Holiday spending overshadows holiday

MADISON, Wis., (U-WIRE) — These are the times that try my soul. The period between Thanksgiving and New Year’s is traditionally one reserved for family and all the stress and strife of visiting with those sharing your DNA strands. Siblings draw battle lines in the crowded back seat on the way to grandma’s, and spouses square off against in-laws who insist they can cook a tastier meal, decorate a nicer tree or build a hotter fire. But the fiercest holiday battlefield is the marketplace.
In Christian households, the day after Thanksgiving signals the start of a consumer quest that Alan Greenspan and his disciples would have you believe determines your future place in socio-economic rankings. “Spend lots of money on lots of useless junk,” they say, “and the planets will align and everything will come up roses. Fail to mindlessly throw good money into the bottomless pit of holiday gift-giving,” they warn, “and your company will relocate to Laos, your kids will take up heroin, Grandma will contract syphilis and the 90-day T-bill will make like the Titanic and hit rock bottom.”
Will the nuclear-capable Chinese really invade the West Bank if domestic spending drops 6 percent this holiday season? Probably not. Yet typically logical and level-headed people nevertheless suffer nervous tics when retailers report that too many Furbys, Millennium Barbies and PokÇmon remain on the shelves. Although semi-plausible arguments can be made on behalf of the trickle-down economics of holiday spending, the increased social inequity and regressive wealth redistribution of the ’80s would seem to temper popular enthusiasm for such an economic strategy. The shopping malls and their infinite parking lots may still be crammed full, but the shoppers fueling the frenzy are not full of holiday cheer.
Nearly one in three Americans polled “feel pressure to have a more expensive or elaborate holiday” than they would like. In fact, 39 percent of Americans would either save money for future use or pay off debts were it not for the constructed consumer holiday traditions that ruthlessly turn the thumbscrew of holiday spending and debt.
Of course, the increasing corporatization and profitability of the holidays send shockwaves well beyond tense family visits and crowded malls. Americans collectively owe $450 million to credit card companies — a debt that is increasing twice as fast as workers’ wages. Indeed, U.S. holiday gluttony both nurtures and presses into sharp relief striking levels of consumption and international income disparity. Most Americans claim to budget $800 for gifts, which is equal to or greater than annual household incomes in many of the nations where our gifts are actually made. In Vietnam, for instance, the median annual household income is only $250.
Foreign wages and international workers’ rights are a particularly timely subject because they are the nucleus of discussions at the World Trade Organization’s convention currently being held in Seattle. Advocates argue the United States, as the mastermind of the profit-driven holiday race to the bottom, should take strong steps to ensure the WTO is actively protecting human rights and fair living wages.
Broad international protection for workers, the argument goes, is the only way to maintain current production levels while preventing employers from abandoning countries with fair labor laws and moving to wherever they can exploit workers. After all, a rising tide raises all ships. The jobs won’t leave, it is said, if there’s no cheap-labor advantage to pulling up stakes. If history is instructive, however, it seems unlikely the United States will take responsibility for global labor inequity spawned by a holiday appetite for cheap, shiny goods.
A local parallel of holiday consumerism running roughshod over human rights is UW-Madison’s efforts to sever ties with far-off sweatshops and labor exploitation of women and children. Two weeks ago, just as Badger fans rushed to buy ##33 jerseys for friends back home, UW hosted a symposium of national labor leaders and academics to determine living wages globally and devise a viable implementation system. It’s become clear in the past few months, however, that talking about fair wages and actually severing UW ties with sweatshops are two different animals altogether.
Despite a newly unveiled monitoring system administered by indigenous nonprofit groups, university leaders ironically remain committed to the Fair Labor Association, a phantom sweatshop monitoring system driven by Nike and other sweatshop proprietors. The Workers’ Rights Consortium, as the only viable plan not completely controlled by manufacturers, has not yet been embraced by UW leaders.
Some say we should collectively swear off holiday gifts, buy only fair labor goods and abstain from sweatshop-made UW apparel. Unabashed capitalists counter that casting off tired traditions of consumerism in favor of more joyous family activities is unrealistic, and would hurt the global economy. My question is whether workers enjoy even a sliver of the holiday windfall, or if the holiday profits simply line the owners’ deep pockets. There must be some solution to this holiday quagmire, and I can only hope either Santa will stuff it in my stocking or economically inclined readers will offer the solution in response.
J. Nels Bjorkquist’s column originally appeared Friday’s University of Wisconsin paper, The Badger Herald.