One Skirt at a Time

The number of Americans officially designated as living in poverty in 2009–43 million –was the highest in the 51 years that records have been kept…[meanwhile] China’s economy roars along at a steady clip, having lifted some half a billion people out of poverty over the past three decades and rapidly created the world’s largest middle class to provide an engine for long-term domestic consumer demand.–Tony Karon, “Why China Does Capitalism Better Than the U.S.” time.com

Statistic: From January to November, 2010, our trade deficit with China alone totaled approximately $252 billion.      

 Sorry. Hate to depress you with the above quote and statistic. It’s just that I’ve been thinking a lot about manufacturing. About factories. Blue collar jobs. White collar jobs. Any jobs at all. How manufacturing in this country kind of got away from us and how that’s not (with apologies to Martha Stewart) a good thing. How my Dad was right all along, warning me and my eight siblings about it back in the 60s as we ate our morning Corn Pops, Frosted Flakes, Trix. Whatever. We were big on sugared cereals in our house. After the Cuban Missile Crisis, we all figured we were going to die anyway so pass the Lucky Charms. “You kids have got to listen to me. We’re in big trouble in this country. Go ahead, eat your god damn cereal. But I’m telling you…” I’m pretty sure I was the only sixth grader who couldn’t concentrate on fractions due to my preoccupation with the disappearance of manufacturing jobs in the U.S. and its eventual effect on our country’s economy.

Dad assumed I wasn’t paying attention those mornings when he would lecture us before school. But I was listening. Still am. The poverty and joblessness we are dealing with today, as expressed by Mr. Karon above, stem from the very issues Dad worried about as I ate my cereal back in the 60s. He obviously worried about it clear through to 1975 when he wrote “Import Backlash.” In it, he said: “Thus the American worker (blue and white collar alike) is caught in a cross fire of ‘import backlash’–a strange new phenomenon wherein U.S.-based companies are operating in concert with foreign manufacturers in what amounts to a massive assault on the domestic purchasing power of the American citizenry.” Couldn’t we say the same thing now? I told you so, Teen.

So, is Mr. Karon right? Does China do capitalism better than we do? I’m no expert, but I have to give his thesis two thumbs down. Without our capitalism-fueled dollars, China would falter. Our capitalistic, free enterprise dollars (not China’s communist government), spent by Americans to buy iPhones and Dell laptops and a bazillion cheap clothing items at literally every department store in the United Sates, have “lifted” China’s people out of poverty and into the (still struggling, I would add) middle class. But have our purchases “lifted” our own citizenry out of poverty? Not as much as they could have, because the jobs required to produce those goods are being created elsewhere–China, India, Vietnam–anywhere but here.

And so…when First Lady Michelle Obama (just have to get this in one more time) wore her veddy British Alexander McQueen gown last Wednesday night at the State Dinner for Chinese President Hu Jintao, she too did little to lift up those who are impoverished in this country. If she would, instead, launch a verbal campaign (meaning: don’t spend taxpayer money on this; just do it) to “Buy Made in the USA” products, to lead by example, to open up a dialogue about how frustrating it is to buy a cute, knifed-pleated J. Crew skirt knowing it’s made in China, we might get somewhere. One skirt at a time, right? And no, I didn’t buy the skirt. But I wanted to.

 Field Research: Just before lunch, Don and I stop by the local farmer’s market. We buy gorgeous deep red strawberries from Oxnard; ivory button mushrooms, delicate carrots and super clean looking green onions from Fresno; spring greens and baby spinach from San Juan Bautista. Kettle corn aroma fills the air. Gentle spring-like breeze. A bearded guy plays Renaissance-Faire-sounding music on his mandolin. After thinking way too hard about this trade imbalance stuff, it feels so good to walk around in the open air market, pick out fresh food, hand over cash. Like my Dad’s flow chart, seems like a thing of beauty.

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