Economics and Values

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Murali

Murali did his undergraduate degree in molecular biology with a minor in biophysics from the National University of Singapore (NUS). He then changed direction and did his Masters in Philosophy also at NUS. Now, he is currently pursuing a PhD in Philosophy at the University of Warwick.

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122 Responses

  1. Avatar Creon Critic
    Ignored
    says:

    Murali, James K, and James Hanley,

    I don’t mean to hijack this thread, but this sweatshop issue had been bothering me.

    (1.) Should there be any limits on working conditions? Are their any abuses that are intolerable in and of themselves, abuses which need be stopped irrespective of how (supposedly) productive or economically valuable they may be? Can we agree that children for instance should not be engaged in certain labor, no matter how supposedly nimble their fingers (ILO C182)?

    (2.) Are there any inalienable rights, as related to the employer-employee relationship? (I do not mean to capture supererogatory acts here. So the analysis that applies to nuclear plant workers who endanger their lives by overexposure to radiation to save the community falls into a different category than workers who are routinely abused in preventable ways, proper ventilation or safety equipment for instance – the article Murali links points out that Nike’s own audit “found that workers in the factory were exposed to the toxic chemical toluene at levels 6 to177 times that allowed by Vietnamese law”)

    (3.) Suppose such intolerable and unjustifiable conditions do exist, chattel slavery for instance, is there any onus on us, acting as a community, to sanction goods produced under those abusive conditions?

    In my view, the ends don’t justify the means and economic development does not justify sweatshops. Focusing narrowly on development in the future misses the ongoing abuses of today. Even if that future development is very, very important for the welfare of all involved, the welfare of people currently experiencing abuses should not be discounted. I tend to place the burden of proof on the employer to demonstrate that a given deviation from a band of good working conditions/practices is absolutely necessary – and even then, I’d lay a floor below which no employer can go.

    These standards are not exclusively first world standards (the linked article gestures to this idea), or standards I arrive at out of a desire for self-righteousness or moral posturing, however good moral posturing makes me feel. Politicians, businesses, and labor groups have already identified spheres of human dignity, human rights, and human decency that are ignored in this analysis of sweatshops as an acceptable pathway to development. These are not standards originating from my imagination, I encourage you to look through the ILO’s database of international labor standards (here). Quite a few widely ratified conventions, and the ILO is constituted by representatives of states, employers, and labor – all three constituencies have jointly produced these conventions. The campaigns of activists seeking better working conditions have the self-same words of the relevant parties to hold them to account. (Moreover, this work precedes John Ruggie’s groundbreaking work as special rapporteur on business and human rights recent endorsement by the UN Human Rights Council.)

    Altogether, I see exchange in extremis as deeply suspect. Feminist theorists refer to a certain domain of allegedly voluntary exchange as “desperate exchange” in critiquing some contexts of prostitution, pointing out a college educated Park Avenue call girl =/= a teenage heroin addict abused in childhood and facing ongoing abuse from a pimp. The concept of desperate exchange applies to workers deciding whether or not to take employment at a sweatshop. An agreement made in desperate circumstances can’t be properly categorized as voluntary. An agreement to expose oneself to toxins at 177 times the legal limit cannot be countenanced by the community. Products produced from such an agreement deserve strong community sanction. (Indeed via international organizations, the community has already expressed the impermissibility of such treatment, those campaigning for humane working conditions are simply asking for the imposition of already agreed standards of human dignity.)

    Coincidentally, I recently wrote about the Krugman piece James K raised in the other discussion thread, In Praise of Cheap Labor. I’d found the piece wanting, writing,

    The fact that the alternatives for workers present such dire hazards should make us even more sensitive to their vulnerability to exploitation by factory owners. The consequent use of factory owners’ superior bargaining position at the expense of their workers’ welfare is certainly not a cause for celebration. Structures that (re)produce this relationship do not deserve our praise.

    Report

    • Avatar Stillwater in reply to Creon Critic
      Ignored
      says:

      I’m glad you wrote this CC. It sums up views that I’d been trying to express in several aborted attempts at a reply.

      Also, I like the terminology of ‘desperate exchange’ to cut through the middle ground between voluntary and coerced, revealing that as the false dichotomy it is. There are morally murky situations which are neither, and sweatshops are an excellent example of it.Report

      • Avatar Brandon Berg in reply to Stillwater
        Ignored
        says:

        So what exactly is the rule around “desperate exchange?” If someone’s standard of living is below a certain level, you’re not allowed to engage in transactions with that person if they raise his standard of living only a little bit? It’s okay to ignore them completely, but if you interact with them at all, you must increase their standard of living by some minimum amount?

        How exactly is a person running a sweatshop where people voluntarily, if desperately, choose to work, worse than someone who simply doesn’t interact with those people at all?Report

        • Avatar Patrick Cahalan in reply to Brandon Berg
          Ignored
          says:

          I think you have an unfair dichotomy there, Brandon.

          A more fair comparison is:

          Is a society in which a person is allowed to run a sweatshop where people voluntarily, if desperately, choose to work

          worse than, better than, or about the same as

          A society who provides basic care for these people and forces employers to pay some measure of labor above desperation levels?Report

          • Avatar Stillwater in reply to Patrick Cahalan
            Ignored
            says:

            Patrick, I’d also take exception to the voluntary nature of the agreement. When Stan is confronted with a choice between starvation or shitty work, he’ll choose the shitty work. And because he feels lucky to have that job he won’t petition his employer for better conditions/compensation for fear of getting fired.

            It’s not coercion, but it’s certainly not a freely entered into agreement.Report

          • Avatar Brandon Berg in reply to Patrick Cahalan
            Ignored
            says:

            I don’t see what’s unfair about it. Anti-sweatshop types have no problem with first-world firms simply not employing third-world workers, leaving them to their current very low standard of living. And they have no problem with them employing third-world workers under conditions which would dramatically improve their standard of living. But they object to the middle ground, which moderately improves workers’ standard of living.

            A society who (provides basic care for these people) and (forces employers to pay some measure of labor above desperation levels)

            Here’s you’re conflating two completely independent things, which I’ve added parentheses to separate. Now, what you really want is for third-world workers to have a standard of living high enough that a job in a sweatshop isn’t an appealing alternative to the status quo. Sure. So do I.

            But banning certain types of employment arrangements doesn’t get you there. Maybe employers will go along with it, but maybe they’ll just decide that it’s not worth it and go back home. Really, it’ll probably be some a bit of each, so you end up with fewer third-world workers being employed at higher wages under better conditions. Is that really an improvement? For the lucky one, sure. Not so much for the ones who go back to prostitution or subsistence farming.

            What really bugs me about this is the way leftists shift the burden of alleviating their own first-world guilt onto employers. Let’s be clear about this: Employers aren’t responsible for the fact that the third world sucks. They go in, and they make a bad situation slightly better. And then a bunch of self-righteous leftists who aren’t even doing that much have the chutzpah to say that it’s not good enough.

            But why do employers have any special responsibility to improve third-world standards of living above and beyond what they do through the pursuit of profit? If Nike has a responsibility to give Indonesian workers charity in the form of above-market wages, then why don’t you have that same responsibility?

            The model I have in my mind is one in which leftists think of making a profit as a sort of venial sin. You can do it, and they probably won’t burn you at the stake, at least not until the revolution comes, but you’ll have to buy indulgences.

            If you want to make the lives of third-world workers better, do it directly. Don’t try to fob it off onto someone else.Report

            • Avatar Stillwater in reply to Brandon Berg
              Ignored
              says:

              But why do employers have any special responsibility to improve third-world standards of living above and beyond what they do through the pursuit of profit?

              I think the question goes the other way: why do employers feel they don’t have any responsibility to workers other than paying them the least amount possible? Why do they feel that profit motive exempts them from the requirements of normal morality?Report

              • Avatar wardsmith in reply to Stillwater
                Ignored
                says:

                @Still, This is not entirely true. I know a director at Foxconn. In point of fact they are /enjoined/ from paying too high a wage, by the host governments (specifically China). My friend is Taiwanese, of course fluent in Mandarin and has been lectured extensively by Chinese gov’t functionaries. For certain work they must pay certain wages and NOT rock the Communist Party Boat. What they /are/ allowed to do I linked to, company stores and entertainment facilities, not substantially different than what Microsoft provides. I doubt anyone here would contend that Microsoft is abusing their employees (well anyone other than Cahalan_ 😉

                There is more to so-called sweat shops than meets the eye. Ostensibly they are owned by the corporations getting the product, but in fact they are owned by the host government or their hand-picked proxies. This is the new graft and bribery scheme. There are profits to be sure, but they are not all being pocketed by the end-corps by any means.

                Communist China needs to add something like 2-4 million jobs a month to their economy to keep the people from revolting. Those cannot all be Bill Gates positions. When you go there, you’ll see people performing such necessary tasks as sweeping the streets, handing out flyers and every kind of menial work e.g. doing things on construction sites that we normally associate with power tools and equipment ie, mixing concrete by hand in buckets and lifting them manually via ropes. They /could/ automate those tasks, but have to worry about what to do with all those people with idle time on their hands.

                When Foxconn puts in new pick and place machines that replace hundreds of workers, they still have to employ those workers, just doing something different on their campus. That’s the hidden cost of doing business in China.Report

              • Avatar Brandon Berg in reply to Stillwater
                Ignored
                says:

                Why do they feel that profit motive exempts them from the requirements of normal morality?

                But that’s not what you’re talking about at all. You’re talking about special obligations that you think employers should have that nobody else has.

                To give an example: Suppose Acme pays its workers two dollars a day. You think they should make four dollars a day. Do you believe that you, personally, have an obligation to make up the difference out of your own pocket? If not, then why do you think Acme does?Report

            • Avatar Creon Critic in reply to Brandon Berg
              Ignored
              says:

              BB, given your reply, I’m unclear as to whether you set any boundaries around employer conduct at all. Child labor? Violence to stop unionizing? Exposure to toxic substances at unsafe levels? Sexual abuse by managers of employees?

              Is there any limiting principle to employer conduct besides pursue profit?Report

              • Avatar Brandon Berg in reply to Creon Critic
                Ignored
                says:

                Broadly speaking, businesses should have to follow the same laws the rest of us do. No violence, no fraud, etc. I just don’t think there’s any reason why they should incur special obligations as penance for the sin of making a profit.

                I’m not in favor of broad restrictions on child labor, because generally parents try to do what’s best for their children, and in very poor regions, that sometimes means working. I’m not opposed to restrictions on certain types of particularly dangerous or harmful child labor, such as prostitution.

                Of course they shouldn’t be allowed to commit violence against union activists, though they should be allowed to fire them and remove them from the premises.

                Toxic substances: It depends on whether the employees are reasonably well-informed about it. In some cases an informed employee may prefer that money be spent on higher wages rather than on making his working environment a bit safer. If an employer is lying about the safety of working conditions, even by omission, and the dangers are not well-known to the employees, I’d say that’s grounds for government intervention.

                Sexual abuse: Well…”abuse” is a loaded term, of course. I don’t think prostitution should be illegal, so I don’t think a job that’s 90% manufacturing and 10% sex with the boss should be illegal, either. If the owner is straight-up raping the employees, then that’s rape. But if he’s explicitly making sex part of the job, then there’s no legitimate grounds for government interference. Of course, if it’s the manager doing it, and not the owner, then the owner would have grounds for action against the manager.Report

              • Avatar Brandon Berg in reply to Brandon Berg
                Ignored
                says:

                As an example of reasonably informed employees choosing to work in an unsafe environment: Smoke-filled bars. There’s room for debate regarding exactly how unsafe it is, but the point is that the governments of many cities have banned it on the grounds that it’s unsafe for employees.

                Well, it’s probably really on the grounds that smoking cigarettes is a low-status habit, but the ostensible reason is health-related.Report

            • Avatar Patrick Cahalan in reply to Brandon Berg
              Ignored
              says:

              > What really bugs me about this is
              > the way leftists shift the burden of
              > alleviating their own first-world
              > guilt onto employers.

              Careful, you’re jumping ahead and assuming uncharitable motivations on behalf of your discussion partners.

              > Let’s be clear about this: Employers
              > aren’t responsible for the fact that
              > the third world sucks.

              Corporations and/or employers aren’t directly responsible for the fact that the world suck, sure.

              Once they incorporate under the laws of the U.S. and decide that they’re going to operate overseas, they’re responsible for following the laws of incorporation that are set down by us, the host country, though. If we decide that moving overseas comes with entanglements, they’re welcome to dis-incorporate here and incorporate somewhere else, or following the law.

              They are a legal entity, their existence is predicated upon our recognition of them as such. If we decide to attach all sorts of baggage on that, they’re stuck with the gig, though.

              > They go in, and they make a bad
              > situation slightly better.

              Maybe. Heck, I’ll say “usually”. And “slightly better” is better than nothing.

              I’m predisposed to find this calculus to be strangely tied to how much individual members of that corporation personally profit off of the decision, though. Not the corporation in general, mind you. As long as the officers are exercising their fiduciary duty to the stockholders and following the laws under which they incorporated, this is okay with me.

              > And then a bunch of self-righteous
              > leftists who aren’t even doing that
              > much have the chutzpah to say
              > that it’s not good enough.

              Er, who says they’re not doing even that much? Typically the leftists, self-righteous or not, support international aid programs and the like (whether or not this is a great solution is independent of whether or not they believe they’re helping, right?)

              > But why do employers have any special
              > responsibility to improve third-world
              > standards of living above and beyond
              > what they do through the pursuit of profit?

              They’re there?

              I mean, if I’m a corporate officer and I’m suggesting outsourcing to wherever, part of my corporate strategy is reinforcing the infrastructure of wherever. This is risk management 101. I think where “leftists” occasionally go wrong is that they assume that corporations are filled with solely profit-motivated people and they don’t do this.

              > The model I have in my mind is one
              > in which leftists think of making a
              > profit as a sort of venial sin.

              You’re overgeneralizing.Report

              • Avatar Tom Van Dyke in reply to Patrick Cahalan
                Ignored
                says:

                Haiti. T-shirts. We import 200 million a year.

                This is one area I have no opinion; I just can’t get a handle on what’s right. If the alternative is no “sweatshops” at all overseas, is that better?

                The only reason Haiti has any textile business right now is because the U.S. is giving the country a special trade deal. Any company that makes clothes in Haiti can send the clothes to the U.S. without paying any import taxes. It means clothes from Haiti have a big advantage over clothes from China, say, or Bangladesh.

                But Haiti wants more. The current trade deal expires in a few years. Haiti wants that extended. And there’s a quota that the Haitians want lifted.

                Right now, the Gap, Levi’s and some others do buy clothes made in Haiti. But there are a bunch of others who don’t, because of the quota on how many clothes Haiti can export to the U.S. without having to pay tariffs.

                Haitian manufacturers are lobbying Congress to lift the quotas, but there’s some push-back. Textile manufacturers in North Carolina, for example, say lifting the quotas might allow Haitian businesspeople to smuggle in Chinese-made clothes duty-free.

                My head hurts.

                http://globalvoices.posterous.com/what-haiti-needs-more-than-charity-trade-nprReport

              • Avatar wardsmith in reply to Patrick Cahalan
                Ignored
                says:

                eh Pat, you’re treading on your own thin ice here. For starters, make life too difficult on our multinationals and they are even MORE likely to take their corporations and incorporate elsewhere in friendlier climes.

                There are already those who are pushing for shareholder lawsuits against corporations doing altruistic work of any kind. Point of fact it is a hard task to prove that the “goodwill” that might ensue from doing “good work” has any benefit to the bottom line, there are actual studies on this but I don’t have the time right now to link to them.Report

              • Avatar Patrick Cahalan in reply to wardsmith
                Ignored
                says:

                > For starters, make life too difficult
                > on our multinationals and they
                > are even MORE likely to take
                > their corporations and incorporate
                > elsewhere in friendlier climes.

                That’s fair enough, Ward. I don’t know that this is really a major concern at the present time (really, if you’re a multinational, don’t you want to do business in the U.S.? Even more than China?) but you can get into “cutting off your nose to spite your face” territory if you take this too far.

                My point was more along the lines that Brandon seemed to be arguing that employers (anywhere) have no special obligations to anybody other than profit. Without arguing about whether or not that should be the way that it ought to be, it’s clearly not the case that this is the way it is.

                Any state can put all sorts of conditions on incorporation (everybody incorporates in Delaware anyway, granted). They have that legal authority. Using it might be a bad idea, but it’s not a matter of principle, it’s practice.Report

        • Avatar Creon Critic in reply to Brandon Berg
          Ignored
          says:

          Brandon Berg, I’d propose as a rule desperate exchange should be subject to greater scrutiny. That is to say, when the parties are on such unequal footing we should be concerned the more vulnerable party is subjecting themselves to conditions they would not agree to given any reasonable alternative – working conditions where one is exposed to more than the legal level of a toxin for instance.

          Also, the employer-employee relationship represents an ongoing power dynamic open to abuses it makes sense for the community to guard against. Otherwise workers could be engaged in a race to the bottom, with potential employees bidding on the levels of exposure to unsafe and inhumane conditions they are willing to tolerate. Perhaps great for a firm’s profit margins, very bad for human dignity.Report

          • Avatar James Hanley in reply to Creon Critic
            Ignored
            says:

            I’d propose as a rule desperate exchange should be subject to greater scrutiny

            I can agree with that. But who is to do the scrutinizing and respond in some way?

            The businesses, sadly, aren’t going to do it.

            The local governments, sadly, aren’t going to do it. If they did, sadly, the businesses likely would go elsewhere.

            Western governments might do it, but they don’t have much power over other sovereign governments.

            Western liberals will do it, but they don’t have meaningful proposals for change–all we’re getting out of that well-meaning group is “should” and “ought,” which along with $5 will get you a Starbucks low fact latte.

            If we’re so deeply concerned that this is a seriously important policy issue, we need to move beyond our moral outrage, get past the shoulds and oughts that don’t move anyone, and propose an actual workable solution that doesn’t in fact leave third world people stuck in pre-industrial poverty. They want out of that so badly they are willing to accept these serious costs to get there! So we can’t propose solutions that simply deprive them of that choice–we need to propose real-world solutions that improve their choices.Report

            • Avatar Kimmi in reply to James Hanley
              Ignored
              says:

              Fair Trade coffee, Farm Gate coffee, taking the few cash crops and giving people a living wage.
              Also, more science to make it more efficient to run factories in the South.Report

              • Avatar James Hanley in reply to Kimmi
                Ignored
                says:

                Actually, fair trade coffee isn’t what it’s cracked up to be. To keep the prices of fair trade coffee high, the number of coffee farmers in the fair trade collective has to be limited, so the fair trade market doesn’t have a surplus that would push down prices. That means a select few get the benefit, and the remainder don’t.

                So who gets to be in the fair trade collectives? It’s normally determined politically, by a government official who gets to certify people. How do they get certified? Remember, we’re dealing with under-developed countries, which tend to have corrupt governments. The above-market price for fair trade coffee creates an economic rent. That’s designed to go to the farmer to help them out, but in fact it tends to get siphoned off by the corrupt officials.

                A German study showed that over a ten year period fair-trade coffee producers did worse than other producers. See here for more details.

                It sucks, there’s no doubt about that. But this is the problem when programs designed to do good economic things are developed by people who have greater strengths in moral intuition than in economics. They don’t accurately perceive what incentives the programs create, so the programs end up going awry.

                The same is true, by the way, for most politicians and most public policies. When thinking about the good things that ought to be done, we tend to focus on the desired outcome and ignore the real incentives created by the program’s structures.Report

              • Avatar Kimmi in reply to James Hanley
                Ignored
                says:

                James,
                … the other “organic” coffee involves burning down rainforests.
                I agree, there are problems with the label “fair trade.”
                However, I disagree that there is only a small market for quality coffee. I also believe, from my knowledge of coffee buyers, that there are some people who are actively spreading knowledge on how to prepare coffee properly.
                http://www.sweetmarias.com/farmgatecoffee.php

                In addition, it’s one thing to pay for commodity grade coffee at above market prices, and then roast the hell out of it.

                But some of your sources there are conflating issues. The organic certification causes rainforests to be burnt down (notwithstanding the idea that a decent coffee buyer can tell you which countries never ever use fertilizers.)

                Fair trade commodity is one thing, but when I think about what I call fair trade, I mean paying more for an honestly gourmet product.

                You will Never Ever drink a cuppa of starbucks and swear that you’re drinking blueberry juice. With the cappuchino I get at home, you can truly taste the difference between coffee regions.Report

              • Avatar James Hanley in reply to Kimmi
                Ignored
                says:

                Fair trade commodity is one thing, but when I think about what I call fair trade, I mean paying more for an honestly gourmet product.

                I have no problem with that. That’s exactly as the market should be. Unfortunately that’s not what the Fair Trade label is about, and not what most people mean by the term.

                You will Never Ever drink a cuppa of starbucks and swear that you’re drinking blueberry juice
                I like Starbucks’ coffee shops, because they provide a good atmosphere for me to work, and I can work for hours for a rental price of $2.10 (amazingly, they don’t bug me to buy more or get out). But I can’t fathom how anyone likes their coffee. I find it vilely bitter–my local gas station offers a superior brew.Report

              • Avatar Kimmi in reply to James Hanley
                Ignored
                says:

                they call it charbucks for a reason.Report

            • Avatar Patrick Cahalan in reply to James Hanley
              Ignored
              says:

              @ James

              “If we’re so deeply concerned that this is a seriously important policy issue, we need to move beyond our moral outrage, get past the shoulds and oughts that don’t move anyone, and propose an actual workable solution that doesn’t in fact leave third world people stuck in pre-industrial poverty. They want out of that so badly they are willing to accept these serious costs to get there!”

              I agree with this entire paragraph wholeheartedly.Report

        • Avatar Stillwater in reply to Brandon Berg
          Ignored
          says:

          I think one way to get at it idea of ‘desperate exchange’ is to consider what would constitute a fair agreement without either the desperation or the disproportionate power. I admit this is a tricky thing to pin down.

          Here’s my take on it, BB, and it relates to the discussion we had about power differentials and what constitutes the ‘adverse effects’ of leverage you were wondering about in an earlier thread:

          A ‘desperate exchange’ (or a leveraged agreement) is an agreement determined, in part or in full, by the exercise of disproportionate power between the negotiators.

          ‘Disproportionate power’ is the ability to compel your negotiating partner to agree to outcomes they otherwise wouldn’t agree to except by appealing to factors extrinsic to the role and compensation being negotiated.

          This could manifest as threats to children (coercion) or promises of I’ll be your best friend. In the case of sweatshop labor, the basic framework for negotiations ought to be (say) respect for human dignity, some standard for worker safety, a wage determined by profits received and standard of living in the region, etc. But negotiations don’t proceed that way. Instead, they’re based around the agreed upon fact that lots of people are desperate for employment, and proceed from that basis. But desperation is a factor external (extrinsic) to the remuneration-for-performance negotiations.

          As we talked about before, all this stuff exists on a sliding scale so it’s hard to pin down, but there are clear cases at the outside end.Report

    • Avatar E.C. Gach in reply to Creon Critic
      Ignored
      says:

      “However, if we cared about the poor, we should take seriously the notion that sweatshops is their way out of poverty.

      What this implies is actually that, in free market capitalism sweatshops (may) be their way out of poverty.

      I agree with Still and CC in that an argument over what is politically possible shouldn’t obscure what would be a more morally optimal outcome.

      Implicit in the sweatshop argument is that sweatshops are better than the status quo. Even if we were willing to grant that, that says nothing about why we should accept them instead of a much more humane and charitable framework for third-world economic development.Report

      • Avatar James Hanley in reply to E.C. Gach
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        says:

        Implicit in the sweatshop argument is that sweatshops are better than the status quo. Even if we were willing to grant that, that says nothing about why we should accept them instead of a much more humane and charitable framework for third-world economic development.

        This is inarguably true. But it avoids two other serious questions. First, what if in the real world “more humane and charitable framework” exists? Then are we hindering moving past this intermediate stage of development by opposing it, ultimately increasing the sum total of human misery by delaying the development of wealth in third world countries?

        Second, if there is in the real world a “more humane and charitable framework,” how do we bring it about? Below, I argue that in fact the market is really the only solution, and that it can only come as a consequence of western consumers’ decisions placing pressure on producers (which will require accurate information for consumers). If we as consumers don’t value better working conditions, they will have to wait until third-world workers become wealthy enough to demand them. I think all proposed political solutions will be ineffective because it will require chasing one country after another from the outside.

        Moral argumentation just isn’t going to cut it–not when we’re talking about both businessmen and governing officials. Any “more humane and charitable framework” is going to have to be based on making that behavior the only way for those two groups to satisfy their own self-interest. Everything is mere feel-good moralizing, a species of emotional masturbation that is of no actual benefit to third-world labor.Report

      • Avatar Brandon Berg in reply to E.C. Gach
        Ignored
        says:

        There is no “instead.” Sweatshops don’t interfere with parallel efforts to improve standard of living in third-world countries. And they’ll go away (and historically have gone away) when the local economy develops to the point where there are better alternatives for workers. But it’s grossly irresponsible to just shut down the sweatshops and hope that something magical happens to make up for it.Report

        • Avatar Kimmi in reply to Brandon Berg
          Ignored
          says:

          man, I have to make a conservative argument against this?
          Jolly B Willickers!
          Sweatshops lead to the inevitable fraying of social norms, in particular destroying a man’s place in society, which in turn brings with it widespread depression/alcoholism/etc.

          Will they go away? Can they go away? I’m not sure. Multinational corps have a lot more sway in Nigeria than USA. Can they prevent other, more “evolved” forms of commerce? Do the words company town mean anything to ya? I think it’s possible, and that it may actually be self-sustaining, particularly with the improved psychology that the current corps are using.

          The difference between current sweatshops and those of yore is that the new ones are employing women. They complain less, you see.Report

        • Avatar Patrick Cahalan in reply to Brandon Berg
          Ignored
          says:

          > And they’ll go away (and historically have
          > gone away) when the local economy
          > develops to the point where there are
          > better alternatives for workers.

          I have no problem with this, either.

          Although I think the issue where everyone is sticky is that middle part. What happens before then, and what (if anything) we should do about it.Report

      • Avatar James K in reply to E.C. Gach
        Ignored
        says:

        You make a fair point, all I can say is if you manage to create a workable way of lifting up a poor country without going through this transitional period I would be really glad to see it. That’s not sarcasm, I really mean it. A solution like that would revolutionise development economics, it would be a Nobel-worthy achievement without question.

        And that’s the problem, some of the finest minds in economics have been beating their heads against this problem for the best part of 50 years. Look at Muhammed Yunus – all he did was come up with a policy that wasn’t a dismal failure, and he got a Nobel Peace prize for it.

        That’s how hard this problem is.Report

    • Avatar KenB in reply to Creon Critic
      Ignored
      says:

      An agreement made in desperate circumstances can’t be properly categorized as voluntary. An agreement to expose oneself to toxins at 177 times the legal limit cannot be countenanced by the community.

      Might be worth mentioning that the latter isn’t necessarily equivalent to the former — certain people might agree to the toxins if the pay was exorbitant and they would have a chance to enjoy their wealth. What is the community’s stake in that?

      But the larger point I’d make is this: if you’re going to remove unpleasant options from those in desperate circumstances, that simultaneously obligates you to provide them with a better alternative (or at least the realistic prospects of same). Someone who sees a sweatshop job as a step up is in need of much more than just strong statements of disapproval. If you can’t deliver on the promise of a more just and equitable society for such a person, then who are you helping by attempting to drive away business from those sweatshops?Report

      • Avatar Creon Critic in reply to KenB
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        says:

        What is the community’s stake in that?

        Why set the standard on toxins if it isn’t meant to be enforced? It doesn’t make sense to have a legally announced limit on exposure to a toxin with a loophole anyone can drive a coach and horses through, namely, as long as the two parties negotiate a mutually satisfactory price, any exposure to any amount of the toxin is fine. I can’t figure out a way to express this without coming up against perhaps axiomatic (to me) ideas about human dignity – but the proposition is that it matters that people are exposed to unsafe and inhumane conditions. Alongside the “two consenting parties” analysis typically offered by economists (and libertarians) an analysis of the consequences for social welfare is called for. The other community stake is the concern I expressed above at 9:16 about a race to the bottom, desperate workers bidding to accept even more unsafe and even more inhumane conditions.

        if you’re going to remove unpleasant options from those in desperate circumstances, that simultaneously obligates you to provide them with a better alternative

        Yes! We should devote a great deal of time and effort to finding pathways to development that aren’t as sordid and brutal as the pathway the current developed world took, cut down on the worker abuse and environmental degradation. First I’d offer my typical suite of favored policy choices, foreign aid, Millennium Development Goals, and such. But also, exorbitant price increases aren’t necessary to bring working conditions to a better level and arrest some of the most obscene abuses. The linked article in the original post, Matt Zwolinsk’s Sweatshops – Definitions, History, and Morality, points out,

        Sweatshop critics Edna Bonacich and Richard Appelbaum are quick to respond to the above arguments, for instance, by pointing out that in the case of a typical $100 dress sold and made in the United States, only 6% of the purchase price goes to the individual who actually made the garment. 25% goes to profit and overhead for the manufacturer, 50% goes to the retailer, and the remaining is spent on raw materials. Using similar reasoning, the National Labor Committee pointed out to Disney Chairman Michael Eisner in 1996 that the effect of raising the pay of workers at the Classic Apparel facility in Haiti from their then-current 35 cent per hour wage to 58 cents an hour would be a mere 3 cent raise in price for an $11.99 garment. And if certain economists are right, raising wages in many circumstances might actually lower costs, or at least have no negative effect. Workers who are not paid enough to provide for their nutritional needs might not be as productive as those who are able to afford a steady and reliable diet.

        Similar observation from John Miller (Word doc),

        Economists Robert Pollin, James Heintz, and Justine Burns recently looked more closely at this question (Pollin et al. 2001). They examined the impact that a 100 percent increase in the pay for apparel workers in Mexico and in the United States would have on costs relative to the retail price those garments sell for in the United States. Their preliminary findings are that doubling the pay of nonsupervisory workers would add just 50 cents to the production costs of a men’s casual shirt sold for $32 in the United States, or just 1.6 percent of the retail price. And even if the wage increase were passed on to consumers, which seems likely because retailers in the U.S. garment industry enjoy substantial market power, Pollin et al. argue that the increase in price is well within the amount that recent surveys suggest U.S. consumers are willing to pay to purchase goods produced under “good” working conditions as opposed to sweatshop conditions. (See Elliot and Freeman [20001 for a detailed discussion of survey results.) More generally, using a sample of forty five countries over the period 1992 97, Pollin et al. found no statistically significant relationship between real wages and employment growth in the apparel industry. Their results suggest that the mainstream economists’ claim that improving the quality of jobs in the world export factories (by boosting wages) will reduce the number of jobs is not evident in the data (Pollin et al. 2001).

        Now if Paul Krugman and Nicholas Kristof would stop praising sweatshops (respectively, In Praise of Cheap Labor and Two Cheers for Sweatshops) as an indispensible pathway to development maybe we could get states and corporations to take their human rights obligations more seriously. Absent the cover of claims of economic necessity – abuse today means prosperity tomorrow – perhaps human rights activists can make more headway in improving working conditions.Report

        • Avatar James Hanley in reply to Creon Critic
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          says:

          First I’d offer my typical suite of favored policy choices, foreign aid, Millennium Development Goals, and such.

          I’d support foreign aid if it was demonstrated to be at all reliably effective. Instead it tends to get bled off to feed the corrupt elites. Then people who don’t want to dig deep into the issue feel good about moaning that the U.S. doesn’t spend enough on foreign aid. But why spend more if in fact it’s doing more harm than good?

          I’m all for foreign aid that directly helps create wells for clean water, buys mosquito nets, helps build and staff schools, and the like. But it’s damned hard to actually make that happen. Give the money to a government and it gets diverted. Give it to an NGO and they may find themselves blocked by the recipient country’s government. The raw numbers just don’t tell the story.Report

        • Avatar North in reply to Creon Critic
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          says:

          To echo James, Croen, my heart certainly is sympathetic to your point but my head very coldly observes that the numbers just do not add up in a way that supports your assertions.
          We quite literally can compare sweatshops/open trade to foreign aid because both systems have been tried. On the foreign aid side we have, to this date, a large number of prevented deaths and an assortment of countries (mainly in Africa) that are pretty much just as much in need of foreign aid as before.
          On the sweatshop side we have a large number of prevented deaths as well (but perhaps not as many as foreign aid) and an assortment of countries that have advanced beyond sweatshops to a considerable degree and are now nascent first world countries, Taiwan, Hong Kong, Singapore, South Korea. We have millions and millions of people who no longer have to work in places like sweatshops or scrabble in the dust, starve and die. That’s a horribly lopsided set of results but that is what we have to deal with. Sweatshops and development actually make societies better off (eventually). Foreign aid is generally only palliative, it doesn’t fix the problem.

          If we really wanted to help people impoverished countries we’d work on establishing open trade with them, we’d encourage their governments to be responsive to the people and law abiding and we’d do away with our own economic abuses like agricultural subsidies. I wouldn’t say the foreign aid shouldn’t be on that list but it just doesn’t cut the mustard by itself.Report

          • Avatar James Hanley in reply to North
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            says:

            To clarify, the problem isn’t necessarily with the aid itself–although it’s possible to create badly designed aid packages, such as providing so much food that you destroy local agriculture markets–but that most of the countries in need of foreign aid have thoroughly corrupt governments. Aid to those who need it can be very helpful, but the nature of the countries most in need of it is itself what makes it unlikely that the intended beneficiaries will become actual beneficiaries.

            I just wanted to clarify that I wasn’t penning a screed against wealthy nations helping impoverished people in poorer nations. I was actually penning a screed against corrupt third-world governments that both harm their own people and make it exceptionally difficult for the rest of us to help those who are harmed.Report

    • Avatar James K in reply to Creon Critic
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      says:

      This is a fair question Creon Critic, let me start by elaborating on what I think is going on in these sweatshops, and why I think that’s what happening:
      1) The workers are better off than they were before the multinationals rolled into town. I say this because: People go to great lengths to get these jobs, this isn’t something people are being pressured into. I suppose it’s possible they they’re all being deceived, and then prevented from escaping back to their old lives, but that seems a little far-fetched.

      2) The alternative to sweatshops is far worse. It is a rule of economic decision-making that for-profit entities will not pay more for an input to their production process than it’s marginal product (the benefit they gain from adding one more unit of that input to their production process). That means that if the total cost of hiring someone (including their wages, benefits (if any) and compliance costs (including paying for safety equipment) is higher than what the employer will get out of it, they just won’t bother. This is especially important since labour productivity in 3rd world countries is very poor. This is not the fault of those people, but thanks to bad governance, lack of specialisation and scant education, you can’t get a lot of value out of 3rd world workers. That can change over time, but a society has to climb the ladder (see below). Until those people do climb the ladder, they are faced with a choice between being paid a pittance to work in unsafe conditions or whatever they were doing before, which was generally some combination of prostitution (the children most particularly, you didn’t think they were in school before, did you?) picking through toxic garbage heaps looking for something valuable, or subsistence farming.

      3) Those workers are building their country’s future. You may doubt it, but there is a pretty clear pattern identified in the economic literature as to how a country develops. Is it the only way? Probably not, but it’s what we know has at least a chance of working, though there are no guarantees. The progression is: Subsistence Farming -> Labour-Intensive Agriculture -> Labour-Intensive Manufacturing -> Capital-Intensive Manufacturing -> Human Capital-Intensive Manufacturing and Services. There are probably more steps after this, but we don’t know what they are yet. At each stage, the society gets more specialised, more productive and therefore richer. When a country is near the bottom of the ladder they have little to offer expect cheap labour. The rewards are little, but they help bring in enough resources and trade opportunities to build toward the next stage.

      In short, I believe that sweatshops are a sign that a country has hit the economic equivalent of the 18th Century. Things are still grim, but the potential exists for further development, once a country builds up enough to make capital investment viable.

      I hope that explains why Krugman and I feel the way we do about sweatshops.

      As for your questions, I do believe there are limits, they involve slavery and any situation where deception or coercion is used to restrict people’s range of alternatives. I don’t believe you can exploit someone by expanding their range of choices (barring some circumstances with diminished capacity). Exploitation requires taking away choices, merely offering them doesn’t meet my standard. I also support legal provisions sanctioning goods that are produced under conditions that are exploitative by the above definition.Report

  2. Avatar Stillwater
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    says:

    i.e. we should care about maximising the lifetime prospects of the worst off.

    Suppose that 2% of the people (group A) make $100/yr while 88% of the people (group B) average $5,000 per year. Do you think that the principles of justice require an income distribution such that 90% of the people (groups A and B) make exactly $101/yr?Report

    • Avatar Murali in reply to Stillwater
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      says:

      There is a reason why I said roughly. The premises under which leximin makes sense would tend to break down with respect to nominal differences which do not have concrete effects.

      But let us take seriously the diference between $100 a yr and $101. In such an economy, the extra $1 would be extremely meaningful.Report

      • Avatar Stillwater in reply to Murali
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        says:

        I’ll admit that the example was a bit shaky. But if the only metric we ought to consider is making the worst off better, then why isn’t a 1% rise for the worst justified? Doesn’t Rawls have a constraint on this: that others aren’t made worse off?

        Maybe I missed your point. It’s been happening a lot today.Report

        • Avatar Murali in reply to Stillwater
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          says:

          The 1% increase to the worst off is justified provided that it is a real increase in their prospects. The relative fluidity of money vs the chunky-ness of other goods means we have to be careful when we come up with counter examples. If the additional $1 makes no appreciable change in purchacing power, then we did not really benefit the worst off (not even by 1%) . Given certain plausible assumptions about peoples’conceptions of their good and what rational people would do, each marginal unit of purchasing power goes towards the things highest up on peoples’ lists like their basic needs etc.Report

    • Avatar Burt Likko in reply to Stillwater
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      says:

      I think that’s not a fair read of Rawls. Nor is it good math.

      Simple arithmetic suggests that we’d arrive at {A+B} getting $4,891.11 per year with pooling and equitable redistribution. That’s a tax of $108.89, or 2.18%, on {B} which seems close to negligible, but a huge impact on {A}. But Rawls would be equally comfortable with each member of {B} paying maybe $25 each, with the result that {A} makes $1,200 a year and {B} nets $4,975 a year.

      He would resist quantifying the process in such a manner altogether. Remember, Rawls is a political philosopher, not a policy wonk. As long as {A} arrives above an economic threshold whereby its members were able to survive with a modicum of dignity, and meaningful opportunities for entry into {B} were available, Rawls would say that the demands of economic justice had been met even if only very few people from {A} ever ascended into {B}.Report

      • Avatar Murali in reply to Burt Likko
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        says:

        {A} arrives above an economic threshold whereby its members were able to survive with a modicum of dignity, and meaningful opportunities for entry into {B} were available, Rawls would say that the demands of economic justice had been met even if only very few people from {A} ever ascended into {B}.

        I discuss this in my upcoming paper (hopefully), but very briefly, Rawls’s view is not that thre is some threshold, but that the worst off should be as well off as can be.Report

      • Avatar Stillwater in reply to Burt Likko
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        says:

        No I agree it’s not fair to Rawls. That was part of my point. I need think about what I was trying to get at with the above comment – it had something to do with using Rawls to justify outsourced sweatshops.Report

      • Avatar Brandon Berg in reply to Burt Likko
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        says:

        Redistribution isn’t necessarily a zero-sum game, especially over the long run. To assume that you can just pool and redistribute resources with no deadweight loss is to miss the point entirely.

        And the fact that Rawls was a philosopher and not an economist doesn’t really let him off the hook. If he wants to abstract away the production function, that’s fine, but then the principle needs to hold up for a wide variety of production functions. If it leads to bad outcomes under some hypothetical production functions, then that calls into question the validity of the principle under real production functions as well.Report

  3. Avatar James Hanley
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    says:

    Creon,

    Should there be any limits on working conditions? Are their any abuses that are intolerable in and of themselves, abuses which need be stopped irrespective of how (supposedly) productive or economically valuable they may be? Can we agree that children for instance should not be engaged in certain labor, no matter how supposedly nimble their fingers

    How can a person say “no” to such questions? The overriding, compelling, instinct is to say, “yes, yes, and yes,” and in fact that’s how my response began before pausing to think about it a bit more. Let me stipulate that I share your feelings about these things, and in no way do I call them “good,” or think their existence should not be a matter of concern to us.

    But there is a but. You emphasize how horrible these things are, regardless of how “economically economically valuable they may be.” In stating it that way, you have left out of consideration the question of how horrible the existing conditions of life are for people prior to, or in the absence of, taking those jobs. And who is best suited to making the decision about which option is better–the individuals affected, or those of us on the other side of the world?

    If (and I emphasize if) there is no path from the extreme poverty of a pre-industrialized society to the relative wealth of a newly industrialized society (with the prospect of development into a very wealth industrial/post-industrial society down the road), can we really say that the cost is not worthwhile? In that case a refusal to accept the price–ugly as it is–dooms not only that present generation to poverty, but all future generations as well. We all make sacrifices for our children, so isn’t it logical for people to accept this cost so that their descendants can have incomparably better options?

    Of course we can’t be sure that this step needs to be as ugly as it so often is, and if it can be made less ugly, by all means we should try to do so. I support consumer pressure. It’s more than merely legitimate to ask what the labor conditions under which our products were produced–if good labor conditions are something we truly value, then a functional market will provide it, providing we have the information that allows us to make informed choices. We have non-government standards setting agencies already–Green Seal, Snell, ISO–so if consumers really demand better quality working conditions there’s a market for a standards agency for third-world labor.

    Other solutions are not necessarily so effective. Demanding that, say, Vietnam improve its standards will merely drive the factories to Thailand, where the battle will have to be fought all over again. The local working population will not be much help because the demand for safety is in fact a luxury good, as the term is technically defined–that is, demand for it is low until a certain income level is reached, where other basic needs are satisfied. Get these populations over that hump, and there will be sufficient internal demand. So my argument is that pressuring their governments through politics isn’t effective, but pressuring producers through the market might be.

    When I was arguing this with my colleague who thought it would be better for the companies to not enter those countries at all, leaving the people in their undeveloped condition rather than making sweatshop work an alternative (a position I truly find cruel and inhumane), he used the following analogy. In the common law, there is a rule against demanding that a drowning person perform a sexual act on you as the price of saving them. This seems intuitive, as such an action is morally reprehensible. But there is a more carefully considered way to look at it. The common law approach essentially assumes that the potential rescuer will be deterred from demanding sex as payment, but not deterred from rescuing the person. What logic of incentives leads to that conclusion? The reality is that the would-be rescuer may be an immoral pervert, who simply won’t act unless motivated by the prospect of a sexual payment. That is, while we don’t want to promote making demands of sex-for-rescue, we have to ask which of the outcomes is worse. Is it worse to be forced to pay for your life with sex, or to drown?

    It sounds humane to protect people from being forced into sex as the cost of saving their lives, but if in fact it were to result in more people drowning, would it really be humane?Report

    • Avatar North in reply to James Hanley
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      says:

      James, to throw a point in on the side of common law I think it’s pretty useful that the law won’t enforce a contract made under duress of drowning for sex.Report

    • Avatar Kimmi in reply to James Hanley
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      says:

      At what point does a corporation cease to simply provide ” a way of bettering your life ” and become the problem itself, destroying people’s lives so that they are cheaper to hire?
      Take a somewhat hypothetical:
      This corporation hires kidnapped women to work as sex slaves. They would not voluntarily choose this, and though they as individuals make more money, none of it is remitted back to their hometowns.Report

      • Avatar North in reply to Kimmi
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        says:

        What corporation would that be Kimmi?Report

      • Avatar North in reply to Kimmi
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        says:

        To your hypothetical then now that I think I understand the question better. At what point does the corporation cease providing a means of bettering one’s life? I’d say sometime around the time that choice is eliminated or vastly curtailed. In the example there’s no choice at all. The women have been kidnapped and then forced to work as sex slaves. The whole point of slavery is it’s involontary.
        By contrast sweatshop workers, deplorably treated though they are, do generally choose to work in the sweatshop and consider it superior to their alternative activities (ie prostitution, scavenging for garbage, squatting and trying to eke out subsistance farming[aka starving]).Report

        • Avatar Kimmi in reply to North
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          says:

          Allow me to draw a different line, then. The corporation becomes deplorable at the point where they are actively creating people desperate enough to work at their “most profit” wages.

          Surely, you think that a multinational can and might destroy/buy/strip a perfectly functional factory just so that it can pay people less in its perfect little factory town…Report

          • Avatar North in reply to Kimmi
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            says:

            I suppose so but in todays world if a corporation wanted cheap labor it’d be safer and cheaper (and more legal) to simply relocate the factory to a region that has labor at the price point that the multinational wants rather than try and create desperate workers where the factory is.Report

      • Avatar Murali in reply to Kimmi
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        says:

        But the question is not whether some hypothetical corporation which was like a cartoon villain did all the stuf you say, but whether in the actual wworld, the actual actions of corporations benefit the worst off. We can be nuanced and say that their lobbying efforts dont but their ousorcing of labour does.Report

        • Avatar Kimmi in reply to Murali
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          says:

          Corporations in general? I ‘unno, actually. have you looked at the lakes of oil in Nigeria lately? It’s not MY fault the corporation is cartoonish. What, next you’ll blame me for russian scamming corporations… (the kind that steal credit cards off the internet).
          [n.b. simply because a corporation isn’t officially incorporated doesn’t mean that it isn’t acting as a corporation.]Report

          • Avatar Murali in reply to Kimmi
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            says:

            n.b. simply because a corporation isn’t officially incorporated doesn’t mean that it isn’t acting as a corporation

            Something which is not officially incorporated but is “acting like a corporation” merely means that they have a similar organisational structure. All this means is that corporate structure has something going for it in terms of organisational efficiency. There is nothing that guarantees that organising this way will launder all our actions lily white. Neither does actually incorporating. The fact that there are other types of actions which corporations engage in which are bad (and maybe even ought to be regulated) does not mean that anything a corporation does is bad. No one is suggesting that corporations are angelic do-gooders. All we’re saying is that as far as sweatshops go, these are not the droids you’re looking for.Report

  4. Avatar Roger
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    says:

    Great post Murali,

    The debate between James. Stillwater, BB, Creon, PC, Ken, Wardsmith and others above illustrates a common theme when we allow our good intentions and easy answers to dominate complex issues.

    It is tempting to try to alleviate the positions of those at the lower rungs of the economic ladder by decreeing “the rungs must be raised!” Any child can see that if you raise the bottom rungs, anyone on that rung will go up with it. “Fair wage minimum!” It makes me feel good just saying it.

    The unfortunate truth though is that by raising the lower rungs we can actually destroy access to the ladder. Those below this step can no longer reach any rung. Lifetime poverty or unemployment. No jobs offered at all.

    To try to attempt to shift one’s morality to the employer — the one person actually helping — is kind of sick. The poor person voluntarily accepts an improved situation, the employer gets inexpensive labor, consumers get lower prices.

    I understand that some of us feel the living conditions of those on the lower rungs is unacceptable. However, it is not right to take away that choice. Indeed it is kind of evil. The appropriate response is to quit passing the buck to the employer and doing something about it personally. Charity. Invest in living wage manufacturing. Go there yourself and become an entrepreneur.Report

    • Avatar Murali in reply to Roger
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      says:

      Thanks Roger!

      I do think that we should be careful to distinguish between saying whether we should allow employers to do things like that and saying whether it would be morally better if the employer not only employed them, but also made the workplace safe at personal cost. Its not clear why we can’t say both even though we acknowledge that as a system this is the one that does not just pull the bottom rungs up.Report

      • Avatar Roger in reply to Murali
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        says:

        Murali,

        In the simple world where we get to say changing working standards, safety, wages etc does not affect employment, I am in 100% agreement with you on sweatshop rules. The point is that we live in the real world.

        It is quite likely that there are costs to higher wages, better safety and so on. It is also quite likely that these costs are such that less will be produced, fewer worker will be needed and we will cause more pain than we could have anticipated.

        The point is that we are not in a good place to decide the tradeoffs. The employees and employers are in a much better place, and the standard should be REAL high before we force our opinions into the mix.Report

    • Avatar Kimmi in reply to Roger
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      says:

      There’s a good book out there on how Starbucks saved the coffee trade
      http://www.amazon.com/Wrestling-Starbucks-Conscience-Capital-Cappuccino/dp/0813543207Report

    • Avatar Kimmi in reply to Roger
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      says:

      All hail white slavery!
      (what, are there corporations that you disagree with? They’re also “helping people out” ain’t they?)Report

      • Avatar North in reply to Kimmi
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        says:

        I think you need to expand on that Kimmi. Right now I’m not getting it.Report

        • Avatar Kimmi in reply to North
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          says:

          It sometimes seems that “true liberals” praise corporations at any expense, and applaud all businessmodels as things that will help raise people out of poverty.

          I apply a different reasoning — corporations are well and good, where they make sense. and provided they are kept within limits.

          For me, at any rate, white slavery is one of those things that ought to be out of bounds for anyone, person or corporation.

          One can certainly make the argument that insurance ought not to be done on a for profit basis.Report

    • Avatar North in reply to Roger
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      says:

      As important, I’d submit, as Charity or the more unlikely and daunting prospect of starting your own company is conscious and conscientious consumption. Think about what you buy. The tools and products exist right now for identifying and purchasing goods that have been certified to have been made by workers in non-sweatshop conditions. These goods are more expensive than their competitors (obviously) and they’re currently a tiny niche market. If consumers in the first world began prioritizing conditions of manufacture even half as much as they prioritized raw price then the corporations would swiftly adapt to comply with those indicated preferences. Such a thing would do more to advance the welfare of the poor and the morality of capitalist systems then all the top down charities and government programs in the world.Report

  5. Avatar Rufus F.
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    says:

    Have any of you folks spent a lot of time debating really die hard Marxists? They’re fascinating, and a bit frustrating, because the really die hard ones honestly do not believe that they are ideological. They believe that every other political persuasion- liberal, conservative, libertarian, feminist, etc.- is driven by ideology, except theirs. The rest of us are expressing theories, guesses, and opinions that we’d like to believe are true, while they alone are dispassionately observing economic (or “historical”) laws that have been proven by Marx. So, when you disagree with them, they start getting frustrated. All you’d have to do is read the second book of Kapital more closely to understand the very simple scientific laws that Marx uncovered, but you’re too blinded by your ideology and bourgeois sentimentality to understand these very simple laws. So, you just give up after a while.Report

    • Avatar Tod Kelly in reply to Rufus F.
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      says:

      I have had these same conversations. The argument that they are not ideologues always reminds me of talking to evangelicals who insist that Christianity is not a religion, because it is the Truth.

      Also (he said sticking his foot into the piranha tank), I find arguing with hardcore Marxists is like arguing with hardcore Libertarians. Any time you bring up instances where there philosophy has been tried to some degree and gotten negative results, you are informed that that example involves people who were not pure enough to make it work the right way.

      Faith is everywhere.Report

      • Avatar James Hanley in reply to Tod Kelly
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        says:

        he said sticking his foot into the piranha tank

        Chomp!

        No, not really. I’m not myself a hardcore libertarian, and I agree with you too much to even make a pretense of arguing about it. I’ve had the same frustrating debates with those folks myself.Report

        • Avatar Rufus F. in reply to James Hanley
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          says:

          Tod, no, that was where I was going with that. For the record, I agree with many (maybe even most) of the libertarian opinions expressed in these threads. I just know that they’re not all unbiased expressions of objective economic principles.Report

      • Avatar MFarmer in reply to Tod Kelly
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        says:

        Todd, I suggest you read Thomas E. Woods’ book, Rollback, and you will get an idea why many libertarians have good reasons to defend the standard criticisms leveled against libertarian thought. Especially the arguments against free market principles are troublesome and deserve to be refuted by evidence. Woods is an economic/libertarian diagnostician/surgeon — he dissects the criticisms and point by point reveals the underlying causes which have been masked as “free market”. This is much different than asking someone to have faith in historical laws developed sans evidence. Whether you agree or not with his findings, you’ll have to do a ton of research to refute his findings.Report

    • Avatar North in reply to Rufus F.
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      says:

      To be honest I don’t think I’ve met a true believer marxist in person or in conversation online. Perhaps I’m too young to the net (good to think anyhow).Report

  6. Avatar Stillwater
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    says:

    I do think that we should be careful to distinguish between saying whether we should allow employers to do things like that and saying whether it would be morally better if the employer not only employed them, but also made the workplace safe at personal cost.

    That’s a good point, Murali – one which I think there’s movement towards general agreement on. I think it’s worth pointing out that the discussion began many days ago and from a very different place: one in which market-based labor agreements were viewed as (definitionally) voluntary, and therefore, (definitionally) moral. So I think we’ve gotten clearer on some of the concepts in play.

    What follows from viewing certain leveraged agreements as immoral (on a sliding scale, say, with outright coercion occupying the outside limit) is yet to be determined. I’m a big believer of the ‘ought implies can’ principle: if action X simply cannot be performed, it makes no sense to make the normative claim that ‘one ought to do X’. Wardsmith upthread made some comments suggesting this type of argument wrt corporations and sweatshop labor: essentially, that given the complexity of hiring and issues of governance in foreign countries, it’s impractical to impose a moral demand on (say) US corporations to act more morally wrt hiring practices.

    I think that’s actually a ripe topic for defenders of the status quo to pursue in response to some of the criticisms I and others have been making. But I also want to point out that it shifts the argument away from the view that employers have a principled right to hire workers under any conditions whatsoever just so long as that arrangement isn’t coercive. Instead, the argument justifying sweatshop labor would be that since employers cannot prevent the immoral behavior from occurring, they have no moral obligation to do so. (Whether they can or cannot prevent the immoral behavior is an empirical question.)

    Another thing I wanted to mention is that James Hanley’s argument in favor of permitting sweatshop labor is broadly utilitarian and consequentialist – as is Murali’s in the OP: given that certain communities of people suffer from lack of economic opportunities, sweatshops are justified as providing them with a) a marginally better life than they would have otherwise, and b) the potential for long-term economic growth which would eliminate the likelihood of sweatshops in that community.

    I think the problem with this line of reasoning is that even if the utilitarian argument is right (that on balance, third world communities and individuals are better off with sweatshops than without) the agreed to arrangements are still subject to moral judgments in the ways Creon Critic and EC Gach argued upthread. That is, justifying sweatshops on utilitarian grounds opens up that argument to the criticism that even greater utility would be achieved by treating workers humanely, paying them more, restricting the hours worked, etc.

    At the end of it, I don’t think a utilitarian justification for sweatshops can be made which is both consistent and non-arbitrary. And in fact, I think the best prospects for a defense comes from the ‘ought implies can’ principle. But invoking that argument concedes the argument that sweatshop labor practices are immoral, something which defenders are reluctant to do. It also shifts the debate in the direction of finding resolutions to the agreed upon problem rather than arguing the problem is only illusory.Report

    • Avatar James Hanley in reply to Stillwater
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      Stillwater,

      Good comment. A couple of friendly responses.

      I’m a big believer of the ‘ought implies can’ principle: if action X simply cannot be performed, it makes no sense to make the normative claim that ‘one ought to do X’

      I would agree with that. But it requires that we figure out the “can” prior to making the “ought” claim. I think most people engaged in normative arguments begin with the ought.

      justifying sweatshops on utilitarian grounds opens up that argument to the criticism that even greater utility would be achieved by treating workers humanely, paying them more, restricting the hours worked, etc.

      I agree my argument is normatively utilitarian. But it is not solely a normative argument, but a positive one–what can we actually cause to happen. Even if corporations can and ought to do X, is there a way we can ensure they will do it?

      That’s my big beef with normative theorizing in general is that it too often either stops with the oughts or if it moves beyond that engages in unrealistic assumptions about how to actually cause the corporation to do what it ought. In either case, the desired normative goal will not be achieved.Report

      • Avatar Stillwater in reply to James Hanley
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        says:

        James,

        That’s my big beef with normative theorizing in general is that it too often either stops with the oughts or if it moves beyond that engages in unrealistic assumptions about how to actually cause the corporation to do what it ought.

        Yeah, I broadly agree. Too often a normative claim is viewed as requiring certain actions as if the person making the claim thinks that ‘ought’ implies ‘must’. Which is not only a mistake, but often annoying as well.

        But I don’t think that’s what I (or you) have been doing in this discussion. Rather, my focus has primarily been to establish – or provide a credible defense of – the truth of certain types of normative claims which are often denied or rejected outright. In particular, I’ve tried to argue the view that certain types of market based labor agreements can be immoral even if they’re not the result of coercion.

        Now, it’s easy to think I have a broader agenda here to change laws and to ‘tax and spend’ and make government bigger and punish the wealthy and all that other lefty stuff. Brandon Berg certainly thinks I do. But that’s not so. My one and only goal – at this point! – is to establish the claim that certain types of non-coerced market agreements (ones based on heavy leverage) are immoral.

        So I think that the normative claim has merits all on its own, independently of what follows from it. Of course, I’d be lying if I didn’t think certain things follow from it, but I’m not sure what those things are other than this: recognizing the truth of the claim (if it’s true) will change how some people view market based agreements derived from the exercise of heavy leverage. It may also compel people to think more critically about other types of arrangements which we normally uncritically accept.

        Then, you know, after that, the chips fall where they may.Report

    • Avatar Creon Critic in reply to Stillwater
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      says:

      Stillwater, great comment. The point about utilitarian versus non-consequentialist approaches is excellent.Report

  7. Avatar Creon Critic
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    says:

    Brandon Berg, James Hanley, North, James K., Roger, a very long reply. You might just want to skip to your name, but I try not to repeat myself. Also, this was much shorter in my mind’s eye.

    Brandon Berg, Broadly speaking, businesses should have to follow the same laws the rest of us do.

    Part of the issue is the contest over what the law should be.

    I just don’t think there’s any reason why they should incur special obligations as penance for the sin of making a profit.

    Not a special obligation, a universal obligation to put profit in a social context and then make an assessment. Just as I can’t profit at the expense of protected wetlands or an endangered species, I shouldn’t be able to profit at the expense of employees’ core human rights interests. Campaigning for better working conditions is an attempt to put certain practices towards employees, make mistreatment as out of bounds as fraud or wanton environmental degradation.

    Also, I’d dispute the characterization you offered about closing sweatshops, I think campaigners are arguing for supply chain audits and monitoring so labor standards meet some minimum requirements.

    Finally, I think the most convincing arguments I’ve seen are saying, as they exist at this moment, sweatshops are not absolutely necessary. Every abuse, every mistreatment is not crucial to how they operate – the argument isn’t that all the apparel manufacture in the developing world should be closed down and moved to the US, or at least I’ve not been making that argument here. The argument is that there are certain boundaries upon which employers may not trespass. You also acknowledge these boundaries exist, noting slavery, misleading employees about exposure to hazardous substances, dangerous child labor, and physical force to stop unionizing are out of bounds. The core of the argument here has been where these lines are drawn, with me saying that the lines you’ve drawn (and in general the lines that exist at present) are underinclusive.

    I’m not in favor of broad restrictions on child labor, because generally parents try to do what’s best for their children.

    The thing that comes to mind is that compulsory primary education necessarily conflicts with child labor. When states require children to receive education it by definition takes children away from potential labor. That’s a conflict I’d always try to figure out a way to resolve in favor of education – whether through tuition-free schooling, free school meals, free school supplies, etc. Education as a Rawlsian primary good aside, the follow on consequences for literacy on family planning for instance strongly point in favor of childhood as protected years.

    James Hanley, I don’t accept that the only thing that count as “real-world solutions” (@ 6:13) are the precise structures we have in place today. All advocacy must begin with “should” and “ought”, even by merely outlining how things are unsatisfactory at present one implies that things ought be different. As for who should do the scrutiny of desperate exchange, multiple parties can be responsible to make up for the potential deficiencies you outlined if it were left solely to businesses, developing world governments, developed world governments, or NGOs. So I’d imagine businesses doing supply chain audits applying triple bottom line reporting principles. From my point of view, a handful of powerful developed world companies routinely including working conditions considerations would make a big difference to millions of people. Wal Mart has a lot of clout and uses it to great effect in lowering prices – why not use that clout for ensuring basic standards of conduct?

    A first pass at the issue might see companies agreeing with developed world governments on standards and routine self-reporting. Board level committees with responsibility for including in annual reporting (and certifying) compliance with standards and how they are upheld, also as to how NGO complaints are handled. Multinationals have to have home bases, they aren’t beyond the reach of developed world countries where they seek to sell their goods. Just as developed world nations have anti-bribery laws, legislation about conduct towards employees/contractors/suppliers overseas could also be used to improve working conditions. Developed countries also have leverage in trade agreements, they can pressure for space for NGOs to operate, helping monitor employment conditions.

    I suppose part of the disagreement is how we assess the value of working conditions and what falls into the absolutely impermissible category, you offer, “if good labor conditions are something we truly value, then a functional market will provide it, providing we have the information that allows us to make informed choices.” I’d argue that the human rights interests that are implicated don’t permit leaving these issues up to the market. More direct government action is appropriate.

    Overall, I’m arguing the routinized inclusion of working conditions as a consideration helps to shift norms of acceptable practice. Simply saying “abuse today yields prosperity tomorrow” is a method of excusing and justifying unconscionable conduct. It may very well be that wages remain far lower than I think acceptable, but perhaps the sexual abuse of workers will incur greater sanction, or perhaps other aspects of working conditions might be improved. This approach brings to mind a Dag Hammarskjold remark about the UN, “The UN was not created to take mankind to heaven, but to save humanity from hell.” Likewise, efforts on this score aren’t to make every workplace on earth OSHA compliant, but to preserve important considerations like human dignity that can get lost all too easily in the quest for profit.

    North, I admit that foreign aid has a mixed record, but I wouldn’t go so far as to make a 1:1 parallel between comparing the records of foreign aid and sweatshops. Foreign aid on large scales is capable of working, look at the rebuilding of post-WWII Europe. Also, as James Hanley. points out, there are a number of direct interventions that just plain save lives. Vaccination campaigns, malaria nets, HIV/AIDS prevention and treatment work – all these intersect with economic growth considerations. An unhealthy population is a poor workforce upon which to build economic growth. In addition, foreign aid has been encumbered by overarching political considerations that militated against the most aid for the most worthy project. I would hardly call superpower competition during the Cold War as the best circumstances under which to systematically provide aid to the neediest. Rather, client states were favored and I think I’m right in saying the overwhelming amount of funds were committed with military, not humanitarian, considerations in mind.

    Also, I mentioned foreign aid as one part of a larger program, quoting the piece from the original post on how a relatively small increase in the price of an end product could make a big difference in the wages of those employees who’re producing it. I don’t disagree with the other elements you highlight as important – developed world agricultural subsidies being pernicious, promoting the rule of law and democratic institutions.

    James K, People go to great lengths to get these jobs, this isn’t something people are being pressured into.

    I disagree, the point about desperate exchange is meant to be a reply to this idea that workers are choosing – admittedly, there’s a more holistic view of choice/coercion at play here – to work under these abusive conditions. I’m arguing the concessions employers can extract, due to the wider social context, are not concessions we should permit.

    Regarding the economics of hiring someone, I haven’t been arguing for minimum wages at first world levels. I’ve been arguing mainly about working conditions, I’ve mentioned wages far less and mostly by quoting the economists Matt Zwolink and John Miller cite (at 12:25). I’d contend some of the most compelling cases involve exposure to hazardous materials and using force to prevent workers from unionizing. Neither of those practices quite fit under the additional marginal product analysis. Sometimes abuse is abuse, employers have power and power corrupts. We need to guard against that corruption.

    a pretty clear pattern identified in the economic literature as to how a country develops.

    I understand the case you’re making, the economics understood only on its own terms makes a really attractive case. And yet human dignity…

    Roger, I think to the extent possible everyone has tried to steer clear of easy answers. Or, if decrying practices of sweatshops is classified as an easy answer, I’d say that the “abuses today mean prosperity tomorrow” presents just as easy an answer in avoiding our own potential culpability for grave suffering.

    The unfortunate truth though is that by raising the lower rungs we can actually destroy access to the ladder.

    If I may be permitted, perhaps the weakest part of the argument for sweatshops is that every abuse is an essential ingredient in preserving this lowest rung on the ladder. Is monitoring to prevent sexual abuse prohibitively expensive? Must workers be exposed to unsafe levels of toxic substances? When the lowest rung of the ladder is at inhumane levels, I think it is incumbent upon the more privileged – those satisfying wants in the developed world as opposed to those satisfying needs in the developing world – to object.

    Because I was browsing through academic journals on desperate exchange, and this reply couldn’t be harmed by yet another paragraph, I’ll quote Robert E. Prasch’s Toward a “General Theory” of Market Exchange (footnotes omitted),

    Now it should be clear that there are many commodities that could fit within the definition of a need or a want at any given moment in time. This is precisely the point. It is not the specific commodity, but rather the circumstances of the person in the market – in other words their specific individual condition – that dictates whether a given transaction at a particular time is about satisfying a need or a want. The familiar textbook example of water may help to illustrate this point. A thirsty person in a desert, whose life is in danger, will be willing to freely exchange a considerable quantity of wealth to obtain a relatively small quantity of drinking water. Alternatively, a thirsty person who lives in the proximity of a freshwater lake in Maine would be unlikely to engage in such a desperate exchange. The first thirsty person is trading for a need, the second person seeks to fill a want, a want that, if it remains unsatisfied, can soon be resolved by their own initiative.

    Report

    • Avatar James Hanley in reply to Creon Critic
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      Creon,

      I don’t accept that the only thing that count as “real-world solutions” are the precise structures we have in place today. All advocacy must begin with “should” and “ought”,

      Respectfully, if you think that’s what I’m arguing then you’ve misread me. The precise structures we have in place today by definition are not “solutions” to the problems we see with those structures. My point is that a real world solution must be something that’s composed of only a small portion of idealism, and a large dose of “what new structural elements will actually change corporations’ behavior” realism.

      I’m just saying that I’ve not heard any such real-world, functional, proposals, although I’ve been hearing the shoulds and oughts for more than two decades now. Beginning with shoulds and oughts is all well and good–I can’t argue against that–but just how long is this beginning? If there are functional real-world solutions, when are the shoulders and oughters going to get around to them?

      I suggested previously that a market solution was possible, through an independent standards agency. Someone else here noted there is such a company now. I say good to that, and I say that instead of continuing the discussion about what corporations should and ought to do, the shoulders and oughters ought to turn their attention to what consumers should do, and publicize this non-sweatshop standards company.

      Or come up with some other mechanism that might actually work. But talking endlessly about the moral evil of the problem can easily become a barrier to talking about real solutions. And I think that two to three decades of talk is too long to count as “starting out.”

      (Of course a lot of my position here could be driven by personality. I have a good friend who’s a philosopher, and who wants to engage in endless discussion of the problems, their implications, and what an ideal solution would be like, and would never get around to actually trying to outline an actual attempt at a solution. I’m the opposite, once I have the gist of the problem and think I have captured the relevant details, I want to get right to the designing of possible solutions, and experimentation with them. We drive each other crazy.)Report

      • Avatar Kimmi in reply to James Hanley
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        says:

        My money’s on unions. Where’s yours?Report

        • Avatar James Hanley in reply to Kimmi
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          says:

          Not on unions, because they will only develop after there’s been enough economic growth in the sweatshop stage. So relying on them is relying on the structural status quo, not any kind of change to something different.Report

          • Avatar Kimmi in reply to James Hanley
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            says:

            … you mistake me greatly. but that’s okay. Who marched first in this country, and when? What might have happened if they had recieved some support?Report

            • Avatar North in reply to Kimmi
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              says:

              I think James’ point is that unions formed only after industrialized society had developed to the point that people had the social capital and awareness necessary to organize and demand a fairer deal.

              But I think you have a point in that now that the first world exists as an example unionism should be able to be exported to accelerate the process in the current developing world.Report

              • Avatar James Hanley in reply to North
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                says:

                You read me well, North.

                now that the first world exists as an example unionism should be able to be exported to accelerate the process in the current developing world.

                Ceteris paribus, yes. But I suspect most third-world countries would be even more repressive of unions than the UK and US once were, because they are that much more tyrannical to begin with. It’s an empirical question, though, and I could be wrong. But that’s the line I’d wager on.Report

              • Avatar North in reply to James Hanley
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                says:

                Well yes, quite, part of the sticky part of this is that capitalism has gotten the low hanging fruit in that as a general rule countries with lawful democratic governments are generally flourishing and the development is now trying to hack its way into countries with governments considerably worse than the early 19th century anglosphere governments were.Report

              • Avatar James Hanley in reply to North
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                says:

                That’s a good way to look at it.

                And we sometimes forget how long it took England (and Europe in general) to develop that relatively good governance, compared to how quickly we want to jumpstart it in these other countries with radically different histories. Still, economic growth from relatively open capitalism led to liberalized governments in Taiwan and Korea within one or two generations, so there’s reason to hope.Report

              • Avatar Kimmi in reply to North
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                says:

                You mean like Italy? Or Russia? Yeah, I grok that.Report

              • Avatar James Hanley in reply to Kimmi
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                says:

                Too vague for me, Ms. K., I don’t catch your drift.

                When has Russia ever had relatively good government? When has Russia ever had relatively free markets? My take is the answer to both is never, so I’m not sure how they fit into the debate.

                Italy, assuming I’m following you right and not just my own train of thought, is an interesting case. The parliament seems to be so fractured that it can’t actually accomplish anything, which paradoxically makes for a certain amount of stability, while their bureaucracy is relatively well-functioning and keeps governance humming along satisfactorily. An odd case, but explainable.Report

              • Avatar Kimmi in reply to Kimmi
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                says:

                James,
                I’m rather referencing the curious case that democratic government/capitalism has worked out much better in Protestant countries than Catholic ones. (spain is about to blow itself to bits with hatred. but it’s Always Been that way)Report

              • Avatar James Hanley in reply to Kimmi
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                says:

                Ah, a bit outside my ken, so I can’t really add anything intelligent. I suppose discussion about that involves Weber’s prottie work ethic argument and all that. I can think of lots of Cath o’ lick jokes to plug in here, but I should probably pass up the opportunity.Report

              • Avatar North in reply to Kimmi
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                says:

                I almost pointed out the Irish have done decently and they’re Irish, but then I recalled… well ya know, Ireland’s history and also that they’re currently throwing Catholicism into the Atlantic so that example is kaput.Report

              • Avatar North in reply to Kimmi
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                says:

                Err I meant the Irish are Catholic, rather than the Irish are Irish, though I suppose the way I flubbed it is more true than the way I intended to write it.Report

      • Avatar Creon Critic in reply to James Hanley
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        says:

        James, sorry I misread you as saying the solutions were the real-world conditions of today and the shoulds and oughts were of little value. I’m surprised the conversation has lasted so long without a clearly articulated definition of sweatshop. I seem to be focusing on working conditions, physical abuse of workers, exposure to hazardous materials, and the like. Others seem to focus on long hours at low wages, paying less attention to other abuses of workers. Though given your comment at 5:19 the distinction might not make a difference.

        I think Stillwater’s comment at 12:24 is the analytic point of the discussion so far, perhaps identifying the exact point at which the competing perspectives on sweatshops diverge.

        My impression when you brought up independent standards at 10:28, Green Seal, Snell, ISO, was that the consumers would continue to make voluntary choices about which products to buy, as opposed to systems using government mandated reporting requirements or just plain mandates to prevent working conditions abuses. I’m all for more informed consumers and carrotmobs, but I think punitive measures are necessary too.Report

        • Avatar James Hanley in reply to Creon Critic
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          as opposed to systems using government mandated reporting requirements or just plain mandates to prevent working conditions abuse

          A) I assume this wouldn’t come from the developing nations’ government, for reasons explained before. Not that I would oppose it coming from them; I just wouldn’t predict they actually will. So in my response I’m assuming we’re talking about the U.S. Gov’t.

          B) I would be cautious to “just plain mandates” from the U.S. government to effectively govern conditions overseas. I suspect this is a case where good intentions would be coupled with serious unintended consequences.

          C) I would be find with our government mandating reporting on conditions and pay. A required element for a well-functioning market is information, and one thing government can do really well is collect and disseminate information. It would help people more readily make their choices about what to buy, and that’s all a positive.

          So when I brought up Snell, etc., I should have clarified that I wasn’t saying that government shouldn’t play that role, but that it need not necessarily be only government that plays it, and since there’s no guarantee of political success in getting our government to play that role, we should also be advocating that some market actor play that role.Report

    • Avatar North in reply to Creon Critic
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      says:

      Fair enough points Creon, I certainly didn’t intend to suggest foreign aid is useless, actually I think palliative sort of aid does much good (and tried to imply as such by crediting foreign aid to saving far more lives in the short term than free trade in my 1:1 comparison). But I am deeply skeptical that foreign aid has even remotely the same good record with regards to spurring economic development.

      As far as I’m aware when it comes to development foreign aid has generally resulted in corruption and dependency rather than development with the significant exception of the Marshal plan version of foreign aid (but lets be real here, in Marshals case we were helping developed nations rebuild after they and we had just finished blowing them to bits, there is virtually no parallel to the third world here).

      I agree with regards to questions of small price increases potentially improving outcomes for the producing workers and really I think the only place where we strongly part company is that I feel that you’re of the opinion that the pressures for worker condition improvements should come from the host governments of the manufacturers target markets. From my point of view what this would translate into could only realistically be expected to be tariffs, retaliatory tariffs and misery all around. I also feel that this very badly lets an important actor completely off the hook: the customers. Ultimately I think that it is the customer’s responsibility to be informed of what they’re buying when they buy. When Joe buys the Chinese shoes instead of the shoes made in Illinois because they’re cheaper he’s very much endorsing their poor labor standards. It is well within the power of the consumer masses to demand shoes made under certain minimal qualities and were they to do so the corporations would fall over themselves to improve conditions. One doesn’t help the developed world’s workers by campaigning against free trade, if one really wanted to help developing world workers then one would need to be willing to shell out extra money to buy the shoes made by certified humane working conditions. Unfortunately that is not something that people are willing to do. Talk is cheap, money is not.Report

    • Avatar Roger in reply to Creon Critic
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      says:

      Creon,

      As was discussed in the Coercion thread a week or two ago, I agree that there are power imbalances and situations which are not best handled by the rules of free enterprise. Water in the desert was my example too.

      Creon: “…if decrying practices of sweatshops is classified as an easy answer, I’d say that the “abuses today mean prosperity tomorrow” presents just as easy an answer in avoiding our own potential culpability for grave suffering.”

      Abuses according to whom? Who are you to decide? How are you harmed if you choose poorly? Would you even know? You don’t face the tradeoffs or learn from the feedback.

      The incremental path to prosperity is fairly well established. Higher wage jobs are not likely until lower paid skills are first developed and built upon. Furthermore, those at very low income have different needs and value mixes than you or I. I don’t inject my values on them though.

      And what exactly is our culpability for their grave suffering? I agree that dangerous working conditions — all else being equal — is bad. But all else is not equal, and I am not at all confident you and I can work through the tradeoffs as well as the employer and employee and local government can. As a general rule we should keep our noses out of that which we do not understand.

      Yes, I truly think you are actively campaigning to make their life worse and make you feel better.Report

      • Avatar Creon Critic in reply to Roger
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        says:

        Roger, Abuses according to whom?

        Fair question. Well, abuses according to widely ratified human rights and labor standards conventions – or on a micro level, often abuses according to local country law, the Vietnamese law instance of workers being exposed to 6 to 177 times the permissible amount of the toxic chemical toluene cited above.

        Who are you to decide?

        Well I didn’t do the deciding. The International Labor Organization has conventions that are widely ratified, and a Declaration on Fundamental Principles and Rights at Work. Another document worth considering, the ILO’s Fundamental Conventions (pdf). The ILO’s governing body included states, employers, and labor groups – so it can’t be so far off the mark in enunciating values sensitive to all groups concerned. I haven’t mentioned it much so far, but Kimmi has rightly brought up unions upthread. One aspect of resolving this question of imposing my voice and displacing those of workers, essentially taking away their agency through advocacy, is to pursue the unionization route. Then workers’ representatives can outline what is most valuable to them. But if employers are free to mercilessly crush unionization efforts (using methods including force) then isn’t it appropriate that unencumbered developed world activists speak out? (The ILO texts highlight the importance of collective bargaining by the way.)

        And what exactly is our culpability for their grave suffering?

        You’’ll notice that I hedged there, “our own potential culpability”. Partly because I think quite a few people will argue that we don’t hold much responsibility, if any, for the conditions under which people produce the products we buy (or for wider inhumane circumstance found in the developing world). Perhaps I can phrase it in a more positive way. How about, “to whom much is given much is expected”, that pretty much fits my purposes. Having been born into a relatively privileged position, it is important to combat human suffering on the scale we see around us today.

        As a general rule we should keep our noses out of that which we do not understand.

        Ah, now we reach the core of your moral universe. The human dignity preservation approach I’m propounding is being dissected upthread, it is only fitting that we turn the tables. That is to say, a moral rule saying “keep out” deserves some unpacking. So your answer to my initial question “Should there be any limits on working conditions?” is no then? Should whatever is decided between employer and employee stand – with the expectation that courts will enforce such agreements? Can we ever have enough information to determine when working conditions are inhumane, or are cultures so very different that I fundamentally misunderstand what the employer-employee relationship means in the developing world? To what extent is the developing world unknowable, a world to which I can never gain access? What implications does such a maxim have for other important relationships in society, say, marriages or the parent-child relationship? Since the community can’t possibly understand the internal dynamics, we ought keep out?Report

        • Avatar Roger in reply to Creon Critic
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          says:

          Creon,

          Good points as usual (seriously, I really respect your logic and rhetorical skills– kudos dude!).

          I agree that it is reasonable to assume a corporation is doing harm if it violates local laws. I am also fine with having a generic set of minimal rules such as the ILO and seeing how well they work out. If these prove over time to be beneficial on net to employees and prospective employees, then I would support them. For example, I would support labeling products and corporations as in or out of accord.

          I am fine with a worker being free to unionize, and I am fine with an employer being free to replace striking workers. I am not fine with using violence to support or oppose unions, and would probably refrain from supporting products that were coercively produced.

          I too feel compelled to use my privileges to help others, and I certainly do not want to be culpable of exploiting anyone.

          Finally, I can indeed imagine situations where a third party interference of totally voluntary, un-coerced acts of free enterprise are prohibited. This includes acts of children, people like Mike (lol), and actions which have proven to backfire wildly (willingly agreeing to involuntary servitude for example). I’d be very judicious in my use and very demanding on my proof, though.Report

  8. Avatar James Hanley
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    says:

    Another point worth noting is that there is often a tradeoff between safety and wages. That is, very safe jobs often don’t pay very well, while very dangerous jobs have a wage premium. Of course those don’t have a direct inverse variation, because the wage is also affected by the worker’s productivity and replacibility, which is why safe lawyer’s work pays well and dangerous night-time gas station attendant work doesn’t. But for any given job, an increased danger level will normally result in a wage premium.

    So let’s say we make sweatshops safer–less “sweaty.” Could that cause downward pressure on wages so that the employees make even less?

    Obviously both of these things could be targeted through public policy, but I’m assuming the host state has no interest in such public policy and that the hiring corporation is only responding to consumer pressure. Could consumers effectively demand a simultaneous increase in safety and wages, or would the corporation be able to force a tradeoff of one for the other?Report

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