Mike On Purpose

Finding purpose in the twenty-first century

Swimming upstream against the tide of economic injustice

Posted by mikeonpurpose on September 18, 2010


Jim Keady is the founder of an organization called Team Sweat, which works to end sweatshops and other abusive labor practices in developing countries.  In particular he has focused on Nike, which has been one of the biggest corporate abusers in this matter.

How he became a crusader on this issue is itself an interesting story.  Many years ago, he was hired to be a soccer coach as St. Johns University.  According to a the Team Sweat website,

This was the coaching opportunity of a lifetime and Jim joined the Redstorm staff in the summer of 1997.  Along with his coaching, Jim also enrolled in the graduate school to pursue a masters degree in Theology.  It was at St. John’s where Jim’s life would take a major turn.

As part of a class assignment, Jim began to research Nike’s labor practices in light of Catholic Social Teaching and subsequently found that Nike’s factories were de facto sweatshops with long hours, low wages, and an overall exploitation of mostly poor women in developing countries.

At the same time Jim was doing his research, St John’s University Athletic Department began to negotiate a $3.5 million dollar endorsement deal with Nike that would require all athletes and coaches to wear and endorse the products.  Jim questioned the endorsement deal privately at first, and then publicly.  Eventually he was given an ultimatum by his head coach – “Wear Nike and drop this issue…or resign.”  Deciding that as a matter of conscience, he could not turn a blind eye to the way Nike made its profits, Jim said he would not publicly endorse Nike.

In May 1998, Jim was forced to resign.

Losing your job over a matter of social conscience is surely one of the toughest decisions anyone can make.  After all, we all have to put food on our tables.   And when the job you are giving up had seemed to be the opportunity of a lifetime, the decision has to be even more agonizing.

It seems clear to me that living your life in a way that expresses your values is not necessarily easy to do in our consumer culture, especially if your values run counter to the prevailing ideology of capitalist consumerism.  We are, according to this ideology, expected to make decisions in accordance with rational self-interest.   We might decide to buy a particular product because it is cheaper, or because we like the color, or for some other reason that has only to do with our own personal desires and needs as consumers.  The idea that one might choose or not choose to buy something because of a deeper moral consideration, perhaps involving objections to the company that makes a particular product, does not fit well into this model.  Nike, to be sure, does not want you evaluating how they treat the workers that make the products that they want you to buy.  They have a vested interest, as a matter of fact, in making sure that you don’t take such things into account at all.  But we should not just blame Nike for what is a pervasive cultural expectation; the real problem is that our economic system, rooted as it is in this ideology of “rational self-interest”, has a specific, albeit perverse, idea of what is rational.  In particular, it often does not seem to  incorporate having a social conscience into its definition of rational consumer choices.  “Rational” means, instead (according to this view), acting in the best interests of the gratification of the self.   If we do decide to act on behalf of a greater purpose than how a particular product satisfies our own financial or personal gratification, in particular by taking into account others who are not directly involved in the immediate economic transaction between ourselves and another party, then we are seen as simply being irrational.

But who decided that this is really what it means to be rational?  As an example of how pervasive this definition of what “rational” behavior supposedly is, here is the opening paragraph from this article in the New York Times book review about a book titled Predictably Irrational:

Consider an experiment economists call “the ultimatum game”: The experimenter gives one player, the sender, $20 to distribute between himself and another player, the receiver. An egalitarian sender might propose a split of $10 each. A more selfish sender might propose to give the receiver only $1, keeping $19 for himself. If the receiver accepts the deal, the two players collect their shares. If the receiver rejects the deal, both walk away with nothing. Were humans perfectly rational, the receiver would accept whatever is offered: even a dollar is better than nothing, right? Instead, researchers find, receivers will reject an overly lopsided deal, gladly giving up their shares just to punish the stingy senders.

Note the presupposition in the above paragraph–that rejecting an unjust economic arrangement that would benefit you personally, but that would otherwise not be fair to all concerned parties, is somehow not “rational”.  And this presupposition is simply taken for granted, without being justified.  We are just supposed to assume that this definition of rationality is self-evident.   Note in particular that in the example of “Ultimatum Game” cited in the above quote, there is an additional assumption that any economic transaction really only involves the two proximate parties.  Laissez-faire dogma asserts that the free market is simply the sum of a lot of similar, freely made economic transactions.  This assumption serves as the basis of libertarian and free market ideology that many people seriously subscribe to, as a matter of fact.

I submit to you that there is nothing inherently rational about seeking to maximize personal economic gain if it comes at the expense of others, even when those others are not involved in the immediate economic transaction.  In fact, I categorically reject this definition of “rational”.  However, I would also submit that the ideology of capitalism expects us to think this way, and that corporations in particular want you to think that way.

But the big question is how we can live our lives in accordance with values that go beyond the mere pursuit of economic self-interest.   To illustrate, consider this example from my own life.  Many years ago, I took some voice over classes.  I am not sure why I did so, but I guess I imagined that it might be a fun thing to try.  Not all voice over work is focused on radio advertising, but a lot of it is, and it can be a lucrative direction to go for some particularly successful individuals.  I wasn’t really that interested in doing commercials, but I got a little swept up in taking classes that were part of the advertising track because that was where so much of the emphasis at the voice over school was placed and it was the easiest direction to go.  However, one day, after hearing the teacher emphasizing that one should not ever turn down an invitation to a voice over audition because you probably won’t be called for an audition the next time, I had to ask the question that had been nagging me for some time:

“What if you have a moral objection to the particular company whose advertisement you have been called to audition for?”

The  looks of befuddlement I got from the teacher and the other students was priceless–you’d think I’d just landed from Mars.   One woman said to me, in total seriousness, “I’m a vegetarian, but I would have no problem doing commercials for McDonalds.”  Another student joked that that the KKK probably wasn’t taking out any radio ads so it shouldn’t be a problem.  It was right then and there that I realized that I was in the wrong place.  The idea of prostituting myself to corporations had been nagging me up to this point anyway, and this made me realize that this kind of work expected you to be essentially amoral.   The “rational self-interest” of the voice over professional was simply to earn money by applying artistic talent in the service of the corporate client, and if one were to into account questions of social justice that would only interfere with this.  Voice over work was, in other words, just a simple economic transaction between yourself as the voice over actor and the company that hires you.  My not wanting to end up doing commercials for companies that were engaged in questionable practices–like Nike with its sweatshops–was not consistent with this principle.

I understand that being a consumer is hard.  My goal is not to sit in judgment of people who buy products from companies that use sweatshop labor, but rather to simply encourage people to consider these issues a little more.  We who live in economically developed countries can easily ignore what companies like Nike do and just go about our business buying products based strictly on how those products satisfy our immediate consumer needs.  And frankly I understand all too well that sometimes people want to just go to the store and buy a product without constantly having to put thought into it and researching the global implications of what they buy.   This isn’t a case of laziness, but just a reflection of the fact that we all have a limited amount of time available to us and at the same time we have a dizzying array of consumer choices at our disposal.   We are really all just swimming upstream against the tide of economic injustice.

That is perhaps why I admire the tireless efforts of people like Jim Keady who work for making this place a better world and who call our attention to the abuses of companies like Nike.  It is good to be inspired to be a little more conscious of the implications our lifestyle and consumer choices.  I think that those of us who are concerned about the problems of economic and social injustice in developing countries need to consider the that these problems do not take place in a vacuum, but rather are frequently the result of economic processes that we ourselves who live in more economically advanced nations may very well be playing a role in.  If we can become conscious of these issues, not only can we live our lives in ways that are more consistent with our values, but at the same time we may find ways to work towards building a better and more just world.

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