Huffpost Business
The Blog

Featuring fresh takes and real-time analysis from HuffPost's signature lineup of contributors

Peter Smirniotopoulos Headshot

A Better Form of Capitalism: Consumer Behavior Matters

Posted: Updated:

This is the second in a three-part series I began on February 7th, with "It's Up to the 99% to Insist Upon a Better Form of Capitalism." In that lead-in to the topic of a better form of Capitalism, I stated:

The fact of the matter is, the 99% account for the vast majority (but not proportionately so, of course) of domestic consumption in this country, yet the 99% exercise that consumptive power with little to no regard for the consequences of our purchases when either the means of production or the distribution of the profits are considered. [Emphasis added.]

I then proceeded to run off a litany of consumer behaviors I suggested were contrary to supporting a better form of capitalism (and a better society in general). These included buying Michael Vick football jerseys while ignoring his heinous animal abuse; pirating intellectual property through illegally downloading music, videos and movies, and buying iPhones and iPads produced under some of the most draconian working conditions in the world. I concluded by saying:

The irony here then, is no matter how much others and I might decry, in the name of the 99%, the moneyed-maneuvering and influence-purchasing of those who practice variants of capitalism predicated on gaming the system in their favor, only the 99% have the opportunity to fundamentally change these unpleasant outcomes.

The fact of the matter is -- whether as consumers, donors to charitable organizations, or voters -- when we adopt and exercise a collective consciousness, positive change can be brought about fairly quickly. However, as is symptomatic of living in an overly stimulated, constantly connected, over-worked-and-under-recreated, 24/7 world, such initial successes are often fleeting. This is mostly because what should be the very beginning of change for the better is, more often than not, accepted as the end, because that's easier. I offer three recent, concrete examples below.

Before proceeding to these three examples, however, I want to better establish the premise of this three-part series. My initial blog entry somewhat takes for granted that readers accept America has lost its way in many fundamental respects; that "we don't practice the kind of 'capitalism' so frequently held up for all to see, particularly by GOP politicians and talking heads of late, as the foundation of America's greatness and 'exceptionalism.'"

Columbia University economics professor and Director of The Earth Institute, Jeffrey D. Sachs, has published an excellent book entitled The Price of Civilization. In the chapter on "Diagnosing America's Economic Crisis," Dr. Sachs writes:

We need to reconceive the idea of a good society in the early twenty-first century and to find a creative path toward it. Most important, we need to be ready to pay the price of civilization through multiple acts of good citizenship: bearing our fair share of taxes, educating ourselves deeply about society's needs, acting as vigilant stewards for future generations, and remembering that compassion is the glue that holds society together. I would suggest that a majority of the public understands this challenge and accepts it.

Sachs, Jeffrey D. (2011-10-04). The Price of Civilization: Reawakening American Virtue and Prosperity (Kindle Locations 71-75). Random House. Kindle Edition.[Emphasis added]

This notion of creating "a good society" through "multiple acts of good citizenship" is really at the heart of this three-part series, however in the more-narrow sense of exercising a much better-informed and higher consciousness about the things we buy, the services we use and the organizations we support.

Dr. Sachs goes on, in great detail in The Price of Civilization, to explain the negative consequences that have been suffered upon the United States as a result, at least in part, of the vast majority of Americans' allowing themselves to be so distracted by other things that they have forgotten how to be good citizens. Dr. Sachs offers, in part:

The CEO-friendly political environment, the economic effects of globalization, and specific regulatory and tax policy choices made in Washington over the past thirty years have combined to create an inequality of income and wealth unprecedented in American history. We are living through a new Gilded Age exceeding the gaudy excesses of the 1870s and the 1920s. The extent of riches at the top of the income and wealth distributions is unimaginable to most Americans, especially at a time when one in eight Americans depends on food stamps. The wealthiest 1 percent of American households today enjoys a higher total net worth than the bottom 90 percent, and the top 1 percent of income earners receives more pretax income than the bottom 50 percent. The last time America had such massive inequality of wealth and income was on the eve of the Great Depression, and the inequality today may actually be greater than in 1929. As we see from the figure, the New Deal and post-World War II reforms led to a dramatic narrowing of income inequality. Economic growth was widely shared from the end of the war until the 1980s. Then all the economic benefits tilted toward the rich.

Sachs, Jeffrey D. (2011-10-04). The Price of Civilization: Reawakening American Virtue and Prosperity (Kindle Locations 308-317). Random House. Kindle Edition. [Emphasis added.]

In Chapter 8 of his new book, Dr. Sachs lays at least part of the blame for these damning statistics at the feet of average citizens, as I am endeavoring do to with this three-part series:

Most attempts to explain the current economic crisis put the spotlight on reckless financial deregulation, and a few link the disastrous regulatory choices to the corrupted politics of Washington. Very few put a spotlight on the citizenry as well. It is easy, and right, to blame our politicians and greedy CEOs. The public knows the score and detests it. Yet at the end of the day, Americans have elected their leaders. Americans have allowed themselves to be manipulated by corporate propaganda. And Americans have behaved in a very shortsighted way with their own budget management, falling dangerously into debt and eventually into bankruptcy. Tens of millions of Americans are repeatedly overconsuming today and regretting it tomorrow: whether by overeating, overborrowing, overgambling, excessive TV viewing, or indulging in yet other addictions.

Sachs, Jeffrey D. (2011-10-04). The Price of Civilization: Reawakening American Virtue and Prosperity (Kindle Locations 1906-1912). Random House. Kindle Edition.[Emphasis added.]

Three recent examples of corporations or organizations behaving badly, and the immediate, negative backlash among their respective consumers and supporters, demonstrate the power possessed by "We the People" when we are socially conscious and take immediate action. Social media like Facebook and Twitter played a large part in each of these examples, although they also have the potential to play a principal role among the "distractions" Dr. Sachs references in his book as keeping us from being more-effective advocates for the betterment of all.

Bank of America Backs Down on Proposed $5.00 per Month Debit Card User Fee.

Last October Bank of America announced it was going to add a $5.00/month "surcharge" for debit card usage. This announcement was brought about "[a]fter Congress required the Federal Reserve to crack down on the fees retailers pay banks to accept plastic." This announcement not only sparked an angry outcry from BofA customers but was the catalyst for "Move Your Money Day," a national movement urging customers of the biggest banks (including BofA, Citigroup, Chase, Wells Fargo, SunTrust, etc.) to move their accounts to community banks and credit unions. As of today, over 84,808 customers of big banks have signed the pledge on the Rebuild the Dream website to move their accounts, including more than 33,000 BofA customers.

Komen Foundation Reverses Policy Targeting Planned Parenthood for Defunding.

In January, Cecile Richards, Executive Director of Planned Parenthood, sent out an email to the organization's supporters to let them know that the implementation of a recently adopted policy change at the Susan G. Komen Foundation was going to result in the loss of a long-standing SGK grant funding Planned Parenthood's breast cancer screening services, including the costs of mammograms, at a number of PP clinics serving indigent and uninsured women for whom these services were not available elsewhere. This email caused a firestorm of protest, primarily on Facebook and Twitter, and subsequently covered by the mainstream media (MSM).

As the scrutiny of SGK's "policy change" became more acute, it became clear that the change was specifically targeted at Planned Parenthood (despite Komen Foundation assurances to the contrary) because some SGK contributors as well as management staff and some Board members were uncomfortable with the fact that Planned Parenthood also provides abortion services for women who cannot otherwise afford them (although not funded with any SGK funds). Within three days of the Richards email the SGK policy was reversed, and several days later the organization's Senior V.P. for Public Policy, Karen Handel, a very vocal anti-abortion advocate who was largely credited with shepherding the change through SGK management and securing Board approval, had resigned.

Apple Voluntarily Initiates Independent Inquiry into Worker Conditions at Chinese Factory Producing iPhones and iPads.

After a respectable mourning period following the death of Apple founder and CEO Steve Jobs, stories started to surface about the deplorable conditions at Foxconn, Apple's Chinese manufacturer of iPhones and iPads. Although it took some time for reports about Foxconn's working conditions to be covered by the high-tech press, and later still by the MSM, word spread among Apple customers who -- much like the Nike customers who less than twenty years ago learned their $100-and-up running shoes had been made by children as young as ten in Pakistan and Cambodia -- flooded Apple with complaints. This outcry forced Apple to ask the Fair Labor Association, an independent trade organization Apple just joined in January of this year, to investigate worker conditions at Foxconn and other Apple overseas suppliers.

These are, indeed, three excellent examples of how -- particularly with the benefit of social media -- individuals can become informed almost immediately, and mobilize like-minded citizens for collective action to force better behavior by corporations and nonprofit organizations. However, in each of these examples, it remains to be seen whether the response from each offending entity will be long-lasting. If each of these entities perceive that "the public" has been satisfied by their initial response, the answer to whether changes will last is "probably not."

Are Bank of America and the other big, commercial banks already working on new ways to increase the fees they charge their customers, in perhaps more surreptitious ways that make detection more difficult? And, more importantly, who's watching them to make sure they're not?

Will Komen Foundation heed the continuing calls, from thousands of donors, volunteers, and other supporters, insisting that founder and CEO Nancy G. Brinker resign over her PR blitz, publicly denying what later was proven to be true about the policy change having specifically targeted the defunding of Planned Parenthood? That's not likely to happen if Komen doesn't see a significant drop in volunteers and donations during its recently started 2012 Race for the Cure campaign.

Will the release of the iPad3 be greeted with greater skepticism by loyal Apple customers who, up until now, have not asked the question "How many Chinese workers suffered or committed suicide so I can have the latest Apple product?" If those customers are willing to accept the Fair Labor Association investigation as the end of the story, and not the beginning, then expect that throngs of those same iAddicts to be standing in line at an Apple Store near you, regardless of the scope and extent of worker misery involved.