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Sunday, April 11, 2010

You Get What You Pay For

You Get What You Pay For
Image © Austin Cline
Click for full-sized Image
More Propaganda Posters

The deaths of the miners in the West Virginia Massey mine were tragic, but not unique. How many people die each year because their lives are worth less than the basic safety measures needed to protect them — not just workers, but consumers as well? I honestly don't know the number, but it's a lot more than 25. No matter how important your life is to your loved ones, it's worthless to corporations except insofar as they can profit from you.

Life has always been cheap in America, at least from the perspective of corporations and so long as you yourself are relatively powerless — too powerless to impose any extra costs on corporations for treating you like a tool rather than a person. Laws may have made some of the most egregious abuses more difficult, but corporations have also gotten better at concealing from the public the costs in human lives and misery.

Media Complicity

The media quickly descends on small towns like Montcoal, West Virginia, to report on a single tragic event, but the rest of the year they ignore the deaths of people whose lives were shortened by bad working conditions, environmental pollution, and/or corporate neglect. You won't see the national media paying this sort of attention to the towns where mining companies are tearing the tops off mountains to get at the coal, destroying the landscape, the environment, local communities, and any hope of the areas being livable again.

Whether this is more the media's fault or the public's fault depends on whether one thinks the news should do more to lead or to follow. It's arguable that viewers wouldn't care about the destruction caused by corporations to lives and the environment in order to feed the demand for cheap coal. Who wants to contemplate how their refusal to pay more means that others must pay more — in health and lives? Which news organization wants to lose viewers and therefore ad revenue by focusing on such uncomfortable issues?

Then again, maybe being in the business of news should be more about news than business, and therefore should be about creating a moral and professional obligation to provide us with news about what impacts us and the impact we have — even when that news is discomfiting. Maybe the news also has an obligation to contribute to a better society for everyone by informing us about social problems, identifying the sources of these problems, and helping us discuss possible solutions.

Root of the Problem

It's no coincidence that both of these problems are fundamentally related. News coverage is driven more by a concern with what's profitable than by what's morally responsible; corporate "safety" is also driven more by a concern with what's profitable than by what's morally responsible. When extracting the maximal profit from an activity is the sole standard used for measuring success, it's inevitable someone is going to suffer because it's always possible to increase profit margins by decreasing safety and quality — just so long as no one important notices and objects.

There are three critical factors here: noticing, objecting, and being important enough for your objections to matter — that is to say, being important enough to impose your will on others and/or for them to act before you can impose your will on them. It's not enough if only one or two of these factors are present — all three together are necessary to make changes and subordinate raw profits to other values like life, health, safety, and quality of living.

Our Complicity

Most of the time, most of us don't notice the costs imposed on human lives unless we are the ones directly impacted. The corporations creating those costs will do anything they can to cover them up and keep them out of the public eye. News media organizations — owned and controlled by the same corporations — are fully complicit. When we do notice, we just don't care very much — again, unless we're the ones paying. We don't want to pay more for energy, and if that means shortened lives for miners in West Virginia or Arabs and Africans with the misfortune of having been born above oil fields, so be it. We don't want to pay more for consumer goods, and if that means shortened lives for factory workers in China or India, so be it.

These corporate crimes are thus committed on our behalf, making us every bit as complicit as the viewers whose demand for non-challenging, entertainment-driven news are complicit in the demise of responsible journalism. Occasionally people do notice and do object — though rarely acknowledging their own complicity — but it doesn't make any difference. The reason is they lack the power to make a difference.

Our Power

Even when objectors have numbers, America's corporate political system denies them real power because it's money that serves as the foundation for political power. It's rare that the votes do not follow the money, which means that profits extracted at the cost of human lives and suffering are invested in a political process that preserves the ability to continue doing the same.

We continue to accept the system as it currently is, though, and thus at least implicitly agree to its results. I'm talking here about both the political and the corporate systems discussed thus far. We agree to the corporate system that sacrifices the health and safety of others so that we can enjoy lower prices, even though we have to realize that these corporations don't really value our lives either. We also agree to the political system which is bought and paid for by the corporations, as if the politicians we vote for cared any more for our interests than the corporations we give money to.

We are all merely a means to an end — higher quarterly profits and increased power for those at the top of one system or more votes and increased power for those at the top of the other system. Of course, "those at the top" are usually just moving back and forth from one to the other to give the impression that it isn't really the same people profiting year after year. In both cases, we're just handing over economic and political power over our lives to people who use it to further their own interests rather than ours and we believe it when they tell us that we benefit somehow.

Why do we believe it? Once again, it's preferable to facing the truth about the consequences of our choices. We don't want to see what corporations do to the land and mountaintops to extract cheap coal for us. We don't want to see what our soldiers are doing to average, innocent Muslims in the Middle East to protect access to cheap oil. We don't want to see the conditions for Indian and Chinese workers who produce cheap consumer goods for us. We don't want to see that all this is feeding a system where the rich get richer and the poor get poorer — and we, in the long run, are among the "poor" who won't actually be given a chance to break into the "richer" category.

So we believe the fairy tales told to us by the politicians we vote for, go to sleep dreaming the system is fair, and hope we don't wake up to the nightmare we're actually creating.

Note: I had two ideas for today's poster. The first is above but I wasn't sure what to do about the second. Given the news context, it might be perceived as more powerful, outrageously insensitive, or even both simultaneously. In the end I decided to create it anyway, but put it behind a text link so that anyone who is especially close to mining (and thus sensitive to mining tragedies) won't feel like it's been forced on them. It's not intended to be an insensitive joke, but rather to bring home the issues in a stark manner.

If you think you might be bothered, don't click on the link and you won't have any reason to complain; if you do click, you've been warned and won't have any reason to complain: Alternative Poster.


  1. FWIW Austin, the first poster - the one you chose - is the more powerful of the two. (IMHO).

    In the segment where you discuss Our Power, corporate and political interests are treated as separate, symbiotic entities. I'd like to cynically propose that rather than this, they are two arms of the same body. In doing so, could go on for many paragraphs, but I shall spare you that diatribe for today.

  2. Aw, come on. Stop with the bitching about clean coal and the wonderful Massey Energy, whose intials on their logo read ME. Tells you all you need to know, now don't it? And the guys who live make $73k a year, so what's a little risky discomfort from black lung? Besides, it's a jobs program for the undertakers, who'd have to wait a lot longer for clients. Ain't that a benefit?

  3. In between the workers and the wealthy stands the Wall that is the Corporation: pee on it, write on it, hit it with jackhammers, do what you will, that is one motherfucker of a wall.


  4. The mine disaster is an example of failure of government regulation. The company has been in violation of numerous safety rules and yet still operated. The regulators were not REGULATING the company properly.

    But that's what happens when regulation is monopolized: performance quality of the regulators decreases, while the cost of the regulation increases. And then what we get is an unsafe coal mine with no effective regulation, and no alternative to choose for effective regulation.

    If the service provider sucks, it should go out of business make room for real providers who want to do actual work. And that includes government regulators. Disband the agency and give someone else a chance to regulate these unsafe workplaces - the government sure ain't doing it!


We'll try dumping haloscan and see how it works.