Nicholas Kristof, Joan Robinson and sweatshops


Posted to on June 6, 2006


I imagine that most people who read the NY Times op-ed page--a chore if there ever was one--might not make the connection between the pull-quote that appears in Nicholas Kristof's 6/06 defense of sweatshops and the leftwing economist who first articulated it:


"What's worse than being exploited? Not being exploited."


We are speaking here of course of Joan Robinson, whose general political and economic views could not be further apart from Kristof's. Indeed, the quote does not seem to appear in any of her writings but was something that she stated in her lectures from time to time. Michael Meerpol, the economist son of Julius and Ethel Rosenberg and someone much more in sympathy with Robinson than Kristof, once wrote the following on PEN-L, a mailing list for left-of-center economists:


I don't have a cite but it's not apocryphal. Joan Robinson made that comment orally a number of times --- both in conversation and in lectures. The first (and only specific) memory I have of that was in the context of discussing rural poverty in places like India, etc. --- where she said many people on the scene told her that the only real solution for massive rural poverty in overpopulated regions was "capitalist agriculture" --- and then she went on to state, "the only thing worse than being exploited, is not to be exploited!"


If there are written cites, I don't know about them.


Cheers, Mike -- Mike Meeropol


The opening sentence of Kristof's op-ed piece is meant to startle the reader:


"Africa desperately needs Western help in the form of schools, clinics and sweatshops."


Touring Namibia in his pith-helmet, Kristof discusses the misfortune of a group of construction workers who cannot get regular work. According to him, "they would vastly prefer steady jobs in, yes, sweatshops."


Well, whatever. Mr. Kristof seems to have a real knack for eliciting the truth out of the natives, namely that they hunger after low-paying jobs for Western corporations. One can't imagine anybody channeling these construction workers better--except Thomas Friedman of course who has never seen a sweatshop he didn't like.


Some things are true even though Phil Knight, the chairman of Nike, believes them.


Mr. Knight recently made news by suddenly withdrawing a contemplated $30 million gift to the University of Oregon after the university balked at joining a coalition -- the Fair Labor Association (F.L.A.) -- that was formed by human rights groups, colleges, the U.S. government and companies such as Nike to alleviate global sweatshop conditions. Oregon opted to join an alternative group being pushed on college campuses, the Worker Rights Consortium (W.R.C.), which also plans to combat sweatshops, but refuses to cooperate with any companies, such as Nike.


The natural assumption is that Mr. Knight is wrong. The truth is, Nike has a shameful past when it comes to tolerating sweatshops. But on the question of how best to remedy those conditions in the future -- which Nike has now agreed to do -- Mr. Knight is dead right and Oregon wrong.


(NY Times, June 20, 2000)


The infatuation with sweatshops on the NY Times op-ed page even extends to Paul Krugman, the liberal icon who really differs little from Thomas Friedman when it comes to a belief in the benefits of low-wage coolie labor. Basically, Krugman wrote a column identical to Kristof's on April 22, 2001:


There is an old European saying: anyone who is not a socialist before he is 30 has no heart; anyone who is still a socialist after he is 30 has no head. Suitably updated, this applies perfectly to the movement against globalization -- the movement that made its big splash in Seattle back in 1999 and is doing its best to disrupt the Summit of the Americas in Quebec City this weekend.


The facts of globalization are not always pretty. If you buy a product made in a third-world country, it was produced by workers who are paid incredibly little by Western standards and probably work under awful conditions. Anyone who is not bothered by those facts, at least some of the time, has no heart.


But that doesn't mean the demonstrators are right. On the contrary: anyone who thinks that the answer to world poverty is simple outrage against global trade has no head -- or chooses not to use it. The anti-globalization movement already has a remarkable track record of hurting the very people and causes it claims to champion.


The most spectacular example was last year's election. You might say that because people with no heads indulged their idealism by voting for Ralph Nader, people with no hearts are running the world's most powerful nation.


Even when political action doesn't backfire, when the movement gets what it wants, the effects are often startlingly malign. For example, could anything be worse than having children work in sweatshops? Alas, yes. In 1993, child workers in Bangladesh were found to be producing clothing for Wal-Mart, and Senator Tom Harkin proposed legislation banning imports from countries employing underage workers. The direct result was that Bangladeshi textile factories stopped employing children. But did the children go back to school? Did they return to happy homes? Not according to Oxfam, which found that the displaced child workers ended up in even worse jobs, or on the streets -- and that a significant number were forced into prostitution.


So, you get the picture. It is better to get crumbs from the table than nothing at all. Of course, well-fed bourgeois ideologists like Kristof, Friedman and Krugman could never imagine that there are alternatives to super-exploitation and starvation.


To begin with, Namibia has other sources of wealth besides a pool of cheap labor that a Nike can exploit. It is endowed with many different minerals, including diamonds. That Kristof can omit any reference to these natural resources suggests a combination of ignorance and bad faith.


The Southern African Development Community website informs us: "Namibia produces gem quality diamonds, uranium, copper, lead, zinc, arsenic, cadmium, antimony, pyrite, silver, gold, semi-precious stones, industrial minerals and dimension stone." Furthermore, "Namibia is one of the largest producers of gem quality diamonds with around 98 percent of production being gem quality." One imagines that diamonds can generate a better standard of living than the wage you get for making athletic shoes for Wal-Mart on an assembly line.


However, it is foreign companies who own the means of production in Namibia, like the South African De Beers Corporation. De Beers's Elizabeth Bay Mine in Namibia produces about 110,000 carats/year. At $300 per carat, that's 33 million dollars a year. Multiply that by all the other mining, copper, uranium, silver and gold operations in Namibia and you are dealing with serious money, much more serious than sewing together play clothes for tots.


To my knowledge, this is Kristof's first foray into Thomas Friedman's territory. He has spent the better part of a year beating the drums for intervention in Darfur, for which he has earned the Pulitzer Prize. Since my employer hands out these prizes each year, I tend to be a bit more jaded. The President of Columbia University is President of the Pulitzer board that also includes such luminaries as Thomas Friedman, who is infamous for having stated that:


"The hidden hand of the market will never work without the hidden fistMcDonald's cannot flourish without McDonnell Douglas, the designer of the F-15. And the hidden fist that keeps the world safe for Silicon Valley's technologies is called the United States Army, Air Force, Navy and Marine Corps."


But one wonders in light of Kristof's hymn to sweatshops whether there might be a connection to Friedman's more openly mercenary understanding of how the dollar and the bullet intersect. Could this insufferable moralizing prig be possibly be more interested in corporate profits than he is in missionary-style rescues?


For an answer to this, I'd recommend John Bellamy Foster's article in the current Monthly Review, which does a really good job of describing the emerging strategic interests of US imperialism in Africa--especially in regions that are the focus of Cruise Missile liberals like Kristof. In "A Warning to Africa: The New U.S. Imperial Grand Strategy," Foster writes:



Here the flag is following trade: the major U.S. and Western oil corporations are all scrambling for West African oil and demanding security. The U.S. militarys European Command, the Wall Street Journal reported in its April 25th issue, is also working with the U.S. Chamber of Commerce to expand the role of U.S. corporations in Africa as part of an integrated U.S. response. In this economic scramble for Africas petroleum resources the old colonial powers, Britain and France, are in competition with the United States. Militarily, however, they are working closely with the United States to secure Western imperial control of the region.


The U.S. military buildup in Africa is frequently justified as necessary both to fight terrorism and to counter growing instability in the oil region of Sub-Saharan Africa. Since 2003 Sudan has been torn by civil war and ethnic conflict focused on its southwestern Darfur region (where much of the countrys oil is located), resulting in innumerable human rights violations and mass killings by government-linked militia forces against the population of the region. Attempted coups recently occurred in the new petrostates of S㯠Tomnd Principe (2003) and Equatorial Guinea (2004). Chad, which is run by a brutally oppressive regime shielded by a security and intelligence apparatus backed by the United States, also experienced an attempted coup in 2004. A successful coup took place in Mauritania in 2005 against U.S.-supported strongman Ely Ould Mohamed Taya. Angolas three-decade-long civil warinstigated and fueled by the United States, which together with South Africa organized the terrorist army under Jonas Savimbis UNITAlasted until the ceasefire following Savimbis death in 2002. Nigeria, the regional hegemon, is rife with corruption, revolts, and organized oil theft, with considerable portions of oil production in the Niger Delta region being siphoned offup to 300,000 barrels a day in early 2004.16 The rise of armed insurgency in the Niger Delta and the potential of conflict between the Islamic north and non-Islamic south of the country are major U.S. concerns.


Hence there are incessant calls and no lack of seeming justifications for U.S. humanitarian interventions in Africa. The Council on Foreign Relations report More than Humanitarianism insists that the United States and its allies must be ready to take appropriate action in Darfur in Sudan including sanctions and, if necessary, military intervention, if the Security Council is blocked from doing so. Meanwhile the notion that the U.S. military might before long need to intervene in Nigeria is being widely floated among pundits and in policy circles. Atlantic Monthly correspondent Jeffrey Taylor wrote in April 2006 that Nigeria has become the largest failed state on earth, and that a further destabilization of that state, or its takeover by radical Islamic forces, would endanger the abundant oil reserves that America has vowed to protect. Should that day come, it would herald a military intervention far more massive than the Iraqi campaign.




Returning to Joan Robinson, whatever she thought about the need to be exploited, there are still the overarching concerns that she brought to her economic writings and lectures, which--to repeat myself--are about as far from the Nicholas Kristof's of the world as can be imagined. Let's turn to her own words as a reminder of where she stood:


"The United States record in Western Asia and Latin America follows the same pattern. The good, well-meaning individuals [like Kristof, giving him the benefit of the doubt] sent out to aid underdeveloped countries are in a false position (as, by the way, many of them admit) because the object of the operation is not to aid the people there to develop, but to keep reactionary governments in power."


(The Chinese Point of View, International Affairs, April 1964)