Slave-labor-made DVD player would be “a real good thing, if I can buy it for $35”?

Posted by Rob Walker on November 11, 2009
Posted Under: America

James Ledbetter of  The Big Money posts about a recent appearance he made on CNBC, debating with a professor about the claim that Wal*Mart, by lowering prices, is a benevolent force in the American economy, and American life in general. The prof says yes. Ledbetter says, basically, that if one takes a broader view, not everything that lowers prices is necessarily an unalloyed good.

I cringe to provide a link to the segment, but here it is. My fellow guest was a business professor from the University of Michigan, who has advocated that Wal-Mart should be given the Nobel Peace Prize. I tried to argue that it’s strange to say that anything that lowers prices is intrinsically good. [CNBC co-anchor Dennis] Kneale interrupted me with the comment “It is!”

Well, if unemployment is good, then slave labor is better, right? If Wal-Mart could lower its labor costs to zero, imagine how rock-bottom its prices could be. I asked Kneale: “If [a $35] DVD player is produced by slave labor in China, is that a good thing?” His reply: “Yeah, it’s a real good thing, if I can buy it for $35.”

It seemed hard to believe that someone would actually say this on television.

Agreed! In fact I had to watch the segment because I found it hard to believe! The exchange Ledbetter highlights comes at about the 3:40 mark.

I guess the explanation for Kneale’s callous statement is that he wasn’t actually listening to anything Ledbetter said. Which is the real problem with the entire segment. In some ways what’s most startling about it (I haven’t watched CNBC in years) is that both CNBC anchors completely sided with the professor from the beginning, and basically the whole thing consisted of all of them berating Ledbetter for daring to say anything that challenge pure-free-market doctrines, or that might make somebody, oh, I don’t know, actually think. In this bit they pivoted to demanding to know what proof Ledbetter had to back up his hypothetical — a tired rhetorical sleight-of-hand tactic designed to divert the conversation in an irrelevant direction (it was a hypothetical, not an allegation, that the CNBC guy responded to).

The prof has a point, early in the segment, when he says it’s not Wal*Mart that drives mom and pops out of business — it’s consumers, who choose to shop at Wal*Mart because its prices are (or generally seem) lower. Which is why it would be a good thing if more people were more thoughtful about more of the consumption decisions. That’s essentially the direction Ledbetter might have pushed a viewer or two … if he’d been allowed to express his views.

Further diversion may be found at MKTG Tumblr, and the Consumed Facebook page.

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