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Hey Oprah – How ‘Bout Building a Factory in the US Instead of Schools in Africa?

Updated on December 29, 2011

A Business Proposal for the Super Rich

This business proposal begins with a homework assignment for you readers. Go to your nearest three big box stores and find 30 items, not including perishable foods, which do NOT say Made in China. Good luck with that. If you’re lucky (or just paying attention), you might find a “Manufactured in XYZ, USA,” which means of course, that can opener may have lived awhile in Syracuse, but was born in Guangdong. From fishing poles to frying pans, it would seem that the good ol’ US of A manufactures only two items these days: (1) jack, and (2) squat. It’s been this way for the better part of this godforsaken millennium thus far. Nearly everything we buy now is assembled or manufactured in Asia or Mexico. Now, I’m no economist, math is not my friend, and I have the business sense of a turnip; however, for the life of me I cannot understand why this is the norm. While I realize that labor in those regions is absurdly cheap, and those pesky workers’ rights and health regulations nearly non-existent, I still cannot figure out why it’s better to import your average ink pen from halfway across the globe rather than just make it here. Help me out here with the numbers here, especially with that stuff with a disproportionate cost/weight ratio: how can it possibly be more cost effective to import a 2-pound candle from some inner Chinese province that sells for $.99 after you factor in shipping? Or bottles of mouthwash? Or pressed wood furniture? Anyone? I don’t care if the average Asian worker is making the American equivalent of $1 per hour, it still seems illogical to me. Or how about when they ship raw products from here to China to have it assembled or refined, and then ship it BACK to the States to distribute? Seriously? Someone draw me a map, because I’m lost.

While I don’t claim to understand the rationale (or ethics) behind this practice, I do understand that this New World Order system of trade has eliminated thousands of jobs in the US, diminished our stance as a world economic leader, and even killed some of us directly. Again and again, when Mr. Bob Bazillionare can’t afford to buy that island off Dubai because his profit margin is down, he eliminates 20 percent of his company’s workforce, shuts down local factories, and then sets up shop in Mumbai for a fraction of the cost and triple the rewards to his offshore bank account. You see, your average Fortune 400 CEO or CFO never really feels the pinch like we do. He or she never really worries about paying the light bill because a spouse got laid off, or how to come up with an extra $200 to fix the car. If they lose a million in profits one year, it won’t come out of their personal pockets. They’ll compensate for any losses even by lowering the already in-the-gutter quality of life for your average working drone – eliminating your health care, reducing your salary, or giving you three jobs for the price of one since they laid everyone off. I can tell you that in my company, there have been a couple of years where they’ve axed dozens of long-time employees and deferred all raises for those still standing, and yet the CEO still got his million+ bonus on top of a salary with a whole lot of zeros. Your average business head or rock star doesn’t care that nearly 10 percent of the nation is un-or under-employed so long as the big money keeps rolling in. Nike and Michael Jordan don’t care that people are paying $180 a pop for their ridiculously ugly Air Jordan shoes (the ones that obviously brain-dead consumer lemmings were rioting over) that were produced in China for probably somewhere in the ballpark of $10 a pair. The head of Hershey’s chocolate obviously didn’t lose any sleep when he shut down most of its factories, subsequently ruining a local economy, and moved most of the lot to Mexico to save a few bucks (and still jack up the price of chocolate). Procter and Gamble continues to bolster its empire by concocting their (often chemically objectionable) hygiene products in China to sell to us on the cheap to keep us from buying higher priced and better quality stuff from some of those all-American made companies like Tom’s of Maine or Burts Bees.

Let’s be honest – you and me are, by necessity, are guilty of perpetuating this practice. I can’t afford to shop for basic goods like groceries or socks or shampoo at places anywhere but Walmart or Target. I’d love to buy a pair of pants from a high-end store that are made in the US that cost $200, but I’m stuck buying the ones on the clearance rack at Walmart that were made in Sri Lanka, because it’s all I can afford. This is the boat we’re stranded in. We’d love to buy more American made products but, if we can find any in the first place, we can’t afford them. So we keep buying crap made in China. We keep sighing and buying products from a country that knowingly poisoned their baby formula with melamine so that it would apparently have a higher protein content. The same country that also gave us drywall that emitted copious amounts of hydrogen sulfide, ruining homes and their contained mechanical components and often the respiratory systems of their inhabitants. The country that ships us toddler toys made of lead. That has brought us tainted pet food and toothpaste. One time I bought a pair of black jeans at Walmart for like $18. When I wore them the first time, I noticed they had a distinctly unpleasant chemical smell, like burnt rubber and matches. I washed them repeatedly with vinegar, baking soda, and fabric softener, and all I achieved was smelly faded black jeans. It turns out that a lot of the dyes used in China (including for clothing we put on our babies and elderly grandparents) contain lead and formaldehyde, giving that third-rate apparel such a lovely odor. I didn’t even bother giving that pair of jeans to the Salvation Army – I just chucked them into the trash along with the expired food and my $18. (For more information on Chinese manufacturing processes, it is critical that you read Lost on Planet China by J. Maarten Troost. Even if you have zero interest in China, this book is essential to your reading list before you die. It is a great book by one of the most hilarious authors I’ve ever read. If even only half that book is true, you will not want to ingest, wear, or probably even touch anything from that part of the world.)

All of the aforementioned spewing leads me to this: In my humble and likely ill-informed opinion, I believe it is the moral imperative of the nation’s super rich, the 1-percenters, to start up some homegrown businesses right here on US soil for a negligible personal profit. Sure a lot of those folks with their own planes give boatloads of money to charity – no argument there. That’s awesome that so-and-so gave a million dollars to the tragedy of the month. Great. They write a big check they’ll never miss, attend a 4-hour charity dinner to be served food most of us common folk can’t pronounce while being entertained by some A-list celebrity, and then write off the whole thing on their taxes. Why don’t a few of them create sustainable jobs and affordable, quality products instead as an altruistic endeavor? I propose the Ted Turners, Oprah Winfreys, and Warren Buffets of the world start building factories and putting people to work. The catch is, they need to use their own money to set up shop (e.g., build the factories, hire the developers, etc.) and only make a miniscule profit in the grand scheme of things. They would figure out what they’re going to sell, and then start developing in places like Detroit and Dayton. They would pay living wages to each and every employee, from the janitors sweeping the warehouse floors at night to the administrative assistant answering the phones. They would hire actual human beings to work in Human Resources. There would be 401Ks, health insurance, and (gasp!) in-house child care so that people wouldn’t need to pay a fourth of their net income on babysitters. The 1-percenters in charge of these operations would pay their employees fairly, and price their quality products in line to complete with the shoddy imports. Even if they only profit say, $.25 per item sold, it’s still a profit and could be worth their time, not to mention priceless PR.

The people out there with more money than they could ever spend in a lifetime need to start building furniture in Fresno and making lipstick in Boise. Think of the difference if even just 20 of the super rich went and opened textile mills, hygiene product factories, and steel parts factories around the country. A lot of people argue that Americans are too stupid or lazy to do that kind of work. I say BS – I’d like to think there are still several thousand people here in the US smart enough and ambitious enough to assemble a Batman lunchbox or formulate a safe body lotion. I believe it would be just like the movie line: If you build it, they will come. Factory work (and other blue collar careers) was historically the bread and butter of the middle class. And whaddya know – now both are gone, and will be until we start making our own stuff again.

I’m not a damned communist. The super rich have the right to be super rich, whether that wealth was inherited or built from the ground up. I’m not saying they need to give away their money just because. I’m just suggesting that it’s the moral and ethical duty of those swimming in cash to get our economy going and create some jobs. To build new empires that will benefit more than just the top ten in its corporate matrix. To give some hope to unemployed business analysts and engineers, as well as people who aren’t necessarily college material and would jump at the chance to work the conveyor line for a wage that would pay the rent and leave some left over. And I’m not trying to vilify China or India or Mexico. Everyone needs to eat, and we still need trade and a worldwide exchange of goods to a degree. But I’m concerned about the United States first and foremost, and I think we need to get back to basics in order to build this country back up to the level of power and security we had even just 20 years ago. Ted Turner, are you listening?

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