Occupy Costco

The Occupy Wall Street movement that took root in New York City four weeks ago has taken hold in the Bay Area, with scores of demonstrators camping out on city property to talk about corporate greed and government corruption.

--Contra Costa Times, October 12, 2011

I've never been the protestor type. Never hoisted a homemade sign plastered with global grievances. Never skipped a college class to rub elbows with the anti-war crowd. I've always cared about various causes, but apparently not enough to risk missing a Proust seminar. Forgive me.

Thing is, public demonstrations are so…public. Yes, I put myself out here in this venue. But writing for the blogosphere--mug of hot coffee nearby, the family dog curled up at my feet--is cozy and safe. And it's not like I'm writing in communist China. Yet.

Which brings me to a recent shopping trip to Costco. In case you haven't been there lately, I'm here to report that the holiday season has arrived at the wholesale warehouse. It's early October, we've barely adjusted to summer's end, but there you have it. Put away your Okabashi flip-flops, wash the chlorine out of your hair and deal with it. But be forewarned: it's beginning to look a lot like a Made in China Christmas.

General Electric's seven-foot tall, LED-lit, faux noble fir greeted me just inside the Costco entrance. Now I must admit, despite that fact that Don / Richie C and I are fresh Christmas tree fanatics, this fake noble looks like the real deal. So real that I ran my fingers along its smooth, plastic needles and actually pictured the thing in my own house. I'm sure that's just what GE's marketing gurus hope for: that magic moment where the shopper gets swept away and imagines the product in his / her possession. Oh, this fake tree would look so good in my living room. And no mess, no lifeless brown needles, no sap. Safe to say GE doesn't want someone like me poking around. My thoughts continue on into the darker regions: But it's Made in China? It's bad enough that it has no scent. How dare GE secure its place in China making our country's mandated LED lights and then add insult to injury by also making its fake Christmas trees there, too. How dare GE's Jeffrey Immelt call himself our country's Jobs Czar. He must be kidding.

Like I said, hardly the reaction GE hopes to evoke in a shopper. I continued on into the Costco warehouse, taking notes, checking Christmas ornaments (China), wrapping paper (U.K.), and faux candles (China). I checked rows and rows and rows of holiday toys: all Made in China. In total, I discovered two U.S.A.-made holiday items: a set of 50 gift bows and 600 feet of ribbon ($13.49). And Step 2 Flip & Doodle Easel Desk ($49.99).

And none of this would matter, of course, if unemployment in this country wasn't stalled at 9.1 percent; if we didn't need the low paying manufacturing jobs now being siphoned off to China. But as our nation's demographics continue to change, we need those jobs more than ever before. Read this from Bloomberg Business Week (America the Uneducated, 2005):

How did the U.S. become the world's largest economy? A key part of the answer is education. Some 85% of adult Americans have at least a high school degree today, up from just 25% in 1940. Similarly, 28% have a college degree, a fivefold gain over this period. Today's U.S. workforce is the most educated in the world.

But now, for the first time ever, America's educational gains are poised to stall because of growing demographic trends. If these trends continue, the share of the U.S. workforce with high school and college degrees may not only fail to keep rising over the next 15 years but could actually decline slightly, warns a report released on Nov. 9 by the National Center for Public Policy & Higher Education, a nonprofit group based in San Jose, Calif. The key reason: As highly educated baby boomers retire, they'll be replaced by mounting numbers of young Hispanics and African Americans, who are far less likely to earn degrees.

Because workers with fewer years of education earn so much less, U.S. living standards could take a dive unless something is done, the report argues. It calculates that lower educational levels could slice inflation-adjusted per capita incomes in the U.S. by 2% by 2020. They surged over 40% from 1980 to 2000.

[The] Center's projections are especially alarming in light of the startling educational gains so many other countries are achieving. U.S. high school math and reading scores already rank below those of most of the advanced economies in Europe and Asia. Now education is exploding in countries such as China and India. There are nearly as many college students in China as in the U.S. Within a decade, the Conference Board projects, students in such countries will be just as likely as those in the U.S. and Europe to get a high school education. Given their much larger populations, that should enable them to churn out far more college graduates as well. More U.S. white-collar jobs will then be likely to move offshore, warns National Center President Patrick M. Callan. "For the U.S. economy, the implication of these trends is really stark," he says.

The prospects for U.S. education levels are a lot like global warming. Since erosion occurs gradually, it's easy to ignore. But if the U.S. doesn't pay more attention, everything from its competitiveness to its standard of living could sink.

We are a nation of immigrants. In that respect, nothing's changed. But in the past, as immigrants--educated or not--arrived in this country, they could eek out a hardscrabble living by working in factories. Unskilled jobs were, for those motivated enough, like steps on a ladder toward bigger and better things. But now those jobs are gone, leaving a gaping whole of need; a ladder without rungs.

These are the things I think about while seeking U.S.A.-made goods. Maybe I should take the plunge, write It's Beginning to Look a Lot Like a Made in China Christmas or Just Say No to Imports on a picket sign and pace outside my local Costco. I wouldn't "occupy" the place, just drop by for an hour or so, chat with shoppers, and run to my car as soon as anyone disagreed with me. It would be more like a visit than an occupation. But a "Visit Costco" movement sounds like a call to shop, not to protest.

See what I mean? I'm not the protestor type. But don't let me hold you back. Go ahead. Occupy Costco. I'll be here with my coffee and pooch, cheering you on.