“What Are Little Company Men Made Of?”By
In the aftermath of the Bangladesh garment factory disaster, Matthew Yglesias caught a world of criticism for these comments in Slate:
It’s very plausible that one reason American workplaces have gotten safer over the decades is that we now tend to outsource a lot of factory-explosion-risk to places like Bangladesh where 87 people just died in a building collapse.* This kind of consideration leads Erik Loomis to the conclusion that we need a unified global standard for safety…
I think that’s wrong. Bangladesh may or may not need tougher workplace safety rules, but it’s entirely appropriate for Bangladesh to have different—and, indeed, lower—workplace safety standards than the United States.
The reason is that while having a safe job is good, money is also good [and] in a free society it’s good that different people are able to make different choices on the risk–reward spectrum.
Yglesias ignited a firestorm. But targeting him or any individual actor for similar comments misses a larger point.
Now, apologies in advance. I’m going to get my geek on.
“What Are Little Girls Made Of?” was one of the original Star Trek episodes.
The Enterprise crew is in search of a scientist who had gone missing while studying a dead civilization, an advanced society once capable of building sophisticated androids. The crew — joined by the scientist’s fiancé — finds Dr. Roger Korby in a laboratory deep underground. In the story’s climax, we discover that Korby is himself an android.
He was frozen and dying, “Korby” explains, and transferred his intellect, his memories, all that he was into a machine body. His fiancé looks on in horror.
But nothing has changed, he tells her, “It’s still me.” And maybe better, he believes. “Rational, but without a flaw.”
“I’m not a computer,” he insists. “Test me. Ask me to solve any… Equate… Transmi….”
A puzzled look crosses his face. It is a pathetic, tragic moment. Korby’s humanity — his soul — has been lost in the transfer. And without his realizing until that very moment.
Yglesias’ comments — his soul — brought the episode back to mind. Except he still doesn’t realize what he has lost.
We consume articles about the possible effects of playing violent video games. We study the widespread use of texting and social media and ask what they will do to our children. We worry what effects long-term exposure to such technologies will have on the brain, the personality and behavior.
But where are the studies of the effects of long-term exposure to a corporate culture — a legal technology — dominated by bottom-line thinking, a culture in which human beings are raw material for generating others’ wealth? With the result that in the wake of a mass human tragedy prominent people(?) can blame the victims? Or else argue without blinking that “Safety rules that are appropriate for the United States would be unnecessarily immiserating in much poorer Bangladesh”?
“Unnecessarily immiserating” just means that “human life and dignity are drearily cheap on the open market.” That others — always others — must pay a price so we can have discount clothing. That it’s the price
you they pay for freedom, choice and prosperity. That it’s preferable to risk death and dismemberment at work than poverty at home — a false choice worthy of Thomas Friedman.
What we witness in Yglesias is also present on the pages of The Wall Street Journal, in the comments of bank executives and business moguls, and among an entire class of free-market fanboys and Pete Peterson’s Fix the Debt apostles. It is the unacknowledged, dehumanizing effect of long-term immersion in a business culture that treats every human interaction as an economic transaction first and foremost. Other concerns — moral concerns, human concerns — if they come in for consideration at all, are tertiary. Like “Korby,” have they lost something essential to their humanity and don’t even recognize it?
No, of course not. We horrified onlookers are the ones with the pathetically irrational, flawed views of economic reality.
I’m reminded that we have few studies on the effects of gun violence because industry lobbyists have seen to it that the government doesn’t do that kind of research. We’re not even supposed to have that conversation.
Nor are we supposed to study whether our thirst for gold and the power it brings slowly transmutes the human heart, not into gears and circuitry, but into financial models and spreadsheets. If there are studies on the immiserating effects on morality, ethics and human decency from long-term exposure to working in a corporate environment, I haven’t seen them.