Allison Kilkenny: Unreported

Neo-Colonialists Begin Campaign Against Obama’s Fair Trade Agenda

Posted in human rights, politics by allisonkilkenny on January 18, 2009

David Sirota

sweatshop1Nicholas Kristof’s latest New York Times column makes the case that corporate colonialism and human exploitation aren’t just not bad, but actually a great virtue that will save the developing world – and that those working to stop such colonialism and exploitation are the root cause of global poverty. I kid you not:

Mr. Obama and the Democrats who favor labor standards in trade agreements mean well, for they intend to fight back at oppressive sweatshops abroad. But while it shocks Americans to hear it, the central challenge in the poorest countries is not that sweatshops exploit too many people, but that they don’t exploit enough…

I’m glad that many Americans are repulsed by the idea of importing products made by barely paid, barely legal workers in dangerous factories. Yet sweatshops are only a symptom of poverty, not a cause, and banning them closes off one route out of poverty…

When I defend sweatshops, people always ask me: But would you want to work in a sweatshop? No, of course not. But I would want even less to pull a rickshaw. In the hierarchy of jobs in poor countries, sweltering at a sewing machine isn’t the bottom.

This is quite literally the argument of a sociopath – and the problem is that sociopathy is so prevalent in discussions about trade and globalization that we barely even notice it anymore.

David Sirota :: Neo-Colonialists Begin Campaign Against Obama’s Fair Trade Agenda

Think about how intellectually dishonest Kristof’s argument is: He is basically saying that when American trade policy incentivizes corporations to employ young women in 15-hour shifts in sweatshops for $1 a day, we’re doing those women a favor, because that situation – however horrendous – is better than them having to dig through garbage dumps or serve as prostitutes for subsistence. The assumption – totally unquestioned – is that it’s an either/or choice: According to Kristof, either these women can have the great honor and privilege of being exploited, or they can face a worse hell (like, he says, pulling a rickshaw). And America should be unapologetically proud of itself for providing the opportunity for the former.

Left unsaid, of course, is that the size of the American market coupled with strong labor/wage protections in our trade policy would likely compel another alternative to the binary sweatshop-or-worse-hell paradigm.

Here’s the deal: Because our market is so big, economists will tell you that every multinational corporation wants to do business in the United States – that is, every corporation that wants to be globally competitive wants to be able to sell things to Americans. This is a huge amount of potential global economic leverage. The standards we choose to set as conditions for access to our market set standards throughout the world For example, our trade policies include restrictive patent protections for pharmaceutical companies and foreign governments enforce such patents even though they keep many medicines prohibitively high for their impoverished populations. Why? Because if they don’t, they could face crippling economic sanctions (read: loss of access to the American market they need access to).

Unfortunately, our current trade policy – and specifically, its omission of basic labor/wage/environmental/human rights standards – means we don’t use the economic leverage that comes with that market power for anything good. While we do, for instance, protect drug industry profits with restrictive provisions for patents, we don’t protect human beings and deride proposals for such protections as evil “protectionism” (as if the patent protections aren’t protectionism). By saying to corporations that they can have access to our market with almost no preconditions, we incentivize only one thing: a race to find the most exploitable labor and most lax environmental laws in the world so as to bring down product prices and inflate profits as much as possible.

In mimicking Margaret Thatcher’s famous “There Is No Alternative” refrain, Kristof would have us believe that the current standards-free system is inevitable and unchangeable – and worse, that any effort to change it would only hurt the poor foreign workers he purports to care about. But clearly there is an alternative. If the United States government’s trade policy said companies could only have access to our market if they followed the most basic labor/wage laws that prevent gross sweatshop exploitation, that would economically incentivize companies to improve their labor standards by making access to their American customers contingent on better behavior. And thus the either/or paradigm would be mitigated, if not eliminated.

Kristof and the neoliberal elites his writing represents likely knows all this – they may be sociopaths in their carefree attitude toward human exploitation, but they aren’t stupid. They want this either/or paradigm to exist, even though it doesn’t have to. Why? Because it both alleviates their privileged guilt and because it justifies the shredding of the social contract.

America’s ruling class – whether wealthy pundits, Wall Streeters, Washington lobbyists, corporate executives, politicians, or your typical suburban SUV-driving hundred-thousand-aire – desperately needs ways to avoid guilt and instead feel good and moral about sustaining lavish lifestyles through human exploitation. And so they have people like Kristof, Tom Friedman and other kindred spirits to give them a reasonable-sounding White Man’s Burden-style argument that helps them feel righteous rather than stoic in their excess; makes them feel like they are Saving the Children when they buy a pair of expensive slacks made by children toiling in a foreign sweatshop; and makes them feel that any pangs of guilt or efforts to change things are what’s really creating such bone-crushing poverty in the Third World. As Kristof himself proudly declares, the problem with America’s trade policies is not that the sweatshop culture they incentivize “exploit[s] too many people, but that they don’t exploit enough.”

Such rhetoric psychologically reassures the decidedly upper-class readership of the New York Times op-ed page that they don’t have to change their behavior or political disposition at all in order to feel like they are good people. And many, of course, follow up with traditional gestures of the noblesse oblige in order to buttress the positive self-image neoliberalism manufactures for them. For instance, Kristof proves to himself that he’s not the mundane colonialist that he is by penning other columns about the horrors of foreign poverty. Likewise, millionaire “liberals” who back the most exploitative globalization policies give money to anti-poverty charity. And yet, the structural policies that create poverty go untouched.

By this insane logic, then, we should be working not only to prevent any kind of labor/wage/human rights/environmental protections in our trade policies, but to start shredding the social contract here at home. By this logic, our minimum wage, workplace safety standards, minimal union organizing rights, and environmental laws must be abolished so that companies will employ workers here – regardless of the terms of that employment. After all, at least you can get a below-the-poverty-line job at Wal-Mart and not have to dig through trash dumps to subsist, right?

Well, sure – but it’s a false choice. When all the basic employment protections we take for granted were originally passed, our nation decided that the either/or choice didn’t have to exist – and we were right. For example, we understood that even if state and federal governments made mining companies permit unions and made mining companies pay workers a minimum wage, they would still maintain operations in places like Colorado and Montana. Why? Because there’s trillions of dollars worth of natural resources in those states that makes it worth staying, regardless of those basic worker protections – and if one company leaves, their competitor will come in and capitalize.

It’s the same thing in our globalization policies. We should understand that companies will keep employing the foreign workers that Kristof claims to care about even if we include minimal labor/wage/human rights/environmental standards in our trade pacts. Why? Because there’s trillions of dollars worth of customers in America that makes it financially smart to conform to such standards, rather than closing up shop. Such standards would also create an economic incentive for foreign countries to improve their domestic workplace laws and enforcement of said laws so as to get access to the American market ( Right now, the incentive is the opposite: Countries are encouraged to decimate their domestic laws so as to attract foreign investors, and those investors know there is no economic cost – ie. loss of access to the American market for going to the countries with the worst possible conditions).

Admittedly, over the long-haul, we may not have as much potential market-influencing power as we do now. With the rise of China and India, and the Bush-weakened domestic economy, it’s possible the American market will shrink in relative size to the rest of the globe, and therefore we won’t have as much market leverage to incentivize such standards. But that’s why there’s so much urgency to the basic fair trade reforms that President-elect Obama campaigned on, and that so many congressional Democrats have promised.* Not only will those fair trade reforms begin preventing Americans from having to compete in an unfairly rigged and recession-exacerbating race to the bottom with foreign slave labor, but they will use this potentially fleeting moment of American economic supremacy to lift the world up, rather than kicking it down.

Ultimately, such a paradigm shift will be far more important to restoring America’s image in the world and alleviating global poverty than the (admittedly significant) symbolism of removing George W. Bush and replacing him with a leader who has ancestral ties to Africa. That’s the secret the “exploitation is good” sociopaths from Kristof to the Chicago Boys don’t want us to grasp.

* And let’s be very clear: Nobody is proposing the institution of standards that even approach America’s domestic standards. No one is proposing a global American-level minimum wage or workplace safety standards or environmental protections. What has been floated are the most minimal protections against the worst kind of exploitation (child labor, right to join a union, etc.) – and yet even these most minimal standards are being opposed by the Establishment.

One Response

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  1. craigmcinerney said, on April 30, 2010 at 12:14 am

    Theres a very real paradigm shift in modern western economies to re-engage in manufacturing industries. A common calling card of many politicians is that “we don’t make our own things anymore”.

    Expect to see big incentives(almost protectionist policies) to instigate manufacturing industries in developed countries more than likely to the determent of many start up economies.

    Unfortunately this may lead to a race to the bottom for developing economies to produce such low labor costs that it is not realistic or feasibly for developed economies to re-engage in labor intensive industries, no matter how high the political will is.


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