04 September 2007

Ships and Other Big Things At Sea

Attempting to beat the heat - 107 (41.666 celsius) in our neighborhood yesterday - Eva and I and a couple of friends took to the water. We drove down to Long Beach, boarded a large catamaran and motored out to the channel between the mainland and Catalina Island. It was a whole lot cooler on the water. In spite of which - and a liberal slather of sunscreen - I got viciously sunburnt.

We did see whales. Blue whales, the biggest animals on Earth. We saw five of them, three for more than a fleeting glimpse. And even though we only saw small parts of them at a time, it was evident that at about 90 feet long they were nearly 30 feet longer than our boat. Faster too, if they wanted, but they were being pretty lazy while we watched.

For the most part, they looked like this:

Which, admittedly, isn't all that impressive. But there was something remarkable about them, their presence, the sounds they made, their grace through the water, the apparent, if not evident, size.

According to our captain, blue whales have hearts the size of Volkswagon bugs and arteries wide enough for a kid to crawl through. (I guess cholesterol isn't an issue for them.) That's pretty big. I wonder how many shipping containers could fit in one? Or on one.

While we were watching the whales, a large container ship hove (I like that word. It sounds very nautical. According to the OED it's been in use since about 1390.) into view. You can see it here in the distance.

The ship was headed into port at Long Beach - the largest port in the U.S. It was, of course, coming from China.

It's amazing how many mixed-feelings container ships from China conjure up these days.

Are all those giant metal packing crates full of toys that will hurt American kids? Are they full of food that will poison us or our dogs? Are they full of t-shirts, shoes, socks, linens, plates, glasses, stereo components, sex toys, tires, school supplies, and a million other sorts of geegaws, doodads and necessities of daily life that will a.) put more Americans out of work; or b.) allow Americans to keep buying stuff at cheap prices compared with the rest of the world?

What if the shorts I'm currently wearing were made right here in the good 'ol USA by good ol' American union labor? Would they have cost the $4.95 I paid for them at Costco? What about my $9.95 JC Penney t-shirt? What about the IBM Thinkpad computer I'm writing this on? (It's made in China, by Lenovo, the company that bought IBM's personal computer business. It's still expensive, but is it as expensive as it would have been if it was Made in America?)

If American workers made those shorts and t-shirts - and shoes and computers and everything else - could they afford to buy them at the higher prices they'd sell for, having not been made by cheap foreign labor?

But the whole thing really gets confusing when you start looking deeper into it. I bought the shorts I'm wearing because of the material they're made from and the design - especially the location and size of the pockets. It was an American company that made those decisions and outsourced the manufacture to China. Same with the t-shirt. I'm writing this post on software owned by Google and invented in the U.S., on a browser from Mozilla, using an operating system by Microsoft - all American companies. I ran the photos in this blog through Photoshop - more American made and owned software.

The thing is, one of the stupidest things that any country can try to do, is to be completely self-sufficient. India tried it for years. It is one of the major reasons why India is so poor today. If one country can do something just as, or nearly, as well as another; and it can do it cheaper and more efficiently, in the long run it benefits both countries to let the cheaper and more efficient one perform the task. There may well be temporary disruptions along the way, and there will be casualties - and those casualties are people who will lose their jobs and face hardship - and yes that's terrible. But it's necessary to make things better for everybody down the line, including the same people who are initially hurt by it.

Every single country, throughout history, that has opened itself up to greater free trade - and immigration for that matter - has prospered from that opening. No country, ever, anywhere, has totally eliminated poverty and hardship, and probably no country ever will, but the countries that have come closest to that goal, are the ones that have opened themselves up, not closed themselves off.

I wondered and marveled at the blue whales. And I wondered and marveled at that gigantic overladen freighter hoving into view. And I thought to myself, for all of its foibles and stupidities and misery - ain't the world a grand place.

Then I got home and it was 98 degrees and humid in the kitchen. I quickly drank a glass of cold water, then got back into my air-conditioned car to go out in search of somewhere with a larger - and so cooler - carbon footprint.

2 comments:

Krzysztof said...

interesting article!

derek said...

the U.K. opened itself in the way that you mnentioned, and all the manufacturing industry went to germany, japan and your country, hundreds lost thair jobs, and the country is now a shambles!!!!! american type capitalism is the root cause of all the worlds troubles. to hear a yank talk like you is laughable!!!