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American cities starved of public funds turn to corporate advertisers

Yet another slice of the American government just went on sale: cities are now selling advertising on public goods to make ends meet.

Yet another slice of the American government just went on sale: cities are now selling advertising on public goods to make ends meet. On Monday's Jansing & Co., CNBC's Mandy Drury highlighted the latest, and perhaps most egregious, example.

"Baltimore is going to sell ads on fire truck to stop the cash-strapped city from closing down three of their fire stations," she reported. That's right: the city is plastering ads on its fire trucks because that was the only way they could think of to avoid a significant threat to public safety.

And it doesn't stop there. Drury went on: "Chicago has also sold ad space on some of its iconic bridges to Bank of America, while Philadelphia has rented out a transit station to AT&T; and the small town of Brazil, Indiana has let KFC advertise its fiery chicken wings on its fire hydrants."

Welcome to the age of American austerity, when some towns and cities can't afford even the most basic goods and services without corporate backing. Just as in Europe, austerity's consequences are probably part of the point: both here and there, the state's lack of cash creates tremendous opportunities for private enterprise.

Those opportunities go beyond just new marketing platforms; every year, more and more public services get outsourced to the private sector. Corporations now fight in our wars, write our states' legislation, and manage our corpulent incarceration state.

Thanks to the Supreme Court's Citizens United ruling, corporate interests are dominating the electoral process like never before. With that decision, the Supreme Court may have essentially outsourced voting, the foundational activity of democratic governance, to the private sector.

This is what the wholesale corporatization of American public life looks like. Essentially, America's 1% are paving over the public square and building a shopping mall in its place. Though the most vocal supporters of this process tend to style themselves "conservatives," what they're really advocating is a radically utopian program that would change the shape of this country for good. Philosopher Michael Sandel—borrowing a term from the mid-century economic historian Karl Polanyi—dubs that program "the market society."

Sandel writes: "A market society is a way of life in which market values seep into every aspect of human endeavor. It’s a place where social relations are made over in the image of the market."

Thus everything we once considered public domain—our fire departments, bridges, legislatures, military, criminal justice system and so on—goes up for sale. The question we need to ask ourselves is whether we want to live in a world where that's the case. How long can a system like that even exist before it devours itself whole?