Candles Always Cry

And Other Stories

Month: January, 2012

Why TOMS Shoes Has My $44

On Zac Mason’s critique of TOMS Shoes, found on his blog.

Zac’s critique, in short: Your money is better spent elsewhere. TOMS Shoes cost more than twice the amount it takes to produce them, so in effect, they’re making money not only off the shoes you buy, but off the ones they give out for free. There are charities that will make much better use of your $44. In addition, giving free things to poor people takes away their incentives to work, and imposes artificial and temporary changes to local economies.

Zac Mason has much more of a right to be critiquing TOMS Shoes than I have to be defending them. He was in the Peace Corps for two years and has spent time in Mali (in Africa, in case you didn’t know) where as he writes, “people drink water from mud puddles”. He was there to try and fix that. He knows a lot more about giving and about poverty than I, or any other average, consumerist American, with a conscience waddling somewhere in our brains.

However, that is exactly where his blind spot is. He knows and lives and breathes giving.

TOMS is not targeting the Zac Masons of the world, the Rwandan orphanage volunteers, or the minimalists who refuse to own more than two shirts. TOMS’ success is in taking money from people like me, people who care but don’t usually think about it, who buy things because they’re cool, who consume because it’s a way of life. They’re hijacking the already ingrained incentives in a capitalist, developed country, for the sake of helping the poor.

How many people who buy TOMS do it only because of their ‘buy one, give one’ model? I suspect that it may influence, but not motivate, the decision to purchase. In my case, I bought TOMS because they appeared on my capitalist/consumer mindwave. I noticed other people wearing them, was intrigued by their story, and figured I could use a comfortable, fashionable (for a college student) pair of shoes for $44. I felt good about the purchase, but it was because I felt I was a part of something (kudos to the TOMS marketing team), and not because I was giving money to charity.

So with no effort on the consumer’s part, and with money that would have gone to another selfish buy, the American consumer is helping TOMS help a poor child.

Zac Mason is wrong. My $44 are better spent at TOMS than anywhere else, because anywhere else means Nordstrom, or Apple, or Chipotle.

Where Mason’s critique does stand is how TOMS uses the money its unwitting (in a good way) donors contribute. If Blake Mycoskie, founder and CEO of TOMS, is serious about his social goals, maybe there are ways to modify his giving model. Mason suggests  that building toilets at schools so children don’t have to walk through feces, or  selling shoes at the right price point, might be more effective than handing out shoes.

Mason should be capitalizing on the hype TOMS generates,and TOMS on the knowledge of the people in the know. And I will continue to buy stuff if they’re cool.


If I Could Draw my Brain

Inspired by the TED Talk 1000 TED Talks, 6 Words.

If I could draw my brain (or yours)…

It would look like the silhouette of a DNA strand. Or a string of balloons piled one atop the other, tie side pointing up. Or anything that would achieve the look of a point that expands and then narrows again until it almost disappears and then expands again, and repeats that again and again. It could also be the graph of the visible width of the moon.

It’s like that because I have an idea so penetrating and fleeting and overwhelmingly true or complete or integral. Like a headline you can’t ignore, or 6 words that explain everything you didn’t know was unexplained. Then you read the article, or stop and stare out the window while your brain unwinds the idea. Or you spend four years, a thesis papers and millions of brain cells scrolling out the idea in 12 point typeface until it covers every wall in your house.

Then the letters peel off the walls one by one and you climb into bed to save yourself from drowning in superlatives. When you come back, the main point or the point is beating somewhere, and you see it in neon colors, flashing off the bare wall, in increasingly insistent intervals, tearing through every layer of sleep. Depending on the idea, sometimes the new headline is more convincing, more immediate, or less so, but never more raw.

Every idea has a core. Some say every idea can be reduced to 6 words. Not reduced so much as encapsulated. If you read the 6 words do you know more before or after you saw everything that led to it?

Really, the DNA would have to be mutant where each new twist gives birth to more ideas and those to more, like a rapidly expanding family tree with only one root, and behind that root another. The branches of this tree are  flexible so you can intertwine them somewhere, twist them at the narrows of their necks where they are most vulnerable and most individual.

Naked Economics, by Charles Wheelan

In Naked Economics, Charles Weheelan attempts (and succeeds) to show how relevant Economic principles are and how we encounter them all the time even if we don’t know their academic names. The book is like well packaged common sense with an economic lense. It’s like putting on glasses and the scene you were just looking out becomes a little more focused, the lines a little sharper.

These days (and probably always), the news, and most of politics, is economically motivated, and this book gives you the language to analyze it, at least at a basic level. Wheelan tries to remain objective and he presents both sides to the government/regulation question lucidly. He presents them both so well that he strips all the black and white out of the discussion and you end up more confused than when you started. Which is a good time to start thinking.

The one place where Wheelan is pretty insistent on his own opinion is in regard to the growth economy and that’s where things get interesting. The solution to all problems is to grow the economy because as he says repeatedly economics is not a zero-sum game. As long as the pie gets bigger, there’s more for everyone (except if utility is relative and then people have more relative to the past but not relative to other people). The only loser in this case is the environment since the richer we get, the richer the poor get, and then more we all consume. That’s a pretty big problem and unless your answer to environmentalism is keep the poor poor, an unanswerable one.

Ironically, the definition of economics is the study of unlimited wants and scarce resources.  It is hardly an economic solution to spend our way out of scarcity.

In economics our own mortality and finiteness stand starkly naked. Delusions of everlasting plenty or any other kind are not welcome. Even joy and spirit and love are captive to the resources it takes to produce them. Like it or not we  spend our finite lifespan on this planet trying to navigate the infinite within the confines of scarcity.

But what if more than just spiritual matters were infinite? If God were truly infinite and He created the world, then why can’t there be unlimited material resources? What if the brutally realistic economist is himself deluded by scarcity?

Then growth economy has a chance and the pie can keep getting bigger and bigger without exploding. (Thinking about that can make your head explode though so tread with caution.)

This did start out as a book review but the fun of books is where they take you.