If The Shoe Fits

27 09 2011

We Americans like to think of ourselves as a giving people. As one of the most prosperous nations in the world, there is an implicit social contract with everyone else that we should be happy givers. So when poverty takes center stage, or a natural disaster strikes anywhere in the world, we are quick to queue up to donate goods. T-shirts. Canned food. Medicine.

And shoes.

Maybe it is partially because we feel just a little bit guilty for being so well off. Heck, even our poor fare pretty well by world standards. So whenever there’s a campaign to “do good” (oh, how I hate that grammatical faux pas), we buy in with wallets wide open.

Like TOMS Shoes. It’s the BOGO of footwear. Every time you buy a pair, some shoeless kid in Timbuktu gets a pair.

Of course, it’s not the exact same pair. One of my FB buddies wondered a few months ago if maybe it was the pink wedges. Actually, it’s a more standard pair of lower price shoes. But the point is made: In buying oh-so-stylish overpriced TOMS shoes (manufactured primarily in third-world countries), we are also giving back. It’s the guilt tax. It’s the Sally Struthers sponsor-a-kid model, except now we’re fighting barefootedness.

But is sending shoes (or any other stuff) really doing any good? And as my students continue to plow through Kelsey Timmerman’s Where Am I Wearing, is it addressing the problem? For that matter, have we even correctly identified the problem?

Watch this:

Interesting. Or is it? Are we really harming local markets by flooding them with handouts? Or is this video clip a veiled form of protectionism?

For that matter, does the best way to help them help themselves involve us buying ever more imported goods. I know plenty of unemployed (or under-employed) people who will argue that we should be making more of our consumables right here in the good ol’ USofA.

Never mind what they taught in my International Economics class. The theory of comparative advantage doesn’t hold much water when you’re looking for work.

Timmerman has argued frequently that we need to be more concerned with helping teach people to fish, rather than tossing them fish. And while I cannot say with absolute certainty that he would concur with this clip’s conclusions, I would bet money on it anyway. That’s not to say that we should quit being generous Americans. We should never allow people to go hungry or be naked (those of the Christian persuasion might recall a certain verse here). It just means that maybe we should be putting effort into helping them learn to stand on their own, so that in the long run these things don’t happen as often. The price of poverty runs high, but the price of misguided assistance can run higher.

And maybe instead of altruistically sending container loads of cast-off stuff from our closets (or the second pair of shoes we never actually see), we should consider helping educate. If anything, that is where our wealth lays. And we should gladly be sharing more of it.

Dr “Laced Up And Ready To Go” Gerlich



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