Tuesday, December 22, 2015

Slavery in 2015

The free market is like a mischievous genie, it is very powerful and asked properly give you whatever you wish -unintended consequences and all.  If we ask for the cheapest price the market will very effectively match us up with a producer that is willing to offer the desired goods at said price.  For example, if we like shrimp, and our only criterion is the price we pay at the store we may be horrified to learn later that slave labor was used to peel the shrimp in Thailand.  "You don't like the idea of slave labor?" the market genie asks with a smirk, "you didn't say anything about not wanting that when you asked for cheap shrimp."

Here are some other things that customers did not consider when they bought cheap Thai shrimp, "Inside the large warehouse, toilets overflowed with feces, and the putrid smell of raw sewage wafted from an open gutter just outside the work area. Young children ran barefoot through suffocating dorm rooms. Entire families labored side-by-side at rows of stainless steel counters piled high with tubs of shrimp." Had those customers looked deeper perhaps they would not be dining on food contaminated with the fecal material of the slaves that prepared it.

In the US there are laws against this degree of shameless human exploitation. Once in a while there are news stories about illegal working conditions but nothing as egregious as what was just observed in Thailand.  The current arrangement is a bad deal for most of the people involved.  The workers in Thailand are working against their will for nothing so clearly they get the worst of it.  In the US shrimp producers cannot compete with foreign imports that use slave labor because while in no way ethical, slavery is certainly cheap if you are the producer.   US customers get dirty shrimp made by slaves - nothing to feel good about.  The winners are the owners and middlemen, the ones who came out on top by having the fewest scruples about how they make their money.

As human beings we have a duty to each other to do better than this.  Some governments have acted to protect foreign workers and their citizens.   According to the article, "The European Union issued a warning earlier this year that tripled seafood import tariffs, and is expected to decide next month whether to impose an outright ban." Prior to this latest news, the US actually excluded Thai shrimp producers from tariffs and reduced Tariffs on Vietnamese shrimp .   Hopefully these latest revelations of slavery will change the sentiment of the government, but their previous behavior actually enabled this problem.

I encourage you to join me in contacting our elected representatives to take action on this matter.  However, there is something more immediate you can do.   Be careful what you wish for from the market genie.  Make sure to ask for shrimp that are caught by American fisherman in US waters.  In the next few days there will be many Christmas parties over the next few days and many of them will have a plate of shrimp.   Now is a great time to bring up facts about the shrimp entering our country from foreign sources.  If it turns out the shrimp being served are caught in the US, thank and congratulate them.   If not, don't demonize your host, but simply tell them what you know and that you trust that they will make the right decision in the future now that they know.   The market genie gives us the economy we all wish for, not in one big wish but through millions of small choices. Please, help spread the word on this issue so that more of those choices are good ones.

Update:  Bought these guys to serve at the family Christmas Eve get-together.

Monday, December 14, 2015

Not sold on Amazon

Having worked in a retail environment in the past, I learned that successful companies take customer feedback seriously.  It is not uncommon for managers to review surveys, comment cards and online reviews to help understand what their customers want.   As an employee this feedback often filtered down to us in meetings or training.  One comment may not make that big of an impression but if readers here and elsewhere swarm a particular company they are more likely to perceive a trend and change their behavior.

Below is a note I just sent to amazon.com's customer feedback department.   I generally adopt a polite tone but still clearly point out that they are losing potential business because they are not carrying the products I want - products made in the USA.  I encourage you to do the same.  You are welcome to copy the text below.  Contact Amazon.com Here

Dear Amazon,

Mounting evidence has led me to believe that many of the economic problems being faced in the economy of the US are the result of the outsourcing of US jobs. I want to make purchases from as many American companies as I can so that I can keep myself, my family, friends and fellow citizens employed and productive. The most basic part of that choice is the ability to determine where a product was made. In conventional stores it is fairly easy to look at the label for the country of origin but more difficult when shopping online.

Recently I was shopping for a backpack and saw a link to your site. I like amazon.com - your website is very easy to use, seems secure and has a good selection of products at reasonable prices. In this case though, I chose not to buy the product because I could not determine where it came from. As an amazon customer I would be much more likely to use your site and make purchases if your company could consistently and prominently display where each item is manufactured or even enable your search tool to filter results based on that criterion.

Thanks for reading. I look forward to many future purchases of American made goods through your website.


Michael L

The Gift of Opportunity

Each Christmas I see more appeals for donations to the needy than the year before.  As the US economy is slowly hollowed out by globalization it makes sense that more and more people find themselves in need.   I applaud the generosity of all those who still have extra to give.  The problem is that if current trends continue next year there will be more people who need donations and fewer with extra to give.   The cause is simple - people don't have enough money because there is a shortage of jobs and an even greater shortage of jobs that pay well.

 Let's say Stan works in Milwaukee, WI making hand tools.  If enough of the wrenches and hammers and tape measures Stan helps make wind up under Christmas trees this year his factory stays open, he keeps getting paid and can afford to put presents under the tree next year.   If enough of those tools are made by Jianguo in Shanghai instead Stans's factory closes and Christmas next year looks a lot less cheerful.  Maybe there will still be Christmas dinner with the help of the local food bank.  Maybe there will be a few presents thanks to Toys-for-Tots.   However, like most Americans Stan would prefer to earn those things himself - all he really needs is an opportunity. 

As we shop for gifts for our loved ones this year we have the chance to give another at the same time – the gift of opportunity to the millions of Americans like Jim who are eager for the chance to make an honest, secure living.  We get the economy we choose and the choice is in your hands and mine.  This time of year is the most important to buy American made products because of the oversized impact the holiday shopping season has on the economy and retailers.  Businesses cannot afford to flop on holiday sales.  You don’t have to look any further than all the news reports, the commercials, the Sunday paper that’s thicker than a phonebook with ads, the sales, the promotions, the encroachment of Black Friday in Thanksgiving.   Everybody selling something is crazy to get your money right now.   What a perfect time to make a statement that says, “You can have it, but only if it was made by someone in this country.” 

The more of us there are insisting that what we buy should come from where we live the louder our message will be.

Thursday, December 10, 2015

Beneath the rust there is Steel.

I grew up in a small town in central New York in the 80's and 90's.  I look back fondly on that time and for many years wanted to return to where I grew up.  I think the moment that changed was when I returned for the funeral of a dear friend who was lost to suicide, driving around after calling hours and seeing empty windows where there had once been stores, houses that had once been well kept now falling apart.   On that gloomy day I realized that I could physically return any time but that the place I remembered and loved had changed almost beyond recognition, shrouded in a dingy hopelessness that infected my lost friend's heart.

It is hard to have hope and sense of purpose when you are unemployed, or the place you work is constantly downsizing or laying people off.  How can you be optimistic that things will get better if you are working as hard as you can (if you can find work) and the best outcome you can hope for is to stay in place a little longer. That pattern has now been at work for decades and it is no longer possible to keep up appearances.  There is no way to conceal or dismiss miss the slow motion destruction that turned not just my town or county or state but huge swaths of the entire country into ruin.

I'm a perceptive person.  I've always enjoyed observing the world and figuring out how things work.  I thrive on taking that knowledge and using it to create new things or solve problems.  I'm not a sit-down-and-take-it kind of guy.  I've spent a lot of time thinking about the fate of my town and all those like it and realize it didn't have to be this way.  The current state of affairs in the cumulative effect of a lot of bad decisions and it fills me with burning anger to think that when given the chance to choose a better future so many have chosen selfishly instead.

Living in such a twisted system it often feels like life takes turns burning us then beating us flat.   Sometimes it feels like torture but if nothing else my message is that in the hellforge of our struggle we are not being destroyed. Unbeknownst to our tormentors we are taking the shape of a deadly sharp sword that will cut through the lies, the empty promises, the greed and the bullshit that seek to keep us from building a world we actually want to live in.  Those who benefit from the current status quo will fight viciously to keep it, but we will win and in the heat of that battle we will reforge America.