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Saving money: What are the true costs of buying on the cheap?

It's a perfect time, a reader writes, “for farm groups to push the ‘Grown in America’ concept — when you can't even trust China to paint a kid's toy safely.

“It's time for people to know,” the e-mail continues, “there are worse things than paying another 20 cents or 30 cents for a jug of apple juice or milk, if you can be sure it is produced here in the USA.”

Hmm, maybe so, although one wonders if a USA that can't produce a decent supermarket tomato or peach can be too preachy about quality.

But, at least we don't put lead in paint any more, we don't use asbestos in buildings, and we have thousands of regs at the federal, state, and local levels that offer protections for products that are made in this country, or that we import from countries that have safeguards similar to ours.

However much we rail at a faceless bureaucracy that has burdened us with paperwork and compliance costs, when China gives us cheap, but tainted, pet foods, or toys contaminated with lead, or toothpaste laced with poisonous diethylene glycol, or fish dosed with questionable antibiotics, or juice from apples grown who-knows-how, well, yes, most would agree the extra costs we pay for the U.S. system are worth it (if only that system could do better at inspecting imports).

Nobody's happy, I suppose, when most of the products at Wal-Mart or Lowe's or other big box retailers carry labels reading Made in China, or Taiwan, Bangladesh, Hong Kong, Egypt, etc. That tidal wave of imports represents hundreds of thousands of lost U.S. jobs and a declining standard of living for American workers who no longer make the textiles, furniture, toys, shoes, and countless other products now manufactured in overseas plants that pay pittance wages.

Nor would we in this country tolerate, as reported in a recent Wall Street Journal story, the Chinese textile mills that dumped thousands of tons of dye-contaminated water in rivers and streams each day. But hey, that's China — where the main rule seems to be: make it as cheaply as possible and hope buyers won't notice a little poison, or care about environmental horrors as long as they're not in their backyards.

The irony is, American companies are far from blameless. In seeking to cut costs to the bone, they've too often failed to take into account that countries new to manufacturing and exporting are apt to see how many corners they can cut to get the business, particularly when their trade-hungry governments often look the other way.

How much of the money Mattel saved by outsourcing its toy manufacturing to China did it have to turn around and spend on a nationwide recall of almost a million of those toys? How much damage was done to its reputation and future sales in the process?

How much credibility will an American public attach to Wal-Mart's campaign bragging about their emphasis on sustainability, when most of the products in their stores come from a country where sustainability has little relevance?

Caveat emptor seems to apply in spades to China.

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