Wednesday, February 11, 2009

Feeding the Beast

I've been thinking about America's appetite for consumption. We love buying cheap goods from abroad. We're a country that runs a trade deficit that dwarfs the combined deficits of the next 9 countries ranked after us. But what does this mean for the developing countries that feed us?

Last night, my economics professor Jim Howell recalled an encounter with a Chinese official a few years back. He asked the official how long China could maintain selling low-priced goods to the West. The official replied, as long as Chinese workers are paid 42 cents a day.

My good friend Mo has been thinking about this too. Mo and I taught English to bored college students in Shanghai in the late-1990's. He went back a few years ago to finish his Stanford Ph.D., but discovered a different calling away from academia. He's now at the center of Chinese pop culture directing reality dating shows, and maintains a keen eye on Chinese-U.S. relations. Here's Mo's take on this subject:

"The fact is, people in the US and parts of Europe live in relative luxury because of the sickening exploitation of people in other parts of the world. The rich in every country benefit from this exploitation, and the US is the richest country in the world, per capita. As Philip K. Dick wrote, albeit entirely in a different context, the Empire never ended. In this case, I mean the British Empire which transitioned rather smoothly into the American Empire. How are the methods of companies like Halliburton different than the East India Company? Technology changed, faster than anyone could imagine, but infrastructures and economic behavior on a global scale hasn't yet matched that change.

And by the way, I'm not totally being down on the imperial system, I mean, it gives us great stuff like TiVo and iPhones and satellite radio and the NBA, etc etc etc. I like the stuff! I hate the system. It's a terrible moral quandary.

China is in a fascinating position because China has tried to position itself, in the post-Soviet world, as the alternative to American imperial power. China recognizes that the power of the British Empire, and that of the American Empire, is three-fold, and that the obvious element is the least actually important. 1. Military. 2. Economic. 3. Cultural. China tries to combat the US on all three points, but obviously lags far behind vis-a-vis American cultural supremacy. I mean, even the French, for all their great technical filmmaking personnel, have sort of given up to the Hollywood movie model in the past few years, because it makes money!"

1 comment:

  1. I would like to point out, just for the sake of accuracy, that I'm also not really in favor of a government that takes human rights very lightly, has all kinds of internal political strife, sets policy that creates and embeds an enormous rich-poor gap, and is essentially restrictive, lacking compassion.

    Oh wait, I forgot which government I was talking about.