Monday, July 19, 2010

The Economics of Exploitation

Posted to Daily Beast in response to commenters lamenting the rapid advances China is making while we seem stuck in political muck:

China is advancing rapidly because it is exploiting its workers or allowing others to. A few get rich, but most have as much chance of advancing from worker to magnate as they do of winning the lottery. It is no coincidence that the marketing hook is the same for both: maybe it will be me.

The US also accomplished great feats via exploiting labor and continues to exploit labor today. It's a poor argument to say that being exploited here is still better than the life they left behind.

It's a better argument to say that the 1800s and early 1900s were raw and uncivilized times for much of the U.S. But we're no longer uncivilized, and we have a choice. Are we willing to throw the most powerless among us under the bus to elevate our own standard of living?

If so, we have competition. Plenty of countries around the world are willing to exploit their citizens, and the corporations of the world are in the position to pick and choose which country is willing to sacrifice the most.

But if we can see beyond the short term, we can see that the only sustainable way to hold on to some quality of life--for ourselves and our children and grandchildren--is not to compete in the gutter but to lift the rest of the world up.

Imagine what a world with an international minimum wage would look like. Reduced poverty, reduced health issues, and billions of customers for corporate goods and services. Studies have shown that nations with a plutonomy (few wealthy, many poor, no middle class) sacrifice total national wealth compared to nations with a broad middle class.

Obviously those in power pursue plutonomy anyway because some people would rather be super-rich even at the expense of the nation. They either don't realize they will only be able to enjoy their wealth behind guarded walls, or they don't care.

By the way, unions are not the enemy. Unions are what allow people to band together and resist exploitation. Allowing workers to combine their labor into an entity with economic leverage is the only way I can see that the world can break out of our current downward spiral of exploitation.

The most important economic challenge we face today is to create a model of sustainable worldwide economic balance and to sell that model to the worldwide public.

Sustainable models like that exist, but there has been no campaign to make the public aware of them, let alone move toward them. Who would finance such a campaign? Those with the money don't want things to change.

Or do they? There is a lot of money going to feed and educate the poor, make micro loans, and generally promote long-term economic improvement. Can some of this money go toward a worldwide education campaign so that we can all be pulling in the same direction?

Labor is not the only thing that can be exploited. Ignorance can also be exploited, and right now, it's being exploited very successfully.

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