All the Best Cowboys Have Chinese Boots

August 11, 2010

The other day, I went shopping for cowboy boots. I tried on a pair from an unfamiliar brand — Smoky Mountain.  They were so comfortable that I wore them out of the store and kept them on all day.  It wasn’t until the next morning, when I pulled them on to do my barn chores, that I saw the “Made in China” label.

For some time now, I’ve tried to boycott Chinese products, for reasons given below.  It can be hard.   Practically everything, from tools to kitchen utensils to pet food, comes from China.  Even if you’re prepared to spend a bit extra, most retail stores carry little or nothing else.

I’m Just a Material Cowboy, Living In a Material World

Packaging can trick you.  Not for a second would I have considered a pair of boots from Anping Julong Animal By Product Manufacture Co. Ltd.  I assumed (admittedly, without thinking too hard) that these boots, in their buff box with a woodsy green logo of a mountain range topped by “Smoky Mountain” in Cooper typeface, came from east Tennessee or North Carolina.  In my subconscious arose an image of doughty Appalachian folk in plaid shirts lovingly hand-crafting my new boots in a bat-on-board workshop surrounded by tall pines.  I now know that my leather-upper-balance-man-made-materials footwear was slapped together by slave labor in some pollution-belching factory in Guangdong Province before traveling across the Pacific in a 40′ container.

Now alerted, I pulled out all my boots & shoes.  With the exception of two pairs, my Justin packers and my sturdy, Wisconsin muck boots, all were from China.  I reeled.

Marketing doesn’t have to be deceptive.  There’s no sin in effectively communicating a product’s benefits, even if its primary benefit is low cost.  The Smoky Mountain mark, however, is a deliberate lie.   It fooled me into believing I was paying a premium (the boots were as expensive as Justins) for an American product.  Neither the box nor the company web site give any indication who Smoky Mountain is or where they are from.  Somewhere out there is a rich bastard who just got a littler richer by first exploiting a Chinese laborer and then duping me.

We Americans, though, need scant help with our self-deception.  We complain when  jobs get shipped oversees, yet we exclusively bargain-shop.  Granted, most of us were raised to view bargain-hunting as praiseworthy thrift, but in today’s global economy, ostensible bargains come with an hefty, hidden mark-up.

The graver problem is not how we shop, but why we shop.  Instead of buying things we need or would enjoy using, we buy things for the sheer thrill of acquiring them.  This pleasure in finding & acquiring must originate from hunter/collector days if not earlier, but in a world where artificially lowered prices combine with a culture obsessed with possessions, our primeval instincts have been perverted into a mad, insatiable lust.

Birth Of An Addiction

The perversion of the American work ethic into the American acquisition addiction can be dated fairly accurately.  Near the end of WW II, when, after seven years of a brutal depression, and another five of a tough (by our standards) war, average Americans craved,  & felt themselves deserving of, the gamut of comforts and luxuries.  By happy coincidence, we had just undergone massive expansion of  our manufacturing base while obliterating that of our competitors.  US-made TVs, autos, dish washers, blenders and baseball gloves were all plentiful and affordable.

Steadily, we frittered away that huge lead.  Germany started offering high- end products at acceptable prices, while Japan flooded the market with acceptable products at low-end prices.  Meanwhile, our bulwark industries, especially auto, ossified and disgorged inelegant crap.  Somewhere along the line, the American people morphed from producers into “consumers.”

Jimmy Carter, in a serious buzz kill, tried to warn us.  We were instead drawn to Reagan’s siren call, telling us America had never been healthier.  Reagan unleashed the dogs of capitalist consumption and the rich got richer and trickled down some table scraps to the rest of us.  People started having to work longer and longer hours, while real wages stayed flat and productivity actually went down.  But the rich kept getting richer.

When they shut down the steel mills and the factories, and shipped those jobs oversees, they told us we were transitioning to a “Service Economy.”   When they shipped all the service jobs oversees, they told us we now had an “Information Economy.”  And now we’re down to a “Jobless Economy.”

The Pawn Shop School of Economics

Through these many decades of steady decline, we Americans have stubbornly clung to that shopping habit we first picked up in the late forties.  To maintain our habit, we first used up our savings (individual and collective), and then we went into debt.

Our primary pusher has been East Asia, and more and more, China.

A savvy drug dealer, China is intimately familiar with our special cravings and caters to them fastidiously.  What? I must choose between the DVD, the swing set, or … these spiffy new boots?  I want them all now! Thanks to China, I can afford them all at once — with the caveat that the DVD will break within 6 months, the paint on the swing will poison my kids, and if I saw the factory my boots were made in, I’d probably retch.   Products from China are cheap because because unethical means are used to keep costs down.  The raw materials increasingly come from poor countries, where the Chinese come in, strip the land of everything of value, then leave.   Chinese factories are inefficient, polluting nightmares, with horrific working conditions.  The products are shoddy to the extreme.  So they fall apart.  Which isn’t really a problem, because we buy them not so we can use them; we buy them so we can buy them.  Everything revolves around getting that next shopping high.

How have we been able to pay for this sustained and growing trade deficit?  Like any desperate junkie, we’ve pawned off our valuable possessions, our national assets.  Twenty-five percent  of US debt is in the hands of foreign nations, a doubling over the past two decades.  We now owe China almost one trillion dollars.

Getting Clean

Every recovery begins by acknowledging that you have a problem.  Capitalism and its twin, consumerism, are destructive diseases.  Possessions and comforts can provide happiness, but the obsessive pursuit of them only brings woe and devastation.  Anyone who tells you capitalism is a good thing is either evil or insane.

The second step is to take some concrete actions to curb your addiction.  Ideally, the government could stage an intervention.   The regulations on business & finance, never terribly strong, that were lifted in the eighties, could be reinstated in force.  US firms that offshore jobs could lose their right to do business in the US, with their CEOs stripped of US citizenship.  Perhaps granting “most favored trading nation” status to countries that rig their currency or who permit inhumane labor practices is not such a hot idea, after all.  The FTC could also crack down on deceptive advertising.  The “America’s Choice Seafood” brand with its red, white and blue logo, would instead have to display a red star and the slogan “China’s Rape of the Oceans.”

Don’t hold your breath — the government was long ago bought and sold to the capitalists.   The GOP has always been the champion of laissez faire, but of late Democrats have shown they differ only in degree … and hypocrisy.   The libertarians behind the Tea Party movement don’t think capitalism and offshoring have gone far enough!

A Seven Step Program to Recovery

No, we must clean up our act ourselves.  Here’s a suggested recovery plan each of us can implement:

1. Tune out the propaganda. Advertising is shrewdly — and scientifically — designed to tap into your primal emotions: don’t let it brainwash you.  Instead, practice an healthy internal dialog:  No, that new laptop will not make me sexier. My closet is already full.  My existing stereo still works.  I can slice an hard-boiled egg perfectly fine with a knife.

2.  Don’t Buy Chinese. Read the label on every item before tossing it into the cart.  If it’s from China, toss it back.  This will be hard, as most items in most stores only come from China.  The Dollar Store is off limits.  For products from other foreign countries, practice discretion.

3. Buy American. If you plan your purchases, and are willing to spend a little more for better quality, buying American is entire feasible.  A great place to start is this site with links to hundreds of US makers of quality products.  You can even find china made in the USA!

4. Buy Used. Regardless of where it was made, a used item won’t have to be re-made.  As a bonus, it’s usually missing that wasteful packaging.

5.  Make an Inventory, Make a Plan. Like I did with my shoes, check what you own and see where it came from.   Next, assess your regular and upcoming purchases, and craft a plan to alter your buying habits, buying American or even abstaining.   I did this exercise with my barn attire.  I’m stuck with my Chinese cowboy boots, but my next pair will definitely be American Justins.  I have an Australian hat (a nice country), and new, hand-crafted American gloves, but I need another pair, and these ones from New Mexico look nice.  I found some exquisite and very reasonably-priced leather belts from Illinois.  My Wrangler 13MWZ’s are almost non-negotiable.  Wranglers are made in Costa Rica, another nice country that protects its environment and offers universal healthcare.  But if I wanted, I could find suitable US-made substitutes.  Compiling this list took me about 30 minutes.

6. Spread the Word. Tell everyone you know that you’re a shopaholic but that you’re on the road to recovery.  Ask them not to buy you gifts made in China.  Like AMERICAN MADE on Facebook.  If you’re the agitating type, write letters to inform retailers and wholesalers that from now on, you’ll only buy quality, preferably American-made, products, and never Chinese.

7. Compile a “Sound of Music” List. As in “raindrops on roses and whiskers on kittens … these are a few of my favorite things.”  It’s a safe bet that high on your list will be intangibles like snowflakes and kittens, time spent with family, quiet walks, sunsets at the beach, home-cooked dinners with friends.  And if so, then why not focus on enjoying the real happiness those things provide, instead of the effervescent pleasures of material acquisition?

Perhaps we will finally hear what Jimmy Carter was trying to tell us thirty years ago — our personal value does lie in what we do, not what we own.

(c) 2010 by ‘tamerlane.’  All rights reserved.