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Labor & Economy

Life on Planet Costco

Vivian Rothstein

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A recent  weekend became a lesson in the new global economy.  For two days I emptied out much of the accumulated “stuff” from my garage – dishes, pots and pans that my kids used in their student days; excess furniture; framed posters, old clothes and much more.  Some of it went to the Salvation Army, while I took broken things to a recycling center.  Obviously I had too many possessions.

On a Saturday afternoon I ventured to Costco for the first time in 10 years.  Hundreds of shoppers were busy filling their super-sized carts with large quantities of…..well…everything.  Household supplies, bulk food, cleaning fluids, soda, clothing, electronics, furniture.  But in quantities you never dreamed you needed (and probably don’t) and for amazingly low per-unit prices.  Most of the manufactured goods seemed to come from China.

That Sunday night I rented  Last Train Home,  a stunning video documentary about the world’s largest annual human migration – of 130,000 million Chinese workers – from industrial cities to home villages  to see their families for the Chinese New Year.  Directed and filmed  by Lixin Fan, this award-winning film follows a middle-aged couple working in a clothing factory while their children are being raised by grandma in the countryside.  Desperate that their kids should study hard and have a brighter future, the parents are devastated when  their teenage daughter drops out of school for a job in the city where she hopes to afford the kinds of goods the Costco shoppers were taking to their cars.

Consumer goods have gotten cheaper and more plentiful, U.S. manufacturing continues its flight abroad for low-paid labor (and taking with it American jobs), Chinese families are pulled apart and we Americans are drowning in (often poorly made) possessions.

The global economy has pulled the people of the world together in a manner we never anticipated.  We have all come to long for, buy and eventually discard the same mass produced, inexpensive goods.  And we’re starting to see that  we’re paying the price in low-wage jobs, damage to our environment, and possessions that too quickly become throw-aways.

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