Wednesday, December 20, 2006

Christmas, Consumerism And Consequences

This time of year is always a bit crazy and this year is no different. I haven’t had much of a chance to blog lately since I’ve been caught up in the Christmas rush. Both my husband and I come from families that love to celebrate Christmas and that love to give and receive presents and even though every year we swear we are going to downsize our next Christmas, it never seems to work out that way. So the last several weeks have been taken up with shopping, creating, wrapping and shipping gifts all across the country. We’re now done with that part, but since we have kids, there’s plenty left to do.

I try to live my life in a way that reflects my view of the world. I drive a biodiesel fueled VW bug that gets about 50 miles to the gallon, I give money to leftist organizations and local charities, I contribute time to causes that are important to me and I try not to consume too much in this consumer driven economy. That last one is the most difficult by far.

This year, we convinced our kids to give up their Christmas presents from us, and instead, use the money to buy gifts for children at their school that don’t have all that they need, let alone what they want. It wasn’t as hard a sell as I thought it was going to be and I was thrilled at the prospect of less shopping and less crap cluttering up my children’s rooms. But Santa Claus still comes to our house so I wasn’t let off the hook completely.

This past week has been crazy in Seattle. We had a major windstorm blow through and it caused damage and power outages all throughout the area. Living in a high-density area (not to mention an affluent zip code, which I hope doesn’t matter but I suspect it does), we were lucky to only be without power for a few hours, but the surrounding areas weren’t so lucky and many (200,000 at last count) are still without power and it’s damn cold here at night. I can’t help but think that the severe weather we’ve experienced this year in Seattle is related to global warming and I keep thinking about what Al Gore described as “the age of consequences” in his film An Inconvenient Truth. If fall is the new winter, I’m a little afraid of what tomorrow, the first day of winter, will bring.

Anyway, back to the Christmas stuff. I was running around, trying to finish up the Christmas shopping, which was a challenge with so many stores without power, and the one thing my kids wanted from Santa was the one thing the stores were out of. I called Man of American Dissent and had him check out what stores were open and what stores had the item in question and had him check the traffic situation as well. Having spent two hours stuck in traffic the night before in what should have been a ten-minute drive, I wasn’t eager to experience that again. When he called me back, the news wasn’t good. Wal-Mart had the item, in exactly the configuration we wanted, for $100 less than anyone else and it was a straight shot, no traffic. I could have killed him for even looking at Wal-Mart as an option.

So I got in my bio-bug, and headed for the freeway. Traffic was at a standstill heading South, but I was heading North to the suburbs on my way to Wal-Mart. As I sat at the light waiting to get on the onramp, I thought about my kids and all that they have. I thought about them giving up their presents and what that meant to them and I thought about diminishing that by rewarding them with stuff purchased from a store that makes their money by crushing small businesses and denying their employees health benefits. And as the light turned green, I envisioned my bio-bug with its “dubya, dubya, dubya dot liar dot con” and “Bio-diesel: No War Required” bumper stickers sitting in the Wal-Mart parking lot as I shopped for items my kids don’t need, and I just couldn’t do it. I turned left instead of right, waiting in the traffic with everyone else and slowly made my way to one last store in hopes of finding the one thing my kids wanted at a price that wasn’t so high.

I heard Thom Hartman say once on his radio show that we can’t shame the consumer for playing by the rules. I agree. We have to change the rules instead. We can’t allow the largest employer in the country to skate by not paying their fair share and we can’t continue to be a consumer-based economy, producing nothing, shipping our best jobs overseas and not protecting our workers here at home. It is Congress that needs to act, in providing universal healthcare, in enacting fair trade policy and in eliminating the corporate loopholes that allow corporations like Wal-Mart to thrive at the expense of the rest of us.

I decided a long time ago, never to shop at Wal-Mart again, but they make it so easy to say yes and so damn hard to say no. I almost shelved my principles for an evening because I was caught up in the Christmas consumption frenzy, the same frenzy I swear not to succumb to every year. I’m lucky though, choosing not to shop at Wal-Mart one night only cost me time and money that I could afford to give. If I’m a single mom, living paycheck-to-paycheck, trying to provide for my family on a shoestring budget with a 24 hour Wal-Mart right down the street, I don’t really have the luxury of shopping my principles.

As consumers, we can only do so much, but as citizens and voters we can hold our representatives accountable for what they do and what they don’t do. We can as individuals choose to consume less, but Congress needs to make sure that we, as a country, produce more. We must invest in this country, respect the American worker, enact fair tax policy and negotiate fair trade deals. Where we choose to spend our money matters, but it matters less than who we put in office and what they do once they get there. I won’t shop at Wal-Mart, but what I really want is for Congress to finally do their job and regulate how Wal-Mart does business. Only then will we see any real and lasting change.


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4:08 PM  
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4:09 PM  
Anonymous kindlingman said...

Sorry, but I am dense. What is the argument against WalMart? Is it corporatism versus little retailer? Is it bad employer versus employee? Is it the testicle squeezing of their suppliers?
I have heard so many people complain but never understood why WalMart was not considered champions of the poor. They offer goods and services that the poor can afford; they mercilessly cut the freaking profits of their suppliers in half; and they provide work for those who have trouble measuring up elsewhere by breaking the work process into steps that are so simplistic anybody can do them. They have no pretensions.
They take advantage of their work process by giving simple jobs to simple people who need some money. They spend time and money on training. They have health plans commeasurate with work contribution and not with health needs, incentivizing those with some ability to accomplish and achieve more. They are defending the low prices they have from increasing healthcare costs. What is wrong with that?
What am I missing about WalMart? Not upscale enough? So what, their customers are plain people getting the same products for less money. What is evil about that? Not enough healthcare for the elderly, handicapped, and simple people they employ? But they also provide them the dignity of working for their money instead of sitting on their duffs for a government handout.
My mother-in-law is 77 years old and works at WalMart every day. She cannot 'retire' from working. She spent her career working for 'upscale' department stores who failed to do anything for her as the tasks became too complex and she could not move as fast as she once did.
She has dignity, a job, more money, and a flexible work schedule so she can take her husband to his dialysis treatments.
WalMart is her salvation. She keeps her home, her husband, and her life on her terms. What is so wrong with that?
Why is business paying for healthcare anyway? Let's get some nationwide healthcare going. Want Walmart to pay more money and have my mother-in-law compete with younger, smarter, more upscale workers? What to do then with her and her kind?
Let's face it. WalMart is a savvy company providing goods and services (and jobs) to people who need them. They screw other companies several times over and force prices lower instead of just adding mark up.
People are voting for Walmart with their feet and their wallets. Who should stand in the way of the people?

Oh, I forgot, WalMart buys goods from countries who have no workers rights. They almost went broke buying goods from American companies. Remember?
So now they are buying the same goods as the upscale stores, made in the same countries, and selling them for less money. I venture to say that WalMart has done more for the individual poor person than any government program in the last 30 years.
So what is wrong with WalMart?

7:09 PM  
Blogger jae said...

This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.

8:31 PM  
Blogger jae said...

I've been rolling all of that around my own head for years.

Christmas 2001 was the last year I bought presents for anyone except my mother. I decided that the most important gift to give was time and told any friends who thought they needed to shop for me needed to know that I didn't really want anything from them but to share time with them. So now, I have Christmas (and birthday) dinners with everyone that end with a visit that takes up the rest of the night. It's truly the best idea I've had in years.

Oh yeah, and this is a great article about consumerism:

8:32 PM  
Blogger The (liberal)Girl Next Door said...

Kindlingman--You could watch “The High Cost of Low Prices” or read “Nickel and Dimed” for a much better explanation of the problem with Wal-Mart than I could ever give in this comment thread, but I’ll just tell you what I was thinking when I wrote this post.

I agree with some of what you say, as I mentioned in the post, if you are struggling to get by, the low prices that Wal-Mart passes on to the consumer is invaluable and you’re right, our government should be providing universal healthcare, but currently we don’t and Wal-Mart, instead of investing in the health of their employees chooses to game the system to make sure that they don’t have to provide what current law requires of employers the size of Wal-Mart.

And yes, it is the predatory nature of Wal-Mart in the way that they drive smaller family business out of areas where they have a long history and it is their commitment to low prices and high profits that keeps their employees from being able to unionize, a move that would allow for family wage jobs rather than creating more of the working poor that both work and shop in their stores. Have we completely given up on the idea that we deserve more than what we’re getting? Having a job and the dignity that comes along with working for a living is critical, but how about opportunity, the pride of home ownership, hope for a better future for our children? Don’t we, as working Americans, deserve those things as well? Doesn’t every hard working Wal-Mart employee?

Most (if not all) of these arguments could be applied to Starbucks as well (and I avoid Starbucks too) but Starbucks isn't the largest employer in the country, Wal-Mart is. Perhaps that is why Wal-Mart is often used as the example of what is wrong with the way our economy is now structured. Wal-Mart isn’t the only perpetrator of bad business practices, but they are the most visible and the results of those practices affect real people, directly and indirectly and we can only benefit from asking if it’s worth it to allow them (and all the others) to continue profiting at our expense.

I don’t shop at the upscale department stores either, since, as you correctly point out, their inventory is made up of goods made in countries with lax labor laws and they benefit greatly from the low wages they pay to foreign workers in sweat shops while charging far more than they should. I try to consume as little as possible and I mostly shop at thrift stores and local markets, but off course I also spend money in stores that do many of the same things that Wal-Mart does, it’s very difficult to avoid completely, which is why I say that we shouldn’t shame the consumer, we need to change the system and the way we do business, both in this country and around the world. We have to stop thinking that our compulsion to acquire crap at low prices doesn’t come at the expense of others, mostly in countries other than this one. A good first step would be ridding ourselves of a President that refuses to ask the American people to sacrifice for the war he is waging and instead tells us to “go shopping”. There is something fundamentally sick with that kind of thinking.

9:03 PM  
Anonymous drm said...

oh please elaborate, just how many of those small mom and pop retailers are unionized and offer health care to their employers? Oh, with all the outrage about high perscription drug prices just who is it that is offering $4 perscriptions on hundreds of medications? I believe it is Wal-Mart.

Funny thing is, I do not seem to recall all those mom and pop retailers providing goods and services at reasonable prices to all the single moms, struggling to make ends meet or I do not seem to recall all those elderly people whose job skills are not what they used to be being employeed by all those Wonderful mom and pop stores. I also cannot seem to remember that huge wave of unionism at all those Wonderful mom and pop businesses.

Walmart has been the greatest anti-poverty program this country has ever seen.

And one final thought, just you wait and see, just as it was Wal-Mart that got off its but and actually did something about high drup prices by offering $4 perscriptions (let's see a government program do that) it will be Wal-Mart that leads the way in moving our country to alternate fuels, they will be leading the way in E-85 fuel. They have the size and infrastructure to do it.

p.s., when this happens all you anti Wal-Mart folks will not be allowed to fill up your flex fuel cars there, they know who you are...

10:47 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

If you're out Christmas shopping why not stop by my Blog The Cosmic Message and use your talented writing skills to offer a Wish For Peace in 2007, LGND ?

No Walmart blue light specials here. The traffic on the Internet freeway may be heavy there but your thoughts for the New Year will get posted.

Come join the others who've already expressed themselves creatively in their desire for a better world.

BTW ... if you you have a free moment today, please add me to your Blog Roll. Thanks in advance.

Happy Holidays & Peace,

1:10 AM  
Anonymous rkelly said...

consumerism is an addiction which has purposely been imposed upon americans for the continuance of our debt based nation. in other words, we're not a nation who saves but we're almost 100% a nation that consumes. this is sick. it's not about congress and it's not about anything or any one outside our own self. we choose and this fact won't go away. and speaking of choosing, those who chose to never work for a living but rather to have money work for them by creating it out of thin air and then charging interest to those who love to spend it too, figured out the weapons that win. children happen to be one of the most valuable manipulative tools that the banksters use to enslave foolish consumers. find out whether or not the zoning in the neighborhood can allow small animals, like chickens or a pigmy goat. have children raise an animal that produces a product that they can take to a market every summer and sell to earn money. teach children how to be an integral part of how the eco system really works. the gift of love and lesson of caring is a 365 day experience for children who learn to live in the cycle of life. i don't mean to be rude but expecting an authoritarian figure (government) to direct traffic so to speak - figure out for each individual person and their family(ies) - how to become whole citizens of the us and planet is like calling some notion of a supreme deity, god's 800 number, to demand the manual on being human that we never got.

3:05 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Incredibly interesting post and replies - bravo and thank you for making me think.

Some thoughts:
1. There is no easy answer.
2. Added benefits = Added costs 100% of the time.
3. People have allowed holidays to be consumer days. How did America let Xmas, Easter, Valentines, etc become "who can spend more to celebrate" holidays. (is this what happens in other countries?).
4. It's an interesting concept that business can save the country instead of government. I see this as a real possibility b/c single entities can actually accomplish something our government does not seem capable of.

6:18 AM  
Anonymous david said...

Do not feel bad about shopping at WalMart, LGND. It can't be helped. Not when WalMart has become a near-monopoly in many retail areas. And boycotting just buys into the myth of the free market; it assumes the consumer has power and that's not true.

WalMart doesn't help the poor at all. Unemployment actually increases when WalMart comes to town. They bully manufacturers who respond by increasing the wholesale price to WalMart's rivals.

WalMart hasn't done much to protect us from terrorists either. It was WalMart who objected to secured containers entering US ports. Now just what reason would WalMart have for wanting its containers to enter the US unsecured?

WalMart has hired illegal aliens to work at its stores, it engages in predatory pricing to demolish local shops, and then will close down with little notice if it doesn't meet its sales targets.

I'm ashamed that Kindlingman would let his 77 year old mother-in-law work for peanuts. I'm sorry, but there is no excuse for that kind of elder-abuse. But what to make of a Western nation that still doesn't have universal healthcare or adequate pensions for its elderly. And where a woman near the end of her life expectancy is forced to stand for hours, bend over to pick up dropped goods, and gets no benefits from her employer.

7:09 AM  
Anonymous kindlingman said...

David, you are so wrong.
Near monopoly? Pshaw. The streets of every county that surround Chicago are filled with Starbucks, Burger Kings, McDonalds, Home Depots, Sam Clubs, etc. etc. etc. The blight of 'sameness' has spread across the land. One cannot tell what street one is on sometimes because the businesses are the same. Singling out WalMart as a monopoly is not realistic when faced with SuperTargets, Meiers, and who knows what else.
Your second paragraph is factually inaccurate. Walmart hires more people than it displaces and brings more dollars to the local economy when WalMarts are located in rural areas, like where I live.
People are shopping with their feet and their dollars and they choose WalMart. Does that upset you? Do you not think it appropriate that people may choose wher eto spend their dollars that makes the most sense for them?
Your third paragraph is specious. I do not expect WalMart to protect me from terrorists, I expect them to sell me stuff. That is what they do. (My church hasn't done anything to protect me from terrorists either but it still has value)
Elder abuse? When a person prefers to earn their own way and can do so? Your definition needs correction.When my father-in-law dies, my mother-in-law will be living with us because she cannot make it on her own. It would be elder abuse to let her go homeless, it is not elder abuse to allow her to have purpose and meaning in her life.
I will say quite plainly: I don't give a fig what "societal process" WalMart harms. WalMart helps poor people with lower priced goods and services and jobs. Home ownership? Yes, and you get there by working for your money, expanding your skillsets, making yourself more valuable to other possible employers to earn more money.
You keep your home by having a place to work and getting paid and paying your mortgage.
The benefits of WalMart far outweigh any flaws for the individual person. And it is the individual that is more important than any process. Liberals know this to be true.
I will read what LGND suggests because it is good to know both sides of any argument. But I am skeptical that employing thousands of people, squeezing profits from mfrs, and driving processes down is a terrible thing. I ask you this: which is more important to the people: that thousands of employees at WalMart make 15-20% higher wages or that millions of people pay 15-20% less for goods and services?

9:31 PM  
Anonymous david said...

Kindlingman, I learned a new word yesterday. "Astroturfing". And it captures the meaning of what I've suspected you were up to on this blog for sometime.

I do not care for people who say, "I'm all for liberal democracy, but can't we all agree that Milton Friedman & Ronald Reagan were the greatest Americans to ever live."

Your analysis of WalMart is contradicted by the facts. WalMart does not increase employment. WalMart does not offer the lowest prices over the long haul. It pulls the standard trick of heavily discounting Known Value Items and then jacking up the price on other things.

And why would WalMart object to secure and sealed containers coming from Asia? When less that 5% of containers are inspected by port authorities, why shouldn't WalMart shoulder some of the burden for keeping America safe? Or do they have something to hide?

I am sorry. If a 77 year old woman has to work "every day" to get by, she isn't getting by. And banking on her husband dying first is wishful thinking. It is more likely she'll have a fall or a stroke and you'll have to bring both into your home. She'd be better off using a reverse mortgage to get by. But she needs to know she doesn't have to shoulder the enter burden.

So, you read LGND to see how the other side thinks? Well, just what side are you on? I'd remind you that Adam Smith thought most retailers were crooks and that, if there weren't a large pool of similar-sized firms competing, there would have to be heavy regulation.

WalMart is nothing more than the new version of the Southern Plantation. And it's interesting to see its "astroturfing" defenders in action.

5:39 AM  
Anonymous kindlingman said...

Merry Christmas,David.
My Christmas wish is for you to discover something that in your opinion is 'good' (all things considered).
To everyone: Merry Christmas, Happy Hanukkah, (and for those unwilling to adopt any traditional goodwill messages: may you celebrate whatever other context you value that institutionalizes "good" attributes for people and promotes personal growth.)

4:22 AM  
Anonymous david said...

Not to worry, Kindlingman. I live in a great and good country with universal healthcare, good pensions for the elderly, and deep concern for the poorest and weakest members of society. I'm sorry to say it's not called the USA, it's Canada, the Peaceable Kingdom.

Merry Christmas everyone. I hope everyone had a great Hanukkah, Diwali, Yule, and Dong Zhi. And if you are looking for an unusual Christmas movie this holiday season, may I recommend the Japanese anime *Tokyo Godfathers*. It's about three homeless people who find a baby in a dumpster on Christmas Eve and spend the week between Christmas and New Year's Day trying to find its parents; it is hilarious, sad, and heartwarming.

4:05 PM  

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