Friday, April 26, 2013

Too Sad Not to Write About This

If you're one of those robust all-American free spirits who thinks "government is the problem," why don't you ask this Bangladeshi garment worker what she thinks about the virtues of an unregulated free market economy.

The day before this happened, apologists for global capitalism would have told her she was "lucky to have" her $37-a-month job, making fancy clothes for the likes of us in a building we wouldn't let our dogs wander into.

The free enterprise system does a wonderful job of serving up stylish resort wear to our favorite big box stores at tasty prices, but it doesn't voluntarily lift a finger to protect the people who make the stuff, whoever or wherever they may be.

Nor should it.

What should have stood between this person and a "workplace" that was actually a known deathtrap should have been her union and her government. In Bangladesh, those guardians are either scared off, paid off, can't be bothered or don't even exist.

Of course the people who run the businesses whose orders put impoverished people in front of sewing machines under a collapsing roof on the other side of the world are wringing their hands now and saying they feel just terrible about what happened.

But I'm sure they still sleep soundly at night, knowing that it's not their job to police the practices of their suppliers and their manufacturing contractors and subcontractors, as long as the products are delivered up to spec at the agreed price.

Nor should they be losing sleep.

The job of business is to keep sales revenue as high and costs as low as possible and to resist anything that tries to get in the way. Human values and human needs only enter the picture to the extent they drive demand for product or affect the reputation of the brand.

If there are people anywhere who are so desperate that they're willing and able to make satisfactory products for starvation wages in crumbling tinderbox buildings, it is the job of business to find them and hire them before a competitor does.

And if a government regulator or union negotiator tries to interfere, it's the job of business to take whatever lawful measures it can to turn aside any such attempt to raise cost by introducing humane considerations into straightforward "free market" transactions.

Of course those defensive measures certainly would include complaining that "government is the problem."

But I'm grateful that I've always been able to live and work in a place where business has to deal with that problem. And I wouldn't claim any right to complain if I had to pay more for my t-shirts so people in Bangladesh could too.

Thursday, April 11, 2013

The "Real Mexico"?

One of the local tourist news websites reported that Puerto Vallarta had placed first in a poll of favorite Mexican getaway destinations. Facebook followers were asked to comment on whether they thought PV deserved the honor.

Since the responses came mostly from people who chose Vallarta for themselves, most naturally endorsed the poll results. But one guy wrote that he preferred San Patricio Melaque, a much smaller coastal community several hours south of here, because it's "so Mexican."

I hardly ever comment in public forums, but I wondered what made Melaque more Mexican than Vallarta. So I asked him. It turned out that he likes Melaque's small-scale beachfront hotels and restaurants with their "reasonable prices" and the fact that most of the town's streets are unpaved.

That was it. Melaque is "so Mexican" because it's a great place for a visitor to loaf on the cheap, undisturbed by time-share salesmen, while the locals make do with low pay and lousy infrastructure.

Where to start? In the first place, there's an abundance of small beachfront hotels, inexpensive restaurants that are also charming, and unpaved streets in Vallarta. If those are your preferences, I say you're welcome to them, here or anywhere else. Melaque looks lovely.

What I object to is the foolish conceit among a certain kind of foreign visitor that the discriminating traveler achieves a more authentic experience just by dismissing the glossier attractions and amenities laid out for him by a host country.

When we invite new friends for dinner, we'd be insulted if they scorned our good china and our party clothes in favor of raiding the refrigerator for our lunch leftovers and looking under the furniture to see our dust bunnies.

Of course you can get to know a place better if you stay longer, explore farther, pay closer attention, meet more people and learn the language. It's rewarding if you're willing to make the effort. But if you're really just a tourist, don't imagine there's any virtue in pretending you're not. It's all Mexico.

We like it here a lot. We're leaving for the summer on Monday, and we're sad about it. We've made some good new friends, gotten Elizabeth started in a wonderful school, seen a little more of the country and improved our Spanish. Now and then we ask ourselves why we're going back so soon, or at all.

Then we remember they've changed the rules here so you can't convert a six-month tourist visa to a temporary resident certificate without returning to your home country and applying to a consulate for the upgrade. So we've got to go whether we want to or not.

That's Mexico too.