FREE CALLS

Columnist Robert X. Cringely tells us that Skype and the others will have trouble when the big boys – the big telecoms – start giving better treatment to their own VoIP (voice over internet protocol) calls . . . which will relegate your and my Skype calls to the slimmest pickings of the available bandwidth. But for now, there’s theswitchboard.ca, which requires no downloads and is entirely free. So you and your girlfriend can spend the whole day together, as if she were in the next room (“Honey, how long do you microwave beets?”), even though she is 7,000 miles away. Ah, brave new world.

FREE TRADE

Frank McClendon: “I would like to know what you think of the Lou Dobbs interview in Playboy – ‘America’s Other War – By Outsourcing, Corporate America Kills the

Middle Class and the American Dream.’ The gist:

I’d prefer that corporations return to being good citizens – and because of the dictates of their conscience – end outsourcing. But if corporate America can’t forgo short term profits for the broader interests of our society, it is Washington’s responsibility to act. . . . It seems however that business leaders would rather collect seven-figure bonuses for cutting costs – usually by dumping jobs or shipping them overseas.

☞ I am more of a free trader . . . albeit biased toward using our influence to push trading partners to improve working conditions and environmental regulation – e.g., instituting a “minimum wage” program as suggested here last week.

I understand that family comes first, and that close neighbors are more important than distant neighbors. Ohioans (if you’re from Ohio) clearly outrank Kentuckians, just as we care more about Americans (if we’re American) than we care about Canadians, let alone the French.

But how steep should the curve be? I first wrote about this 35 years ago in a book (The Funny Money Game) that included a “conversion table,” by nationality, as one might show how many pounds or francs or baht or yen there are to the dollar. But it remains a puzzlement even today.

To take a childish example, if you had a choice between one neighbor dying or one Bangladeshi, you’d probably – reluctantly – choose the Bangladeshi. But if it were one neighbor versus two Bangladeshis? Ten? Ten thousand?

Fortunately, with respect to outsourcing, no one has to die (except possibly, indirectly, from the poverty of joblessness). So it’s not as wrenching to come right out and say one American job is worth two or ten or ten thousand jobs in Dhaka.

But there are two other factors that, even so, make it a damnably difficult calculation. Because not ONLY does giving the job to the Bangladeshi help the Bangladeshi . . . but it also lowers the cost of the clothes we buy to keep our kids warm (making clothes in Bangladesh is cheaper than making them here); and, in the long run, enriches us as well as the Bangladeshis, because someday that newly-employed Bangladeshi will be able to buy some product or service WE sell. (And perhaps buy a few shares of the stock that we will need to sell to pay our nursing home bill.)

So I lean strongly toward free trade, but with assistance for those who are displaced here (e.g., extended unemployment and continuing education/retraining opportunities) – and with a very conscious, creative effort to include in our trade agreements progress on wage and environmental issues . . . pushing hard for and making progress on those things . . . but pushing not quite so hard that we kill the deal.

Michael Young: “You argue the U.S. should espouse a global treaty requiring a minimum wage. That all sounds nice, but not even the most labor-friendly politicians believe that is practical or even desirable. Developing countries simply cannot meet the standard; forcing their minimum wages up too soon will likely stifle development. If you limit your statement to developed countries, then it’s a fine one (and it’s largely, but not entirely, met already). The problem is deciding when and how to pressure developing nations, who are indeed siphoning off jobs in the process of growing themselves out of relative poverty. I’m sure you know all that. I just worry when you make these kinds of unqualified pronouncements that they may turn off your more moderate (or even conservative) readers. The rest of us are the choir.”

☞ It could be three cents a day. There must be some acceptable level for any country. And from there, what’s wrong with making it a voluntary goal to do better?

I repeat:

The U.S. should espouse a global treaty requiring each signatory to establish a minimum wage – however low – and requiring “best efforts” to raise that wage each year until it reaches the median minimum wage for all the signatories. All voluntary, but a matter of national pride and, when quantified this way, something to shoot for.

Jonathan Levy: “By definition, half the signatories to such a treaty would always be at or below the median. The only way to meet the goal would be for every country to have exactly the same minimum wage. I realize it is a voluntary goal but does it really help to set even a voluntary goal that is all but impossible to meet?”

☞ In a zero sum game, you’d be right. But what about a world where countries were continuously striving to reach a median that itself, in most years, would be rising? Granted, someone would always be in last place, which could be discouraging. But measured in terms of “improvement,” even countries at the bottom could have something to be proud of. Indeed, starting from such a low base, it’s not impossible that – in percentage terms – the poorest country could see its three-cent-a-day minimum wage (or whatever) rise faster than America’s $5.15-an-hour minimum wage (which has not budged in nine years).

What could it hurt to make a rising minimum wage a matter of pride for poor countries – and not just their shiny new weapons?

 

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