Wednesday, August 15, 2007

The Expensive Cost of Cheap Goods

There was an interesting story on ABC news tonight about the fallout from the lead paint recall of Mattel toys made in China. The story stressed that the Chinese workers now laid off were making about 18 cents an hour for their toil. Compare this to what blue collar workers would make over here performing the same task, but factor in the differing cost of living in the two places.

But the interesting sidelight to the story was an interview with a small toymaker here in the U.S. who makes toy trains. Suddenly he has been flooded with order requests, though this is probably short lived. There are some 10,000 toy making companies in China to which we out source, and only 50 made in the USA companies doing the same thing. Why? The answer is simple-- America's lust for cheap goods, which has destroyed more American companies than I care to count. Pretty soon all blue collar jobs will be out sourced, the way things are going.

I grew up in a furniture town-- High Point N.C. There used to be about 25 or more furniture plants making excellent furniture. Today if you ask how many companies actually make furniture there the answer is one--- just one. High Point is hardly furniture city any more. I think this is a loss. Americans have lost many opportunities to learn numerous trades which used to require artisanship, apprenticing, and the like. Now it only requires press board, and wood chips and slave labor.

Now I must tell you that I am not an advocate of no out sourcing of jobs, nor am I particularly enamored with protectionism. But I do think there is a heavy price that we pay for the right to buy cheap goods. And I wonder how as Christians we should view these things.

For one thing I wonder why it is that we have simply acquiesed to the culture of conspicuous consumption. Why is it that we feel compelled to buy so much stuff, ranging from junk to luxuries, neither of which we need? Shouldn't we be wiser about our purchases, and seek to buy things that are of quality and will last? Of course that might mean we might have to save up for it, instead of buying on credit! Imagine that.

I used to know a lot of Christians who believed on principle that we ought to never buy anything on credit-- no credit cards, etc. Sometimes they would make an exception when it came to a home, but that was about it. I am afraid we have not thought through, from a Christian perspective, either how we spend our money, nor what we spend it on, nor whether we ought to spend it at all, nor whether it is an ethical thing to buy cheap foreign goods to begin with. No we just stumble from one recall to another, and temporarily may repent and do better, but all the while 'shop until we drop' is the American motto, or "whoever dies with the most toys wins".

When we buy shabby goods with built in obsolescence we simply cheapen ourselves-- and frankly that's an expensive price to pay for conspicuous consumption. From a Christian point of view a person should not be defined or judged by what they have, but rather by what they give.


bethel said...

Dear Dr Witherington

Your post raised some interesting points. I think the key thing is not so much whether it’s ethical to buy cheap foreign goods but more of making these decisions with more discretion.

Cheaper imports do have their benefits; overall inflation is moderated and the middle class generally has more choices – even though some goods and services that are ‘priced inefficiently’ to use the economist’s term do disappear in the long term.

However, there is a limit of how low one can go before the consequences appear. Being a vendor for a multinational company, I know what it feels like having your prices squeezed to a minimum, and certainly know the consequences of ‘cheap’ goods & services – at some point, things will just give way – most of all quality of service/product, safety and follow up support. For vendors, knowing your cost structure and limit is crucial – sometimes you’d just have to walk away from deals you can’t do, period. For consumers, the same thing; vote with both our heads and wallets – companies whose only and sole criterion is cost will get the message.

Agape and blessings,

Falantedios said...

I remember those Christians, Ben.

"Owe no one anything, except to love each other, for the one who loves another has fulfilled the law." Romans 13:8

Richard H said...

While the "lust for cheap goods" is a factor, so is the "desire" - can I make that substitution? - for AFFORDABLE goods. Whereas once upon a time only the rich had more than the essentials of life (and often the poor lacked even the essentials), in the US most of us have so much we're not just wealthy in comparison with the rest of the world today, but even with the rich of the past. If the non-rich are to have some of the things they have, those objects must be cheaper and easier to afford.

At the same time, most of us in America (this may be true of folks in other countries also - I'm only speaking from my experience) have put too much emphasis on things. Haven't we discovered yet they give us neither security nor lasting happiness? The allure of cheap goods keeps us from discovering that our salvation is not found in owning many things - since we can always afford more, especially with our credit cards and other pain-free ways of borrowing.

Ben Witherington said...

Thanks Keith for these reflections. I quite agree with you about the points you are making. There is another factor-- the work ethic that one has, and the honesty required. By this I mean that it is unethical to deliberately offer people goods that you know will hardly last longer than the time it takes to take them home, or worse goods that one knows will harm the customer (e.g. the lead paint issue). As for the work ethic issue, so many Americans simply do not want to work hard (whoopee, let's gamble and try and win the lotto), or do not care about the quality of their work. They just want a paycheck. Some of this is a result of being spoiled and never having to live without the basics, but some of it seems to have resulted from the general ethical decline of our country.


Dan Turis said...

Being from Pittsburgh, this is not at all new. Neither is it if you are from Flint or Detroit Michigan.
Progress was the word said when my family asked what happened. My dad got a $2,300 severance package after 20 years in the mill. This was the story for 5 of my uncle's and countless amounts of people in my the Mon Valley (Pittsburgh south). I remember a student in my elementary school who's dad killed himself because he lost it all. He was more valuable to his family dead than alive because he was insured. Progress???

Ben Johnson said...

Speaking of this topic, I just re-read Wesley's sermon "On the Use of Money" today and felt very convicted about these issues. I am personally a capitalist and understand how a person might be inclined to choose the cheapest bigger for pragmatic reasons, I still feel it is often morally wrong. Even in a capitalistic system, quantity should never replace quality. Even more, it is sad that besides reading this sermon other than my time hearing horrible theologies of money during my time at Oral Roberts University I don't think I've ever heard a sermon on the purpose and use of money.

bethel said...

There is no doubt that Capitalism is the only economic system that works in the long run, or rather it is the least imperfect. One key advantage is that it tends to encourage and reward entrepreneurship and individual work ethic. On the downside, it does appear to generate materialism for its own sake; indeed it’s almost as if capitalism ‘works’ because of ambition, greed and fear (of losing out).

I sometimes question my own convictions – how does the attitude of Paul as expressed in Philippians 4: 11-13 apply to my own ambitions to be successful in business? Or is the contentment that Paul speaks of, totally alien to the workings of capitalism? Does my supposedly godly desire for rich returns (both spiritual and financial) tie in with being accountable to the Lordship of Christ? (e.g. Parable of the Talents, Matt 25:14-30).

I browsed through a book by Neil Anderson (I think) some time ago. One point he brought up is that if we say ‘I don’t have money to buy so-and-so’ (or the reverse) then money is our master since we’re letting it dictate what we can or cannot buy. Rather it should be our Lord who is the Master of how we spend our money.

Dr Witherington is right - we need a practical theology on money and a godly spirit of labor and business.


Falantedios said...

Indeed, a form of capitalism would be the only system to truly accomplish as many of the ends we desire an economy to accomplish.

How to we control that system, though? Laissez-faire capitalism let the system control us, running rampant and crushing most of society.

I would closely examine the economic system God instituted in Israel. Capitalist to the core, but founded on mercy AND profit, rather than profit alone.

Consider the gleaning laws.
Consider the laws on loans and debt collections.
Consider the Sabbath principle.
Consider the Jubilee commands.

All these and more work to ensure that entrepreneurship and hard work ARE rewarded, but that mistakes don't ruin families forever, and epidemics of poverty generation after generation will not happen. The poor will always be there, yes, but not the same families forever.

The failure of Israel to follow the merciful statutes of God's economic law calls down some of the harshest rebukes in the prophetic writings.

in HIS love,

Anonymous said...

The economic effects are bad enough but the possible poisoning of our children with lead makes buying some foreign made goods incredibly risky. An NPR program I heard recently reported the efforts of a grandmother to safeguard her grandchildren from lead that she discovered in toys, bibs, lunch boxes, etc.using a test kit that is readily available in hardware stores.

If you are a "grandpa" or a "grandma" you can help by making bibs or play blocks, etc. The joy of seeing a little one playing with or using something that you have made just for them is fantastic.

Terry Hamblin said...

Without the free movement of goods and services the only result is stagnation and decay. I remember living in a house without electricity or gas, with only an open fire for cooking, with a pump at the end of the street as the only water supply and one flushing lavatory for every three houses. Compared to life in parts of China and India, this would be luxury, but I wouldn't want to go back to it.

It would be possible for us to restrict imports from developing countries until they provided the same benefits for their workers as we do for ours, but if we did we would condemn them to grinding poverty. Benefits like children staying at home rather than being sent to work at 4, and receiving an education in proper schools, women being free from ownership by their husbands or fathers, freedom from summary imprisonment by the authorities, being allowed to vote for your rulers, being able to feed your family and freedom from water borne diseases are all products of affluence.

Countries in Africa and Asia are trying to accomplish in decades what America and Western Europe took centuries to develop. While it is right for Christians to keep humanitarian ideals ever before these countries, they will not thank us for enforcing restrictions on their development that we never had on ours.

By all means protect our own children by insisting on lead-free paint, but you cannot protect home industry by insisting that there is some sort of 'right' for furniture makers in High Point to be continually employed or for car-makers in Flint to preserve their jobs. Why, that way lies the perpetuation of saddle-makers, with restrictions on automobiles

Ryan said...

Lots of good insight here, particularly for us rich (by any standard) North Americans. Unfortunately, if it makes someone with no money feel guilty for buying cheap stuff because that's all they can afford, I think in the end, we ought to allow each to live according to his means with a clear conscience...don't you think?

CP said...

Interesting stuff!
I guess one way for us to go could be understanding that all things have a cost and then they have a REAL cost.
Trying to justify capitalism as the only viable option because it is the least flawed is a ridiculous comment. How blind to our own western, north american worldview do we want to be? There is a cost to 'cheap goods' that far outweighs the real cost of 'buying' the item. Do we not see the environmental cost of transportation? or the real cost to families who get 50 cents and hour for their work (i am talking time with kids etc)? We are happy for capitlaism to be the 'right' option or dare i say 'biblical' option as one of you has stated, as long as WE are the ones enjoying that profit and gathering up of 'things'.
It is the consumtion of 'goods', 'things', 'stuff' that is erroding away at our humanity, relationships, and environment. As long as it someone elses problem we are happy to 'enjoy' the cheap goods. However, the minute it invades our own 'freedom' or 'rights' we may think differently.
I guess my big concern is that we try too hard to look for ways to justify our actions in the western world and even to the extent of trying to draw some common ground from biblical text in order to make us feel good. The problem is our selfish desire to consume rather than give. Jesus has some interesting views about giving rather than taking, and 'rights' versus the sacrifice of our 'rights'.
I think it is un ethical to buy 'cheap' goods simply because we do not want to really pay for what something is worth, especially when we have people starving, kids dying, and some low paid workers almost worked to death in order to survive. Capitalism consumes far more than it gives (this includes more than physical goods).
I am not suggetsing we give everything away and live an 'empty' life. But maybe we could try and see the real 'cost' of our selfish ways and ask the question "do understand the true cost to the world and if so am i willing to accept what those cost are to my world and the people in it"? Ultimately we must live with our concience which would vary from person to person depending on how much you have or have not.
Anyway i am sure i am not making sense here but i thought i would post anyhow.
Peace to you all

Ben Witherington said...

Hi Nick:

I am afraid you will not want to press the OT views on these matters too far. If you do, you would need to get rid of usury-- the loaning of money or other things with interest. The Bible's economies were nothing like modern free market capitalism. For one thing they were not money economies. For another they were based largely on barter, patronage, and reciprocity conventions.

I understand about the poor only being able to purchase cheap goods. Unfortunately that also condemns them in many case to bad health and hygiene, because all they can afford is junk food. The solution to this problem is just what the NT says-- Christians should take care of each other, and make sure no Christian, to start with, is in want or need of the basics.

I was thrilled to see the report on the way the little town of Greenburg Kansas has decided to rebuild-- using energy efficient materials and beginning to rely on natural sources of power-- wind power, solar power etc. The Christians in that town are forward looking and showing us a better way to live.


Ben W.

Living the Biblios said...

Consider the source where all these tainted products are coming from-- Communist China-- where the government has no sense of people made in the image of God-- dignity for the workers, nor concern for the end consumer. To them, it's all about money.

Tana M. Schiewer said...

Kudos. Too many of us are in the throes of blind consumerism. My husband and I just recently started to give a great deal of thought to all of our purchases, and have found we're rethinking where we shop, what we buy, etc. I also just watched a terrific DVD from Tony Campolo (sp?) where he addresses some similar issues. My paradigm isn't just shifting, it's being blown out of the water.

By the way, I love the diversity of topics you cover on your blog. My husband is constantly emailing me links to your blog, and I've enjoyed every one. (so I decided to check it out for myself, finally) And can I just say...thank you for the movie reviews! It's kind of nice to see another Christian with my love of movies!

Les Brittingham said...


Loved you comments on the New interpreting the Old. I have written several books on prophecy and more that follow this approach. You can see these works on Love your stuff, keep it coming.

Les Brittingham
President, Manna Resource Institute