Complicity and Consequences

I know some people who assiduously avoid buying Nike shoes. The moral logic of this position, however, is tricky. For purposes of this post, I will stipulate that Nike is a bad apple and that the world would be a better place if people in third world countries lived lives of Rousseauian purity and fraternity based on localized economies. Why then avoid buying Nike?

It seems to me that there are two possibilities. First, it might be that boycotting Nike has some effect on the world. By not buying a pair of shoes, I have in some measure loosened Nike’s evil grip and helped to restore the golden pre-globalization, pre-imperialism age (or perhaps I have taken a step toward the post-globalization millennium). The problem with this argument is that as an empirical matter it is almost certainly nonsense. The fact of the matter is that Nike is really big, as is the third world, and my decision not to buy a pair of shoes has basically no impact on events. No matter how fervent and pure my convictions and how earnestly I desire to change the world, the world is going to be — for all practical purposes — precisely the same as it would have been had I bought the shoes.

Which brings me to the second possible reason for not buying Nike. Perhaps if I buy the shoes I become complicit in Nike’s crime. Remember, I stipulate that what Nike is doing is really bad. My boycott thus becomes a way of avoiding participation in Nike’s wickedness, and thus preserving my own moral integrity. This, it seems to me, is a much more plausible basis for the boycott. It does not require that I hold illusory beliefs about the practical effect of my actions on the state of affairs in the world nor does it push me toward the absurd position of endowing miniscule and functionally irrelevant effects on the world with moral significance.

Complicity, however, is itself a tricky concept. How do I become complicit in evil? By actively choosing particular goals that are evil? By actively participating in some activity, regardless of my beliefs as to its goals? By accepting some benefit conferred by an activity? Furthermore, how do I deal with a certain kind of moral selfishness implicit in the argument from complicity? Consider the case of Oskar Schindler. In one sense, he was thoroughly complicit in Nazi war crimes, taking possession of stolen property, profiting from slave labor, currying personal favor with the SS, etc. By withdrawing from Nazi occupied Poland and he could, presumably, have avoided or at anyrate reduced his complicity in Nazi crimes. And yet it was precisely because of Schindler’s complicity that he was able to save the lives of hundreds of people. Does this mean that he wasn’t really complicit? Why? Does Schindler’s case suggest that in the end it really is our effect on the world that matters? After all, we remember Schindler precisely because he did have a morally significant effect on the world itself.

52 comments for “Complicity and Consequences

  1. a random John
    August 15, 2005 at 3:21 pm

    I buy shoes that fit well without regard to brand. This was not always the case, and I will admit to having been under the sway of Nike’s marketing at one point.

    However I do shop at Costco rather than Walmart and I’m silly enough to think that it matters.

  2. Julie in Austin
    August 15, 2005 at 3:26 pm

    “The fact of the matter is that Nike is really big, as is the third world, and my decision not to buy a pair of shoes has basically no impact on events.”

    That just isn’t true–if your concern is the individual that the company is exploiting. Let’s say that one oppressed Nike worker (again, stipulating the evilness here; I’m still under the sway of Frank’s argument that Wal-Mart benefits third world workers) makes, say, 40 pairs of shoes during her ten hour shift. By not buying one pair this year, I’ve saved her 15 minutes of oppression. That matters.

    We could use convert baptisms as an analogy–one convert in Austin makes basically no impact on the city. But it makes a big difference for that one person.

    There’s also influence and ‘tipping point’ issues. Being the trend-setter we know you are, Nate, it is likely that at least 39 other people won’t buy Nikes if you don’t. That means we’ve saved our worker an entire day of oppression. ANd now that 40 fewer people are wearing them, maybe they won’t be fashionable . . .

    I appreciate your point about complicity and I am not sure what to do with it. While I am a big fan of globalization and captialism in general, one negative effect is that as things get complicated, there are fewer black or white hats and more polka-dotted ones. I’m sure if you carefully combed through our 401K, you’d find that we support alcohol, porn, and the clubbing of baby seals for sport. What’s the solution to that?

  3. Davis Bell
    August 15, 2005 at 3:30 pm

    The starfish! Think of the starfish!

  4. August 15, 2005 at 3:40 pm

    It’s interesting. I was talking to my friend about Nike. He used to love Nike but felt that when Nike started becoming more socially conscious their shoes went downhill. That is the more environmentally friendly ingredients led to worse glues so that people would find them breaking apart.

    I don’t know how true that is. I know most climbers were upset at some of Nike’s purchases because they feared mightily for thread strength and other such issues.

    How is all this tied to social responsibility though? I don’t know. I’ve not been able to figure it out. I do know that the average American doesn’t need an SUV nor climbing quality gear. However people back east will buy SUVs. Then we get the countermovement against such things and those who need such items get demonized in the wake.

    Color me confused.

  5. Aaron Brown
    August 15, 2005 at 3:41 pm

    I think Julie is right, in principle, that there is a point at which a number of individual actions in the aggregate will be felt, even if isolated individual actions will not. This gets me thinking about the oft-mentioned LDS injunction that by avoiding certain types of films, we send Hollywood a message, en masse, that they should avoid making such films since doing so will be unprofitable (at least with respect to us and all our devoted co-religionists). But I think that there comes a point at which the whole exercise, particularly if it has no real momentum behind it, becomes absurd. And then it begins even more absurd to treat the particular course of action as if it is fraught with moral significance.

    Aaron B

  6. Lisa B.
    August 15, 2005 at 3:49 pm

    I know about this commune off the grid in Montana… No, seriously, this issue bugs me a lot, too. But I’m not sure what or how much to do about it. Is it actually better for people to not have jobs at all? I wonder about materialism and consumerism from the human rights abuses perspective, a spiritual perspective, and an environemental perspective. I have wondered what it would be like if every Mormon had followed Pres Kimball’s advice to grow a garden, to the extent that we were self-sufficient in that regard, and if we all wore homemade clothing (homespun fabric?). No, we don’t have a garden or wear homemade clothes ourselves, but just wondering what Pres Kimball saw.

  7. Travis
    August 15, 2005 at 3:51 pm

    Nate – Your hypothetical is flawed in that it requires that we think only in terms of the individual’s boycott. The whole point of a boycott is that it’s not one person doing it, it’s a large group. One person deciding to avoid purchasing Nike shoes does very little, but many can do a great deal. I suspect that, without too much difficulty, we could come up with a number of “boycotters” that would have a material impact on Nike’s bottom line and/or competitive standing with other shoe companies and that this would have some affect on Nike’s actions. I don’t know if that number’s ever been reached before, or just how much “bad PR” (aside from a pure “boycott) would be necessary to influence Nike’s actions, but we could certainly come up with a number of shoes at which Nike would take notice and have to change its practices. Whether that number has been reached or not is just a question of (a) how good the boycott organizers are at their job and (b) how much John Q Public cares about sweat shops, child labor, etc.

  8. ed
    August 15, 2005 at 4:00 pm

    I don’t buy the “complicity” argument. The only reason to boycott Nike is because the boycott has some impact. And I agree with Julie that it does have some impact, even if very small. If you don’t buy the shoes, that’s one less pair of shoes that Nike sells (at that price, anyway). Nike is made strictly worse off. It doesn’t mean Nike will change it’s practices or go out of business, but it should at least raise the probability a tiny bit.

    On the other hand, a reasonable argument can be made that “socially responsible investing” really does have zero impact on the margin. If you take your investment money out of Philip Morris and put it into Ben and Jerry’s, you may infintesimally lower Philip Morris’ level of investment. But then someone less scrupulous than you will just invest more in Philip Morris and completely make up the difference…in a well functioning capital market, capital should flow to where it earns the highest return. The only way it would make a difference is if everybody refused to invest in Philip Morris. (Not just a majority, but everybody). That’s why I don’t really feel any guilt about owning Philip Morris as part of my index fund.

  9. Nate Oman
    August 15, 2005 at 4:21 pm

    It seems that we have two responses on the effects front:

    1. Julie suggests that my individual decision to not buy a pair of shoes does indeed matter because I spare someone fifteen minutes of oppression. Who knows if this is true, but I offer two things to think about. First, if we have an assembly line production, one less pair of shoes may be a matter of seconds rather than minutes. Second, my decision not to buy will probably not effect output so much as price, and here my decision not to buy will be utterly miniscule.

    2. I don’t think that conceptualizing the boycott as a social movement gets us out of the dilemma, but simply reverses it. A big boycott may have some real world effect, but my decision to particpate in the boycott one way or another will not have much of an effect on its effectiveness. Of course, we might say that because the boycott writ large is a great good because it will have an effect, we could then say that by associating myself with the boycott I do some good thing, even if the actual effects of my individual action are trivial. This, however, is simply complicity in another guise.

  10. August 15, 2005 at 4:31 pm

    How small a probability is small enough to be lost in the “noise”? Once you reach that, isn’t the action pointless.

  11. Nate Oman
    August 15, 2005 at 4:32 pm

    ed.: If I withdraw my capital from Phillip Morris the market in which it must compete for investment will be that much more infitesimally smaller, which ought to have some sort of a miniscule effect ot its cost of capital. In other words, it seems to me that if you think that not buying Nike shoes has some impact on the price that Nike can demand for shoes and therefore (one assumes) effects its welfare in some absolute way, the same logic applies to Phillip Morris. Do you think that there is some transaction cost in the shoe market that differentiates it from the capital markets; or that the shoe market is so much smaller than the capital market that one’s choices have an impact on one but not the other?

  12. ed
    August 15, 2005 at 4:37 pm

    “my decision not to buy will probably not effect output so much as price”

    Why do you assume that your decision won’t affect future output? I would say that your boycott would lower the ex-ante expected value of Nike’s future output by one pair of shoes.

  13. manaen
    August 15, 2005 at 4:39 pm

    Star(fish) throwers. Tipping points. When we were asked as missionaries how much we really were going to change the world, we answered with the story of Chicken Little, in the middle of the road, getting ready to hold up the sky when it fell. When told that she couldn’t do it because the sky was very big and she was very little, she answered, “Well, one does what one can.”

    OK, my life’s no example for anybody to follow, but sometimes I do try to send a message. I called a certain mutual fund why I was pulling out when I noticed that they had a tiny % of a % invested in Playboy. I also told my broker that I wouldn’t accept his invitation to invest in Silver Screen II because they would finance movies that I wouldn’t watch. I quit going to a local burger chain (for a while) after they featured Hugh Hefner in their ads. I’m a very rare shopper at Wal-Mart.

    Did any of this matter? Yes, in two ways: 1) somebody heard, occasonally to their astonishment, this point of view and 2) I had a better day after doing what I could. Like the old Golden Questions, sometimes the benefit comes from the effort and not from the result.

  14. Nate Oman
    August 15, 2005 at 4:41 pm

    ed: It depends on marginal cost doesn’t it? The question is whether or not my not buying a pair of shoes would have enough of an impact on the price so that the marginal cost of producing the last pair of shoes would exceed the price. Even if it did, however, the ex ante reduction in Nike’s value is not “one pair of shows” but the difference between the marginal cost of producing the last pair of shoes and the pre-boycott price of the shoes. In other words, functionally zilch…

  15. Nate Oman
    August 15, 2005 at 4:43 pm

    manean: Expand a bit for me. Do you think that the benefit really comes from your impact on the world or from avoiding complicity with some evil? Or is it just a matter of subjectively feeling better (and why should this have any moral significance at all if this is in fact the case)?

  16. ed
    August 15, 2005 at 4:53 pm

    Nate: Maybe my point about capital markets isn’t related to the size of the market. The point is that the value of a Philip Morris share is a function of it’s profits, which are determined by it’s costs and demand for it’s products. This value does not change if I sell my shares. As long as there are unscrupulous people in the world, someone will be willing to buy my share. The value of investing in Philip Morris has not changed one bit, so one can guess that the level of investment won’t change one bit.

    When I decide not to buy a pair of shoes, the effect is tiny but very real. If 1 million Americans each buy 1 less pair of Nike’s, then Nike sells 1 million fewer shoes (or they lower the price…either way, it has real effects.) If 1 million Americans sell their Philip Morris stock, then someone else buys it and it’s pretty much a wash (to a first approximation).

    The difference is between something that’s very tiny and something that’s actually zero. Something tiny isn’t “functionally zero” if 1000 people do it, or 100,000 people. But in an efficient capital market, “socially responsible investment” has no effect whatsoever unless almost everybody does it.

  17. August 15, 2005 at 4:56 pm

    Nate, do you vote in national elections? (You’ve applied the argument against voting in elections to the boycotting of Nike shoes, and the response to the argument is the same for voting and boycotting.)

  18. Nate Oman
    August 15, 2005 at 5:03 pm

    Ed: The fact that the value of a share of Phillip Morris is a function of its profit really tells us nothing about its costs of capital. After all, the value (price) of a share will also be a function of other things, not the least of which is the supply of capital. This is what stock prices can rise or fall on the basis of big shifts into or out of capital markets. (Indonesia or Thailand anyone?)

  19. Nate Oman
    August 15, 2005 at 5:03 pm

    Matt: I do vote in national elections, but it is not clear to me that my doing so is morally significant.

  20. blaine
    August 15, 2005 at 5:07 pm

    The Nike example doesn’t bring this out, but hypotheticals like boycotting Wal-Mart and conflict diamonds make the decision even more problematic. In forgoing Nike shoes, I’m assuming one buys Reeboks or Asics for around the same price if not cheaper, so one is not paying any extra for the “socially responsible shopping.”

    But not shopping at Wal-Mart or buying Canadian rather than African diamonds means one is, presumably, paying extra money to be socially responsible. This complicates the issue because one is now not only accomplishing functionally nothing in terms of compelling the producer to be more socially responsible, but one is spending money to do it–money that could be more effectively spent on other charities that would accomplish some actual good.

    So, the question becomes, is the comfort one receives by not being complicit in corporations’ crimes worth the opportunity cost of my money I spend not being complicit? I think not. In the absence of an ability to effect any change on a corporation’s activities, buy what’s cheap and give lots of money to the PEF.

  21. Nate Oman
    August 15, 2005 at 5:11 pm

    Blaine: Your argument assumes that the only benefit of avoiding complicity is subjective. Do you think that there is any real moral value in it as well? Suppose, for example, that you discovered that Nike was using all of its profits to subsidize the murder of children. At that point, wouldn’t buying Nike’s be immoral regardless of the cost-benefit analysis?

  22. blaine
    August 15, 2005 at 5:25 pm

    I think that the moral decision not to buy Nike shoes would still have to take account of opportunity cost. For example, your Nike shoes were $100, and the Reebok replacements that you needed were $110. I think that the moral question has to take account of the use of that $10. If you’re accomplishing $10 of “good” by not buying the Nikes (by a negative effect on Nike’s profits and ability to murder children), great. But I suspect that you could do a lot more buying the Nikes and donating that $10 elsewhere.

  23. blaine
    August 15, 2005 at 5:26 pm

    So, I guess my answer that the morality of buying Nike’s must always take account of cost-benefit analysis.

  24. Jack
    August 15, 2005 at 5:34 pm


    Your comment makes sense if your talking about isolated individuals. What if enough customers boycoted Nike so as to put it out of business?

  25. alamojag
    August 15, 2005 at 5:37 pm

    Much off the point, but I have long believed that Nike’s best, most innovative products are its advertisements. You can get good shoes anywhere, but nobody makes commercials like Nike. Is there a correlation between the advertising and the moral (ir)responsibility of the company?

  26. ed
    August 15, 2005 at 5:38 pm

    “After all, the value (price) of a share will also be a function of other things, not the least of which is the supply of capital.”

    Yes, but my decsision to invest in Ben and Jerry’s instead of Philip Morris doesn’t change the total supply of capital, so it doesn’t change the return to capital, so it doesn’t change the price of a Philip Morris share, nor does it change the amount invested in Philip Morris.

    Now if I take my money out of Philip Morris and use it to buy Ben and Jerry’s ice cream, which I then eat, I have reduced the total supply of capital. But even then, the effects will be spread out accross the whole market, they won’t fall specifically on Philip Morris.

    “The fact that the value of a share of Phillip Morris is a function of its profit really tells us nothing about its costs of capital.”

    The marginal cost of capital and the risk-adjusted marginal rate of return are equal in an efficient market. In fact that’s pretty much the definition of an efficient capital market.

    (sorry for the digression, everyone)

  27. August 15, 2005 at 5:39 pm

    Nate, you’ve been coy about your own feelings on the complicity question, but I’m guessing you agree there is some moral content to our patronizing institutions that partake in evil practices. I certainly think there is. There are no doubt 6,000 hypotheticals in which we can note that the moral ramifications for my own soul from buying this shoe or that stock are negligible, but I think it’s clear that these are arguments of scale, not of type. In other words, your example of Nike using their profits to murder children proves the point sufficiently: There is no question that I am morally culpable when I contribute to an entity that will then do bad things with my (indirect) contribution. The problem comes when the evils carried out by the organization are hidden, diffuse, ambiguous, or extended over long periods of time.

    Thus, anyone who says they don’t buy the complicity argument (a la ed, above), is probably really saying they don’t believe there are that many cases where the evil-doing is so obvious that my guilt is certain. But there are few who will actually deny that I can be held harmless for contributions to an organization I am sure will give some funding to Al-qaeda, or my selling bullets to the mob.

    In short, it’s all aiding and abetting evil– the question is what level of attenuation from the evil each person finds morally acceptable.

  28. August 15, 2005 at 5:41 pm

    Correction: But there are few who will actually ARGUE that I can be held harmless for contributions to an organization I am sure will give some funding to Al-qaeda, or my selling bullets to the mob

  29. gst
    August 15, 2005 at 6:08 pm

    I’m puzzled by the number of posters who apparently take as a given that Wal-Mart is on par with pornographers, alleged child-enslavers, and diamond merchants who actively fund machete-wielding genocidists.

  30. Nate Oman
    August 15, 2005 at 6:10 pm

    Ryan: My tendency is to think that:

    1. The real-world consequences of our actions are always a subject of moral concern, although frequently the consequences are so miniscule that they don’t matter much.

    2. Our moral culpability for complicity is a product of the moral evil at question and the real-world impact of our complicity. Hence, even minor aid-and-comfort to the premeditated murder of children has major moral consequneces, but minor aid-and-comfort those who play loud rock music around old ladies is probably not such a big deal. On the other hand, if your income were dependent entirely on blaring Britney Spears music at unwilling retirees probably is culpable in some way.

    Hence, I think that it is possible to consider the moral significance of consquences independent of complicity, but it is not possible to consider the moral significance of complicity independent of consqueneces.

  31. Nate Oman
    August 15, 2005 at 6:12 pm

    “I?m puzzled by the number of posters who apparently take as a given that Wal-Mart is on par with pornographers, alleged child-enslavers, and diamond merchants who actively fund machete-wielding genocidists.”

    gst: That is because you are a souless shill for corporate America who thinks that pettifogging distinctions between hacking babies to death and disfavoring unionization are somehow morally significant.

  32. August 15, 2005 at 6:17 pm

    That is because you are a souless shill for corporate America who think that pettifogging distinctions between hacking babies to death and disfavoring unionization are somehow morally significant.

    Count me in! I love Wal-Mart.

    Besides the low prices, I’m not sure how it’s a bad thing to give jobs to people who might otherwise not have jobs. In my hometown of Homer, Alaska, this is a big deal, as a Fred Meyer intends to build a small store in town. One of my fellow grad students referred to Fred Meyer as a “not quite as evil as Wal-mart” store.

    That’s those graduate student liberals for you. Terrorism isn’t evil, but capitalism is.

  33. August 15, 2005 at 6:35 pm

    Nate, in making my case for complicity, I’m trying to isolate it from the issue of consequences. Thus, I understand that my 10 bucks paid for a ticket to see Sin City isn’t going to have a real world consequence. The studios have probably long made the determination of whether that was a success, and whether to follow it up with similar dreck.

    I don’t see why that exonerates me, though. I think there’s a strong moral case for complicity whether or not my complicity has the effect of increasing or multiplying the sins. The fact that I indirectly, but knowingly, supported the acts is enough to condemn me. The Lord isn’t going to let me off the hook for forming an attenuated affiliation or sympathy with some evil-doing company just because I can guarantee that my impacts on the company’s behavior will be negligble.

    Thus, I think the culpability of complicity is not measured by the real world impact my complicity has, but by my knowledge of the evils being committed by the entity that seeks my support. Obviously, being able to add the variable of real-world consequences of my support makes the case stronger, but I think the case for complicity can survive independent of that.

  34. Ana
    August 15, 2005 at 6:39 pm

    One aspect I haven’t noticed anyone pointing out is how it might make a difference not just to withhold your business from Nike or WalMart, but to actively choose to give your business to more ethically run organizations. Withdrawing my weekly grocery tab might not make a lick of difference to WalMart, but if I choose to spend that money instead at a farmer’s market, a food co-op, a corner grocery or at least a regional chain, that might actually make a difference. And you will often find better quality and a nicer atmosphere.

    I’m not so familiar with alternative choices in athletic shoes, but I understand New Balance are made in the US and I do like the shoes.

    gst: Nate’s reply is funny but I hope you already know that disfavoring unionization is not the end of the list for WalMart. Ask any mom-and-pop. Think about who gets paid a living wage in that organization, and where those people live. Not in my town, that’s for sure.

  35. manaen
    August 15, 2005 at 6:42 pm

    Re: your response to my 13, “manean: Expand a bit for me. Do you think that the benefit really comes from your impact on the world or from avoiding complicity with some evil? Or is it just a matter of subjectively feeling better (and why should this have any moral significance at all if this is in fact the case)? ”

    After posting, I realized it wasn’t clear. My comment would read better with these additions: “Like the old Golden Questions, sometimes the benefit comes [only to the person acting] from the [moral] effort [of acting] and not [to someone else as] the result.” In the flow of our mortal probation, the moral stands we take, or fail to take, have an internal effect on us whether or not we also do some external good. The moral significance that differs from just feeling better is that it strengthens character, sometimes only the person’s that takes the stand.

  36. Nate Oman
    August 15, 2005 at 6:44 pm

    Ana: I object to buying shoes manufactured in the United States. I would prefer that my foot-wear dollars went to the poor of the developing world.

    Ryan: It seems to me that the consequentialist aspect of complicity goes the the question of how closely affiliated with are with any particular enterprise. Society is interdependent enough that it is possible to find some connection between our actions and virtually anything. It seems to me that we should judge the significance of our connection in part by their efficacy. I am simply MORE involved in an enterprise that I profit more from.

  37. Ana
    August 15, 2005 at 7:21 pm

    Nate, I’d be surprised if dollars — plural — got all the way there. But maybe you’re right in the sense that a little money is better than no money for those people. I certainly don’t restrict all my buying to US-made goods only. But if that’s something a person wants to do with their tennis-shoes budget (or whatever) there are ways to do it.

  38. gst
    August 15, 2005 at 8:41 pm

    Ana: Mom and Pop deserved what they got.

  39. El Jefe
    August 16, 2005 at 12:09 am

    How moral is it to refrain from buying something and throw someone out of work in a third world country who desperately needs that income? Make the buying decision you think you ought to make, but don’t make what you think is the “moral” decision, pat yourself on the back for your “morality”, when you have no idea what impact that has on an individual.

    I have seen the lines of hundreds, perhaps thousands of people lined up in a third world country, because a multinational has announced they would be hiring.

  40. August 16, 2005 at 12:16 am

    I absloutely love those grey $100 New Balance shoes. They are great. They make my feet giddy with joy.

    As for complicity, I worry about it almost not at all. If I go to hell it will be because I failed to teach my kids the gospel, not because of where I got my shoes. I leave grander issues of right and wrong, from which I am typically ten orders of magnitude removed, to be fixed by the atonement.

    And, as an aside, I believe Wal-mart helps poor people because it employs low-skilled workers that many employers won’t. And it is a fiendishly, outlandishly, tough advocate for low prices, thus helping the poor as consumers, almost certainly more than any “consumer advocacy group” ever has.

    Also, some Wal-marts give out free popcorn to children. Clearly those who hate Wal-mart hate children (and popcorn).

  41. Ana
    August 16, 2005 at 12:59 am

    Okay, okay, you want to know the truth? Nikes are too narrow for my feet, and WalMart stores are usually so disorganized and crowded that they give me panic attacks, and I think their negotiating tactics bring them merchandise of a lesser quality (e.g., a mixer from WalMart burns out more quickly than the same model of mixer bought elsewhere. They’re made differently). I avoid this stuff not so much because it’s a moral choice but because it doesn’t work for me. And I think it’s interesting to explore the ramifications those choices may make, and enjoy especially thinking about those reasons that might make me sound a little less neurotic and snobbish. Phooey on all the contradictions. Thus, let’s not talk about my Target fetish, please. ;o)

    Frank, I don’t think the ubiquitous presence of low-paying jobs for unskilled workers is necessarily a help to those workers. Sure, we need some of that to make the system work. But sometimes people rise only to the level of opportunity available to them in their community — no further. Witness the differences in college-going rates between (for example) the SF Bay Area and my region, the Central Valley of CA. They’re tremendous.

  42. queuno
    August 16, 2005 at 1:05 am

    Getting back to the idea of “is it wrong to be complicit if it’s for a good cause?” …

    I have a coworker who is more of a workaholic than I am. His wife and stepdaughter live three hours away. He likes life on the road. He frequently tells me to go home early and be with my family, that he’ll pull the occasional needed 15-hour day. I feel guilty that he’s the one taking on all the sacrifice, so that I can be with my family (who feels that I, in the spirit of fair play, take up the long day from him on a rotating basis).

    So, in the end, I’m exploiting him so that I can go to Church and be with my family. Is it wrong?

  43. Dan Henrie
    August 16, 2005 at 4:58 am

    Since capitalism is based on a motive for profit, I don’t see how anyone can participate in a capitalist economic system without some level of complicity in some ill effect on someone, somewhere.

    As a volunteer financial counselor, I work with many bankrupt or near bankrupt individuals and families on a somewhat regular basis. The consequences of financial ill health are dramatic–family discord, divorce, health problems, decreased productivity at home and at work, financial bondage, theft, despair and even suicide. You don’t have to travel to a Nike factory in China to find those who are complicit in these outcomes. They live in our own communities–Doctors, Lawyers, University Professors, Bankers, and Business owners–all seeking, in their own way, to maximize profit. This effort to maximize profit will always have a negative effect on a certain segment of the community no matter how much pro bono work is set aside, no matter how many charity dollars are donated.

    Perhaps the Nike sweatshops are more evil than a surgeon who will not operate until funding has been guaranteed. But how much different is a shoe manufacturer who succeeds in taking advantage of third world labor because the workers have no other option and a physician whose patient must agree to untenable economic arrangements because she has no other choice? Both justify their action based on what the market will bear–basic capitalism.

    I don’t know first hand the burdens Nike places on labor to maximize profits. However, I am somewhat acquainted with the burdens respected professions, businesses and government place on individuals and families to maximize profit/receipts. Neither is without guile.

    I’m not suggesting we should give up on the ideal of avoiding complicity in negative outcomes. I’m also not suggesting that all negative outcomes are equal. I am suggesting that the complicity concern is woven throughout the fabric of capitalism and will most likely only be eliminated when we “think of our brethren like unto [ourselves], and [are] familiar with all and free with [our] substance, that they may be rich like unto [us].

  44. RoAnn
    August 16, 2005 at 8:05 am

    #43 Dan, wrote “Since capitalism is based on a motive for profit, I don’t see how anyone can participate in a capitalist economic system without some level of complicity in some ill effect on someone, somewhere.”
    Capitalism certainly has its faults, but do you really believe that all other current systems don’t involve “some level of complicity in some ill effect on someone, somewhere?”
    We all long for Millennial conditions, but until they arrive, I like the points Nate mentioned in #30.

  45. August 16, 2005 at 10:06 am


    Duly noted. And yeah, I prefer to shop at Target (and Costco) too. But I’ll refrain from derailing Nate’s complicity thread any more since he was pretty clear that the working assumption for this thread is that corporations are nasty. I’m sure there will be plenty of future opportunities to talk about Wal-mart.

  46. Seth Rogers
    August 16, 2005 at 10:23 am

    As an alternative to being sold into sexual slavery by your parents, working in a Nike sweatshop doesn’t seem so bad anymore. These are simply messed up countries and the reality of living in them isn’t going to be pretty. This post also assumes that Nike has complete control over the situation.

    Assuming that Wal Mart is evil … during grad school, my wife and I couldn’t AFFORD to shop at Target or Albertsons. That left us with Wal Mart.

    You think I wouldn’t rather shop at Albertsons with it’s relaxed atmosphere, shorter check-out lines and a produce section worth checking out? Of course I would. I can’t afford to though.

    Sometimes moral ideals are a luxury of the wealthy.

  47. August 16, 2005 at 12:06 pm

    Target is often cheaper than Walmart. Walmart certainly revolutionized department stores, putting many like K-Mart and Sears on their knees. But Costco and Target have come back and are quite strong. Likewise Sears has been revitalized. K-Mart still needs some serious rethinking. (Like those tiny narrow carts – what’s up with that?)

    My point being that Walmart is hardly the monolith it used to be. There are other competitors chomping on its heels. That’s the way things are in such industries.

  48. lyle stamps
    August 16, 2005 at 1:24 pm

    !viva el jefe!

  49. RoAnn
    August 16, 2005 at 3:31 pm

    I second Lyle. !Viva el jefe!

  50. jjohnsen
    August 16, 2005 at 8:50 pm

    “Besides the low prices, I’m not sure how it’s a bad thing to give jobs to people who might otherwise not have jobs. In my hometown of Homer, Alaska, this is a big deal, as a Fred Meyer intends to build a small store in town. One of my fellow grad students referred to Fred Meyer as a “not quite as evil as Wal-mart” store. ”

    Wal-Mart is evil. They give jobs to people, pay them a poverty wage, and horrible benefits so the rst of us have to make up for it. The businesses they replace would normally pay a higher wage with better benefits.

    See here and .

    A recent study showed that Costco employees are paid almost twice the wage of Wal-mart employess, yet the cost of shopping at each store is almost identical.

  51. August 16, 2005 at 11:12 pm

    jjohnsen –

    This study shows Wal-Mart permanently raises local employment.


    According to one pundit ( )

    More than 90 percent of Wal-Mart employees have health insurance. Half of those get their insurance through the company, and the rest through other means, whether their parents, or spouse, or Medicare. Many Wal-Mart employees are young people or semi-retired, and thus aren’t supporting families. Employment there can be an escalator to success. Two-thirds of the stores’ managers are former hourly employees.
    The store is also part of the wondrously flexible and various American job market. “The Europeans sniff at our job creation,” CATO Institute economist Brink Lindsey tells Nordlinger, “while their job market is stagnant. They say, ‘Oh, America just has Wal-Mart-type jobs.’ Actually, the percentage of managerial and professional jobs in our country has climbed steadily. Yes, we have a lot of low-end jobs, but we have a lot of young people and older people in our work force, unlike Europe. There, they don’t let people get hired, they don’t let industries move fast, they don’t create jobs.”

    And Mom and Pop stores cannot give better benefits, or employ as many people. From what I’ve read, Wal-Mart employs many people who otherwise might not have jobs, and that wherever it opens, total employment rises.

    Also, here

    I also pointed out to Smith that Wal-Mart, all by itself, was responsible for a significant amount of the productivity miracle we have seen in this country over the last decade. In a 2001 report, the McKinsey Global Institute, a respected think tank, concluded that Wal-Mart’s managerial innovations had increased overall productivity by more than all the investments in computers and information technology of recent years.

    A new study from the prestigious National Bureau of Economic Research found that Wal-Mart has a substantial effect on reducing the rate of inflation. For example, it typically sells food for 15 percent to 25 percent less than competing supermarkets. Interestingly, this effect is not captured in official government data. Fully accounting for it would reduce the published inflation rate by as much as 0.42 percentage points or 15 percent per year. ”

    But I think we’re talking past each other. The only real way to see Wal-Mart as evil is to view capitalism as evil.

    end threadjack.

  52. Space Chick
    August 22, 2005 at 2:27 pm

    Ana, your comment in 41 that “a mixer from WalMart burns out more quickly than the same model of mixer bought elsewhere. They’re made differently” has me completely confused. Are you telling me that KitchenAid model XYZ sold at Wal-mart is inferior to Kitchen Aid model XYZ from Target? Is there a Wal-Mart section at the KitchenAid assembly line that creates shoddier mixers? A separate section at the warehouse to ensure that the Wal-Mart version isn’t mistakenly shipped to other more reputable stores? That implies a lot of planning and forethought, not to mention organization and separate staffing, which in turn woudl require more people, driving up costs, etc.

    And your other comment, that “sometimes people rise only to the level of opportunity available to them in their community – no further” would seem to imply that the presence of a Wal-Mart, instead of providing jobs for those who aren’t BYU philosphy students, actually creates a glass ceiling above which no local resident can rise. Is that because no one else will give them jobs once Wal-Mart rolls in? Are we aware of any cases where, say, a Ford or GM plant was going to be built, but the company decided that they didn’t want to build there because the available labor base was all working at Wal-Mart and Ford/GM just knew they couldn’t lure anyone away to their payroll? Or are you instead suggesting that Wal-Mart has some sort of lockhold on their employees, that they can never quit, never get promoted, and certainly never send their kids to college?

    While I am not the world’s biggest Wally-world fan, I suspect that the presence of a Wal-Mart or a Nike plant in a given area represents a chance for better-paying jobs than are currently available to the local residents, and in fact increases the “level of opportunity” available. No-one quits a high-pay job to go work at Wal-Mart (or Nike) for lower wages! The reality is that when these companies move in, they ARE the better-paying job, thus increasing opportunities instead of limiting them.

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