Monday, June 25, 2007

Making Stuff and Keeping It

In the late 19th century, in the wake of the strikes of 1877 and the Haymarket riot, armories began to spring up in major cities in the US. They housed "National Guard units thought to be more reliable than local police when upholding urban order might involve firing at strikers. New York had twenty of them, Philadelphia six." Ah--but those were the bad old days, right? This New Gilded Age is of a kinder, gentler sort, isn't it?

The latest issue of Economists' Voice has an interesting article by Samuel Bowles and Arjun Jayadev titled "Garrison America." (It's available free for non-subscribers once a registration form is filled in for 'guest access.') Bowles and Jayadev attempt to measure the percent of the American workforce devoted to protecting stuff rather than making stuff. This "guard labor" force, consisting of military personnel, police and security guards, and a more amorphous category of work supervisors, has grown four-fold in the US since 1890, when their data series begins. Comparing US guard labor with other countries, Bowles and Jayadev find that guard labor fractions are strongly correlated with economic polarization and political conflict, and negatively correlated with measures of political legitimacy and social welfare spending.

They further find that recent international crises are not to blame for the large percentage of the American workforce employed in "the disciplinary apparatus of society." Indeed, "the international security contribution to the guard labor force is down sharply, and "Police now considerably outnumber those working directly or indirectly for the Pentagon--a first since our data series begins in 1890." In fact, "By 2012, the Department of Labor predicts, the United States will have more private security guards than high school teachers."

An obvious objection to the paper's conclusions is that the authors have included way too many people in the 'supervisor' category. I hope to post an update later looking at this question in more detail, but let me here summarize how Boyles and Jayadev deal with this problem in this paper. They used the Dictionary of Occupational Titles to create a list of jobs that consist primarily of supervising people (rather than supervising data, or machines). The estimates supervisory personnel derived from this method are comparable to (but less than) estimates from available surveys of the supervisory tasks of workers in the US and other nations. The authors do not count logocrats, like economists, for example, nor those "involved in the production of weapons for self protection, of locks and security cameras, and surveillance devices such as trackers attached to long haul trucks..." They conclude that "We do not think we have overestimated the number of supervisors; we have certainly missed some types of work that could be termed guard labor."

Nor, in my opinion, do the authors over-emphasize the connection between economic inequality and guard labor, despite the strong correlation between the two in their international and US state-level comparisons. They caution that the high US guard labor percentage may be at least partly a product of advanced specialization in the US workforce:
In many countries, the job of getting people to abide by the rules is not left up to the specialists that we have included in guard labor. Anyone who has tried jaywalking in Germany will known what we mean: it's not the police who you have to worry about, but your (equally formidable) fellow pedestrians.
So, if one accepts the conclusions of Bowles and Jayadev as legitimate, what implications do they have for public policy? The authors call for new measures of national wealth that would take into account the investments made in guard labor. The role of that section of the workforce, they argue, is not to produce new goods, but rather to "maintain the economically relevant institutional stock."

If such measures of national wealth were developed, it would help countries reallocate resources from guarding stuff to making it, and might boost economic development and "enhance the livelihoods of the least well off."

Bowles and Jayadev quote John Stuart Mill lamenting "how a great proportion of all efforts and talents in the world are employed in merely neutralizing one another. It is the proper end of government to reduce this wretched waste to the smallest possible amount, by taking such measures as shall cause the energies now spent by mankind in injuring one another, or in protecting themselves against injury, to be turned to the legitimate employment of the human faculties...."

Saturday, June 16, 2007

What Will Happen in Iraq?

I was just catching up on Immanuel Wallerstein's last few semi-monthly "commentaries" on the Fernand Braudel Center website. His perspective is almost always provocative and interesting; he does a better job than most commentators at panning away from the day-to-day to reveal the bigger picture. I was especially intrigued by his second-most-recent commentary, which outlines two possible "endgames" for the Iraq War, one based on the realities faced by President Bush, the other on the realities faced by Moqtada al-Sadr. For those of us who believe in the urgency of ending the war/occupation in Iraq, it provides food for thought. One of his side comments is that the Democrats share Bush's desire to keep a U.S. military base in Iraq. Is this true? I wonder if we should be pushing the leading Democratic '08 candidates to commit during the primary season to repudiate any such plans. Of the leading contenders, my sense is that Edwards (still my favorite at the moment) has basically committed to that, with his pledge to leave only U.S. troops to protect the Embassy, while Obama and Clinton have both left the door open to the possibility of a permanent U.S. base. But perhaps they, too, could be swayed to commit if it becomes a more public issue. Some of the less prominent candidates, such as Kucinich and Richardson, seem to have taken an even stronger position than Edwards. Is this something we need to pay attention to? It might matter quite a bit in the long run.

Update on Chinese slaves

The number of slaves rescued from brick factories over the past few weeks is more than 500, and probably there are hundreds and hundreds more that have been hidden, or whose bosses have paid off local officials. Apparently the priority for officials in the central government is not doing something about the problem, but damping down the embarrassing/enraging publicity by censoring related reports. Shameful.

Thursday, June 14, 2007

Factory slaves: the collateral damage of 'socialism with Chinese characteristics'?

Shocking story in the Chinese news that has also registered in some Western media: 200-some slaves (or 'slaves,' using the BBC's inexplicable scare quotes) were rescued from brick factories in Shanxi and Henan provinces, central China, recently. Many of these people were children who were abducted from the capital of Henan, sold to traffickers, and forced to work for no pay under armed supervisors. That seems a pretty reasonable definition of slavery to me, BBC.

Anyway, one of the astonishing things about this story is how it came to light. Apparently a distraught mother, Yang Aizhi, went looking for her teenage son back in MARCH when he disappeared. After much fruitless searching in the city where she lived, she finally got a response to one of her "missing person" fliers from a man whose two children had recently escaped from brick factories in Shanxi and made their way back home. Yang began a one-woman mission to find her son, traveling to Shanxi and searching, factory by factory. She didn't find her son, but she found lots of other children in these factories who begged her take them with her. When she tried, the supervisors threatened her. She finally returned home to the city and posted her story on an online forum, pleading for help. Five other area parents whose children had gone missing quickly joined her.

Why, you may ask, didn't Yang go to the authorities immediately? Well, I don't know whether she did or not, but the difficulty she had in getting the local police to take action (by now it was the end of April) suggests she may have rightly believed that she would have a hard time with them. She ended up squatting in front of the offices of local police stations, weeping, until the police helped her. Word had apparently gotten around among the traffickers and factory operators, though, so by the time the police started looking into it, they had moved the slaves and protected their premises with gangs of armed thugs.

Anyway, the thing that really gets me about this story is that it wasn't until a TV show decided to run an investigative report on this situation that anything really started getting done. The reporter, Fu Zhenzhong, went to the factories himself with the parents and filmed what he saw there. Once the report aired, calls started coming in from hundreds of parents whose children were missing--1,000 or so in all--and it became clear that this was a major problem. That's what kicked off the big raids this week that saved 217 slaves: a TV expose.

Yang Aizhi has still not found her son.

Coverage in English, and more, and more.

Coverage in Chinese.

And in case you think this is an aberration, just one sensational story, check out this report from 2001.