The price of globalization

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For those who have asked about my weirdly-drugged seeming performance on Bloggingheads, the answer is not that I was drugged, but that I had gotten home at 4:30 that morning after a 36-hour trip from Vietnam. My lunatic scheduling of a Bloggingheads immediately thereafter is what accounts for the rambling debate of tangential, rather than the pointed dissection of John Bowe's book.

Therefore, pointed dissection here: I found the book oddly unsatisfying. Part of the reason the diavlog is muddy is that I found the book very muddy; it continually makes large, sweeping categorizations of things that aren't really alike, which makes it difficult to draw any conclusions.

Obviously, I am not predisposed to like the writing of a fellow who thinks that restrictive immigration policy and exporting our labor and environmental policies to countries that can't afford them, are the way to help poor people. But even saying that, the book was weirdly disjointed. It starts off with a case that is clearly slavery, or so close as to make no difference: workers were physically prevented from leaving until the picking season was up by an unscrupulous labor contractor who is now in jail.

But it then moves onto a case where the problem isn't physical coercion, but visa fraud and (arguably) fraud committed upon the workers. A plant in Omaha imported Indian workers on training visas who were forced (as is apparently common in India) to pay thousands of dollars to an unscrupulous subcontractor in order to get the job. They were then paid less than minimum wage, housed in crowded dormitories, given badly cooked food, and told crazy things about the neighborhood to discourage them from going off the premises. Nonetheless, they did leave the premises, frequently. And the main threat employed against them seems to have been that they would be fired and deported--i.e. that they would be fired, since an employer who terminates someone on a job-specific visa has a legal obligation to tell the government and otherwise take steps to ensure that the worker leaves the country. Is encouraging workers to go into debt that they then need to pay off by working for you slavery? It's certainly much less strong than the physical coercion argument.

But most of the book is about Saipan, and most of what he talks about has nothing to do with slavery. It has to do with Saipan's weird economy, which, as a US territory, was long based on labor-law arbitrage: Saipan could pay workers less than US minimum wage, but it was not subject to quotas under the multi-fiber agreement. It was thus flooded with guest workers who would never have been allowed to enter America, to the extent that, as in some Middle Eastern countries, local citizens became a wealthy minority elite, employing servants to do for them while they collected government handouts or worked at make-work government jobs. The guest workers, meanwhile, live in conditions that would hardly do for boy-scout camp in the US, work long hours, and have little fun. If they get pregnant, or lose their job, they get in trouble with their boss, and with the family back home. "What does this have to do with slavery?" you may be asking. So was I, all throughout the book.

Slavery self-referentially demands that we do something about it. Crappy jobs, on the other hand, evoke a more mixed response. Workers usually take crappy jobs because the alternatives are worse; self-evidently, this is true of the workers in the last two cases, because they don't want to go home. If you want to "do something" about those crappy jobs, it behooves you to carefully consider whether there is anything to be done that won't make a lot of very poor people worse off.

Among the many things that Bowe should try to tease out, but doesn't, are costs and benefits, cause and effect, winners and losers. Instead he simply posits that all the poor workers in the free market are losers out to rich capitalists, that globalization is the culprit behind their poverty, and that imposing higher wages and labor standards would make them all better off. Or, I should say, he implies those things; he never makes anything as indelicate as a conclusion.

Instead we get a great deal of bombast about democracy--while he lauds the notion that Americans should override the democratically elected governments of places like India, Bangladesh, Costa Rica, Mexico, and of course, Saipan, when it comes to things like labor standards and wages. We also hear a lot about listening to people in the developing world, although not, apparently, any of the ones who say that they want to come here and work for less than minimum wage. And there is a great deal of muddled complaint about globalization.

Much of that is self-contradictory. Farmers want to protect their incomes from competition by people who offer goods more cheaply by working much longer hours for less pay; we both agree that this is bad. But somehow, when industrial workers want the same thing, Mr Bowe finds this admirable.

What is not self-contradictory is often plainly wrong. He blames globalization, specifically farm subsidies, for forcing people to leave farms to work in factories. Farm subsidies are at best an extremely weak influence besides overpopulation, environmental degradation, technological change, land titling problems, and the fact that factory jobs are vastly more productive than subsistence farming. He also frequently acts as if free trade were somehow responsible for developing world poverty, which is lunatic. Anywhere that poverty is worsening right now, you will find either terrible, terrible government policy (Cuba, Zimbabwe) or war (Gaza, Congo). At that, I suppose the latter is simply a subset of the former.

Anywhere that poverty is improving, you will find massive amounts of trade. Forcing the people with whom we trade to pay higher wages or enact higher environmental standards threatens to make their wages uncompetitive--a fact that Bowe should recognize, since he several times chronicles factories shutting down because the mandated wage is too high. Exporting our standards threatens to throw a spanner into the most effective--indeed only--poverty reduction mechanism we've ever found.

Bowe short shrifts this, first, by ignoring his own evidence. But when he can't ignore the fact that, for example, the workers in the welding case would have been stuck at low wage work in India without the visa fraud he decries, he comes down on the side of the comparatively rich locals over the comparatively poor immigrants. Too often the "slaves", seem to be less important than what their presence does to us.

Consider this, from his conclusion:


As we are seeing with global warming and the threats of increased temperatures, storm velocities, and ocean levels, we may, in time, come to see social pandemics as equally menacing--if predictable--threats. The issue will then become one of self-preservation more than justice. Never mind the question "Are you fine with your comfort relying on the misery of billions?" The question would be "Do you want them to come kill you?"

In May 2006 O Globo, one of Brazil's leading newspapers, published an anonymous interview with an anonymous subject said to be a prisoner housed in one of the country's notoriously hellish prisons. Many readers credited the sources as Marcos Williams Herbas Camacho, also known as "Playboy", the leader of the PCC, one of the nation's largest prison gangs. Reigning from prison, the outfit has killed scores of people in the last year and has staged more than three hundred attacks on police, bus stations, and public forums, humiliating farcical government attempts to maintain order. I don't know if these words were made up or came from Playboy or anyone else from the slums. All I know is that they sound pretty credibly like what a person mght sound like after being born in one. Before becomeing famous for crime, said the intervieweee,

I was poor and invisible. For decades, you never bothered to look at me. People only heard about us when the slums collapsed, or from romantic music about "the favelas at sunset," stuff like that. Now we're rich, thanks to the multinational cocaine trade. And you guys are scared to death. We are the late blooming of your social conscience.

We're at teh core of what is beyond solution . . . we're a new species, a wholly different animal from you . . . there's no more proletariat, no pitiful or exploited masses. There's a third thing growing out there, cultivated from the mud, schooled on absolute illiteracy, graduating from the prisons, like an alien monster hidden in the cities' cracks.

We're on the edge of a postmisery that has begotten a new murderous culture, propped up by technology, satellites, cell phones, the Internet, modern weapons. It's shit with chips and megabytes. My soldiers are a mutated social species, they're the fungus growing on a big dirty mistake.

We're on teh attack. You are on the defensive. You are obsessed with human rights. We are cruel and merciless.


The solution, he was asked.

There isn't one. It's too late.

I have a hunch this interview isn't real. I've conducted many interviews, and the words just sound to pretty. But it doesn't matter. Because the sentiment they contains sounds very, very real.

Osama bin Laden, to my thinking, is just another name for Osama bin jobs, Osama bin minimum wage, Osama bin social justice. The poor will find ways to revenge themselves on the rich. And the ideology that provides the most comfort and justice to the largest number of people will prevail. If the revenge motive of brand Osama holds greater appeal than brand Freedom, well, I guess that means brand Freedom didn't do such a great job of delivering on its promises.

. . . when I first started writing this book, I considered myself a liberal. I thought it was mean that people and corporations with power aren't nicer to people with less power. Now I laugh at the idea. There are so many billions of poor people out there. They are not educated, but they're certainly not sutpid, and I very much doubt they can be lied to or angered indefinitely.

But to anyone in this world today who feels compelled to go on TV and talk about freedom or tell us all about hte glories of globalization and free trade and democracy--any writer, any politician, any corporate advertising person invoking htat stupid word freedom over and over again--I have some advice. Go out into this newly globalized world you're profiting from, go visit the people being "lifted" out of poverty, the workers who are making your products. Go live in their huts, eat their rice and plantains, squat on their floors, and listen to their babies cry. Sniff some glue and pray with them. Try to get justice from their police if someone hurts you. And then come back and let's talk about freedom.

I don't know if an author should take policy advice from a murderous thug, particularly one who seems to have honed his political philosophy in the fetid swamps of the slush pile at RKO's noir unit. All I know is, empirically, this is nonsense on stilts. Osama bin Laden, like the suicide bombers on 9/11, was not poor. Nor did they come from poor countries; most of them are Saudi. In fact, had he consulted Alan Krueger, he would have learned that richer, more educated people are more likely to support, and commit, terrorism than are poor illiterate ones. And describing brand Freedom as having failed in any country where al Qaeda is popular is . . . well, words fail me. Since John Bowe is so fond of listening, I suggest he go talk to people such as the ones in Egypt's Kadima movement about their attempt to do a market launch of brand Freedom in the face of resistance from local monopolist, brand Dictator.

The world's poor aren't coming to kill us--they can't, because we won't let them over our borders. And so regardless of what else we do, too many of them will be stuck with bad governments, abusive police, and all the other miseries of the developing world. And it seems to me very likely that if we let the John Bowes of the world run things, they'll also be stuck with subsistence farming, while journalists like John Bowe and me periodically go squat with them in their huts, harvesting colorful copy from their poverty.

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Megan McArdle is a columnist at Bloomberg View and a former senior editor at The Atlantic. Her new book is The Up Side of Down.

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