Kristoff Channels Yeltsin, and He's Right

Nick Kristoff had a largely overlooked column at the NY Times back on the 14th, datelined Phnom Penh.  He called it "Where Sweatshops Are a Dream," and it echoes one of the great moments in the fall of the Soviet Empire.  In the post-Gorbachev days, or maybe just before, Boris Yeltsin visited Manhattan, and greatly annoyed most of the journalists assigned to cover him, because Yeltsin kept on praising American accomplishments.  Finally, he went to visit one of the worst neighborhoods in the Bronx, and a journalist asked him "Well, Mr. Yeltsin, what do you think of our slums?"

Yeltsin replied, "Your slums are our dreams."

Kristoff understands the message.

Before Barack Obama and his team act on their talk about "labor standards," I'd like to offer them a tour of the vast garbage dump here in Phnom Penh.

This is a Dante-like vision of hell. It's a mountain of festering refuse, a half-hour hike across, emitting clouds of smoke from subterranean fires.

The miasma of toxic stink leaves you gasping, breezes batter you with filth, and even the rats look forlorn. Then the smoke parts and you come across a child ambling barefoot, searching for old plastic cups that recyclers will buy for five cents a pound. Many families actually live in shacks on this smoking garbage.

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.

Talk to these families in the dump, and a job in a sweatshop is a cherished dream, an escalator out of poverty, the kind of gauzy if probably unrealistic ambition that parents everywhere often have for their children.

Our slums are their dreams.  And as we enter a phase in which we're going to hear a lot of people decrying America as the cause of the world's ills, do remember that very few people choose to leave America, while millions and millions will risk everything to get here.