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Wednesday, September 29, 2004

Read This, Ye Well-Meaning and Good-Intentioned 

Brad DeLong is on a rampage. He has read a Seth Stevenson article in Slate decrying the predations of "Debbie", an American importer of coir rugs who buys her products from shady Indian middlemen who in turn exploit villagers by paying them miniscule wages. Stevenson urges his readers to boycott these rugs, and DeLong gets MAD:
Seth Stevenson thinks that those who do not buy the coir mats are morally superior to Debbie and the rest of us: they are not complicit in the exploitation of Third World labor. But there is another way of looking at it--a way that makes those who do not buy the coir mats (and Seth Stevenson) into moral monsters. Suppose that Seth Stevenson, on his bicycle ride, were to stop by a couple of empty huts, run into them, steal the looms, and then smash their looms to pieces on the beach and dance in front of the resulting bonfire. Then the villagers could no longer make coir mats. They would have to find something else to do--something else that is worse than making mats. Such a theft-and-bonfire would have the same effect on the people of Desperately Poor Village as... as... drying up demand for their products by urging First World consumers to adopt a higher standard of morality and eschew the products of Third World labor, no?

So shouldn't we evaluate Seth Stevenson's plea for us not to buy coir mats as having the same moral value as loom-smashing, since it has the same effect on the people in Desperately Poor Village? By this way of thinking, Seth Stevenson is a thief. No, he is worse than your common-variety thief: a common-thief steals from the rich, while Stevenson steals their livelihood from the poor. Stevenson is a thief who steals the poor's livelihod. No, he is even worse--for he incites others to steal the poor's livelihood as well. And he is even worse than that: a thief--even the master of a gang of thieves--makes use of what he steals, while Stevenson simply destroys the looms (or, rather, urges us to destroy the looms' market value as a capital good.)

There is no reason. He's a thief--no, worse, the organizer of a large gang of thieves--no, worse, the organizer of a large gang of vandals who prey on the world's poor. By my lights, Stevenson is on a moral plane far, far lower than that of Debbie. Debbie may be reborn as a Brahman. But the karmic wages of Stevenson's internet virtual loom-smashing ensure that he will, at best, be reborn as a dung-fly.
ECONOMIST ANGRY! ECONOMIST (rhetorically) SMASH!

But here's where DeLong adds something of value: he presents an array of other, more effective, less karmically-damaging options for those appalled at the plight of the Indian villagers:
* Praise coir doormats extravagantly, to boost demand in America for them. With higher demand, Mr. Shady Middleman will have to go further, work harder, and pay more. More families will have the option of making a livelihood by weaving coir doormats--and those families that take up that option are pretty likely to be made better off as a result.

* Agitate for the expiration-on-time of the Multi Fiber Agreement, which restricts textile exports from the Third World to the United States--and so virtually smashes more looms in a minute than Seth Stevenson on his bike could smash in a year.

* Figure out a way to generate alternatives to Mr. Shady Middleman. If there were two or three such bidding for Debbie's business, each would be a lot less shady--and each would pay the mat-makers more. The fact that Mr. Shady Middleman has his local monopoly is a sign that this is going to be hard. Either Mr. Shady Middleman himself is barely getting by, and nobody else with the organizational skills to successfully do his job wants it; or bad things happen to competitors at the hands either of the local police or the local notables. Kerala is the province of India in which the local government does the best job of protecting the poor against the rich, but it is extremely rare in historical perspective for the government to be anything other than a committee for managing (and advancing) the affairs of the local landlord class and the local bourgeoisie.

* Take more vacations at Big Luxury Hotel, so that it will have to hire more people from Desperately Poor Village, and so give them even better options.

* Band together with the other guests at Big Luxury Hotel, collect a pool of $10,000 or so, and give it to a committee of senior women in Desperately Poor Village to lend out in small amounts to those in the village who need capital for projects.

* Buy the villagers some goats (or whatever other piece of agricultural capital seems useful).

* Give money to the Kerala Ministry of Education (which is a reasonably clean and uncorrupt institution).

* Agitate for the United States to increase its foreign aid budget.
Maybe these options don't generate the same kind of easy, smug moral self-satisfaction that a boycott would, but they'd possibly achieve some good. Some of the suggestions are awfully nebulous: any policy recommendation beginning with the phrase "figure out a way to" needs a little more work. But others are very doable. Even the goat-buying one: you can buy goats for people in developing countries (although not actually in India) without leaving your computer by visiting Heifer International's website.

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