Monday, August 10, 2020 -
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The unspoken crime in the tariff debate

Listen to the debate over President Trump’s imposition of steep tariffs on billions of dollars of goods imported from China. You will hear every imaginable consideration but the main one. The moral indifference is staggering.

We heard an interview the other day on NPR with the American owners of a manufacturer with a factory in China. He had this to say:

• The tariffs impose a great burden on his business, though they might still be a good idea if Trump can stop China from stealing American technology.

• Because of the new tariffs, it might not be worth it to do business in China anymore; it might be necessary to relocate the factory from China to Vietnam, and in fact this has already been planned, but now its execution needs to be greatly speeded up —due to the tariffs.

• The factory cannot be located in the US because it could never compete with the lower cost of labor in China.

• It will not be China that will pay the tariffs; it will be American consumers. Manufacturers can only absorb so much of the additional costs of their goods; the rest will be passed on to the American buyer.

• Because of the higher cost of this company’s goods, it will have to shelve an expansion plan in the US, which will mean the cancellation of a substantial amount of new American jobs. Also, business will decline, at least for the high end goods that this manufacturer produces.

• If Trump’s tariff war fails to change China, and this manufacturer will have to leave China, what will that mean for its partnership with Chinese businessmen?

While all this is being said, in response to the interviewer’s questions, the interviewer does not pose the morally critical question, which is not how much the company might lose, or how much better the company might turn out if Trump’s pressure on China bears fruit, or whether Trump’s plan is working, or backfiring, or unwise, or long overdue, or whatever. No, the critical question is never asked. And why should it be? Why should an interviewer perceive it when virtually every one of his countrymen fails to perceive it? The critical question concerns the basis for the entire development of the extensive  American business in, and reliance on, China, to begin with: How much is the average Chinese worker paid?

That, and that alone, is what drives not just Trump’s tariff war, but everything in American-Chinese economic relations that preceded it. That, and that alone, is the moral failing not just of American presidents, of American businesses, but also of American consumers, whose every purchase is on the backs of oppression that would never be tolerated in this country.

The average hourly pay in a Chinese factory (with due allowance for minor variations depending on year and location) is $3.00 per hour, take-home pay.

Three dollars!

We find it astounding that those who would argue that it is immoral for the American minimum wage to be beneath $15.00 per hour have nothing to say,  no expression of conscience, when it comes to buying Chinese goods, or to evaluating  the negatives or positives of the Trump tariff war with China. On the US-China trade issue, every imaginable economic and political factor is cited and argued except the main one: the virtually universal assumption in this country — for Democrats, Republicans, Independents, consumers rich and poor, American businesses that do and do not operate in China — that the US need not concern itself with what the average take-home pay of the Chinese laborer is. Like, who cares?

You know why we have a trade deficit with China? You know why American presidents have let the matter slip by all these years with no real action? You know why President Trump has tried to do something about it, be his tactic smart or stupid?

You know why we’re dealing with this?

Because when all those cheap goods, nifty gadgets and sophisticated pieces of technology, be they phones, textiles or toys or whatever, began to flood the US market, we just looked the other way. We didn’t care. The exact same question we would have raised had these goods come from a factory in, say, Arkansas, based on a $3.00 hourly wage, we didn’t ask. We didn’t raise raise a hue and a cry. Had this occurred in Arkansas, the social justice warriors would have gone to the barricades, and rightly so. But with China? We keep silent, all of us.

Because it is faraway.

Because it is the Chinese, not the American, workforce.

We don’t want to pay what it really should cost to produce all those fuzzy wuzzies.

Talk about indifference to human rights.

Talk about the chickens coming home to roost — China surpassing the US, as if the average American has had nothing to do with it, as if American businesses in China have had nothing to do with it, as if it were just some “market force,” or Chinese currency manipulation, or as if there were no explanation.

As if it were not based, in fact, on the oppression of millions of human beings who happen to be Chinese.

Talk about racism!

Of course, this indifference percolates up to the NPR journalist who’s covering every aspect, or so he thinks, of the tariff question. He can ask the American representative of a business with factories in the US, China and Hungary, what the financial impact of the tariffs is on every imaginable human being but one: the Chinese factory worker who’s producing his goods.

The Chinese factory worker is a  person, who, if he or she were working for $3.00 an hour in the US, we would call a slave. We would call it slave labor, not “the lower cost of labor.”

No, it’s not the “lower cost of labor in China” with which “the US can never compete.” It is the US-validated slave wage in China, based on our thirst for Chinese goods, whether silly or sophisticated, that is at issue. On the tariff tactic, Trump may be wise. He may be stupid. But he is not the main player here. Don’t duck. The main player here is every one of us who, for decades, has purchased a Chinese item without the slightest twinge of conscience about how we got it so cheap.

Copyright © 2019 by the Intermountain Jewish News

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