Readers of Charles Dickens' "Bleak House" may remember the frowsy Mrs. Jellyby, who spends her days engaged in voluminous correspondence to raise money and recruit emigrants for the purpose of ameliorating the condition of the natives of Borrioboola-Gha, an imaginary colony in Africa. The quintessential do-gooder, she utterly neglects both her own family and the crushing poverty right under her nose in London. Poverty for her is a cause because it's over the horizon.
Prompting this book report was a recent trip to Portland. Like Jim Carrey's Truman, we escaped the dome that is Moscow-Pullman to idle away a few days in the naked city. They actually have little bakery shops and costermongers and fish markets, places called Starbucks that sell coffee by the jeroboam, scores of nutritional sustenance solution establishments (restaurants), and even by golly a trolley.
A store similar to the Moscow Food Co-op called Whole Foods Market purveys, among other essentials, organic litter so that environmentally sensitive cats can tarry with a good conscience, and briquettes for the grill made from a substance called "natural wood" - in contradistinction, one presumes, to unnatural wood. We're told at every turn that "Portland Recycles!" The exclamation point makes clear they mean it. And, in downtown Portland, there wasn't a big-box store in sight, unless you count all the chic, multistory department stores that occupy what looked suspiciously like big boxes. During our window-shopping experience, we strolled through 10,000 Villages, a home-furnishings emporium that sells items made primarily in Africa. The store adheres to the principles of "fair trade," though the vendeuse I chatted up was never able to give me much of an explanation of what that means without simply repeating the words "fair" and "trade." The store, eschewing profit, is organized as a nonprofit and staffed by volunteers, a congregation of Mrs. Jellybys who should feel awfully darn good about themselves because, presumably, they're helping the natives in Africa.
OK, so I thought that since the place is a nonprofit, the prices should be pretty reasonable. I was quickly disabused of that notion. A small hutch that might cost $300 or $400 under the principles of unfair trade cost upwards of $900 at 10,000 Villages. A desk that one could purchase from a profit-making enterprise for a grand cost twice that at the fair-trade store. I don't know who's getting hosed here, the guy in the bush, or me.
Shoppers also are told that the wood used to make the furniture was harvested according to the principles of sustainability - though once again, no one was able to explain why harvesting a U.S. oak to make a $300 hutch that a middle-class person can afford is evil, but cutting down an exotic African hardwood to make a $900 hutch that only the affluent can afford is an act of sanctification.
"Fair trade" is just another slogan the left has dreamed up to make themselves feel better about their wealth. Pundits enjoy fulminating against the wealth of Bush and his "cronies" - a favorite word among leftists - yet the data shows that contrary to conventional wisdom, liberal families earn about 6 percent more than conservatives. Liberals don't know what to do with all their lucre, so they concoct stuff like "fair trade" so they can buy spendy furniture made with exotic woods, then tell the rest of us that their purchase is an act of virtue because it's helping ameliorate the condition of the natives of Borrioboola-Gha.
"Fair trade," like "living wage," "affordable housing," and similar bromides, is so much whipped syllabub - all bubbles and no substance. It has the ring of, well, fairness, but in reality it does little more than create artificial price supports that encourage oversupply of the goods in question. In the long run, it leads to inefficient allocation of resources and labor because it encourages production of goods for which demand is limited - and in the case of furniture, to harvesting lumber for products no one can afford, unless you're a well-heeled John Edwards liberal who doesn't know what else to do with your money.
Meanwhile, on the way back to our hotel, we came across more than one homeless guy sleeping on cardboard in doorways. We wanted to help, but they weren't far enough away.
Tuesday, July 10, 2007
"Exposing the leftist myth of 'fair trade'"
Today's column by Michael O'Neal in the Moscow-Pullman Daily News is his best yet. He accurately skewers the elitist, wealthy, latte liberal set, in much the same fashion as Matt Taibbi did in his column.