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When Travel Writers Write About Economics

Paul Theroux is an excellent travel writer. Economics? Not so much.

The Chinese success, helped by American investment, is perhaps not astonishing after all; it has coincided with a large number of Americans’ being put out of work and plunged into poverty.

Mr. Theroux is too careful with words to say American companies’ investment in China has caused American unemployment and poverty, but that’s the clear gist of the article. No simple coincidence here!

In fact, U.S.-China trade is not a zero-sum game. China has not become richer at the U.S.’s expense. Sure, certain industries have been hit hard by Chinese competition. Others have greatly benefited from access to more efficiently produced clothing, toys, industrial machinery, auto parts, etc. (OK, cheaper, if you insist–has it occurred to Mr. Theroux that the one who can produce the good more cheaply should be free to gain a cost advantage in the market?)

Big companies have always sought cheaper labor, moving from North to South in the United States, looking for the hungriest, the most desperate, the least organized, the most exploitable.

Yup, that’s what all big (bad) companies do. Haven’t you noticed that almost all the employees of Google, BMW, and Sony are in now in Bangladesh and Burundi? And that GE can’t wait to move it’s headquarters to Malawi? The only thing that counts to big companies is hungry, exploitable workers. That’s why only little companies employ people in places like New York City, Paris, and Hamburg. Right? Rank silliness.

It seems obvious that executives of American companies should invest in the Deep South as they did in China. If this modest proposal seems an outrageous suggestion, to make products for Nike, Apple, Microsoft and others in the South, it is only because the American workers would have to be paid fairly. (emphasis mine)

This, for a writer, is awfully sloppy use of language.

What Mr. Theroux must know is that for these workers to make Nike, Apple and Microsoft products, they would have to be paid more than Chinese or Vietnamese workers. Its not even legal for Nike to offer the same wage to an American worker as it offers to one in Vietnam. The U.S. government requires it to pay Americans more.

So, what, pray tell, is fair about getting paid more to make the same shoe just because someone is an American?

What in the name of fairness demands special economic treatment for Americans? If Americans want to be paid more than Chinese, there is a fair way: they must produce goods and services of greater value.

Maybe Southerners aren’t so backwards that they can’t move up the economic value chain. Or should they just make shoes and cell phones for the next 100 years?

One last point: if Mr. Theroux really wants Southerners to be paid a “fair wage,” he can insist his books only be published in the U.S. South. Oddly enough, not one of his publisher’s offices are in the Deep South. Why not? Could economics have something to do with it? Or is Houghton Mifflin avoiding giving fair-paying jobs to Southerners, like those other bad companies Nike, Apple and Microsoft? Is Mr. Theroux benefiting from that? Isn’t that hypocrisy?

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