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

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.


  1. MF July 13, 2012 at 11:53 pm | #

    This is seriously bummin me out man. There’s so much gratuitous contempt for people who already have so little.

    • Jim Fisher July 14, 2012 at 8:00 am | #

      you don’t understand libertarianism ,you are just a marxist clown

      but the young people do:

      we are winning

      you are just scaried because you work for big government and you couldn’t survive the real world without a government paycheck

      • Cavoyo July 14, 2012 at 11:47 pm | #

        There’s a reason that libertarians are “winning” and it’s not because young people understand them. Libertarians are moderate extremists: they think they can please everyone just by following the libertarian ideology to the letter. The reason for this is because the left decided to give up social democracy to focus on identity politics, while the right strengthened its focus on class politics and neoliberalization. For this reason libertarians think the left will support them even as libertarians destroy public services and unions, just because libertarians make a half-hearted effort to support legal equality (gay marriage, abortions, and other trendy issues).

        Back in the good old days the left knew that social equality was dependent on equality in ownership of the social surplus, that is to say, that race/gender/etc oppression was based on white men owning the vast majority of all property. Divvy up the surplus evenly and there’s much less for white men to use to get an unfair advantage over others. Libertarians want to make property rights absolute, with no accountability to society, while doing nothing to change the distribution of that property. The effect of this is to strengthen race/gender/etc inequality (the (mostly white male) rich get richer, the rest get poorer) while having a surface level appearance of equality.

        Libertarianism is based on the lie that you can have social equality without economic equality, and the hipsters at Vice have bought it hook, line, and sinker.

      • nillionaire July 16, 2012 at 9:03 pm | #

        I know a lot of young leftists, and the vast majority of them went through a libertarian phase. It is in many ways an ideology of immaturity–makes a lot of sense in the abstract, but folds when exposed to any real experience of the human condition or wider world.

        Their numbers are also skewed by the dearth of young social conservatives. The sort of person whose temperament would have put them in the regular old Republican party 40 years ago generally ends up as a libertarian when born in the modern era, because for all its flaws libertarianism does at least avoid the baseless and nonsensical positions of the social right.

  2. Shane Taylor July 14, 2012 at 8:16 am | #

    That Peter Dorman post was his second. His first did more to convey his own take on this debate, and it can be read here. But that post (like many others) needed a correction from the late, great Robert Lee Hale.

  3. smd341 July 14, 2012 at 2:11 pm | #

    I think you’re missing the point here Corey. The issue is not that there are restrictions on individual liberty in the workplace but that those restrictions are decided by a unaccountable hierarchy rather than democratically. Even if we lived in a fully socialist society with all worker owned firms (something that radical economist like Herbert Gintis and Samuel Bowles say is not terribly feasible) people will not be able to do whatever they want at their job. It’s just that they will have some say in it, rather than the current form of wage slavery. I think this video is pertinent.

    • Glenn July 14, 2012 at 11:33 pm | #

      True, work would still have to be coordinated or it would appear as random as Brownian motion, but people generally figure out how to get things done cooperatively and more effectively than any flow-charting absent manager can.

      I have never been in a free social situation, such as a party, where someone was knocking on the door, telling me I was taking too long to piss, unless they had to piss too. That is just a matter of cooperation rather than caprice, and acceptable.

      Generally speaking, I usually find cooperative people to work with even in the most backstabbing work and living environments and capricious individuals, unless operating as an agent of authority wind up getting as little cooperation as they give, tit-for-tat,

  4. Emily July 15, 2012 at 2:51 am | #

    Imagine the industrial action those BHP workers could take, even under the restrictive rules in the Australian Fair Work Act, that’d be world of fun. I’ve got a few ideas and they are included in this week’s – enjoy.

  5. Geoff July 15, 2012 at 11:11 pm | #

    If a more formal compilation of the workplace tyranny pieces is pulled together one idea for a possible cover: .

  6. Geoff July 16, 2012 at 2:09 am | #

    I’m starting to see harebrained, aka libertarian, schemes very where. A big money quote from Paul Romer: “the apparent affront to democracy is not actually problematic because the cities will be inhabited entirely by migrants who have taken up residence of their own volition”. Isn’t Milton F’s son involved with something along these lines but in a sort of waterworld setting?

  7. Bart July 16, 2012 at 8:33 am | #

    Concerning the name of the French Telecom boss, Lombard:

    My English brother in law once told me that to be called a Lombard means “Lots Of Money But A Real Dick.” Life imitates comedy.

  8. Peter Wirzbicki July 17, 2012 at 2:34 pm | #

    Wow… Cowen’s story about working in a grocery store is a trip.
    “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.”

    Not to take it to a personal level, but there is something about the psychology of people who so eagerly take the side of their boss while hating and distrusting their fellow workers. An instinctive preference for those with power and authority. I cannot understand it.

    Also, doesn’t this whole story add a bit of evidence to the argument that libertarians just didn’t get invited to enough parties in high school, and spent too much time fantasizing about going Galt. Really, we’re upset that 17 year olds working crappy minimum wage jobs are getting stoned? Certainly a healthier option than having a weird love affair with authority. Its like a caricature of a square villain from a campy 60s movie, the guy that is upset at the length of Paul McCartney’s hair or something.

    Luckily, footage of tyler cowen at work has been found. I assume he’s not Emilio Estevez:

  9. robert February 17, 2013 at 6:36 am | #

    There’re so many misconceptions about Libertarianism here–starting with confusing it with right-wing extremism and ignoring the advocacy for worker co-ops–it’s hard to know where to begin.

    THE LIBERTARIAN at http://www.TheLibertarian.Info is a good place to start to see what it’s all about.

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