Matt Yglesias illustrates the problem with strict market logic

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.

But no.

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:

      Et tu, Mr. Destructo?: Destructo Salon: Does Matthew Yglesias Enjoy Murder?:

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.


From In These Times:

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.

The “I don’t owe you shit” consumerist ethic can go away right now

I’ve been noticing an unfortunate trend in blogging: the “I don’t owe you shit” takeaway. First of all, since when did this become something to say at all, let alone said in this way? We don’t all live in prison or belong to gangs, so why do we insist on talking or writing like we do?

Starting to sound like a priss, there I am.

But seriously, since when did being assertive or setting limits on entitlements require such bald vulgarity and rudeness? “I’m sorry, but I can’t give you that.” or “I’m sorry, you’re not entitled to that.” is actually different than “I don’t owe you shit.” The former recognizes the humanity of the other and maintains civility; the latter does not.

I worry that it’s a sign of our transforming society where the Randians have won and we all get to ignore the inconvenient obligations that communities place on us. You do, in fact, owe people shit. You owe people many things, in fact, like the observance of their basic rights. And some respect and decency when we debate entitlements and the norms governing a community for its own benefit if you wish to belong to a community, or you wish to have a community to belong to.

Yeah, it’s a bore and a chore and all that. But it’s still kind of required to some baseline degree. And by that, I mean somewhere between a) being deeply, deeply, time-consumingly involved in every single discussion and b)flouncing around rejecting any notion of group obligation when presented with a group claim on your allegiance. There is such a thing called “polite silence” in deliberation. But then what would bloggers blog about?

A particularly unfortunate usage of the “I don’t owe you shit” throwaway occurred on Book Riot by one of my favorite contributors there, Brenda Clark Gray, as she writes about how as a reader, she doesn’t owe writers or indie bookstore owners ‘shit’:

But I won’t (a) not use the library, (b) not buy used books, (c) not borrow books from friends. If I choose to do any of those things, I don’t (a) owe a tweet, (b) owe a blog review, (c) owe a word of mouth review. I am not betraying bookish culture if I (a) buy from Amazon or Chapters or Barnes and Noble, (b) wait to buy the paperback, (c) don’t buy at all. None of the above things are unethical or amoral or indicative of my deep failings as a reader or blogger or member of the bookish community.

To be honest, I strongly suspect that much of this writing is reacting personally to a discussion that isn’t really about them, like the original essay from some blogger named Picky Girl who went off on a writer for a tweet, for God’s sake, a tweet that rather stated the obvious–quite politely, too, for a tweet–pointing out that authors really don’t make much money off of library sales. OMG. How dare that author!

The upshod of Brenna Clarke Gray’s argument–I don’t owe you your dream career writing or selling books–is fine as far as it goes, but…that is a long way from “I don’t you *anything*.” The former is a reasonable, if somewhat silly straw man argument. She’s not a fairy godmother; no one reader can grant anybody a dream career, and as far as I can see, nobody is expecting her to deliver a dream career. People are saying that if you want particular stores and authors to say around, you as an individual can try to help make that possible by actually purchasing their stuff. Oh, the people that say that are practically WELFARE QUEENS feeding Pepsi to their grubby babies with one hand while their other hand is grabbing towards our wallets! For shame! Readers owe them NOTHING BUT DERISION I SAY.

Yeah, it’s possible to over-dramatize just about any point

In the end, both this Picky Girl person and Gray react with equally entitled arguments about their consumer sovereignty and the unfettered liberty that assumes–the default setting in a global, corporate culture becoming more and more dominated by market logic and market ethics. Markets govern the relationship; you writers and suppliers get out there and compete. It’ll do you good; the cream will rise to the top.
The response in the comments to this reasoning will be a chorus of “Amens” because if there is one thing people hate, it’s the idea that they have to think about people other than themselves.

No, in the end, book bloggers, buyers, and readers may not owe tweets, hardcover booksales, patronage, or much else. But they also are not entitled to take offense if somebody does suggest that they have obligations at all.
When your conclusion is that “I don’t owe you shit”…you have said a lot more about yourself than you have about the validity of the other person’s claims on community. You’ve said you don’t recognize that there IS a community.

Conversations on Social Justice at the Price School

We launched a series of conversations about social justice and social welfare. You can find them here.

  1. Richard Green, Professor and Director, Lusk Center for Real Estate at the University of Southern California, discussing housing, the Community Reinvestment Act, and the foreclosure crisis.
  2. LaVonna Lewis, Teaching Professor at the Sol Price of Public Policy, on communities and health
  3. Manuel Pastor, Professor of American Studies and Ethnicity at the University of Southern California and Director of the Program for Environmental and Regional Equity, on immigration and cities
  4. La Mikia Castillo, community development practitioner and organizer for Get on the Bus, one of my favorite programs for prisoners and their families
  5. Sacha Klein, Assistant Professor of Social Work, Michigan State University, on child welfare policy and practice in the US.