RUSS ROBERTS

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Archaeological Economics

California has recently decided to make sure farm workers are treated more humanely. Here’s the headline and the opening from the AP story:

California Bans Hand-Pulling of Weeds
SACRAMENTO, Calif. – California became the first state Thursday to ban weeding by hand on most farms, saying the work is too backbreaking for laborers. Under a rule approved by the California Occupational Safety and Health Division, farmworkers, in most cases, will not have to stoop to pull weeds, but will instead be given long-handled tools that will allow them to work without bending over. The rule takes effect within two weeks.

The average reader reads this and thinks it’s a good idea. Who wants to see workers suffer? Constant bending over to weed by hand must be miserable. And that’s why we need safety regulations, to protect the workers from corporate greed.

You turn the page and feel good about your tax dollars at work. Even if you read the whole article or every article you can find about this regulation, you still won’t know the real story.

I don’t know the real story either, but I do know one thing. At least I know I don’t know the real story. But I can get some hints. It’s like being an archaeological economist. You hope to find a thigh-bone. Maybe a rib and reconstruct some hint of what really happened.

I always wonder if the regulation will actually do what it says it will do. Will it be enforced? Will it help workers or will there be unforeseen consequences that will hurt workers? But most importantly, in a heart-warming story like this one, I always wonder about the bootleggers. Bruce Yandle of Clemson talks about how regulation is usually supported by a coalition of bootleggers and Baptists. The Baptists are against Sunday liquor sales on spiritual grounds. The bootleggers like it because it increase the demand for their product. Selfless motives give cover to more self-interested concerns. The public face of the regulation is always the Baptists, those taking the moral high ground. The bootleggers lurk in the shadows. Nothing wrong with politics making strange bedfellows, but it gives us a misguided romance about how the process works. And it makes it harder to pay attention to bad regulations. We focus on the good motives and assume it will work out OK.

In this story of California weeds, I know who the Baptists are. They’re the people who feel bad when they see someone hunched over in a field, weeding by hand. But is there a bootlegger here, someone with a financial stake in seeing hand-weeding banned? Hard to imagine. Oh, sure, it’s going to help the herbicide business a bit. And hoe sales might increase. Could that be the story? Let’s find out.

The regulation aims to prevent the “real and substantial risk of back injury” caused by stooping to weed or thin plants by hand, Cal-OSHA said. The workplace-safety agency had no estimate of how many California field hands hurt their backs. Agriculture is one of California’s top industries, supporting over 1 million jobs and contributing nearly $28 billion to the state’s economy. There is little data on the prevalence of hand-weeding on California farms. But crops such as lettuce, carrots, celery and strawberries are considered so delicate that they are weeded by hand. “The same kind of crops we have here are grown in other nations, other states. The crops aren’t unique to California,” said Mike Webb of the Western Growers Association, which represents farms. Yet, he said, “we’re going to be the only place on the face of the Earth that has a regulation or law that outlaws hand-weeding.”

So here’s the first whisper of counter-point. This regulation might make California produce more expensive. That might reduce the demand for California produce. That might mean fewer jobs for farm workers. So the regulation might have an unintended consequence that will end up hurting workers. The article continues without irony:

Growers and farmworkers have been battling over the practice of hand-weeding for years. In 1975, California banned a short-handle hoe that required workers to stoop low for hours at a time as they pulled weeds. At United Farm Worker Union leader Cesar Chavez’s funeral, his grandchildren placed the 12-inch tool on an altar as a symbol of the labor activist’s effort to improve the lives of farmworkers. While the ban ended the use of the tool, it did not prohibit workers from weeding by hand. In 1993, Cal-OSHA found that prolonged hand-weeding caused the same debilitating back injuries associated with use of the short hoe.

Ouch. So in 1975, California tried to reduce worker suffering by banning the short-handle hoe. It ended up hurting workers by encouraging hand-weeding. So now, finally, the workers will be safe. Or so it seems.

The new rule says farms cannot require workers to weed by hand for extended periods of time unless they can show that long-handled tools are not effective. If the workers must hand-weed, they must be given longer breaks, and there are restrictions on how much time they must spend toiling at the task. Len Welsh, acting chief of Cal-OSHA, said the regulation will be a challenge to enforce. With most OSHA rules, “there’s a particular tool that’s not allowed or a substance you can’t expose workers to,” Welsh said. “Here, you’re talking about a work practice, something completely behavioral.” The Western Growers Association opposed previous attempts to enact legislation covering hand-weeding because they were outright bans, Webb said. He said the Cal-OSHA rule is more reasonable, he said. “We’ve talked to a number of our growers,” he said. “They’ve agreed it’s something they can live with.”

So enforcement of the law will be flexible. Flexibility seems like a good idea. But this seems so flexible as to make it impossible to enforce. Still, maybe the regulation will lead to more breaks and more use of equipment. Then we come to a remarkable sentence in the article. We’re about 2/3 of the way through the article and we learn: Organic farmers who rely on hand-weeding are exempt from the rule.

Ah, the bootleggers, or at least so it appears.

Pretty weird isn’t it? Since 1975, workers who weed have suffered. We’ve finally fixed the problem. Except for one thing. The regulation won’t apply at all to the sector that does a lot of hand-weeding, the organic sector. “Because they don’t use pesticides, organic growers have more of a weed problem than non-organic growers,” Webb said. “Without an exemption, it would have jeopardized the organic industry.”

Mike Meuter, an attorney with the California Rural Legal Assistance, which represents farmworkers and pushed for the new rule, said it will not be too burdensome on growers. “California’s farmworkers deserve these protections,” he said. “It’s been too long.”

So is the whole thing just a sop to the organic farmers to help raise the costs of their cheaper rivals? Maybe. But I suspect there’s still more to the story. The AP story closes with a link to the California Occupational Safety and Health Standards Board. There I found a link to a “Notice/Informative Digest.” And there I found the thigh bone, the rib, the footprint left in the rock, the tar pit with the caracasses glimpsed. The key part begins like this:

The Board has made an initial determination that this proposal will not result in a significant, statewide adverse economic impact directly affecting businesses, including the ability of California businesses to compete with businesses in other states

.

That’s strange. You’d think the regulation would raise costs and make California less competitive, wouldn’t you? Here’s the good stuff:

The cost associated with providing suitable alternative means of performing hand weeding, as required by the proposal, is expected to be offset by improved productivity.

But how could that be? Why would growers make workers weed by hand if there were an alternative with better productivity. Are the growers simply sadistic, willing to accept lower profits in return for the opportunity to give workers back problems. That’s hard to believe. Here’s the clincher:

This conclusion is based on statements made by grower representatives during advisory committee meetings, which point out that hand weeding is not as cost effective as using suitable alternative means, such as long handled tools, to perform the work.

Ah. The bootlegger raises his head, finally. We can’t see it. It’s in shadow, like one of those crime show revelations. Grower representatives explain that the regulation is really OK. Better than OK. It will actually be good for the industry. Boy, I’d like to know who those grower representatives were. Lobbyists for the organic farmers? Or maybe a lobbyist for the farms that already use hoes and won’t be affected by the legislation.

I wrote recently of how we romanticize the media. We do the same thing with politics. But the weed story shows us how the political game really works. The media actually enables the political process in the romance business. They write stories like this one. It’s not a biased story. There’s even a quote from someone opposed to the law. But the real story is a lot messier and a lot less romantic. Someone is going to make money from this regulation. Workers may be helped along the way, or maybe not. But the part of the story with the bootleggers—that’s left in the shadows. If we could spread some light, we might learn how regulations really work.

One line from the AP story really haunts me: In 1993, Cal-OSHA found that prolonged hand-weeding caused the same debilitating back injuries associated with use of the short hoe.

1993! For eleven years, the Baptists have known that hand-weeding is horrible. Why did it take eleven years for this regulation to happen?

What’s really going on? It sure would be nice to know. More archaeological economics is in this essay I did on Mexican truck safety.

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