I DREAM OF NICHOLAS KRISTOF

I was surprised to see Ezra Klein endorse Nicholas Kristof’s column arguing that “the central challenge in the poorest countries is not that sweatshops exploit too many people, but that they don’t exploit enough.” Back in my college Macroeconomics class, this argument was expressed as “They’re not poor because they work in sweatshops. They work in sweatshops because they’re poor.”

Well actually, they’re poor because they don’t make enough money to support themselves. If the people who hire them paid them enough, they would not be poor. Providing jobs to people who would rather work them than stay unemployed doesn’t release whoever provides the job from responsibility for how they treat them, just as saving someone from drowning would not give me any more right to mug that person than I have to mug anyone else.

The Post reported in 2005 that National Labor Committee Head Charles Kernaghan

gets angry when he recalls what a worker told him in Bangladesh: “If we could earn 37 cents an hour, we could live with a little dignity.” (As opposed to the 21-cent hourly wage that barely staved off starvation.)

As CAPAF’s Sabina Dawan observes, it’s not as though the International Labor Organization and allied groups working to close such gaps and to see basic human rights protected in plants that make Western companies so rich are out to drive the people of Cambodia out of their jobs – or as though that’s the inevitable result of letting workers go to the bathroom, or leave work to give birth. Does Kristof believe that the Bangladeshi worker Kernaghan references makes 21 cents an hour because at 22 cents his plant would stop making a profit?

As Richard Rothstein wrote in his rejoinder to Kristof:

Kristof’s logic would require that worker productivity in Indonesia be precisely 25 percent of that in Mexico, or that the cost of other factors be lower in Mexico than in Indonesia, offsetting higher labor costs. Otherwise, he could not claim that if Indonesian wages rose even a tiny bit closer to Mexican levels, seamstresses would be expelled to the garbage dump. But he has no basis for making such assumptions. While labor standards vary from country to country, technology for assembling apparel does not-that is dictated from New York, for all countries. Apparel manufacturers consider many issues in deciding where to site facilities; labor costs are one, but relatively small differences in labor costs are not.
…Even if a modest increase in Indonesia’s minimum wage tempted manufacturers to move their facilities to, say, Mexico, the temptation would be frustrated if Mexico simultaneously enforced a comparable increase in its minimum. The fear that labor standards would cause manufacturers to flee only makes sense if some countries were exempt from global regulation. Kristof never explores why he thinks this is likely.

What’s so often missing from arguments like Kristof’s, backed by neoclassical economics, heartbreaking anecdotes, and the appeal of counterintuitive conclusions, is an engagement with questions of power. As Rothstein argues, the anti-anti-sweatshop crowd often point to the history of sweatshops in the American garment industry, but they choose to overlook that American garment workers rose out of poverty not just through hard work but through collective action and collective bargaining to achieve the “labor standards” Kristof consigns to scare quotes. But when sweatshop workers in third world countries join international labor and human rights organizations in demanding a better life, they don’t get laudatory Kristof columns.

Instead, they get threats to their lives. As Human Rights Watch observed last month, “there has been an ongoing pattern of violence against trade union activists in Cambodia.”

Economic coercion isn’t the only kind making maintaining the sweatshop status quo. Larry Summers, in classic neoclassical style, may defend sweatshop labor in the name of “respecting the choices” of the people who work there, but doing so without a peep for those workers’ right to organize without threat of murder is a cruel joke.

When Barack Obama mentioned the spate of assassinations targeting union leaders in Colombia, John McCain rolled his eyes. If Nicholas Kristof takes such violent intimidation more seriously, maybe he should devote a column to it. He could use a new bit – that Rothstein article critiquing Kristof’s sweatshop apologia was published in 2005.

CROSS THAT ONE OFF YOUR READING LIST

Remember that DoD document dump you just haven’t quite found time to read yet? The 8,000 pages of documents on how they prepped army folks to act as outside “military analysts” while laying out the White House line on Iraq? I’m sure you have all 8,000 pages printed out and stacked someplace prominent around the house, ready to read any time now. But have no fear – LWB friend (and one-time guest blogger) Alyssa Rosenberg is reading them so you don’t have to. Check it out:

So it’s downright creepy to read the anecdotes about women pushed in the DOD talking points released last week–especially when they’re interspersed with terse updates on the U.S. military’s attempts to rewrite its pathetic sexual assault policies. When it comes to exploiting imagery of Iraqi and Afghan women, the talking points read like a combination of Pippi Longstocking stories and Lifetime movies. In a July 4, 2004 briefing, a group of peppy Afghan schoolgirls buttonhole Donald Rumsfeld on their way to sports camp (can it get any more girl-power than that?): “After being introduced, young Roia wasn’t shy about sharing her feelings with the secretary. ‘Mr. Secretary, all the girls we are very, very happy and pleased to be here,’ she said through a translator. ‘We have one message for you … Please don’t forget the Afghan girls and Afghan women.’ Rumsfeld’s answer was simple, but carried a lot of weight. ‘We don’t,’ he said. ‘You can count on it.'”

STAND BY ME

One of the less than super features of my six years at the high school formerly known as Akiba Hebrew Academy was the seemingly endless succession of assemblies hosting guest speakers from organizations like the ZOA speaking on topics like the caginess of Arabs and the awesomeness of what we’ve since learned to call “enhanced interrogation techniques.”

Then my senior year I organized a human rights conference that included Ian Lustick, a Zionist with some concerns about human rights in Israel, and I got called into the Principal’s office and told that he didn’t like having controversial speakers without counterbalancing speakers there to offer “the other side” (in the end I was able to negotiate a compromise where Lustick would speak alone after an Ahmadinejad-at-Columbia-style introduction from the Headmaster and Lustick and Daniel Pipes would be invited to have a debate at Akiba later on).

A couple months later, the Headmaster announced that everyone in the school would be bussed to an “Israel Solidarity Rally” downtown. After a bunch of kids objected to being forced to participate in a rally defending the Likud government from criticism, Akiba agreed to let kids who wanted to skip the rally and stay at school to watch Exodus and think about what they’d done. A couple months after that, Akiba’s administration announced at my graduation that everyone in the Class of 2002 would receive a copy in the mail at college of Myths and Facts About the Israeli-Palestinian Conflict (“Myth: Palestinians. Fact: Israelis.”).

All this came to mind when I opened my e-mail and saw an e-mail circulating amongst Akiba Alumni to “Seek neutrality on political issues at Akiba.” What instigated it? Apparently some of my more right-wing friends were appalled that Akiba sent out an e-mail announcing an event hosted by the insufficiently-Likud-friendly New Israel Fund.

BLAST FROM THE PAST

Who knew that this site was one of the top Google hits for Paul Eastlund? Answer: Paul Eastlund knows.

Two and a half years ago (I know, weird – back when I was nineteen and I had my whole life ahead of me) I posted here about a troublingly unfunny counter-counter-counter-protest celebrated by the Cornell Review and linked approvingly by Jonah Goldberg. Basically, the protesters said we were violating people’s rights at Guantanamo, the counter-protesters said they deserved it, the counter-counter-protesters said the counter-protesters were racist, and the counter-counter-counter-protester stuck it to the counter-counter-protesters by saying racist things. Ironically. I made an attempt to lay the tableu out slightly more comprehensibly here.

At the time, Jonah Goldberg approvingly quoted a dispatch from Cornell Review Editor Paul Eastlund:

Nick is an uber-conservative who we’d never met before, but who hung out with us pretty much all day, and he is one of the coolest guys I’ve ever met…Occasionally he shouted things like “Support the Middle East Glass-Making Program” and “They don’t deserve 3 meals a day, they deserve a bullet to the head.” At one point, a few hecklers decided to pretend they were with us, and shouted “All Muslims are terrorists!” and “Kill all Muslims!” Before we could insist that we weren’t saying anything of the sort, Nick responded by shouting “All Muslims are terrorists!” and “Kill all Muslims!” They were dumbfounded. It was pretty hilarious.

Now flash forward two and a half years. We lost an election. We won a community benefits agreement. Paul Simon, twenty years later than Art Garfunkel, fell prey to a sense of personal contentment that’s robbed his music of its pathos. My bright college years have come to an end, and now I go to synagogue and get excitedly referred to as part of the “Under 40” crowd. And now, as I sit hunched over my laptop trying to figure out when Aaron Sorkin’s new show airs on the West Coast, I find an e-mail sent from far away harking back to long ago. From Paul Eastlund. He asked me to pass the following along (emphasis all mine):

I’ve clearly come across as the sort of person I would despise, so let me try to clarify.

First of all, your post is dead-on: the story, as quoted, is quite indefensible. A handful of staffers and I threw the page describing the counter-protest, containing that anecdote, together in a bit of a hurry. At some point later, I reread it, noticed that anecdote, and reworded it, although the page has been long since deleted. Anyway, it has been too long since the protest for me to remember anything with exactitude, but here’s my explanation of the ‘joke’ that you brought up.

We were irked by a display that dramatized injustice to seemingly innocent prisoners at Guantanamo (the actors portraying prisoners were well-groomed, mild-mannered academics who spoke perfect English and had no idea why they had been imprisoned) and implied quite directly that they should be released. We countered with signs that cited favorable facts and quotes about prisoner conditions in Guantanamo, as well as having one of us dress up in a TNT vest and hold up a sign saying “Death to America! Death to the Great Satan! Do you really want me going free?” Plenty of people reacted positively — not necessarily agreeing with us, but taking the time to debate us civilly — but some insisted that our display was racist. This irked us because the other Review leadership and I had, amidst some opposition, specifically worked to avoid giving the impression that we were advocating intolerance toward any religion or ethnicity. After having received that sort of complaint for the first day, we had deliberately cast non-Arabs in the “terrorist” role to further distance our message from any sword of religion- or ethnicity-based prejudiced.

Regardless, we continued to hear accusations. Nick’s response was along the lines of: “No, if we were going to single out Islam, it would be more like this” — and then he proceeded to demonstrate, briefly. The point was to contrast our display with the sentiments they were accusing us of espousing.

Anyway, that’s how the story was supposed to have come across. I realize that, in the version you quoted, it didn’t, and I apologize for that. I have to agree with you that it’s a bit of an alarming oddity that, written as it was, it was palatable to Jonah Goldberg and the many well-wishers who wrote to us before it got changed online.

I just wanted to send you this note clarifying, and apologizing for, how it was written before. I’ve always tried to steer clear of the uglier, race-baiting side of conservatism — in fact, I was so unpalatably “socially liberal” during my stint at the Cornell Review that a chunk of the staff mutinied and broke off to form the more conservative Cornell American, which focused almost exclusively on issues of race and homosexuality — and I was alarmed to find myself and the Review indicted on your site for precisely the sort of sentiment I spent much of my career in Cornell politics opposing, and that the Cornell Review in general no longer embodies.

Like you, my first thought upon reading this e-mail was: Someone reads this site who I’m not related to? And my second was: Is it possible that I’m related to Paul Eastlund.

Even with Paul’s account, the whole episode remains less than savory. And while they may not all have been “well-groomed, mild-mannered academics who spoke perfect English” there were indeed plenty of people at Camp X-Ray with “no idea why they had been imprisoned.” But that said, I appreciate Paul’s gracious e-mail and I’m glad to see him rebuke the account celebrated on The Corner. I hope he’s shared his e-mail as well with Jonah Goldberg, who to my knowledge has said nothing in the intervening couple years to suggest that he sees responding to an accusation of racism by yelling “Kill all Muslims!” as anything other than hilarious.

BEYOND BUSH AND TANCREDO

Catching up on the immigration debate that broke out amongst some of my co-bloggers over at Campus Progress while I was out of the country, I think it exemplifies an unfortunate trend in the contemporary debate: conflating the questions of how immigration should be regulated and of what rights immigrants should have in this country. Every issue has some pundit out there convinced that there are not two sides but three or seven or nineteen, but the immigration question is actually one where there are three camps – counting not the number of potentially coherent ideologies out there but the number of discrete large-scale positions people are visibly lobbying for – which can’t be placed along along a single spectrum without losing a good deal of meaning.

The position which has gotten the most colorful press coverage recently is the one advocated by Tom Tancredo (R-CA) and the Minutemen vigilantes who’ve taken it on themselves the patrol the border and chase down people who look to them like immigrants. Tancredo wants to cut immigration to this country (drastically) by building a wall and wants to curtail the rights of immigrants here (drastically) by denying their children birthright citizenship. It’s a position which resonates with a significant swath of the Republican base, as well as some traditionally Democratic-voting folks. It’s the position of the National Review. Shamefully, it used to be (roughly) the official position of the AFL-CIO (arguably that position would have fit better in a fourth quadrant – fewer immigrants but more rights for them – which I’ll leave out here because it lacks many advocates).

The position which has unfortunately been the primary alternative portrayed in the media is the cluster of policy proposals represented by George W. Bush: more legal immigration but fewer rights for immigrants. That would be the consequence of the crypto-bracero program he offered two years ago, under which undocumented immigrants are invited to come out of the shadows and into the trust of their employers, who can sponsor them for as long as they see fit but are given no reason not to have them deported if they do something the boss doesn’t like. This is the position of the Wall Street Journal and the Cato foundation and the business elites they’re looking out for.

There’s a progressive position in this debate, but it isn’t either of these. It’s the position for which immigrants, advocates, and allies rode from around the country to Flushing Meadows Park for two years ago: open our country to more legal immigration and protect the rights of everyone who lives here. It’s the position of the national labor movement, the NAACP, and the National Council of La Raza, and it’s the one reflected in the principles of the New American Opportunity Campaign: offer a path to citizenship, reunite families, protect civil liberties, and safeguard the right to organize and bargain collectively for everyone who lives and works here. That’s the goal towards which the legislation offered by senators Kennedy and McCain is a crucial step.

Conservatives reap the benefits from any debate which pits low-income workers against each other based on race or gender or citizenship – even when such a debate makes cracks in their electoral coalition in the short term. Building a progressive movement in this country depends on bringing together working people across such divisions to confront shared challenges and opponents with common cause. It’s a task which ostensibly progressive organizations too often have failed – to their own detriment. A two-tiered workforce is bad for workers, and it’s bad for America. But the right answer to that challenge, on the immigration question as on the race question and the gender question, is to welcome new workers and ensure that they have the same rights as old ones, so that they can organize and bargain together to raise their standard of living. Pushing marginalized workers out of the workforce was the wrong position then, and it’s the wrong one now. It consigns more men and women to die crossing the border, and it endangers our security by perpetuating a system in which millions of people needlessly live outside of the law. And it denies the historical promise and dynamism of this country.

CHAG PURIM SAMEACH

Just got back from hearing the megillah read to open the Purim holiday. Once again I was struck by how much King Achashverosh’s approach is a gross charicature of that which is indeed too often taken by superpowers facing ethnopolitical conflict. He’s approached by one party in a conflict between two feuding minorities (Jews and Agagites), and with no regard to the who’s responsible or who’s endangered (Haman is bent on genocide to maintain his pride), he agrees to a request for help because it comes from a traditional ally (Haman) and it’s in his economic interest (10,000 silver talents). Then, after becoming complicit in the planned slaughter of one side, he switches side based on discovering another personal interest (his Jewish wife Esther) which trumps the old one. He then abetts the gruesome slaughter of the other side (Haman’s extended family) instead.

It’s the kind of story, as the Rabbis recognized long ago, that makes someone want to get drunk.

WEISBROT ON CORRALES

Over at TPMCafe, Mark Weisbrot responds to my critique of Corrales’ argument about Hugo Chavez with a critique of Corrales’ factual claims. That includes Corrales’ allegation that Chavez made Venezuelans’ votes a matter of public record, an allegation which I inaccurately implied was grounded in fact. Weisbrot corrects this and a slew of other claims in Corrales’ piece, and provokes a spirited discussion amongst the commenters as well. Progressives, as I said last week, should take well-documented violations of human rights seriously regardless of the politics of the regime perpetrating them. We should also foster a healthy skepticism towards the claims of critics whose main grievance has less to do with democracy than with opposition to the undemocratic mandates of neoliberal institutions.

Weisbrot’s Center for Economic and Policy Research, incidentally, is an excellent resource using economic arguments to challenge some of the assumptions of the Washington Consensus.