Thursday, January 27, 2011

Deep thoughts this week...

Warning: this post kind of makes me sound heartless and unfeeling, but I'm really not.

My sociology class and my geography class actually tied in together this week.  Pretty interesting stuff, actually--at least to me.

In geography, the professor was talking about the "maquiladoras," or assembly plants built by American companies on the Mexican side of the border.  In these plants (she was telling us about auto plants specifically), an auto worker makes about $10 a day.  A worker doing the same job in the U.S. would be getting paid about $200 a day.  So, understandably, the auto companies would build the plants in Mexico and hire Mexican workers--it saves the company money, they don't have to pay the same (if any) taxes, workman's comp. laws are different, etc., etc.  Also understandably, a Mexican worker with any skill would definitely see the advantage in coming across the river (which apparently is only about knee-deep at most) and getting a job here in the U.S.  (I should note that I am not at all opposed to immigration, I just think that people who want to live here need to do so legally--and I think that should actually pertain to any country in the world.)  Now, I would feel bad for the Mexicans making $10 a day, except for the fact that the professor then went on to say that, especially in interior Mexico, that's actually a pretty good wage.  To me, that means that they're living fairly well and are able to buy the things they need, which is good.

So, on to sociology.  Yesterday the professor was discussing how capitalism originated, and told us that a German sociologist named Max Weber did a study in communities across Europe, and what he found was that capitalism started up in communities that were primarily Protestant, rather than Catholic.  Basically, these Protestant communities believed in predetermination or predestination, and believed that if you were successful at an endeavor, that meant that that was a sign that you were following your calling.  And when people were a little bit successful, they tended to look around and see people who were more successful, and they wanted that, so they'd reinvest in their business, and if they were more successful themselves, then that was further evidence that they were following their calling.  And they'd look around and see people who were still more successful, so they'd reinvest, and become more successful themselves, and so on.   So capitalism, Weber found, stemmed from a religion.  

What I found interesting was that besides Mexico, a lot of the other countries that my geography professor talked about where wages are lower are primarily Catholic, or have had a great deal of Catholic influence.  Now, this is just my impression after a few weeks, and we've only really talked about North America, Central America, and the very beginning of South America, so I could be wrong.  She's also briefly mentioned a few places in Africa, but I seem to remember that there's a good bit of Catholic influence there, too.

And I find myself wondering at what point do we (the more successful countries) stop trying to take care of the rest of the world?  I mean, there are places that receive aid from richer nations in the form of money, food, and other goods, but the government officials don't distribute the materials fairly, so the majority of their own people still suffer.  And in some countries the governments are corrupt, and the people know it, but can't or won't do anything about it.  And then you have situations where a powerful country is asked to help a weaker one to set up a new government, and then the weaker country turns out to be worse off than before the powerful one helped (I'm thinking that's what happened when Saddam Hussein came to power, but I have to look that up to make sure).  Is there ever a time when the powerful countries--the ones with the money and the resources--should look at the weaker ones and say, "Sorry, you're on your own.  We've tried to help you but you refuse to help yourselves, so there's nothing more we can do"?  I definitely don't think the weaker countries should be taken advantage of, but I also don't think that they should always just be handed everything they need--I don't think it helps them, in the long run, to develop as a nation.  I think it makes them too dependent on outside help.


Nettie said...

I think the problem we have these days is that Western countries tend to judge other countries on OUR standards and values, which is never going to be a true indication of what's happening. As you said $10 a day in Mexico is a good wage whereas in the US it isn't. But people get up in arms about the fact that these people are only being paid $10.
Truth be told, values and standards can be similar between differing nations but even still, they may not be comparable. Take Aus and the UK for instance. Both Western countries, both Commonwealth countries, always lumped in together as first world nations. A good wage over in the UK is 8 or 9 pounds an hour. That's only $14 or $15AUD which is what the 16 year old at the supermarket gets paid. My hubby is on around $25 an hour and that's only the average income (which makes me wish I was at least average lol but I digress).
The thing is, you can't just look at these hourly rates and think 'Oh, it's so much better in Australia' because you're not looking at the bigger picture. There's so many other factors like the cost of living and taxes and inflation that must be considered.

So in the end we get these bigger. wealthier nations stepping in to 'help' these other nations and then we judge them on our values and standards and I think a lot of the time, we then try to impose those onto the other nation. At the end of the day, if a country decides to give aid to another country, we should do so knowing that this aid may not be distributed as we would want it done, but on how the local government wants it done. And if we don't like the way it's done, then maybe we shouldn't give the aid in the first place.
It's hard knowing that the people you're trying to help may never see that aid but then perhaps we should look at giving that aid to a charitable institution like the Red Cross who, although they have to work with the governments involved, do tend to deal somewhat more directly with the actual people in need.

Gah, that was kind of rambly and I'm not sure if I've even managed to say what I'm trying to say but I hope it makes some sense!

Shawna said...

Yes, it really did, and that's very similar to the discussions I've had with Dave and a gal from my Brit. Lit. class.

Unfortunately, governments tend to have to deal with other governments, whereas a private citizen (Sean Penn, for example, who's been helping out in Haiti) can deal with charities, which means that the citizens are able to get more direct help.

Jamie said...

I've visited a Maquiladora and they are quite nice. Because they have to follow US regulations, they tend to be very clean and safe. The one I visited was working with dangerous machinery and toxic chemicals, but everyone wore appropriate safety gear at the same level that would be required in the US. Also, the workers there got other benefits than just $10/day. The factory owned school buses, which it used to pick up and take home all workers for free, which helps workers who do not own cars get to work. They also offer 2 hot meals a day for free to all employees. It is the high pay (for Nogales) and the extra benefits like meals that make these jobs high commodities in Mexico. Also, I don't remember the actual wages, but I think it might have been more than the $10/day only because Nogales has a lot of Maquiladoras that all compete for employees.

As to whether we should be helping other countries, you make a really good point. But, it's also important to keep in mind how intertwined the world is. When other countries do better and are stable, so do we. It's not a zero-sum game. So, when a country because stable and richer, they can afford more nice things, which we can then sell to them. In a way, it's in our self-interest to make sure other countries are doing well and try to raise their standard of living.

The problem is that it doesn't always work, and sometimes seems like it might have been better just to stay out. The Iraqi situation is similar to this. Clearly, it was in the US' self-interest for Iraq to be a stable nation, but on the other hand, we've kind of fucked it up and it's not clear whether everyone would have been better off had we just ignored them.

Anyways, that's my purely economic standpoint. Sure there are other issues of human rights and stuff, but it's important sometimes to ignore the "heart" and look at other arguments.