A couple of weeks ago I purchased a small audio amplifier for my home. The price was absurdly low — so low I wondered how the manufacturer could possibly profit from the transaction.
A short Web search suggested an answer: The product was made in China. That meant low-wage Chinese labor was almost certainly part of the equation, a fact that left me decidedly uneasy.
We don’t want to think too hard about what we buy. We purchase our miraculous phones, big-screen TVs and tablet computers the same way we buy almost everything else: as cheaply as possible. That’s how capitalism is supposed to work.
But let’s think a moment about the full cost of the goods and services we buy.
Gasoline for $2.60 a gallon is a huge break for strapped household budgets. Yet we also know low-cost gas comes in part from fracking, the controversial practice of injecting pressurized liquid into rock to dislodge fossil fuels.
We love cheap energy. For those who live near fracking zones, where leaks and polluted groundwater are a danger, the benefits of the practice are more mixed.
Our meals are safe and inexpensive. They’re also the result, in some cases, of high-capacity, high-pollution factory farms — and low-cost, sometimes underpaid and underprotected immigrant labor.
All true. Yet not the whole story either.
Few of us would willingly pay more for the things we buy, and higher prices bring their own distortions. We could stop fracking and pay $5 for gas, for example, but that would leave less for other purchases, potentially costing jobs. Expensive gasoline could also mean fewer new cars or less tax revenue for bridges and roads.
Regulations could improve working conditions in meatpacking plants and orchards, but the price of food might double — affecting consumption and health.
I could have decided not to buy an ultra-cheap amplifier because of fear the Chinese workers who made it are mistreated. Would my boycott make any difference? Would it make the workers’ lives better? The answer isn’t easy to see.
Politicians are properly fond of promoting the values of free enterprise. Any visit to a grocery or department store in America reveals the benefits of price competition: low-cost, high-quality goods that are unimaginable in many parts of the world.
Yet as I held my new amplifier in my hand, I couldn’t help but contrast my good fortune with the unknown worker who put it together. Somehow, “thank you” seemed hollow.