Friday, January 16, 2004

A few days ago, Nick Kristof posted a column in the Times arguing once again, as he has in the past, the evils of

flirting with anti-trade positions by putting the emphasis on labor, environmental and human rights standards in international agreements.

because, he says, if Cambodians can't get jobs in sweatshops, they wind up trying to make a living picking trash out of garbage dumps, under conditions which are even worse.

As a defense of the economic system which gives rise to those sweatshops, this has always struck me as uncomfortably close to the arguments of ante-bellum Southerners who defended their own peculiar instutition by pointing out that slaves were better off than some tribesmen you could find in diseased conditions in Africa. The salient question, to me, about the sweatshops isn't whether the Cambodians could do worse, but rather, whether we could do better -- and given that Nike was, not too long ago, paying more money per shoe for endorsement deals than for the labor in the shoe itself, it seems likely that we can.

But if you'd like to read someone taking on the argument on its own terms, you could do worse than peruse Daniel Davies take on the column in Crooked Timber, which among other things, dings Kristof for predicting new hardship for Cambodians if Cambodia were forced to honor labor standards which it already meets. In this post, Davies also inaugurates a new scoring scheme for this sort of pro-WTO propaganda. Eight Globollocks points!

Note as well Kristof's weird assertion that discussion of "labor, environmental and human rights standards" in the context of any trade arrangement whatever is somehow "anti-trade" -- that is, opposed to international trade per se. I gather that there are circles in which this is conventional wisdom -- a recent public appearance here by Robert Rubin featured similar comments, for which Rubin gave no evidence whatever. But to me, at least, this seems an odd enough proposition to deserve some kind of a supporting argument...


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