Like everyone else, I found amazing stuff at the Artist Alliance market. One thing I was hoping to buy was a wallet, and I quickly found a young woman selling a large selection of them. After picking out the one shown here, I steeled myself for the haggling process. The vendor asked for 20 cedes, which was already less than I expected – almost automatically, I asked if she would take 12, thinking I could get the price down to 18 or even 15. But she immediately agreed to 12; in the moment, I was pleased that I’d successfully bargained for something, but once I had purchased it, I realized that spending the equivalent of 3 USD made me feel that I had significantly underpaid.
Since then, I’ve been trying to reflect on the process of bargaining and how the way we spend money impacts our social and economic surroundings. While trying to find some texts or theories that discussed the ethics of bargaining, I happened upon a blog post by a freelance writer named Sam Woolfe. The post, “The Ethics of Haggling in Developing Countries” (linked below), addresses the tendency of tourists from so-called “First World/Developed” countries to become overly concerned with prices that would be virtually impossible to find in their home countries. While the post brings up important points regarding the value of the US dollar relative to that of other currencies, it primarily characterizes overly-persistent bargaining as “inconsiderate.” While this may certainly be the case, the root of the problem is not about manners, but about the larger economic forces at play. I would argue that, as tourists, we’re conditioned to see our participation in the economy as extra, in the sense that it is an additional contribution rather than an expected one; in reality, tourism is a key part of many local economies, and for certain populations, purchases by tourists compose a significant part of an individual or family’s income. Essentially, by existing in this physical space, we are existing in a particular economic sector that (thanks to capitalism 🙂 ) largely depends upon our presence.
So, rather than patting ourselves on the back for being here and buying things, we should ask ourselves why the economy functions in the way it does and recognize how Western countries perpetually construct and benefit from that system. We can trace the history of this economic system back to the Dutch and the creation of the first early capitalist system, but we can see its continuation in many of our current institutions. For example, entities like the International Monetary Fund and the World Bank, accurately described by Steven Mosher as “loan sharks,” lend money to so-called “Third World/Developing” countries in such a way that ensures they will remain in debt indefinitely (McNamara and Mosher).
While our individual purchases may seem far removed from these macro-level interactions, the reality is that our choices and purchases are constantly informed by the same history and the same systems. There are many factors to consider when we make purchases – for instance, how much of the money we pay goes directly to the workers who actually produced the product? What does it mean for us to constantly be willing to pay high prices to corporations (at home and abroad) and simultaneously haggle aggressively with individual sellers for the sake of a “better deal” on our end? Additionally, I think it’s fair to assume that all of us evaluate our purchases in multiple ways; it’s not just about what something is technically worth according to the materials and labor put in, but also what its social, cultural, or sentimental value is to us.
None of this is to say that we should or do spend money indiscriminately – we’re all students, and most of us are not in a position to be throwing away money. Rather than attempting to police people’s purchases, I want to share my own thoughts in the hope that we can all find fairer ways to define the “line” between responsible haggling and ripping people off. These are important considerations for all of us being educated in a Western setting, but particularly for the white students, as our own socio-economic positions have been constructed from a US economic system that built and maintains itself on the coerced labor of black and brown people. For me, being mindful of my purchases and how they affect others is simply one of the many steps in trying to decolonize my presence abroad.
Woolfe, Sam. “The Ethics of Haggling in Developing Countries.” 20 November, 2017. Accessed from https://www.samwoolfe.com/2017/11/the-ethics-of-haggling-in-developing.html.
McNamara, Robert and Steven W. Mosher. “Should the International Community Attempt to Curb Population Growth in the Developing World?,” in Taking Sides: Clashing Views on Global Issues edited by James E. Harf and Mark Owen Lombardi. McGraw Hill, 2007.