Sunday, June 5, 2011

A $5 a Day Minimum Wage is Asking a Little Much, Don't You Think?

It will come as no surprise to regular readers of this blog that I am a regular reader of Jack Marshall’s Ethics Alarms blog. An ongoing topic of conversation there is whether unethical behavior is worse if it’s (also) hypocritical: if, for example, a politician caught in a gay sex scandal is more culpable if he’s a virulently anti-gay rights advocate than if his public persona is more gay-friendly.

There are legitimate arguments on both sides, of course. Unethical and/or illegal behavior is precisely that, and at one level it matters not a bit who the perpetrator is. On the other hand, to the extent that the people involved in such cases are newsworthy precisely because they are perceived as role models or at least as leaders—politicians, influential corporate executives, religious luminaries, etc.—it does matter. It isn’t worthy of national attention if you or I get caught driving drunk; it is if the president of MADD does.

It is also probably true that we tend to hear more about hypocrisy from the right than from the left. There are a host of possible explanations for this phenomenon: that conservatives misbehave more in hypocritical ways, that the so-called liberal media skew the process, that transgressions from the right are more entertaining (often literally “sexier”)—not worse, necessarily—than the relatively speaking quotidian sins of hypocritical progressives. Moreover, even when there are legitimate concerns about the left—as, for example, with ACORN—the headline-grabbing allegations are often quickly and convincingly proved to have been utterly mendacious, damaging the credibility of the more substantive critiques.

But here’s an example, based on what we know so far, at least, of a story of outrageous conduct that is made all the more troublesome because it was perpetrated by the Obama administration. Many on the left were disturbed by the increased military presence in Afghanistan, but it shouldn’t have come as a surprise: candidate Obama said he thought the Iraq War was “stupid” (I agreed then, and agree now), but certainly didn’t discount the possibility of an escalation in Afghanistan. Progressives were also angry that Obama never really put a single-payer health care system on the table, didn’t fight for a public option, and allowed the Bush tax cuts on the rich to continue with little more than a whimper. But those were crises of strategy and of will, not (or at least not inherently) of intentionality.

This one is different. Democrats in general and the Obama administration in particular purport to be about a global community and (therefore) a non-interventionist foreign policy. They aren’t, Murdoch media screeching to the contrary notwithstanding, intentionally anti-business, but they do claim to support legitimate checks on corporate hegemony with respect to those companies’ relationships to the government, to the economy in general, and to their own employees.

According to a story briefly posted on The Nation’s website and then pulled down to be re-posted this week to coordinate with a simultaneous release by Haiti Liberté, it appears the Obama administration violated all these principles and behaved with Machiavellian amorality at the same time. As noted, the full article is no longer available (until Wednesday), but Ryan Chittum of the Columbia Journalism Review has posted a précis. (I’ll make sure there’s a link to the full article as soon as it’s available again.)

A little context: The Nation is certainly not without its political perspective, but it is different from a host of other publications from both sides of the political divide in two fundamental ways: first, it is remarkably up-front about its orientation—no “fair and balanced” bullshit from them—and second, whereas their reporting is clearly filtered through a progressive lens, they don’t simply make stuff up the way, say, Andrew Breitbart does. So, in the absence of evidence to the contrary, I’m going to believe that Chittum correctly interpreted the article, which in turn correctly interpreted the facts.

It seems that the Haitian government passed a law two years ago, raising their minimum wage to 61 cents an hour: less than $5 a day for an 8-hour work day. This does represent a huge increase from the previous 24 cents an hour, but remains obscenely low, a symbol of the oppression that country’s citizens have endured for generations.

But—and the mind boggles at the hubris—American corporations like Hanes and Levi Strauss were righteously indignant that their outsourced labor would cost them nearly 8.5% of what these All-American companies would have to pay US workers. That’s reprehensible of them, of course, but hardly surprising. Levi Strauss in particular loves to wrap itself in the flag and tout American values, so long as those values don’t include hiring Americans at a living wage rather than exploiting the misery and poverty of foreigners.

What’s really disturbing is what happened next: after the corporations decided they could see their way clear to, well, maybe 35 cents an hour, the US government (read: Obama and his minions) leaned on the Haitian authorities, and hey-presto, the Port-au-Prince government capitulated, apparently carving out a $3 a day (logically, 37.5 cents an hour, but possibly in fact the 35 cent figure the companies agreed to) exception for textile companies. But this meddling wasn’t enough for the US Embassy. Quoting Chittum here:
The Nation:
… A deputy chief of mission, David E. Lindwall, said the $5 per day minimum “did not take economic reality into account” but was a populist measure aimed at appealing to “the unemployed and underpaid masses.”

Well, hey. Imagine Haitians doing things for their “unemployed and underpaid masses” rather than rich Yankee corporations. The outrage! No wonder we have 9.1 percent unemployment and 16 percent underemployment here while the folks who sent the economy in the tank are back making millions.

Let’s do a little math. Haiti has about 25,000 garment workers. If you paid each of them $2 a day more, it would cost their employers $50,000 per working day, or about $12.5 million a year.

Zooming in on specific companies helps clarify this even more. As of last year Hanes had 3,200 Haitians making t-shirts for it. Paying each of them two bucks a day more would cost it about $1.6 million a year. Hanesbrands Incorporated made $211 million on $4.3 billion in sales last year, and presumably it would pass on at least some of its higher labor costs to consumers.
In case you were wondering, Levi Strauss, a privately owned corporation, scraped by with a mere $156.5 million profit on $4.4 billion in sales. I need hardly mention that the difference between paying every one of their Haitian workers an extra $2 a day could be offset by paying top executives more than they’re worth instead of an obscene amount more than they’re worth. Chittum points out that Hanes CEO Richard Noll “could pay for the raises for those 3,200 t-shirt makers with just one-sixth of the $10 million in salary and bonus he raked in last year.”

Of course, cynic that I am, I expect hubris, greed and amorality from corporate executives. To say that one of these clowns has no conscience is like saying it can get brisk in northern Minnesota in February. No, to me this story is about pompous morons like Lindwall and whatever equally ethically- and/or intellectually-challenged jackasses put him up to saying something positively Bachmannesque in its inanity.

One suspects this is a story without “legs.” Democrats don’t want to admit that their party’s leader is a tool of big corporations, same as the other guys. Republicans might see a short-term advantage to highlighting the Obama administration’s intervention in another country’s affairs, but they don’t want to risk losing their phony Obama-is-anti-business mantra.

Perhaps there’s more here than initially meets the eye, and I’d be happy to be proved wrong. But, at least until Wednesday, when the full Nation article is (re-)posted, I’m going to have to believe that the Obama administration has once again betrayed its presumed values. That’s not earth-shattering news, but it’s disappointing nonetheless. And it’s downright depressing that a President perceived as pro-worker even at the expense of business and non-interventionist even when American interests are at stake, chooses not to behave that way in private. Not even when the obvious right thing to do is also the easiest: in other words, nothing.

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