'Competition' with China is Killing U.S.

"Protectionism conveniently shifts the blame for trade-related hardships to foreigners, which is easier than adapting homegrown business practices to make America more competitive." -- New York Times editorial, "Curing the Debt Addiction," Oct. 2

Well, that makes sense. According to The New York Times, what we need to do to compete with China economically is adopt commensurate "homegrown business practices" that will enhance our performance.

What do they have in mind? Eliminating the freedom of speech? Outlawing free trade associations? Legalizing child labor? Eliminating all environmental regulations and letting workers roll around in hazardous chemicals for fifteen hours a day for ten cents an hour? Ending all forms of corporate transparency? Come to think of it, we could solve our juvenile delinquency program and our trade competitiveness problem at the same time -- let's just lock up our high school dropouts in toy factories, get those little bastards making radioactive Lego sets six days a week for a buck a shift. Imagine the profits! Who'd be laughing then, Yunagjiang City?

Remember Roger and Me? Remember those two rich old white ladies on the golf course who waxed poetic on the first tee about the despair of laid-off auto workers in Flint, Michigan, talking about how people just need to "try harder" and "keep at it" or whatever to overcome their problems? Well, that same bullshit is on display here in the Times and in a lot of other places lately. In fact, "When it comes to China, we just need to try harder" has to be among the most pervasive and universally-held lies in the American press these days, right up there with, "In elections, any candidate, no matter how poor, has a chance" and "The networks are just giving the people the news they want."

One of the biggest purveyors of this dreck is arch-capitalist spokesmodel Thomas Friedman, who has spent the last ten years trying to talk himself into the position that having to compete with Chinese and Indian industrial slaves is somehow a good thing for America. Nothing makes Friedman happier than being able to appear before a bunch of old ladies in some cobweb-strewn Midwestern library or Jaycees hall and deliver his favorite faux-homespun platitude about the new global economy, a clunky tale about advice he often gives to his daughters. "Girls," his story goes, "when I was growing up, my parents used to say to me, 'Tom, finish your dinner. People in China ... are starving.' My advice to you now: 'Girls, finish your homework, people in China ... are starving for your jobs.' "

(An aside here: Can you imagine being the offspring of Thomas Friedman? Here you are, just a kid, playing with your dollhouse and your coloring books ... and here comes Daddy in his mustache and his Windsor knot and his Blackberry, fresh from work, warning you that if you don't quit your playing, Communist factory workers will leave you in the poorhouse? What a great guy -- loves his kids so much, he throws 'em in the globalization thresher while they're still little! Thanks, Dad!)

Conservative commentators go to great lengths to assure Americans that the rise of China is actually a good thing. Townhall.com chairman Doug Wilson wrote a great "How we can compete with China" column a few months ago in which he proposed four steps America could take to correct the trade imbalance. The first three of these steps were a school voucher program, tax cuts (so that there will be more capital available for investment), and immigration reform measures that would allow foreign students to stay and work after they complete their education. The fourth step? Attitude reform. "The American entrepreneurial spirit is alive and well," he writes. "As Newt Gingrich says, 'We can win the future.' A positive vision for a better America is critical to our future."

This, too, sounds like good advice for taking on a country that pays its workers pennies an hour, pollutes indiscriminately and arrests any labor leaders who dare to stick their heads above ground -- think positive! You can do it, America! Just put yer nose to the ol' grindstone, and things will work out. Didn't you all see Rudy?

The impetus for the Times editorial was an effort by New York Senator Chuck Schumer and South Carolina Republican Lindsey Graham to impose tariffs on China for its alleged manipulation of the yuan, which the two legislators claim gives China an "unfair trade advantage." The effort by the Senators was apparently headed off following a meeting with Treasury Secretary Henry Paulson Jr. and pressure from companies such as Caterpillar, General Electric and Citibank (the latter two, incidentally, have been heavy contributors to Schumer in particular).

The whole episode shows just exactly how twisted American politics have become. To even try to take action in protest of Chinese business practices, lawmakers like Graham and Schumer only have an opening to get self-righteous when they perceive that China has committed a crime against capitalism, i.e. manipulating the yuan. Apparently it is not possible any longer to complain that China uses slave labor and ruthlessly represses dissent, which of course also results in a clearly "unfair trade advantage." And since most American politicians are heavily subsidized by campaign contributions from companies who take massive advantage of cheap Chinese labor -- GE alone donated over $1.4 million to federal candidates in the 2006 cycle -- the likelihood of anyone in government taking such action in the future is extremely limited.

In fact, not only does Congress not protest Chinese human rights violations, it refuses even to stop giving subsidies to American corporations that move domestic jobs to China. I remember Vermont's Bernie Sanders explaining to me how that whole deal works. "I'll ask a company like GE why we should give them money, if they won't promise to stop moving American jobs to China," he told me. "And they'll say, 'Look, we're going to China, one way or another. But if you don't give us the money, we'll move there faster.' They're very honest about it."

Everyone knows what the end result of all of this is. The more countries like China prosper and take over our manufacturing business, the more downward pressure is exerted not only on American wages, but on local tax rates and American workers' rights. It's not a coincidence that unions all over America are being broken and forced to take humiliating positions in collective bargaining agreements as our manufacturing economy moves across the Pacific Ocean. And it's not a coincidence that states are not only no longer collecting the same tax revenue from manufacturers, they're practically paying companies to stay -- like the case of the state of Ohio, which worked with the city of Toledo to provide GM with over $300 million in tax breaks, as well as property and infrastructure investments, to keep Jeep in that city.

The dirty little secret of both the American media and the American government is that neither sector much minds this state of affairs. In both cases the corporate sponsors who pay their bills would like nothing more than a full rollback here in America of workers' rights and deep cuts, if not the outright elimination, of corporate taxes. And if the General Electrics and the Caterpillars of the world are very much concerned about preserving democracy and civil liberties here in America, well, they're doing a good job of hiding it. These companies would love to be able to dump raw thallium in the Mississippi River, pay even skilled Americans pennies and get local cops in Little Rock and Peoria to arrest troublesome union leaders. And one good way to get there is to move overseas and then insist that America needs to "try harder" to compete. And we know what they mean by "trying harder."

That is what is most disgusting about the recent Times editorial, which cynically echoed its own undeserved reputation for liberal extremism to make it seem like they were calling protectionist measures a kind of racism -- "blaming foreigners," which they say is "easier" than adapting "homegrown business practices." That's a lie, just like Tom Friedman's "Do your homework" schtick is a lie. As if GE would pick the union member with the fair wage over the no-vote, ten-cent Chinese if he'd just done better in school.

America doesn't need to try harder. China needs to stop using slave labor. If you see things any other way, you've probably got a factory in the Suzhou industrial park. Or you're taking money from someone who does.

Enjoy this piece?

… then let us make a small request. AlterNet’s journalists work tirelessly to counter the traditional corporate media narrative. We’re here seven days a week, 365 days a year. And we’re proud to say that we’ve been bringing you the real, unfiltered news for 20 years—longer than any other progressive news site on the Internet.

It’s through the generosity of our supporters that we’re able to share with you all the underreported news you need to know. Independent journalism is increasingly imperiled; ads alone can’t pay our bills. AlterNet counts on readers like you to support our coverage. Did you enjoy content from David Cay Johnston, Common Dreams, Raw Story and Robert Reich? Opinion from Salon and Jim Hightower? Analysis by The Conversation? Then join the hundreds of readers who have supported AlterNet this year.

Every reader contribution, whatever the amount, makes a tremendous difference. Help ensure AlterNet remains independent long into the future. Support progressive journalism with a one-time contribution to AlterNet, or click here to become a subscriber. Thank you. Click here to donate by check.