20 August 2007

The God of Cheap

Worshipping at the altar of Cheap
August 20, 2007
Made in China. It used to be the logo of globalization, but it's almost a stamp of danger now.

Yet it's self-deceptive at best, and racist at worst, to sneer at Chinese manufacturers when there are so many other better targets. Product recalls happen frequently. Isn't it odd that China is singled out just as its military and economic might soars?

Yes, low manufacturing standards in China meant that American corporations sold poisoned pet food, and lead paint on 19 million Chinese-made children's toys led to a massive recall and an apology from Mattel.

But surely the real news is that companies didn't inspect the imported goods they sold.

North American companies buy Chinese-made goods and shoppers haul them home for a reason. They're cheap, so eye-poppingly cheap that we wonder how such a thing can be possible. It's because tens of millions of workers are earning low wages in Chinese factories under appalling conditions. Admittedly, they may be marginally better off there than in the villages they recently escaped.

Trying to make Mattel feel guilty about buying such goods is madness. These plastic toys, from the Batman Magna Battle Armor Figure to the Polly Pocket Totally Polly Tiki Diner Set, are so horrendously tacky that even if they weren't dripping in poisonous lead, they'd still be criminal. (I would of course have killed to have them when I was a child.) And trying to make Canadians feel guilty about buying the stuff is a hackneyed approach, long ago proved pointless.

Hail the god of Cheap
Canadian shoppers aren't cruel. But I do think that many of them are stingy. Not cheese-paring, not careful with their money, but tight-fisted, miserly even. I remember cheering when Edina in the BBC comedy Absolutely Fabulous drunkenly screamed to a roomful of advertisers, "I don't want more choice! I want nicer things!"

Canadians don't agree, apparently. We are drowning in cheap things when we should head straight for a small number of well-made things. They last longer.

And if there's one thing we love more than "cheap," it's "free." The great American columnist Mark Morford hates what he calls his "product-drunk," "junktastic" culture. "Free plane ticket! Free iPod! Free colonoscopy! Free extra set of cheap useless knives when you buy the two other sets of cheap useless knives! Free supersizing of your Coke! All we ask in return: countless endless chunks of your time, your intelligence, your health, your soul," he wrote in a recent piece.

Think of McDonald’s Happy Meal toys. The bane of parental existence, they clog family life until you can secretly bag them on garbage day as the children sleep.

We should buy goods as sturdy as we can afford, but fewer of them. Instead, middle-class homes are packed with plastic toys made in China, brightly painted and without aesthetic charm, not that kids care. Kids are pulled around in wagons that look like plastic turquoise dugongs. Wooden wagons with red metal trim have real style. But they are more expensive. The fact that they are beautiful, will last longer and can be handed on to other children and to those sensible and praiseworthy secondhand toy shops does not matter. You chose the plastic blob. You worship the god of Cheap.

Chickens and such
Free-range chicken doesn't resemble battery chicken. It has flavour, its skin is yellow and the flesh has tones that make you suspect the bird walked about a bit, pecked at things, did that head-jerking thing that makes chickens such annoying pets. A battery hen is as pale as Karl Rove's fat, slappy face cheeks and tastes like bathtub caulking. But ersatz fowl are one of the god of Cheap's angels.

What about people living on next-to-nothing, single mothers on a minimal income, I know you're asking.

If you're poor, buy cheap, by all means. But why are you poor in the first place? What conditions determined your fate? Manufacturing jobs were lost in Canada because they were sent to China, or handed to Toyota in Japan because Ford and GM were run into the ground by incompetent managers.

When your Ford job vanishes or you lose your IT job because Bangalore, India, can do it cheaper, all dominos fall, victim of the god of Cheap. When goods are cheap, people become cheap. Paying $1.99 for a dozen tube socks is supposed to comfort you. In fact, it's what ruined your life.

In Canada's cities, homeowners passively enriched by exploding house prices still go to Costco and Wal-Mart for bulk goods while complaining about property tax increases. They impoverish the lives of others, destroy local shops and live with housefuls of shoddy goods because they are worshipping that Canadian idol, the Cheap god.

And by the way, the problem isn't plastic bags. The problem is that plastic bags are free. If they cost $5 each, trust me, people would pull them out of tree branches and hoick them out of the mouths of poor strangling fish already marinated in mercury. They'd probably frame them.

Books before potato chips
I recently read a pompous essay by a little-known Canadian novelist saying the federal government should give tax breaks to writers because novels take years to write and writers should be paid for their time, particularly the slow ones, I guess.

This is debatable. Governments are already very kind to writers with their home-business tax breaks. Writers have a bigger problem: Canadians are too cheap to buy books. I've seen it with my own eyes: Neighbours go through my blue bin for free books and magazines but Pamplona bulls wouldn't scare them into Book City or Chapters.

I rabidly buy books — which I think of as permanent, like furniture — the way normal people buy things as impermanent as bulk Lay's Ripple Chips. People who know this will actually ask me for free books, even free copies of my own books. I wouldn't dream of asking them for a bag of chips, I think sullenly. Potato chips they'll buy. Books not. I know I'm being self-serving here, but it's hard not to be taken aback.

Lately, Americans have been complaining that oil extracted from the Alberta tar sands is far too expensive. They blame the high wages of Canadian workers who live in extraordinarily difficult conditions to get that oil out. It's not labour's fault that Alberta's land and air are being poisoned and its precious water being sucked away. It's a structural, political fault. I praise those workers. If corporations could find a way to fly the tar sands to China, those roughnecks would be out of work.

With oil, we aren't given the option of worshipping the god of Cheap. Oil is expensive and will become knifingly so.

Good. Maybe we'll cherish it more.

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