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  > > From the President


Flirtation with rationality

So seldom does the administration and Faculty Senate behave rationally where a political issue is concerned that one tends to regard such a phenomenon with the same excitement one would feel if offered the opportunity to view Halley's Comet from space or Lillie Langtry in the nude. I did not expect to see such a thing in my lifetime. Thus, the University's recent decision ("College Report," June/00) to decline joining the Worker Rights Consortium (WRC) filled me with as much joy as a conchologist observing the mucous muscular spasms of a sinistral whelk.

It is natural that students, guilt-ridden because their shoe allowance, remitted quarterly, exceeds the per capita income of the heads of households of most third-world countries, should exhibit remorse at the human cost of their ensembles. Supporting liberal causes by the radical step of purchasing T-shirts and other promotional items proffered by the alternative band sector of the music business seeking to beef up its bottom line, market its product, and establish itself at the vanguard of the socially conscious may offer some respite. The pain at the point of purchase remains, and the true cost of a pair of Nikes or a U of C sweat(shop)shirt is paid in the solitary, dark hours of the night or in vocalized, collective self-loathing. The epiphany: if the wardrobe were made by well-fed, well-scrubbed workers laboring happily in well-lit factories with modern bathrooms, guilt would be replaced by the nirvana previously enjoyed only by the likes of Calvin Klein on seeing his creations spread from the runway to the discount stores.

Unfortunately, the local employees who endure horrible conditions do so because the job offers the prospect of a better life. The factory is there because its cost of production per unit is lower than at alternative locations. If regulations were introduced that increased the cost, the factory would likely lose its competitive edge and its orders. It would be forced to close. Its former employees would be back to near-subsistence existences.

In the days of apartheid in South Africa, white labor unions supported a minimum wage while black activists opposed it. Increasing the cost of employing the less educated black workers would have led to replacing them with white workers, better educated and thus more productive. Likewise, increasing the cost of less productive workers in the developing world will lead to their jobs being exported to countries with higher per capita incomes where the gross cost of employment per worker is higher, but where the per unit cost of production is less. Remember that factories have been moving into less developed countries as economic socialization and education allowed them to achieve an acceptable cost per unit produced. Adding costs to the factories in the poorer countries could reverse this trend.

Alas, the flirtation with rational behavior was as brief as the possibility of sexual orgasm among the Drosophilia melanogaster. The administration announced that it was not joining the Worker Rights Consortium because its vendors already abided by guidelines similar to the WRC's. That is, it was already doing its part to take jobs from the poorest, least employable workers in the weakest economies in order to employ better-fed, more productive workers with more liberal bathroom privileges elsewhere.

Kenneth R. Shelton Jr., AB'69
Galveston, Texas

  OCTOBER 2000

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Women in white
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Gay studies at Chicago
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Reclamation project

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