The catch

If we're going to reap globalization's benefits, we also must pay its price
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› paulr@sfbg.com

How shocking, shocking to learn that frozen seafood being imported from China is so likely to be tainted — with pathogens, antibiotics, and even (according to the fastidious New York Times) "filth" — that our very own Food and Drug Administration felt obliged to issue an alert about it at the end of last month. Globalization, we have long been assured — mainly by shills for transnational corporations — is a great blessing, a means of producing the most goods at the lowest cost per some sterile and one-dimensional rule of economic efficiency. It's the gospel according to Wal-Mart, and it certainly does seem to be producing a great flood of goods, if not great goods. And it probably is a great blessing — for the shareholders and executives of transnational corporations.

But there is a central fallacy to the case for globalization, and it is this: that we can reap the benefits of a global economy while keeping its problems quarantined overseas. Let the Chinese use child labor and foul their environment! We are safe here, in our low-prices-always bubble. Except, as we learn from the parable of the dirty frozen fish, we're not. In a shrinking world, benefits and burdens alike tend to be distributed worldwide, and there are reasons — many of them unsavory — that articles produced in poorer countries (for consumption in rich ones) tend to cost less. Lower prices aren't magic, and the fact that we are encouraged not to notice the connection between low prices and the methods that yield them tells us that the connection is important. If we saw and understood the connection, we might well act differently. We might stop to consider that the true cost of some item isn't necessarily reflected in its retail price — and that more expensive items are sometimes worth the money.

You don't get something for nothing, and if that's the offer, then it's time to start poking around. There's almost certainly a catch, and the catch is seldom in our interest.

In my recent piece about Emily Luchetti and Stars (Without Reservations, 6/20/07), I slightly misconstrued the restaurant's life span. In fact, Stars did survive for a few years into the new millennium — but under new ownership. Founder Jeremiah Tower sold out well before the year 2000.

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