Who are we protecting?

I was in Mexico earlier this year with family, and we benefited from the regional knowledge and good humour of David, a local guide. 

Sure, there was one trip to a colonial city and nearby volcano that had me wishing hard that David would, please, stop talking about salt. (Seriously: that guy knew a lot about salt, and he very passionately wanted us to share in the information.) But for the most part, I loved listening to David tell us about his family, his memories of the area, his time spent living in the U.S., and so on. 

In one story, David said his daughter owns a small grocery store. Within a block in either direction of her store, however, there are two competitor shops. Both are owned by a large, international conglomerate. David is worried about his daughter and how she will keep her store open while customers gravitate toward the chain-stores and their lower prices. David shared that in addition to all the usual reasons a big company can edge out a small, locally-owned business, these grocery stores can even avoid paying for electricity, because they have funds to install solar panels. 

Knowing a little (and only a little) about how things work, that tidbit got me wondering. Does the state or federal government offer subsidies for solar? And if so, does anyone help people like David’s daughter apply for those subsidies? Did the grocery company lobby the government for the subsidies? There are layers and layers of advantage that allow a big player to run someone like David’s daughter out of business. 

On the same vacation but in a different conversation, my family was talking about self-checkout machines. Someone observed how our use of these machines will probably mean an eventual end to jobs for checkout staff – resulting in even more profits flowing to a few people running the grocery chains in our country. This conversation echoed other talks we’ve had as a family, about large companies outsourcing work to countries where they can pay people less. 

Some people will read this post and say there aren’t enough people to do the minimum wage jobs, so automation makes sense. I think those folks neglect to consider that there are businesses who don’t struggle to find workers…and they happen to be the same companies that pay people fairly, offer a safe place to work, and provide decent benefits.

Other people will read this post and say that people at the top have earned the right to employ who they want, where they want, and to add all the solar panels they want (or not). I sort of understand that argument. Increasingly though, I think there should be limits and incentives that help us support our neighbours. 

Sure, as a child of the 1980s Reagan/Thatcher era, I was taught that any kind of government imposition was an atrocious idea. It would end innovation! It’s an assault on freedom! But these days, I wonder how much innovation is stifled by a large proportion of the population stressing about money. I wonder what good an unending freedom is…if it also brings constant fear that someone might take our stuff, fights about marginal improvements, and nagging anxiety about trying to get ahead. I wonder how positive employment experiences would affect the safety and security of my neighbourhood, peoples’ physical and mental health, etc.

The leader of the federal Opposition party in Canada makes a lot of videos. I recall watching one where he spoke about many of the same things I just listed, with a crescendo call-to-alarm about the next generation’s inability to buy a house. I have the same concerns. And yet…I can’t help but notice this person leads a political party that relies on a philosophy of providing more breaks to large companies and less attention to the negative effects that those breaks have on larger parts of our population. (And lest I attract a bunch of partisan feelings about this remark, let me be clear: I don’t think the party currently running the government does any better.)

My friend Mark added a comment to one of my earlier blog posts (the last time I was whining about the wealth gap and using grocery conglomerates as an example), and it’s very much worth a read. I support Mark’s observations and also think there’s something we can do in response. Whether it’s for David’s daughter in Mexico or the many people here at home, I would like to think more carefully about who I support and how. When I’m buying milk, there’s a choice I make about where and how to buy it. And when I’m buying into a political argument, there’s critical thought I need to give about the policy that does or doesn’t support the things politicians claim to care about. 

Yeah, it would be easier to think less about this stuff. It’s not fun or energizing to have this conversation with others, or even with myself. And yet…not thinking about it leads to other choices/defaults and I’m pretty sure that puts us on a questionable path for our own future health and safety, as well as that of our children. 

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