Crucified by Low Consumer Prices

Is crucified too strong a word?

Perhaps, but perhaps not, as monopolies in the business world have nailed small companies and entire towns and villages to the cross of lowest price.

Look no further than my favorite long-term target Wal-Mart and what it has done to hollow out the downtowns of countless locations across the nation. Boarded up and listless, Main Street swinging in the wind of apathy—families divided among the old staying home and the young moving on. Moving on, now means moving out.

Local farmers no longer come to town for the Sunday dinners they once enjoyed. The treasured family restaurants have closed, unable to compete with fast-food chains at the Interstate junction and meals out in the company of other family friends just aren’t the same over burgers and fries.

Are we paying too big a price for the lowest price?

We’re playing chicken with chickens. They’ve never been cheaper, but low price comes at a high price and if that sounds unrealistic, consider the growth hormones and antibiotics pumped into that pale bird in plastic-wrap. We needn’t stop there. The same is true of beef and pork and that luscious leg of lamb that graces the Sunday dinner table. Spoiler alert: Growth hormones and antibiotics in your food are not a great idea and one for which we have precious little long-term information.

Low prices for food come hand-in-hand with industrial agriculture. You’ll be amazed at its definition if you have any lingering memories of Ol’ McDonald and his well-tended farm: “Industrial agriculture is the large-scale, intensive production of crops and animals, often involving chemical fertilizers on crops or the routine, harmful use of antibiotics in animals (as a way to compensate for filthy conditions, even when the animals are not sick).” Thus the dinner table is dictated by corporate bean-counters rather than those who nurture the land for the next generation. More and more, there is no next generation.

But hey, I save so much money shopping online

No doubt. Me too, but think about this for a moment or two and see if it sounds sustainable. Amazon controlled 87% of the purchases made during the last Christmas season. In the ten months since then, bankruptcies and/or major closings included Pier 1, Gap, J.C.Penney, Walgreens, Macy’s, Office Depot, Brooks Brothers, K-Mart, Lord and Taylor, Nordstrom and Bloomingdale’s, along with restaurant chains Subway, Pizza Hut, 350 Burger Kings, 550 Starbucks and 38 TGI Fridays.

So, business is hard. What else is new?

The what-else-is-new is the way we have decided to treat monopolies in America. We used to have rules for that, so the Amazons, Facebooks, Apples and Googles couldn’t take over the world. We broke up U.S. Steel, Standard Oil and American Tobacco but that was early in the last century. Then the since discredited Milton Friedman Chicago school of economic thought came into play. Since the publication of US judge Robert Bork’s The Antitrust Paradox in 1978, lawyers, judges and economists have grown increasingly tolerant of monopolies because of something known as the “consumer welfare standard.” In other words, big is okay, so long as no consumers are harmed, allowing mergers between big companies so long as they resulted in low consumer prices.

I argue that consumers have been seriously harmed

The last fifty years turned us into a consumer society, loosening our grip on manufacturing (formerly known as actually making stuff) and turning Americans into beggars on the street, trading in ever cheaper crap from the sweat-shops of Asia. Those fifty years brought us a (now legal) merger mania among American corporations.

Mergers depend upon reducing costs. In fact, they herald cost savings as their major purpose. What better way to reduce costs than to lay off all your employees and move the manufacturing to cheapest sources? Wave goodbye to Peoria, Caterpillar Tractor.

Worked great. Jobs and the Middle Class disappeared

Now it seems to me—and I may be wrong—that when a theory, a plan, a hope or a radical change in thinking works to destroy the prosperity of an entire nation, it ought to be changed. Or at least the possibility of such a national conversation ought to be considered.

But we haven’t done that. Now I understand that our hands have been a bit full lately, what with a totally fucked-up Congress, raging economic inequality, minority citizens murdered in the streets, wars we’re either too dumb or too egoistic to end, a pandemic at our throats—and all that contributing to homes and businesses and lives and entire generations lost.

But there are ways out. We are still a creative force in the world

What has been thought can be unthought. That’s axiomatic, a solid truism in a world of lies, greed and confusion. Mow the lawn, keep your dog in your own yard and be kind to your neighbor. Unthinking the mess we are in doesn’t mean confronting one another in the streets, defunding the police, throwing the bastards in Washington out or pounding on the walls in frustration.

We are kinder than that. We rescue kittens from drainpipes. Certainly we can sit down with our neighbors in friendly conversation, whether they are asshole Republicans or no-nothing Democrats—and work things out. We used to do that. We had a mechanism for it.

It was called the back fence and Mark Zuckerberg was nowhere to be seen.

Photo by Artem Beliaikin from Pexels

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