There is nothing romantic about an empty farm

On a run this past weekend in Mississippi, I ran over the levee and past some dilapidated farming homes that had been abandoned after this springs’ floods.  I was struck by the nobility of the structures and the spirit of farming, and I caught myself thinking nostalgic thoughts about farm life and all that it represents.

But these were not quaint relics, they’re not there to remind anyone of our past – they are, or were, someone’s livelihood that had, again, let them down thanks to climate change, increasing farm productivity and a changing global economy.  What was once a thriving rural community on the banks of the Mississippi River has seen agricultural incomes decline, the Air Force base go away, and a downtown that’s been hollowed out into a living ghost town.  It may be that there’s a brighter future in sight, but it’s hard to see the path that lead from here to there.

This isn’t a new story.  Nor did I think it was a particularly instructive story for our current economic woes…at least I didn’t until I read a new piece by Nobel Prize-winning Economist Joseph Stiglitz in this month’s Vanity Fair titled “The Book of Jobs.”  In it Stiglitz argues that while everyone notices the banking system parallels between the current economic downturn and the Great Depression, Stiglitz’s own analysis, together with Bruce Greenwald, tells a different story.

While the financial sector, specifically poor monetary policy (a monetary tightening by the Fed just when there should have been a loosening) pushed the American economy from recession to full-blown depression in 1929, this analysis masks what was really going on: the fundamental shift from an agricultural to a manufacturing economy, one in which the rising productivity of the agricultural sector caused supplies to balloon, prices to plummet, and real incomes (and towns) to decline beyond repair.  So too today, Stiglitz argues, during our Long Slump: while it looks like we are having a financial crisis, what we really are experiencing is a tectonic shift in our economy from manufacturing to services.  Huge increases in productivity, coupled with globalization, are causing a decline in income and jobs in the US.

If Stiglitz is right, then the medicine we’ve applied (tons of free money to the banks, with no strings attached) is all wrong.  No amount of monetary tinkering will get you out of this kind of crisis; instead, like in the wake of the Great Depression, one needs a huge fiscal stimulus (read: huge government spending) to get out of this sort of mess.  Back then it was, ironically, World War II.  What will it be this time around?

Whether this is precisely the right analysis isn’t what’s on my mind.  Rather, what worries me is that the chance that we’re going to find and execute the right policy seems preposterously low.  Whereas in the 1930s we simply didn’t know enough in terms of monetary policy to respond appropriately, today each and every issue is so politicized that it feels almost naïve to think that we’ll turn to apolitical experts who just plain know more (about the economy, the environment) than everyone else. No one is seen as smart enough or neutral enough to be fully above the fray (remember when the chair of the Fed was someone everyone liked?).

How do we get to a point where certain issues are important enough that they become nonpartisan? It happens when we weave them into the fabric of our identities rather than leave them at the periphery in the realm of ideological debate.  It happens when we create new narratives that transcend ideologies or, worse, when issues become so dire that we have no choice but to act together.  I hope we get our act together before then.

A portion of this purchase will make you feel good

I’ve just about had it with “worthy” product tie-ins ( “a portion of this purchase will go to charity”) but I’ve felt like it’s such an obvious point that I’d let it lie.  And then today I came across a giant 6 page Bulgari ad in Vanity Fair.  I flip through six beautiful, stern, black-and-white photographs of movie stars I admire, starting with Isabella Rossellini, and quotations like “Let’s give children a chance for a better future,” and “Every child deserves and education.”  OK, you’ve gotten my attention.

On the 6th page there’s the heavy silver Lord of the Rings-esque ring each moviestar is wearing.  Buy a Bulgari “silver ring created especially for the campaign to support kids’ education…A portion of the proceeds will help to rewrite the future for millions of children” with money being given to Save the Children.Willem da Foe and Ben Stiller for Bulgari/Save the Children

A similar, recent charity tie-in that comes to mind is Product(Red), which,the NY Times reported last year, spent $100M on advertising to raise $18M for the Global Fund to Fight Aids, Malaria, and Tuberculosis.

Obviously I don’t have a problem with big companies donating to charity, nor do I think Save the Children is to blame since they do wonderful work and are absolutely worth supporting.  And kudos to the movie stars themselves for supporting a worthy cause.

It’s the “portion of the proceeds” piece that gets me.  Bulgari is apparently donating €1M and raising €9M through this campaign, and €50 out of the 290 cost of the ring will go to Save the Children.  They are also auctioning off an estimated $3M worth of jewelry, all of whose proceeds will go to Save the Children.  This from a company with more than €1 billion in revenues in 2008.

Yes, it’s a lot better than nothing.  But it is so much less than what we could do.  It’s a “no sacrifice” mentality.  Sure, it’s good for Save the Children, for awareness about the importance of education, and good for Bulgari.  But when I look at all the resources that went into this one Vanity Fair ad, I feel pretty sure that Save the Children is getting the crumbs left on the table.

For starters, as far as I can tell, the 6-page ad in Vanity Fair cost around $85,000 a page, or a total of $510,000 (this is my first time reading a rate card…someone correct me if I’ve got this wrong).  So I can’t help but worry that the donation will be a small piece of a much bigger pie.

Plus there’s something that doesn’t feel right about Bulgari customers, who by definition are ultra-wealthy, wearing a €300 ring to say “I am doing something to improve education for poor kids in the developing world,” and the total value of their donation to Save the Children is €50.

Finally, there’s a gut check question here:  It makes me queasy to think about a halo effect for an ultra-premium brand like Bulgari on the backs of poor kids in the developing world.

I’d like to see us set a very different bar, and charity:water gives us the example.  They allow you to buy a $20 bottle of water, with 100% of the proceeds going to charity.  Pay 10 times as much, because we all could do more and give more, and all the money goes to charity.  Giving is important, it’s not a free pass or a rounding error in your latest purchase.

If the 10x the price sets too high a bar, at the very least, let’s ask all the charity tie-ins to give the full cost of the product to the charity.  That should be the minimum.  It’s 100% transparent, it is more honest, and it forces the multinational to put some real skin in the game.  Plus, imagine what happens inside the company when they’re promoting the heck out of a product that doesn’t earn them one thin dime.  I bet they’d get more, not less, energy, enthusiasm, creativity and sacrifice.  People would be fighting to work on that project.

Could someone out there please create a “100% to charity” logo/brand/standard to set the bar here?

add to : Add to Blinkslist : add to furl : Digg it : add to ma.gnolia : Stumble It! : add to simpy : seed the vine : : : TailRank : post to facebook