Command Consent

July 2004


Controlling the marketplace is something that is in the interest of consumers. The market can be a very democratic place, where you vote with your money.

The other day, I was in the supermarket and the checker was wearing a T-shirt with a big American flag on it. Below that, the shirt had the legend "The GAP." I was upset seeing the flag captioned by that name, and I asked the checker if she knew that the manufacturer of her shirt regularly used what amounted to slave labor to make their clothes, in places like Saipan and Indonesia. She was taken aback by my comment for a moment, but then responded, "Can't help where they make my shirts."

I wanted to ask her if she was really an idiot -- whether she'd have bought that shirt if it was made from human skin... But there was a good long line that day and I was in a hurry anyway, so I didn't engage this person in a political debate there and then, but her comment continued to echo in my head. The checker hadn't given the origin of her shirt a second thought. As consumers, we Americans have been trained to think that everything we consume is just conjured out of thin air by some magical process and placed on the store rack.

There are some major problems with operating on the theory that manufacturing is magic and that consumers are price sheep. The first is obvious: quality and durability of goods gets worse and worse. Secondly, the cost of manufacture gets shaved down and down. We make hardly anything in this country anymore because of the perception that we, as consumers, wouldn't pay any more for a better product that was made by our friends and neighbors.

It isn't even good enough to look for "made in USA" on the goods you buy. We have some Pacific territories where goods are made or assembled by people who are specifically exempted from our employment practices, minimum wage, and workplace safety laws. The only really good guarantee you have that what you buy didn't come by way of human misery is if the tag reads "Union Made in the USA." That says something about unions, doesn't it?

As consumers, we have considerable power. It is a shame that we fail to exercise that power. If you want to have a good job, or if you want your children to have the possibility of having a good job, then it makes sense to buy fewer, better made things that cost more because they paid someone a living wage to make it. Buy union made goods when you can, and join a union, if you can. These are simple steps anyone can do that operate in your own best interests and those of your own family, neighbors and friends.

Shopping with a conscience is more expensive, in the short term, but the benefits of paying more do come back to you. For example: the meat packing industry has been under such pressure to increase productivity and lower production costs that they have sped up the production lines for meat cutters. This increase in speed means that the meat cutters are working too fast and too long. This means that in 12-15 years, less for some, these hard working men and women are losing the ability to use their arms and hands. Thousands of these workers are permanently disabled -- unable to pick up a pen or a piece of paper, unable to go to the bathroom without assistance. In their communities, more and more disabled meat cutters are living on public disability, increasing the tax burden. We all pay that cost. Result: we're paying higher taxes to have cheaper meat.

Don't be like the checker -- think about the consequences of what you buy. Don't buy crap. Pay more for fewer, better goods. Research things and don't let retailers trick you into buying on impulse. What is bad for the people making the stuff you buy is eventually bad for you. Paying less at the check stand doesn't keep the hidden costs from taking more money than you save from your wallet.

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