In the lead segment of "60 Minutes" last night, CBS did the unusual: it presented an incoherent story. The topic was gold being mined in the Congo, many of the proceeds of which are used for war.
That was how CBS pitched it, and I'll get to the problem with that part of the story shortly. But CBS started off in a weird way and, only by the end, did I figure out why.
The first quarter is devoted to how hard the workers in Congo gold mines work for low wages that amount to a dollar or two a day and which--are you ready?--include "no health care." Gee, a third-world country in which the employer doesn't pay for people's health care. I turned to my wife when we watched this part and said, "What does that have to do with the lead ad with the second hand ticking--about how the gold is used for war? This is incoherent."
This is standard bad reporting: decrying low wages that none of watchers of "60 Minutes" would accept without considering whether these workers are better off with or without those jobs. Most viewers probably watched that segment and said, "Isn't that awful, those poor workers having to work in those awful conditions."
The next part dealt with a former Clinton official, John Prendergast who said:
It's chaos that is organized in order to exploit the gold and other minerals for the enrichment of these armed groups and it just keeps the cycle going and going until we break that cycle and begin to address the root issue here which is the gold and the other conflict minerals.
Prendergast sees the root issue as gold and other minerals rather than as the bloody conflict in the Congo. But if the root issue were gold, then Canada, a major gold producer should be having similar problems. It's not. The root issue surely must be the war between the various factions and the underlying causes of the war, rather than how the war is paid for.
Then Scott Pelley, the "60 Minutes" reporter, shows the horrible destruction of lives that the war has caused. Then in the last segment, he interviews a representative of a jewelry trade group who has to go down as one of the least articulate spokesmen who has ever been paid to be a spokesman. Then the bottom line: we should stop buying gold from those places because the funds from that gold go to finance a war. But wait. What about the fact that if we could succeed in stopping or even reducing the flow of gold from the Congo, the people in those jobs would be worse off. As I pointed out in the sweatshop debate in Fortune in 1996, people in low-wage jobs tend to take them because they don't have our alternatives: they are choosing the best alternatives they have. And Ben Powell has put empirical meat on these theoretical bones by looking at wages in so-called sweatshops compared to general wages in those same countries. He finds that the "sweatshop" jobs pay quite well compared to the alternatives.
Now you see why "60 Minutes" led with the lousy wages and no health care. They want us to think that those are crumby jobs anyway so that we don't worry about the fact that those people will lose their crumby jobs.