Wednesday, August 27, 2008

Rat Meat Inflation

I was checking the news online this evening and found a story that really troubled me. The headline, "Price of rat meat in Cambodia quadruples as inflation bites", caused my stomach to clench. The story itself was worse.

The Cambodian per capita annual income, according to, a news forum dedicated to Chinese, Indian and Asian trade, is somewhere in the neighborhood of $1,000 US. To put this in perspective, the average annual income in the US is around $36,600, which means we in the United States make around 36 1/2 times what a Cambodian makes.

To be fair, things cost less in Cambodia; according to, on the average, an item costing about $1.00 here in the US would cost about .16 cents in Cambodia. Basically things cost six times more here than they do in Cambodia. Which, for a moment, allows you to breathe a little easier.

But let's break the numbers down a bit further. If the average American makes 36 1/2 times what the average Cambodian makes, but that same American pays 6 times the amount the Cambodian does in order to live, is there a so-called "wealth-gap"?

Imagine that you're one of those average American wage earners. You make $36,600 per year (not a substantial living, to be sure, but an average American one, according to the statistics). You pay today's prices for everything you buy. Now imagine that tomorrow you go into work, and you're called into the office and told that, due to low profitability, your wages got cut to $5,000 per year; you still work the same number of hours doing the same job, but for this new wage.

Your stuff all still costs the same amount. Fuel is still $4 a gallon; the milk prices haven't dropped; it's still $6 for a Big-Mac Extra Value meal at McDonalds. You just make 1/6 the amount of money you're accustomed to.

How does it feel? Can you live? The most recent census places the poverty level for a family of four at about $20,000 of income per year. Your $5,000 doesn't get you much. Tack onto that inflation of 37% per year, and now you're starting to feel what it's like to live in Cambodia.

You kill rats in order to feed your family. And if you're entrepreneurial, you kill many rats, and sell them to other hungry people wanting to feed their families.

I have no intention of turning MyndFood into a social diatribe (although many of you, I'm sure, are wondering what my intentions ARE for MyndFood; more to come on that. I will say, stick close if you're interested in reading installment two of "The Funeral". There's also a contest coming, so check back frequently). But this is, after all, intended to be your favorite online eatery, and occasionally, you should be fed something weighty, and full of protein--something that requires some work to digest, and perhaps a little pain. This is one of those meals.

In recent years we've all read the stories of American companies relocating manufacturing operations to any of a number of Asian countries. Horror stories of 11 year-old girls slaving away making shoes for .19 cents per day get half of us fired up about "wicked, greedy American business"; the other half of us applaud, perhaps crudely AND cruelly, the ingenuity of American business. And both sides have their arguments--all reasonable and well-thought out. The "business is evil" group says that we Americans have a moral obligation to not take advantage of underprivileged citizens of other countries; we have a minimum wage, and laws pertaining to lawful working age and acceptable working conditions; those laws should apply to ANY operation, no matter the country it's located in. The "hooray for big business" folks say things like, "the business makes more money, and I save a little bit on my shoes, so the government gets more in taxes, and can turn around and distribute that to needy folks all over the world." Or, even more radical, the argument that says that our government is bailing out poor countries all over the place; why should we help?

Valid arguments, all, but each a little extreme. I, for one, feel that we DO have an obligation to treat other countries fairly. NOT to make them wealthy, but neither to take advantage of them. There's a problem when countries have masses of their population actively hunting rats to eat. It's not our problem to fix mind you; I don't think we (the US government) needs to jump in and save the day. But if our companies go there to do business, we should compensate the employees there--not at the income levels THEY'RE used to, but at the proportional income levels we see here. They're used to utter poverty; and so we justify paying them wages that do nothing more than perpetuate poverty. What's the Cambodian (cost of living adjusted) equivalent to our current minimum wage? Somewhere around $1.25 per hour. Wouldn't that wage still prove a windfall for an American business? Yet wouldn't it also be like winning the lottery for some Cambodian who has historically made less than .25 cents per hour?

I don't know that there are enough American businesses in disadvantaged Asian countries to make much of a different, but I'd like to think that if those that were there were operating with any sort of social conscience, they'd be operating as I've described, and perhaps there'd be fewer stories about inflation in the price of rat meat.

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