MADISON, Wis. — In a retort to my reflections last week comparing 19th-century slavery to 21st-century sweatshop labor (in China and South Asia), a reader named Jacob wrote, “When you outsource a work the labor say in Asian countries still get higher or comparatively good wages as per the base country they work in. These wages are definitely much less when compared to Western countries, so there is absolutely nothing wrong. Its win-win for one who is outsourcing and one who is getting the work.”
Although I’m sure it was unintentional, Jacob’s marginally grammatical statement evokes the classic Marxist view that whoever controls the means of production gets to call all the economic shots. It also suggested to me that Jacob has never had the sort of menial, manual, gruntwork job that he characterizes as a “win” for the folks who have to perform those mind-numbing, spirit-crushing jobs for eight, twelve, sixteen hours every day, six or seven days a week.
Danger and a pay day
As often happens, the dilemma posed by Jacob reminds me of a movie. In Midnight Run , Robert DeNiro plays a disgraced police detective named Jack, employed by a sleazy bail bondsman to chase down petty criminals. Jack hates his job, but it’s the only one he can get. The “midnight run” he agrees to undertake is a dangerous assignment. But if he succeeds, his payday will allow him to kiss his rotten job goodbye. He will earn what Burt Reynolds, in another movie, called “screw-you money.”
(Well, he actually called it something else. But I can’t use that word here.)
At its heart, Jack’s quest in Midnight Run is a parable about freedom, especially in this current era of fiscal austerity on Main Street and naked profligacy on Wall Street. In an ideologically pure capitalist state — particularly one modeled after the “win win” oversimplifications of my esteemed critic Jacob — liberty is not a right endowed by our Creator, nor is freedom necessarily earned through hard work, punctuality, dependability, honesty, and loyalty.
You buy it.
The hitch is that the price is exorbitant. You can’t buy freedom in a minimum-wage job, or as a skip tracer for a bail bondsman. Or on an assembly line in Shenzhen. What you have to do, as Jack exemplifies, is to find a way — any way, ethical or otherwise — to make a bundle so big that you can flip your finger at the foreman and walk away, still alive, from your dead-end and potentially deadly job at Triangle Shirtwaist, or Tazreen Fashions, or Globaltech.
At Tazreen, Globaltech, Foxconn, your $2 or $3 in daily wages, or your $20 a week, isn’t enough to turn the corner, buy your ticket out of the rat race, and live your dream. It’s not even enough to move out of the company dormitory and get a car to sleep in. Somebody is “winning” in this labor market but it’s not the laborer.
Nor is there a discernible win for the thousands of laid-off workers left behind, although they do reap 26 weeks of partial salary in unemployment insurance, after which they are free of a job and income-free in an economy that’s bleeding jobs overseas, is innately prejudiced against job applicants over the age of 40, and has not grown — for wage-earners — since 1980.
There is stuff you can buy, in any county, on a wage of $2 a day, even $10 or $20 a day. There is stuff a jobless American can buy with his unemployment check. But none of this stuff is freedom.
Nor is it victory.
Ironically, in Midnight Run , Jacks wins his freedom by forsaking his lifelong work ethic. He quits his job and sets his prisoner free — after which the prisoner bestows on Jack some of his money, which he has stolen from the Mob, which reaped the absconded fortune by trafficking in drugs, prostitution and extortion.
The moral of the movie is that if you’re a normal working slob, you can never afford to buy your freedom, unless you get ridiculously lucky. Also, crime pays.
When you think about it, that’s also the moral of capitalism as it applies, currently, to honest labor. As long as seemingly conscientious people like my critic Jacob harbor the philosophy that all stakeholders are benefiting equally from a fundamentally feudal economic model that places the lowest possible value on its highest-value component — the toil of human beings — the thieves in the story will walk away from whatever havoc they wreak, scot-free and filthy rich.