Friday, February 08, 2008

Trading partner or predator?

kw: book reviews, nonfiction, foreign trade

The top trading partners of the US are now, in order, Canada, China, Mexico, Japan, and Germany. However, on the Imports side, China just tops Canada, $296 billion to $289 billion. My first "I wonder": why do I so seldom see "Made in Canada" on something?

I found the answer to this and lots of global trade questions at the Foreign Trade page of the US Census Bureau web site. In a section with country-by-country breakdown, I found that the bulk of our imports from Canada are things and materials you won't find at Target or Big K: resources such as crude oil and natural gas, iron ore and bauxite (aluminum ore) and other metals, and then "behind the doors" stuff like industrial machinery, tractors, and building supplies including lumber. Far down the scale we find textiles, rather than finished clothing, to the tune of a mere half billion—no $10 dresses or $5 shirts—, and a billion in toys and sporting goods. Canada-produced apparel totals no more than a billion.

For China, the biggest single area is computers, computer peripherals and other electronic goods and supplies, around a tenth of the total budget...$30+ billion means lots of laptops and phones, and even more ink cartridges. The next huge area is apparel, also about $30 billion (so that's about a hundred $10 Chinese dresses for every $30 Canadian flannel shirt). Toys and sporting goods are in the $28 billion range. All these are on-the-shelf items. Chinese imports are now the visible face of American retailing. (My figures are for 2006)

Based on a more down-to-earth analysis ("Why can't I find anything in the store made somewhere besides China?"), Sara Bongiorni decided to cajole her family into a one-year boycott of Chinese goods. Her book A Year Without "Made in China": One Family's True Life Adventure in the Global Economy chronicles that year, 2005. On January 1 of that year, as the result of a week of discussions (badgering), the New Year's resolution of Sara and her husband Kevin was to purchase nothing from China.

The twelve chapters, one per month (she must keep good journals), reveal that they really didn't make it, but they came about as close as is possible. She didn't just cajole her husband (and two small, uncomprehending children) into making the resolution: She embarked on a 365-day cajoling adventure. The story is by turns hilarious, maudlin, and white-knuckle gripping.

To avoid being totally estranged from family and friends, they (Sara) opened a huge loophole: gifts (birthdays, Christmas, what-have-ya) were exempt. The loophole expanded when Sara persuaded her sister-in-law to bring certain materials (candles, etc. which are only made in China these days) for a birthday party... Her outspoken mother drove a truck right through the loophole. And when donations for Katrina-disaster relief exceeded needs, well-meaning (and giggling, I suspect) friends dropped a few boxes full of toys and other stuff on their doorstep; every item "made in China".

However, they went to great lengths to locate kids' shoes cleaper than designer ones from Italy; ink cartridges that were not only filled in the US, but filled with ink made in Canada rather than China; dolls from anywhere but China. Yep, your kid sister's Raggedy Ann and Andy dolls—and Barbie—are made in China now.

The closing scenes, after as close to a China-free Christmas as they could manage, are of a couple considering "What next?". After a year as "weakest link", Kevin proposes an attempt to continue the boycott. They compromised on shopping more thoughtfully.

This book makes you think. If we all shop more thoughtfully, there's no way we'll avoid buying lots of Chinese merchandise, but we will have a better idea of just how global our economy really is. And if you do find an ink cartridge with genuine Canadian ink, frame it.

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