The Wall Street Journal and Slavery

I’m quite surprised that an article in the Wall Street Journal about how to retire “cheap” to Bali hasn’t caused a bigger stir. The reason I’m shocked this hasn’t caused a stir – other than how completely pretentious it is and how the average retired couple couple actually afford this “cheap” retirement – is because of this section right here:

When it comes to cooking—and cleaning and all of those other daily time-consumers—we hire Balinese help. Our cook, who is paid $75 a month, shops in the market at 6:30 a.m. and prepares all of our meals from scratch. It’s very healthy. Sundays we are on our own, and that is our brunch and pizza day.

Now, since they’re “on their own” on Sundays, once we avreage out what they pay their cook it’s about $2.88 A DAY. Now, some might point out that Indonesia’s poverty-line is at $1 a day, so they’re paying the cook above the poverty-line. But such thinking ignores that Indonesia recently lowered their poverty line to the international poverty line (it would be like the United States lowering its poverty line to Mexico’s poverty line). Thus, the statistics are vastly skewed and in reality even $2 a day puts a person in the definition of poverty. To put this in perspective; in America, poverty means you struggle to pay your rent and get enough food without the aid of food stamps. In most of the world, however, poverty means you’re living in a shack or an overcrowded apartment and struggling to get to just 2,000 calories a day.

The “$1 a day” poverty line works for nations where there is no industry and the vast majority of the population is poor (mostly Sub-Saharan African). It doesn’t work for industrialized nations or nations that are becoming industrialized; $1 a day in England, France, the United States, Australia, or China would result in a person dying from starvation and being homeless. In Indonesia, which is a growing economy and competitive on the Southeast Asian stage, $1 a day simply will not feed a person. $2.88 a day doesn’t bring someone above the poverty line.

Thus, we have an article in the Wall Street Journal promoting using cheap/slave labor to achieve a cheap retirement. But this has always been the excuse for slavery. When we read the old justifications for slavery in Europe and the New World, it was always about how it made things cheaper, how if we didn’t have slaves then we couldn’t increase our goods. And to a certain extent, such calculations are right. If we didn’t have slave labor overseas today, just like if we didn’t have slaves picking cotton, the price of the goods would be too high for most people to afford the goods. If a cook who shopped and cooked for you in Indonesia was paid a fair wage, chances are this couple wouldn’t pay for him as it would’t be the bargain they’re getting right now. But an economy should never be driven by pragmatism, instead it should be driven by virtue.

The ultimate goal of any economy should be to grow, but it should be through ethical means. When it’s accomplished via unethical means, you ultimately create other problems that will eventually undermine society. Use slaves and eventually the slaves will rebel. Preach selfishness and eventually people will cheat and lie to gain more money, which eventually collapses the company, taking more from the economy than was ever put into it. Use low-labor as a foreigner and eventually the “natives” will get restless and kill you (it’s happened quite a bit in world history, shocking how we never learn). When you violate natural laws and natural orders there are natural consequences. If you jump off a building, the natural law of gravity will cause you to plummet to your death. If you stay under water without a breathing apparatus, do to the laws attached to your physiology you will die. But these natural laws extend to morality; if you live a life of vice, eventually there will be consequences for you or those who come after you. When you rob humans of their God-given dignity and freedom, eventually those humans will strike back and fight to regain their dignity and freedom.

Ultimately, we should treat humans beings with dignity because they’re human beings. We should pay a fair wage because it’s the right thing to do and we should want to do the right thing simply because it’s right. Now certainly you’re not going to pay a cook in Indonesia what you would pay a cook in the United States. With the difference in economies it will be cheaper to hire a cook in Indonesia. But it’s not difficult to still live cheap while also giving a fair wage to the cook. It doesn’t take a lot of compromise to treat people like people, but it certainly takes a lot of dignity.