Monday, November 12, 2007

Imperialism now!

"I watched a snail crawl along the edge of a straight razor. That's my dream." And then I calculated its wages for the effort.

Megan is in Vietnam, which, Coke signs and tourist areas aside, still has a largely non-western agrarian economy. Instead of enjoying the different context, she's wishing she had the means to exploit it, and telling herself it would be for humanitarian reasons. She even titled her post Isn't it quaint?.
See, Megan is an enlightened, self-aware tourist, who knows that her "extremely overpriced, thoroughly Westernized, lovely and modern[] hotel" isn't the real Vietnam, which she finds in
women still wearing those pointy straw hats, and presumably not just because they know how much the Western tourists enjoy all this authenticity. The streets are also filled with women carrying baskets suspended on the ends of traditional yokes, such as the one pictured at right. The cognitive dissonance inspired by watching these women weave in and out of the motorbike traffic offers a slight thrill to camera-happy tourists like me.
Congrats, average woman in Hanoi, you're an oddity to the freakishly huge American tourist who's visiting to dream of exploiting you. You don't have to worry about traffic or the weather in a sweat shop, y'know. But the charm of your oddness doesn't last long for Megan, because your whole economic system seems so inefficient to her.
But that thrill really isn't very thrilling when I stop to think about it. The labor productivity implied by all that basket-carrying is bleak in the extreme. For the last twenty-four hours, I've found it hard to venture outside of my (extremely overpriced, thoroughly Westernized, lovely and modern) hotel without mentally calculating the average hourly wage implied by a three-dollar, ten minute cab ride, or a woman hauling two meager baskets of cucumbers to a bustling street corner where she can squat and sell them for hours.
Why learn about a foreign culture when you can dream of destroying it?
The figures I get mesh roughly with Vietnam's official per-capita GDP of about $800 a year. Many things such as real estate are cheaper, here, of course, so that figure isn't quite an accurate gauge of living standards. Purchasing power parity calculations put the actual standard of living at somewhere around $4,000 a year. It's hard for an American to imagine that sort of grinding poverty; it is a material standard of living lower than that enjoyed by the average homeless person back home (though of course homeless people suffer many other maladies that do not afflict the ordinary Vietnamese). One way to think about it is this: the economic types we've met with repeatedly state, as if it were not particularly interesting, that the average person in Vietnam spends the majority of their budget on food. That figure in the United States, even for poor families, is less than 20%--and that to procure a diet that is lavishly oversupplied with calories and protein.
That's right, folks, McDonald's is "lavishly oversupplied with calories and protein", and this is a positive, because it helps our poor get fat without preventing them from also buying blue jeans and dvds and health care.... well, blue jeans and dvds. Why wouldn't the Vietnamese people want a little extra cash to buy the latest season of The Sopranos? Do they really want to maintain a native style of living, when they could have Nikes?
The sight of people carrying goods in traditional ways, selling produce off the backs of bicycles, looks terribly romantic. I walked past two tourists today who were agreeably chatting about how beautiful and sustainable it all is. But it's hard to find anything romantic about human beings using themselves as mules.
Other people using them as mules for profit, however, gets Megan all swishy. And, despite being an enlightened tourist, Megan doesn't seem to feel a need to ask the people around her how they feel about their culture and economy, cuz, well, why would that matter? They could have lots of random crap made out of plastic, fer chrissake. Oh, and that whole communist revolution thing is sooooooooo dated.
Won't some humanitarian pay off a local official or two and start a sweat shop? These people need it, badly.


M. points out, in comments, that Vietnam very much does have sweatshops. I have no excuse for falling for Megan's willful ignorance of this, I apologize. It does help begin to explain, however, why the average national income is so low, and why a supposedly backwards, agrarian nation has to spend so much on food.


M. Bouffant said...

Nice one, brad. I was about to do something similar, came to the site, & there you were. Now I can go back to goofing off.

One note: I believe there are plenty of sweat shops there. Nike has a presence of some sort, & you can bet that as Chinese wage-slaves start getting uppity, the econo-imperialists will be moving more & more production to Vietnam & Cambodia. And think of all the improvements in productivity that can be attained in North Korea. Those people won't be getting out of line soon!

brad said...

You're absolutely right, a quick googling reveals Vietnam has a great many sweatshops. I made the mistake of presuming Megan knew a damn thing about the economy she punditized about. I have no excuse, though I did think taking the people she saw outside her hotel as archetypical representatives of the state of the Vietnamese economy was kinda dumb of her.
I wonder how big a role sweatshop wages play in the low average income she bemoans, and the relative quality of life for those who still live an agrarian life versus those in the essentially indentured servitude of sweatshops.

M. Bouffant said...

I'm sure the sweatshoppers are the ones riding the mopeds & Vespas. We know how important it is for poor pepole to have non-public transportation, so they can get to work on time.

Anonymous said...

Look I think McArdle's a twit, too, and to my mind the Atlantic's recent "acquisitions" have severely dented its appeal (Hiring that ignorant lying fuckwit Sullivan?!?! C'mon....)

However.... I think the tone of this particular post is dumb and out of line. I've traveled a bit in the former Soviet zone, and I found myself doing pretty much the same thing McArdle talks about -- getting a feel for wages, noting prices of basic goods, and trying to get a sense of the locals' daily life. Frankly, I think that's a more respectful approach to travel than looking at the stuff in the guidebooks, and ignoring everyone who isn't a waiter or a concierge or a fixer.
-- sglover

brad said...

But anon, do you do this with the implicit idea that the people you're observing are literally suffering from the lack of what Megan would call a free market?
And I think you're being charitable about Megan's degree of interaction. She sounds like she's pontificating about what she saw out her taxi window, not that she's wandering into residential areas of the city and chatting up any english speaking locals she could find.