Labor Standards and Bicycle Helmets

Robert Samuelson writes in today’s Washington Post (registration required) that China, though in many ways an abominable economic landscape is a lot like the US 100 years ago. He argues that while growth is a messy thing, there is hope for the future in China, and recent progress is encouraging. He notes (citing the World Bank as his source):

†¢ From 1978 to 2002, the average annual per-person income rose from $190 to $960. It’s probably now above $1,000. (The U.S. figure: about $36,000.)

†¢ Life expectancy increased from 61.7 years in 1970 to 71 in 2002.

†¢ Adult illiteracy fell from 37 percent in 1978 to less than 17 percent in 1999.

†¢ Infant mortality dropped from 41 per 1,000 live births in 1978 to 30 in 1999 (the U.S. rate: about seven).

As the election heats up, we’re going to hear a lot about labor and environmental standards and how we need to level the playing field in trade. China remains a very poor country. It cannot afford the luxury of our standards of today any more than America could have afforded them 100 years ago when the average work week was 67 hours (down to 34 today) and the work place was a much more dangerous place.

One way to see this is to think about bicycle helmets. Where are more bicycle helmets worn–Chicago or Shanghai? Manhattan or Mexico City? More are worn in Chicago and New York. Don’t people in China and Mexico know that it’s dangerous to ride a bike in traffic without a helmet? I suspect they do. It’s just too expensive. Poor people are better off foregoing the helmet, keeping their kids in school a little longer and doing the best they can to avoid being hit by a car. Making the Chinese have factories as safe and clean as ours is like forcing them to wear bicycle helmets. It’s a bad deal for them even though there are benefits.