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.

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Watching the Gonzales Confirmation Hearing:

11:30: So far, the GOP Talking Points on the challenge to the vote count and the Gonzales nomination, respectively, seem to be “Don’t listen to them because they’re whining and you’ll just become confused,” and “He was just a lowly bureaucrat up against a Big Bad Justice Department.”

11:40 Gonzales: The abuses which we all object to, no one supports.

11:45 Gonzales: The Geneva Convention only works as a universal human rights standard if it only applies to some people.

11:54 Gonzales: At least we don’t cut people’s heads off. (Talk about defining deviancy down)

12:02 Gonzales: It’s not that I don’t offer my own opinions, it’s just that the Department of Justice is very persuasive.

12:07 Gonzales: If I didn’t mention in my memo to Bush on whether to execute this guy that his lawyer slept through the trial, it must be that we’d realized it was frivolous.

12:12: Senator Cornyn (R-TX): If people disagree with you on torture, it’s because they don’t want to win the war on terror as much as you.

12:13 Cornyn: They say you haven’t given you the documents you want, but they have given us these two file folders which seem to have lots of pages in them.

12:17 Gonzales: If there was a possibility of you all reading my candid advice, I might give different candid advice.

12:18 Senator Schumer (D-NY): Of course we need a little less liberty these days. Only, maybe not this much less. And could you at least talk to us about it?

12:27 Gonzales: The Executive Branch has no opinion on whether the Legislative Branch should be able to filibuster its nominees.

12:31 Senator Brownback (R-KS): We need to do more to lower recidivism rates by helping prisoners to function in society…with Jesus.

12:34 Brownback: Sure there’s a first amendment, but porn is really unpleasant. I’d like to recruit your wife to look into it.

12:37 Gonzales: I wasn’t calling my colleagues judicial activists for wanting to force minors to get parental permission for abortion, I was just saying their conclusions were judicial activism.

12:42 Gonzales: What do you mean did my redefinition of torture encourage abuse? The majority of prisoners have not been tortured.

12:44 Gonzales: I don’t think we’re ever allowed to commit war crimes, but I’ll keep you posted.

12:45 Gonzales: The President hasn’t used his authority to disobey the law, but he has it.

From HRW – speaking of war crimes…

The United States recently withheld military assistance from 35 democratic countries because of their resistance to bilateral immunity agreements (BIAs), which exempt U.S. citizens from the first global court to try those accused of genocide, crimes against humanity, and war crimes. These agreements, in the form requested by the United States so far, are not only contrary to article 98(2) of the ICC treaty but also to international law as
they defeat the “object and purpose” of the Rome Statute…

Latvia has joined the EU and 9 other EU accession states, as well as a growing group of countries that have reaffirmed their principled stance against impunity by refusing to sign a BIA with the United States. EU’s strong position regarding BIAs was renewed last June 15 with the adoption of a new Common Position that called on EU member states to assist states in withstanding U.S. pressure to sign a BIA.

The United States’ punitive measures often go above and beyond the mere implementation of the American Servicemembers’ Protection Act (ASPA), a piece of anti-ICC legislation passed by Congress last year. A senior Latvian diplomat told Human Rights Watch that the Bush Administration has even decided to withhold $2.7 million in promised supplemental funding to support Latvian troops in Iraq. At the same time, the United States will still financially support Lithuania’s participation in Iraq although additional military aid is still being withheld.

This blackmail (of “New Europe,” no less – or has Latvia become Old Europe since the Iraq War?) is presumably defended by the contention that the International Crimminal Court, the most elaborate, multinational project of its type ever carried out, and with checks and balances often exceeding those of the US Justice system, is hopelessly arbitrary, vindictive, and partisan – unlike the approach for assessing, approaching, and adjudicating threats to international law represented in, say, the Bush Doctrine.