Capitalism comes to Dinner

It was an awkward dinner from the beginning. An unfamiliar town and an unfamiliar group of people. I was there with my wife to celebrate her friend’s birthday and was seated across from a friend of my wife’s friend. Conversation was friendly and we talked about our jobs and the areas in which we lived. The friend talked about how there was nothing to do in Virginia and asked about Princeton. “Is there shopping?”

“There’s a Wal-Mart” was my reply. Let’s be frank- there isn’t much in West Virginia either. She seemed displeased but pleasant discourse continued. The lady, it seems, was a real estate agent. Her husband teaches at a collegiate level, and she seemed to be desperately bored with life here in the mountains. The discussion turned, for lack of a better term, interesting when she said “my family owns factories in Mexico.”

A hard gaze fell upon her smiling face as she reveled in the fact that she was a “have” at a table full of “have nots” and a red rush of disgust came to my face as I realized that with the exception of my wife and I, everyone else at the table wished desperately to emulate the “friend’s” economic success.

My wife stopped what she was doing, glanced at the woman, and said simply “Sweatshops?” The woman looked a bit stunned but cooly replied, “Yes, sweatshops, but…” As I tell my high school students, there’s always a but. In this case our good “friend” wanted to “but” an explanation regarding why it’s okay to exploit workers in another country for selfish motivations.

“But,” she said, still smiling, “It’s really not as bad as it sounds. We have to feed them breakfast and lunch, and there’s really no other jobs in the area. I guess it’s better than nothing.” “But,” she said. Allow me to translate: “If economic conditions are poor and desperate people are willing to work in substandard conditions for substandard pay it should be okay to exploit them for personal gain.”

The idea that one person or group of people should subjugate another to their will through economic terrorism such as this is an affront to mankind. The very idea that our fellow humans despair in poverty and willingly work terrible textile jobs while others complain over their underdone steak about a lack of retail stores before climbing into their Mercedes should be the sirens call to every hard working man and woman on the planet: “Something’s wrong!”

Essentially the story is the same in any low wage, low employment area. If someone swoops in and sets up a factory that pays a substandard wage they slap one another on the back and say, “Good job, we’ve brought them work.” With the work comes hardship, long days, low pay, and desperation. They leave the factories to cross our borders out of sheer desperation. A beautiful young Mexican girl once crossed the border only to be murdered a few weeks after getting to American soil- soil we stole from Mexico ages ago. She wrote to her mother just before she died and said that her worst day in America was better than her best day in Mexico.

When a Mexican worker is willing to leave their own country, to walk past the factories, to cross our border illegally and work for less than minimum wage we should be able to conclude something about the quality of these factory jobs: “better than nothing” still isn’t all that good. When the worst day in our country is better than the best day in theirs, the bastards exploiting the masses on behalf of free-market capitalism should take notice and acknowledge that what they do in these factories is nothing short of modern day feudalism and in place of wealthy land owners we have suitcase businessmen, stomachs and wallets swollen on the sweat, blood, and very lives of a trodden down people.

Capitalism came to dinner that day, and I said nothing to rebuke her. I finished my overpriced meal and went home. I had no urge to ruin someone’s birthday party with a fiery debate about the merits of socialism and the evils of big business. Instead my wife and I went out the next evening as we often do, and engaged in standard capitalist behavior. We spent money on food and goods, but not at a chain, not at some megacorporation where men in suits banter about golf while running hands through “million dollar hair,” we went out and supported the family owned businesses in our town. Businesses owned by people that aren’t trying to get rich, but instead struggle to get by. Businesses owned by people that don’t bow to the whim of Wal-mart or flashy market research. Free people, engaged in commerce to support their family, but waiting their own tables and working their own counters. They are a people with a stake in what they do, not the unassociated feudal lord, collecting checks and whining about poor shopping opportunities.

My urgent plea to all of you out there is simple: support those of us remaining that haven’t fallen victim to the crushing boot-heel of corporate oppression. Buy locally from locally owned businesses. Buy products produced by our brothers and sisters here in the United States. Pay an extra ten cents if it means an American job. The basic idea behind capitalism is that competition breeds a better society. However futile it may seem, let’s support the high-wage worker and do our part in stigmatizing those who would pay too little for too much work. And when Capitalism comes to dinner, don’t fume, don’t fret, and don’t spit in her face, for by following this simple creed you’ve already done just that.

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