Sunday, January 25, 2004

Anti-Trade Stupidity at the New York Times: Episode XXXIV

What is it with the ridiculous anti-globalization slant of New York Times reporters? Why aren't these clowns required to take a few econ courses before being allowed to cover economics-related issues? This article by "Tim Weiner" is so full of biased assumptions it makes one's head spin.

TURRIALBA, Costa Rica, Jan. 22 — The game of baseball is a pure product of America. The ball itself is another matter.

Every baseball used in the major leagues is made here, millions of them. They are handcrafted with the precision of a machine by the men and women of Turrialba and the towns in the green hills beyond.

The baseball workers typically make about $2,750 a year. A baseball player in the United States makes, on average, about $2,377,000, the Players Association says.

To which one must respond "so what?" What does one thing have to do with the other? Is Mr. Weiner suggesting that baseball manufacturers are somehow funnelling the rightful wages of their employees to American baseball players?

"It is hard work, and sometimes it messes up your hands, warps your fingers and hurts your shoulders," said Overly Monge, 37. Temperatures inside the factory can rise to 90 to 95 degrees, he said, and when they do, "we suffocate."

He makes $55 a week after 13 years at the baseball factory, barely above Costa Rica's minimum wage. After he pays for the necessities of life, he has about $2 a day left over for himself, his wife and daughter. His salary, adjusted for inflation, is about the same as when he started.

But that's life, he said with a shrug. Hard work, but far better than no work at all. Many of the coffee and sugar cane plantations around here have collapsed, done in by the forces of globalization.

A loaded statement if ever there was one; there were those poor defenseless plantations just going on about their own business, when the evil "forces of globalization" came on the scene and, totally unprovoked, decided to deal them death-blows! It never occurs to Mr. Weiner that those plantations were also producing goods for export, and as such, were once themselves beneficiaries of the wickedness that is globalization.

There is only one other factory in Turrialba, population 30,000. Without baseballs, Mr. Monge said, life here "would be more like Nicaragua," the poor neighbor to the north.

The baseball workers arrive at 6 a.m. and work until 5 p.m. Peak production pressures have pushed the day deep into the night. Each can make four balls an hour, painstakingly hand-sewing 108 perfect stitches along the seams. They are paid by the ball — on average about 30 cents apiece. Rawlings Sporting Goods, which runs the factory, sells the balls for $14.99 at retail in the United States.

"After I make the first two or three balls each week, they have already paid my salary," Mr. Monge said. "Imagine that."

Yes, as we all know, the rest of that $14.99 is pure capitalist profit, and there are no costs of production to worry about in the baseball manufacturing business. Why, making baseballs is a veritable licence to print money, which explains why Microsoft, Sony and Nokia are rushing to get into this high margin business ...

Rawlings was awarded a 54,000-square-foot free-trade zone by Costa Rica. It pays no taxes. It imports duty-free the makings of millions of baseballs — cores from the Muscle Shoals Rubber Company in Batesville, Miss.; yarn from D&T Spinning in Ludlow, Vt.; cowhide from Tennessee Tanning in Tullahoma, Tenn.

Its operations are a harbinger of a pending free-trade accord between Costa Rica and the United States; negotiations on that agreement, expected to bring more such ventures to Costa Rica, are in their final stages.

"Free trade is excellent for the United States, because they consume so much," Mr. Monge, the Rawlings worker, said. "For other nations, it's more complicated."

That's funny, I could have sworn that high-placed individuals in America were saying precisely the opposite. Pace Senator Charles Schumer, free trade is all fine and dandy for other countries, but American workers need protecting from this grievous evil. Can both parties be right? Could it be that no-one benefits from free trade? Then why does anybody freely engage in such a pernicious practice?

Officials at Major League Baseball headquarters in New York referred questions about the plant to Rawlings. The head of baseball's Players Association, Donald Fehr, said workplace injuries at the plant had not been brought to his attention. Dudley W. Mendenhall, a senior vice president of K2, also said he was unaware of any workplace injuries at the plant.

Few baseball players are aware of where the ball comes from, said Charles Kernaghan, the executive director of the National Labor Committee, an international workers' rights group based in New York. "But if the players would actually stand up, it would have enormous consequences" for the baseball workers, including better pay, he said.

Just what we need - uninformed baseball players engaging in feelgood social activism. Left unmentioned is the fact that this activism, if successful, would harm both American consumers and Costa Rican baseball-makers, as the resulting price increases would force down demand for baseballs, for which market demand is far from inelastic. No, better for everybody that the prima donnas of baseball stick to their ball-swatting and girl-chasing.

Some past employees say they had to quit after developing repetitive stress injuries, and they have the medical records to prove it.

"The work deforms your fingers and arms," said Maribel Alezondo Brenes, 36, who worked seven years at the plant — until her doctor told her to stop sewing baseballs.

Soledad Castillo, 46, cannot make a fist, or touch her right palm with her middle finger after nine years at Rawlings. Disputing Mr. West's contention that workers are not injured by their labor, she said, "If he ever worked a day sewing, he'd know it's hard."

I genuinely feel for Misses Brenes and Castillo, but the last thing their country needs at this point is the introduction of American-style personal-injury litigation guaranteed to drive away all demand for labor, even it is of the injurious kind. Better grueling work of this sort than leisurely starvation, no? If Rawlings decides to pack up and leave, it isn't as if there's much else to do in town, as the story admits.

Despite their injuries, the two women say they liked the camaraderie and the atmosphere at the Rawlings plant. "I can't complain about the work environment," Ms. Alezondo said. "The ventilation improved over the years," even if the pay did not. There was time to make small talk and good friends.

Still, when she talks about the difference in wages between baseball workers and baseball players, it takes her breath away.

"We sacrifice a lot so they can play," she said. "It's an injustice that we kill ourselves to make these balls perfect, and with one home run, they're gone."

Ah, we see envy, that most human of emotions, at work. There's no way of breaking this gently to you, Ms. Alezondo, but no, you're wrong, this isn't an "injustice", or at least not one that is in any way the fault of your employer. The ugly truth is that anyone can make a baseball, while very, very few people can hit one like Barry Bonds. That's why you get paid what you do, and he gets the sums he does. Rather than blame "globalization", your employer or players like Bonds for this, why not ask your government why it never invested enough in raising your human capital to the point where you could command higher wages on the market, even if not baseball star levels? Hell, even with all my education, I don't command a Barry Bonds salary, but you won't see me moaning about the "injustice" of it all!

Really, though, it isn't so much this woman I'm annoyed at, but "journalists" like Tim Weiner, who seize on every story as an opportunity to paint "globalization" as an evil spectre haunting the globe for fresh victims. This sort of article isn't "journalism", but crude propagandizing of the sort more befitting of a Marxist rag like Workers World. One would think Weiner and others of his ilk were actively conspiring to keep these people poor, in a desire to foment their long-desired anti-capitalist revolution, if one didn't know better; your average "anti globalization" type is much too stupid to be attributed that sort of intellectual subtlety.