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Why the Democracy Index Gets Mentioned in TMO Reviews

Explanation of an editorial policy inspired by Mexican beer

You’ve probably noticed that whenever I do a gear review I try to include the product’s country of origin and said country’s ranking on the Democracy Index. It’s something I’ve been doing for a while but I’ve never really explained my reasoning. But with money very much on my mind lately, I thought I’d finally take some time to explain what the Democracy Index is and why I reference it. 

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The Democracy Index was created by The Economist Intelligence Unit, which is the research and analysis division of The Economist – that magazine your slightly wealthy friends like to make sure is on display when you visit. For the past decade or so the EIU has delivered an annual report on the state of democracy around the world, assessing the political ideology’s strength and prevalence in 167 countries. The Democracy Index is created by seeking the answers to some 60 different questions and criteria, drawn from expert analysis, statistics, opinion surveys, etc.

The Democracy Index isn’t perfect, of course, with some criticism having been made about The Economist’s methods but what’s important to me is that it is a report independent of the countries being reported on; it’s not, say, a US government report on how great the US government is. And that relative independence is one of the reasons I look to it even though it is an imperfect tool for my purposes.

The Aerostich R3 riding suit is made in the United States of America (No. 25)

Here’s a thing about me: I’m kind of a softy. I want people to be happy. I want them to live good lives. I want them to feel like they have purpose and meaning and relevance. There’s a lot more that I could and should be doing but at the very least I like to try to promote that sort of thing through what I buy.

This is because our jobs play a pretty central role in our lives, often defining us. If you have a surname like Wheeler, Carpenter, Wainright, Smith, etc., that’s probably because one of your ancestors did such a job many moons ago. So, if you are happy in your job, it wouldn’t be outrageous for someone to assume that the rest of your life might be OK, too. Especially if you live in a society where you can express yourself politically and ideologically without fear of reprisal from the government.

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I understand that not every factory worker is the happy-humble man portrayed in Brittany Howard’s “Stay High” video; I’m not so naive as to believe country music panegyrics on the Working Man. But as someone who grew up around a lot of chemical plant workers I know that a job with good wage and good benefits can provide a solid base. So, making motorcycle boots may not be the most glamorous profession in the world but in the right context it can provide someone with a number of the tools to build a good life, family and community.

When looking at products from different countries what I wish I had was an independent index of those countries according to their working conditions, employee rights, etc. Without that information, though, I make something of a logic leap – assuming that if a person lives in a country with a vibrant, full democracy he or she has the power to demand good working conditions. Yes, there may be flaws in such thinking. If you can come up with something better, let me know.

For the time being, though, I use the Democracy Index to inform my purchasing decisions. I personally try to buy products that come from the top 73 countries on the list – a number arbitrarily chosen because that’s how far down I have to go to get to Mexico, which is where some of my thinking about all this was originally inspired.

If you’re reading this outside of North America you may not have heard of Tecate beer. To be honest, you’re not missing out on a great deal. The beer, manufactured in the Mexico-California border town of Tecate, is a standard lager. It’s good with tacos or burgers or the like, but it’s not so different from, say, Budweiser that I ever really miss it here in the United Kingdom. Nonetheless, I’m always quick to buy it when visiting home because of the pride the brewery’s workers clearly feel toward the product they make.

Tecate is a dusty, tired town on the Mexico end of a winding country road popular among the motorcyclists of Southern California. Several centuries ago, when I lived in San Diego, it was possible to take an old train from Campo, California, to Tecate, which gave me a chance to travel a tiny section of the railway that both my grandfathers took en route to basic training during the Second World War (The US-Mexico border was much more fluid and relaxed in those days and the United States’ southernmost rail line danced between the two countries; it is now largely disused).

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Within walking distance of the train station was a large open-air taqueria. And towering in the not-too-far distance were the huge, glistening silver vats of the Cervecería Tecate. At lunchtime, its workers made their way to the taqueria, where they stuck out almost as much as the day-tripping gringos. The brewery workers seemed a little taller than everyone else, holding themselves more upright. Their uniforms were spotlessly clean and immaculately pressed – every crease in their shirts and trousers sharp enough to cut. Their hair was styled to perfection. Their work boots shone in the border sun. The pride they felt in working for the brewery was clear. I remember sitting there, eating my carnitas, feeling in awe of them, and I thought: “If they’re going to be so proud of making that beer I’m sure as hell going to drink it.”

That’s what I wish I could do all the time: have my purchasing decisions contribute toward someone somewhere feeling like he or she is the king or queen of their town. That’s the idea behind using the Democracy Index. But it’s a hell of a lot easier said than done. The top 73 countries of the Democracy Index include all of North America, all English speaking countries, the whole of the European Union, Japan, South Korea, India, Taiwan, and Thailand, as well as several other countries in Asia, South America and Africa. You would think that finding motorcycle gear made in the top 73 wouldn’t be that hard, but you’d be wrong. If you haven’t ever paid attention to this sort of thing before, take a look at your kit and I’m willing to bet you’ll find that most or all of it was made in Pakistan (108), Vietnam (136) or China (153).

In this image I’m wearing a helmet from Japan (24), gloves from the United States (25), a jacket from Spain (16), jeans from Estonia (27) and boots from the USA

I take pride in the fact I have put extra effort and (unfortunately extra money) into ensuring that most of my everyday gear is made in the United States, United Kingdom or European Union. But I’ll admit that my go-to gloves weren’t, nor any of my base layer stuff. Equally, I’ll admit that a lot of the stuff I’ve been given to test, though made outside the top 73, often looks a lot cooler than my “morally upright” gear. I mean, my Aerostich R3 riding suit, for example – that’s pure dork.

Also, there’s the question of whether any of this actually matters. For some people it doesn’t; if a product is good and affordable they simply do not care where it came from nor whether any children lost fingers in the making of it. Other people have suggested to me that my attempt at high-minded decision making may actually exacerbate a negative situation, arguing that I should be willing to buy products from, say, China, because capitalism is the great equalizer. Maybe. I guess your opinion here will be similar to your opinion on whether South Africa under apartheid should have faced economic sanctions.

I’ll admit I’m torn. Largely I believe it should have because bad things are bad and they shouldn’t be rewarded, even when we suspect that the people who are actually being screwed over aren’t the ones making decisions. But it’s OK if you disagree with me. It’s OK if you disagree with my totally emotional stop point in terms of which countries are “OK” to buy from and which ones aren’t. I just think that people should at least be aware of where their stuff is coming from so they can make their own decisions accordingly. That’s why I mention it in gear reviews.

I regularly sing the praises of my Kriega backpack, but it is made in Vietnam (136)