On Fingernail Clippers and the Global Balance of Power

I’ve read a number of books which are accounts of people who escaped from North Korea, and I plan to read more of them.  Maybe I need to be reminded that my life is actually pretty good.  Maybe I need to be reminded of what happens when a government achieves absolute power.  Maybe it has something to do with my fondness for the South Korean people.  Maybe it’s just the survival stories in the books that attract me.

An interesting section in one of these books (I think it was Nothing to Envy, but I’m not 100% sure) talked about the moment that the escapees either decided something was wrong, or made up their minds to flee.  Some of the triggers were seemingly innocuous, but spurred these people into the most significant and dangerous decision they would ever make.

One escapee was a sailor (I believe on a naval vessel) who was able to tune in to South Korean radio broadcasts when at sea.  He heard a comedy sketch about two teenage girls arguing over a parking space.  There were so many cars in South Korea that there was actually a shortage of space for them?  There were two teenage girls who had their own cars?  During periods of malnutrition, hunger, and starvation in North Korea, his government told him that neighboring countries had even less food.  This comedy sketch would make no sense under those circumstances, and began the sailor’s journey to freedom.  Some Korean comedy writer was the cause of this man and his descendants living the rest of their lives as free people.

Another escapee was a soldier who somehow obtained a pair of fingernail clippers stamped “Made in USA”.  His clippers sliced through his fingernails effortlessly in comparison to North Korean-made clippers.  His government had been telling him that superior North Korean missiles would shatter any American invasion force.  If the country couldn’t match the USA in fingernail-clipper technology, how could it beat them in missile tech?  That soldier and his descendants will now live in freedom.

For a number of years, I’ve only been able to use my US-purchased fingernail clippers after a shower had softened my nails.  I don’t believe I’m becoming a strong-fingernail mutant — I think the quality of our clippers is declining.  I rarely think about this, but on my recent hiking trip to Patagonia, I failed to pack clippers, so I borrowed my wife’s.  They sliced through my dry nails with almost no effort.  I asked where she had purchased them, and she said on her last trip to Indonesia.

I’m tempted to conclude that the US is circling the drain, and Indonesia is a rising global force.  I can’t, because I have inside information that it isn’t true (at least the second half, I’m undecided on the first half) and because I suspect that both sets of clippers were produced in the same country:  China.

If both sets of clippers are of Chinese manufacture, but vary so widely in quality, that brings me to another conclusion:  American consumers are willing to accept low-quality products and services which would be spurned by consumers in what was once referred to as the “third world”.  My mind is racing with additional examples of low US standards.

For the trip I mentioned, we took a ten-hour flight on Delta (generally considered one of the better US airlines) from Atlanta to Santiago, followed by a three-hour flight from Santiago to Punta Arenas on LATAM (a Chilean carrier).  Because of the tight seat spacing on the Delta flight there was no position I could place my body or legs in which was comfortable, and I am not a large person by American standards.  Although there was plenty of room overhead, the storage bins were tiny, presumably in an attempt to force passengers to check all bags (for a fee).  Although the seats on the LATAM flight were showing some wear, the more generous spacing felt like first class in comparison to Delta, and the generous overhead storage allowed us to move our book bags from the floor to above.

When I travel internationally, I always choose a foreign carrier over a US carrier when possible.  I’d take more domestic flights if the US government opened our domestic routes to airlines from other countries.  I currently spend many hours on the highway instead of flying with US carriers.

I typically choose to fly with Korean Airlines, connecting through Seoul, which brings another quality example to mind.  I can’t tolerate spicy Korean food, so I always grab a Whopper at the Burger King in the Seoul airport.  Those airport Whoppers taste better than most steaks I’ve had in US steakhouses.  I don’t know if it’s higher-quality beef, more careful preparation, or something else.  If US Whoppers tasted like the ones in Seoul, I’d eat at Burger King at least four times a week, every week.

Free-market capitalism in the USA should be working to give us overall higher quality and lower prices, and should also be giving us a range of choices from low-quality, inexpensive products and services to higher-quality, pricier options.  However, it seems that in many categories, we only get the low-quality option.  I’m not even sure we are getting lower prices.  Inflation obscures the issue, and inflation isn’t an objective number as you might assume.  Whoever is creating a measure of inflation will change the product mix as technologies or consumer tastes change, and things get really iffy when they start adjusting for the “improved quality” of the products.

Americans’ acceptance of low quality seems to extend into government services as well.  I fell into a lucky housing situation, and live in a beautiful neighborhood where most of the houses look, to me, like mansions, and many of my neighbors are doctors.  For many years, the street in front of my house was full of potholes, and no repair attempts were made.  About a month ago, a crew came out and filled those potholes, but their equipment was so heavy, they did at least twice as much damage as they fixed, and made no attempt to repair the new damage.  They drove away into the sunset, presumably saying “our work here is done”.

I often walk my dog at night, in the dark because many of the streetlights are out, another example of poor service/maintenance.  I used to know where the potholes were and avoid them without conscious thought, but I recently twisted my ankle in one of the new chasms stretching across the street.

When I was a child many decades ago, I often rode my bicycle to junior high.  When it was cold, I would put both hands in my pockets for most of the trip.  Apparently, I had good balance, but wasn’t smart enough to acquire a pair of wind-proof gloves.  I think the roads must have been fairly smooth and pothole-free for me to pull off my balancing act back then, but today I rarely see a road in such condition.  I suspect that property taxes, fuel taxes, and various driving-related government fees have not gone down.  Where does the money go?

Why are citizens of the USA (one the wealthiest nations on Earth, the most powerful nation on Earth) satisfied with low quality products and services that consumers in poorer, weaker nations would reject as unacceptable?  If you have answers to my questions, or any examples you’d like to share, leave me a comment below.


  1. Can’t tell you how much I loved this post! Sadly enough, I have no answer. It is a human trait to believe that moving forward always implies progress but we forget that forward in time can also mean regressing–or there would have been no Fall of Rome and no Dark Ages. It looks like we’re going through such a period of regression at the moment.

    1. Your comment reminded me of something else. I wish I’d talked to my grandparents more about the past, getting their opinions on what life was really life back then, and what they thought of the changes they’d seen during their lifetimes.

      Thanks for the reblog!

      1. That makes two of us! Come to think of it, I should talk to my parents more about this as well!

  2. Reblogged this on Nicholas C. Rossis and commented:

    PDC with a post that will make you think.

  3. Here in the US it is because half the country thinks we’re horrible, no good, insert your own pejorative and don’t deserve anything, even if we’ve paid for it.

    Until that changes, and I don’t think it will until there is a bloodbath and all the communists are killed, we’re stuck. So suffer potholes or kill Hillary Clinton. Neither is an option I want to choose.

    And it is late and I’m grouchy. But more and more I don’t see how to rid this country of parasites without a revolution. And internal revolutions almost never turn out well, even when run by good men and with the best principles.

    1. I guess it’s possible that on the government side it could be intentional, but it’s hard for me to imagine it on the consumer-products and services side.

      I suppose excessive government regulation could be holding down competition. I want to start a high-quality fingernail-clipper company, but I have to hire an HR consultant to make sure I’ll following diversity laws in my hiring, an environmental consultant to do environmental-impact studies, an accounting consultant to comply with Sarbanes-Oxley, etc.. I’ve spent $20 million before hiring an engineer to design my clippers or purchasing manufacturing equipment, and I never get my product to market.

  4. There is a specific issue with highway funding because cars are getting more fuel efficient so gasoline tax revenues are declining relative to the number of cars, but the cars aren’t really doing any less damage to the roads.

    1. I knew about that situation with highways, but I wasn’t able to quickly determine how much of my city’s road spending is funded by fuel taxes. Road spending went up rather than down here, but I only looked at a single year and don’t know the longer trend.

  5. The Romans made better roads and we still use them, or at least the same routes! But they had the advantage of not having them dug up every week for cables, gas, sewage etc to be repaired or installed! I think that’s one of the reasons our roads are so bumpy and uneven.

    1. We haven’t had much digging here, in fact none for several years, but my street either wasn’t engineered to Roman standards, or the ground has settled underneath it. It is full of slopes and depressions.

  6. You make a great point here! I’m from the UK but I think there’s a similar problem. In my experience, I think this comes down to what the consumers will accept. For instance, every year or so in the UK I have to go to the shops to replace the lousy gloves I bought the year before, because whatever I bought invariably won’t last. But one year I went to Denmark on holiday when it was turning cold and figured I could buy good ones there- little did I realise before how easy it would be to by decent gloves for the same price as rubbish gloves you can get here. And it’s not like Denmark is cheap and it’s still a capitalist society- they just don’t accept the same rubbish products as they do here (and it seems in the US!) Anyway, that’s just my two cents.

    1. Wow, maybe all of this is just related to consumer mentality, rather than something from the supplier side, as I was thinking.

      Also makes me think about the “everything is disposable” mentality. When I was a kid, my dad would give me things that used to be his, like a baseball glove, pocket knife, etc., and they may have even once belonged to his father. I doubt I own anything that will last long enough to be passed on. I also remember when I was a kid, there were repair shops for all kinds of things, but today, even expensive items like televisions and laptops usually get replaced, not repaired.

      1. Yeah that makes a lot of sense. And yeah I really relate to that- I remember there being repair shops for everything- but now (and I’m guilty of this too) it’s often cheaper to just buy new rather than repair.

  7. Anonymous · · Reply

    Greetings Comrade, just so happens I found myself in Walgreens buying fingernail clippers last month. I can say there was a wide variety of choice and had I chosen the cheapest ones, I’ve no doubt but they would have been inferior. Instead I chose to pay 2x that (so a little over 5$) and I would confidently put these clippers up against those Indonesian ones.

    1. I went to Walgreens and bought a pair of those at lunch. Not as good as the Indonesian ones, but better than the ones I’d been getting at Wal-mart.

  8. I always fly Japanese airlines over anything American. Even my budget Air China trip was better than American Airlines.

    1. Yeah, the Asian airlines do things so much better in every area: passenger comfort, friendy staff, not losing luggage.

      I haven’t flown them in a few years, but China Airlines, out of Taipei, is a bit different — they really pack the seats in. But, at least they compensate with much lower prices.

  9. […] via On Fingernail Clippers and the Global Balance of Power — Planetary Defense Command […]

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