Patrick Paglen explains how we are ethically accountable for the spending choices we make.
“That was an interesting encounter,” my friend observed as we came out of the service station. He was paying for gas for our car trip, when he ran into someone he had not seen since he was a teenager – not since the day before this person caused a major accident that ended in a tragic death. Drugs were related to this story, which generated a conversation between us about addiction and substance abuse in the rural areas where we both grew up. I thought of, and may have mentioned, a recent study relating substance abuse to social alienation.
We were driving up north past Albany, where I was headed to a destination and purpose mysterious to him. He just knew to trust me, but observed the countryside with a vague notion of the depressed economies of the places we passed through. “What the hell did you find here?” He asked this not to expect an answer, but to express bewilderment of the puzzle. As we drove on, our surrounding environment seemed more and more pertinent to our conversation: rural areas in seeming physical, economic, and social decay.
We came to Gloversville, NY, and drove through a residential area. The houses were all beautiful, but in varying degrees of decrepitude. Some looked old but homey, with faded and peeling paint. I imagined these houses had a smell similar to the old farm house that I grew up in. Others looked like they would collapse if you exhaled in their direction. Some houses seemed livable, but simply empty. “What do people do here? What kind of jobs do they have? Or jobs DID they have? This could have been some kind of manufacturing town…”
I kept my mouth shut at this query, considering the nature of the surprise.
My friend’s intuition ran true: Gloversville’s economy since it’s founding had centered around the glove and tanning industry, and the vast majority of its residents were glove-makers through the 20th century. There are still some master glove makers here, as well as tanning and leather manufacturers, but Gloversville is not the manufacturing Mecca it once was. The recorded demographics of the town vindicate our impressions as well: the median worker income here was $24,051 according to USA City Facts. As of the last census, the unemployment rate was 14%, and the poverty rate was 23.2%.
We pulled up at the destination right on time for our appointment with a different kind of industry. I led my curious friend through a door under a sign that read “TicTacToes,” and up some stairs past a display case full of dance shoes. My friend had taken up Tango over the past year and a half and became very dedicated to it. I had resolved years ago only to purchase apparel made in the USA, and having found a specialty dance shoe factory in New York State, I surprised my friend with a shoe fitting.
Terry of TicTacToes graciously provided her full undivided attention to us for the past hour. She brought in several different shoe types for my friend to try, explained their differences and what might appeal to what kind of dancer, gave pointers on how to maintain and fix shoes. Once my friend was satisfied, Terry took us on a quick tour of the factory, and received explanations on the shoe-making process. We also noticed a display of several colorful custom shoes, which were explained as requests by the local square-dance caller. The square-dancing in town was a relatively new event, with a small community and a frustratingly small pool of available musicians. My friend sympathized, noting a yearning for live musicians in his local Tango communities but having to rely on recordings.
I contrasted the vast space of the factory compared to its people. Terry said that they had over three hundred and fifty workers over a decade ago. A majority of their revenue came through deals with catalog companies, though most of those relationships ended after said catalogs asked foreign manufacturers to make shoes for them with TicTacToes’ design (utilitarian designs cannot be copyrighted). The factory still thrives through with large businesses with vast needs, such as Disney, but could not support its original workforce while competing with its own designs cheaply made across the ocean.
There are economic arguments for local purchasing as well as counters to said claims and the experience of Gloversville and the factory give an urgency to the issue. But if we limit our understanding of prosperity to only how currency flows, we blind ourselves to greater responsibilities and opportunities in our relationships. I buy only USA, preferably union-made, apparel not because I want money to stay in the country, but because I have much more assurance that my demand for clothing does not cost another their dignity, and if exploitation occurs, I have vastly more resources to end it. We consume goods without thinking beyond our immediate convenience: Amazon’s convenience of providing virtually any book at ourr doorstep is held responsible for the decline of bookstores. The sheer convenience distracts us and our minds seldom dwell upon Amazon’s outright villainous practices. It may be that the local purchasing detractors are correct from a narrow point of view, but perhaps supporting your bookstore, where local novelists, shows, and events happen, where you can meet friends and make new ones, is worth more than having cheap services with expensive non-monetary costs charged to you neighbor.
By adopting a deliberate mindfulness about our own purchasing power, a power not measured merely by the thickness of our wallets, I propose that places like Glover can reclaim some of their glory, neighborhood artists such as musicians can hone their craft serving a supporting and forgiving community such as dancers, and with a combination of respect in their work and availability for social integration, people will feel less lonely, bored, and ineffectual and therefore less likely to see appeal in finding substitution from black market substances.