Today, while listening to a “Morning Edition” interview by host Steve Inskeep with correspondent Rob Gifford about a book Gifford has written on China, I had to wonder if I was hearing a contender for the post of the next Tom “Mustache of Understanding” Friedman. While he was describing the types of economic changes China’s undergoing — even in its more remote places — Inskeep prompted him to recount the story of meeting a particular entrepreneur (my transcript, from 1:53 into the interview):
ROB GIFFORD: That’s right, that’s right, he was one of my favorites. And he was in the middle of the Gobi Desert. I was just walking along the street and he came up to me — two of them, actually — and showed me their bag, and it said “Amway” on it. And we just got to talking and they took me to their, sort of, sales event that evening. Everyone brought a friend to try and get them to be involved in Amway. Really, to take part in this Chinese Dream.
STEVE INSKEEP: May I just mention, Rob, since you’re talking about the Chinese Dream: Isn’t Amway, a company that sells all kinds of products, but the name is actually supposedly short for “American Way”?
GIFFORD: That’s a very good point, Steve. When they translate it into Chinese it doesn’t actually…they don’t actually translate the “American” bit of it, but I think everybody knows it’s an American company. And I think that says a lot about where China’s going. It’s going toward — it’s already reached, in many instances — borderline capitalism. And communism, nobody believes in communism any more. People don’t want to work for Marx and Lenin. They want to work for Amway and other Western companies that are there.
Amway. Apparently Amway’s doing more than a billion dollars of business in China a year. But if Inskeep and Gifford think that multi-level marketing operations lift a significant number of the people involved out of their current tax bracket, they’re deluded. Even in the US 99% of the people who get involved in MLMs either lose money or make nothing. (At least the Chinese aren’t the Albanians, who had a pyramid scheme — MLM without the product — suck in one-sixth of their population and collapse the economy after the fall of communism.)
Just after that, they discuss Gifford’s interview with a prostitute who tells him of the “hopelessness” she feels as a 19-year-old woman from a rural area without any prospects or skills, left out of the booming Chinese economy. I have to admit, I felt a little hopelessness myself when I heard this question (at 4:13):
INSKEEP: This woman was quite frustrated with her circumstances. Were there others who saw a house of prostitution like this as an opportunity for themselves?
Then they have a little chuckle about how Gifford expensed the talk with the prostitute.
Seriously. Prostitution and Amway? Does Inskeep or Gifford know anyone who sells Amway at the ground level? Ever met a prostitute they haven’t paid? The prospects for either one making it big are pretty grim. They need to put down the “good news” pills every once in a while. Albania’s economy nearly collapsed just a few years ago because of a pyramid scheme. Widespread prostitution is not a good thing in a country that has had problems acknowledging outbreaks of disease. Those types of questions might be a bit more important than whether Rob Gifford was reimbursed for his hostess expenses. Not that I expect he’d probably be able to answer them, given the tenor of the conversation this morning.