Tuesday, July 13, 2010

When we go shopping and buy a product, it is easy to imagine that the shiny new thing we take home with us is the only result of spending our money. Shows like the fascinating "How Its Made" do a good job of showing just how complex things can get behind the scenes.

Go to the hardware store and look at two hammers side by side. There might be some superficial differences but essentially you have the same thing - a metal head and a wooden handle. However, if one is made in the US and the other is made in China, there are some stark differences between these two objects that can't be seen on the shelf in the store.

Chances are the US made hammer is more expensive. If the end product is the same (I'll give the Chinese hammer the benefit of the doubt and assume its of equal quality, however unlikely), why would we choose to buy the more expensive one?

The biggest difference is not what was made, but how.

The hammer started out as raw materials- iron ore in a mountain and a tree in the forest. In the US there are significant restrictions on how those materials are obtained. Contrast that with images like this from China where economic growth takes precedence over the health of the populace and environment.

In the United States workers enjoy a relatively safe workplace environment. We have organizations like OSHA which set safety standards and conduct inspections. We also have a legal system that allows workers who are injured due to the negligence of their employer to seek legal compensation. These things do increase costs, but the benefit is peace of mind, not having to constantly worry whether we'll be grievously injured on the job and unable to support ourselves or our families. The average Chinese worker does not enjoy that safety net. Check out what the NY Times had to say about it:

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