Matthew Iglesias blunders forward in Salon, commenting on the horrendous deaths of Bangladeshi factory factory workers, calling the differences in worker safety laws “entirely appropriate.”
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.
This was a dumb column. Everything about this column was dumb. Dumb. But it’s something that economists can’t help themselves from saying. To wit: Larry Summers disastrous World Bank Memo, which OMG has its own freakin’ Wikipedia entry.
Now, in Summers’ case, I think he was actually making the point that I am going to make here: that as powerful and useful paradigm as micro is, it doesn’t explain everything, and it has a gaping, gigantic problem in the logic when it comes to trades made among those who are impoverished and desperate. Only Summers didn’t caveat his memo, and that sucker stuck to him like gum on his shoe. You would think that most economists would yield the lesson.
This is the exact same problem that Matt Iglesias stepped into, majorly. It is entirely possible that the types of tradeoffs that Yglesias discusses are, as he says, entirely appropriate once a certain level of human safety has been met–but not before. And the nature of that threshold arguably is not readily knowable by economists and their approaches, but rather, resides within the realm of normative and democratic theory instead. In other words, there may incommensurate tradeoffs, trades that we as a human society are just unwilling to allow no matter their efficiency consequences. Economists have trouble seeing the limits of their paradigm here. We’re not talking about the requirement that workers get hour-long lunches and double time and a half on weekends here. We’re talking about people for all practical purposes being forced to enter a building they know full well is dangerous–and then dying therein–because the asshats who run the place were too stingy to set up shop in a place that stands up straight and too politically well-connected (because of the wealth they amassed from such practices and international trade) to be forced to clean up their acts.
Yglesias, like Rogoff and Reinhart, has mostly just whined about the Internet meanies being unpleasant to him. Booty. Hoo.
Some of the more pointed responses:
Yglesias’ thesis, what little exists, is that the Bangladeshis are a people squalid enough that death is an acceptable randomly applied career path, and that dead Bangladeshis are what keep flat-front chinos at $29.99 at the outlet store. Our pants are cheap because their lives are, and cheaper things are innately good. Just think how much Upton Sinclair saved on hamburger as a young man. What an ingrate.
Yglesias summed up the gist of his argument in a tweet, “Foreign factories should be more dangerous than American factories.” In a follow-up post, Yglesias issued an apology of sorts, but only after spending several lines grousing about how annoyed he was that meanies of the Internet made him correct his mistake.
Yglesias’s argument was based on an implicit false premise and a bizarre hypothetical.
The false premise was that whatever caused the building collapse was legal in Bangladesh. But it turns out that Bangladeshis are as averse to being buried alive as we are. There is a national building code in Bangladesh and the politically well-connected owner of Rana Plaza flouted every rule in the book.
However, economists might be right in rejoining that if people are not allowed to improve their lots, even given terrible choices and lousy conditions, what’s the alternative? It’s not as though a commitment to a social safety net has become global or even proven stable.