Mike Daisy and Globalization

People may have seen the episode of This American Life that retracted the previous piece with Mike Daisy. It is a pretty uncomfortable thing to listen to. The relevant thing is that Mike Daisy fabricated much of the details of his first-hand account to make Chinese labor look much harsher than it is. Then he lied to the NPR fact checkers to avoid their uncovering this.

The question is, does it matter that he lied? Everyone agrees Chinese labor conditions are harsh in comparison to western standards. His argument is that although, yes, he did make up much of his story, it could have been true. Critics say that this doesn’t really undermine his main point; counter critics say that it does.

Personally I think it is mostly an irrelevant distraction. Globalization is literally remaking the lives of billions of people, and whether you believe the change is good or bad should be primarily an empirical discussion about whether things are getting better or worse in these countries. It shouldn’t be carried out in overly emotional, under-reasoned stage performances. Whether or not Mike Daisy’s anecdotes about his visit to China actually took place shouldn’t really matter to us because we shouldn’t make decisions about global trade policy on the basis of theatrical anecdotes.

The important debate we should be having is about whether globalization—particularly shipping low-skill work to other countries with lower wages—is a good or bad thing for these countries. Popular opinion is that it is bad because it enriches large corporations by exploiting workers. However there is an argument to be made that it is good. That argument is best layed out in this 1997 article, by Paul Krugman. I won’t repeat the content of the article because I think it’s short and worth reading.

I read that article in the late nineties and it greatly changed my perception of economics and the debate around globalization. The reason I think everyone should read it is because it phrases the debate in terms of what is good for third world countries rather than emotional appeals. Economists see globalization as a huge transfer of money, technology, and skills from the first world to the third world. They see this as permanently transforming the standard of living in these countries in a way that a century of poverty relief and charitable aid hasn’t. I think the focus of the discussion should be less about whether Mike Daisy lied, and more about whether these beliefs are true.

I am not an economist, I haven’t studied this, so I don’t know if this is correct. But my values are pretty straight-forward. I think people born in the US won the equivalent of the geographical lottery and have opportunities that are either completely out of reach or exceedingly unlikely for people in other parts of the world. We have a moral obligation to strive for equalization; I would support this process even if it was bad for the US (which it doesn’t seem to be). I come from a particularly liberal family so it particularly galls me that the left seems to be willing to decide an issue that one way or another deeply impacts the lives of billions of people purely based on a kind of kneejerk belief that large corporations are evil.

Look, we could learn that this doesn’t work the way we thought. Maybe the manufacturing jobs do not lead to a development of industry in the way it’s supposed to. Or maybe increasing economic vitality doesn’t lead to greater political freedom in repressive regimes. Or maybe there are other unforeseen consequences. Economists are, after all, the people most likely to fuck up a country on an unproven but intellectually stimulating theory. But let’s talk about the evidence of these things happening or not happening.

For people who oppose globalization, I think the question is how will you accomplish this global equalization? It isn’t enough to have a vague esthetic icky feeling about buying a phone made by people who make less than you, you have to have a plausible way to fix this inequality. The people who have thought the most about this think that buying the phone is the best way to fix it, it is really important to be sure they are wrong before you try to stop people from buying phones.