The Cost of Cheap

What rising prices in China might mean for the future of American industry.

If ordinary Americans are supposed to be grateful for the cheap Chinese imports that have supposedly boosted their standard of living for the last generation and a half, that gratitude is hardly evident in “Moneybox” Fray. The reaction to Alexandra Harney’s article on changing economic conditions in China highlights (at least among domestic readers of Slate) the profound ambivalence we harbor toward our largest global trading partner. Granted, China’s link to tainted goods has not helped the country’s PR much in recent months. But the grievances go much deeper, as captured by WassabiCracker’s lengthy invective:

There is now a distinction in the eyes of American consumers between American products, fabricated here at home and under American quality standards, and the corner-cutting, low quality, in some cases dangerous, products produced by cheap foreign labor. Not to mention the human rights and environmental aspects of buying from the Chinese, or the fact that they steal our intellectual property by the billions building an entire segment of their national economy from knock-offs.
The economic implications of Harney’s analysis may have been slightly ominous, but for the layman, it offered a glimmer of hope. If the era of cheap Chinese goods is coming to an end, does it portend a reversal in the fortunes of American industry? Wonderful news disguised is blueskies’ take on the story, as it heralds an “opportunity for domestic industry to compete.” “Now that the value of the dollar has fallen into the toilet, perhaps American business will bring manufacturing jobs back to the United States,” hopesCyrano. This blue-collar nostalgia is echoed by many. toolguy1964 pines for “the good old 50’s when … the things we made were quality and products we actually needed and used.” Indeed, higher wages for Chinese workers are a good thing, arguesajm8127: “Hopefully, this will give our economy a little kick in the ass.”“Don’t count on it,” warns incog-nito. “There are still plenty of third-world countries with oppressed masses to be exploited.” nolalady also holds a critical mirror up to America’s appetite for cheap Chinese goods, made by laborers in “horrible working conditions … with no voice and no power to change their circumstances”—a phenomenon at last being reigned in by higher prices. For islander07 here, the answer is similarly to “stop consuming an excess of stuff.” Of course, lest this column give impressions to the contrary, the Fray is not populated exclusively by trade protectionists and economic patriots. TJA is the rare advocate of global competition as the best way to increase social welfare for all. A solution about as popular right now as the price of rice in India. AC3:45 p.m. ET

Tuesday, April  8, 2008

Jeet Heer’s “Culturebox” article on Fredric Wertham’s campaign against comic-books, “ The Caped Crusader,” provoked many thoughtful posts: an argument about the morals of the stories here, a discussion on scientists’ responsibility for their research results there, and we can always find a place for a readerwho found out from Wertham’s 1954 book that “there were sexy pictures within the comic frames, if you knew how to look for them.” But the hot-ticket post came from author Michael Chabon, whose book The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier & Clay is mentioned in the article.

Chabon came into the Fray to argue with the description of a “brief and unsympathetic cameo” of Wertham in his book and went on to say:

In fact my personal view of Wertham, reflected in the novel itself, had progressed beyond the simplistic condemnation (“Easy enough to mock…”) or demonization that Heer suggests well before I actually wrote the relevant scenes in the novel itself. No one who does even the most rudimentary research into Wertham’s career and accomplishments can fail to admire him for his compassion, his intelligence, his desire to help children, and his fairly snappy prose style. He was not wrong about the meretriciousness or offensiveness of many of the comics he condemned, though he was wrong about a lot of them; nor was he wrong when he argued that many of the stories featured inappropriate material for young children. It was Wertham’s boneheaded inferences about the direct causal connection between, say, “headlight” comics and “deviance” in children, not to mention the hysteria his inferences helped to foster (along with a counter-hysteria among comics fans) that have tarnished his admirable legacy.

As for the racist, misogynist, violent comics for which I am averred so nostalgically to pine, I defy anyone to find evidence for such a sentiment in anything I have ever written or said, in Kavalier & Clay or elsewhere. Talk about easy generalizations.

Read his post in full, or reply to it, hereMR5 p.m. GMT

Update: The article’s author, Jeet Heer, came into the Fray to answer Chabon. After making several specific points, he says:

My purpose wasn’t to cast aspersions on Chabon as a novelist or to upbraid him for his nostalgic celebration of early comics. He’s a great writer and like him I find the early comics to be imaginatively nurturing (I love Chabon for many reasons but especially for calling attention to the greatness of Jack Kirby). My only point was that there is a complexity to Wertham as a historical figure that doesn’t come through in many accounts of his career, including the brief and unsympathetic references to him in Kavalier & Clay.
And Bart Beaty of the University of Calgary, author of a book on Frederic Wertham mentioned in the article, also came into the Fray:
I disagree with Chabon’s reading of Wertham on the issue of causation, but I deal with that in great depth in my own book and won’t rehearse the argument here since we seem to agree on most other significant points in this matter. And, if by chance he is reading this, I would like to let Mr. Chabon know how much I enjoyed his portrait of the comic book industry at that historical moment, even as I think that some of the material in Wertham’s archives indicate that it may have been even darker than the sometimes grim portrait that he paints.
 Read both posts in full  here. MR12.00 p.m. GMT

Tuesday, April  1, 2008

“People with bad attitudes and no friends shouldn’t go to Disney World. Mickey can’t fix everything.” Yes, the Magic Kingdom sure makes its fans into better people: They feel the joy, their eyes light up, then they come away and write cross, bitter Fray entries about Slate’s “Well-Traveled” take on Disney. They say things like “Who wants whiners spoiling it anyway?” and “This is one of the saddest articles I have read” (really?) and “I found mini-France [at Disney World] a lot more enjoyable than actual France” and “Real life is over-rated.”

It would be easy to pick out more unfriendly posts from those who took offense at the very idea of criticizing Disney, the people whose great happiness apparently led to a need to make rude remarks about writer Seth Stevenson. (We did like the dear old lady who wanted to stand in for the Fairy Godmother but thought that if a guest didn’t enjoy the place, “it is pretty much their own darn fault.”) And yet … we expected at cynical Fray HQ we would be unmoved by the very idea of Disney, but the sheer uniformity of the defense was impressive—there were a huge number of responses but close to no arguments because almost everyone wanted to say a good word for Walt’s world. So we’ll enter into the spirit of things and draw your attention to some stories that charmed us. Dads in particular were keen to explain that children were the key:

Ziggy Toshsummed it up like this:

The place changes when you have kids. The fakery, the creepy corporatism … it all fades into the background and all of a sudden what seems most noteworthy about Disney is the sheer magnitude of the fact that here is a multinational corporation, with multinational resources, wholly dedicated (for profit, admittedly) to the imaginary lives of children. … You simply haven’t seen Disney until you’ve watched the firework display with your toddler perched on your shoulders.

Meanwhile, a doting aunt explained how she made her niece feel like a princess, and an astonishing number of posters had spent their honeymoons there. One reader says, “As a gay man, I knew, even as a young child, that in this world of Disney, I would not be able to find a fairy tale Prince Charming falling head over heels for flighty Peter Pan. …” His post was called “A Gay Child’s Perspective,” but his description of a childhood visit, with a mother who had saved and scraped for the trip, had a common appeal for many readers.

Laurie 1207 laid it on the line:

As a woman who has faced the same drudgery 40 hours a week at the same workplace, Disney World is like a much needed breath of fresh air … Does it hurt to be a child for a few days even when I am actually 55 years old? … For the 5-7 days I might stay at Disney World I can forget about the hustle and bustle of real life and act like a totally entranced child. Then I can return to the stresses of every day life and feel as though I have been to another world.

Some posters could see the problems but had good advice:

Those margaritas are there for a reason, they are there for tired parents— cindyrat.  … Going to Disney is like childbirth—you forget how painful it is and keep going back— samat. … Going to Disney without advanced planning compares to, I don’t know … attending a sporting event without knowing the rules? ordering an invasion of another country without being sure of the objective?— Gilamu. …Send Seth to Branson! … You know what? That sounds like a good idea. “A cynic’s guide to American tourist traps.” It has potential, you’ve got to admit.— Gj13us

A poster called African American Family had the most charming storyof her husband’s conversion:

I was with you at first, because I took my two children to Epcot and The Magic Kingdom in 1984. I was grouchy and tired. … The train ride was a nightmare, and the bus ride was horrible. … If I sound bad my husband was worst. He was just like you, only stingy. He made us go and see vacation property all the time we were there, so we could get in Disney for free. I brought $1500 dollars to spend and we still were broke. He grumbled and said it was a waste of money. But, from the moment I went through the front gates I was in heaven. The magical kingdom and then the Epcot center was a dream come true.

And she ended up with a message for Seth Stevenson:

Believe it or not to this day when my husband talks about the Disney experience he sounds like he was me, he tells everyone of the glorious time we had. … So, this is why I read the articles hoping you would see and feel it too, because if my husband could catch it then I thought so could you. So if you catch yourself ten or twenty years from now, telling a different tale about your Disney experience, just smile and remember, a little black woman told you it might just happen to you.

A final invitation from Jon’s World:

I think Mr Stevenson you should try it again! Not by yourself with a notepad in hand but with a mom and dad and a couple of kids. PS:I checked with the family—they are willing to take you Mr Stevenson but you have to promise to wear a set of ears at least for a few minutes and pretend to enjoy it. You never know, with the right people you might just have fun!

A very fair offer. The true Disney spirit emerges.


At Disney World, readers say, children bring you undiluted happiness. Elsewhere—maybe not so much. Emily Yoffe’s “The Best Policy” article on unwed mothers unsurprisingly brought out hundreds of posters, with very varying views, and some very long arguments. These could become very personal as posters revealed their circumstances, and set out their strongly held views—some were like sad short stories. Many single mothers came to say their piece and got very honest responses. One who explained her situation was met with this, from a rather ferocious reptile:

I can understand how you would feel that way given your obvious poor choice in men. If women would stop giving it to those type of men then those type of men would have to change to become successful with women. I’d bank on winning the lottery before that happens though. … The fact that you replied in the manner you did, and your situation is how it is, just proves the article’s point and mine that much further. Your case is a product of your bad decision making. You chose to date and have sex with a completely worthless guy and now you are forever tied to him through a child. I’d be mad too.

No conclusions reached; no minds changed. MR2:30 p.m. GMT

Wednesday, Mar. 26, 2008

“First time posters all over the board.” What, NickD, you say that as if it were a bad thing? Anne Applebaum’s “Foreigners” article on the Beijing Olympics brought a huge number of posters, many of them new, many of them not U.S.-based. At times, NickD seemed to be single-handedly arguing with all of them, rather like a chess grandmaster playing multiple games. The main arguments concerned what’s really happening in Tibet, whether boycotts or protests are the most effective ways to react to perceived problems, and whether all this is unfair on the athletes. A few people wanted to discuss the direct effect of the Olympics on the Chinese people; an unusually high number of messages got a response from other posters. Anse started a discussion on whether the many journalists in Beijing for the games would facilitate the flow of information and met with some cynicism: “Lots of incisive political commentary from those sports reporters” came from marcparis, while Jascob said, “Of course; just look at all those foreign journalists roaming freely around Tibet right now, giving us the full scoop.”

 Ygalbot looked at the nuances of protest:

There’s nothing wrong with the Olympics boycotting a team to show it how isolated it is from the rest of the community, “You’re so bad not even the Olympics will accept you.” But for a team to say the same thing to the Olympics is completely different. I know that seems like a weird distinction to make, but as to the effectiveness of boycotting, it’s absolutely true. It’s the difference between a child quitting his family and a family giving up a child. Which one of the two ever has any effect?

And Gialtouridis had another point of view:

You want to punish China, or at least send China a message, by boycotting the Olympics. And how will you do that? By alerting the entire world using your “Made in China” keyboard, which is connected to your “Made in China” computer… If you want to send China a message, shut off your Chinese computer right now. Start with that.

 While NickD wanted no half-measures

All decent people across the globe should refuse to watch the Olympics or purchase any Chinese products anywhere on the planet they are sold during these “Games”. All decent peoples on the Globe should refuse to purchase any goods from any advertiser who associates themselves with the brutal and murderous regime of Communist China.

There were some heated conversations, and people became very angry, but mostly a basic level of civility prevailed, and insults, when they came, were at least witty: Greekislandgirl, tired of one discussion, said,

I’m not quite sure where you are coming from, but I’m glad I’m not there. Please let me know where you plan to go so I can avoid that too.

It’s clear that politics and sport do mix, in the Fray. MR 2 p.m. GMT

Wednesday, March 19, 2008

We recently floated the idea of Fray DNA—a line from a Fraypost, from which expert posters could reconstruct the whole argument. The line we gave was Pherdnut’s “you do realize ‘swiftboating’ is a derogatory term now, right?”, coming from this “ War Stories.” This week’s example: “After all, what chubby wingnut chickenhawk out there doesn’t munch Cheetos as he plays computer war sims and urges President Bush on to invade Iran?”—Larry 2, not overreacting at all to an article about ads for the cheesy snacks.

The thought of expert posters obviously led us to the “Best of the Fray” board—no longer attached to any article, it is home to many long-established posters who like to get together to discuss affairs of the day and swap jokes and insults. They have been suggesting—some politely, some not so much—that the Fray team should pay more attention to them, so we went and took a look. Big topics this week were Barack Obama’s race speech and Tibet. There was unexpectedly little about Iraq, but a fair amount about St Patrick’s Day: family history from Fritz Gerlich in “ Why I am not Irish“; and seizing any excuse to bring in Van Morrison, even if he is “a fat old guy in a fedora.” We very much enjoyed Gregor Samsa’s “ The Titanic Test” thread, in which the sinking boat was reimagined as being captained by various presidential candidates and past presidents, e.g., “Nader: Ha, ha, ha, I told ya! Now I’ll be captain for life.”

Best post title was Baltimore Aureole’s on current financial excitements: “[I]ts 12:15 pm - do you know where your pension is?”, though we also liked Topazz’s “hot slutty governor action” which started a thread on hotels suitable for romantic assignments. Dawn Coyote’s post on women and shopping was obviously part of a long-continuing debate.

Inspired by the idea that the Fray is the place to find communal expertise, we went looking on some other boards and found a joyous Fray on finding the right babka—recommendations for bakeries and links to recipes all over. And a welcome post called “I blame Ayn Rand” from Slasher14, commenting on the “Moneybox” article on “The Rise of American Incompetence”—as we’ve mentioned before, we do like an Ayn Rand post.

Teeth don’t feature much in Slate or the Fray, but posters enjoyed the article on dental work in the time of John Adams, and scoot’r-d took the opportunity for an expert sideswipe at foreigners:

I’ll not question whether or not the actors in John Adams were appropriately, dentally attired…But.. if they wanted real actors with teeth in deplorable condition they should have gotten English actors.

Just as we were recovering from this low blow, our interest in the film 10,000 B.C. (articles in “ Explainer” and “ Movies“) and the search for paleontology expertise led us to dig up this from Paxterminus:

Modern man (Homo sapiens) was the only species of man left living on planet Earth 12,000 years ago. They all looked like us and behaved like us. Some of them were probably much sharper than an average Slate employee (sorry guys, I cannot picture any of you inventing pottery).
We may question that, but did appreciate the semiserious posts on accuracy, and sensible contributions like Don Schenck’s: “The thing is, while the movie is probably just a politically-correct fairy tale we can’t be completely certain about the way things were back then.” And then thisfrom Scott C Clark:

This movie sounds like it kicks so much ass that I would go home and look at myself in the mirror and punch myself in the face for being born like12,000 years too [late]. They had elephants in Lord of the Rings and I wanted to ride one after watching it, and now I think when I see this movie I’m going to be mad and sad that I can’t ride a woolly mammoth because they’re stupid and extinct. So basically, that sounds like the one thing about this movie I wouldn’t like.

Clear, vivid and to the point—a perfect Fray post. But please don’t punch yourself in the face, Scott. MR … 4:00 p.m. GMT