Richard Epstein on the Political Economy of NYC Nail Salons

business_ethics_highlights_2Law and economics scholar Richard Epstein addresses many of the fascinating explanatory puzzles left out of Sarah Maslin Nir’s accounts of work in the nail salon industry. Excellent reading if you’re looking for more than a moral outrage high. >>>

The Political Economy of Nail Salons

The New York Times recently published two wildly celebrated articles by journalist Sarah Maslin Nir. The first article, “The Price of Nice Nails,” describes in painful and accurate detail the trials and tribulations in the manicurist trade in New York City and elsewhere. The second article, “Perfect Nails, Poisoned Workers,” documents the health risks to which manicurists in the trade are exposed.

The key point here is that Nir’s story does not fully hold together when tested against the standard lessons of economic theory and history. My critique of Nir’s narrative rests on a key assumption about human behavior. In economic matters, people generally try to maximize their own self-interest even when faced with few options and severe constraints.

The simple question is this: Why do these women come back day after day to the same location for rides to the same jobs if the situation is as toxic as Nir paints it?


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One comment

  1. Kaitlyn O`Neill

    This is one of those cases that lack`s a clear moral compass. It seems as though no matter the path taken, the nail salon employees will be disadvantaged. On one hand, the government can interfere and regulate the nail salon industry; however, this may leave the nail salon employees with fewer economic options, and likely lead them to work in illegal industries. The situation doesn’t look too much better without government interference, as these women are faced with terrible working/living conditions, and little chance of moving up the socioeconomic latter. It should be interesting to see if the government regulation that’s occurring in New York City will have a positive or negative impact on the nail salon employees.

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