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Reich on Consumerism
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They were talking about this article by former Secretary of Labor Robert Reich this morning on C-SPAN.

It starts out by talking about how public pressure recently kept the first Wal-Mart from opening in New York, then goes on with some fairly honest soul-searching about capitalism and consumerism:

But isn't Wal-Mart really being punished for our sins? After all, it's not as if Wal-Mart's founder, Sam Walton, and his successors created the world's largest retailer by putting a gun to our heads and forcing us to shop there.

Instead, Wal-Mart has lured customers with low prices. "We expect our suppliers to drive the costs out of the supply chain," a spokeswoman for Wal-Mart said. "It's good for us and good for them."

Wal-Mart may have perfected this technique, but you can find it almost everywhere these days. Corporations are in fierce competition to get and keep customers, so they pass the bulk of their cost cuts through to consumers as lower prices. Products are manufactured in China at a fraction of the cost of making them here, and American consumers get great deals. Back-office work, along with computer programming and data crunching, is "offshored" to India, so our dollars go even further.

Meanwhile, many of us pressure companies to give us even better bargains. I look on the Internet to find the lowest price I can and buy airline tickets, books, merchandise from just about anywhere with a click of a mouse. Don't you?

Yes, I do. I would guess most of the people reading this do too.

But you and I aren't just consumers. We're also workers and citizens. How do we strike the right balance? To claim that people shouldn't have access to Wal-Mart or to cut-rate airfares or services from India or to Internet shopping, because these somehow reduce their quality of life, is paternalistic tripe. No one is a better judge of what people want than they themselves.

Spoken like a true free-market capitalist. Yes, that's exactly right.

The problem is, the choices we make in the market don't fully reflect our values as workers or as citizens. I didn't want our community bookstore in Cambridge, Mass., to close (as it did last fall) yet I still bought lots of books from In addition, we may not see the larger bargain when our own job or community isn't directly at stake. I don't like what's happening to airline workers, but I still try for the cheapest fare I can get.

Um...the choices I make reflect my values as a worker and a citizen. If I want to pay more for a book to keep a small bookstore in business, I'll do it. But more often than not, Border's or Barnes and Noble have a better selection (and a coffee shop), and are more interesting to browse through. And Amazon has much cheaper books, especially audiobooks, which I like to listen to. I shop where I get the best experience as a consumer.

If Reich really didn't want the community bookstore in his hometown to go under, why the hell didn't he shop there? Does he not understand the causal link between patronizing a store and keeping them in business? This guy was the Secretary of Labor? One can only conclude that either:

A) He doesn't understand that if you don't shop somewhere it hurts their business.

B) He didn't really give a crap enough to shop there to help them stay in least not enough to pay extra for his books.

It sounds a lot more like B, honestly. I think Reich has enough common sense to know that the choices he makes as a consumer have consequences...don't you think?

Then comes this:

The only way for the workers or citizens in us to trump the consumers in us is through laws and regulations that make our purchases a social choice as well as a personal one.

Whoa. Wait just a friggin minute.

The "only" way for people to make more worker-friendly choices as consumers is through new laws and regulations? The only way???

Might I possibly suggest another way? Gosh, I don't about actually, you know, giving a shit about where you're buying stuff? In the case of the local bookstore, Reich can't plead ignorance. He knew it was there. And yet he went on-line and bought his books from Amazon anyway. Why? Because they were cheaper and it was more convenient. Imagine that.

So what does he want? Exactly what he earlier called "paternalistic tripe". He wants the government to pass new laws and regulations whose end result will be to raise the prices of goods and services provided by larger retailers. Does he want this in the hope that it will cost the same or more to shop at Amazon than it will to shop at Joe's Book Store? Is his goal to keep that store from going out of business?

More likely, it sounds like he wants higher pay and benefits for workers...which is a nice thought. But guess what the end result is going to be? More of a shift to internet business and more of that outsourcing that he also talks about. I guess we could outlaw businesses from opening virtual offices overseas, but he doesn't seem to be in favor of that. And yet, if we live in a capitalist economy, there will always be businesses in highly competitive markets who will try to cut costs so they can pass those on to the consumer so that they can do better than their competitor. If it gets to the point where it's cheaper to outsource, they'll do it. And more than likely you'll buy it...because it's cheaper.

If you really do care about a higher standard of living for workers, quit whining about it, asking for the government to do your thinking for you, and make decisions that really reflect your values. Don't say you don't want the local bookstore to go out of business and then buy your books on Amazon, because guess what? That makes you a hypocrite. Just admit that you care more about saving a few cents on a new book and having access to a huge selection than whether or not Joe goes out of business.

And on top of that, asking the government to step in and make your decisions for you? Well, that's...oh what's the word?

Paternalistic tripe.

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