Why can’t we buy a Chinese house at Walmart?

Forty years ago it cost $500 to buy a factory-made TV and $10,000 to have a nice house built from scratch on a plot of land, a ratio of 20:1.  Today the TV costs $200 and assembling the local tradespeople and lumber will probably set you back $200,000, a ratio of 1000:1.  Part of this difference may be ascribed to the TV being built with $1/day Chinese labor.

How about this for a brilliant business idea:  clearcut a Canadian forest (they love to cut down trees in British Columbia) and ship the lumber to China, build modular houses there and ship the completed houses back to the U.S. in container ships.  Sell them at Walmart (they’ll sell anything Chinese-made at Walmart).  The quality won’t be quite as good as the best custom homes in the U.S. but it will be good enough and when things start to get creaky in 20 years you can throw the house out and buy a new one at Walmart or Home Depot.

This is not a totally new idea, of course.  Nearly all houses in Scandinavia are factory-built.  We have it here in the South with http://www.topsider.com/ and in Quebec with http://www.profab.ca/ but I don’t think anyone has tried it with Chinese labor.  It costs less than $2000 to ship a container from China to the U.S. and a prefab house ought to fit in one or two containers.  So shipping shouldn’t be a killer.

Chinese-built houses wouldn’t have a huge impact where I’m sitting right now, on top of a $1 million plot of land in Berkeley, but in Maine or the Midwest, why not?  Think about all the poor people currently being housed in cities, occupying housing that could be sold to rich yuppies who would pay huge property tax.  The City of Cambridge just spent about $1.5 million buying and renovating the house behind my condo so that they could park a poor family there.  Why not give the poor family the $1.5 mil in cash and they could buy some land in an uncrowded part of the country ($20,000) and a house at Walmart ($40,000) and live comfortably for the rest of their lives off the interest?

Or consider the vacation house dilemma.  Do you really want to spend a year or two dealing with contractors and paying big bucks when you could buy a second house at Walmart for $40,000 and put your money into travel, jet aircraft, etc.?

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“Hell is other people”

Sartre never tried to drive around the Bay Area so it is tough to know where he got his inspiration for the line “Hell is other people.”  Certainly he would have been inspired by my trip from Berkeley to San Francisco today.  Traversing a few miles of I-80 here (the Bay Bridge) took 2 hours, longer than flying over the entire stretch of I-80 that traverses Utah (from Wyoming to Nevada).  No accidents; just a normal flow Sunday around noon.

From the wheel of my 1992 Honda Civic, the subject of an experiment by my hosts in how long a car can run without ever being washed or maintained, I had ample opportunity to observe sailboats in the bay and boat-sized SUVs on the bridge.  It seems that sports cars have vanished from highways around San Francisco.  If you’re seldom going to exceed 20 mph or travel more than 5 seconds before stopping, it doesn’t make sense to have a manual transmission.  You need to allow 2 hours for each trip and therefore you’ll want an upright driving position and very comfortable seats.  On-board espresso and Diet Coke machines would be nice (along with a bathroom to match) as would an autopilot for traffic jams.  Cruise control isn’t much use in the Bay Area because mostly it is designed to work at speeds of 30 mph and greater.  What you really want is a system that will go at speeds of 3 mph and less, inching your car along in a traffic jam.

Speaking of inching… my hosts also have a new Honda Civic hybrid.  It isn’t quite as glorious as imagined.  It can’t inch its way forward in a traffic jam by dint of electric power.  If the car is moving, the combustion engine is running.  The electric stuff is there to provide extra acceleration for leadfooted drivers.  So basically you could have a car that was just as fuel efficient if you were willing to tolerate sluggish acceleration (which in the Bay Area wouldn’t be an issue since there is seldom more than 20 feet between you and the car in front of you).  Also the entire ventilation system shuts down if the engine shuts down at a traffic light.  Finally the system isn’t very smart.  If you accelerate to 30 mph and then stop at a light, the engine is shut off.  If you need to creep forward a bit and then stop for 2 minutes, the engine continues to run because you never got over a threshold speed.  My hosts say that what they really want is a button on the steering wheel that will tell the car “okay to go to sleep now”.

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