Cheap lights and a costly deficit

December 20, 2006|By Raymond Daniel Burke

My childhood Christmases were adorned with large, colorful lights joined by heavy-gauge wire that, save for occasional bulb replacement, were ever in perfect working order. The bulbs had metal tapers that screwed into honest-to-goodness metal sockets, and the wire, because of its size, was reliable and relatively easy to keep untangled. Our collection had been providing seasonal illumination for years before I was born - had, in fact, been around for at least a generation.

Today, we have what used to be called minilights, but they have somehow evolved to become the standard. Indeed, they are so ubiquitous that large lights are an anomaly. They are made mostly of plastic and in a size that renders them entirely incapable of being easily managed by adult-size fingers. The metal contacts on the bulbs are merely fragile wire whiskers; the contacts inside what passes for a socket are tiny, paper-thin flaps. Combined with the minuscule gauge of the wire, the one thing certain about this product is that some part will fail upon being handled by human beings. Do not expect to use them again next year. Twelve months of hibernation will likely turn them into the most dreaded bane of the enthusiastic decorator: the half-working string.

And no matter how carefully they are maintained, they have the demonic ability to tangle instantly. Put them down for a moment, and you will return to find them hopelessly in multiple knots. It is more than enough to cause one to employ language entirely inappropriate to the holy season.

This year's encounter with these devils had me less lapsing into profanity and more reflecting on larger issues. These lights represent a fundamental failure of our economic system. Why are we inundated with an inferior, consumer-unfriendly product when market forces should be giving us choices and allowing us to register our preferences?

The lights are like so many similar products that are here because that is all there is. These items are almost always made in Asia, particularly China, and the big-box stores that we have allowed to replace our local merchants are chock-full of them. Now, I recognize the benefits of friendly relations with the world's most populous nation, even though it remains a communist, totalitarian, environment-polluting military dictatorship. I just do not understand why we are compelled to be the source of so much of their employment.

It is hard to imagine how the materials for such products can be shipped halfway around the world, assembled, packaged, shipped halfway around the world again, distributed, marketed and still be cheaper than if all of that had been done in Arbutus. Unless, that is, the product is really a piece of junk, or the workers involved are all paying off a debt of indentured servitude. In truth, it is the result of foreign governmental incentives, which make possible the profits obtained by multinationals that move their production to Asia. And the large retailers importing Asian-manufactured goods in mass have little motivation to offer domestically produced alternatives.

The most recent figures I have seen from the U.S. Business & Industry Council put the U.S. trade deficit at more than $735 billion and growing more than $60 billion a month. That staggering imbalance belies the notion of an economically healthy nation. And we get crummy lights in the bargain, and few if any choices.

These circumstances clearly hurt domestic industries, depress the wages of U.S. workers and reduce employment opportunities and options. The small towns that have sent so many of their children to Iraq speak volumes about the consequences of supporting a foreign work force to the detriment of our own.

The trade deficit is financed either by foreign investment or - the vast majority - foreign loans. Indeed, we are a borrowing-crazy nation. Not only do we have a huge trade deficit, we have an even more mind-boggling national debt. Our debt now stands at more than $8.6 trillion. That unfathomable figure is increasing more than $600 million every day.

In fact, in the past fiscal year, our government spent $406 billion just on the interest to service the debt. That makes it the third-largest piece of federal spending, about 14 percent of the total budget, and not too far behind what we spend on national defense.

The recent midterm election was in some ways historic in its call for change. Yet the accompanying debate was devoid of any real discussion of our overwhelming reliance on debt and obligations to foreign interests. I cannot understand why there seems to be no cause for alarm. What I do know is that another string of lights just burned out, and I have limited options regarding where to go for a replacement, the quality of the product, or where it was made.

Raymond Daniel Burke, a Baltimore native, is a principal in a Baltimore law firm. His e-mail is

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