Tuesday, March 01, 2005

Consume this

Robert Reich, Clinton's labor secretary, had a fascinating column in yesterday's New York Times. He makes the point that it's difficult to strike a healthy balance between being a savvy consumer (getting great deals, comparison shopping, buying the lowest-priced items) and being a good citizen (making sure fellow citizens are paid well, have health insurance, and work under acceptable conditions, among other things.) Here's the salient point:

"We can blame big corporations, but we're mostly making this bargain with ourselves. The easier it is for us to get great deals, the stronger the downward pressure on wages and benefits. Last year, the real wages of hourly workers, who make up about 80 percent of the work force, actually dropped for the first time in more than a decade; hourly workers' health and pension benefits are in free fall. The easier it is for us to find better professional services, the harder professionals have to hustle to attract and keep clients. The more efficiently we can summon products from anywhere on the globe, the more stress we put on our own communities.
But you and I aren't just consumers. We're also workers and citizens. How do we strike the right balance?"

I agree that this is what takes place, but I find nothing inexorable about it. However many people shop at Walmart has nothing to do with whether or not it's ethical for Walmart to pay the wages it does. If we're going to have to find new ways of dealing with global markets, and if Reich's column is an indictment of us Amazon.com shopping consumers, then so be it--but at the same time, we can never accept unsafe working conditions or pathetic wages as the result of 'market forces.' The rise of industry in America in the 1800s saw children employed as factory workers--was that the result of those ghostly 'market forces'? Absolutely. Was it acceptable? Absolutely not. We can pressure Walmart to pay its workers better as we improve our own habits of consumption--Walmart's executives are not themselves strapped for cash, and until they are there is nothing 'necessary' about their practices.