It’s been fascinating – regardless of your politics – to see the turnaround in economic propaganda in the weeks since the election. Suddenly, Bill Kristol (a die-hard and influential conservative for decades) says ‘It won’t kill the country‘ to raise taxes on millionaires. John Boehner announces that ‘Obamacare is the law of the land’ and quickly backtracks. Republican Senators and congressmen are backing off the ‘no-tax’ pledge that has made it so difficult to find a middle ground in Washington for years.
I don’t want to get into the political debate here. What I find fascinating is: Weren’t these questions that those same people were calling life-and-death issues just three weeks ago? Where the fate of our civilization rested on the voters coming to the right conclusion? And now, since those voters came instead to the opposite conclusion (by a margin of 50.6% to 47.8%), suddenly these same people are shrugging their shoulders and saying ‘Oh, well, I didn’t mean it either.’
My father was a small businessman. There was a phrase I learned from him that applies here: ‘the cost of doing business.’ When you had to pay a bit more for something so that it could be tested and proven safe to eat/wear/ship, etc., when you had to pay a tax on the wholesale value when you bought it, this was a ‘cost of doing business.’ You didn’t like it sometimes but it was inevitable, so you just did it and moved on. The Republicans have decided -after being beaten and seeing a thousand miles of dry road ahead if they stick to the same path – that they have to make adjustments: it’s a ‘cost of doing business.’
Doesn’t that make you wonder if there aren’t other statements – statements we don’t even question and that have incredibly far-reaching effects – that might actually have very little basis in fact?
I’m thinking about the shoppers I saw camping out in front of my local big-box store Thursday night and in particular to the courageous workers who went on strike against Walmart on Friday (with no visible effect, as far as I can tell):
I think one of the biggest mistakes we’ve made as a society is to hitch ourselves to the lowest price. Most of the time, it’s no bargain.
What the lowest price does is make everything a commodity. The message we send to manufacturers is that we don’t care about quality, service (both at time of purchase and thereafter) or where and how a product is made.
Inevitably, we end up with shoddy garbage with a thousand features that falls apart in half the time it should and doesn’t work all that well in the meantime, that’s made by child labor in Guatemala or China while poisoning the land and water.
That same logic kills employment here because businesses obsessed with the lowest price ‘can’t afford’ American workers (of course, they can always somehow afford giving millions in bonuses to top management).
And when we call customer service – and wait an hour to get through to that nice young man in Mumbai – we get an indifferent laundry list of irrelevant questions and imbecilic non-solutions that only makes clear the company stopped caring the instant they had our money and we’d left the store.
Whose fault is that? Ours. Why should we expect any better? We’ve told these companies all we want is the lowest price.
By way of contrast: Apple. Bose. Tempur-Pedic. Those names have a different ring to them. They aren’t necessarily the most expensive products in their category – but they don’t compete for the bottom rung either. They’re not universally loved by the people who buy or review them. But there is an assumption of quality.
To put it simply, they don’t compete on price – they have their price and they stick to it. And they don’t suffer for it either. The consumer pays the price to get something that’s generally worth the money. And gets decent service and follow-up in the bargain.
It’s a relationship that feels almost respectful of the customer.
The problem with the Walmart model is that it allows the retailer (I’m sure they would prefer me to say ‘forces’ the retailer but I don’t believe that) to treat their own employees like puppets on a string, paying them so little they can barely subsist, scheduling them and moving them around to avoid having to provide benefits.
This is, to use an old-fashioned word, wrong. A company that offers you work more than three days a week has a responsibility to provide a living wage (pro-rated to the number of days or hours you work) and benefits.
Does that statement shock you? Does that seem naive or unrealistic, pie-in-the-sky? A handout from ‘wealth creators’ to ungrateful ‘takers’? Okay, then think about this: Who’s doing the work in these businesses? Who’s dealing with the customers every day, when they’re angry and feeling frustrated or ripped-off? Who has to take the absurd gobble-de-gook of corporate policy (have you ever tried to read the mission statements of corporations?) and translate it into customer reality?
And who do you think wrote the script in your head that turned all that into ‘taking’?
Think about this a second time. Business – successful business – is a partnership between workers and management. When a business insists on cutting worker’s compensation while paying bonuses to management, they’re cutting out the person you actually deal with when you need help. If you think that makes sense on any level, think a third time.
So, with the holidays upon us, I urge you to your local stores. I don’t care if they’re big chains or small mom-and-pops so much. What matters is that you buy your clothes or books, games or DVD’s in places that treat their employees with a bit of respect. Because those are the ones that will treat their customers with respect.
If we insist that cutting employees into the profit party is a necessity or we’ll buy elsewhere, businesses will shrug their shoulders and decide it’s a ‘cost of doing business.’
And we’ll all be better off.