It's Christmas and therefore for most Americans, time to unwrap a gift made in China. It might be an inexpensive toy train, an expensive designer scarf, or the computer I'm using to type this, but it will almost certainly be assembled in Asia.
As a former business owner who owes the adjective "former" to competition from outside our borders, I have a hard time sorting out my feelings from reasonable thought on this issue, and based on what I've seen in the media, so do the rest of us.
Lou Dobbs is our chief anti-globalist, but he usually goes little deeper than decrying any company, politician, or consumer who sends "jobs overseas." And books and documentaries that offer to explore the issue often do little more.
A Year Without Made in China provides a wonderfully detailed list of how deeply "Made in China" is integrated into our lives and how living without makes the author into a social outcast for not simply buying her son new shoes. But when it comes to solutions, the author simply throws up her hands and says, "You can still live without it, but it's getting trickier and costlier by the day. And a decade from now I may not be brave enough to try it again."
The detailed documentary Wal-Mart: The High Cost of Low Prices expounds, correctly in my opinion, on the evils of oligopolistic corporations. By controlling so much of the buying power of the market, Wal-Mart is free to push to the edges of reasonable behavior its employees and those of its suppliers. We are given painful scenes of US workers unable to pay for healthcare, and Chinese workers being forced to lie that they only work "6 days a week" not the actual "7."
But again, rather than offering real solutions, the movie ends with ludicrous "Victory!" graphics superimposed on the names of towns where Wal-Mart was banned. As my girlfriend remarked seeing the name of a city near her home, "Hickory? But they have a Wal-Mart 20 miles away in Greensboro!" (Actually, Wal-Mart was denied zoning in nearby Conover, and has a store in Hickory now.)
There will be no stopping the move of work to cheaper labor markets. Unless we unravel all of capitalism, and that's not only simply impossible, we would wreck the good with the bad.
At one point in the Wal-Mart movie, German workers comment how they have good health care, long vacations, and are happy with Wal-Mart. "Why don't the Americans have the same?" they ask. The same analogy applies to the US workers versus the Chinese. The US workers assume they will have a certain level of working conditions, and if they don't get them ? such as overtime ? they sue, and win.
Therein lies the solution. The issue isn't just cheaper labor, it's uneven working conditions. If we are competing against workers in shiny office buildings with booklet length benefit plans, that's one thing. If we are allowing children to spend weekends slathering lead paint on toys in un-air-conditioned sweat shops, that really is another.
When I had my company, we had a branch office in the Philippines. The saying there was, "The best company to work for is an American one, the second best, Japanese, and the worst is a Filipino ? they will never care how hard you work." It was true, we paid our people there $6,000 to $12,000 a year, three times the rate of the local companies.
If our government required the same protection of workers for goods sold in the United States regardless of country of origin, the low cost of overseas would not be so unfairly low. And not only would my mixed feelings about my Christmas presents be somewhat relieved, there would be, I'm certain, more gifts Made in America.