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Are lower prices for consumer products always a good thing?

By Andrew Pollack on 09/10/2003 at 01:12 PM EDT

I heard a story on NPR today, and I didn't catch much other than a quote that really grabbed my attention. The gist was that some additional free trade talks may hurt some local economies briefly, but ultimately would result in lower prices on consumer goods worldwide which would more than make up for that and would then bring about better conditions for everyone.

That caused me to ask the question, "What's so good about lower prices on consumer items, overall?" Don't get me wrong, I'm all in favor of cheap plastic crap that keeps people employed and kids happy for ten minutes before it gets tossed in the trash. But are these things really a big gain to the overall well being of nations? No. I don't think so.

Talk to me about lower prices on food, medicine, and basic needs -- I'm all over it. I think those products need not only free trade, but subsidies from richer nations to poorer ones. We cannot let our brothers and sisters in other countries (or in our own) die of hunger, disease, and exposure. I'd even stretch that to include education. Beyond that, I'd rather see what I call "secondary" consumer goods -- cosmetics, entertainment, etc. -- be regional products that are produced and sold locally and even subject to fairly heavy protectionism.

The argument that a poor country cannot have a protectionist policy when it comes to luxury items without being penalized on their exports or imports of basic necessities is abhorrent and does not hold water any more. Sure, exporters of VCR's, video games, lipstick, etc. want to compete on "equal" footing in any market. Of course they do. I don't blame them for wanting it. But lets understand that if a country wishes to develop its own internal economy for those things they should be encouraged -- or at least not penalized for it.

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