Bring on the class war!

Peter Beinart sees the rejection of Sarah Palin as the death knell of ratbag right-wing ideology as the Republicans’ key to success in US politics. I hope he’s right, and I’m going to propose a dialectical explanation for the demise of the Karl Rove Era.

I was struck at the time by Palin’s repeated use of the term working class in the debate; if that was any indication, she must have used it quite often in the rest of her campaign. How exactly did a Republican become the representative of the working class, and how is it possible for her to adopt a venerable item from the left-wing rhetorical lexicon with such confidence?

In What’s the Matter with Kansas? Thomas Frank showed that the strategy of the conservative movement has been to harness class anger, and then deflect it away from the obvious targets — big business and the legislators who do its bidding — and redirect it toward imaginary oppressors in the form of meddling, condescending, liberal elites. Joe Bageant told a similar story in Deer Hunting with Jesus.

The key to the strategy’s success has been to foment the discontent of the proletariet without framing its grievances in terms of class at all. In fact, the very concept of class is portrayed as emanating from the liberals’ degenerate perspective. As Geoffrey Nunberg put it in Talking Right:

The language of conservatives has always been aimed at blurring or extenuating the harsher facts of economic class or at excluding the subject from political discussion entirely. Since the Days of the New Deal, in fact, Republicans have realised that they can get political mileage simply by accusing the other side of raising the issue of class. Whenever Democrats criticise Republican programs that benefit the wealthy, they can count on being charged with engaging in ‘class warfare.’

This is such a powerful tactic that it was possible to import it into Australia, where American political memes generally have no guarantee of taking hold. Thus, Mark Latham’s proposal to terminate the Howard Government’s outrageous school funding scheme was depicted by the LIberal Party spin machine as class warfare, and the media, including many ABC journalists, adopted this charactersation quite uncritically. Three years later, Kevin Rudd was unable to revisit the issue in the election campaign, and even had to ‘discipline’ a candidate for suggesting that changes to the funding scheme were contemplated (the press dutifully described this as a ‘gaffe’ on Mike Kelly’s part).

‘Class envy’ is what motivates liberals to tax the hard-working and hand over the proceeds to the indolent in the form of public housing and welfare. Hence John McCain’s emphasis on Obama’s philosophy of ‘redistribution’, which is not only immoral, but, via its obvious link with socialism, unpatriotic to boot.

So, any use of the word class by itself, or any explicit invocation of the concept, has become taboo — an invitation to mocking rebuke. Even the right-wing intellectuals directing the phony class warfare don’t refer to it as class warfare until it becomes too crude to bear or until they themselves become targets.

That’s as long as the word is used by itself. But it turns out that the word class has continued to enjoy a parallel and innocuous role in political rhetoric as a part of the term ‘middle class’ . Everyone wants to see himself as middle class, and even if that were not the case, it’s the middle class, or Middle America, that both parties expend most of their resources on wooing, on the basis that the Republicans and Democrats respectively have the upper and lower class votes sewn up.

But Sarah Palin, or her aides, must have decided at some point that ‘middle class’ was too bland, too insipid, and too vague, so she opted for something more gritty, something that evoked more explicitly the hard-toiling, rugged frontiersmen that Ms Palin imagines her typical supporters to be.

Eureka! Working class!

But now the phrase has actually been uttered, the idea of the Republicans as the vanguard of the working class is so absurd that Rove’s illusion can’t be sustained any more. Paul Krugman pointed out a year ago that class struggle isn’t a liberal delusion, and now Palin has called the the working class by its true name, broken the spell, and woken it up. Having remembered that it’s an economic class, it won’t be open any more to the suggestion that its interests are best served by the Republicans.

So the contradiction between the reality and the ideology couldn’t be sustained, and the result has been revolution.

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rog
rog
13 years ago

All fair points.

Tony
13 years ago

Is “working class” like “working families”?

Tony Harris
Tony Harris(@tony-harris)
13 years ago

James, I think your analysis is defective in many ways and a very long comment would be required to list all of them. You need to recall the comment by an old Australian Labor man about the displacement or replacement of the cream of the working class by rather different people from the middle class. It can be argued that the Democrats in the US and the Labor Party at home do not really serve the long term interests of the working class, they buy votes by appealing to various interest groups, some of which are working class and some are not. And the Republican Party and the local Coalition do the same, so please don’t read this as a rejoinder along party lines.

On Mark Latham, I had a lot of time for his ideas about over-all policy and ladders of opportunity but it was a sad revelation to read some of his speeches to the party faithful and find that he was an old-fashioned bare-knuckled class warrior. His move on private funding was a manifestation of that. No doubt the weird and wonderful formulas used to subsidise private education should be rationalised, perhaps by a voucher scheme and that would be a ladder of opportunity (as it is for a small but growing number of Aboriginal students).

The whole concept of the class war is one of the divisive legacies of Marxism, it is a sad thing that anyone would want to maintain that kind of rage. Much the same applies to passive welfare delivered in the name of redistribution.

I don’t know what Sarah Palin was trying to achieve by talking about the working class, maybe she was appealing to “working families”. In any case, she is not (yet) a creature of the corrupt and confused Republican Party, by all accounts she has taken them on (at least in Alaska), possibly in the interests of ordinary people, middle and working class alike. Nobody knows where she will go from here but if there is any hope for the future of US politics it does not lie with the current leadership of the major parties which are united in pursuit of big government, intervention of all kinds, the war on drugs, vote-buying and pandering to interest groups. From the perspective of classical liberalism one can only call for a plague on both their houses. Or at least some serious house-cleaning and renovation.

Joshua Gans
Joshua Gans(@joshua-gans)
13 years ago

The call to class war was tongue-in-cheek, Rafe. The concept of class, on the other hand, is indispensable to understanding capitalism. But it’s not very likely that we’re going to agree on this, is it, since you’ve made a vocation of promoting precisely the conservative agenda that Nunberg sketches in the quotation above. (By the way, please don’t quibble with the label conservative. I know you find it uncool, but rationalising inequality and exploitation has always been the core business of conservatism.)

Tony Harris
Tony Harris(@tony-harris)
13 years ago

What is conservative (in a derogatory sense) about the classical liberal agenda? You can use any label you like but it might not be appropriate, my position is approximated by the “Old Whig” stance that Hayek adopoted in his essay “Why I am not a conservative”.

Patrick
Patrick(@patrick)
13 years ago

So in the same spirit as Tom Franks’ book, why do Latinos support Obama when surely pro-free trade and pro-immigration McCain would deliver greater welfare improvements for Latinos?

Or do you disagree with the policy premise (in like fashion to every conservative who finds Franks’ premises almost laughable)?

NPOV
NPOV
13 years ago

Patrick, I think you’d be hard pressed to make a case that any difference between Obama’s or McCain’s positions on free trade or immigration would have made any measurable difference to the welfare of Latinos. There’s numerous studies done that have shown neglible effect of freer trade and higher immigration on jobs or incomes of existing residents, at least relative to the current standards. If Obama was proposing a return to high levels of protectionism and dramatically reducing immigration, that would be a different matter, but he’s not.
Obama’s positions on taxation, health care and education however certainly have the potential to benefit Latinos considerably more than McCain’s, and they’re almost certainly likely to have swayed voters more.

Did you see the stat I posted recently where by a whole 3% of voters who self-identified as “working class” thought that McCain’s economic policies would be better for them than Obama’s?

Hence if working classes are voting for McCain anyway, they either a) believe that it’s good for them to be economically suppressed or b) believe that non-economic issues are significantly more important that economic ones, and that the McCain’s positions on non-economic issues better reflect their own. I would suggest though Iraq was probably the single biggest non-economic issue to affect voters (leaving aside the fact that the cost of the Iraq war is surely a big part of the U.S.’s economic woes), so it’s hard to say how much “social” issues drove any votes.

NPOV
NPOV
13 years ago

Actually Patrick, I’m specificially intrigued as to why you believe immigration is likely to deliver welfare improvements for Latinos? It can see it would be true if immigration is predominantly high-skilled workers, but is that what McCain was arguing for? If you convince me that more immigration of lower-skilled workers would benefit existing low-skilled workers then it’s a load off my mind, because I’ve always thought my own personal preferences on immigration (bigger humanitarian program, smaller skilled-migration program) would probably act to push down wages for lower-skilled jobs if not combined with programs intend to correct for that effect.

Joshua Gans
Joshua Gans(@joshua-gans)
13 years ago

To what NPOV said, I’d add only that I don’t see why free trade should benefit latinos in particular. Is it because free trade has generated low-skilled, low-pay jobs in the service sector, which are more accessible to them than the manufacturing jobs that have been exported?

jacqueschester
Admin
jacqueschester(@jacqueschester)
13 years ago

‘harnessing class anger’ doesn’t seem like the best description – it doesnt get to the heart of the cultural division that people like Palin are aimed at.

Sarah Palin isn’t after the working or lower middle class vote of people in the suburbs or inner city. She is going for the small towns and the country, and all the imagery and emotion that are attached to the country. The “real america”.

I think that people crave authenticity. I’m not old enough to know what authenticity meant in decades past, but perhaps in our current information age, authenticity is becoming more scarce and more sought after.

I think the republicans choose people like palin and spin this kind of stuff not because they are trying to exploit a class divide. Rather, they are trying to exploit the appeal of the land, of honest folk (which doesn’t include inner city working class and poor), of craftsmen and tradesmen who have avoided the temptations of big city life and kept it ‘real’ and simple.

These kind of ideas have the potential to not just appeal to only country people, but to the possibly millions of people who live in cities who are jaded by city life, who themselves doubt the authenticity and meaning of their city existences, who can subscribe to this idea of “real america” even though they don’t live in it. The kind of people who live in the city but still buy (the american equivalent of) 4WDs, and akubra hats, and RM williams boots, and hobby farms, holiday houses etc etc.

The problem with this approach and the reason it doesn’t work for long is that its totally fraudulent, and people are too well educated at seeing BS when they search for that scarce authenticity.

That’s why sarah palin had an initial exciting bounce because of her ‘real america’ appeal, but nose dived once everyone could see how inauthentic her placement in that role was – she was not cut out for it. IF she were authentic, she wouldn’t need to constantly tell us about how she is a hockey mom and a small town person. She would already *be* that person without saying it, and could instead concentrate on being an authentic VP candidate, and not a dodgy real america symbol who seems totally inauthentic at the top of US politics.

Patrick
Patrick(@patrick)
13 years ago

I meant latinos as a group not latinos in the US as a group. Since latinos are major remitters I think it a reasonable assumption that at least in fact they are significantly motivated by the welfare of their non-American kin.

Surely we all agree that latinos as a whole would benefit from freer trade and immigration?

NPOV
NPOV
13 years ago

Patrick, so you’re saying in your question “why do Latinos support Obama when surely pro-free trade and pro-immigration McCain would deliver greater welfare improvements for Latinos”, the former ‘Latinos’ is referring to “US citizens” whereas the latter is referring to “non-US citizens”??

Sure there might be the odd US citizen Latino family here and there worried about how their relatives or friends south of the border are going to be able to join them, but even then there’s not much reason to suppose they’d have a significantly better chance under Obama than McCain.

Daisym
Daisym
13 years ago

Context is everything. Sarah Palin’s use of “Working Class” relates to the proud, fiercely independent people living in small town USA, the people to which liberalism is synonymous with socialism, which further equates to their hatred of more centralized government control over their lives. These people equate work with independence and personal freedom. One might argue that Palin has successfully co-opted “Working Class” from the Liberal/Socialist lexicon. In so doing, she has given everyone who sees him or herself as “Working Class” a way to identify with core conservative values, specifically: more decentralized government, less taxation, and less income redistribution. These people are probably unaware that the urban effete use “Working Class” in a totally different context.

Whether Sarah Palin has done this by chance or design is anybody’s guess, but she’s pulled it off, nevertheless. It’s driving Liberals crazy.

derrida derider
derrida derider
13 years ago

Patrick, just as in Australia there’s no reason to think that immigrants will always be pro-immigration. Notoriously, most groups want to slam the door behind them.

Joshua Gans
Joshua Gans(@joshua-gans)
13 years ago

rdekes, Istv

SJ
SJ
13 years ago

You raise a number of interesting points, James, and it’s something that may eventually come back to bite the Republicans. But I think you’ve fundamentally misunderstood what Palin’s use of the term “working class” was intended to convey to her audience.

The message was in code, and the decoded message is something completely different to what it looks like on its face. Palin and her fans work with a common understanding along the lines of “white skin good, dark skin bad”.

White people work. Welfare queens don’t. That was the message. It was race war dressed up as class war.

Joshua Gans
Joshua Gans(@joshua-gans)
13 years ago

SJ, I wrote: ‘Class envy is what motivates liberals to tax the hard-working and hand over the proceeds to the indolent in the form of public housing and welfare.’ I didn’t explicitly add that the latter were assumed to be African Americans, but that’s obviously integral to the stereotype.

I guess a word can encode more than one message, and I do think that ‘working’ is also meant to refer to people who do honest, real, work — as opposed to over-educated urban parasites.

SJ
SJ
13 years ago

“I didnt explicitly add that the latter were assumed to be African Americans, but thats obviously integral to the stereotype.”

But it’s not integral to the stereotype. The English stereotype for centuries has been “undeserving poor”, and most of the class warfare stuff, e.g. Marx, French Revolution, Magna Carta, Cromwell, whatever, assumes no racial difference between classes.

It’s best to get it all out in the open James. You give the Republicans the benefit of the doubt where they probably don’t deserve it. :)

Nicholas Gruen
Admin
Nicholas Gruen(@nicholas-gruen)
13 years ago

James – I’m with you on equality. I’ve never known how one might define ‘exploitation’ in the context of a discussion of who gets what. What do you mean by it?

Joshua Gans
Joshua Gans(@joshua-gans)
13 years ago

Well, I don’t have a fully worked out position on this, but it’s no trouble to venture a first approximation: Exploitation means unfairly taking advantage of someone. So it all depends on how one defines fair. Something like this, perhaps: If a firm is already comfortably profitable, but tries to increase its profit by cutting wages, lengthening hours, economising on saftey and otherwise disadvantaging its employees (or suppliers or subcontractors), and it does this just because it can get away with it, that’s exploitation.

No sane person would deny that the phenomenon exists. But the apologists (whether they dress up as conservatives or libertarians or classical liberals — I don’t care) will always minimise it, argue that it’s due to temporary monopolies, argue that it will be eliminated eventually by competition (if it isn’t caused by misguided regulation is the first place), and claim that attempts to legislate fair treatment will be harmful to the very people that the legislation aims to protect. I’m not saying they’re not right in some cases; only that the instinct to offer, or assume the existence of, such an explanation in every case is the hallmark of the conservative/libertarian.

NPOV
NPOV
13 years ago

The wikipedia article on exploitation contains a good definition wrt employment practices:

“[E]xploitation” refers to the use of people as a resource, with little or no consideration of their well-being.

I’d say any employment arrangement where the “well-being” of employees was measurable less than it was before the employment arrangement took place is pretty clearly exploitation. For instance, supposing a factory decides to hire a number of employees who are extremely poor. It offers them a reasonable rate of pay, however the working conditions at the factory mean that their health and safety is compromised to a degree that costs from this on average wipe out most of any gain in income. Because those health/safety costs are often delayed and random, workers can’t always make a rational decision as to whether they’d be better off working elsewhere for less income but in conditions better for their health & safety. In that sense, the employer is exploiting of the inability of workers to judge the likely long-term costs the working conditions impose.

Patrick
Patrick(@patrick)
13 years ago

That seems to beg a lot of questions NPOV.

I am going to prove here that I am conservative/libertarian (at least as per James Farrell’s definition, but I happen to think it is a very good partial definition), but I have to ask how you measure delayed and random health effects as against eg immediate and personal starvation, or that of one’s charges?

And what about consideration for well-being but solely with the goal of maximising extraction from the resource? Kinda like mining more slowly so as to avoid the whole thing falling in on you? Is that then not exploitation?

NPOV
NPOV
13 years ago

“I have to ask how you measure delayed and random health effects as against eg immediate and personal starvation”

It’s pretty damn rarely the case that anyone chooses between immediate and personal starvation and a job that is so risky or damaging to your health that it will almost certainly cut your life short, or result in constant health problems.

Further, I don’t believe that having the government mandate a minimum set of health & safety standards need result in employment opportunities being reduced, providing it’s done sensibly. For a start, any equipment or training costs associated with meeting such standards can be 100% subsidised if really needed.

Nicholas Gruen
Admin
Nicholas Gruen(@nicholas-gruen)
13 years ago

hmm, well your definition of exploitation doesn’t appeal to me I must say. Perhaps as a practical matter it does – I don’t think of myself as ‘gouging’ employees, and it describes my own behaviour as an employer – not trying to get every last dime. But I’d need to know a lot more about circumstances before I concluded that someone who was driving a harder bargain than I do is ‘exploiting’ anyone, and perhaps more importantly (since this is an abstract rather than a personal discussion) whether the world is a worse place for it. It could be a better place for it in all sorts of ways.

Joshua Gans
Joshua Gans(@joshua-gans)
13 years ago

Nicholas, I have no problem with ‘knowing a lot more about the circumstances’ before concluding anything about particular cases.

But in making that point you’re not helping me in the tiniest bit to understand why you don’t agree with my definition. I did say that it was a first approximation.

I’d be interested to know yours, once you’ve had a chance to think about it. If, on the other hand, your point from the start has been that it’s an empty concept, obviously I don’t agree.

Bear in mind that the point is to establish a basis not for moral judgment, but for regulating wages and conditions. Since the conservative/libertarian as I’ve charactereised him rejects the need for such regulation, he obviously has little use for the concept of exploitation — at least in this context.

Nicholas Gruen
Admin
Nicholas Gruen(@nicholas-gruen)
13 years ago

You’re right – I don’t have a definition for the purposes of building some political rules which determine what exploitation is. And if I did, I regard it as highly problematic saying to people that I am going to defend them by taking away their right to agree to being exploited (their being prepared to be exploited leading me to the presumption that they’re better off being exploited than the alternative to which any such rule will condemn them.)

I’m aware that one can defend such a rule on the grounds that it is part of a wider scheme which really does produce a better result for those who might be exploited. I’d believe it in Scandanavia. In Australia where we look after the people at the bottom end on the cheap, I’m not sure I’d feel too good about the protection if I wanted to get some job that was deemed exploitative. It’s pretty lousy protection.

Anyway, I’m not arguing anything with any great force here. Most people seem to be OK with legislative definitions of exploitation. They may well be right. I’ve got my qualms about it but beyond my observations above, don’t think I have anything much to say on it.

Nicholas Gruen
Admin
Nicholas Gruen(@nicholas-gruen)
13 years ago

On second thoughts lets interrogate your (provisional) definition a little.

If a firm is already comfortably profitable, but tries to increase its profit by cutting wages, lengthening hours, economising on saftey and otherwise disadvantaging its employees (or suppliers or subcontractors), and it does this just because it can get away with it, thats exploitation.

I’m not sure I get this. Firstly I do concede safety – so you’ve got me on the hook there – I do accept that letting saftey slide is unfair. I still don’t think exploitation is the greatest word for it. I don’t for instance think that ‘exploitation’ is at the heart of the crime committed by James Hardie executives in perpetuating work they knew to be unsafe. It’s a lot worse than exploitation and exploitation is incidental to what was really going on which was a kind of fraud and wilful recklessness regarding the grievous bodily harm to which they were subjecting their workers.

As for the other stuff, do you want to legislate against anything you think is exploitation?

If there’s full employment, I can’t see any problem – because people can wander off into the rest of the labour market. Perhaps you’d then say that this means that they can’t get away with it.

If there’s not full employment there might be lots of reasons for it, but if the reason is that wages are too high – which was probably part of the problem in Australia in the early 1980s, then aren’t the greedy exploiters the ones who are helping the economy out of its hole and eventually making things better for the exploited – by (ultimately) creating the conditions which will increase employment?

NPOV
NPOV
13 years ago

“…because people can wander off into the rest of the labour market. Perhaps youd then say that this means that they cant get away with it.”

Except people stay in jobs where they are unhappy and feel they are being exploited for lots of reasons, even when the job market is quite tight. For a start, while it might be tight overall, it doesn’t mean there’s lots of options for a individual with a particular set of skills living in a particular area.
Employers realise that not all employees are prepared to re-train (which might take years, after which time the job market could look very different), or re-locate (which always involves significant costs, both personal and financial) just to take advantage of full employment conditions which should give them better bargaining power, and the nastier ones will take advantage of this to compel their employees to work under conditions that they would never tolerate themselves (another angle in the exploitation definition).

It should be noted that employees aren’t the only ones who suffer from exploitative conditions – good employers do too, because the reputation of employers in general is tarnished by the examples of obvious exploitation that occasionally appear in the papers. For instance, I had a high opinion of employers in general before WorkChoices was introduced (and hence was intially mildly supportive of at least the increased flexibility the package appeared to offer), but the flood of cases that started appearing in the news of employers drastically cutting pay and/or conditions even when companies were highly profitable and the economy was doing very nicely genuinely surprised me – and not in a good way. Just like the Solarium industry was recently campaigning for stronger regulation of solariums to weed out the cowboys that were ruining the industry’s reputation, if anyone stands to benefit financially from sensible labor regulation it’s good employers who do the right thing and treat employees with the respect that all human beings deserve. Interestingly enough my last employer, who if anything almost spoiled his employees, was/is a committed ALP man, and very strongly opposed to WorkChoices – perhaps because he knew better than most that many of his fellow employers didn’t always treat their workers well because it was the right thing to do, but because they knew they’d be breaking the law if they didn’t.

Nicholas Gruen
Admin
Nicholas Gruen(@nicholas-gruen)
13 years ago

I thought about this more when I went to bed, and I’m afraid I don’t like the idea of ‘exploitation’ being centre stage in labour market regulation. Perhaps one wants it on the side – for people kept in ignorance (immigrant outworkers perhaps), but I think the idea of ‘exploitation’ is so loose, so subjective, and so badly handled by the law that I think it will mostly end badly.

We have unfair dismissal laws. There are some issues about workers getting ripped off – having entitlements effectively taken off them – in which case these should be protected- but I think they should be protected directly – through the enforcement of entitlements, not by virtue of judgements like ‘the company is profitable and can afford to pay’. And it is a nice idea to protect workers from irascible bosses. But the employers go see lawyers and get instructions on how to dismiss – an official warning etc. And in the meantime, the system is mainly exploited by lousy employees.

My only exposure to the system was a secretary I had at the Business Council. She came from an agency, represented herself as competent at doing various things, was assigned to me and another person. I gave her very little work (because it was more trouble than it was worth), she then said that she couldn’t work with me because I was too difficult. She was assigned full time to the other person who was organising a conference. She told him she was doing all the tasks he was asking her to do. Two days before the conference it became clear that she’d done almost none of what she claimed to be doing. She left in a huff saying the other person was too difficult to work with.

We heard a week later that she was claiming 8 weeks severance pay for stress, (I doubt she’d been working there for a year) and the lawyers’ advice was that paying up was the least cost response. They said this was normal, and essentially open to pretty much any employee.

The costs involved in this are quite considerable. When you think about it, it’s one reason why people use agencies. It didn’t protect us in this case, but this person wouldn’t have got another job in an agency. So everyone gets the right to use this scam at least once – if they’ve got the gall.

I’m afraid I wonder why we don’t think of these things more in the way we do with family law. I’m generally in favour of no fault divorce including between employees and employers not because they can’t be bastards to each other, but because if they can’t get along, more damage will be done by something as dysfunctional as our legal system getting involved.

Tel_
Tel_
13 years ago

When you think about it, its one reason why people use agencies. It didnt protect us in this case, but this person wouldnt have got another job in an agency.

I would have thought it was one reason never to use agencies because when you think about the incentives in the situation, the agencies have no reason to care whether you got burnt or not. Indeed, the faster staff turns over, the more the agencies win. Let’s face facts: you and your co-workers were too lazy to sit down and interview a lot of candidates and use your own gut judgement to pick the one who seemed honest and hardworking, so you trusted someone to pick for you.

Have you thought about all the people who would have done that woman’s job properly? They get no particular favours from any agency, because the agency just wants good presentation skills and nothing else (enough for them to grab a sale and move on). They obviously get no particular favours from lazy employers either, because if everything goes well, they are simply not noticed at all and if things go badly, whoever knows how to game the system is always the winner.

Nicholas Gruen
Admin
Nicholas Gruen(@nicholas-gruen)
13 years ago

Thanks Tel,

I can’t tell you how I love tag lines like ‘lets face facts’. They’re so – well so masculine and matter of fact. They give me a kind of thrill – a bit of metaphysics on the cheap.

Anyway, regarding the facts, we didn’t trust someone to pick for us. We interviewed a short-list of about five. I think we also held second interviews for two and asked the second shortlist to do some sample work for us. Thing is, you really need to work with someone for a while to know if they’re going to work out.

The agencies’ short term incentives are as you say. Their longer term incentives are not. I’ll leave it to you to work out why. (Hint: we didn’t use the agency again.)

Tel_
Tel_
13 years ago

They still allow some degree of masculinity in Engineering, but that bastion is under heavy fire and crumbling in places. For a while, I tried to play it safe by being masculine in furtive, subtle ways but it didn’t really work out.

I’ll agree that you never can be really factually sure about anything in the social arena, not like a mathematical proof. Then again, constantly worrying about uncertainty will lead to the conclusion that it is safer never to hire anyone (or go outside). For a business to work at all, someone has to show a bit of confidence in the face of limited knowledge and take a risk. We have all heard the mantra that entrepreneurs deserve to reap generous rewards because of the risks they are up against — the other side of the same coin is that risks are risky and entrepreneurs who make bad judgements get the honour of taking it on the chin, like a gentleman.

The employee is taking relatively little risk in these situations, but their reward is also limited, sort of balances out.

It’s probably worth noting that there is a big jump between employee and entrepreneur, both in terms of risk and reward. A linear world would have a smooth transition and people could find their personal comfort-zone regarding the risk they are willing to accept, but (for better or worse) our world is nonlinear and involves a chunkular transition between wage slave and owner. I guess this is probably the heart of the thing that bothers the grass-roots socialists.

The agencies short term incentives are as you say. Their longer term incentives are not. Ill leave it to you to work out why. (Hint: we didnt use the agency again.)

It’s pretty cheap to register a new business name. I tried compiling a list of all the employment agents who advertise on “seek” (in order to automatically filter them OUT of my search) and I find a new one pops up at a rate of approx one every two weeks (that’s just IT). I would make a graph, but I’m nervous about being called a macho stats man.

NPOV
NPOV
13 years ago

“…these should be protected…not by virtue of judgements like the company is profitable and can afford to pay”

But if you don’t take that judgement into consideration then they does seem a risk that companies are less able to deal with difficult economic circumstances where they are temporarily unprofitable. Certainly it would seem grossly unproductive (and unfair) to force a company to have to deal with draconian unfair dismissal laws if it really was having to shed staff just to keep its head above water, or even the legal ramifications of requesting that staff defer paid leave that would be otherwise due: it’s probably fair to suggest that in such cases employers have the right incentives to ensure their employees are not excessively overworked and overstressed to the point they are actually working unproductively – what they tend to lack is incentive to ensure their employee’s long-term mental and physical health remains good, which is a reason that laws determining maximum working hours and annual leave are needed, but I can see that there may be cases where it makes sense to temporarily suspect such conditions if the alternative is the significant likelihood of the company going bankrupt.

Patrick
Patrick(@patrick)
13 years ago

NPOV, you should move to France, it is illegal to sack workers there without impending bankruptcy, basically! The result,* as you will readily guess, is a pretty vicious labour-market where the highly-skilled are largely overseas, or otherwise comfortably looked after since there just aren’t that many of them, but the unskilled or lower-skilled face a miserable life of either council work or chasing CDD (special short-term contracts which are also generally illegal, except in, oops, hospitality and construction – where the unskilled workers just happen to be) after ‘black’ work after CDD.

Where part of any bank or housing-related application inevitably involves your last six pay-slips (which are monthly, never weekly) and telling whether you have a CDD or CDI (‘regular’ and basically unsackable employment contracts), one can readily see how discrimination against the lower classes becomes systemic and compounding.

But that’s cool, because the workers are ‘protected’ and the evil corporations are obliged to put their employees first.

~ ~ ~
* an interesting side-effect is an increase in French companies’ bankruptcies being administered out of the UK, to the apoplexy/sheer disbelief of local courts.

Joshua Gans
Joshua Gans(@joshua-gans)
13 years ago

they should be protected directly – through the enforcement of entitlements, not by virtue of judgements like the company is profitable and can afford to pay.

For goodness sake, Nicholas, you’re putting words in my mouth here. I’m saying that the concept of exploitation, itself based on a concept of fairness, provides the underpinning of labour standards, awards and so on — not that regulations should be applied on a case-by-case basis according to profit. Of course they should be applied uniformly, bearing in mind the practicalities of the country in question. Firms that can’t meet them either should go under or invest in the wherewithal to raise productivity.

NPOV
NPOV
13 years ago

Sure Patrick, but I suspect the difference between you and I is that you think France would be better off if it got rid of all labour market regulation.
Oddly enough what you describe sounds like far more of an issue than the 35-hour week, which was the one thing I know that Sarkozy made a point of abolishing.
It does seem he’s a fan of the Danish flexicurity system, which I’ve always thought did a pretty good job of balancing the various needs a modern labour market has.

Nicholas Gruen
Admin
Nicholas Gruen(@nicholas-gruen)
13 years ago

Patrick,

I’m with you on this issue, but is it really true that high skilled labour is fleeing France in any great numbers? France has very high labour productivity. I thought the effect was mainly on the unsilled – and the result is unemployment there.

Nicholas Gruen
Admin
Nicholas Gruen(@nicholas-gruen)
13 years ago

OK James,

I wasn’t trying to put words into your mouth. Just trying to follow your argument. What interests me is whether this appeal to ‘exploitation’ ends up being coherent and whether it leads to fairer or less fair outcomes.

My experience of unfair dismissal and what commonsense I can bring to bear on the subject leads me to believe that rules against unfair dismissal lead to more unfairness than they solve.

For every employee who benefits there’s one who suffers (who doesn’t get offered a job or more work) and the system is likely to be gamed to buggery – by both sides. (The one example I have had experience of was like this).

Patrick
Patrick(@patrick)
13 years ago

My experience of unfair dismissal is similar. Unfortunately it does facilitate and protect theft by employees. My Aunt copped this and basically couldn’t do anything except sack the woman involved. Note that in France she couldn’t even have done that, at least not readily.

Re skilled employment, overall, I don’t know. In technology probably not excessively, although there are a lot of French around the world. In finance, yes, London just pays too much better (although maybe this will change somewhat). Still lots of very smart French people in France, but a hell of lot in London too. Real crunch is the bottom of the skilled ladder, where you don’t qualify for the exceptions (ie real world applies to the really skilled, only – this is almost universally the case in France in fact, see eg ‘Grandes Ecoles’).

Certainly right that the real effect is unskilled – probably mainly different factors driving the skilled bit as I have actually suggested above (although part of it is that inherently lower remuneration for essentially guaranteed employment).

JC
JC(@jc)
13 years ago

Patrick

Can you elaborate a little on this:

an interesting side-effect is an increase in French companies bankruptcies being administered out of the UK, to the apoplexy/sheer disbelief of local courts.

melaleuca
melaleuca
13 years ago

Rafe says:

“The whole concept of the class war is one of the divisive legacies of Marxism, it is a sad thing that anyone would want to maintain that kind of rage.”

This is a typically glib analysis, Rafe. It is true that Marxism quickly became the dominant strand of socialism but the evidence clearly indicates that some form of anti-capitalist ideology was bound to take root and flourish during the early decades of the industrial revolution given the immense exploitation and suffering of the working class during the first 100 plus years of capitalism. Such an ideology would have resonated just as strongly even if Marx was never born.

Tel_
Tel_
13 years ago

the immense exploitation and suffering of the working class during the first 100 plus years of capitalism.

So exploitation started with capitalism… sheesh.

The slaves of ancient Greece and Rome were not exploited? The serfs of medieval France? Are you expecting me to seriously believe that the feudal system was not exploitative? What happened to the workers who cut and carried stone to build the pyramids? Let’s not even start into the way underlings were treated by the Aztecs.

John Ball, Wat Tyler and Jack Straw had pretty similar ideas to Marx (and many hundreds of years earlier), except they were fighting for the right of working people to get paid any wage for their efforts (considered a fiendishly radical idea at the time).

Patrick
Patrick(@patrick)
13 years ago

Tel is right on point here. My leftish mum always used to grind her teeth when people started talking in terms that suggested that things were somehow better before the industrial revolution. That isn’t idealism, it’s stupidity.

JC: briefly, what happened was that the EU introduced a directive (I think it was) on cross-border bankruptcies that essentially meant that corporate group bankruptcies would be managed by the country in which the group had its ‘centre of main interests’ (COMI). The idea was to prevent another BCCI saga in which Luxembourg insisted on trying to run the bankruptcy of a business bigger than its whole economy and generally impeded the vastly-more-capable British courts no end.

So principle was that your bankruptcy had nothing to do with formalities like incorporation or place of management and control (tax residency indicia) but was COMI. Immediate application was flight to UK bankruptcies, arguing that the COMI of all the subsidiaries in the group was also the UK because practically the group was ran out of the UK>

Response at trial was an immediate claw-back of power by local courts (the actual local administration/liquidation still has to follow local law, so things like employee entitlements, but things like being allowed to sack them at all, and ranking in the winding-up, are determined by the COMI.

At trial, German and French courts simply refused to believe this. On appeal, they acknowledged that the English courts had correctly found COMI, partly because the appeal judges were smarter – no surprise what the French courts found when French-owned groups started filing in France and arguing that the COMI of all their subs was in France – why yes they said :)

I think Germans were a lot slower to really accept COMI.

I haven’t looked at in detail in a couple of years now though.

NPOV
NPOV
13 years ago

I suspect Melaleuca left out the rather important difference between the exploitation that happened before and after the start of the industrial revolution, which was a combination of it being far more visible (workers and employers sharing the same building), and of better education among the workers.
I’d also suggest that because working conditions were more directly imposed by factory owners (they provided the buildings and equipment, dictated working hours, and demanded that workers repeat mindless repetitive tasks exactly to the letter), workers felt like they had less freedom than under the feudal system where the aristocracy would largely leave workers alone except when it came to demanding exorbitant taxes for the ‘privilege’ of using their land. Obviously most workers felt like that loss of freedom was a worthwhile price to pay for a better and far more secure income, but it’s not surprising it would lead to a gradual build up of simmering resentment.

Patrick
Patrick(@patrick)
13 years ago

workers felt like they had less freedom than under the feudal system where the aristocracy would largely leave workers alone except when it came to demanding exorbitant taxes for the privilege of using their land.

I have NEVER seen this asserted anywhere besides, I think (or vaguely recall might be better), Das Kapital and even there I thought it was only asserted as a fact, with a lament for the fact that workers were not conscious of this source of their malaise.

Obviously most workers felt like that loss of freedom was a worthwhile price to pay for a better and far more secure income

Or they just didn’t want to die in rut? I thought NPOV didn’t believe in rational action theory and now he prescribes it holus-bolus.

NPOV
NPOV
13 years ago

Since when did I claim not to believe in rational action theory? I’d happily allow I’m more skeptical about the tendency of humans to act in their own best long-term interests than some followers of orthodox economic theory, but hardly the same as accepting that in most cases where people choose to work under what would seem like obviously undesirable conditions it’s because the alternatives are still worse again.

pedro
pedro
13 years ago

How much of Marx’s theory about capitalist exploitation was based on the labour theory of value?

I recall in Socialism Mises saying that it was wrong to complain about the misery of the capitalist system. His point was that it is not the fault of capitalism that it takes time for the mass of wealth to develop to the point that the large group of poor is eliminated. Capitalism did not make people poorer except in the sense that poverty is a relative term and some people would have had their wealth grow faster than others. I doubt many people moved from a comfortable yeoman farming life to city squallor, so those that moved must have done so for the purpose of bettering their lot, horrible as it looks to us now through the social history prism.