Not So Fast On Fingering Flake

I just read a Facebook post that said this about Senator Flake:
“What did the leftists promise the traitor Flake to hold up this vote. Doesn’t he understand this will just give more time to the leftists to bring more bogus allegations and diminish this nominee even more? Of course, he does. Again, I can’t imagine why this man is allowed to represent himself as a conservative. Shameful.”
Flake is certainly not my favorite Republican but I suspect this author’s take is precisely the opposite of what just happened. 
The Democrats had a plan to stop the Judge Kavanaugh nomination after the hearings were completed. Call for another FBI investigation to delay the vote on Kavanaugh (giving the Democrats more time to denigrate Kavanaugh and creating time for a miracle to happen) and put the Republicans in a bad light, the Democrats said the Republicans were rushing the process and blocking an FBI investigation.
So, naturally, the Republican base wanted the Republicans to rush and have no further investigation. The Republicans surely knew that after so many FBI investigations of Kavanaugh, (1) a limited scope FBI investigation would not turn up anything negative on Kavanaugh, (2) Trump would limit the scope, and (3) not rushing and permitting the investigation would the sting out of the Democrats’ complaints (except for the crazies that would not vote for a Republican in any event) and make the Republicans appear to be more reasonable as the Democrats would continue their hysterics.
That being the case, the Republicans wanted another investigation but knew that their base would be opposed. No Republican, especially the ones who wanted to keep their Senate seats, wanted to be the one to call for an investigation. In a tough situation like this, who ya gonna call? Flake!

For more on the approval of the Kavanaugh nomination, see this Facebook post in which there were many comments dealing with the applicability of “innocence until proven guilty” to accusations against Kavanaugh.

Nike’ Mistake—Supporting a Counterproductive Cause Against Police

By picking Colin Kaepernick as its newest ‘Just Do It’ star,” Nike has, in a huge way, supported Kaepernick’s policy prescriptions, rhetoric, and tactics, and, by inference, those of Black Lives Matter (“BLM”). Because of that, Nike made a huge mistake.

Despite the extensive public debate about Kaepernick and Nike’s pick, to my knowledge, no one is talking about the most significant error of their ways: They are making matters worse for the people Kaepernick thinks he is helping. Let’s sort that out.


AUTHOR’S NOTE: The public debate over Nike’s pick is predominately about (1) the validity of BLM’s[i] and Kaepernick’s allegations against police, (2) the propriety of kneeling before the flag during the national anthem, and (3) whether (a) Kaepernick is worthy of hero status, (b) Kaepernick sacrificed anything by kneeling and other issues as to whether Kaepernick is an apt role model for the merits of sacrificing to achieve a higher purpose, (c) “punishing” Kaepernick for protesting violates his civil or free speech rights and (d) sundry less important matters such as whether the pick will be profitable for Nike. As important as any of those issues might be, they ignore a more important point: Nike is supporting the message and actions of BLM and Kaepernick (hereinafter “BLM”) that will make things worse for the people BLM believes it is helping. (Sound familiar?[ii]) This is an uber-example of most modern leftist activists’ activities, i.e., they identified a problem, have little or no idea how complicated the problem is or how to fix it, organize a movement around simplistic ideas, propose policies grounded on a small fraction of the relevant facts, and quixotically either hinder progress in solving the problem or make the problem more problematic.[iii] Because Nike’s move is so big, BLM’s counterproductive activism is boosted by Nike’s pick, and BLM’s policies will inflict great harm on many people who are in desperate need of assistance, sorting this out is extremely important.

That members of BLM care about and want to improve the interactions between black people and the police are highly commendable. On those occasions when BLM brings public attention to cases of actual police misconduct, BLM provides a commendable public service. To the extent BLM activists save black lives, reduce injustices of the justice system (e.g., police misconduct), and improve the lives of black people, their hearts and minds are in the right place and are a force for good. When, however, their policy prescriptions and rhetoric are based on misperceptions or accurate perceptions of insufficient fact (which is the norm), or (2) their policies are counterproductive to their goals, they make things significantly and heart-wrenchingly worse for the people they believe they are helping. This post explains why BLM, and thus Nike,[iv] are making matters worse for black people (assuming, as I do, that more conflict between blacks and the police, less hope for a better tomorrow, less safe neighborhoods, and more black anger, frustration, and poverty people are bad).


In paradise, humans would thrive without rules or law enforcement. Sadly, paradise is beyond the reach of living humans. In the here and now, in societies without rules and reasonably effective police forces, only the powerful can thrive. Having police forces is necessary for societies to create conditions in which essentially everyone has a shot at thriving. Sadly, having police forces results in some injustice. Not having police forces results in vastly more injustice.

The odds that any sizable police force will have zero “bad cops” is essentially zero. While determining the ratio of good cops to bad cops would be impossible, the actual ratio is irrelevant to the points made herein. (For what little it is worth, my belief is that a large majority of cops in the U.S. today are good cops.) That ratio, however, makes an especially large difference to the lives of poor black people. The higher the ratio of good cops, the better for black people—especially those in dangerous neighborhoods. Consequently, sorting out how BLM’s actions and policy prescriptions are increasing the ratio of bad cops in police forces is important.

As used herein, “good cops” means cops who (1) believe a reasonable level of security and safety for everyone is necessary for a good society, and (2) are willing to face danger and risk life and limb doing what they reasonably can to serve and protect the person and property of everyone. They are not racist, sexist, homophobic, etc., and they believe that equal protection and application of the law for all is a virtue. “Bad cops” means cops who do not adhere to above characteristics of good cops. The traits of “bad cops” include relishing the ability to bully or lord over people, being racist or otherwise bigoted, selectively enforcing the law, and/or looking forward to opportunities to exercise their power to instill fear, arrest, harm and/or kill people—and get away with it.

Police forces can and should remove bad cops. That, however, cannot be done to perfection for many reasons, including these:

  1. Evidence of possible police misconduct is often ambiguous,
  2. Eyewitness perceptions are not reliable,
  3. Distinguishing factual allegations of police conduct from fictional ones is often impossible,
  4. No clear and universally accepted line between justifiable and unjustifiable police conduct exists (and minor injustices are often perceived to be major injustices.),
  5. The true nature of job applicants who would replace a fired bad cop cannot be perfectly discerned,
  6. Bad cops can become good cops and vice versa,
  7. Human nature causes humans to give the benefit of doubts to fellow members of one’s group, and
  8. Well-intended managers are fallible.

Consequently, if humans are to have reasonably functional societies, there will always be bad cops in police forces. The best that can be done is to keep the ratio of bad cops as low as practicable. Policies that achieve the opposite result are counterproductive.

Victims of wrongdoing by bad cops and mistakes by good cops (of which there are all too many, no matter how few) are understandably and justifiably aggrieved, if not outraged. Full stop. Those grievances should be addressed. Ideally, they would be addressed with good ideas and policies rather than the bad ideas and plans held and proposed BLM—which does not include all of BLM’s ideas and policies. The focus here is on BLM’s bad ideas and policies that are producing the opposite of their stated objectives.

BLM Claims/Policies[v] relevant to this post:[vi]

  1. There is a “war on black people,” being conducted by police and others.

Much of the so-called “war” was adopted with the best of intentions and at the urging of Bill Clinton and black leaders, including Charlie Rangel, i.e., they were a bunch of well-intended, bad ideas and policies to help black people that preceded BLM’s new set of well-intended bad ideas and policies.[vii]

  1. “…vague and subjective infractions such as “willful defiance” and “disrespect” should be tolerated.

For a democratic society to work, the rule of law must be accepted by the people and sufficiently maintained by the government. To peaceably, efficiently, and effectively maintain the rule of law, an interaction between the police and a citizen cannot be treated as an interaction between equals concerning the issue for which the “meeting” was called. If the police have probable cause that a person has committed a crime, the police have the right to stop and obtain information from that person. Under the rule of law, the courts, not the suspect, is empowered to decide whether the police had probable cause. Confrontational resistance to a policeman’s request is not a part of a peaceful process and wastes time the policeman could otherwise use to deter, stop, or bring justice to other criminals. YouTube is replete with examples of how things do not end well for black people when they do not act civilly with police. No doubt, some of those videos evidence police misconduct. Those videos make a big splash, but they create at least four negative consequences for black people: (a) The black person in the video suffers more than would have been the case had they cooperated, (b) The eagerness of many Americans to address problems of police misconduct is reduced, (c) Some good cops are unfairly maligned, and (d) It provides opportunities for bad cops to do what they like to do.

  1. “An end to money bail, mandatory fines, fees, court surcharges and “defendant funded” court proceedings.”

Stated differently, poor people should be exempt from criminal procedures that apply to everyone else.

  1. “An end to the mass surveillance of Black communities, and the end to the use of technologies that criminalize and target our communities (including IMSI catchers, drones, body cameras, and predictive policing software).”

Stated differently, the police should not use many of the methods that are designed to protect innocent people in black communities and usually do.

  1. “The demilitarization of law enforcement, including law enforcement in schools and on college campuses.”

Stated differently, render the job of policing more dangerous and policing less effective.[viii]

  1. “Until we achieve a world where cages are no longer used against our people we demand an immediate change in conditions and an end to all jails, detention centers, youth facilities and prisons as we know them.”

Stated differently, until the negative consequences of committing crimes by blacks are lessened to some undefined, possibly utopian, standard, there should be no negative consequences for black criminals.

  1. The incidence of disciplinary actions in schools against black students should be proportionate to the incidence of disciplinary actions against students of other races.

Notice the absence of a mention of the relative incidence of violations of disciplinary rules by members of various groups.[viii]

  1. Likewise, corporal punishment should be administered to students of all races.

Notice the absence of a mention of the relative incidence infractions deserving corporal punishment by members of various groups.

  1. We also demand a defunding of the systems and institutions that criminalize and cage us.”[ix]

Police do not criminalize activities, houses and senates do that—they also pass the laws that call for incarceration. Reasonable cases can be made that too many things have been criminalized. Defunding institutions that enforce crimes will cause there to be less enforcement of the laws that protect innocent poor black people.

  1. A system that perpetually condones the killing of people, without consequence, doesn’t need to be revised, it needs to be dismantled!

A system that does not condone killing people in certain situations (e.g., self-defense or killing someone shooting at school children) would be a bad system (regardless of the skin color of the person killed). No cop who justifiably kills someone wants to be accused of being evil—especially a good cop.

  1. Whenever a black person is killed by a cop, BLM foments anger and resentment—often without regard to whether the killing was justified.

  2. Kaepernick compares cops to runaway slave patrol after Castile verdict, and he said “You can become a cop in six months and don’t have to have the same amount of training as a cosmetologist.

    These claims defame cops—especially good cops.


  1. Lamont Hill, a BLM supporter, claims, “Racism is so deeply embedded in our psyche…. that we can’t simply locate and eliminate racist “bad apples” — a blatantly racist police officer or a white supremacist juror– from our society.”

If good white people are called racist whether they are or not, fewer good white people will remain or become cops—thereby leaving vacancies for bad white people to fill.

BLM’s policies undermine police effectiveness. While ineffective policing will hurt all neighborhoods (because criminals do not limit their crime in their own neighborhoods), ineffective policing disproportionately hurts poor black people.

Many of America’s poor black people live are high crime areas.[x] If the residents of high crime areas who are innocent and deserve protection (which is the overwhelming majority of residents) are to have a reasonable level of protection (and not lose the deterrence of crime provided by the presence of cops), more police are needed, not fewer. So, while cutting or eliminating policing in poor neighborhoods would be beneficial to people wrongly suspected of criminal activity, people who would have been victims of police impropriety (both of which are significant positives) and BLM, fewer cops will also help criminals wreak even more havoc on poor black people (the negative of which is even greater than the above positives).

Fomenting outrage often leads to the destruction of business property in poor neighborhoods, thereby causing the cost of doing business there to rise. The resulting replacement costs and insurance cost increases must be passed onto the poor customers of those businesses to stay in business. Alternatively, business owners get fed up and decide to no longer serve the needs of the community. Either way, the destruction of property and businesses hurt the poor people in the area. If the uptick in destruction in poor communities due to BLM fomenting destruction after police encounters causes insurance cost for businesses in all poor areas, poor people everywhere will pay the cost.

As if those problem with BLM demands were not bad enough, something else is even worse. To sort that out, first focus on why people become cops.

People choose to become cops for the pay, benefits, and other compensation. Patrol police pay and benefits are relatively high compared to some other dangerous jobs, [xi] but most other dangerous civilian jobs require a less diverse skillset and do not involve people intentionally wanting to prevent them from doing their job or to harm or kill them. All things considered, pay for cops may not be exceptionally low, but it is certainly not exceptionally high. Consequently, other compensations become exceptionally significant in attracting officers and maintaining a police force.  For essentially all cops, total compensation includes camaraderie with fellow cops. That, however, can be obtained in much less dangerous occupations. What cannot be obtained in most of those other occupations, however, is the pride of serving and protecting others and the gratification of receiving respect and appreciation of the people they protect and serve. That respect is earned on account of the cop’s necessary and noble work, skill, heroism, sacrifices and courage on behalf of friends and neighbors and society at large.

In the above respects, bad cops get the same compensations as good cops. Bad cops alone, however, receive the additional compensation that attracts bad people to police forces, e.g., the pleasure of feeling powerful and important by bossing people around, instilling fear, lording over people, and/or carrying out their racist desires, etc.—and getting away with it.

BLM is attempting to delegitimize and disarm policing and paint all cops as bad cops deserving our condemnation and scorn instead of our respect and appreciation. BLM claims that policing in black neighborhoods does not serve and protect black people and that police are causing harm when they do their job. Lamont Hill, a BLM supporter, has said[xii] that getting rid of bad cops does little good because there is so much systemic racism that they can only be replaced with other cops who will discriminate against blacks. Setting aside that Hill’s statement is a mischaracterization of the problem, it implies that all cops are racist. All of these BLM actions reduce compensation for good cops, but not for bad cops.

Making matters worse, chanting “Pigs in a blanket, fry ’em like bacon” and Kaepernick wearing socks with pigs wearing police caps increase compensation to bad cops – especially racist ones—by, among other things, revealing that they are getting under black people’s skin.

The heart of the matter is that the more successful BLM is, the more BLM reduces the total compensation that has traditionally caused good people to join and remain with police forces. Lowering good cop compensation results in fewer good people willing to be become or remain cops. As the percentage of good cops on police forces declines, the percentage of bad cops increases. So, as a consequence of the efforts of BLM’s claims and activities, a higher percentage of the cops who do show up will be bad cops. The people who will be the greatest victims of a higher percentage of bad cops will be the exact people on whose behalf BLM claims to be acting.

Making matters worse, as good cops find work elsewhere and the city can no longer offer the reward of being honored and respected by their community for their service, the number of people who will be willing to be cops will decline. As a consequence, the bad cops who remain and the bad people who apply to replace the good cops will be able to demand and receive higher wages because the demand for cops will remain high while the supply of people willing to become cops shrinks. Higher cop salary increases the cost of policing.  The higher the cost of policing, the fewer police and the less policing there will be.

A higher ratio of bad cops and budget constrained police forces will cause the people in the communities that need cops most to suffer the most from BLM policies. It is sad.

By picking Kaepernick as the face of the “Just Do It” campaign, Nike has lent credence to BLM’s claims and policy prescriptions and has, thereby, become complicit in the inevitable negative consequences described above—which will be disproportionately visited on poor black people. Nike made a huge mistake.

[i]     See “What the Black Lives Matter campaign gets wrong.”

[ii]    See my many posts that make a similar case about other activist movements. (It is strange that I just completed an eight-part series defending Nike against claims by activists who harm the people they believed they were helping, and here I’m condemning Nike for supporting a different cause that is doing the same thing. Such is life.)

[iii]    See “Jordan Peterson tells you to clean your room.”

[iv]    Nike’s move could very well be a huge success in terms of profits, but the positive of Nike’s profits pale in comparison to the huge damage Nike’s selection of Kaepernick will inflict on black people if BLM achieves its aims.

[v]   See Black Lives Matter’s Platform, “END THE WAR ON BLACK PEOPLE.”

[vi]   Several of BLM’s observations and proposals are accurate and meritorious, i.e., they will create net positives. I commend them for those, but they are not relevant to this post. Other BLM observations and proposals are omitted because they are irrelevant to the point of this post.

[vii]   See “’Until the Drug Dealer’s Teeth Rattle’.”

viii]  The problems with this idea were addressed in “Slowing the “School-to-Prison Pipeline”—At What Cost?

[x]  See “Top 25 Most Dangerous Neighborhoods in America.”

[xi]   See “FACTS & FIGURES – Deaths, Assaults and Injuries.”

[xii]    See “Racism is so deeply embedded in our psyche.”

Exploitation Part IV (e), Exploiting Exploitation−Additional Negative Effects

As was explained in Exploitation Part IV (d), the most self-defeating effect of the anti-sweatshop movement was that it slowed the progress of impoverished countries along their path to prosperity. That worst effect was caused by the higher costs (both in money and reputation) of operating factories in places that desperately needed more, not fewer, factories and the fear that the activists instilled in companies that would have otherwise considered starting or expanding operations in impoverished countries. Consequently, the movement helped a handful of poor people at the expense of more than a million times as many other poor people everywhere in the world, especially the poor in impoverished countries. As if that were not bad enough, the anti-sweatshop activists were also unaware (or didn’t care) about a couple other self-defeating consequences of their movement.

Displacement of Lowest Skilled Workers: When working conditions and/or pay for jobs are increased (e.g., by an imposed minimum wage), the lowest skilled employees holding those jobs at the time of the imposition of the higher wage are, to a large extent over time, replaced by higher-skilled workers from outside the company.[i] Let’s sort out why that is.

An unavoidable fact of life is that some people are more productive than others.[ii] For example, no matter the Nike factory job, some people are capable of producing more work product per hour than others. In general, the people who apply for especially low-paying jobs are especially low-skilled people relative to other workers in their market. Those employees are especially susceptible to competition for their jobs from higher-skilled people.

Let’s look at a hypothetical situation to see how the lowest-skilled workers are disproportionately disadvantaged by minimum wage increases. Let’s say that before the activists began their hectoring, (1) Nike was paying its widget makers 10¢ per hour to make the most widgets they were able to produce in an hour, which was 10 widgets (1¢ per widget), and (2) a native factory owner was paying his widget makers 15¢ per hour to make 20 widgets. Then let’s assume that the hectoring caused Nike to pay widget makers 20¢ per hour.

First, note that the higher skilled workers in native factories had to have preferred to produce twice as much as the Nike workers for only 50% more pay (and probably worse working conditions). If those workers preferred to work less hard for less pay, many of those workers would already be working for Nike.

The consequences of this situation are inevitable:

  1. Many (if not all) of the higher-skilled workers in native factories would love to have an extra 5¢ per hour (33% more pay) for producing the same number of widgets as they produced for the native owner.
  2. By firing its existing workers and hiring the higher-skilled workers Nike’s labor cost per widget would be unchanged (1¢ per widget) after the amount it paid the widget makers was doubled.
  3. As a result of a) and b), the lowest-skilled Nike workers will be displaced by higher-skilled workers.
  4. The resulting realignment of workers will:
  5. Cost Nike essentially nothing,
  6. Raise pay for a lucky few higher-skilled workers, and
  7. Cost the lowest-skilled workers their jobs and hope for a better future.

In addition, the native employers who lost those higher-skilled workers were harmed and, as the findings of the study[iii] discussed in Part IV(e), the number of low-skilled domestic jobs in Indonesia fell very significantly.

Surely this is approximately the opposite of what the anti-sweatshop activists had in mind. That is what happens when people pursue policies based on emotions rather than their minds.

Misplaced Burden: Good people wish that every worker could earn at least a “living wage” (definitions vary). Sadly, not every worker has sufficient skills to produce goods or services worth a little less than[iv] a “living wage” (more technically, the value of their “marginal product”[v]). If people are to be paid more than the value of their marginal product, someone must supply the money to bridge the gap. If the goal is for as many unskilled workers as possible to have a living wage, perhaps the most important issue in figuring out how best to accomplish that worthy goal is: “Who should bear the burden of bridging the gap between the value of the employee’s marginal product and the amount (“living wage”) the employer must pay for that product?”

First note that no employer caused any low-skilled workers to have low skills, i.e., the employer is not responsible for the existence of the problem for which a solution is needed. If society decides that this problem should be addressed, everyone in society that can bear part of the burden should.[vi] If society nevertheless decides that employers must fund the value gap (which is a bad idea), the question should be (but essentially never is), “Which employers should bear that burden of solving the societal problem?” Because that question is essentially never asked, societies almost always allow emotions to provide the answer—which, as usual, results in the wrong answer being chosen.

To achieve the stated goal of providing as many as possible low-skilled jobs that pay a “living wage” to low-skilled workers, the last companies that should be dunned for the value gap are the companies that hire low-skilled workers. That creates a direct and large incentive to use robots instead of people for as many low-skilled jobs as possible (or not to start or expand a business that uses low-skilled workers). If anything, the companies that hire low-skilled workers should be rewarded, not punished, for hiring low-skilled workers—so that they buy fewer robots and create more low-skilled jobs. So, if society wants (1) low-skilled workers to be paid more than the value of their marginal product, and (2) companies to bear the burdened of that societal goal, the burden of achieving that goal should be placed on employers in proportion to the percentage of their employees who are not subsidized, low-skilled workers. Under this scheme, companies that hire fewer low-skilled workers should subsidize companies that hire more low-skilled workers. In that way, society would burden the companies that are doing little to solve the societal problem and would reward those that are solving the societal problem.

Minimum wages do precisely the opposite. In effect, those requirements relieve companies that do not employee low-skilled workers of the societal burden and impose the burden on those companies that are helping solve the problem. The current scheme is a recipe for fewer low-skilled jobs, higher unemployment, greater welfare costs, and injustice. This is precisely the recipe that the anti-sweatshop movement served up.

Policies that do not discourage employers from employing more low-skilled people are needed everywhere. This is especially and desperately so in impoverished countries whose percentage of low-skilled workers is especially high. Policies that disproportionately hurt the very employers who employ low-skilled workers exacerbate the problem. People who exacerbate this problem should be called out and condemned. Hopefully, this series of blog posts has done that.


AUTHOR’S NOTE: I am not saying that dunning companies that hire few low-skilled employees or subsidizing ones that do are good ideas. In fact, it is a bad idea because (1) it grants too much power to government (which is already too powerful) and the government is inefficient, ham-handed, and corrupt in almost everything it does), and (2) it distorts the market, i.e., it renders the market less effective at solving society’s problems. As bad the above-proposed improvement is, however, it is far better than what society is doing right now to address the important societal problem of too many people having low skills.

[i]        See “The Cruelty of the Minimum Wage.”

[ii]       There are exceptions to this rule with respect to astoundingly exceptional people. Because minimum wage impositions are a non-issue in those circumstances, we need not delve into this exception here

[iii]      See “The Nike Effect: Anti-Sweatshop Activists and Labor Market Outcomes in Indonesia.”

[iv]       See “Exploitation-Part III, The Dangers of Incorrectly Detecting Exploitation.”

[v]      See “The Marginal Product of Labor.”

[vi]      See “Skin in the Game: Hidden Asymmetries in Daily Life” or “Nassim Nicholas Taleb on Work, Slavery, the Minority Rule, and Skin in the Game.”

Exploitation Part IV (d), Exploiting Exploitation−The Effects

In Exploitation Part IV chapters (a), (b), and (c), I claimed the anti-sweatshop movement inflicted much misery on poor people around the world. With the foundation laid in those chapters, we can now sort out how the anti-sweatshop movement caused those negative effects.


AUTHOR’S NOTE: Surely nearly all anti-sweatshop activists had good intentions. That the lives of some poor people in impoverished countries were improved by their activism is undeniable. In particular, the pay and working conditions for the few lucky people who held jobs in rich company sweatshops after the activism was improved. They also made it easier for native owned sweatshops in impoverished countries to compete with (take business from) foreign-owned sweatshops who were forced to improve pay and working conditions—because native owned sweatshops were able to produce similar goods at lower cost by spending less on working conditions and worker pay.

The tragedy of this story is that the thousands of rich country activists caused great damage to many millions, and some damage to billions, of poor people. It is a sad commentary on our education system that activists were not taught enough about economics to understand the net harm they were causing by letting emotions rather than facts and logic guide their actions. Doing things that induce good feelings about one’s self is a powerful motivator to do more of what caused those good feelings.[i] Lest the world be continually plagued by actions based on emotion rather than facts and logic, it is incumbent on those who do know enough about economics to heap scorn on people who act on the basis of emotion, i.e., “People who do not clean up their room.”[ii]

However, unless it is good to value the good feelings of rich country people over the well-being of the vast majority of poor people in impoverished countries, the relatively trivial positive effects activists achieved for a lucky few were overwhelmed by the negative consequences of the activism. Their actions impeded improvements in the standard of living of and dashed reasons for hope for a better tomorrow for many, many millions of poor people. Anyone who values improvements in the lives of a few poor people who are lucky enough to have a job in a sweatshop (what Bastiat called, “the seen”)[iii] over putting many, many millions of poor people on a path to prosperity (the “unseen”) will not likely find the following argument persuasive. Hopefully, few people have such values.


Businesses gravitate to where profits are easy or high, and especially to where both are present. Consequently, cheap labor is a possible way for a poor country to attract foreign investment and business operations. However, distant countries whose people speak languages different from those of rich countries, have few capable managers, live in a society that is not conducive to business, and/or have confiscatory and confounding governments have many strikes against them in their efforts to attract foreign investment. Succumbing to demands for higher pay and spending on better working conditions increases the cost of doing business, i.e., lessens the desirability of opening factories there. Defaming  As the costs and hassles of operating in an impoverished county rise, the gravitational pull of business to that country weakens.

In previous posts, I have explained the virtuous cycle[iv] of growth that economic development produces. In short, other things being equal, growth begets growth. Economic growth, though far from a panacea, is the best elixir for bringing an ever larger percentage of humans out of abject poverty and human thriving yet identified.[v] Accordingly, the fact that there are too few jobs in impoverished countries is a sure sign those countries need economic growth. Nothing has been proven to be more effective at accelerating economic growth in countries with an overabundance of low skilled workers than factory jobs. Delaying economic development condemns a poor country’s poor to extended poverty and to less reason for the hope that they or their children will build the economic and human capital necessary for a brighter future.

The most harmful aspect of the anti-sweatshop movement reducing the profitability of sweatshops and defaming sweatshop owners with negative publicity (which damaged the profitability of the company’s other lines of business) was the reduction in the desirability of and enthusiasm for opening factories in impoverished countries. In short, the activists diminished the “gravitational” pull on business to open factories in impoverished countries. The weakening of that pull resulted in delaying, if not squelching, economic development in poor countries. Activists both reduced the desirability of sweatshop owners expanding their operations and caused would-be sweatshop owners not to consider or to abandon plans for such operations.

Development delayed is development denied to all who live in unnecessary poverty while waiting and helplessly hoping for opportunities to obtain a better standard of living.

Note also that it will be better for every country, and therefore every human, in the world when poor country consumers can afford to buy more exports from other countries, and poor people everywhere can buy stuff (clothing and shoes, for example) at lower prices. Anti-sweatshop activism kept poor people from becoming richer and raised the price the poor everywhere must pay for their necessities.

The in terrorem effects of the anti-sweatshop movement described above are based on sound economic theory, i.e., the described effects surely happened. I would love to site multiple studies that quantify the in terrorem effects of the anti-sweatshop movement. It is not for want of trying that I have not found an article or study that focuses on those effects. (I would welcome a citation to such an article.)

There are plenty of papers on the improvements in sweatshop working conditions and pay, and the employment effects of those higher costs in impoverished countries. Those studies often attempt to quantify of some of those effects, but, to my knowledge, not the in terrorem effects—which are the most important. Perhaps there are no such studies because (1) it is hard, if not impossible to quantify what was prevented from happening, (2) papers that don’t quantify something are much harder to get published, and/or (3) university professors are uninterested in or fearful of the repercussions of studying things that would disprove their or their peer’s presuppositions. Whatever the reason, they are looking for lost keys under the streetlight because that is “where the light is” rather than where the keys are.[vi] The fact that there are no such studies does not mean there is nothing to be discovered in the dimmer, more difficult light. Hopefully, this post will trigger attempts to study the most important effects of the anti-sweatshop movement.

Even when scholars conduct research on things that can be more easily quantified, they tend to bend over backward to avoid putting activists in too bad a light (which could be a sign that their presuppositions have gotten the best of them). Even then they do not redeemed the anti-sweatshop movement.

For example, two UC Berkeley professors with PhDs in economics studied and then wrote a paper[vii] that examined some lesser important effects of (a) anti-sweatshop activism, and (b) Indonesia raising its minimum wage due to U.S. pressure—as if one did not cause the other. (Separating the effects of activism from the effects of US pressure erroneously suggests that activism was not instrumental in creating the political climate that caused the government actions to be politically popular—a necessary ingredient for US government action.) By separating the issues, however, the researchers erroneously put activists in a more benign light than was warranted. Their report concludes:

“… direct pressure from the US government …, which contributed to a doubling of the minimum wage, resulted in a 25 percent increase in real wages for unskilled workers…. Unskilled real wages increased by an additional 10 to 20 percent for exporters and multinational plants in [textiles, footwear, and apparel] sweatshop industries….

Although we find no direct impact of anti-sweatshop campaigns on employment, we do find that the minimum wage increases reduced unskilled employment… [by] as much as 10 percentage points over the period. Our results also suggest that [the studied] exporters were significantly more likely to leave Indonesia during this period.”

If one (more accurately) acknowledge that the activism induced the pressure, the researchers found that the general minimum wage increases Indonesia adopted in the 1990s due to (activist induced) U.S. pressure caused working conditions to improve and wages for those fortunate few who held jobs in the rich country factories to increase by about 30%, without reducing the number of those employees. Good for those lucky few. But the higher minimum wage reduced “unskilled” employment across the economy by as much as 10 percentage points and exporting companies left Indonesia. This is exceptionally bad because Indonesia so desperately needed more jobs, not fewer.

So, activist pressure reduced total “unskilled” labor jobs by around 10%. The impact was swift, significant, and horrible. In 1999 30%[viii] of Indonesian factory workers worked in foreign-owned factories. That means that activists induced the losses of unskilled factory jobs owned by natives by more than 14%. That was not only a tragedy to those workers who lost their jobs.[ix] Those former workers who became job seekers added to the surpluses of workers for the unnecessarily few jobs that were available, thereby putting downward pressure on the wages of all of the country’s unskilled workers. Another terrible effect is that those people no longer produced wealth for themselves and the economy, i.e., the combination of these effects was counterproductive.

To get a feel for the cumulative effects of all of these effects, take a look at this chart of Indonesian employment in textiles, footwear, and apparel plants (“TFA”):

Indonesian Employment

The chart depicts noisy data because in 1997 Thailand induced an economic crisis in Asia that hit Indonesia as activists were wrecking their havoc. The activists were not likely a material cause of the downturn. Because however, Indonesia was in the activists’ crosshairs, activists were likely a material factor in why Indonesia was hit harder than other Asian countries. (Compare rates of GDP growth of Indonesian ad India in the chart below.)

GDP Growth Indonesia

It is certain that the activists caused doing business in Indonesia to be less profitable than it would otherwise have been. Prospects for less profits results in less investment. Fewer/smaller investments result in fewer jobs than would have otherwise have been the case. Fewer jobs result in extended hardships for everyone in the country, and the world is poorer as fewer people are not producing wealth.[x]

The winners of the movement were (1) Keady, Kretzu[xi] and other movement notables who exploited the public’s economic ignorance about “exploitation” and gained wealth, self-esteem, and/or admiration from millions of similarly economically illiterate supporters, and (2) the lucky few employees of Nike and other “exploiters” who held onto their factory jobs in impoverished countries. The benefits enjoyed by the activists were unjust. The meager positive consequences of the movement were dwarfed by its negative consequence to the many millions (likely billions) of poor people around the world whose lives were made worse—very possibly including some of the workers in the videos who lost their jobs to higher skilled workers who displaced them to obtain the higher pay and better working conditions the activists caused.

Postscript: A few other negative consequences of the anti-sweatshop movement will be described in another post.

[i]      See “The Economics of Caring.” The idea that humans are motivated only to maximize their utility is false.

[ii]      See “Jordan Peterson: Delusions of Leftist Political Activism.”

[iii]    See “Frederic Bastiat on the Seen and Unseen.”

[iv]    For example, see “Wealth,” and its comments, “Wealth Creation – It’s For The Children, and their children, and their children….,” and “Wealth Creation. No Happiness, Why Bother?”

[v]      See “Tyler Cowen on The Complacent Class.”

[vi]     See “Streetlight effect.”

[vii]    See “The Nike Effect: Anti-Sweatshop Activists and Labor Market Outcomes in Indonesia.”

[viii]   See “Indonesia Labor Market Policies and International Competitiveness.”

[ix]     See “Two Cheers for Sweatshops,” “The truth is, those grim factories in Dongguan and the rest of southern China contributed to a remarkable explosion of wealth.”

[x]      See “Two Cheers for Sweatshops,” “When Britain launched the Industrial Revolution in the late 18th century, it took 58 years for per capita output to double. In China, per capita output has been doubling every 10 years.”

[xi]     See “Exploitation Part IV, Exploiting Exploitation−The Cause.”

Exploitation Part IV (c), Exploiting Exploitation−The Path To Prosperity

In “Exploitation Part IV (a), Exploiting Exploitation−The Cause” I claimed that the torment and higher costs that modern anti-sweatshop activists visited on rich country sweatshop owners inflicted net harm on the desperately people in poor countries. Those activists picked on rich country companies (as if those companies were causing the depicted people to be poor). In order to avoid being counterproductive, the activists needed to understand why Indonesians were poor and what would actually have enabled Indonesia to become a sustainably richer country. Lacking that understanding, it would have been happenstance had they actually helped the poor and it is no surprise that the activists advocated policies that were counterproductive.

To sort out what was counterproductive about the activists’ policies, one must understand what enables poor countries to become sustainably richer countries. Perhaps the easiest way to planning a path from poverty to prosperity is to identify what prosperous countries have that poor countries do not and then figure out what would enable a country to have those things. To cram into one sentence a summary of hundreds of books on this topic[i], to be rich, a country must have a culture with a relatively high reverence for and quantum of the rule of law, equal protection under the law, property rights, literacy, free markets, mutual trust among members of society, reasonable levels of taxation, and, perhaps above all, an ethic that confers dignity on people engaged in business (e.g., inventors, developers, manufacturers, service providers, traders, and entrepreneurs—even to those who honestly try but fail[ii]), as well as institutions that establish and preserve those things. In such cultures, humans can create wealth and thrive—which improves their own lives by producing things needed or wanted by others.

Note that having wealth (“capital”) is not on the list of prerequisites. With the above list of essential ingredients in place, humans can and do create wealth. History is replete with examples of poor countries with little or essentially no natural resources or much wealth becoming astoundingly wealthy. Hong Kong and Japan are great examples of this phenomenon. Conversely, history is even more replete with countries with great natural resources or wealth either failing to exploit their natural resources or squandering their wealth due to a lack of prerequisites for a sustainable prosperous culture/economy. Middle Easterners and the natives in the Western Hemisphere before the 17th century are examples of people making very little of their vast resources. Spain after the plunder of South America and Venezuela today are prime examples of countries squandering vast resources. Rome had an exceptional (for its time) amount the prerequisites as it rose to power, and returned to the norm when it abandoned too many of the prerequisites. [This blog is my small contribution to the effort to prevent America from suffering the same fate.]

Note also that benevolence is not a prerequisite.  As Adam Smith taught us so long ago, “It is not from the benevolence of the butcher, the brewer, or the baker that we expect our dinner, but from their regard to their own interest.” This is relevant because demanding that Nike spend more on employees than the market required to entice people to sign up for the work is a demand that Nike be benevolent. A plan that relies on the benevolence of others is unnecessary and unsustainable (it cannot sustain itself if the benefactor when the benefactor is no longer willing or able to be beneficent). Had a rich country given Indonesians billions of dollars in “aid” before Indonesia developed the culture and institutions to put the money to productive uses, before long all of that wealth that was not grabbed and stored in foreign bank accounts of politicians and other robbers, would have wound up in a sewer system or latrine, i.e., it would have created nothing but a short-lived bubble of prosperity followed by devastating loss of both wealth and hope.

To his great credit, Jeffrey Sachs has devoted his life to trying to figure out how to enable poor peoples to become rich. “He is known as one of the world’s leading experts on economic development and the fight against poverty.”[iii] I doubt anyone has conducted more experiments to find how to prime the pump of prosperity for poor people. In the process, he has improved the lives of people in many ways. He literally wrote the book on “The End of Poverty.” On the other hand, neither he nor anyone else has figured out how to use foreign aid to kick-start a sustainable prosperous economy in places that do not have the prerequisites for prosperity.[iv]

Note also that since the beginning of the War On Poverty in 1965, the U.S. federal government has spent $22 Trillion on welfare programs. That $22 Trillion of beneficence has not caused the poor in America to thrive and become prosperous. In short, benevolence is a band-aid, it does not create prosperous people. [v] Nevertheless, if a pot into which all of the wealth of the world was deposited for the purpose of equal distribution to all the people of the world, many people in America’s bottom 20th percentile would put more money in the pot than they would be distributed from it. What poor countries need most is more prosperity. More cash won’t cut it.

Though he has not found the magic bullet, Jeffery Sachs has learned something very important about the role of sweatshops in getting a country on the path to prosperity. He puts it thus: “[S]weatshops are the first rung on the ladder out of extreme poverty.”[vi]

In fact, all rich countries went through a sweatshop phase in the process of becoming rich. As bad as the working and living conditions of poor workers in poor countries appeared to be in the videos, those living and working conditions are comparable to the preindustrial working and living conditions of poor people in all of the countries that are rich today. For example, the absence of indoor plumbing and air conditioning and the presence of horse dung in the paths to the public outdoor latrines were a common feature of New York City factories in 1900[vii]—which was well into the industrial revolution, i.e., well along the path to prosperity. Much worse working conditions and child labor in factories were commonplace at the beginning of the industrial revolution of the 1700s.[viii] There is no magic wand to be waved over impoverished countries to create enough productivity and wealth to support rich-county working conditions. They must go through the processes of creating a productive and sustainable economy first. (As will be explained in future posts, trying to jump-start the process with benevolence actually slows the process.)

For example, as I explained in “Wealth” about America:

“Factory labor was dehumanizing, sometimes led to child labor, and caused many to leave their “idyllic” farm lives. Despite these negative results, people took factory jobs because they could live a better life than would have been possible with their alternatives. One should realize that having young children working on farms was already necessary for survival. At first, there was nothing unnatural about children working as they had always done. Child labor only became dispensable after the factory machines (made possible and available by capitalism) improved the productivity of ordinary workers so they could produce enough to provide for their families. Even then, there was not enough productivity to dispense with all child labor. The first child labor laws restricted the employment of children younger than 9 years old, and the next wave of laws only required employers to provide a certain amount of education to young workers. It took more than 100 years for capitalism to produce sufficient productivity per worker so the legal age of an adult could be set at 18.”

For a country to dispense with child labor, it must be rich enough to do so. Quixotic do-gooding, such as Keady and Kretzu’s, hinders a country’s ability to become rich enough to dispense with child labor.

A common reason impoverished countries are impoverished is that economic conditions in those countries are not conducive to wealth creation, i.e., the odds that a new business would make enough profit to be worth the necessary effort, money and time are too low to induce enough people to attempt new businesses. Consequently, poor business environments generate neither the financial or human capital necessary to have a self-sustaining prosperous society. To create the necessary economic conditions for sustained prosperity, the odds of profitability of doing business in a poor country needs to increase. The greater the prospects for profit, the more and faster a country will move along the path to prosperity.

Those economic conditions that inhibit profitability can exist for a wide variety of reasons. Regardless of the reasons, however, no foreign company can substantially alter the economic conditions of another country. Under the right conditions, however, they can help countries get started on the right path. In particular, if (1) the foreign company is large and wealthy enough to take on distant, complicated, problematic,[ix] and risky operations in a foreign land, (2) opening a factory in a foreign land is profitable enough to deal with all issues of building and running a factory there, then the job opportunities its factory makes available to poor people in that country will increase the workers’ financial and human capital (wellbeing)—all of which increase their productivity—and will put the country in a better position to improve its economy.

A hallmark of poor people in poor countries is that they have few, if any skills when hired, know nothing about how to become a productive (valuable) employee, and have no way to gain that human capital. Working in a sweatshop starts the process of building those skills. Building and operating factories in poor countries necessarily provides to poor people (1) brick and mortar capital, (2) employment income that will (a) improve the standard of living of the employee, and (b) be traded with local businesses, thereby improving the lives of the owners and employees of those other businesses, and (3) education (human capital) to workers (a) who learn skills and/or what causes workers to be rewarded or punished for various behaviors, and (b) for some, how to run a business.

As I hope is now obvious, “Sweatshops themselves are part of the very process of development that will lead to their own elimination.”[x]

To those who are more interested in actually helping poor people than enhancing their self-esteem, the more poor countries can receive the benefits of sweatshops, the better for the poor.

[i]       The seminal book was Adam Smith’s “The Wealth of Nations.” My favorite book on the subject is Diedre McCloskey’s “Bourgeois Dignity.”

[ii]       See “The EU Is Not Entrepreneur Heaven — But It Could Be:”

“The “fail fast, fail often” mentality is at the center of the entrepreneurial approach in the U.S., and investors regard a track record of failures as a sign of boldness, intelligence, and ambition.

Not so much in the EU: While in Germany, for example, a failed entrepreneur, manager or professional is at best regarded with contempt, there are countries like Italy where a personal bankruptcy essentially means that you will not be able to build any other business for the rest of your whole life — and in some cases not even own anything at all, like a car, a house or an armchair.”

[iii]     See Jeffery Sachs Wikipedia page.

[iv]     See William Easterly’s “The Elusive Quest for Growth” and “Jeffrey Sachs on the Millennium Villages Project.”

[v]      See “The War on Poverty After 50 Years.”

[vi]      See “Meet the Old Sweatshops, Same as the New.”

[vii]     See “Life in New York City before indoor toilets.”

[viii]    See “The conditions in these early sweatshops were worse than those in many Third World sweatshops today. In some factories, workers toiled for sixteen hours a day, six days per week. Attendance at traditional festival days was curtailed because factories would fine workers for absences. The working conditions were unhealthy and dangerous. Dust from textile fibers was inhaled in poorly ventilated rooms, and workers were maimed by fast-moving machinery (Stearns 2007, 35). Child labor was common.2 Factories employed orphan children from London and other major cities in exchange for providing them room and board.”  Also see, “Meet the Old Sweatshops, Same as the New,” Page 110, VOLUME 19, NUMBER 1, SUMMER 2014.


[x]    See “Meet the Old Sweatshops, Same as the New,” Page 120, VOLUME 19, NUMBER 1, SUMMER 2014.

Exploitation Part IV (b), Exploiting Exploitation−The “Arguments”

Exploitation Part IV (a), Exploiting Exploitation−The Cause” described how do-gooder activists exposed the abominable working and living conditions of low-skilled workers in poor country “sweatshops” (starting with “Behind the Swoosh” about Nike’s sweatshop in Indonesia) and the derision, boycotts, and bad press they heaped on Western sweatshop owners. The activists’ tactics described in “The Cause” presented what the activists apparently believed were logical arguments as to what to do about the supposed evil that Nike and others were committing. Sadly, those “arguments” not only convinced the activists of their own righteousness (the dopamine hits from which induced them to do more of it), the “arguments” resonated with a large portion of the American public. What was illogical about those “arguments” needs to be sorted out. Let’s do that now.

Let’s review the activists’ tactics/“arguments” (described in “Exploitation Part IV (a), Exploiting Exploitation−The Cause”).

(1) Publish videos of working conditions in the rich companies’ sweatshops. As viewed through Western lenses, the conditions living and working conditions presented in “Behind the Swoosh” were invidious. The video was quite useful in raising awareness of the importance of improving the lives of desperately poor people around the world. Note, however, that the working conditions of a sweatshop are poor is a fact. The closest it comes to being an argument would be that it implies that something should be done by someone. However, showing that fact makes no case about what should be done or by whom.

Yet, the activists seem to think that they have made an argument that because Nike owns the sweatshop and the working conditions are, by Western standards, unacceptably low, that Nike should improve working conditions. Because achieving that result would be in the best interest of Jim Keady, Leslie Kretzu, and other activists—because that result was their goal (another unstated goal appears to have been achieving the joy of defaming big companies)—they likely found the “argument” to be compelling (as did lots of people who were just as uninformed as the activists). Sadly, however, their “argument” omitted all the fact necessary to an understanding of what would help the poor people of the world (the goal that they claimed to be pursuing). An “argument” founded on a tiny fraction of the relevant facts, however, is not an argument.

When it comes to helping those desperately poor people, what was shown made matters worse and had action been taken in response to what the video did not show would have actually helped the desperately poor people of the world.

Most important, while succumbing to the activists’ tactics resulted in improvements in the working conditions and pay (lives) of the relatively few poor Indonesians who won the job lottery of being employed by Nike, the “success” for those few Indonesians resulted in the unnecessary continuation of misery for millions of other desperately poor people in Indonesia—and hundreds of millions elsewhere. Moreover, the least skilled of the Nike employees at the time of the video (perhaps even some shown in the videos) would have lost their jobs to higher skilled Indonesians enticed away from their former job to enjoy the higher pay and better working conditions at Nike.

The videos did not reveal those negative consequences. The fact that the activists filmed and published their videos while oblivious to the consequences of their actions should have brought them infamy. Sadly (especially for the poor of the world), due to the equal obliviousness of the general public in America, they were esteemed instead.

Another instance of Keady or Kretzu serving their own interests at the expense of the poor was that they advocated for things that Keady and Kretzu thought would be best for the Nike workers rather than what Nike workers thought would have been best for the Nike workers. Had Keady and Kretzu asked sweatshop workers whether they would have preferred better working conditions or more pay with the same (or even somewhat worse working conditions), the vast majority would have said “more pay.” Why? As the videos showed, the poor Indonesians were continually malnourished and hungry. The reason poor Indonesians would choose more pay over better working conditions is simple: No one can nourish her starving family with better working conditions. So, even had the activists’ “arguments” actually been arguments, those arguments would not have been tilted in favor of the activists’ interests rather than the best interests of the poor they sought to help.

(2) Show how little the workers were paid. Showing a factoid out of context can cause emotional, knee-jerk reactions, but it is often of little help in understanding a problem—which is essential to effectively addressing the problem. For example, showing a clueless mother the advantages to herself and her children if they were to successfully rob a bank might induce her to give that plan a go. Obviously, the fact that the factoid is true, does not mean that there were no other facts that should be considered before executing the plan. Such is the nature of the “logic” underlying the activists’ plan to improve working conditions and pay.

A very important fact omitted from the video is the fact that every one of the depicted workers was much better off than they would have been absent the Nike job—despite the poor working conditions and pay. Everyone who accepted Nike’s job offer was fully aware of the pay and working conditions being offered and, not only did workers voluntarily agree to the deal, they felt lucky that they were near enough to the front of the long line[i] of job applicants that they, unlike the woeful applicants remaining in the line when the window closed, got a job before all the positions were filled. Such pertinent information could not be included in the videos because it would have been too much of a buzzkill to their demonization of Nike.

Another important factor misleadingly omitted from the video is the reason workers were paid so little in Indonesia at the time. The primary reason workers in poor countries are paid so little is that the number of low-skilled workers greatly exceeded the number of low-skilled jobs (i.e., the supply of low-skilled workers greatly exceeded the demand for low-skilled workers). As I explained in “Tax Cuts and Employee Compensation,” the best approach to increase wages at any pay level is to increase the number of jobs at that level of pay. In short, workers’ pay at any pay level rises when qualified workers for a job are scarce and such jobs are plentiful.[ii] The ripple effect of more people having jobs, more money, and prosperity helps everyone, not just the Nike workers. Slowing the pace of job growth has precisely the opposite effects, which are bad for everyone.

Keady or Kretzu were obviously oblivious to the fact that as the cost of labor increases, the demand for labor decreases. Consequently, Keady or Kretzu were illogically advocating policies that would reduce the number of jobs, thereby putting downward pressure on pay for low-skilled workers in Indonesia (with the possible exception of those lucky few who landed a job at a sweatshop owned by a rich country company).

(3) Show how little the pay will buy. How little can be bought with sweatshop pay says nothing about the pay that would best serve the interest of all the poor people in a country. Consequently, showing how little can be purchased is not an argument as to what sweatshops should pay. They made no logical economic argument that paying the people they filmed more would be in the best interest of poor Indonesians as a whole. With what the activists chose to show, the only honest and logical argument the activists could have attempted would have been that arbitrarily paying Nike’s sweatshop workers above-market wages and working conditions created enough good to offset the extension of misery that would be inflicted on the millions of other poor people in the country as a result. An honest and logical argument, however, was likely impossible. Apparently more important to the activists, attempting an honest and logical argument would have undermined their efforts to gin up the emotional fever for their ill-founded cause.

(4) Show the workers’ destitution. Showing destitution provides no hint as to how best to alleviate destitution or who should pay the cost of such alleviation. Is anything more illogical than activists insisting that people or companies that are actually helping the poor should be condemned for not helping them even more?[iii] To be logically consistent, shouldn’t activists be patrolling the streets of big cities screaming at people who put only $5 in a homeless person’s tin cup because the homeless person really needs $10K to get back on his feet?

(5) Reveal the high-profit Western sweatshop owners made each year. The wealth of an employer has nothing to do with either what employees should be paid or what pay is in the best interest of the poor people of the world. Neither does reporting the wealth of an employer reveal anything about whether the profit made from its poor country operations is inappropriately high, nor whether its operations are exploitative. It especially does not show how much less poor country workers would be paid by poorer domestic sweatshop owners (or how many fewer of such owners there would be if the income from foreign owners were not rippling through the economy) if rich companies were to abandon their operations in poor countries because of the derision and infamy that activists heap upon them. That activists routinely pick on companies that are making job opportunities available to people who would not otherwise have a job is illogical and exasperating.

As can be seen from the above, “Behind the Swoosh” and the other anti-sweatshop activists’ tactics approached 100% emotional appeal and 0% logical soundness.

As we shall see in the following post, if the anti-activists would have paid attention to sound economic reasoning instead of their emotions (or what was in their personal best interest), they would have gotten out of the way of rich businesses that were helping poor countries take a shorter and sustainable trip to prosperity. Instead, the activists have exploited the public’s economic illiteracy to make matters worse for the people they believed they were helping.


[i]     “Workers in Indonesia line up by the thousands to make Converse shoes for Nike. The wages paid make even the terribly poor— in the terribly poor’s judgment— better off than they would be with under the even more terrible alternatives, such as begging in the street.” McCloskey, Deirdre N. Bourgeois Equality: How Ideas, Not Capital or Institutions, Enriched the World (Kindle Locations 11154-11156). University of Chicago Press. Kindle Edition.

[ii]     See “The world economy as we know it is about to be turned on its head.”

[iii]    The companies listed in “The 20 Companies With The Most Low-Wage Workers” (which hire about 2 million minimum wage workers) are hounded the most.

Exploitation Part IV (a), Exploiting Exploitation−The Cause

AUTHOR’S NOTE: This and the next two posts are about well-intended people doing something that hurt the people they thought they were helping. To explain in one post the thing done, the illogic upon which the action was based, and the harm it caused must be explained would make for a very long post—something I try to avoid. (Seriously, I do!) For that reason, Part IV “Exploiting Exploitation” has been broken into three posts, (a) “The Cause,” (b) The Arguments, and (c) “The Effect.” This post about the cause describes only what those well-intended people did that caused the problems for the people they were trying to help.


A tragic example of the good intentions of self-assured do-gooders inflicting widespread harm on the world’s desperately poor (the very people they intended to help) is the 1998 campaign against Nike’s Indonesian “sweatshop.” That attack on Nike jump-started the modern “anti-sweatshop movement,” [i] which became a cause celebre.

Jim Keady and Leslie Kretzu, admirably compassionate, persistent, and persuasive (but economically illiterate) denizens of the wealthiest country in the world, traveled to Indonesia to film “Behind the Swoosh,”[ii] an exposé on the plight of people, including children, who worked in Nike’s Indonesian shoe factory. They came, they saw what they thought to be heartless exploitation of poor people by the mighty and ridiculously rich Nike, Inc., and they conquered much of the enthusiasm of rich companies to make income opportunities available to people of the world who desperately needed income.

The movement’s basic approach to was to (1) video the working conditions in the sweatshops, (2) describe how little (by Western standards) the workers were paid, (3) show how shockingly (to Western eyes) little could be purchased locally with that pay, (4) show the workers’ destitution (by anyone’s standards−save those billion people who live on $1/day instead of $3/day), (5) reveal the high profit Western sweatshop owners made (which were large by almost any standard), and (6) publicly defame and humiliate high profile people associated with sweatshops.

The anti-sweatshop movement’s basic approach (I would use the word “argument,” but they made no arguments, they made uncontextualized observations—apparently thinking they were making an argument) is illogical. Let’s sort out the elements of the approach:

(1) Publish videos of working conditions in the rich companies’ sweatshops. They presented to denizens of rich countries videos of the destitution of people in impoverished countries. Observing those sad scenes effectively tugged on the heartstrings of rich country people. Such tugging is helpful and noble for the purpose of raising awareness of a need to improve the lives of desperately poor people. Such tugging is worse than worthless as a means of identifying what actions might efficaciously and sustainably improve the lives of people in poor countries. It certainly presents no logical argument that paying Nike sweatshop workers more would make a dent in the lives of the billion poor people in poor countries that did not work for Nike. (As will be explained in a future post, paying the Nike employees more worsened the income prospects for the billion unemployed poor people in impoverished countries who did not work in Western company sweatshops—and for some of the Nike employees.)

(2) Show how little the workers were paid. This is another exercise in heartstring-tugging. It does not enlighten anyone as to why the depicted workers are paid so little or the negative consequences to the poor of the world of increasing pay or improving working conditions of sweatshop jobs. It makes no logical argument for anything.

(3) Show how little the pay will buy. That people in poor countries are destitute and desire sweatshop jobs[iii] is sad and worthy of our attention, sympathy, and help. Regardless of how much sweatshop pay will buy, workers could afford to buy even less absent that pay. That is why they desire the jobs.[iv] Moreover, regardless of how little can be bought with the pay says nothing about the pay amount that would maximize the rate at which their country can climb the ladder of prosperity (which is the only effective and sustainable way to help the world’s poor. What was shown in the video is not a logical argument that sweatshop workers should be paid more. It is an unthinking, emotional appeal to act—consequences be damned.

(4) Show the workers’ destitution. Showing destitution coveys nothing about how best to alleviate destitution.

(5) Reveal the high-profit Western sweatshop owners made each year. The high wealth of an employer is not a factor in determining the pay levels that will best serve the interests of the poor people of the world. For example, the median income of Americans is more than 130 times that of Liberians,[v] i.e., the average American is ridiculously wealthier than the average Liberian. If an average American wanted to buy a car from a Liberian, should that American be shamed, defamed, and ridiculed if she is unwilling to pay more than fair market value for the car because she is ridiculously wealthier than the relatively poor Liberian? I can see no rationale for that. As an argument, the idea that Nike’s wealth has anything to do with how much a worker should be paid for the labor she is just as irrational. Rather than an argument, the activists’ tactic is an appeal not to logic but to the envy and exploits the economic illiteracy of the members of a mob.[vi]

As you can see, the videos are great at pulling on heartstrings, but they present no logical argument as to how improving pay or working conditions for a handful of poor people (“lottery winners” would be an apt analogy) now will enable the bottom billion of poor people in the world to become sustainably richer sooner. In reality, all but the tiny fraction of poor people who win the lotto become poorer by having played. Most lottery winners, especially poor people who win, become poor again soon after a win, and the positive effects on “the poor” of lotto winners are negligible.

Making emotional pleas to institute changes while clueless as to the negative consequences is irresponsible. Worse, it is self-congratulatory folly to plea for things that will make things worse for the intended beneficiaries. Being superficial, trendy, and self-congratulatory is neither noble nor helpful.[vii]

In an attempt to shame Nike’s chairman into paying sweatshop workers more, “Behind the Swoosh” made him out to be mean and heartless. Knowing that paying more than the local market rates would do harm to the world’s poor, Phil Knight resisted the demands of activists for many years. Eventually, however, the drumbeat of negative press induced by the movement and the economic illiteracy of the America public cause Nike to improve working conditions, increase pay, and reduce child labor in its sweatshops.[viii] (Rather than reading the headlines and what economically illiterate journalists say, read between the lines of what Nike said and you will see that the primary thing that happened is that Nike lost the public relations war.) In other words, the movement increased Nike’s cost of doing business in impoverished countries. As The Independent reported, “… after a decade of denying any wrongdoing, companies such as Nike and Gap are now admitting that their workers have been exploited and abused[ix] and have pledged to improve the conditions of the millions[x] of people who are paid a few pence a day to make their top-selling goods.”[xi] In short, Nike fought the mob and eventually the mob won—and the poor people in impoverished countries suffered the consequences.

Nike’s capitulation came after the movement’s first big scalp. Kathie Lee Gifford was brought to tears (see video above) by being called a “child exploiter!” because a clothing line with her name on it was made in a Honduran sweatshop. The humiliation and humbling of a high profile and popular public figure effectively warned other current and potential factory operators not to consider providing employment opportunities to people in poor countries unless they were willing to incur profit killing working conditions and pay. Even though Gifford’s company was making available desperately needed jobs and income to desperately poor people in Honduras, she could not fade the heat of the calumny that was being rained upon her. Rather than fight for what was in the best interest of the poor people of Honduras, she avoided being turned into a pariah by jumping on the advocate’s bandwagon. The activist visited similar tactics on others and achieved similar results on other high-profile people. “Pressure from college students and other opponents of sweatshops has led some factories that make goods for industry giants like Nike and the Gap to cut back on child labor, to use less dangerous chemicals and to require fewer employees to work 80-hour weeks, according to groups that monitor such factories.”[xii]

The Independent article cited above also said, “And in the David and Goliath battle of the small activists against big business, even the companies themselves are admitting defeat.” They have also induced the U.S. government to cause poor countries to improve working conditions standards. In short, because the advocates’ successful villainization of sweatshop owners, the economic advantages of foreign sweatshops were and continue to be depressed.

The upshot of all of this is that the business advantages of opening factories in impoverished counties plummeted. The cause of that plummeting was the anti-sweatshop movement’s beliefs, illogic, and tactics. With those beliefs, illogic, and tactics, the activists exploited the word “exploitation” to boost their self-esteem, fame, and celebrity (and, perhaps, wealth) and to help a relative handful of sweatshop workers at the expense of the billions of desperately poor people who would have been dramatically helped had the activists tended to things they knew something about.

[i]       See “Anti-sweatshop movement.”

[ii]       See “Nike Sweatshops – Behind the Swoosh.”

[iii]      See “Two Cheers for Sweatshops.”

[iv]     “Workers in Indonesia line up by the thousands to make Converse shoes for Nike. The wages paid make even the terribly poor— in the terribly poor’s judgment— better off than they would be with under the even more terrible alternatives, such as begging in the street.” McCloskey, Deirdre N. Bourgeois Equality: How Ideas, Not Capital or Institutions, Enriched the World (Kindle Locations 11154-11156). University of Chicago Press. Kindle Edition.

[v]      See “Worldwide, Median Household Income About $10,000.”

[vi]      See “The Marginal Product of Labor.”

[vii]     See “Jordan Peterson – I’ve Read Some Marx, Now I’m Gonna Change The World!

[viii]     See “‘We Blew It’: Nike Admits to Mistakes Over Child Labor,” and “How Nike shed its sweatshop image to dominate the shoe industry.”

[ix]      This reads as if Nike had admitted that in general all sweatshop employees had been “exploited and abused.” I have found no support for that claim. Nike admitted it “blew it” with respect to child labor in Pakistan, not everywhere.

[x]      I found no article that said how many people worked in Nike sweatshops, but the claim that “millions of people” work in Nike sweatshops is highly suspicious (seemingly incredible).

[xi]      See “The ethical revolution sweeping through the world’s sweatshops.”

[xii]      See “Anti-Sweatshop Movement Is Achieving Gains Overseas.”

Exploitation-Part III, The Dangers of Incorrectly Detecting Exploitation

Exploitation-Part I, The Bay For Justice” sorted out how conflating punishment of crimes with compensation for losses suffered by exploited people in determining a fair reparation amount for colonization would produce an unjust result. “Exploitation-Part II, Reparations—Calculating A Fair Amount” sorted out many of the imponderables involved in calculating a fair amount of reparations for the exploitation committed by Colonizers. In this part, let’s sort out some problems concerning the detection of exploitation.

Let’s start by reviewing the definition of “Exploitation,” “the action or fact of treating someone unfairly in order to benefit from their work.” Unfairness to a worker invokes “a broad range of topics and issues, from working time (hours of work, rest periods, and work schedules) to remuneration, as well as the physical conditions and mental demands that exist in the workplace.” (Hereafter, I will use the words “pay” or “paid”[i] instead of “working conditions” to substitute for the many and varied elements of working conditions). When “unfairness” is the standard by which something is to be discerned, what is and is not exploitation is subjective and subject to abuse. The abuse of the word, “exploitation” is a prime example.

These days, the word, “exploitation,” is applied by some activists to essentially every working condition that compensates an employee less than an economically illiterate activist believes an employee should be paid. That belief is usually grounded on the strength of little more than a gut feeling. Without a good understanding of economics, a gut feeling about economic matters is typically wrong. For example, in a free market, regardless of what a third party might subjectively believe to be fair pay, an employee should, and will generally be, paid a little less than the local market value of the employee’s “work product”―all other things being equal.[ii]


AUTHOR’S NOTE: In response to the preceding sentence, you might think to yourself, “I’ve just read another reason to give up on free markets.” That thought would be a most unfortunate. As many problems as free market capitalism create, humans have not yet invented an alternative economic system that leads to better results, especially for the poor. How a society treats its poor is extremely important. (Sadly, however, other than improving the poor’s standards of living over time and treating them equally under the law, humans have not yet figured out how to help the poor become thriving members of society.) However, contrary to what Ghandi (how society treats its weakest members) or Dostoyevsky (how society treats its criminals) have said, the best test of societies is how they treat each of their individual members. If you doubt the first claim, please take a look at “The Deadly Isms.” If you doubt the second claim, please read Diedre McCloskey’s book, “Bourgeois Dignity” (Or at least read her very abbreviated summary, “Bourgeois Dignity: A Revolution in Rhetoric.”) If after doing so you still believe either or both claims to be untrue, please let me know why in the comments section.


The primary reasons employees are paid “a little less” rather than the full value of their work product are: (1) employers incur costs to enable employees to produce, and (2) if employees were paid a greater amount, then (a) above market employee costs would put the employer at a competitive disadvantage with other companies, and (b) keeping an employee who is paid an above-market amount creates losses that can be avoided by replacing her with someone who is willing to work for a fair market value pay. The good news is that, by and large, employers cannot pay employees less than a little bit less than the value of their work product because they cannot prevent employees from taking a job with a company that will pay them the fair market amount. (For example, in a competitive marketplace, if women are systematically underpaid by their employer, then competing companies are given the opportunity to profit greatly by hiring female workers who are underpaid.[iii] As labor costs are a large percentage of most employers total costs, cutting labor costs by 23 or 17 percent (the amount by which many claim women are underpaid in America) by hiring underpaid women would be a huge advantage. The bidding war to get in on that advantage would bid up what women had to be paid, thereby eliminating the pay gap (if there were one―Hint: It doesn’t exist.[iv]). so competition between employers erodes any irrational difference in pay by rewarding businesses that successfully overcome gender biases. Individuals may be biased, but that doesn’t necessarily mean the market is.”

Any amount paid to employees that is in excess of “a little less” than the value of a worker’s work product is either charity or forced redistribution. To be uncharitable may be a character flaw, but it is not an act of unfairness to the person who desires handouts.

The widespread lack of understanding of the above realities concerning fair and unfair pay is hurting people today who most desperately need their lives to be improved. Sorting this out would be tremendously helpful to poor people here and around the world.

“Sweatshops” is the name given to what is perceived to be grotesque examples of exploitation in the modern world. Wikipedia’s description of “sweatshop” is, “. . . a factory or workshop where workers are treated unfairly, for example having low wages, working long hours and in poor conditions.” “Unfairly” is the key word in the definition. Note also the words “low,” “long,” and “poor.” None of these words have objective criteria. All of these subjective variables beg the question, “compared to what?” Consequently, each observer applies his own subjective conceptions of “fair,” “low,” “long,” and “poor.” That would be fine if it were not the fact that people of good faith tend to assume their subjective definitions for each of the words is objectively fair. Sadly, many tragedies have been inflicted on the world’s poor by such people. It is a classic case of the pursuit of perfection creating unnecessarily worse outcomes.

A shop with working conditions that can be reasonably and objectively be characterized as unfair deserves the evil moniker, “sweatshop.” Objective standards for “fair,” “low,” “long,” and “poor” are harder to envision than one might think. For example, what an average San Franciscan would consider being “fair pay” today is vastly different from what an average San Franciscan in 1776 would have considered being fair. Similarly, the average San Franciscan in 1776 would have likely considered a fair pay to be somewhere between the pay received by an average Gambian and Burundian worker today (less than $3.00 per day in 2011 U.S. dollars). Obviously, “fair pay” depends on time, place, circumstances, and perspectives of the perceiver and the perceived.

Anyone’s subjective conception of fair pay for someone in a faraway place and/or time is nearly worthless. Nevertheless, using nearly worthless criteria to define “fair pay” is what most activists do.  Nickolas Kristoff noted, “Well-meaning American university students regularly campaign against sweatshops.” That is fine for someone who cares more about being (or appearing to be) compassionate than the plight of the people they believe their compassion is helping. If one, however, really cares more about the people they believe their policies would help, such simple-minded analysis is irresponsible. Kristoff again, “But instead, anyone who cares about fighting poverty should campaign in favor of sweatshops, demanding that companies set up factories in Africa. … [T]hat would fight poverty far more effectively than any foreign aid program….”[v] Let’s sort out why that is true.

When a first-world company opens a factory in another first-world country, it can attract employees only if it offers to pay on par with what other companies are paying for similar work. As people in an economy take newly created jobs, the resulting lower supply of people seeking jobs in the market increases pressure for pay to increase for those kinds of jobs―usually with much spillover to other kinds of jobs. (It’s a supply and demand thing).[vi] The same occurs when a first-world company opens a factory in a poor country. When they do so and offer to pay an amount that appears to denizens of rich countries to be astoundingly low, lines of applicants quickly become long. If the offered pay is not more valuable to the person than the cost to the person of doing the work, the person will not take the job. Having a job in a country where few have jobs are available is not only a source of extra income, relief, and security, it gives the employee status, and hope for a better future. Being able to lower the likelihood that your children will starve is very valuable. Enabling people to have better lives is a fundamentally good thing. The more first-world companies do that, the better.

Of course, first-world companies could pay their employees more. Obviously, the employees who happen to get the jobs and the above-market pay are that much better off. Everyone else in the world, however, is made worse off if above market amounts are paid―and the poor are hit the hardest. If everyone in the world could understand why this is true, the world would be a much better place for everyone, especially the poor.  Let’s sort out why is this so?

EFFECTS ON THE FIRST-WORLD: If factory workers are paid an above-market amount, the cost of what they produce will be sold at a higher price than would be the case than if a market amount were paid to employees. That higher price will cost more to everyone who purchases their work product. With prices being arbitrarily higher than they need to be:

  1. People must pay more for what they buy―and the poor are hit the hardest, which means,
  2. People will have less money left over to spend on things supplied by other providers, which means,
  3. Those other providers will make less profit than they otherwise would have, which means.
  4. Those providers cannot grow as fast as they otherwise would, which means,
  5. Those providers cannot expand their workforce as fast as they otherwise could, which means,
  6. The supply of people looking for jobs will be higher than it otherwise would be, which means,
  7. The rate at which pay increases for all workers is slower than it otherwise would be, which means,
  8. Workers everywhere will have a lower pay than would have otherwise been the case, which means,
  9. The standard of living of everyone will be lower than would otherwise be the case, and less capital and incentive to invent cheaper and/or better products will be available, which means,
  10. Things will improve for everyone more slowly.

EFFECTS ON IMPOVERISHED COUNTRIES: Each of those negative effects are tiny to any individual and especially tiny to the people in first-world―consequently the poor are hit the hardest. However, the cumulative negative effect of all of those tiny rippling effects can be large for the economy as a whole because each effect feeds the next. As unfortunate as all of those negative effects are for people in the first-world and elsewhere, they pale in comparison to the damage that they do to the poor in impoverished countries.

The worst effects of a select few people getting higher than market pay in impoverished countries are that:

  1. The economic advantage of first-world companies opening factories in impoverished countries is smaller than it would otherwise be, which means,
  2. Fewer factories will be opened or expanded in impoverished countries, which means,
  3. Fewer jobs will become available in impoverished countries, which means,
  4. Vastly fewer people will have the opportunity to improve their lives by having the extra money from a job, and
  5. Vastly less human capital that is built by having a job and learning the ropes of business is unnecessarily denied to impoverished people will be built (witness all the businesses in America that are owned by Hispanics, Chinese, Koreans, Vietnamese, and Indians who learned skills and gained knowledge about business by taking a low-level job when they were young), which means,
  6. The people who were unnecessarily denied a job (because the job was never created) will continue to live on the brink of catastrophe and in near hopelessness, which means,
  7. Those destitute people cannot buy things from local merchants that they could if they had a job, which means,
  8. Local business will languish due to lack of demand for their products, which means,
  9. Jobs that could have been created locally do not get created, which means. . ..

Wishing that working conditions in poor countries were far better than what they are now is commendable. The hue and cry about sweatshops,[vii] however, has inflicted and is inflicting grievous harm on poor people across the world.[viii] Today’s quixotic sweatshop activists haplessly and damnably make matters worse for the people they wish and believe they are helping.

In short, paying people a little less than the value of their work product is not exploitation. It is by far the most effective way people in poor countries can accumulate human and money capital which is essential to steady improvement of their lives.[ix] Such demands condemn people in poor countries to the perpetuation of their abject poverty at a minimum and greatly slows their climb out of poverty at best.[x]

[i] Using the terms “pay” and “value of work product” simplifies a very complex set of variables, each of which is worth discussing. That discussion, however, is not essential to an understanding of the general point here being made. For example, if in the perception of the employer an employee is harder to get along with, has less reliable attendance, excessively disrupts or otherwise causes fellow employees to be less productive or is less committed to the enterprise than an average employee, then that employee would be paid less than “a little less” than the value of the work product of an average employee. The inverse is true also.

[ii] For another example, see “‘He’s a Hater!’

[iii] Of course, the popular memes to the contrary are false. See “There Is No Gender Wage Gap” and “Jordan Peterson debate on the gender pay gap, campus protests and postmodernism.”

[iv] See “The Size of the Gender Pay Gap Matters,” and “There Is No Gender Wage Gap.”

[v] See “Sweatshops.” For a broader take on people activating for things they do not understand, see “Jordan Peterson tells you to clean your room.”

[vi] See “Tax Cuts and Employee Compensation.”

[vii] See “The Injustice of Sweatshops and Exploitation.”

[viii] See, “John Stossel – Does Free Trade Exploit the Poor?

[ix] See “Sweatshops: A Way Out of Poverty.”

[x] See “Yaron Brook – ‘Sweatshops’,” “John Stossel – Sweatshops,” and “The Unbelievable Truth about Sweatshops.”

Exploitation-Part II, Reparations—Calculating A Fair Amount.

Exploitation-Part I, The Bay For Justice” sorted out how conflating punishment of crimes with compensation for losses in determining a fair reparation amount for colonization would produce an unjust result. Yet, conflating those disparate things is as common as it is illogical. That being the case, many people are fine with punishing people who had nothing to do with committing a crime plus they seek compensation without thinking through (1) what compensation would be appropriate, (2) from whom it should come, (3) whether it is possible to ensure that only the people deserving reparations would get them—so as to avoid siphoning off money that should go to those who deserve it (and avoid payments to people who do not deserve them),[i] and (4) whether receipt of reparations would be salutary to its recipients or their progeny and/or society at large. In this post let’s sort through some of the issues associated with calculating an appropriate amount of reparations.


AUTHOR’S NOTES: Colonizers owned slaves in many colonies and colonizers profited from the import/export slave trade as well. Both activities are disgusting—certainly by today’s standards at least. As terrible as those things were, this post will focus on non-punitive, just compensation, i.e., the economics of the matter. This is proper for the reasons explained in “Exploitation-Part I, The Bay For Justice,” i.e., because an argument for just reparations rests on the economics, not the heinousness, of exploitation. (I acknowledge that other justifications for reparations have been claimed, but I am aware of no legitimate ones.)

Moreover, much of the exploitation by colonizers did not involve the ownership of slaves by colonizers. Rather, colonizers and native entrepreneurs entered into voluntary transactions to trade raw materials, goods, labor and/or ideas (“Stuff”) that they valued less for Stuff that they valued more. (The standard rejoinder to this claim about colonization is “monopoly!” The impact of the colonizers’ monopoly power will be addressed later posts. I mention he rejoinder here in hope that the reader does not quit the post because she believes I am ignorant of what she believes to be the primary feature of these transactions. Suffice it to say here that monopoly power affected the fairness of transactions to some degree but did not negate the voluntariness of the transactions. That they were voluntary reveals much about the economics of the situation.)

By treating slavery as a form of exploitation (as opposed to the effrontery to humanity that I believe it is) for purposes of economic analysis, I am by no means dismissing or excusing the qualitative difference between unfair working conditions[ii] and slavery. The differences are real, large, and damnable.

What follows is far from the mainstream thought of people who today live in modern, prosperous countries. Many, probably most, of those people believe that anyone who harbors thoughts other than letting their abject and uncompromising abhorrence of people having to work under grueling, harsh, and unrewarding conditions or whose thoughts might impede immediate reparations stupendous amounts is either evil or demented. Because I believe those beliefs of those people are inflicting more harm than good on poor people around the world today, a sorting out what is wrong with those beliefs is needed. Call me evil or demented if you must.

Others commentators have broached the ideas discussed in this post. The ones I’ve seen, however, tiptoe into the issues by saying things like, “This is a touchy topic, but permit me to tread carefully.” Approaching the topic in that way results in milquetoast assertions that do not get to the heart of the matter[iii] and are therefore too to obscure or oblique to enlighten as much as is necessary. By taking a straightforward tact I hope to more clearly sort out the relevant issues.


Arguments for reparations are usually founded on three broad claims:

1) Rich countries stole and exploited raw materials, goods, labor and/or ideas (“Stuff”) from the people they exploited,

2) a. Rich countries are rich because they used their ill-gotten gain (capital) from exploitation to invest and to grow into the wealthy countries they are today (some appear to assume that colonization is the sine qua non of a country being rich), and/or

b. Exploited countries are poor because exploiters stole their Stuff (capital). Absent that stealing poor countries would not be poor. (These claims are allegedly bolstered by claims that the ideas that enabled the Northeastern Europeans to jump ahead of the pack had been developed by non-Northeastern European people long before the Northeastern Europeans exploited those ideas—something akin to “You didn’t build that [give that back].”), and

3) Exploiting countries should return their ill-gotten gain or pay compensation for losses to the descendants of exploited people.

Let’s sort out some issues with respect to the first foundation for reparations.

Justice could be achieved by causing colonizers to repay the people who were exploited or were the victims of theft. This fact lends credence to the ill-gotten gain element of the argument for reparations and that argument deserves serious consideration. (For the purposes of this post, let’s assume the existence of a feasible and effective way to achieve justice by paying the descendant of the people exploited.)

Critical to achieving justice with reparations would require a fair calculation of the net economic effects of colonization. The task would involve a fair calculation of the following values:

  • Damages. The sum of:
    1. Exploitation Value. A positive number equal to the difference between what the colonized people should, in fairness, have been paid for the working conditions they experienced because of colonization,
    2. Stolen Stuff Value. A positive number equal to the value to the victim of what was stolen from colonized people,
    3. Benefits to Colonized People of Colonization. A negative number equal to the benefits colonized people received because of colonization,


  • Unjust Enrichment. The amount by which the colonizers benefitted from exploiting or stealing from colonized people.

Payees of reparations would be entitled to the higher of Damages or Unjust Enrichment. (Way too many reparations advocates illogically talk about reparations as though payees should receive the sum of both damages and unjust enrichment. To make matters worse, they talk as if the payees are entitled to punitive damages to boot.[iv])

Determining the “fair market value” of almost anything is difficult and the results are both imprecise and have a short shelf life. The issues in most valuations, however, are straightforward compared to the issues with respect to valuing damages from colonization. Let’s sort out some issues concerning the valuation of those damages.

The value of Stuff to the victim of theft or exploitation can be quite different from its value to the thief or exploiter. An extreme example illustrates the point: Had a colonizer stolen or paid little or nothing for bubbling crude (“black gold,” “Texas tea”) oil that contaminated land owned by colonized people would arable if the crude oil were hauled away, the result would have been positive for both the colonizer and the colonized, i.e., a “win-win.” This is because the colonized people had neither the technology nor capital to refine crude oil into valuable products, removing the oil would have been costly, and oil on otherwise arable land diminished the land’s value, i.e., removing a nuisance from a property increases its value. Rather than being a nuisance, the crude oil had a positive value to a colonizer who had the wherewithal to turn a profit on Stuff that had a negative value when owned by the colonized.

Similarly, colonizers had the technology and capital to turn low-value raw materials in the hands of the colonized people into high-value products. Given this fact, the colonized lost nothing if they sold raw materials to colonizers for its fair market value in the colonies, while the colonizers gained much by purchasing raw materials for that price and transporting them to a place where they were more valuable.

Even if we stipulate that the natives who produced or mined raw materials for export were exploited (suffered unfair working conditions), an initial question would be: “Can a person today assess the extent to which the working conditions of someone long ago—in some cases hundreds of years ago—were unfair?” The working conditions of a bookkeeper or factory worker 150 years ago would be considered deplorably unfair to a bookkeeper or factory worker in any modern city.[v]  Working conditions that were completely reasonable and fair 150 hundred years ago would have been considered to be quite nice by people who lived 300 years ago. The working conditions of 300 years ago would be considered highly unfair by people of 150 years ago and cruel, if they were inflicted on a worker in a rich country today. A fair calculation of a reparations amount must assess the extent to which the working conditions were poorer than a minimally fair working condition as of the date and place of the exploitation. Identifying the dividing line between fair an unfair would be, at best, astoundingly difficult even if that dividing line was not constantly in flux over time, did not vary significantly from place to place, and representative data sets were available to reasonably estimate that dividing line. Because none of those situations exist, identifying a fair reparations amount is well beyond astoundingly difficult.

A critical, if not pivotal question concerning just reparations would be, “Who did the exploiting?” Certainly, the colonizers were not the only parties exploiting colonized people. For example, in general, colonizers did not have the language skills, or desire to manage native laborers. In addition, they did not have the necessary immunity to diseases to enslave people. Consequently, colonizers purchased Stuff (raw materials or goods, labor, and ideas) from natives who arranged for the production and delivery of Stuff to the colonizers (“native entrepreneurs”). Whether or not the colonizers paid the native entrepreneurs a fair or unfair amount for the Stuff, what the native entrepreneurs paid their workers could have been even less fair, e.g., the colonizers could have paid a fair amount and the native entrepreneurs could have paid their laborers unfairly little. Justice could be achieved by forcing colonizers to pay the colonized an amount equal to the extent to which the price they paid the native manager was less than fair. To charge the colonizer for the exploitation of workers employed by native entrepreneurs is a different matter.

While colonizers could be fairly charged for the exploitation of slaves owned by the colonizers, it is much harder to make that case with respect to exploitation by native slave owners. At a minimum, the computation of any reparations amount should give the colonizers credit for the excess profits the native entrepreneurs gained by exploiting their fellow natives—because they are members of the people who were colonized. Let’s just say that figuring all of that amount out would be tricky at best. Hopefully, this discussion reveals the irrationality of the idea that the amount of exploitation can be fairly determined by simply looking at the cash and Stuff flow between the colonizers and the colonized (which included the profits of native entrepreneurs). Stated differently, myopically focusing on the impoverishment of native laborers to measure the extent of exploitation by colonizers is a gross error.

Alternatively, consider this perspective on the matter: For the most part, native entrepreneurs were paid a negotiated (read profitable) price for Stuff they sold to colonizers. To the extent the colonizers paid the fair market value of the Stuff at the designated delivery location,[vi] native entrepreneurs were not exploited (quite the opposite). The benefited because if the seller was not paid enough for the Stuff to make an acceptable profit, the seller would not have made the sale. If the colonizer is to be dunned for the exploitation by the native entrepreneurs of their employees, the colonizers should get some credit for the profit gained by their employers on account of the colonizers’ purchases.

Colonization provided profitable markets into which colonized people could sell their Stuff. The existence of those markets for their Stuff improved the lives of the people who sold Stuff. Exactly how much credit the colonizers should receive on account of that benefit to colonized people is not clear. The correct answer, however, is not zero, and it is potentially large. (Witness the hullabaloo today about the excessive damages inflicted on America companies because of tariffs imposed by other countries on the importation of American goods and services.)

This issue is complicated by, among other things, the likelihood that more people in the colonies were enslaved by native entrepreneurs because of those additional markets. Without the additional sales to colonizers of Stuff that slaves could produce, incurring the expense of enslaving people would profitable with respect to fewer potential slaves.

On the other hand, colonizers saved the lives of the many slaves and native people during droughts transporting them to countries that were not experiencing drought and needed slaves. The slaves were saved because they would have starved or been killed to eliminate the need to feed them in a drought-stricken country, and the natives both made money selling their slaves and avoiding the problems associated with killing people. How much exploitation is acceptable in order to save the life of one slave is a testy calculation. Moreover, in addition to helping the people who were moved, moving people from places with too little food to places with enough food also helps the people who were not moved.

Surely, the expected improvement in the standard of living of a native entrepreneur as a consequence of a trade with a colonizer was never as great as the native entrepreneur would have liked—such is the fate of all parties to almost every transaction everywhere and always. The result would not have been considered “fair” according to many third-party standards. However, subject to the normal mistakes people make when predicting the economics of an anticipated transaction and occasional failures by counter-parties to perform, on average, all parties to a trade improve their situations over to what they would have otherwise been. The fact that people keep on trading and wealth increases over time is good evidence that people are reasonably proficient at predicting the economic outcomes of their trades.

The above effect is also true with respect to domestic business relationships. Native entrepreneurs had to hire people to make or mine the Stuff the native entrepreneurs agreed to deliver colonizers. The less the native entrepreneurs paid his workers, the more profit he made. He could not, however, have hired anyone to do the work unless the workers were paid what the workers believed would result in their being better off than if they did not accept the job offer. i.e., the workers’ lives were improved by being colonized—but surely much less than the workers (and vastly less than later-day sympathizers) would have liked to have been better off.

The sad reality is that life in impoverished countries is truly awful for

So, even under what is fairly considered to be awful working conditions, compared to what their situations would have been otherwise after a transaction, the lives of everyone involved was improved by the exploitive transactions. A fair calculation of a reparation amount must give the colonizers credit for the extent to which the exploitation improved the standards of living of the colonized over what they would have been absent the colonization.

In light of the above, calculating a fair reparation amount is far more complicated than what most people would expect. The above just a sampling of those complications. Demanding reparations while ignoring the many complications of calculating a fair amount for reparations is unreasonable.

In a just tribunal, the claimants would have the burden of proof as to the fair reparations amount. Wish them luck.

There are other misunderstandings with respect to exploitation. Let’s sort some of those out in future posts.

[i] This reference includes people like the peasant characterized in this fable: “. . . God and St. Peter wandering the countryside in disguise looking for lodging and being refused, until at last a poor but hospitable peasant couple take them in. God reveals himself, and tells them that for their good deed they can have anything they want. The husband and wife briefly consult together. The husband begins, “We have only miserable chickens, but our neighbor has a goat that yields milk every day…. ” God anticipates: “You mean that you want a goat, too?” “No. We want you to kill the neighbor’s goat.”

Deirdre N. McCloskey. Bourgeois Dignity: Why Economics Can’t Explain the Modern World (Kindle Locations 1188-1189). Kindle Edition.

[ii] By “working conditions” I refer mean “a broad range of topics and issues, from working time (hours of work, rest periods, and work schedules) to remuneration, as well as the physical conditions and mental demands that exist in the workplace.”

[iii] In “China Says: “Please Exploit Us!” the author says the following about modern “sweatshops” owned by Nike, Wal Mart, Reebok, etc. in poor countries: “These and other firms have been taking some steps to improve conditions at their factories, but it’s often easier said than done.”

[iv] For an explanation of why this is a false assumption, see “Exploitation-Part I, The Bay For Justice.”

[v] See “Life in New York City before indoor toilets,” “If you’ve ever bemoaned the fact that you share a bathroom with several family members or housemates, you’re not alone. Most New Yorkers live in apartments and most units have just a single bathroom. A hundred and fifty years ago, however, the situation was much worse. At the time, New Yorkers had just a few choices when it came to taking care of their lavatory needs and by modern standards, none of the options were appealing—visit an outhouse or use a chamber pot.” Facilities available to office workers were similar.

[vi] As they say, the value of real estate depends on three things, location, location, location. Due to the risk and cost of transportation, the value of personal property is also location dependent.