Archive for November, 2012

Economic Personalities for our Grandchildren

November 18th, 2012  |  Published in Political Economy, Work

Given the origins of my blog’s name, I’ve avoided posting on Mondays. But I don’t get paid for doing this, and so this was a misbegotten impulse for the reasons I explain below.

Yesterday I heard two interviews that helpfully recontextualize some common economic arguments about money and motivation, and provide another angle on the discussion of jobs in my last post. The first is with singer Chris Cornell of the recently re-formed Soundgarden, talking about what got him into music:

I got a GED based on Catholic school seventh-grade education, really. I didn’t make it that far. I have all those regrets now. … I just kind of went into the blue-collar workforce at a really young age and discovered music, in terms of being a musician, around the same time. The good news is, I was probably 17 when I knew that’s what I was going to do with the rest of my life, no matter what that meant. Even if that meant that I had to be a dishwasher or a janitor to support being in a band that I love and writing music that I love, I would be happy with that. So I feel fortunate. In spite of my lack of education, I didn’t lack direction.

The second was with the writer Fran Lebowitz, on Jesse Thorn’s show “Bullseye”. After Thorn asks her about the erratic appearance of her work, Lebowitz relates that she loved to write as a young woman, but developed crippling writers’ block once she began to get paid to write. She posits that she is “so resistant to authority, that I am even resistant to my own authority.” She later declares herself to hate work and be incorrigibly lazy, but the earlier comment hints at a more complex explanation. Transforming writing into an economic compulsion seems to have undermined intrinsic motivation, consistent with a long line of research in behavioral economics.

There’s nothing particularly original or shocking about these interviews. We all know that people are motivated by much more than money. Just today, I saw two posts on this theme, from Nancy Folbre on child-rearing and Matt Yglesias on people who take reductions in income in return for job satisfaction. Yet according to the hegemonic common-sense form of economic reasoning, neither of these people should exist. If you want someone to do something, the common argument goes, you should give them a financial incentive. But Cornell isn’t motivated by money, if we take him at his word (and even if he really wouldn’t have kept at it without stardom, there are many others who do.) And Lebowitz is actively de-motivated to write by getting paid for it, illustrating the adage that the best way to ruin something you love is to make it your job.

It’s people like this that I’m thinking of when I say that with reductions in working time and something like a generous Universal Basic Income, we would begin to discover what work people will continue to do whether or not they get paid for it. That’s not to say that all work can be taken care of this way; it’s hard to imagine an inverse of Chris Cornell who takes a day job as a rock singer to fund his passion for dishwashing. But we can at least start asking why we don’t make an effort to restrict wage labor to areas where it actually incentivizes something.

This relates to a topic Mike Konczal brings up in his new American Prospect article, about the debate between proponents of the UBI (like me), and those like the sociologist Lane Kenworthy who prefer policies that are tied to participation in wage labor, like the Earned Income Tax Credit. Kenworthy worries about the disincentive to employment that a UBI would create, but I’m more interested in the way that it would open up space for people to do socially desirable but non-remunerated things (and also to reconsider how we distribute the burden of socially desirable but personally unpleasant work). We already have too much wage labor, from this perspective, so we shouldn’t be so worried about getting more of it. So I agree, in a sense, with Trevor Burrus of the Cato Institute of all people, who says we should champion “a system where productivity allows people to be artists, record store clerks, or even bums.” Of course, Burrus calls that system “the free market”, where I would locate it in something rather different.

It’s because of people like Cornell and Lebowitz, perhaps, that I don’t worry as much as Keynes did, in “Economic Possibilities for our Grandchildren”, about how people will find ways to use their expanded leisure time. He posed it as humanity’s “permanent problem—how to use his freedom from pressing economic cares, how to occupy the leisure . . . to live wisely and agreeably and well”. It’s a theme recently brought up anew by Keynes biographer Robert Skidelsky and his philosopher son Edward, who return to ancient philosophy’s preoccupation with defining the good life in their fascinating (yet maddening) book Enough. But I ultimately have a lot of optimism about what people are capable of, and I believe a socialist future would, among other things, bring us more music and literature from the Chris Cornells and Fran Lebowitzes than does the system we live in now.

Hostess and the Limits of the Private Welfare State

November 16th, 2012  |  Published in Political Economy, Work

Hostess Brands, maker of the Twinkie, announced its liquidation today. This provoked a wave of now-more-than-everism, as both liberals and conservatives rushed to use the company’s failure as a testament to their longstanding hobbyhorses.

To the Right, of course, the end of Hostess is just another great opportunity to bash unions. Although perhaps it’s a sign of progress that even Fox News decided to soft-pedal this line, talking up the conciliatory position of the Teamsters while blaming the recalcitrance of the Bakery, Confectionary, Tobacco Workers and Grain Millers union for the closure. The idea that this is all about greedy unions is idiotic beyond belief, but sadly something we apparently still have to talk about. So if you don’t believe me you can go read Sarah Jaffe or Diana Reese.

A line I’m seeing from liberals, meanwhile, is that this is another case of private equity vulture capitalism ruining the American dream. Hostess Brands was under the control of a couple of hedge funds, as is the style these days. And so one line of argument is that Hostess could have been a perfectly sustainable company with good paying jobs, if only those short-sighted PE guys hadn’t showed up to loot it. A typical example of the genre is this from Laura Clawson at Daily Kos. Mark Price puts it more pithily on Twitter: “Private equity runs up debt, takes out fees and investment in capital goods declines leading to cost disadvantages.”

There’s no question that this is part of the story. The usual antics seem to be at work here, like levering up the company with debt and giving big pay raises to top management even as the business was going under. But Hostess had big problems even before the hedge fund guys showed up. Part of it was that on the marketing side, people just got less interested in eating Wonder Bread and Twinkies, and Hostess never managed to come up with any successful replacement products.

Moreover, the structure of the company’s labor costs is not a completely bogus issue either. The main issue, as it often is in these cases, isn’t wages but benefits, especially for retired workers. When Hostess went into bankruptcy earlier this year, Pensions & Investments reported that seven of its eight largest unsecured creditors were union pension funds, and that the company faced $130 million per year of required contributions to these plans. And like all American companies that offer health insurance, they faced rising health care costs due to U.S.’s uniquely irrational and inefficient system of privatized health care. It’s absolutely true that these benefits were negotiated fair and square, and the workers have every right to them. But promising future benefits without worrying too much about how to pay for them is a problem for a lot of companies, and it was a way of pretending to continue the Fordist compromise of labor-peace-for-rising-wages long after it had become inoperative in reality. Continuing to fight on this terrain will always put labor on the defensive. It’s worth noting that the Teamsters’ own position already included significant concessions on pensions.

It may or may not have been possible to keep servicing all these obligations while keeping the company profitable, under more enlightened management. But keeping Hostess in business so they can give people good pay and benefits to make Twinkies seems like exactly the style of small-minded Keynesian hole-digging that I criticized in “Against Jobs”. These workers deserve universal health care, a good pension from Social Security, and dare I say it, even a Universal Basic Income to support them while they try to find other jobs. The fact that we depend on a privatized welfare state where all these things are tied to jobs is bad for workers and bad for the country. It feeds into the problem Ashwin Parameswaran discusses in this post, a quixotic search for “a stable system where labour and capital are both protected from the dangers of failure”, one which “inevitably breeds a fragile and disadvantaged working class” that is fragmented into groups of protected insiders looking to protect their status, rather than act in solidarity as a class. I can’t recommend that post enough if you, like a lot of people I interact with, have any affinity for the project of “somehow recreat[ing] the golden age of the 50s and the 60s i.e. stability for all.”

Another reaction I’ve been seeing is “I don’t feel bad about Hostess failing, but I feel bad for these workers”. That’s more than a passing ambivalence, it’s a deep contradiction in our labor politics. I don’t care much about Twinkies one way or the other, but there are plenty of other areas where Leftists definitely need to be comfortable with being job-killers: coal-mining, say, or debt collection. In support of that agenda, we need to be thinking not just about creating or protecting jobs, but about the kind of expansive welfare state that Bhaskar Sunkara and I talked about recently at In These Times. The de-commodification of labor may be off the agenda right now, but we desperately need to bring it back.