign could retire historical faces in favor of corporate ones, sold to the highest bidder. If you think the rendering of Andrew Jackson on the $20 bill is unfortunate, wait til you see the Warren Buffett.
Since the government is effectively for rent, how about renting it for real? In the late 19th century, reformers objected that U.S. senators were effectively owned by corporate interests. It took a constitutional amendment to institute direct popular election of senators as a cure.
But politics has come full circle, via campaign fund-raising. In the '60s, Sen. Henry (Scoop) Jackson of Washington was fondly called "the Senator from Boeing." We could just make it official. The tobacco companies effectively own a few Senate seats. We might as well charge them for the privilege and create a nice stream of endowment income.
The Massachusetts Turnpike Authority recently cut a deal with BankBoston. As in many communities with toll roads, the motorist can avoid lines by joining an automated toll-collection system. You pay for a transponder, which then debits your account as you zip through the express lane.
How nice to see a public institution innovating. But wait. In Massachusetts, our version of this idea, known as "Fast Lane," belongs to BankBoston. If you want to sign up, you first need to open a BankBoston account. Our bridges, tunnels and turnpike now are plastered with BankBoston logos. The Mass Turnpike is now brought to you by BankBoston.
Which brings me to "adopt a highway." Viewers of "Seinfeld" may imagine corporate officials getting out there every Saturday to sweep the rest areas and plant flowers. Get real. The company pays some money to defray some highway maintenance, and in return, the company gets to put up a discreet highway sign, getting around the federal billboard ban. It's rather like the fiction that buyers of radio spots on NPR stations are "underwriters" rather than just plain sponsors.
But seriously -- what's the harm? Commercials are everywhere anyway, the taxpayers are weary, so why not allow government and other civic institutions to cash in too?
I offer three qualms. First, society needs some balance between commerce and everything else that we hold dear. Today, that balance is steadily tipping in favor of the commercial.
Second, the sale of place names is only the most visible tip of a set of conflicts of interest creeping into institutions that are supposed to be public, civic or noncommercial -- whether this means ad departments dictating editorial content or scientific researchers selling their integrity to drug companies. If everything is just commerce anyway, these barriers will not hold.
Third, civic and public spaces should be prized in their own right and financed adequately. The more they are just another avenue of private commerce, the more the civic impulse withers and the more dependent they become on their private sponsors.
Some things just shouldn't be for sale. Otherwise, everything is.
The writer is co-editor of the American Prospect.