Monday, February 25, 2008

MADE IN CHINA: Slave labor blues harps, Fender amps, toilet seats

Mojo-free slave labor blues & rock harmonica, fresh from China.

Americans now know "Made in China" means made of crap by factory slaves (or as the business sections of newspapers like to put it, an inexpensive labor force.)

However, a dilemma arises when one goes shopping for even the most basic goods. You have to go a long way to avoid Chinese things. For instance, all the sundries at Ralph's supermarket are made in China. Whiskey flask? Made in China, probably with lead. Plastic soap box to put in your poxy kid's pack for camp? Used to be made in the US when DD was a child, now only permitted to be made by slave laborers in China.

We must take a lot of the responsibility for this.

When DD was young the US enacted many laws to protect its citizens from predation in the workplace. It put in place environmental regulations so that American corporations couldn't make a complete hash of the countryside.

Then in the name of progress and cheap goods at Wal-Mart, we sold ourselves down the river. We became convinced that the drivel spouted by some economics professors and repeated in the business sections of newspapers on the global marketplace being a stupendous thing that would improve our quality of life was actually true. American businessmen indulged us by outsourcing their fabricating to the cheapest labor markets overseas, eventually China.

What could be a funnier joke than the one in which Americans cede all the progress they've made in the social contract for an industrial process which bypasses it by simply moving its manufacturing to a country which has none, a place where people are treated exceedingly poorly at work. All for the sake of cheap stuff.

And the stuff is really cheap.

For instance, take the "Mojo Deluxe Blues & Rock Harmonica," pictured above. DD became interested in slave labor harmonicas when noticing the slave labor guitars on sale at BestBuy prior to Christmas. One could also take home a Loduca Chicago Blues Harp -- made in China -- for twelve bucks.

Why did a harmonica have to be made by slave laborers sweating away in some awful factory seven days a week? It's rhetorical. Harmonicas have always been relatively inexpensive. They are genuinely an instrument for everyone, cheap and easy to put in the hands of all who desire to toot out a few simple folk tunes.

The big names in harmonicas are Hohner -- Germans who basically owned the market for decades, and to a lesser extent, a handful of other makers in Deutschland as well as Lee Oskar, a company made through the hit single success of the pop rock band, War.

If you spend $25.00 you can have a premium harmonica. No need for a slave labor-made harmonica, really, and though China has a number of brands and furnishes parts for some of the big manufacturers, if one browses the Internet for opinions one reads that the Chinese products are generally condemned. In other words, even at making something that has a reputation for being cheap, they sort of stink. (How good is the Mojo Deluxe? It's fair to say it is mojo free. Compared with a Hohner Pro, it emits a thin tone and requires a lot more air to make even that.)

Blooz harp instruction for corporate leadership seminars. Ideal for those who enjoy group learning do's in swank hotel meeting rooms.

This brings us to "Instant Blues Harmonica." Over the holidays, DD spied the book at Border's. For a mere sixteen bucks, it not only promised instruction ("You're Minutes Away from Blues & Rock Improvisation!") but also furnished the Mojo Deluxe Blues & Rock Harmonica PLUS a CD of play-along backing tracks.

We'll forgive those who'd think it's a grand deal. Grasping for bargains is coded into the DNA of all Americans, including me. And if something cannot be packaged as a bargain, it simply cannot be sold in the formerly good ol' USA.

What could be more of a bargain than harmonica lessons, a blues harp and a CD?

Quite a few things, actually.

Harmonicas reward people who think they don't have what it takes to play music. With a little persistence, almost anyone can mangle a simple folk tune on harp. Try playing "Taps" if you have a harmonica stashed away in a drawer, one you haven't looked at in years. Even if you're very white and have never been to
Parchman Farm, we'll wager that you can manage some manner of success in one short afternoon.

If you ever saw Steven Tyler of Aerosmith playing harp during the time that band was touring with every member out of their minds from booze and smack onstage, you must have asked yourself at least once, "How hard can it be?" (Aerosmith even furnished harmonicas with the custom edition of one of their recent albums, Honking on Bobo.)

The answer is that blues harp isn't hard at all. Being good at it is hard. But being lousy (but somewhat entertaining in the right context) to adequate is well within reach. You don't need a book, a CD, or an especially cheap entry-level instrument to take a stab at it.

The only reason for the Mojo Deluxe slave labor made-in-China harmonica is so that it can be packaged with a lot of other stuff suitable for corporate seminar in the US of A.

The author of of "Instant Blues Harmonica" writes on his very last page in the very last paragraph: "[For] the last few years I've been doing most of my presentations for corporate non-profit organizations. These clients range from Ben & Jerry's Ice Cream to Merck Pharmaceutical, from the Blue Cross to Red Cross, from Kraft Foods to the American Society of Forensic Laboratory Directors. My unique keynotes and workshops can help your group to work more effectively..."

The image of a roomful of managers from Kraft Foods or directors from the American Society of Forensic Laboratories learning to "blow their blues away" on Chinese harmonicas during a compulsory leadership get-together is a shattering one. You would be hard-pressed to think up a situation containing less "mojo," creativity and fun although you might be able to imagine it as a potential TV movie in which special punishments in Hell are meted out to the deserving.

But enough about slave labor harmonica.

Turning back to the category of electric rock instrumentation, the all-encompassing history of Fender, "The Soul of Tone: Celebrating 60 Years of Fender Amps," has something to say about American companies and the Chinese slave labor workforce.

Fender is THE American brand name in electric guitar amplifier. We're going to skip rehashing most of its history in which it rose to prominence as a vendor of classic designs and then almost went completely out of business. Instead, we fast forward to today when Fender offers a dominating and broad line of electric guitar amplifiers, equalled only by Marshall and two other big American manufacturers, Peavey and Mesa Engineering. Because Fender offers a broad line, some of its amps are made in China.

Paradoxically, the book indicates Fender would rather not make inexpenive junk amplifiers for the dilettante. However, because of realities in the market, it must.

"In the old days, you walked into a music store and took whatever you could get your hands on," says Fender's Shane Nicholas to author Tom Wheeler.

"But over time, people have become much more demanding. They expect a lot of features at low prices..."

"There are a whole lot of inexpensive Chinese amps out there, and many of them offer plenty of features. We need to compete with that ... anybody who makes a small entry-level amp has gone to Asia."

Nicholas describes the cheap Fender Frontman amp as formerly being made in Mexico: "... and every dealer loves it and they're all making money with it, and then a year later the same dealers say, "Hey, that's too expensive!"

And it had become "too expensive" because it had been undercut by another western brand which has moved its manufacturing to China, making something similar but even cheaper. And Fender was compelled to move the amp's manufacture to the same country.

No one really cares about the brand name of low cost amplifiers.

The market for them in the US is a young, inexperienced and very fickle audience. While the amplifiers are not utter junk, neither are they very good and they're certainly not a bargain in any serious sense for a long-term player. Once bought, the typical offering immediately depreciates to the point where it can only be given away to pawn shops for about the price of a case of beer. If one browses Craig's List one sees young and exceedingly naive sellers trying to squeeze a return out of them, mostly to other equally stupid beginners looking for something second-hand.

In the case of Chinese goods, even though the buyer's attitude is that all mass consumer electronics must be made in China, you get what you pay for. If a cheap amp has a multiplicity of features made to lend it a jack-of-all-trades capability, invariably it still does not sound as good as a more expensive amp with only one tone.

Before concluding, we move from musical instruments to an even more basic dry good: the toilet seat.

From childhood almost everyone remembers that this most mundane of items never wore out. Heck, you probably went through high school and college, returning home from time to time to find that same old toilet seat still doing uncomplaining duty in the family bathroom.

In the Nineties, toilet seat manufacturing was moved to China. And all the toilet seats for sale in Pasadena come from Asia.

When moving into the house in 1993, it was decided to replace the existing toilet seat. Over the last fifteen years, the Chinese-made toilet seat has needed replacing, on average, once every one or two years. While they haven't all crapped out spectacularly, they do fail in interesting ways. One immediately took up the yellow stain of urine indelibly, a fault which is obviously a standard no-no in quality manufacturing.

After a new bathroom decor was installed in December, another new toilet seat was obtained. It erased all previous records for failure. Inside two weeks its paint had peeled and bubbled.

Americans used to make toilet seats. The Chinese, who don't know how to make acceptable toilet seats and who have shown no desire to improve (perhaps because it would interfere with ISO 900-approved slave-labor manufacturing and drive up prices), now make all our toilet seats.

There is a slight silver lining to this, although it's an obtuse one. This blog is often about national security issues and there is one thing that American businessmen do not outsource to China: arms manufacturing.

The Pentagon often worries about fighting a regional war with the Chinese military. DD never worries about that. Chinese manufacturing has serious systemic quality control issues. The evidence on the national table is that the country simply can't produce anything that is robust, up-to-standard or poison free. A lot of the time, this doesn't matter. For instance, it's not really of major issue if their blues harps and toilet seats really eat it.

However, their jet airplanes, their ships, their rockets and missiles? Heh-heh. C'mon now, seriously.

China Toilet Blooz -- musical interlude by DD. The harmonica played on this track is guaranteed to be NOT MADE IN CHINA.

If you found this story interesting, you will surely enjoy Slave Labor Guitar. It's the third most read article on, just behind "how to make bombs" and "Joan Jett Made Me Sweat."


Blogger Caccia Esperti said...

"What could be a funnier joke than the one in which Americans cede all the progress they've made in the social contract for an industrial process which bypasses it by simply moving its manufacturing to a country which has none, a place where people are treated exceedingly poorly at work. All for the sake of cheap stuff."

It really is as simple as you just said above. Great piece.

4:49 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Resurrecting the old 'slave labor' chestnut in regards to products made in China is a popular national pastime today. Archaic communism aside, China's economy is developing rapidly and problems happen, as the recent spate of substandard goods illustrates. It is not indicative of a poor, overworked or mistreated workforce. To condemn the entire country's economy under the false assumption of slave or child labor is simply not true anymore. It may have been the case in the past but today the vast majority of China's workforce are skilled, highly-trained people who, in line with their local economy, are paid a decent wage. It is, however, a large problem that more and more US companies are constantly outsourcing jobs to countries with a cheaper labor force in order to boost their bottom line (profits) at the expense of American workers. I think this may be more of a case of a greed-driven corporate mindset that is resulting in a flood of cheaply priced goods into our country and the continuing loss of American jobs more than any slave labor apparition.

9:17 PM  

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