post by Raemon · 2011-01-15T16:47:33.255Z · score: 7 (15 votes) · LW · GW · Legacy · 40 comments

Lately I've been thinking about all of the various services and products I consume and how pretty much all of them are bad for the world in one way or another, large or small. Some of the problems associated with them I am less concerned about. Some of them could be construed as good things (i.e. sweat shop labor DOES provide jobs, whatever impact it might or might not have on the overall quality of life).

In general I'd like to live my life having as minimal a negative impact on the world as possible. But "negative impact" is a hugely broad topic and there are a million variables to consider and I just don't have time. 

The best solution, I think, would be to have a wikipedia-like website where individual people with knowledge of specific problems can start tagging specific products with the types of negative consequences associated with them, and (somehow) sort those consequences into categories that individuals can decide how much to worry about. Over time it could eventually become a fairly efficient way to track the utility value of things.

I'm sort of hoping something like this already exists, even if in an infant form, and that someone here knows about it. But I doubt it, so the I guess this falls mostly under the post category of "hey someone other than me should devote a bunch of time and energy to this project that I myself am not qualified to do." But maybe a few people here at least have a better idea than I do of the scope of the requirements for it, so the idea can be refined a bit.


Comments sorted by top scores.

comment by Vaniver · 2011-01-15T18:10:09.465Z · score: 14 (16 votes) · LW(p) · GW(p)

There's strong reason to believe sweatshop labor is a positive thing, actually- both conditions and pay tend to be superior to other options available in that location, and sweatshop owners expand the middle class. Similarly, the push to exclude child labor in sweatshops hurts children (and their families) in developing countries, because the choice is rarely "work or go to school" but instead "work at a good job vs. work at a bad job."

Which is one of the reasons why something like this would very quickly devolve into a political battleground: there are legitimate differences in opinion (even if there aren't illegitimate ones will get presented) and who comes out on top has real-world implications.

comment by fubarobfusco · 2011-01-15T19:26:20.548Z · score: 3 (5 votes) · LW(p) · GW(p)

There's strong reason to believe sweatshop labor is a positive thing, actually- both conditions and pay tend to be superior to other options available in that location, and sweatshop owners expand the middle class.

Even if the individual choice of a laborer to work in a sweatshop might be the best (economically and morally) choice available to them, that doesn't mean that there aren't economic and moral ills in sweatshop systems, due to choices made by other parties such as governments.

For an example, look at the historical sweatshop era in Great Britain. Why was there a surplus of poor people in the cities available to work in sweatshops? Not because they voluntarily moved there, but because they were driven off the countryside forcibly. The sweatshop system entailed not truly voluntary employment, but rather coercion of workers into a situation where that was their best choice.

comment by Vaniver · 2011-01-15T19:31:01.026Z · score: 3 (3 votes) · LW(p) · GW(p)

While partially true for Great Britain,* note that the opposite is true for China- it has to resort to force to keep people in the countryside.

* Labor costs definitely dropped because of enclosures, but there was also significant pull effects such that factories, though probably less of them, would have been staffed anyway.

comment by CronoDAS · 2011-01-15T20:53:57.306Z · score: 10 (12 votes) · LW(p) · GW(p)

I'm going to quote Peter Drucker on this:

The history books record the squalor of early industry, the poverty of the industrial workers, and their exploitation. Workers did indeed live in squalor and poverty, and they were exploited. But they lived better than those on a farm or in a household, and were generally treated better.

Proof of this is that infant mortality dropped immediately when farmers and domestic servants moved into industrial work. Historically, cities had never reproduced themselves. They had depended for their perpetuation on constant new recruits from the countryside. This was still true in the mid-nineteenth century. But with the spread of factory employment the city became the center of population growth. In part this was a result of new public-health measures: purification of water, collection and treatment of wastes, quarantine against epidemics, inoculation against disease. These measures--and they were effective mostly in the city--counteracted, or at least contained, the hazards of crowding that had made the traditional city a breeding ground for pestilence. But the largest single factor in the exponential drop in infant mortality as industrialization spread was surely the improvement in living conditions brought about by the factory. Housing and nutrition became better, and hard work and accidents came to take less of a toll. The drop in infant mortality--and with it the explosive growth in population--correlates with only one development: industrialization. The early factory was indeed the "Satanic Mill" of William Blake's great poem. But the countryside was not "England's green and pleasant Land" of which Blake sang; it was a picturesque but even more satanic slum.

comment by Raemon · 2011-01-16T00:35:14.974Z · score: 1 (1 votes) · LW(p) · GW(p)

I'd buy that in many cases, moving your production into overseas sweatshops is better than not doing it. But my suspicion is that when doing so, there often will remain a lot of room for improvement, and the world would collectively be better off if we continue to pressure companies to improve in that area. (This is based on limited research on my part - I don't know what the conditions in the average modern sweatshop is like. Probably better than they were 50 years ago, but I don't know by how much). But I don't think having more, shinier, cheaper widgets necessarily makes most people happier either (depends on the widget and the people in question).

comment by Vaniver · 2011-01-16T07:21:30.914Z · score: 0 (0 votes) · LW(p) · GW(p)

there often will remain a lot of room for improvement,

Of course. But typically that improvement comes from them working their way up, not them being offered a better deal to start off with. Sweatswop labor was good enough for England, good enough for the American Northeast, and is good enough for China for now.

But I don't think having more, shinier, cheaper widgets necessarily makes most people happier either (depends on the widget and the people in question).

Alright, but that's an argument why we don't benefit from sweatshop labor, because we just have more and cheaper t-shirts and jeans. The increase in laborer income typically results in massive quality of life boosts for them. For example, about a month's wages in a textile mill will allow a woman to pay back the gifts a villager back home gave to her/her family in order to buy her as a wife, allowing her to select her own boyfriend. And the work, though still incredibly strenuous by Western standards, is no longer literally back-breaking.

comment by Raemon · 2011-01-16T17:04:50.879Z · score: 0 (2 votes) · LW(p) · GW(p)

Alright, but that's an argument why we don't benefit from sweatshop labor, because we just have more and cheaper t-shirts and jeans.

But typically that improvement comes from them working their way up, not them being offered a better deal to start off with.

The point is that the factories in China could have better safety regulations for the workers, less grueling hours, and air conditioning. These are not things that individual employees can work their way up to achieve. These are things that will only change from the top. They aren't done because they cost money. If they were done, Western consumers would have to pay more money for them. But since more material goods don't necessarily make us happier, the money we're saving isn't necessarily translating to increased utility.

Requiring employees to work 13 hour days 7 days a week in miserable conditions DOES, I believe, impact their overall wellbeing in a measurable, negative way. I'm comparing this not to their life before the sweatshop (and even then, I think the overall net gains are debatable), but to what their life COULD be if the sweatshop had better conditions.

The variables are pretty complex, and I don't know for sure what the optimal system is. But I think if consumer pressure was put on companies to treat their employees better, the result would be a world where some people have less money but that overall, actual utility is increased. And this is not something I expect to happen without external pressure forcing companies to do so.

comment by jsalvatier · 2011-01-17T16:38:21.581Z · score: 0 (4 votes) · LW(p) · GW(p)

"and even then, I think the overall net gains are debatable" That's not the sort of thing you can assert without explaining. People who work in sweatshops choose to work in sweatshops. People are normally relatively good at choosing what makes them better off. If you think this choice has made them worse off, you have to come up with a reason why so many people choose badly.

Obviously I am assuming they are not forced to work at a sweatshop. Obviously it's bad if they are forced to do so.

comment by Raemon · 2011-01-17T18:47:23.802Z · score: 3 (5 votes) · LW(p) · GW(p)

Honestly I'm not prepared to make a judgment without actually visiting a sweatshop and interacting with the people there as well as their families. Maybe "it's debatable" was a bad phrase because I don't actually have enough facts to debate, period. But so far the arguments to the contrary hinge on treating people like the sum of their financial assets, which I don't think is true at all. My issues with the arguments so far (i.e. why I am not persuaded by them, NOT why I think other people should believe Sweatshops are evil) are this:

a) I frankly disagree with the statement "people are normally good at choosing what makes them better off." The whole point of a rationality blog, I thought, was that people are notoriously BAD at this and rationality makes them better at it. I know that I personally stuck around in a dead end job for way longer than necessary because it was the path of least resistance. Changing jobs is scary. You don't know for sure you'll be better off. There might not be multiple factories available in every area. The factories might have unspoken agreements about hiring practices to keep prices down. And while people aren't forced to work in the factories, part of the whole reason sweatshops get a bad wrap is emotional abuse that the employers dish out, which can impede people's judgment once they're in the situation.

b) the basic system seems to be one where families offer up sacrificial lambs. On person spends basically their entire waking life at a crappy job to support an extended family. This might or might not create an overall net bonus to utility, I don't know. I know my gut reaction says that's unfair. That may just be Western bias.

But my sense from what I've read is that the people in question face extensive pressure to make that choice. Interviews I've seen suggested that they aren't completely miserable and that they genuinely feel that staying is the right thing to do, but that they don't at all consider it a "good choice," just "the least bad choice."

comment by NancyLebovitz · 2011-01-18T15:11:43.790Z · score: 2 (2 votes) · LW(p) · GW(p)

If all that's available is a "least bad" choice, it's still important not to rearrange things in ways which result in a worse set of options.

comment by Raemon · 2011-01-18T15:49:22.988Z · score: 0 (0 votes) · LW(p) · GW(p)

I'm not sure which way you mean that: the employee shouldn't risk switching jobs, or the employer shouldn't risk changing the situation for better or worse?

comment by NancyLebovitz · 2011-01-18T18:13:43.558Z · score: 5 (5 votes) · LW(p) · GW(p)

If you're a third party, you should be careful not to set things up in a way that merely eliminates a least bad choice that looks ugly to you.

For example, making poor quality housing illegal may lead to an increase in people living on the streets.

comment by Vaniver · 2011-01-16T23:29:18.826Z · score: 0 (0 votes) · LW(p) · GW(p)

These are not things that individual employees can work their way up to achieve.

Suppose there are two factories: one with a worse safety record, and one with a better one. When someone comes from the farm, they find the first factory has an opening; after a few years, they have enough experience that they move to the second factory.

I don't know how much spread there is in factory conditions (but I imagine there must be some), but I do know there's at least some spread in worker ability / training.

These are things that will only change from the top.

Suppose you offered the workers of a sweatshop either an air conditioning system for their workplace or the money it would cost, split among them. Do you think that vote would be unanimous?

comment by jfm · 2011-01-20T21:24:20.410Z · score: -1 (3 votes) · LW(p) · GW(p)

This whole line of argument has been debunked in detail.

comment by Vaniver · 2011-01-21T00:54:32.776Z · score: 2 (4 votes) · LW(p) · GW(p)

That does not appear to be a debunking so much as a smearing. It'll take more than calling something plutocratic for me to see problems with it, and as far as I can tell they just quote a bunch of libertarians and expect us to be offended that they make sense.

It is not the fault of the industrial revolution that subsistence agriculture pays poorly. That is the fault of subsistence agriculture. It is the fault of the industrial revolution that factory work pays well, that factory owners gets a return on their capital, and most of all that consumers benefit.

You can look at wage data in England if you don't believe me- the primary beneficiaries of the Industrial Revolution were unskilled workers and consumers. (The last place I saw this data collected was A Farewell to Alms, but I imagine there are other more focused sources).

comment by James_Miller · 2011-01-15T18:30:18.101Z · score: 5 (7 votes) · LW(p) · GW(p)

A good's market price is usually the best estimate of the social cost of consuming the good because absent government subsidies it usually tells you the cost of the resources used to make the good. In competitive efficient markets:

Price = social marginal cost

When price doesn't provide useful information about social costs so many factors come into play that you are extremely unlikely to come anywhere close to figuring out the social marginal cost of consuming a good.

comment by CronoDAS · 2011-01-15T20:47:09.743Z · score: 7 (9 votes) · LW(p) · GW(p)

The biggest problem with market prices is externalities, such as pollution.

comment by Vladimir_M · 2011-01-15T23:57:17.971Z · score: 4 (4 votes) · LW(p) · GW(p)

Some other serious problems with market prices are rent-seeking endeavors and arms races in signaling behavior.

comment by James_Miller · 2011-01-15T22:37:21.982Z · score: 0 (2 votes) · LW(p) · GW(p)

I think it's taxes which unlike pollution causes most prices to overestimate the marginal social cost of goods.

comment by Costanza · 2011-01-15T23:18:44.740Z · score: 2 (2 votes) · LW(p) · GW(p)

Hence the Pigouvian tax in which the taxes and the negative externalities cancel should each other out.

comment by Vladimir_M · 2011-01-15T23:59:26.216Z · score: 1 (1 votes) · LW(p) · GW(p)

Or Coasian bargaining, which also may or may not work in practice.

comment by Jayson_Virissimo · 2011-01-15T18:39:42.113Z · score: 2 (2 votes) · LW(p) · GW(p)

I was about to vehemently disagree with you, but then I realized that you said best, not good. Market prices are indeed the best approximation of social cost that we have to work with (even if we wish we had a better one).

comment by James_Miller · 2011-01-15T18:59:06.458Z · score: 2 (4 votes) · LW(p) · GW(p)

You can still "vehemently disagree with [me]" since I think my post would hold true if I replaced "best" with "good".

comment by Raemon · 2011-01-15T23:01:50.562Z · score: 2 (2 votes) · LW(p) · GW(p)

I was about to disagree with you as well, then I realized you probably mean something specific by "social cost" but I'm not 100% sure what. What exactly is social cost? It seems to me that an item produced without safety regulations will be cheaper than one that is not, but that's a negative trait in my book.

comment by James_Miller · 2011-01-16T03:14:57.731Z · score: 0 (2 votes) · LW(p) · GW(p)

Social costs are the sum of all the private individual costs.

Safety regulations don't necessarily make a product safer although they almost always raise prices in part by restricting entry into the product's market.

Because it costs resources to make a product safer it's socially inefficient to have products that are too save.

comment by XiXiDu · 2011-01-15T17:48:51.398Z · score: 5 (7 votes) · LW(p) · GW(p)

Characterizing Health, Environment and Social Impacts | GoodGuide

Find healthy, green, ethical products according to scientific research and ratings.

More here:

We conduct research on what matters most in each product category, assessing the health impacts of ingredients, the environmental impacts of a company's production processes and the social impacts of a company's operations on workers and communities.

Also see this NYTimes article on the above service: On Web and iPhone, a Tool to Aid Careful Shopping

comment by Raemon · 2011-01-15T20:02:39.763Z · score: 2 (2 votes) · LW(p) · GW(p)

Great. Pretty much exactly what I'm looking for, at least in theory. Whoever voted this down, can you explain why?

comment by [deleted] · 2011-01-21T23:37:06.839Z · score: 3 (3 votes) · LW(p) · GW(p)

I've been thinking about something like this.

A lot of people, for one reason or another, want to cut down on their fossil fuel consumption. Let's reduce the question to fossil fuels because that gives you a single metric: gallons of crude used to bring this product to you. Let's also put to one side those who say that there's no good reason to cut down on fossil fuels; at least some of the developed world's population does want to use less oil.

But given a vast array of products, some of which advertise being "green" in one way or another, you don't actually have a good way to know what's the least oil-consuming shopping cart to bring home from the grocery store. Without knowledge, you can't "shop green," any more than you can save money without seeing any price tags. Using labels, news, and PR to inform you how to "shop green" may well be counterproductive. In an ideal world, you could actually get data about the energy expenditure of every consumer product, from bananas to boomboxes. Of course, to do that somebody would need to enforce disclosure requirements on manufacturers and that's not going to happen (and maybe shouldn't happen.)

At the very least, though, it would be a good project someday to make an incomplete estimate, based on what energy consumption data is available from manufacturers. And you might be able to get industry averages or back-of-the-envelope estimates for product categories ("Cabbage is better than lettuce by X gallons of oil per pound")

But this is what frustrates me sometimes. I see people and institutions trying to change their buying habits altruistically (to use less oil or less sweatshop labor or something else) but they have no way to measure numerically how they're doing at their goals, and they often don't seem to care one bit. Why?!?! (Ok, signaling, but grrrrrr.)

comment by Raemon · 2011-01-30T23:13:06.689Z · score: 3 (3 votes) · LW(p) · GW(p)

Yeah, this is something I struggle with. My grandmother once made a huge effort to find these aluminum water bottles that were theoretically better for the environment and were made locally. Later on they turned out to be made in China, like everything else.

I've also been reading some stuff suggesting that driving a few extra miles to go to a remote but "local" farm ends up costing more oil, since the food produced overseas is shipped in huge bulk that works out to be more efficient.

Oil consumption isn't the only thing that matters, but does make for a metric that should at least be possible to come up with.

comment by sfb · 2011-01-20T01:11:29.070Z · score: 2 (2 votes) · LW(p) · GW(p)

I saw a customer comment on a piano website recently thanking the proprietor for being green by having a digital manual instead of shipping a paper one.

An electronic manual for the electronic piano they just bought with a mechanism made in Germany, processors from Japan, soundboard from France, assembled in China, sold in England and delivered to Wales.

"It's not easy being green" - Mork.

comment by jimrandomh · 2011-01-15T17:31:54.676Z · score: 1 (1 votes) · LW(p) · GW(p)

I like this idea, but measuring the magnitude of negative effects is hard. You can't trust companies to report how many hours of sweatshop labor they use per unit, and in many cases that information is scattered between the manufacturers of many different parts and no one really knows. Similarly for energy used, types and amounts of toxins released, politicians bribed, small guys sued, and so on. It might also be a lawsuit magnet.

comment by TheOtherDave · 2011-01-15T17:53:03.218Z · score: 3 (3 votes) · LW(p) · GW(p)

Yeah, cases where there's strongly motivated deception are a real test case for techniques for reasoning under noisy data.

I'd sort of like to see an effort like this that embraced both viewpoint pluralism and nymity/reputation.

That is, let anyone who wants to write an article making out a case for the net impact of a given practice, but have a social norm requiring that they actually register under their real names, and provide a mechanism whereby users of the system can easily get a summary of what sorts of claims a given user makes.

Maybe even introduce a layer of site-endorsed evaluations on grounds like does this case depend on unsubstantiated empirical claims, does it take into account what is known/generally believed about the topic, etc., in cases where that kind of objective evaluation is possible. Not so much "agree/disagree" but "observed facts are consistent with/inconsistent with/irrelevant to".

That could obviate the lawsuit risk, perhaps? I mean, if the site doesn't endorse any particular position, but just functions as a clearinghouse for individual cases.

comment by endoself · 2011-01-16T02:11:11.680Z · score: 0 (0 votes) · LW(p) · GW(p)

I think this would be a good idea. It kind of reminds me of this page, but with a much greater scope.

You could start this site with wikia or someone could privately host it. There are probably other options too, but I can't find any.

comment by Document · 2011-01-16T10:14:36.027Z · score: 1 (3 votes) · LW(p) · GW(p)

Possibly related: a site presenting the case against Wikia.

comment by David_Gerard · 2011-01-21T22:48:59.274Z · score: 0 (0 votes) · LW(p) · GW(p)

No such site.

comment by Document · 2011-01-21T22:52:44.479Z · score: 0 (0 votes) · LW(p) · GW(p)

Google's cache still currently works.

comment by David_Gerard · 2011-01-21T22:57:39.324Z · score: 0 (2 votes) · LW(p) · GW(p)

The complaint appears to be "they won't take down freely-licensed content when we decide we want hosting without their ads", i.e. a lack of understanding of what free content means, let alone what "subsidised hosting" means ("how dare they make money from providing hosting free to us"). The ads are garish, it's true. But the incomprehension fits with being apparently unable to do such hosting themselves.

comment by JoshuaZ · 2011-01-21T23:17:01.357Z · score: 0 (0 votes) · LW(p) · GW(p)

I wouldn't say that. That's certainly one of the complaints. But there are other complaints as well, such as the heavy-handedness which Wikia has handled issues related to general Skins and advertising, and a refusal to remove specific ad types which might be offensive to the wiki in question. The heavy-handedness is a real issue and has caused actual, substantive departures from Wikia (the fracturing of the WoW Wiki would be the most prominent such example).

comment by timtyler · 2011-01-15T18:25:22.664Z · score: 0 (0 votes) · LW(p) · GW(p)

It sounds as though you want a product reputation system.

comment by [deleted] · 2014-06-13T08:49:46.023Z · score: -1 (1 votes) · LW(p) · GW(p)

Interdependence makes societies MORE resilient, not less. Trust is difficult, even painful - but it helps those around you and those to come. Poor subsistence farmers have a shitty situation cause their evolutionary lineage decided not to go and dependent on one another.

''peasants generally live so close to the subsistence line that it takes little to destroy their livelihoods. From this, he infers a set of economic principles that it would be rational for them to live by. It is important to emphasize that this book was not based on fieldwork, and itself proposed a cross-cultural universalistic model of peasant economic behaviour based upon a set of fixed theoretical principles, not a reading of peasant culture. Firstly, he argued that peasants were “risk averse”, or, put differently, followed a “safety first” principle. They would not adopt risky new seeds or technologies, no matter how promising, because tried and true traditional methods had demonstrated, not promised, effectiveness. This gives peasants an unfair reputation as “traditionalist” when in fact they are just risk averse. Secondly, Scott argues that peasant society provides “subsistence insurance” for its members to tide them over those occasions when natural or man-made disaster strikes. ''