Commentators have coined a term that is being hotly debated in business, political, and social settings these days - - the “China Price”.
A quick Google search shows that the China Price is variously defined as:
- The cost to America, in terms of jobs (mostly manufacturing) and boarded-up storefronts in rust-belt towns, of cheap imports made in China where labor, land, and energy costs are far cheaper than in the US.
- The cost of cheap goods expressed in terms of Dickensian labor conditions for Chinese workers, pollution, and the destruction of families and their ancient social fabric.
- The cost to human rights, in places like Tibet, when we propel an authoritarian government into the ranks of the world’s leading economic powers and thereby provide tacit support for their policies.
The recent Olympic Games that China hosted gave talking heads the opportunity to examine this question from all perspectives, but much ink has been spilled on the issue of human rights in particular. So what is the inherent cost, in terms of human dignity and the intangibles that we call “inalienable rights”, of a plastic lawn flamingo bearing the label “Made in China”?
Having asked the question, I should offer an answer. In fact, I don’t have one, because although I recently visited China for the first time I have not spent time in factories there, nor have I talked at length to policy makers or Tibetan activists. But the concept of a China Price has made me think about the hidden costs of products sold around the world that bear the label “Made in America”.
Let’s start with transportation costs, a large part of any business budget and therefore a cost built into our products. Although our fuel prices have risen recently, they remain significantly lower than the market would otherwise dictate, because of the hundreds of billions in annual subsidies we pay to the oil companies. And a cost in terms human rights? How about the tens of thousands of Iraqis - - and over 4,000 US soldiers - - who gave their lives to protect oil? We save a nickel on a gallon of gas and someone else pays the “America Price”.
Another example of the America Price can be found in our agricultural fields, rich with “amber waves of grain.” Farm workers, mostly immigrants from Mexico and Central America, toil in sub-human conditions sanctioned by Big Agriculture and our federal government. Workers labor for what amounts to less than minimum wage with few sanitary facilities, no health care, illness and death from heat stress, and often their children laboring by their sides. We save a nickel on a head of lettuce and never calculate - - or ask - - about the true America Price.
Moreover, those who live in glass McMansions shouldn’t cast stones. America is 5% of the world’s population and we consume 25% of its natural resources. When anyone uses more than their fair share of something, doesn’t it place a burden on everyone else?
I can’t defend or criticize China’s hidden costs of doing business without a lot more information, but as an American, I think we need more blunt self-evaluation to go along with our examination of others. Then, perhaps, we can create a tide of global economic and social justice that lifts all boats, no matter what part of the world the label on the plastic flamingo says it comes from.