Tag Archives: Will Wilkinson

Mini-Wars

6 Jul

So many responses to our Crooked Timber piece I can barely keep up (see my last post for an initial round-up).  And now the responses are generating their only little mini-wars.

These Bleeding Hearts

Let’s start with the Bleeding Hearts themselves.  Kevin Vallier has a lengthy reply, in which he concludes that the Bleeding Hearts “can have it all.” (I initially wanted to title our post “The Bleeding Hearts Can’t Have It All.” So at least we’re all the same kitschy page.)

Jason Brennan has some interesting statistics on Denmark and France that I know we’ll want to come back to.

Proving once again that he’s the menschiest of the menschen, Matt Zwolinski wonders “why are employers so mean?” Though I’ll admit I was given pause by this phrase: employers “prevent them [workers] from peeing too often.” What, pray tell, is “peeing too often?” Most libertarians are indebted to the subjective turn in Austrian economics, yet here we have one of them announcing that when it comes to nature’s call, there’s some kind of objective measure.

Though I already posted Jessica Flanigan‘s response in my last roundup, I have to cite this comment she added:

I’m friends with Alex and he calls himself a Marxist all the time. Chris Bertram has written a lot on Marx and seems to endorse some version of what the Analytical Marxists believe in his work. Corey Robin, who knows?

Tyler Cowens of the World, Unite!

Tyler Cowen continues doing whatever it is Tyler Cowen does, which apparently involves coming up with formulations like “mood affiliation,” whatever the fuck that is.

Henry Farrell nails him to the wall:

What would the world look like if GMU economics professors were treated similarly to workers in low-paid jobs with little protection? No offices – at best open cubicles, so that a supervisor could stroll by, making sure that the professors were doing the job that they were supposed to be doing. Monitoring of computers to prevent random websurfing. Certainly no air conditioning. Compulsory random drug testing. Body searches, in case professors were sneaking office supplies back home. Monitoring – at best – of bathroom breaks, and written demerits and termination of employment for professors who took too many of them. Perhaps Tyler might want to argue that such pervasive distrust and supervision would hurt productivity rather than help it – but it would seem difficult plausibly to reconcile such an argument with his prior claim that mooching, slacking and skiving off is endemic among his colleagues.

Matt Yglesias takes umbrage, claiming that Farrell and the rest of us are pie-in-the-sky airy-fairy theorists.

The in-the-clouds conceptual argument about libertarianism, freedom, and coercion is semi-interesting in an academic sense, but as policy analysis it doesn’t show much. In an important sense freedom’s just another word for nothing left to lose, but it doesn’t follow that we should want everyone to be a small-holding subsistence farmer merely because that would make him hard to coerce.

Farrell then nails Yglesias to the wall.

Matt’s alternative – which is to come up with a bunch of just-so stories about how we oughtn’t regulate work rules, because there’s a hypothetical high paying firm that searches its workers to stop theft and then there’s a hypothetical low paying firm that doesn’t, and we shouldn’t be punishing the hypothetical high paying firm because it might hurt workers is about as up-in-the-clouds as you can get. It abstracts away the shitty conditions that people have to endure, the politics of why they have to endure them, and any possible politics of collective action and reform. Albert Hirschman’s The Rhetoric of Reaction is right on target here – it deals at length with the bogus standardized responses (it will only make things worse) that people come up with in response to reform. There’s a more general sound principle here. One should always be very suspicious when someone proposes that others endure nasty sounding conditions for their own good, which the someone proposing would never dream of countenancing for himself or herself. The proposal may not be made in bad faith, but it’s not likely to be made with any very great imaginative sympathy for its intended subjects.

Brad DeLong chimes in. Yglesias responds to Farrell.

And speaking of Cowen, Aaron Swartz has a hilarious parody of Cowen’s associate Alex Tbarrok’s response to us, which I mentioned in my previous post.

Odds and Ends

Belle Waring has a bracing intervention—spawning a vigorous and eye-opening comments thread—which I hope everyone will read. Will Wilkinson has some things to say, as does someone going by the moniker “Supply Side Liberal.”

Some interesting interventions, pro and con (I think), from Noah Smith and an unidentified graduate student (“I’m glad Corey Robin has been keeping a list of absurd abuses about people pissing their pants, but empirics 101 demands more. There’s maybe 100 solid links in this piece. But there’s 300 million Americans.”)

And, lastly, poor old Arnold King, whose original post I did feature in my previous post, doesn’t feel like he’s any getting any love. So…show him some love!

Jonah!

And in the midst of all, this story of a lifeguard fired for saving someone’s life is getting a lot of play. Jonah Goldberg uses it as an opportunity to rail against liability law and union regulations. Even though no unions were involved and the major culprit here, it seems, is the privatization of public services.

Why Aren’t There More Union Members in America? A Reply to Will Wilkinson

21 Jul

Will Wilkinson is awfully confident that the labor movement doesn’t have a future in America because…Americans don’t want it to have a future in America.

Now, if you ask me, the combination of continually increasing global competitiveness and the peculiarly individualistic tenor of American public opinion makes the prospect of revitalising organised labour exceedingly unlikely. Organised labour still has plenty of fight in it, and no doubt it will win some important battles in the coming months and years. But the war is long lost, I’m afraid. No matter how hard the left claps for Tinkerbell Local #272, she’s not getting up.

Well, I didn’t ask him, but he did ask me.  In a Twitter exchange, where I said to him that union-busting has a lot to do with the past, present, and future of the labor movement in America. Wilkinson asked for cites; I gave him one and then told him to email me if he wanted more.  He didn’t.  So I’ll provide them here.

But first let’s remember a few things.

1.  Polls shows that a majority of non-managerial workers want to be represented by a union.  Richard Freeman, the Harvard economist who’s studied this issue more than anyone else, shows that in 2005, 53 percent of those workers, if given the opportunity, would have voted for union representation in a union election.  That, he argues, would have produced a unionization rate of 58 percent.

So why is the unionization rate more like 12 percent and decreasing everyday?

2.  Employers rely on a highly sophisticated “union-avoidance” industry to make sure those workers don’t get their unions.  Union-busters try to stop elections from being held.  If elections are held, they try to make sure—through threats, intimidation, and other illegal means—workers don’t vote for the union. If workers make it clear that they will vote for the union, they get fired, harassed, demoted, and so on.  Gordon Lafer, the University of Oregon political scientist who is one of the leading experts on union elections, estimates that 1 in 17 of every eligible voter in a union election gets illegally fired or suspended for his or her support for a union.  And, of course, the ramifications of those individual incidents extend far beyond the worker or even the workplace: when they see what happens to one pro-union worker, other workers (or workers in other workplaces) aren’t likely to step up or speak out in support of a union.

3.  Even when employers don’t break the law, election campaigns are overwhelmingly stacked against unions. Union election campaigns that are run according to the letter of the law, Lafer demonstrates, are more like the kinds of elections we used to see in the Soviet Union, and certainly don’t conform to the election standards the United States claims to uphold around the world.

4.  More generally, labor law excludes about a quarter of the American workforce, rendering many workers ineligible for union representation.  As the authors of this report argue:

There are 140.5 million people in the civilian workforce. Our research found that of these employees, 33.5 million, or 23.8%, have no rights under the NLRA or any other labor law: no legally-protected right to join or form a union, no legally-protected right to bargain collectively for their wages and conditions of work, and therefore, effectively no freedom of association in the workplace.

Now, it could be that Americans in their heart of hearts don’t really want unions, that they’re the individualists  everyone from Will Wilkinson to Will Wilkinson thinks they are.  (Okay, that was unfair: lots of smart people, like Louis Hartz, make the same mistake as Wilkinson.)  But until American workers are given an opportunity to register what they think on these matters, in the workplace but absent coercion and intimidation, I’ll take a pass on what Will Wilkinson thinks on these matters.

I don’t mean to be dismissive of Wilkinson; he’s a smart and charming fellow. (Our little Twitter exchange prompted my clearly delighted 3-year-old daughter to run around the apartment shouting, “Why is Will Wilkinson tweeting?  Why is Will Wilkinson tweeting?”) It’s just that there’s a vast body of research out there—and really smart people like Lafer, Freeman, Kate Bronfenbrenner, Dorian Warren, and others—that Wilkinson might want to consult before he speculates any further on the inner recesses of the American mind.

If you’re interested in reading more about all this, check out these sources:

http://www.americanrightsatwork.org/dmdocuments/ARAWReports/NeitherFreeNorFair.pdf

http://www.americanrightsatwork.org/dmdocuments/ARAWReports/FreeandFair%20FINAL.pdf

http://www.americanrightsatwork.org/dmdocuments/ARAWReports/havesandhavenots_nlracoverage.pdf

http://www.americanrightsatwork.org/dmdocuments/ARAWReports/noholdsbarred.pdf

http://www.sharedprosperity.org/bp182/bp182.pdf

http://www.rooseveltinstitute.org/sites/all/files/working_paper_cover_2011-01-final.pdf

http://www.hrw.org/legacy/reports/2000/uslabor/

Paul Weiler, Governing the Workplace (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1990)

Richard Freeman and Joel Rogers, What Workers Want (Ithaca: ILR Press, 1999) [there may be a later edition of this]

Corey Robin, Fear: The History of a Political Idea (New York: Oxford University Press, 2005), ch. 8

 

Update (2:30 pm)

While I was working on this post, I got an email from Wilkinson asking me for the cites I had tweeted him about. I didn’t see the email before this post went live, so wanted to correct the record here.  Note to self: check your email before you get splenetic. At least on the interwebs.

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