waiting for the next big scare from China

It seems like every day we hear about a new dangerous product made in China. First it was pet food, then toys, and now baby bibs. It is ironic that Communist China has become such an example of the dangers of unchecked capitalism.

According to textbook economics, we consumers should be able to vote with our dollars. The answer would be to stop buying things from companies and countries that sell dangerous goods. The problem is, we don't know who really makes the things we buy anymore, and even if we wanted to, we couldn't stop buying things from China. There is no longer an infrastructure in this country, or in any "industrialized nation," to make all the things we need and want. A concerned parent who wants to buy toys not made in China is going to find it nearly impossible to find anything besides a few niche items. We have very little choice but to keep buying Chinese goods and hoping that they won't kill us or our pets.

Here in the Toledo area, we have been left with the wreckage of a manufacturing economy that has largely disappeared from this country. Every year brings a new plant closing, with hundreds or thousands of jobs that are leaving, never to return. As a kid, I remember each summer hearing the adults in worried discussion -- would this be the year that the Jeep plant left?

The upside of all this outsourcing was supposed to be cheaper goods for all of us, and in some ways it has delivered on the promise. As Stephen Colbert tells us, we can get really cheap tube socks. Americans have so much stuff now that we now have a new occupation, the professional organizer. Is the purpose of all this outsourcing to let us spend a bunch of money on stuff we don't need and then pay someone to help us throw it away? In the process, we build up huge debt balances. Besides, with the jobs leaving this country, how much longer can we afford to keep buying, even on credit? Somehow, I don't think that cheap goods have done much for our quality of life.

The truth is that the people who own the companies don't really care what we do with the things they sell us, so long as we buy them. They certainly don't care about our quality of life. If they can produce goods at a low cost, they can afford to lure us with low prices and still maintain a huge profit margin. Those of us who try to "Buy American" are still going to be buying things made by American companies that were assembled elsewhere and/or made from parts manufactured overseas. So though the profits go to fatten the bank accounts of U.S. executives, we aren't really able to support wages for U.S. workers.

Is it really surprising that rumors of a NAFTA Superhighway flourish in this environment? When I first heard about the rumor, it really did, as The Nation writes, seem like the logical next step in the progression of our globalized economy:

The myth of the NAFTA Superhighway persists and grows because it taps into deeply felt anxieties about the dizzying dislocations of twenty-first-century global capitalism: a nativist suspicion of Mexico's designs on US sovereignty, a longing for national identity, the fear of terrorism and porous borders, a growing distrust of the privatizing agenda of a government happy to sell off the people's assets to the highest bidder and a contempt for the postnational agenda of Davos-style neoliberalism. Indeed, the image of the highway, with its Chinese goods whizzing across the border borne by Mexican truckers on a privatized, foreign-operated road, is almost mundane in its plausibility.

This is a conspiracy theory that transcends left and right -- it taps into the deepest fears of all of us, who face an increasingly insecure future with a government that seems less and less connected with its constituents. China is both our largest competitor and our biggest shareholder, and has the ability to send our house of credit cards crashing down. In the shadow of that fear, it's hard to take comfort in cheap tube socks.

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