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Posts Tagged ‘Sweatshop’

One of my great frustrations (and there are many) is that the conventional wisdom about economic history oftentimes is wrong. It is very common for students to learn things that simply are not true.

Let’s add to that list by looking at the issue of child labor. The conventional wisdom is that child labor was a regular feature of an oppressive capitalist system and that children were eventually saved from abuse thanks to government intervention.

Hardly. Child labor was – and still is, in some places – a way for desperately poor people to stay alive and perhaps create a stepping stone for a better future. And capitalism-enabled prosperity is the best way to end the unfortunate practice.

I previously cited some World Bank research, in a postscript to a column on bureaucracy, showing that restrictions on child labor had negative long-run effects on income for poor people.

Let’s augment that research. Here are some passages from a very sobering study about the unintended consequences of restricting child labor (h/t: Dev Patel via Tyler Cowen).

While bans against child labor are a common policy tool, there is very little empirical evidence validating their effectiveness. In this paper, we examine the consequences of India’s landmark legislation against child labor, the Child Labor (Prohibition and Regulation) Act of 1986. Using data from employment surveys conducted before and after the ban, and using age restrictions that determined who the ban applied to, we show that child wages decrease and child labor increases after the ban.

Some basic economic analysis shows why this happens.

…families use child labor to reach subsistence constraints and where child wages decrease in response to bans, leading poor families to utilize more child labor.

And it’s worth noting that there are all sorts of harmful secondary effects.

The increase in child labor comes at the expense of reduced school enrollment. We also examine the effects of the ban at the household level. Using linked consumption and expenditure data, we find that along various margins of household expenditure, consumption, calorie intake and asset holdings, households are worse off after the ban.

The bottom line on this issue is that some children are born to very poor families in very poor nations. In those tragic situations, child labor is a matter of survival rather than a lifestyle choice.

I don’t think that the businesses employing children are noble. Indeed, I wouldn’t be surprised if some of them mistreat kids. And even the nice ones probably would seem horrifying to those of us lucky enough to live in rich western nations.

But I also don’t believe in putting good intentions above real-world results. Businesses that employ child labor are offering a better (or, to be more accurate, offering a less-worse) opportunity for people stuck in horrid poverty. Capitalism is the only effective escape from economic misery.

Let’s close with some libertarian satire. It’s focused more on sweatshops, but it also applies to child labor (and “neoliberal” refers to “classical liberal” rather than modern leftism).

For what it’s worth, child labor was ubiquitous in the western world prior to the explosive growth that was unleashed by free markets and limited government.

If we want poor children in poor families from poor nations to have a better life, we should urge the same policies in the developing world. Assuming we prefer good results over good intentions, of course.

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From a leftist perspective, making lots of money is not necessarily a bad thing. Rich Hollywood celebrities almost always get a free pass, especially if they embrace statist beliefs.

The crowd in Silicon Valley also is generally forgiven for being rich, perhaps because they donate to politicians like Bernie Sanders.

Folks on Wall Street, by contrast, apparently are the epitome of evil. Even when they support new regulations such as Dodd-Frank, that doesn’t put them in the good graces of today’s leftists. And if they run private equity funds that earn “carried interest,” that puts them in the arch-villain category.

But there are exceptions to all these rules. If you’re a gazillionaire from the entertainment industry, even if you’re a minority, you can get yourself in trouble for the ostensible crime of committing capitalism.

And that’s what is happening to Beyoncé. She is getting lots of bad press because she has a line of clothing and some of those clothes are being produced in Sri Lankan “sweatshops.”

To be sure, working 10 hours of day in a third-world clothing factory would be a horrible life for those of us lucky enough to live in advanced economies.

So we’re tempted to argue that “sweatshops” should be banned, but only because we don’t think about tradeoffs. Most important, what would happen to the Sri Lankan workers if they didn’t have this choice?

Writing for The Federalist, David Harsanyi points out that the attacks on Beyoncé are misguided.

Beyoncé is doing more to improve the lives of Sri Lankan workers than all fair-traders and finger-wagging journalists combined. …The Sun’s exposé claiming that workers at the singer’s new apparel company are nothing but “slaves” who earn 64 cents per hour so that Beyoncé’s can buy another yacht. …It’s a shame that people are still forced to live on such a pittance.

Yes, it’s a shame.

But you know what’s even worse than being a Sri Lankan worker in one of Beyoncé’s factories?

Being a Sri Lankan worker who doesn’t have one of those jobs.

A gross monthly average income of a Sri Lankan is around 8839 rupees. …For thousands of…fellow laborers, a Beyoncé job offers a higher salary.

In other words, as David explains, job creation and economic growth are the best way to boost living standards for the people of Sri Lanka, and that’s exactly what’s happening.

Beyoncé, who is running a business not a charity, is an inadvertent force of good. …salaries will rise and so will the quality of life. This competition will impel employers to increase productivity and, if Sri Lanka doesn’t revert to its old ways, the economy will grow.

By the way, that remark about not reverting to “its old ways” is not a throwaway line.

Sri Lanka does not have a free-market economy, but it’s also not nearly as statist as it used to be. So if the country wants continued growth, at the very least it needs to avoid backsliding. And what it really should do is further shrink government and liberalize the economy.

In the meantime, here’s a great video from Ben Powell about how “sweatshops” are good for workers.

By the way, Ben also has written about the history of so-called sweatshops in the United States. And the story is pretty much identical to Sri Lanka, with these factories being a route to upward advancement as America’s economy began to prosper.

As such, it would be a shame if we denied Sri Landkan workers the same route for economic growth.

P.S. Shifting to another topic, we have come bad news followed by good news from Down Under.

The Australian government, which ostensibly is right of center, proposed a new tax on migrant labor. But now that tax is being deferred, hopefully on a permanent basis.

Here are some of the details from a Reuters story.

The ruling conservative government, which is counting on the support of rural voters in the July 2 poll, will defer the tax increase and hold a review of labor force issues in rural and regional communities, Assistant Treasurer Kelly O’Dwyer said. Under the proposal, foreign travelers on working holiday visas would have paid tax of 32.5 percent on every dollar earned from July 1, when previously they paid no tax on income up to A$18,000 ($13,100), the same as locals. …Australia has encouraged backpackers to work on farms with special visas allowing them to stay for a second year if they do three months work in rural Australia.

Sigh, Seems like the Australian Liberal Party (which is a classical liberal party) should adopt the no-tax-hike pledge to avoid making this kind of unforced error.

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When major changes occur, especially if they’re bad, people generally will try to understand what happened so they can avoid similar bad events in the future.

This is why, when we’re looking at major economic events, it’s critical to realize that narratives matter.

For instance, generation after generation of American students were taught that the Great Depression was the fault of capitalism run amok. But we now have lots of evidence that bad government policy caused the Great Depression and that the downturn was made more severe and longer lasting thanks to further policy mistakes by Hoover and Roosevelt.

The history textbooks are probably still wrong, but at least there’s a chance that interested students (and non-students) will come across more accurate explanations of what happened in the 1930s.

More recently, the same thing happened after the financial crisis. The statists immediately tried to convince people that the 2008 mess was a consequence of “Wall Street greed” and “deregulation.”

Fortunately, many experts were available to point out that the real problem was bad government policy, specifically easy money from the Fed and the corrupt system of subsidies from Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac.

So hopefully future history books won’t be as wrong about the financial crisis as they were about the Great Depression.

I raise these examples because I want to address another historical inaccuracy.

Let’s go back about 100 years ago to the s0-called “progressive era.” The conventional story is that this was a period when politicians reined in some of the excesses of big business. And if it wasn’t for that beneficial government intervention, we’d all still be oppressed peasants working in sweatshops.

There’s just one small problem with this narrative. It’s utter nonsense.

Let’s look specifically at the issue of sweatshops. Writing for the Independent Institute, Ben Powell looks at the history of sweatshops and whether workers were being mistreated.

He starts with a bit of history.

Sweatshops are an important stage in the process of economic development. As Jeffery Sachs puts it, “[S]weatshops are the first rung on the ladder out of  extreme poverty”. …Working conditions have been harsh and standards of living low throughout most of human history. …Prior to the Industrial Revolution,  textile production was decentralized to the homes of many rural families or artisans, and output was limited to what could be produced on the  spinning wheel and hand loom. …Yarn spinning was mechanized in 1767 with the invention of the spinning jenny, and water power was harnessed shortly  thereafter. With these inventions and steam power later, large-scale textile factories that are similar to today’s sweatshops emerged. The conditions in these  early sweatshops were worse than those in many Third World sweatshops today. In some factories, workers toiled for sixteen hours a day, six days per week.

Then he looks at what actually happened in Great Britain, which is where sweatshops began.

Yet workers flocked to the mills. …sweatshop workers…were attracted by the opportunity to earn higher wages than they could elsewhere. In fact, economist Ludwig von Mises defended the factory system of the Industrial Revolution,…writing, “The factory owners did not have the power to compel anybody to take a factory job. They could only hire people who were ready to work for the wages offered to them. Low as these wage rates were, they were nonetheless more than these paupers could earn in any other field open to them.” …Mises’s argument is supported by historical evidence. Economist Joel Mokyr reports that workers earned a wage premium of 15 to 30 percent by working in the factories compared with other alternatives. The transformation of Great Britain during this time was dramatic. As economist and historian Donald McCloskey describes it, “In the 80 years or so after 1780 the population of Britain nearly tripled, the towns of Liverpool and Manchester became gigantic cities, the average income of the population more than doubled… Peter Lindert and Jeffery  Williamson similarly find impressive gains in the standard of living between 1781 and 1851. Farm labor’s standard of living went up more than 60 percent,  blue-collar workers’ standard increased more than 86 percent, and overall workers’ standard increased more than 140 percent. Along with this increase in  the standard of living came a decrease in the share of women and children working beginning sometime between 1815 and 1820.

Ben then looks at the American experience. Once again, he finds that sweatshops allowed workers to earn more income than they could by staying on the farm.

And this was part of a process that enabled the United States to become much richer over time.

…workers flocked to the mills. At first, in the cities north of Boston it was mainly rural women and girls who left the farm to populate the early textile mills.  During the 1830s in Lowell, a woman could earn $12 to $14 a month (in 1830s dollars) and after paying $5 for room and board in a company boarding house  would have the rest left over for clothing, leisure, and savings. It wasn’t uncommon for women to return home to the farm after a year with $25 to $50 in a  bank account. This was far more money than they could have earned on the farm and often more disposable cash than their fathers had. …much like in Great Britain, living standards improved over time. In 1820, before the Industrial Revolution, annual per capita income in the United States stood at a little  more than $2,000. By 1850, it had grown by 50 percent to more than $3,000 and then doubled again by 1900 to more than $6,600. Along with the rise in  incomes came improvements in working conditions and greater consumption.

Eventually, of course, the sweatshops disappeared. But Ben explains that it was because of higher living standards rather than government intervention.

Sweatshops are eliminated mainly through the process of industrialization that raises a country’s income. The increased income comes from increased  worker productivity, which raises the upper bound of compensation. The increased productivity isn’t just in one firm, but in many firms and industries, and  thus workers’ next-best alternatives improve, raising the lower bound of compensation. As the economy grows, the competitive process pushes wages up.  Because health, safety, leisure, and so on are normal goods, workers demand more of their compensation on these margins as their total compensation increases. The result is the eventual disappearance of sweatshops.

Now let’s look at the broader issue of whether the “progressive era” was bad news for big business.

The answer is yes and no. Politicians imposed lots of legislation that was bad for the free market, but the crony capitalists of that era were big supporters of intervention.

Tim Carney elaborates in a column for the Washington Examiner.

Every American knows the fable of the Progressive Era and that “trust buster” Teddy Roosevelt wielding the big stick of federal power to battle the greedy corporations. We would be better off if more people knew the work of the man who dismantled this myth: historian Gabriel Kolko… His thesis: “The dominant fact of American political life” in the Progressive Period “was that big business led the struggle for the federal regulation of the economy.”

Here’s what really happened.

Many corporate titans in the early 20th Century, buying into the pervasive hubris of the day, believed that a state-managed economy was the inevitable end of a rational society—the conclusion of what Standard Oil’s top lobbyist Samuel Dodd called the “march of civilization.” Competition, in their eyes, was destructive redundancy. “Competition is industrial war,” James Logan of the U.S. Envelope Company wrote in 1901. “Ignorant, unrestricted competition carried to its logical conclusion means death to some of the combatants and injury for all.”  Steel baron Andrew Carnegie constantly strove to turn the steel industry into a cartel and keep prices high. Competition, however, always had a way pulling prices down. As Carnegie wrote in 1908, “It always comes back to me that Government control, and that alone, will properly solve the problem.” Kolko also showed how the socialists welcomed corporate-state collusion to advance monopoly as part of “progress.”

And, as Tim explains, it’s still happening today.

This has its echoes in contemporary progressive politics… When conservatives challenged Obamacare’s individual mandate, the White House had the backing of the insurance industry and the hospital lobby. After Obama won at the Supreme Court, liberal Bill Scher wrote in the New York Times that progressive victories historically flow from the Left’s alliances with Big Business. …Liberal scholar William Galston at the Brookings Institution explains the economics at play. “Corporations have sizeable cash flows and access to credit markets, which gives them a cushion against adversity and added costs,” he wrote in 2013, explaining why the big guys often welcome regulation.

In other words, big business often is the enemy of genuine capitalism and free markets.

Not only did the big companies, including insurance and pharmaceuticals, support Obamacare.

They’re now supporting the corrupt Import-Export Bank.

And they’re perfectly happy to support higher taxes, at least when the rest of us are being victimized.

They also supported the sleazy TARP bailout.

The moral of the story is not just the big business can be just as bad as big labor. The real moral of the story is captured by this poster.

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