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.


Les merveilleux!

“So long as the three great problems of the century—the degradation of man through pauperism, the corruption of woman through hunger, the crippling of children through lack of light—are unsolved; so long as social asphyxia is possible in any part of the world;—in other words, and with a still wider significance, so long as ignorance and poverty exist on earth, books of the nature of Les Misérables cannot fail to be of use” – Hauteville House, 1862

My wife and I finally broke our no-movie-streak. The last time we saw a movie in the theater (not counting two documentaries at an independent theater) was before our twins were born, over four years ago. With family watching the kids, we went with my sister and brother-in-law to see Les Misérables. I’ve been a Les Mis fan since grade school when I used to listen to the soundtrack every night as I went to sleep. I’d seen a production in Indianapolis as well as on Broadway in NYC. Heck, in show choir, I sang many of the songs as solos for class.

I thought the movie was excellent in a variety of ways. First off, as advertised, allowing the actors to sing the songs as they feel right (instead of recording their audio on a soundstage and then lip-syncing to it on film), really allowed for great acting.

As many of the reviews have already said, the singing was impressive. Hugh Jackman could go toe-to-toe with almost any other voice of Jean Valjean. Anne Hathaway was also quite impressive as Fantine. I was not surprised to learn that Samantha Barks, who played Eponine, got the role because she was Eponine in the 25th Anniversary of Les Mis. She was amazing and I expect this will be a break out roll for her in Hollywood.

While Russell Crowe acted an amazing Javert, exposing a conflicted and internally tormented and unsure man, his singing was subpar. I should say that compared to the average singer, he has a great voice, but this is the Superbowl of singing as far as I’m concerned and his voice just wasn’t up to the task. If this was a George Lucas film, the re-release would include a better singer’s voice dubbed over Russell’s. Russell still deserves a good deal of credit for the way he portrayed Javert. I especially enjoyed how he handled Stars, on top of the roof, when combined with the mirror scene of his suicide.

I heard negative reviews about the very tenor voice of Marius, saying that he came across as not manly enough and thus hard to support. I was definitely feeling the same until he sang Empty Chairs, where upon it became apparent to me that the man can sing a beautiful baritone. Perhaps, instead, this was a conscious decision to show Marius as the young boy he was, becoming more of a man through the death of his friends.

All and all, an engaging story comes to live on the big screen like never before. I was somewhat disappointed to not hear the full score (no Turning or Dog eats Dog, and others were simply truncated), but at a running time of 160 mins, I understand some cuts were necessary. Even still, my fellow movie-goers and I were crying through most of the movie, either because of the plot, or just the joy of seeing our favorite musical in its best form to date.