Tuesday, July 7, 2009

A No Win Game

It's hard to understand, for those of us who have never actually lived it, that work that we find to be dangerous, demeaning or overly demanding for the remuneration it offers can often be a real step up for others. Which is why they go through so much to get it. There is a tendency to romanticize the poor, to say that they work as hard as they do out of some moral superiority to wealthier people. But, in reality, the reason why someone will trek thousands of miles for a job that pays them so poorly that they must share a single apartment with other whole families is that it's better than what they would have had, if they had stayed where they were. Working 12 hours a day for four dollars an hour seems awful - but it sure beats working sixteen hours a day for four dollars total.

To the degree that it makes hard labor desirable, poverty and deprivation are competitive advantages that poor countries have over their wealthier counterparts. And to the degree that poverty and deprivation make human labor inexpensive, they are also key components in allowing affluence to be created at a faster rate that tangible wealth. Which creates something of an incentive to perpetuate poverty on multiple sides of the issue. An overall increase in general wealth is undesirable to the leaders of poor nations, as it creates less incentive for business to locate there, and it's undesirable to foreign consumers, who would be the ones directly subsidizing that increase in wealth through hire prices for goods. It even creates a perverse incentive for the poor to stay poor - if they become too wealthy, the foreign businesses who provide the jobs will simply look for even poorer people to give them too, so once their income rises "too high," it falls off a cliff.

This brings me back to Pedro Nueno, the Spanish economist. His contention could be stated as Europe has exported too much of their poverty abroad, and that if European workers are going to compete in a global labor marketplace, they need to be prepared to re-import it - the alternative being, well, crushing poverty. The European welfare state (and the American one, for that matter) can only work as long as there are enough taxpayers to fund the unemployed. As more and more jobs head for the Third World, the ratio of taxpayers to welfare recipients shrinks, and eventually, the system (like a Ponzi scheme) becomes unsustainable.

Eventually, the First World is going to be in a position where they're competing with the Third World over who can make the lives of the unemployed the most disastrous, as both sides seek to drive a work ethic that's really little more than desperation. I can't see how anyone wins that game.

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