Six years ago when I quit smoking, I started jogging, which meant I needed running shoes. Of course I bought NewBalances, because that is what a socially aware graduate student in a leftist cult like an English literature doctoral program is expected to do. I might not have been occupying the university president’s office and chaining myself to any desks like the Students Against Sweatshops were doing, but I thought I agreed with what I knew of their principles. Children working long, grim days for ludicrous wages so that I could wear fancy cushioned shoes so I wouldn’t hurt my tender little knees was a bad thing that I wanted no part of.
An old op-ed by Paul Krugman that I came across in his Accidental Theorist made me think of that again, because he is absolutely right about the nature of my motives. People like me were never troubled by starving farmers in Indonesia and Bangladesh, that was somehow appropriate to their lot, that was what tradition and fate consigned them to and that was where they belonged—not that I thought about them at all; I was too worried about the brutal labor market in my own chosen field and preoccupied by such things as making my chess play better and completing my collection of Kinks records and Oxford Classics paperbacks of 18th century literature. (That Memoirs of Miss Sidney Biddulph was a real score.) But as Krugman argues, “Unlike the starving subsistence farmer, the women and children in the sneaker factory are working at slave wages for our benefit—and this makes us feel unclean.” So we protest it to make ourselves feel a little cleaner, and we pay a fastidiousness tax to buy goods like NewBalances that are less tainted by such labor. This does the workers no good—“As long as you have no realistic alternative to industrialization based on low wages, to oppose it means you are willing to deny depsperately poor people the best chance they have of progress for the sake of what amounts to an aesthetic standard”—but it makes us feel good. Is there an alternative to industrialization based on low wages? Perhaps. But its existence or nonexistence was never a factor in my running shoes.