From the Comments: Justice and Sweatshops

by Creon Critic, in a rejoinder to Murali

(1.) Should there be any limits on working conditions? Are their any abuses that are intolerable in and of themselves, abuses which need be stopped irrespective of how (supposedly) productive or economically valuable they may be? Can we agree that children for instance should not be engaged in certain labor, no matter how supposedly nimble their fingers (ILO C182)?

(2.) Are there any inalienable rights, as related to the employer-employee relationship? (I do not mean to capture supererogatory acts here. So the analysis that applies to nuclear plant workers who endanger their lives by overexposure to radiation to save the community falls into a different category than workers who are routinely abused in preventable ways, proper ventilation or safety equipment for instance – the article Murali links points out that Nike’s own audit “found that workers in the factory were exposed to the toxic chemical toluene at levels 6 to177 times that allowed by Vietnamese law”)

(3.) Suppose such intolerable and unjustifiable conditions do exist, chattel slavery for instance, is there any onus on us, acting as a community, to sanction goods produced under those abusive conditions?

In my view, the ends don’t justify the means and economic development does not justify sweatshops. Focusing narrowly on development in the future misses the ongoing abuses of today. Even if that future development is very, very important for the welfare of all involved, the welfare of people currently experiencing abuses should not be discounted. I tend to place the burden of proof on the employer to demonstrate that a given deviation from a band of good working conditions/practices is absolutely necessary – and even then, I’d lay a floor below which no employer can go.

These standards are not exclusively first world standards (the linked article gestures to this idea), or standards I arrive at out of a desire for self-righteousness or moral posturing, however good moral posturing makes me feel. Politicians, businesses, and labor groups have already identified spheres of human dignity, human rights, and human decency that are ignored in this analysis of sweatshops as an acceptable pathway to development. These are not standards originating from my imagination, I encourage you to look through the ILO’s database of international labor standards (here). Quite a few widely ratified conventions, and the ILO is constituted by representatives of states, employers, and labor – all three constituencies have jointly produced these conventions. The campaigns of activists seeking better working conditions have the self-same words of the relevant parties to hold them to account. (Moreover, this work precedes John Ruggie’s groundbreaking work as special rapporteur on business and human rights recent endorsement by the UN Human Rights Council.)

Altogether, I see exchange in extremis as deeply suspect. Feminist theorists refer to a certain domain of allegedly voluntary exchange as “desperate exchange” in critiquing some contexts of prostitution, pointing out a college educated Park Avenue call girl =/= a teenage heroin addict abused in childhood and facing ongoing abuse from a pimp. The concept of desperate exchange applies to workers deciding whether or not to take employment at a sweatshop. An agreement made in desperate circumstances can’t be properly categorized as voluntary. An agreement to expose oneself to toxins at 177 times the legal limit cannot be countenanced by the community. Products produced from such an agreement deserve strong community sanction. (Indeed via international organizations, the community has already expressed the impermissibility of such treatment, those campaigning for humane working conditions are simply asking for the imposition of already agreed standards of human dignity.)

Coincidentally, I recently wrote about the Krugman piece James K raised in the other discussion thread, In Praise of Cheap Labor. I’d found the piece wanting, writing,

The fact that the alternatives for workers present such dire hazards should make us even more sensitive to their vulnerability to exploitation by factory owners. The consequent use of factory owners’ superior bargaining position at the expense of their workers’ welfare is certainly not a cause for celebration. Structures that (re)produce this relationship do not deserve our praise.

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343 thoughts on “From the Comments: Justice and Sweatshops

  1. How interesting to discuss this when an entire political party is devoted today to the destruction of worker rights, of the minimum wage, and even basic human rights for those who would be “employed”, to use a laughable term, under their ideal regime.

    And let’s not kid ourselves here. The sort of person who can say that teachers, who are exposed to daily danger, forced to thread an impossibly fine line of classroom discipline (and I know one who, two years after being voted teacher of the year, was fired from his position for breaking up a fight in which one student was trying to stab another in the eye with a pencil on the grounds that he “touched a student” and should have let the fight continue), who work 14 hour days on a regular basis, are somehow “lazy” and “overpaid/overcompensated” and don’t deserve to form unions to collectively bargain regarding working conditions and wages?

    There is such a thing as subhuman.

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    • I’m a member in good standing in a trade union myself.
      I don’t believe that teachers or public employees should have any manner of right whatsoever to bargain collectively.
      In fact, to do so would violate the principles upon which our unions were founded.
      Unionization came to America through John Smith at the Jamestown colony. He introduced the trade unions for a specific reason.
      Uriah S. Stephens founded the Noble and Holy Order of the Knights of Labor with specific caveats, and not with some inalienable right to unionize.
      Now, being a teacher, you can go look that up.
      And next time, come prepared when you care to discuss labor history and its philosophical underpinnings with a union man.

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      • A couple of things I forgot to mention here:

        My own union is descended from the Assembly of the Noble and Holy Order in Washington, DC.
        So, we still take Stephens seriously.

        And I don’t mind being called subhuman.
        I’ve been called worse by better.
        My own work schedule is either six tens or seven twelves.
        I don’t have a lot of sympathy there.

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  2. Creon,

    I fear you are being moralistic. You want to prevent people from making voluntary arrangements because you cannot imagine making them as anything other than a desperate exchange. They are the ones making the decision, living with the result and suffering if Nike just closes shop and goes elsewhere.

    Why not let THEM decide?

    I think your concern is very likely to lead to worse results for everyone other than you. You feel better — they go back to subsistence farming and childhood prostitution. Interestingly enough, though I support a consumer’s right to buy what they want, I suspect “fair wage” products lead to the same ill results and actually harm the intended beneficiary.

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    • I think the underlying debate here is at what point does demand no longer represent rational choice. Many of the cases are self-evident:

      * Incomplete information: when a company deceives it’s employees then their decision to work there is not a rational one.
      * Physical coercion: if a company forces it’s employees through violence or threats then their decision to work there is not a rational one.
      * Monopoly/Hobbson’s choice: if there is only one company for employees to work at, their decision to work there is not a rational one.

      My understanding of “desperate exchange” is that it attempts to look at the above factors as a spectrum of effects on one’s decision rather than as binary indicators. So if an employee has only some of the market information (say due to a lack of basic education), is being indirectly coerced (their children will starve unless they find a job immediately), and has a limited pool of employers to choose from – then their decision should not be considered a fully rational choice, at least not to the same extent as one made outside of these factors. At some point these factors become extreme enough where we can no longer use their decision as an indicator of their desire.

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      • Just to play Devil’s Advocate (and to irritate Mike), I can slap a lot of those same charges on many unions today, who, at the very least, strongly discourage employees from investigating leadership claims, and at worst, restrict the flow of information to their employees. Same can be said regarding physical coercion & monopoly.

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        • I don’t think there’s anything controversial about such a claim, and I’m sure there are some instances where unions enforce irrational choice on their members and simply *belonging* to a union is not enough of an indicator that the union deserves bargaining power. That’s a problem too. But there’s a big difference in degree when it comes to how physical coercion is used against workers in the third world. Ditto for indirect coercion, which I would argue is just as significant, where our social programs provide a reasonably safe buffer for people to dramatically shift their situation towards making more rational choice.

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          • I personally watched a small town destroyed by “their” union. After a wasteful (and largely unnecessary protracted strike) the local union conceded a few points, received quite a few more and voted essentially unanimously to accept the contract. Enter the “national” who called /another/ vote, this time allowing “union” members across the country to weigh in with a vote on what was essentially a local issue. Yup, then “new” vote swung from 99% in favor of the contract (with 100% vested interest) to 90% /against/ the contract (with 5% vested interest). The company closed shop, a thousand workers were immediately unemployed and the “union” didn’t give a rat’s damn.

            Personally if I were a criminal and in charge of a union (but I repeat myself), I’d take union funds and short the hell out of companies I was going to “punish”. Since the whole thing would look rather shady in hindsight, I’d pocket the profits and keep it under the table. But that’s just me, evil criminal union boss. I’m certain things like this /never/ happen in the real world. I’m equally certain there’s a fairy godmother.

            Unions as panacea to world problems? I’m not holding my breath.

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            • ward,
              Insider trading is still a criminal offense. Taking any profit from such is just asking for it.

              unions as panacea is a strawman. global strikes will do what strikes usually do — improve conditions for workers.

              investigative journalism will do other things… if it’s allowed to flourish.

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          • Can you think of one place/time where we’ve successfully implemented first world standards in a third world country & actually raised the overall standard of living without massive subsidies?

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              • Germany, Japan, Italy: they required massive subsidies.

                Spanish American War: the U.S. replaced Spanish dominance with the domination of American capitalized sugar and tobacco companies. Cuba may have been better off (or not), but I hardly think such a situation qualifies as “first world” standard of living. The U.S. also replaced the Spanish in the Philippines, followed by a 3-year war to repress Aguinaldo’s rebels, and finally with a guarantee that sometime, in the future, the U.S. would grant independence when the Philippines was “ready.” Still, not exactly a first-world set of standards.

                Haiti and Kosovo: I’m too ignorant on these.

                Gulf War I: Kuwait has a 1st world standard of living? If so, maybe that’s an example.

                Gulf War II and Afghanistan: hardly successful, or at least, as of now, the success is not a slam dunk.

                Korea: partially supports your claim, although subsidies in the form of military aid (that I know of, maybe there were economic subsidies) probably played a large role.

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                • I think certain segments of Kuwait were considered 1st world, but not the whole country. I don’t think that dynamic has changed any since then (Iraq invaded because Kuwait had developed it’s oil fields).

                  Korea/Japan: Heavy military presence during the conflict, and ever since. The continuing US military presence in both countries allows them to divert resources from defense to other things, so that is a massive continuing subsidy.

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                • Greetings, Pierre and thanks for the thoughtful reply–you’re a wonderful writer and a job very well done! I always enjoy reading your posts and comments and this recent one has me asking myself, why can’t I be that polite? A case in progress I hope.

                  This is certainly a food for thought reply of yours and probably a typical jingoistic, shining city on a hill ideation on my part. I can’t let it go though–idealistic and noble intentions mean something. It’s not all about hubris and breast-beating bullyness. Perhaps I should have worded it that we never left a country in worse condition than when we entered it. That we have never asked our friends or enemies for anything more than a place to bury our dead soldiers when on their lands to defend and to liberate them, is absolutely true. To the best of my knowledge, we “occupiers” have never collected or demanded one penny in taxes as a cost of defending them and their sacred liberty. Oh well, what do I know…we’re pretty poor “occupiers” when you get right down to it.
                  “Occupation” does not always equate to scenes of Hitler proudly standing by the Eifel Tower.

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              • Germany? Japan? Italy?
                Those were 3rd world countries? I think not.

                The Korean War?
                Korea was in fact third world in 1952 and is first world now. But it went through a sweatshop period, too. Only when it got an educated and relatively well-off labor force did it become first world politically; and then only through the repeated public protests of that labor force.

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                  • I would disagree Jesse. Yes in term of remaining infrastructure they perhaps weren’t 1st world. But that’s just buildings and roads. Their remaining people were a first world people and with the arrival of peace (American aid or no) the infrastructure would have followed in short order. Marshal just sped up the process (a highly admirable thing mind you).

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                    • North,

                      Well put. I would just add for emphasis that human capital is a country’s most valuable resource, and as you note, Germany and Japan had first world human capital. Everything else was just a big repair job.

                      It’s a shame, though, that both countries chose to destroy such much of their first-world human capital by going to war.

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    • The priority that our culture affords “voluntary” choices is usually predicated on the supposed rationality through which they are made, i.e. the person is acting self-interestedly (in the broadest sense) and knowingly (deliberated to a reasonable degree).

      The question of whether or not a drug addict chooses voluntarily to continue doing drugs is a boundary case but still helpful in demonstrating what might be problematic with assuming that people who lack bargaining power like that of their counterpart have “volunteered.”

      If I make a contract with someone and either one of use is “not in their right mind,” most people would reasonably consider the contract null and void.

      So the real question is what constitutes “being in one’s right mind.” While I understand why the audacity of claiming to know puts a lot of libertarians ill-at-ease, I think it remains an issues that needs to be at least partially pressed, since clearly there are boundary cases (children, drug addicts) where most are in agreement that “voluntary” as it is usually used doesn’t apply in the same way.

      My own view is that someone in desperate need “isn’t in their right mind,” i.e. not in the rational self-commanding mind they might be in had they certain needs taken care of. So male laborer whose family has enough to be nutritionally health, live in safe shelter, and take care of health needs as they arise would, would have greater agency, where as someone without those economic basics would have less.

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      • My own view is that someone in desperate need “isn’t in their right mind,” i.e. not in the rational self-commanding mind they might be in had they certain needs taken care of. So male laborer whose family has enough to be nutritionally health, live in safe shelter, and take care of health needs as they arise would, would have greater agency, where as someone without those economic basics would have less.

        I suspect most libertarians would shy away from this conclusion based on the obvious slippery slope underneath it.

        You seem to be arguing that anyone operating from any lower tier in Maslow’s hierarchy could be considered incompetent to manage their own affairs, which sounds scary.

        I think your broader point about what counts as a voluntary choice is a good one that is often overlooked in discussions about liberty and self-determination, though.

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      • For my own part, I don’t care one whit whether a person is in their right mind or not.
        They still have the responsibility to engage in behaviors productive.
        Otherwise, I have no problem dropping them into the wilderness by helicopter to let the wild animals finish them off.
        Society-at-large has a responsibility to sanction the actions of its members, or to penalize actions accordingly. Thus, as “criminal” is the greatest condemnation that we might, as a society, denote some form of action, “criminals” are removed from society. They are permitted re-entry only upon such circumstances as indicative of rehabilitation. (I know, this is the official line here)
        However, if a person is simply not in their right mind, and there appears to be little or no chance of them ever recovering their right mind at any time, then I fail to see where it is that society owes them anything approaching an opportunity to engage in commerce.

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      • My own view is that someone in desperate need “isn’t in their right mind,” i.e. not in the rational self-commanding mind they might be in had they certain needs taken care of.

        Let’s accept that at face value. It still doesn’t get us to the point of being able to claim that there is some other person who can make a better decision for that person, because like it or not all value is subjective, and any person external to the decision-maker is not in a position to know that person’s values.

        Paternalism is its own form of dehumanization.

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    • Roger, you asked

      Why not let THEM decide?

      Doesn’t that beg all the important questions at play? By hypothesis, we’re talking about desperate situations. That means people feel compelled to make a decision that they otherwise wouldn’t. So – again, by hypothesis – we don’t even need to ask them of their decision: the fact that they chose as they did indicates their decision.

      So the issue isn’t about what they would decide – we already know that. The issue is what judgments we make about the situation they – and of course we, potentially – find themselves in.

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      • Stillwater,

        Yes, the decision they made is clear. What we are talking about is the ability to forcefully prohibit adults from making their own voluntary decisions.

        That said, free enterprise does need rules and enforcement mechanisms. I suggest the local elected authorities set up the rules, and I believe it is reasonable to expect Nike to follow them. If they routinely fail to do so, I think it is morally commendable to refuse to buy their stuff. I also agree it is worthwhile for ILO to suggest transnational minimums on such things as voluntary unionization and child labor.

        The danger is in inflicting our values on them. If we choose poorly, they suffer, not us.

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        • I don’t believe unionization is useful or necessary in such cases.
          Skilled labor requires skills, while unskilled labor requires throughput.
          The two are entirely different.*

          * ref: Five Factors of Production

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        • Roger:

          The danger is in inflicting our values on them. If we choose poorly, they suffer, not us.

          I think this gets a deeper divide between us than I previously recognized. Your position here seems to be that economic activity – specifically, in the form of market based labor agreements – are culturally neutral, and even more, they are value neutral.

          There are a couple of ways to respond here. One is that profit (in the monetary sense) is just one value among many that requires a justification. That is, profit isn’t an intrinsically valuable thing in and of itself – or at least it isn’t obviously so. So it needs a justification just like other competing positions do.

          Another is that profit, insofar as it’s deemed a justification for any (legal) action X, is in fact a cultural norm. It’s not like that view just hangs out there on its own. It’s embedded in a cultural framework which views profit as not only a good in itself, but also views profit motive as being the best (or the only) means of achieving social and economic progress. Surely that’s a cultural value – and maybe a correct one. So when you argue that our values ought not interfere with the decision of an employee to accept sweatshop labor, you’ve begged the question: our cultural values are already being imposed on them in the form of paying them less money to make more profits.

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            • I think there’s a tension there that’s a little problematic – mainly that most of the ‘sweatshop’ factories that are the root of the issue are generally not actually built, owned or managed by foreign capital.
              They’re usually built and managed by local capital in order to sell to goods to various foreign importers, a few more are joint-ventures where a multi-national essentially rents a production facility from a local capitalist or, in some cases the local government.

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          • Stillwater,

            Pardon me for jumping in on your dialogue with Roger, but I think your framing of his point in terms of “profit” risks slanting his argument. In particular, attributing “profit” and “profit motive” to the employer/capital-owner takes the emphasis off of the sweatshop workers, and moves it towards an argument about globalism and international commerce.

            Perhaps framing the point in terms of “incentive” would work better? My read of Roger’s argument is that workers are responding to incentives when they take sweatshop jobs: those jobs offer better/less-bad working conditions and pay than the available alternatives: they take a sweatshop job rather than accept crushing poverty. My read of your argument is that the workers are choosing under duress, and aren’t able to judge those incentives objectively: that sweatshop job might appear to be better than crushing poverty to someone who hasn’t eaten in three days, but not after years of suffering from extended-exposure toluene toxicity. I think you’re also arguing that it’s better for “us” to decide what sorts of opportunities should and shouldn’t be offered to “them”, because “we’re” in a better position to evaluate incentives objectively (that is, not under duress), but I’m worried that I’m building a straw man.

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            • In particular, attributing “profit” and “profit motive” to the employer/capital-owner takes the emphasis off of the sweatshop workers, and moves it towards an argument about globalism and international commerce.

              And intentionally so. The topic under discussion is role employers play in determining the agreements made in so-called desperate exchanges. Are the decisions employers make value neutral? Do they possess and exercise leverage over prospective employees when shaping the outcomes they agree to? Do profits trump other competing values, and if so, why?

              This discussion revolves around a central question: to what extent are desperate exchanges voluntarily agreed to, and to what extent is differential power used to shape the outcome?

              So, yes, incentive captures some of the issues at play here. But ‘incentive’ is also a necessary component of coercion: when I hold the gun to your wife’s head, you have plenty of incentive to agree to my terms. Likewise, when I encounter a man dying of thirst in the desert I can either offer him water to save his life (purely moral), or I can arrange an agreement under which I give him water in exchange for half of all he owns (market exchange). And he certainly has incentive to agree. But in what sense did he agree to my terms voluntarily? And more importantly, in what sense am I leveraging my differential power to further my self-interest at the expense of another?

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              • The topic under discussion is role employers play in determining the agreements made in so-called desperate exchanges.

                I don’t think that’s true for all participants in the discussion. For example, in the original post, Creon writes that “economic development does not justify sweatshops” and that:

                An agreement to expose oneself to toxins at 177 times the legal limit cannot be countenanced by the community. Products produced from such an agreement deserve strong community sanction.

                Those sure look like prescriptive arguments against the existence of sweatshops, and I think that argument — “sweatshops are coercive, therefore they should be eliminated” — is what Roger’s arguing against. It’s certainly what I thought I was arguing against down-thread. Using your man-in-the-desert example, I’m arguing against the position that giving a man water in exchange for half of what he owns is immoral, and therefore anyone who makes that offer should be prevented from dealing in water at all. Where does that leave the man in the desert? You’ve protected him from exploitation at the hands of the market, but he dies of thirst.

                There’s a third player in the point I thought I was debating: regulators, people like the ILO, who get to decide whether and under what conditions water traders are permitted to enter the desert. Suppose that an international body decrees, and can enforce, that no-one may sell water in the desert for more than $10/litre. You’re interested in whether it’s moral to ask for any compensation when giving a man life-saving water in the desert. I’m interested in whether the international body’s regulations on water-selling lead to fewer water-sellers, and consequently more people dying of thirst.

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                • You’re right that the thread is comprised of more topics than just that. But you ‘jumped in’ to a conversation I’ve been having with Roger for a few weeks now about voluntary agreement and coercion in market-based agreements.

                  “sweatshops are coercive, therefore they should be eliminated” — is what Roger’s arguing against.

                  I just went through the thread quickly and didn’t find anyone suggesting that. So if he’s arguing against that view, he’s not arguing against anyone on the thread.

                  Sweatshops aren’t coercive (actually, I think some of the arrangements are, but let’s leave that aside and stipulate they aren’t). But it doesn’t follow from that alone that they are moral. It also doesn’t follow from that they are voluntary agreements, unless you accept that the opposite of coercive is voluntary for all two-party agreements. (EC Gach’s comment above addresses some of this, so does the idea of exercise of leverage one party has over another.)

                  Also, when people suggest that sweatshops are immoral, it doesn’t follow that those people desire eliminating the jobs, just the conditions under which the jobs are currently performed.

                  Hey, it’s a big topic.

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                  • Apparently I have a fair bit of work to do in order to acclimate myself to the League‘s style of comment-thread debate; I think I’ve been reading a lot of these comments through a slightly distortive lens. Among other things, I think I’ve been attributing too much context to the original post and far too little to (references to) previous comment threads. But jumping into the deep end is fun, and so far I’ve received a kind welcome.

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          • Stillwater,

            SW: “Your position here seems to be that economic activity – specifically, in the form of market based labor agreements – are culturally neutral, and even more, they are value neutral.”

            Why would economic activity be value neutral? What would the point be? The point of exchange, investment and employment is gain. Mutually voluntary activity is expected to be win/win. Both parties anticipate benefit from the base case. My point is that when you decide for third world poor whether they can accept a job or not you don’t pay the cost of making a dumb decision — they do. The burden of proof on you is REALLY high.

            SW: “There are a couple of ways to respond here. One is that profit (in the monetary sense) is just one value among many that requires a justification. That is, profit isn’t an intrinsically valuable thing in and of itself – or at least it isn’t obviously so. So it needs a justification just like other competing positions do.”

            Cool! Will you please lend me money at a loss?

            Seriously, I do not even know how to respond to the comment that a gain in value (profit) from investment isn’t necessarily valuable.

            SW: “Another is that profit, insofar as it’s deemed a justification for any (legal) action X, is in fact a cultural norm. It’s not like that view just hangs out there on its own. It’s embedded in a cultural framework which views profit as not only a good in itself, but also views profit motive as being the best (or the only) means of achieving social and economic progress. Surely that’s a cultural value – and maybe a correct one. ”

            The fact that voluntary economic interactions are usually positive sum is not a cultural norm. It is a description of Human Action. If I have extra coffee and you have extra donuts, and we agree to trade we can both benefit. The same is true for the Inuit and the Zulu.

            Prices and profits/losses are the only effective/efficient way I know to create and allocate scarce resources in a complex society. I guess you can imagine a culture that does not value efficient and effective problem solving, but I think we can dismiss this.

            SW: “So when you argue that our values ought not interfere with the decision of an employee to accept sweatshop labor, you’ve begged the question: our cultural values are already being imposed on them in the form of paying them less money to make more profits.”

            I am not imposing anything on anyone — you are trying to though. An employer voluntarily offered them a job. They voluntarily accepted. That is not coercion. The pay was determined via the interaction of supply and demand, with workers competing not just against fellow local workers, but against workers in other areas. In other words, the reason they make $1 an hour rather than $2 is that their fellow citizens are willing to accept those wages and conditions because it is superior than the alternatives.

            If you want to make up a fantasy world where wages are set by conscience, then go right ahead. But if it fails and those in the third world starve because of your foolishness, then you are the one to blame. I really believe you are on the path to horrible starvation and impoverishment in the name of making your conscience feel better. Irrational evil is still evil.

            Let me repeat my warning. Complex decisions are usually best left to those actually having to live with the consequences. Forcing higher wages into the mix is an idea wrought with peril.

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            • The point of exchange, investment and employment is gain.

              Agreed.

              Mutually voluntary activity is expected to be win/win. … An employer voluntarily offered them a job. They voluntarily accepted. That is not coercion.

              Now we seem to be going backwards. Right back to square one all those weeks ago in our discussion with James H where we talked about leverage.

              Roger, you’ve conceded in other threads that the absence of coercion doesn’t entail voluntary agreement. You’ve also conceded that certain types of agreements based on heavy leverage are immoral. Now you’re back to saying that all market-based agreements are voluntary and therefore moral.

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              • Now we seem to be going backwards. Right back to square one all those weeks ago in our discussion with James H where we talked about leverage.

                Yeah, maybe, but now you’re talking as though there was some clear conclusion to that discussion. My take on it was that I agreed that theoretically there might be a very fine area where we can’t clearly distinguish between leverage and coercion. That’s a far cry from, “so here we see a clear case of leverage equaling coercion” (not your words, but how I’m interpreting you at this point; quotation marks to set off the concept, not to function as a direct quote).

                And I object because here is another way to look at it. You’re in the desert, on the verge of dying from thirst. I come along with a big jug of water. If I’m a good moral person, I play good Samaritan and just share it with you. Assume I’m not a good moral person and no power on heaven or earth can cause me to be one. So I offer you the minimum amount of water that will enable you to reach the next oasis, on condition that you strip naked, pour honey on your genitals, and sit on a red ant nest for 5 minutes.

                “Desperate exchange?” You bet. Unconscionable? Agreed.

                But can you not say that accepting the deal makes you better off? That is, if you value living more highly than you value your dignity and not having red ants biting your genitals, is it not in your best interest to take the nasty deal I offer you?

                And then is it not rational for you to do so?

                It meets the standards of both desperate exchange and rationality, so I can’t see how a distinction between them can be maintained without making unexamined assumptions about individual valuations and rationality. But rationality is simply choosing the more highly valued alternative.

                Now if we are talking about fraudulent exchange–I don’t give you the water after all, or the honey has poison in it so that the ant bites kill you–then I’m fully on board with you. But I think the term “desperate exchange” is designed to be morally compelling, not analytically persuasive.

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                • James, I’ll admit there was no general agreement on the precise limits and application of the concept of ‘leverage’. But I recall Roger (are you there Roger?) agreeing that the concept applied in just these types of situations. You, on the other hand did not. You merely conceded that the concept was potentially problematic.

                  Also, a word of clarification about this:

                  That’s a far cry from, “so here we see a clear case of leverage equaling coercion” (not your words, but how I’m interpreting you at this point

                  If you’re interpreting me that way, then I’m not writing very clearly. Leverage is a concept I used to distinguish a type of power-based negotiation from coercion as the term is broadly understood. That is, the use of power to achieve desired goals but one which doesn’t use force or the threat violence. (Coercion, however, would be a type of leverage.)

                  And then is it not rational for you to do so? … But rationality is simply choosing the more highly valued alternative.

                  And likewise, choosing to accept coercive demands is rational as well. So the rationality of the decision might not be the deciding factor here wrt to the morality of the types of situations some people find themselves in. It may have to do with the type of rationality employed (instrumental) but I’m not sure the subjective rationality of the agent is what’s at issue when determining the morality of the situation.

                  Using outright coercion as an example of what I mean here, it is rational for person A to accede to person B’s coercive demands, but the situation person A finds themselves in wrt person B is an immoral one.

                  Likewise, I think the judgment of immorality isn’t on the actions of the sweatshop worker accepting the job (which is, let’s stipulate, a rational decision). Rather, it;s that the situation the worker finds himself is immoral (for the reason Creon listed above). Further, in the same way that person B immorally used leverage to compel person A to accede his demands, a corporation immorally uses leverage to compel a sweatshop worker to accede to their demands.

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                  • Perhaps you’re writing clearly and I’m not interpreting well. I truly am running a severe sleep deficit and my brain is not working at its best capacity, so I’m not going to accuse you of lack of clarity.

                    That said, I proceed immediately to debate (of course!).

                    1. If you’re using leverage to distinguish from coercion, but you are (as I think I see it) suggesting leverage suffers from similar moral problems as coercion, I guess I’m unclear on what meaning there is to the distinction.

                    2. I’m not sure the subjective rationality of the agent is what’s at issue when determining the morality of the situation. .

                    Agreed, and I think it would clearly be analytically wrong to suggest otherwise. But I’m urging us to move beyond the focus on morality, which I don’t think is the main concern and which I don’t think gets us anywhere. The morality concern is really about harm and suffering to the weaker party, isn’t it? Then why not just focus on the harm and suffering and start thinking about pragmatic ways to alleviate that?

                    Saying, “corporations could pay more without damaging their bottom line” is trivially true, but it doesn’t get us anywhere as a practical matter. Because corporations aren’t normally motivated by moral considerations–they’re motivated by the rational decisions of their managers.

                    So if you want to make changes, you need to set aside all the morality talk and figure out what will actually affect the rational decision-making of corporate managers. i>Unless you do that, you’re not actually acting on your concerns.

                    I don’t want to come across as too strong, and I don’t mean this as a personal insult to you, but I think all the talk about morality is just playacting instead of real acting. It’s pearl clutching, but ultimately nothing more because it makes no actual changes in the world.

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                    • I’m not thinking all that clearly either, but I can’t blame it on sleep deprivation. :)

                      If you’re using leverage to distinguish from coercion, but you are (as I think I see it) suggesting leverage suffers from similar moral problems as coercion, I guess I’m unclear on what meaning there is to the distinction.

                      Leverage was introduced to counter the general argument that market based agreements by definition aren’t coercive, hence they are by definition voluntary. (My example to make the point was Caterpillar Co. back in the day.)

                      This was in part to counter the claim that any agreement voluntarily entered is by definition a moral agreement independently of the specifics agreed to (as an exercise of basic rights, say, or agency).

                      The idea being suggested is that just like in classic coercion, situational power imbalances can be used (as leverage) to determine outcomes that wouldn’t have been agreed to in the absence of the power differential. It’s a useful concept (insofar as it’s coherent) because it reveals situations in which an agreement doesn’t fit neatly into either of the two standard categories: voluntary or coerced.

                      Then why not just focus on the harm and suffering and start thinking about pragmatic ways to alleviate that?

                      Because on this forum, there are lots of people who disagree that there are harms occurring. And others who think that if there are, they’re not morally relevant since the agreement was entered into voluntarily.

                      Saying, “corporations could pay more without damaging their bottom line” is trivially true, but it doesn’t get us anywhere as a practical matter.

                      No. But it counters the claim that raising wages/improving safety conditions would make employing those people unprofitable, costing them their jobs. It also counters the utilitarian claim that sweatshop workers are benefiting from the exchange: if utility is the justification, then increased wages/safety would increase overall utility given that it only minimally effects the bottom line.

                      but I think all the talk about morality is just playacting instead of real acting.

                      Maybe. But I, for one, don’t think the academic exercise of teasing out these distinctions is a useless activity. (Wait! Aren’t you an academic?)

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                    • James, not that I’m terribly well read in this area, but do you tend to have an unsympathetic view of constructivist theory in international relations? Especially the ideas about changing identities of actors.

                      I can’t say that capitalism has been wholly reshaped, but socially responsible investing has pushed items on the agenda that simply weren’t as prominent before, both human rights concerns and ecological concerns get more attention as a matter of course. At the very least businesses, especially brand dependent, consumer facing businesses, are increasingly required to justify their conduct on a basis beyond profits. Reshaping the identity of every MBA is a longer term project (I say dare to dream).

                      Shifting the expectations society has of business also falls into the longer term project category. Hopefully, some future Paul Krugman thirty years from now won’t so easily say such-and-such course is more profitable QED and have so many nod in agreement (yes, that’s a crude oversimplification).

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                    • James Hanley! My, my, my. a pleasure to hear from you sir–“(the Third World discussion”). I can’t think of single instance where coercion and leverage could not be used in a dastardly, evil way. I’m speaking of power of position combined with the ability to manipulate these subject elements. As in, a priest using his entire arsenal to obtain sexual favors from an eight year old choir boy. Just a few days ago, there was a story in the paper of the highest ranking Church official ever to be charged with child rape–I think this ties in very well with this discussion–coercion/leverage/power/manipulation. Ain’t pretty, gentlemen. I feel the church walls quivering and the iron bells ringing and the priests a shakin’ in their boots. This truly is a case that could shake the
                      Church to its bone.

                      James–good news and bad news. Red fire ants are repelled by honey rergardles of where you place the honey or the bees. So the family jewels are safe and secure. Killer bees however will do a job on you, every inch of you, that will make you pray for death! Good day, sir, and thanks for the truly unexpected reply.

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                    • Stillwater, James and Blunt,

                      Wow! I go to the movies and get way behind on this thread.

                      Let me start that I agree (from prior discussions) that there is frequently differing levels of leverage in human interactions — even voluntary ones. Indeed, I assume exactly equal leverage is probably rare (assuming we could ever measure it) and therefore is not practical to try to master plan. I’d much rather leave it up to constructive competition and liberty between interested parties.

                      I do NOT remember agreeing that offering the going wage rate in Haiti is an example of coercion. Indeed, assuming free entry of employers, the absence of third party rules on wage rates and open competition between applicants, I think it is un-coerced.

                      Stillwater:”…just like in classic coercion, situational power imbalances can be used (as leverage) to determine outcomes that wouldn’t have been agreed to in the absence of the power differential. It’s a useful concept (insofar as it’s coherent) because it reveals situations in which an agreement doesn’t fit neatly into either of the two standard categories: voluntary or coerced.”

                      James: “Then why not just focus on the harm and suffering and start thinking about pragmatic ways to alleviate that?”

                      Stillwater: “Because on this forum, there are lots of people who disagree that there are harms occurring. And others who think that if there are, they’re not morally relevant since the agreement was entered into voluntarily.”

                      I will bite… I do not think power imbalances between a business offering a job at the going rate and an employee are sufficient to make this either immoral or harmful. Indeed, this is by definition a win/win that helps the Haitian. And please, let’s no longer cloud the issue with child labor, sexual abuse or such other issues (which I concede).

                      I think it is a jolly good thing that Nike offers jobs at the going rate to Haitians. Indeed, I think it is UNFAIR to those willing to do the job for less to not let them have a shot at the job. And I think you (Stillwater) create more misery and less progress by coercing Nike from giving the poor Haitian a shot at a better job than they otherwise could get. Please stop your coercion, or I will tell your mom!

                      Finally, Stillwater writes:” if utility is the justification, then increased wages/safety would increase overall utility given that it only minimally effects the bottom line.”

                      I disagree with your take on economics. The primary long term effects of minimum wage laws is not to employers or investors. As long as all are treated roughly equal, their margins are unlikely to be affected. The result will primarily be in less job opportunities for the unskilled and (minimally) higher prices for consumers. Minimum wages hurt the very people they are intended to help.

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                    • Stillwater,
                      The idea being suggested is that just like in classic coercion, situational power imbalances can be used (as leverage) to determine outcomes that wouldn’t have been agreed to in the absence of the power differential.
                      I’m not sure that’s saying anything more than that changing the input into the process changes the output. Sure, change the leverage and the agreed-to outcome will change. Change the purchaser’s income and it might change. Change the quality of the product and the outcome will change. Change the time of day, whether each side has eaten lunch yet (whether one side had too many martinis at lunch), whether one side got enough sleep, whether one side never got around to taking those lessons on how to bargain, etc. etc. etc. That’s why I’m not that impressed with the leverage argument–it seems to rely on leverage being something either unusual or intriniscally bad. Until taken to an extreme I find it fairly banal, and any of these others can be taken to extremes I’d find unacceptable, too (even without leverage, I could unfairly outnegotiate someone with Downs’ syndrome, for example, but that doesn’t make differences in negotiating skills something to generally fret about.

                      on this forum, there are lots of people who disagree that there are harms occurring.
                      Who? Maybe we’re reading things differently, but I’ve not seen anyone on here–much less lots of people–arguing that sweatshops are devoid of any harm to people.

                      And others who think that if there are, they’re not morally relevant since the agreement was entered into voluntarily.
                      Maybe. I’d say they’re at least morally mitigated by the voluntary aspect of the agreement. But even if the moral issue isn’t relevant, I don’t think you’ll find anyone here who wants the conditions to remain as is over the long haul, and wouldn’t say improvement sooner is better than improvement later. And I think focusing on the morality detracts from thinking about how to actually make those improvements come about sooner.

                      it counters the claim that raising wages/improving safety conditions would make employing those people unprofitable, costing them their jobs.
                      I’ve only seen one person on here claim it would make employing them unprofitable. That is, I agree, a very dubious claim. But you haven’t demonstrated that it might not cost them their jobs, because even if it would still be profitable to hire them under better conditions, it would be more profitable to hire others in another country under the lesser conditions. So you have not rebutted the lost jobs claim, and since you insist we talk about the moral implications, I’m not going to let you ignore the morality of causing someone greater harm in the name of helping them.

                      Wait! Aren’t you an academic?
                      Yeah, but I’m a policy guy, and I dumped philosophy long ago. I see the philosophy folks as engaged in perpetual mental masturbation, while policy folks actually make changes.

                      Not that I personally have much public policy influence, to be sure, but in fact I have had far more influence on my college’s policies than my friends in the philosophy department, who want only to endlessly debate the big picture about what we think policies should be about. For example, for years everyone has been bemoaning problems of academic integrity violations among students. To my surprise, I seemed to be the only person who could see how our current policy created incentives for students with those tendencies, so I drafted a proposed new policy, which is currently being reviewed by our academic policy committee and, I think, has a very high chance of being approved. It sounds boastful, but I really think it’s just a combination of natural inclination and professional training, that while others talked about the issues surrounding it, I got to work targeting incentives. That’s really what I’d like to see here.

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                    • Creon,

                      Let me preface my response by emphasizing that I am not well-read in international relations theory generally. It was an area I didn’t really pay much attention to in grad school, a choice I now regret.

                      But to the extent I am familiar with the outlines of the theories, I am more of a realist than anything else. I think states follow their interests as they define them (more specifically, as their leadership elites define them).

                      That said, I think all the competing theories are persuasive to their respective audiences because each has some real explanatory power about aspects of the real world. E.g., I’m virulently anti-Marxist, but I think the Marxist approach to IR does the best job of explaining the resentments of the poor in non-western nations.

                      So with constructivism, I do agree that there’s a lot of historical and social contingency, and that the current state of the world was not inevitable. But I think the state of the world as it is today, however contingent its construction, is what state-level actors have to respond to (whether they like it or not) and that they are all still pursuing their own states’ interests (as they define them, which is part of the contingency).

                      But when constructivism gets into the concept that we can consciously shape those constructions and contingent developments, I get leery that they’ve lost any sound empirical basis. And when they get primarily normative I ignore them altogether. I just don’t care what good normative/moral/ethical goals a person has for themselves/others/the world if they don’t have a plan for getting there.

                      If people want to pin their hopes on changing the expectations society has of business 30 years from now, be my guest. Maybe you’ll be successful, and maybe it will take another 30 years to figure out if you have been and where you might have fallen short. I’d rather try to change business’s incentives–change it today and they respond tomorrow.

                      But in fact I do believe in a human nature, which some constructivists stupidly (and I use that term advisedly) do not. And that human nature will always both shape and constrain our efforts to shape others behavior. And we don’t understand it fully enough yet to know really well what the constraints are. We do know that human nature leads us to respond to incentives. So that’s where I place my bet for success.

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                    • James Hanley:

                      while others talked about the issues surrounding it, I got to work targeting incentives. That’s really what I’d like to see here.

                      Agreed. And insofar as there is general agreement that *bad things* are occurring in sweatshops, then I’m very willing to move on to that.

                      One thing I’d say here is that EC Gach brought up a central point in response to the problem: that market mechanisms that create the problems probably won’t be sufficient to correct the problem. It also gets to Creon’s larger argument: that international organizations have already determined that minimal safety and health considerations ought to be built into the employment relation.

                      I mean, look, I’ve been using wage as a bit of a proxy here, and to my own disadvantage. The bigger issue is the extent to which pretty obvious norms are being abridged in some of these situations. The issue for me is really the entirety of the agreement workers enter into, with wages being one of several relevant factors, improving any one of which potentially increase the overall cost to employers.

                      So we agree on balance that what’s occurring right now is less than optimal (wrt the specific employees) . The task at this point – maybe – is to come up with workable solutions if there are any, or to let the market run its course hoping that improved economic activity provides more and better opportunities in the future.

                      So maybe I’ve been arguing against a view that no one holds. But through all these many threads, it sure seems to me like there is plenty of resistance to the idea that sweatshop labor is an intrinsically bad thing – immoral at least, perhaps even unjust.

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                    • market mechanisms that create the problems probably won’t be sufficient to correct the problem.

                      I don’t think that necessarily follows. Market mechanisms are responses to incentives, nothing more, nothing less. Change the incentives and the market mechanisms produce a different outcome. To demonstrate that market mechanisms can’t correct the problem requires showing that there is no way in the market to change the incentives. Since incentives change frequently, and because it requires you to prove a negative (that X can never happen) that’s a tough road. Certainly it requires more than an assumption of truth.

                      So maybe I’ve been arguing against a view that no one holds. But through all these many threads, it sure seems to me like there is plenty of resistance to the idea that sweatshop labor is an intrinsically bad thing – immoral at least, perhaps even unjust.

                      Yes, there is resistance to that, because agreeing that it’s very disagreeable and empirically could–and normatively should–be better is not analytically equivalent to arguing that it’s intrinsically bad, immoral, or unjust.

                      If it provides a net gain in utility for the sweatshop worker, I have a hard time arguing that it’s intrinsically bad. If someone is offering a gain in utility from the status quo for those who volunteer to take it, I have a hard time claiming that’s immoral or unjust.

                      I think there could be some immoral and unjust things going on (e.g., fraud such as concealing the truth about long-term harm from workers). But that’s a case-by-case basis and you won’t get disagreement, at least from me, on those instances.

                      But I readily distinguish between what is radically non-ideal and what is intrinsically bad, immoral or unjust. I think others conflate those concepts.

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                    • Stillwater,

                      And insofar as there is general agreement that *bad things* are occurring in sweatshops, […]

                      So we agree on balance that what’s occurring right now is less than optimal (wrt the specific employees) . […]

                      […] But through all these many threads, it sure seems to me like there is plenty of resistance to the idea that sweatshop labor is an intrinsically bad thing – immoral at least, perhaps even unjust.

                      (Man, these deep comment threads get messy to navigate.)

                      This may be another case of me, in my n00bishness, not recognizing context that everyone else accounts for implicitly. That said, it seems like arguments showing that sweatshop labour is intrinsically bad ought to show that not-sweatshop labour in the same economic context (developing country, low levels of worker education, significant official corruption, etc.) is also intrinsically bad.

                      From what I can tell, the specific problem being raised with sweatshop labour is the massive wealth difference between the sweatshop workers and the ultimate consumers of their labour. If I accept this argument, it leaves me in the strange place of asserting that a sweatshop job in, say, Cambodia, which pays far better than the going wage, is worse than subsistence farming (which interacts only with the local economy and doesn’t involve such enormous wealth/power differentials).

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                    • bluntobject:

                      From what I can tell, the specific problem being raised with sweatshop labour is the massive wealth difference between the sweatshop workers and the ultimate consumers of their labour.

                      I don’t think that’s the argument being made here, tho that may be part of some of the thinking. Creon is arguing more/less straight ahead empirical stuff: that sweatshop conditions are X, international organizations say they ought to be not-X (for very good reasons, btw), so why not make enforcing better conditions part of standard market-agreements. The issue isn’t merely a practical problem, either, since he’s also interested in why people would reject making those conditions apply.

                      My general argument uses wage-rate not so much as a positive argument (‘increase the rates, dammit!’), but as a critique of other justifications for sweatshop labor. Often, it’s argued that the rate is accepted voluntarily ( which is where the concept of a desperate exchange or leverage comes into play), or that employers cannot pay more without employment costs risking the profitability of the entire venture. I find both of these claims problematic, the first for conceptual reasons, the second for strictly empirical ones. But both arguments are designed to counter some of the general types of justifications people provide. (That’s really too short to be persuasive, I admit.)

                      So the argument isn’t that wages ought to go up because employers are making profits. Rather, it’s that the entire agreement which sweatshop workers are compelled to take is wrong (immoral, unjust, or as James H said radically non-ideal) with wages and hours being one factor including health and safety considerations (and bathroom breaks!).

                      How we get from here to there is another matter, but much of the discussion has focused on whether accepting unsafe working conditions for subsistence wages is or is not a moral matter.

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                    • bluntobject:

                      it seems like arguments showing that sweatshop labour is intrinsically bad ought to show that not-sweatshop labour in the same economic context (developing country, low levels of worker education, significant official corruption, etc.) is also intrinsically bad.

                      I’m not sure I’m clear on what ‘non’sweatshop labor’ would mean here. is it the denial of jobs because employing people under anything less than sweatshop conditions is economically impracticle? Or is it that meeting the minimal conditions of human health and safety at sweatshop rates would also be intrinsically bad?

                      My first take at an answer would be that employers do not move into economically repressed areas to employ people out of a moral obligation to improve their conditions. So the moral problem of employing them in less than morally acceptable conditions derives exclusively from the employment relation and is intrinsic to that relation.

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                    • Stillwater,

                      Thanks for your reply; I think I’m coming to a better understanding of your position.

                      So the argument isn’t that wages ought to go up because employers are making profits. Rather, it’s that the entire agreement which sweatshop workers are compelled to take is wrong (immoral, unjust, or as James H said radically non-ideal) with wages and hours being one factor including health and safety considerations (and bathroom breaks!).

                      […] [M]uch of the discussion has focused on whether accepting unsafe working conditions for subsistence wages is or is not a moral matter.

                      I think the devil here is in the details. For example, I’ve cited a couple of sources which suggest that sweatshop jobs are actually pretty good compared to the other options that are locally available. They don’t directly rebut the claim that sweatshops offer subsistence wages, but they imply it pretty hard: consider for example the first link, in which we find that a poll of Chinese workers finds that they value the opportunity to work 70-hour weeks. Forgive me if I’ve missed it, but I don’t think either you or Creon have engaged that claim. (For that matter, if my sources are right and sweatshops really do pay higher-than-going wages, it implies that there’s a lot of slack in wage elasticity for sweatshop operators to pay lower wages and clean up working conditions, which further rebuts the argument that subsistence wages and frightful conditions are economically necessary.)

                      The articles I’ve cited don’t address working conditions in the same detail as they do wages, but Eric Crampton writes that “[m]any of the kids currently employed in sweatshops would otherwise be employed in agriculture, working on small farms with high risk of malarial exposure and even worse working conditions than those found in the factories.” I don’t find it too hard to believe that conditions on small farms in snakes-and-malaria country are worse than those in sweatshops, but I don’t hold this position nearly as strongly.

                      So if it’s true that sweatshops offer better pay and perhaps better conditions than the alternatives available to workers, I think the leverage/exchange-in-extremis argument becomes less compelling.

                      I’m not sure I’m clear on what ‘non’sweatshop labor’ would mean here.
                      I’m thinking of the options that would still exist if you made the sweatshop go away. For example, small-farm agriculture (as above), or crime, prostitution, and begging (as in the example from my first comment.

                      Basically, I find it hard to believe that there are communities utterly without jobs, in which people simply sit around and starve to death until some capitalist walks in and builds a Nike factory. By “non-sweatshop jobs” I mean whatever jobs might be available to a sweatshop worker, were the sweatshop to disappear overnight.

                      The leverage/exchange-in-extremis argument presents a binary choice: a worker can either “choose” to work at a sweatshop or not, and the consequences for “not” are so horrifying that sweatshop operators can make compensation and conditions arbitrarily bad without driving the worker away. If the consequences of turning down the sweatshop job include getting a different job, such as small-plot cash-crop farming, then the sweatshop owner can no longer make conditions as miserable as he wants: eventually, people will leave the sweatshop to till the soil.

                      Are you describing a hypothetical case in which the worker’s options are “work in the Nike factory” and “starve to death”? Or are you arguing that all jobs that fail to meet certain minima for wages and working conditions are “sweatshop labour”? In either case I’d agree with you, but I’d think we were having a pretty strange discussion.

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                    • bluntobject:

                      Are you describing a hypothetical case in which the worker’s options are “work in the Nike factory” and “starve to death”? Or are you arguing that all jobs that fail to meet certain minima for wages and working conditions are “sweatshop labour”?

                      Neither. There is a fact of the matter regarding the working conditions some people find themselves in. This isn’t a new phenomenon, even tho the term ‘sweatshop’ has recently gained currency as a term applying to those situations. (As just one example, remember the ‘free trade zones’ which imposed ‘right to work’ conditions in good old Maquildora days?) So the argument I’m making starts from the basic fact of sweatshop-type labor and proceeds from there, often – and usually – by critiquing arguments supporting the practice. Often those arguments are utilitarian and pragmatic, and often those arguments appeal to the voluntary choice of the employee to work in substandard conditions.

                      In the background of all this is the idea that corporations have, as a matter of fact (in my view anyway) greater leverage in determining outcomes which suit their overall economic goals. If they use that leverage to maximize profit by reducing health, safety and wage-related costs in ways that don’t meet a minimal threshhold of moral decency (either rights based or utilitarian), then they are acting immorally and are morally culpable.

                      So part of the argument/disagreement that you’ve jumped into is revolves around a conventionally accepted normative conception of markets and the role they ought to play, conceptions of the role corporations play within markets, and the idea that since non-coerced market activity is voluntary it’s always positive sum for the participants of any market based agreement. What I’ve been arguing is that this conception of markets and corporate/employee agreements (and other agreements) is incorrect.

                      I think that by extension, tho more narrowly, this is also what Creon is arguing against. In short, the conception of market activity which stipulates that any agreement short of outright coercion is voluntary, and therefore moral, is wrong. As is the often invoked corollary of this principle: that since sweatshops offer people a marginally better economic position, those practices are justified on utilitarian grounds. (Notice that each of these arguments appeals to different moral properties to make the case: rights and agency, on the one hand, and utility on the other.)

                      As of right now in the debate, it seems that most people are in agreement that sweatshop conditions are bad, wrong, immoral, non-ideal, etc. But that seems to me to a significant change in perspective (although James Hanley suggested that he held that view all along and I have no reason to doubt him.) So now I agree that we’re having a strange discussion since everyone seems to be conceding arguments – or at least positions – that initially were rejected.

                      Even you, blunt, in the original linked post, provided a moral justification for sweatshop labor: that it provides a marginally better option than employees would have otherwise given the alternative. On your view (in that initial linked post) the ‘alternative’ was preventing those jobs from being offered (which no one is arguing here). So – and this is my point – you took it as a datum that sweatshops would not exist unless they were permitted to expose workers to high health and safety risks for subsistence wages. Much of what Creon and I have been arguing here is that that position is false.

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                    • Stillwater,

                      My perspective is that you’re framing the issue in a way that allows you to avoid dealing with bluntobject’s point. The employee’s other real-world alternatives have to be considered in the analysis or you’re rigging the game, I think.

                      the idea that since non-coerced market activity is voluntary it’s always positive sum for the participants of any market based agreement. What I’ve been arguing is that this conception of markets and corporate/employee agreements (and other agreements) is incorrect.

                      Honestly, I don’t think you’ve made a successful argument for that claim, precisely because you don’t engage the issue off the employee’s other alternatives. At no point have you showed that by accepting employment in a sweatshop the employee actually has a decline in utility, compared to their alternative opportunities. If they did not see an increase in utility from accepting the job, they would not do so. So to say it’s not a positive sum exchange, you have to actually demonstrate that the employee’s utility–which is subjective, of course–actually declines. And the only way you can really make that argument is to either show that the employee was deceived–and nobody here has defended deception in exchange– or to substitute your conception of utility for the employee’s subjective, personal, conception of it. And then we’re going to ask you to justify doing so.

                      it seems that most people are in agreement that sweatshop conditions are bad, wrong, immoral, non-ideal, etc. But that seems to me to a significant change in perspective (although James Hanley suggested that he held that view all along and I have no reason to doubt him.

                      That is incorrect. First, I don’t think you’ll be able to quote anyone here arguing that sweatshop conditions are not bad or non-ideal. I don’t recall anyone here ever suggesting sweatshops were remotely ideal. Second, I explicitly argued that there was a big gap–a huge leap of logic–between “bad and non-ideal” and “immoral.” I think it’s logically erroneous to conflate the two things, and I’m very unhappy that claim that I conflated the two things.

                      I have not “conceded” sweatshops are non-ideal because I never thought they were ideal, and I have not “conceded” that they’re immoral because I still do not agree that they are. Please do not claim that I have agreed with you on that point when I most assuredly have not come around to your way of thinking on that.

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                    • My perspective is that you’re framing the issue in a way that allows you to avoid dealing with bluntobject’s point. The employee’s other real-world alternatives have to be considered in the analysis or you’re rigging the game, I think.

                      On the contrary. It’s built right into my argument. That’s where the concept of leverage and desperate exchange comes into play: that decisions arising out of desperate situations are morally different than decisions made in its absence. What you object to, I think, is my suggestion that employers take advantage of the desperate situation people are in (or as you say, employees real world alternative) to extract greater concessions from them (even tho they rationally agree to the deal!) wrt total cost of employment. It seems to me you’re focusing on the situation without attributing agency to the employer and instead focusing exclusively on the agency of the employee. And maybe that’s part of the argument between us: corporations aren’t moral things, and corporate decision-making is rational iff it increases the bottom line. So maybe you object to my whole line of reasoning because you think I’m conflating corporate agency with normal human agency. If so, (and I’m not implying that you are) I’m not sure how relying on this distinction would help counter my argument at the end of the day.

                      At no point have you showed that by accepting employment in a sweatshop the employee actually has a decline in utility,

                      No. I’ve argued instead that a marginal gain in utility isn’t sufficient to justify sweatshops, since by hypothesis, utilitarianism is a moral theory which says what normatively ought to happen is what maximizes overall utility. Employing them in sweatshop conditions increases utility, but does not maximize it. That would require improving the conditions under which people work insofar as employers are able. Are they able to? That’s another discussion we’ve had, but one thing I think is clear (and which I’ve argued) is that employers could improve conditions without making those jobs unprofitable and ‘closing up shop’, thereby decreasing overall utility (in a region, say).

                      Another thing I’ve argued is that even if sweatshops increase utility (let’s suppose this is true, or at least subjectively determined by the employee to be the case), and even if employees are rational in agreeing to work in sweatshops on those grounds, it doesn’t follow that the situation they find themselves in is a moral one. I’ve used the example of outright coercion to show (I hope) that even tho a person is rational in choosing to accept his coercers demands, the situation he finds himself in is immoral.

                      So whether a decision is instrumentally rational or not presupposes a specific situational context. The context of the sweat shop worker is one where he has no better optionseven tho the one he accepts exposes him to health and safety harms, requires 100 hour weeks, sometimes outright abuse, etc. So – to repeat – while he’s rational to accept it, the situation he finds himself in isn’t a moral one – or at least doesn’t conform to normal conceptions of morality.

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                    • Given that the options seem to be:

                      1) Increasing (but not maximizing) Utility
                      2) Not Increasing Utility

                      Isn’t the increase a de facto maximization?

                      Isn’t opposition to the creation of a vehicle that would increase utility effectively damning utility to its even-more-immoral level?

                      (This is why Deontology is soooo much better.)

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                    • Jaybird, I think that’s a nice summary of the position: that as a matter of fact sweatshop arrangements are maximizing utility. This is an empirical issue which needs a case by case answer. But given that many corporations employing sweatshop labor are making huge profits, the answer would appear to be no. At least in a non-trivial number of cases.

                      I think that the utilitarian argument suffers from another problem, as well: that if it’s true that improving sweatshop working conditions increases overall utility, and employers can do so while remaining profitable (all other things being equal), they would be obligated to do so in order to maximize overall utility.

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                    • Indeed. Ideally, they’d be forced to compete with each other for laborers and forced to do stuff like offer better wages, longer bathroom breaks, real cane sugar Coca-Cola in the vending machines, health care that covers gay partnerships, and sabbaticals.

                      It’s the barriers to entry caused by collusion between the governments and the corporations that results in there being just one game in town.

                      When corporations are forced to compete, you see stuff like “Singapore”.

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                    • Name one that’s making huge profits from their employment of sweatshop labor. I’m pretty sure you won’t be able to. Apparel company profits are about where they’ve always been – the truth of the matter is the cost savings from outsourcing manufacturing to third-party companies that employ workers in ‘sweatshops’ have mostly been passed on to consumers in the form of lower prices.
                      The only possible exception I could see is Apple, but their profits come on the marketing and intellectual property side.

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            • Roger

              My point is that when you decide for third world poor whether they can accept a job or not you don’t pay the cost of making a dumb decision — they do. The burden of proof on you is REALLY high.

              Who’s said anything about people accepting jobs? My argument is a moral one, not an activist one. Activism may follow from it, but that’s yet to be determined.

              In the claim I responded to, you said we shouldn’t impose our values on third world sweatshop workers. My response was that by paying them the least amount possible in order to maximize profits – that is, by prioritizing profits over people (heh!) – corporations have already imposed their values on them.

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                  • Are shirking workers imposing their values on the corporation? Much of this discussion tends towards treating laborers as automatons, rather than as autonomous. My point being that workers who dislike their pay and conditions do have ways of responding, and it would be infantilizing them to think they don’t make use of them.

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                    • Are shirking workers imposing their values on the corporation?

                      Imposing? No. Cuz if they don’t produce they get fired.

                      Corporations, on the other hand, have substantially more leverage in every facet of the decision-making process. In favorable labor environments (those categorized as ‘flexible’) they can effectively stipulate the conditions under which people agree to work for them.

                      I see this as a structural asymmetry of power that’s so obvious it doesn’t require justification.

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                • Dr. James, just curious. Allow me, if you will. What do you think the outcome would be if starting tomorrow, we instituted a policy of complete open -borders? When I say, open borders, I mean open borders. Everyone is welcome–the exception being no criminals of any kind as well as, no nuts, crazies, or wackos. I believe immigrants are a net positive–completely and under all circumstances without exception, Their work ethics are extraordinary, they have a deep, unshakable, love for America and I think being exposed to new cultures, customs, languages etc. would do all of us a world of good. Just a thought. (And glad you’re back!)

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                  • The outcome would be catastrophic economic, social, and political chaos.

                    Once the entire world is industrialized and reasonably well-developed, then an open policy borders would work as well as the open-borders policy we have between U.S. states.

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                    • Dr. James, that certainly sounds like a most gruesome scenario–could be right out of Mad Max (sci-fi or fantasy?) Is it possible many of these Third World countries will never be able to climb out of these god-awful sink holes they call countries? It seems like an intractable, Sisyphean, dysfunctional reality we’re dealing with here. And by the way, what in the world happened to Haiti? Did they just quietly slip into the sea? I haven’t heard a word about that country for months. It’s just remarkable how two countries, the Dominican Republic and Haiti, sharing the same island, can be light-years apart. At one time, Haiti was the most productive and prosperous nation in the world. Obviously, the docs–Papa Doc and Baby Doc, were instrumental in bringing their country to the edge of ruins, but after getting the first-round draft pick for so many years, one would think serious change, positive change would somehow blossom among the ruins.

                      Dr. James, your analogy stands! I’ve been reading about fire red ants–three out of four ant scholars say RAW honey will indeed attract these hell-fire, merciless creatures. That’s a ghastly analogy, though–red ants, honey, and genitals do not make a very pleasant trio under any circumstances.

                      You can still dribble a basketball in your tin man outfit? Awesome!

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                    • You can still dribble a basketball in your tin man outfit? Awesome!

                      It’s the original logo of a well known NBA team. 50 bonus points if you can figure it out.

                      three out of four ant scholars say RAW honey will indeed attract these hell-fire, merciless creatures
                      Glad to hear it. Wait, let me rephrase that…

                      Is it possible many of these Third World countries will never be able to climb out of these god-awful sink holes they call countries?
                      Yes, it’s possible. What it depends on more than anything else is the quality of their governance. As long as their governments remain wholly corrupt their prospects are dim. Maybe the solution is honey and fire ants.

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                    • Kimmi,

                      Unfortunately, not clear at all to me. From our past discussions, it’s clear that our minds work very differently. That’s not a condemnation–I’ve had teachers who made no sense to me while my friends understood them perfectly, and vice versa. As a teacher I see the same thing happening with my students. So when I say I don’t understand you, I don’t mean you’re not making sense–I just mean that I don’t understand.

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                    • James,
                      There are significant reasons that the South has not progressed in industrialization as quickly as the north.
                      1) Lack of cash crops, and the need to spend more on subsistence farming.
                      2) [my reference earlier] Machines simply do not work as well in non-temperate timezones. This provides a drag on many industries, and makes others nearly unprofitable.

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                    • Kimmi,

                      Actually, most of the “old” south has been dominated by agricultural interests for years. That is, rural interests have been disproportionately represented and influential in their legislatures, and so many of those states have had policies that actively discouraged industrial development. It was a true conservative policy of trying to preserve their traditional socio-economic-political structure. Weather had little to do with it.

                      That’s changing in recent years, as such things as Mercedes’ being built in the south demonstrate.

                      Keep in mind, modern agriculture requires heavy equipment, too. If rust is a problem for equipment indoors, it would be far worse for farm equipment, so by the weather logic, the south should still be based on mule-team agriculture.

                      Lack of cash crops? What do you call tobacco and cotton? You sure as heck can’t eat them.

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  3. As a dry, philosophical exercise, I don’t see much to disagree with here. But as a practical guide to deal with globalization, I’m not sure what we’re supposed to come away with.
    I am not sure if anyone, really disagrees that slavery is morally wrong and I doubt even the most hard-core anarchists would suggest that it’s out of bounds to make slavery illegal, that contracts made under duress are unenforceable and I’d even guess nearly everyone as well would also be all for laws that require imported goods to not be made under either condition (assuming a sensible and reasonable enforcement mechanism).

    But where the rubber meets the road here is the real actual world. I can say with a fair amount of authority that almost none of the actual worldwide apparel production produced for the U.S. market is produced under conditions that fail to meet any of your standards (slavery, child labor, or exchange in extremis) for intolerable labor conditions. Those same companies do, in fact, spend a lot of money and resources ensuring that they do not violate them.
    I feel like your engaging a straw man here. That the actual experience of the hundreds of millions of people that have been lifted from subsistence poverty in places like India, China, Vietnam, Bangladesh and Indonesia must inevitably have been the result of their being subjected to forced labor or similar conditions and so can be dismissed as not desirable.
    I really think the onus is on you to recommend a mechanism that would have done the same thing.

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    • I am not sure if anyone, really disagrees that slavery is morally wrong

      I say that slavery is actually a matter of degrees.
      While we have abolished its most forthright form, we nevertheless adhere to its many siblings.

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    • plenty of people disagree with the idea of slavery as being wrong. At least wrong for them to implement for themselves (*cough* *cough*). Though to be fair, they’re mostly more in love with the idea of being better than everyone else, and if that meant paying someone a fair wage, they’d probably do it.
      There are many people out there willing to sell their daughters into a better life. “You’re American, please, take my daughter…”

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    • Plinko, part of the issue is that the discussion began back with James K’s post the Madness of Crowds, and eventually evolved into a discussion over values and sweatshops. That may be where the philosophical element comes from.

      I can say with a fair amount of authority that almost none of the actual worldwide apparel production produced for the U.S. market is produced under conditions that fail to meet any of your standards (slavery, child labor, or exchange in extremis) for intolerable labor conditions.

      As for child labor and forced labor, would that I were tilting at windmills, we’d live in a far, far better world. Browse Anti-Slavery International’s site on slavery today. Or consider a recent report from Maplecroft warning about “the risks to business from complicity in the violation of human rights worldwide has revealed a continuing global trend in the use of forced labour, especially across the most economically important emerging markets.” Or consider the conditions under which Uzbek cotton has been harvested that prompted Wednesday’s Wall Street Journal to report that Western Buyers Boycott Uzbekistan’s Cotton. The WSJ goes on to say that Russian and Asian buyers are replacing Western buyers. The BBC’s Newsnight presented an excellent expose on child labor in Uzbekistan, Part 1, Part 2, Part 3 – from 2007 and about half an hour long altogether, but worth a look. .

      As for finding less sordid paths to development, I think Stillwater got to the core of the discussion over in the Economics and Values thread, commenting,

      Another thing I wanted to mention is that James Hanley’s argument in favor of permitting sweatshop labor is broadly utilitarian and consequentialist – as is Murali’s in the OP: given that certain communities of people suffer from lack of economic opportunities, sweatshops are justified as providing them with a) a marginally better life than they would have otherwise, and b) the potential for long-term economic growth which would eliminate the likelihood of sweatshops in that community.

      I think the problem with this line of reasoning is that even if the utilitarian argument is right (that on balance, third world communities and individuals are better off with sweatshops than without) the agreed to arrangements are still subject to moral judgments in the ways Creon Critic and EC Gach argued upthread. That is, justifying sweatshops on utilitarian grounds opens up that argument to the criticism that even greater utility would be achieved by treating workers humanely, paying them more, restricting the hours worked, etc.

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      • Yes, I guess I’m not as vigilant as I thought I was as I missed where the comment thread on Murali’s post has gotten to.
        I’ll review the materials when I’m not at work, but I can say that most of the continued problems you’re discussing are not part and parcel of the markets for export to Western countries in my experience. They’re mostly around conditions for export to other developing nations or for domestic production where those relatively small costs of doing a lot better by workers does make a real impact on the economics of the situation.

        As you say, there’s a real problem where the rising standards expected by Western buyer just shifts the problems to customers that don’t care, but I am skeptical there’s a possible solution that comes primarily from American or Europeans – be it the governments, the companies or from the ground up.

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      • Ahem, and I responded to that comment you quote by noting that my argument was also pragmatic, not merely utilitarian. No matter how much utility might be increased by corporations doing those things, the discussion is not very meaningful until we propose a way to actually produce that outcome. And saying “corporations should” will not produce it.

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  4. (a href=”http://bluntobject.wordpress.com/2011/10/16/caring-people-and-idealized-alternatives/”>Blunt Object had a similar post & subsequent discussion of this topic recently.

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      • Ward,

        From the linked article:

        When presented with this argument, Caring People will tell you that “we” should spend our efforts creating — somehow — these high-status alternatives that don’t yet exist. (Some of us call that process “capitalism”, but those of us who do aren’t usually Caring People.) That sounds great, but it’s a non sequitur. It fails to justify denying a least-bad option to people who almost by definition have very few options available to them.

        It’s not the least bad option that’s being denied, it’s that the option is being criticized for being worse – more exploitative – than it needs to be. Several people on this thread and others have made the argument that even a marginal increase in worker safety and pay rate would eliminate those jobs. Ie., that the only reason those jobs are available to third-world workers in impoverished countries is because it is those people who are willing to work for a base rate which makes employing them profitable, and unprofitable if it were higher (or safety costs were incurred, etc).

        Creon already linked to some stuff refuting this view. The claim seems transparently false. Maybe it’s a topic worth further discussion.

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        • Can you find me some of those links, Stillwater? If I’m making transparently false claims, I’d like to stop.

          As for “It’s not the least bad option that’s being denied, it’s that the option is being criticized for being worse – more exploitative – than it needs to be.” — really? Creon wants to deny sweatshop jobs to children, in the very first paragraph of the article. And assuming you’re correct that there’s a bit of slack in the demand/price function for sweatshop jobs, insisting on better safety and wages from the get-go might be the same thing as denying those jobs in the first place.

          Here’s a hypothetical: Suppose that Phil Knight wants to establish a Nike sweatshop in Phenom Phenh, staffed exclusively by kids who spend their days stalking barefoot through the junkyard in search of heavy metals and radioisotopes to sell for a pittance. He’s willing to invest $40M in this unusual and risky venture, but it would cost $50M to build a sweatshop with reasonable control and disposal of toluene, and he’s not sufficiently confident in the venture to risk $50M. You’ve been given the authority to tell Phil “yes” or “no”. What do you do?

          Now let’s change the hypothetical slightly. Phil’s built his $40M sweatshop, it runs at a profit, and it employs thousands of Cambodian children who’re delighted to be soaking in toluene rather than lead, dioxin, and cesium. You visit the sweatshop as part of an Oxfam mission and are appalled to discover that the kids are showering in solvent at the end of every shift. You demand that Phil invest an extra $12M in his profitable sweatshop to protect workers from toluene exposure. Do you think Phil’s going to take his ball and go home, or try to keep the doors open?

          The difference between the first scenario and the second is time, and consequently information. A marginal increase in safety and wages at t=0 might very well push an investor away from a sweatshop venture, whereas a larger investment two years down the road, when the investor knows that the venture is successful (or has simply fallen into the Sunk Cost Fallacy) might make very little difference to Mean Mr. Capital.

          Marginal increases in worker safety and pay rate still cost money, which is going to affect how the employer sees their utility. For very marginal increases, probably no better option emerges — in fact, I’m guessing that this is how countries grow out of sweatshop economies (as parts of the PRC and India are doing now). And then, past a certain threshold, those sweatshop jobs cease being more profitable than sweatshop jobs elsewhere — imagine Korean sweatshop jobs moving to China, or Chinese sweatshop jobs moving to Vietnam, or (speculatively, I think) Vietnamese sweatshop jobs moving to Congo. Or imagine Ford moving production from Michigan to Mexico. Good for the Congolese who have more options, bad for the Vietnamese or Michiganders who expected their jobs to stick around in perpetuity. I think this process of working conditions getting incrementally better over time is a good thing, by the way, although not necessarily when the jobs disappear with only far worse alternatives to replace them:

          “One German company bowed to popular pressure and laid off 50,000 child garment workers in Bangladesh. Some of you would have cheered on hearing it. But when Oxfam followed up, they found that thousands had turned to prostitution, crime, or starved to death.”

          So when Creon asks, rhetorically, “Can we agree that children for instance should not be engaged in certain labor, no matter how supposedly nimble their fingers?”… I have a hard time answering without snark. I’d rather that those Bangladeshi kids could quit the factory and go to nice charter schools with well-equipped playgrounds, and that their families would find other ways to make up the income, but that’s not on the menu. Yet. Given the options, I’d rather that the German clothing company had spent a bit more money on improving working conditions, particularly safety. And then a few years down the road, if the local economy had picked up a bit and the kids had options other than “prostitution, crime, and starvation”, then we can talk about child-labour laws.

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          • bluntobject, I’m not sure if these are the links Stillwater is referring to, one is from Murali’s original post, Matt Zwolinsk’s Sweatshops – Definitions, History, and Morality (pdf),

            Sweatshop critics Edna Bonacich and Richard Appelbaum are quick to respond to the above arguments, for instance, by pointing out that in the case of a typical $100 dress sold and made in the United States, only 6% of the purchase price goes to the individual who actually made the garment. 25% goes to profit and overhead for the manufacturer, 50% goes to the retailer, and the remaining is spent on raw materials. Using similar reasoning, the National Labor Committee pointed out to Disney Chairman Michael Eisner in 1996 that the effect of raising the pay of workers at the Classic Apparel facility in Haiti from their then-current 35 cent per hour wage to 58 cents an hour would be a mere 3 cent raise in price for an $11.99 garment. And if certain economists are right, raising wages in many circumstances might actually lower costs, or at least have no negative effect. Workers who are not paid enough to provide for their nutritional needs might not be as productive as those who are able to afford a steady and reliable diet.

            And the other link, highlighting research that parallels these profitability findings, from John Miller (Word doc),

            Economists Robert Pollin, James Heintz, and Justine Burns recently looked more closely at this question (Pollin et al. 2001). They examined the impact that a 100 percent increase in the pay for apparel workers in Mexico and in the United States would have on costs relative to the retail price those garments sell for in the United States. Their preliminary findings are that doubling the pay of nonsupervisory workers would add just 50 cents to the production costs of a men’s casual shirt sold for $32 in the United States, or just 1.6 percent of the retail price. And even if the wage increase were passed on to consumers, which seems likely because retailers in the U.S. garment industry enjoy substantial market power, Pollin et al. argue that the increase in price is well within the amount that recent surveys suggest U.S. consumers are willing to pay to purchase goods produced under “good” working conditions as opposed to sweatshop conditions. (See Elliot and Freeman [20001 for a detailed discussion of survey results.) More generally, using a sample of forty five countries over the period 1992 97, Pollin et al. found no statistically significant relationship between real wages and employment growth in the apparel industry. Their results suggest that the mainstream economists’ claim that improving the quality of jobs in the world export factories (by boosting wages) will reduce the number of jobs is not evident in the data (Pollin et al. 2001).

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                • Almost nothing sells for MSRP, yes.
                  But more importantly, Zwolinski’s data is misleading for discussing the state of the industry today because the data points are all well-prior to the elimination of quotas. At that time, apparel production costs were in free-fall as investments in opening new factories in new labor markets were opening up, that continued for nearly a decade but now that the market is settling, cost competition has driven those margins way down and marginal production costs are rising.

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                    • Up until 2005, most WTO nations had limits on the number of particular types of garments that could be imported from particular other nations in any given calendar year. That sharply limited the growth of apparel manufacturing in many nations during the great migration of textile production from low wage areas of the U.S., Mexico, Europe, Korea, Taiwan and others to lesser developed nations in Asia.
                      The overwhelming majority of the apparel import quota system was abolished by WTO agreement in 2005 with a few notable exceptions, namely China, where quotas persisted until the end of 2008.
                      For a good overview of the system see:
                      http://www.unc.edu/~pconway/dload/tq_overview.pdf

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            • Creon,

              C: “the effect of raising the pay of workers at the Classic Apparel facility in Haiti from their then-current 35 cent per hour wage to 58 cents an hour would be a mere 3 cent raise in price for an $11.99 garment. And if certain economists are right, raising wages in many circumstances might actually lower costs, or at least have no negative effect. Workers who are not paid enough to provide for their nutritional needs might not be as productive as those who are able to afford a steady and reliable diet.”

              Let’s toss out the last part of this quote as wishful thinking and zero in on the first part. The effect of nearly doubling the going rate of wages is going to send massive wakes through the economics of the situation. If all else remained equal, the number of garments may not change much, but the supply of available labor will change dramatically. Now that voluntary agreement on wages is no longer the way to decide between employees, what is? Should we only hire the pretty ones? The youngest fittest ones? The ones politically connected? The ones willing to work longer hours in worse conditions? Who decides? You again? Or the economists that wrote this?

              If paying 58 cents an hour makes it more economical to move the plant to Nicaragua, who reimburses the poor Haitians for the fact that their kids are now dead? You again?

              Maybe we can just forbid manufacturers from leaving? Of course, I am not sure how you are going to make prospective new investors/employers build their plant there? After all, once you and the other master planners are running everything I would not invest a cent in Haitian manufacturing.

              There are costs — human costs — to interfering with the efficiency of free enterprise. The standard for any interference needs to be much higher than what the above economists are suggesting.

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              • Roger, I’m not asking to be placed in charge of individual employment decisions. I suppose the mechanisms companies will use will be similar to the ones they already have in place when a position has a large number of applicants. I am asking for (more) compliance with basic standards of human dignity. Part of the reason I’d postedMisplaced Praise for Sweatshops was Paul Krugman’s calling upon people to think things through as a “moral duty” in his In Praise of Cheap Labor piece. His words, “moral duty”. In the same piece Krugman wrote,

                Workers in those shirt and sneaker factories are, inevitably, paid very little and expected to endure terrible working conditions. I say “inevitably” because their employers are not in business for their (or their workers’) health; they pay as little as possible, and that minimum is determined by the other opportunities available to workers.

                It was that inevitably that struck me as wildly inappropriate, letting employers off the hook for any abuse whatsoever, because ‘hey, they’re in business to make money, human dignity be damned’. How can he lecture me on my “moral duty” to think things through and blithely accept corporation’s maximum profits excuse for mistreating their workers?

                There are costs — human costs — to interfering with the efficiency of free enterprise.

                Apparently there are human costs to (so-called) efficient free enterprise as well.

                Elliot and Freeman (pdf) put two quotes side by side that may capture where this discussion is,

                Bad jobs at bad wages are better than no jobs at all.
                —Paul Krugman

                Empleo sí, pero con dignidad.
                —Nicaraguan María Elena Cuadra, Movement of Working and Unemployed Women

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                • Apparently there are human costs to (so-called) efficient free enterprise as well.

                  Hold on, I have to call you up short on this one, Creon. Who here has ever claimed that there weren’t human costs to free enterprise?

                  The basic claim of economics is that everything involves tradeoff. Every economic choice we face has opportunity costs. Sometimes those are just foregone “gee I’d like that, too” things, like getting only a slice blueberry cheesecake instead of that plus a croissant because I don’t have enough money. But sometimes they are real human costs, like “I am leaving my family behind in Nicaragua so I can go to the United States and make enough money to feed and educate them.”

                  Really, the implied suggestion that we free market advocates are denying that there are real human costs in free markets is infuriating. It’s an egregious strawman, even if only implied rather than explicitly stated.

                  Of course there are human costs in the market. No economist I’ve ever met would pause for a millisecond before agreeing to that.

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                  • James, ok it was a cheap shot. Your point about trade-offs is well taken. How about this angle, there is no such thing as not interfering in markets. Making rules about fraud is an interference, rules about disclosure are an interference. Why not add to that list of rules/interferences: Treat workers with human dignity. Rules against overexposure to toxins, sexual abuse, physical abuse, etc. deserve to be on par with the rules against fraud. Sweatshops as they exist today fall short of meeting that basic standard. Even if bad jobs are better than no jobs, as Krugman posits, bad jobs deserve to be turned into good (humane) jobs ASAP.

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                    • Creon,
                      How about this angle, there is no such thing as not interfering in markets. Making rules about fraud is an interference, rules about disclosure are an interference.

                      The problem is that this is standard economic theory of markets. Fraud is an example of a market failure–it’s a consequence of imperfect information. Disclosure is about making relevant information available so people can make informed choices. As a critique against free marketers it falls flat because free marketers thought of all that long ago and have it covered in their theories. The vast majority of them assume that well-functioning markets require a basic legal system to enable those who have been defrauded to be made whole. You’re trying to say “here’s the flaw in the theory” when in fact you’re just pointing to something that’s long been covered.

                      Why not add to that list of rules/interferences: Treat workers with human dignity. Rules against overexposure to toxins, sexual abuse, physical abuse, etc. deserve to be on par with the rules against fraud.
                      Slightly trickier, but absolutely doable, which is why nobody here has argued against them. Slightly trickier because by definition people can’t agree to fraud, whereas they can agree to undignified treatment, sexual abuse, etc. Also slightly trickier to the extent we rely on a “human dignity” standard because it’s vague. But using as you did, as a concept, with more concrete standards, is just fine. Nobody here has argued against rules against sexual and physical abuse and severe (especially unknowing) exposure to toxins.

                      bad jobs deserve to be turned into good (humane) jobs ASAP
                      And then you return to the truism. Who here disagrees with this? This is not a point of contention here. The question that matters is how, and I think you’re still avoiding grappling with it.

                      Saying companies have a moral obligation to do so changes nothing. The host countries are not going to respond to that, and the corporations are not going to respond to that. An effective consumer campaign–if one is possible–can cause corporations to change.

                      Other than that, what I’m suggesting is the normal development process we’ve seen in every industrialized state in history may in fact be the ASAP way to humane jobs. That’s not satisfactory, but I’m offering it as a plausible empirical reality. And I’ve seen nothing here in the moral argumentation that begins to rebut that hypothesis.

                      That’s not an argument for just shrugging our shoulders and accepting it. It’s an argument that to disprove a hypothesis about empirical reality–which is really what you want to do–you have to sooner or later set aside the moral philosophy and demonstrate the hypothesis is wrong. No amount of moral argument can do that.

                      To riff off of Marx, to date the role of philosophers has been to describe the world; the real task is to change the world.

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                • Creon,

                  C: “Roger, I’m not asking to be placed in charge of individual employment decisions. I suppose the mechanisms companies will use will be similar to the ones they already have in place when a position has a large number of applicants. I am asking for (more) compliance with basic standards of human dignity.”

                  I’m OK with the human dignity and not mistreating employees part, but I do not follow how paying the going wage rate involves a basic violation of said standard. It seems horribly unfair to me to turn down a starving person that says “I need that job more than the current employee and will prove it by doing it better for 38 cents an hour.”

                  I believe that this human being deserves a shot at life. I would cry if I found that some silly Fair Wage rule that I supported with my naive purchase led to this poor dude going hungry.

                  Back to my comment that there are costs to interfering with the efficiency of free markets, it seems to me that you are trying to shift back to mistreating workers. I’ve already conceded I do not support abuse, violence or violations of local rules. Are you saying that paying the going wage rate in Haiti is mistreatment? If so, my response is that your interference will do more harm than good. The unintended negative effects will likely outweigh the intended positive ones — with the brunt of the loss suffered by the Haitians themselves.

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                  • Roger, I think we’re running up against our prior disagreement about positive rights here – I’m in favor and you’re, shall we say, yet to be convinced. I’m not sure that I’d place this responsibility on private employers (except through taxation), but I favor proposals for a guaranteed minimum income. Probably more likely (but still unlikely to happen at scale soon) living wage campaigns are pretty convincing to me, and I definitely favor minimum wage laws. This argument on sweatshops and improved working conditions is part of a larger whole concerning positive rights, social justice, and realizing human rights. I accept that many hereabouts aren’t buying the whole package.

                    Also, in the other thread I mentioned my favoring foreign aid. As in, it would be great if America aimed to be an aid superpower like Sweden or Norway. Both Sweden and Norway have ODA at above 1% of GNI compared to the US 0.21% GNI (2009 figures from Wikipedia). By my back of the envelope calculation that would be more than $140 billion in foreign aid compared to the United States’ $28 billion in foreign aid (blue-sky thinking to be sure, to put it kindly). I agree with your statement: “I believe that [every] human being deserves a shot at life”. My version tends towards the much more demanding articulation set out in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights.

                    As for interfering in markets, why aren’t minimum wage laws just part of setting the ground rules?

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                    • As for interfering in markets, why aren’t minimum wage laws just part of setting the ground rules?

                      Because they’re not dealing with a market failure. Low wages might seem, to some, to be a sign markets aren’t working well, but technically they’re not a market failure because the theory of the ideal market doesn’t imply that everyone will be making high wages–wages will depend on productivity.

                      In fact minimum wage interferes with the making of voluntary exchanges. “Oh,” but you say, “nobody should have to ‘voluntarily’ agree to work for too little money.” Of course that would be assuming you can speak for someone else about what too little money is. Because here’s the reality–if someone is low-skilled enough, a minimum wage prices them out of a job.

                      Take the task of bagging groceries, or sweeping a floor. A mildly mentally retarded person can handle those jobs. But they’re going to be slower, less efficient–less productive–than someone who’s not mentally retarded. If they’re not worth the minimum wage, they’ll only be hired out of the goodness of a manager’s heart, and his willingness to cost his company money. That’s not hypothetical–it’s very real.

                      Are minimum wages legitimate public policy? Sure, they’re within the constitutional power of the U.S. Congress, and I’m sure every other country’s governing rules grant that much power to its government. Is it good public policy overall? I’ll ignore that one for now. Is it costless, a total win? No. And that’s why it’s not simply ground rules for the market, but an intervention in it.

                      It’s plausibly justifiable on the grounds of competing values the market doesn’t maximize in its pursuit of efficiency. But then that’s the grounds it should be justified on; not the claim that it’s not really an intervention, but just ground rules like not committing fraud, fulfilling contracts, etc.

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                    • Creon (and James),

                      CREON: “As for interfering in markets, why aren’t minimum wage laws just part of setting the ground rules?

                      The reason minimum wage (or price controls) is not part of the ground rules is because it is economically inefficient to interfere with price/wage/profit signals needed to optimally create and allocate resources. It hurts those it pretends to help.

                      As James explains so well, it prices those it intends to help out of the market. In addition, the experience and skills (and for countries capital, institutions and infrastructure) necessary for higher wage jobs comes in great part from lower wage jobs. When you raise the lower rungs of the ladder — even with the best of intentions — you lock the lower skilled out of this opportunity for economic progress.

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          • Bluntobject, my first questions, “Should there be any limits on working conditions?…”, are meant to probe. These questions are meant to break out of the self-limiting utilitarian outlook, binding us to the proposition that abuses today are necessary because they mean prosperity tomorrow (Krugman uses the word inevitable).

            Given the options, I’d rather that the German clothing company had spent a bit more money on improving working conditions, particularly safety. And then a few years down the road, if the local economy had picked up a bit and the kids had options other than “prostitution, crime, and starvation”, then we can talk about child-labour laws.

            “Given the options” is doing a lot of the work here. There are more than two choices. From Elliott and Freeman’s White Hats or Don Quixotes? Human Rights Vigilantes in the Global Economy (pdf), worth a look (sobering things for me in their assessment as well), I can’t be sure this is how the specific example you cite played out, but highlighting the point there are more than two choices:

            The best example of how activism has galvanized the ILO and produced a better outcome for workers than activists could have attained by themselves is in the child labor area. In the mid-1990s, activists exposed the use of child labor in the Bangladeshi garment industry and in the soccer ball industry in Pakistan and pressured producers and retailers to address the problem. The initial industry response in Bangladesh was to throw the children out on the street, and it was only after the ILO and United Nations Children’s Fund (UNICEF) intervened that a constructive solution was found. Manufacturers in Bangladesh and Pakistan agreed not simply to stop employing children but to cooperate with and assist in the funding of programs to put them in schools or other rehabilitative training and to allow the ILO to monitor the results.

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            • These questions are meant to break out of the self-limiting utilitarian outlook, binding us to the proposition that abuses today are necessary because they mean prosperity tomorrow

              This strikes me as a bit of a straw man. (If it’s an honest characterization of the position you’re opposing, then I oppose it too!) The “pro”-sweatshop (those are irony quotes) position I see argued most often by people like Eric Crampton and Radley Balko is more along the lines that today’s abuses are less awful than yesterday’s cataclysms, and that as we address those abuses (which are still awful) we should be careful not to let cataclysm back into the room.

              ——

              “Given the options” is doing a lot of the work here. There are more than two choices.

              Again we agree. The original article presented two choices (status quo sweatshop jobs for child labourers, and the elimination of those jobs). I presented a hypothetical third: improve the status quo. You present a fourth: eliminate the jobs while creating non-job alternatives. But I think it’s important to ask why these Bangladeshi kids are working in the first place, and my first hypothesis is “because their families are poor, and need the income”. Speaking to the Pakistani example (still from my Eric Crampton link):

              In 1995, anti-sweatshop protesters led Nike, Reebok and others to close down soccer-ball and other garment manufacturing plants in Pakistan; mean family income dropped considerably; University of Colorado economist Keith Maskus found that many of the child labourers were later found begging or getting bought and sold in international prostitution rings.

              Labour conditions are indicators of wealth, at least to a first approximation. Cambodian children who sort through toxic refuse at a garbage dump are cataclysmically poor; Vietnamese children who soak up vast amounts of toluene in Nike sweatshops are by comparison “only” in dire poverty. Chinese workers who occasionally jump off of Foxconn factories are wildly rich compared to their grandparents who smelted pig iron in their backyards, but poor compared to the American workers assembling Corvettes in Bowling Green, Kentucky.

              Improving working conditions in any of those places would be a great and noble thing to do (would the average Corvette buyer really care about a $500 increase in the dealer price? Chevrolet could use the extra money to cater gourmet lunches once a week), up to opportunity cost considerations (perhaps that money should go towards funding pensions instead). But I think questions about sweatshops lose a lot of their relevance if they’re considered independent of the broader context of wealth and poverty.

              For example, that Vietnamese Nike factory provides a path, not out of poverty, but to a poverty less awful than picking through garbage soaked in dioxins. Improving safe-handling conditions for toluene at the factory would surely provide a path to still less awful poverty, if only because the workers would be healthier and able to work for longer. Shutting down the factory over toluene-exposure violations might cut off the least-bad option for its workers. Maybe it would scare the Reebok factory next door into improving worker safety. Is that a net win? It depends on what the ex-Nike employees are doing, and we’re back to utilitarian arguments.

              Does this mean we should countenance egregious abuse of workers simply because the available alternatives are all worse? Of course not. But we should acknowledge the root condition (poverty) and the available alternatives when we decide how to respond to those abuses. I’m deeply skeptical of a “shut the bastards down” approach.

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              • Bluntobject, perhaps part of the issue is that we’re arguing against positions that aren’t precisely represented in this discussion thread. For instance, I agree with your warning that “shut the bastards down” is the incorrect approach. I much prefer the “clean up and monitor a substandard facility” approach, or even better, the approach that says that businesses must incorporate human rights considerations into their regular decision-making as a matter of course (John Ruggie). The “pro”-sweatshop position I have in mind is Paul Krugman’s In Praise of Cheap Labor (I comment on what irks me to Roger at 6:53), and Nicholas Kristof’s Two Cheers for Sweatshops (also Kristof’s longer treatment of the topic in Thunder from the East: Portrait of a Rising Asia). Kristof quoting a Chinese proverb says, “First comes the bitterness, then there is sweetness and wealth and honor for 10,000 years.” – hence my “abuses today mean prosperity tomorrow” characterization. I hasten to add, the whole paragraph gives a slightly more acceptable tinge (to me) to Kristof’s point,

                Sweatshop monitors do have a useful role. They can compel factories to improve safety. They can also call attention to the impact of sweatshops on the environment. The greatest downside of industrialization is not exploitation of workers but toxic air and water. In Asia each year, three million people die from the effects of pollution. The factories springing up throughout the region are far more likely to kill people through the chemicals they expel than through terrible working conditions.

                By focusing on these issues, by working closely with organizations and news media in foreign countries, sweatshops can be improved. But refusing to buy sweatshop products risks making Americans feel good while harming those we are trying to help. As a Chinese proverb goes, “First comes the bitterness, then there is sweetness and wealth and honor for 10,000 years.”

                I still think on the whole, both Krugman and Kristof take an unacceptably permissive approach. (Sorry for the absence of links here. When I include too many links my comment gets held for moderation, but all the pieces are pretty easily found.)

                As to your point on why the Bangladeshi kids are working in the first place and labor conditions as an indicator of wealth, I want to expand the optic even further. I haven’t read this recently, but I’d point to Myron Weiner’s the Child and the State in India to explain why these kids are working. Weiner finds the beliefs of those responsible for making and implementing policy are the major obstacle to achieving the elimination of child labor in India. Important actors in Indian society construct children in different segments of society differently. Some children are “minds” children and need be taught cognitive skills, while other children are “hands” children and need to be taught to work, not to learn. Part of advocacy against child labor is to get developing world elites to recognize all children as “minds” children and not just cordon off education for their own children.

                Wikipedia highlights another point entirely, but also relevant to this discussion (notes omitted),

                Dr. Weiner’s 1991 book The Child and the State in India: Child Labor and Education Policy in Comparative Perspective had a major impact in Indian debates on how to end child labor, and was perhaps his magnum opus. “It was his crowning achievement. It made all of us think about the question of illiteracy,” according to Jagdish Bhagwati, a Columbia University economist and colleague since the mid-1950s. Dr. Bhagwati said the book prompted economists to recommend more investments in education for the poor, and policies to help poor people recognize education as a valuable investment.

                Prior to his book, the prevailing view of many was that countries like India were too poor to do much about child labor or access to education by the poor, because parents needed working-children to support the family and only when incomes rose would this change. Using impassive data and scholarly language, Weiner’s work reversed the causal direction, showing that historically (e.g. in Scotland) and cross-nationally (e.g. in even-poorer Africa and China), the reforms which expanded education preceded higher incomes. The 1991 book showed how India had fared worse on illiteracy and education than China. Joshua Cohen said the book had a profound impact in India: “Here was a work, written by a friend of India, which presented irrefutable facts. It presented comparative statistics, and while it raised moral issues, it was not written as a moral diatribe.”

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                • I will cheerfully admit that the context of this comment thread isn’t what I thought it was when I came in and started posting. Having skimmed through some of the previous threads, I think I understand things a bit better — not least of which is your position. On the whole I think I should’ve strapped down my jerking knee a bit more tightly before taking to the keyboard.

                  I haven’t thought it through, but I can tentatively accept your argument that Krugman’s and Kristof’s approaches are too permissive iff one freezes them in time: that is, if one assumes that sweatshops will pay subsistence wages in horrible conditions forever. My intuition, based on what’s happened in countries like China and Vietnam, is that wages and conditions tend to improve — not usually as quickly as we’d like — as time goes on. This is broadly in line with Kristof’s claim.

                  So to me, the interesting questions are:

                  – How can we encourage capital owners to bootstrap this process in pre-industrial countries?

                  – How can we accelerate the transition from a subsistence-poverty economy to a bare-minimum sweatshop economy to a comfortable industrial economy, ideally without burning megatons of coal and deforesting thousands of square miles of rainforest in the process?

                  I’m assuming implicitly that there’s no easily-accessible alternative, mind you.

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          • Can you find me some of those links, Stillwater? If I’m making transparently false claims, I’d like to stop.

            The transparently false claim your referring to was one you didn’t make: that corporation’s employment of new workers at sweatshop labor rates are determined by a calculus such that raising that rate would make employing them unprofitable. I think the claim, as a general defense of the low labor rate, is absurd.

            Corporate decisions to outsource to sweatshops are determined by a calculus to increase profits, not maintain profitability. There are exceptions, no doubt, but those exceptions would be evidence that in that market, entry into it requires paying people the defacto minimum for profitability – sweatshop rates.

            Arguing that markets might now require sweatshop labor and conditions for profitability is a larger topic than what we’ve been discussing here, one that additional moral and practical dimensions.

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            • Stillwater,

              SW: “Corporate decisions to outsource to sweatshops are determined by a calculus to increase profits”

              Corporations don’t set wages based upon whether it is sweatshop level or not. They evaluate the going rate for labor. That is what they pay. It isn’t an act of nefariousness. I cannot for the life of me understand why the employers paying what the market will bear are expected to have this added moral duty to pay above that level. The moral duty seems to be yours, and therefore, you should pay it, not me and certainly not the employer offering fair wages.

              The world is made a better place by entrepreneurs investing in third world manufacturing at going wages. Interfering in their value added activity will make things worse. Stop interfering please.

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              • Roger,
                paying above current wage has a lot of advantages:
                1) Ford’s outlook: “they won’t quit, and leave me having to retrain people”
                2) Starbuck’s outlook: “everytime a supplier goes bankrupt, our supplies are in more danger”

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        • That sounds great, but it’s a non sequitur. It fails to justify denying a least-bad option to people who almost by definition have very few options available to them.

          Ugh. Some of us are not justifying the least bad option as being satisfactory. We explicitly would like to see better options. But just repeatedly pointing out that “if corporations would treat them better, it would be good,” is no more meaningful than saying “If Joan Jett was straight I’d have a chance at having sex with her.” It’s true, but it’s tritely true–it’s not a particularly meaningful insight because it’s not something that is rarely noticed, and it’s not something that actually provides any real purchase on creating a solution to bring about that better world.

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          • Some of us are not justifying the least bad option as being satisfactory. We explicitly would like to see better options.

            Count me in.

            [J]ust repeatedly pointing out that “if corporations would treat them better, it would be good,” is no more meaningful than saying “If Joan Jett was straight I’d have a chance at having sex with her.”

            Count me in on that one, too.

            I don’t think I disagree with you, but I’m confused as to why you quoted my post to argue against.

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            • I didn’t realize it was a quote from your post, and I read the snippet as criticizing defense of bad jobs at low pay. Perhaps if I’d followed the link I would have been more on target. I blame the sleep deficit I’ve been running lately.

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  5. (1) “Working conditions” is a term that’s often thrown around by people, and I have to ask myself, “How many people died on this person’s job?”
    There were two that died at the job I just left (I’m attending a seminar right now to acquire another professional certification).
    One of those men was out of work for five months. He died on his first day back to work, less than five hours into his shift.
    The boots I wear (Red Wings) were bought by Bayer. During a shutdown at one of their chemical plants, there was some type of sludge that dripped out of a manifold as I was carrying it back to install. They took my pants and boots, and put them in a plastic bag, then took them out and buried them. They couldn’t go off-site with that stuff on them. I went out and bought some replacements, brought them the receipts, and they reimbursed me.
    I’ve known an awful lot of men that have lost a finger on a job. I almost lost half a foot earlier this year at the Conoco-Phillips refinery at Wood River.
    So, for a great many people, “working conditions” means more than ac/no ac or how much break time you get per shift.
    Now, as far as intolerable abuses being avoided without regard to how productivity suffers or how economically viable they might be, so what? What is this measure of consideration which states that productivity and economic viability are considerations to be taken with some degree of exclusivity?
    As of sometime next week, I should be certified as a pipeline inspector.
    Think for a moment of how much profit goes to waste every year on people like me, just for the sake of ensuring the safety of the public. It would be much more economically viable to simply falsify the documents (actually, this is done quite a bit).
    Now, consider again that I really don’t give a rat’s ass about the public. I wouldn’t give a flying flip about some silly old pipeline unless they paid me to. Otherwise, I would be just as happy to see thousands of people poisoned, maybe even a few hundred blow up. I would sit there and watch the whole thing on tv thinking, “Well, now my wages are going to be going up.” Fine with me.

    (2.) On a practical level, there are no inalienable rights in the employee/employer relationship, not when they can request urine samples to weed out the pot heads (and make no mistake about it– it’s all about weeding out the pot heads; IV drug use is officially frowned upon, but is actually significantly higher among the war vets from overseas, and so it’s tolerated to some extent. I’m not your recruiter, and I don’t care to lie to you about it.).
    And on a practical level, when the profit motive enters into exclusive consideration, then the company can do anything it wants to, bar nothing.

    (3.) Sanctioning of goods. Hmmm.
    There is no free marketplace when some gain unfair advantage. It would be entirely reasonable to provide for a tariff system to address those imbalances; for example, farm subsidies paid out to American farmers, or the steel producers in China that receive substantial sums from their government for expansion of operations.
    But sanctioning? No. Let the marketplace work. Just improve the market.

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    • Hey, what’s going on here? I thought Martha Stewart and Kathie Lee were supposed to get this sweat shop business straightened out–either a “living wage” for their workers or it’s curtains. I could not for a second, imagine a slight bit of hypocrisy was at play here, could you? Nah, no way.

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  6. Pingback: Recycled sweatshop comment-thread effluent « Blunt Object

  7. No, not at all.
    There are a few points at issue here.
    First, the crafts were never founded on the concept of a “living wage.” John Smith instituted the unions at Jamestown colony because
    1) there was a need for skilled labor, notably mechanics, who commanded too high of wages to remain permanently with one employer. These were craftsmen whose skills were necessary to the function of society, but who were needed only occasionally; and
    2) to provide for a system of training for such craftsmen.
    The idea of a “living wage” came much later.
    Now, being a pragmatist, I have to ask, Is it the wage at fault, or the living part of it?
    Not only in this instance, mind you. We seem to have gotten this notion that seniors should remain self-sufficient in their older years, and maintain their own households, and this recently developed idea is rather entrenched. Yet we could deal with entitlement spending much better were we to simply admit up front that some are ill-suited to maintaining a household.

    Look at it this way.
    Say that you’re out on the streets of Nowheresville, and you decided to open a shop re-soling boots. Now, there’s only so much that someone’s going to pay to get a pair of boots re-soled, even if they’re White’s. Boots just so happen to not go ‘vintage’ like cars do.
    On the other hand, there’s only so much that someone is going to pay to have someone else tie their shoes. Having a shoe-tying business is a bit different than having a re-soling get-up.
    So, if you want to make money in the shoe industry, just knowing how to tie your shoes probably isn’t quite enough to take you very far.
    And you finally figure this out down in Nowheresville, right about the time your shoe-tying shop goes under. So, your 12-yr old daughter is walking the streets for money, for the simple fact that it’s her decision as to whether she wants you to beat her or not.
    Then it dawns on you.
    The real way to get ahead in the shoe business is to get a degree in Re-Soling Technology from Insidious State U.
    So, your 10-yr old daughter is doing the donkey show in Tijuana to get some tuition money together after her older sister got strangled while walking the streets. But let’s be clear about this– all she’s after is a donkey with a good personality, and it was her choice all along.
    So, you go to get some money from the government. They seem to be in the money-giving-away business anyway, and you intend to provide them an opportunity for throughput.
    But the government office is far away, and your shoes have worn through. You don’t know how to re-sole them yet, because you haven’t got that degree from Insidious State– all you can do is tie shoes, not re-sole them.
    The people at Insidious State don’t care if you have shoes or not. All they’ve got for you so far is some administrator wanting some cash.
    What do you do?
    On a practical level, there are two options:
    1) Whine about it; and
    2) Do something about it.
    Whining doesn’t count as doing something.

    I suppose you could say that commanding a sphere of opportunity requires some skill set, while expanding the existing sphere of opportunity requires some other skills.
    That’s something everyone has to deal with.
    Otherwise, half of America would be playing Grand Theft Auto in their parents’ basement for a living.
    And there’s only so much of that we need, really.

    But I have difficulty accepting that a position requiring practically no form of skill whatsoever should properly be held as a career.
    Labor is always evolving into human capital.
    Those who don’t evolve don’t get to enjoy the benefits of that evolution.
    Those basement opportunities are always there, but the basement door always leads to the basement.
    It’s only when you’re coming up out of the basement that the door can lead you anywhere else.

    And I don’t think that you or I can change that.
    For my part, I don’t think it’s proper to try.

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  8. James Hanley (@ 8:51, 10:11, & 10:29), excellent points as usual. I need to think about them a little bit more, and there was a point to asking you about constructivist theory in IR (@ 8:40) so hopefully I’ll develop that thought more in a reply. Just not right this minute. But I read your responses, and like I said, excellent points. I think I prefer discussing these issues with you when you’re sleep deprived since you let more sneak by that way.

    (Also, reading replies in that three inch column gets annoying, so I’d like to move downthread.)

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    • reading replies in that three inch column gets annoying, so I’d like to move downthread
      Agreed. Thanks for suggesting it.

      I think I prefer discussing these issues with you when you’re sleep deprived since you let more sneak by that way
      Heh. But that’s also when I tend to get really irascible and not treat people fairly. That’s bad for both the quality of discussion and my reputation. With any luck, at least one of those should matter to me at any given time.

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    • James,

      You’re trying to say “here’s the flaw in the theory” when in fact you’re just pointing to something that’s long been covered.

      No I’m not saying I’ve discovered a flaw in the basic theory of markets, I’m saying we should incorporate in our translation of the abstract theory of how markets should operate values regarding human dignity. If anything, it is a critique about this process of translation about what good things markets may provide (information discovery, adjusting to changes in circumstances), but making markets – especially for labor – a more humane institution.

      Slightly trickier because by definition people can’t agree to fraud, whereas they can agree to undignified treatment, sexual abuse, etc.

      This is why I included what may have been a pretty unclear question, “Are there any inalienable rights, as related to the employer-employee relationship?” This is a (not uncontested) reading of human rights that says you there are some things you cannot consent to – part of the dispute is what aspects of sweatshops’ working conditions fall outside the boundaries. You’re right in pointing out there’s been much more ready agreement that certain conditions/practices are bad, but when we get into the area of wages and minimum wages, the trade-offs become less self-evident than the idea that employers failing to disclose toxic substances in the workplace to employees is wrong. As you (and Roger) have rightly pointed out to me, instituting minimum wages is not cost free.

      “bad jobs deserve to be turned into good (humane) jobs ASAP”
      And then you return to the truism. Who here disagrees with this? This is not a point of contention here. The question that matters is how, and I think you’re still avoiding grappling with it.

      I think much earlier in the discussion I discussed some policy options, here are the ones I recall bringing up (perhaps in less detail).

      The United Students Against Sweatshops campaigning, not for sweatshops to be closed nor for the jobs to be moved to the US, but for improved working conditions. As I understand it, they want suppliers to sign up to codes of conduct and then monitor practices in their factories (with NGOs monitoring compliance with standards as well). I had brought up the routinized consideration of human rights (and ecological) concerns in big businesses especially, saying that Wal Mart currently use their substantial clout to negotiate lower prices. That clout could equally be turned towards ensuring suppliers complied with codes of conduct regarding working conditions (and environmental degradation). Not only “Wal Mart should do this” but also that concrete changes to corporate governance can help incorporate these practices in day-to-day work, like board-level committees devoted to the issue, ombudsmen, or specific job titles – I’d call it a human rights officer, but that’s because I’m more familiar with how political institutions structure these things. (I should have mentioned, I am no expert in corporate governance, and there’s probably a literature about how to make businesses more sensitive to human rights concerns, what the correct job titles and corresponding responsibilities would be. So don’t just take my poor representation about concrete steps beyond more philosophizing as anything approaching a comprehensive account of turning these theoretical ideas about human dignity and corporations into public policy).

      Overall, I see parallels to the normal inclusion of other issues that once upon a time weren’t even on the radar screen of corporations. As Mad Men dramatizes for us, sexual harassment wasn’t even on the agenda of anyone. Nowadays many norms have been shifted, expectations about women’s treatment in the workplace, the legal obligations of companies (laws on hostile work environments for instance), and so forth. I view the anti-sweatshop campaigners as attempting to institute similar changes in the expectations of corporations. As John Ruggie writes,

      the corporate responsibility to respect human rights, which means that business enterprises should act with due diligence to avoid infringing on the rights of others and to address adverse impacts with which they are involved.

      the corporate responsibility to respect because it is the basic expectation society has of business in relation to human rights

      Hence the reference to constructivism in international relations theory and the reference to Myron Weiner’s work on child labor in India (at 8:00).

      One last note about the role of the moral philosophy in the broader discussion, the moral philosophy helps us define what the public policy problems are and why they are problematic – and also why the existing set of solutions may be inadequate. So Paul Krugman’s remark about the inevitability of a circumstance because “employers are not in business for their (or their workers’) health” (the full quote at 6:53), or James K commenting to me (the Madness of Crowds thread) that

      As for sweatshop labour, I strongly believe that sweatshpos, as unpleasant as they are, are a necessary stepping stone to economic development, and I’m not alone on that either. If people feel compassion for 3rd world workers, the best thing to do is probably make sure to buy the goods they make.

      [there was a link to Paul Krugman’s In Praise of Cheap Labor at “I’m not alone”]

      The moral philosophy, rightly, tells us to have our consciences pricked. To question whether this particular set of circumstances is absolutely necessary, and encourages us to search for mechanisms to improve the situation. I don’t know that corporate governance reforms or minimum wages are the correct policy answers, but I do think there is a certain complacency to the idea that these countries are traveling down a set path. Surprisingly deterministic and teleological arguments regarding development, ahem Marx, given the source (maybe you’ll make me regret that quip, but sometimes I can’t help myself)

      (Also, I don’t mean this as an attack on James K, I haven’t quoted some further comments he made and I accept their may be qualifications to the position he outlined. Also, sorry to post and run, but I’m off to dinner fairly soon, but I look forward to any replies.)

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      • Creon,

        “Are there any inalienable rights, as related to the employer-employee relationship?”
        Non-coercion and non-fraud, because a person cannot voluntarily submit to either. But the moment a person can voluntarily submit to certain treatments/conditions, the notion of “inalienable” rights gets very fuzzy. Others may exist, but you’ll have a devil of a time demonstrating it in a way that persuades anyone but the choir.

        I’m not sure why the”inalienable rights” language is necessary anyway. We can look at the conditions, see that they’re not what we would consider satisfactory, and try to push for better. I think the whole moral aspect of the argument just distracts from the real issue.

        The United Students Against Sweatshops campaigning, not for sweatshops to be closed nor for the jobs to be moved to the US, but for improved working conditions. As I understand it, they want suppliers to sign up to codes of conduct and then monitor practices in their factories (with NGOs monitoring compliance with standards as well)
        Similar to my proposal for an independent standards organization. I like mine better, because I think the Students’ organization is less likely to be taken seriously. The NGO needs to be carefully chosen–if it’s ISO I think businesses would respond; but if it’s an ideological organization businesses would tell them to take a hike.

        the routinized consideration of human rights (and ecological) concerns in big businesses especially,
        If that’s how they respond to standards set by an org like ISO, that’s fine–if they respond at all to an international standard setter they’d have to do something like that. But if you’re suggesting they do that in the absence of international standards that are taken seriously by consumer, then you’re just engaging in wishful thinking.
        If Wal Mart finds a way to increase profit by doing so, they will, but they’ll never do it out of goodness.

        Hence the reference to constructivism in international relations theory and the reference to Myron Weiner’s work on child labor in India
        Yes, if you can change the culture of the host country, you can make changes. Those cultures tend to be very resistant to change until they become comparatively wealthy, like India, and have lots of people internally who have the wealth to pressure the government. I’d say India is the example that demonstrates Krugman right because the change didn’t happen when India was first industrializing, but after a decade or two. I think your constructivist theory fundamentally requires growth in wealth to have any chance to be successful; but then it’s indistinguishable from Krugman’s argument, because economists have long known that workplace safety is a luxury good; one people demand only after satisfying their basic needs.

        Surprisingly deterministic and teleological arguments regarding development, ahem Marx
        Good quip, no need to regret it. The difference between us and Marx is that he had no actual case studies to base his theory on so his was purely theoretical. In our case we have quite a few case studies to look at, all of which are startlingly similar. The parsimonious prediction is that the same is to be expected in the future. Given the past evidence, it’s far more logical to assume there may not be better ways than to assume that certainly there’s a better way.

        If a better way can be found, I’m all in favor of it. But hoping that corporate bosses will have hearts of gold isn’t a basis worth pinning anything to.

        I know I’m painting this in pretty rough terms, but I really get the impression that hoping for a change of heart is what underlies your argument for a moral focus. And I think that’s less than worthless. I think by making it moralistic you diminish your audience, and only end up preaching to the choir. If you really want to make a difference faster, buy lots of stuff from third world countries, make them richer faster. Then you will help create the socio-economic conditions in those countries where they will make the demands themselves.

        Maybe it’s just personality, but moralism leaves me cold. I despise it, and I’m not persuaded it’s ever done a lick of good. Instead of creating incentives that lead self-interest to be mutually beneficial, moralism divides the world into the good people and the bad people, and that just makes the bad people feel resentful and disinclined to go along.

        Incentives vs. moral theory–that’s the basic gap between us.

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        • As an aside, I just finished grading a paper that really revealed the gap between moralistic thinking and incentive-based thinking, and showed how an origin in the first makes it very hard to speak sensibly about the second.

          The student’s paper was about tourism in Argentina. Underlying it all was a moralistic suspicion about foreigners investing in Argentina; a strong “us v. them” attitude (although in fact she is, not being Argentine, one of “them,”).

          Then int contained a large element of what I call magical thinking. “If only the foreigners weren’t doing all the investing in hotels and tourism, there would be so many more opportunities for the locals.” It’s particularly magical in this case as she began the paper by noting that Argentine businesses can’t get the loans they need to develop large and luxurious tourist amenities–what would actually change that if the foreigners left is unexplored.

          Finally, it contained a heavy dose of internal contradiction. Although presumably in the lack of foreign investment things would be much better, she expressed great concern that the foreigners will just pull up stakes and move out, crippling the economy. How never having invested in hotels, etc., would be superior to abandoning those hotels (or, selling them to locals at fire-sale rates) would be so much better is not explored. It also reveals the essential moralism; the assumption that the foreign investors are just waiting an opportunity to pull out and, in her words, “cripple the economy.”

          Almost all of that makes sense from a moralist perspective–perhaps not a particularly coherent moralism, but it’s the type of thing I hear regularly from people who emphasize “goodness” over “efficiency.” None of it makes sense from an economic perspective, and all I can do is ask her, “why do you think investment is bad?”

          She even objects to foreign-owned tourism industries requiring locals they employ to learn English, focusing on how it’s not right to demand they “abandon” their traditional culture and language, rather than focusing on the value of learning new skills.

          She’s a smart girl, and just a wonderful person. But her innate worldview is foreign to me, so we really can’t fully understand each other. I think much the same problem is what stands between Creon Critic and myself–he’s obviously smart, and a fair and penetrating critic with whom to argue. But with such fundamentally different worldviews and basic assumptions, I don’t think either of us can convince the other.

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          • And she’d probably say that you’re taking the attitude is that all investment is always good, and more investment is always better.

            But if a foreigner stays in a hotel run by foreigners that was built by a foreign contractor using foreign-owned equipment imported for the purpose, and is served food bought from foreign suppliers and cooked in a kitchen that’s also run by foreigners, and visits tourist attractions that are also designed and built and run by foreigners…can you really say that this is investment? Or is it just boomerang money–it comes in, circles around for a bit, and then leaves?

            Maybe the country would do better to run its own hotels and tourist industry, but why would they start a resort to compete with the big fancy Hilton down the street? They won’t be as good at it, so few tourists will stay there (and the ones who do won’t like it as much.) Easier to just go work at the Hilton. Maybe if there were some kind of plan towards a transition to local ownership these issues would be less of a problem, but mere “investment” doesn’t mean that’s what’s going to happen.

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            • Hotel companies are management companies for the most part, they don’t own the resort, they just either run it for whoever owns the land/buildings or they franchise, essentially offering certification that the owner/operator adheres to their standards enough to put their name on it.

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        • If Wal Mart finds a way to increase profit by doing so, they will, but they’ll never do it out of goodness.

          A few years back, someone proposed getting the government to create a new class of corporation, called a Public Benefit Corporation, that could be incorporated such that maximizing shareholder value was not the primary responsibility of the corporation. I know their are PBCs already, but they are mostly governmental or quasi-governmental organizations.

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          • If they can successfully operate and thrive, that’s all well and good. The practical difficulty is getting people to invest in them when the investors are de-prioritized. Then we’re actually asking investors to operate on a quasi-charitable basis. But if enough are willing to do so there could be no libertarian criticism since it would be as voluntary as any other investment.

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            • Then why do people continue to invest in them? They have to be doing good enough for stockholders or the value of their stock would drop. It’s a pretty self-correcting system, with a very clear negative feedback mechanism.

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              • Stocks run on the Greatest Fool principle. I don’t hold them as a good judge of the “worth” of a company. Too easy to inflate, and too hard to quantify, even if you’re trying to do a good job.
                ‘sides, a metric ton of millionaires shop at costco. I’d be surprised if a few of them don’t invest in it, because they like the company.

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                  • … hmm. no, but it seems to make many unwarranted assumptions (quickly skimmed, I did). And it doesn’t have anything to do with the price of tulips (in short, it fails to account for bubbles, and to a large extent, everything is either over or undervalued. in a bull market, generally overvalued by a LOT, in a bear market, look closer.).

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                    • I’m sure all the economists who find value in the EMH are crushed that your quick skim has proved them wrong.

                      I’m not saying I’m totally persuaded by it (well, “it” has multiple levels, some more persuasive than others), but it’s a bit complex to grasp and accept/reject based on a quick skim.

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                    • EMH doesn’t stop people acting irrationally. It does suggest that irrational actors will be swiftly and severely punished by the simple action of the market. Which is exactly what happened to tulip-bubble investors.

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                    • DD,
                      I think ~3 years is much longer than “swiftly.” If you’re making the argument that bubbles deflate due to this hypothesis, I can kinda tentatively go with what you’re saying. Mostly. I don’t think that the Reagan induced bubble on the stock market is going to deflate until the boomers retire enmasse.

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              • I am of two midns on this one.
                1) Google’s brainteam is smarter than trying to maximize profits over the next three months. So that’s true, as far as it’s worth. It means they put more investment back into the company.
                2) Costco’s profit has been held stable for ages upon ages (see addictedtocostco.com). It seems like they’ve just decided to go for “we’ll give you a nice dividend” type investors.

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                  • ya. if most companies would pursue long term profits, the world would be a better place. But it is easier to destroy than create, and pursuing short term profits is how executives get ahead — by burning companies to the ground.

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      • To Creon, Stillwater and James,

        Before we move on to another topic, I would like to summarize why I agree with 98% of what James writes and disagree with most of what Stillwater and Creon write on sweatshop wage rates:

        1) If we significantly raise wages in Haiti, the basic economic theory is that increasing costs of an input are likely to lead to lower demand. In this case this means fewer jobs, and the very real potential that some employers avoid the area all together. This would be catastrophic for the poor workers, as fewer jobs means less opportunity, and the removal of a superior alternative — according to the potential worker — than he or she otherwise faces.

        2)Raising wages will lead to increased demand for the job and thus lead to less incentive to improve working conditions, avoid abuse, improve safety etc. Above-market wages will likely have unintended negative effects.

        3) Significantly raising wages means that the most desperate applicants — those with the least experience and skills and health — will now compete against more experienced, younger, prettier candidates than would otherwise have been the case. Again the most desperate lose out.

        All three of these situations clearly reduce leverage for the neediest according to Stillwell’s definition!

        Yes, there are exceptions and caveats to every rule and economists can be found that have argued against some of these points. However, the burden of proof is on Stillwater and Creon to insure that their good intentions do not lead to bad results. After all, the employment contract is a voluntary deal between consenting adults. Creon and Stillwater are the ones recommending coercion and/or third party intervention in this situation. They are recommending that we interfere with the “sweatshop” employer from accepting an offer for a job tendered voluntarily by an applicant. They are basically asserting that their opinion and values are more important than the poor Haitian’s. As my wife would say dismissively… “that’s mighty white of you.”

        When third parties with wildly different sets of values and experiences try to tell other rational adults living thousands of miles away what to do, there is a very real risk that mistakes can be made. Furthermore, since the person forcing the decision doesn’t live with the actual consequences, the learning feedback loop is severed.

        So let me ask the question again… Stillwater and Creon, do you still want to require significantly higher wages in third world countries? Are you absolutely sure your take on the matter is sufficient to overturn conventional economic theory and the best judgment of the actual participants living with the relationship?

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        • since the person forcing the decision doesn’t live with the actual consequences, the learning feedback loop is severed.

          My undergrad mentor taught me this lesson, when I asked why was lessening his involvement in collegiate governance, despite being so experienced and obviously wiser than so many of his colleagues. “I don’t have to live with the consequences of the decision,” he said, “so it’s not right for me to make it.” An eye-opening moment for the young me that has shaped my thinking ever since.

          That doesn’t mean we shouldn’t care about the conditions under which decisions are made, but it does mean we should be exceptionally careful to assume that our external–leverage-free–position gives us a better insight into what decisions should be made.

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    • The Bleeding Heart Libertarians post makes a bunch of great points and then ends with this bizarre conclusion:

      Of course, even if firms aren’t themselves responsible for or culpably complicit in the injustices caused workers to be in a desperate situation, it might nevertheless be wrong for them to take advantage of that desperation by paying wages lower than those they would have had to pay had the injustice not occurred. But if this is the line of argument one wishes to pursue, then it’s hard to see why it should matter whether workers’ poverty is the result of injustice or some other morally neutral cause. If it’s wrong to take advantage of people who are in a desperate situation caused by an injustice for which one is not morally responsible, why wouldn’t it be just as wrong to take advantage of people who are in a desperate situation caused by, say, a natural disaster (for which, of course, one is also not morally responsible)? This might be a defensible line of argument, considered on its own merits. But it’s clearly not the argument that left-libertarians are pushing, and it may not be an argument that they can push consistent with their more basic moral commitments.

      So Zwolinski ignores the one defensible line of counter-argument because it’s not the argument a hypothetical left-libertarian (of his own creation) is pursuing? I think there’s a fancy logical term for that. Note too that Creon Critic does not make such a distinction, and in fact is completely agnostic of the causes of poverty. In fact, I can’t think of anyone here who would argue that sweatshops are generally wrong but are okay after natural disasters.

      Personally, my problem with the libertarian defense of sweatshops is that they completely reject any sort of standard for human treatment; as long as the employee is treated better at times t > 0 than at time t = 0 then any action from 0 to 1 is permissible. So let’s take an (admittedly inflammatory) hypothetical slave-market where the individuals always remain slaves but are able to freely choose which slave-master they labor for. One slave-master chooses to give his slaves more leisure-time and all of the slaves flock to his plantation. Is this a situation that would then be morally permissible according the libertarian defense? If no, how loose can we get with the definition of slave?

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      • It’s not disingenuous to say that a particular line of reasoning takes you outside of a particular worldview. If you’re mounting a defense of some aspect of Catholicism by Evangelicals, once you note a line of criticism requires that Jesus is not the Son of God, you know that logic can’t flow from Evangelicalism. An atheist might make it, but that’s a completely different set of arguments and requires a different critique.

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        • First, Zwolinski doesn’t explicitly outline why this argument is inconsistent with his formulation of the left-libertarian defense, he merely says that “it may not be an argument that they can push”, which is a disingenuous way to deal with the one argument he admits may be defensible. If left-libertarians indeed believe that sweatshops are wrong after a natural disaster, then Zwolinski needs to address the defensible argument. If they don’t believe this, then obviously they must think there is some moral distinction between government collusion and natural disaster (I can think of a few), and this distinction would go to refute Zwolinskis following point that “this leaves them in the untenable position of claiming that acts of type X are wrong while denying that acts of type Y (which appear to be identical to acts of type X in all morally relevant characteristics) are wrong.“. If Zwolinski thinks there’s a contradiction then he should lay it out.

          In any case, while his argument may work well against some class of left-libertarians, these are not the left-libertarians he is looking for.

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      • Personally, my problem with the libertarian defense of sweatshops is that they completely reject any sort of standard for human treatment; as long as the employee is treated better at times t > 0 than at time t = 0 then any action from 0 to 1 is permissible.

        (Emphasis added.)

        That’s a bit of a straw man. Most hardcore libertarians use the Principle of Non-Aggression as a basic deonotological standard for human treatment, for example. Your hypothetical slave-market relies upon coercion to keep slaves in slavery, unless we have very different definitions of “slave”, so it’s pretty much designed as an example of the sort of marginal utility gain that libertarians would be guaranteed to oppose.

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          • How is this slavery, then? Nobody’s aggressing against the “slaves”, as per your reply — so there’s no coercion, no fraud. The “slaves” are free to choose their masters, as per your construction. This looks to me like a system in which the “slaves” own capital — their skills and labour — and sell it to “slave-masters” in exchange for food. Maybe you have some other stipulations in mind?

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      • trizzlor,

        Drop the slavery angle please. All the discussion has been about voluntary acts of employment between rational adults. Better slavery is not part of the libertarian dogma.

        If the employer offers a better alternative at “times t > 0 than at time t = 0,” then they have improved the life of the willing applicant for the job. That is infinitely more than you have done for the poor person.

        Yes it is “permissible.” Yes it is good. Yes it is positive sum.

        The alternative to permissible is “impermissible” which I assume means you would rather not allow it. Thus you are willing to make the poor person’s life worse for the sake of your conscience.

        Follow the various threads on wages in this discussion between Stillwater, Creon, Blunt, James and me. My take on it is that the libertarian side is arguing for the welfare of the worker, and the progressives are arguing for some kind of magical alternate reality.

        Your feel good magic is going to make people’s lives worse.

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        • All the discussion has been about voluntary acts of employment between rational adults. Better slavery is not part of the libertarian dogma.

          All the discussion has been about what constitutes a voluntary act. I’ll be as charitable of your magical argument against slavery as you’ve been of the progressive one.

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          • trizzlor,

            I agree with Roger that the slavery angle is not on-point, but I want to discuss it anyway. So the village is surrounded by 100 miles of desert and a natural disaster has caused everyone to have no food except me, and I offer everyone food to keep them alive if they become my slaves.

            Let’s grant that it’s immoral of me to demand they become my slaves, instead of just feeding them. But have I made them better off by my immoral act?

            I had a choice of 3 actions:
            1. Feed them out of generosity.
            2. Feed them if they become my slaves.
            3. Let them starve period.

            We can agree that number 1 is the most moral of these actions. I hope we can agree that 2 is second most moral, and that 3 is least moral.

            Here’s the problem–the choice is all mine, I’m totally amoral, and appealing to my non-existent sense of morality is not going to influence my choice. Therefore, in the real actual world where this decision will be made, the only choices that actually may occur are 2 and 3.

            Which choice do you prefer me to make?

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            • James,

              Great point, and the reductio ad slavery obviously has it’s faults, but I think it’s incorrect to claim that we are only limited to those three choices. If you were a moral person then there would be a whole spectrum of employee benefits and assurances that you could offer the villagers, falling somewhere between (1) and (2). Since you’re not a moral person, a moral third party that has leverage over you can ensure that it’s in your best personal interest to make a decision that surpasses some minimum between (1) and (2). That would be my preferred choice.

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              • I think it’s incorrect to claim that we are only limited to those three choices. If you were a moral person then there would be a whole spectrum of employee benefits and assurances that you could offer the villagers, falling somewhere between (1) and (2).

                Sure, but that’s beside the point. Because if I, as the decision-maker, reject anything greater than 2, the situation reduces to a choice between 2 or 3, and the question stands, which of those is best.

                Since you’re not a moral person, a moral third party that has leverage over you can ensure that it’s in your best personal interest to make a decision that surpasses some minimum between (1) and (2). That would be my preferred choice.
                Again, sure, but who will be that moral third party? In the case of sweatshops, we’re talking about governments that a) are unlikely to take serious steps in that direction and b) if they do take such steps are likely to cause the decision-maker to choose outcome 3.

                So if you can’t actually get anything superior to 2, which outcome do you prefer?

                That’s a serious question, as much as it seems like a trivial one. I have a colleague who very seriously argued for 3, because he was so fixated on the immorality of 2. And I think some discussants here have avoided seriously dealing with that question because it’s very uncomfortable.

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          • All the discussion has been about what constitutes a voluntary act.

            It seems to me that the progressive argument sees very little daylight between euvoluntary exchange and involuntary exchange. The libertarian argument about leverage/desperate exchange leaves plenty of room for plain old voluntary exchange between the two.

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            • Perhaps I’m misreading you, but the progressive argument explicitly states that an involuntary exchange is one where either party is coerced by circumstance – by definition distinct from the euvoluntary exchange (thanks for the link, btw). Libertarians seem to think that as long the employer isn’t directly, physically forcing you to take an offer then everything else is leverage. Progressives argue that “allowing” you to choose between taking an offer and starving to death is effectively the same as involuntary exchange and should be addressed differently than plain old leverage.

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              • I’ve gotten myself in a lot of trouble upthread by assuming that I knew what “the” progressive argument stated. :-)

                I think you are misreading me, but mostly because I wasn’t being very clear: I propose a continuum of “voluntariness” in choice, with involuntary at the bottom, euvoluntary at the top, and a lot of shades of grey called “voluntary” in between. Euvoluntary exchange (or choice) is the gold standard win-win scenario. Exchange that doesn’t satisfy euvoluntary criteria can still be voluntary, but the tradeoffs are starker. I posit that progressives draw the line between “involuntary” and “voluntary” closer to the euvoluntary criteria than libertarians: the BATNA has to be much better for a progressive to call something “voluntary” than for a libertarian to do so.

                Seems to me that a lot of this comment thread can be boiled down to disagreement on (a) whether a bad BATNA is sufficient to make an exchange involuntary, and (b) how bad that BATNA has to be to do so. For example, I’m coerced a little by circumstance in which freelancing jobs I take — I can’t be too picky or I won’t get work — but no-one in their right mind would suggest that I’m entering into involuntary contracts.

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                • This (and Plinko’s comment below) hits the nail on the head in my opinion. Moreover, it’s very hard to identify and regulate transactions that are involuntary without destabilizing the exchange in the opposite direction (in short, via regulatory capture). So a compromise is to establish some requirements such that even if the transaction is involuntary there is a minimum standard of human treatment that is met. I think libertarians agree with this, but it seems like the only such requirement they will stomach is that no one physically forces you to make the decision.

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                  • [I]t’s very hard to identify and regulate transactions that are involuntary without destabilizing the exchange in the opposite direction (in short, via regulatory capture).

                    Heck, as soon as you start identifying and regulating transactions full stop you introduce regulatory capture and other public-choice risks.

                    I can’t speak for other libertarians, but this is why I’m uncomfortable with any requirements beyond no-force-no-fraud: any regulatory regime is subject to capture by the interests it regulates, and the greater the power disparity between regulated participants, the greater the potential harm from regulatory capture. (Who has the better lobbyists: Nike or Vietnamese child workers?) Furthermore, regulations are inevitably enforced by, well, force, which means that any harms coming from regulatory capture resolve to physical force or the threat thereof. Note that this is a “least-bad” position, not a ringing endorsement of unregulated commerce.

                    Now, if we can start enforcing minimum labour standards by popular opprobrium — think Kathy Lee Gifford getting publicly shamed for contracting from sweatshops, or the mug-shot websites that popped up after the Vancouver Stanley Cup riots — then you’ll find me much more interested. (You still have the problem of who gets to collect, frame, and tell the stories, and that’s a power-disparity issue in itself, but not one enforced at gunpoint.)

                    You will probably prefer to make a different tradeoff between the risk of questionably-voluntary (can we compromise on terminology? :-) ) transactions and the risk of regulatory capture by the more powerful party in the transaction. But refusing to acknowledge the tradeoff seems like a spectacular way to stall the discussion.

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              • I think more specific discussion along those lines would help this discussion move forward. There are five or six repetitions of the same discussion throughout that all sort of turn on that point without anyone expressly discussing how to determine if an exchange belongs too far on the coercion side to be moral.
                But, maybe too tellingly, how can we expect the employer to improve the BATNA of their potential employees? That’s outside their sphere of influence entirely.

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                • For my part, I agree with this. This whole discussion began (oh so long ago) with a challenge to the view that all market-based agreements are voluntary. That view is subject to challenge, with a range of values ascribed to voluntariness depending on the situational context. Or, of course, maybe they aren’t.

                  So I agree that this is something that deserves lots more discussion. But I also think that James Hanley’s argument above – that the purchasing power certain market players possess means the role they play in determining the conditions of employment could be greater – brings the discussion back, again, to whether current and past practices are justified or not, or whether they require a justification in any event.

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              • “Progressives argue that “allowing” you to choose between taking an offer and starving to death is effectively the same as involuntary exchange and should be addressed differently than plain old leverage.”

                This choice isn’t presented to workers by businesses, explicitly or implicitly. What an odd way to view the employer/employee relationship.

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              • Progressives argue that “allowing” you to choose between taking an offer and starving to death is effectively the same as involuntary exchange and should be addressed differently than plain old leverage.

                Progressives [sic] don’t seem to grasp the fundamentals of causality.

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                • To elaborate, less that be mistaken for content-free snark, the main problem with involuntary transactions is that they usually result in harm to one of the participants. A person will not generally enter into a transaction which he believes is not in his best interests, but he can be coerced into one. Involuntary transactions, then, are very rarely Pareto-efficient, and usually not even Kaldor-Hicks efficient (i.e., the benefit to the perpetrator is less than the harm to the victim).

                  This isn’t the case with voluntary transactions. Voluntary, nonfraudulent transactions, even when not euvoluntary, are generally mutually beneficial, and to be encouraged.

                  A leftist sees a rich person transacting with a desperately poor person, and concludes that the rich person is somehow responsible for the poor person’s state. In reality, the transaction is mutually beneficial, and the rich person is making the poor person better off, not worse off. To claim that this is effectively the same as an involuntary transaction is to demonstrate a very tenuous grasp on the fundamentals of causality.

                  Now, there’s a game-theoretic argument that we could perhaps improve the lot of poor workers by forbidding people to hire them under conditions below a certain level. Depending on elasticities of demand for labor, this may backfire or have mixed results (e.g., fewer people hired at higher wages). In any case, it has jack-all to do with whether these transactions are really voluntary (hint: they are).

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                  • A leftist sees a rich person transacting with a desperately poor person, and concludes that the rich person is somehow responsible for the poor person’s state.

                    Responsibility has nothing to do with it. A leftist sees a transaction with a BATNA that’s sufficiently skewed (i.e. work in my factory or starve to death) and concludes that it is no longer well-representative of voluntary choice (and, of course, that a regulatory body needs to treat such a transaction differently). I’m not talking about morality or responsibility, what I’m saying is that “work in my factory or I’ll kill you” and “work in my factory or starve to death” are effectively at the same or similar levels on the “voluntary choice” scale. And they should be treated similarly as market indicators of assigned value. How we deal with this information is a separate question – perhaps it’s so difficult to regulate the latter scenario that it’s not worth trying – but we must first agree that they are similar as indicators.

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                    • I’m not talking about morality or responsibility, what I’m saying is that “work in my factory or I’ll kill you” and “work in my factory or starve to death” are effectively at the same or similar levels on the “voluntary choice” scale.

                      I’d go with “similar levels, for most people, most of the time”, but basically I agree with your point in isolation.

                      The problem I have with this line of argument is that the BATNA of a sweatshop job isn’t usually as skewed as “starve to death”. My main point in about half of the comments upthread was that there are alternatives to sweatshop jobs — piece-work home contracts, small-plot cash-crop or subsistence farming, sulphur mining, and so on. The choice becomes “work in my factory, or try your luck at a number of other local jobs that probably pay less and suck more… or starve to death”. Or, more succinctly: “Participate in the local economy or starve to death”.

                      All of this vanishes if/when sweatshops crowd out the rest of the local economy. I presume this happens in some places; Creon probably knows better than I do. That suggests a natural experiment: do wages and working conditions get worse as a single sweatshop takes over a local economy?

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                    • But they’re not similar as indicators. An involuntary transaction is an indication that one person is trying to benefit himself at the expense of the other person. A voluntary transaction is an indication that two people are cooperating for their mutual benefit.

                      This is huge. Any analysis that ignores this distinction is utterly worthless.

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                    • I just figured out how to articulate why this strikes me as such a non-sequitur: Low BATNA simply isn’t what makes involuntary transactions suspect.

                      What makes involuntary transactions suspect is the fact that one person is forcing the other person into a transaction that harms him. If you want to get utilitarian about it, this means that the transaction can result in a net social loss—the sum of two positives is always positive, but the sum of a positive and a negative can be a negative.

                      In an involuntary transaction, the coercer lowers the victims BATNA by, e.g., threatening to kill him if he doesn’t comply, whereas in a voluntary transaction one party has a low BATNA coming in. It’s the forcible manipulation of the BATNA that makes the transaction suspect, not the low BATNA itself.

                      You can have involuntary transactions with a high BATNA, and they’re still illegitimate for the reasons stated above. For example, say that I threaten to egg a well-to-do doctor’s car if he doesn’t pay me $100. His BATNA, being a well-to-do doctor with an egged car, is still pretty damned good. But the transaction is still illegitimate.

                      So when you say that one participants BATNA is low, and therefore the transaction is suspect, that’s a complete non sequitur.

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                    • Brandon: Good set of examples.

                      I wonder if the progressive argument (as described by trizzlor above) contains a pair of implicit BATNA arguments: First, the “work at my factory or starve to death” scenario from here, and second the “moral third party enforcing a better BATNA than exists” scenario from here. trizzlor, is that a fair assessment? At this point I read the utilitarian side of the progressive argument you’ve presented as “BATNAs to sweatshop jobs are so awful they might as well not exist, but in a just world the BATNA would be high enough to force sweatshop wages-and-conditions up to parity with it”.

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                    • bluntobject: “BATNAs to sweatshop jobs are so awful they might as well not exist, but in a just world the BATNA would be high enough to force sweatshop wages-and-conditions up to parity with it”

                      That’s a reasonable conclusion, though I would hedge a bit and say “[sometimes] BATNAs to sweatshop jobs are so awful they might as well not exist” and in those cases some agency with leverage should negotiate on the side of the sweatshop worker for the bare minimum they would expect from a reasonable BATNA exchange (alternatively: a just world would not have an exchange with such low BATNA and so we should lobby for the minimum just-world outcome).

                      To Brandon’s point, it’s clear that we’re looking at “transaction as indicator” in very different ways, in particular my formulation makes no distinction between BATNA “going in” and BATNA “coming out”. I’d like to discuss this in more detail but unfortunately it’s quite late (and boozy) here so I’ll get back to it in the morning if you’ll bear with me. One parting shot is that the example you provided over egging a rich-person’s car doesn’t really ring true for me – who in their right mind would pay $100 to keep egg of their car – is there a more clear-cut case of involuntary action from an individual with high BATNA?

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                    • blunt, Brandon, trizzlor:

                      one of you guys need to write a post about this stuff. It’s fascinating, incredibly relevant, and lots and lots of us – well, me anyway – want to know more.

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                    • One parting shot is that the example you provided over egging a rich-person’s car doesn’t really ring true for me – who in their right mind would pay $100 to keep egg of their car?

                      This is really what BATNA is all about, or seems to be all about to me at midnight when I’m drunk: showcasing the local nature of utility functions.

                      Why would I pay $100 to not have my car egged? Perhaps because I’m a well-off doctor (as per Brandon’s example) for whom $100 has negligible marginal utility — maybe I have so much money on hand, and so few opportunity costs, that I’d drop $100 on anything that’d save me time (like getting my car de-egged).

                      Or maybe I’m a nerdy high school student on my way to a date with the homecoming queen (not that I’d know about that… I never had a date with the homecoming queen) and can’t possibly risk showing up with egg on my car.

                      Or maybe I’m driving a roadster and getting the interior detailed costs more than $100.

                      Or maybe I just spent the last five years building my locost from square stock and I’ll be DAMNED if some thug is going to toss chicken protein onto the fiberglass body I laid up from SCRATCH.

                      This is the libertarian perspective in a nutshell: you can’t know anyone else’s utility function unless you actually live in their head.

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                    • Blunt, you’ve just used BATNA to justify coercion.

                      Are you quite sure?

                      I’ve just used BATNA to explain why someone might submit to coercion. If you buy into a purely utilitarian outlook, that might be considered to justify coercion. But I surely don’t.

                      For example, my dream car is a Lotus Seven. (Look it up: it’s the ne plus ultra of sex on wheels.) If someone accosted me in my driveway with a crate of eggs and threatened to throw all of ’em at me if I didn’t pony up a hundred bucks, I like to think that I’d tell them where to stick it and clean up the interior as necessary — part of this comes down to moral principle, but part of this also comes down to “I like to fondle my car”. (I change my own oil, too.) But I can imagine that someone less, er, pretentiously libertarian than I am would say “okay, fine; take this hundred bucks and leave me the foxtrot alone”.

                      There is no justification here, just pragmatic concern for opportunity costs — the magnitude of which depends upon the individual involved.

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                    • trizzlor:
                      I’m told that egg, once it dries, damages the car’s paint in a way that can be expensive to repair. But this is trivially generalizable to other examples. Pay me $100 or I’ll smash the windows on your car, or in your house, or slash your tires, or whatever. The point is simply that coercion is bad regardless of the victim’s BATNA.

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                  • Bb,
                    Don’t misrepresent leftists. As one, i might question whether the rich person had done something to create the poor person’s poverty — because, it would be most profitable for that person to do so. But I’d need proof, and evidence before concluding anything.

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                    • i might question whether the rich person had done something to create the poor person’s poverty — because, it would be most profitable for that person to do so

                      Actually, it’s a lot easier to make money off other rich people than off poor people.

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                    • James,
                      not really. rich people don’t spend money, really. and what millionaires spend money on tends to last (and they’re smart enough to pick up stuff when the market collapses)

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                    • rich people don’t spend money, really

                      Half right, but all wrong. In fact most American millionaires got that way by being frugal (although, obviously, it takes a good income to get to millionaire status through frugality). That is, when making good money they don’t fritter it away on a new car every year, etc.

                      But in fact even if rich people spent a lot smaller proportion of their income than poor people, they would still spend more as a function of having so much more.

                      And it’s not just about spending, but about savings, which turn into investments. If I’m a rich person saving my money, I expect a return on it. Poor people who have a hard time getting loans aren’t as valuable to the rich person as the pretty well off businessman who borrows to make capital improvements.

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                    • 1) middle class starts at $250,000 and goes up from there.
                      2) Rich starts at $5million.
                      There’s a limit on what people want to buy. You can only spend so much on food (barring “invite only” traveling restaurants). And many other things that get bought (like land) are once-and-done sort of things.

                      At some point, your spending basically caps out.

                      Your last point I’ll grant (want to think about it actually, but don’t wanna argue it when there’s a better angle), but surely few rich people are actually investing in America? That’s low rate of return.

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                    • If leftists don’t hold employers causally responsible for the poverty of their workers, then why do they want to hold them financially responsible? That is, why is the proposed solution to force employers to give their workers charity in the form of above-market wages, rather than levying a tax on the whole population and using it to fund a welfare scheme for the world’s poorest in general?

                      For people who claim not to be pointing fingers, what the left is doing looks an awful lot like scapegoating.

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                    • Brandon,
                      the thing about the left is that they go looking for solutions. At least my version does (of which I may be the solo occupant, granted, but I somehow doubt).

                      I’d be okay with the “Tax Everyone!” scheme you write. Better, really, than just taxing employers, as it gets the “donothing” rich a bit better parity with the rest of us. It’s a Good Solution.

                      Taxing employers is a slightly less Good Solution. Unless they do it voluntarily, Which Is Possible (look at Starbucks!)

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      • Is this a situation that would then be morally permissible according the libertarian defense? If no, how loose can we get with the definition of slave?

        If it’s still coercion a libertarian would not have to say it’s morally permissible (although there’s a real question of whether your case is in fact coercion and slavery, but I’ll take it as intended). But it would be exceptionally odd not to argue that it’s still morally superior to the case in which a slave could not choose her own master.

        As to loose definitions of slave, whenever I hear someone use the phrase wage slavery I want to scream. Granted that all words are social constructions, but if we allow them to mean whatever’s convenient to the moment instead of having some relatively constrained range of meaning, then we cannot engage in meaningful analysis.

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        • slavery that includes the inability to switch jobs, and working at inhumane conditions is a reasonable extension. thus people getting green cards to work at certain computer companies count as slaves.

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          • If your standard of slavery includes people with H1-B visas (correct me if I’m wrong, but I think once you have a green card you can work anywhere you can get hired) working at (say) Microsoft, then it includes every grad student on an education visa on the continent.

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            • narrow it down a little, sherlock. I’m talking people in an industry where they will not hire Americans, and expect 60+ workhours out of foreigners.
              While I’ll grant you that grad students sometimes have shitty schedules — they generally aren’t that bad, are they? And they are being compensated (with a PhD)…

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              • I’m talking people in an industry where they will not hire Americans, and expect 60+ workhours out of foreigners.

                Which industry is that? If you want me to narrow it down, you need to be more specific about your visa-slaves. All I know so far is that they work at “certain computer companies”.

                While I’ll grant you that grad students sometimes have shitty schedules — they generally aren’t that bad, are they?

                Well, I just finished up a PhD in computing science, which seems to be relevant. 60-hour work weeks aren’t uncommon, especially around paper deadlines. I’m thinking more about pay than conditions for CS students: most get funded through teaching assistantships that, at my department, paid less than $20k/yr. Conditions in those jobs depend on the prof for whom you’re TAing, and range from pretty awesome to absolutely miserable (whence come most of the 60hr weeks — and, incidentally, a lot of union complaints). Of course, you’re also fighting against a steep power gradient wrt your supervisor, who can make your life arbitrarily miserable if so inclined. Incidentally, one of the profs at my undergrad institution married three of his grad students (in series, not in parallel) over the course of about five years.

                But CS students have it easy: we sit at keyboards all day in a department that’s usually well-funded. For poor working conditions I’m thinking more of English grad students who could easily spend 80hr/wk grading infinite Freshman Comp essays for half what I was paid, or Chem grad students who get to do all the tedious, messy, stinky, or life-threatening syntheses their lab requires, like “sitting there in the reeking dark in my winter coat, hour after hour, grinding up dead tunicates”.

                And they are being compensated (with a PhD)…

                I think the correct reply is “lol n00b”. PhDs are great if you want a faculty position, but the problem (at least in CS, don’t know about other disciplines) is that we graduate about 20 times as many PhDs as there are available faculty positions. So yeah, I could take my shiny new doctorate and use it to teach sessional courses at a whole 20% more than I got paid as a grad student, or take a small pay cut in that and get an adjunct position (which at least has benefits). Or I could go get an industry job, where “I have a PhD” as often as not means “I have funny ideas about how to write software, am unlikely to have ever done useful work, and deliberately ducked out of six years of industry experience to play with obscure mathematics”. There are a few kinds of jobs out there where a PhD (in CS, at least) is a prerequisite or at least high qualification, but guess what — the 19 out of 20 PhDs who aren’t going to get faculty positions are all competing for those, which if you consult your nearest supply-price curve will tell you something about how well those jobs have to pay to hire one of us.

                For all that, I have no regrets. But I’d bet the same applies to your “foreigners” — by the way, how much do they get paid?

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                • Anyplace that Americans cost way too much (D.C./Silicon Valley) and people don’t need too much skill.
                  80 Hour workweeks (or more, and living at the office) are standard at video game companies near deadlines (there’s a reason every damn Christmas game is bugged to sunday.) But there’s a damn difference between 60 every week, and 60 for one month a year.

                  When/Where are/did you get your PhD, and in what subfield? The CS Students around here always seemed pretty happy to be grad students (then again: CMU. Military contracts pay well).

                  If you can hack the math, I suggest a career in modeling. Or try some assembly programming, if you’ve got the head for PICs.

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                  • Anyplace that Americans cost way too much (D.C./Silicon Valley) and people don’t need too much skill.

                    You keep demanding more and more details from me, and refusing to provide any of your own. You haven’t even named a visa programme yet, let alone a company, let alone given an estimate on what these visa-slave foreigners of yours get paid. Put up or shut up.

                    80 Hour workweeks (or more, and living at the office) are standard at video game companies near deadlines (there’s a reason every damn Christmas game is bugged to sunday.)

                    Are you using video game companies as an example of places that hire visa-slaves? I live in Vancouver, which has a rather large game-dev sector, and have some personal experience with those deadlines — it’s not just Christmas, btw, it’s Christmas and E3 and PAX and “the publisher’s coming to see our latest milestone”. These companies have no problem paying for skilled labour, incidentally, and only fit your visa-slave argument in terms of sustained 60-70hr work weeks.

                    But there’s a damn difference between 60 every week, and 60 for one month a year.

                    One of my friends started a Master’s degree in pharmacology. She discovered that she was expected to babysit her supervisor’s lab cultures, which involved checking in on a couple dozen Petri dishes every six hours on the minute. In a year or two, once she’d accumulated some seniority in the lab, she might’ve been able to get a less onerous job.

                    When/Where are/did you get your PhD, and in what subfield?

                    Simon Fraser University, defended in April, computer graphics. You’ll note that I said CS grad students had it pretty good, and that it was grad students in other disciplines who were the worst off.

                    My argument about grad students on student visas comes from your “can’t change jobs” premise coupled with low-paying TAships (mine ranged from $5750 to $6250 for four months, gross, no waived tuition or student fees). Plenty of grad students work long hours, so we can compare work weeks if we want, but I think that’ll come out as a wash.

                    The CS Students around here always seemed pretty happy to be grad students.

                    Er… fine? I had a great time in grad school. That’s utterly irrelevant to your argument.

                    Your claim, if I understand you correctly (and please correct me if I’m getting this wrong), is that a foreign worker, on a restrictive visa (“can’t change jobs”), “working at inhumane conditions”/”60+ workhours”, is effectively a slave. You’ve implied that these foreign workers are cheaper to hire than American workers because they’re not as good, so I’m going to assume (there’s that word; correct me if I’m wrong) that they’re working 60+hr/wk for “low” pay. I’m not sure whether that pay is on the order of $30k/yr or $15k/yr or $50k/yr, and I’d like you to narrow that down.

                    My claim is that this is sufficient to describe a lot of grad students. I’ll back off of all grad students on student visas (the “student visa” part is important, as it satisfies the “can’t switch jobs” criterion). If you want to make the work-hours part of the argument dominant, it’ll describe even fewer grad students, but it will still describe a lot. I intend this as a reductio ad absurdam for the notion that “can’t change jobs, low pay, long hours” == “slavery”.

                    My rambling complaint about the PhD job market was intended as a rebuttal to the idea that a PhD is sufficient compensation to tip the scales for grad students: PhDs aren’t as valuable in the job market as I think most people think they are. Assembly programming, from your example, is not a job that requires a PhD.

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                    • No, wasn’t saying video game industry == wage slaves. Just saying intermittent long hours != sustained long hours.

                      I don’t think the every 6 hours is equivalent to sustained work being expected for 10hrs/6days a week. Perhaps there are students who are expected to do that, and graded on their performance…

                      I’m not sure whether I meant to say they aren’t as good. Certainly they’re paid less ($21k for one software engineer, which is about half of what a competent programmer makes in my area, which is low rent!)

                      Citing a few randomish sources (read comments too)
                      http://www.eetimes.com/discussion/break-points/4216051/The-Decline-of-the-H1-B
                      http://www.itbusinessedge.com/cm/blogs/tennant/us-grand-jury-subpoenas-infosys-in-visa-fraud-investigation/?cs=47148

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                    • Part of the problem is “can’t quit”. Any number of grad students can leave, at any time, and get jobs (mostly as high school teachers, if nothing else).

                      If you were living out in podunk, Montana, where there are no CS jobs, I might be more sympathetic to your argument.

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                    • Sources! Outstanding; thank you. I’ll have a look.

                      I don’t think the every 6 hours is equivalent to sustained work being expected for 10hrs/6days a week.

                      No, it’s worse: recall that these students are also taking classes and doing their own research, and consider that whoever runs the Petri dishes is unlikely to get more than 4 hours of sleep at a time for the duration of the experiment, and won’t be able to establish a consistent day/night pattern. It’s like night-shift work, only you have to work the day shift too. In a large enough lab, this duty will switch between a number of people so that nobody ends up wrecking their day/night cycles for more than a few weeks at a time. Not all labs are large enough.

                      I’m not sure whether I meant to say they aren’t as good.

                      Okay, I’ll ignore that part if you like.

                      Certainly they’re paid less ($21k for one software engineer, which is about half of what a competent programmer makes in my area, which is low rent!)

                      That’s a sliver more than a CS grad student can expect in a year around here, and “here” is one of if not the most expensive cities in Canada.

                      I’m not claiming that H1-B visa holders are never exploited by their employers (we’re back to the leverage/BATNA discussion there). I’m just claiming that it’s absurd to call them slaves based on the conditions of their visa and the hours they work.

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                    • One reason this argument gets my back up is that Vancouver’s had some real slavery cases (like this one) lately. These have involved women being kept as housekeepers, working all day every day, prevented from leaving their “employer’s” house, having their passports and other ID confiscated, not being paid, and usually being assaulted.

                      With that in mind, the claim that immigrants on H1-B visas who can’t change jobs and work sixty hour weeks “count as slaves” — that’s a direct quote from upthread — looks like outrageous hyperbole.

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                    • The U.S. has had real slavery cases like that, too, and I share your disdain for the hyperbole for the same reason.

                      At least the H1B visa holders can actually walk away and return home. The ability to readily walk away without being chased after and punished if caught seems to me to be an important distinction between those immigrants and real slaves.

                      I find the comparison appalling, indicative of a person who isn’t think carefully about what the conditions of real slaves are like.

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                    • Part of the problem is “can’t quit”. Any number of grad students can leave, at any time, and get jobs (mostly as high school teachers, if nothing else).

                      My understanding is that foreign students on education visas can’t leave their degree programmes and get other jobs without invalidating their visas, which is why I wrote “the “student visa” part is important, as it satisfies the “can’t switch jobs” criterion” in my reply above. Am I wrong? If so, my argument is baseless and I withdraw it.

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                    • Blunt, james,
                      Granted totally that “actual slavery” is a whole different ballgame.
                      Also granted that “debt slavery” where one lives in prison and must work for American corporations is way the hell different.
                      “Wage Slavery” with huge fiscal consequences to leaving (as Raja did around here with his company), is different than “you get to go home, free of charge.”
                      Mulling over what blunt was saying, I’d probably class foreign grad students as “indentured servants,” due to the prospect of upward mobility.

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  9. Pingback: All linky, no thinky « Blunt Object

  10. Stillwater, October 25, 2011 at 1:33 pm

    [JH] My perspective is that you’re framing the issue in a way that allows you to avoid dealing with bluntobject’s point. The employee’s other real-world alternatives have to be considered in the analysis or you’re rigging the game, I think.
    [SW] On the contrary. It’s built right into my argument. That’s where the concept of leverage and desperate exchange comes into play:

    OK, but you are abstracting those other opportunities, not looking at them as real choices. And frankly, I have a very hard time with the claim that it’s immoral to offer someone a better choice because it’s not better enough. Keep in mind that nobody has a duty to offer them anything, not even the little they do offer them. To jump to the logic that somebody has a duty to offer them more, when you haven’t demonstrated that they have a duty to offer anything at all, is to skip a step in the logic.

    What you object to, I think, is my suggestion that employers take advantage of the desperate situation people are in (or as you say, employees real world alternative) to extract greater concessions from them (even tho they rationally agree to the deal!) wrt total cost of employment.

    No, what I object to is that you are infantilizing the employees. You insist upon seeing them as being taken advantage of, rather than seeing them as being competent adults taking advantage of what is offered to them.

    It seems to me you’re focusing on the situation without attributing agency to the employer and instead focusing exclusively on the agency of the employee.

    Actually, I think you do exactly the opposite. I have no problem attributing agency to the employer–I know the employer is trying to get the best deal. That’s what people do, and it doesn’t bother me unless they use fraud or coercion. But the employer absolutely also has agency, and I think your argument necessarily requires that we negate that agency.

    I’ve argued instead that a marginal gain in utility isn’t sufficient to justify sweatshops,

    But in your previous argument you said it’s not a positive sum deal–now you’re saying it’s positive sum, just not positive sum enough on one side. Those aren’t the same things at all.

    since by hypothesis, utilitarianism is a moral theory which says what normatively ought to happen is what maximizes overall utility. Employing them in sweatshop conditions increases utility, but does not maximize it. That would require improving the conditions under which people work insofar as employers are able.

    Two objections. One is that my approach to utilitarianism is not about maximizing net social utility (which too often leads to totalitarian social organization), but about individuals trying to maximize their own utility. I assume both employers and employees are doing this. If that’s the best option available to the employee, then s/he is maximizing his/her own utility.

    Second, utility is subjective. You’re claiming collective utility would increase by paying workers more or giving them better working conditions. You cannot know that, because it’s an unknowable. You cannot know their utility or the corporate managers’ utility calculations. Yes, it would increase the employees’ utility, but you are making assumptions about the comparison between their utility and the managers’ utility that are truly unknowable. Also, if–as others here have suggested–a pay increase would necessarily come at the expense of working conditions, or vice-versa, you can’t even know from your seat what would maximize the employee’s utility. Your whole argument is based upon assumptions about utility that you are treating as givens, but that are actually unknowns.

    Another thing I’ve argued is that even if sweatshops increase utility (let’s suppose this is true, or at least subjectively determined by the employee to be the case), and even if employees are rational in agreeing to work in sweatshops on those grounds, it doesn’t follow that the situation they find themselves in is a moral one.

    I disagree. I believe voluntary positive-sum exchanges are moral by definition. Not necessarily ideal; but moral.

    I’ve used the example of outright coercion to show (I hope) that even tho a person is rational in choosing to accept his coercers demands, the situation he finds himself in is immoral.

    Yes, because it’s coercion. We’re in agreement on that. But it doesn’t follow that a non-coercive agreement is immoral. There’s a difference in kind, so it doesn’t work as a very good analogy.

    So whether a decision is instrumentally rational or not presupposes a specific situational context. The context of the sweat shop worker is one where he has no better options

    Yes, offering someone a better option than anything else they have is immoral unless it’s better enough. I hear that–I just don’t buy it.

    tho the one he accepts exposes him to health and safety harms, requires 100 hour weeks, sometimes outright abuse, etc.
    I knew a hooker who let men whip her. She found it more remunerative than her other options. Was it an immoral exchange?

    Look, the issue for me is whether there is fraud and coercion. Was there fraud about the risks? Hell, who here has justified “outright abuse” (a tolerably vague concept–verbal abuse? physical?) You keep pushing this toward conditions we’re not defending, and I don’t think that’s legitimate.

    So – to repeat – while he’s rational to accept it, the situation he finds himself in isn’t a moral one – or at least doesn’t conform to normal conceptions of morality.
    So now you also get to unilaterally defend what counts as a “normal” conception of morality? There seems to be a lot of hubris in your argument–you define others’ utility so you can compare them to your advantage, and you get to define what’s normal morality. But I would have thought that voluntary exchange without coercion or fraud were normally considered morally acceptable.

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    • Stillwater (and Creon if you are still out there),

      I would love a response to my questions above (currently number 163 at 4:36 PM on the 24th). It specifically addresses “leverage,” and imo reveals that your own framing of the issue argues against your position.

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      • I’m not terribly invested in this fight, but as a neutral observer:

        > 1) If we significantly raise wages in Haiti, the
        > basic economic theory is that increasing costs
        > of an input are likely to lead to lower demand.

        In practice, this depends. The price of goods is correlated with demand, granted, but there are numerous other factors involved.

        If the price of a cheap t-shirt is $5 vs. $7 the likelihood of me buying the cheap t-shirt doesn’t change very much. If the price of a cheap t-shirt is $15 vs. $7 then I’m probably more likely to upgrade my expectations and buy a $22 “non-cheap” t-shirt over a $15 cheap one.

        This might be bad or not, depending upon the market for the finished good.

        > In this case this means fewer jobs, and the
        > very real potential that some employers
        > avoid the area all together. This would be
        > catastrophic for the poor workers, as
        > fewer jobs means less opportunity…

        This is an eminently fair point but this depends on either the feedback mechanism (at the sales end) being inelastic, or the employers having the ability to pull up stakes and go elsewhere.

        I think most anti-sweatshop arguments are predicated on the idea that since the capital investor (the international corporation) has governance links to our political system, we can impose a decent living wage requirement upon the manufacturer.

        > 2)Raising wages will lead to increased
        > demand for the job and thus lead to
        > less incentive to improve working
        > conditions, avoid abuse, improve safety
        > etc. Above-market wages will likely
        > have unintended negative effects.

        Presumably, if one has the authority to impose the wage floor amount, one also has the authority to impose worker standards.

        Now, I’m not certain that the mechanism proposed by your opponents in this discussion will either work or be more efficient than the market, but clearly they believe they have this base covered.

        > 3) Significantly raising wages means that
        > the most desperate applicants — those
        > with the least experience and skills and
        > health — will now compete against more
        > experienced, younger, prettier candidates
        > than would otherwise have been the
        > case. Again the most desperate lose out.

        Maybe. But one can also say, “Well, if an employer is going to hire 100 people, and we make that employer pay the employee $50/day instead of $10/day, that employee will be able to provide assistance to those elderly infirm with the largess, and the productivity will certainly be greater than if we let 100 of the least capable take the jobs because they’re willing to do it for less.

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        • 1). You might think it won’t, but it does, the difference in demand for a $5 t-shirt and the same one at $7 is absolutely massive. My employer was recently forced to raise prices by ~10% percent to partly offset a 30% increase in product costs and sales dropped by considerably more than 10%, and that was in an environment where everyone else had to raise prices, too.
          A 20% price increase would probably have knocked our gross sales down by at least 30%, and that would mean an enormous loss for the year. Especially if we moved alone, most of our sales would just shift to those who only raised prices by 10%.
          As for the ownership, people still keep dancing around this. The Western importing company is almost never the capital owner, they buy finished products from manufacturing plants that are locally/regionally owned, ones that likely sell to several companies/brands, probably all destined for different markets (including local). In some cases, you have separate foreign ownership (ie a Korean company operating a factory in Indonesia selling stuff to Americans), but for the most part these are operated as joint-ventures precisely because local capital is better suited to the ins and outs of local governance and custom – they can figure the optimal balance of wage/productivity/legal compliance better than foreigners.
          This notion of American companies running slave operations in Bangladesh is not grounded in any objective reality.

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          • Plinko,

            As for the ownership, people still keep dancing around this. The Western importing company is almost never the capital owner,

            That’s true, but I think I side with those dancing around it. With its purchasing power, a Nike or a Converse can make some pretty strong demands of the local capital owner with whom it’s contracting. So I think it’s legitimate enough for the other side in this debate to ignore that distinction.

            I’m open to persuasion that I’m wrong about that, though.

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            • I think that’s a fair notion, it might be true for certain industries, but apparel and shoes it’s almost surely not.

              Nike and Converse are big companies, yes, but their purchases are tiny in the overall market for the production of apparel and shoes. Combined, I’m not sure they own even 1% of it.
              The apparel production market is competitive, there are very few ‘only games in town’ and that runs both ways – factories can always find someone else to sell to.
              I do happen to do business with one of Nike’s largest apparel suppliers, but they’re only one of 10 or 12 customers buying from them. That’s always true in wholesale businesses, you have fewer customers so each one is more important to you than at Retail where you have thousands or millions of individuals. If Nike pulled up stakes and left, they’d be hurt, yes, as they have to find someone else to take that spot.
              Certainly apparel manufacturers are in much better spot than, say, auto parts OEM suppliers.

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          • > My employer was recently forced to raise
            > prices by ~10% percent to partly offset a
            > 30% increase in product costs and sales
            > dropped by considerably more than 10%,
            > and that was in an environment where
            > everyone else had to raise prices, too.

            On what, t-shirts?

            Do you have another anecdote that shows a difference between raising prices during an up economy vs. a down one? Has there historically been a time when your employer has raised prices by 10% and seen an increase in volume, due to other factors?

            Not that I dispute your data point, but it’s just a point.

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            • We, like just about everyone out there, had to raise prices on everything we sell.
              Yes, it’s just an anecdote, fortunately for most of us, apparel prices have been dropping for the better part of two decades, so this is the first real price increase of my career.. I just wanted to counterpoint the idea that there is not demand inelasticity in U.S. apparel purchases. I see it in the earnings reports of our competitors, too. They all raised prices as much as they thought they could get customers to stomach.

              There is actually pretty big elasticity of demand, the market is competitive and we consume a lot more apparel than we need. Naturally, price increases will push demand down. You have a ton of choices for your money, if apparel costs rise, you can buy 10 t-shirts instead of 12 a year and be no worse off. Or you could buy them from someone else.

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        • Welcome to the discussion Patrick!

          On the first point — to clarify — I meant increasing the cost of labor reduces demand for the labor as an input. Meaning that manufacturers look to minimize costs and will substitute machinery or look elsewhere for labor all else being equal. I was not specifically arguing that it affects demand for the shirt. Plinko HAS been arguing that. I am playing agnostic on this front, as I do not believe I will get Stillwater to agree to it and I do not find it crucial to the rest of my argument. If Plinko is right it would further my argument.

          I wrote:
          > In this case this means fewer jobs, and the
          > very real potential that some employers
          > avoid the area all together. This would be
          > catastrophic for the poor workers, as
          > fewer jobs means less opportunity…

          Patrick: “This is an eminently fair point but this depends on either the feedback mechanism (at the sales end) being inelastic, or the employers having the ability to pull up stakes and go elsewhere.”

          Certainly the argument depends upon feedback mechanisms. In this case all the standard economic arguments are that you will get less demand for labor from a given area at a substantially higher price. Some manufacturers will automate processes, some will move, some won’t expand as originally planned, some will go to Nicaragua instead of setting up shop in Haiti, some may lower margins and thus reduce demand for new entrants in the market, and some may raise prices lowering demand for the product (Plinko). The key to free enterprise is the dynamic, and in this dynamic, it is for shrinking demand for labor.

          Patrick: “I think most anti-sweatshop arguments are predicated on the idea that since the capital investor (the international corporation) has governance links to our political system, we can impose a decent living wage requirement upon the manufacturer.”

          Indeed. My argument is that would be good for our conscience and bad for the Haitians. I say conscience be damned! Let’s take one for the Haitians!

          And as an aside, why can’t I use your same argument against you and Stillwater? Since you use their products, you should be taxed to subsidize them up to our standards? Why does everyone want to pick on the one agent doing the most direct good — the employer?

          I wrote:
          > 2)Raising wages will lead to increased
          > demand for the job and thus lead to
          > less incentive to improve working
          > conditions, avoid abuse, improve safety
          > etc. Above-market wages will likely
          > have unintended negative effects.

          Patrick: “Presumably, if one has the authority to impose the wage floor amount, one also has the authority to impose worker standards.”

          The potential ways to lower standards is infinite in scope. We can impose standards on some of these, but that just pushes the negative effects around these regulations. You can’t regulate everything in the relationship without creating massive inefficiencies that will make the situation even worse.

          Patrick: “Now, I’m not certain that the mechanism proposed by your opponents in this discussion will either work or be more efficient than the market, but clearly they believe they have this base covered.”

          I hope they believe they have it covered. My point has been that it is easy to believe anything when you don’t feel the pain of making a mistake. It is the Haitian that should be given priority on the decision, not someone without a clue to the situation, the values, the tradeoffs, etc.

          I wrote:
          > 3) Significantly raising wages means that
          > the most desperate applicants — those
          > with the least experience and skills and
          > health — will now compete against more
          > experienced, younger, prettier candidates
          > than would otherwise have been the
          > case. Again the most desperate lose out.

          Patrick: “Maybe”

          If an employer has two applicants and one opening, the employer will rationally choose the better applicant. Double the wages, and more and better applicants will indeed enter the competition — possibly even including ones that already have relatively good jobs in Haiti. Now your desperate itinerant farmer is competing against an experienced shopkeeper. Thanks America for crowding me out of my only hope!

          Patrick: “But one can also say, “Well, if an employer is going to hire 100 people, and we make that employer pay the employee $50/day instead of $10/day, that employee will be able to provide assistance to those elderly infirm with the largess, and the productivity will certainly be greater than if we let 100 of the least capable take the jobs because they’re willing to do it for less.”

          So your argument for higher wages is that the kinda-poor Haitians may now be more charitable? If you mean they will take care of their infirm parents, then I don’t want to ask what you think happens to the desperate poor’s parents. And I am really not sure how you ensure they don’t use the money on booze, chicks and status goods. More regulations?

          The productivity argument can be best judged by the employer — and they will indeed live with the decision.

          If we REALLY want to help the Haitians, we need to stop throwing sand in their economic machinery and start helping them ourselves.

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          • > On the first point I meant increasing the
            > cost of labor reduces demand for the labor
            > as an input. Meaning that manufacturers
            > look to minimize costs and will substitute
            > machinery or look elsewhere for labor all
            > else being equal.

            Oh, granted. And in many cases, this is a major factor (t-shirts being one of those cases).

            In other cases, mobility of the manufacturer may be a big deal. So might local labor. So might be automation. I mean, we make about as much total manufactured goods as the Chinese, but we do it with 1/10th the labor because our labor is more expensive.

            Now, there are two places you can go with this: why don’t we get rid of these crap jobs and let machines do the work so that people can do value-add things; or why can’t we keep unskilled labor out of the work force for value-add things and let them do simple stuff and make a living. In the long run, these matter. Probably not tomorrow, though; not in the world labor market. But I digress.

            Still, if money is a function of labor, what do we do when there isn’t enough work to go around? We seem to have that problem now. Removing the minimum wage won’t do it; two brutal facts are that the cost of living won’t adjust enough to allow someone in the U.S. to work for $100/day, and even if it could nobody would take that job anyway because it would kill your future earnings potential.

            > The key to free enterprise is the dynamic,
            > and in this dynamic, it is for shrinking
            > demand for labor.

            This problem is not going to go away, however. I’d argue that we’re getting to a place of diminishing returns as it is; outsourcing to China works as long as you have a China to outsource to. When Chinese jobs move to somewhere else, you get to the point where infrastructure risks get ridiculous; you have huge market pressure to cut costs, but the only place you can cut costs is by taking on more pervasive risk.

            Didn’t we just try this in the financial markets, and it didn’t work out too well? Perhaps it’s not a great solution?

            > Indeed. My argument is that would be good
            > for our conscience and bad for the Haitians.
            > I say conscience be damned! Let’s take one
            > for the Haitians!

            I’m down with taking one for the Haitians. How would it necessarily be bad for the Haitians, though? We can curtail the outsourcing of their labor to anywhere, if we really want to do so (yes, there are practical problems; I’m not saying I agree with this strategy, I’m just trying to suss out where you’re at). So if we demand that if you sell goods in the U.S. you manufacture them at a living wage cost wherever you’re going to manufacture them, you’re still exporting such amount of capital somewhere. Yes, I realize this also puts more pressure on risk, because then obviously you’re adding more incentives for people to go where the lowest cost of living wage would be, which would be the least infrastructurally sound locale. Again, *I* don’t think it’s a great idea ;)

            > Since you use their products, you should be
            > taxed to subsidize them up to our standards?
            > Why does everyone want to pick on the one
            > agent doing the most direct good — the employer?

            Typically the liberal would argue that they’re willing to pay more taxes to help subsidize them to our standards, and they’re not asking the employer to take all the burden in the shorts. I don’t think this is a place where you have a great bit of leverage.

            > You can’t regulate everything in the relationship
            > without creating massive inefficiencies that
            > will make the situation even worse.

            I’m generally willing to agree with this, but it *is* an assertion.

            > It is the Haitian that should be given priority
            > on the decision, not someone without a clue to
            > the situation, the values, the tradeoffs, etc.

            I agree. To what extent are you willing to support this priority? If, three years down the line, the local Hatian workforce wishes to unionize and the local government refuses to let them do so because the manufacturer is applying political pressure (not wanting to write off the sunk cost of the facility to relocate to somewhere else), do you believe the U.S. government has a role in offsetting that power imbalance, should it occur?

            Rather than up front assume corporations will do evil and then putting all sorts of inefficient roadblocks in their face, would you be agreeable to generally giving them free rein but instead putting resources towards making sure the Haitian workers have the autonomy to back up their decisions?

            > Double the wages, and more and better applicants
            > will indeed enter the competition — possibly even
            > including ones that already have relatively good
            > jobs in Haiti.

            Granted this is a possible exception scenario. I have no grounds to evaluate its probability, though.

            > So your argument for higher wages is that the kinda
            > -poor Haitians may now be more charitable? If you
            > mean they will take care of their infirm parents,
            > then I don’t want to ask what you think happens to
            > the desperate poor’s parents.

            Isn’t this the argument that the liberal hears from the conservative/libertarian regarding getting the government out of the welfare business – that the private charity market will fulfill this need if the government just gets out of the way? Why shouldn’t the liberal turn it around and apply it to the conservative/libertarian?

            > And I am really not sure how you ensure they don’t
            > use the money on booze, chicks and status goods.
            > More regulations?

            I dunno, I figure if you make a lot more money that the average bloke in your locale and you lord it over them, typically they beat the snot out of you and take your stuff. Eventually. Not sure it’s really any of our business.

            > If we REALLY want to help the Haitians, we need to
            > stop throwing sand in their economic machinery and
            > start helping them ourselves.

            If we really want to help anybody, what we really ought to do is build basic infrastructure that is disaster-resistant for whatever sorts of disasters hit that particular region and leave the economic stuff alone, I agree. But I don’t think the liberal argument completely lacks substance.

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            • Hi Pat,

              Pat: “Still, if money is a function of labor, what do we do when there isn’t enough work to go around? We seem to have that problem now. “

              Great idea for a future discussion topic… hint, hint.

              On my comment that it is odd the progressives want the one person doing some good (the guy offering the job) to bear the brunt of their moral outrage, Pat writes: “Typically the liberal would argue that they’re willing to pay more taxes to help subsidize them to our standards, and they’re not asking the employer to take all the burden in the shorts. I don’t think this is a place where you have a great bit of leverage.”

              Actually, most liberals want all of us to pay their taxes, not just those agreeing with them. Their conscience, our wallet. I will however consider donating to the cause.

              Pat: “To what extent are you willing to support this priority? If, three years down the line, the local Haitian workforce wishes to unionize and the local government refuses to let them do so because the manufacturer is applying political pressure (not wanting to write off the sunk cost of the facility to relocate to somewhere else), do you believe the U.S. government has a role in offsetting that power imbalance, should it occur?”

              Great question. I agreed with Creon to support advocacy pressure against government or employer coercion as you reference. I think it is a bad idea for our government to use coercion. Encouragement and diplomacy are OK.

              Pat: “Rather than up front assume corporations will do evil and then putting all sorts of inefficient roadblocks in their face, would you be agreeable to generally giving them free rein but instead putting resources towards making sure the Haitian workers have the autonomy to back up their decisions?”

              Yes.

              Pat: “But I don’t think the liberal argument completely lacks substance.”

              When I talk to you (though you don’t seem very liberal to me) and Creon I agree with your comment. Most of the other “progressive” commenters scare the dickens out of me though. In a good way of course.

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              • > Great idea for a future discussion topic

                I’ve brought it up before somewhere a couple of times ;)

                > Actually, most liberals want all of us
                > to pay their taxes, not just those
                > agreeing with them. Their conscience,
                > our wallet.

                In fairness, though, this is the mechanism we’ve got. Most people don’t see this going away, so using its power for Good instead of Evil (by however you define those two terms) is a pretty normal human response. Shoot, if you get to tax me and use the money to bomb Libya, I ought to be able to demand that you fund the NSF.

                > I agreed with Creon to support advocacy
                > pressure against government or employer
                > coercion as you reference. I think it is a
                > bad idea for our government to use
                > coercion. Encouragement and
                > diplomacy are OK.

                Do tax incentives count as coercion? How about tax penalties? Hey, there’s a thread around here about coercion that I needed to follow up on. Mebbe this upcoming week I can get back to that.

                > When I talk to you (though you don’t
                > seem very liberal to me)

                Lemme know if you find a box I fit in.

                > and Creon I agree with your comment.
                > Most of the other “progressive”
                > commenters scare the dickens out of
                > me though.

                You should see Bob when he gets going about the “War of Northern Aggression”.

                Personally, all ya’ll terrify me in places here or there.

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                • Patrick,

                  P: “…if you get to tax me and use the money to bomb Libya, I ought to be able to demand that you fund the NSF.”

                  Don’t get me started on why I have to pay for bombing. I want people to have the freedom and options to opt out of (or in to) all kinds of taxation.

                  My major concern with tax breaks and subsidies relates to economic inefficiency and unintended consequences.

                  P: “Lemme know if you find a box I fit in.”

                  Rufus already solved that… You are “Patrick The Dude.”

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      • Roger, I’m still here, I have a comment, October 25, 2011 at 8:55 pm, awaiting moderation. I hadn’t considered anti-spam moderation when putting the links in my comment… hopefully it will come out of moderation soon.

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  11. I’ve never understood this discussion since my college days. It’s entirely possible to

    1. Arguably improve the lives of very poor people by providing employment while
    2. doing so at extremely low wages and in poor working conditions which nevertheless represent marginal improvements in the lives of those now employed, resulting in
    3. profit which, given the initial conditions of and evasion of labor standards likely applicable in the firm’s country of establishment, amounts to
    4. exploitation, something that should receive no particular moral praise, especially given the realization of profit from it, even if the result is mutual gain.

    What is exploitation if it isn’t making use for individual benefit of the kinds of voluntary agreements people will enter into as a result of highly divergent pre-existing material conditions and power relations? Once coercion comes into the picture, the thing happening goes from exploitation to extortion, doesn’t it? Is there something else other than this that exploitation is? Is it a moral failing not to valorize exploitation?

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    • “even if the result is mutual gain.”

      Exactly. Not only that, but I don’t think “mutual gain” should be defined as “You gain a little, I gain a lot.” It should be, you know, a little more mutual.

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    • Herb and Michael,

      I am fine with us not giving moral praise to sweatshop owners. Indeed, let’s feel free to all call them names.

      But please, for the sake of the poor workers, do not threaten their livelihood by coercing the employer to offer above market wages (my argument is above — please address it rather than start over). They need those jobs.

      The decision is not yours to make — it is the worker’s. You are not closer to the situation. You do not have a better grasp of their situation. You do not face the ramifications of a bad decision.

      If you feel the going wage rates are below what you find is conscionable, please offer a higher wage yourself. Anything else is just cost-free compassion with negative externalities. Indeed, that is what Creon should have named this thread — Cost-Free Compassion With Negative Externalities.

      And Herb, you are right the gain is nowhere near mutual. The poor worker gains immensely more than the sweatshop owner. It may be a matter of life or death to make 38 cents an hour, while the owner only gets another crummy shirt to sell.

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      • Since I didn’t advocate coercing employers to offer above-market rates, I’d prefer if you didn’t address me as a “you” who does that. I think you rather clearly have whipped your case up into a kind of romantic froth in your head about the wonderful things western corporations are doing for the impoverished of the Earth, and so even in this one comment I think you negate your own claim to agree that we shouldn’t morally valorize these business decisions. And that’s the point I’m making.

        You don’t seem to be able to actually take your wife’s advice. It’s mighty White of you to adopt either pose: benevolent anti-globalist protector or beneficent market provider for these unfathomably different and worse-off-than-us peoples. These are market transactions in which extremely poor people are being both exploited and made a bit better off. You are completely failing with the romantic thrust and tone of your rhetoric about these firm’s rational profit-maximizing decisions to not act Mighty White toward them.

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        • Thanks Michael,

          I am glad to know you would not support coercively pushing for above market wages. For the record, I do not condone sweatshops. However, I do see them as adding value via positive sum interactions (granted ones with differing “leverage”). I do not attribute any of this benefit to any innate goodness (or as Mr Smith would say “benevolence.”)

          But you are right… the “white” comment was a two edged sword that gets us nowhere. I take it back.

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        • Hi Herb,

          To be honest, I do not know an objective way to evaluate subjective benefit. Do you? I assume the progressives have some way to do this — as they seem genuinely offended when someone gets the short end of their Platonic ideal — but they may be keeping it a secret from me. I’ve always figured it is best letting the parties involved decide.

          When I overthink it though, it seems very reasonable that the poor worker is getting the better part of the deal. He gets LIFE (according to several progressive posters) rather than starvation. The sweatshop owner just saves a few cents an hour.

          As James wrote: “ the disadvantaged person is most in need of the exchange, even if we can readily imagine an exchange that makes the disadvantaged person even better off.

          Now that I think about it, this discussion is backward, The poor are exploiting the manufacturers!

          Sweatshoppers Unite!

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          • I can’t tell if you’re serious, but…

            What’s subjective about it? You can measure the benefits in dollars if you don’t want to use anything else.

            I mean, I can understand the argument that sweatshops aren’t that bad, that the pros may outweigh the cons, that these people’s lives are being improved. I get that and will not disagree.

            But no part of that requires one to accept the absurd premise that the arrangement is tilted to the benefit of the worker more than the factory owner. Factories don’t employ these people to improve their lives. They employ these people to increase profits. Indeed without the profits, it’s likely the factory would close and it’s back to the rice paddy for the workers. And with wages being so low, it’s unlikely that any of the former workers will have enough capital to re-create those jobs by opening their own factory.

            Should the workers be grateful that they’re being lifted out of poverty just enough to keep them working in a sweatshop? Maybe. If that were me, though, I’d want a little more.

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            • What’s subjective about it? You can measure the benefits in dollars if you don’t want to use anything else.

              Very well. The cost of saving a human life for government purposes is $5 million. By that standard, the exchange is certainly tilted in favor of the worker.

              Should he want more? Of course. There is no contradiction at all between one’s self-interest and one’s self-interest.

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              • “The cost of saving a human life for government purposes is $5 million. By that standard, the exchange is certainly tilted in favor of the worker.”

                Wow….so you’re assuming the human life wouldn’t exist without the benevolence of the factory owner? Kinda paternalistic, innit?

                If you want to argue that these workers were lifted from hopeless poverty to a somewhat more hopeful level of poverty, cool. That’s what’s happening. But no one is getting rich from sweatshop labor except the owners and that’s by design.

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                • Wow….so you’re assuming the human life wouldn’t exist without the benevolence of the factory owner? Kinda paternalistic, innit?

                  I don’t actually assume this. I started with it as an illustration of an extreme case. Rarely if ever are things that bad, although people on the left always seem to like to say they are. (See DensityDuck elsewhere on this thread, about pissing in people’s mouths to alleviate their thirst in the desert.)

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            • Herb,

              Honestly I am just being flippant to tease out the somewhat contradictory points on the subjective nature of value and that the marginal utility of each additional dollar drops as income rises.

              I agree with your comments, especially the one about wanting more if I was a worker. Yes, my fear is that by pushing for higher wages we risk unintentionally harming the worker via secondary effects. If I was sure the workers would not be hurt directly or indirectly, I have already agreed I would support higher wages. Also, if the arrangement between the worker is not voluntary, then it is not free enterprise, and I would basically side with the worker within pragmatic limits.

              My take on economics is that good intentions in this case via market coercion will backfire. I choose not to use a weapon that backfires.

              BTW, I am not sure how you measure “benefits” — in dollars. If I invest a thousand dollars in manufacturing a surfboard and can only sell it for $500, then I still benefited as I got $500 for a surfboard I didn’t need. The buyer didn’t coerce me, and we both gained, but I do not know subjectively how much. Same with employment. The worker makes the going wage based upon nobody else being willing to do as much/well for less. I still don’t know how to measure when it is fair.

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            • What’s subjective about it? You can measure the benefits in dollars if you don’t want to use anything else.

              Of course it can be measure in dollars, but the amount of dollars you might be willing to give up for something (or would demand to give up something else) will be different than the amount of dollars I might give up. That’s why it’s subjective utility–you and I and any other randomly chosen person don’t assign the same value to it.

              All value is subjective. Period. End of story. Any argument that relies on objective conceptions of value are beginning at such a fundamental point of disagreement that it’s like an atheist and a fundamentalist Christian discussing the origin of the universe. They might be able to come to an understanding of each others’ views, but persuasion is impossible. Subjective value is that fundamental a concept.

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    • “Once coercion comes into the picture, the thing happening goes from exploitation to extortion, doesn’t it?”

      This nails it for me. It can nearly be pin pointed in time when the amount of “debt dollars” created by Fractional Reserve Banking exceeded actual dollars in circulation. This limited the ability of a work force to pay its debt. Unchecked this can lead to 2 debt dollars for each dollar in circulation.

      There is probably some point where coercion can create a demand destruction for the dollar. A “no way out” scenario for many or most. How would raising or lowering the minimum wage impact that scenario?

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          • “debt dollars” are equivalent to you being able to buy a house for 10% downpayment.
            “debt dollars” are merely leveraging our future ability to pay, just the same as utilities do.

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            • Is leveraging 50:1 a intended goal, or more of a way point where banks find themselves after practicing “good” business.

              How to maximize interest earnings against a set amount of capitol? Was a $250,000 house really ever a $250,000 house?

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              • depends on whether you think the banks believed the bubbles would go on forever. If so, then it was an intended goal to get their clients to overleverage. If not, then it was a waypoint in order to control Iceland/takeover Europe.
                Maximizing interest earnings involves wise weighing of risk.

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  12. Roger, I’d encourage you to skim the Elliot and Freeman (pdf), in particular section “2.5 Risks and Limitations of the Activist Consumer-Based Model”. I think they cover the issues you raise at 4:36 in their section entitled “2.5.1 The Risk That Doing Good Will Do Harm”. As I said to Bluntobject when referencing the Elliot and Freeman, there is sobering stuff in there for me as well (particularly in “2.5.2 Limits of the Market for Standards”). But as to you’re questions on inadvertently causing harm, or compounding the difficulties potential sweatshop workers face, Elliot and Freeman find anti-sweatshop activists fairly sensitive to the considerations you, Bluntobject, and James Hanley have raised regarding the harm to workers of closing sweatshops altogether, the consequences of boycotts, the preferred stance being “clean up and monitor a substandard facility” rather than “cut and run”, and the imperfect knowledge of the developing-world activist compared to the on-the-scene worker.

    Three images I’d like to share. One is from Activists beyond Borders: Advocacy Networks in International Politics , and the other two are from The Power of Human Rights: International Norms and Domestic Change.

    The first image is the boomerang pattern, if this link doesn’t work, googling the caption should bring it up,

    Boomerang Pattern. State A blocks redress to organizations within it: they activate network, whose members pressure their own states and (if relevant) a third-party organization, which in turn pressure State A. From Margaret Keck and Kathryn Sikkink Activists beyond Borders: Advocacy Networks in International Politics (Ithaca, N.Y.: Cornell University Press, 1998). p. 13.

    In essence, that’s the structure which describes anti-sweatshop activist efforts. Sweatshop workers face a blockage within their national setting and are currently unable to gain redress either by way of forming unions or their national institutions. Thus sweatshop workers rely on outside activists to bring pressure to the states (and corporations) engaged in misconduct. I acknowledge your (Roger) and James Hanley’s point on the need for care on the activists’ part – but as Elliot and Freeman demonstrate, activists have these issues in mind as well, citing an anti-sweatshop symposium urging consideration of “What would be the wage bargained for by workers if they were allowed to organize and bargain collectively in a free, democratic environment?”

    From the Power of Human Rights, the other two images relate to the point on efforts to shift norms. One image (Figure 1.1) is simply captioned “The process of norms socialization”, on page 12 of this pdf, campaigners are essentially trying to push better working conditions (and better wages) through this process of socialization to the point where they’re internalized by the states and corporations involved. The third image, also in Power, is captioned “World time and norms cascade” (Figure 8.2), hopefully clicking “Page 265” of this link will bring it up. Like the other illustration from Power, activists are simply trying to push norms regarding sweatshops through the stages in this process.

    Obviously I don’t think I’m arguing for a “magical alternate reality”. Campaigning, or transnational advocacy networks in political science jargon, has achieved extraordinary things in international politics, at the very least, successfully getting issues onto the agenda. Issues the world could easily have shown indifference: violence against women, land mines, cluster munitions, least developed country debt forgiveness, conflict diamonds, conflict minerals, etc. The wheels of international politics turn at a maddeningly slow pace, but when they do turn they can achieve great things. I’m sure many features of present day international politics would appear magical to our forebears. Depending on how far back you go a given development would appear more and more magical: the obsolescence of great power war, the successes of the Red Cross and Red Crescent movement, slavery abolition and a preemptory norm against slavery… There was not always a clear path from here to there when considering these huge efforts to make a more humane world, but rejecting the Krugmans and Kristofs who seek to soothe our consciences is an important step. In addition to the economics, we should keep in mind Kwame Anthony Appiah’s question, What will future generations condemn us for?

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    • Depending on how far back you go a given development would appear more and more magical

      Funny, that perfectly describes economic development, too.

      But as far as your arguments about advocacy go, I don’t think anyone here has really argued against it. At least I’ve explicitly argued in favor of consumers demanding higher standards and being willing to pay for them, which requires advocacy to get them thinking about the idea. What I think is wrong is your method and target. Instead of focusing on how we, as consumers, can improve the lives of third-world workers, you focus on the immorality of the capitalists. I think that’s preaching to the choir, rather than expanding the range of people responsive to the issue. Capitalists will respond to consumers and change their practices for purposes of maintaining profits long before they’ll change their practices in response to a claim that they’re immoral.

      It’s what I see as that focus on immorality, rather than on simply improving lives from recognizably unpleasant conditions, that leads me to call it magical thinking.

      That’s separate from my criticism of the claims of immorality, by the way. I don’t agree with those claims, but even if they were true, I think you’re taking a very un-strategic approach. It leads to more time spent pointing out “how bad they are,” and less time spent pointing out “what good we can do.”

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      • To EVERYONE,

        My obviously biased take on this sweatshop WAGE issue is that the libertarian side of the debate keeps coming to the defense of the workers. We give repeated economic arguments that good intentions can lead to bad results — for the workers. Our argument comes down to “beware poorly conceived good intentions!” We trust liberty, free will and economics and distrust external interference.

        The progressives also argue for the workers as they don’t buy the economic arguments on outcomes, and they also add a higher — possibly even transcendent — level to the debate. They introduce an argument of moral certainty. “This type of interaction is bad or coercive or exploitative or unbalanced or unfair “. They express a moral disgust for the employment interaction and therefore desire that it be eliminated. Please feel free to correct me.

        So let me ask a tough question to both sides.

        For Progressives: If –just for the sake of argument — you were to assume that significantly higher wages (enforced by a regulatory process) DOES lead to negative results on average for the workers, would you still demand higher wages?

        For libertarianish types: If — just for the sake of argument — you were to assume that significantly higher wages enforced by a regulatory process DOES NOT lead to negative results on average for the workers, would you still argue for voluntary choice?

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        • To reply to my own question, I would accept enforcement if I was confident it led to good results, especially for the intended victims (the poor workers). Full stop.

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        • I would still criticize the regulatory process for interfering with voluntary exchange, but my internal commitment to the issue would be substantially diminished. That is, my arguments would be more academic, and I wouldn’t lose much sleep over the issue.

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          • If — just for the sake of argument — you were to assume that significantly higher wages enforced by a regulatory process DOES NOT lead to negative results on average for the workers, would you still argue for voluntary choice?

            Yes. Odds are somewhere between outstanding and certain that the regulatory process is going to get captured by someone, which means those higher wages are rents extracted by someone with less power than whoever’s hired all the lobbyists. If it’s not the workers, it’s going to be consumers, or smaller competitors, or makers of competing products in a different country, or someone else. Those higher wages have an opportunity cost, which means someone’s getting it up the pooper.

            Now, if you could show me that the wage transfer was correcting an externality, I’d probably confine my complaints to muttering something about Coasean bargaining and show you my Pigou Club membership card. And if the people on the “opportunity cost” side of the wage transfer were sufficiently rich, I’d probably confine my complaints to an angry blog post or three about the distortive effect of regulation on market incentives, unless I’d tried a new beer that week and wanted to write about it instead. But because regulation tends to be captured by the most powerful interests involved, I’m not at all sanguine that either one of those would hold.

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