Monday, December 10, 2012

What Fools These Mortals Be

The title of this post, taken from Shakespeare's Midsummer Night's Dream, hardly qualifies as a startling insight. Nonetheless, after reading two columns in this morning's Star, I couldn't help but reflect on the mass of contradictions that we are. It has likely always been thus, but stands in especially sharp relief in today's broken world.

My very wise friend Dom pointed out something to me recently. "Lorne," he said, "the genius of the corporate world has been to get us addicted to cheap stuff from China, even though that cheap stuff comes at a very high cost: the loss of good-paying manufacturing jobs, as well as the spread of retail positions (think Walmart) that refuse to pay a living wage."

On some level, I suspect we are aware of this truth, but choose not to ponder it as our search for bargains encompasses an increasingly wide swath. In her column today, Heather Mallick confronts the issue head-on in a meditation prompted by Wall Street's reaction to Apple Tim Cook's recent announcement about bringing a small amount of Apple jobs back from China. What should have been a cause for celebration in the depressed American job market turned out to be anything but:

Wall Street’s instant response was to drop the stock several percentage points. Apple is the biggest company in U.S. history. But despite its might and inventiveness, the market judged it solely on its merits as a behemoth built mainly on cheap Chinese labour.

But it seems that it is not just the stock market that takes a dim view of such a move:

Ten years ago I paid $250 for a coffeemaker. Today I pay $80. Would I pay even $60 more to restore Canadian jobs?

Yes, I say. But am I being truthful? I buy books from because they offer me 37- to 50-per-cent discounts and free shipping. But I could buy them locally at full price if I were of a mind. I am not.

So yes, we would like to see a return to good-paying jobs, but not if we have to pay more for our goods as a result. While I realize this may be an over-generalization, Mallick really does speak an unpleasant truth about our contradictory natures.

On a separate topic, Dow Marmur writes about the irony of how our best impulses, our philanthropic ones, may have undesirable and unintended consequences. Echoing a concern I recently voiced here, Marmur opines that private efforts to relieve hunger in fact make it easier for governments to ignore the problem of growing and intractable poverty.

He writes about Mazon, a Jewish group whose aim is to feed those in need irrespective of background and affiliation. So far it has allocated more than $7 million to food banks and related projects across Canada.

Its founding chairman, Rabbi Arthur Bielfeld, recently

... challenged the government to render it and all organizations of its kind obsolete. In reality, however, the need continues to increase multifold. A quarter of a century ago there were 94 food banks in Canada; today there are more than 630.

Citing recent data, Rabbi Bielfeld said that some 900,000 Canadians use food banks every month. Last year more than 150 million pounds of food were distributed to families in need; 38 per cent of recipients were children. This year many will have to make do with less because of growing demand and diminishing resources.

Marmur observes the irony of it and many other organizations committed to the reduction of poverty:

... as essential as it is to help those in need, ironically, the relative success of such efforts helps governments to get off the hook. At times it even seems that charities find themselves inadvertently colluding with the inaction of politicians.

And so we have it. Two very good writers making some very relevant observations about the contradictions that define our humanity. On the one hand we want to be oblivious to the economic and social consequences of our propensity for bargain-hunting; on the other hand, even when we allow our better angels to come to the fore, the results are anything but an unalloyed good.

I guess, as always, the answer to this conundrum ultimately does lie in our own hands.


  1. Morning Lorne You may find this column It's time to close Canada's food banks by Elaine Power of Queens. She makes much the same argument as Marmur.

    I've given the issue of closing food banks much thought since reading this piece. In the end though I am torn between the need to force the hand of government and the fear that they will not step up to fill the gap.

    Whether we have food banks or not we need to address poverty in an effective manner, which always leads me back to the notion of a Guaranteed Livable Income program.

    1. thank you for the link, Kev. I share your ambivalence about food banks, for the same reason as you. I read somewhere recently that if tax credits that primarily benefit the middle and upper class such as the fitness credit, etc. were eliminated and the resulting additional tax revenue put into family income supplements, thousands of children would be lifted out of poverty. But of course, a change like that would require vision and commitment that our current political 'leaders' seem to lack.

    2. Yes these boutique tax credits amount to billions in lost revenue and typically amount to a few hundred dollars for the households that avail themselves of them. Also these are usually middle class or higher households well able to afford the extra burden

  2. Our eldest son likes to quote one of his former professors at the U of T, Lorne: "The price is low because someone else is paying."

    1. Oh, so true, Owen. yet another inconvenient truth to grapple with.

  3. Chinese products are shoddy and often dangerous.

    I already pay more for garlic from Argentina or even Canada in season. The Chinese aspire to control the world garlic market. Their fields are loaded with pesticides and chemicals that would not be allowed in Canada. The farmers won't eat the food grown for export. They cultivate their own food separately in the traditional manner.

    The Chinese put melamine in babies' milk so the kids get very sick. They are still doing it, according to my European media. If they don't care about their own kids, they won't bother about quality of food grown for foreigners.

    I already spend more for swimsuits because the elastic in Chinese products is so inferior and collapses in a few months. I no longer use hot water bottles when I found I could tear the "rubber" like cardboard.

    Buy this junk at your own peril. Maybe the kids would be a bit brighter without it.

    1. Fightfordemocracy, your information very clearly conveys that these 'bargains' come with some very real hidden costs. Thank you.

  4. And another intesting thought.. which came to me as I watched the "Occupy" protests, often including many protestors making liberal use of iPhones..

    The greatest source of wealth for so many multinational corporations are, in fact, the lower and lower-middle class.

    The Wal-Mart, the McDonalds, and such...

    Whereas, most likely, for a small business to break through, it usually is not going to compete based upon price, but will offer up better and more personal service. So - higher prices, but in many cases, better more personal service.

    And, oddly enough, the most likely source for THEIR business will be the upper and upper-middle income segment of society.

    So - from an ironically democratic point of view, the greatest numbers of "votes" for many of the greedy multinationals to prosper come from the very people that the "Occupy" protest purported to speak for - the "99%", and the greatest number of "votes" for the small local businesses often come from the hated "1%".

    The net result.. as consumers, we, perhaps, have to start thinking more of our dollars as "votes" respecting the kind of society we want.

    (Keeping in mind, though, that by buying from more impoverished nations, we are, to some extent, supporting THEIR economy, and THEIR tax base)

    1. Thanks Robert. You information serves to illustrate what a mass of contradictions we really are.

  5. There are many of us out there who do walk the talk..never shop at WalMart (or Amazon, tempting though it is...when they start collecting and paying taxes, maybe)get most of my food from local farmers, even though it's far more expensive..
    Try in every way to buy local, and buy used/recycled whenever possible...
    I am a retiree on a fairly fixed income, not large, and a renter, not an owner, so I am not well off to say the least..but I wouldn't be able to sleep at night if I didn't buy local, buy handmade, buy union, etc. whenever and wherever possible..
    Tell you a little secret, the quality is so much higher that 'tho I have less, it's luxury to me....

    December 10, 2012 5:50 PM

  6. Leftyinparadise, yours is an example that should be an inspiration to all of us. Thank you.