VOODOO ECONOMICS: The Human Cost of America’s Addiction to Cheap Goods

Source – scheerpost.com

  • “…As mass consumerism took hold in the United States over the past several decades, Americans became increasingly expectant that the goods available to them would be cheaper than previously imaginable. One of the costs of this phenomenon has been off-shored to factories primarily in China, where factory labor conditions are well known to be grueling. But another, less known fact, is that many goods are actually made by modern-day Chinese slaves in the country’s forced labor camps”

Amelia Pang on the Human Cost of America’s Addiction to Cheap Goods

The investigative journalist joins Robert Scheer to discuss the story of a Chinese prisoner at the heart of her gripping new book, “Made in China.”

“Made in China.” [Illustration by Mr. Fish]

As mass consumerism took hold in the United States over the past several decades, Americans became increasingly expectant that the goods available to them would be cheaper than previously imaginable. One of the costs of this phenomenon has been off-shored to factories primarily in China, where factory labor conditions are well known to be grueling. But another, less known fact, is that many goods are actually made by modern-day Chinese slaves in the country’s forced labor camps. Amelia Pang, an investigative journalist and the author of “Made in China,” joins Robert Scheer on this week’s “Scheer Intelligence” to talk about the human story at the heart of her book, which begins in 2012 with an SOS note found by an Oregonian in a package of KMart Halloween decorations. The journalist follows the thread of the note to its author, Sun Yi, and chronicles the story of how the young engineer went from starting a life with his beloved wife to becoming a political prisoner working in inhumane conditions that produce Americans’ junk.  

Due to a rising awareness in the West about how Uyghurs in Xinjiang are being imprisoned in “re-education” camps, the U.S. Congress is now considering legislation that would ban American companies from purchasing goods made in the Chinese region under the assumption they were produced by forced labor. Pang tells Scheer that Nike, Coca-Cola, and Apple have lobbied against the Uyghur Forced Labor Prevention Act, arguing that they have proof that the goods they manufacture in China are not the product of forced labor. The investigative journalist, who spent time in China conducting interviews and reporting on labor camps, warns that much of this “proof” is likely based on shoddy audits that are incomplete and often don’t take into subcontracting and other covert ways forced labor comes into the manufacturing equation. 

“Even if [a product is] from Taiwan, that doesn’t necessarily mean much,” explains Pang. “When I was in China visiting the labor camps and following the trucks to see which exporters they were working with, quite a few of them had connections with Taiwanese-owned factories.”

Scheer urges listeners to read Pang’s book, which he explains isn’t just about cut-and-dry statistics and facts relating to labor practices in China but is really a gripping story about Sun Yi’s tragic life and that of others whose lives were forever changed by labor abuses fueled by Americans’ seemingly insatiable consumption. Listen to the full discussion between Pang and Scheer as they grapple with how American individuals and their government might be able to impact workers’ rights in China and elsewhere through shifts in consumption and trade deals. 

Credits: 

Host:

Robert Scheer

Producer:

Joshua Scheer

Introduction:

Natasha Hakimi Zapata 

Transcript:

Lucy Berbeo 

RS: Hi, this is Robert Scheer with another edition of Scheer Intelligence, where the intelligence comes from my guests. And in this case it’s Amelia Pang, who has written a really important book called Made in China. There’s a lot of people who won’t agree with it, including a lot of people in America who are dependent upon the exploitation of Chinese workers, whether they’re in a forced work situation, a labor camp, or whether they’re the young women who left the farms as part of their industrial revolution and make these products that right now surrounded me. The monitor, everything else that I’m using, and the clothes I’m wearing, I would say about 95, 98% of what I’m using is made in China. A place where most of the time when I was growing up, we would call the inscrutable kingdom, or what have you. 

And so Amelia Pang has the advantage of being fluent in Mandarin; her mother, she just told me as we were building up to this, really she communicates with her own mother in Mandarin…and yet was raised in the United States. And the book has gotten some very good reviews, and a couple of people that I’ve respected, or I do respect, Orville Schell of the Center on U.S.-China Relations calls it a “well-researched and reported book that reads like a detective story.” I happened to be a student in the UC Berkeley Center for Chinese Studies when Orville was there as a student, so we go back a long way. And Chris Hedges, who I publish on Scheerpost and, before, Truthdig, is very–and I believe–let me just start with that. I believe you worked with Chris Hedges. But really, let’s start with how you came to write this book, and what you basically think is the important message. It just came out on February 2nd, and I think it’s going to have a considerable impact on our policies towards China. Maybe let’s just begin with a piece of legislation that Apple and Nike oppose, and then connect it to the larger themes of your book. Welcome.

AP: Oh, thank you so much for the introduction. Yes, the legislation that corporations like Nike, Coca-Cola and Apple are currently lobbying against is the Uyghur Forced Labor Prevention Act. And this is a really critical piece of legislation, if it can get passed; it’s currently on, it’s been stalling in the Senate. And what that would do, I’m not–I’m sure most of your listeners are aware there is a genocide currently taking place amongst the Uyghurs. Many of them are forced to be in labor camps, making, manufacturing all kinds of products for us. Everything from the raw materials to solar panels, to human hair extensions–that’s gotten really popular these days–to even PPE equipment. And the camps are exporting, and there’s not much being done to actually stop these forced-labor goods from coming at a large scale. There’s kind of these Band-Aid solutions that are being posted. 

And so what the Uyghur Forced Labor Prevention Act would do is ban all products from the Xinjiang region, which is where the majority of the Uyghurs are detained, from entering the U.S. Because there’s really no way to verify if a factory in Xinjiang is using forced labor or not–or not using forced labor at the moment. Auditors are not allowed to go there and independently inspect the factories; the surveillance there is so tight, you cannot realistically go there and follow the trucks that leave these factories to see if they have a relationship with the camps. And what we’re seeing with satellite imagery is these camps are expanding at a massive–at an extremely fast rate. 

And so the Uyghur Forced Labor Prevention Act would be an incredibly powerful way to push China to rethink its policies. Because it was trade that sparked the mass detention of Uyghurs, and it is trade that can cause–push China to pull back on this. But unfortunately, corporate America does not seem to actually care. You know, they’re putting a lot of money into lobbying our legislators to heavily revise or not pass this act.

RS: Yeah. So let’s be clear about what we’re talking about. Your book’s primary focus–and by the way, it’s a compelling story; Orville says it reads like a detective story, and it does. And for once I’m talking to an author of a book that’s not 700 pages; the other books were all very valuable, but they took up a whole week of my life, and–you know, I’m not saying they weren’t rewarding. Your book, I think it can fairly be said that one could read it in a day, as you would read a detective novel. 

And it’s a compelling human story. I want to emphasize that. I mean, the people that have survived these labor camps, you know, went through a terrible experience, the equivalent of any–and I’ll put this in some kind of historical context. It’s not as if industrial development throughout the world has not been accompanied by slavery and exploitation of extreme nature. After all, the industrial revolution in England was fueled by the actual, literal slaves throughout the world who got the mass, raw materials, and certainly the vicious exploitation of English workers. And that’s, of course, throughout the world. 

And so China has obviously gone through a major industrial, and maybe the most significant industrial revolution in the world. It’s really in the midst of it; there’s now an attempt to go to a higher level of technology, 5G and everything else. But the fact is, whatever the system calls itself, whether it’s capitalist, socialist, communist, fascist, or what have you–or if you admit it to be fascist–the fact of the matter is, the exploitation of labor is critical to it. 

And I think that what you just said really hits on something. I do want to talk about these camps, because clearly there should be international law, and every agreement should say you don’t use people in prison and exploit them, and that they have human rights. But what’s often left out of the discussion is the rights of people who are not prisoners. And I just want to read something from your book, on Jeffrey Fiedler, who you quote; I don’t know much about him, but he runs, or ran an institution in Washington concerned about these issues. And you quote him as saying, “Clearly, forced-labor products are a small percentage of the total economy” in China. 

Now, that doesn’t mean we’re going to turn a blind eye to forced labor; forced labor is reprehensible, has to be banned, and one should not use products from forced labor, whether from American jails or from Chinese encampments, and now the suppression of a whole people, the Uyghurs. But the people lobbying against that bill from Apple and Nike, most of their products–and they probably claim all of their products–are produced [with] what they would call free labor. But that free labor, does it have the right to strike, does it have the right to political opposition, does it have–? So can we just, since you brought it up, why don’t we talk about that latest bill and how it got defeated. 

AP: Oh, yes. Back to Fiedler’s comment, that quote came from before we found out as much information as we did about the current state of the Uyghurs. That was more about the other, maybe the Han Chinese detainees. And yes–so this is not to say that all made in China products are made by forced labor, or that–but it is true that labor unions are not free to organize in Chinese factories. You can get sent to a labor camp yourself if you try to engage in labor activism, ironically. So just having this option for factories to outsource work to labor camps for incredibly cheap and incredibly fast production, really hurts the workers–the workers in regular factories.

RS: Yes, but this is true–for instance, people who say, well, when they were angry over the “China virus,” as President Trump called it, said oh, move your product. So where did people move to? They moved to other countries, one of which was Vietnam, another self-defined communist country, of course. Where they’ve had their own, Nike plants have had strikes and they’ve been broken up and so forth, for quite a long time in Vietnam. 

But elsewhere in the developing world, the fact of the matter is, the whole key to modern production now is to get cheap labor. And then when people complain that the jobs aren’t here, yeah, if you had some kind of decent, guaranteed minimum income or living income–for instance, stuff coming from Mexico, Trump in his renegotiation of the NAFTA accords, at least they wrote in a $16 an hour requirement for people working on cars exported to the United States, on 45% of the car. That was a rare concession or requirement in a trade agreement. 

So I just want to set the stage that, you know, when you mentioned the Han majority, I think it’s 94% of the country, so primarily the big labor issue in China is the rights of workers. Certainly the right of workers to protest without being sent to a forced labor camp. But in general, the right of workers to organize, to be in unions, to have their free speech and assembly rights guaranteed. So I–that is not the focus of your book, I just want to put that down there as a marker, unless you object or want to expand on it.

AP: Oh, I don’t object. I think that’s a fair point.

RS: OK. So, but then let’s speak specifically, what were the arguments of Apple and Nike against this bill and others?

AP: Oh, well, they say that they have evidence that their factories in Xinjiang are not using forced labor, that their factories have very good conditions. But what I found during my research was that, OK, the evidence that they claim are usually audits. And those audits are extremely, extremely flawed. These audits are designed to protect the corporation, not the workers. These audits are not designed to be able to detect something as complex as hidden subcontracting to forced labor camps. And so I would push back and ask them to show, what kind of evidence are you able to provide? How can you say you really know that your factories in Xinjiang are not using forced labor?

RS: Right, but again, before we move on to the really poignant descriptions of oppression of people in your book, in the forced labor camps–and there’s one particular person who died when he finally got out of the country, in Indonesia. I’d like you to talk about it, because he’s sort of kind of a major character in your book. But before we drop this other subject, I just want to be clear that the major issue of trade with China–or I shouldn’t say the major, most of the products that we’re talking about are products where you could criticize the employment conditions, because they don’t have rights–right?–that we assume, but we don’t assume as a matter of trade negotiation, that workers everywhere in the world should have. And that includes the right to organize, to assemble, to be in unions, to fight for their rights. And so, just curious, in your own research, to what degree does–is the U.S. Congress, when it talks about trade agreements, and now that’s going to be a big issue going forward, our trade agreements–do they talk about the rights of workers? Is any of that on the table, and to what degree?

AP: As we saw with Trump’s trade negotiations, the rights of workers, or human rights in China, was not discussed as a talking point.

RS: But were they discussed by previous administrations, the Obama administration?

AP: It does not appear to be the case, or if it was, it was never enforced. Sometimes these legislations will include nice words like that, but–and my book does go into this a bit more–they’re rarely ever enforced when it comes to China.

RS: OK, so I think this is a thing that’s important to establish. That American prosperity is largely–in the middle of a pandemic, somehow we’re able to have, you know, everything from toilet paper to frankly high tech-computers, everything else. We all–not all, but people who can do their work from home and from safety, are largely dependent upon–and certainly in the computer realm, and elsewhere–on products produced in China. That’s the major factory for the whole world. And people should not be allowed to get off the hook. And whether that’s produced by imprisoned labor, or it’s produced by what is called normal factory labor–it’s not normal in the sense that workers don’t have fundamental rights. 

And I would hate to have anybody go away from this discussion thinking the problem is simply in that one province or the forced labor camps. It’s–and that sort of lets these corporations off the hook. Because then they can say, OK, there should be new regulations about that, but don’t tell us what to do in, say, the Foxconn plants–which, by the way, are run by people from Taiwan, a country that we define as free. So without belaboring that, would you agree that that’s a fair parameter?

AP: Ah–yes, well, I mean, even if it’s from Taiwan, that does not–that doesn’t necessarily mean much. When I was in China visiting the labor camps and following the trucks to see which exporters they were working with, a lot of them, quite a few of them had connections with Taiwanese-owned factories. You know, in China there’s been some policy initiatives to reach out to Taiwan and bring, you know, Taiwanese companies and Taiwanese business owners into China, and to really bring them under the umbrella of China. So just because it says it’s made in Taiwan, or if the factory is owned by Taiwan, it doesn’t necessarily mean the workers there have–

RS: Well, yeah, and the main Apple plants–I haven’t looked into it recently, but for a long time, the main plants used by American companies, the biggest were run by Foxconn, which is a Taiwanese company; I’m just saying that. So you know, what we’re really talking about is whether human rights, fundamental human rights, should inform trade policy, and to what degree, and whether you do it in a consistent manner, irrespective of what the country defines itself as.

So let’s take it to the human level. And please tell us the story of the central character in your book, who really–he meets his future wife, it’s a compelling story of ordinary people, and they meet and they fall in love, and the difficulty of getting the job, and so forth. And then his relation–he, in terms of his exercise, health, and I guess religious conviction, he becomes part of Falun Gong, and so forth. And he’s persecuted for it. So could you just tell us his story, which is kind of for me an emotional, a compelling emotional, emotion-laden story in the book?

AP: Thank you. Yes, the main character’s name is Sun Yi. Well, “character” is not the right word; this is nonfiction. His name was Sun Yi. And he, you know, he was quite a compelling character. I really wanted to humanize him in the story and just show, you know, his story, his experience, and the experiences of many people in these labor camps. They’re not so–their overall life experience is not so different from you and I. You know, they are fathers, they are somebody’s parents, they are somebody’s children. You know, they have–they fall in love, and they have dreams and hopes. And all of that is just arbitrarily taken away in an instant, if somebody gets disappeared into a labor camp. And in these camps they’re making our cheap goods. 

I want to actually start from the beginning, to really set the environment. My book starts with an American suburban woman named Julie Keith. She opens up this brand-new package of Halloween decorations from Kmart. And as she’s opening up the package and pulling open, tearing up the cellophane, out falls this SOS letter that’s written by the political prisoner, Sun Yi, who had made and packaged this very product in a labor camp. And you know, it’s just, it was just such a trivial product, it was Halloween decorations that someone had purchased for an extremely, extremely low price–

RS: They were gravestones, right?

AP: Yes, yes, they were Styrofoam gravestones. And you know, the person who purchased it, purchased it for the express reason that it was cheap. Nobody actually needed it. You know, it sat in her storage for two years before she remembered that she had it and tried to open it. And so it just–I think it’s a great example of just the trivialness of these products, and the problems with our own consumption culture, and our own consumer habits that really contribute to factors on the other side of the world. That, you know, it’s these factors that compel Chinese factories to outsource work to labor camps. Some of them actually have no choice but to outsource work to labor camps, because they realistically cannot make these products for that cheap of a price and pay their workers the minimum wage. Or they realistically cannot make it for this fast of a pace that they’re required to make them. They have to outsource work to labor camps where detainees can work 15, 20 hours a day to make, to meet the deadline.

RS: I want you to tell the story of the book, because I think it’s a book people should read, need to read, and it’s compelling. And I’ve talked enough, so please, take the rest of the 10 minutes or whatever we have, or whatever we need, and really tell the story of the book. And, you know, I do want to motivate people to get into it.

AP: Thank you. So the book is about the political prisoners that end up in these camps, you know. They are–these camps are arbitrary–these camps are extralegal detention centers where people are arbitrarily detained. You know, most of them have not been sentenced in court; they haven’t had a trial. And most of them do not have access to lawyers. And they can be held in these facilities indefinitely. And if they die, they’re often buried in unmarked graves, and nobody ever really knows what happened to them or what their story is. So I wanted to just give a voice to some of these people who never–would not have otherwise had their stories be heard by the outside world. 

But before they’re dying in pretty large numbers, they’re making our trivial, cheap goods. And I think it really does tie back to corporate greed. Because it’s easy to say, oh, this is a problem with China and the authoritarian regime, and there’s not much that we as the average consumer, or even company, can do about it. But that is not true. During my research, I found that there was a lot of very poor sourcing practices that companies, that our corporations were engaging in, that really encouraged these Chinese suppliers to use forced labor. And for example, if a company like H&M or Kmart, or Walmart, if they put in an order for 100,000 black hats, and give the factory a certain amount of time to make it, their contract often allows them to arbitrarily change the order without giving them a deadline extension or waiving the production fines if they make a late shipment. 

So let’s say the fast-fashion trend is changing because a celebrity started suddenly wearing lime-green hats. So now everybody wants to sell lime-green hats; a company, these companies are going to go back to that order and change their order to lime green instead of black. And that’s a pretty, pretty significant change, and if they don’t give their factory enough time to make the change, then this factory can’t make it. They have to outsource work to some really, really disturbing places like labor camps. 

And so the point is that these are sourcing practices that our corporations can control, and we as consumers can really push them to be more transparent about. And I do think there’s hope for change. Because in the nineties, you saw this kind of mass protest in universities, protesting Nike’s use of sweatshops, back when we first found out about them. And they were quite powerful; although they didn’t hurt Nike’s bottom line in the long run, it did scare the corporate elites enough to the point where they did make some significant changes to their sourcing practices, including doing audits and actually publishing some information about what they found in their audits. That was really unprecedented. 

And that was only made possible because the consumers, the people who are their target market, university students, cared. And, you know, made a lot of noise about it. But since the nineties, we haven’t really–ah, that kind of a consumer-led movement has died down. And I think that’s a shame, because there’s a lot more that should be done. The audits that corporations are currently conducting are extremely flawed. You know, often when you see a big scandal like the Kmart SOS letter that was discovered, and all the media reported on it, the company will usually just say, oh, ah, but we had conducted an audit, and our audit found that there wasn’t any forced labor in our factories. 

But I think that’s not a good enough answer, not a good enough statement. Because not all audits are created equal. What kind of audit did you conduct? You know, their standard of audits that cost a couple hundred dollars, that might only look for the cleanliness of the factory, the quality of the merchandise and the equipment. They don’t really look at the rights of the workers, or whether the numbers in the factories are really matching up. Whether they’re actually making all the products in-house, or are they subcontracting where they’re supposed to be subcontracting to. It doesn’t look for any of that. And then you have more expensive, $5,000 audits that take five days to do. And Chinese auditors have told me this is the only kind of audit that could potentially detect forced labor. You know, they really do in-depth interviews, and they cross-analyze the wage documents in multiple departments to see if there’s any kind of illegal subcontracting going on. 

But how many corporations are actually spending that amount of money for these really comprehensive audits? You know, that kind of information is not often revealed in these so-called sustainability pages and corporate social responsibility pages that are on everybody’s websites these days, but for the most part these kinds of terms–transparency, sustainability, and ethical sourcing–they’re just marketing buzzwords that help corporations make a lot of money. But I hope what my book would do is to just educate people on what these terms are actually–how little these types of terms and supply-chain pages actually reveal, and what they should be saying, if we really want to know that our products are not being made in labor camps.

RS: So I think that that is a very important corrective, if you want, to the effect of consumer fetishism, or the consumer obsession. I mean, America is drunk on cheap products from the rest of the world, on the rape of resources of the rest of the world. And so it’s “too good to check” as to actually what is somebody being paid when they’re making your iPhone, whether it’s in a forced labor camp–which is awful, as awful as it gets–or in what is called normal human practice, if you don’t have the right to demand an improvement of your conditions, or any labor rights, or so forth. 

But please revisit the love affair. Because this book is really about a love affair of two people; I don’t want people to think this is some sort of tedious, statistical work or something; it’s a compelling, among other things, love story of two people who are trying to survive in China. And, you know, they don’t start out trying to break the law or anything. They’re trying to have a marriage. And it ends with, you know, tragedy of–you know, horrible tragedy. And so could you just tell that story? I don’t want to lose it here.

AP: Thanks for bringing that up. Yes, there is a love story in the book. The author of the SOS letter that made it to the U.S., he was quite a romantic, you know. He met this girl in college that he fell madly in love with, but it wasn’t so easy for them to be together, because she was from a different part of China. And, you know, due to the hukou system in China, it’s not so easy to just move around to different cities and resettle there; you’ve got to have certain government forms approved, and to do that, in order to move to a city and be able to legally get a job there. And so they had a hard time finding a way to be together, even though they loved each other very much. 

And against all odds, they were able to finally get married and live together in Beijing. And, you know, it seemed like the start of a very, very promising and happy life. They had–they were a relatively young couple that had their whole future ahead of them. But then the man, Sun Yi, got involved with Falun Gong, which is this religious group that in China, they had been involved in some pretty large-scale protests that really, in the late nineties, they had organized a 10,000-person protest that really quite scared the Chinese government, because it reminded them of the 1989 protest. You know, you don’t often see a mass gathering like that in China, and the Chinese government works very hard to keep it that way. 

So shortly after that protest, they were banned, and since then they’ve taken on a lot of political dissent in China, in terms of, like, advocating for pro-democracy, activism, and trying to stand up to an authoritarian regime. And many of them, if they continue to participate in these kinds of political activities, they would get sent and disappeared into labor camps. So unfortunately, this man spent a lot of his years in labor camps, and his wife was faced with–you know, she wasn’t a follower of Falun Gong, and she could have just had a normal life and married someone else. But she–you know, they–they had to fight really hard to save their marriage. And, you know, it’s ultimately a human story about the human cost of our cheap goods.

RS: It is, it’s a compelling story. And let me say something about Falun Gong, because that’s–every country in the world that wants to control its people, or [their] actions, finds demons, finds people to scapegoat or hold accountable. And depending on whatever your political system is, you’ll find enemies, you know, based on their religion or their supposed politics. And Falun Gong is a group that has had probably–and you suggested in your book–probably been the major organizing opposition, in a way, to the regime in China. And we don’t have time to really go into it, and your book’s really not about it. But there are many such groups throughout the world. And they’re a mixture of religion and politics, and in this case even exercise and health routines and so forth. 

And the question is, you know, governments can always jump on such groups and demonize them and make them a big threat, because governments, as Orwell points out, always have to have enemies to justify their control of the population. So Falun Gong falls into that category. And in this case, it really is an effort to control not just the individuals you’re talking about, but the life around them. You know, so they’re bad people, or certainly he is in the eyes of the government and authorities, and he suffers as a result of it. 

But I just want to–I think people should read this book; I don’t think we’re doing it justice. And it’s hard to do any, you know, any book really justice in a conversation. But I was moved by their story, by this couple. It just brought it home: you can have all these abstract discussions you want about, you know, freedom and the economy and trade policy and so forth. But it boils down to people trying to survive in any system. And so, you know, I don’t want to tell you what you have to stress in your book. But just tell us a little bit more about this guy’s–you know, he’s not an evil person, right? He’s a person trying to do the right thing, and have a love affair, and a marriage. And yet, you know, be responsible. And he ends up, it ends up all falling apart. And he ends up dying quite early, and not in his own country.

AP: Yes, he did have a tragic ending, unfortunately. But he was an incredibly intelligent man who was intellectually curious. During the eighties, when China was first opening up after the Cultural Revolution, you know, he became very curious in Western philosophy; he really enjoyed reading Hegel. And, you know, he was a very curious person who had dreams of traveling the world, and a lot of that unfortunately was not able to take place. What happened was a man who was once contemplating Hegel was now reduced to a mechanism in a labor camp, doing repetitive tasks for 15 to 20 hours a day, so much that it just really degraded his mind. It just–even if it didn’t kill him physically, at least not immediately, you know, it really killed him spiritually, emotionally, and mentally. And that’s the price of our cheap goods.

RS: You know, I’m not making light of it, but I think it would make a compelling movie, the love story of these two people. Because it really goes to the heart of the cost of callousness in economic policy, criminal justice, whatever; it’s piercing the skin of ordinary humans, it’s destroying ordinary humans who get caught up in this. And when they discuss trade agreements or economic policy, wherever–if we talk about prison reform in the United States, for example, and who’s caught up in the prison-industrial complex. If you’re talking about, in any country, no matter the pretenses of the country, whether it calls itself democratic or socialist or anything else, you know, these labels are really a way of concealing responsibility of the state to the people. You know, and China is very much informed by a kind of Confucian notion of the “good emperor”. So whoever is running the country, they at least claim they’re guided by a notion of somewhat enlightened control. And yet, you don’t maintain it in the face of profit and power and greed. And those characteristics come to dominate. 

And really, the human story in your book reminds us of what goes on, certainly under any prison-industrial complex, but also even what goes on in sweatshops in countries all over the world, including here in Los Angeles. Not to the same degree, and not in the same way. But there’s a human cost to our affluence, there’s a human cost to our consumerism, that brought me to tears reading it in your book. You know, I just felt, wait a minute, I don’t want to wear clothes that are produced under these conditions. And you know, our whole affluence in the United States right now is dependent upon the working conditions in China, of any kind. That’s the reality; we are feeding this because of our demand for cheap goods, and our delight in having–people throw away clothes now, they’re produced so cheaply. And that’s really the moral tale here, I think.

AP: Thank you so much, Bob. I appreciate that.

RS: Well, do you want to add anything else to it? Because I do think you’re on to a very important subject. It couldn’t be more important. It’s how do we live, how do we survive, who–who are our servants? You know, because if you’re the consumer at the end of this whole thing, if people are being beaten, whipped or underpaid, or exploited in any one way, you’re actually the master that’s being served. You, the consumer. And everybody wants to leave that out. And to my mind–and that applies anywhere, whether things are produced in India or whether they’re produced in South Carolina, I don’t know. You have to talk about, who are the people making these things, and what are the conditions? And you have an obligation to make sure their conditions are humane. I don’t want to tell you what your book’s about, but I think it’s a compelling love story that has a very powerful political message. 

AP: Thank you so much. Yes, even if it’s made in South Carolina, the raw materials could still be from a labor camp in China.

RS: Right. And even if it’s made in South Carolina, they should have labor unions, and they should have rights, and they shouldn’t be runaway shops. And I’m not putting them all on the same level. But the fact is, it’s something we’ve lost sight of. The whole Industrial Revolution was accompanied by workers struggling to improve their conditions. My own parents worked in garment sweatshops in Manhattan, you know; I watched it, and when there wasn’t air conditioning, and you know, horrible–they literally were sweating. 

And so I’m not saying the suffering in every situation is comparable. Yes, a slave labor camp is far worse. But the fact of the matter is, there is no human rights without workers’ rights. Now, that may sound like some kind of political cant or slogan, but it’s a reality. How people make their living is the main way you define how they spend their time, what they get to do with their family, what is their health, what mood are they in. I remember my parents would ride from those sweatshops, you know, exhausted, incapable almost of communication. 

So reading your book, I think OK, this is a story about China. It’s a story about the Industrial Revolution. After all, China can claim they’ve raised hundreds of millions of people out of the worst kind of poverty. Yes, they have the beginnings of the American dream of a middle class that de Tocqueville celebrated. But the fact of the matter is, throughout human history it’s the people working in these factories and in these fields that have paid the price. After all, America’s prosperity was built on slavery, first of all of the Native Americans and then of Black people from Africa and elsewhere, and the exploitation of cheap labor from all over the world. 

And what we are having in China, irrespective of political system, is a repetition of the Industrial Revolution. And you have done what Dickens has done. You’ve done, fortunately with much fewer words, you’ve exposed very pointedly the cost, the real human cost of our cheap goods. 

And so on that note, unless you want to get the last word in, which you certainly deserve, I want to recommend this book. It’s published by Algonquin [Books], Made in China. It’s not going to make you comfortable all the time. I happen to agree with Orville Schell that it reads like a detective story. And one of the reviewers–the New York Times, I think, was quite positive, but they put down your opening about somebody opening, in Oregon, opening their two-years-old Christmas wrappings and finding this note. I thought it was a great way to begin, because it put the American consumer at the center of this story. You can’t avoid your connection with this. If you want those phony gravestones, they’re going to come from people who unfortunately have a more omnipresent sense of their own gravestone. 

So on that note, I want to thank Amelia Pang for doing this. Again, the book is Made in China. I want to thank Christopher Ho at KCRW for posting these podcasts, and a great FM station in Santa Monica. I want to thank Natasha Hakimi Zapata for doing the introduction, Lucy Berbeo for doing the transcription, Joshua Scheer for, you know, finding me books and guests that I would probably not have had; this is one of them. He kept bugging me to do this, I’m glad I did. And I want to thank you. And I want to thank the JWK Foundation in the memory of a terrific writer who exposed a lot of wrongdoing, Jean Stein, for helping underwrite these shows. See you next week with another edition of Scheer Intelligence.

One thought on “VOODOO ECONOMICS: The Human Cost of America’s Addiction to Cheap Goods

  1. Pingback: VOODOO ECONOMICS: The Human Cost of America’s Addiction to Cheap Goods — RIELPOLITIK | Vermont Folk Troth

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