Wednesday, March 02, 2005

To Robert Reich: Watch out for that shark on your way over it

I always suspected that this guy was closet DLC...or maybe not so closet. I haven't read his book or any of his statements as Labor Secretary, just what he's said and written since then.

Robert Reich's Monday editorial, entitled "Don't Blame Walmart," is a piece of cowardly, rhetorical hackitude. And I would know.

You can find more comments from Josh over at Little Wild Bouquet, but I think he went too easy our vertically-challenged friend, so I'm gonna toss my two cents in the ring.

Reich's editorial puts forth three central claims:

1) We should not blame Wal-mart, because "isn't Wal-Mart really being punished for our sins?" The American economy is a "Faustian bargain" that pits our consumer desires against our sense of social responsibility, and the former wins out more often than not.

2) "The only way for the workers or citizens in us to trump the consumers in us is through laws and regulations that make our purchases a social choice as well as a personal one."

3) Instead of "going to battle," we need a "sensible public debate" about ways to balance out our consumer desires with our conscience.

Rather than organize my thoughts, which I regret I don't have time to do, I'm going to just lay out a handful of points which Reich has either fumbled, dismissed, or ignored altogether. Crotchety bastards will want to turn their set up now.

- First of all, assuming that we want any change from this system at all, Reich should know that "sensible public debate" isn't likely to bring it about. Neither, as Reich rightly observes, is "going to battle," but here he has misinterpreted the motives of Wal-mart's opposition. Maybe some folks out there want to shoot Wal-mart in Reno just to watch it die, but I'd assume that most of the community and labor activists fighting big-box retail are doing so to demonstrate that they're willing to put their strength behind the principles they believe in. Wal-mart is targeting their community, and not the other way around. People in Inglewood and Queens and Jonquiere are just standing up for themselves.

- Reich's dichotomy of consumer and citizen need not be as stark as he's drawn it. The idea of a foregone conclusion in the consumer vs. conscience struggle, fixable only by government intervention, is selling all of us short. Reich might remain faithful to while his local bookstore closes its doors, but that just means he's a lazy, fair-weather activist. Just because he (and the majority of Americans) do not make socially-conscious consumer choices doesn't mean they're incapable of doing so. Reich's point was that even he, Clinton's Labor Secretary who knows better, can't win against his consumer demons. Well, all that proves is that he's a wuss, and it's yet more embarassing because unlike most of the people he claims to represent, he does know better.

- "The only way for the workers or citizens in us to trump the consumers in us is through laws and regulations that make our purchases a social choice as well as a personal one." The ONLY way? You've got to be kidding. Okay, even forgiving the fact that Reich shows no knowledge of current organizing, you'd think a Labor Secretary would have some knowledge of American history, which demonstrates over and over that the power of boycotts, strikes, and public pressure campaigns can bring business to its knees, or at least to the bargaining table. Government regulation, meanwhile, has given us free-trade zones and a labor law so toothless it has to feed itself through a straw. I'm not saying we don't need legislative reform, but it'll take organizing strength to get it proposed, passed, enforced, at which point it'll probably still suck and we'll need organizing strength to preserve our rights anyway. So we might as well start building it, since Reich saying "he would support" certain reforms doesn't really do much for the 1.3 million current Wal-mart employees.

- Has Reich actually looked at Wal-mart's labor and economic practices? Matching consumer demand for cheap products may justify a lot of cost-cutting, but Wal-mart is a little out of the ordinary. I think we're within our rights to "blame" them, considering that they systematically discriminate against women, constantly use illegal anti-union techniques, and use their leverage to secure ridiculous tax and zoning agreements that can drive local economies into extinction. Consumers may be largely ignorant, but nowhere in our social contract did we label those practices as acceptable in a free market.

- Reich's column pre-supposes a perfect transparency of information for consumers which, needless to say, does not exist in America. Most of our economy relies on an elaborate process of masking and misdirection. So much so, that the uncomfortable truths of, say, meat-packing and Kathy Lee Gifford, become a point-of-sale joke instead of a legitimate consumer issue. "It says made it Honduras. Some poor kid probably sewed it with his teeth. Ha ha ha ha ha." We need a massive educational effort, not a "sensible public debate", to combat these effects.

- Reich assumes that shopping at Wal-Mart is a conscious decision, in order to justify his claim that consumer desires are to blame for the ills of big-box retail and other corporate greed. Maybe it's a conscious decision for him, or for me, but a significant amount of Wal-Mart customers don't get to choose between Wal-Mart and expensive U.S.-made or fair-trade products. Many people shop there, and, for that matter, work there, because of economic need. Without an organized effort to reveal the effects of Wal-Mart on workers, families, and communities, the only information available to Wal-Mart customers is the price. So of course they pick it, especially if they have no choice. That's not greed, it's necessity, and thus no justification for laying the blame entirely on the consumer's doorstep.

- Finally, Reich's implicit argument is that we are somehow pre-disposed towards personal greed. Hence, the harmful effects of Wal-Mart are a result of our mortal sin. As I said, that's quite an insult to humanity. Certainly we're pre-disposed to laziness and dismissal, and these are serious sins, but not of such a magnitude that they absolve everyone else involved. That is why cultivating awareness and agitating for change -- which involves "blaming Wal-Mart," among other things -- represent a critical part of the struggle to take responsibility for the welfare of our communities and bring justice to all corners of our society.

So, I'm all for a national dialogue on consumer responsibility. I just don't want Robert Reich leading it.

He can stand on a chair in the back.

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