The far-away land of Subsistia is inhabited by people who are desperately poor, not only relative to the typical person elsewhere on the globe but also in absolute terms. For decades well-meaning, well-educated, and well-funded people from the United States and other wealthy countries have visited Subsistia to help raise Subsistians out of poverty.
Alas, while these efforts by governments, NGOs, and churches have been many and munificent, all ordinary Subsistians continue to live in deep poverty – that is, until recently. A few short years ago a large U.S. corporation, Nik-Mart, set up factories in Subsistia. The wages that Nik-Mart pays to its Subsistian workers, while much higher than the average wage in Subsistia, are only a tiny fraction of the wages that Nik-Mart pays to its production-line employees in America.
Nik-Mart sells the goods produced in its Subsistian factories all around the world. One result of Nik-Mart’s operations in Subsistia is that the real prices that poor Americans and Europeans pay for shoes, clothing, and home furnishings have fallen significantly.
Nik-Mart is consistently one of the world’s most profitable corporations. It is also one of the world’s most hated.
When word recently leaked out of Nik-Mart’s record sales revenues and of the healthy rate of return on Nik-Mart’s assets, protests erupted in all major capitals of the developed world. Washington, Ottawa, Santiago, London, Amsterdam, Stockholm, Paris, Berlin, Madrid, Rome, Prague, Moscow, Tokyo, Pretoria, Canberra – these and other cities were swarmed by protestors demanding “social justice” and criticizing Nik-Mart for exploiting workers. “Nik-Mart’s profits are in the billions,” screamed U.S. Sen. Elsbeth Walter, who gave a rousing speech to protestors on the Washington Mall, “and yet it exploits poor workers in Subsistia while it off-shores jobs from America, hurting poor Americans! Have you no shame, Nik-Mart? Have! You! No! Shame?!!” Sen. Walter rhetorically asked, her index finger pointing accusingly at an imaginary Nik-Mart executive presumably hovering, phantasmically yet bloatedly, before her.
The Sunday talking-head shows were filled with heads talking of little else. “It’s really unconscionable,” said Harmon Nicholson, a famous progressive columnist, “that Nik-Mart takes advantage of the freedom that this country gives it to produce the things it sells in America outside of America. It’s no wonder our jobs picture is so weak and that American wages have stagnated.”
Sen. Lawrence Greenham, a Republican from the south, chimed in: “I don’t normally agree with Harmon, but he’s right on this. American plutocrats are gettin’ richer an’ richer off the backs of America’s poor. It’s gotta stop.”
In a later segment on the same Sunday show, other talking heads – one a cultural-studies professor at an Ivy League school, the other the president of an NGO committed to (as its website boasts) “Curing Poverty Now” – lamented the fact that Nik-Mart pays its workers in Subsistia so poorly. When the sympathetic host pointed out, in an attempt to feign journalistic objectivity, that workers in Nik-Mart’s Subsistia factories earn wages that are 30 percent higher than the average wage in Subsistia, the professor and the NGO president both burst into derisive laughter. “Look,” said the professor, “the fact is that Nik-Mark can afford to pay its Subsistian workers much more, yet it doesn’t. It refuses to improve the lives of poor Subsistians. Its only goal is to bloat its coffers. It’s sinful, really.”
The host of the talking-head show did not think to press the professor on what he meant when he claimed that Nik-Mart “can afford to pay its Subsistian workers much more.” (To be fair, very few of the viewers of the talking-head show thought of such a question, for it seems obvious that if Nik-Mart annually earns billions of profits, it can afford to pay its workers more. Why should a good, thoughtful, learned journalist ask a question that has only one correct and blindingly obvious answer?)
The host of the talking-head show, along with the professor and NGO president, agreed that Nik-Mart’s blazing greed and socially destructive activities stand in sharp and unpleasant contrast to the conscientious civic engagement and lovely, lofty intentions of the anti-Nik-Mart protestors – as well as to that of the government foreign-aid agencies and churches who vocally condemn Nik-Mart’s low wages abroad and its off-shoring of jobs from the U.S. The NGO president’s final words before his segment concluded were “These young people now giving of themselves so selflessly to protest in the streets of D.C. and London and the like can teach a thing or two to the penny-pinching, cold-hearted – and, let it be said, overpaid – executives of Nik-Mart.”
An out-of-fashion economist sitting alone at home one Sunday morning, torturing himself by watching the talking-head shows, was tempted, as a result of this torture, to start drinking way too early in the day. Instead, though, he simply shook his head and made a list in his shaking head of all the many questions that he would have asked had he been the host of one of the shows.