TAL; The Competition

This particular episode of NPR's This American Life, aired Nov. 30 2007, is unusually moving as it deals with business ethics, a subject I have been inadvertently studying while helping a friend work on his final paper.

"Stories of the unintended consequences of market forces.


Host Ira Glass talks to reporter John Bowe about the story of John Nash Pickle, who ran a company in Tulsa, Oklahoma that made steel tanks used in the oil industry. According to 52 Indian men whom Pickle hired and brought to America, Pickle was trying to compete with foreign companies, doing something most companies never try. Instead of simply opening a factory overseas with cheap labor, the men say, Pickle decided to run an overseas factory with cheap labor...on American soil...inside his own Tulsa Oklahoma plant. (3 minutes)

Act One. Cowboys and Indians.

We continue the story of John Pickle. He hires skilled, experienced welders in India and brings them to the United States. He takes their passports, barely feeds them, pays them half the minimum wage. And when the men protest, Pickle insists he's helping them—doing them a favor in fact.

John Bowe's book, in which this story appears, is called Nobodies: Modern American Slave Labor and the Dark Side of the New Global Economy. (32 minutes)

Act Two. The Race for Second Place.

Thanh Tan was a TV reporter in Boise, Idaho, when her boss passed along what seemed like a hot news tip: a sex offender was working with kids at a local ice rink, as a hockey referee. But when she looked into it, she found out the crime was more than a decade old. Plus, the guy's statutory rape charge had been dismissed by a judge. So she never did the story. But her closest TV news competitor ran with it, making it "exclusive" breaking news, for days. Thanh tells the story of how it got on the air, and how it affected everyone involved.

Thanh's story was co-produced by Dmae Roberts. (23 minutes)

Song: "Other People's Lives," Ray Davies"

-- TAL episode summary


I wonder how Mr. Pickle came to believe that taking advantage of 52 men was an ethical business endeavor. Why, and how, did he sincerely believe he was helping these men? And further, how many Americans believe that immigrants are somehow less deserving of equal treatment just because the country they hail from is one rife with poverty, crime, illness, etc.

The men Mr. Pickle hired to work in his factory are skilled laborers, some even with college degrees, yet when he brought them to US soil as employees for their factory, he felt justified in paying them $2-3 dollars per hours. As he understood, people in India are starving, living on only a "handful of rice" each day, and by giving them work, food, and housing in the land of opportunity he was doing an act of true good will, never mind the fact that these men experienced a decrease in quality of life. Mr. Pickle was under the impression that the US is greater than everywhere else, a bountiful land of plenty, comparatively speaking.

Asking myself what "greater good" I'm always striving for is quickly becoming a question without any solid answer. There always seems to be someone, somewhere, that is negatively impacted by the decisions I make and I'm unsure how to negate the harm I do with good acts. For example, in the business of fair trade we speak of artisans getting paid a "living wage" and thus having the ability to feed their families, have housing, education, health care, etc, but what about the other villagers that don't get paid fair trade prices? Fair trade business practices (in some cases) may skew the market prices and other workers will suffer the fall out. Is the answer to continue on with the current system? The current system has it's own injustices, however, and we all want to make our own changes to the system to somehow make it fair. As my roommate Sara put it, we all want to be dictators and make the world fair and free, but dictatorship isn't fair, and Freedom isn't really free.


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