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By Brishen Rogers

On the dangers of believing the worst

Thanks to Dave Hoffman and the Co-op gang for having me back here. I’m planning to blog about global labor issues, starting with some thoughts on the recent news that Nicholas Kristof’s source for some of his anti-trafficking columns – the high-profile Cambodian activist Somaly Mam – “fabricated at least some parts of her own story and the dramatic, heartrending stories of girls she said were sold into sex slavery.”

Now, I can’t deny a bit of shadenfreude here—not because I harbor any malice for Mam or her organization, but rather because of Kristof’s know-nothing column of February insisting that academics should be more engaged in policy debates. The thing is, certain law professors have long argued that criminalization-based global regulatory approaches to sex trafficking can be downright counterproductive, and Mam’s organization seems to have been exemplified some of those trends. In particular, it seems to have thrived by casting trafficking as a wrong perpetrated by particular bad actors rather than a complex social phenomenon rooted in extreme economic and gender inequality. I’m oversimplifying, of course–sex trafficking is obviously a terrible practice, and those who perpetrate it are certainly bad actors. Nevertheless, this approach helped lead, some have argued, to “abusive crackdowns on the people [Mam] claimed to save,” rather than more nuanced efforts to prevent trafficking and assist its victims in the first place. Kristof might have called a law professor before embracing Mam’s work so uncritically.

This affair echoes a broader disturbing trend in public debate around global labor issues, particularly for unskilled production workers and the vast majority of trafficked workers who are in the domestic, agriculture, and garment sectors: namely, many activists’ and consumers’ uncritical belief of terrible stories of labor or other exploitation in the Global South.

Mam’s story is just the most recent one example. Another is Mike Daisy’s monologue “The Agony and the Ecstasy of Steve Jobs.” Daisey’s stories of Apple/FoxConn workers with permanent paralysis due to the use of toxic chemicals; of armed guards outside FoxConn plants; and of meeting with numerous child workers led in part to Apple’s reform of its supply chain practices. That is all to the good. But NPR’s China correspondent quickly called out Daisey for his misunderstanding of Chinese society and even geography. As became clear, Daisey had embellished some aspects of his narrative, and had made others up from whole cloth.

Some other details about FoxConn’s factories that made headlines in the U.S. didn’t hold up to critical scrutiny either, in particular the spate of suicides in 2012. While shocking, the suicide rate at such plants actually wasn’t any higher than the general suicide rate in either China or the U.S. In fact, FoxConn final assembly workers’ laboring conditions may be better than most others’ in China. Yet many in the U.S. and Europe easily believed the worst: that those workers, uniquely, were driven to suicide by overwork.

Why are so many predisposed to believe the worst about Global South workers? And what are the consequences of that pattern of...

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Unions as Bottlenecks?

As I noted in my first post, Bottlenecks suggests that equality of opportunity requires substantial economic equality. I read Fishkin’s second principle as doing a lot of work here. A sufficiently robust set of welfare and income supports would make a far more diverse set of life plans realistic for citizens, and would reinforce families’ and individuals’ diverse views of the good.

What policies does this require? In addition to substantial tax-and-transfer redistribution, Fishkin also notes that opportunity pluralism might support public and private efforts to limit salary differentials within particular firms (p203), though he doesn’t develop the idea in detail. In this post, I’d like to pick up that line of argument, and suggest that opportunity pluralism would support quite robust wage-compressing institutions that limit pre-transfer income inequality. I’m thinking here of unions, which have traditionally been a very effective means to greater economic equality.

While unions’ macroeconomic effects are debated, it is certainly true that widespread unionization enables unionized workers—and at least some other workers—to bargain for significantly higher wages. This would seem to advance Fishkin’s second principle insofar unionized workers and their children will encounter a more open opportunity structure.

Unfortunately, can’t unions themselves become arbitrary bottlenecks? For example, craft unions representing skilled trades workers have often sought to exert bargaining power in part by controlling the supply of qualified workers, creating powerful incentives toward nepotism and even corruption. To be clear, industrial unions (like the UAW) and service unions (like SEIU, which represents mainly building service and health care workers) don’t tend to do this, organizing workers and exerting power based on collective action rather than job skills. Yet even industrial and service unions may become bottlenecks if they drive wages quite high in one segment of the market, sparking a “secondary” labor market with lower wages and/or informal work relationships. Alternately, in heavy industrial sectors like automobile production, strong collective bargaining units in final assembly may become a sort of labor aristocracy, with workers at parts suppliers suffering some of the consequences.

In other words, whether one is working in a unionized or non-unionized sector is in large part morally arbitrary. Surely concerns such as these have helped drive recent arguments that unionized public employees are overcompensated. Unions also raise concerns about compulsory association, and at times advance their members’ interests rather than broader matters of public concern. While both concerns are often overstated, is it any wonder that liberal egalitarians tend to endorse transfer programs rather than unionization as means to achieve distributive justice?

In future work, I’m planning to dig deeply into the idea of and place of unions in liberal distributive justice. For now I’ll just make two observations. First, as I noted in my first post, I strongly suspect that stand-alone redistributive programs—i.e., tax-and-transfer programs imposed upon laissez-faire labor markets—aren’t stable in the Rawlsian sense. Efforts to ensure distributive justice solely through post-earnings tax-and-transfer policies may generate feelings of resentment among those forced to pay higher taxes, and feelings of helplessness among...

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Opportunity Pluralism, Class, and Distributive Justice

At the outset, let me say how happy I am to be a part of this symposium, and how much I’m looking forward to our conversation. Joseph Fishkin’s Bottlenecks strikes me as an important and urgent addition to thinking on equal opportunity, particularly in a liberal egalitarian vein. I’m planning at least two posts. This first post will summarize Fishkin’s argument (as I understand it), then raise some questions about the relationship between opportunity pluralism, class, and distributive justice. Another will consider whether opportunity pluralism supports or even requires more robust wage-compressing institutions, in particular labor unions. Time permitting, and depending on other commentators’ interventions, I may also post some thoughts about opportunity pluralism and employer responsibility under antidiscrimination law.

At the heart of Bottlenecks is a simple but profound argument: “equal opportunity is far more radical than distributive fairness.” (42) Even a cursory review of egalitarian social movements and their demands demonstrates this point. Movements for abolition and civil rights, women’s rights, disability rights, and LGBT rights have all demanded an end to legal and social structures—ranging from formal inequalities to social norms and even the design of physical spaces—that enable one group to dominate another. This is also true of the labor movement, which in its more ambitious moments has argued for workplace citizenship, a form of full participation and equality within the enterprise, understood as an analogue to political citizenship.

And yet, as Fishkin notes, political debates around equal opportunity have been stuck for some time on questions of “meritocracy, discrimination, and affirmative action,” particularly around university admissions and employers’ hiring policies. (23) Philosophical debates have been focused largely on the justice of enabling those with particular talents to capture outsized distributive shares. Both approaches risk making matters of justice feel like zero-sum games, whether between racial groups, the sexes, or rich and poor.

Fishkin demonstrates that these debates are too narrow. In doing so, he builds on two ideas central to Rawls’ A Theory of Justice: First, that justice is a characteristic of systems of social institutions taken as a whole, not of the fairness of particular rules taken in isolation; Second, that social institutions are the primary subject of justice because they exert such a profound effect on our life chances, shaping not just our opportunity sets but also our preferences and desires. A society that takes fair equality of opportunity seriously must address that deep opportunity structure.

Hence Bottlenecks. To achieve a minimally decent standard of living today one must pass through or get around any number of bottlenecks. Tests such as the SAT are the most obvious example. But bottlenecks also include “developmental bottlenecks,” such as the need to speak and read English, and “instrumental goods” bottlenecks, the most important of which is money. Many bottlenecks are unavoidable—I think of the educational requirements for a neurosurgeon—but other are relatively arbitrary. A society committed to Fiskin’s version of “opportunity pluralism” will seek to eliminate arbitrary and powerful bottlenecks. As a result, the opportunity structure...

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