There’s something wrong with this price …

Thanks to the generosity of my sister, I have the chance to enjoy unlimited-data cell phone service as part of a family plan – an extra well beyond a monastic budget for a single phone line.  When I’m working and praying at the monastery, there’s not a lot of need for this kind of service – but, as I found out traveling in August, it can be very hard to be available to my colleagues and the sisters when I’m away.

This opportunity sent me in search of a data-ready cell phone.  A lot of online research showed me that the SmartPhones were priced at $200 or more – more than I wanted to pay when I did not anticipate really needing the service very often.  A trip to the local shop for the service provider revealed a variety of mail-in rebates and special pricing: but the cost still seemed to outstrip the need.

Sprint Blackberry Curve 8330
Image by nino63004 via Flickr

A local discount outlet, though, cut through the rebates and special prices in a way that was breathtaking: the phones were FREE with a two-year contract. I couldn’t believe this: I asked the clerk, “This means free if I start using this service for the first time, right?” “No,” he replied, “all you need to do is add a line to your existing service with a 2-year contract.”

It was not hard to do the math: I had already planned to pay for the cost of the added line.  Now that appeared to be the only cost.  I left with a phone that reads the internet, takes messages, lets me read my e-mail – and then dozens of other things I never imagined, like giving me up to date weather forecasts.  About a year from now, I will probably have learned most of what it can do.

I was aware, though, of a problem. The phone should not be free.  I’m sure the production is both automated and done overseas by workers paid very low wages.  Nonetheless, the phone includes dozens of precious metals and required at least some human input to assemble. The cost of 2 years of unlimited data service as an add-on line is only $80 more than Best Buy’s current price for the phone.    This only makes sense for the company if their cost for the phones is much much less. But if that’s the case, what were the wages of the workers?

TentI had a similar problem five years ago.  About to make a pilgrimage (burial place of Kateri Tekakwitha, North American Martyrs shrines in Ontario and New York, St. Anne de Beaupré) on a small budget, I decided to camp in Canada’s provincial park system – but needed a tent.  I found a great little tent with “amazing boing! action” that made it incredibly easy to set up.  Then one evening, as I was saying my Evening Prayer in a campground on the St. Lawrence River, I wondered how the tent – comfy and cozy – could have been made for only $37.  With the flashlight, I searched for the manufacturers tags.  The cloth was made in Korea; the tent sewn (including the costly long  sturdy zippers) in China; I could not tell where it was assembled.

How could $37 pay for

  • the cost of the materials (including the expensive long  sturdy zippers)
  • the wages of the people who made the fabric
  • the wages of those who sewed, assembled, and packaged
  • transport across the ocean and then to my door
  • the managers and planners who oversaw all of this

Some of the low cost was due, no doubt, to the tent being out of date or season – an older model sold inexpensively to move it along.  Nonetheless, I realized that the good deal that was so delightful when I found it was, for some workers I would never meet, a terrible deal – low wages, high pressure, probably poor working conditions.

Robert Reich’s recent book Supercapitalism: The Transformation of Business, Democracy, and Everyday Life highlights this dilemma, and the social ills that it is causing around the world.  How can any of us turn aside from a good deal – especially because hundreds of others will buy it anyway.  But as we demand that we get more and more for less and less (a free SmartPhone to get me to use the service??), our demand for cheap goods reduces the amount that employers can pay workers – or pay for health care – and sends jobs overseas where labor costs less.

One by one, there is not much that we can do about this, especially as the “great deal” is a seductive temptation that awaits us around every corner.  People will usually choose the free or subsidized item – tent, phone, car, genetically-modified crop, and the like – much of the time.  Even if they do not, the awareness that the item is available for such a low price will put a cap on what they are willing to pay anywhere.

As I prepare to sleep in the $37 tent on Saturday for the annual Night Without a Home event for homeless awareness, I have to wonder: did the great deal I got on the tent, on the SmartPhone, or anything else, cost someone their job or move them closer to homelessness?

It is not enough to be aware of the immediate needs and problems of the homeless.  We need to become aware of prices that are too low to adequately support the people who create the object or service – and band together to make sure that any extra money we pay makes it to the pockets of those who did the hard work of sewing or manufacturing or creating the work we’re enjoying.

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