Published on Wednesday, December 22, 2004 by the San Francisco Chronicle
Vote With Your Dollars
by John Freeman
The Most Important Election of Our Lifetimes came and went last month, but an equally important one is upon us. No, this is not the January runoff in Baghdad, but the annual slugfest with advertising budgets that dwarf John Kerry and George W. Bush's campaign coffers.
That's right, I'm talking about Christmas. Every winter, retailers campaign for your dollars in the same way that candidates rally for your vote. They purchase air time and make extravagant promises (buy my product and you will be happy); appeal to your patriotism (a real American uses these kinds of goods); and even go negative on another -- our competitor lies to you about its record. And when it's all over, we feel that same slightly queasy sense of relief. Thank God we're almost there, right?
Well, actually, no. The consumer election happens every day, not just every Christmas. Consider the first 15 minutes of your morning. You wake up and brew a pot of coffee, run a shower, get dressed and pour yourself some cereal. If there's time, maybe you read the paper and check your stocks or buy a book over Amazon.com before leaving for work. In this ritual, dozens of decisions are just as important as votes. Who harvested that coffee? And were they paid fairly? How long did your shower take and where does your town water come from? What are those ingredients in your cereal? What companies are in your portfolio? Do you know what their business practices are? Where do their political-campaign contributions go? Finally, do you drive to work alone? Why don't you carpool?
Spend five minutes thinking about this tiny slice of your day and you might be surprised what you discover. Let's say you have reservations about the war in Iraq or even oppose it outright. Do your mutual funds hold stocks in defense contractors? If so, is it consistent for you to benefit from your mutual fund's shares of Halliburton or McDonnell Douglas? How is that different from war profiteering?
Or let's say that you want the United States to become less dependent on Middle East oil. But you drive a Dodge Durango or a Chevy Blazer. Has it occurred to you that your choice of vehicle has necessitated the dependence you object to?
Deciding whether you'll support one company over another based on its campaign contributions has become easier with the advent of the Internet. One site -- www.opensecrets.org, run by the nonpartisan Center for Responsive Politics -- offers profiles of industry and sector that list total contributions to federal candidates and party committees from employees and political action committees of the companies listed.
This is not to say that whenever you make a purchase you need to consider whether you are giving money to a Republican -- or, from the other side -- a Democrat. It has to do with asserting your will on a global system designed, in part, to obscure the messier details about how sustainable profits and low prices are achieved.
Think about it. When you buy a Fisher-Price toy on sale at Toys 'R' Us, it's hard to argue with quality and pleasure of that toy. Until, of course, you consider a Los Angeles Times article last month about how Mattel, the company that owns Fisher-Price, uses Chinese manufacturers that keep workers in sweatshop conditions -- working as much as 24 hours a day for 20 cents an hour. This, despite Mattel's own efforts to police the conditions of its subcontractors.
As citizens of the world's most powerful (and destructive) country, we need to learn how to make questions about the costs of convenience second nature. If not for the benefit of other people, then at least our own. Because if we continue to claim that globalization benefits societies -- whom we keep poor by giving them manufacturing jobs that pay far lower wages than our citizens would ever accept -- we can expect more blowback in the way of terrorist attacks, trade wars and general dislike of America.
Beliefs not backed up by action become opinions, and you can get all the opinions you want from talking heads on TV. You don't have to become so paralyzed with research that you can't buy anything, but you can look into what you're passionate about and vote with your dollars. Political activism didn't end Nov. 2. In fact, that should be the beginning.
Think of it this way: Car manufacturers did not make cars safer until consumers began demanding safer automobiles. Corporations will do the same if consumers begin wielding that powerful weapon all over again: their wallets.
John Freeman is a writer in New York.
© 2004 San Francisco Chronicle