April 26, 2008

More on Do-Gooder Consumers

A shorter version of my harangue below on the do-gooder moniker was published in the Boulder Daily Camera Opinion section.

April 22, 2008

Thomas Frank Now WSJ Opinion Columnist!

In an incredibly refreshing and unprecedented move, the WSJ has seen fit to hire leftist pundit Thomas Frank, regular contributor to Harper's Magazine and celebrated author of the New York Times bestseller What's The Matter With Kansas: How Conservatives Won the Heart of America as a regular columnist every Wednesday starting May 12. For the first time in history as far as I know, the WSJ's staunch rightist editorial section has chosen to bring genuine balance to its pages. His first column appeared yesterday and is available here.

Judging by how much hate mail I got from my last WSJ letter calling out Wall Street for blithely cheering Spitzer's fall (see below), the journal is surely setting itself up for a continuous onslaught of reader wrath with this new column.

Frank's book is in the news again because many take Obama's much-debated analysis (of hopelessly underemployed rural voters acting against their true interests by clinging to guns and religion) to be inspired by it. Turns out that the overwhelming majority of rural Republicans do not evidently vote based on such ideological reasons. In fact, it would seem to be the more city-dwelling and higher-educated rightists who do. See Bartels' much discussed NYT op-ed on this. And Krugman's the very next day.

Frank's new position promises to revive the WSJ's staid and musty editorial page, which until now had become almost medieval in its advocacy of what might best be called free-market feudalism, i.e. plutocracy (rule by the wealthy). For example, the journal's editorial the day of Al Gore's Nobel Peace Prize was a lament listing all the other nominees assumed to be more meritorious. Amazingly, the editors still cling to the notion that global warming is an overblown farce.

Finally a bit of balance. It's been a long time coming!

April 3, 2008

The Responsible Shopper as Do-Gooder

One of my pet peeves is the notion that consumers who attempt to shop responsibly are merely vain and somewhat hypocritical shoppers who seek elevated do-gooder social status. The Wall Street Journal plainly asserts this in an otherwise valuable report on "eco-fur," i.e., fur taken from invasive species. Here's the passage in its full editorializing splendor. But it's in the style section, so perhaps that explains the opinionizing:
Luxury commerce is urgently pursuing do-gooder status. We have already seen organic clothing and vegan shoes. Vacations to faraway South Pacific islands are sold as eco-luxury; Lexus's hybrid SUV is billed as environmentally friendly. Of course, plastic sandals billed as "vegan" or "vegetarian" could just as easily be called "petroleum-based." Furthermore, some of the claims of environmental benefits are a stretch. Bamboo is sold as eco-friendly because it's quickly renewable, but bamboo fiber requires heavy processing, and the clothing often undergoes baths in toxic dyes.
Okay, okay, there's probably a lot of hypocrisy in this industry. Still, the author here, Kristina Binkley, makes a sweeping assumption when stating that these consumers aren't really interested in making a difference since they're buying SUVs etc. Instead, they're disingenuously pursuing some kind of luxurious eco-chic image. Maybe in some cases that's true. But it could also be that they're beginning to confront the reality of the social impact of their purchases. If so, there's nothing shameful about that.

And a couple of weeks ago, David Brooks wrote a positive but rather patronizing column on social entrepreneurs titled Thoroughly Modern Do-Gooders. Here's a highlight:
These thoroughly modern do-gooders dress like venture capitalists. They talk like them. They even think like them. That means that aside from the occasional passion for heirloom vegetables, they are not particularly crunchy. They don’t wear ponytails, tattoos or Birkenstocks. They don’t devote any energy to countercultural personal style, unless you consider excessive niceness a subversive fashion statement.
The condescension is palpable. Why must people systematically trivialize progressive behaviors with the "do-gooder" label that really is nothing but an implicit put-down? Of course, that question is rhetorical. Both of these authors are writing for a conservative audience (although Brooks is at the center-left New York Times, he along with Kristol, is one of their conservative columnists). Using this term implies that this kind of thing is done purely as an image booster and/or is naively altruistic. The thinking seems to be that while such activities are well-meaning, it's neither necessary nor realistic to expect them to ever dominate the marketplace as a whole.

To me, this view represents and reinforces the cynical notion that people generally are (and should be) acquisitive self-interested utility-maximizers. This narrow view of human nature, famously espoused by Milton Friedman, has been widely discredited by most philosophers, ethicists, psychologists, and even now, by economics if not economists themselves. For example, The Corporation for Public Broadcasting's PBS and NPR would not even exist if this theory were true. And no one would ever donate anything anonymously, since all such donations would be merely to obtain elite do-gooder status. Why wouldn't anyone who values public television for example simply leach on as a free rider instead by letting others pay for the service? That would be the most rational self-interested thing to do. It's a good thing everyone doesn't think that way.

Indeed, the tragedy of the commons, initially pointed out by geographer Garrett Harden, shows that purely self-interested users of any natural resource will tend to over-exploit that resource to the point of collapse. And history is rife with examples as another geographer (this one with the Pulitzer) Jared Diamond reminds us in his excellent latest book Collapse. But he also shows how just as many societies have been able to overcome such cataclysmic scenarios. The truth is, what so-called do-gooder consumers and social entrepreneurs are attempting to do is precisely that. By shopping and conducting business in ways that are both sustainable and adding durable value to society, they're showing that the tragedy of the commons is not inevitable.

What are these do-gooders concerned about? Poverty, global warming, public health, etc. Are these merely altruistic concerns? Not in the least. They may have been once upon a time, but today, these are real cancers that are threatening our very survival. Close to 2% of the U.S. population is incarcerated and high school graduation rates in the largest U.S. cities have plummeted to below 50% in many cases. Our diets have become so toxic that we are in a public health crisis. Michael Pollan reports in his New York Times bestseller The Omnivore's Dilemma and now his latest In Defense of Food, that more people on the planet are now suffering from over-nourishment than under-nourishment. And on global warming, if the Chinese begin driving the same cars we've become accustomed too, there will be severe climatological devastation. A great read on reversing these trends, in part via responsible shopping and business behaviors is Bill McKibben's latest book Deep Economy.

Responsible business behavior either at the consumer, employee, or management level may merely feed some kind of ethical vanity is some. But it's certainly part of a much greater movement that should not be trivialized by the condescending "do-gooder" moniker. In fact, it's likely to be the only thing that will save us from ourselves. Indeed without that kind of cultural will, politicians aren't very likely to write encouraging legislation in that direction. So let's stop poking fun at it and get to reinforcing it.