Tag Archives: Julian Sanchez

Wow, Tyler Cowen, How Much Paper Do They Steal at GMU? And Other Responses to the Libertarians

13 Jul

Since my last roundup on the response to Chris Bertram’s, Alex Gourevitch’s, and my piece on workplace tyranny, there’s been a lot of action. But before I get to that, there are a couple of dispatches from the front that are just doozies.

Down in Australia, a company issues guidelines for how its employees ought to keep their work stations clean:

Cold soup can be freely enjoyed in communal hubs on each floor, but hot soup is only permitted on the “top deck”, an area devoted to eating and socialising on level 45 with sweeping views of the city and beyond.

While gum, throat lozenges and lollies can be consumed at desks, the privilege does not extend to “chocolate, fruit, nuts and other nibble food”.

No plants can be brought in from home to avoid “unintended plant ­diseases or create maintenance issues” and although flowers can be kept for a “short period”, the company will not be supplying vases.

Each staff member is allowed to have a single photo frame of A5 size on their desk permanently or, in lieu of a photograph, a framed work-­related award of similar dimensions.

On the matter of photo frames, digital versions are allowed so long as they are A5, that is 148mm x 210mm, or smaller.

The photo issue comes into play if you are lucky enough to win a framed award. Employees are allowed to have the award on display during the day, but each evening “the clear desk policy will apply”. The way around this is if the award is “A5 or less in size”. This means you “may choose to have this as your photo frame that can be left out over night”.

Similarly, if an individual is a “warden”, “first responder” or “zero harm champion” they will receive appropriate signage for their desks. Along with level 45, which has been described as being like an airport business lounge, it is also ­permissible to eat hot food on the ­level 4 terrace.

In fact, staff are encouraged to bring their own meat to barbecue for lunch. Raw meat will be stored in ­designated fridges to ensure proper handling and hygiene.

Across the pond, 35 employees of France Telecom killed themselves over a two-year period in response, it seems, to workplace tyranny (and struggles over bathroom breaks).

Harrowing details emerged of the mental anguish of staff who killed themselves, including one who set himself alight in front of his office in western France. Some workers left notes blaming unbearable work pressure, bullying and “management by terror” while scores of other staff, from senior technicians to staff who worked processing bills, were saved as they attempted to kill themselves. One worker was found unconscious after taking an overdose at her desk.

Unions complained of a culture of fear and depression, where managers did not take staff mental health seriously. Some union officials said the company had intentionally created a stressful work environment to push employees into quitting in order to reduce its labour force and thereby cut costs.

During the crisis over the number of staff deaths, Lombard caused outrage by referring to it as a “suicide trend”. He is now accused of advocating tough management practices amounting to psychological harassment.

The legal case is a first in France because Lombard is not being singled out for personally targeting individuals but for presiding over a collective managerial bullying approach that spread across the company. It is the first time a French chief executive has been placed under judicial investigation in a workplace bullying case.

In February 2010, government labour inspectors said a restructuring plan that sought to reduce the company’s headcount by 22,000 and put 10,000 other workers in new positions had a “pathological effect” on staff morale.

One worker in Troyes was so desperate over the pressure of forced moves that he stabbed himself in the stomach during a meeting. Others killed themselves at their workplace, some in the middle of the working day.

One 51-year-old who had a senior job working on Orange’s networks wrote before his death that the “only reason” he killed himself was work: “I have become a wreck,” he wrote.

Call centre workers said they had to ask permission to go to the toilet and file a written explanation for going one minute over a lunch break. Senior staff described being subjected ti bullying and being repeatedly forced to move job.

And, last, an employee complained to Dear Prudence about her boss, the head of a non-profit.

Our president is a big personality and often tries to treat employees as friends, whether they like it or not. She makes jokes that are highly inappropriate and she bullies our more timid employees. Last week she took things to a whole new level. In an attempt to scare a female employee who’s been the victim of some of her bullying, she snuck up behind her and planned to give the employee a soft tug on her skirt. What actually happened was that the employee’s skirt came off her waist and exposed her underwear. Immediately afterward the president repeatedly told the depantsed employee “not to tell anyone.”

Prudence’s response is revealing in its own right: despite her best intentions, she can’t help but show just how impotent employees are in the face of this kind of crap.

But what truly caught my eye is that the non-profit in question is said to be funded by…the Koch brothers.  You remember the Kochs: the libertarians whose attempted takeover of Cato launched this whole goddam debate about workplace coercion to begin with. Circle of life.

Okay, enough reality.  Back to the theory.

The Bleeding Hearts continue to respond to our post: Jason Brennan, Jacob Levy, Matt Zwolinski, and Roderick Long.

Some good stuff from the Lawyers, Guns, and Money crowd that I missed on a previous update, though I could do without the Judith Shkar/cruelty line, for reasons I explored here.

Brad DeLong has a nice summary of the state of play.

Mike Konczal has great stuff on quitting and the UBI, though see this interesting counterpoint from Daniel MacDonald, who’s also responding to Alex Tbarrok.

Speaking of which, Tbarrok has some new, um, stuff, where he says thinks like this:

All else equal, an improvement in workplace conditions will reduce wages.

And this:

People exposed to a higher risk of sexual harassment are paid more, just as people exposed to a higher risk of death are paid more.

Because, you know, all those women who are at higher risk of sexual harassment than men tend to be paid more than men. And all those lawyers and upper-level managers, who enjoy better workplace conditions, tend to pay for that in the form of low wages.

Tbarrok was responding to this blistering post from Henry Farrell. Alas, Tbarrok’s post only produced this blistering reply from Peter Dorman.  Also see this from Frank Pasquale.

Tyler Cowen is still on the scene, offering this and thisFarrell responds to Cowen.

But while we’re on the topic of Cowen.  Remember when he was fretting about all those thieving workers at George Mason University, where he teaches?

I am not comfortable with the mood affiliation of the piece.  How about a simple mention of the massive magnitude of employee theft in the United States, perhaps in the context of a boss wishing to search an employee?

When I was seventeen, I had a job in the produce department of a grocery store.  They made me wear a tie.  They did not let me curse.  Even if there was no work at the moment, I could not appear to be obviously slacking for fear of setting a bad example.  They had the right to search me, including for illegal drugs.  I suspect that “contract indeterminacies” gave them other rights too.

The company kept each and every one of its promises to me and they paid me on time every two weeks.  The company also taught me a lot.  I honor that company to this day.  I also did my best to keep each and every promise to them.

What I did observe was massive employee shirking, rampant drug use including what appeared to be on the job, regular rule-breaking, and a significant level of employee theft, sometimes in cahoots with customers.

I understand full well that’s only one anecdote and only one side of the picture, and yes the company did fire vulnerable workers and quite possibly not always with just cause.  Still I get uncomfortable when this other side of the story is ignored.  When I hear the phrase “workplace coercion,” the first thing I think of is employee theft, estimated by the U.S. Chamber of Commerce at over $50 billion a year.

Addendum: If I ponder my workplace at GMU, I see many more employees who take advantage of the boss, perhaps by shirking, or by not teaching well, than I see instances of the bosses taking advantage of the employees.  Make that two anecdotes.

That prompted one of the commenters on my blog to ask: “Wow, how much paper do they steal at GMU?”

Turns out, probably not much.  Most workplace theft, according to this piece in the Guardian, is committed by the bosses, not the workers.

If fraud is usually an inside job, most of it is perpetrated by the bosses of companies involved, according to research by accountants KPMG.

Fraud committed from within organisations by management or employees made up 61% of the value of all cases in the accountancy firm’s latest fraud barometer, covering the first six months of 2012.

Finance directors, chief executives and other senior managers were responsible for 55%, by value, of all the cases KPMG analysed. The level of fraud by management has remained stubbornly stable, at £206m.

Perhaps Cowen ought to pay less attention to that janitor stealing a roll of toilet paper and more attention to his university’s board of trustees.

And, last, here’s a word from Julian Sanchez, who started this whole thing off.

Is That All There Is?

19 Mar

I was a little underwhelmed by Julian Sanchez’s response to my post about his thoughts on the Cato-Koch affair.

 

When Libertarians Go to Work…

7 Mar

Yesterday, libertarian blogger Julian Sanchez announced that if the right-wing Koch brothers successfully take over the libertarian Cato Institute, where he works, he’ll resign. (According to most reports, the Kochs want Cato to be a more reliable instrument of the Republican cause.) Today, Sanchez criticizes progressives who can’t help noting the irony of libertarians complaining about wealthy people using their money to buy the kind of speech they like.

If Cato is Koch property, progressives say, doesn’t libertarian theory require that the Kochs be allowed to do with it what they will? Silly progressives, says Sanchez. Libertarians aren’t recommending that the Kochs, assuming they have legal title, not be allowed to do whatever they want with Cato. They’re simply saying it’s not a good idea for the Kochs to do whatever they want with Cato—to transform it from the republic of letters libertarians assume to be into the Republican propaganda mill the Kochs would like it to be.  Nothing in libertarian theory precludes libertarians from criticizing how the wealthy use their money.

I realize progressives think libertarianism is just code for uncritical worship of rich people, but as that’s not actually the case, the only irony here is that people think they’re scoring some kind of gotcha point when they’re actually exposing the silliness of their own caricature.

If only Sanchez read his own writing as diligently as he reads his critics’. For what’s noteworthy in his “presignation” letter is not his complaints about the Kochs and what they’re trying to do. It’s the remarkable portrait he paints of himself and his workplace, how the coercion he imagines his new bosses wielding would threaten his autonomy and integrity, his very capacity to speak the truth as he sees it:

More importantly, I can’t imagine being able to what I do unless I’m confident my work is being judged on the quality of the arguments it makes, not its political utility—or even, ultimately, ideological purity. Obviously Cato has an institutional viewpoint, and I wouldn’t have been hired in the first place if my views on the topics I write about weren’t pretty reliably libertarian. But when it comes down to specific issues and controversies, nobody tells me what to write. If my honest appraisal of the evidence on a particular question leads me to a conclusion that’s not “helpful” in the current media cycle’s partisan squabble, or that differs from either the “official” libertarian line, or from the views of my colleagues, I can write it without worrying that I’ll be summoned to the top floor to explain why I’m “off message.” That’s the essential difference between an analyst and an activist: I can promise readers that what appears under my name—whether I get it right or wrong—represents my sincere best effort to figure out what would be good policy, not an attempt to supply a political actor with a talking point.  If I couldn’t make that promise, I’d have no right to expect people to take my work seriously.

The mere thought that he might “be summoned to the top floor to explain why [he's] ‘off message’”—with the obvious implication that he’ll be fired if he can’t or if he does it again—is enough, for Sanchez, to compromise his ability to do his job as he understands it, which is to tell the truth. So threatening to his independence and autonomy is the future bosses’ power to fire him that Sanchez believes he must flee it—in advance of it even being exercised.

Ever since the nineteenth century, men and women of the left have looked upon this situation and seen coercion, an unjustified abridgment of freedom. (That’s partially what Marx meant when he spoke of the “despotism…of the workshop.”) Ever since they’ve made that claim, men and women of the libertarian right have said the left is wrong. For a great many reasons, one of them being that the men and women who take such jobs do so voluntarily, and that if they don’t like ‘em, they can leave ‘em.

Sanchez probably thinks he’s saying something like that—he doesn’t like what he imagines the Kochs will do, so he’ll quit—but notice how he describes his decision to leave:

As I said, I’m in no great hurry to leave a job I enjoy a lot—so I’m glad this will probably take a while to play out either way.  But since I’m relatively young, and unencumbered by responsibility for a mortgage or kids, I figure I may as well say up front that if the Kochs win this one, I will.

Sanchez’s youth, his lack of a mortgage and kids—all these material factors and conditions make his exercise of freedom less costly to him and thus more likely to occur. (Indeed, this afternoon he tweeted, “As I wrote, not in a huge hurry, but have fine options if it comes to that.”) Presumably someone not so unencumbered would not be so likely to exercise her freedom. That, it seems, is the clear implication—the presupposition, in fact—of his claim.

Ordinarily, most libertarians dismiss such talk as blurring the lines between negative liberty (the absence of coercion) and positive liberty (the capacity to act). The latter, they often add, is not a species of liberty at all, but something more akin to power or ability.

But clearly there is coercion in the workplace; Sanchez readily admits it. And clearly its reach—whether it touches the individual worker or not—is related to, indeed depends upon, that worker’s ability to act, in this case to quit. Again, Sanchez admits as much.

So if liberty is the absence of coercion, as many libertarians claim, and if the capacity to act—say, by enjoying material conditions that would free one of the costs that quitting might entail—limits the reach of that coercion, is it not the case that freedom is augmented when people’s ability to act is enhanced?

More to the point: is one’s individual freedom not increased by measures such as unemployment compensation, guaranteed health insurance, public pensions, higher wages, strong unions, state-funded or provided childcare—the whole panoply of social democracy that most libertarians see as not only irrelevant to but an infringement upon individual freedom?

In one sense, of course, the libertarians are right: such measures require taxation and redistribution, limitations on what people can do with their property, all of which do infringe upon some limited group of people’s freedom. But by providing to others some version of the freedom from material constraints that Sanchez already enjoys—state-sponsored childcare, for instance, being in one limited respect the financial inverse of not having children at all—such measures would also enhance the freedom of a great many more.

That, it seems to me, is the great divide between right and left: not that the former stands for freedom, while the latter stands for equality (or statism or whatever), but that the former stands for freedom for the few, while the latter stands for freedom for the many. “We are all agreed as to our own liberty,” wrote Samuel Johnson. “But we are not agreed as to the liberty of others: for in proportion as we take, others must lose. I believe we hardly wish that the mob should have liberty to govern us.” That’s why libertarians like Sanchez can sense so clearly the impending infringement of his freedom while remaining indifferent to the constraints of others.

It’s also why he can so easily toggle from sincere concern about the Kochs’ power at Cato to sneery condescension about the left’s critique of the Kochs’ power throughout the United States.

I don’t generally subscribe to the popular caricature of the Kochs as supervillains.  For a lot of progressives, the Kochs now serve the same function as the Liberal Media does for conservatives: The shadowy elite cabal whose pernicious influence explains why your own common sense views aren’t universally embraced, as they otherwise would be by all right-thinking Americans.

It never seems to dawn on Sanchez that the very same money power that would lead him—a fairly independent minded writer, who feels free enough from economic constraints that he can quit a well-paying, enjoyable gig merely on suspicion that he might be forced to hold his tongue in the future—to second-guess himself at Cato might have equal if not more effect upon others. When the Kochs wield their money at Cato, that’s hegemony. But when they do it in Wisconsin, that’s democracy.

So when leftists smirk at Sanchez’s cri de coeur, it’s not because we think he’s being hypocritical or inconsistent. It’s because we think he’s telling the truth. Exactly as he sees it.

Update (Wednesday, March 7, 1:30 am)

James Grimmelman, a professor at New York Law School, has a brilliant post on what this little episode of libertarian practice means for the larger libertarian theory, specifically about contracts.

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