Sunday, January 16, 2011


Word on the street is that China's looking to pull back on its rare earth exports.

Before you say "So what?" take a moment to think about that.  The name "rare earth" ought to tell you these materials aren't especially common.  But that's not right.  They're not that uncommon, but neither do they occur in conveniently large clumps.  Usually they're bound up with other stuff, and often found together.

At this time, China is the leading producer of rare earths for export.  There are other sources to be had, but they are all pretty much currently idled.  Work is underway at the moment to open at least one US mine but that kind of thing doesn't happen overnight.

One wonders just how cheaply China's workers work, if a mine on US soil is idled because raw ore can be had more cheaply from across the Pacific.  There must be some economies of scale that I'm not aware of, but that's beside the point.  The point is that raw materials that are integral to industries here, abroad, and also in China, will soon be harder to find anywhere but China.

China isn't pulling the plug.  The music will keep playing, but they're turning the volume down.  US companies making high-efficiency electric motors (hello, Chevy Volt!), developing competitive electronics (hello...wait, there aren't any US companies doing much of that), will have to pay more to get what they need, and may not get all of what they were hoping to get.

China will have it.

Remember when electronics you bought in the US were likely made in the US?  Motorola radios, GE televisions, Crosley record players.

The electronics you buy now are most likely made in China.  There's a fair chance it was assembled in Indonesia, Korea, some Asian country where wages aren't high, workplace standards aren't high, and labor is plentiful.  If it so happens that a lot of the raw materials are coming from close by - like rare earths in China - more's the better.  Lower costs, more profit.

When shopping, keep your eyes open.  If you can choose between the item made in China and a similar item made in the US, get the American one.  It probably will cost a bit more, but it's worth it.

Is it worth it in added quality?  Probably not.  Serving size will be the same, when you buy a pair of shoes there's probably going to be one right and one left.  Pants, calculators, notebook paper, whatever it is you're shopping for, try to keep the American economy going.  If you lived in one house but for some reason decided to pay the neighbor's kid to mow your lawn instead of your own kid, wouldn't you expect that to have an effect on morale in your own household?  That's the kind of thing I see happening.  It gives me a nagging feeling of concern.

It's getting difficult to buy American but it can be done.  You're going to have to dig dig dig to find the producers of the things you need, and some of the things you want, you may just have to do without.  iPods, for instance, are made in Shanghai.  Nowhere else.  My Sansa Fuze is Chinese, too. 

Next topic: recycling as a matter of national security.

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