Consumers as Global Citizens

I watched the documentary, Life and Debt this morning. I can’t say I liked the tone used to tell this story. Clearly, the target audience was Americans, and yet the narrator intentionally insults her audience in the way the story is framed with regards to tourists. The insults distract from the point, making it hard to focus on the true message. As such, I feel my response is more confrontational and contradictory than I would have expected.

Local markets, especially for agriculture are a tough thing; even in the US, local producers face stiff (and some claim unfair) competition from imported goods. While there is no doubt that the government’s fiscal policies and interactions with other countries and world organizations are a huge factor in this, consumers have a responsibility as well (beyond just who they select as their government representatives). A century ago, Americans spent nearly half of their disposable income on food. As markets have opened up, food has become comparatively cheaper and American consumers now expect to pay far less. In fact, according to Gallup, Americans spend 25% less on food today (inflation-adjusted) than they did in 1944 (source). When this gets factored in with other changes, Americans now spend 13.3% on food (source). If consumers want to see a stronger market for domestic goods, they must choose to spend accordingly.

My wife and I intentionally pay a premium for local goods, especially meat and produce. For example, we pay ~$35 for a whole frozen chicken, several times over the price of chicken at the local supermarket. This takes more than just budgeting your finances to spend a greater % on food. It also means eating seasonally and/or canning. If you live in New England and want a strawberry in January, you can get one at the supermarket from Peru, from you freezer/can, or just go without. To put it another way, consumers must make the mental shift from thinking of food items as commodities (all onions are the same) and shift to think of a local onion as something entirely different than an imported onion.

I believe my American experiences conveyed above hold true to Life and Debt’s Jamaica. The documentary showed many Jamaicans lamenting the fact that people are consuming imported food. The Jamaicans have limited funds and when evaluating the value proposition of an onion, they are choosing the imported one as it appears to be more onion for less money. Consumers must learn to see the difference in the good itself as well as the value to the larger economy that can come of it.

However, in the global economy, not everything can be made locally in quantity. When the movie delved into the banana trade, they spoke about how it costs Jamaicans $11 to produce 40lbs of bananas while the South American countries can produce the same for $5. What to do? Why would a non-Jamaican consumer (or 3rd party buyer) pay more than twice as much for a banana? It seemed that Europe offered a good deal to the Jamaicans to purchase those bananas at such a price, but that can’t be expected to last indefinitely. In fact you could argue that the banana policy that is good for Jamaica is having a negative impact to the lives of banana plantation workers in South America.

Other markets (take the US for example) have lost the majority of entire industries to foreign competition, but the US has been more successful (not by luck, but by the policies the US itself puts into place globally) in upskilling the workforce to do replacement work. This is how we like to think of globalization rising the water for all boats. While that may be true in a nation like the US with a great deal of natural resources, influence, and existing capital, life is clearly much more difficult for countries like Jamaica who have little of those benefits.

This brings us to the organizations like the WTO and IMF, which are not much different than the predatory banking institutes we discussed in Inside Job. These groups were formed by the 1st world countries for their own benefit and that mission continues. I wouldn’t go so far as to say that these organizations set out to hurt 3rd world nations, but they do what’s in the best interest of 1st world nations, whether it hurts or helps the poor. Clearly the “free market”, left as is, will not come to the aid of the Jamaicas of the world, nor will they be able to pull themselves out of their poor economies by themselves with the global economy and policies as is. Changing this dynamic will require the nations in power to move from entirely self-motivated policies to something more magnanimous; seeing themselves as stewards of the world’s citizens, not just those of their own country; taking us back to the consumer citizen. The governments in control of the global economy (and thereby WTO, IMF, etc.) are representative of their citizens (some much more than others) and are charged with caring for the interests of their constituents. These citizens must demand, as a group, that their representatives change their mission to look after the larger good. I know this is no small feat, but I see it as the only way to bring change to the system.

How to do it? Getting the word out to the 1st world’s citizens is key. Documentaries, such as this one are a great way to do that, but Life and Debt missed this opportunity in two key ways. First, they did not connect the dots sufficiently for the audience on what they can do to bring change. Raising awareness with no funneled action isn’t beneficial. The other problem is that the film is overly confrontational with the very people it is trying to get help from. One could easily walk away from this film with the impression that Jamaica doesn’t really want American tourism business (although I’m sure they do). Hopefully, future documentaries of the same type will find a better balance of challenging the viewer to drive engagement, without alienating them all together. For a good example of this done well, see Black Gold.

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