Whenever I have occasion to tour the architectural and cultural landmarks of the Old South—the mansions of Natchez, the River Road plantations outside New Orleans, Washington's Mount Vernon, or the U.S. Capitol, for that matter—I have the same thought. "It's amazing what you can afford when you don't have to pay for the labor."
That was, of course, the problem with slavery. It oppressed its victims and simultaneously corrupted the people who benefited from it. Southern slaveholders grew accustomed to reaping the harvest of other people's labor—so accustomed that they began to think it was their right. Then they began to believe their economy would cease to function if they had to pay the true price of the things they used.
When we take a vehicle for repair, we get a bill that says something like, "Parts $55. Labor $300." What if the price tag of every item we bought broke down the cost that way? One of Karl Marx's more reasonable ideas held that the value of a commodity was comprised of the labor that went into it. Today we might add to that calculation the environmental damage. If we think of prices that way, when I confront a $300 personal computer or a $20 pair of blue jeans, I am witnessing a robbery. And when I buy it, I am an accomplice. But we rarely think about that because we have come to expect those everyday low prices as our American birthright and to believe that our consumer economy would grind to a halt if we ever had to pay the true price of our commodities.
Someday, if the earth survives our petroleum binge, people may look back at archived editions of early 21st-century consumer catalogs and think that same thought. "It's amazing what you can afford when you don't have to pay for the labor." Of course, our slaves are mostly in China, but the distance only makes us more vulnerable to the corruption of our unearned loot.
THIS COLUMN IS written in those exceedingly dark days just before Christmas, when the proliferation of cheap and utterly unnecessary plastic electronic gizmos and geegaws is unusually prominent. But, while Christmas is certainly its highest holy day, bargain basement consumerism is a year-round proposition. We fill our lives with junk—noisemaking toys, electronic games, articles of clothing, video and audio equipment, computer accessories, home decorations, lawn equipment, sports gear—you name it. We do it because it's there, because it's cheap, because we have come to expect it, and because, in some incredibly sad way, we have come to need it.
When the big box store is selling shoes for $25, then we need a pair for every day of the week. If our shoemakers got a fair wage, the shoes would cost $75, and we'd wear the same two pair for five years. Of course, the $25 shoes wear out in about a year. But we Americans have had the gene for long-term thinking bred out of us. Last year our 15-year-old television broke. I priced replacements and found they were selling for about $100 less than they were 15 years ago. But I also found a guy who would fix it for $45. The repairman was the only one in three counties. He was way past the official retirement age, and he worked alone in his shop. In another 15 years, even weirdos like me will have to toss their televisions rather than fix them. But why not? By then a new Chinese 25-incher will probably sell for $45.
The point here is that when we don't pay the real price for things, we don't appreciate them, and, worse, we become addicted to filling our days with the acquisition of cheap disposable items. That is why shopping is now listed among recreational activities when a few decades back it was a mere necessity, like housecleaning, cooking, and grass-cutting. If we paid the true price of things, we wouldn't have as much stuff, and once the shock wore off, we'd be better and happier people.
The slaveholders of the 19th century left neo-classical monuments to their crimes. Our monuments will be giant heaps of broken plastic and crumpled shrink-wrap.
Danny Duncan Collum, a Sojourners contributing writer and author of Black and Catholic in the Jim Crow South, teaches writing at Kentucky State University in Frankfort, Kentucky.