This is a story that will probably be huge very soon but since I’m in the real estate business I’m hearing about it just before it breaks big. It seems since at least 2003 the real estate building boom resulted in a shortage of domestically produced drywall for home interiors. As with so many products, alternative economical sources were found in China.
Well guess what, like pet food, and children’s toys, and baby formula, the product was substandard to the point of functional inadequacy. It seems the Chinese drywall contains an excess of sulfur compounds which are having some rather serious effects after a period in the homes where it was installed. Sulfur, for those of you familiar with rotten eggs, the stench of hell, or the atmosphere while crossing the bridge over the Savannah River in the 1970s because of the paper mills (don’t know if they’re still there but it’s one of the intensely remembered experiences of my youth as the family drove back and forth from New Jersey to south Florida), is extremely unpleasant to say the least. Folks with the Chinese drywall are now subject to that smell always and throughout their homes because of the seeping fumes from the degrading poor product. As well, studies are underway to determine if the fumes are also causing damage to metal inside the walls themselves. Electrical wiring and plumbing are said to be eroding from the emanations from the walls.
While discussing this with a fellow traveler yesterday, he declared that the Chinese are at war with us already and we just don’t know it. It’s a delicious and nefarious conclusion to draw; deeply conspiratorial, but way too subtle to be of any value whatsoever. The truth, more than likely, is much more mundane and therefore uninteresting to anyone not fascinated by arcane matters of political and economic history.
China is a nation in the very early stages of an otherwise rapidly expanding manufacturing and capitalist economy and political landscape. Until twenty or twenty-five years ago, China was a desperately poor, overpopulated, agrarian society which flung around communist ideological statements from time to time usually to the grave detriment of its own citizens. But in the past couple of decades China has been in a headlong rush to modernize and with its command structure in government, together with the unfathomable human resources it has available, China has become the manufacturer of choice for cheap, mass-produced items at most non-heavy material levels for the United States.
Much of the growing commercial relationship between the US and China occurred under the radar during the 90s but has come out in the open in an ever-increasing level in this decade. We’ve noticed mostly when we’ve heard reports, which seem to happen more often these days, of dangerous or tainted goods coming from there which should never have been tainted in such ways much less at all. But I reject the notion that this is a war because that suggests some level of intent in a coordinated effort to destroy an enemy. My historical understanding tells me instead we are simply witnessing what happens when commercial productivity outstrips the institutional ability or philosophical desire of governing bodies to oversee that productivity.
China now is where the US was around 1890 in relative industrial development. The place is just so incredibly large that in this era it has been able to bloat even faster than the US did 120 years ago. Industrialists rush headlong into the activity that anyone in commerce does, they try to make as much money as quickly as they can. This is done by manufacturing and selling as much of their product as quickly and efficiently as possible at the lowest possible production cost so as to maximize the profits. If there aren’t any rules or no one available to check to see if inexpensive industrial chemicals are mixed in with baby formula to give the appearance of higher nutritional values, then an unscrupulous capitalist will do it to improve the bottom line.
Sure he probably gets caught down the line but by then it’s too late for the babies who have died, or the homeowners whose homes smell like a giant egg fart. Enforcement is for after the crime has been committed. Regulation prevents it from happening in the first place. In the absence of rules, the most aggressive will work the hardest to make the most money. That’s human nature. That’s capitalism. Nothing can change that. It can be tempered by a well-conceived regime of regulation followed by a stringent code of law which is rigorously enforced. When things like that happened in the US often enough at the end of the 19th century, efforts to create minimum standards and inspect for them came into effect. The degree to which they are brought to bear defines the politics within which that capitalism functions. From Communism on the left to totalitarianism or fascism on the right, and everything in between, capitalism is the way of man. China needs to do a better job of controlling its capitalists and our capitalists need to be better controlled before bringing Chinese crap over here which can be made just as easily at home. And the same goes for folks selling false financial promises from Wall Street throughout the world and peanut butter at home.