Food for thought: working at McDonald's

Another gem from Girls. Hannah has basically been fired from her unpaid internship because the won't pay her and her parents have stopped supporting her. So she is discussing her situation with some friends.

Hannah: So I calculated, and I can last in New York for three and a half more days. Maybe seven if I don't eat lunch.

Jessa: I'm going to find you a job worthy of your talents.

Hannah: Well I appreciate that, but I don't know how you're going to find a job fast enough. I'm going to have to work at like, McDonald's.

Marnie: You're not gonna work at McDonald's.

Jay: What's wrong with McDonald's? You should work at McDonald's. It's great. Fucking incredible. You know how many people McDonald's feeds every day? You know how many people it employs around the world? Plus, they make an incredible product, okay? It tastes tremendous, it's affordable, it's fuckin' consistant. I can walk into a McDonald's in Nigeria, order chicken McNuggets, when I bite into them, you know what it's gonna taste like? It's gonna taste like home.

Hannah: Doesn't mean I have to work there. I went to college.

Jay: Yeah, I went to college too, you know where it left me? I have fifty thousand dollars in student loans, that's how deep in debt I am. I'm sorry, but watching this, this is like watching Clueless. 



If the Chinese middle class permits

Bill Saporito's October 31 Time article said it best: "Consider the cosmic irony: wobbly Western economies are depending on the Chinese Communist Party to save their capitalist bacon. Likewise, the Chinese government's grand scheme to rebalance its economy hinges on Western-style materialism." "Shop 'til you drop" probably isn't what Mao Zedong had in mind during the years he was in power, as Saporito points out in his piece on the Chinese middle class, a spending class that precariously faces what could wind up saving the global economy--or busting it even further.

What China is planning is a shift away from export-based industry to a consumer-spending based system, but it will not be easy and there are plenty of potential hiccups involved in fundamentally shifting an economy of 1.7 billion people. But the middle class of that country, which they are projecting to be 70 percent of the population by 2020, could be the saviors of the global economic structure; they have immense capacity for spending, a huge group like that.

The American century, the twentieth, is over. It's been over for awhile, and there's no stopping the growth of India and China now. It will be interesting to see what does happen in the Chinese economy, in the next fifty to one hundred years. Right now, we cannot predict which way it will go, but the result will be felt greatly worldwide, whichever way it swings. Spending too much time focused so exclusively on the United States means Americans, I think, are not thinking quite so realistically about the end of our own era. Not that we're going away, it's just not going to be our job to be Mister #1 anymore; that's not a bad thing. China, if it takes over that spot, certainly has plenty of its own issues--inherent in its government system--that its leaders will need to sort out, not least of which includes their rough human rights record.

Companies have known for years that the developing world was an important place for them to seek new markets for their goods. Couple that with a recession across the West and other developed nations, and you see a kind of exodus now, towards those booming, growing, expansive markets--the new consumers who have their eyes on fancy goods. Gap, the American jeans company, is closing twenty percent of its U.S. stores and tripling the number it has in China.

Saporito's most memorable bit:

If successful, the shift to consumer spending will take a good chunk of the weight of the global economy off the shoulders of American consumers and make China a gotta-be-there market for everything from video games to surgical tools to potato chips. "This generation, these strivers, they will be the saviors of the global economy," says Tim Minges, chairman of the greater China region for PepsiCo, which is pouring billions into China in anticipation of that growth. "I really do think the Chinese middle class will be like the U.S. baby boomers."

I, for one, am putting my faith in this Chinese middle class, as the new version of the U.S.'s baby boomers, to save us all.

Comedy relieves us again from news: "You food-chilling m**%$* f*#$%**"

My brother and I don't have cable, but I subscribe to Netflix Instant, and he subscribes to Hulu Plus, so we get access to a truly massive amount of material for less than $20/month between the both of us, via the PS3. So, for the first time in about five years, I've been able to watch The Daily Show a bit more often than, well, never. As has been the case forevermore, once comedians began making fun of politics for the viewing pleasure of millions, it can be extremely relieving to come home after two commutes' worth of NPR news to shake off the depressing facts of the news each day, with a little Stewart comedy. A week or so ago he took on Fox News's claims of "class warfare," in response to Warren Buffet's claims that the "super-rich" are "coddled" with their low levels of taxes. Stewart's response is fantastic, hilarious, and with many underlying nuggets of truth. "All we have to do to raise $700 billion is cut 700,000 NPRs. It's almost too easy!" Stewart joked.

Watch both parts, I swear you won't be disappointed.

Part 2:


"I want to say, this machine isn't just history." The garment industry in history, and in our lives today

If you ever complain about the price of your jeans, I want you to find a sewing machine and try to hem a pair. Granted, the industrial size and strength of the machines they use to produce them on a large scale is much greater than my personal machine, but I hemmed a pair last night and have vehemently given up the practice henceforth. I pulled out my denim-strength machine needles, the kind you buy specifically for denim, and broke two of them on the first leg. I found my pace halfway through, and managed to finish them on the third needle, but I was livid. I have been sewing all my life, and have been learning in earnest for the last three years, and I do not break needles. I decided that if I were to produce a pair of jeans, start to finish, I would charge the prospective buyer $2,000, at least. Obviously, I should not go into the jean-making-or-selling business. But it was a stark reminder that there are plenty of women--and also men and children--whose days are defined by pumping out pair after pair to sell to hungry consumers around the world for amazingly low prices, considering the labor. I cannot tell you how many times, during my years in mall retail sales associateship, I heard parents complain about the cost of jeans. They were especially mad when the jeans  were bleach-washed and "destroyed" (lots of holes and patches, in other words), as they could not believe they were paying more money for something that has been ripped up. As someone who has sat at home and pulled denim threads out of jeans until my fingers bled to get the same look in DIY form, I often held back from pointing out the obvious to them: someone has put many hours of their life into creating this pair of runway-ready jeans for you or your teenager. If you want, buy the regular pair for a whole $20 less, and take them home and try to do it yourself.

There are no new revelations to be had in what I am saying. Sweatshops and the low wages of garment industry workers have been well-publicized over the last twenty years or so, and I do not pretend to have some answer. As long as people need clothes to wear, there will be this problem in the world. But the important thing to remember is that it was not so long ago when the women of the United States were the ones subjected to the long hours, low pay, and back-breaking conditions. It is part of the phenomena of developing nations, that a generation will work very hard in factories to provide better lives for their children, the whole theory being that they can eventually move up a notch in the world. One of the most important lessons about places like Lowell, Massachusetts, which was defined by its industrial factories and garment producers in the nineteenth century, is that those conditions, the ones we thank our grandparents for improving for us--have not disappeared. They have simply relocated. Another group of people carries the burden today, producing clothing for the masses.

Earlier this semester, we read The Lowell Experiment in one of my classes, in which ethnographer Cathy Stanton examines the relationship between historians, a post-industrial city, and the National Park that the city is today. Lowell is still a real, inhabited city, but it is also a historical subject, and a place in the American industrial past that serves as a ground for social scientists to really examine many aspects of the course of American history over the last couple hundred years. What Stanton does the best is remind us that historians do not exist in a vacuum, but are, just by going to a place and trying to learn about it, affecting the results they will find. The relationship a historian has to her subject cannot be entirely removed from the results she will present to her peers and community.

And the other key thing Stanton brings home is that Lowell's history cannot exist one its own, either. People who visit the city-slash-national-park have to be confronted with the notion that these factories, just because they are no longer booming here, does not mean they are gone, that we have cured the world of the plight of the factory worker. She points out one poignant moment on a tour she was on, when the tour guide strayed from his script for a moment and did what Stanton had concluded had not been happening in this place: he connected past and present. His statement:

I want to say, this machine isn't just history. When we built this historical park we had to travel around the world to buy looms. Looms like this are operating as we speak somewhere around the world. It's kind of neat to think about that. And there's no right or wrong answer, there's no easy answer to it, but we can go to Wal-Mart or A.J. Wright or any store, really, and buy really cheap clothing. And what's the alternative? Paying a lot for your clothes? We all work, we all try and and pay the best we can for our cloth. But the reason we can get cheap cloth is because someone around the world is working on these looms, and looms not unlike what we have today. A few years ago, Kathy Lee Gifford was in trouble for using child labor on machines just like this. So it's just something to think about.

One other thing I like to sort of think about is the word "labor." It means "to suffer" in Latin. And when you think about the suffering that goes into making cloth, back in history and even to the present day, it's just something to think about. We wear the clothes, sometimes we don't think especially how hard the person who built or made the clothes worked to produce that. And all that labor, all the suffering that went into building this city, and the results, both good and bad. Just think about that a little bit. And I'll be talking about more of the positive consequences on the way back. But on a hot, sticky day, with this loud machine and the lint flying in the air, it's pretty easy to picture how miserable it would be to work there. (p. 61)

Stanton says it was a stunning moment, where suddenly each person on the tour was confronted with "the phantom figure of the Malaysian or Pakistani mill girl who was laboring--suffering--so that we could buy a t-shirt for a small fraction of what it would have cost to produce in a developed country."

The tour guide was obviously taking a risk, and chose his words wisely, speaking softly around the issue but offering no illusions about what he was referencing. And, the author reported, the other people on the tour, while a bit shaken, seemed to be able to handle it. "This is precisely the goal of progressive public history," she says, "to seize such small opportunities and compound them into larger visions of the process we are all a part of."

I was reminded of all of this not because I hemmed a pair of jeans--although that brought the message of labor and frustration home personally--I was reminded, really, by the remembrance, recently, of the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory in New York City, which 100 years ago went up in flames on a Saturday morning in March, killing more than 100 workers, mostly women and children, due to a shoddy fire escape and other unsafe conditions for its workers. Supervisors would lock their workers into the factory's floors, on the eighth, ninth, and tenth floors of the ten-story building, and so when the fire erupted, many people were left to jump out the windows--usually to their death. In 1911, in an industry of extremes that was subject to the whims of the fashion trends, work of this nature was often relegated to new immigrants seeking to improve their lives. Their average work weeks were 84 hours. These were the victims of the fire, one of the worst workplace disasters in American history. The tragedy of that day, which you can explore in a podcast and recreation of the morning here, reminds us again that such circumstances have not gone away--they have only gone beyond our national borders. It is a kind of labor many of us can only imagine.

It has not entirely left the United States, nor Lowell. Immigrants still hold those jobs, today.

The World's Jason Margolis did a news story on the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory and its galvanization of the garment industry. (I heard it on Jeb Sharp's How We Got Here history podcast.) He reports exactly the thing that the Lowell tour guide was imparting on his listening visitors, but in more specific way, and with direct connection to the conditions that existed in the Shirtwaist Factory in 1911.

“Effectively what we have done is exported our sweatshops and exported our factory fires,” said Robert Ross at Clark University in Worcester, Mass. And it’s as if the 1911 conditions had been lifted up by an evil hand and dropped into Bangladesh.”

According to the Bangladeshi government’s Fire Service and Civil Defense Department, 414 garment workers were killed in at least 213 factory fires between the years 2006 and 2009. Last year, 191 people were killed in Bangladesh in a reported 20 incidents, according to Ross’ research. Last December, a fire killed at least 25 people in a garment factory there.

“And the pattern is disturbingly uniform,” said Ross. “The shops are often in high rise buildings, just like the Triangle. The pattern is that an electrical fire starts, and then without adequate, or any fire escapes, without sprinkler systems, the workers surge to get out. And in factory after factory, the newspapers report locked gates and locked doors. It’s a horrific duplication of what we earlier experienced.”

Even while we may not have answers about these issues, it is important that we be aware, as we put on our clothes each morning, that simply because the factory is farther away does not mean the work has improved any in the last one hundred years. After my frustrating night last night, my hat goes off to all of them, in every factory corner of the world. I hope we can begin to change out outlooks and our consumer mindsets, or at least improve our awareness as a whole, so that we can move towards improvements in the lives of all garment industry workers, not just the ones in the United States.

To combat a recession: retail tactics and the mall wake-up call

For most large retailers, the last thirty years has been about stretching as far across mid-land America as possible, opening stores in malls on the fringes of big cities and in mid-size towns and communities, homogenizing the landscapes and centralizing decisions so that in most of the country, men, women, teenagers, and children could enjoy a huge selection of... the same stuff.

If the east and west coasts lead the trends, then middle-America picks them up a few seasons later, from the mall or from any department store, in their homogeneous packages, and with the stores using the same marketing techniques in Boise, ID, Topeka, KS, and Charlotte, NC. One group of people decide what should be sold and how it should be marketed, and in an era when people are spending less time buying high-prices clothes while munching on Auntie Anne's pretzel bites, this is an obviously outdated approach.

I worked as a sales associate in the Town Center Mall in Kennesaw, GA for almost three years, from the fall of 2007 to the summer of 2010, during what some might say was a pretty interesting time to be in that industry, watching from the inside as many companies began to crash and burn, when a store might make its monthly sales goal once in a year, maybe. The claws come out, to say the least. The first thing that happens is a flood of suped-up (read: desperate) sale promotions.

Buy jeans, get a shirt half off!

Spend $50, get $10 off!

All shirts, jewelery, shoes (insert your product here) BUY ONE GET ONE HALF OFF!

In the retail world, that last one is an actual term, BOGO, which might sound nicer if it was actually "buy-one-get-one," except that it usually means "buy-one-get-one-half-off."

I was never a fool walking into the mall, but after three years working in that grinding place, you learn all the tricks. You'd think people would realize that they're still spending more when they do the BOGO thing, and sometimes, if you are looking for two shirts or two necklaces, that can be handy. In most cases, people should more likely keep their wallet shut and bee-line it for the door-- especially when managers are training their sales associates to get you to add on items to your purchase, apply for a credit card, and even track you down in the fitting room to suggest additional items you might like to go along with the lot you've already hauled in there. It is oft-repeated to associates that the customer is three times more likely to buy something once they've tried it on.

If you've walked through the mall recently, you know how desperate people are. Those kiosks in the hallways are traps of awkward refusals; even I have trouble with them, and I am pretty immune to the tricks of the trade (sometimes I wish I could just write on my forehead, "Hey, I know your schemes, don't even try your open-ended questions on me, just let me shop," to shake them off as I enter a store.)

How refreshing, then, that some big-box department stores have finally admitted that maybe there is a better way to reach their nation-wide markets than by offering the same exhausted polo shirts and ripped jeans and bejeweled belts to everyone. From yesterday's article in the New York Times:

After decades of acquiring, consolidating and centralizing, the department store chain is rediscovering — and financially exploiting — its multiple local roots, advancing a trend that is quickly being adopted by other retailers like Saks Fifth Avenue and Best Buy.

It is a lesson many companies overlooked in the last 30 years as they rolled smaller stores into huge national brands, and headquarters mandated what the outlets in Biloxi or Boise should sell.

But years of economic turmoil for the retail industry have helped refresh memories. While many national retailers continue to see sales declines in a sour economy, Macy’s says its first full year of “going local” has helped increase sales significantly and “lifted the entire Macy’s performance,” according to its chairman and chief executive, Terry J. Lundgren.

Hallelujah, someone is paying attention to the markets. It does retailers no good anymore to continue to push from above the same tired tactics that were in place before the recession of circa 2008. Instead of desperately reaching with ever-greater numbers of promotions to try to get that same product out the door, perhaps the product must be changed, be more in tune with the market. People want to buy things that are specific to their area--like clothing based on school colors, and climate-appropriate jackets, for example--and money will always be spent on things like that.

In the case of these Macy's stores, the article points specifically to the Cumberland Mall in Atlanta, and their expansion in the last year of their hat department, whose sales have doubled accordingly, as they sought to give their southern and urban market what it wants.

“We have research information, and we think about household income and population size, but I think it’s much more accurate to have people living in the marketplace tell you, ‘This is who’s shopping in my store,’ ” Mr. Lundgren said.

I always thought it was silly to carry the same coats and sweaters at the Georgia September floorset switch as in the Ohio season switch, when it's still so hot out; accordingly, people in Cincinnati are not looking for bathing suits in January (nor, really, are Atlantans, but even less so for the mid-westerners). Yet this is taking the whole approach to the American market to a new level of regional consideration, for the better. There are plenty of arguments out there for "going local" for environmental reasons; how about going local for the sake of making a bigger buck on your market? When you have a strong East Asian community, offer more extra smalls; when you have a large Indian clientele, tweak your jewelry spread to include more gold items, less silver.

From the same article:

“In prior years, with the recession, it became all about cost-cutting no matter what,” said Esteban Bowles, a retail consultant with A. T. Kearney. “Now companies are seeing the light and looking for the rebound.”

If my years folding clothes at the mall taught me anything, it was that the whole bottom-line, make-every-last-dollar-we-can mindset is just as prevalent as you hear, and those retailers, they're all fighting--viciously--to win those economically wounded customers from each other. What hurts the most for sales associates is that they get grief, and pressure, from their managers, who get it from their regional managers, who get it from district- and national-level bosses. Everyone is trying to illustrate that they have what it takes to make money in retail, but maybe they need to start all over with their definitions of "retail." People will always need to buy things that they need and that appeal to them. Now, start from there.

Aww, so the little white girl wants to make a difference? Or: The intimidating world of changing the world

Plenty of young people have dreams of changing the world, making a difference, having a purpose in the wider world. Realizing this goal seems more accessible the more the world shrinks, as if maybe through our interconnectedness and supposed knowledge of each other we can somehow bring about change, that we've learned enough to avoid the pitfalls of those before us who wanted to abolish poverty or illiteracy or some other plight of humanity. But an overflow of information can also have the opposite effect; can make us think we have all the answers before we even set foot in someone else's country and culture. Even with the very best of intentions, and the most endearing empathy for others, compassion alone can bring no large-scale result. The flip side is an all-brains approach, with its theories and algorithms and--if you're really serious--some language skills to really work with the people of the global community. Take all that, and it's still not enough. You also need really thick skin.

Jacqueline Novogratz learned this the hard way. Walking in to the African Development Bank for her first day on the job in Côte d'Ivoire in 1986, she received stony glares from African women in immensely colorful dress, and felt the part of an uptight librarian in her skirt-and-blouse combo and glasses. "I hadn't expected to encounter poisoning and voodoo among women bankers in Africa," she says, but after a week or two, that is exactly what was faced her. As most would, when she took a job with a development company in Africa, she had been imagining something more along the lines of sitting on the ground with women in a rural village; instead, she was facing somewhat powerful and relatively wealthy women who hated what she represented: white people from the economic "North" (read: developed world), who sat in their offices thousands of miles away and wrote up plans for improving the African continent while sipping $4 lattes.

This is a stereotype, of course, but as the women she encounters there argue, how can Africa ever stand on its own without Africans leading the changes, with the knowledge of their world and their ways. What kind of organization promotes solidarity by neglecting to ask the opinions of the people most dedicated to fixing their nations' problems, instead deciding to send in a young, white woman without first seeing whether the skills were already there. Regardless of the role Novogratz was supposed to play, and regardless of her most earnest intentions, her position there did not work out; but the feeling was mutual: she smiled daily at the street vendors during her time in Cote d'Ivoire without every getting to understand how they lived. "I'd wanted to know who low-income people were so I could be of greater service, but I had spent most of my time [in Africa so far] in big institutions with people who chattered and hobnobbed at conferences and did very little listening."

Long story short, Novogratz is today the CEO of Acumen Fund, which has successfully invested in local businesswomen in the form of microloans that have proven effective ways of empowering those who cannot start businesses or get loans the traditional way. She emphasizes loans instead of donations, proving to be a more sustainable approach, one which invests in the skills and integrity of real merchants and artisans in a bottom-up way. She has also spoken at TED about her real belief that poverty can be abolished, her determination founded not in naive idealism but in experienced optimism and creative thinking. She also wrote a book, The Blue Sweater, chronicling how it all happened. (Listen to the amazing story of her beloved Blue Sweater, and what it taught her about the world.)

I have not finished reading the book yet, but one of the most striking things I've discovered is how harshly the world can hit that little white girl with a big heart and some education, who wants to make a difference and see the world while she's at it. Novogratz spent three days writhing on the bathroom floor after a reception she'd attended with the women of her development banking office, unable to drink even water; whether this was a coincidental illness or a moderate dose of poison, the event was ominous and painful. And the world is ominous and painful, especially for poverty-stricken women in villages and cities around the world, but also for little white girls who venture out into it.

I'm not comparing the experiences of these two types of women at all, I am simply observing through Novogratz's experience the heart-breaking rejection the world can serve even when you bring it everything you've got. We question, once again, the outsider's role in development and economies not our own. We question the very goal we have set out to achieve--making a difference--and many have dismissed it as impossible. Novogratz has not, and she is an inspiration. I read of the discrimination she faced and literally question my own courage and confidence. I question whether I would have even risen from the floor; I like to think so, but sometimes I am victim my own doubts, which seemed exponential in her shoes. Even when things started to turn towards positive progress, she was still communicating in French, far away from her family and home, and living in the pre-internet world of letter-writing. In Rwanda, where she found a more welcoming evironment and was helping to create a microfinance company for women there, she still had boughts of doubt and despair:

Starting anything new is an all-encompassing proposition, and typically I worked 16-hour days. Doing this in a different language, in a place far from home, where navigating even simple things could thwart the best intentions challenged me to my bones. There were plenty of nights when the sheer injustice of the world in which I lived would come crashing down. With no mean of communication other than letters, a sense of isolation would envelope me, and there were nights that ended in tears of tiredness and sadness for a world that didn't seem to want to see the possibilities right there in front of it. In those time, I would turn to music. Peter Gabriel, Joni Mitchell, Carole King, and Cat Stevens began to feel like good friends on lonely nights.

I crack so easily over my own trials and am such an emotional person when I'm talking about things I'm passionate about, I honestly think I would have broke down crying in front of those intimidating, strong, hardened, female African bankers. What things they have faced that I've never had to face myself! And then, even if I began to make progress with a new job in a new country, as Novogratz did, the work is still accompnaied by doubts and tribulations aplenty, and you go about witnessing hardships while struggling against the established status quo. This difficulty intimidates me to my core. The world of changing the world is scary, messy, disheartening business. But Novogratz never gave up hope; for it is also rewarding, enlightening, and after everything, beneficial to the people who need it the most-- if you've got a smart plan. And great compassion. And, really, if you're tough enough. I hope that if such an opportunity or chance position comes my way, I'm brave enough--and also crazy enough--to take it.