Wednesday, September 8, 2010

Boomerang Ideas

Sometimes a policy debate starts when people find out about something intuitively revolting. They clamor for government intervention to show it down. Academics and others who have been studying the issue for years then come out of the shadows and explain why, as bad as the picture looks, it's better than the alternative. But a few years down the road some young grad students do a study and the whole picture gets a little fuzzy--and puts the evidence half-way back on the side of the initial critics.

Sweat-shop labor is a great example of that kind of "Boomerang debate."

Most people who haven't thought much about it hate sweat shops (here defined as factories that pay, say, less than $4,000 a year to workers). Isn't it some kind of human rights abuse to ask people to work 12 hours a day for less than (the U.S.) minimum wage?

But the thing is, the people who choose to work in a factory are often choosing to because they don't want to work 12 hours a day on a farm like their parents. And they can make 5x (or 10x) as much in the factory as they could on the farm. The point is that if people are freely choosing those jobs then they've got to be better (on average) than the other horrible options they have. Benjamin Powell, guest blogging at Aid Watch, gets the debate this far--and then claims that's the end of the story.

But it's not. Not all sweat shops are created equally. Wages vary considerably, as does safety. Working in a plant making CRT monitors is extremely dangerous while working in a textile mill is comparatively safe. Some sweat shops employ children who should be in school, others only adults. And some pay their workers wages their parents couldn't have imagined--while others more or less enslave their workers, violating every labor law on the books.

Taking that to heart that while it's very, very clear sweat shops are good on the whole--and we're probably better off (in the words of Jeff Sachs) worrying why we don't have enough sweat shops as opposed to why we have too many--labor activists targeting the worst abuses are probably part of the solution, not the problem. This, indeed, is what recent research has revealed: "anti-sweatshop campaigns led to large real wages increases . . . but [no] significant effects on employment."

In so many words: anti-sweatshop activism would be bad if it reduced the number of sweatshops, but since it doesn't it's great--improving labor laws (or enforcement) without harming labor.

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