The China cost
The next time you buy a low-priced product from China, know that you are contributing to the deaths of half a million Chinese a year. A World Bank report attributes the cost of cheap production in China to poisoning whole cities, countrysides, and watersheds. Turns out there’s a price for cheap stuff.It’s called “The China Price,” and it bears “The China Cost,” the expense of doing business in a global economy ruled strictly by the profit motive. In this, China has eclipsed the U.S. in the ruthless efficiency with which goods are produced. According to Business Week, “‘The China price’ are the three scariest words in U.S. industry. In general, it means 30 percent to 50 percent less than what you can possibly make something for in the U.S. In the worst cases, it means below your cost of materials.” U.S. industry cannot compete because of bothersome concerns like environmental regulations, labor rights, and cost of living. In China, half a million people a year are literally dying to create the world’s next consumer cornucopia. The British newspaper The Guardian reports: “Breakneck growth has turned China into a huge environmental disaster area.” U.S. industry is particularly concerned about Chinese competition. According to Harvard University economist Richard B. Freeman, “What is stunning about China is that for the first time we have a huge, poor country that can compete both with very low wages and in high tech. Combine the two, and America has a problem.” The America Price has ruled without major challenge for a century, surviving the import of cheap goods from Japan, Korea and Mexico. That’s because our goods were always superior, a situation that has changed as Japan takes over the auto market and China moves into high-tech. “The world is flat,” writes Thomas Friedman, but China has gone underground with the cheapest goods the world has ever seen. And global consumers are eating it up, Americans right along with everyone else. We are undercutting our own economy by gravitating to the lowest prices on goods and the lowest valuation for the environment. The Guardian reports: “In a recent inspection of 529 firms along the Yellow, Yangtze and other major rivers and lakes, 44 percent of companies had violated environmental laws, while almost half of the 75 waste water treatment facilities underperformed or did not work. Some waterways resembled ‘sticky glue’. The environment agency said more than a quarter of the seven main river systems were so polluted the water was unfit for human contact.” China won’t respond to international pressure to contain pollution because it would increase the price of its goods. As for labor, China marshals its armies of workers with autocratic domination, commanding production through a feudal system of industrial potentates who bribe and bully their way past ethics and morality. Such is the tradition of emerging global powers, which stoop at nothing to promote their self-interests against the collective interests of the world. Americans support this trend with our consumer habits and with our own history. China is simply following the same tried and true methods that America used in its ascendancy. Historically, The America Cost includes genocide against Native Americans, despoiling entire regional ecosystems, widespread air and water pollution, toxic poisoning of rivers and lakes, and labor exploitation … all of it underwritten by a political-economic system that has long encouraged excess consumer greed while stifling deeper social and spiritual values. China appears to be on the same path, charting a course through familiar waters murky with the sediments of dead and dying ecosystems, but effulgent with the promise of cheap goods for an insatiably hungry, unsustainable world. The China Cost is proving that the cheaper the products are, the less we can afford them. The price is less than the cost. Until we learn this and adjust our spending habits accordingly, we’ll pay far more and far longer than our next credit card bill reflects.Paul Andersen’s column appears on Mondays.