Black Friday and Economic Justice

The past couple of years, just around this time — when friends post on social media about staying home on Thanksgiving and Black Friday to spend time with their families, and hoping to give store employees an opportunity to spend time with theirs, or expressing dismay that anyone would want to brave the crowds of shoppers in the first place — I’ve thought about writing a post on the ethics and economics of holiday shopping. Obviously, I’ve never gotten around to it before, but I just came across this article, which nicely expresses partly why I think this is a more ethically complicated issue than it first appears.

As we’ve seen of late in the Ferguson-related unrest, the physical struggles of non-white America writ large make for great television. I’ve seen dozens of variations on the obvious and racist pun in the name of the day itself already today. But one thing we can say for sure is that it isn’t the wealthy or the comfortable who are standing in line in the cold, or wrestling with one another over a slightly discounted Xbox . . . None of which is to say that resorting to violence over a discounted television or video game console is admirable, but it’s worthwhile to stop and consider just what it is that inspires such desperation in the first place. As in the world of Panem, an artificial scarcity is imposed from the top down — Wal-Mart, Target and so on — in order to whip the public into a frenzy of aspiration. The affluent media corporations are then complicit in the con, gorging themselves on advertising from the very stores raking in the sales revenue. And we, the advantaged, sit at home in front of our computers and tablets and phones, all of which we’ve already purchased at non-bargain prices, and delight in the spectacle.

Rejecting the soul-sucking materialistic consequences of capitalism as it functions in a society like the U.S. is more than a one-day-a-year project. It’s an everyday project, and whether or not we go shopping ourselves on Black Friday does not answer the question of whether or not we’re contributing to circumstances in which employees are exploited, treated unfairly, or kept from their families.

I worked in retail for years — before going to college, and during — and for my own part, I wanted to work holidays because it meant extra pay which in turn meant less worrying about how I would pay my bills. I wasn’t alone. For quite a few of my co-workers (though surely not all) being able to work holidays was a relief rather than a burden (not merely for economic reasons; some people find the holidays a painful time). I am under no delusions that my own experience is universal. That I wanted (at times, needed) to work holidays doesn’t mean others do, just as that I was treated fairly by my employer in the process doesn’t mean all employees are treated fairly, nor that no change is needed. Walmart employees have made this clear, multiple times. But, I do think it’s another reason to be cautious about issuing general statements about what retailer workers need and want, or about how and when it’s okay to shop. It’s another reason to try to remember that what happens on holidays is in part a function of how we — all of us — behave in our economy throughout the entire year.

9 thoughts on “Black Friday and Economic Justice

  1. Confession: I have stood in Houston in the josling, unstable crowd outside Neiman Marcus on some of these designated days. I think it is safe to say that no one who hopes to score a knocked down David Yurman bracelet or a Gucci gown is not wealthy and comfortable, relatively speaking. And there are a lot of profs among them.

  2. If the stores are open late, they’ll have to pay sales staff to work late, and (since sales staff are not drawn from the affluent idle) they’ll have to work late to get the money. Suppose there were an effective law (or universally observed convention) that NO stores would stay open late. Then sales staff would not be under the financial compulsion to work “unsocial” hours to make a bit more money. Would this have been a better social environment in which to live?
    … Some libertarians, I suppose, would say such laws would be oppressive, denying salespersons the “freedom” to work extra hours if they want more money. But there are times when I am tempted to say that freedom can be, in effect, oppressive.

  3. @Allen Hazen:

    “Would this have been a better social environment in which to live?”

    You ask this (I think) rhetorically, but it sounds straightforwardly empirical to me. If the bulk of employees working late are keen to do so, perhaps because of the extra money (as was philodaria) then shops opening late plausibly improves the social environment (even putting aside the benefit to shoppers, especially those working themselves, of being able to shop late). If the bulk of employees working late are coerced into doing it, that’s an other-things-being-equal case for that “effective law (or universally observed convention)”, to be set against the benefit to shoppers and the broader libertarian case. I’ve no idea which is correct (and even if I guessed, the guess would be based on the UK and might not apply to the US).

  4. Following up on David’s comment, if the mere fact that working at odd hours means extra pay constitutes financial compulsion — then think the issue is not that sometimes businesses are open at odd hours but rather that employees are in a financial position where working any extra hours is an opportunity they feel they cannot miss (I know this isn’t the only complaint about the way retail workers are treated; there have been plenty of cases where employees are discouraged from taking their legally rightful breaks or sick days on threat of loss of hours or position — I just mean to say, some of this is an empirical matter, but even that aside, I don’t think merely changing hours solves the issue of coercion).

  5. I’m going to stipulate a simplifying economic assumption. As it is stated, it is, I suspect, totally unrealistic. But (subject to correction by people who really know something about economics!) I also suspect that something like it, though more complicated and working through a variety of indirect channels, is an approximation to the real world.
    Assumption: the total wage bill for retail is constant. So extra money for late hours is found by reducing the wages of 9-to-5 employees. (Remember: I’m not claiming that this is literally true, but suggesting it is perhaps a useful way of thinking about more complicated economics.) So workers will “prefer” to work late for the “extra” money, because “ordinary” money (without the “extra”) isn’t enough to live on. Workers’ “preferences” aren’t a given: what they prefer is one thing from an available menu of options. Change the menu (by allowing late opening) and workers may come to — may have to — prefer something that in another environment they wouldn’t prefer.

    Since I can hardly claim even amateur status in social philosophy, let alone empirical sociology and economics, I think I’ll shut up. (And maybe go away and think.) Thanks David and Noetika for your comments!

  6. Really enjoyed this post. It reminded me of my time working as a maid. I once got extra hours and hence extra pay because my client wanted her house specially cleaned…. for her dog’s birthday party. She’d spent more on dog delicacies than I was getting paid for the day (probably even the week, for that matter), but whatever feelings of degradation this inspired were also amply mixed with relief at earning a little more. I raise this in part to point out that the issue of degradation that comes from low wage work on the margins is not just a matter of scheduling (working holidays others are free) but more general, reaching to the kinds and conditions of work that may be specially available because some have so much they can dispose of it in ways that create “opportunity” through their privileged indulgences of whim. Black Friday is but the most obvious example of how low wage workers sacrifice goods others can take for granted for increasing pay but the examples, if one looks or has worked this way, are legion and endemic to the sort of system we have.

  7. Oh no Allen — I didn’t mean to drive you off! But, I think since economies are not zero-sum games, that while you’re right preferences are conditional I don’t think it’s right to assume that those extra wages would go back to employees anyhow if their were constraints or norms against scheduling them when those extra wages can be earned. They might, but I don’t think there’s any reason to think it’s especially likely.

  8. You didn’t drive me off, Noetika. I just thought I had speechified enough.
    (And, breaking my own resolution… I agree that it is over-simple to think of economics as a zero-sum game. Still, it seems plausible to me that a legal and customary arrangement that ALLOWS late business hours can have the effect of disadvantaging workers who would otherwise prefer to work only “normal” hours. As the sweatshop owners of stories about the bad old days would say, “If you don’t come in on Sunday, don’t come in on Monday!”)

  9. Thanks all for the comments — Prof. Manners, yes, that seems exactly right. Allen, I don’t have strong views about whether or not some scheduling restrictions would overall make for a better environment because, like David, I think this is an empirical matter, but I will say given that for much of my time in retail I was working full-time while also getting my undergraduate degree, I was quite happy to have the flexibility in my work schedule that my employer’s hours of operation offered (I’m not sure how I would have gone to school otherwise). Of course, there’s a larger issue with student debt in the US, costs of tuition, and so on — but here, again, I think this illustrates that it’s such a complex puzzle and what looks like it might be a more humane approach along one dimension could cause those we aim to assist serious problems along other dimensions.

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