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, by which he does not mean that Bangladeshi levels of workplace safety should be implemented in the United States.
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.
OK, sign number one you've been a Beltway econ blogger for too long is that you start assigning cost/benefit analysis to the lives of people in third world sweatshops.
Sign number two is choosing to defend the above post.
Here's what I did. I read a guy who pivoted from the tragedy to a call for the U.S. government or U.S. consumers to try to impose U.S. safety standards on all U.S.-supplying factories around the world. I did not have detailed information about the situation in Bangladesh, but I did—and continue to—have good reason to believe that this call was mistaken. So I wrote a post trying to outline why I think it's appropriate for rich countries to have more stringent standards than poor ones, and I absolutely stand by that conclusion.
But at a certain point as a writer, if you feel like everyone's misreading you, you have to consider the possibility that you've miswritten (thanks to Kendall Clark for making the point). I wanted to write about something I know about (the sound basis for globally differentiated regulatory regimes), and people wanted to read about the news (a scandalous breakdown of Bangladeshi law and basic concepts of informed consent), and mixing them up has done no good.
See, no. As Lindsey Beyerstein points out, when Bangladesh tried to improve sweatshop conditions, it was US companies that killed the idea.
A group of Bangladeshi and international trade unionists put forward a bold plan to make the garment industry in Bangladesh safer. A surcharge of 10 cents per garment over 5 years would raise $600 million a year, enough to radically transform the infrastructure of the garment industry in Bangladesh. Walmart and the Gap rejected the proposal in 2011.
The Bangladeshi government is unlikely to fundamentally transform the garment industry on its own. Many members of parliament own factories themselves. Whatever the self interests of the elites, Yglesias is right that Bangladesh is a very poor country with many pressing problems. Massive public investments in policing the garment industry may not be a high priority.
The cost of retrofitting the garment industry must be born by the Western firms that flock to Bangladesh for the cheap labor and favorable trade policies. If safety investments were made across the board, then no company could derive a competitive advantage by scrimping on safety. The garments are being made for export, so expense will be passed on to the Western consumers, not Bangladeshis.
The greater point is US corporations are pocketing the difference. Those profits come at a cost, in this case 300+ lives at last count. Perhaps we should be talking about how complicit Walmart and the Gap are in these deaths, rather than grousing about globally differentiated regulatory regimes.
Just an idea. My second piece of advice Matt is take a vacation outside DC.