On his radio show yesterday, right-wing hatchet man Hugh Hewitt quoted Barack Obama making a point about infrastructure and then accused him of endorsing slave labor:
OBAMA: Everybody’s watching what’s going on in Beijing right now with the Olympics , Think about the amount of money that China has spent on infrastructure. Their ports, their train systems, their airports are vastly the superior to us now, which means if you are a corporation deciding where to do business you’re starting to think, “Beijing looks like a pretty good option.”
HEWITT: So their ports, their air systems, their railroads are all “vastly superior” to ours. 1-800-520-1234, I would like the hear from the engineering world out there that the ports and the airports and the railroads of China are “vastly superior” to ours. Now, first of all, I’m going to point out that slave labor or near slave labor comes cheap. Now you can buy a lot for what they’re paying the Chinese working peasant over there. And I’d love to hear from the union leaders of America as for what they think of Barack Obama’s endorsement of using near slave labor to build roads.
I don’t think “slave labor” is the right way to characterize the situation in China (though I’d be interested to know Hewitt’s views on trade with China if he thinks that’s what’s happening there) but there’s no question that it’s cheaper to build infrastructure products if you have a very low wage workforce available. But on the other hand, China’s workforce is cheap because the country is so poor. Our GDP per capita is $45,800 whereas China’s is $5,300 with Purchasing Power Parity adjustments. We could, in other words, easily afford to spend more per capita on infrastructure than the entire per capita output of China. No slave labor necessary.
Meanwhile, the point is not that we ought to precisely ape Chinese infrastructure priorities which would be impossible for a variety of reasons that have nothing in particular to do with the wage differential. The point is that when you’re thinking about what generates prosperity, you have to look at a full spectrum of issues. The conservative approach to development is basically to say that if we have very low taxes, no regulation, and no public services then business will be booming. Progressives say, no, that creating an environment with a public sector that’s robust enough to provide first-rate infrastructure, high-quality education, and a healthy workforce will attract more than enough business opportunities to make up for whatever negative impact is caused by higher tax rates.
UPDATE: Here’s some Hewitt audio:
Good times. It seems he went on to argue that the fact that China experienced a disastrous earthquake proves Obama wrong.