Thursday, July 19, 2007

You Get What You Pay For (The China Trade)

First it was the puppy-killing pet food. (Chemicals added to make the food sound more nutritious.Bad chemicals. Puppy-killing chemicals.) Then there were some bad-for-kids toys, like the Thomas the Tank Engines decorated with lead paint. (Who'd expect a one or two year old kid to actually gnaw on a toy?) Now it's the anti-freeze in the toothpaste because, hey, anti-freeze is cheaper than putting in glycerin.

And we all know the skinny on the big box stores, right? They push down the prices they pay their manufacturers so low that, guess what, the quality takes a tumble. The label may be the same - it's the brand-you-remember-as-high-quality. Maybe now it's just the brand-your-remember.

We all know that if goods are manufactured someplace with cheaper labor (someplace like China), they'll be cheaper than goods that are manufactured with expensive labor (someplace like the U.S.).

And since we want stuff. And we want a lot of that stuff.  And we don't want to pay a lot of money for a lot of stuff. We turn a blind eye to the conditions under which cheaper labor may labor. So what if folks are making what gives an entirely new definition to the term "minimum wage." So what if they're working  under conditions that make the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory look like a company outing. So what if they're living in conditions so crowded that our Lower East Side tenements of yore look comfy-cozy.

China's poor, really poor, so however terrible the working conditions are for the factory workers there, it's no doubt better than what they left behind in the hinterlands. Just like it was for the huddled masses who teemed over here 100 years ago. Triangle Shirtwaist may have been a sweat shop, but - if you survived the fire - your kids had a better shot at life than you had in the Old Country.

So, the theory goes, a generation or two of Chinese workers may labor under appalling conditions, but as the country becomes better off, those conditions will improve. (And/or the jobs will go someplace where the people are actually worse off, like parts of Africa.)

It's all okay, because we want countries like China to be better off and build a middle-class. But mostly it's okay because we want stuff.

We want special hot-dog platters for our Fourth of July cookouts. We want big foam fingers to wave at ball games. We want new iPods because the colors are better now. We want an umbrella for the car, another for the office, one for the carry on bag, and a good half-dozen or so to leave in the hall closet. We want a new fridge because our color scheme changed. We want a new TV because you can't really see anything if you don't have HD. (Don't I deserve to see Big Papi's chin stubble when he's up at bat? Don't I?)

So what if the stuff falls apart and it's not worth repairing it? So what if the minute we get the stuff home and out of the its plastic bag and clam-shell packaging, it's already half way to being obsoleted by the new model? So what if it all ends up in landfills or, worse, poisonous slag heaps that the direly poor in the Third World get to comb through?

So what? At least it doesn't kill us.

So far.

As the inexorable pressures that we as Consumer Nation impose on the manufacturers-of-the-world continue, we will eventually reach the point where more and more corners are going to be cut. Mostly, the corner-cutting won't matter. Things fall apart, well, we'll just go out and get more stuff to replace it. (There's plenty more where that came from.)

But sometimes the corner cutting will.

So we'll see more regulation, more burden on the stuff-selling companies who lend their brand names to stuff made elsewhere to demonstrate that their products are, if not fall-apart junk, at least safe. So we'll see the prices for our precious stuff increase, and we'll start getting pissy about it, because it really is fun to be able to buy a decorations for the Easter Tree, and flip-flops in 12 different colors, and foam fingers for everyone without having to give it a second thought.

But somewhere along the line, we really do need to start thinking about all that stuff, because you really do get what you pay for.


Mary Schmidt said...

Ah, but not to worry! President Bush is forming a panel! Yeah, that'll fix the problem.

I do wonder when the tipping (breaking) point will come. We simply can't keep up this level of consumerism without a lot going wrong - and just flat running out of resources.

Charles H. Green said...

It is an interesting question: just how did we get this way?

I think it's not just about accumulating stuff, though god knows that's a lot. But it's also getting cheap stuff, cheap. We don't mind quality, as long as we can get it in bulk--cheap. And on sale.

I have come to buy at retail, on principle. I like all the time and energy I save not worrying about getting a deal on something. And if I get less stuff? Hell we've all got too much already.

How as a society have we come to put such a premium on low priced crap?

The Japanese never bought the crap they sold us; and, they figured out a way to wean us off it, they cultivated a taste among us, successfully, for higher quality stuff.

Or maybe they just ceded the "crap" role to China et al. Except my impression, based admittedly on little personal data beyond one trip to China, is that the Chinese don't buy the crap they are selling us either.

Either way you cut it, the relentless pursuit of crap on sale is economically destructive. We have taught for decades now that business is about competition, and competition is about low price.

Tell it to the French, or the Japanese, who seem to be relatively happy living higher quality lives with less crap. Why can't American companies figure it out? Why can't American consumers figure it out? Which is the chicken and which is the egg?