I haven’t had much use for The Lizard of K Street since he posted this sociopathic little gem in 2004:
Did the president really gut the Endangered Species Act yesterday while no one was paying attention? So I’ve heard, at any rate. If so, good riddance. You’ll all yell at me, I suppose, but really: Who cares? Species die, shit happens, get over it.
It is not exactly news that Matthew Yglesias is a tepid thinker. Poking holes in Yglesias’ vacuous, self-absorbed puffery has long been a popular pastime among bloggers from the progressive left to the hard right. He’s got himself a cushy gig these days, squirting out incontinent posts with no detectable logical or factual value, and as long as people give his outlets page views it’s all good. Eyeballs are eyeballs, and it doesn’t matter much if those eyeballs are rolling upward hard enough to burst blood vessels.
But this shit? This shit is inexcusable.
Bangladesh may or may not need tougher workplace safety rules, but it’s entirely appropriate for Bangladesh to have different—and, indeed, lower—workplace safety standards than the United States.
The reason is that while having a safe job is good, money is also good. Jobs that are unusually dangerous—in the contemporary United States that’s primarily fishing, logging, and trucking—pay a premium over other working-class occupations precisely because people are reluctant to risk death or maiming at work. And in a free society it’s good that different people are able to make different choices on the risk–reward spectrum.…
Bangladesh is a lot poorer than the United States, and there are very good reasons for Bangladeshi people to make different choices in this regard than Americans. That’s true whether you’re talking about an individual calculus or a collective calculus. Safety rules that are appropriate for the United States would be unnecessarily immiserating in much poorer Bangladesh. Rules that are appropriate in Bangladesh would be far too flimsy for the richer and more risk-averse United States. Split the difference and you’ll get rules that are appropriate for nobody.
There are three main problems with Yglesias’ argument.
- Yglesias’ argument is profoundly immoral. People are willing to take bigger risks to feed their families when they’re burdened by poverty, yes. But arguing that we should use that unfortunate fact as a basic design feature of global workplace safety regulations is vile.
- Yglesias’ argument is profoundly ahistorical as well. Workplace safety regulations — and environmental laws, and education for women, and all of the thousands of other social goods we fight for — don’t magically appear when societies’ wealth passes a certain threshold as a result of the airy fapping of the invisible hand. Those regulations come into being because people fight for them, often dying in the process, against the opposition of the entrenched powers that make the regulations necessary in the first place. And here Yglesias is on the side of the entrenched powers, willing to wave away yet another workplace disaster so that he can continue to enjoy the cheap cotton shorts, running shoes, and tablet computers he sees as his birthright.
- Yglesias’ argument is essentially plagiarized from a 1991 memo by Laurence Summers written when the latter was the chief economist at the World Bank. A salient sampling from that memo:
I’ve always thought that under-populated countries in Africa are vastly UNDER-polluted, their air quality is probably vastly inefficiently low compared to Los Angeles or Mexico City. … The concern over an agent that causes a one in a million change in the odds of prostrate[sic] cancer is obviously going to be much higher in a country where people survive to get prostrate[sic] cancer than in a country where under 5 mortality is 200 per thousand.
An individual human life is worth fewer U.S. dollars in Bangladesh, and so betting that lower-value life against the possibility that you might actually survive your $432 per annum minimum wage job just makes better sense there than it does here, eh Matt? Hell, if the typical Bengali minimum wage worker survives his or her job for three or four years before they get crushed to death by an unsafe building, they may actually have come out well ahead of the game!
It’s a repugnant argument.
Matthew Yglesias should be ashamed of himself.