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Toxic Toys, Deadly Dog Food and Other Wonders of "Free Trade"

Mattel says its supply chain just has a few bad apples. Where have we heard that before?
 
 
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The Times had this gem this morning:

Separately, laboratory tests have found that some Chinese-made vinyl baby bibs sold at Toys "R" Us stores appear to be contaminated with lead.

Industry analysts said Mattel's woes are part of a much larger problem.

"If I went down the shelves of Wal-Mart and tested everything, I'm going to find serious problems," said Sean McGowan, managing director and the toy analyst at Wedbush Morgan Securities. "The idea that Mattel -- with its high standards -- has a bigger problem than everybody else is laughable. If we don't see an increase of recalls in this industry, then it's a case of denial."

Even Mattel executives said repeatedlyyesterday that the company may have more recalls.

"No system is perfect," Robert A. Eckert, Mattel's chairman and chief executive, said in a conference call. "There's no guarantee that we will not be here again."

Wow. Before yesterday, these mega corporations were saying, oh, it's just a few bad apples caught up in the supply chain. ( Kinda like Enron… remember that?) Now, we have the mega-corps admitting that - no, actually it's part of the design of the system.

System?! You mean it's not just a few bad apples? How could such a "system" have ever been devised? Did anyone ever vote on this "system", because I can't imagine it would be popular among anyone that, well, eats or consumes. Oh, that's right - thanks Billy, Joey, Chrissy, Johnny, Sammy, Freddy, and Johnny, also known as the boy band of former and perhaps future presidents. (They unfortunately lack many of the redeeming qualities of those other boyz' bands.)

For an excellent read into what a stupid (in the dictionary definition of the term) SYSTEM we have now, please check out Barry Lynn's piece in Harpers on the madness of mega-corporations' unregulated, global sourcing strategies.

Look closely at today's global production system and you will see shockingly high degrees of specialization, in terms of both geography and ownership. More and more activities take place in only one or a few places on earth, and within one or a few companies. This is especially true in electronics: Taiwan produces more than half of the world's vital customized chips. But it is also ever more true of heavy industries, like automobile manufacturing, even of agriculture and food processing. One of the crowning conceptions of the Enlightenment has been achieved, yet economists appear entirely unwilling to recognize the fact, let alone begin the task of examining how this revolutionary event might alter the purposes and pathways of their work.

At the other side of the Times (the ed board), they don't like to think about that, saying that we shouldn't change the way we look at supply systems or trade policy, but rather we should have Mattel police itself and the U.S. government play global cop, flying around the world to inspect hundreds of thousands of factories. No doubt about it: I agree with the Times and 99.999999% of the civilized, non-libertarian world that the FDA needs more resources. But as we've shown, having trade agreements that prioritize safety over a race to the bottom is a far more efficient way of pursuing the same end.

How many more pets have to die or consumers get sick before we accept that states and social institutions have a legitimate role to play alongside the market?? These other institutions at least have the virtue of predating the market, as Karl Polanyi pointed out decades ago:

No society could, naturally, live for any length of time unless it possessed an economy of
some sort; but previously to our time no economy has ever existed that, even in principle, was controlled by markets. In spite of the chorus of academic incantations so persistent in the nineteenth century, gain and profit made on exchange never before played an important part in human economy. Though the institution of the market was fairly common since the later Stone Age, its role was no more than incidental to economic life.

Not that I want the Stone Age, mind you, but we also don't have to feel bashful about using state power to protect people. As Polanyi's book shows, state and social regulations were the only thing that made the emergence of the modern market even thinkable. Anyone wanting a sustainable globalization is going to have to make sure that states have the flexibility to be able to guide the process. First stop for that kind of alter-globalization - shrink or sink the WTO.

 
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