Christmas shopping no bargain if we exploit others

This article has nothing to do with steel, but everything to do with the economic, social and political impact of our purchasing decisions … – 2004-12-06: Everybody loves a bargain, especially during the holiday shopping season.

But for every dollar we save by trolling the aisles of our local shopping mall or giant retail store, somebody, somewhere else is probably picking up the tab.

Just because many of these costs are hidden from the average consumer doesn’t mean they’re not there.

[discussion of low wages paid for store employees, and tax benefits to big box stores … ]

While it’s a lot of fun to get a pair of running shoes for less than $20 or a brand-new DVD player for under $50, it’s less exciting when you find out that they may have been assembled by workers in Asia, making little more than a dollar a day—or by prisoners who had no other choice.

For example, it is suspected that a substantial amount of the products stamped “Made in China� and sold here may be the result of prison labor.

Many outside observers believe China’s vast prison system includes forced labor camps where inexpensive consumer goods are produced before being shipped to the United States.

In 2003, the U.S. bought more than $103 billion in consumer goods from China. Wal-Mart alone imported $12 billion of that, making it almost certain that products made by prisoners found their way onto American shelves.

And beyond how these cheap products affect our pocketbooks is how they affect our spirits.

In many parts of the country, shopping malls and mega-retailers have almost completely replaced public gathering places, turning the town square into a corporate profit center.

Meanwhile, we only see our neighbors when we’re in the car on the three-lane off ramp leading to the IKEA parking lot, and not in a post office, city hall or while window-shopping on our neighborhood Main Street.

And we spend more time and energy talking to the salesman in the appliance department than we do the cop on the beat.

We feel proud of ourselves, and think we’ve accomplished something as a citizen, when we find the best bargain and end up paying less than the other guy.

And we suffer for it, somehow, in ways we may not be aware of on a day-to-day basis.

We like to think of the holiday season as a time when we put aside the cares of the workaday world, and practice warmth and fellowship for those around us and mankind as a whole.

But every time we spend our hard-earned dollars on a cheap product that cut somebody’s wages, stole tax dollars away from a classroom or senior citizen’s center, helped support a ruthless, repressive regime or kept us from knowing our neighbor a little better, we make a mockery of those ideals we believe we’re celebrating.

In the end, that’s no bargain. No matter how much money we’ve saved ourselves.

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