Sunday, December 12, 2004

How a consumer's union can succeed in creating responsible shoppers

The more I explore this idea for a consumer's union, the more I find that there are plenty of people who've been down this path before. The Responsible Shopper site is a fine example, and a much needed resource for people who want to support well-behaved businesses.

So the question I have to ask myself is, if this idea has been tried before, why has it failed? Why aren't people shopping more responsibly? And, given the failures, why would new efforts be any different?

Well, I have a few answers.

Responsible Consumerism needs to become a movement. It has to be action packaged with a philosophy, and the people who care about it now have to commit to it now while we go about trying to get other people onboard.

We have to have more than just a Web site and a database. We have to have a brand. We have to market an idea to people, making it "cool" to shop responsibly, make buying products with the "Union Seal of Approval" feel as good as buying a name brand like Nike or Pepsi or Hugo Boss. And it can't just be a fad. It has to endure. And it has to be easy and painless for people to make the right choices.

People love to give money to charity. Lot's of it. Look at St. Jude's Children's Hospital, the Salvation Army, The Will Roger's Institute. They all survive (and succeed) on people just giving money to them.

People also want things like clean air. GE, Honda, Lexus, and BP are all running ad campaigns right now that show their products are cleaner and more enviro-friendly. There is a market for these ideals.

We have to bring all of this together -- take what people want and mix it with what they are willing to do -- and find the formula that will get people to take the right actions -- to spend their money the right way -- to help us create a better world.

So the reason I think these efforts have failed in the past is that they haven't been big enough, they've only tackled a small piece of the much larger effort that's necessary. Done right, done big, I believe this idea can succeed.

Monday, December 06, 2004

Do boycotts alone make sense?

Recently, there was some outrage among the left when CBS and NBC refused to run a "pro-gay" ad by the United Church of Christ. Understandably, the response to this from the left was to call for boycotts of CBS and NBC and even their advertisers, sending the message to those channels that we're done with them until they stop caving to gay-hate culture.

But what about channels that are running the UCC ad? Like TNT? Does it makes sense to boycott CBS and NBC and not give TNT some props?

This seems to be a problem with boycotts in general. A lot of fuss is made over punishing businesses that do the wrong thing, but nobody ever talks about rewarding the businesses that do the right thing.

Right now, as CBS and NBC consider the consequences of running the UCC ad, they have to weigh the loss of outraged liberal viewers against the loss of outraged conservative viewers. Given a lose-lose situation, how can we really blame them for playing it safe in a country that, on Nov.2 this year, made it clear that they don't really give a fuck about gay people?

So let's try changing the equation. For every company punished, there must be one rewarded. Don't just tell CBS and NBC and their advertisers that you're going to avoid them, tell them that you're going to go out of your way to support TNT and its advertisers. And make sure TNT gets the message too. Tell them you're going to tune in for Law and Order tonight instead of Everybody Loves Raymond or Las Vegas. Tell TNT they should pick up West Wing because you'd rather watch it on their channel than on NBC. While you're at it, tell the producers of West Wing the same thing.

Obviously this goes for more than just TV stations and gay rights issues. I worry that the left has gotten so caught up in its anti-corporate mentality that we forget that businesses who do the right things need our support if we're to have anything left worth supporting.

Thursday, December 02, 2004

The Consumer's Union

I believe that people in general, regardless of if they’re conservative, liberal, or other, share certain ideals. We all want clean air and clean water. We want to be treated well. We want the products we buy to be safe and work as advertised. Today we look to government to regulate industry in order to achieve those ideals, but, as I’ve argued elsewhere, government isn’t the best means to those ends. Instead, we need to take it upon ourselves to get what we want. Yet the magnitude of this task makes it seem impossible. We, as individual citizens, simply don’t have the power to stop bad business from polluting our water, from selling dangerous toys to our children.

In order for individuals to have an impact on the behaviors of businesses, we need two things: conviction and information. The former is 100 percent within our control. We either have the strength to do what we believe is right, or we don’t, and thus will have nobody to blame but ourselves if the world goes to crap. The latter is much harder to come by, but this is where the consumer’s union comes in.

Imagine the Good Housekeeping Seal of Approval on steroids. The GH Seal tells consumers that a product is safe and that it works as advertised. The Consumer’s Union seal would be similar, but it would encompass a wider range of qualities. A product with the Union seal would not only be safe, but the company that makes it would be eco-friendly, would support worker’s rights, wouldn’t discriminate against gays, and on and on. The union would strive to have companies put the Union seal right on the product’s packaging, so that as people stand in the store trying to decide between brands, they would see the seal and know they’re getting a quality product from a company they can trust.

That’s the gist of how the union would function. However, it could also take on other roles, such as educating the public on how every dollar spent effects the world in a small way, and how shopping in a Union backed store or spending a little more on a Union backed product can be better (for the environment, for the local economy) than going for the cheapest product every time. The Union could also take on the role of Consumer Advocate, helping people fight against companies that have mistreated them. And the Union would recognize that we’re not only consumers, but also workers, and it could help people make the companies they work for behave better. (And every time someone buys a Union-backed product, they’re also making a statement about how they as a worker want to be treated, and how they want their company to behave.) The Union could even become a source of venture capital for new businesses that want the Seal right from the start.

Everyone who buys things is automatically a union member. We participate by favoring products that have earned the seal, and thus, via the power of our dollars, encourage all businesses to strive for Union approval.

Most importantly, the union becomes the means by which we all choose to take responsibility for the world around us. We’ll know that every dollar we spend changes the world for better or worse, and hopefully, as the Union Seal appears on more and more products, we’ll be able to take satisfaction in knowing that we’re changing the world for the better.

Sunday, November 21, 2004

The People vs Wal-Mart

Wal-Mart seems to become more and more evil every day. They destroy local economies by running local stores out of business, their stores are aesthetic blights, they treat their workers unfairly both at home and abroad. If one were to make a list of all the things people don't want giant companies to do and compare that list against Wal-Mart's record, my bet is that Wal-Mart would come out wanting. About the best thing one can say is that stuff at Wal-Mart is cheap, which is a good thing for families on tight budgets.

Cheap stuff for cash strapped families is good, but the rest of Wal-Mart's behavior is unacceptable. What would it take to change the way Wal-Mart does business? And is that change worth it if it means Wal-Mart's merchandise becomes more expensive, thus making life harder for low-income families? These are the questions and issues that we as consumers and citizens must consider when it's time for us to spend our money. So let's spend some time thinking about them here.

There are two ways we can go about changing Wal-Mart's behavior. We can do it with laws, or we can do it with dollars.

Liberals usually aim for laws first. Law's have the benefit of being like "fire and forget" weaponry: you fight and fight and fight to get them in place, but once they're there, you can forget about them for awhile and get some rest. The downside to laws that regulate corporate behavior is that they're constantly victim to a fickle electorate. The same people who elect the candidate who brings corporate reform one year, might next year elect the candidate who is strong on "values" but who is going to undo everything the reformist accomplished. Our priorities, both locally and nationally, are ever shifting, and the nature of our winner-take-all political system means that we often have to give up some priorities (in this case, corporate responsibility) for the sake of others (i.e. "values").

This brings us to option 2. Using our dollars to force a change in Wal-Mart's behavior starts with a simple premise, but also comes with significant difficulties. Here's the first step: don't shop there. Don't shop at Wal-Mart. Pretty easy. If people simply didn't shop at Wal-Mart, then Wal-Mart would be forced to either change or go away. And now here's the obvious, and much more difficult to accomplish, second half of the equation: you've decided not to shop at Wal-Mart, but now how do you get everybody else to follow along? No simple task. Plus, assuming you can get people to not shop there, how do you make sure your boycott sends the right message? The goal isn't to drive Wal-Mart out of business but rather to get them to change their business practices (which, if they did, you'd be happy to go shop there again).

Neither method seems very good. However, I'll argue that the dollar approach is the better of the two.

To successfully achieve the goals of corporate reform via laws and regulations, we'd first need to overhaul our entire political system so that it can work towards the goals of more than one group at a time. We only get one shot every two to four years to make that happen, which means the process could take decades, and a single defeat along the way could send us straight back to square one, undoing a decade's worth of progress. And only after all of that is done can we begin writing the legislation we'd need to make Wal-Mart behave itself.

To successfully achieve the goals of corporate reform via market forces, we need a majority of consumers to be informed about what their shopping habits are supporting, and we need them to make conscientious decisions when spending their money. There's no easy way to make that happen, but that doesn't mean the problem can't be solved, and it's definitely worth our time to look for the answer. In spite of how daunting this seems, we're more likely to make this happen than to reform our entire government in order to reform corporations. We also can start right away. A small core of conscientious shoppers can grow into a cultural movement one day at a time, one person at a time, and as long as we're committed, our progress can never be undone.

This is where the power of the people truly lies, and it's both immediate and effective. When it comes to taking on huge corporations like Wal-Mart, this is how we're most likely to achieve long term and meaningful success.

Friday, November 19, 2004

Hell Week

Towards the end of every month we have at my work what I like to refer to as Hell Week, which is actually about a week and a half long, all things considered, and which is when I come home and just don't want to do anything, and that includes post here. But I didn't want people to think the blog was dead. It's not. So I figure I'd pop in and put up a quick hello.


In the meantime, as we wait for me to get around to all the grand things I've been promising to write about, here's a fun post from DailyKos. In accordance with the so far halfassedly outlined philosophy of this blog, who wants to take a wild guess as to what I find horribly wrong with it? That's right: still looking to the Democrats to save us when we should instead be looking to ourselves. Still urging people to spend money on the Dems (this time on Dem think-tanks) when we could instead be using the money for more valuable things (like what? Use your imagination. We spent approximately $2 billion on Kerry, and no doubt we could have found a better way to use that money if we'd tried).

OK. Later.

Sunday, November 14, 2004

Good Corp, Bad Corp

I keep promising to do an entry on my idea for a consumers' union, and I will get to it, hopefully sooner rather than later. In the interim, here's a little something to tide us over: one thing the union will do is research and rate the behavior of individual businesses, from world-wide conglomerates to smaller, local shops. Businesses that behave well will get the union's seal of approval. Those that behave poorly will get a big thumbs down and we'll encourage our members to boycott those businesses or take other effective actions.

What I would like to start here on the blog are two lists, one of good corporations, and one of bad corporations. I fully expect the bad list to be the longest, since those companies will be easiest to find information about. A company with a great environmental and labor record is hardly newsworthy by today's standards -- and so, for the time being, we might be going with a "no news is good news" ratings system as far as that's concerned.

I'll be Googling and hitting Lexis Nexis, but doubtless there are lots of useful nooks and crannies of information that I'm sure to miss. So, if anybody out there knows of a good resource for learning about corporate behavior, please post it.

And I'll try to have the lists going by the end of the week.

Thursday, November 11, 2004

What is capitalism?

Promoted from the comments:
But. I don't think a successful future includes capitalism. To me, that would be American liberals making cash off of third-world/"other" workers. And that is what capitalism is. Owners and investors making money off of the workers. Some Liberals complain about capitalism not because conservatives embrace it, but because it sucks for 7/8 of the people in the game.

I understand why people feel this way, but essentially this is liberal spin on an otherwise neutral term (similar to how conservatives manage to transmit an implicit sneer every time they use the word "socialist"). I prefer a different definition for the purposes of this blog: private ownership of property, including the right to make decisions of one's property, such as donating or trading it.

Or: A bunch of liberals get together, pool their resources (money), establish an institution (property), and then decide what to do with it (without having to worry about a bunch of conservative wackos coming along and screwing it up).

There's nothing inherent in the idea of private industry that says it has to behave poorly. Similarly, there's nothing inherent in the idea of government that says it's going to be so benevolent. As liberals, we're virtually trained to envision utopian, well run, well behaved governments, but utopian, well run, well behaved private institutions are just as conceivable. And, in fact, I'd say they're more likely to come into being than a good government is.

In any case, if the word capitalism comes with too much negative baggage, then I'm willing to trade it in for something else (though I can't think of one right now, so if somebody has a suggestion, please post it).

I am a crazy liberal extremist

A moment of reassurance in the wake of all this crazy talk about economic conservatism:

Take heart, for I am just like you. I want clean air, clean drinking water, and safe food. I want everybody in America, if not the world, to have affordable access to superb medical care. I want a 100% literacy rate. I want gay couples to enjoy all the same rights as heterosexual couples. I want marijuana to be legalized for more than just medicinal purposes (though I do not do drugs and am generally no fun at parties). I want to be able to buy cool toys (video games, mp3 players, cars, clothes, candy) without worrying about my purchases supporting companies that exploit workers, abuse customers, and ruin the environment.

I revel in a righteous cause. I watch the West Wing (seasons 1 & 2 on DVD) and dream that I'm Sam Seaborn. Or sometimes I'm Toby or the president. I call my best friend Leo (when nobody else can hear) and he calls me Jed. The point being, not that I have a rich fantasy life, but that there are no ulterior motives here, and what I am most interested in is finding the best way for all of us to get the things we want, to create the kind of world we want to live in.

Go crazy.

Tuesday, November 09, 2004

Proper Noun

What do we call it when liberals embrace the ideals of economic and fiscal conservatism? I like the term Responsible Consumerism. We'll be using our shopping power (as well as our business-starting power) to influence which companies succeed in America, and, by proxy, how those companies behave. While, mechanically at least, the combination of social liberalism and economic conservatism is the same formula as libertarianism, I don't think we fit that term because for us this isn't about a philosophy of "rights," and nor do we get along with the Ayn Rand flavor of libertarianism that likes to talk shit about altruism. We're definitely creating our own beast here -- at least as far as I know. Could be there's something out there just like this and I've never heard of it. So, unless and until someone points it out to me I think we need some new terminology for the sake of easier communication.

But maybe the term responsible consumerism is too small. It's only one aspect of the larger whole since eventually we should be launching institutions that are much bigger than mere shopping. We're going to want to start schools, and charities, and even hospitals. We're going to need our own news media (not partisan journalism, but good journalism). We're going to want to create our own form of social security -- one the government can't raid or ruin.

We're going to need a bigger proper noun.

Teaser: Consumers' Union

Imagine if you could easily persuade consumers to favor products that were safe, environmentally friendly, and made by companies that treated their workers and customers well. We'd be halfway to living in a liberal utopia right there.

More to come.

Primer: Prepare to shit yourself

Economic conservatism is a concept that, generally speaking, liberals couldn't be more adverse to. It's an idea that has been defined by greedy conservatives and whacked out libertarians. Mention the virtues of the free market to a liberal and he'll likely shit himself with outrage over things like workers' rights, the minimum wage, and what Wal-Mart has done to his hometown and the local economy. So for me to sit here and advocate economic and fiscal conservatism as the best ways for us liberals to realize our liberal dreams might at first seem insane.

Nevertheless, this is exactly the place I think we need to be heading to. The government cannot be depended upon to help us reach our goals, and the only real power we have is in the money we control. Fiscal and economic conservatives have long recognized the power of the dollar in their wallet, and it's time liberals recognized it as well. The philosophy of economic conservatism is the means by which we choose to create and support our own institutions -- businesses, schools, charities -- institutions that behave the way we want them to, and that Republicans can't ruin. And the best part is, we can start taking action on this front today.

I've been alluding to this idea in previous posts -- I'm even repeating myself to a large extent here -- but now I want to set forth an official primer upon which further exploration will be based.

The government isn't going to do a thing to help liberal causes for the next four years. It didn't do a thing to help liberal causes over the last four years. And in 2008 the Democrats could lose again and that will be another four years lost. Worse, even if the Dems manage to win that one, we still run the risk of losing in 2012 and thereby having four years worth of progress destroyed.

This is a stupid stupid system. Get rid of it. Get it out of your head. Government is worthless to us and the Democrats are best used as a short term buffer between us and Republican craziness as we work to reduce the impact of government on our lives.

From here forward, whenever you imagine that far off better world of the future that we all want to live in, also imagine how we might realize that vision without the government's help. Think big. Think of how tiny blogs helped create a massive grassroots infrastructure to support Kerry's bid for president. Think of everything from to Air America Radio. Think of the approximately $2 billion private businesses and individuals spent on Kerry. Think of the 55 million people who voted for him. Think of what might be accomplished if we used that money, organization, and energy for something other than an election.

Once we've got government out of our heads, we'll discover whole new realms in which we can take immediate and direct action for the causes we care about.

Take a deep breath. Here comes capitalism.

Monday, November 08, 2004

Marching Orders

One thing that gets my goat about the liberal half of the blogosphere is the eagerness with which everybody tries to quarterback for the Democrats -- what they should be thinking about, what their strategy for the next four years ought to be, whether or not the party needs to redefine itself, and, if so, how...whatever.

And when the talk isn't about what the Democrats need to do, it's about what we need to do to help the Democrats. Send them money. Wear an "Any Dem 2008" button on your lapel. Wait until 2006 and then volunteer to man a phone bank.

This is a dangerous mindset. The more we look to the Democrats as our only hope, the more likely we are to sit on our asses and get nothing done for the next four years. The Democrats do need support from us -- for the time being they're all that stands between us and the oncoming Republican insanity -- but we mustn't be afraid to put them on the back burner for a while as we explore ways to take action independently of them. Finding the means to take action without looking to the government is now a necessity, and as such liberals need to start investing their time, money, and ideas in something else.

It's time to start thinking outside the cliche.

Pretend for a minute that you've got a loose army of approximately 55.5 million people, all of whom can be motivated to take at least a baby-step's worth of action for your cause (and many will do much more than that) if only they're given something to do. You're about to give them an order, but your order can't involve aiding a political party or even interacting with the government at all. You must take action immediately, and there's nothing less than your very way of life at stake.

So, what's your plan?

Get the gov't out of the marriage business

It's high time this idea hit the liberal blogosphere. The gay community has been talking about getting the gov't out of marriage for a long time, yet for some reason this is the first time I've encountered it on a blog. (Perhaps last week's West Wing helped get it out there.)

In addition to the sly political strategy laid out at the link above, it's also worth noting that getting the gov't out of the marriage business helps avoid that pesky Separate but Equal clause, which someone is bound to pick up on once they realize it's marriage for heterosexuals but civil unions for gays.

And aside from all of that, let's also remember that, plain and simple, this is the right thing to do.

Sunday, November 07, 2004

Kill the Media

Over at DailyKos there's this post about how everyone's bitching about the media. It's a topic long past due for discussion, though I found this particular entry to be verbose and somehow never quite getting to the actual issue.

Just to make sure we're all on the same page then, I'll be a little more blunt:

Bush won, in large part, because people believed a bunch of lies -- about him, and about Kerry -- and the reason people believed those lies is because they read them in the paper where they were repeated ad nauseam and rarely if ever fact checked by our shamefully sloth-like press. Campaign Desk was on the job, holding the media's feet to the flame, as were several other sites, but clearly that wasn't enough.

The media is showing no signs of changing it's lazy ways, and that's bad news (get it? bad news? Whooooooo!). We need a plan of action.

Maybe, as mentioned over at Kos, some leftie billionaire will buy up or start up a media empire. That'd be great. But really we shouldn't get into the habit of wandering off to fantasy land where we can spend other people's money on our liberal pipe dreams (especially since there's also talk of having these guys buy up diebold as well -- there's only so much money to go around; they do have to eat, you know).

So how about this, instead. We get all the bloggers and all the people who read the blogs and everyone else who feels the press did an absolute shit job, and we all cancel our subscriptions to, say, the New York Times and pledge not to buy a single newsstand issue as well. We each write a letter explaining our dissatisfaction, and we each reference some specific articles to back up our claims (check over at Campaign Desk for this part). And we say we're only going to do it for a month this first time because we're willing to give them a second chance and we'll happily declare our loyalty to the NYT, renewing our subscriptions, should they do a solid job of getting their act together.

The blog community is tremendous, and if we could all commit to this sort of action, I'd bet dollars to donuts we'd get results and we'd get them damn fast. We have no reason to support media outlets that fail to do their jobs and it doesn't hurt to remind them of that from time to time.

Maybe gov't isn't the way to achieve liberal goals

I originally posted this at my other stomping grounds. You can click the link to see the discussion that ensued -- it's interesting for the most part, I think. If you feel like registering and following up over there, that'd be great. Or you can post comments here. Either way, I think this is an extremely important issue for liberals to be thinking about. The government is out of our control for at least another four years, and this could be the difference between sitting on our thumbs until 2008 or actually getting some work done.

Circa 1998, I was much more of a socialist, philosophically, than I am today. I used to think that if we wanted things like top notch schools and quality healthcare for everyone, then we had to get the government to do it for us. Today, I think that government -- or at least the American government -- is the worst possible means towards those ends.

Assuming we were able to get a liberal elected president, as well as a liberal congress to support him, we'd still have to freak out every four years about a Republican getting elected and undoing everything we've worked for. And now we've lost two presidential elections in a row and are even further away than before from having liberal control of either the House or the Senate. All of which means for the four years passed and the four years to come, liberal goals have been, and are going, nowhere. For every step forward, we take two, sometimes three steps back.

Why do we even bother?

How much money went into trying to get Kerry elected? Consider everything from Air America Radio to to Kerry's campaign war chest. It has to be in the hundreds of millions of dollars. And consider all the man-hours spent -- the volunteers in the GOTV ground game, the bloggers and the 527 organizers, the artists, actors, and musicians, all of whom gave their time, their talent, and their passion to his cause. What might have been accomplished if we'd aimed those resources at something other than a political campaign?

Maybe it's time for liberals to take those resources and start new institutions: businesses, schools, even hospitals, that do things the way we want them to. Institutions that don't risk being compromised every four years by a party whose ideals are the raw antithesis of our own.

Of course, this is exactly the kind of thing that traditional conservatives have been talking about forever. I think the main reason the left has rejected these ideas is because they're always presented in a selfish, "Fuck you, don't touch my money" kind of way. But just because their motives are wrong for us doesn't mean the idea itself won't work.

So why, even in the wake of Kerry's defeat, do we insist on looking to government to give us a better tomorrow? Why are we willing to wait another four years for that tomorrow to begin?

There are some fights that must still be fought in the political arena, such as gay rights and the war on the War on Drugs. I'm not proposing we give up on those. But there are many liberal goals that I think we can achieve without government -- and without government, we can start working towards them right now. We have the money, the passion, and the talent to start it all today. So what's stopping us?

That was $2 Billion we spent on Kerry. I think he was a solid candidate, he ran a strong campaign, and it would have been great if he were elected. But that didn't happen. And while I won't say that that money was wasted (the infrastructure built with it is enormous and potentially very powerful), I can't help thinking better use could have been of it if liberals weren't so hell bent on getting the government to solve all our problems.

Healing the Rift

Once the election was wrapped up, people got it in their heads that ours was a country that needed healing, that people on both sides of the political divide needed to reach out to those whom we'd stood in opposition to, and embrace them on the grounds that we are all, in the end, Americans. As I wrote elsewhere at the time, screw that:

Let's not heal the rift. I like the rift.

I look across the rift and I see people who, in the name of morality, have chosen to oppress a huge chunk of their countrymen simply because they have different beliefs. I look across the rift and I see people who based their support of this president on information that is objectively false. I look across the rift and I see people who called me a terrorist because I exercised my First Amendment right and voiced dissent against the government's actions. I look across the rift and I see a party that engaged in the scummiest, most anti-democratic efforts to suppress voters when they feared they would lose the election.

I'm plenty happy on my side of the rift. Imperfect as things here are, I can at least go to sleep knowing that we've fought for people's rights instead of against them, that we've fought for truth and integrity from our government instead of secrecy and deception, that we've fought for ideals that we can honestly say will bring freedom to all Americans, instead of picking and choosing only the ideals that we're comfortable with.

With few exceptions, I think the Democrats ran a righteous campaign, and while normally I consider the party too centrist for my tastes, I'm proud to have them on this side of the rift. There are fiscal conservatives on this side of the rift, and I'm glad they're here, because we need them to show us that freedom is more than a social cause. And there are people of devout faith and spirituality on this side of the rift and I'm thankful for them because they help guide our collective conscience and remind us that there can be humanity and sanity in religion. This is the side of the rift I like being on, and this is where I'm staying.

I oppose this administration and its policies, so why should I suddenly buddy up to the people who supported it? Are they going to turn around and say, "Aw shucks, pal, we'll not oppress homosexuals after all, and we'll put an end to this crazed doctrine of preemptive war based on unsubstantiated claims and fear mongering, and we'll even embrace logic and decision making based on actual facts as our basic mode of mental operation." That's not going to happen.

There's more to be gained in providing loyal opposition than in pretending to be their friends.