Adolescent capitalism

The Boston Globe has an interesting article arguing that the recent revelations about Chinese goods has antecedents in the early days of British and American industrial growth. The writer argues that “China’s fast and loose brand of commerce is not an expression of national character, much less a conspiracy to poison us and our pets, but a phase in the country’s development. Call it adolescent capitalism.”

Taking a page from the British, who had pioneered many ingenious methods of adulteration a generation or two earlier, American manufacturers, distributors, and vendors of food began tampering with their products en masse — bulking out supplies with cheap filler, using dangerous additives to mask spoilage or to give foodstuffs a more appealing color.

A committee of would-be reformers who met in Boston in 1859 launched one of the first studies of American food purity, and their findings make for less-than-appetizing reading: candy was found to contain arsenic and dyed with copper chloride; conniving brewers mixed extracts of “nux vomica,” a tree that yields strychnine, to simulate the bitter taste of hops. Pickles contained copper sulphate, and custard powders yielded traces of lead. Sugar was blended with plaster of Paris, as was flour. Milk had been watered down, then bulked up with chalk and sheep’s brains. Hundred-pound bags of coffee labeled “Fine Old Java” turned out to consist of three-fifths dried peas, one-fifth chicory, and only one-fifth coffee.

Though there was the occasional clumsy attempt at domestic reform by midcentury — most famously in response to the practice of selling “swill milk” taken from diseased cows force-fed a diet of toxic refuse produced by liquor distilleries — little changed.

After recounting the history of piracy, counterfeiting, and other assorted expressions of the entrepreneurial spirit in the U.S., the writer pleads for a bit of empathy for the growing pains of the Chinese economy.

Piracy, fraud, and counterfeiting, whether of currency, commodities, or brand-name electronics, flourishes at a particular moment in a capitalist society: the regulatory interregnum that emerges in the wake of fast-paced capitalist change. This period is one in which technology has improved, often dramatically, and markets have burst their older boundaries. Yet the country still relies on obsolete ways of controlling commerce. Until there’s something to replace them, counterfeiters and other flim-flam operators flourish, pushing new means of making money to their logical, if unethical, conclusion.

Indeed, the ease with which counterfeiters and corner-cutters operate in China today can be attributed to many of the same failings that plagued the United States 150 years ago: a weak, outdated regulatory regime ill-suited to handling the complexities of modern commerce; limited incentives for the state to police and eliminate fraud; and, perhaps most important of all, a blurring of the lines between legitimate and fraudulent means of making money.

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