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What Do We Owe?

 
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Mats
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PostPosted: Tue 15 Jul, 2008 6:13 pm    Post subject: What Do We Owe? Reply with quote

In my previous "New Topic" Paying for Food" I opened the question of paying for food. The problem I posed (pay more to producers so they can live like "us") suggested a much larger issue - namely, what is our obligation to 'the world'? By this I mean the world that does not have what we have. Should we, by our buying power try to make things better for them? Should we concentrate on making our own lives better? Should we expect that "market conditions" will eventually narrow the poor-rich gap? If we "need" a product, should we not look for the lowest price?
It gets darn difficult.



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Lawless in Lotusland
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PostPosted: Tue 15 Jul, 2008 8:06 pm    Post subject: Re: What Do We Owe? Reply with quote

MEF wrote:
...what is our obligation to 'the world'? By this I mean the world that does not have what we have. Should we, by our buying power try to make things better for them? Should we concentrate on making our own lives better? Should we expect that "market conditions" will eventually narrow the poor-rich gap? If we "need" a product, should we not look for the lowest price?
It gets darn difficult.


Various people have various answers:

1. The invisible hand of the market? When Adam Smith thought of this, I think he was arguing against huge monopolies... saying that ordinary small businesses should be involved in this equality-based self-regulating market place. What role for governments to ensure an even playing field? Seems that without government regulation the big get bigger and more powerful at the expense of the poor. It's not really clear to me that the gap is narrowing as a result of neo-con economic policies. Others have suggested that the invisible hand of the market is much like letting a bunch of kids regulate themselves... I think some famous books have used this analogy -- e.g. Lord of the Flies (I confess I have not read this -- almost illiterate I am in good literature particularly if it was assigned in school -- yes, I was always lawless).

2. Utilitarian ethical approach: what's right is what increases happiness for the most people. This is what would promote the "win win" approach... reciprocity of trade (and other economic) negotiations that maximizes gain for the many. Thus, one tries to discern what is in one's true best interest. This is tricky since we all live in a web of human and other relationships. And not all are equally able to assert their needs and interests. There is government regulation of economic relationships in this view. This is said to be a dominant public policy view (but I'm not sure about this nowadays.) And what relationships and how and to what degree? What does the government do to protect those who are marginalized to the point they aren't included in the majoritarian approach? However, this approach seems to be helpful in thinking about personal ethical economic decisions among people who are roughly equal in power.

3. I like Amartya Sen's capabilities approach to justice which critiques utilitarianism. John Rawls also critiques utilitarianism. They are different in approach but both try to take into account this problem of unequal power in societies. Amartya Sen's shorter pieces are tolerable to read. Rawls very hard to read.

4. Rights-based approach to development -- this is getting more prominent in thinking of development specialists. In this view, people have a right to adequate food, shelter, participation in their culture, education, etc. This means poor people have the same rights as non-poor. This approach helps me a bit and is used by the major international development organizations serving poor people.

5. Golden rule of many religions suggests we treat others as we'd like to be treated... sounds pretty simple, except that it requires us to step into the shoes of those affected by our actions -- and our buying decisions. Nowadays we're realizing we have pretty complex networks of people and groups including folks who live in places like Amazonian forests far away. Do we think about those folks only when we actually get to know them personally?

Personally I like Sen and Rawls, particularly Sen (who sometimes writes with Martha Nussbaum, the famous philosopher). No, I'm not a philosopher, economist etc ... have read only enough to be dangerous. I prefer a combination of 4 and 5 (which seem simpler and also seem to balance moral entitlements and obligations, and may also balance justice and mercy) for my personal buying and investment decisions as well as what I expect governments to be doing -- particularly Canada which has ratified all the basic international human rights conventions (see http://www.ohchr.org/EN/countries/ENACARegion/Pages/CAIndex.aspx for treaties Canada has ratified). Along these lines, many of the church-based development agencies are now trying to move away from a charity-based approach and towards a justice-based approach. They suggest that while charity (charitableness) is a great thing in its truest sense, the idea of "charity" has been perverted to become a trickle-down mentality by which people give their extras and hand-me-downs to the "deserving" poor at Christmas time, but maintain the old colonial attitudes -- the sense that they deserve to be rich, and that the poor are poor because they are lazy or undeserving (which is highly disputable, particularly in the case of children). They are also suggesting that the God portrayed in the bible is primarily interested in justice, including, particularly for the poor, and decrying injustice, corruption, social cruelty and social inequalities propped up by dominant social and religious establishments of the day. The prophets of the ancient Hebrew scriptures (old testament prophets) as well as the new testament beatitudes of Jesus are chief sources of these views.

Well, sorry about the length and for getting carried away. This may not even make it past the forum rules. You can also see that I'm procrastinating on some jobs I've promised to do. And yes, I know I need to get a life in terms of the reading I do!


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PostPosted: Tue 15 Jul, 2008 9:38 pm    Post subject: Number 5 Reply with quote

Do unto others as you would have done unto you.



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PostPosted: Wed 16 Jul, 2008 7:08 am    Post subject: Re: What Do We Owe? Reply with quote

MEF wrote:
what is our obligation to 'the world'?


That is indeed a tricky one. I do think our obligation is to purchase responsibly and clean up our environment. But on the other hand, we have to be wary of the "let's jump on this bandwagon" mentality of vendors. And worse, to fall for the argument that to buy responsibly must cost considerably more money and vendors who try to guilt-trip customers into paying the high cost.

One of our friends works in the area of the "Five Thieves" (I think that's what it's called) near SummerHill. She bought a loaf of bread and was charged (get ready for this) $8.00. The reason given? "High cost of flour". Okay, get real. Flour isn't THAT expensive right now. Not even organic flour. To me, the $8.00 loaf of bread falls into the category of "what the market will bear" pricing. (The usual clientele of the Five Thieves wear Gucci shoes to the beach and drive SUVs not even noticing how much it costs to fill up the tank; in short: the rich.)

MEF wrote:

Should we expect that "market conditions" will eventually narrow the poor-rich gap?


At the rate we're going, I'm thinking the poor-rich gap is going to widen dramatically. Those of us who can afford to pay for the "responsible" choices can't know for certain that the money is going to the very people who are producing responsibly rather than into already bulging wallets of middlemen and shareholders. Which means that the "responsible" producers won't necessarily be able to bring their prices down. Those of us who feel we can't afford to pay for the "responsible" choices will continue to buy "inorganic" (cough) produce that has been grown far far away where migrant workers are paid paltry sums under the table. (Who, me? Cynical?)

I'm still waiting for a good explanation for why a box of beautiful looking/smelling Ontario strawberries costs MORE than a box of beautiful looking/smelling California strawberries. Is labour so cheap in California? And what about fuel prices? Even if fuel prices in USA are lower than in Canada, not even taking into account the distance travelled from California to Ontario, the California strawberries still have to travel about the same distance through Ontario (and presumably purchase at least some fuel in Canada) as the Ontario strawberries.

Lawless in Lotusland wrote:
I confess I have not read [Lord of the Flies] -- almost illiterate I am in good literature particularly if it was assigned in school


What a shame that bad teachers have ruined so many good books. Lord of the Flies (although it is definitely not for the faint-hearted) is a great read.

Speaking of reading, I have a lot of difficulty reading anything that is non-fiction. But am presently reading "The Omnivore's Dilemma" by Pollan - pretty chilling so far.

Lawless in Lotusland wrote:
This may not even make it past the forum rules.


Does everyone think I'm going to delete things? How many posts have I deleted so far? (Hmmm. Shall I get trigger-happy and go nuts with the delete button?)



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Lawless in Lotusland
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PostPosted: Wed 16 Jul, 2008 6:18 pm    Post subject: Re: What Do We Owe? Reply with quote

ejm wrote:
...I'm still waiting for a good explanation for why a box of beautiful looking/smelling Ontario strawberries costs MORE than a box of beautiful looking/smelling California strawberries.


hear hear! However, rarely are the California strawberries anywhere as good as local strawberries, especially here in lotusland.

ejm wrote:
What a shame that bad teachers have ruined so many good books. ...am presently reading "The Omnivore's Dilemma" by Pollan - pretty chilling so far.


Well, teachers, and parents overly eager to get children reading "good literature" when it would be more productive to get them reading comic books and letting their tastes develop naturally.

ejm wrote:
Does everyone think I'm going to delete things?


Perhaps I felt my post was so full of turgid prose that it deserved to be deleted?!



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PostPosted: Thu 17 Jul, 2008 1:37 am    Post subject: Reply with quote

Making socially responsible buying decisions can require considerable effort. When I look at two comparable products I usually don't know how the manufacturers treat their workforce and don't know whether one bank is making less unethical investments than the others. I fear that I am being tokenistic when I purchase Fair Trade products and I may well be being "guilt-tripped".

The question of market forces is complex. If I buy from the supplier offering the lowest price am I condoning wage-slavery? Do I buy only those items which I know to be "fair" at whatever price even if it means that I cannot afford to send my own children to College/University? There's middle ground somewhere and that's where I'm currently blundering about trying to balance my own ethics, moral, sense of social responsibility and guilt. Shopping never used to be so difficult did it?
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PostPosted: Fri 18 Jul, 2008 4:36 am    Post subject: Reply with quote

David wrote:
Making socially responsible buying decisions can require considerable effort.


Indeed! If I refuse to buy from the supplier offering the lowest price am I condemning those people who are on subsistence wages now into losing their work entirely?

David wrote:
Shopping never used to be so difficult did it?


No kidding. It's getting more and more difficult to keep my head in the sand where it has been so happily all these years!


-------------------
Yesterday, we bought a 10 pound bag of potatoes, product of Canada, marked Ontario#1 (yes, even though Canada has been using metric measures for years, the bags are still measured by the lb) and it cost just under $5. As opposed to $2.50 for the same amount of potatoes all winter long. Loose potatoes at the same store were $1/lb....



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PostPosted: Mon 21 Jul, 2008 9:30 am    Post subject: Potato prices Reply with quote

The pricing of produce at the retail level is a complex matter to analyze. One of the big factors responsible for changing demand for potatoes, and thereby screwing up the market was the brutal campaign by the late Dr. Atkins. He single handedly convinced people for a long time to abandon potatoes (carbohydrates) in favour of beef (protein). Thankfully, his influence has fizzled.



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PostPosted: Sat 26 Jul, 2008 12:19 pm    Post subject: Reply with quote

I just came home from a holiday in Northern California and since I try to buy local produce, I thought this was an excellent place to buy California strawberries. I was surprised to see that they were the same price as here in BC AND about the same quality. Perhaps Californians LIKE wooden strawberries. I found the produce prices to be about the same as here at home and I shopped at a variety of supermarkets. Safeway had the highest prices as it does here and Cost Cutter, similar to Superstore, had the lowest prices but the differences were not that significant. skip skip skip


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