The Magazine

Buyers Beware

A guide for the perplexed, reflexively leftist, consumer.

Jan 18, 2010, Vol. 15, No. 17 • By MARTIN MORSE WOOSTER
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The Blue Pages

A Directory of Companies Rated

by Their Politics and Practices
by Angie Crouse and the Center
for Responsive Politics
PoliPoint, 320 pp., $12.95

In Bleak House Charles Dickens satirized the excesses of what he called “telescopic philanthropy” through the character of Mrs. Jellyby. She has dirty hair, a dirty house, and dirty children, for all that matters in Mrs. Jellyby’s life is the remote African colony of Borrioboola-Gha, a region that means more to her than her own life or her family. Mrs. Jellyby’s eyes, Dickens wrote, “had a curious habit of seeming to look a long way off, as if .  .  . they could see nothing nearer than Africa!”

The Mrs. Jellybys of our time are on the left, and they practice telescopic philanthropy with every purchase they make. For liberals, the routine pleasures of shopping are ruined by the nightmare that their dollars support rapacious capitalism. For consumers who believe that businesses, run by overpaid, evil white men, are ravagers of the earth, Third World exploiters, high-fructose corn-syrup pushers, union busters, global warmers, and media manipulators, The Blue Pages will reinforce their prejudices.

Michael Dukakis was once famously attracted to books about Swedish land-use planning, and The Blue Pages features an endorsement from Howard Dean, who says that he was “riveted as he looked through” the first edition. This second edition divides the world of business into 13 categories, and each corporation has under its listing campaign contributions, the amount a -business spends on lobbying, and practices the authors like and dislike.

The sections are prefaced by essays from the sorts of writers Howard Dean finds riveting. Each writer fulminates against corporate abuses. Norman Solomon, for example, denounces Clear Channel Broadcasting as “a conservative radio chain,” which will be news to listeners who turn to Clear Channel stations for sports talk and pop music. Jane Black, an objective, nonideological food reporter for the Washington Post, explains that restaurant chains exploit their workers and are a major contributor to the national rise in obesity. Chris Colin denounces big-box stores for destroying the environment, acquiring land via “imminent” domain, and wrecking the economy both when the stores open and when they close. He does, however, find one virtue in big-box stores: “The top-selling 2009 wall calendar at major retailers around the country was one featuring Barack Obama.”

To examine the method of The Blue Pages, let’s do some shopping. You want a soda. What’s better, Coke or Pepsi? Coca-Cola, the authors charge, allegedly uses “paramilitary groups to kill union activists in South America,” commits unspecified “environmental offenses” in India, and purportedly promotes child labor in El Salvador. But the company also has a lot of electric vehicles and is, according to DiversityInc, number nine in the “Top 50 Companies for Diversity” and gives AIDS treatment to workers at its African facilities. Finally, in an issue by which the writers are curiously obsessed, Coca-Cola’s health insurance will pay for sex-change -operations, or in politically correct terms, “transition to transgender identity.”

As for PepsiCo, the Blue Pages writers say that their Indian plants also have unspecified environmental offenses, and also allegedly pump “aquifers dry in areas where people are poor and water hard to find.” (We aren’t told where these areas are.) However, DiversityInc ranked PepsiCo number 24 on their Top 50 diversity list, the Environmental Protection Agency gave the firm an award for its substantial purchases of “green energy,” and the company’s health insurance pays for some (but not all) sex-change operations.

Where will you buy that soda? Where I live, the two major supermarket chains are Giant, a subsidiary of the Dutch firm Royal Ahold, and Safeway. The Blue Pages tells us that Royal Ahold’s Czech operation, Hypernova, allegedly failed to pay overtime and paid women less than men. In addition, the firm was “criticized for a lack of action regarding the plight of agricultural workers who earn poverty wages.” (They don’t say who made the critique or what Royal Ahold was supposed to do to remedy the situation.) Yet, the company uses energy-saving devices in its stores and practices recycling. We aren’t given any information about Royal Ahold’s sex-change operation policies.

Safeway, says The Blue Pages, had to pay part of a $22.4 million fine for not paying its workers overtime and was “named in a lawsuit” with two other California supermarket chains accused of colluding to simultaneously lock out workers in the event that one of them was struck by a union. However, Safeway uses solar energy in 23 of its California stores, and the Human Rights Campaign gives the company 75 out of 100 in its Corporate Equality Index—even though the company won’t pay for sex-change operations.

Two points should be made about The Blue Pages’s methods. The first concerns tort reform. For the authors, all lawsuits are good lawsuits. We are repeatedly told when a company is sued, but not told who is doing the suing, how much money the trial lawyers made in the suit, or whether the lawsuit resulted in constructive change or just made trial lawyers even richer without providing any benefit to consumers. 

The second lacuna concerns corporate philanthropy. The Blue Pages provides sporadic information about corporate giving, but not about gifts to liberal activists. For, as the Capital Research Center has repeatedly shown, large corporations are far more likely to support the enemies of capitalism than champions of free enterprise. The center’s most recent research, conducted in 2006, surveyed the Fortune 100 corporations and found that these companies gave $59 million to leftwing organizations but only $4 million to rightwing groups. Readers of this book, however, will not know which liberal groups get corporate money.

The Center for Responsive Politics, which provided the political contribution data in this book, acknowledges funding from six large foundations. Readers of The Blue Pages can’t connect these foundations with their corporate parents. For example, the wealth which endows the Pew Charitable Trust comes from Sun Oil (now Sunoco). Readers are told that Sunoco was a guilty party in class action lawsuits involving the alleged carcinogen MTBE and for oil spills in an unspecified wildlife refuge—but not that the wealth created by the company made The Blue Pages possible. 

The readers of The Blue Pages are liberals who fret about everything: Czech labor practices, polluting Indian soda companies, California labor unions, and transgendered people everywhere. But to be concerned about everything is to be concerned about nothing. What consumer chooses a supermarket based on whether California workers are more important than Czech ones? Who can say that Indian pollution is more or less important than workers in El Salvador—particularly if you’ve never been to India or El Salvador?

There’s a simpler way consumers can ensure that their purchases help constructive social change. Buy what you need, buy what’s on sale—and donate the money you save to charities you like. That’s a far better way to produce constructive social change than the tortured calculus of The Blue Pages.

Martin Morse Wooster is a senior fellow at the Capital Research Center and author, most recently, of The Great Philanthropists and the Problem of ‘Donor Intent.’

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