“What Are Little Company Men Made Of?”


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.

Have you?


  1. Andrew Dahm says:

    Really good questions, Tom. To my mind, however, there is a real difference between capital/corporate behavior in the “real” world and the “financial” world, and the “financialization” of everything is a big part of the problem.

    Companies that make real, actual, things have different priorities than, say, hedge fund managers. The more information the widgets contain, the more concerned the company that makes them becomes with things like education, the attractiveness of their community to educated staff, stuff like that. It bears mentioning that “capitalist” in Germany means a guy or gal who runs a factory floor with high-paid staff, not some guy who trades options all day.

    And, as this article points out, teaching ethics as a matter of compliance rather than as a matter of right and wrong might not be working: http://www.hrmreport.com/article/Business-ethics-is-inextricably-linked-to-the-current-financial-meltdown/

  2. Davyne Dial says:

    Ethical action is such a rare behavior. I’m not sure if we’re just more aware these days, or if such collective unethical behavior has been around and we were blind or ignorant of it’s pervasiveness.

    Either way, the reward for ethical behavior far exceeds the temporary reward of ill gotten gains, in it’s ability to elevate one on an intellectual or spiritual level.

  3. Doug Gibson says:

    Nice post, Tom. Let me throw this into the mix:

    Morning Star’s firm model thrives by ensuring that one individual is never an uncontested decision-maker solely responsible for decisions related to a business process at the company. Every worker has a stake in the outcome of everybody else’s labor. The threat of discipline from management is unnecessary to achieve desired outcomes.

    And I assume that someone has pointed out to Yglesias the likelihood that conditions in Bangladesh could very easily force relaxation of safety standards in countries whose workers find themselves in competition with Bangladeshis.

  4. TJ says:

    Davyne, it is both. However, standards have clearly changed.

    It still is remarkable to me that it is considered newsworthy when a wallet is found, with cash intact. “Before,” it would have been newsworthy as a scandal, if one even thought of keeping a wallet.

    That used to be a standard question on a psychological test, to evaluate levels of sociopathy, etc. in today’s society, I wonder if it’s even still on the assessment?

  5. Mim Toffitt says:

    I think a stint in Bangladesh, or on another planet, would be good training for the saps in this country who think we have the right to enforce our ethics and morals on lesser cultures who aren’t ready for that kind of thing.

    Ethics is always a top down process. The factory owners have gotten the message that the free market is the way to peace and prosperity. It is now up to the Bangladeshi people to dodge the falling buildings and put up with the starvation wages long enough to come up with some marketable something, besides their frail bodies, that they can use to equalize the market from their end.

    Maybe some of those workers can borrow some start-up capital from a family member at an advantageous interest rate.

    What they don’t need to do is band together, organize into unions, present a united front to their ownership class, and start making demands about worker’s rights backed up with international cooperation from corporations willing to include the treatment of the worker as a prerequisite for doing business. That not only would not work, but it would upset the Market Gods and create “uncertainty”.

  6. Davyne Dial says:

    The lessons learned by doing the next right thing will reward one for a lifetime. I larned this years ago in an college biology course, where all fellow classmates were passing around a copy of the upcoming final exam for students to use as a cheat cheat. I declined the opportunity to share in the cheating, still got a b+ on the exam and came away with the firm knowledge I knew the subject well in spite of the handicap of not being in on the inside information. That experience taught me so much about human nature and the rewards of doing the next right thing.

    Oh , and happy Mayday everybody. I remember when we had “Maypoles.” http://www.google.com/search?q=maypoles&rlz=1G1GGLQ_ENUS239&tbm=isch&tbo=u&source=univ&sa=X&ei=6B6BUcPdCc6J0QHW_YC4CA&ved=0CEUQsAQ&biw=1333&bih=802