Sometimes regulations aimed at helping the poor end up hurting them. That doesn’t mean we should eschew regulation, but it does imply reason for caution.
Housing provides one example. The Portland Tribune recently carried an interesting piece on the way that building codes and other regulations keep the price of housing high, and reduce the availability of truly affordable housing for the working poor. Requirements that all bedrooms have a certain number of electrical outlets, for example, or that all bathrooms be disabled-accessible, raise costs not just for builders but for tenants. And in some places, builders who receive public subsidies to build low-cost housing are forced to pay union wages — even when paying slightly lower wages would let them build housing that is more affordable to those in need.
Another long-discussed example is automobile safety. Every advance in automobile safety has reduced fatalities and improved crash survivability, but has also raised the price of automobiles. I’m glad to drive a car that has seatbelts and anti-lock brakes and plenty of airbags. But then, I have a good job and can afford those things. Of course, I can’t afford the level of safety provided by, say, a full-sized Mercedes sedan. But there are plenty of people who can’t even afford a reasonably-safe compact car like mine, and for some of them the difference between affordable and unaffordable lies in a litany of safety features. The problem is even more pronounced in developing countries. A recent story out of India offered speculation that in that country, those who can’t afford cars with government-mandated safety features will have to opt for even less safe, 2-wheeled forms of transportation.
A final example comes from the realm of labour regulations. Here in North America, we have the luxury of a wide range of on-the-job health and safety protections. Other places — including for example Bangladesh — are not so lucky. There, the problem is not that the regulations don’t exist. There are in fact plenty of regulations in Bangladesh. The problem is that Bangladeshis literally cannot afford higher standards. Higher standards would price much of that country out of a job. And so, for that matter, would voluntary efforts by employers to improve safety conditions at their factories.
None of this means that we shouldn’t worry about safety standards when employing or making products for the poor. But every safety feature has a cost, and every cost represents money that could have been spent on something else, some alternative way in which we could have made the world a better place including by making the world’s poor better off.
A colleague of mine, a fellow philosopher from the US, once suggested the following thought experiment: Imagine you owned a garment factory in Bangladesh, a factory that pays 1,000 Bangladeshi women the lowest wage allowable by law to make clothes for Canadians and Americans. Imagine you ended up with a million dollars in profits, and needed to figure out how to spend it. And imagine that you really, really wanted to use the money to do some good for the community in which your factory is located, to make it a better place. What should you do? Spend it on higher wagers? On improving workplace health and safety? “You know what I would do?” asked my colleague. “I would use that million dollars to build another factory, to give another thousand people jobs.”
(Or: “It’s still capitalism, dummy!”)
A fascinating piece appeared recently in the New York Times, about efforts in Greece to (re)vitalize the so-called ‘social’ economy. The main feature of the movement, as described in the Times piece, is an attempt to eliminate or at least minimize the role of middlemen by reconnecting producers and consumers. “The movement seeks to cut out wholesalers, shop managers, state bureaucrats or anyone else between producers and consumers who once took a share of profits and added to the costs of goods.” Oddly, the piece characterizes this movement as an “attack” on “modern profit-driven capitalism.” Odd, because as far as I can tell the Greek movement still involves private ownership of the means of production, freedom of contract, and the determination of economic activity by the forces of supply and demand. It is innovation within a capitalist system, something that strikes me as not just capitalist, but an example of capitalism at its vibrant and innovative best.
The notion of casting this Greek movement as “anti-capitalist” is reminiscent of a big theme in the 2006 documentary, The Take, which was directed by Avi Lewis & written by Naomi Klein. The Take is about a group of workers at an Argentinian auto-parts factory who, rather than accept unemployment when the factory’s owner shuts it down, instead decide to occupy the factory, re-start the machines, and run it themselves. Lewis and Klein — no frends of global capitalism — portray the workers as revolutionaries, sticking it to the man by doing an end-run around the evils of modern business. But of course, when the machines are restarted by the workers’ cooperative, the inputs are still being bought on the open market, and the products that result are still being sold to the highest bidder, and so on. All that’s really different after the workers’ little coup is the management structure. But even that is not all that innovative. Plenty of solid members of the modern business community are already worker cooperatives.
The problem in both cases lies in seeing capitalism as embodied in a particular, narrow set of practices, or in the behaviour of a handful of monolithic multinational corporations. So thinking of a particular shift within the system as “anti-capitalist” makes about as much sense as thinking that the discrediting of a particular scientist or the fall of a particular scientific theory amounts to the downfall of Science, as a whole.
Both the Greek anti-middleman movement and the Argentinian factory workers provide interesting examples of the ingenuity and passion with which people respond to hardship and injustice. But they are are off-target as examples of critiques of capitalism. To think that these are somehow examples of alternatives to capitalism just demonstrates a misunderstanding of what capitalism is. It’s like arguing against ‘corporate personhood’ or claiming that Barack Obama is a ‘socialist:’ all you’re doing is demonstrating to the world that you don’t know what the words you’re using really mean.
Chris MacDonald is Director of the Jim Pattison Ethical Leadership Education & Research Program at the Ted Rogers School of Management.
The business community can, and should, follow AT&T’s lead in speaking out in solidarity with the LGBT community. On February 4th, the company’s Consumer Blog featured an entry entitled, A Time for Pride and Equality. “We support LGBT equality globally and we condemn violence, discrimination and harassment targeted against LGBT individuals everywhere. Russia’s law is harmful to LGBT individuals and families, and it’s harmful to a diverse society.”
Russia’s anti-gay laws and attitudes are repugnant. Russian President Vladimiar Putin clearly wants hosting the Olympics to signal that Russia is a proud and globally-significant nation once again. But what it’s really doing is making the country look like an oversized banana republic, with values that don’t befit a serious world power. Putin is a man of the times alright — as long as the times you’re thinking of are the 19th century.
We’ve long known that discrimination is bad business. Discriminating against talented employees or paying customers just because of their sexual orientation is plain stupidity. And every decent person knows in their heart of hearts that such discrimination is immoral. This is not something where reasonable people can agree to disagree. There simply is no argument in favour of holding someone’s sexual orientation against them, let alone subjecting them to violence.
I wrote previously that I think the International Olympic Committee and corporate sponsors are in a no-win situation. These organizations clearly can’t condone Russia’s brutish stance on homosexuality. But a boycott isn’t necessarily in anyone’s interests either: it is arguably better to allow Russia a moment in the limelight, precisely because some of that light will shine into the dark corner that is Russia’s treatment of its gay citizens.
But every corporation has a voice. Olympic sponsors and non-sponsors alike have enormous capacity to get its message out. Some of them might lose business over taking a stand on what is for some, regrettably, a hot-button issue. But the obligation to pursue profits has limits. And I detect one of them here. Some have speculated that AT&T’s decision to take a stand is, whatever motivated it, a smart marketing. And that may be. If a company happens to benefit from doing the right thing, we should note the benefit, but admire the good deed.
An awful lot is being said these days about the difference between the top 1% and the rest of us. But if we really care about social justice, we should probably focus more of our attention on the difference between those of us fortunate enough to be in the top 99%, and the 1% at the bottom of the socio-economic ladder.
Consider the homeless, a significant group of individuals and families without even the resources to meet what most of us consider the absolute basics of human existence. About 30,000 Canadians are homeless at any given time, and upwards of 600,000 Americans.
In terms of social justice, helping the homeless could pretty easily be thought of as low-hanging fruit. Debates rage over whether (or why, precisely, it should be thought unfair for CEO incomes to keep rising while the middle class stagnates. At least one move in that debate goes like this: capitalism helps everyone (though not equally) and so those who benefit from the system (i.e., just about everyone) have little legitimate grounds for complaint, and certainly little grounds to wish for a different system. To the extent that that point holds, it implies then that we should focus our energies on the needs of the very worst off — those who are truly left behind by the capitalist system. Professors and journalists and unionized blue-collar workers have comparatively little grounds for complaint. So if we want to make the world a fairer place, let’s focus on those who need it most.
And besides, given what economists refer to as the diminishing marginal utility of money, a dollar given to a poor person does a lot more good than a dollar given to a middle-class person.
Assisting the homeless, in other words, is where the ethical action is, whether you are concerned about good outcomes or about the distribution of those outcomes — that is, justice.
In Canada, governments at the provincial and municipal level have taken up the cause, with varying degrees of zeal and varying degrees of success. But business can play a role too, and any company that considers itself ‘socially responsible’ should consider helping the homeless as a key pillar of that stance.
Donating money to charities that help the homeless is one obvious avenue. But there are also businesses — for-profit businesses — that have made helping the homeless part of their business. One company, for example, has devised a backpack that converts into a tent.
Other companies have found ways to make it easier for other people to help the homeless. Handup, for example, is a text-messaging service that makes it easier to donate money to a given homeless person, while at the same time raising the odds that the donation will go to real essentials. Or consider Suspended Coffees, a way for coffee buyers to donate coffee to those who need one: at participating coffee shops, customers can simply order an additional, “suspended,” coffee, which the barista will note and give to the next needy person who comes in to ask for one.
Companies also have an opportunity to help simply by letting the homeless do things like use the bathroom. Or by giving away food that is unsold, at the end of the day. (Got other suggestions? Post them in the Comments section below!)
What counts as justice, and whether capitalism ought to be thought of as fair in the most important senses of that word, are philosophically complex questions. But given how much each of us — and each business — could do for the homeless without even breaking a sweat, it is clear that that’s where some of our clearest obligations lie. That goes for most of us as individuals, just as well as it does for companies that aspire to earn the label, “socially responsible.”
Controversy continues to bubble over the SodaStream countertop carbonator. The popular home gadget — used to turn regular tap water into a variety of fizzy drinks — has generated controversy due to the fact that SodaStream operates a manufacturing plant in the occupied West Bank. For some, raging against the SodaStream is just part of a larger effort to boycott Israeli products, or at least products made in the occupied territories. They point out that Israeli settlement in those territories is illegal under Article 49 of the Fourth Geneva Convention, and has been declared illegal by the International Court of Justice.
None the less, it is probably tempting for many to shrug their shoulders at the whole thing. Many North Americans without a partisan tie to the issue may just think of the conflict between Israel and Palestine as one of “those” conflicts, “over there.” Consider: for the average middle-aged North American, it’s a conflict that has been making headlines for literally our entire lives, with both sides apparently taking turns at acting badly and no end in sight. It’s understandable if a few of us consider it a wash, declining to take sides and staring blankly when the topic comes up.
SodaStream’s spokesperson, incidentally, is none other than Scarlett Johansson. The Jewish Daily Forward referred to Johansson’s affiliation with the company as an unhelpful ‘normalizing’ of the Israeli occupation. After all, what could be more normal and peaceful than opening up a factory and offering people employment? There’s a sense in which that might be an understatement: building factories on occupied land — any occupied land — could easily be thought of as an act of war.
On the other hand, as defenders of the company point out, the factory is giving jobs to a few hundred Palestinians, and giving someone a job is hardly an act of aggression. For that matter, in most parts of the world it is acknowledged that commerce is generally conducive to peace. The more prosperous people are — roughly, the more they have to lose — the less likely they are to engage in warfare.
Does it matter, either way? From the point of view of outcomes, it’s hard to see much value in avoiding buying a SodaStream, even given a principled objection to operating factories in occupied territory. Your purchase (roughly $80 – $120) isn’t buying guns, or barbed wire. And the fraction-of-a-fraction of the purchase price that ends up contributing to the company’s bottom line isn’t going to either keep SodaStream in business or put them out of it. Your purchase, in other words, is trivial.
But isn’t refusal to buy a SodaStream another example of the growing, and generally positive, trend toward conscious consumerism? It arguably is, but in fact the benefits of conscious consumerism are not as obvious as many would have you think. As my friend, Professor Alexei Marcoux, argues, refusing to do business with someone because you disagree with their values is a dangerous road to go down. Given the huge number of moral disagreements in the world, we should think twice about becoming the sort of people who let such disagreements get in the way of engaging in mutually beneficial trade. That’s not a knock-down argument against any and all principled refusals to do business, but it’s a point worth making.
Now, the conflict between Israel and Palestine is no garden-variety disagreement. But that might just be the point. It’s not at all clear that we should want a controversy so bitter, and so protracted, to occupy our purchasing decisions.
Religious requirements that imply contempt for half the human species cannot be supported, even in cases where accommodating them implies no real hardship, and no demonstrable violation of anyone’s rights.
As was widely reported in the media, controversy arose recently after a York University professor (here in Toronto) declined a student’s request to be excused, on religious grounds, from a group work assignment that was part of an online course. The student claimed that his religion forbade him from interacting in person with women, something that the group work would have made necessary. The professor declined the request, but university administrators attempted to overturn that decision, on the grounds that religious requirements must be accommodated where possible, under Ontario’s Human Rights Code.
It’s tempting, but ultimately unproductive, to get caught up on the particularities of the case. Which religion was involved? What does it really demand? Is in-person group work OK a reasonable requirement in the first place, for an online course? Is group work central to the pedagogical mission of the university or of the course? For our purposes, all of that is beside the point. Decision-makers, in such a case, must of course attend diligently to such details. But for those of us interested in debating the principles at stake, the details may actually confuse things.
Best to stick to the fundamentals: a male student, requesting on religious grounds, to be excepted from a group-work assignment that would have required that he work with — interact with — female classmates.
Two questions arise.
First, should religious requirements be accommodated at all? There is broad agreement, I think, that reasonable efforts should be made to accommodate religious belief and practice. It would be a bad thing, in a society that believes in freedom of religion, to tell people that adhering to their religions means exclusion from university or healthcare or for that matter from employment. It is generally (though not universally) believed that religious commitments are particularly deep and meaningful ones, central to a person’s self-identity, and so limiting someone’s expression of their devotion to their religion is significantly worse than, say, interfering with their interest in watching their favourite TV show.
Second, if we are willing to accommodate religion, what specific kinds of requests ought not be accepted? The usual route is to say that only “reasonable” accommodations must be made — not ones that disrupt operations, or that impose onerous costs, or that jeopardize safety. So, modifying dress codes to accommodate religious dress requirements is generally OK. Allowing people a few minutes during the day to pray is OK. And so on. But anything that would jeopardize health and safety (e.g., a religious head covering that precludes the wearing of a safety helmet) doesn’t have to be accommodated.
But the two exceptions explicitly allowed here in Ontario — “undue hardship” (i.e., cost), on one hand, and health-and-safety, on the other — fail to capture one other important factor, namely the non-safety rights of other members of the institution. But clearly institutions (public or private) have an obligation to protect the rights of their members — their students, their patients, their employees. Luckily, cases in which religious accommodation comes up against the rights of others have been relatively few.
Toronto lawyer Kenneth Krupat has a useful blog entry outlining a few legal precedents involving a clash of rights.
In the cases Krupat cites, the general trend is that religion will be accommodated only up to the point where it interferes with someone else’s rights. So that’s (again, very roughly) the legal standard. But I think the ethical standard could be stricter still. For even if religious accommodation doesn’t literally violate someone else’s rights — if, for instance, accommodating the student in the case above weren’t found to have violated his female classmates’ right to equal treatment — there would still be grounds for denying the request. Some religious requirements should not be accommodated simply because they are unacceptable on principle. Yes, religious conviction is worthy of respect. But all religions evolve, and do so in part because the views of individual members of those religions evolve, as do their interpretations of specific religious requirements. Rather than accommodate religious beliefs that hold half the human species in contempt, we ought to gently encourage those who hold such beliefs to reconsider them.
The only thing nearly as common as the view that business schools should pay greater attention to ethics are heartfelt expressions of the view that doing so is in fact useless.
Typically, skepticism about ethics education is rooted in a mistaken view of what the goals of such education are. If you think that giving students a course in ethics is supposed to “make them into good people,” then of course you’re going to think it’s useless. An ethics professor can’t turn bad people into good ones, any more than she can turn water into wine. Luckily, that’s really not what’s needed, and so doing so it’s not the aim of any sane ethics course.
The most recent volley in this ongoing debate is a short blog entry on Forbes, written by MBA student Lachlan Magee. Magee admits to some skepticism about the idea of teach ethics in a formal educational setting. After all, he says, ethics comes from “a person’s environment and inherent motivations.” But he goes on to say some very sensible things about the connection between ethics and white collar crime, and the value of teaching students about how easy it is to slide into engaging in such crime. What Magee rightly implies (though he doesn’t quite put it this way) is that the reason we don’t need to worry about turning bad people into good people is that most wrongdoing in corporate settings is actually done by good, honest folks to make bad choices, sometimes due to spectacular pressure and often aided by a range of self-serving rationalizations. When the pressure is on to “make the numbers,” it can be awfully appealing to tell yourself that “everybody does it” and that “no one is really getting hurt, anyway.”
(Magee’s piece is actually a guest blog, posted by Forbes contributor Walt Pavlo. Pavlo knows what he’s talking about when it comes to workplace wrongdoing: he did 3 years in a US prison about a decade ago, for his role in the MCI fraud. He has since then dedicated himself to helping others avoid his mistakes.)
So what can courses in ethics offer? There are as many approaches to teaching ethics as there are ethics instructors. But here are a handful of ideas that have influenced my own teaching. They could also prove useful for in-house ethics training.
First, as Magee suggests, a course in ethics can help students understand the dangers of rationalization. A lot of bad behaviour goes on because good people tell themselves that such behaviour is not, in fact, bad. In the vast majority of cases, such rationalizations are rooted in very poor reasoning — reasoning which, if made explicit, would be clearly and transparently untenable. A course in ethics gives students an opportunity to look at some of the most important rationalizations, in order to examine them under the cold, dispassionate light of logic.
Second, a course in ethics can quite simply give students the opportunity to talk, at length, about ethics, something they likely wouldn’t otherwise have the opportunity to do. This can have several different positive effects. First, it can make students more comfortable talking about topics that might otherwise be too awkward to raise. How can you talk in a constructive way about Conflict of Interest, for example, if you’ve never even uttered the words before? A chance to talk at length about ethics in a classroom setting can also reveal to students that not everyone shares their views on ethics, and that they shouldn’t be so cocky. The student who thinks it “obvious” that the bottom line is all that matters can find out that — lo and behold! — not everyone thinks that way. An ethics course can also give students a chance to enunciate their own values in a constructive way. A student who finds herself repeatedly speaking, from the heart, in a safe classroom setting, about the importance of treating people fairly may come to realize that that’s an important part of who she is. She may then find it easier to speak up when she observes injustice in the workplace.
Finally — and here it shows that I’m a philosopher by training, and in fact used to teach in a philosophy department — there’s even something practical to be gained by having students read theoretical, scholarly articles on business ethics. Such articles can have two benefits. First, if chosen carefully they can exemplify for students what first-rate reasoning about ethics actually looks like. In other words, good articles on ethics are effectively special-topic exemplars of advanced critical thinking skills. Students who study such first-rate reasoning in the classroom stand a better chance of being able to engage in solid ethical reasoning in the workplace. A further benefit of exposure to scholarly articles is that such articles tend to be relatively high-minded: they call on readers to think carefully about ethics, and to take the ideas of moral obligation seriously. This is not to say that reading such articles will immediately change anyone’s behaviour, but it’s good to know that my students go out into the workplace — with all its pressures and temptations — having read some things that will pull them, even gently, in kinder and nobler directions.
A recent study about CEO pay in Canada has been getting a fair bit of attention lately. This is unsurprising, both because executive compensation has become one of the hot topics of the day (or rather, of the post-Occupy era) and because the study highlights the fact that if you look at the top 100 Canadian CEOs (in terms of salary), the average top-100 CEO earns as much in four hours as the average Canadian makes in an entire year (i.e., about $46k).
So Canadian (and American) CEOs are highly-paid, for sure. Whether they are too highly-paid is another question. I’ve pointed out before that, well, the issue is complicated. Just about everyone recognizes that CEO pay is at least sometimes out of whack. But is the pattern problematic? From a moral point of view, the pattern of CEO pay raises two key questions: first, are shareholders (and others who benefit from competent corporate leadership) getting their money’s worth? And second, do current patterns of CEO compensation contribute to an overall social distribution of wealth that is unjust?
It’s useful to remember that a CEO’s salary (or, more accurately, his or her total compensation) is just the price of his or her services. And part of the problem is that there’s no “real” or “natural” price for CEO labour (or for anything else), nothing to serve as a comparison point to figure out if such labour is being sold at the “right” price. So one common alternative is to compare it to the price of the “average” person’s labour, or in some cases, to the price of the labour of the lowest-paid person in the organization. The latter is truly a case of comparing apples and oranges. Unskilled labour is like air. It’s plentiful, relative to demand, and so no one needs to pay very much to get it.
Another option is to compare CEO compensation to the value they bring to the organization. That’s hard to do, for a number of reasons. Not all value is directly reflected in financial impact, and a company’s financials can go up or down with the market (or to reflect external factors such as new competition) in ways that simply do not reflect the quality of leadership. But a recent study by the Clarkson Centre at the University of Toronto suggested that CEO pay in Canada is more closely aligned with performance than people generally think.
The social question — about the social distribution of income — is easier to answer, but harder to solve. Yes, mega-salaries for CEOs are contributing to income disparities. That’s a mathematical fact. And even those of us who believe fervently in the value of free markets can see that it’s not a good thing that a CEO can afford to build a $50-million home while others living in the same country can’t afford a roof over their head at all. It is unjust by almost any measure, socially divisive, and potentially socially disruptive. But such critique does not immediately imply a solution. It doesn’t imply that any particular CEO isn’t worth the money, and it doesn’t imply that any particular Board is obligated to do the impossible, namely to “fix” the big problem of social inequity by paying its own CEO less.
If you need further evidence of the complexity of this issue, consider this. One Canadian business professor recently suggested that CEOs would be welcome to keep their high salaries, on condition that those they stopped outsourcing jobs. That way, working-class Canadian could at least keep their humble jobs. But consider: if you’re really interested in social justice, you might well insist that Canadian CEOs continue outsourcing to foreign countries, where workers surely need the jobs (on average) much more than (most) Canadians do. After all, the average Canadian salary is as lavish from the point of view of someone living in the Congo or in Liberia as a Canadian CEO’s salary is from the point of view of the average Canadian.
Should the public be more worried when powerful corporations try to sway government, or when they capitulate to them?
Or, to put it another way, if the public worries when big business lobbies government, should it also worry when big business lobbies government to protect something the public cares about, such as privacy?
Case in point: Google, Facebook, Apple, and other tech companies have joined forces to launch a new campaign aimed at curtailing government use of the companies’ networks and data for surveillance and intelligence purposes. The campaign included an open letter to US President Barack Obama asking for tighter controls on government’s attempts to access information gathered and retained by the companies in the course of business. Privacy advocates are bound to be pleased, given the enormous quantity of information the companies hold, and the previously unimagined level of access that we now realize the US government in particular has been seeking, and obtaining.
But this move means that these massive corporations are trying to shift government policy on a particular issue. They are, in other words, lobbying. And lobbying is an activity that makes a lot of people uncomfortable: they worry that corporations, with their slick hired-gun lobbyists and their deep pockets, are simply too influential and too liable to get their way too often. Indeed, some people think corporate lobbying should be outlawed. Many more think there should be serious limits on what corporations can do, and in particular on what they can spend, to try to get their way.
So which makes us more uncomfortable: the idea of big business collaborating with government (whether in the US or in China), or the idea of big business using its persuasive powers to resist government?
Of course, we don’t necessarily have to choose. Some will want to eat their cake and have it too. Corporate influence is usually bad, they’ll say. But this time is different. This time, corporations are fighting the good fight. In trying to get Big Brother to stop peeking in the window, they’ll say, these internet giants are fighting on the side of right.
That’s an awkward position to hold if you’re used to arguing against the evils of corporate influence. It’s a bit like watching the town bully beat up someone who really deserved it: you might well like the outcome today, but still be worried that there’s someone in town with that much punching power, and that much willingness to use it. And note the difficulty of putting in place any limit on lobbying that allows public-good lobbying but forbid narrow, self-interested lobbying: the distinction is far too subjective, and it if far too difficult to determine from the outside just what a corporation’s interest are, in the eyes of internal strategists.
In the end, I come down on the side of a relatively permissive set of standards. We should keep worrying, and stay watchful, but in the end it is better that tens of thousands of corporations try to influence government — all pulling in slightly different directions — than that they all mindlessly bend to government’s will.
For many Americans (and a growing number of Canadians) Friday, November 29th is Black Friday, a day of rock-bottom prices and a chance to buy, buy, buy. But for others, it instead marks a day that has come to be known as Buy Nothing Day, which is supposedly a day to fight against rampant consumerism by, well, buying nothing. The theory is apparently that if you don’t spend money, you’re taking a stand against over-consumption.
There are several problems with the idea of Buy Nothing Day.
First, as many have recognized, is that anything you don’t buy today you’re just going to end up buying tomorrow. That stereo you resist buying isn’t going to be consumption forgone, just consumption delayed. But the problem is more severe than that, because it is literally impossible to buy less. Every dollar you earn is going to be spent on something, eventually, either by you or by someone else. You can give it away (to someone who will spend it) or you can leave it in your will (to someone who will spend it). The only way to change that is literally to burn your money in the backyard.
The other problem lies in the basic economic fact that a dollar spent by one person is a dollar earned by another. So the dollars you don’t spend today are dollars not going into someone else’s pocket. And in some cases, those are pockets that could really use the dollars.
Yes, I know, it’s about symbolism. Every time I complain about Buy Nothing Day, I’m told I’m missing the point. And that might be true. It is of course no accident that Buy Nothing Day falls on the same day as Black Friday. And even a big fan of commerce has to admit that a shopping frenzy during which elbows are thrown and store employees get trampled is less than a swell thing.
I would simply respond that if you want to do something symbolic, why not do something smarter?
So here’s an idea. If you take seriously the idea that while trade is good, rampant, brainless consumerism is bad, why not commit today to buying a few things you want or need, but give some thought to the other end of the transaction. In particular, buy something from someone who needs it. That might be someone in your own community, or it might be someone (likely someone much worse off) in a far-away land (like Bangladesh).
So instead of buy nothing, how about buying better. Go ahead and buy, if you want, but do your best to buy for impact.