Friday, November 25, 2011

the China price and me

"Everyone wants as much as possible for as little money as possible," he said.

This is the lament of a Chinese factory manager, a supplier of products for Timberland, in Alexandra Harney's The China Price: The True Cost of Chinese Competitive Advantage. I'll come back to his--Zhang Yisheng's--words in a moment. First, the book.

The China Price, as the title indicates, looks at the cost of our cheap outsourced Chinese manufacturing: the human cost, the environmental cost. Harney describes, mostly through accounts of individual factory workers in one Chinese province, the effects of U.S. multinationals' 'race to zero', the quest for ever-cheaper production of their goods. She gives you glimpses of the impact of poor working conditions on workers' health, the feebleness of western brands' attempts at enforcing compliance with codes of conduct for working conditions and salaries, and a system that leaves no room for extra spending on things like air conditioning or maternity benefits for workers.

One of the problems she describes is particularly telling. Falsification of factory records is rampant in this business, as factories struggle to maintain at least the semblance of compliance with western brands' codes of conduct.

At the heart of the falsification problem is a lack of law enforcement by Chinese officials. Although China's laws on wages and hours are good, they are poorly enforced, particularly in regions that want to attract and retain foreign investment... But the companies themselves, and to a certain extent their shareholders and customers, are also partly to blame. The expectation of simultaneous price declines and improvement in working conditions has put undue pressure on Chinese suppliers and compelled them to cheat.

Here's how that last sentence works out in practice: western brands are tough bargainers, and they constantly shift orders to different Chinese factories, going where the prices are lowest at the moment. Yet, compliance with their demands concerning workers' pay and hours and working conditions will cost the factories extra money, thus increasing the overhead for production at the factory. When it costs more to produce there, the brand takes their business elsewhere. In effect, the brand's insistence on cheap products disallows any improvement of workers' rights in a given factory.

As Zhang said, "everyone wants as much as possible for as little money as possible." It seems to me that this--more than any government corruption, unfamiliarity with talk of human rights, hypocrisy in western executives, or any other factor you could name--this is the real force driving the China price. This is a price that children pay who are working in factories, Chinese workers pay when they aren't given any compensation for overtime hours, domestic workers pay when their jobs are outsourced, and the planet pays, as China is the world's largest emitter of carbon dioxide and sulfur dioxide, pollutants that have literally crossed the Pacific and been measured on the west coast of the U.S.

It's easy enough for Christians to condemn greed. "Everyone wants as much as possible" is an evil, and we can name it without too much trouble. "Do not lay up for yourselves treasures on earth, where moth and rust destroy and where thieves break in and steal" (Matt 6:19).

But what about the other part? "For as little money as possible." Frugality probably does not strike you as much of a vice. Isn't that just good stewardship, effective use of our resources? Like John Wesley said, we are to make all we can and save all we can, so that we can give all we can. Right?
Maybe this is not always true. Maybe this is not always the most faithful route. Maybe at times following Jesus means paying a higher price so that others can pay a lower one. Today is Black Friday, a day all about savings, as retailers slash prices on everything to meet the American consumer's voracious demands. As the Christmas shopping season kicks off, perhaps this is the perfect time to start thinking about the effects of our spending, beyond the nearest effects on our own bank accounts. Perhaps this is the best time to start asking questions and investigating the ramifications of our savings for our neighbors and God's creation.

Sunday, November 13, 2011

Prothero on America, the 'Christian nation'

Stephen Prothero, a professor of religion at Boston University and the author of some recent popular books on religion, like God Is Not One: The Eight Rival Religions That Run the World—and Why Their Differences Matter and Religious Literacy: What Every American Needs to Know - and Doesn't has written an opinion piece for CNN on Americans' reactions to the recent events at Penn State and the allegations against Republican presidential-hopeful Herman Cain.
I have to give Prothero credit: for someone who self-identifies as "religiously confused," I think the man has a nose for what is and is not a biblical, Jesus-centered, Christian response to the goings on in the world. Check out his piece, and see what you think.

Tuesday, November 08, 2011

Mississippians are voting on "personhood."

That's right. Today, the people of Mississippi get to cast ballots on a proposed state constitutional amendment that would

define personhood as "every human being from the moment of fertilization, cloning or the functional equivalent thereof."

Recent polling suggests that the amendment will pass. [UPDATE: the amendment was actually voted down on Tuesday.] Meanwhile people are (naturally) arguing over the issue, especially the reality that this is not legislation, but rather the spring board for future, unknown legislation--with this unknown-factor raising the suspicion of pro-choice voters and some calls for caution among politicians and some in the pro-life camp.

First, let me say up front that I am pro-life. I don't just mean 'anti-abortion' here: I'm against war, the death penalty, abortion, or anything else that amounts to government sanctioned killing. When I read the arguments of one pro-choice woman in MS, quoted throughout the CNN article, who advocates "the ability of families to make the choices they want with their doctors," I am almost entirely unmoved. Our American obsession with choices does not give us license to kill. Period. In my mind, the pro-life voice in the article has the much stronger position, countering that this is a human right issue and complaining of the contradictions in a state constitution that supports abortion but prosecutes for "fetal homicide" resulting from an assault on a pregnant woman.

Nevertheless, I see a couple of serious problems in this picture.

First, democracy, the voting public, does not have the authority to decide these questions. That's insanity. I've posted this quote from Cicero on the wardrobe before, but I think it bears repeating:
If it were possible to constitute right simply by the commands of the people... then all that would be necessary in order to make robbery, adultery, or the falsification of wills right and just would be a vote of the multitude.

This ancient Roman statesman saw the problem clearly enough. "The right" is not subject to a vote.

Cicero goes on to object further that the such a vote would subject truth to "the behest of the foolish." I don't intend to make any comment on how educated the voting public in the United States is, but I can say this: I have my high school diploma, a bachelor's degree, and am nearly done working on my master's, and I don't think that I personally have any right to vote on such an issue. There is no shared foundation of beliefs in our culture that can be drawn upon to answer the question the people of Mississippi are being asked. This is the second problem. Biologically, we know what a fetus is, and we know what a human being is, but there's absolutely nothing in biology to tell us whether a fetus ought to be called human. Philosophically and religiously the US certainly lacks the kind of coherence that you would need to answer this kind of existential question. Perhaps the question could have been settled a few centuries ago, when American thinkers could agree that "all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights," but today the nation cannot agree on any 'self-evident truths' upon which to base these sorts of claims.

This is no less true for Christians. As a Christian, I can voice a strong opposition to abortion; I'm convinced that it conflicts with the teachings of Christ and the scriptures more broadly, as well as two thousand years of Christian thought and practice.* Yet even Christians share no consensus on the question of whether life begins at conception or not. This vote is leaving the issue at the mercy of individual whims and opinions, which is no way to handle such an important question.

So, while I am eager to broach the crucial human rights issue of abortion, I'm not comfortable with what's happening in Mississippi today. Even if the amendment passes--a clear victory for the pro-life movement there--I think we are looking at a defeat. This places a power in the hands of voters that isn't theirs to wield, and such a proposed amendment (proposed by a "nonprofit Christian ministry") assumes an easy answer is available to a question that I don't see how anyone, besides a Roman Catholic, can answer either easily or definitively.

There must be a better way to go about this.

* For a powerful example from Christian tradition, consider the words of the early Church writer Tertullian (c. 160- c. 240):
With us, murder is forbidden once for all. We are not permitted to destroy even the fetus in the womb, as long as blood is still being drawn to form a human being. To prevent the birth of a child is a quicker way to murder. It makes no difference whether one destroys a soul already born or interferes with its coming to birth. It is a human being and one who is to be a man, for the whole fruit is already present in the seed.

Apology 9.8