Tariffs in a world of hostages

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I got pushback starting with @dgardner for my post on the Bangladesh crushed textile workers disaster, apparently largely because I dared to mention the t-word obscenity, “tariffs”, and because there are apparently people in the world who actually buy dear old Yggles’ argument as the height of moral seriousness.

So it happens that creating better safety standards for Bangladeshis is not exactly that expensive. According to Lindsay Beyerstein, it would have cost not more than 10 cents/garment to have paid for the kinds of safety improvements for Bangadeshi textile workers to not get crushed. Thus do we know the market value of a Bangladeshi textile worker’s life: 10 cents/garment. If we charged a 10 cent per garment surcharge on every item of clothing imported from Bangladesh, it would hardly make Bangladeshi-made clothes uncompetitive compared to local developed-country manufacturing. (In the meantime, Stephanie Nolen of the Globe and Mail suggests that we buy clothes only approved by the Clean Clothes Campaign — duly noted.)

But let’s accept Yggles’ underlying thesis, anyway, for the sake of argument. We are given to believe that the cheapness of Bangladeshi labour, regulations, and lives, are the necessary price to be paid for bringing many ordinary Bangladeshis out of the hellpits of subsistence farming. You know what? I actually agreed with that in my previous post. I was saying, you know, that what Yggles was saying might actually be true: that Bangladeshi economic well-being now depends partly on their relatively higher risk of agonizing squish death.

It’s interesting how this fact is presented to us as a given, as though it descended from the heavens upon us accompanied by a choir of WTO angels (link consumes NYT token). Also interesting — and possibly related — is that, as Beyerstein mentions, Bangladeshi attempts to obtain more of their surplus value are ruthlessly crushed.

Another possibly related fact is the oft-mentioned fact that the relative economic power of the working class in developed countries has been, to put it mildly, eroded.

These gains of developed-country workers relative to the economic elite were hard-won. The sort of good like the right (privilege?) not to be trapped in a factory with no fire exits came only because the elite feared the organizing power of labour, because, ultimately, the elite had nowhere else to go. And so if it is the case that the elite suddenly sprouted the ability to tell workers to jump in a tailings pond, it must be the case that the elite now does have the power to go somewhere else, and thus no longer fears worker organizing.

How interesting it is, then, that attempts to hold back the elite and prevent its departure — sometimes known as tariffs, subsidies, and capital controls aka protectionism — now have the side effect of pushing Bangladeshis back onto their hellpit subsistence farms. It’s as though there were a hostage crisis here. And we have no choice but to negotiate with the hijackers.

It’s like they’re saying: “Let us erode generations of victories paid for in blood — or else we’ll shoot the brown kid.”

But let’s forget all this. Let’s accept that Western workers are overpaid, Fatty G. Fatty McFatersons who are too expensive and fat and the Bangladeshi need their jobs more and they should just suck it up and let the market work its magic and they are fat. It’s clear, then, that if the Western worker or the protectionist is the villain here, then it must be the case that, oh, the e.g. Waltons are the great heroes, striding across the land and saving Bangladeshis from their yet-more-impoverished fates through everyday low prices.

Then I have a suggestion.

Bangladeshis are making only a tiny fraction of the profit off the garments that they make, I mean, even if you factor out the cost of materials, energy, and transportation. A great deal of this seems to fall, I’m sure accidentally, into the bank accounts of the Waltons and their fellow titans of retail. They are busy people, saving Bangladeshis from poverty. I’m sure this was an oversight that they’re still getting to.

I suggest this way of helping them in their great task. We shall let them sell Bangladeshi-made garments at the very competitive prices that they are. No 10 cent surcharge, no tariff charged on import. Instead, we shall take all that accidentally-stored wealth, except for maybe a couple of million per retail industrial titan — wouldn’t want to reduce them to poverty or anything — and help them distribute it directly to the Bangladeshi factory workers.

After all, this was all for Bangladeshi factory workers. That’s for whom the Waltons are ultimately doing all this. With all that extra cash, who knows what the Bangladeshis will accomplish once they are Free To Choose what to do with it? Why, I bet that in hardly a generation, they’ll be reclining on divans drinking Anti-Oxidant Matcha Brain-Boost Frappuccinos while staring off into space, getting the latest sports car updates through their Google Neuroports. The important work of the Waltons will finally be complete.

Who’s with me?

(And don’t forget to check for the Clean Clothes Campaign approval when you shop. It tells you that the worker who made your garment was, at the time they sewed it, possibly in a somewhat lower probability of getting killed by falling concrete.)

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This page contains a single entry by Mandos published on April 29, 2013 9:41 PM.

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