As Don Don’s tariffs make foreign trade more expensive and bring economic insecurity to the fore of our public awareness, I’ve been reflecting on our society’s understanding of price.
In the Western world, we’re used to prices being relatively affordable and relatively stable. As consumers, we’re largely motivated by the lowest price and greatest convenience, and when prices go up, we get pissed. Our anger, or perhaps more accurately, our fear, is reasonable, because we’ve built our lifestyle, our consumer expectations, and our personal identities on the prices we experience around us.
Now here’s the sticking point: prices, as we know them, are generally not reflective of the actual cost of a product. Rather, they reflect the actual cost of a product minus various subsidizations. And I’m not talking about the federal-government-subsidizing-corn good subsidizations; I’m talking about the often-invisible exploitative practices that businesses use to lower costs and gain a competitive edge in their industry.
For instance, transporting products in diesel trucks and not paying to clean or offset the resulting air pollution. For instance, paying vulnerable immigrants basically nothing to pick strawberries in suffocating heat. For instance, stuffing chickens into 70-square-inch cages. These practices lower production cost (and consumer price), but they do so by stealing the difference from other humans, animals, the earth, and our future.
The scary thing is, hundreds of years as we are into this exploitative production-consumption paradigm, we’ve created a bubble in which our lives are dependent on maintaining the status quo, on keeping prices low by continuing the exploitation. If we stopped these practices, our prices would skyrocket - to match their true, unsubsidized cost - and we would very quickly be unable to afford our lives as we know them.
So, what’s the solution? I think the first step comes in accepting reality about and responsibility for our exploitative capitalist economy. We’ve become the wealthiest country in the world because we exploit others. We are rich because they are poor. We enjoy lives of abundance not because we deserve it, but because we’ve stolen those lives from others who deserve it no less than we do.
Secondly, we need to advocate for government intervention. Businesses are not going to drastically change their production practices, just because it’s the right thing to do. Consumers don’t always have the financial flexibility to drive the market with ethical choices, when there are so many different strains on our wallets. And politicians are not going to regulate the financial special interests that fund their campaigns without TONS of public pressure.
I think we can do it. It’s not going to be easy or fun, and we’re going to have to check our privilege big-time. But with freedom comes responsibility, and it’s our job to see the truth behind the curtain and act accordingly. Either that, or we’re all going to die.