Thursday, October 4, 2012

Freedom from Want 4: Global Prosperity, the Decline in Unions

I have two items for my write-up today on Edward Gresser's 2007 book, Freedom from Want: American Liberalism and the Global Economy.

1.  When I was an undergraduate at DePauw University, I took a Winter-Term course on NAFTA.  On the last day of class, our professor unloaded on us a bunch of depressing statistics about global poverty and disparity in wealth, and he said that he felt that he would be negligent as a teacher if he did not share this information with us.  The professor then remarked that there are people who argue that globalization is a solution to these problems.  He did not comment on whether or not he agreed with that proposition, but I had my doubts that he did.

It's depressing to learn about the evils of the world, and yet it is necessary.  I'm not entirely sure what to do in response to racism or global poverty, but it's good for me to be aware of these problems so that I'm at least receptive to doing something.

But back to Gresser's book.  Gresser is someone who actually presents globalization as a solution to global poverty.  On page 109, he states the following:

"Life is also better in the poor world, though too few recognize it.  With obvious and painful exceptions----starving North Korea, AIDS-afflicted southern Africa, the violent Middle East----incomes are rising, life expectancy growing, and conflicts fading throughout the developing world.  A Bangladeshi girl, in 1980 could expect 48 years of life; her daughter, born this year, has 63.  The World Health Organization finds infant mortality down by two thirds, from fifteen doomed babies to five in every hundred, between 1955 and 2000.  Small and technical decisions in big rich countries change lives for the better in poor and desperate places.  Contrary to Congressman Frank's fear, child labor is fading: the International Labor Organization, which counted 174 million children working in hazardous conditions in the late 1990s, now finds only 111 million and suggests that Latin America may soon join the rich world as largely free from child labor altogether."

This reminds me of a couple of things.  First of all, Gresser's comments on child labor made me think of something that Ayn Rand said, when she was discussing the ills of nineteenth century American capitalism: long hours, low wages, child labor, etc.  Ayn Rand essentially argued that capitalism is pretty rough in its early stages, but once it becomes successful in producing more goods and in creating a decent standard of living, its rough elements tend to go away.  Second, I thought of George Obama's (brother of Barack) statement to Dinesh D'Souza in 2016 that colonialism actually benefited Kenya, since it industrialized the country (see here).  Could free trade be doing the same thing to the developing world: bringing it prosperity and capital, and thereby elevating its standard of living?

There are people who argue that the Third World is actually worse off as a result of globalization----that globalization takes people's land, which they used to grow their crops, and makes them dependent on corporations for their survival.  Moreover, regarding colonialism and capitalism, there are stories about how foreign economic interests came into certain countries, plundered their resources, and left their inhabitants in poverty.

2.  Is our movement towards free trade responsible for the decline of labor unions in the United States?  Gresser argues that this is not necessarily the case, as he notes that unions have declined in construction and retail, jobs that lack foreign competition.  Gresser attributes the decline of unions to the loss of union appeal.  I have two questions.  First of all, why would unions lose their appeal to workers?  Wouldn't workers want good wages and benefits, which unions presumably provide?  (UPDATE: On page 205, Gresser explains his point about unions losing their appeal.  He says that many workers nowadays don't plan to stay at their jobs for a long period of time, but they are there primarily to build their resume, and they are probably planning to go back to school or look for a better job.  Consequently, a union system of seniority----which presupposes that a worker will stay at the same company for a long time----does not appeal to them, and they are likely to see union dues as a burden.)  Second, could illegal immigration have anything to do with the decline of unions----American workers will accept a non-union job because they need it, and they do not want the employer to give the job to an illegal immigrant, who would work for less pay and no benefits?  Does illegal immigration create a situation in which companies don't need unions to attract good workers, since they can hire illegal immigrants?

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