Friday, August 20, 2010

Justice in Your Cup

You enjoy your cup of joe each day, perhaps several, and it's not cheap. You can do this only because sunbaked peasants have planted and pick the beans. You drive up to the Dunkin drive-thru in your 2009 Honda Pilot, but the peasant lives in a hovel without anything close to the medical and educational privileges you take for granted, to say nothing of pedicures and weekly viewing of 30 Rock.

Actually, I don't know how they live. But I'm pretty sure it's not the American suburbs.

So under the terrible weight of guilt stemming from this contrast, and what is surely the exploitation of these peasants by heartless corporations, some folks cam up with the idea of offering these growers a "fair price" for their coffee beans, and then marketing the resulting coffee products in western industrial nations as guaranteed "fair trade" coffee. Hence, for just a few cents more, you can have justice in your cup.

Hey, if it's that simple, why shouldn't we move to a fair trade economy in everything? We can voluntarily increase everyone's earnings! Or perhaps just down at the bottom of the economic ladder. We'll figure out the details later. Goodbye to the free market, with all its exploitation and obvious injustice, its winners and losers. Hello, economy of the enlightened.

Well, let's start with coffee. Victor Claar, an economics professor at Henderson State University in Arkansas, has written a helpful little book for the Acton Institute, Fair Trade? Its Prospects as a Poverty Solution, that examines why growers get paid as little as they do (the volatility of the market and the inelasticity of both the suppy and the demand has a lot to do with it), and the constraints on what we can do about it at the consumer end.

I have written a summary of Claar's argument in "Righteous Coffee" at, but it's a very poor summary, so buy the little book. It's just $6.

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