Sunday, December 23, 2007

Santa's Sweatshop

-- by Sara

Fifty million American parents want to know: WTF?

All they wanted to do was buy their kids something fun for Christmas morning. All they asked of their government was to do some basic oversight so their kids wouldn't be, y'no, poisoned by their toys.

And, as we've come to expect from the feckless bastards that Rick Perlstein calls "E. Coli conservatives," all they got in return was a jolly ho ho ho -- followed, immediately, by a robust and cheery "Fuck you."

The finger-pointing party starts here. Have some organic hot buttered rum (a Robinson house specialty) and join in, fa-la-la: by now, you know the tune so well we can all sing this one together.

Blame the free trade fundamentalists. In the 1970s, according to a report by, nearly 90% of all the toys sold in America were made in America, where American workers earned a wage that allowed them to buy American products' and American product safety inspectors could keep a close eye on things. Now, 90% of those toys are made abroad, most of them in places where workers earn 1/21,000th (no, that's not a typo -- one twenty-one thousandth) of what Mattel's CEO does, and nobody but nobody is responsible for keeping an eye on anything but the bottom line.

Blame those E. Coli conservatives, big time. These people take it as a matter of religious dogma that the "common good" -- the reason, according to the Constitution, that people institute governments in the first place -- does not exist. At all. And therefore, there's no reason for government to exist, either -- certainly not to protect people from criminal manufacturers whose products will cause permanent cognitive and behavioral problems in their children. (Just gives a whole new meaning to "dumbing down America," doesn't it?)

If we needed any proof that conservatism was, forever and always, a venal, inhuman, and deadly ideology, the way these Grinches stole Christmas 2007 from American families should close the case for good.

Blame, especially, Wal-Mart. What we are seeing here is the real cost of Wal-Mart's "Low Prices -- Always." You get what you pay for. And what we're getting this Christmas out of our deal with the Wal-Mart devil is exactly no more and no less than we've been willing to pay for -- and what we've allowed them to get away with in the name of ever-lower prices.

As far and away the biggest toy retailer in the country, Wal-Mart effectively sets the standards by which every toy company in the business operates. The deal is simple: If you want your toy in a Wal-Mart store, you do it Wal-Mart's way. And if you choose not to sell through Wal-Mart, you're out of business. So when Wal-Mart demands that American-based companies to take their operations overseas in order to shave a few cents per unit off the costs, well, that's what happens. America's toy production got offshored, in no small part, due to massive pressure exerted on manufacturers by this one company.

Blame the WTO, which nominally has rules in place that are supposed to enable countries to protect themselves against this kind of thing -- but, in practice, consistently fails to enforce them. According to a Public Citizen report released today, "specific trade agreement provisions...have promoted offshoring and set limits on import safety standards and inspection rates....WTO and NAFTA investor protections have eliminated the risks normally associated with relocating to a developing country while instituting a system where U.S. public interest policies can be and have been challenged in foreign tribunals as “barriers to trade"....U.S. policies [are] ruled against at the WTO more than 80 percent of the time.

Which means nobody's looking out for us there, either.

Blame Congress -- at least until they get their act together (which they seem to be doing, quickly) and pass stricter regulations that put an end to all this laissez-faire oh-who-cares-anyway and by the by did Hasbro send us their check this month? looking the other way. Your calls to all the usual Congressional and senatorial suspects will help make that happen faster and better.

And, as always, there's no getting away from blaming the overworked, overspent, overstressed elf in the mirror. We've taken too much on faith, and asked too few questions. We've trusted companies because we knew the brands from our own childhoods, or the licensing companies that lend their names to these products. (Uncle Walt wouldn't hurt us. Thomas the Tank Engine is our friend. Mattel is what we played with, so it must be OK. Wrong, wrong, and wrong.) We've allowed ourselves to sleep at night, knowing that this crap was bad for global warming, bad for the Chinese kids who will spend their lives working 80-hour weeks (no holidays, no vacations) in sweatshops at 36 cents an hour, bad for American workers and the American economy, bad for the landfill, and -- often enough -- bad for the family budget. And, now, it turns out they're even bad for the kids we think we're doing all of this for.

When the new laws are passed and the perpetrators have made their public atonement, this issue will blow over, things will get back to "normal." Which means we'll return once again to our consumerist torpor, having missed yet another opportunity to wake up -- I mean really wake up -- to the full extent of the matrix of global consequences we facilitate with every dollar we spend, every day of the year.

We can choose to accept this as the cost of living as we do -- or as a challenge to find a better, saner, more economical (in every sense of the word) way of being in the world. We're the Almighty American Consumers. What we want, we get. What we say goes. If we're looking for a truly heart-changing, life-changing, world-changing gift to give our children, using that clout to create new holiday traditions that better fit our values, our wallets, and our hopes for the next generation would be one great place to start.

What are you doing to make your Christmas safe, healthy, affordable, and sane?

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