IN WHICH A FORBES ECONOMIST GETS ANGRY, CONDESCENDS, UNDERESTIMATES HIS OPPONENT, AND ENDS UP CONCEDING ALL THREE OF THE ARGUMENTS SUPPORTING HIS ARTICLE
Well, I got a response from Mr. Worstall. It is posted to his personal blog, as opposed to his Forbes one—I don't know why.
It might be as a way to simply show status—his posting makes a lot of hay about how I am an "actor", which he uses often as a kind of epithet. He also uses "twit" in the title of his post. He doesn't even link to my actual post, which is pretty lame.
I don't play that way. Here's his post.
He opens with:
Apparently, Mr. Daisey is an actor, author, commentator and playright. Perhaps I should have heard of him too.
Actually, Mr. Worstall should have, if he is talking about this story at this time. My work is part and parcel of the conversation happening around Foxconn and Apple--I've been researching, investigating, and telling these stories for three years, and this work is responsible in large part for where this conversation is at this moment.
He’s getting shouty about this, saying that I’m a racist neoliberal who knows nothing about the issue and therefore I should shut up.
It would be more accurate to say that Mr. Worstall makes a neoliberal argument with racial undertones, and I wish it had been smarter, better sourced, and engaged with the real issues of the working conditions that are the heart of the issue. I had no desire for him to shut up.
Though I do start to want him to shut up when he says this:
Just as a little stylistic note:
<QUOTING MIKE DAISEY> We have no idea what the actual suicide rate is at Foxconn—we only know a large number of people were throwing themselves off of the roof of the workplace, again and again. </END QUOTE>
People who throw themselves off a roof again and again are not commiting suicide, they are bungee jumping. Suicide by leap is a one time deal not something repeated: perhaps this is why I have not heard of Mr. Daisey as an author or playright.
Hmmm. Clearly I meant the "again and again" to modify the occurrence of people throwing themselves off the buildings, not that the same individual is killing themselves over and over again. But point taken. Thanks for the grammar suggestion.
It's been my experience that the kind of people who do this—who mock people's grammar, publicly—are really some of the most craven online presences. There's a Venn overlap with people who call you "twit" in their titles, or won't even link to the words they are refuting. It's a losers game—you do it when you're an angry, small person to puff oneself up.
And maybe Mr. Worstall isn't angry and small—he may just be doing it for some purpose I can not fathom, believing it furthers his arguments.
Mr. Worstall next promises,
Now let us take his arguments in order:
Which would be lovely, but in fact he never does this. He hopscotches across my post, cherry picking what he feels like responding to, as you'll see.
He starts by questioning my statement, "Yes, conditions are terrible across the entire Special Economic Zone," saying:
Are they? Isn’t that something that has to be proven, not asserted? And terrible compared to what?
That's a valid criticism. I am, of course, talking about labor standards, and my metier is the electronics industry—and by any conventional measure, the standards are terrible as a whole. What attempts to adhere to any standards even with lip service exist only in what are known as Tier One electronics firms, and those are of course places like Foxconn where we hear stories of abuse today.
SACOM and China Labor Watch have covered these issues between them for seven years and a decade, respectively, and their reports show an arena where as you move down the electronics food chain, the labor standards go from poor to dreadful in terms of enforcement and compliance. In all my years working in this arena I have never heard anyone assert that labor standards are anything but terrible across the SEZ as a whole.
And what is terrible? I'd define terrible very simply—out of compliance with China's existing labor laws, which make an excellent baseline. Apple, for instance, reports that only 38% of its suppliers this year are in compliance with these laws for overtime, and that's in Tier One alone. And only in one area.
Then Mr. Worstall took issue with this statement of mine: "This is the economic engine in which all of our devices are made—we created that revolution over there, and we exported and created those jobs."
He seems to be talking about how we did not create the revolution--the Chinese government did. But of course, any conventional reading of that sentence in context is that we're talking about the collusion of corporations and the authoritarian government of China in the creation of the SEZ.
He then spends seven extensive paragraphs arguing something I've never contested—that the changes wrought in China have brought prosperity to many, and lifted the economic tide of millions. I have no idea why he is doing this, though it is similar to his extensive quoting of Krugman in the first piece, and perhaps serves the same purpose—it does sound good to talk about how everyone is getting rich. He's certainly not arguing with me.
As readers by now know, except perhaps Mr. Worstall—we are here to talk about the working conditions in Chinese manufacturing. The fact that people are getting wealthier is good, and one I endorsed in my debate with Nicholas Kristoff on THIS AMERICAN LIFE—I am simply asking why we have not exported our values for safe labor conditions alongside those jobs.
We don't get answers to that yet. We do get a few more condescending "actor" asides, and then four more paragraphs because I tagged his statement by calling it neoliberal. He doesn't seem to deny that they are, but just wants us to know that neoliberalism is awesome and has made the world rich and prosperous.
Then he gets upset because I called him out on the racial undertones of what he's written. I said this:
"The clear implication is that because these are “poor people living in a poor country” they don’t deserve safe working conditions, or working hours that don’t result in people dying on the production line, or factories that don’t have explosions that could be prevented. Because they are Chinese they deserve less working protection that we would afford Americans. It’s a nasty streak of thinly-veiled racism that underlies a lot of the neoliberal arguments: that the people who suffer in other parts of the world are less human than we are in the first world, and this ameliorates our responsibility to give these jobs the basic protections we believe in for American workers."
This is Mr. Worstall's repsonse.
Yes, quite, it’s racist to suggest a method by which the poor can get rich. Racist to suggest a method which we know works. Racist to suggest that Chinee, Muslim and Hindoo might indeed be both worthy of and able to enjoy the levels of wealth and leisure that we pinkish people have. Racist even to suggest the method by which all of this can happen: division and specialisation of labour and trade in the resultant product.
No. I didn't suggest any of the things Mr. Worstall lists have a streak of thinly-veiled racism. I said...Fuck, I'm not going to summate it again—it's right above for rereading.
None of the rhetorical list of things Mr. Worstall lists have anything to do with what I talked about. So it appears he simply concedes the point, and his defense would be, "But...but...neoliberalism is AWESOME because you get RICH, and later you won't mind all those years when we were abusing you!" or something like that. I don't know—he doesn't address it.
Next Mr. Worstall wants to talk about the suicides. He does engage with my first argument, about how we do not actually know how many suicides there were at Foxconn, so the idea that the number is acceptable or unacceptable can't be extrapolated from this.
Excellent, then we have two alternatives here. We know that the recorded rate, the one that is being campaigned about, is one tenth of the rate in the general Chinese population. Our alternatives are thus that we note that, according to the figures we have, conditions at Foxconn are less likely to lead to suicide than conditions in China in general. That’s one way of putting it certainly.
The other is to say: Ah, well, yes, I know I was making lots of noise about 18 suicides in 2010. But that was bollocks, yes, sorry, don’t know what came over me.
The argument that is actually being tried, we don’t know the number of suicides, no idea whether it’s high or low, but it’s a damning indictement all the same: that’s not wholly and entirely convincing, is it?
I get where he's going with this, but I'm not a partisan hack—I'm a monologist. So I don't have a "campaign" to defend. So he seems to be arguing that I'm right, and we don't know the number, but that's not going to work out for people who want that number to be as high as possible and indicate a massive social problem. I don't have that agenda. I'm gratified he agrees with me on the facts here.
Mr. Worstall also seems to have no response to my arguments about clustering, or Apple's negligence. I am assuming his silence indicates that he's simply ceding those points.
Now things get odd. Mr. Worstall says he's going to address industrial safety...and then quotes a much earlier section about ameliorating protections for American workers. (listed above.)
What is odd about this is that he completely dodges answering my dismantling of his use of the death rate, much as he used the suicide rate, to justify everything. He completely ignores it.
I think this is fascinating. Did Mr. Worstall think I would forget? Let's remember, Mr. Worstall's entire argument in this first post rests on three legs:
1) THE SUICIDE RATE IS A NON-ISSUE ARGUMENT. This has now been conceded by Mr. Worstall, because he agrees we don't have numbers so that he can run the statistics argument, and he has chosen to ignore my clustering argument and the negligence arguments.
2) THE DEATH RATE IS BELOW AMERICA'S, SO THE WORKPLACE IS GREAT ARGUMENT. He simply ignores my demolishing of his argument, where I point out that the labor issues at Foxconn are much, much larger than the death rate alone, that this is a ridiculous metric to measure whether a workplace is humane.
3) THE WAGES AREN'T LOW ARGUMENT. I was clear that this was a straw man—no one that has done serious work in this area is even proposing that wages are low. It's a non-argument, that makes Mr. Worstall look like he's winning something that no one serious contested.
This means that Mr. Worstall has actually conceded the entirety of his article.
But this will not stop him. When one is desperate, you get ad hominems like this:
But in the end so far we’ve just had the usual shouty from a luvvie who has had his preconceptions challenged. What do you mean that I’m not a knight on a white charger saving Johnny Foreigner from exploitation?
Mr. Worstall does have one last bit of fight in him, and it comes after I call him out on speaking endlessly about wages, and I make the point that wages do not have to be coupled to safe working conditions.
No, sorry matey, you do not get to violate the basic law of economics. There are no solutions, there are only trade offs. We have no magic wands, we cannot all have a pony and unicorns do not poop rainbows.
This again is not new: Adam Smith points out that all jobs are in fact paid the same when we adjust for how difficult they are, how dangerous, how noisesome, the skills required to do them and so on.
Safety in a factory, paid vacation time, the quality of the food in the cafeteria, the wages paid, these are all traded off against each other. For they all come out of the same pot: that portion of the value added by labour which is to be paid to labour.
Except that we do not live in a perfectly closed economic system—we live with and under governments and regulation. And in fact what we are talking about, the enforcement of labor standards that prevent workplaces that injure, maim, poison, and sometimes kill their employees, are in fact regulated. Even in China—the regulations exist on the books, despite rampant abuse where they are ignored.
The fact that Mr. Worstall would term the idea of the enforcement of such sane, safe measures as a fantasy made of unicorns who poop rainbows is discouraging.
Even if for some reason you don't believe in the rule of law and feel that all labor standards should only exist when they serve the marketplace absolutely, the fact is that the standards that are not being enforced in China are not onerously expensive to remediate. We are talking about a company with $100 billion in the bank today doing nothing, whose labor cost for the creation of an iPhone is just over six dollars. Incredibly escalated overtime that becomes mandatory could be controlled by putting Apple employees in factories. Auditing could go from a yearly occurrence to a monthly one if Apple got serious. Workers could be rotated on their lines to avoid the kind of career-ending maimings I saw firsthand in my research. Many of these strategies involve working with suppliers to change the way that workers exist in the supply chain, and with relatively simple, humane changes achieve a tangible improvement in the lives of millions.
Which is, as I say, where our speech declaimer really goes off the rails. Of course safety standards are lower in poor places. This is because people are poor, see, and they take different decisions about the trade off between risk and income that we plump pink people do.
For us to insist upon greater safety than those exposed to the risks insist upon is, well, colonialism, isn’t it? For we are imposing our risk/income desires on others who have a different set of desires.
Except that the labor standards in question are the ones that currently exist in China. The ones we are failing to meet so spectacularly. So this is pretty far from colonialism.
And it's absurd to say, "Of course safety standards are lower in poor places". The reason Mr. Worstall lists exerts a downward pressure on safety—but that is why we have standards. The industry knew its responsibility, and has shirked it, using some of this kind of logic to worm its way out of doing what's right.
Finally there's a recap about some hypothetical "campaigners" who are not whom Mr. Worstall is actually debating with in the post—he's supposed to be debating me, the person he called a twit. Unsurprisingly, he soundly defeats them—I guess when you've conceded all your points, what's really left but creating a new opponent whom your assumptions about will be true, and which you can beat.
Mr. Worstall tries to close with a nice gesture, which is good of him after impugning my art form and craft a lot. (I decided to refrain from talking shit about economists, because...well, sometimes you don't need to gild the lily. It is the dismal science for a reason, after all.)
Yes, the industrial revolution is the only way we humans have found of improving the living standards of the average guy in the street. I, as a liberasl (even if neo) would like the living standards of the average guy to increase. Thus I support the industrial revolution. Yes, in all it’s mess and clamour: for it is making things better.
Mr. Worstall must be aware that the industrial revolution wasn't alone in making those living standards what we see today. It was those economic engines coupled with a century of labor struggles to create safe, humane working conditions. Those conditions did not naturally emerge out of economic ferment, but were fought for by workers tooth and nail by organization and struggle. When we export work to Shenzhen, when we send our manufacturing base abroad, we have a responsibility to attach the basic labor standards we know are right to that work, and to have the determination to see that they are enforced.
There's no debate about this—it's why these standards are embedded in China's labor standards, and in Apple's Supplier Code of Conduct. Instead of excuses and explanations for why there aren't problems, we need to admit they exist and set our shoulders to the wheel to change them. That is how things are made better.