University Suckers

Wednesday, April 04, 2007

The Mystical Notion of "Fair Trade"

I go to the library a lot. It's conveniently located at the heart of all my classes, so when I have a break between American History and Existentialism, I wander in there and socialize and possibly even study. Outside of the library different organizations usually collect, promoting some leftist and/or "progressive" ideal. I'm used to PETA and Greenpeace nuts being out there, but last week, I noticed a new group set up shop. They were promoting what is called "fair trade". I inquired further. The conversation went something like this:

(Me): "So what is fair trade? Is it like free trade, because I know what that is." (playing clueless, naturally)
(Socialist Progressive Nut): "::Laughs:: No it's not free trade. We want to make sure companies like Starbucks are paying the people who pick their coffee beans fairly. They don't get paid hardly anything, and Starbucks pretty much exploits this.
(Me): "Don't the workers apply for the jobs? I'm sure that the workers can quit whenever they want. The workers wouldn't stay on the job if they felt that it wasn't worth it.
(Socialist Progressive Nut): "...Man, I sure am an idiot."

And so forth. No one is being exploited. I can't believe that people actually refer to this practice of intimidation as "fair". Attempting to force a company to pay any other wage than that previously agreed upon is not fair, it is force. The only "fair trade" is free trade. Both parties agreed to the terms without coercion; that's as fair as it gets.

Conclusion: If you can afford it, the next time you go to Starbucks, or any other "oppressive, evil corporation" for that matter, buy two cappuccinos and throw the second one in the trash right in front of androgynous creature known only as "Starchild".

12 Comments:

  • one of the major differences between a white american college student and a colombian farmworker is that (usually) if the former quits his job, he can't afford CDs. if the latter quits his job, his family starves. coercion in this sense applies to how people are affected by systems and structures, as opposed to the literal sense of enslavement. just sayin'.

    By Anonymous kate d., at 11:26 AM  

  • starchild! you've breached the stronghold of hippies and by doing so, may have brought about their patchouli-scented wrath. May god(I mean this in a literary sense, not a literal one, mind you) have mercy on us all.

    Did that guy really say he was an idiot, by the way, or am I dense?

    By Anonymous Victoria, at 3:36 PM  

  • oh yeah, by the way(and this next one's a bit testy, so do be advised:

    because an american college student has to be white in order to understand farm laborer's plight?


    Sounds like the crawl into their skin but with a heavy dose of "your a rich Westerner" style guilt type argument to me.

    By Anonymous Victoria, at 3:44 PM  

  • doesn't have anything to do with guilt. it's simply important, and academically honest, to realize that racial and economic privilege exist. so, yeah - white american college students aren't often placed in the position of having to work long hours for low wages in order to feed themselves and dependents. yes, this happens sometimes. just as sometimes there are farmworkers on coffee plantations who have the mobility and the opportunity to just find better jobs if their wages are unfair. but not often. economies that focus heavily on the export of one or several high-demand goods usually try hard to involve most of their unskilled labor force in the production of said goods. starbucks, as one of the principal buyers of beans, does have the power to demand that they receive coffee for lower prices or they'll take their business elsewhere. when the export price is lowered, production costs need to be lowered to maintain profitability. this drives down wages. in a coffee-focused economy, unfortunately, there don't tend to be many other places for unskilled laborers to go. this is what i meant by systems and structures. like i said, doesn't have anything to do with guilt.

    By Anonymous kate d., at 7:41 PM  

  • "starbucks, as one of the principal buyers of beans, does have the power to demand that they receive coffee for lower prices or they'll take their business elsewhere."

    By "power", do you mean right?

    By Blogger Daniel Rigby, at 7:52 PM  

  • that's the point where the argument becomes ideological instead of analytical, which isn't something i'm interested in doing. i just thought it was important to point out that the people targeted for aid by fair trade advocates tend to have fewer choices than people realize sometimes. i will say that i find the concept of "corporations' rights" just the slightest bit unnerving - but again, that's ideology, and no one's going to change their beliefs over the internet, right?

    By Anonymous kate d., at 9:26 PM  

  • "i just thought it was important to point out that the people targeted for aid by fair trade advocates tend to have fewer choices than people realize sometimes."

    They still have the choice to either stay at their job or quit. If they stay, they obviously think that their work is worth what they're getting paid or else they'd leave. As for quitting, well, if the host country was capitalist, the worker could easily turn into an owner overnight. Government intervention is to blame, not "evil" corporations.

    "...but again, that's ideology, and no one's going to change their beliefs over the internet, right?"

    Present a sound argument to me and I'm all yours.

    By Blogger Daniel Rigby, at 9:47 PM  

  • "They still have the choice to either stay at their job or quit. If they stay, they obviously think that their work is worth what they're getting paid or else they'd leave. As for quitting, well, if the host country was capitalist, the worker could easily turn into an owner overnight. Government intervention is to blame, not "evil" corporations."

    a) you're the one who brought the word 'evil' into it. and b) i gave you an argument that was more than sound. but our respective vantage points will not let us agree - i'm talking about socioeconomic structure and global trade patterns. you're talking about starbucks' "right" to dictate export prices. you're committed to the idea of that right and nothing i say will disabuse you of that commitment.

    but, let me see if i can lay this out one last time. social mobility in capitalist nations (id est, the ability to "turn into an owner overnight") is dependent upon access to the necessary materials for advancement. usually this means education. education costs money - "wealth," if you will. since the principal characteristic of capitalist nations is the unequal distribution of wealth, it follows that access to income-raising education will be skewed in favor of those who have wealth already. americans are raised on stories about the limitless possibilities available to anyone who 'wants it bad enough,' and taught to view destitution as the product of apathy or laziness. but, looking at the way the money actually moves, it's clear that those really are just stories. the system is set up to facilitate the accumulation of wealth in the hands of the wealthiest members. in order for that to happen, other people have to struggle.

    "free trade" turns the globe into a laissez-faire capitalist market, bringing cheap goods into the wealthiest countries because companies are able to cut costs drastically overseas. in a country like guatemala, where the gross national income per capita totals 2,400 american dollars and the net secondary school enrollment for males is 35% - there simply are fewer opportunities for people to find work. and then, work that pays well? so, yeah, i'd call it exploitation when any corporation (especially one with the unheard-of international success of starbucks) refuses to pay a few extra cents a pound for beans harvested by people who were getting paid well for it. i don't think anyone has the right to profit from the suffering of others. it's silly to say that no one forces farmworkers to stay on the job, so they can just quit any time. no one forces me to buy groceries either - i guess i can just stop eating. seriously now.

    By Anonymous kate d., at 8:52 AM  

  • oh - you can find my guatemala statistics at the unicef website. click on "search by country."

    By Anonymous kate d., at 8:54 AM  

  • Capitalism and free trade are easy scapegoats for problems that derive from many third world nations' governmental systems.

    Factors such as lack of education and inadequate infrastructure, as well as rampant corruption, are more often symptoms of cultures without a tradition of the rule of law rather than symptoms of trade.

    Also, world poverty is more often than not discussed without any consideration of historical context.

    Until the relatively recent advents of the agricultural and industrial revolutions in the West, for example, the vast majority(about 90 percent of so) of the population lived in dire poverty, often farming for mere subsistence. After about 150 years of industrialization, Western Europe and America enjoyed prosperity previously unheralded in the world.

    Right now, many non Western countries are either in the undeveloped or developing stage(where Europe/the US were before or during the baby steps of industrialization), meaning that the shift from small farmer to industrial worker and the increase in wealth that comes with it has begun relatively recently. It's not surprising, then, that many of the benefits are yet to be seen.

    The promise of wealth provided by industrialization and its movement away from a traditional society is best demonstrated by the recent development of the middle class in India and the overall increase in real income for all cadres in that country. Of course, one big difference between India and say, Ecuador or another Latin American or African nation, is that India inhereted, to some degree, the British culture of law.

    There are some areas where improvement is warranted- like the cast system - that still prevent the country from making the most of its reforms, but India is nevertheless a great example of how capitalism, not the protectionism fostered by the Ghandi camp, increases overall wealth, and that the very Grapes of Wrath tale of farmers or small artisans getting screwed is quite narrow in reality.

    By Anonymous Victoria, at 5:19 PM  

  • "usually this means education. education costs money - "wealth," if you will. since the principal characteristic of capitalist nations is the unequal distribution of wealth, it follows that access to income-raising education will be skewed in favor of those who have wealth already."

    "A recently reprinted memoir by Frederick Douglass has footnotes explaining what words like 'arraigned,' 'curried' and 'exculpate' meant, and explaining who Job was. In other words, this man who was born a slave and never went to school educated himself to the point where his words now have to be explained to today's expensively under-educated generation." - Thomas Sowell

    By Blogger Daniel Rigby, at 12:03 PM  

  • I think what kate.d misses in her analysis of corporations rights is that corporations have owners and employees who are real people, that is, a corporation is mostly a list of people. Raising the costs incurred by this list of people deprives each person on the list of a small amount of profit or wages.

    She claims that it is the moral duty of those people to give up a portion of their wealth to solve problems elsewhere that they did not cause, and she is prepared to force them to do so. I am moderately rich, and I suspect kate.d possesses more than the average coffee worker, I'm sure neither of us would appreciate being forced to give up money for any reason, but somehow kate.d thinks its OK to mug the shareholders and employees of Starbucks.

    By Anonymous Simon Gibbs, at 6:23 AM  

Post a Comment

<< Home