Featured Post

I = S - M

The modern way of thinking about economics has been I = M - S Where I is the I as in me, M is what is 'mine' and S is what ...

11/15/10

While colonialism imposed an economic system that destroyed the livelihoods of millions of small artisans and craftsmen in India, modern economics has had the same devastating effect on well-established businesses that once made things in the United States. For many years after moving from India to the United States, I enjoyed wearing Converse sneakers, particularly the Chuck Taylor All Star (dating back to 1923). They fit beautifully, were made in the same factory in North Carolina for over 60 years, and cost $29 at my local shoe store in Berkeley.

Then in 2001 I noticed something had changed. I had just bought a pair of Converse shoes, taken them home, and put them on. I was shocked to find that they did not fit right! On closer inspection they did not look right either. Their elegant, timeless aesthetics had been replaced by the distinct mark of overseas mass production. The old Converse with their Made in U.S.A. tags were gone forever. I later found out that the last pair of the Converse high tops to come out of North Carolina were on March 31, 2001.*

I also found out that the logic of modern free-trade economics had changed the shoe industry. Businesses like Nike that had never owned a single shoe factory outsourced their entire production and were immensely profitable. They produced at pennies per shoe and sold at prices much higher than the traditional shoe-makers. In this altered environment the Converse brand was bought by two sports-industry entrepreneurs. The new owners were not interested in the factory in North Carolina that had made the Converse shoes for over half a century. Nor were they concerned about the skilled American workers who worked there. To the entrepreneurs, Converse was just a brand name with nostalgic associations that could be exploited for maximum profits at minimum cost. Suddenly a quality shoe that was being manufactured in America, creating gainful skilled employment for workers and a profit for the owners, following all the regulations of worker-safety and human welfare, stopped being made. It was replaced by a noticably inferior product produced in sweatshops in Asia and bringing fabulous wealth to its new entrepreneurial owners.

The case of Converse is not an isolated one. It has become the norm. I know of very few businesses that still make things in the United States. The economics that has created this change is based on an artificial splitting of the person into consumer and producer. It is argued that producers must be free to produce anywhere and anyhow. Consumers must be free to buy as cheaply as possible and in ever increasing quantitites. But human beings and human society can not be split into consumers and producers. We are whole beings and our society depends on its people being whole. The nature of the work we do creates the character of the fruits of that work. What we do is what we are, what we make is what we partake of. Gandhiji taught us to become the change we wish to see. What sense is there in hiring large numbers of strangers in far-flung lands to make large quantities of useless things even as we dismantle our own tradtitions of work? If we work poorly and buy poorly does that not make us a poor society?

* Smithsonian 32(8), November 2001, p. 26.

No comments: