The Economics and Philosophy of the Cruise Ship
By Bryan Caplan
I’ve taken cruises to Bermuda, the Bahamas, and in the Mediterranean and Black Seas. And of course I’m not one to just sit back and enjoy the food. My mind soon wanders back to economics and philosophy. Tyler Cowen’s recent post on cruising has inspired me to share my reflections.
At least on the cruises I’ve been on, passengers never see cruise employees off-duty. How is that possible? Simple: According to their terms of employment, the workers have to return to their decks if they aren’t doing their job. The upshot is that the workers divide their time between the sunlit upperworld where they wait on the spoiled passengers, and their Morlockian below-the-waterline home.
Who would take such an offer? The answer, almost invariably, is people from Third World countries. The captains, officers, and managers come from Europe and America, but virtually no one else. Someone from India, Thailand, Indonesia, or Cuba might be willing to endure these hardships for as little as $350 a week, but not too many Americans would.
I have no doubt those most passengers on cruise ships would feel sick if they spent much time thinking about the lives of the people who serve them. How can they sit there ordering second lobsters and sunning themselves when fellow human beings on board cannot even enjoy the sunlight or the evening breeze after completing a 14-hour day?
However, a little economics can put most of this angst to rest. Yes, the cruise workers’ lives are hard compared to what Americans are used to. But their lives are quite good compared to what they can expect back in their home countries. An unskilled Indian could easily earn ten times as much money on a ship as he could in his village.
Furthermore, if you stopped cruising out of moral indignation, you would hurt the workers, not help them. Your behavior would make it harder to get a job on a cruise ship, which means that more people will be stuck in their native countries earning one-tenth as much. Some favor.
Nevertheless, labor economics 101 did not completely put my mind at rest. Yes, the workers are better off than they would be at home. But then it struck me: Many of these workers are far more qualified than Americans who earn as much money as they do without having to live like Morlocks. Cruise ships employ world-class waiters, who would fit in at the fanciest restaurant in New York. The only thing stopping them from getting these jobs is U.S. immigration law.
Undoubtedly most of my fellow passengers fully supported our immigration laws. So when I looked at their faces, I couldn’t help thinking: You people really do exploit and oppress the employees of this cruise ship. As consumers, you expand the workers’ job options and help them build a better life for themselves. But as voters, you have done everything you could to keep these poor people from competing in First World labor markets on equal terms. In a just world, your diligent assistant waiter from India might be your boss.