A friend recently asked me to assess the stylistic merits of a short essay that his college-age daughter wrote during her competition to become a columnist for a campus newspaper. I did so, and was happy to report to my friend and his daughter – who I’ll call “Sarah” – that this young woman’s flair for writing is enviable. Her language is clear, active, and vivid, with not a word wasted or wanted. If her essay is any guide, Sarah already writes better than do some seasoned columnists for major newspapers.
Fortunately, I wasn’t asked to assess the essay’s substance. Offering such an assessment would have required me to be uncomfortably critical.
With her essay, Sarah describes the surprisingly difficult challenges encountered by an attentive “socially conscious” person – such as herself – who insists on patronizing only businesses that are truly committed to cleaning the environment, furthering workers’ rights, and promoting social justice. Sarah’s disappointment is palpable as she tells of her unfolding realization that labels and advertising slogans often mislead. A bag of coffee beans labeled “Fair Trade Certified” doesn’t guarantee that all workers on that grower’s coffee plantation are paid wages that Sarah and her classmates regard as fair. And just because a brand-name sounds eco-friendly and is accompanied by a boast of its owner’s deep devotion to sustainability and “combating climate change” doesn’t ensure that that brand’s parent company isn’t a gigantic, heartless, wasteful, polluting multinational corporation seeking only maximum lucre for its shareholders.
Sarah’s plucky research into this manufacturer’s vaunted green cred and that retailer’s self-described commitment to diversity, equity, and inclusion uncovers the truth that many of these corporate claims range from being questionable to being lies in all but the most literal sense. Sarah concludes her essay by wisely warning her readers that reality is far more complex than it appears on the surface. Be aware, cautions Sarah, of the big, unseen reality that looms behind simple labels and righteous talk.
The Fuller Unseen Reality
The principal point of Sarah’s essay is both correct and key: Reality is indeed far more complex than it appears on the surface; it cannot be grasped merely by mastering superficial phenomena such as product labels and advertising slogans. Deeper forces, ones more complex and difficult to discern, loom large behind that which first strikes the eye and mind. Sarah errs, though, in failing to appreciate complexity’s full extent. Ironically, and despite her realization, she continues to suppose that reality is pretty simple.
Sarah, for example, supposes that corporate or NGO employees, if they are well-meaning and committed to doing so, can easily distinguish fair from unfair wages and working conditions of people in poor countries. Sarah proudly refuses to purchase goods manufactured by workers paid wages that the certifiers whom she trusts deem unfairly low. Sarah likely supposes that if enough other rich-country consumers act as she does, the companies paying these ‘unfairly’ low wages will, in order to maintain adequate market share, give their workers raises. A simple cure for a ‘social injustice’!
But if Sarah were to bring to this issue the same skepticism that she now brings to corporations’ advertising copy and mantras, she might realize that the wages or work conditions that superficially appear to her and other westerners as unacceptably pitiable might in fact be the best options available to those poor-country workers. Were she to examine the situation more carefully, Sarah would see that, if the employers of these workers lose sales because of her boycott, the fate of these workers would be, not the receipt of higher wages, but the suffering of lost jobs. Losing these jobs would in turn push these workers to toil away in even lower-paying tasks or under yet more dangerous conditions.
Sarah wrongly supposes that reality is so simple that well-intentioned citizens of rich countries can tell, merely by looking at other people’s wage rates and work conditions, if their terms of employment are unacceptably poor – people who, it’s worth emphasizing, actually accept those wages and work conditions. These workers are much better positioned to see and understand their own individual realities than are Sarah and the persons who dispense “fair trade” labeling.
Similarly, Sarah supposes that the net environmental impact of the use of some product, or of some process of production is easily discernible. Electric vehicles (EVs), for example, have no tailpipe emissions, and so drivers of EVs superficially appear to be more environmentally friendly than are drivers of petroleum-powered automobiles. But producing the electricity to power EVs typically emits carbon into the atmosphere, if, perhaps, not as much as is emitted by the operation of non-EVs. And the batteries used in EVs are produced with lithium, the increased mining of which could cause – as argued even by The Guardian’s “climate justice reporter” – “needless water shortages, Indigenous land grabs, and ecosystem destruction inside and outside its [that is, America’s] borders, new research finds.”
Are the costs of these latter risks worth whatever net reduction in carbon emissions might occur because of greater use of EVs? Maybe. Maybe not. I have no idea. Nor does Sarah. And nor does anyone else. Reality is too complex to yield anything other than guesses – and guesses much closer to being wild than educated.
More generally, we have no solid information showing that the costs of efforts to reduce CO2 emissions – by whatever amount and through whatever means – are worth the resulting benefits. What would be sacrificed by such efforts? And how do we know that the value of these sacrifices would be less than the value of what would be sacrificed if humanity dealt with climate change in some alternative manner – perhaps by building higher seawalls and more air-conditioning? Or by arranging to increase the earth’s albedo? Or by reducing government-erected barriers to the construction and use of nuclear-power plants? Or perhaps even by simply suffering climate-change’s negative (along with its positive) consequences? (These positive consequences, not incidentally, are significant. As Matt Ridley notes, “given that roughly ten times as many people die of cold as die of heat globally, and that this is true even of countries like India and Italy, warming has meant fewer people dying.”)
It follows that even if a product’s label attests accurately to that product’s contribution to reduced CO2 emissions, neither Sarah nor any other consumer can possibly know if patronizing this product will help or harm the environment specifically or humanity more generally.
And Then There Are Political Boasts
Sarah’s healthy refusal to take the product labels and advertising copy of corporations at face value should, but I fear doesn’t, also carry over to the political arena. Indeed, skepticism of politicians’ claims is far more justified than is skepticism of the claims made by private corporations. Whatever is the scope for corporations to mislead consumers, that scope is narrower than is the scope for politicians to mislead voters. Corporations that get caught being deceptive or misleading can, in extreme cases, be sued and, in almost all cases, immediately lose customers to rivals who are revealed to be better actors. In contrast, no politician can be sued for having lied about the consequences of his or her policies. The politician who promises that, say, the higher minimum wage that he successfully enacted will increase the incomes of all low-skilled workers cannot be prosecuted for false advertising if this minimum-wage hike does not deliver as promised and even if it can be proven that the politician knew that the consequences of the minimum wage would be the opposite of what he promised they would be. The worst that can happen to this politician is that he’s voted out of office when his term is up.
But even this latter threat is unreliable. Because the full consequences of almost any public policy extend over a large expanse of time and space – and because other economic and social changes are always occurring simultaneously – the full consequences of almost any government intervention are impossible to ‘see’ with the naked eye. These consequences can be perceived only with considerable intellectual effort, and never perfectly. The public’s inability to ‘see’ with the naked eye any but the most obvious consequences of government interventions ensures that politicians confront only very weak incentives to be truthful and concrete about the likely full consequences of their interventions. There is, in short, far more reason to be skeptical of President Jones’s and Senator Smith’s boasts about the splendors of the policies they peddle than there is to be skeptical of whatever boasts a corporation puts on its products’ labels or makes in its advertising campaigns.
Perhaps as she matures Sarah’s skepticism will widen to encompass political claims. My hope is that it will.