Dialogue: Ellen Ruppel Shell on Beyond Price

Dialogue: Ellen Ruppel Shell on Our Obsession With Cheap

This week, I'll be having an email dialogue with Ellen Ruppel Shell, whose new book, "Cheap", argues that cheapness is often no bargain.

Dear Megan,

In the matter of history, I must beg to differ. The Triangle Fire was the seminal event in a series of workplace tragedies that forced fundamental reforms and government regulations. As David Von Drehle, author of Triangle The Fire That Changed America reports in his superb narrative history, before the fire, roughly one hundred workers died on the job every day. At the time, he writes, "workplace safety was scarcely regulated, and workers' compensation was considered newfangled or even socialist." The Triangle Fire and the outrage that followed changed everything. Here is the account from the US Department of Labor website

In 1911 a terrible factory fire in New York City made possible some of the culminating events in the era of progressive reforms in workers' safety and health. A special state commission conducted an investigation into working conditions, especially those affecting health, in a wide range of industries. It was the most massive effort any state had yet undertaken. The legislature adopted workmen's compensation and completely revised most of the state's occupational safety and health code along progressive lines. Furthermore, a young woman who played an active part in the investigations later applied some of its lessons on a national scale while Secretary of Labor.

Given this history, I find it puzzling when some seem to imply that indentured servitude is a necessary condition of the free market, and that to suggest otherwise is to be branded an "anti-globalist." I am a great fan of free trade! But free trade is not a force of nature--it is designed and controlled by humans. We can rationalize that millions upon millions of Chinese chose to work 70-80 hour weeks in dangerous factories to make our cheap goods. But this doesn't explain why the American Chamber of Commerce and the US-China Business Council lobby fiercely against labor reforms in China. It seems that "free trade" is a relative term: commercial interests must be "free" to scour the globe for cheap labor and resources, no matter the cost to environment or human dignity; but workers in those countries are not "free" to organize to demand a decent life for themselves. In countries where such freedoms do exist, and where rule of law applies, the price of labor goes up and the work goes elsewhere. Oh, you say, get rid of the sweatshops and the work goes too--isn't that bad for the Chinese? Well, I am not so pessimistic--not so down on my fellow Americans--to believe the only choice is between stultifying protectionism and unfettered exploitation. By insisting that multinationals pay more than lip service to the values they seem to expose, we would raise all boats--including the one we're sinking in.

I also find it puzzling that some Americans are outraged when products produced on the cheap are shoddy--and even dangerous. When Thomas Train sets aimed at children ages three to five are sprayed with lead paint by Chinese migrant workers in Dongguan it makes front page news. But who among us worries about the workers--many of them teenagers--exposed daily to this neurotoxin shower? And why should these teenagers who work 70 hours a week with no days off and no face masks to protect them give a fig about our children?

Presented by

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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