By Jim Hightower on April 05, 2008

Jim Hightower tallies the cost of cheap goods. Like a cat watching the wrong mouse hole, we’re being told to look to Chinese manufacturers when assessing blame for the toxic products that are being exported from there. But wait a minute—where, oh where, are our own country’s regulatory watchdogs?

The big shock is not that Chinese-made toys are laden with lead, but that America’s Consumer Product Safety Commission is a toothless watchdog that employs exactly one inspector to oversee the safety of all toys sold in the U.S. Likewise, the Food and Drug Administration has licensed 714 Chinese plants to manufacture the key ingredients for a growing percentage of the antibiotics, painkillers, and other drugs we buy, but provides practically no oversight of these plants. In 2007, for example, the FDA inspected only thirteen of them.

An even bigger shock is that our consumer protection laws are so riddled with loopholes that unsafe products can legally come into our country. Take phthalate, a chemical additive in plastics that is suspected by scientists here and in Europe of inhibiting testosterone production in infant boys. Yet, Mark Schapiro, author of Exposed: The Toxic Chemistry of Everyday Products and What’s at Stake for American Power, reports that while the European Union has banned the use of phthalates in products aimed at children under three years of age, our government has refused to act.

Thus, China has factories that manufacture two lines of toys—one without phthalates for shipment to European countries, and one with phthalates for export to our children.

The problem is not with the Chinese, but with our own corporate chieftains who have moved their manufacturing to China specifically to get these kinds of low-cost shortcuts in production, while simultaneously demanding that Washington cut back on regulations that protect us consumers. We must put our own house in order.

Such giants as Wal-Mart, Dell, and Disney are profiting enormously from this double whammy of low-cost production and lackadaisical regulation. Not content to profiteer, however, the top executives insist that they should get credit for serving the moral good. Look, they say, we are helping American families by bringing cheap products to them.

What these moral exemplars don’t mention is that the goods are cheap only because the lives of Chinese factory workers are so undervalued. It’s common to find child labor, sixteen-hour days, constant exposure to lead and other poisons, wage rip-offs, and other abuses in factories that stock the shelves of our stores and line the pockets of our corporate CEOs.

You want cheap? What’s a finger worth? A study of factories in just one area near Hong Kong found that workers there lose or break 40,000 fingers on the job every year.

Or consider the cheap treatment of a sixteen-year-old boy in China who works from 6 a.m. to 6 p.m., six days a week, running a plastic molding machine to produce stuff for Wal-Mart stores. His hands are covered with blisters, because, as he explained to a New York Times reporter, the machines are “quite hot, so I’ve burned my hands.” The boy’s reward is to be paid even less than China’s poverty-level minimum wage of 55 cents an hour.

Corporate officials here claim that they’re appalled by these conditions, but they shrug and say they simply can’t keep track of what goes on in all those factories. BS! They’re the ones demanding cheap production, even if it cheapens lives in China and endangers consumers here.

Note that Wal-Mart boasts that it’s able to track every penny of cost in its sprawling system of procuring and marketing products. Its bean counters know the price of every item coming out of even the most remote Chinese factory. The corporation simply values price over lives.

Jim Hightower produces The Hightower Lowdown political newsletter and is the author of the new book “Swim Against the Current: Even a Dead Fish Can Go with the Flow.”

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By Wendell Berry

Manifesto: The Mad Farmer Liberation Front

Love the quick profit, the annual raise,
vacation with pay. Want more 
of everything ready made. Be afraid 
to know your neighbors and to die.
And you will have a window in your head.
Not even your future will be a mystery 
any more. Your mind will be punched in a card 
and shut away in a little drawer.
When they want you to buy something 
they will call you. When they want you
to die for profit they will let you know. 
So, friends, every day do something
that won’t compute. Love the Lord. 
Love the world. Work for nothing. 
Take all that you have and be poor.
Love someone who does not deserve it. 
Denounce the government and embrace 
the flag. Hope to live in that free 
republic for which it stands. 
Give your approval to all you cannot
understand. Praise ignorance, for what man 
has not encountered he has not destroyed.
Ask the questions that have no answers. 
Invest in the millennium. Plant sequoias.
Say that your main crop is the forest
that you did not plant,
that you will not live to harvest.


Say that the leaves are harvested 
when they have rotted into the mold.
Call that profit. Prophesy such returns.
Put your faith in the two inches of humus 
that will build under the trees
every thousand years.
Listen to carrion—put your ear
close, and hear the faint chattering
of the songs that are to come. 
Expect the end of the world. Laugh. 
Laughter is immeasurable. Be joyful
though you have considered all the facts. 
So long as women do not go cheap 
for power, please women more than men.
Ask yourself: Will this satisfy 
a woman satisfied to bear a child?
Will this disturb the sleep 
of a woman near to giving birth? 
Go with your love to the fields.
Lie easy in the shade. Rest your head 
in her lap. Swear allegiance 
to what is nighest your thoughts.
As soon as the generals and the politicos 
can predict the motions of your mind, 
lose it. Leave it as a sign 
to mark the false trail, the way 
you didn’t go. Be like the fox 
who makes more tracks than necessary, 
some in the wrong direction.
Practice resurrection.

Wendell Berry is a poet, farmer, and environmentalist in Kentucky. This poem, first published in 1973, is reprinted by permission of the author and appears in his “New Collected Poems” (Counterpoint).

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