In the winter of 2005, I was a 20-year-old undergraduate at the University. At that time, there was frustration fizzling on campus with regards to the relations between the University and the Coca-Cola Company.
At that time, I was a member of the Daily’s Editorial Board and, as its token Coke-loving southerner, advocated the minority view on behalf of the corporation. I write this letter in retraction of 20-year-old me.
Then, I was engrossed in courses on topics such as the political economy and game theory. I participated in libertarian summer programs in both Washington D.C. and Hong Kong, which spilled over into graduate studies that emphasized economics.
Now, I litigate cases nationwide on behalf of aggrieved employees, primarily under the Fair Labor Standards Act. Go figure.
This retraction is made not only so that Ican clear the air on a personal matter of substance but because I hope it will help you see that the learning and self-exploration that you currently experience needs to continue once you graduate.
Among my 20-self’s claims, I wrote:
“(H)earing first-hand accounts from the people of Colombia and India has compelled me to believe that at some level, the Coca-Cola company is in violation of the University’s labor standards condition. Nonetheless, the University should renew the company’s contract when the issue comes up in June.”
“If the University actually followed through with its labor standards policy, it would have a very difficult time doing business with anyone.”
For reasons many of you may explore during LSAT preparations, these statements are flawed because they rely on glaring assumptions. First, they assume that if Coke and Pepsi’s labor standards suck, (most) everyone else’s do too. Even if this first assumption were true, they also assume that if the University has a “difficult time doing business with anyone,” it should ignore violations of its rules and regulations.
Historically, the Department of Labor has found that, at any given time, just 40 percent of employers are fully compliant with the FLSA. Some estimates suggest this number is much, much lower. Nonetheless, there are many other compliant employers.
And, even if the number was one percent — in terms of labor-sensitive beverage companies or employers — I would still retract my statements. Enforcement, whether it be from an active academic community or a governmental body like the Department of Labor, is important to check harms that cannot be resolved by “market forces.”
Additionally, I wrote:
“At some level, exploitation needs to occur in other countries. If U.S. companies are not able to take advantage of cheaper costs in other countries, the United States would have no incentive to provide its goods to the rest of the world, and many countries — India, China, Japan, etc. — would lack the American capital that has allowed their economies to grow during the last decades. This is not to say that companies shouldn’t be held accountable. This is to say though that the University’s business should not be conditioned on labor practices.”
Prior to Upton Sinclair’s “The Jungle,” the thought that we needed sanitation laws to deter companies from exposing our stomachs to spoiled meat was somewhere between radical and unpopular. While certain meat packers could have voluntarily chosen to adopt better practices, it took Sinclair’s story to humanize the issue such that top-down change had to occur.
I commend my peers for at least attempting to humanize the harms that it seemed Coke was, at a minimum, tolerating.
Following graduation, my closest group of friends went on a backpacking trip to Europe where they set off for three weeks and hit up most of the hot spots courtesy of Ryanair. Perceiving that I was too cool or, really just wanting to put off graduate school, I sold my car and travelled throughout South America with a buddy who had also grown up among privilege. It was amid these immediate post-graduation months of sleeping on buses and passing through dollar-a-day communities that I began to consider the other side of certain arguments. Most germane, were these communities to evolve into, say, $2-a-day communities, local lives would be tangibly better and the incentive to rely on the communities for exports would likely persist.
Perhaps most significantly, it was on these trips that I committed myself to retain the interest in learning and exploration that I developed in Ann Arbor. Whatever you do, don’t be afraid to change. And, wherever you go, Go Blue!
Jay Forester is a 2007 Alumnus.