Banks County Opinions...

DECEMBER 8, 2004


Column

By: Zach Mitcham
The Banks County News
December 8, 2004

A look at the retail revolution
We live at a time when — as I learned this weekend — you can actually buy a small, color TV for $37 or a lawnmower for $99. But go to a ball game, or the movies, or the hospital, and watch how prices suddenly change: The cost of a soft drink swells to six times more than usual; one aspirin tablet in a hospital room suddenly costs more than a combo meal at a drive-through.
As I grow older, I’m more intrigued by the stories behind pricing. These things shape our world on small and large scales. Economics is not some boring professor-speak. The science of supply and demand is relevant to every deal we ever make. And we all know we need to develop a certain degree of savvy on pricing or risk being played for fools.
For instance, if you don’t know why a car that should be valued at $5,000 is being sold for $2,500, if you just take on faith that you’re getting a good deal, then you risk being duped. Without skepticism, you sacrifice leverage to the seller, who may wave and smile as you drive away with a blown gasket.
Markets are often described as “forces of nature.” It’s true, the mass of individuals looking out for themselves creates a real force in a collective sense. This seemed very apparent to me as I joined the sea of people looking for a ticket to a Georgia game this year. The supply — the scalpers — met the demand — the fans. Sometimes one has an edge over the other. For instance, factors like bad weather give the buyers power, and other factors, like a more hyped game, such as UGA vs. LSU in October, give scalpers the edge.
Everyone looks for that leverage to better himself. The bargaining edge can change quickly for individuals and groups, but the change may also be gradual.
And it may also be profound, affecting most everyone.
For instance, for some time now we’ve seen manufacturing jobs go overseas. We’ve seen the banner of “Buy American” crumble, because if you want merchandise from a big store you really can’t hold to that ideal, not when so much now comes from China.
Ultimately, price matters most. Because it’s a force of nature — human nature. We want the best deal. Period.
All the other issues, the loss of jobs to overseas firms, the growing U.S. trade deficit to China and other countries, these concerns are, of course, secondary to our own well being. Fact is, this makes sense. You have to look out for your kids, your household.
But the big economic picture matters too. That’s obvious whenever we fill up our cars and note skyrocketing gas prices.
And if we look, it’s obvious that economic power in this country has shifted in a truly monumental way in recent years. And no, I’m not referring to our two-party system.
What I mean is that for decades manufacturers dictated prices to retailers, because retailers were diverse. There were many stores, and if one store chose not to deal with a manufacturer, then that manufacturer didn’t suffer much of a hit. “You don’t want our socks? O.K. fine, we know a hundred stores who do.”
But as major retailers like Wal-Mart and Target have grown bigger and bigger, they have taken control of the price.
They are much-maligned for that power, but the reasons for their dominance are really a mixed bag of good and bad. They truly do put the squeeze on employees and competition with methods that make anyone with a conscience cringe. At the same time, they are remarkably efficient. For instance, Wal-Mart has used barcode technology better than anyone, giving them the edge in tracking sales trends and stocking their shelves accordingly.
But apart from whatever good or bad feelings people have about Wal-Mart, the fact that such stores are so dominant these days has profoundly altered our economy. Now major retailers can say, “We want socks at this price.” And if the manufacturer balks, the retailer can reply, “Well, we sell 38 percent of socks in America? How would you like to lose our account?”
In response, manufacturers lower their prices. They have to. But they can’t cut the quality of their product and expect to compete. So they look at their people. And they cut pay for employees. They cut benefits. They cut jobs. They cut and run — to China, to Thailand, to places where labor can be hired for 50 cents an hour.
Labor unions in America are often blamed for the flight of manufacturing companies overseas. Of course, there have been plenty of examples of unions making unreasonable demands over the years.
But the manufacturing/retail shift of power far overshadows any effort by labor to tilt the balance. A union may try to add weight to its end of the supply-demand equation, but they ultimately have no real power nowadays, not when retailers have all the leverage and continually pay less and less for manufactured goods.
So as manufacturers are continually forced to cut expenses to meet retail price demands, we see more workers laid off, or denied health care coverage, or paid less.
Meanwhile, major retailers load their shelves with four out of five products shipped over from China. That “Buy American” slogan is now just a faint echo of the past, finally washed away by a river of lower retail prices from who cares where.
I’m really not trying to depress us all. And I’m not intending to throw blame right or left. No, I just feel these are economic realities worth noting. We remember the industrial revolution. I think we will also remember the “retail revolution” in years to come.
And I think it’s good for people to remember that in the “race to the bottom” in retail prices, there is an accompanying “race to the bottom” in wages and benefits on the manufacturing side. This is true both here and abroad.
To act as if there is no deeper cost in this for the society as a whole, well, then you have to ask yourself, “who’s being duped?”
Zach Mitcham is an editor with MainStreet Newspapers.

 

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Column

By: Shar Porier
The Banks County News
December 8, 2004

Lessons to be learned from Chernobyl
On an April day in 1986, a horrific accident occurred in Russia.
The release of steam from a nuclear reactor sent an intense cloud of radiation across hundreds of square miles in Russia.
Chernobyl had belched and set loose a demon that killed man and creature alike, rendered cities and towns uninhabitable, uprooted families and hurled a government from the perch of the powerful.
A documentary about a group of Irish women who regularly visit children’s hospitals in the 250-square mile contaminated zone around the dead nuclear power plant aired recently. The view of life in the cities and villages, some within just 70 miles of the plant, was a cause of great concern.
Some years ago, I came across a book called “Ground Zero.” In it was page after page after page of personal accounts of the radiation exposure to people near and downwind of the Nevada nuclear bomb test sight. Our government claimed the dosage was within tolerable limits, but follow-up research and the study of the frequent occurrence of various forms of cancer showed undeniably the actual exposure was far greater. The photos of the people and their stories about the years of testing were very graphic and disturbing, to say the least.
Yet, the accounts of those Americans were nothing compared with what was happening to the children of Chernobyl. These Irish women brought a horrendous problem from the shadows into the light. The children of Chernobyl are paying the ultimate price 20 years later for the careless neglect of their government.
In less than 20 years, genetic mutations have created a populace of thousands of severely deformed children left on doorsteps of children’s “hospitals” alone, unwanted, unloved.
The extent of their disabilities was beyond comprehension. Some barely looked human.
There was a severely retarded baby girl whose brain was not in her skull. It hung in a bag as big as her head attached only by the spinal cord. There was nothing that could be done. She was not expected to live.
There was a young boy whose liver and kidneys were not inside his body cavity, but outside, flopping around on his back. He, too, was considered terminal.
There were others, many, many others with deformed faces, hands and feet. Contorted features and contorted bodies. The genetic code had run amok and continues to run amuck among the populace affected directly by the fallout.
It was hard to watch. Hard to absorb the utter chaos that the human genome had undergone due to radiation exposure.
One type of defect is so prevalent it has been named the “Chernobyl heart.” Genetic damage causes holes to occur in the heart and within days of birth, most children die because families nor hospitals have access to or the money for surgeons who can perform such operations.
There is a group of American doctors who visit the region periodically and perform free open-heart operations to the patients with the most potential to survive. Choosing the candidates can only be described as heartbreaking.
For other children in their pre-teens who have managed to survive with defective hearts, they are fast approaching a point of no return. A heart transplant is their only hope.
One young girl of 11, gaunt and thin, came in unannounced to meet the doctors and seek their help. But, she was not on their list. For her, life would be measured in weeks not years.
There are too few organ donors, too little money and reluctant Russian doctors whose Hippocratic oath appeared not to apply to these abandoned children left lying in their own excrement, untouched and unloved.
One would think that with the unmistakable diagnosis of “genetics gone wild” that the government would have moved people away from dangerously contaminated areas. But, no. Instead, Russian people live in cities, some a mere 75 miles away from the disaster area where Cesium 134 has been found in ground water, plants, animals and people.
And though the readings of high radiation contamination, 40 times the limit of a lifetime everyday, are known, the government has determined the levels “acceptable” and therefore the children do not qualify for government funding to help battle the cancers and defects that will take their lives in abominable ways.
Shockingly, neither do a number of hospitals caring for them. One doctor lamented the state of affairs and was reduced to tears talking about the uncertain future of his hospital and the children due to the loss of funding.
Even more perplexing is that over a million people still live in what is considered a hot-zone where radiation has permeated the ground and drinking water and is poisoning the residents every day.
It got me to thinking. So, what does that mean for us? What would happen if the unthinkable happened here at one of our aging plants? Or what if terrorists decide to target a nuclear power plant?
What is our government doing to secure these numerous sites? You would expect beefing up plant security and establishing no-fly zones to be major concerns of Homeland Security. This isn’t so.
In another documentary about the Indian Point nuclear power plant that lies just three miles upstream from New York City, security guards, under anonymity, said they had had little training in protecting the plant and not enough staff to do it. The filmmakers flew numerous times over and all around the plant for nearly 30 minutes with no reaction at all. They also were able to walk around the plant and film it, again with no intervention.
Sitting on the shores of Lake Erie, on the edge of the beautiful, wildlife sanctuary Crane Creek, sits the Davis-Besse nuclear plant. There were thousands in opposition to the placement of the plant. Towns and cities in a 200-mile radius turned out for the first public hearing. Their concerns for the wildlife and their own lives were given no heed.
There have been many serious problems from the beginning. One reactor has been shut down for nearly 10 years due to construction flaws. Incidentally, the corporation now owning the plant is FirstEnergy, a subsidiary of Halliburton.
I met and talked with a few of the engineers over a late-night snack one night in November during a trip home last year. They didn’t seem to be very positive about the repairs or the progress they were making. The corporate heads were pressuring them to get the job done and done quickly. Money was being lost and they need to crank “Bessie” back up to full production. One said he had never seen a reactor site with so many flaws.
In looking through documents on the NRC website, the plant was put back on line earlier this year.
Many of the nation’s plants are aging, like Bessie, and some have belched out a plume of radioactive steam, including the Savannah River plant. Such incidents are spinned with the familiar phrase: “no harm to the general public.”
But, those of us who remember Love Canal and Chernobyl know that disaster waits. In a matter of minutes, things can go very wrong and lives changed forever.
Will there come a day when the nuclear beast shows itself here? Will childbirth become a nightmare? Will we have babies born with flippers for hands and feet or brains hanging from spinal cords?
Inevitably, the answer is yes and it probably won’t be due to terrorists’ bombs. No, accountability will lie with the energy companies and the Nuclear Regulatory Commission. That is, of course, if there is someone left to hold them accountable.
Shar Porier is a reporter for The Banks County News.


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