The down side to cheap stuff

Let’s talk about that news story you barely glanced at last week, the one about this year’s new record-busting U.S. trade deficit.

I hear you. Trade deficit? Could I have picked a more boring subject? You’d rather I write about Scooter Libby’s sex fantasy novel, The Apprentice, quoting juicy bits like, “They gave her wooden penises and taught her how to handle them.” (More at

But this is more important than mocking the down-and-out, so take a minute to wrap your brains around it.

When a nation buys more junk from other countries than it sells to other countries, there’s a trade deficit. The U.S. trade deficit has been increasing for years. The up side of this is that the stuff we import is often cheaper. This holiday shopping season, you can bet we’ll be snapping up imported TVs, toys and clothes.

Why is foreign junk a better bargain than home-made junk? For one, multinational firms that own overseas junk factories don’t have to pay their workers as much. Or provide benefits. Or deal with pesky and expensive environmental rules.

So, thanks to underpaid laborers and environmental degradation, we get cheap stuff.

And really, what else matters?

Facilitating our greed are the Bush administration’s trade policies. Dubbed “free trade,” these policies weaken trade protections that, along with other things, discourage companies from sending their jobs overseas. U.S. companies have outsourced 3 million manufacturing jobs since Bush took office.

But still. Cheap stuff! So what if our nation is bleeding money and jobs into a world economy in our incessant demands for low, low prices?

To my dismay, consequences abound. A week ago, the U.S. Commerce Department reported that our nation’s trade deficit was already at $706.4 billion, well ahead of last year’s record-busting $617.6 billion. That’s worse than anyone expected—even accounting for hurricane impacts.

The money we’re flushing out of the United States gets invested by foreigners who buy U.S. Treasury bonds and invest in mortgage finance companies. Foreign companies have our economy in their hands, to the tune of hundreds of billions of dollars. If they get worried (or even malicious) about U.S. debts or foreign policy or whatever, and start selling off investments, economists say this would result in worldwide financial crisis.

What can be done? Does my lifestyle impact something as seemingly abstract as the trade deficit?

That’s an affirmative. With fear and trepidation, I took the Ecological Footprint Quiz at the Earth Day Network Web site, www.earthday .org. The quiz involves answering questions like “How often do you use public transportation?” and “How often do you eat meat?”

My ecological footprint is 21 acres. On this planet, there are 4.5 biologically productive acres per person. “If everyone lived like you,” my quiz results say, “we would need 4.8 planets.”

I tell myself I’m not so bad. After all, I’m a generous and good person. I have two “foster” children, a boy named Joseph in Kenya and a girl, Unti-Begam, in Nepal. Both live in small homes with no plumbing, no electricity. They eat food from nearby farms. I send a few bucks a month to Plan USA, which teaches sustainable agricultural practices and provides schools and health care. This makes me feel better.

Then I took the ecological footprint quiz for Unti-Begam. Her footprint is around two acres. I realized I’m using her space—and Joseph’s space and that of others who didn’t have the good fortune to be born in the United States.

I take the quiz over, becoming an “occasional” meat eater, keeping my driving to under 100 miles per week. Not flying on airplanes.

This takes my footprint to 12—still not sustainable over the long haul.

Take the quiz. It’ll give you something to think about as we head into the holiday shopping frenzy.