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The “Market”–A Religion with Fundamentalists as Dangerous as Any Other Religion

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I’ve been completely overwhelmed this week with end of the semester work. Good thing nothing has happened in the news the last couple of days that might require some historical comment… Anyway, I’m starting to dig out. So let me at least take the time I’m glad that John Oliver dedicated his show this week to sweatshop labor. Basically, if you were to film a comedic take on Out of Sight, this is what it would look like.

Of course, conservatives are angry about it. And there’s nothing as smug and condescending as a British wealthy conservative.

We also know how to fix this problem. We should buy more from them. It’s worked absolutely beautifully in China. 15 years ago manufacturing wages there were $1,000 a year. Today they’re $6,500 a year. They’ve risen because we’ve been buying all our electronic bling from poor Chinese people working in Chinese factories. And our buying that bling has meant that jobs have become more productive (heck, electronics assembly is going to be more productive that staring at the south end of a north moving water buffalo however you do it) and the economy has taken off. And China started with those “start an economy” kits we call schmutter factories too. And in only 15 years China has grown rich enough that it no longer does that work. Even Chinese people don’t wear clothes made in China now, now that China’s got rich (which it has by any global or historical standard) that work is not done by poorer people in Vietnam and Indonesia. And guess what? They’re getting rich too.

Because that’s just how economics works. Trade makes everyone better off. That’s why the more trade we have then the more people will be made even better off.

And as at the top, I feel like as a Briton I should apologize. For surely anyone who manages, like Oliver, to get through one of our top universities would have learned that somewhere along the way? But apparently not, for which I do apologize.

Here’s the thing about this kind of argument, outside of the smugness,–people who make it conceive of labor exploitation as a gift the western world has granted to the poor of Asia and Latin America. This argument is much like colonialist arguments about giving Christianity and civilization to the natives. There is just enough of a kernel of truth here–people do need jobs!–to make a lot of people believe this basic narrative. There are of course several problems with it. First, the argument that China has become wealthy because it became the world’s sweatshop is vastly and overly simplistic, with state investments in the economy and centralized control over that economy being at least as important as people putting together plastic widgets for Walmart.

Second, it offers a religious faith in the market as a god that rivals any extremist Christian or Muslim for the damage it can do to the world. That diehard devotion to their ideal of free market capitalism means that conservatives aren’t going to ask any questions about the limitations of the current trade system, assuming that the gods will take care of it if we sacrifice enough lambs on the altar children in the factories. The increasingly rapid mobility of global sourcing means that if workers protest or win higher wages or make any improvements in their lives, the companies can simply move to another country. The ability to create a global middle class out of these jobs is impossible. Bangaldeshis and Indonesians are not getting rich. An elite class is making bank. But workers are not recreating the U.S. in 1955 in Dhaka. At best, you might create a China with vast poverty and an incredibly wealthy elite. While the U.S. is also moving in that direction in no small part because all the good jobs for working class people have left, it’s not ideal for any nation’s long-term stability, as we are discovering in Baltimore.

Such religious devotion to capitalism also allows believers to completely ignore the voices of the actual workers. Again, when capitalist gurus and their devotees talk of sending low-paying jobs around the world, they treat it as a gift from the god of the market. So when workers complain of the treatment–bad wages, beatings, sexual harassment, forced pregnancy tests, long hours, poor housing, terrible food, etc., etc.–they are seen as ungrateful and not voices to which we need to pay attention. We can go along in our developed world believing that far away out their in Bangladesh and Vietnam, workers are happily toiling to make their lives better. But when they do actually try to make their lives better, to tell employers what they want and need, what happens? This is what happens:

For those who don’t want to watch it, a quick summary:

Just look what happens in the below clip from new documentary The True Cost. In the clip we meet 23-year-old Bangladeshi woman Shima Akhter, who is one of almost 4 million garment workers in the country and earns less than $3 a day making clothes in dangerous conditions. Akhter formed a union at her job, and along with other workers, submitted a list of demands to her managers. Instead of looking at the demands or even ignoring them, the managers had Akhter and the other workers viciously beaten by 30 – 40 staffers with chairs, sticks, and even scissors. Akhter was hit in the chest and abdomen and had her head banged against a wall.

Obviously John Oliver is an embarrassment to the British elite educational system–not to mention the University of Aberdeen for moving away from buying sweatshop made electronics–for caring about a woman like Shima Akhter. Because the market is after all a god and gods need sacrifices. So long as it is someone else and I can buy clothes for cheap, go for it. If 1100 people die in a Bangladeshi factory for this system, it’s far and what do I care. Ooh, those jeans are only $20!!!

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  • Phil Perspective

    So long as it is someone else and I can buy clothes for cheap, go for it. If 1100 people die in a Bangladeshi factory for this system, it’s far and what do I care. Ooh, those jeans are only $20!!!

    Did Matt Yglesias ever apologize for being a moral monster for writing this:

    http://www.slate.com/blogs/moneybox/2013/04/24/international_factory_safety.html

    almost exactly 2 years ago!

    • Yes actually. And I do not believe he has ever mentioned LGM since.

    • UserGoogol

      Ugh I really think people ragged on that post too much. He wasn’t defending the status quo in Bangladesh, he was making the general point that different labor laws in different countries may be appropriate, which seems far more plausible.

      • njorl

        Matt has a bit of a tin ear. If a batch of counterfeit vaccines got to market, and killed many children, Matt would write an article about how people shouldn’t be against vaccination because it doesn’t cause autism.

        • UserGoogol

          Yes, that is an entirely accurate judgment. Matt was making a general point about how any workplace safety law inherently involves drawing somewhat arbitrary lines which are based on the local tradeoffs of risk versus benefit, but he was doing so in response to (a post that was in response to) a horrible disaster killing a bunch of people which really wasn’t in any meaningful sense the result of a rational tradeoff between risk and economic development.

          I’m inclined to be sympathetic to Matt because often it really is important to talk about general principles, but yeah it can make him look like an asshole.

          • cpinva

            ” but he was doing so in response to (a post that was in response to) a horrible disaster killing a bunch of people which really wasn’t in any meaningful sense the result of a rational tradeoff between risk and economic development.”

            than you haven’t a clue what you’re talking about, and should just be ignored. in fact, it was the most basic, rational tradeoff: the owner determined that the risk of his employees dying, due to ignoring whatever building codes existed, was easily worth the money they would make for him, including the illegal extra floor. it turns out he was right.

            you’re conflating rational with moral. the two are not, by definition, mutually inclusive.

            • Lee Rudolph

              As I recall the discussion of the Yglesias column (I didn’t read it), the “rationality” was being ascribed to the workers, not to the owner.

              • xq

                Neither; it was to the Bangladeshi people as a whole. And it wasn’t a descriptive claim (i.e., it was not claimed that the factory collapse was the result of rational choices made by the Bangladeshi people) but a normative one (it is sensible for different places to have different safety standards).

      • Origami Isopod

        Ugh I really think people ragged on that post too much.

        Nobody could possibly rag on that post too much.

  • Well, it is the case that wages in manufacturing in Bangladesh have been steadily rising. It’s therefore untrue that capitalism offers no hope of prosperity to the world’s sweatshop workers. It is also true that what it offers now is pretty dire.

    I suggest rich-country consumers should, like Victorian reformers, distinguish between low wages on the one hand, and unsafe working conditions and exploitation of children on the other. The priority should be to stop the latter evils, even if it slows the growth in wages. What is the strategy to deal with the former, apart from the Panglossian one of Tim Worstall?

    • There is no hope of prosperity for them under the current system of capitalism. If you allow workers to actually create middle-class lives, then yes, that system can bring them hope. But with companies already looking to bail on Bangladesh because of high-rise factories that might collapse and bring them bad publicity, as opposed to actually employing Bangladeshis in their own factories or working with contractors to ensure safe conditions, you can call me very, very skeptical.

      The strategy to deal with low wages basically is to support their unions and supports limits on capital mobility so companies can’t flee when the union forms. With unlimited capital mobility however, unions can basically never be sustained.

      • cpinva

        their concerns about bad PR are pretty much non-existent. their only concern is that, being forced, at least for the moment, to follow what safety rules exist, prices them out of the ultra-cheap market. those buyers will just (and have) move on to the next desperate country. they’ll stay there until, again, some triangle shirtwaist factory like disaster happens. a lot of wailing/gnashing of teeth/follow the rules (until the press leaves)/costs increase. then off they’ll be, to the anus of the world, to start the cycle all over again.

        the only way this stops is if the US gov’t makes it unprofitable for them to continue, and more profitable to bring those jobs back home, where they started. based on what Obama’s doing with the super-secret TPP, I don’t expect that to happen anytime soon.

    • dilan

      The reality is one Erik never admits, and indeed, he tells a huge whopper in this piece in response to it.

      The basic history of industrialization is that the jobs come first, in terrible conditions, but people flock to them anyway because working for a big corporation in a factory in a city is still much better than living in poverty on a farm. That’s what happened here, and that is what is happening in the developing world.

      And then, as industrialization creates a middle class (something that didn’t exist at all before the corporate industrialized economy that Erik hates– it was a few wealthy landowners and planters and a ton of serfs, peons, peasants, or slaves), demands are made for higher wages, unionization, and better working conditions.

      That’s how the US industrialized, and there’s no way to skip ahead to part 2 before part 1 happens.

      Erik’s whopper is this:

      “First, the argument that China has become wealthy because it became the world’s sweatshop is vastly and overly simplistic, with state investments in the economy and centralized control over that economy being at least as important as people putting together plastic widgets for Walmart.”

      Chairman Mao did the whole “state investments in the economy and centralized control” thing. The people starved. Later leaders did the trade and capitalism thing. Of course that’s what created China’s prosperity.

      Look, of course the left wing should be fighting for better working conditions in the developing world. But if one insists on (1) “saving American jobs” and (2) imposing strict rules on the developing world that we never had to obey when we industrialized, the end result is that the developed world says “we got ours, F you”, and the developing world never industrializes. And in addition to being absolutely terrible for all the people in the developing world who get stuck in poverty on their farms, the American economy doesn’t get the benefit of free trade and has to pay much higher prices too. So nobody’s as prosperous.

      The developing world has to be allowed to have a competitive advantage that allows them to take manufacturing jobs from the US so that poor people in the rest of the world gain ground. That is good for those people and good for the US. In order for that to happen, wages and working conditions can’t be held up to US standards until after those factories are built. There can be minimums, but they have to be set between the average conditions of the poor farmer in the developing world and the average unionized factory worker in the first world.

      And yes, that form of industrial capitalism is the only way anyone has found to do this that actually dramatically raises the prosperity of workers in the developing world. The performance of Deng and his successors versus Chairman Mao is a nice demonstration of that.

      • The other thing about religious fundamentalists is that it’s pointless to argue with them.

        • Joe_JP

          Given Dilan’s views on religion, this is amusing, but I do think “religious fundamentalists” can be given a broad meaning. But, glasshouses and all there.

        • marcel proust

          It would be quite a stretch to call Joan Robinson a market fundamentalist, yet she believed that

          The misery of being exploited by capitalists is nothing compared to the misery of not being exploited at all.

          I think this is a key part of dilan’s comment

          • Murc

            Why should there be misery at all? And the capital classes don’t get some kind of pass because their particular flavor of economic slavery is better than other flavors.

            Also, there’s a substantial body of work indicating that industrialization actually was not a better deal for workers than laboring on their farms had been; living standards in Britain cratered in the 19th century. People moved to the cities to take jobs not because they were a better deal than their previous lifestyles, but because their previous lifestyles had been actively and deliberately destroyed.

            • DrDick

              Why should there be misery at all?

              Because our plutocratic overlords absolutely need to wallow naked in ever bigger piles of cash and they could get no satisfaction from that if the workers were not wallowing in abject misery at the same time.

              • MPAVictoria

                Newsletter, wish to subscribe etc.

            • xq

              Maybe so, but workers in developing nations in the 21st century really do seem to be benefiting from the current system: http://krugman.blogs.nytimes.com/2015/01/01/recent-history-in-one-chart/

              The big losers in relative terms are the middle class in wealthy countries and people in countries too unstable to enter the global capitalist system.

              This isn’t to say we can’t improve things further with regulation. But even if we don’t manage that (which seems likely given the politics), life is getting better for most people in most of the world.

              • Brett

                That’s why I always feel kind of funny when complaining about the current economy. Get outside the US and rich countries, and the past 30 years have been pretty good in terms of wealth, income rises, and overall development. The sheer number of people whose lives have improved due to China’s development alone . . .

                Of course, not everyone in the poor countries has benefited from this, and some countries aren’t doing better overall (Mexico comes to mind).

            • Theobald Schmidt

              living standards in Britain cratered in the 19th century

              My understanding is that this is an active point of historical contention, not a settled conclusion.

              • Murc

                That’s a good point, Theobald; I phrased things badly and shouldn’t have jumped right from “substantial body of work” to “treating things as a foregone conclusion.” That one is on me.

                I feel pretty good about the non-industrialized lifestyles of a lot of people being actively (rather than passively) destroyed, though. That’s a contention I stand by.

                • guthrie

                  I’m pretty sure that it is the case that for the lower class, the early part of industrialisation was pretty good, because more wages in factories etc. But as things developed and more and more people flocked to work and were put out of jobs by machines or enclosures etc, as well as the rise of lots of diseases, things were for many people worse as the century went on, improving towards the end.
                  To take an extreme example, Sheffield file makers died in their 30’s due to the stuff they breathed in whilst doing their work. You can’t tell me that is better than working hard on a farm for 40 years.

                • Brett

                  Some of the physical misery was due to the cities expanding well beyond the pre-existing infrastructure’s ability to handle the population increase. Ghost Map talks about London going through this, with sewage running in the streets because the city had become too big and unwieldy for the prior system of night-soil-men to adequately remove the waste.

                • Theobald Schmidt

                  Murc: Yeah, no disagreement there…

            • Brett

              By some measures, they cratered in the first 40 years of the 19th century, then got better. I question how much you can blame industrialization over that, given that it didn’t really take off across the whole economy until the 1830s and 1840s – before that, it was heavily concentrated in a handful of sectors with uneven paces of mechanization.

            • djw

              People moved to the cities to take jobs not because they were a better deal than their previous lifestyles, but because their previous lifestyles had been actively and deliberately destroyed.

              Perelman’s The Invention of Capitalism is quite good on this for the English case, both on the history of the very often violent and coercive push that accompanied the pull of the city, and how a variety of intellectuals, including Adam Smith, contributed to the whitewashing of the push factors that laid the groundwork for the myth Dilan and many, many others espouse today.

              • AGM

                The farm work is so horrible people would even prefer the workhouses narrative is also complicated by the fact plenty of people were leaving British cities (and farms) to pursue horrible back-breaking farm work where land was “available” in the colonies (and ex-colonies).

      • Read some Ha-Joon Chang to learn how the US industrialized. A large part of it was protecting infant industries from foreign competitors.

        • Right. This is why tariff issues were so contentious in the 19th century.

        • Brett

          It was more about grabbing as much foreign technology as possible, then combining it with lots of natural resources and a focus on mass production for a broader consumer base. Tariffs helped, but the rates themselves were pretty erratic for most of the 19th century – and the British (primary manufacturing competitor for the US) had an extensive tariff regime themselves until the 1840s.

          The smart way to do it now is to have tariffs and trade subsidies for exporters, but only if they can successfully export goods and bring currency back into the country (Joe Studwell talks about how this worked in South Korea and elsewhere in a very good book, How Asia Works). Just having a tariff regime can lead to a lot of corruption and inefficiency if you don’t have strong domestic competition to offset it.

      • Murc

        The basic history of industrialization is that the jobs come first, in terrible conditions, but people flock to them anyway because working for a big corporation in a factory in a city is still much better than living in poverty on a farm.

        So what?

        It doesn’t follow from there that this is either necessary or right. Indeed, you give the game away later in your own post:

        And then, as industrialization creates a middle class (something that didn’t exist at all before the corporate industrialized economy that Erik hates– it was a few wealthy landowners and planters and a ton of serfs, peons, peasants, or slaves), demands are made for higher wages, unionization, and better working conditions.

        If it is possible to have good wages and working conditions during stage two, why is it impossible during stage one? If the competitive advantage gained by economically enslaving human beings is necessary to start an economy, why isn’t it necessary to maintain one?

        You also completely elide the problem of capital mobility, which didn’t exist in the 19th century the way it does today. American and especially British industrialization were driven in large parts by the fact that those countries refused to allow capital to move freely across their borders, even if it were economically efficient to move a lot of goods halfway around the world, which it was not at the time. Hell, the British maintained a system so restrictive that for many years it was actually illegal for things carried in non-British ships to be imported there!

        Chairman Mao did the whole “state investments in the economy and centralized control” thing. The people starved. Later leaders did the trade and capitalism thing. Of course that’s what created China’s prosperity.

        No. It isn’t. You are straight wrong. China’s increased prosperity was created by massive, directed state intervention in their economy that was much more effective than the previous massive, directed state intervention in their economy.

        The developing world has to be allowed to have a competitive advantage that allows them to take manufacturing jobs from the US so that poor people in the rest of the world gain ground. That is good for those people and good for the US. In order for that to happen, wages and working conditions can’t be held up to US standards until after those factories are built.

        This is just… incoherent.

        If it is necessary to economically enslave people to build the factory, why is it suddenly no longer necessary to do so in order to keep it in operation? What is to stop the economic slavers who built it from simply shrugging their shoulders and going off to enslave a whole new group of people elsewhere?

        • DrDick

          It is also the case that far fewer people starved under Mao than under the previous regimes and that the lives of the masses, while not necessarily idyllic, were far better under the Communists.

          • Theobald Schmidt

            Horseshit.

            Can we not idolize totalitarian mass murders? Please?

            • DrDick

              I do not know why you idolize Rockefeller, Carnegie, and Fisk. I have no particular use for Mao or Stalin, but the fact remains that the lives of most people were better under them than under the previous systems.

              • Brett

                They got better after Mao died – they certainly weren’t better when he was alive and putting them through the Great Leap Forward and the Cultural Revolution.

                Of course, any relatively stable regime would have been better than China for most of the pre-1949 twentieth century, when it was wracked by civil wars and internal strife (not to mention the crap the Japanese did in the 1930s and 1940s).

                • Rob in CT

                  Right. There’s a reason the Chinese fear disorder.

              • Theobald Schmidt

                I do not know why you idolize Rockefeller, Carnegie, and Fisk.

                Facile bullshit.

                lives of most people were better under them than under the previous systems.

                Refuted in the link. The Great Leap Forward caused thirty million deaths. The Cultural Revolution set back education in China back half a generation.

                By all means, show me the math where you get to 30 million dead under the Republic.

                I’ll even spot you the twelve million casualties of Japanese war crimes.

                Hogan: Apologetics for mass murderers really get my goat. It’s like Holocaust denial, but respectable.

                • DrDick

                  This pretends that millions did not routinely die in famines, epidemics, and wars under the imperial system or in the chaos that prevailed during the interregnum. Your link above makes absolutely no comparisons to the pre-communist era. It is also a fact that life expectancy rose by 18 years after the revolution and that infant and juvenile mortality plummeted. The standard of living for most Chinese was markedly better under the communists.

                • DrDick

                  Apologetics for mass murderers really get my goat. It’s like Holocaust denial, but respectable.

                  Then why are you engaging in it? I never said Mao was a saint, or even a decent human being, only that he was better for most Chinese than what came before, a rather low hurdle to clear.

                • Malaclypse

                  It is also a fact that life expectancy rose by 18 years after the revolution and that infant and juvenile mortality plummeted.

                  Yes, but making the baseline 1900-1948 is, shall we say, problematic at best.

                • Theobald Schmidt

                  You’re evading the point.

                  Thirty million people died in a famine engineered by the Communists.

                  The only comparable regime is the post-1911 Republic — which, notably, did not manage to kill half that number — and that’s counting every Chinese death in World War 2, *and* every Chinese death during the Chinese Civil War.

                  Otherwise, what Mal said — enjoy your apologetics, dude.

                • DrDick

                  The pre-1900 famines were also “engineered” by the imperial system. I am not the one engaging in “apologetics” here, as I acknoweldge all of the problems. You, by contrast, seem very concerned with waving away the sins of the pre-communist societies. Again, Mao and Stalin were monsters, but so were the folks who came before and the lives of common people improved under them. Life expectancy improved under the communists, not just in comparison to the earlier 20th century, but also compared to the late imperial period.

                • DrDick

                  Yes, but making the baseline 1900-1948 is, shall we say, problematic at best.

                  It is no better in the late 19th century. What else are we supposed to compare it to?

            • Hogan

              You sure have a low threshold of idolization.

          • Murc

            Hmm. This is true, DrDick, but I also feel like it is less than relevant.

            The capital classes don’t get a pass just because their particular brand of evil is less destructive than alternatives; neither, I think, do leftists. I don’t like the whole comparative approach; I don’t really care which approach is better, I care which approach is sufficient. Among approaches that are sufficient, then I start caring about better and worse.

            • DrDick

              I am not giving anyone a pass, merely refuting the factual claims of dilan.

              • Manju

                Mao’s record on starvation compares favorably to what the Manchu Qing Dynasty did a 100 years earlier refutes which factual claim of dilan’s?

          • Manju

            It is also the case that far fewer people starved under Mao than under the previous regimes and that the lives of the masses

            Don’t we have to go back about a century, to the Taiping Rebellion, before finding a famine bigger than Mao’s Great Chinese Famine?

        • Brett

          If it is possible to have good wages and working conditions during stage two, why is it impossible during stage one?

          Define “good wages”. The wages in working in for-export factories in poor countries usually are good wages compared to what they’d be earning either as farmers or “make-a-job-for-yourself” small business owners.

          I don’t see any reason why you can’t have reasonably good working conditions in those factories, other than politics and power. Working conditions in US factories varied as well – the Lowell factories were good for a while, then got worse as profits disappeared.

          You also completely elide the problem of capital mobility, which didn’t exist in the 19th century the way it does today.

          Capital mobility was extensive in the second half of the 19th century, when most of the industrialization wave in Europe and the US occurred. Where do you think most of the financing for US railroads came from? Richard White talks about this in Railroaded.

          No. It isn’t. You are straight wrong. China’s increased prosperity was created by massive, directed state intervention in their economy that was much more effective than the previous massive, directed state intervention in their economy.

          China’s increased prosperity was created by a combination of heavy foreign direct investment in manufacturing-for-export, grabbing as much technology as possible from outside of the country, and heavy infrastructure spending. Plus currency manipulation.

          Most of the state intervention wasn’t particularly useful. The State-Owned Enterprises are still much less profitable than their private counterparts despite having access to extremely cheap financing from the state banking sector, and China actually privatized thousands of them over the past two decades.

          • “Capital mobility was extensive in the second half of the 19th century, when most of the industrialization wave in Europe and the US occurred. Where do you think most of the financing for US railroads came from? Richard White talks about this in Railroaded.”

            Well, I think this is a somewhat different definition of capital mobility than I use, although clearly capital is mobile in the sense you talk about. But there is a pretty substantial difference between a global investment market and the ability to actually shut a factory down and move it across the globe.

            • Brett

              They seem very similar to me, especially since you’re usually not moving the physical factory to a different country – you’re just using capital to build a new one that does the same production elsewhere.

              • But in the 19th century American West for instance, to use the Railroaded example you brought up, you have eastern and European capital investing in the American West, as well as the railroad builders White discusses, for beef, mining, timber, railroads, etc., but they aren’t really moving production to new places. Turning the Great Plains into the open range for cattle was designed to feed the urban masses coming to the US to work in the new factories in the increasingly huge cities that could not longer feed themselves for instance.

              • Hogan

                The British weren’t investing in US railroads so that those railroads could compete on price with British railroads.

          • Murc

            Define “good wages”. The wages in working in for-export factories in poor countries usually are good wages compared to what they’d be earning either as farmers or “make-a-job-for-yourself” small business owners.

            I define “good wages” as “wages sufficient for a single person to provide for themselves and their family a comfortable existence without requiring them to work so hard they destroy their body or so long they never get to see said family.”

            You know. The sort of wages my non-college-educated grandfather working 40 hours a week used to support a wife, send two kids to college, and buy a string of successively nicer houses before retiring with a fat defined-benefit pension to live out his golden years.

            The world produces enough wealth and productivity for everyone to have a life like that. We simply choose not to do so.

            China’s increased prosperity was created by a combination of heavy foreign direct investment in manufacturing-for-export, grabbing as much technology as possible from outside of the country, and heavy infrastructure spending. Plus currency manipulation.

            Most of the state intervention wasn’t particularly useful.

            I don’t… what?

            All four of the items you list (heavy foreign direct investment, grabbing technology, heavy infrastructure spending, and currency manipulation) require massive, ongoing, carefully planned state intervention in the economy!

            • xq

              The world produces enough wealth and productivity for everyone to have a life like that. We simply choose not to do so.

              Is this true? World GDP per capita is around 14k. I think we’re close, given exponential growth, but not quite there yet.

            • Brett

              They were a socialist economy, so by definition any changes to it were the product of state intervention. I was making a distinction between more active state interventions (like direct state investment, state-owned firms, etc) and broader “set the market rules and support” type interventions.

              I define “good wages” as “wages sufficient for a single person to provide for themselves and their family a comfortable existence without requiring them to work so hard they destroy their body or so long they never get to see said family.”

              For me, good wages are a relative standard compared to what the alternatives are.

              • Murc

                The alternatives are the haves imposing economic slavery on the have-nots, and should be met with resistance and when necessary violence. A living wage should be a basic human right, and the only reason it isn’t is because greedy sociopaths actively resist making it so.

          • cpinva

            “Most of the state intervention wasn’t particularly useful.”

            lack of state intervention was much more useful. the abject failure of the Chinese gov’t, at every level, to enforce both environmental and labor laws proved extremely profitable, for homegrown and foreign factories. spared the expense of properly attending to toxic waste, and paying/treating workers according to the law, owners stuffed their pockets with extra profits, that had nothing to do with productivity.

            ask any citizen of Beijing (assuming you can get them to take off their mask) how they feel about the massive air pollution, from cars & factories, and I doubt many will tell you how happy they are, because it means “good jobs” for them. hey, I could be wrong, they may actually love it. I understand there’s a burgeoning market for stylish face masks.

        • Manju

          If it is necessary to economically enslave people to build the factory…

          It’s necessary for them to offer lower wages than the west. But it is also necessary for them to offer higher wages than the alternative

          Paul Krugman explains:

          “…third-world countries aren’t poor because their export workers earn low wages; it’s the other way around. Because the countries are poor, even what look to us like bad jobs at bad wages are almost always much better than the alternatives”

          You shouldn’t characterize improvement in ones circumstances as “enslavement”

        • Manju

          why is it suddenly no longer necessary to do so in order to keep it in operation?

          Paul Krugman explains what happens. First the immediate impact:

          ….wherever the new export industries have grown, there has been measurable improvement in the lives of ordinary people. Partly this is because a growing industry must offer a somewhat higher wage than workers could get elsewhere in order to get them to move.

          Then the next stage:

          More importantly, however, the growth of manufacturing–and of the penumbra of other jobs that the new export sector creates–has a ripple effect throughout the economy. The pressure on the land becomes less intense, so rural wages rise; the pool of unemployed urban dwellers always anxious for work shrinks, so factories start to compete with each other for workers, and urban wages also begin to rise.

          And the endgame:

          Where the process has gone on long enough–say, in South Korea or Taiwan–average wages start to approach what an American teen-ager can earn at McDonald’s. And eventually people are no longer eager to live on garbage dumps.

        • Manju

          What is to stop the economic slavers who built it from simply shrugging their shoulders and going off to enslave a whole new group of people elsewhere?

          Nothing. That’s what we want to happen. After wages rise, the “slavers” go on to a poorer country and raise their standard of living.

          The first nation moves on to other industries, having become a skilled labor force. See S.Korea, Taiwan.

      • njorl

        The industrialization process has changed. When England industrialized, they made products for internal consumption, and products which displaced less efficient local workers in other countries – machine made clothes and tools replaced hand-made clothes and tools. When Western Europe and the US industrialized, it was largely the same, with just a small amount of undercutting of English workers. Countries created real improvements to the lives of their people. There was more stuff made with less labor, so people were materially better off.

        Today, when industrialization happens, less efficient workers replace more efficient ones. They require more material and more labor, but they also cost less because the labor is cheap. The products made are all almost entirely for export to bring in currency for an investor class. The new factories make the same thing the old factories made, they just do so in a manner that diverts more profit to the wealthy. The influx of foreign cash with no need to cater to the domestic populous creates corruption that would make Rockefeller, Carnegie and Morgan envious.

        • Murc

          Today, when industrialization happens, less efficient workers replace more efficient ones.

          Er, this isn’t true, I don’t think. Less productive workers replace more productive ones (but only on a per worker basis) but the replacement workers are staggeringly more efficient on an aggregate basis; they require far less input to achieve more output.

          That’s… basically the definition of efficiency.

          • njorl

            To clarify.
            In Developed countries:
            -workers are more productive on an hourly basis, but even more expensive on an hourly basis (includes health and safety costs)
            -production tends to be more energy efficient (for comparably aged factories)
            -raw materials are usually cheaper due to better transportation infrastructure
            – Overhead costs such as rents, taxes, environmental burdens are much higher

        • Brett

          Today, when industrialization happens, less efficient workers replace more efficient ones. They require more material and more labor, but they also cost less because the labor is cheap.

          It raises the productivity of the cheaper workers, and it’s not a new thing either. The Lowell mills hiring farm girls to work for them was an example of that, as well as the use of immigrants and unfortunately children.

      • Hogan

        The basic history of industrialization is that the jobs come first, in terrible conditions, but people flock to them anyway because working for a big corporation in a factory in a city is still much better than living in poverty on a farm. That’s what happened here, and that is what is happening in the developing world.

        In saecula saeculorum, amen.

        • ColBatGuano

          The tradition must be honored.

      • Malaclypse

        working for a big corporation in a factory in a city is still much better than living in poverty on a farm

        With certain notable exceptions.

    • njorl

      Rather than specific issues like pay, safety, or child labor, I think it would be best if they had empowerment. Unionization and meaningful democracy are the best tools for fighting exploitation. Then, if they decide they want to drastically undercut wages of workers in other countries or sacrifice safety and environmental standards, it’s their own choice. But they aren’t making that choice. They work for pennies in dangerous conditions because their governments are bribed and their labor leaders are brutalized or killed.

      • “Rather than specific issues like pay, safety, or child labor, I think it would be best if they had empowerment”

        This.

      • Brett

        Agreed. It’s ultimately what will have to happen in Bangladesh if they want broader, economy-wide improvements in safety and worker rights. Even the good trade pacts only affect exporters, and usually particular exporting industries.

    • DrDick

      In the absence of a strong and militant union movement, there is absolutely no hope for Bangladeshi workers under capitalism. That is the only thing that raised the standards of living for American and Western European workers, who previously lived lives much like the current Bangladeshis.

      • Brett

        Not true. Poverty shrank a ton and wages went up in the “Long 19th Century” (i.e. 1800s-1929) despite relatively sparse and intermittent union power. Even Krugman admitted that in Conscience of a Liberal.

        • DrDick

          I do not think that tells anything like the complete story.

          • Brett

            Your link only confirms what I already stated in another comment on this post: that for the first four decades or so of the 19th century, conditions sucked for the working class, but then got better. It doesn’t talk about the whole of the Long 19th Century.

        • Ahuitzotl

          you dont seem to think there was a strong and militant union movement in the 1800s-1929 period?

    • Brett

      My main problem with Bangladesh and textiles is that they haven’t diversified away from textile production as a source of exports and industry. China tried to lure in end-assembly production for all kinds of stuff, and it worked really well at getting investment capital and technology into the country. Bangladesh could easily be doing that much better, especially as China’s wages have gone up.

      I suggest rich-country consumers should, like Victorian reformers, distinguish between low wages on the one hand, and unsafe working conditions and exploitation of children on the other.

      That’s what I do, and it’s the best response to somebody like Worstall. It’s also the only viable strategy in a situation like this, because the Bangladeshis are not going to destroy the textile industry to protect higher-wage jobs in another country.

      • Linnaeus

        But then you have to deal with the argument that poor working conditions are a necessary component of underdeveloped countries’ comparative advantage.

        • Brett

          I don’t buy it. Even with some standard of workplace safety, the much lower wages are still going to make these countries very attractive as locations for labor-intensive production. Bangladesh, Cambodia, and their ilk will still likely be the main source of textile production even with safe factories (just like how Cambodia was still a nexus for textile production under a trade pact mandating safety and ILO inspections in the late 1990s/early 2000s).

          • Linnaeus

            Well, I don’t buy it, either. But that’s the argument that is at the core of the opposition to improving working conditions. Even Krugman made some version of this argument back in the late 1990s.

  • Anytime I see neolibs cite China’s growth as an example of why sweatshops & free trade are good I shake my head. Not because China is that horrible a model but because much of China’s successes can be credited to maintaining heavy state intervention in the economy while simultaneously attracting foreign investment. And they are doing much more to combat labor & environmental abuses than–say–Bangladesh and India.

    Yes, the air pollution is a huge problem still. But the media rarely tells you its worse in India.

    • Brett

      The state intervention in China’s case mostly amounts to currency manipulation, lots of infrastructure, and trade policies designed to get foreign companies doing partnerships with Chinese firms for export production to turn over valuable technology. The private sector in China amounts to most of the country’s economic growth, but direct state support was surprisingly limited until recently – the state banking system wouldn’t really lend to them, they had less favorable treatment in the country than the less-profitable State-Owned Enterprises, and so forth.

    • xq

      China succeeded with sweatshops and trade and heavy state intervention. It’s not a free market fundamentalist success story. But it is a sweatshop success story.

  • Murc

    We also know how to fix this problem. We should buy more from them.

    That’s one approach.

    Another approach would be finding the sociopaths using up and discarding human beings in order to make money they don’t really need, beat them with cricket bats, and drag them behind some trucks until they’re slabs of meat that nobody will believe were once human beings.

    • UserGoogol

      Punishing people for their actions is inherently right wing and evil. There are no bad people just people who do bad things because of their particular circumstances.

      • Origami Isopod

        LOL

      • Malaclypse

        And one of those circumstances is the belief they are beyond the reach of punishment. Would the world today be better or worse if Henry Kissinger had a reasonable fear of hanging for war crimes in the 1970s?

  • To be honest, I sometimes wonder if “sweatshops” are a false dilemma in that Third Worlders often indeed have no other choice if they need income. I wonder if the attention would be better focused on generating alternative means of economic growth in the Third World that are both egalitarian and sustainable. Plus, fervently opposing IMF/WB-imposed neoliberal restructuring and land grabs by agribusiness which push people off their traditional lands would be a good thing too.

    Basically, anti-sweatshop activism is worthwhile but I could see it becoming problematic if not tied into a wider critique of global capitalism.

    • In Out of Sight I make very strong connections between how agribusiness has created the labor force for sweatshops by forcing people off their land.

      • That’s good.

        Just to be clear my comment wasn’t necessarily directed at you.

        • Oh, I totally agree with you about the need to connect it to the larger system of capitalism.

      • Lost Left Coaster

        You hit the nail on the head. What’s missing from the discussion a lot of the time (and even the lovely John Oliver, in his brilliant report, didn’t go into this — but of course his time is limited) is more about the root causes for why people are seeking these jobs out in the first place. And a lot of this is to do with land dispossession, much of it at the hands of the glorious “free market” — after all, after NAFTA was implemented, we saw an increase both in undocumented immigration to the USA and also the rise of the maquiladora sweatshop industry along the USA-Mexican border. Both of these trends are inseparable from how many Mexican farmers were drowned in the USA’s industrialized, subsidized corn.

        How convenient, indeed, that the human cost of NAFTA’s depression of Mexican smallholder farming was to increase the low-wage labor pool for American agribusiness and sweatshop manufacturing alike. One would almost wonder if this was a feature and not a bug…

        • I have a chapter in Out of Sight on food that really explores this. For all the Green Revolution did, it also contributed to tossing a lot of people off their land and opening the door for international agribusiness that has had enormous cascading impacts, including creating the labor market for the maquiladoras and sweatshops. Once you created that global agricultural market, privatization and free trade agreements like NAFTA easily built upon them and meant more and more people forced out of agriculture, even if they wanted to stay on the farms.

          • Malaclypse

            Interesting parallel between this and the Enclosure Acts Marx discusses in Capital.

            • Rob in CT

              Beat me too it: that rang the same bell in my head.

          • Naomi Klein has a chapter on something similar in The Shock Doctrine, when fishing villages were destroyed by the tsunami and the decision was to not rebuild but to turn the villages into tourist hotels, except there weren’t any jobs or any city for the people to go to.

            (I haven’t been commenting, in part, because I got a new device and it doesn’t have my password on it yet–I believe it’s something like yetAnother!?!PasswordIWontRemember.)

    • Brett

      I wonder if the attention would be better focused on generating alternative means of economic growth in the Third World that are both egalitarian and sustainable.

      Land reform would be a good start for many of them, if it combined farmer-owned plots with state support for infrastructure and the acquisition of needed technology. All of the East Asian countries that climbed into First World status did land reform, creating both a consumer class of farmers who will drive demand and provide savings for domestic investment, and reduce the need for food imports.

  • MPAVictoria

    Anyone know if that is the same Tim W who comments at Crooked Timber? If so the next time I see one of his comments I will remind him he as an utter asshole.

    • Origami Isopod

      I’ve seen Worstall at CT, but IIRC he was commenting under his full name. I could be wrong, though; I don’t read it regularly.

    • Hob

      That’s the same Tim Worstall, yes. Also the same one as this nasty piece of disingenuousness. His comments on Çrooked Timber(*) tend not to be as bad as that, or as this current piece, although it’s certainly all coming from the same assumptions.

      (* The comment culture at Crooked Timber is very strange to me. On the one hand there’s a hypnotically soothing air of academic decorum, in which ideological disagreements that are substantively pretty violent are addressed with a wry tut-tut quality, so it’d be easy to miss just how unshakable someone like TW is in his wingnutism. And then there are incredibly venomous outbursts by nominal lefties who seem to go there mostly to insult moderators who won’t ban them.)

      • Lee Rudolph

        The comment culture at Crooked Timber is very strange to me.

        FTFY.

  • Bitter Scribe

    The argument by the Forbes guy basically boils down to “they’re lucky they have jobs at all,” which is what smug assholes always say whenever they’re confronted by unjust treatment of any workers, anywhere.

    • keta

      He doubles down with a reply in the comments:

      I’ll certainly make the case for child labour being legal.
      A few years back India banned it. The number of children going out to work and not going to school rose.
      Because making child labour illegal reduced the wages of the children now working illegally. So, parents had to send more children out to work so that the entire family didn’t starve to death.
      What’s better? Child labour or starvation? I#ll take the child labour please.

      Because those are the only two options, naturally.

      What a jolly fellow.

      • Rob in CT

        Ah, yes, that’s Timmy alright.

  • Joe_JP

    if you were to film a comedic take on Out of Sight, this is what it would look like

    well, that does save time; he is talking about his book, not the Elmore Leonard book later made into a (comic) Clooney film.

    • The resemblance between Loomis and J-Lo is small, to say the least.

      • But me and Clooney, oh yeah.

        • You’re both left. You both have names indicating ancestry from the British isles. You’ve both been voted the sexiest man alive.

          • BubbaDave

            Clooney looks kind of like Krugman, Erik talks kind of like Krugman…

  • whetstone

    One problem from the consumer standpoint is this: it’s very difficult to navigate the clothing market. If I want to avoid big ag and ensure that I’m buying responsibly sourced food, I know the companies (and farms) to buy from. I can buy Gunthorp Farms instead of Perdue. If I want to avoid retailers with problematic domestic labor issues, I can shop at Costco instead of WalMart or Target.

    It’s not perfect–the charming local store that carries these wonderful products could very well treat its employees like crap without me knowing–and I’m not saying I’m perfect at it either, but reasonably good information is out there, and if you’re interested in these issues, impossible to avoid.

    But clothes? Holy crap, it’s complicated. I remember talking to a friend who’s been writing about these issues for years (Anne Elizabeth Moore, she’s well worth reading), and being like, so what if I buy clothing made in countries with strong labor protections? And she said, well, you don’t necessarily know where the materials come from, and the insane thicket of trade laws makes it even harder to try to responsibly buy your clothing–for reasons I still only dimly understand.

    TLDR: our communal knowledge of this market is way, way behind food and retail labor. I’d love to see a Michael Pollan of fashion. Does one exist?

    • Consumer choices are, too be honest, not the right way of going about making these changes. Kalpona Akter, head of the Bangladeshi worker movement, has specifically asked western activists not to boycott because she and her comrades need jobs. What has to happen is that people have to put direct pressure on companies. Individuals opting to buy other clothing, or especially used clothing or something like that, isn’t going to make any difference.

      That said, avoiding $20 jeans is a good idea.

      • Murc

        I got nothing against people not wanting to be complicit in human misery or buying used clothing because they get a bargain and it prevents waste, but man, I have met more than one person who smugly states they buy only used specifically to avoid being involved in the production process and encourages other people to do so for that reason.

        And it’s like, listen asshole, that “solution” isn’t what you’d call scalable.

        • Yeah, I’ve dealt with that attitude too, although certainly not with whetstone.

  • LWA

    If we were simply dealing with true market fundamentalists- true believers that the unfettered marketplace brings about a just world, who attack subsidies and rentseeking and cronyism as viciously as welfare- then we would be dealing with a vanishingly tiny group of cranks who hold no power outside a CATO intern luncheon.

    I am more and more convinced of Corey Robin’s thesis that the true goal of conservatism is the preservation of the power of the wealthy landowners and white male domestic privilege. Everything else- states rights, markets, liberty- is a smokescreen.

    Consider Atlantic’s article about Ferguson’s Fortune 500 Company
    Market fundamentalists should be screaming with outrage over the way the tax system was perverted to funnel tax money to private hands, which then manipulated the coercive power of the state to levy crushing fees and fines on the citizens who were powerless.

    Yet there is silence. Why? Because the neofeudalism in Ferguson is an example of conservatism in action; wealthy landholders given massive amounts of power and privilege, paying almost nothing in taxes, while riding on the backs of the poor who actually pay more in taxes and fines.
    In Kansas, Sam Brownback wants to diminish government power- except over women’s reproductive rights, where the state holds astonishingly intimate power that rival’s China’s one-child policy in reverse.

  • Deggjr

    Shorter Tim Worstall: You can’t make an omelette without breaking eggs and I love omelettes.

    Where oh where did Monty Python get the idea for this sketch?

    And since apologies are a sub-theme of the linked article, I apologize for clicking on the link and contributing to Worstall’s self image as someone whose opinions have value.

    • Linnaeus

      Shorter Tim Worstall: You can’t make an omelette without breaking eggs and I love omelettes.

      I was going to mention the same analogy. If we’re going to make the omelette & eggs argument, can we be more honest about the eggs being broken and how?

      • Steve LaBonne

        The whole point of omelette / eggs arguments has always been to not be honest about that, given that of course they’re never the eggs of the person making the argument.

  • LWA

    I think it is also a red herring to toss out “capitalism” or “socialism” as binary poles with all other choices arrayed linearly between.

    Even in my amateur reading of history, there were plenty of critiques of the Industrial Age political economies, prior to and separate from Marx.
    The Artists and architects of the Arts & Crafts Movement for example were fierce critics of the system of property and capital; Organizations like The Grange in the American Midwest, and the Populist movements all made many of the same criticisms of capital and industrial policy that we make today.

    Its a rather convenient argument that any criticism of industrial policy leads inevitably to the gulag.

    • burritoboy

      The Christian Democracy movement and the Catholic Church also both have their own substantive critiques of capitalism. Many European countries were mostly run by their Christian Democrat parties during the high growth post-war years, for instance. The free-market fundamentalists in Europe are traditionally in parties labeling themselves “Liberal”, which (again, traditionally) are only supported by a very thin layer of new money entrepreneurs (the old money supports the Christian Democrats). Historically, the Liberal parties only win 10-15% of the vote or less. The rapid ideological decline and perversion of Christian Democracy has been one of the most notably bad developments in continental Europe over the past 30 years.

  • Rob in CT

    Worstall is a grade-A asshole (he’s shown this time and again).

    That said, he’s not entirely wrong (and by attacking fundamentalist worship of the market, as opposed to capitalism full stop, you seem to get that?). That’s what makes this tricky.

    I don’t think the answer is to stop buying stuff made in developing nations. I agree with you that just shrugging and accepting the situation isn’t a good choice either. The thing that concerns me most is that in most of the developing world, people are not only up against exploitive labor conditions but they are also living under authoritarian regimes. It’s simplistic to say “things worked out ok in the US becase democracy” but that was definitely a key element (despite the way power was nontheless used against workers).

    The simple optimistic argument is that as workers in developing nations enter the middle class, they will demand more protections and their countries’ political systems will have to give those to them. This… assumes some things. Big things. I think watching how the pollution issue plays out in China will be interesting.

    • Brett

      He’s not wrong about the “wages” side of it, but wages aren’t everything as Erik and others have pointed out. Bangladesh doesn’t even enforce their existing laws on worker safety.

    • And those authoritarian regimes are in cahoots with the US and European companies doing business there. Rana of the Rana Plaza collapse was not only a clothing contractor, he was in the Bangladeshi Parliament. And that’s why I don’t think we can just say “why don’t those people demand change of their leaders.” They do demand that change and they get beaten and killed because the politicians have a personal financial interest in the current system thanks to Walmart and others not caring how production happens so long as it does and for cheap. That’s one of the major problems with the current system of unlimited capital mobility. The apparel companies and other companies can intentionally seek out the worst governments to place these factories and the workers can do nothing. We have unhinged corporations from national law and regimes while keeping workers under national law and regimes. That’s why the solutions to these problems have to empower workers to bring suit in corporate nations of origin, since they can’t in their own.

      • Rob in CT

        Yes, agreed.

      • LWA

        Yet another point I keep harping on, is that the market is referred to as some autonomous entity that shapes our world independent of human choice.
        Yet what needs to be pointed out repeatedly is how artificially constructed the global marketplace is.

        We have a global network of laws and regulations that allow seamless cooperation between banks and corporations so as to enforce property and contract rights; yet we are told that it is impossible to have a network of laws governing global wages and workplace conditions.
        Workers are allowed to compete with each other, but not cooperate with each other.

        • Rob in CT

          Totally agree, and it’s a key part of market fundamentalism. All that stuff is just assumed to be, like, natural or something. Nothin’ natural about it.

        • Linnaeus

          Workers are allowed to compete with each other, but not cooperate with each other.

          Organized capital: completely awesome.

          Organized labor: An outrage.

      • We have unhinged corporations from national law and regimes while keeping workers under national law and regimes.

        There seems possibly to be some connection here to modernization theory, as if the world’s workers are going to be “modernized” by being forced to be “regulated,” which fits nicely with the idea that sweatshop labor is a tremendous boon the West is granting them. Probably that’s a step or two beyond where you’ve been going, just something I’ve been thinking about.

        Looking forward to your book.

    • xq

      I’m not sure democracy per se matters that much. India is far more democratic than China but doing much worse for their median worker. South Korea grew enormously quickly under an authoritarian regime, and their worker are now some of the best off in the world.

      • Rob in CT

        Hmm, fair point. Which is sort of what I was getting at when I acknowledged that “because democracy” is a simplistic argument for the US.

        I know very little about India’s politics. My vague impression is that “fragmented” is a massive understatement.

    • Lurking Canadian

      We would all be poorer if it were not for the children being crushed in the hydraulic presses. Their parents like it that way. Pay no attention to the outside agitators being thrown out of helicopters for asking for labour rights.

      This is the best of all possible worlds.

      Did I miss anything?

      • Rob in CT

        Yes, unless you’re talking to Worstall.

        • Lurking Canadian

          Not talking to him, so much as trying to summarize his argument, actually.

          • Rob in CT

            Ah, well, that seems like a pretty good summary then.

  • brugroffil

    Blood for the Blood God

    • BubbaDave

      Skulls for the Skull Throne

  • That picture is a good reminder of many topics, so let me add one to the discussion: poverty kills in a lot of different ways. It is crystal clear to an engineer that the concrete in that building wasn’t reinforced properly, which is a function of (1) owners and builders looking to save money, since steel is much more expensive than concrete and (2) the lack of regulatory oversight on construction. This kind of shitty construction is endemic in developing countries because a lot of people simply do not have the money to build properly and the governments don’t have the resources to enforce their (usually) good building codes. So yeah, the topic at hand is that poverty is killing people through overwork and through terrible working conditions. It’s also killing them because they live and work in buildings that perform terribly in storms (Philippines) in earthquakes (Haiti) or for no damned reason at all (see the photo above). It’s easy for people in “the West” to not get the anxiety of not knowing if your home or workplace is safe in the most basic sense of not falling down because that kind of collapse is, for us, a mostly 19C phenomenon.

    I’ve said this before, but every time Erik puts up that picture my train of thought goes down the same track.

    • I’d only add to this that Sohel Rana is rich and certainly had the money to construct a safe factory. He also was in the government so he could have used the government to enforce codes but of course he didn’t.

      • Sure. Rich people are the cheapest bastards I know.

  • Mike G

    The managers had Akhter and the other workers viciously beaten by 30 – 40 staffers with chairs, sticks, and even scissors. Akhter was hit in the chest and abdomen and had her head banged against a wall.

    Oops, I guess the managers didn’t read Adam Smith about “letting the market decide”. The invisible hand is not-so-invisible when you’re a Bangladeshi factory worker.

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