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Workplace Safety and the Gilded Age Theory of Risk


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.

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