Good Consumers, Bad Citizens

by Michael Winship, Common Dreams,  May 30, 2013

A few days ago, I was listening to a radio talk show discussion of the bill passed on May 7 by the New York City Council, requiring some businesses to provide paid sick leave to employees.

The first caller was indignant. “This bill is anti-consumer!” he bellowed because, he insisted, it would raise prices. I thought, no, this bill is pro-citizen, helping out people, many of them in extremis — and just when did we stop being citizens and become merely consumers? When did access to material goods and low prices become a right more important than public health and welfare? When did our celebration of profit take precedence over fundamental fairness and justice?

I thought of this again the other night while attending the ceremony for the Hillman Prizes in Journalism, named after the late union leader Sidney Hillman, once the influential president of the Amalgamated Clothing Workers of America. One of the awards went to ABC News for its coverage of a deadly fire at a garment factory in Bangladesh where Tommy Hilfiger clothing was being manufactured. Deliberately locked in and unable to escape, 29 died.

Confronted with the evidence, Hilfiger and his parent company finally pledged over $2 million to improve fire safety at dozens of other facilities in Bangladesh, but six months later, another fire took more than 100 lives. According to the Sidney Hillman Foundation, an ABC News producer “obtained evidence that showed clearly that Wal-Mart, Sears, Disney and other retailers’ labels of clothes were being made there at the time of the fire, and written warnings from Wal-Mart’s own inspectors that the factory was not safe.” All in the name of cheap clothing made by workers in a country that has the lowest minimum wage in the world, $37 a month, while exporting $18 billion worth of apparel yearly, second only to China.

The Hillman Prize came just weeks after the April 24 collapse of the Rana Plaza factory in Bangladesh that killed 1,127 workers, and indeed another award was given by the Hillman Foundation in the name of the workers and in honor of labor activists fighting for safer factories in that country, many of whom have been intimidated, beaten and even murdered.

And yet, unlike nearly three dozen European companies, almost all American businesses refuse to sign onto a formal plan for Western retailers to fund safety upgrades at these Bangladesh factories where their clothes are manufactured. The American firms cite fears of legal liability. But as Paul Lister, director of legal services at Associated British Foods, one of whose subsidiaries has signed the agreement, told The New York Times, “It’s not a perfect document. We’ll deal with the imperfections in the document, and we have to deal urgently with the underlying issue — the moral and ethical issues of fire safety and building integrity in Bangladesh.”

Nonetheless, Matthew Shay, president of America’s National Retail Federation, claims the plan “seeks to advance a narrow agenda driven by special interests.” He means, of course, labor. Where profit is concerned, any excuse to foot drag will do and as Michigan Congressman Sander Levin pointed out to the Times, “It’s been left up to the retailers, suppliers and government all these years, and that hasn’t worked.”

When did our celebration of profit take precedence over fundamental fairness and justice?

That hasn’t worked because unless citizens shame them — in the wake of tragedy or crisis — the collusion between government and industry will continue to place the needs of corporate America first. And even a calamity will not necessarily slow it down – just look at the 2008 banking crisis and the increased size and power of the very financial institutions that got us into the mess.

Witness the JPMorgan Chase shareholders meeting in Tampa, Florida, last week. Its chairman and CEO Jamie Dimon has unparalleled authority – rivals call him “the sun god” — and yet Bloomberg Businessweek reports, “The litigation section of the bank’s quarterly filings now runs to almost 9,000 words, or 18 single-spaced pages.” The magazine listed the institution’s “year of federal investigations into whether it manipulated energy markets, inadequately guarded against money laundering, abused homeowners in foreclosure, facilitated Bernard Madoff’s Ponzi scheme, and misled the public about the ‘London Whale’ fiasco, the worst trading loss in JPMorgan’s history.” What’s more, the Office of the Comptroller of the Currency and California’s attorney general are each looking into how JPMorgan Chase has gone after credit card debt.

Despite this impressive litany of potential transgression, Dimon handily beat back an attempt by some stockholders to split his job in two, which theoretically would have added some much-needed adult supervision, regulation and corporate oversight. He did so with a concerted campaign of pressure and public relations; support from such pals as Mike Bloomberg, Rupert Murdoch and former White House chief of staff Bill Daley; threats to resign; and with this one simple statistic: record earnings of $21.3 billion last year.

Dimon delivers value and that’s all that counts — over the last year, shares have risen more than 50 percent. As New York magazine columnist Kevin Roose wrote, “No matter what happens, it seems that as long as Jamie Dimon is making money for JPMorgan, he can get away with basically anything.”

Profit will out, whether in Wall Street boardrooms or in the ashes of a south Asian sweatshop. All of which makes for ever wealthier plutocrats, consumers kept content with cheap goods, and if we do nothing about it, lousy citizens.

Michael Winship, senior writing fellow at Demos and president of the Writers Guild of America-East, is senior writer for Bill Moyers’ new weekend show Moyers & Company.

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Article printed from www.CommonDreams.org

Source URL: http://www.commondreams.org/view/2013/05/30

Consumerism and Its Discontents

By Charles Derber, Truthout | Op-Ed, 27 May 2013

A quiet revolutionary struggle is brewing in the minds of the US “millennial” generation, those 80 million Americans between ages 16 and 34. They are wrestling with the fundamental edict of capitalism: Buy and you shall be happy. The millennials have not rejected consumerism, but they have also not embraced it fully. They experience its very real downsides – that also afflict millions of older Americans and go to the heart of capitalist sustainability and morality.

Recent polls by marketing firms and the respected Pew Research Center show strong environmental concerns among millennials, but hint at a broader issue: whether consumerism itself makes for a good life and society. Americans, especially the young, love their computers and sleep with their iPhones next to their pillows, but still worry about the negative sides of consumerism.

Technology itself may be contributing to what commentators have called the “death of ownership” culture, since the issue is not owning a book or television set, but having access through the web. Technology is changing the very idea of ownership. But broader factors – including the very availability of so much “stuff” – are contributing to making consumerism less new, exciting and “cool.”

In a recent informal study of Boston-area college students, I asked them how they felt about American consumerism. Almost all said they would prefer to be in a society that was less consumer-oriented, because consumer culture gives them these headaches:

* It creates fierce competitive pressure to have more and newer “stuff.”

* It complicates their lives, always worrying about how to maintain, pay for and use all the things they buy.

* It distracts from a quality life with their family and friends.

* It creates a “dirty” lifestyle that makes them and the planet sick.

* It leads to more inequality, with people seeking more at the expense of others.

* It distracts from political engagement – President Bush told them to go shopping as he was gearing up for war with Iraq after 9/11.

* It imprisons them in a life full of products and empty of meaning.
These negative feelings are reflected in changing purchasing patterns, with recent polls indicating that a growing percentage do not want to buy a house or car. About 25 percent of Millennials do not want a car, compared with 10 percent of their parents at their age. In 1978, sixty-seven percent of 17-year-old Americans had drivers’ licenses, compared with just 45 percent in 2010. Of course, these differences may reflect reduced income, credit or safety issues as well as changes in consumer attitudes.

These attitudes may seem like the self-indulgent whims of affluent, high-consuming young Americans. Or they may seem a reaction to the Great Recession, as they can no longer afford to buy so much. They could also reflect a phase of life since young idealists too often turn to traditional consumerism as they assume the responsibilities of adult life. They certainly do not suggest that young Americans are decisively rejecting consumerism.

But a quick history of American consumerism suggests something very important: that the growing awareness of its real and serious downsides can largely be explained by problems of sustainability and freedom at the core of US capitalism.

Up until the 1920s, most Americans made their own clothes, grew their own food and bought very little. They were producers and not consumers. This changed in the 1920s, when the growth of capitalism had created large corporations that could no longer prosper simply from World War I production. They needed Americans to become consumers.

The corporations hired public relations experts and launched the modern advertising industry. Retailers such as the giant Sears Roebuck sent out millions of catalogs with alluring pictures of clothes, furniture and other commodities. This was the beginning of “coerced consumption.” In the 1950s and 1960s, the new advertising culture mushroomed and became massive and irresistible, with corporations redefining American freedom as the freedom to buy.

Since profits require ever-expanding consumer markets, capitalism has always coerced consumption, typically by seductive advertising but also by harsher means. In the 1920s, Los Angeles had a huge electric trolley system that allowed people to move around the city without cars. General Motors responded by buying the trolley system and tearing up the tracks. By the 1950s, the automakers succeeded in getting the US government to underwrite highways and cars. People began to buy cars because other transportation choices had been ripped away from them, a perfect example of coerced consumption and a form of “un-freedom.”

What is the solution for Americans unhappy with consumerism? Many are beginning to make changes in their personal lives. Students are starting to grow food in gardens at their universities. Many Americans are living closer to work, so they can walk or bike to the job. Some are looking for companies offering the choice of shorter work hours, which liberates them from the work-and-spend treadmill. Some are joining the “share economy,” where they share things – Zip cars and bikes – with others. Many are “downshifting” to a simpler life.

But constraining consumerism requires far larger changes in US capitalism: severely limiting corporate power and rewriting corporate charters and international trade agreements to emphasize worker rights and environmental health. Quality must replace quantity as the measure of economic and cultural success. Government tax and regulatory policy must end extreme inequality and reduce production and consumption of dirty energy, unhealthy food and luxury goods. Large investment in public transit, community-owned enterprises, national parks and other public goods must substantially reduce private consumption.

Such system-wide changes are politically difficult – and they may not limit consumerism fast enough to avert climate catastrophe or reverse dangerous inequality. But in the most optimistic scenario, they could put society on a new path toward a more sustainable, cooperative way of life.

These changes will be on the agenda of people around the world in the 21st century. Europe is already a far less consumerist society than the United States. China, India and Brazil are struggling with environmental justice and inequality that inevitably highlight the issue of global consumerism. It will take a new social economy that rejects American-style consumerism to solve these problems and help save the world.

A Chinese translation of this article was originally published in the People’s Daily News, Beijing, China, on April 25, 2013.

Copyright, Truthout. May not be reprinted without permission.

http://truth-out.org/opinion/item/16582-consumerism-and-its-discontents

Culture

A Different Kind of Division (race) By ROSS DOUTHATAugust 24, 2013

Why Life in America Can Literally Drive You Insane By Bruce E. Levine, AlterNet, July 30 2013

10 U.S. to Grow Grayer, More Diverse, Minorities Will Be Majority by 2042, Census Bureau, WashingtonPost, August 14, 2008 The nation’s population will look dramatically different by mid-century, becoming more racially and ethnically diverse and a good deal older as it increases from about 302 million to 439 million by 2050, according to projections released today by the U.S. Census Bureau…Minorities, about one-third of the U.S. population, are expected to become a majority by 2042 and be 54 percent of U.S. residents by 2050.

How American Society Unravelled After Greedy Elites Robbed the Country Blind by George Packer, The Guardian, June 20, 2013  — posted on Alternet.org – In or around 1978, America’s character changed…Americans were no less greedy, ignorant, selfish and violent then than they are today, and no more generous, fair-minded and idealistic. But the institutions of American democracy, stronger than the excesses of individuals, were usually able to contain and channel them to more useful ends. Human nature does not change, but social structures can, and they did… In Washington, corporations organised themselves into a powerful lobby that spent millions of dollars to defeat the kind of labour and consumer bills they had once accepted as part of the social contract. Newt Gingrich came to Congress as a conservative Republican with the singular ambition to tear it down and build his own and his party’s power on the rubble…The large currents of the past generation – deindustrialisation, the flattening of average wages, the financialisation of the economy, income inequality, the growth of information technology, the flood of money into Washington, the rise of the political right – all had their origins in the late 70s.…American elites took the vast transformation of the economy as a signal to rewrite the rules that used to govern their behavior…There will always be isolated lawbreakers in high places; what destroys morale below is the systematic corner-cutting, the rule-bending, the self-dealing…It is no wonder that more and more Americans believe the game is rigged. It is no wonder that they buy houses they cannot afford and then walk away from the mortgage when they can no longer pay. Once the social contract is shredded, once the deal is off, only suckers still play by the rules.  full text

Us vs Them: A Simple Recipe to Prevent Strong Society from Forming By James Rohrer, AlterNet.org, July 27, 2012

Conservative Southern Values Revived  bySarah Robinson, Alternet.org, 2012

DC Beltway Is America’s Wealthiest, Brainiest, Most Insular Region By Steven Rosenfeld, AlterNet, November 13, 2013 …whole sections of the Washington suburbs are a unique wealthy enclave…those who are fortunate enough to live in this rarified paradise almost never have to interact with the rest of dreadful (or less privileged) humanity… Washington is an example of how the country is compartmentalizing itself into clusters of people with different backgrounds and world views…The Capitol has always been an old-fashioned company town, the company being the federal government…when it comes to generosity, the richest Americans are not known for their selfless examples. Philanthropy.com reports [13] that the wealthiest Americans give the least to charity…it is another dismal sign of our times when the epicenter of American democracy is also a capital of concentrated wealth and insularity. And the hometown paper brags about it.

Corporate America, meet ‘Generation C’ by Brian Solis, Washington Post, June 28 2012

America Without a Middle Class by Elizabeth Warren, Chair of the Congressional Oversight Panel created to oversee the banking bailouts, posted December 3, 2009 on Huffington Post“Can you imagine an America without a strong middle class? If you can, would it still be America as we know it?…The crisis facing the middle class started more than a generation ago. Even as productivity rose, the wages of the average fully-employed male have been flat since the 1970s. But core expenses kept going up…The contrast with the big banks could not be sharper. While the middle class has been caught in an economic vise, the financial industry that was supposed to serve them has prospered at their expense…And when various forms of this creative banking triggered economic crisis, the banks went to Washington for a handout…Even though the tax dollars that supported the bailout came largely from middle class families — from people already working hard to make ends meet — the beneficiaries of those tax dollars are now lobbying Congress to preserve the rules that had let those huge banks feast off the middle class…America without a strong middle class? Unthinkable, but the once-solid foundation is shaking.”

Seeking a Cultural Revolution: From Consumerism to Sustainability by Matthew Berger, 2010 State of the World, Transforming Cultures, The Worldwatch Institute, Inter Press Service, January 13, 2010

Calling Radicalism by Its Name — Editorial,  New York Times, April 3, 2012

How the Right Has Turned Everything Into a Culture War — And Why That’s Terrible for Our Democracy By Joshua Holland, AlterNet, February 28, 2012

Jonathan Haidt Explains Our Contentious Culture, Moyers & Company, February 3, 2012

The Social Contract by Paul Krugman, New York Times, September 22, 2011

Restore the Basic Bargain By Robert Reich, Robert Reich’s Blog, November 29, 2011

Reweaving the Fabric of our Society by Joan Blades, Living Room Conversations, posted on HuffingtonPost.com, 05/22/2012