Vote with your dollars…

and buy with your conscience. Quit complaining about the actions of megacorpations, because it’s really easy to do something about it.

(note: this article was originally written in June. I had basically finished it with the second draft in July, but I never got around to fixing up the links. So, now it’s all set!)

Many Americans feel powerless next to the enormity of the government. It’s important to remember that the government is simply a bunch of people that we chose to represent our interests when making policy. Recent history has shown us how much difference an individual can make: a Senator from a small state single handedly changed the balance of power in the Senate. The Presidential election was as close to a tie as it can get, making it the kind of election in which the votes of each person add up to a significant difference.

Economically speaking, the largest corporations are more powerful than many countries. What many people don’t realize is that they have even more control over large corporations than they do over the government. Every day, the money you spend helps determine the behavior of businesses. When you purchase one company’s products or services, you are voting for that company over its competitors. By doing so, you are making a statement that you agree with that company’s way of doing business.
Some writers (Dave Winer, Dan Gillmor) have recently suggested a “corporate death penalty” for corporations that commit an extremely serious crime. For example, let’s assume that a major oil company was responsible for an ecologically disasterous oil spill. You can take them to court to get their charter revoked, essentially killing the company. Or, you could just buy gas from other gas stations. If enough people vote with their dollars and believe that the crime was a serious one, the company would most assuredly be damaged.
Another example of voting with dollars is the choice to purchase organic vegetables and goods. Generally, the genetically modified and pesticide-protected products are less expensive, because they can be grown with higher yields. Some people think that these products are unsafe, and choose to spend more to get the organic varieties. Enough people have voted that way that organic products are readily available in most grocery stores. This is basic supply and demand in action, but it shows how a certain belief in consumers can lead to changes in corporate behavior.
Here are some specific cases that people are talking about today:
Corporate America invades and homogenizes everything. People have complained about companies like Wal-Mart and McDonalds destroying the differences between cultures, making small town America look just like American suburbia, and even doing the same for cities abroad. After these establishments enter an area, family owned stores often suffer. Many blame the closing of these stores on the entry of these big companies. The reality is that the family owned businesses close because people choose Wal-Mart and McDonald’s over them. The speed, convenience, selection and low prices offered by the larger stores are more compelling than keeping the neighborhood shops in business. If you think locally owned stores are important, you should shop there.
Large companies are using their industry control to maintain control and increase profits. One of the most cited examples of this online is that of Microsoft. Microsoft is one case where voting against Microsoft is potentially quite difficult, because of the size of their market share and the importance of being able to work with data files that people send you and software that you need to do your work. Ultimately, though, other choices will come into existence, and those that are dissatisfied will be able to choose.
AOL is on both sides of this issue. They compete with Microsoft in online services and are at a disadvantage because of Microsoft’s operating system monopoly. They are also the undisputed leader in Internet service and a significant content provider and cable company through their merger with Time Warner. People often criticize AOL for their hold on instant messaging and tying content with Internet service. Except in areas where Time Warner is the local cable company, AOL is not a monopoly. There are plenty of other viable Internet service providers, movie studios, record companies, instant messaging services, etc. If you disapprove of what AOL does, you can choose alternate products.
Companies take advantage of artists. By providing music for free, albeit in a manner that the courts decided was against the law, Napster has brought this issue to the forefront. Many people don’t want to spend $15 on a CD that contains one popular song they heard on the radio, and they justify downloading it for free because they feel that the artists don’t see any of the money anyhow. It is a lot easier to steal from a large, faceless company than it is from a performer that is just trying to make a living. When you spend that $15 on a CD, you’re paying for a lot more than the artists’ and record companies’ cuts. The Internet makes it possible to connect artists and fans directly, but only if people change their habits. If everyone only learns about new music from the radio and MTV, all of those middlemen will continue to take a huge portion of your music-buying money. If you’re interested in seeing new models emerge, check out some independent sources. In a future article, I’ll provide some pointers and information about them.
You’ve Got The Power
The US and many other countries have democratic governments and capitalist economies. This arrangement yields quite a bit of individual freedom, power and responsibility. You choose which candidates are elected to office, and therefore indirectly choose the policies of the government. Never forget that every day, you’re influencing the policies of major corporations with every euro, rupee or dollar you spend.