Escaping the Free Market Binary

There is a strain of argument for free markets that purports to be on the side of working people. It says that while do-gooder regulations may be nobly intended, ultimately they often hurt the people they are trying to help. The point is applied against various attempts to control extortionate or exploitative corporate practices, whether by raising the minimum wage or reining in debit card fees. The suggestion is that pushing on one part of the system causes movement in another part, an inadvertent effect that those committed to regulation willfully ignore. Raise the minimum wage and you will correspondingly raise unemployment. Cap debit card fees and watch free checking accounts disappear. The argument concludes by implicitly positing a binary: we either allow companies to do as they wish, or we try to control them and in the process do more harm than good.

For some years, Nicholas Kristof has been applying this same pattern of reasoning to the anti-sweatshop movement. Liberals, he says, have their hearts in the right place, but do not understand economics:

Mr. Obama and the Democrats who favor labor standards in trade agreements mean well, for they intend to fight back at oppressive sweatshops abroad. But while it shocks Americans to hear it, the central challenge in the poorest countries is not that sweatshops exploit too many people, but that they don’t exploit enough.

Kristof says that without sweatshops, poor countries would suffer even further. And so “anyone who cares about fighting poverty should campaign in favor of sweatshops, demanding that companies set up factories in Africa. If Africa could establish a clothing export industry, that would fight poverty far more effectively than any foreign aid program.” Africa will only be competitive if it is able to offer lower wages than anywhere else, and so vigorously enforced labor standards doom any chance for jobs and corresponding economic uplift.

Kristof offers us the binary: either accept the economic reality of sweatshops or attempt to impose restrictions on them and see manufacturers flee elsewhere. Paltry wages and factory fires are unfortunate, but the numbers speak for themselves: people want jobs, and flood to these supposedly abominable employers. Who are Western liberals to try to take away the only source of income in a community?

The argument contains a careful sleight-of-hand, however. By first positing the inevitability that attempts to regulate labor practices will result in the movement of industry, and by second framing such movement as one might speak of the travel of liquid through glass tubes, any idea of free will and moral responsibility is removed from the discussion. The reasoning process thereby slyly exonerates corporations for what would be considered deeply immoral acts if they were evaluated by the standards that the criminal justice system uses for individuals. After all, what does the argument actually say? If it is that employers are purely self-interested, and will wriggle out of any attempt at imposing requirements, this may be correct, but surely if that is true, these employers suffer from a deadly and irredeemable sociopathy.

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ELDER: He doesn’t take the money for himself, you little silly. He needs it for us, for our needs: for the officials, for the army, for education– for our own good.
GRUSHKA: What good does it do us if you take our cow? That doesn’t do us any good.
ELDER: You’ll understand when you grow up. Mind you tell your mother what I’ve said.
GRUSHKA: I’m not going to tell her such rubbish. If you and the Tsar need anything, do it for yourselves, and we’ll do what we need for ourselves.
ELDER: Ah, when she grows up this girl will be rank poison!

Leo Tolstoy, “Taxes.” From “The Wisdom of Children.”

You never believed in the meaning of this world, and you therefore deduced the idea that everything was equivalent and that good and evil could be defined according to one’s wishes. You supposed that in the absence of any human or divine code the only values were those of the animal world – in other words, violence and cunning. Hence you concluded that man was negligible and that his soul could be killed, that in the maddest of histories the only pursuit for the individual was the adventure of power and his only morality, the realism of conquests. And, to tell the truth, I, believing I thought as you did, saw no valid argument to answer you except a fierce love of justice which, after all, seemed to me as unreasonable as the most sudden passion.
Where lay the difference? Simply that you readily accepted despair and I never yielded to it. Simply that you saw the injustice of our condition to the point of being willing to add to it, whereas it seemed to me that man must exalt justice in order to fight against eternal injustice, create happiness in order to protest against the universe of unhappiness. Because you turned your despair into intoxication, because you freed yourself from it by making a principle of it, you were willing to destroy man’s works and fight him in order to add to his basic misery. Meanwhile, refusing to accept that despair and that tortured world, I merely wanted men to rediscover their solidarity in order to wage war against their revolting fate. I continue to believe that this world has no ultimate meaning. But I know that something in it has a meaning and that is man, because he is the only creature to insist on having one. This world has at least the truth of man, and our task is to provide its justification against fate itself. And if it has no justification but man; hence he must be saved if we want to save the idea we have of life. With your scornful smile you will ask me: what do you mean by saving man? And with all my being I shout to you that I mean not mutilating him and yet giving a chance to the justice that man alone can conceive.

Albert Camus, “Letter to a German Friend #4,” 1944. In Resistance, Rebellion, and Death.

Rheinhardt, attempting to follow Noonan around the periphery, was suddenly confronted with the presence of King Walyoe. Grotesquerie, he thought, madness. The first movie he had ever seen, some twenty-five years earlier, had featured King Walyoe: he had passed representations of this lean tanned countenance a thousand times. Now it swung before him, sagging slightly and a mite liver-eyed, with an expression of curious displeasures as though he were John Carradine or Barton MacLaine.
“King,” Noonan said nervously, “I don’t think you know Rheinhardt.”
Rheinhardt decided to simply walk around him on the theory that movies were necessary and nourishing in their place, but life, whatever it was, something else. It was like finding Sidney Greenstreet waiting for you in your hotel room.
“Hey,” King Walyoe drawled, “hey you disc jockey.”
Shit, Rheinhardt thought– what to do. Break a chair over his head? That never worked.
“Hi,” Rheinhardt said.
“Hi?” King Walyoe asked, outraged.
“Yes,” Rheinhardt said. “Hi. Aren’t you King Walyoe?”
“King Walyoe,” King Walyoe declared.

from Robert Stone, A Hall of Mirrors, p. 293.

Follow-up on Times coverage of New Orleans parade shooting

In Monday’s paper, the story was not mentioned on the front page. Instead, it received a very small wire service blurb at the bottom of page 11.

There is currently a manhunt in New Orleans for the parade shooter. Horrifying photographs have been released. This, too is absent from the Times.

The most prominent story on the website currently is about attractive and colourful snakes. See below:


UPDATE: The Times today has a more in-depth piece on the shooting, focusing on the risks of second-lines. Obviously they deserve credit for at last giving due coverage to the event. I will add, however, that this does not mitigate the Times’s failure to treat the event as “news” in the way that similar events affecting other populations would be (a hypothetical: would a Boston Marathon shooting with 19 injuries receive a blurb, followed by a profile days later?). This piece, to me, is simply the same “New Orleans Still A Violent Town” profile that runs semi-annually in the paper. I think the tone of these articles suggests a fatalism, a kind of attitude towards New Orleans that suggest the violence is inevitable and systemic and therefore lacks the kind of urgency that responses to other places’ violence receive. Again, I’m pleased the Times ran this! But this kind of coverage, where it’s not headline news, it’s a quasi-anthopological profile, has tonal problems of its own.

A photographer who worked on the story replies to my original post below:

I appreciate your post, your sensitivity to the news coverage of Sunday’s tragic events, and your letter to the NYT. I’m sure you saw the story running in today’s edition, but wanted to be sure that it was added to this post.

I’m a photographer based in New Orleans, and worked on this this story with two different writers. I was at the parade on Sunday, in the intersection where the shooting occurred, and began reporting on the event immediately. One of the writers has extensive personal relationships within the second-line and brass band communities, and I feel that we did a responsible job of contextualizing the day’s events and how they fit into a larger discussion of New Orleans and urban violence. The story led the National section in today’s newspaper, ran out front on the website all morning, and is at the top of the US page right now. It can be difficult to provide immediate and adequate coverage of something like this mass shooting, especially in a place where violence is a tragically common occurrence. In this case I think we were better able to humanize the victims and our community at large when we took a bit more time to do so.

Will Widmer

Letter I sent to NY Times Public Editor today

To the Public Editor,

As soon as I saw the news of a mass shooting in New Orleans on the city’s news site, I had a sense of how the New York Times would cover it. Sure enough, it currently merits a small mention far down the website’s front page under “More News.” I’m writing because I think you should really comparatively examine how the newspaper covers tragedies that affect poor minority populations in distant parts of America.

The New Orleans shooting is as much a horror as any other American act of mass violence, but it was inevitable from the moment it happened that it wouldn’t receive a fraction of the attention that the Boston bombing has (or the shootings in Aurora or Tucson). Actually, the BBC gave it top billing on its U.S. News site (screenshot below), but British journalists have not yet learned the subtle hierarchies that govern American mainstream coverage of horrible events.

That hierarchy of victims is obvious to every reader. In fact, I’d say that given a particular set of factors, one can predict almost precisely how the New York Times will cover a story like this. The journalistic law that applies here is as follows: the New Orleans shooting will receive coverage precisely to the extent that it resembles a “Mass Shooting” as a discrete type of stock media event. Because there are lots of victims, there’s a parade, “indiscriminate” firing, upstanding (white) citizen attendees, it fits many of the parameters. But it’s also in a poor neighborhood in Louisiana, there were no deaths, and the violence is not the product of a college-educated psychopath or angry young Muslim, but the everyday street variety that has become an accepted part of New Orleans life.

I am trying to be fair here, by recognizing the subtleties of the formula. I’m not saying the New York Times doesn’t cover tragedies that affect minorities. I’m saying that coverage levels seem to emerge from factors, as if on a checklist, that determine how a story will be covered. Some of those make decent sense (such as extent of harm), but some of them are prejudiced and give certain people more humanity than others. Now, I’m sure also that those factors are unconsciously applied. But I don’t see how anyone could fail to recognize them, or how they are defensible. How are the bombs in Boston more frightening than the shootings in New Orleans? How are the lives of the 200 (mostly poor, black) people who are murdered every year in New Orleans not as much value to our national security as the lives of marathon attendees?

I’m sure reporters have a standard line of defense against this charge. I don’t know many reporters, so I don’t know what it is. Perhaps they say the paper only reflects the public’s prevailing fancies; we give them what they ask for and don’t ask questions. But even if we set aside any idea of the media’s shaping public opinion, this defense would carry the implicit concession that if the public’s interests reflect racial bias, it’s okay for the paper to reflect racial bias.

If I could make one point that would stick with you, it would be this: I think any critical examination of the way newspapers determine the relative importance of events reveals profoundly ugly truths, and that whatever neutral defenses are made are thin rationalizations. I think you as the Public Editor truly need to take this question seriously. I also think you should be very careful to check that you do not fall into these same rationalizations when you try honestly to answer the question  “What acceptable reason is there that the New Orleans shooting is not in large print on the front page?”

I’ll confess a bias here, which is that I love New Orleans and every act of violence in it pains me. Much of this violence is not drug or gang related, and affects everyone from children at birthday parties to college students to parents and community members. But most of these people are black, and there just doesn’t seem any way to convince newspapers that their lives matter as much as anyone else’s. I hope you’ll help on this, it seems precisely where the role of the Public Editor is most needed.

Thank you,

Nathan J. Robinson


A. Times Coverage


B. BBC Coverage


UPDATE: As of 11:30 p.m. on the night of the shooting, the story has been dropped from the front page of the Times website entirely.

From the rear jacket of “Sometimes Englishable”

Claude Dubreuil is trying his best to create the impression of being a serious professional. Having fallen back to New Orleans after two reputation-destroying mishaps at a Manhattan auction house, he attempts to both re-adapt to the concept of the three-hour workday and maintain his composure against the scourge of homegrown “Louisiana Communism” that has lately engulfed the city. With the help of smuggled prison letters from his “man on the inside” Mad Uncle Almonaster (the first person in the South ever to be arrested for crime he was guilty of), Claude will both rebuild his front porch and be draped in a revolutionary explosion of colour and brass. 

“Finish Your Drink As They Drag You Away”

Martin Luther King knew it, and so did Big Jesus himself. Dignity in the face of reason shows not only the presence of virtue, but the absence of serious vice. Here we find the dissident: persemacuted and ostrich-sized. The dissident can be assured of one thing alone: that she will be crushed. With this kind of certainty abounding, she faces only one serious decision: what faces will I make as they pull me from my chair and throw me on the heap?

We posit the following: the act of rebellion is consummated not when one is dragged away, but when one exhibits the composure and arrondissement necessary to finish one’s drink as they drag one away. In those last sips, taken with calculated obliviousness to and disdain for circumstance, one has truly smeared tomato on one’s accuser.

It’s not a wondercure, certainly, but the question “What else can you all do about it, anyway?” has never been met with a cosmically good answer. We are do-makers, and so we make do. Grist for the isthmus, as they might say.

see below:

For more, see our topical monograph Hegel’s Isthmus: A New Topography of Philosophy, 1000 hand-stapled copies of which sit in an appropriated milk-crate in an unused corner of the Faculty Lounge.

from Blueprints for a Sparkling Tomorrow (revised & expanded edition), written with Oren Nimni, under contract with Sycophantic Palms Press.

Recovered piece of correspondence from my archives

Dear ________,

On finally re-entering the wreckage of the conservatory this morning I came upon a charred but salvageable copy of the pencilled notes I had previously made for an important message to you. Of course, by now I haven’t a clue what they were all supposed to mean, or how they assemble to form a creature (I am the sort of chap who can barely remember why I came to a room half-a-minute after I arrive in it, so there was never much hope on this front). I am therefore sending them “raw” and trusting that you can string together these discordant scraps to conjure some sort of well-crafted and genial missive. I am sorry I only ever send you lists.

Transcription of Found Notecards (reflecting minor errata and emendation):
[my own present comments in brackets]


  • need update on the progress of collectivising the Midwestern automotive plants; not a full memorandum with subparts and appendices, but obviously an “It’s done!” or a “We’re workin’ on it!” would give useful guidance with which to direct my own [unintelligible]
  • now alarmingly apparent that I ought to have been spending more time teaching small children about participatory economics and far less time looking at waistcoats in shop-windows and pretending to study the laws. Goodbye slowly, my twenties!
  • had touch of the melancholies today because think I accidentally atheized a Jehovah’s Witness who showed up on the doorstep. Whoops.
  • politely declining bomb threats and the like
  • a professor who once told me that “Brazilian history is written from the hammock.” What does this mean??? [sic]
  • deep mistrust of horses
  • suggestions for a new kind of social fable (narrated by an affable jerboa?)
  • new plan: depart the quadrangles, travel by rail, Patagonia, purchase a Trabant and paint it like John Lennon’s Rolls
  • with which she once led a counterinsurgency, though she would herself have described it more casually [out of modesty? why?]
  • feel as if it would be best to die either in a shootout with reactionaries or be eaten by whales.
  • still unsure from where moral values derive; allowed to pluck them from the cosmos?
  • the man who mistakenly wore his cravat to a gymnasium. [note: this appears to have been the proposed title for a collection of similarly-themed stories about (predictably) a gentleman mistakenly wearing his cravat in various unacceptable places — see this rough proposed piece of cover art which was recovered near the site of the notes: ]
  • increasingly favour abolition of colleges (not the edification chamber advertised in brochures, but a pen for keeping the young until all willpower wears off)
  • yes, best to spend some time in Latin America, but could I even pass an ideological competency test for the Diplomatic Service??
  • “treating your adversary with respect is giving him an advantage to which he is not entitled.” Discuss.
  • “solitude is the playfield of Satan.” Discuss.
  • the three kinds of regicide – (a) colloquial [bottom half of notecard smeared in lipstick]
  • whether vanguardism is a fit subject for poetry

[remainder of notecards too scorched to decipher]

As I said, unclear how the fragments were all supposed to come together. A portion of them may not have actually been intended for you; they were mixed in with a folder marked “Insurance Papers,” so likely some of this pertains to insurance instead.

Finally, here is a quotation from Rosa Luxemburg’s Selected Political Writings:

“Business is flourishing upon the ruins. Cities are turned to rubble, whole countries into deserts, villages into cemeteries, whole populations into beggars, churches into stables. International law, treaties, alliances, the holiest words and the highest authorities have been torn into scraps. Every sovereign by the grace of God is called a cretin, an unfaithful wretch, by his cousin on the other side; every diplomat calls his colleague in the enemy’s country a crafty scoundrel; each government looks upon the other as the evil genius of its people, worthy only of the contempt of the world. Hunger revolts in Venetia, in Lisbon, in Moscow, in Singapore; plague in Russia; misery and desperation everywhere. Shamed, dishonored, wading in blood and dripping with filth–THUS STANDS bourgeois society. And so it is. Not as we usually see it, pretty and chaste, playing the roles of peace and righteousness, of order, of philosophy, ethics and culture. It shows itself in its true, naked form–as a roaring beast, as an orgy of anarchy, as a pestilential breath, devastating culture and humanity.”

I trust that you are cheerful and well and so forth.

From a Buick 6,
Nathan J. Robinson