Here’s a thought. Are those low, low, low consumer prices and our economy’s relentless focus on discount consumerism a root cause of some of our burgeoning social problems? Does our “the (discount) consumer is king” monomania crowd out other priorities, like better jobs and higher wages? It may seem like an odd question. Sure, Wal-Mart and other retailers pay low wages, but that’s just because retail workers are lower productivity, right? And, retail is just one sector in our massively diverse economy.
Maybe. But, there is a school of thought that says that there is a basic tradeoff between low-priced, low-quality, (usually) foreign-made consumer goods and a high-wage, good-jobs economy characterized by widespread prosperity. From this point of view, our discount culture contributes, across many industry sectors, to:
- Low wages and benefits
- Poor working conditions.
- Environmental problems
- Low-quality goods
- The U.S. manufacturing employment collapse
- Problems in the countries that supply us with these cheap goods, and even
- Rising U.S. and global economic and political inequality
These arguments are hardly unrebuttable, of course. And it’s even harder to imagine how we might solve these problems if discount consumer culture is driving them. Having the government try to engineer huge shifts in what private markets do always is problematic.
(By the way, this is NOT an aesthetic issue. Sometimes people who can afford not to shop at Wal-Mart like to disparage discount culture in cultural terms (it’s déclassé, low-brow, etc.). I hate this. But. this topic is about whether the Wal-Martization of our world causes real harm to real people that exceeds its many benefits. Whether the whole thing is even sustainable, regardless of its merits, has also come into question.)
Anyway, it’s a holiday weekend, so, on Monday, I’ll just open our meeting by briefly summarizing some of the problems that the links below highlight. Then, we’ll see where this goes.
DISCUSSION QUESTIONS –
- How did we get to our current low-prices- at-just-about-any-cost consumer culture? Is that even an accurate description of where we are now?
- What are the benefits of that culture?
- What are its costs? What did you think of the arguments in the links below?
- So? What should be done? Who should decide?
- The problem(s): The high costs of our relentless focus on discount consumer culture. NYT’s review of the same book here. A must-read to get the basic idea.
Or: Listen to her NPR interview or watch her on C-SPAN .
- Some ideas on getting us back onto the path to a high-wage economy. I especially recommend the first and last article in the series.
- Re-reform welfare.
- Use anti-trust law to break Wal-Mart and other giant firms that exercise too much power in their industries. (A long read.)