Neoliberal Self-Parody: Slate's Matt Yglesias Glibly Reacts to Bangladesh Factory Collapse

I read Matt Yglesias' Slate blog regularly, despite my vast ideological differences with him, because his work is generally lucid and informative. But his post on the tragic factory collapse in Bangladesh, for which he has received a fair amount of criticism, was shockingly cold and ignorant. It seems obvious that Yglesias cobbled it together quickly, without much thought or consideration. The result is something that reads like a brutally terse parody of detached neoliberal thought.

First of all, Yglesias' post originally referred to what happened at the factory as a "fire," rather than a building collapse. This has since been corrected. Writers make mistakes, and I'm not condemning him for this one, but it does seem indicative of Yglesias' hasty and careless approach to this. It's difficult to believe that he spent any time digesting the story, reading about it from different sources, and trying to understand what happened. In his defense, though, Yglesias is a notoriously prolific blogger, and he obviously can't delve too deeply into every single issue on which he opines.

But, in this case, Yglesias flagrantly misunderstood what actually happened in Bangladesh. The point of his piece is to argue that it's "OK" for Bangladesh to have weaker safety standards than the United States, on the grounds that poor countries are naturally willing to accept greater risk in the name of economic development than rich countries. That's prima facie plausible. Yglesias, though, seems to think that accepting weak standards was some sort of conscious, collective decision on the part of the people of Bangladesh and that this disaster is, unfortunately, the price of that decision:

Bangladesh is a lot poorer than the United States, and there are very good reasons for Bangladeshi people to make different choices in this regard than Americans. That's true whether you're talking about an individual calculus or a collective calculus. Safety rules that are appropriate for the United States would be unnecessarily immiserating in much poorer Bangladesh.
This is pure folly. What happened in Bangladesh was the result of the safety standards that are currently in place not being enforced. As Kalpona Akter, executive director of the Bangladesh Center for Worker Solidarity, told Democracy Now!, Bangladesh "already has some rules and regulations for safety," with which some politically powerful owners are not complying. Mahiuddin Khan Alamgir, Bangladesh's Home Minister, said flatly that "the building was not built in compliance with (safety) rules and regulations."

How is this any different than the owner of the Texas fertilizer plant that just exploded failing to disclose to regulators that it was storing 1,350 times the amount of ammonium nitrate that is supposed to trigger oversight? Ravenous capitalists plus ineffectual regulators will equal human disasters anywhere.

The disaster, then, had nothing to do with the alleged "collective calculus" of the people of Bangladesh to live under a regime of lax safety standards so as not to deter their economic development. They made this calculus only in Yglesias' imagination. In real life, the people of Bangladesh are furious about the failure to enforce safety standards, and are currently protesting by the hundreds of thousands. Does Yglesias think these people are protesting their own conscious policy choices? That would be odd. It's offensive to implicate the "Bangladeshi people" in the corruption and exploitation of a small number of factory owners. They are the victims of this exploitation. Bangladesh's democratically elected government is responding, too: the prime minister is demanding justice for the factory owners, and the nation's highest court has ordered them to appear in court.

Yglesias is evidently unaware of, or uninterested in, the most salient facts of the story. Workers noticed cracks in the building, and protested, but were bullied and threatened into working anyway. Factory owners ignored a police order to evacuate the building due to safety concerns. This is about illegal economic exploitation and regulators that are either unwilling or unable to enforce the law. Using these corpses to make an argument that this disaster and others like it should be as viewed as mere speed bumps on Bangladesh's road to Neoliberal Paradise is disturbing. Nowhere in Yglesias' piece is there even a hint of humanity or sympathy for the victims. I hope he regrets writing it.

I should note that the death toll has now hit 200; it was "only" 87 when Yglesias wrote his piece. Whether this increased body count would have altered his analysis or affected his moral calculus in any way, I cannot say, but it seems doubtful.


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