A Nation of Outlaws: A century ago, that wasn’t China — it was us

Stephen Mihm – The Boston Globe

Copyright The Boston Globe
If recent headlines are any indication, China’s rap sheet of capitalist crimes is growing as fast as its economy. Having exported poison pet food and toothpaste laced with antifreeze earlier this year, the world’s emerging economic powerhouse has diversified into other, equally dubious product lines: scallops coated with putrefying bacteria, counterfeit diabetes tests, pirated Harry Potter books, and baby bibs coated with lead, to name but a few.
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Politicians are belatedly putting China on notice. Representative Frank Wolf of Virginia delivered one of the more stinging counterattacks last month, warning that the United States “must be vigilant about protecting the values we hold dear” in the face of China’s depredations.
His anger reflects the mounting disgust with how recklessly China plies its trade, apparently without regard for the things that make commerce not only dependable but possible: respect for intellectual property, food and drug purity, and basic product safety. With each tawdry revelation, China’s brand of capitalism looks increasingly menacing and foreign to our own sensibilities.
That’s a tempting way to see things, but wrong. What’s happening halfway around the world may be disturbing, even disgraceful, but it’s hardly foreign. A century and a half ago, another fast-growing nation had a reputation for sacrificing standards to its pursuit of profit, and it was the United States.
As with China and Harry Potter, America was a hotbed of literary piracy; like China’s poisonous pet-food makers, American factories turned out adulterated foods and willfully mislabeled products. Indeed, to see China today is to glimpse, in a distant mirror, the 19th-century American economy in all its corner-cutting, fraudulent glory.
A tragic lesson (By Stephen Mihm )
China may be a very different country, but in many ways it is a younger version of us. The sooner we understand this, the sooner we can realize 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, if you will: bursting with energy, exuberant, dynamic. Like any teenager, China’s behavior is also maddening, irresponsible, and dangerous. But it is a phase, and understanding it that way gives us some much-needed perspective, as well as some tools for handling the problem. Indeed, if we want to understand how to deal with China, we could do worse than look to our own history as a guide.
A bit of empathy might even be in order. One hundred and fifty years ago, even America’s closest trade partners were despairing about our cheating ways. Charles Dickens, who visited in 1842, was, like many Britons, stunned by the economic ambition of our nation’s inhabitants, and appalled by what they would do for the sake of profit. When he first stepped off the boat in Boston, he found the city’s bookstores rife with pirated copies of his novels, along with those of his countrymen. Dickens would later deliver lectures decrying the practice, and wrote home in outrage: “my blood so boiled as I thought of the monstrous injustice.”
In the United States of the early 19th century, capitalism as we know it today was still very much in its infancy. Most people still lived on small farms, and despite the persistent myth that America was the land of laissez-faire, there were plenty of laws on the books aimed at keeping tight reins on the market economy. But as commerce became more complex, and stretched over greater distances, this patchwork system of local and state-level regulations was gradually overwhelmed by a new generation of wheeler-dealer entrepreneurs.
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. And just as the worst sufferers of adulterated food in China today are the Chinese, so it was the Americans who suffered in the early 19th-century United States. But when America started exporting food more broadly after the Civil War, the practice started to catch up to us.
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