Bad policy sent America's manufacturing jobs to China; China throws in some U.S. pollution as a bonus

Posted by mmcmullan on 01/22/2014

We’ve sung the blues a lot over American manufacturing’s 15-year exodus. A lot of the jobs the U.S. lost were due to self-inflicted wounds. Bad fiscal policy prescriptions (a strong dollar) didn’t help. Nor have some questionable trade deals (that giant sucking sound). And neither did Washington’s all-in effort to grant the Chinese government Permanent Normalized Trade Relations (PNTR) in the year 2000. China got the threat of an annual shift in U.S. tariffs taken off the table and a subsequent influx of manufacturing jobs, while America got lots of marginally cheaper stuff on the shelves of big box stores.

Yessir, that is what's called a bum deal.

But that’s not all! A just-published study finds that, in addition to a retail revolution, we also get a lot of airborne pollutants. From a press release announcing the research:

Los Angeles experiences at least one extra day a year of smog that exceeds federal ozone limits because of nitrogen oxides and carbon monoxide emitted by Chinese factories making goods for export, the analysis found. On other days, as much as a quarter of the sulfate pollution on the U.S. West Coast is tied to Chinese exports. All the contaminants tracked in the study are key ingredients in unhealthy smog and soot.

Back in 2009, an Alliance for American Manufacturing (AAM) report unpacked the economic benefits the Chinese steel industry had thus far received from the nearly complete lack of environmental regulation administered by its own government. The absence of regulatory oversight for China’s heavy industry was really astounding:

Low standards combined with heavy industry investments to expand capacity, as well as poor regulation and enforcement, result in far more pollution from steel plants in China than in the United States. Although both the Chinese government and leading companies in the steel industry claim they want to address the industry’s environmental problems, the levels of pollution are still three to 20 times higher per ton of steel produced in China than in the United States, depending on the specific pollutant and industrial process analyzed.

In fact, in addition to the smog cover regularly gifted to Southern California, that AAM report found such pollution was the cause of thousands of premature deaths in China each year.

But hey: Cheap stuff, right?

You can read a write-up of the new study in the New York Times. Or you can read the whole scholarly thing online at the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, smartypants.

Image of China's Pearl River in Guangzhou by Flickr user Jaaron used following Creative Commons guidelines.

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