Subconscience of a liberal: Krugman’s curious support of sweatshops

December 6, 2012

Who hasn’t heard of Paul Krugman these days? The Nobel-winning Princeton economist and New York Times columnist has emerged as a key voice in American liberalism, and is berated by the right for his support of heavy fiscal stimulus, higher inflation and a strong social safety net.

Which makes the views espoused in a 1997 missive entitled “In Praise of Cheap Labor” rather surprising. In the article, the economist attacks opponents of globalization for their soft-hearted distaste for inhumane labor conditions in developing countries.

Such moral outrage is common among the opponents of globalization – of the transfer of technology and capital from high-wage to low-wage countries and the resulting growth of labor-intensive Third World exports. These critics take it as a given that anyone with a good word for this process is naive or corrupt and, in either case, a de facto agent of global capital in its oppression of workers here and abroad.

But matters are not that simple, and the moral lines are not that clear. In fact, let me make a counter-accusation: The lofty moral tone of the opponents of globalization is possible only because they have chosen not to think their position through. While fat-cat capitalists might benefit from globalization, the biggest beneficiaries are, yes, Third World workers.

Krugman did not respond to requests for comment.

Perhaps he can answer just this question: Aren’t the problems of high U.S. unemployment and stagnant wages that he so often bemoans a natural consequence of his own earlier logic that, for developing country workers, “bad jobs at bad wages are better than no jobs at all”?

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