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Workplace Safety and the Gilded Age Theory of Risk

[ 395 ] April 25, 2013 |

Matt Yglesias had an odd response to my post yesterday calling for American corporations to be held to American labor standards no matter where in the world they site their plants or whether they subcontract the work out. Yglesias said that less safe conditions in poorer countries was OK and in fact helped the people of Bangladesh.

I think that’s wrong. Bangladesh may or may not need tougher workplace safety rules, but it’s entirely appropriate for Bangladesh to have different—and, indeed, lower—workplace safety standards than the United States.

The reason is that while having a safe job is good, money is also good. Jobs that are unusually dangerous—in the contemporary USA that’s primarily fishing, logging, and trucking—pay a premium over other working class occupations precisely because people are reluctant to risk death or maiming at work. And in a free society it’s good that different people are able to make different choices on the risk-reward spectrum. There are also some good reasons to want to avoid a world of unlimited choice and see this as a sphere in which collective action is appropriate (I’ll gesture at arguments offered in Robert Frank’s The Darwin Economy and Tom Slee’s No One Makes You Shop At Walmart if you’re interested) but that still leaves us with the question of “which collective” should make the collective choice.

Bangladesh is a lot poorer than the United States, and there are very good reasons for Bangladeshi people to make different choices in this regard than Americans. That’s true whether you’re talking about an individual calculus or a collective calculus. Safety rules that are appropriate for the United States would be unnecessarily immiserating in much poorer Bangladesh. Rules that are appropriate in Bangladesh would be far too flimsy for the richer and more risk-averse United States. Split the difference and you’ll get rules that are appropriate for nobody. The current system of letting different countries have different rules is working fine. American jobs have gotten much safer over the past twenty years and Bangladesh has gotten a lot richer.

There’s a number of problems here. I want to be brief, so let me focus on just a few.

Yglesias deploys a Gilded Age theory of risk and work. This I found remarkable and it suggests just how far unregulated capitalism has come back in the minds of even people on the left side of the political spectrum. In saying that workers agree to take on risk when they choose a particular job, Yglesias is fundamentally following the decision of the Massachusetts Supreme Court in Farwell v. The Boston and Worcester Rail Road Corporation. In 1842, Massachusetts decided that employers were not liable for workers’ getting hurt or dying on the job because workers personally assumed a risk when they agreed to work. Farwell set the standard for Gilded Age assumptions of risk on the job that led to a legal system granting workers no rights at work throughout the 19th century.

I know that Yglesias doesn’t go this far, but assuming that people agree to take risks by working dangerous jobs places the onus for safety on workers and not the corporations who could easily grant workers safe working conditions. It rationalizes away antisocial corporate behavior. By deploying a fatalistic history of the Industrial Revolution that countries must go through periods where their workers have no safety before they advance, Yglesias provides a structure to justify the death of 200 workers yesterday.

The Progressive Era and New Deal and Great Society, not to mention the work of unions for the last century once chipped away at this antiquated notion of risk, through workers compensation, union health and safety committees, OSHA, and many other things. But today, the structure of Gilded Age capitalism is again in the ascendant, both at home and overseas, as Yglesias’ argument suggests.

There’s also the issue of democracy and choice. What are workers actually choosing when they make these theoretical choices to enter the plant? They choice many tried to make was not to work in unsafe conditions. They were threatened with severe pay loss that placed their families’ already precarious economic system in even more danger. Bangladeshi workers have tried to organize into unions. What happened? Their organizers were murdered. The building is owned by a local political elite. What chance did workers have to create change? Workers try to make choices. Those choices are denied them by an international corporate-political alliance. The choices are made for workers by Wal-Mart, by their corrupt elites, by the bullet from a police officer’s gun.

Frankly, this line of thinking that Yglesias deployed about risk and choice exists only in university Economics departments, corporate offices, and in the minds of the punditocracy. People don’t actually think and act this way because their “choices” are constrained by such things as government, family, violence, and survival.

A more minor point is Yglesias’ idea that more dangerous work is better paid work. This is just not true. I pressed him on this in the Twitter conversation and he sent me data showing that fallers within the timber industry make more money than other logging jobs. Yeah, sure within industries people get paid more for more dangerous work, especially under union contracts, but I don’t see what that has to do with the point at hand. Across the economy, dangerous work is also low-paid work. Ask Joe Griego, a New Mexico farmworker who was stomped by a bull and who doesn’t qualify for workers’ comp laws. Ask the people of West Virginia, where 125 years of working dangerous coal jobs has led to entrenched poverty. Ask my family in the timber industry.

But what really matters here is that workplace safety is incredibly cheap. Once you start talking about, say, putting in technologies to reduce smoke from steel production you can need to implement relatively expensive technologies. But for basic workplace safety, there is no reason that we can’t implement international standards. The building that collapsed in Bangladesh had huge cracks in it and the workers didn’t want to go in. I think a building that meets basic safety codes is pretty reasonable. So are proper fire escapes, fireproof doors, and sprinkler systems. So are hand protections from saws, face masks for welders, and other extremely inexpensive technologies that save a lot of lives. So Yglesias can talk in these broader theoretical terms about workers and risk and different safety standards being OK. But in the end, that argument leads you to rationalizing American corporations setting up a system that allows 200 people to die because simple fire safety wasn’t followed. That’s a workplace safety standard that should exist everywhere.

….I see Scott has also written a response below, which covers some of the same ground.

…..Also, definitely read David Atkins’ response to Yglesias.


Comments (395)

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  1. NonyNony says:

    A more minor point is Yglesias’ idea that more dangerous work is better paid work.

    And this is why the CEO of JP Morgan Chase makes less money than your average firefighter.

    • Scott Lemieux says:

      Yeah, what’s the average wage for people working in non-union meat packing plants?

    • Hogan says:

      If the number of people who want you dead counted, that CEO job would be real dangerous.

    • Sherm says:

      Or fishermen and loggers. I never would have wasted my money on college and law school if I understood as a young man how well the market compensates fishermen and loggers for their willingness to perform dangerous work.

    • tt says:

      Because wage is determined by only a single factor.

      • NonyNony says:

        Right – and “how dangerous is this job” is not, in fact, one of the major factors determining compensation. In fact highly dangerous risky jobs typically pay far less than less dangerous jobs. Because highly dangerous, risky jobs tend to be performed by “unskilled” labor while less dangerous, less risky jobs do not.

        Which is why Yglesias’s point is stupid from every possible angle you want to look at it and is yet another example of “What’s wrong with Matt Yglesias is that he needs to go get a real job and see how the world really works” POV.

        • tt says:

          In fact highly dangerous risky jobs typically pay far less than less dangerous jobs. Because highly dangerous, risky jobs tend to be performed by “unskilled” labor while less dangerous, less risky jobs do not.

          Not only does this not contradict anything in Matt’s post, I’m sure he would agree with it. Because it’s obviously true! The difficult and controversial question is how large the premium for risky jobs is once skill and all other factors are taken into account. Just comparing dangerous jobs to safe jobs without controlling for anything else tells you nothing interesting.

          • firefall says:

            And the wage bonus for working in an unsafe, risky building, compared to working in a safe building, is in fact … negative, because the cheap bastard willing to risk workers lives is also the one that pushes hardest and pays least. So what the fuck is Yglesias talking about?

            • tt says:

              You use the words “in fact” but you fail to provide any evidence. I don’t find your hypothesis very likely, because I don’t believe there are large numbers of employers who pay their workers well and give them safe working conditions out of the goodness of their hearts. Wages are not determined by the magnanimity of employers.

              • firefall says:

                Did I mention pay well or good working conditions? I’m merely comparing different levels of awful. Other employers demonstrably do not feel the need to abrogate the laws of their own country in such a comprehensive fashion in order to squeeze additional profit – is this your definition of ‘out of the goodness of their hearts’? Please take your straw men and stuff them up your fundamental orifice

          • Cody says:

            So you are -LITERALLY- asking us to put a dollar value on human life?

            I think that pretty much means you’ve lost the argument…

            • tt says:

              Huh? Obviously there’s a dollar value on human life. Every time you get in a car you’re making a decision that the convenience/income obtained from the ride will exceed the probability of dying. So too with hundreds of other decisions we make daily. So too with thousands of policy decisions made by regulatory agencies. You can argue for higher or lower values but an infinite valuation would lead to a society far more risk-averse than anyone actually would want to live in.

              • Brandon says:

                Everything must be monetized.

              • NorthLeft12 says:

                So instead of leaving my bunker to forage for food or go to work to earn money to purchase the necessities of life I should do what?

                Stay in my bunker and starve to death and decrease the surplus population? To quote Mr. Scrooge.

                The whole point is that minimum safety standards at a workplace should be world wide. My chemical company has a policy where the corporate safety standards are to be followed anywhere they build a new chemical plant. And those standards are at least as good as the Canadian or US standards.
                I see no reason why other industries cannot do the same.

  2. tonycpsu says:

    Atkins’ response is the best in terms of trying to engage Yglesias on an intellectual level, but given the glib “you have to break a few eggsBangladeshi workers to make an omeletaffordable t-shirt” nature of Matt’s post, I think Mr. Destructo‘s take is perhaps the most appropriate.

    • scott says:

      I agree and like the way he summarized it: Yglesias looked at the preventable deaths of scores of Third World workers, and he was bored. That’s it. On an important level, Yglesias is emotionally and morally disengaged from the nature and consequences of things he writes about. He’s much more committed to defending an abstract model of rational choice than at looking at real-world examples to see whether that model is true and, if not, what the results are. And the results of economic power imbalances are deadly, but Yglesias knows where the paychecks are coming from and dooesn’t care. I agree with this commenter that a cold, dispassionate take-down is appropriate but that another dimesnion is also required, ie, asking what kind of heartless asshole looks at this and thinks in somekinda Kiplingesque way that these lesser breeds chose their deaths by placing less of a value on their own lives.

      • cpinva says:

        mr. yglesias is morally bankrupt and thematically dull. possibly, he’s romney’s evil twin, “skippy” romney.

      • Barry says:

        Or, in the end, he’s a neoliberal Harvard grad who’s also realizing where his career interests lie.

      • UserGoogol says:

        People die every second of every day. If you’re emotionally attached to individual deaths, you are not being rational, and therefore you are not being liberal. Liberalism is ABOUT detaching yourself from the irrational biases of human nature and judging society from a neutral perspective. That’s the whole fucking point.

        • Brandon says:

          yeah well fuck liberalism then, or at least that definition of it.

          • scott says:

            Yup, I find “fuck that” an entirely rational and appropriate reaction to the point of view that getting upset about people dying is an irrational bias.

          • UserGoogol says:

            Getting worked up over emotionally evocative deaths is what called the War in Iraq. I do not want to see people repeat that mistake, and it’s frustrating to see so-called liberals making that same exact mistake.

            • scott says:

              It’s emotionally evocative because they occurred under circumstances of exploitation and vastly unequal power, ie, owners squeezing workers and their safety because they know the workers are desperate. I don’t think that having the reaction “Hey, that’s wrong!” is equivalent to launching organized violence in Iraq that killed hundreds of thousands of people and displaced millions. The lesson from Iraq isn’t that emotion or outrage is wrong, it’s that getting carried with them is. I don’t believe that objecting to unnecessary deaths is getting carried away.

              • DrDick says:

                Yeah. So far nobody has argued that we need to invade Pakistan because of this.

              • UserGoogol says:

                No, obviously it’s not the same thing. But lack of power is no excuse to play with fire. I’m probably being overly paranoid of the forces of emotion, but I look around the world and I see people being emotional and making bad decisions so it does seem reassuring when there are people like Matt addressing politics from a weirdly detached perspective, even if he also makes mistakes.

                • scott says:

                  When someone looks at deaths that could have been avoided and chooses to rule out any appeal to right and wrong, good or evil, I am not reassured but repelled.

                • Brandon says:

                  Politics isn’t amoral, hope that helps

                • UserGoogol says:

                  I don’t think morality and emotions are necessarily tied. Something is moral to the extent that it has positive consequences. You don’t need to use your emotions to evaluate those consequences, although inevitably people do.

                • Twisted says:

                  Folks, you’re looking at Mr. Gradgrind’s star pupil right here.

            • njorl says:

              The proper response to becoming emotionally worked up about something is to recognize that it is important, and deserving of greater thought.

              I tend to think like Yglesias does. Matt is making the same mistake I sometimes make. In an effort to be rational, he is being superficial. His analysis is logical as far as it goes. The problem is that he isn’t going far enough. The reason he isn’t going far enough is because he isn’t being emotional.

              I think he would be right to say that Bangladeshi workers would have different preferences with respect to safety and pay than American workers. He is wrong in believing they have a say in the matter, or that they are making an informed choice for wages over safety.

              • aimai says:

                But you could come to very different conclusions than Matt does and still be relatively detatched from the situation emotionally. People who make a moral argument can also be making a utilitarian one and also making it from a purely rational and non emotional perspective. The problem with Matt’s anlysis isn’t that its hyperrational or detatched like some pure-brain-in-a-vat its that its so patently, childishly, vapid and incorrect.

            • Brandon says:

              Yeah! Getting upset over exploitative working conditions and unnecessary worker deaths that lead to our ever-growing economic inequalities is what lead us to invade Iraq!!

            • Bill Murray says:

              no, the emotional reaction to deaths started the war in Afghanistan

          • Shakezula says:

            I guess we should all become conservatives if we want to care about – ha ha ha haha haa!

            Sorry, couldn’t finish that with a straight face.

            • UserGoogol says:

              Conservatives care about quite a lot of things. The problem is that they allow the fact that they care about some things (traditional morals, absence of a very specifically defined kind of coercion) to allow them to ignore very serious injustices which don’t move them as much.

              I’ll admit that I was being a bit overly emotional myself, and oversimplified the world of “emotion” by conflating it all as one big ball of evil, but when you attack the whole idea of engaging in detached impersonal analyses of situations instead of merely the particular ones which Matt is making (which are obviously flawed in some ways) you’re in a very serious risk of throwing out the baby with the bathwater.

        • Malaclypse says:

          If detachment and rationality lead you to say Bangladeshi deaths matter less than American ones, them you are doing detachment and rationality wrong.

          • Anna in PDX says:

            This! That was what I was saying in my head during my skim of the post and the conversation.

          • UserGoogol says:

            I don’t really see Matt saying that. If an American building collapsed instead I don’t really see him caring about that either.

            • Anna in PDX says:

              “Bangladesh may or may not need tougher workplace safety rules, but it’s entirely appropriate for Bangladesh to have different—and, indeed, lower—workplace safety standards than the United States.” – Direct quote from Matt’s article

              If that is not a way of stating “a Bangladeshi worker does not get the same protections as a US worker, and that’s appropriate” which would lead me to believe that “a Bangladeshi is worth less than an American” is not far behind, then you parse it out for me how I should be reasoning differently.

              • UserGoogol says:

                Matt is making the tradeoff between a certain amount risk to a person’s life and the benefits they might receive for taking that risk. Matt’s argument isn’t that a Bangladeshi life is worth less, but that the benefits they will receive in exchange for risking their life will be more valuable to them personally. It seems eminently plausible that he is mistaken in his appraisal of the overall risktaking scenario, but viewing that as devaluing the life of a person taking that risk is just incredibly mistaken.

                • Malaclypse says:

                  And they way he completely fails to discuss our complicity in valuing cheap clothes over Bangladeshi lives shows what a Very Serious Thinker he is.

                  Beyond that, he starts off with the empirically false pseudo-observation that risky jobs pay a risk premium. So the whole exercise is pseudo-intellectual wanking about why we shouldn’t care about people who live in hell-holes making our cheap consumer goods for slave wages.

                • DrDick says:

                  Yes, that is exactly Matt’s argument, since that worker is assuming far more risk for far lower benefits than an American worker.

                • UserGoogol says:

                  A certain amount of money has different value to different people. If you’re a poor person in Bangladesh and you can earn $X, it can change your life and advance Bangladesh in general far more than it would in America.

                • aimai says:

                  But as others have noted the worker is not voluntarily accepting any risk–he is being forced to enter an unsafe building practically at gunpoint. Its extortion, not a rational calculation that the reward is greater than the risk. If I am held hostage by the Joker and he demands that I drink a mixture that has a 50 50 chance of having poison in it so that my family can survive for another week–or else he will kill me outright–that’s not a “risk” I am “choosing to take” rationally. You can’t just “pfft” the entire preponderance of the weight of the system away.

                • Malaclypse says:

                  A certain amount of money has different value to different people. If you’re a poor person in Bangladesh and you can earn $X, it can change your life and advance Bangladesh in general far more than it would in America.

                  And none of that changes the fact that by directly profiting from Bangladeshi poverty, we are complicit. Reasonable people can disagree on the degree of complicity, or what can be done. Propagandists, on the other hand, can regurgitate morality tales about marginal utility (made easier by lying about things like risk premia) to try and deny the obvious.

                • UserGoogol says:

                  aimai: Probably, but that’s a separate argument. There’s a very big difference from saying that Matt doesn’t care about the interests of Bangladeshis and merely saying that he is taking a stance which will in practice hurt Bangladeshis. He’s wrong, but that kind of wrong.

                • scott says:

                  “Eminently plausible that he is mistaken in his appraisal of the overall risktaking scenario” = Matt just assumed without bothering to find out that the Bangladeshi people knowingly made these choices. If you want to make the argument that the deaths are regrettable but perhaps acceptable or understandable based on some rational choice scenario, then it’s your responsibility to figure out whether that happened here or whether you’re pulling it out of your own ass. Matt didn’t do that, and without that amount of effort justifying/excusing/minimizing the deaths as he did IS devalauing their lives and deaths.

                • MikeJake says:

                  Why is “working in a structurally unsound building that could collapse at any time” considered part of the universe of acceptable risks that a worker could knowingly assume in exchange for a wage premium?

                • Brandon says:

                  But this shit choice is forced on them by external agents who seek to maximize their profits by minimizing the Bangladeshian workers’. Ignoring both the driving force of capitalism and consumers on the other side of the world who also benefit from this exploitation is ignoring practically the entire issue.

                • John says:

                  Why is “working in a structurally unsound building that could collapse at any time” considered part of the universe of acceptable risks that a worker could knowingly assume in exchange for a wage premium?


                • Simple mInd says:

                  Matt has risen to Pundit status. Superciliously superficial.

                • Rhino says:

                  The choice can be completely logical for the Bangladeshi worker, while at the same time allowing that choice to be necessary can be criminally negligent for us.

                  Given the current situation, that Bangladeshi will gladly risk their lives to feed their family. We created that situation, and could easily fix the problem. Why don’t we?

            • the original spencer says:

              Would depends on where in America and what sort of people were in the building, I expect.

          • Scott Lemieux says:

            If detachment and rationality lead you to say Bangladeshi deaths matter less than American ones, them you are doing detachment and rationality wrong.

            And if you do so based on assumptions about Bangladeshi policy preferences that are transparently wrong even more so.

        • Shakezula says:

          Well, that told us!

          OK people you heard the man.

        • the original spencer says:

          Wow, I thought this was a Poe at first. Then I read the followups.

          The Intarwebz, they confuse.

        • wengler says:

          What the fuck are you talking about? Liberal means that you believe in the unfettered flow of capital if you live outside the US and some approximation of egalitarian thought with various caveats inside the US.

      • Haystack says:

        What happens when a privileged kid goes straight from a comfortable and protected childhood and adolescence straight into writing opinions for a living. MY could use a couple of years seasoning getting a different kind of education in a logging camp or driving a truck or even as a guest worker in a Bangladeshi factory.

        • Anna in PDX says:

          I often have that reaction but then I remember that some of the least empathetic people I know are people who really did pay some dues by doing miserable stuff when they were young. Empathy is something that just seems to be missing from a substantial portion of the population.

          • sparks says:

            True. My own experience and meeting others similar to myself told me that some look upon themselves as ubermensch even if the skids were greased for them from day one, “hard” work or no. Me, I was always helping those who weren’t as talented as I was in certain areas, just because that’s who I am.

          • wengler says:

            I don’t know, I’ve found that even assholes want some protection from handling hazardous materials without the necessary equipment.

            They’d certainly stab their fellow employees in the back over pay though.

          • Timurid says:

            There is no bigger misanthrope than a self-made man..

    • aimai says:

      yes, I just found Mr. Destructo and I think his is the best and clearest take on what pisses me off about MY every god damned time.

    • MikeJake says:

      Glib is right. Remember his “solution” to the Cyprus debt crisis? Just allow Turkey to annex half the island in exchange for bailing out the banks. The actual people on Cyprus wouldn’t care for that solution, but never mind that. So long as a tidy solution can be arrived at after several minutes of reflection, then it’s foolish for the people and their silly politics to reject it.

  3. jim, some guy in iowa says:

    also the big business pricks get to screw the environment over even more so when they go outside the u s

  4. Sherm says:

    He uses the word “appropriate”, but I don’t think it means what he thinks it means.

    While it might be entirely expected that Bangladesh would have lower work place safety standards than the USA, how the fuck is it appropriate?

    • jim, some guy in iowa says:

      because it allows yglesias to be the left wing david brooks?

      the guy looks like he would be utterly confused as to how to start a chain saw, and if by some accident got it running would be so scared of the saw he’d drop it on his foot

      and then if he lived i could fire him – find another drone – and he’d be totally cool with that – ’cause i’d be acting rationally

      • firefall says:

        because it allows yglesias to be the left wing david brooks


        Although I refuse to mock him for any potential fear of chainsaws, those things are crazy dangerous.

    • Corey says:

      He would tell you that Bangladesh, as a society, is opting to spend less of its collective money and energy on workplace standards, and spend more of it on building an industrial sector.

      In doing so he dramatically inflates the cost of workplace safety (how many marginal dollars would it have cost to build the collapsed factory to code? How many would it have cost to identify and fix the cracks when they appeared? How many would it have cost to shut down the building when workers said they didn’t want to enter?). He also glibly elides the extent to which that “collective decision” is a collective at all. Bangladesh is dominated by a few wealthy families and I imagine the workers who got crushed by their own factory didn’t have much to say about this consensus at all.

      In short, a douchey opinion from a douche, who’s never done a day of manual labor in his life.

      • Njorl says:

        Well put. In addition, the workers aren’t in any position to make any decisions about pay vs. safety. They are not allowed any of the mechanisms which might inform them of risks so as to negotiate payment based on them. Since no workplace can be confidently declared as safer than another, you get a race to the bottom.

        Even if Matt had made the case in the most accurate and abstract way – workers in country A may have different preferences than those in country B when it comes to wages vs. safety, it is a horrible time to be making that argument. If someone’s child dies from an allergic reaction to a vaccination, you don’t choose that day to explain the foolishness of the anti-vaxxers to them.

      • firefall says:

        How many would it have cost to shut down the building when workers said they didn’t want to enter?

        Well the building actually was shut down – the owner ‘and his tenants’ illegally compelled the workers to reenter despite vigorous protest.

    • Shakezula says:

      A certain type of wanker thinks the A word instantly surrounds the shit they’re spewing in a sweet-smelling cloud of accuracy. This sort of person thinks manners and mannerisms are synonyms and believes civility means not shouting at the help.

      Recommendation: Put your boot up them, frequently.

  5. Glenn says:

    Whether MY’s argument is well-taken or not, I don’t think you’re fairly describing it. At least from the excerpts you’ve given, I don’t see him as focusing on the choice of the individual workers, but rather that Bangladesh could legitimately choose as a society/democracy/polity to set the safety standards-vs.-labor costs balance at a different point than we do here in the US.

    • Barry says:

      It’s been pointed out that every single one of the safety and health standards in the USA was enacted despite people like Matt.

    • Anna in PDX says:

      The only way countries make those types of decisions is the citizens fighting for it. In a less democratic country the citizens are going to be that much less able to fight. Arguing that it is a country’s rational decision ignores all these factors. The US didn’t just blithely decide to end segregation in the 60s, or impose environmental standards in the 70s, because the country was acting in a rational way, but because of citizens demanding it in a variety of confrontational ways.

    • DrDick says:

      Those would be exactly the same lower standards (i.e., none) that we had in this country in the 19th century. They changed because American workers successfully organized to fight for higher standards (which were bought in the blood of labor organizers and union members) and forced it on the owners. The Bangladeshis have also been attempting to organize to force similar changes. Please do not confuse the wealthy elites with “society”, as Yglesias does.

    • L2P says:

      Indeed! Who knows, perhaps the Bangladeshis decided that being run by a heartless and corrupt oligopoly was the key to slightly higher wages, so they gave up the right to a free and fair democratic government!

      Or, just maybe, the Bangladeshis decided that a corrupt government administration that didn’t actually enforce their health and safety laws was ALSO the key to slightly higher wages!

      There’s an endless supply of basic human needs and rights that I’m sure the Bangladeshis would gladly give up for a few extra cents a day. That’s what a free market does, after all!

    • wengler says:

      These are the same choices that we get when we decide whether we want to eat or not.

      No, I think I shan’t eat today, good sir. I have considered my rational choices and since I haven’t any job prospect that doesn’t have a good chance of killing me, I’m afraid I won’t be eating for the whole week.

  6. LeeEsq says:

    IMO going to work should generally not be a risk to life and limb or mental health. I might make an exception for soldiers, the police, prison guards, and firemen but even then I think that employers have a duty to protect the life and limb of their employees by providing training and safety equipment.

    I also don’t think that it is necessary to make developing countries repeat all the miseries that we went through during our industrialization process. We know how to have safe and relatively environmentally sound factories and mines.

  7. Jerry Vinokurov says:

    Yglesias just gets the basic facts completely wrong. Even if you spot him the rational choice theory bullshit, he’s still wrong, because literally all the things that the factory owner did were already against the laws. The building inspector had ordered the factory shut down because it was unsafe. This isn’t a case of Bangladesh being some wild East with no workplace safety laws; the laws are on the books and the factory owner violated them, flagrantly, by expanding the building without permission. You’d think people would take five seconds to look up the basic facts of what actually happened before opening their digital pie-hole.

    • Barry says:

      Except for Slate writers, neoliberal writers, professional ‘contrarians’, etc.

      All of which Matt is.

    • PhoenixRising says:

      Ding ding ding! You win the car!

      The problem with both Matt’s and Eric’s stated viewpoints is the same problem:

      Bangladesh is already not enforcing the laws it has.

      US based multinationals can certainly require more laws from Cambodia and Vietnam, but they cannot possibly expect those laws to be enforced consistently and evenhandedly.

      Since we’re not enforcing the laws we have within our own borders, I think we may need to think over the options a bit more.

      • Erik Loomis says:

        You are missing my point. I know that neither the United States nor Bangladesh are enforcing safety laws on the books. I’m calling for a radical new regulatory regime that would make corporations criminally responsible for the death of workers no matter where they took place and a much stronger and more well-funded regulatory regime with significant power.

        • rea says:

          Except that–what good would it do in the case under discussion to make corporations criminally responsible for the death of workers no matter where they take place? It was not a US corporation running that factory. Do you mean, make US corporations criminally responsible for the death of suppliers’ workers wherever they take place? If your company buys shoes from Bangladesh, you have to run the Bengali factory yourself, to prevent safety violations? (Because a subcontractor is, by definition, an entity you do not control–if you control them, they are just you).

          • catclub says:

            Apple does not own Foxconn, but when Apple hears loud enough complaints, Foxconn changes. Why is that?

            • Julian says:

              Because of bargaining power, you get a cookie. Do you have a response to rea’s point or is it only trenchant observations with you?

              • sibusisodan says:

                Right, so there’s one situation where a us company feels pressure to pressure its supplier into changing its working practices. The pressure in this case is public opinion. The fiscal consequences of us laws holding corporations responsible for permitting certain levels of work safety would be another.

                But the fact is, as foxconn demonstrates, us companies can promote safer working practices in their suppliers if they think it’s in their interest to do so. So how do we make it in their interests?

                • Brandon says:

                  Can this be done in a sustainable way for global capitalism, or does it only apply to niche markets or high-end consumer goods? Can the American family making $40k afford to shop only for free-trade coffee?

                  I don’t know that consumer choice/demand is really that strong of a force, at least when compared with the profit motive of global corporations.

                • sibusisodan says:

                  Agreed. I don’t think it’s that strong a market force. But it’s a catalyst for a potentially stronger political force: changing the way we require companies to behave wrt their overseas suppliers.

                  It will be difficult to do, and do well – craft appropriate legislation, as people have pointed out. That doesn’t make it impossible, and certainly not undesirable.

                • Colin Day says:

                  Responding to Brandon (couldn’t find a reply button on that post):

                  Did you mean fair-trade coffee?

                • Brandon says:

                  @Colin: whoops! sure did.

          • Hedley Lamarr says:

            Except one strong reason for this kind of outsourcing to a 3rd party is to take advantage of workers while maintaining some kind of plausible deniability about it.

          • witless chum says:

            “Sub-contractor” is mostly just a legal fiction, though.

            Modern communications technology and the power imbalance between supplier and US retailers means they can micromanage their suppliers to a huge degree. WalMart is famous for squeezing its suppliers on things and pushing more and more costs off onto them. If they can require the suppliers give them widgets for 10 cents less than they did last year or to load their trucks delivery stuff to WalMart a certain way, or to accept payment when the goods sell, not up front, they could do the same for workplace safety. If they had some kind of incentive to give a shit.

            It’s obviously part of a whole, broader conversation about how we need to bring corporations to heel, but it’s not impractical for the reasons your stating.

            • rea says:

              The very fact that they can squeeze them shows that the subcontractors really are seperate–squeezing yourself doesn’t work.

              Yes, we ought to want US buyers to “squeeze” their suppliers to be better behaved.

              No, we can’t hold them responsible for everything the supplier does, because that’s either imposing responsibility without control, or mandating that US corporations take over the world.

              If Walmart buys clothes from a factory in Bangladesh, should the factory management team be Walmart employees? And if not, how do you hold Walmart responsible for what happens at the factory?

              • aimai says:

                Well, worker’s a subcontractors, in that sense, and Walmart sure squeezes its workers and that seems to make plenty of sense to them. You do know that the very notion of a “subcontractor” is a legal and social fiction, don’t you, given the long history of vertical integration?

                • rea says:

                  the very notion of a “subcontractor” is a legal and social fiction, don’t you, given the long history of vertical integration?

                  I think you’re missing how pervasive these relatonships are.

                  Look, imagine you own a house, and the roof needs fixing. Unless you know a lot about roofing yourself, you will hire a contractor to do it. And roofing is a dangerous job, but you rely on the contractor–you have to rely on the contractor–to do it safely and not expose his workers to unreasonable dangers. The reason you have to rely on the contractor is that he’s a roofer, and you’re not–he’s supposed to know how to run a roofing project safely, and you can’t be expected to–heck, why you hired a contractor is that you don’t know how to do it yourself. But Erik, bless his heart, is concerned enough about people working on roofing projects that he wants to make you, personally, responsible for job safety, even though you don’t know shit about roofing, and hired somebody who supposedly was an expert.

                • Erik Loomis says:

                  If I was that person and I hired a contractor knowing that said contractor was willing to put workers in serious danger through unsafe workplace practices in order to lower my cost, then yes, I should be held responsible.

                • Rhino says:

                  Where I live, if you hire a roofer to work on your house, and he fails to do certain things like employ proper safety equipment, or cover his workers under our workers compensation system (a sort of insurance program to protect the incomes of injured workers), then as the homeowner you are liable and can be heavily fined and sued for damages.

          • Erik Loomis says:

            I believe that those who sign the contracts with subcontracters should be held legally responsible for deaths that take place under that contract.

            • L2P says:

              Wow. I’d suggest you think that through.

              Common situation. A local bike dealer decides to buy, some bicycles directly from a manufacturer in China instead of through a wholesaler. The manufacturer turns out to be a douchebag who was so shitty to workers that some of them die from horrifically negligent manufacturing accidents. The local bike dealer should be responsible? What about the regional bike dealer who now makes up, say, 20% of the manufacturer’s business? And then there’s the bike wholesaler who makes up, say, 75% of the manufacturer’s business. Stronger case, but still…

              There’s a reason that tort law doesn’t impose liability (in general) for the actions of independent agents. There’s a lot of literature on it. The practical problems of enforcement (any scheme you come up with I can defeat with a few handy LLCs or General Partnerships) are the least of it.

              • Erik Loomis says:

                Look, obviously there would be kinks to work through in such a system. You could point out a million. What’s important at this point, where we are dreaming of something that will probably never happen, is the principle of the matter. Then we can start dealing with the practicalities of the real-world situation.

                • aimai says:

                  I agree with Erik here. Limited Liability Corporations are good for corporations but bad for the communities around them. Perhaps the bike shop guy should locally source or build his own bikes in order to avoid the risk that he’s buying something made from slave labor? Or perhaps we could have some kind of overall consortium that would agree to police the bike manufacturers in China so that our little local guy could rely on that certification? Like some kind of international standard? And companies that didn’t sign on to that standard and didn’t take due care in evaluating the history/risk of negligence in the companies they sub contract with would not have a safe harbor?

                • Karate Bearfighter says:

                  And companies that didn’t sign on to that standard and didn’t take due care in evaluating the history/risk of negligence in the companies they sub contract with would not have a safe harbor?

                  This is an interesting idea, but I think you need to supply a further element. It’s appealing to imagine the workers from this factory having redress in tort against American retailers, but as individuals, they don’t have the resources to enforce their rights in American courts. In a case like this, you could see a class action; but workers in most circumstances would never be able to use private enforcement through the courts to address working conditions.

                  So what’s the missing piece? A regulatory agency charged with investigating overseas labor conditions? Allow foreign governments to sue for negligence on behalf of their citizens in American courts? The idea of a consortium to investigate standards makes sense, but the coercive power of the state has to come into play somewhere.

                • rea says:

                  Aimai–Erik is not arguing against the limited liability aspect of corporations here–he’s not trying to hold the Waltons responsible for what Walmart does. He’s saying that if Walmart contracts with another company, Walmart ought to be responsible for what that other company does. I’m not sure you can build a sane legal system that works that way, because it expands responsibilty beyond actual control.

                  If the mechanic who fixes your cars plants a bomb at the sports event, should you be prosecuted? How is that different?

                • Hogan says:

                  If the mechanic who fixes your cars plants a bomb at the sports event, should you be prosecuted?

                  If you told the mechanic your car must be lubricated with the blood of Yankee fans, you probably should. The price pressure Walmart puts on its suppliers can have similar effects.

                • Karate Bearfighter says:

                  If you told the mechanic your car must be lubricated with the blood of Yankee fans, you probably should.

                  The problem is that the behavior here is not telling your mechanic to, etc., but being indifferent to where he buys his lubricants. I think everyone on this thread agrees that it is morally right to pay more for consumer goods to provide for safe working conditions. The very real question is how you force American retailers to internalize the costs of worker safety in their supply chain. If you’re going to do it through tort, you have to deal with the fact that our legal system — for practical reasons — imposes limits on tort liability that generally prevent you from suing a party for contracting with another party that is a bad actor.

          • wengler says:

            I’m no lawyer, but I’d like to think you can at least be held civilly liable for any money you made off of criminal behavior, subcontractor or not.

            I mean even the banks got their wrists slapped with fines when it was discovered they were aiding drug cartels.

      • Jerry Vinokurov says:

        If only winning cars were so easy, we’d all be drowning in cars.

    • tt says:

      He’s not responding to the building collapse in Bangladesh, but to a specific claim made by Erik. So he didn’t get those facts wrong.

      • Malaclypse says:

        Well, except for the whole wage risk premium, which is the wrong thing his whole argument rests on.

        • tt says:

          Explain? What’s your evidence against it?

          (Not doubting that it’s wrong, but genuinely curious. I think this is a difficult question to answer).

          • Manta says:

            There were a series discussion on Crooked Timber (in the posts about “bleeding hearts libertarians”): long story short, there is no evidence of a wage premium for riskier jobs.

            • Manta says:

              And to be clear: if someone claims that something exists, the burden of proof is on him (it’s usually called Occam’s Razor).

              • guthrie says:

                Yup, that’s definitely not Occam’s razor, which is more like “the simpler your explanation the better, rather than hypothesise lots of extra things to make it work”. I can’t be bothered to find the proper wording.

            • tt says:

              Yeah, I participated in those conversations on CT and didn’t find either side particularly convincing then either.

              Wages are determined by a complex interplay of a large number of factors, and it’s not easy to isolate the effect of any individual one.

              And that’s not what Occam’s Razor means.

              • Brandon says:

                there’s no evidence that riskyness is a factor, though

                • tt says:

                  Yes there is. I just did a short search on google scholar and found a large number of studies supporting a compensating wage differential for risk. Here, for example, is a paper that argues that earlier estimates of the wage differential are overestimated but that the true wage differential is positive.

                  That’s not to say that the conclusions from these studies are necessarily correct. As I said, it’s a difficult question.

                • Bijan Parsia says:

                  Oops! Sorry, tt, I didn’t see that before replying to your earlier post.

                  I think the point that the difficulty of determining is a strong point against MY still holds.

              • Bijan Parsia says:

                Wages are determined by a complex interplay of a large number of factors, and it’s not easy to isolate the effect of any individual one.

                Fair enough.

                But then why accept that risk acceptance corresponds (or causes) higher wages?

                MY needs this in a rather strong form for the argument to work and, afaict, it’s not well supported and even harder to make work out.

                However, there does seem to be some evidence for a risk premium but there seems to be lots of caveats.

                (Note remotely a good sample of papers, fwiw.)

                • tt says:

                  I actually don’t think his fundamental case depends on the compensating wage differentials at all. I think the whole “rational choice” debate is a side issue here. The case for having different levels of safety standards for the US and Bangladesh seems quite straightforward to me: as nations get richer, it makes sense for them to spend a portion of their new wealth on improved workplace safety, just as it makes sense for them to spend a portion on many other public goods (e.g. improved public health care).

                  Optimally, all nations are equally wealthy, but as long as we exist in a world of rich nations and poor nations, we should expect poor nations to be poorer in every way relative to rich nations, and that’s the way things should be, due to declining marginal value. If a poor nation were equal to a rich nation in some area, that would in most cases suggest that one or the other made a poor policy choice. We don’t want Bangladesh to spend all their public money achieving Canadian healthcare standards at the expense of their public education system.

                • Bijan Parsia says:

                  But that presumes no interaction. Arguably there should be a transfer from rich to poor countries of wealth sufficient to cover certain minimal standards. There’s plenty of room in the acceptable price level for US consumers to fund basic workplace safety in eg china.

                  So…I have to say that your line here seems pretty odd.

                • tt says:

                  But given wealth transfer, why should workplace safety standards be the form of the transfer? Maybe that’s the best choice in some situations (in particular, when workplace safety is very low), but sometimes transfers in other forms, including cash, may be preferable for the recipients.

                  And the argument is only that it’s appropriate for Bangladesh to have lower standards than the US, not that there shouldn’t be minimal standards.

                • Bijan Parsia says:

                  But given wealth transfer, why should workplace safety standards be the form of the transfer? Maybe that’s the best choice in some situations (in particular, when workplace safety is very low), but sometimes transfers in other forms, including cash, may be preferable for the recipients.

                  I see we’re jumping to a completely new topic! I’m glad you agree with me on the prior point.

                  In any case, who said that it has to be done in the form of workplace safety? Esp in all cases?

                  And the argument is only that it’s appropriate for Bangladesh to have lower standards than the US, not that there shouldn’t be minimal standards.

                  In the current context, we are indeed talking a out minimal standards.

                • tt says:

                  What topic do you think I’m jumping from? I don’t understand what you’re trying to say.

                  Loomis: Bangladesh should have same workplace safety standards as US
                  Yglesias: No they shouldn’t, because other goods are relatively more important than worker safety in Bangladesh
                  Me: Agree with Yglesias–given Bangladesh level of wealth they have more valuable things to do with it than achieve US standards
                  You: There should be a transfer from rich to poor countries of wealth sufficient to cover certain minimal standards.
                  Me: There should be wealth transfer, but Yglesias’s argument still applies. The form of transfer that best satisfies Bangladeshi needs is not that which seeks to achieve US safety standards. Many other needs would be preferable to alleviate first.

                  I don’t think I’m jumping at all. And the whole question is whether Bangladesh should have US safety standards–that’s the point Loomis made that Yglesias originally objected to. If Loomis just said minimal standards there’s no response (because Yglesias doesn’t object to minimal standards) and this whole thing is avoided.

            • Brandon says:

              “Let it Bleed” was an excellent post with numerous rabbit holes of links

      • Sorry, I should have explained that I was talking about his original post on the topic yesterday. He most certainly didn’t bother to include any of the above information.

  8. Shakezula says:

    The first two paragraphs were so cram-packed with WRONG, my eyes rolled up in my head to stop the influx of stupid. If you hear a voice screaming “I know nothing about labor that involves sweating and don’t understand that people who don’t look like me are actually human beings,” that isn’t you, that’s Mr. Yfront.

    Wow. I can’t tell if it is a stunning exhibition of class-based bigotry well larded with racism or a stunning exhibition of racism well larded with class-based bigotry.

    Further the affiant doesn’t even fucking bother because what can you do with people who are that damn vile?

    • Shakezula says:

      Oops, I thought I didn’t have a quarrel with Loomis, I was wrong.

      How is it this post was launched without at least one image of child labor?


      I don’t think it unfair to say MY would be fine with child labor in other countries because money.

  9. Ghost of Joe Liebling's Dog says:

    I’m pretty sure that counting MY among “people on the left” would surprise both MY and people on the left generally.

    • John says:

      It wouldn’t surprise Yglesias. I believe he has argued in the past that, for some reason or other I can’t quite recall or articulate, he is as far left as it is possible to be, and that there is nobody to his left – only people who are at the same level of leftness of him, but have worse ideas.

    • Erik Loomis says:

      He’s clearly in the left 50% of the country and probably in the left 30%.

      • Marc says:

        Check again tomorrow. He’s migrating to the right at an accelerating rate.

        I used to find him just intellectually sloppy. But this column is different; I found it to be flatly sociopathic. An image of bodies being carried away from a horrific deathtrap married to a bloodless economics exercise? Usually he’s at least constructing some abstract framework built on idle speculation.

        The guy doesn’t care about the real-world consequences of the things he’s writing about. There is a long list of examples of what this leads to, and they’re not happy. He’s lost me, for good, with this.

        • John says:

          Matt Yglesias = Gen Y Mickey Kaus

          Ezra Klein = Gen Y David Broder


          • tonycpsu says:

            Perhaps in 10-20 years, but neither of those young pups are anywhere near the level of mendacious hackery of Kaus or Broder.

            • Marc says:

              Give Matt time. He has the contrarian part down pat. He can become the Kaus of the next generation, running for mayor of DC on his platform of skyscrapers, no licensing, school vouchers, and no minimum wage or safety standards.

        • Ed K says:

          Yep. All of it.

          More, the fucking entitled rich white guy-splaining tone where we have little Matty, Harvard BA, here to explain to all the poor benighted brown people how to figure the appropriate level of suffering for ‘money’ is just about the vilest thing imaginable.

          Truly, let’s just get this out there, Matt Yglesias is a vile fucking racist pig, among other things. Nobody who is not a fucking racist pig, a horribly vile classist, and an apologist for the most vicious sort of capitalist exploitation imaginable can write the sections quoted above. Nobody. There is absolutely no excuse for that. None.

      • wengler says:

        In my experience, most people in this country are apolitical extremists of some type or another.

        Among people with coherent political ideologies, Yglesias is technocratic center-left. An ideology that generally believes that the decisionmaking process should be controlled by experts for the betterment of humankind with little democratic interaction.

        In this case, Bangladesh being a producer of mass marketable goods is more important than the safety of workers, according to the technocrats. They consider it a path to modernization rather than perpetual, grinding near slavery. They point to Japan, South Korea and Taiwan as model and conveniently ignore the other large sweatshop in central America.

    • Chatham says:

      Considering he just endorsed a Norquist signatory and pro-corporate donations Republican over a genuinely progressive Democrat (who wasn’t accepting any corporate or PAC donations), I’m not sure why anyone on the left listens to him.

  10. Corey says:

    Yeah. I’ve defended Yglesias a bunch here, and often think it’s his technocratic tone and affect – not the content of what he says, per se – that people react so strongly to.

    But there are serious problems with this post that call into question his fitness as a person paid to analyze world events. First, as Jerry says above, he gets the basic facts wrong. Bangladeshi law was broken in this case, even if you concede that Yglesias was talking about societal choices, Bangladesh has made that choice at least nominally. He got the basic events wrong, calling it a fire instead of a collapse (and, obviously, the collapse of a building is much more preventable than fires).

    But even if he didn’t, there’s no serious reason to assume that wages and national wealth exist in some global tradeoff with risk. At some margin, sure. For a given occupation, a worker that takes on more risk gets paid more. But I sit in an office all day and make six figures; I make more than almost every chef and cook (my old occupation), for dramatically less risk.

    I mean, meh. This is the pundit cycle. Start out hot, get fat and comfortable (and a 7-figure house in Logan Circle), start writing apologias for the way the world is and must be. There are a million writers on the internet, I’ll find another one.

  11. mds says:

    You know all the people that swarm the “education reform” threads to point out that on a bunch of other topics, Yglesias is a staunch center-left ally? Well, this illustrates why I for one don’t want his help, thanks. There are plenty of other advocates for center-left ideas out there who aren’t willfully ignorant neoliberal assmunches every other weekday at a minimum.

    • somethingblue says:

      He’s with us on everything but the war money.

    • the original spencer says:

      Yeah, this column really did make me rethink much of what I’ve said in his defense in the past.

      • JKTHs says:

        I’d put myself in that column as well.

        • tonycpsu says:

          +1. I defended him a couple of times because he used to be much better on these issues, but there are now enough data points in the last few years to show that he’s completely off the reservation.

          One could even make a case that someone like Josh Barro is a notch further to the left on economic/”free” market issues than Yglesias is now, and that’s definitely not something that could have been said a year or two ago. (And I don’t think Barro’s become more liberal.)

          Yglesias is dead to me as an ostensibly liberal commentator. I’ll still read him, but with an understanding that he’s no longer arguing from an economically progressive point of view, no matter how many times he talks about wanting a helicopter drop of money to poor people. (He’d probably drop nickels, and tell them not to spend it all in one place.)

          • Malaclypse says:

            He’d drop nickels, and finance the cost of the nickel-drop by cutting 8 cents from the food stamp budget for every nickel dropped, and justify this with a long discussion of why the poor are better off allocating marginal consumption spending themselves. The three-cent/drop difference he would use to cut capital gains taxes.

      • John says:

        I think I reached this point a few years ago when he defended taxing capital gains at a lower rate than regular income.

  12. cpinva says:

    part of this concept of workers assuming all the risks of working is, i think, vested in the concept of a corporation not being a literal human being, merely a legal construct. thus, the corporation can’t be held accountable, as an actual human would, because it only exists on paper. yes, i know this makes no actual sense, since it is human beings actually owning/operating the entity, but that’s actually how a lot of people even today think.

  13. UserGoogol says:

    “Payment within industries” seems like enough. Sure, Bangladeshis would prefer to be highly paid corporate executives, but those jobs are not generally available to them. As such, given that Bangladeshis have access to certain jobs, it makes sense to work to make those jobs better paying, and that allows the tradeoff to be made.

    The better counterargument is that the sort of unsafety which textile workers deal with is fundamentally different from the sort of unsafety timber workers deal with. Cutting down large trees is inherently risky, but there’s no particular reason why working in a textile factory should make you prone to burning to death. Still, I think Yglesias was probably speaking at a higher level of generality than that. (Since that’s how Matt does things.) Erik was proposing that United States labor safety laws in general apply to foreign countries, and for that you have to go through on a case by case basis.

  14. Uncle Ebeneezer says:

    The reason is that while having a safe job is good for the employees, more money for the employer, is also good even better.


  15. DrDick says:

    Yglesias’ argument, of course, completely ignores the coercive nature of the relationship of capital and labor, especially in places like Bangladesh (or the 19th century US). Capital is pretty much in a position to say take it or leave it in a context where the alternative to taking it is starving. Also, I long ago stopped thinking of him as “left”. At best he is “centrist” or “center-right”.

  16. Simeon says:

    Commentary I found on another blog: “I’m not saying Matthew Yglesias should die in a fire, but there would be a certain dramatic irony to it if he did.”

    (I do actually like Yglesias on several things, but it’s still funny.)

  17. prasad says:

    I don’t see MY as arguing that the status quo is correct, but rather that Bangladesh can properly value safety tradeoffs differently from a country with twenty times the money per capita.

    But here’s a concrete question:
    Ford India sells lots of cars, and those cars aren’t required to have any of the safety features its American products have. Naturally, this leads to much higher death rates in Ford cars in India, though at rates compatible with Indian assessments of needs, and those seen in other cars.

    Should the US government impose US safety standards upon Ford cars sold in India to save Indian lives? Or can car safety standards in India be lower than those in the US? What are the relevant disanalogies between labor and consumer safety standards here?

    • aimai says:

      False analogy. The US government probably does forbid the importation of Ford/India cars to the US because they don’t meet safety standards. So a better analogy would argue that since we forbid the importation of drugs that are manufactured not in accordance with our safety standards, and cars that don’t have all the safety features we wnt cars to have–why do we allow the importation of clothing/accessories and other consumer goods that are not made with the safety laws we put in place in our own country to protect our own workers? That would be beneficial not only to third world workers but, of course, would be a stealth way of preventing outsourcing and the race to the bottom.

      • prasad says:

        Eh? This company makes money from using Bangladeshi labor, and that money accrues to its shareholders. Ford sells cars in India, and that money too accrues to its shareholders.

        In each case, there’s a safety cost borne by third worlders, not Americans, so I don’t know why the observation that these cars aren’t sold in the US is pertinent. I am not sure you have parsed the situation to find a relevant difference.

        • aimai says:

          In the example the Bangladeshi workers are producing for the US market. Absent production for the US market I see no reason for US laws to apply to Bangledeshi workers and I’m not arguing for that.

          • prasad says:

            The distinction seems pretty arbitrary. In both cases, the lack of safety benefits American pocketbooks while threatening foreigners’ lives.

            You’re saying in one case a final product enters the US for sale, while in the other the money from the sale of the product enters the US instead. It’s hard to see the moral (or legal or economic) significance of this, still less to see it as invalidating the comparison completely.

            • aimai says:

              Wait, no. You are not just shifting the goalposts you don’t seem to know what field you are playing on. Look: the Bangladeshi example concerns both companies that may be US companies doing business with Bangladesh and companies that may be US businesses that sell what they buy in the US. I don’t understand why you think the issues are different. All sorts of things are illegal for US companies to do, even in foreign countries, that are illegal for US companies to do. Whether they profit from it or not.

              Again, I myself am principally concerned with importation of goods and services that have been sequeezed out of a subject population through poor or illegal labor practices. I think US companies should be fined for doing business with known bad acctors. I don’t think that the importation of blood sweated goods/diamonds/oil should be permitted into the country and I don’t think US companies or consumers should be allowed to profit.

              • prasad says:

                ” the Bangladeshi example concerns both companies that may be US companies doing business with Bangladesh and companies that may be US businesses that sell what they buy in the US. ”

                The first case seems like *exactly* the example of an American company selling inferior products abroad. I don’t see what moral difference you’re managing to find between unsafe working conditions endangering workers and unsafe products endangering consumers.

                PS, the reason I’m pushing the question is this: the two cases _do_ differ in one way that has no moral relevance but does matter, ahem, practically –
                – Holding American firms to US labor standards globally helps Americans especially of the sort hurt by global labor markets.
                – Holding American firms to US consumer standards globally hurts Americans by reducing their success in foreign markets.

                I’m thinking this difference may play some role in the difference that’s instinctively felt to exist between the two cases…

                • Malaclypse says:

                  What makes Ford India an American company?

                • prasad says:

                  Ford India Private Limited is a wholly owned subsidiary of the Ford Motor Company in India.

                  1) Any looseness of connection between Ford India and Ford America, if this implies distancing from moral culpability, is analogous to the looseness of connection between Walmart and its local contractor in that garment factory. If anything the Ford connection is stronger.

                  2) Do you in fact concede the point when the US firm sells products directly to Indians (rather than hiring Indian labor directly.)

    • Bill Murray says:

      but that isn’t really relevant to the question here. Something more relevant is should the US allow Ford to import their cars made in India to the US without ensuring those cars are up to the US standards. Bangladesh can do whatever they want with materials made for internal consumption, but why shouldn’t exports be made to the standards of the importing country?

      • aimai says:

        Right, that was my point. Prasad is arguing some other point.

      • Brandon says:

        Well, not exactly what Loomis is arguing here. It’s not like the garments aren’t up to US standards, it’s the conditions in which the garments are made. You’d need to compare the conditions in the Indian Ford factory to US factories.

        • prasad says:

          Yes, I realize I’m comparing compromises on (foreign consumer safety standards) to help American corporations make money with compromises on (foreign labor safety standards) to help American corporations make money. I said so right at the start.

          Both cases make American corporations money. Both cases threaten foreign lives. I’m asking if Loomis sees a moral difference, and why or why not. So far I’m just seeing people “notice” that one case involves imports etc, without elaboration on why the distinction identified matters ethically.

          • Malaclypse says:

            Because if Bangladeshi companies want to use Bangladeshi capital to make unsafe products for sale on the Bangladeshi market, while Bangladeshi workers are exploited, then we have no leverage, do we? But if they want to sell those products here, we do, making the cases completely different.

            • prasad says:

              The example clearly specified *American* companies, like Ford say, selling products (cars) in Indian markets that wouldn’t qualify as safe under American law.

              • Colin Day says:

                Do Indians have more of a choice in buying cars with seat belts than the people of Bangladesh have about job conditions?

                • prasad says:

                  In each case that depends on how wealthy they are. But I’m not hearing much about what the moral difference is between the oh so sacred American labor laws, which must apply to US corps worldwide and the apparently worthless consumer laws which needn’t.

                  Maybe it really is just that what’s good for Ford here is seen as good for America, while what’s good for Walmart isn’t necessarily (or seen that way.)

        • aimai says:

          Its a very particular stance to take on labor and its product to see them as wholly separable. What are blood diamonds but diamonds (natural product) whose mode of production renders them unsuitable for sale? Or something that is stolen? If we wanted to make a law that said that things produced (even nice things) through disgusting or violent or slave labor conditions we are free to do so. Erik isn’t arguing that those laws necessarily already exist, but that it would be good if they did. I think that there are laws on the books about lots of things having to do with actual labor conditions: slave labor, forced prostitution. The division in your head between the “good functional t shirt” and the “car without safety features” is entirely in your head and not really in the product.

          • prasad says:

            No, the difference is, there’s lots of people calling for US labor laws to apply to American firms hiring Bangladeshis in Bangladesh.

            But no-one here caling for US consumer laws to apply to American firms selling American products to Bangladeshis in Bangladesh.

            The obvious economic difference is that the first would help American labor by shifting costs for outsourcing, while the second would hurt Americans generically by reducing their impact in foreign markets.

            I am wondering if there are moral differences as well.

            Your blood diamond example for me is this: imagine if you said Exxon (say) could sell leaded petrol in India without trouble provided only *Indian* law was fine with it. But hiring cheap Indian labor should be done only subject to *American* law. Such a dichotomy at least prima facie seems hard to justify on the basis of concern for *Indians* and their welfare and such.

            • Marc says:

              There is an implied prior, namely that the standards in Bangladesh are lower than those in the US. If there were cases where the latter was true it’d be reasonable for people in Bangladesh to expect similar laws; in fact, this happens often between the US and European countries, in both directions.

    • John says:

      I think there’s a big problem of practicality here. If you say “American companies can’t do this in foreign countries,” all you’re going to accomplish is that these assets will cease to be owned by “American” companies. The penalty has to come at the point when products are being imported into the United States, or it’s just completely impossible to enforce.

  18. zombie gert frobe says:

    Big Media Matt, a shallow hack? Shocking.

  19. prasad says:

    But what really matters here is that workplace safety is incredibly cheap. Once you start talking about, say, putting in technologies to reduce smoke from steel production you can need to implement relatively expensive technologies. But for basic workplace safety, there is no reason that we can’t implement international standards.

    This seems like a pretty naive assessment of development challenges. If this is how it works, I’d like your view of why Bangladesh or India couldn’t simply spend (or borrow – the returns would more than amply reward the spending if carried to success) a few billion dollars solving its workplace safety problems. Money is no more the limiting reagent here than it is for making the police less corrupt or the justice system more efficient. Heck, why hasn’t China done away with workplace safety issues period, if money is all it takes and given that they’re literally desperate looking for things to invest in? The kind of argument made here is reminiscent of Bjorn Lomborg’s claim that you could solve “all problems everywhere” by spending fifty billion dollars on the right kinds of development aid projects, except minus even that level of investigation.

    Demanding minimum standards (no child labor and so on) is one thing. Demanding *equal* standards to what you see in the US is tantamount to demanding that jobs be done only in the US to begin with – that won’t happen in India or Bangladesh or China any time soon, and for reasons going well beyond the monetary ones.

    So the humanitarian concern here flirts dangerously with naked first world labor protectionism. I don’t claim that’s *your* intent obviously. But the appeal of the move from that perspective is obvious.

    • mpowell says:

      This is especially trenchant given the tremendous economic gains made in China and India over the last 20-30 years. You don’t get catch up growth without extensive trade with developed nations. And you don’t get that trade without offering substantially lower labor costs *one way or another*. And that catch up growth has proven to be immensely valuable to poor and middle class China and India.

      • Brandon says:

        *with notable exceptions

        how about for the Chinese and Indian environments?

        • mpowell says:

          This kind of comment has no place here. Unless you really believe that the average Chinese factory worker making $10/day would rather be working on a farm living on $1/day? Hey, you might be subject to starvation if you have a bad year, but at least you’ve got cleaner air to breathe! Industrialization certainly has its ugly side, but it has always had way more advantages for the working poor.

          • Brandon says:

            This kind of comment is perfectly fine here. The horrors of the industrial revolution aren’t some unavoidable trials every nation must go through. Others are making themselves extravagantly wealthy off of poorly treated, poorly paid Chinese labor and the destruction of their environment. Starting with the assumption that the only choices are exploitation to enrich others or starvation does an awful lot of work in favor of the plutocrats.

            • mpowell says:

              Okay, let’s see your examples of countries that skipped industrialization and leaped straight to 30K/capita income? You can always argue that policy could have been marginally better during a period of rapid growth, but rapid and sustained economic growth is pretty much a self-justifying path compared to the historical alternative which is most of humanity living on $1/day.

      • prasad says:

        Thanks. I do think it’s incumbent on anyone making such arguments to either a) disclaim the labor protection rationale and sketch out how to avoid it or b) acknowledge and own such considerations explicitly.

        • Jeffrey Beaumont says:

          I think what you are missing prasad is that, on a basic level Erik (and I and a lot of other people) are arguing that US corporations (and to a lesser extent US consumers) profiting off physically harming Bangladeshi labor is unethical, full stop. This isnt about the right way to do labor markets, this is about saying that labor markets (capitalist labor markets that is) are inherently unfair, unethical, bad, etc. So calling for equal labor safety regimes isnt protectionist of first world labor, it is an attack on the profit motive that would like to make money no matter the human costs.

          • prasad says:

            I would call that at least a more defensible motive than the protectionism. But the “full stop unethical” view itself still needs to examine consequences. I don’t think any moral theory gets away with ignoring outcomes as if they don’t matter.

            If demanding equal standards (for Bangladeshi and US labor as hired by American companies) leads to a greater preference given to American labor, enhancing global inequalities and leaving the would be Bangladeshi laborers worse off, that’s a foreseeable consequence and must be taken into account. Otherwise you’re stuck with “doctrine of double effect” and “collateral damage” style casuistries.

            • prasad says:

              I would argue that’s especially true for an argument that starts with compassion and sympathy for those laborers, and is expressed as a demand for their well-being.

            • DrDick says:

              So arguing that American companies should not be able to make exorbitant profits by killing and maiming Bangladeshis hurts Bangladeshis? Good to know.

              • prasad says:

                Arguing for *american labor laws applied to all US corporations worldwide* hurts Bangladeshis, yes.

                Your “summary” not so much.

                • DrDick says:

                  Let’s get real here. Bangladeshi factory workers make the lowest wages in the world at $0.22/hour on average. Are you honestly saying that the factory owners cannot afford to maintain safe and reasonable working conditions (which the workers there have been fighting for) and double their wages without sacrificing their competitive advantage vis-a-vis Western workers? You really need to lay off those drugs.

                • prasad says:

                  I have already said asking for improvement is perfectly legit.

                  I opposed very specifically:
                  1. The idea that identical labor standards should obtain
                  2. The idea that solving workplace safety problems in Bangladesh is about the money as limiting factor.

                • DrDick says:

                  The idea that solving workplace safety problems in Bangladesh is about the money as limiting factor.

                  WTF else is it all about? The only reason higher standards do not exist is so that the rich, either there or in the West, can make more money.

    • Manta says:

      What’s wrong with protectionism?

    • wengler says:

      I’ll take the bait. There should be worldwide minimum standards for these sorts of things. But the world is a clusterfuck of corruption from the rich North to the poor South.

      So failing that, import duties should be leveled commiserate with the price of production of similar items in the US. When this country produced basic mass market goods, having the capacity to make everything on your own was pretty important. Ever since enriching the corporate transnational elite became the primary task of this country, such notions got tossed out as quaint. Because destroying those ‘cushy’ benefits that industrial factory workers bled for was much more important.

      • Manta says:

        In one word: protectionism.
        Free trade ideologues made it a bad word.

        It is true that free trade helps getting rid of inefficiencies in the market: but in reality those “inefficiencies” are labor and environmental regulations, and workers’ salaries.

        • jb says:


          See the upcoming TPP for instance.

          I mean I’m not in favor of all tarrifs, but to act as if any restraint on international trade is automatically bad is ridiculous.

          And I have a hard time taking people who use “protectionist” as a swearword seriously, which is part of my problem with prasad.

        • jb says:

          The other problem, of course is that he has a highly idealized view of the current neoliberal model (and tends to dismiss all critics as unrealistic leftists). Additionally he uses certain questionable sources. I understand the World Bank and IMF- they get a number of things right and are widely regarded as credible despite their biases. But to cite an economist (Roger Pilelke Jr.) who is chiefly known for having heated arguments with environmentalists, and who is the member of an anti-environmental think tank, strains credibility. He increasingly seems to be actively mocking and belittling other people here- although fairness compels me to add that other people are doing the same to him. Certain things he has said have also struck me the wrong way. I agree that the interests of the American and Indian working classes are not always the same, and that they may conflict, but to assert that the American worker has more in common with Sam Walton than the Indian or Bangladeshi worker is… problematic, to say the least.

          Finally, there is the matter of credibility. Prasad claims to be opposing Loomis’ proposal out of concern for the Bangladeshi workers, who he claims would be hurt by it. He attacks this proposal as labor protectionism, and implies that Loomis cares more about American than Bangladeshi labor. I find this quite ironic. Prasad is almost certainly a very privileged person within his society. He has internet access, which is true of only 5 percent of Bangladeshis, and 10 percent of Indians.

          He could genuinely be acting from a position of concern for the working class in his country. However, I am (perhaps unfairly), inclined to doubt that. I had a wealthy Indian friend back when I lived in Ohio, and he introduced me to a number of other wealthy Indians. Most of them were very nice people, but their attitude towards the poor in general was cringe-worthy. I have also read several surveys of Indian society, which tracked the views of middle and upper-class Indians. These sources all led me to conclude that while there were some exceptions, most of the middle and upper classes had attitudes towards the poor that ranged from indifference to outright contempt and fear. This does not mean that the Indian upper or middle class is evil (in fact those attitudes are very similar to ones held by their American equivalents). Nor does it mean that Prasad shares these attitudes. Even if he does, his arguments might not be wrong. But nonetheless, I find his protestations of sympathy for the poor hard to swallow. In any case,to be accused of having insufficient sympathy for poor people from the subcontinent by a middle-class/wealthy resident of that society is irritating beyond measure.

          • jb says:

            Sorry, I misread Prasad. He was saying that an Indian or Bangladeshi worker had more of a common interest with Sam Walton than he did with an American worker. That is a more defensible claim, but still strikes me as wrong.

  20. Pooh says:

    I think people are missing the real problem here – I tend to agree with MY that the balance of interests is different in Bangladesh than in the US. HOWEVER, he doesn’t really even begin to address what this means at ground level, how much more risk would a Bangladeshi be willing to accept. I think he sort if assumes in his technocratic way that some smart person will perform an unbiased calculation et voila. Further I think he’s using the wrong baseline. The question isn’t whether Bangladesh is net (and equitably so, but that’s a whole other topic) better off with these jobs than without but whether they are net better off with these jobs AS PRESENTLY EXISTING versus the net benefit of these jobs with varying levels of better safety/enforcement.

    The problem isn’t moral turpitude it’s intellectual laziness.

    • Anna in PDX says:

      Given Erik’s list of how Bangladeshis actually wanted to make better choices to be safer but were murdered, ignored, etc. I would go with “both/and”.

    • scott says:

      That’s the point. You could actually take MY’s basic point (hey, there are rational trade-offs) and THEN ask whether that actually happened here or whether it was just good, old-fashioned exploitation, ie, the owners impose these conditions on the workers cuz they have no other alternatives or means of bargaining or redress. MY doesn’t even bother to ask the question but just assumes it’s the former. That kind of laziness isn’t just an intellectual failure but a moral one.

    • JazzBumpa says:

      The problem isn’t moral turpitude it’s intellectual laziness.

      These are not mutually exclusive.

    • David Hunt says:

      The problem isn’t moral turpitude it’s intellectual laziness.

      Those conditions are not mutually exclusive…as I think MY demonstrates.

    • wengler says:

      Why do people assume that if there is no job working for a transnational concern that horribly exploits you, there will be no jobs that will exist?

      It might shock the mind, but even in countries with very little contact with the global marketplace people are still able to support themselves and be worthwhile.

  21. LeftWingFox says:

    Fun question for the free market fundamentalists: “Which brands were made in this factory, and were you planning on boycotting them?”

    • chris says:

      What good would it do to boycott the individual brands that owned/contracted with the particular factory where the accident actually happened, if the practices are industry-wide? Not only are you punishing one company for doing the same thing all the others are doing, even if you succeed in driving it out of business, its place will only be taken by competitors with the same practices that haven’t had a fatal accident *yet*. (One of whom may even buy that exact site at the bankruptcy auction, if there’s enough left of the building to be worth rebuilding.)

      Meaningful regulation effectively enforced is the only way to change the practices across the whole industry, in a way that will save worker lives in the future. The power of consumers’ wallets doesn’t reach nearly as far as free market fundamentalists like to think.

      • leftwingfox says:

        Agreed completely. The intent of the question is to point out the complete lack of knowledge or attention when it comes to actually regulating the market in a purely libertarian “vote with your dollars” system.

  22. Timurid says:

    One thing that strikes me about this version of neo-liberalism, despite its supposed commitment to individual liberty, is how similar it is in basic concept to the more detached and inhuman variants of Marxism-Leninism and other collectivist ideologies…

    1. The System must destroy countless individuals in order to create a better world (just substitute “Economy” “Market” or “Meritocracy” for “Party” or “State”).

    2. Economic and social development are a form of warfare and must be conducted according to the same rules… so that workers should be treated like soldiers, with a corresponding loss of personal freedom, self-sacrifice and acceptance of risk.

  23. Slocum says:

    Why do you engage this asshat? He’s not even a good technocrat, and I doubt he’s read much of the significant literature in economics, political science, and moral philosophy that’s been written in the last 20-30 years. (Despite whatever he might claim.)

  24. Johnny Sack says:

    So maybe there is no realistic way to sell cheap goods to comparatively affluent westerners without poor people living in poverty and working in 19th century conditions.

    To hem and haw on a detached level about the trade off between safety and economic feasibility is to sociopathically elide a very serious ethical issue we have to contend with. I believe that other people’s basic human rights absolutely and unambiguously trump my right to cheap goods. You can make MY’s on the one hand on the other hand waffling to obscure the point, but at the end of the day you’re fundamentally immoral.

    • bspencer says:

      I believe that other people’s basic human rights absolutely and unambiguously trump my right to cheap goods.


      And I would also add: Why do we need cheap goods? Because so many people are underpaid. Paying people poorly overseas is not doing any worker a good service.

      • Shakezula says:

        I’d go even further and say that goods could still be cheap if companies didn’t need to show an increase in profits year over year and certainly if companies weren’t crammed with people who just had to have their 6 figure salary + sizable bonus every year.

        Anyone who says “It has to be this way if you don’t want to pay $50 for light bulb” is lying. And probably picking your pocket.

        • bspencer says:

          Good luck to them. Only thing they’ll find in pocket is my enormous schlong.

        • Uncle Ebeneezer says:

          Yup. Like all the “struggling” companies that are laying off workers while bringing in record profits. As my ex-coworker said about my ex-employer “what kind of company lays people off because of ‘budgetary constraints’ after just having the best sales month in the company’s history?”

          • Linnaeus says:

            As my ex-coworker said about my ex-employer “what kind of company lays people off because of ‘budgetary constraints’ after just having the best sales month in the company’s history?”

            A capitalist one.

          • wengler says:

            Those companies want it both ways. They want the crass flexibility of laying people off to give the capitalists more money, while also indulging in the corrupt practice of fleecing the state in the name of being a ‘job creator’.

            • Shakezula says:

              Which raises the question: Who is supposed to buy all of the shit that is being made with labor that is cheap because the workers are paid so little (and sometimes nothing)?

              It really does seem that at some level people have become so demented they think money comes from the creation of the gadget or the availability of the service, doesn’t it? If all else fails, job creator status allows them to demand bailouts.

    • prasad says:

      “So maybe there is no realistic way to sell cheap goods to comparatively affluent westerners without poor people living in poverty and working in 19th century conditions.”

      a) Even if those poor people are getting richer as a direct result of this cheap good trade?

      b) It follows from your argument that the “solution” is labor protectionism for the first world, the hell – now – with those poor people. Convenient, that.

      • sibusisodan says:

        It follows from your argument that the “solution” is labor protectionism for the first world, the hell – now – with those poor people.

        It does? How?

        It’s one of the things which might follow, but I don’t see why it has to. What’s being suggested is an extension of first world interest into labour practices elsewhere, for the benefit of the actual workers.

        I’m not sure how overseas workers necessarily lose out if part of the condition of trade with the us is that their employers raise safety standards. What are their employers going to do? Not try to make money?

        • Brandon says:

          I believe the idea is that if companies have to pay overseas workers decent wages and provide decent working conditions, those places will lose their competitive advantage and the profit-seeking corporations will look elsewhere. If the labor costs were comparable to domestic labor costs, better to just make the stuff here and avoid the shipping costs.

          • prasad says:

            Yes. I understand and support the impulse to enforce and improve standards in Bangladesh. But saying at the outset that American companies in Bangladesh today must be held to American law and labor practices basically dissolves the only competitive advantage Bangladesh has.

            • Brandon says:

              I believe there’s a series moral flaw exposed in the system when the choices are exploitation or destitution.

            • Malaclypse says:

              You position is that the only competitive advantage Bangladesh has is the willingness to kill off workers?

              This seems problematic.

              • prasad says:

                No, I’m all for identifying and imposing a floor on workplace safety. I’d support too standards that require incremental improvements over time.

                None of this is at issue between Loomis and Yglesias. The slide between ‘reasonable’ and ‘US level’ requirements for US companies in Bangladesh is the whole point for me.

                • Malaclypse says:

                  Oh. Because unlike StrawLoomis, Loomis actually wrote, in this very post:

                  But what really matters here is that workplace safety is incredibly cheap. Once you start talking about, say, putting in technologies to reduce smoke from steel production you can need to implement relatively expensive technologies. But for basic workplace safety, there is no reason that we can’t implement international standards. The building that collapsed in Bangladesh had huge cracks in it and the workers didn’t want to go in. I think a building that meets basic safety codes is pretty reasonable. So are proper fire escapes, fireproof doors, and sprinkler systems. So are hand protections from saws, face masks for welders, and other extremely inexpensive technologies that save a lot of lives. So Yglesias can talk in these broader theoretical terms about workers and risk and different safety standards being OK. But in the end, that argument leads you to rationalizing American corporations setting up a system that allows 200 people to die because simple fire safety wasn’t followed. That’s a workplace safety standard that should exist everywhere.

                • prasad says:

                  Malaclypse, I addressed that point in a different comment, with time stamp: April 25, 2013 at 1:36 pm.

                  If you like we can take up that discussion there.

            • sibusisodan says:

              Would it make a difference if it was a generalised legislation – not merely applying to Bangladesh?

              And I don’t see how requiring closer-to-US standards of workplace safety (not West, obviously, I mean the good kind) entirely dissolves a competitive advantage. Unless you also assume you require identical dollar-compensation for Bangladeshi workers as us ones. And I’m not sure that’s been suggested.

              I actually take it as read that all parties here don’t want to stop trade which is mutually beneficial, but there are lives as well as livelihoods at stake here, and there is no reason that the present system of trade has to remain so stacked against the actual overseas worker as it currently is.

              • prasad says:

                Re. closer-to-US standards – are you at least distancing from the idea that US labor law itself should apply to American firms globally?

                Re competitive advantage, I think it’s dissolved not just for economic reasons, though I’d like to see greater clarity that there’s no goal here of imposing US or greater-than-Bangladesh minimum wages as well!

                But the reasons are also bluntly institutional and legal reasons – there’s no frickin way Bangladesh can produce US labor standards on the ground any time soon. These things took time to develop in every first world country, and it’s naive to think they’ll happen overnight in the third world.

                If Loomis were calling for outsourcing American companies to produce (by law) incremental improvements in working conditions in factories, I’d have sympathy for that. Saying US law, now, is basically saying “come back home.”

                As for lives, you can’t just include “lives lost from presence” in your calculus. You also have to include any changes in pace of development or poverty reduction, because the lifespan, life quality and health impact those things produce is _huge_.

      • wengler says:

        You know, I made this comment on a previous thread but I’d like to reiterate it here. These garment workers in Bangladesh receive right now less money than those women that died in the Triangle Shirtwaist factory fire over 100 years ago.

        Not inflation adjusted.


        The amount of money taken by the middlemen and the final retail point of sale is on the order of 10s of thousands of percent. It is obscene that these workers who were beat up for the temerity to demand a raise to 25 cents an hour, are in any way being told that it is good enough for their condition as human refuse. At least upgrade their welfare to that of a dog, perhaps not a pampered American suburban dog, but at least a farm dog.

  25. bspencer says:

    I’m just not sure how we maintain our “shining city on the hill” reputation when we’re doing stuff like this. I just don’t. I mean what about exploiting cheap labor makes you proud to be an American?

    • Shakezula says:

      Honestly, it is the same line of thinking that once allowed Americans to be OK with the price of cotton.

      “Weeeeell, slavery isn’t very nice and you hear some terrible stories. But it’s better for them to be here than running around some jungle without Jesus.”

    • firefall says:

      Shining city on a hill? That ship sailed long, long ago. The best you can aim for now is not being the Evil Empire, without that much success frankly.

  26. shah8 says:

    Yglesias definitely was caught with his pants down, doing his informed contrarian shtick. However, I do think that he wrote before most of the information about what happened came out.

    I do think some of the response is overwrought, reflecting just how much of our static capital is mixed with liberal amounts of the blood of our predecessors. And even today, much of the things made in China is based on incredibly unjust and dangerous mining, for coal, for certain minerals–everything shipped out, is based on the complete lack interest in worker safety in the lesser mines. All countries outside of the West does this. They don’t have the manpower, nor do they have access to the money and expensive equipment–in essence, getting the foreign currency to do these things at all, is based pretty much explicitly on being a “low cost” manufacturing center. The West also isn’t interested in helping, because the situation allows domestic companies to lower domestic wages. As such, a common bad faith argument by the BRICS revolve around why they shouldn’t have to reduce carbon emmissions, and that Western interest in worldwide limits are intrinsically about making such countries less economically competitive.

    It’s just a lot more complicated than many of the responses I’m seeing here.

    • Corey says:

      However, I do think that he wrote before most of the information about what happened came out.

      Which is a great reason not to shoot your mouth off about how this all reflects the glory of the free market.

      • shah8 says:

        Agreed. It’s just at this point, I truly hate how personally people express their antagonism against someone they don’t know, and which blares my racism alarm nice and loud every time this happens.

        Yglesias was being really just a lot more callous than he could really get away with. I just more or less shook my head and said no when I read that column when it first showed up. Understood where he was getting it, but I don’t think he really grasped how much he was telling people that the world is an evil place. He’s totally right–not so much economically, but that the political economy doesn’t really allow countries not to sell the wellbeing of their citizens in exchange for modernization. The difference is between the countries that actually manages to sell their lives and misery for something a little better for the kids, and those countries that truly don’t give a shit.

        In light of this, Loomis’ proposal was never going to work. Elites want an angle to profit by, given the lack of philosopher kings, and that proposal would have amounted to less than a hill of beans.

    • Erik Loomis says:

      No, the basic facts were fully known when he wrote the post. Other than the numbers of deaths going up, basically the entire story was out even when I wrote my first post.

      • shah8 says:

        Really? The building violations, the aborted attempted at evacuating it after the evacuation the day before? Who owned it? How many people died? I certainly did not know the full picture before this morning.

    • Timurid says:

      Since I’ve already mentioned Marx and Lenin upthread…. Iggy is explaining the mistreatment of workers in Bangladesh as a logical response to an existential crisis… so the poor bastards making blue jeans are just like the heroic workers bolting together T-34’s back in 1942, working 18-hour shifts in unspeakable conditions while the Luftwaffe stopped by every now and then to drop bombs on them. They suffer and die FOR THE MOTHERLAND! (Anyone know how to say “За Родину” is in Bangla?)

      Of course the Bangladeshi workers have about as much freedom to make informed decisions about risk as the Soviet ones did. And it’s, to put it mildly, highly debatable whether or not a drop in Bangladesh’s annual GDP growth from 8% to 6% would be an inconceivable tragedy on the scale of a Nazi conquest of Russia. Yglesias is arguing that subjecting workers to a level of hazard normally experienced by soldiers in combat zones is preferable to alternative outcomes… but unless those outcomes include having the Waffen SS show up at your front door… I’m just not buying it.

    • Joshua says:

      I’ve been reading Yglesias for a long time, and I am 100% convinced that he believes what he wrote deep down to his bones. This is the way he thinks. He doesn’t have a degree in economics, he hasn’t (to my knowledge) published any research, he has simply hoovered up all whatever neoliberal propaganda is around him in order to advance his career.

      The stuff he says, as Atkins points out, sounds beautiful from the basic Econ 101 fantasyland (without externalities or moral hazards) trotted out these days in support of the official religion of America, capitalism. It’s completely mindless. It doesn’t take any thought to point this out, and in Slate fashion, it can be churned out along with some why-dont-you-want-to-help-people moral indignation.

  27. Andrew says:

    What is the empirical basis for saying workplace safety laws are “immiserating”? (“Unnecessarily immiserating?”) Is there a Reinhart-Rogoff analogue that people cite as proof of this?

    Generally, the argument that to it’s a bad thing to have high workplace safety [or environmental, etc.] standards in poor countries is taken to be self-evident, is constantly and widely deployed, but I never see it justified.

    It is then also used to argue for lower standards in “richer and more risk averse” countries on the grounds that they are mere luxuries. This is a powerful and important right-wing argument. Can it be taken down?

    • Cody says:

      Yes, I was wondering the exact same thing.

      It’s the normal “You don’t understand how expensive this would be! You shouldn’t even try!” argument.

      Oh we’re posting record profits, how could we afford to have people work in buildings up to already-sub-standard code?

  28. One of the Blue says:

    As I believe was noted by Scott in his previous post, the problem is not that poor countries have bad laws in areas like health, safety and the environment. Sometimes their laws are better than ours.

    But . . . such places tend to have meager resources for enforcement or the enforcement systems are convoluted and slow. Not to mention that enforcers in such places often are poorly compensated and thereby vulnerable to influence.

    Also a lot of the effective enforcement of health and safety standards comes from legislation combined with a strong union presence at the workplace that’s in a position to notice things and empowered to act.

    • prasad says:

      This argument cuts the other way frankly. There’s no way you can make Bangladeshi institutions sufficiently good *right now* to satisfy desires like that the labor treated as well as American labor – nation-building isn’t a snap your fingers and it’s done thing.

      So the more you press for higher and higher standards in trade with Bangladesh, the more you’re asking for that trade to be cut drastically in volume. And it’s hard to see why a force that’s lifting them from poverty should be treated in that manner.

      Notice that matters are quite different if instead you say something like “American corporations employing people in Bangladesh must commit to X% improvement in their standards every decade” etc. That’s both potentially feasible and a good thing.

      Instead, the “American Company = American standards” equation really amounts to “American Company = American jobs.” Which is fine if you’re a certain kind of nativist (many are), but the ruse that this is about compassion for the poor is transparent in this case.

      • aimai says:

        Well, I really disagree that in enforcing a moral code and a safety code one can be considered to be “anti-poor” anymore than my refusing to engage in the sex trade by buying underage teenagers when I go to Thailand makes me “anti poor.” In fact that’s another good example of things that we are forbidden to do either by our own moral system or by our legal system–e.g. the Swedes have pretty strict laws against pedophilia and against sex tourism–and that we might choose to avoid doing for purely moral reasons. Far from arguing that a “rising tide lifts all boats” you ought to be looking for ways that corporate cupidity doesn’t drag the third world down even further.

        Given the price and wage imbalance you ought to be arguing that a tarriff placed on goods imported from Bangladesh into the US go entirely to supplement the wages of the Bangladeshi workers and also workman’s comp and worker safety. Why? Because for pennies on the product we could materially improve conditions for the workers and the only area that would take a cut was either US consumer pocketbooks or corporate profits. I’d rather force the corporations to pay the tax but that gets into the problem that our country is run by assholes.

        • prasad says:

          So. Let’s say there’s a garment factory in Bangladesh. And it’s much better than the one in this story, but unlike first world factories it provides no handicap access ramps or Freon based fire suppression systems. Is such a factory acceptable to trade with? To me the answer is obviously yes, and this trade is going to make Bangladeshis better off. Or is it no, since American corporations must be held to identical standards in the US and in Bangladesh?

          If yes istm you’re agreeing with Yglesias. If no, I think you have to bite the bullet that you’re really making a disguised demand for American-company jobs to come back to the US.

          • sibusisodan says:

            You really are misreading Loomis’ points here. It is not an argument for pretending Bangladeshi factories are American and requiring precisely the same building codes or advanced fire suppression systems.

            It is an argument for holding US companies responsible for their part in deaths resulting from unsafe working practices abroad, in respect of paying reparations, fines and workers comp just as they would for a US factory. This does not imply that the appropriate level for such is precisely the same as in the US. It does attempt to ensure some degree of responsibility is held by US companies for their overseas operations.

            Loomis also suggests an international standards agency for factory safety. The idea that the steps taken to mitigate risk should be identical everywhere (your freon example) is not necessary to this. The idea that risk should be mitigated everywhere is.

            Yglesias, by contrast, sees the non-mitigation of risk as part and parcel of being a poorer country. That’s ridiculous. It is only the case if we collude in it being the case.

            • prasad says:

              Maybe he can explain what he means operationally by statements like:

              I argue that we should apply U.S. labor law to all American corporations, no matter where they site their factory.” (which laws schematically? Does it include minimum wage laws too? You say fire suppression clearly wouldn’t require the same stuff. Not sure what’s meant.)

              The injured workers and the families of the dead deserve financial compensation. (At American levels? At American levels adjusted for PPP? For GDP per capita? At local rates?)

              When the starting point is “US labor law” and the proposed mechanism is “international standards” including inspections and punishments, I don’t think this is a place with much indulgence given local conditions.

              “Yglesias, by contrast, sees the non-mitigation of risk as part and parcel of being a poorer country.”

              I saw that as merely a rephrasing of the obvious point that their budget set is less extensive than yours. It really is; they can’t afford kidney machines either. They can’t price human lives at five million dollars a head like US policy does, cuz they don’t have anything like that kind of money. What a pity if their very poverty becomes a scapegoat-y reason to avoid trade with them.

              Again, not saying Loomis seeks this, but I don’t see much evidence that he’s concerned to avoid such an outcome, or distancing himself from his purely nativist fellow travelers.

              • sibusisodan says:

                When the starting point is “US labor law” and the proposed mechanism is “international standards” including inspections and punishments, I don’t think this is a place with much indulgence given local conditions.

                Why? His starting point is US labor law in respect of holding corporations fiscally liable for death and injury of workers due to safety negligence. The idea of international standards for workplace safety does not necessarily entail US standards for safety mechanisms worldwide.

                That doesn’t require anything about the details to be specified – the level of workers comp, or what risk-mitigating mechanisms are appropriate. It’s a general idea: legal liability and internationally enforced standards and inspections.

                I like that idea. There are ways of implementing that would be terrible, but those methods of implementation don’t have to be the case.

                You seem to be assuming that any such system must result in first-world protectionism, and then disagreeing with it because it would result in protectionism. Well, why is your assumption valid?

      • Brandon says:

        What conditions have brought about the apparent need for every undeveloped and developing country to choose between exploitation by foreign companies (or suppliers to foreign companies) or destitution?

        Who has profited from these conditions?

        Why should we accept them as a just and fair starting point?

        • prasad says:

          Re. What conditions have brought
          History. Once upon a time, every country was a Malthusian hell-hole. Then some countries started growing and industrializing and developing and such. (If you want to gild the lily, those countries exploited and oppressed the now poor countries as it happened, so there’s a moral historical responsibility to boot.)

          Re. Who has profited from these conditions?
          Here you go:

          Why should we accept them as a just and fair starting point?

          What does not “accepting” it entail? Are you proposing vastly increased foreign aid transfers to Bangladesh mayhap? Do you mean to not “accept” poor labor standards in Bangladesh by demanding US? What do you think the expected outcome is, and what’s the desired outcome?

          • Brandon says:

            I am skeptical of the World Bank’s objectivity w.r.t. globalization.

            • prasad says:

              Do you dispute the data, or have better data etc? Because the picture is frankly not surprising.

              And also I’m sure you wouldn’t want to reject data sources out of mere epistemic closure, like someone who’s not a fan of Nate Silver :)

          • Jeffrey Beaumont says:

            Oh, here is Prasad’s problem… he is a fucking idiot.

            Re. What conditions have brought
            History. Once upon a time, every country was a Malthusian hell-hole. Then some countries started growing and industrializing and developing and such.

              • Jeffrey Beaumont says:

                Just as classy as your dumb assertions about Malthusian hell-holes, and the inevitability and desirability of every country to suffer through the hells of the industrial revolution.

                • prasad says:

                  Yeah, the belief that humanity has spent most of history in a Malthusian trap is apparently both obviously false and obviously wicked.

                  But even by the stringent standards of internet misinterpretation, “desirability of suffering” is a remarkable construction to place upon my words. Even you might at least have allowed me to have been talking about necessary evils, not goods to celebrate. Anyway I am asserting no religious view about suffering being cleansing and purifying, if anyone needs such an idiotic clarification to be issued.

                • Jeffrey Beaumont says:

                  The idea that most of history was a Malthusian trap is self-evidently wrong.

  29. AuRevoirGopher says:

    Has liberal St. Nicholas Kristof weighed in yet? I wonder if he’s surprised that while women may hold up half the sky, they can’t hold up the concrete building crushing them to death.

    • prasad says:

      St Kristof might want reply that global poverty and inequality levels are both down, poverty sharply so, because of these globalizing trends. So the important thing is to improve such issues honestly, not try to use them as excuses to turn global labor markets back because of domestic concerns.

      • aimai says:

        We aren’t talking about “turning global markets back” because of “domestic concerns” unless you think that PITY FOR MURDERED WORKERS is a misplaced domestic concern.

        • prasad says:

          But then it’s not clear why you agree with Loomis rather than Yglesias. Yglesias hasn’t said standards are a priori bad. He’s said there are good and morally defensible reasons why those standards can be _lower_ than in the US. PITY for MURDERED WORKERS is compatible with this.

          And by domestic concerns I thought it was pretty clear I meant protecting the American working class.

      • Brandon says:

        Is it impossible for companies to operate factories in these countries with reasonable safety standards and wages? Or would it cut into profits too much?

        • prasad says:

          Reasonable != same as the US…ISTM that’s the starting point for Matt Yglesias. If you grant this then I don’t know what there’s left to disagree about in the abstract.

          • Jeffrey Beaumont says:

            No, one isnt agreeing with Yglesias. Yglesias believes labor is a free actor in the economy, able to assess and choose what level of risk they find acceptable. This isnt at all the case.

            So just because we agree that it would be reasonable for a factory to operate in Bangladesh or the US with decent safety standards in no way means we agree with Yglesias.

            • prasad says:

              I see. I don’t read MY as you, but setting that aside, do you endorse the view that American companies hiring people in Bangladesh must follow the same standards they would were they hiring in the US?

              That seems like a substantive policy and ethical matter; my claim is such a policy would basically end labor outsourcing to Bangladesh if enforced.

              • NonyNony says:

                If the only reason that they’re outsourcing workers to Bangledesh is because of lower safety standards, then the practice is completely unethical and immoral and it should actually be abolished.

                But you are clearly screwing with things here because you’re conflating hiring standards with safety standards in your response to Jeffery. These are not the same things at all so I’m not sure what point you’re trying to make.

                • prasad says:

                  I mean safety standards, so please read as:

                  do you endorse the view that American companies hiring people in Bangladesh must follow the same safety [word added] standards they would were they hiring in the US

              • Jeffrey Beaumont says:

                I am arguing that the economic of all this, despite the fact that they give the Bangladeshis jobs, is fundamentally unethical. All those dead garment workers would be better off as subsistence farmers rather than coerced to work in hellish circumstances until killed.

                • PSP says:

                  All those dead garment workers would be better off as subsistence farmers rather than coerced to work in hellish circumstances until killed.

                  Except for the getting killed part, they didn’t think so. My ancestors moving from Quebec and Ireland to the dark satanic mills of New England didn’t think so. Subsistence farming everywhere is pretty much nasty brutish and short. In the mathusian environment of Bangladesh, I can’t even imagine how bad it is.

                • prasad says:

                  Those subsistence farmers also have worse life expectancies and such than these oppressed factory workers.

                • Jeffrey Beaumont says:

                  Subsistence farmers had worse life expectancies because most of them existed before the advent of modern medicine. The idea that the life of a factory worker is automatically better than that of a farmer is ridiculous.

                • Jeffrey Beaumont says:

                  Also you guys keep citing Malthus as though that is even vaguely a reasonable thing to do, which it isn’t. I mean he had some useful if incomplete economic observations, but his population theories are totally nonsense.

        • DrDick says:

          This highlights the central fallacy of Prasad’s argument. This is not about protecting American labor, it is about forcing capital to return a greater portion of the value of their labor to the workers. What is driving all of this (offshoring manufacturing, low wages, and dangerous working conditions) is ever increasing rent extractions by capital and concentration of wealth in the hands of a few. Make capital pay.

          • prasad says:

            There is no “the workers.” There are American workers and there are Bangladeshi workers, and however much the heart thrills at the thought of solidarity between them, they don’t have the same interests, not when income distributions look like this. Walmart and the evil Waltons have economic interests more in sync with that Bangladeshi worker than either does with the American worker he replaces. Looking at the chart here elucidates more about this discussion than entire tomes on labor standards or on labor and class.

            And while the story of wealth concentration in the hands of the elite is a real and important one, it is simply not honest to ignore the equally dramatic changes in the lives of the world’s poor, caused by the same broad trends. The world’s top 1% is doing a lot better yes. So is the 15-70th percentile.

            • DrDick says:

              Given that Bangladeshi factory workers make $0.22/hour on average, the world’s lowest, they could double their wages and provide full implementation of US worker safety laws and still retain a competitive advantage. This is simply capital playing one set of workers off against another in a race to the bottom and appropriating ever more of the value of production for themselves. Capital and the greed of capitalists is the problem.

              • prasad says:

                “race to the bottom”
                [citation needed]

                This alleged race to the bottom isn’t seen in poverty levels, GDP growth rates, or starting about ~2000 even in global GINI. Either this is just an article of faith, or it’s something that must show up somewhere.

                “provide full implementation of US worker safety laws and still retain a competitive advantage”

                a) these are perfectly uncosted claims you make. Basic safety it sounds quite plausible will be cost effective. Full US labor standards? Why?
                b) I don’t know how long I need to keep saying that achieving workplace safety in a developing nation isn’t just a matter of money. The laws already exist at least here in this cement case, and are damn near worthless because it’s not one of the nice places you live in where Law means it’s not just a good idea. Demanding instantaneous (as opposed to incremental) compliance with on-the-ground standards far higher than the current status quo is the same as doing away with them jobs, cuz nothing (not money not labor standards not NGOs not anyhing) is going to make Bangladesh a nice first world country in the next year or five years or even ten. I feel like I’m listening to Cheney rebuilding Iraq.

                • DrDick says:

                  Bullshit. This is simply capitalist apologia. Capital will never implement those improvements until they are forced to do so. That was (and is) true in the West just as much as it is in Bangladesh. It is all about money and the greed of capital, which will bleed labor dry and cast it aside as long as it can get away with it. It does not matter whether we are talking about Bangladeshi capital or Western capital, they only care about themselves.

                • prasad says:

                  You merely reiterate the ‘race to bottom’ claim, without evidence. There must be *some* statistics this race appears in.

                • DrDick says:

                  There is this. The whole reason these factories are in Bangladesh in the first place is seeking the lowest wages and workplace standards.

                • prasad says:

                  Nothing in your link is a time dependent variable at all. Hard to see how it could establish anything except that the world has many rich people and poor people, and rich and poor countries. I trust even we with our widely discrepant views can agree on that. If you want to establish race-to-bottom you need at a minimum a time dependent claim surely.

                  I also don’t see why you feel bad about the China -> Bangladesh job migration. MNCs must be very strange locust swarms if their impact is to land somewhere, make it too rich for them, then fly elsewhere. Those are the kinds of swarms we want more of ;)

                • DrDick says:

                  Of course your response ignores the well documented sequential movement of manufacturing to ever cheaper labor markets (US->Mexico->SE Asia->China->Bangladesh), as well as the increasing concentration of wealth and income among the world’s wealthy and in in the developed countries.

                • prasad says:

                  Those former “ever cheaper labor markets” are getting wealthier, so new cheap labor markets are sought. I cannot share your view that this is a problem. The very fact that this is happening means that developing nations show a) poverty reduction and better living standards b) higher growth rates and catch up with developed economies c) decrease in global inequality.

                  As against this, you can point fairly to say environmental degradation, or to rising within-state inequalities, but pretending that the world’s poor are worse off because of globalization does no-one favors. This is the epitome of motivated cognition – your politics don’t like the ideological coloring of these beneficial changes, so they’re not real.

                • DrDick says:

                  And you continue to ignore my point that these countries could fully implement modern Western worker safety standard and raise wages substantially, while retaining their competitive advantage relative to labor in the developed world. We could get even better results in the developing world by imposing these standards. The cost savings are not going to lower prices, but are entirely devoured by capital and management. It is predatory rent seeking at the expense of the lives and well being of third world workers. I would say that you are the one with a “motivated cognition” problem.

                • DrDick says:

                  Just to clarify, Bangladeshi factory workers make about 1% of what their counterparts in the developed world do and overall costs are lower there. Factories in the US and elsewhere in the developed world already have those protections (or stronger in Europe) and costs. There is no way Bangladesh loses its competitive advantage by implementing those worker safety standards. Capital just loses some small fraction of the rents they are extracting from the process.

                • Brandon says:

                  Over a hundred years of exploitation of Appalachian coal miners and their communities haven’t exactly left them well-off.

                • DrDick says:

                  It would also appear that the Bangladeshi factory workers agree with me.

            • Cody says:

              So globalization has decreased the gap between American income and Indian income, correct?

              Otherwise, it seems your whole argument that globalization is helping them by keeping them at lower working standards is a straight up fallacy.

  30. […] should respect that. And besides, risk equals reward: Dangerous gigs pay more. Erik Loomis of LGM responds that low-paid work is often extremely desperate: It goes to desperate people who take shit jobs for […]

  31. Jon H says:

    Young Master Yglesias has an ivy league Bachelor’s Degree in Philosophy.

    Your arguments are invalid.

  32. PSP says:

    A couple thoughts:

    1) You aren’t buying arguments based on sacrificing poor people in pursuit of capital accumulation. Fine. It is an ugly argument. In fact, it is an ugly reality. But it is still the way China, S. Korea, North Carolina, etc. built their economies. Now Bangladesh, Haiti, Vietnam, and others are trying to do the same thing. Their prices go up a hair, and sweatshops in the next country will put them out of business.

    2) As a practical matter, it is a pipe dream. Congress won’t spend money on OSHA to protect American workers. Do you really think they are going to pass a law that works as you imagine?

    3) Even in the unlikely event a law passed, there will be easy work arounds built into it. I don’t think Kmart (for example) usually contracts with third world manufacturers. They buy from some middleman importer, who buys from a middleman exporter, etc, etc. The first time someone goes after one of these guys on a contract case, the entities disappear and you are chasing smoke. I can’t even imagine how fast they would disappear in a criminal investigation. In the end, the retailer will flash a contract with the necessary requirements, and maybe an inspector’s report saying all was well. There will be a finding of not even mere negligence. End of criminal case.

    • wengler says:

      1) It also worked great for Haiti, Honduras, and Jordan. Oh wait it just guarantees you grinding poverty if the capital isn’t reinvested into people and infrastructure. Also China is much different than South Korea and much different than North Carolina. And now I see you actually mentioned Haiti. Which is just weird as a presumed positive example.

      2,3) I guess Congress should never pass laws about anything important because they will never be effective. Our buying choices are so homongenized at this point in that a large percentage of garments will be bought by big box stores in large transactions, that it will probably be easier to figure out if one of them is gaming the system. Doing something about it may be another matter, but if you really think nothing should or can change then why even spend the time typing out a response?

      • PSP says:

        You are absolutely right about reinvesting the capital.

        Haiti isn’t a model, it is a competitor. It will undercut Bangladesh if it raises costs just like North Carolina undercut the mills of New England after unionization. One could wish Haiti would reinvest and develop, but we would probably invade them again if they tried.

        As to typing a comment, do you really think an effective law could get out of committee in Congress?

  33. Shakti says:

    Racism almost certainly informs Yglesias’ post. That, and a contempt for labor in general. Someone who supports labor would not be justifying lower safety standards elsewhere — or even making that argument

    A scathing rewrite of Yglesia’s column

    • Ed K says:

      Right there with you. I’m absolutely willing to call this shit racist. I see no harm in doing so and a whole lot of good. Possibly MY will be horrified enough that he actually wrote something that is so obviously racist as to examine his racism and, if he’s got a shred of goodwill left, rethink a few things.

  34. […] pushes back strongly against Yglesias’s suggestion that workers are responsible for their own safety because they […]

  35. John Protevi says:

    I’m starting a new thread, and asking prasad and PSP (whom I think agree on many points) where they stand on the school(s) of thought known as “dependency theory” or “unequal development.”

    As I understand it, these theories would say that Bangladesh (and other places like it) are not really ever going to “develop,” but are locked into a dependency position. If that’s the case, then the conditions under which people there now live and work are not going to ever be able to be justified as the sacrifices that enable their descendants to live better, because their descendants are not really ever going to be (much? at all?) better off, as the world system will stabilize well before any real improvements can occur. That is, even if there are good trends now, they are fool’s gold, soon to stall or even regress.

    This is of course a rough sketch of the position, but I think it will do as a conversation starter (and no, I am not Samir Amin using a sock puppet).

    • prasad says:

      Just saw this. I’d be happy to give my views there, where is this thread? Haven’t visited this blog before the MY link.

      • John Protevi says:

        No, I should have said a new sub-thread. That is, this is where I’d like to have the discussion.

        • prasad says:

          Gotit. My instinctive knee-jerk response is that the view, as applied to China, India or South East Asia is empirically falsified at least so far :)
          Especially as applied to China, which I keep thinking is the biggest humanitarian miracle the world has ever witnessed over such a time span. If Chinese growth stops today and hereafter there’s no further improvement, the global trends that brought it this far would still count as the among the most heartwarming and welfare enhancing in history. And istm there’s considerable reluctance in certain quarters about acknowledging that poverty reduction, largely because its ideological tendency is not quite right.

          As for predictions of future reversal, even a specific knee-jerk response will have to depend somewhat on specifics of that prediction..

          • John Protevi says:

            What do the dependency folks say in response to these cases? I assume they know the same stats; they must have some response at hand.

            (I honestly don’t know; I’m a philosopher without any expertise in this area. Also, now that I have you on the line as it were, I’m curious as to your thoughts on the question I pose a few comments lower down.)

            • prasad says:

              I really can’t speculate. My sense is that the idea is less in favor than it was, precisely because of such trends, but I’m guessing you know more about the view than I do :)
              I rather thought you were asking me to grapple with a view you’re very comfortable with actually. :)

              I’ll respond below to the rest, hopefully more satisfyingly, but since I have a philosopher writing, can I ask a couple too?
              1. could you give you your sense of the community assessment (nothing time consuming obviously; boo/yay or a link would be more than adequate) of Rawls’s law of peoples? To me it seemed like a really strange fit with the rest of his argumentation. To the point where the obvious story for me becomes one about Rawls adopting the view that would make him less marginal re practical influence, or even the view which would least disturb status quo.
              2. Similar question, but about the theory of “exploitation.” To me, it seems very problematic to say that given a mutually beneficial but exploitative transaction between A and B, third party C has a right to step in and stop it, unless C’s actions also include some scheme (individually or in the aggregate) for leaving B (the exploited party) on at least as high an indifference curve as the exploitation itself would.

              ISTM 1 and 2 are at least in the vicinity of some of the issues we’re discussing here. Thanks for the reply.

              • Jeffrey Beaumont says:

                Prasad, your arguments continue to gravitate around two equally poor premises…

                1) Since “growth” in places like Bangladesh rests on low labor costs attracting foreign companies, and since poor safety conditions are part of low labor, then doing something about those labor costs would hurt Bangladesh’s labor competitiveness, and companies would move on to a poorer country with worse standards… there are 2 problems here: first, Loomis called for better safety standards everywhere (hence hopefully no place left where corps can dodge them) and second, the corporations are going to do that anyway… when a cheaper labor source appears, they will leave.
                2) You seem to assume that this situation represents a real, actual improvement in the lives of the people concerned. I would argue that this is by no means clear. Exchanging poverty for near poverty combined with deadly working conditions, dreadful environmental conditions, and some sort of pale reflection of American consumer culture is not self evidently an improvement, World Bank numbers aside.

                Oh, and 3) you assume that the only alternative to the capitalist world order of the modern world is a Malthusian hell-hole”, an assertion so devoid of analysis or facts that it should make one suspicious of anything you have to say.

                • prasad says:

                  “you assume that the only alternative to the capitalist world order of the modern world is a Malthusian hell-hole”

                  I am not sure you’re arguing in good faith on this point tbh. I said most of humanity has spent most of history in the Malthusian trap, and some societies escaped it before others. You’ve alternately deemed this view wicked and idiotic, though it’s not at all clear why. There certainly seem to be people investigating the view and taking it seriously. There’s even a wiki page with nice citations and everything. You’re basically demanding I acquiesce in your view that a fairly ho-hum and not fringe idea must be clearly and demonstrably wrong. Tough.

                  As for whether and which alternate economic models exist to a broadly capitalist framework, that’s for you to demonstrate. I don’t – can’t – prove none exist.

                • prasad says:

                  On 1 ->

                  You’re conceptualizing “safety standards” as a binary, on or off thing, so internationally societies have them or don’t have them. This makes sense if you’re trying to mandate a floor. It makes little to none when you’re talking about a spectrum. I’ve seen no argument for why (or rather how) safety is to magically escape expense accounts and budget sets and tradeoffs like every other thing worthy of purchase.

                  US safety standards roughly involve a paradigm where a human life is valued at five million dollars, give or take. Not sure why you think this kind of spending on a precautionary principle
                  safety spending is justified in a vastly poorer economy.

                  On 2), feel free to look up HDI over time or millennium development goals or infant mortality or life span. You’re offering no positive evidence (besides this fantasy about the awesomeness of a pre-industrial agrarian life) to support the idea that these people are worse off.

              • John Protevi says:

                Thanks, prasad. As I say below, I can’t get back to this for a few days due to work-related travel. Will come back on Sunday. JP

    • Ragout says:

      From 1992 to 2009, Bangladesh has seen poverty rates fall from 70% to 43%. So Bangladesh is developing rapidly. China is doing even better, with poverty rates falling from 64% in 12% over the same period. Over 600 million Chinese people have been lifted out of poverty.(World Bank figures) And then there’s India, South Korea, Taiwan, Botswana, etc. which have been developing rapidly for decades. Poverty, by the way, is defined as living on less than $1.25 a day, so this is a tremendously big deal. It’s much more important than anything usually discussed on this blog. So I think Loomis’s call to “fight the outsourcing epidemic”, is, at best, foolish.

    • PSP says:

      I’ve never heard that theory. Based on your description alone, it seems overly fatalistic. I think Prasad is correct in observing that it appears to be empirically falsified.

      • PSP says:

        Thinking about it a moment more, I can see such a dependency could be created and maintained. Some would benefit. Words such as “United Fruit” and “Fourteen Families” pop to mind.

  36. Ragout says:

    Loomis denies that “more dangerous work is better paid work.” As usual, when he writes about economics, he demonstrates that he knows nothing about the subject. That’s no sin, but it is foolish to take such a confident and arrogant stand about matters on which you nothing.

    In fact, a vast literature has demonstrated that “more dangerous work is better paid work.” Here’s a recent survey. There’s certainly debate in the literature, but I don’t think there’s anyone who takes Loomis’s position: that more dangerous work is equally paid, all else equal.

    It is this literature (looking at pay differentials in more dangerous jobs) that, in the US, lies behind the cost-benefit analysis used to determine whether a proposed safety regulation is worthwhile (see here) So the US regulations that Loomis wants impose on Bangladesh are actually based on exactly these studies that Loomis ignorantly derides.

    • Jeffrey Beaumont says:

      That isnt Loomis’s position. He is saying that when you look at the whole economy, we do not pay the highest wages to those with more physical risk.

      Firemen make more than garbagemen, yes. Fishermen make more than peach pickers, yes. Oil-rig workers make more than ditch diggers. But lawyers and doctors and middle managers and etc. make more than those in those risky jobs. No one gets rich doing risky jobs.

      • Haystack says:

        Firemen make more than garbagemen, yes. Fishermen make more than peach pickers, yes. Oil-rig workers make more than ditch diggers.

        The risks are likely not the main reason your formers make more than your latters. Fallers, for example, at least where I’m from, are relatively well compensated because of the skill, training & experience required combined with a fairly high level of personal investment (certification costs, price of a 4×4 pickup, chainsaws and specialized gear). Add to that the sacrifice of working in isolated camps for weeks at a time.

        There is no danger pay, as such. Fallers are expected to follow stringent safety protocols drilled in to the crews by full-time HSE advisors on a daily basis. Reckless workers who flirt with danger are soon drummed out of the industry.

        At least where I’m from.

      • Ragout says:

        Yes, I understand that Loomis is making some irrelevant point. He knows nothing about economics or safety regulations, so he doesn’t understand what Matt means when he says that more dangerous work is better paid work, nor is he familiar with the vast literature in labor economics that Matt obviously has in mind. He doesn’t understand why Matt’s point is relevant and the point about doctors making more than construction workers is irrelevant. How do I know that Matt’s point is the relevant one? Because that’s what US safety regulators think about. See the Dept of Transportation memo I cited earlier.

  37. John Protevi says:

    And I’d like to start a second new thread, to avoid diluting the dependency vs development discussion. Here I’d like to ask prasad and PSP to say something about Sen’s capability critique of purely economistic measures of well-being.

    • prasad says:

      *My* schematic answer would look sort of like this – it’s awfully hard to come up with serious measures of human flourishing that’d have us be indifferent between being rich and healthy and being sick and poor, or which would locate any great positive freedom in a starving man. And it’s not abstract either – for example, one of the first things people do when they get even somewhat not-dirt-poor is to get their kids out of the workforce and studying. That’s very simple, but dunno how much better I can do. It imparts the flavor of my attitude on this at any rate.

      Which isn’t to say money alone matters of course – one of my points above is just how stuff besides money matters (here, re ease of enforcement of regulations, but really in general). But I’ve seen nothing that indicates an anti-correlation between other things and money or alleviation of poverty; far from it. The best I know is to say that certain things (like female literacy) are just as powerful in terms of empowerment as earning itself.

      • Jeffrey Beaumont says:

        What happens when India and China and Bangladesh all have GDPs high enough to not die merit western-style labor safety? I mean presumably sub-Saharan Africa gets their turn with the industrial revolution. Then what?

        • prasad says:

          Let me see if I can understand this somewhat opaque question by parodying it. What happens when globalization gets rid of poor people everywhere so there’s no-one left to exploit? What happens when there’s no target left for the evil marauding capitalist pigs?

          Wouldn’t you like to find out? I sure would


        • PSP says:

          That question opens up the possibility of all kinds of fun predictions. Indestructible clothes. Nudity as the new look.

          The more prosaic answer (a lot less fun) it that one would expect capital to be substituted for the relatively more expensive labor input, with the result that production would be automated.

      • John Protevi says:

        Thanks, prasad. I probably shouldn’t have started this as I won’t be able to continue for a few days due to work-related travel. But I’ll put something up on Sunday. JP

  38. Timurid says:

    One last thought…

    I’m not sure if the elites (Bangladeshi or American) quite get it, but stuff like workplace safety is not just a business or economic concern. It is a fundamental building block of civil society.

    We’re now hearing so much buyer’s remorse about the Arab Spring… “Mubarak was there for a reason.” “Egypt is not ready for democracy.” “Those people are not ready for democracy.” But why aren’t they ready? Because decade after decade of lazy, selfish, penny wise pound foolish policies and outcomes just like the current shit show in Bangladesh have ground their civil society and political culture into dust.

    Even though Bangladesh has an ostensibly democratic government and at least a rudimentary rule of law… what do you think will happen to the building owner who totally ignored that system with catastrophic results? My bet is on “not much.” Because Bangladesh is still an oligarchy first and foremost… and oligarchs are above the law. So if the law can’t punish him for his misdeeds, who will? Some concerned citizens with guns and bombs, that’s who…

    In all of the “why do they hate us” hand wringing over terrorism, most people lose sight of terror’s most important root cause, a problem independent of any particular religion, culture or ethnicity. That cause is oligarchy. Oligarchies are inherently unfair and unjust and they provide no hope or sense of purpose for the vast majority of their citizens subjects. (Say what you want about the tenets of National Socialism, but at least it’s an ethos) Oligarchies are Petri dishes for the most vile strains of political extremism and they are the places that produce truly organized, systemic terrorism (as opposed to the random outliers you find in liberal democracies… the McVeighs and the Tsarnaevs). Al Qaeda, the Taliban, the Shining Path, the Tamil Tigers and [Insert Extremist Group Here] all made their living selling hope, purpose and justice to people who have been denied all of those.

    If elites in the West and in the Third World really care about “nation building”… or at least about building free, fair and sane civil societies… then they’re going to have to do a lot more than just shoot the dictator, write some new laws and call an election (Bangladesh has been having elections for decades and we can see how that’s working out). They have to make sure that people are safe in secure in their homes, their neighborhoods and their workplaces. If security, trust and justice for ordinary people cost them a percentage point or two of annual GDP growth… than so fucking be it.

  39. Mike G says:

    Bangladesh may or may not need tougher workplace safety rules

    And you sank your argument right there.

  40. MIke D. says:

    I don’t actually see an emphasis from Yglesias on importance of the idea that workers assume risk by choosing to work in a given place – or even an assertion that their choices are fully free and uncoerced – in the post. Nor do I see how such assumptions are necessary for what he does argue.

    You will respond vehemently that his arguments to require those assumptions, but I would invite you to examine them again more closely. The main dubious assumption in his argument is that it is “the Bangladeshi people” who decide what legal work-safety requirements are, but his main point still holds whoever it is that sets such policy – it’s not necessarily the case that U.S. standards are the right ones for Bangladesh.

    My view is that there is some floor we would want to identify and set as a goal for all workplaces worldwide to meet as a minimum. But that floor isn’t going to be at the level of U.S. safety standards, at least not for some centuries. At least, not unless you want most international trade in manufactured goods to come to a halt.

    • MIke D. says:

      …That said, I think that he does miss your initial point about U.S. corporations living up to U.S. workplace law wherever they operate, so in terms of your discussion with him, the idea that you think that current U.S. standards should be applied everywhere as a matter domestic law in each individual place might be a straw man. I don’t know whether you think that or not.

  41. jb says:

    I agree that it might not be practicable for American safety standards to be enforced worldwide, even for American companies. And the political and institutional obstacles to such a plan are enormous.

    But as I read this conversation, a few things come to my mind.

    a. Almost every argument made against Bangladesh applying First World safety standards was made against the original standards themselves. Moreover, these arguments have been made against every safety standard and workplace regulation ever. Some of those arguments may have been valid, but most turned out to be wrong, sometimes dramatically so. It is true that much of the First World once stood roughly where Bangladesh stands on workplace conditions, and that it has improved dramatically. But this improvement, is due in large part to the implementation and enforcement of safety regulations. This is true of most workplace and labor issues. If the Fair Deal, the Great Society, and the New Deal were all repealed tomorrow, working conditions for the vast majority would worsen drastically. In fact, I would bet that working conditions would regress to the level of the 1890’s within two or three decades, at least for most of the population. The improvements since the 1890’s did not come about solely, or even primarily through technology, or the beneficence of the market. They came about largely because of regulations and the influence of unions!

    b. As DrDick says, the average wage for a Bangladeshi worker is around 20 cents an hour. The cost of garment production is also very low,often on the order of a few cents per garment. Yet the garments in question often sell for high prices, sometimes hundreds of dollars. While I can appreciate that stricter safety regulations might cause an increase in prices, and reduce the profit margin of companies, as well as their ability to compete, I fail to see how this would be disastrous for them. Additionally,if the regulations were imposed and enforced worldwide (admittedly a very unlikely prospect), wouldn’t that eliminate any potential competitive advantage that would come from spending less on safety? Or do garment companies somehow manage to have small profit margins despite the immense difference between the sale price and the production cost?

    • jb says:

      Additionally, if they do somehow manage to have small profit margins, couldn’t this be fixed by cutting the high pay if the executives and the various middlemen?

      And wouldn’t tougher safety regulations, by forcing the plants to invest more in workplace safety, actually be better for these plants in the long run, as it would reduce lost productivity due to injuries?

    • sibusisodan says:

      Almost every argument made against Bangladesh applying First World safety standards was made against the original standards themselves. Moreover, these arguments have been made against every safety standard and workplace regulation ever.

      Absolutely dead on. I’m having difficulty locating the difference between previous hilariously wrong arguments about how the original safety regs would decimate production and livelihoods and current arguments about these hypothetical regs. If it really is different this time (and it could be, after all), I’m not seeing it.

      Or do garment companies somehow manage to have small profit margins despite the immense difference between the sale price and the production cost?

      As the great Flight of the Conchords once sang:
      “They’re turning kids into slaves just to make cheaper sneakers.
      But what’s the real cost?
      ‘Cause the sneakers don’t seem that much cheaper.
      Why are we still paying so much for sneakers
      When you got them made by little slave kids
      What are your overheads?”

    • Linnaeus says:

      Almost every argument made against Bangladesh applying First World safety standards was made against the original standards themselves. Moreover, these arguments have been made against every safety standard and workplace regulation ever.

      Yes, and this is one of the things that troubles me about the arugment of Yglesias and those defending his position. I can understand why he would argue that poorer countries have to balance regulatory standards against economic gains to some extent. But the fact that even he says that it’s appropriate for wealthier countries to have better standards (and better enforcement of those standards) suggests that he thinks at some point, the standards need to be (and will be) improved as poorer countries get wealthier. The problem, though, is that the rationale for opposing a US-style regulatory regime will be the same rationale used to oppose even a more modest, gradual regulatory regime.

      And that means we’ll need worker agency to improve those standards – another thing that Yglesias doesn’t address (and, to be fair, that might be outside the scope of his original piece). I get a little annoyed by the “then a miracle occurs” style of the arguments about improved regulation as countries get wealthier; it just “happens”, according to that view.

      By the way, Yglesias has followed up on his original piece.

  42. […] * Workplace Safety and the Gilded Age Theory of Risk. Hundreds of thousands of Bangladesh’s garment workers walk out in protest over factory deaths. Yglesias shrugs. […]

  43. […] Atkins comments here. Erik Loomis replies here. All good reads, with one exception: Dear Mr. Loomis, Matt Yg is not the “left side of the […]

  44. FAGGOTNERD says:

    I said Matt Yglesias was a faggot shitlib long before it was cool to do so.

  45. […] Workplace Safety and the Gilded Age Theory of Risk […]

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