Thursday, July 20, 2006

"Hustle": too perfect

The last few days have been exhausting. Tonight I found myself napping for a couple of hours, awaking just in time to catch the BBC series "Hustle" (which in the U.S. is shown on AMC). I find the show fascinating and underrated, with well-contrived scams and good character interplay -- the sort of interaction and banter that made some original Star Trek episodes watchable, even if the plots were ridiculous.

I had a problem with tonight's episode, not just because the end was a predictable, though nonetheless heart-warming wrap-up. The intended target's change of heart was pretty obvious to me once he was "stricken." "Too perfect" was what alerted the "mark" on tonight's episode, and it's my problem with the economic rationale. The crew selected their victim because he owns and runs...sweatshops. At one point, beginning to realize his supposed sins, he saw the hateful looks that his workers gave him and started examining his life.

But as I've asked before, if your compensation isn't enough, why do you work there? "Because I need the money" still doesn't give a "sweatshop" in the UK, Jakarta or India such power that it can coerce people into employment. People in most countries do have the freedom to refuse to do work that they think are beneath them. They also have the freedom to work for themselves, to rely on the charity of others (and possibly starve), or to find an employer who thinks they're worth hiring at higher wages and in better conditions. China can be a different matter because of its gulags, but that's another topic.

Now, remember that wages and benefits are not a matter of what the employees believe they are worth, but what the employer believes they are worth. Furthermore, the owners and managers of any business (whether a sweatshop, Wal-Mart or "mom & pop" store) will pay employees no more than what they believe the employees will produce. Let's say a worker produces a $30 item in one hour, and after all costs and expenditures (which includes management's salaries, who are necessary to run things, no matter what Marxists claim), only five dollars remain with which to pay the worker. Now if the worker wants $7 per hour, then the item must sell for at least $32, but what if the consumer isn't willing to pay $32? Something's gotta give, and it comes down to who wants it more: the employee and the job, or the consumer and the product.

You can't have it both ways: you can't suddenly begin to pay sweatshop workers significantly higher wages and still sell your products at the same prices. The low wages are what make a lot of "sweatshop products" affordable, which is to say it's what makes them able to sell in enough quantities that the workers have their jobs in the first place. If the consumer isn't willing to pay $32, then the worker who wants $7 is essentially asking too much, and he won't have a job at all. That's what minimum wage laws do: make people unemployable.

Am I defending sweatshops as an ideal workplace? Not at all. I simply point out that sweatshops as a part of the global economy are natural result of free commerce. The alternative is regulated commerce (i.e. socialist intervention), whose natural result is demonstrated by the Soviet Union, Mao's China and Mugabe's Zimbabwe: poor conditions for most everyone, except politicians and military leaders at the very top. We could look to France, a dying nation that somehow remains happy and blind to its crumbling civilization.

There will always be people who produce goods and services of less value than others, and the irony of government mandating higher wages and better working conditions is that companies won't hire as many. It's better that those willing to work for less be allowed to do so: let them compete with others for the jobs they want the most. Let's also not forget the benefits -- yes, benefits -- that sweatshops have for Third World nations. The "Hustle" episode referred to sweatshops in the UK, but all across Asia and Latin America, sweatshops represent opportunities for better money and even better working conditions. A 12-hour shift sewing shirts in a dirty factory is better than toiling for 16 hours outdoors with no guarantee of a successful harvest.

As for me, I generally buy what maximizes my happiness, and I let everyone else's chips fall where they may. My dress shirts are made in Hong Kong, Indonesia, the Philippines, and I'm not even sure where else. My only concern is that the shirt is worth more to me than the money I pay for it. The same principle applies to the worker who sewed it, who values the received wages more than his or her labor. It all ties in together, as opposed to government's purportedly benevolent attempts at regulation that actually put people out of work and make things more costly for the consumer. Who really wins in the latter?

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