You Need Rules

This piece about Google Guy from Michael Brendan Dougherty was filed a week ago, but I only now have enough time to respond to it. In the post, Dougherty vents his frustration with the argument that conservative labor market institutions are responsible for the termination of Google Guy.

The argument he criticizes goes like this: Google was only able to fire the guy because our employment laws give Google discretion to fire anyone for any reason or no reason at all. If we had a different set of laws that only permitted Google to fire someone for incompetence or economic redundancy, this could not have happened.

Dougherty’s response is to just say that, though it is true the laws give Google the power to make this kind of move, Google only made the move because of the pressure it received from liberals. If liberals had not pressured Google, then it would not have exercised its power to dismiss him.

Dougherty sees this as a rebuttal to the argument about labor market institutions, but it is perfectly compatible with that argument. Once Dougherty’s insight is added, the synthesized argument becomes: Google only fired the guy because 1) it had the legal power to do so and 2) it received pressure to do so. If either (1) or (2) is removed, the termination does not occur.

Given this understanding of the situation, what exactly are we supposed to conclude? If you think, as Dougherty does, that the termination was unjust, what would he actually have us do about it?

Presumably, he would want a state of affairs where Google retains the power to arbitrarily dismiss anyone but people just decide not to pressure them to use that power. Though this kind of posture makes great fodder for a blog post, it is completely ridiculous in reality.

For as long as Google has the power to do something others want them to do, those others will pressure Google to exercise it. This is true broadly. Whenever you allocate power to some person, at least some people will pressure that person to use it in the way they want to see it used. And this is not a left or right thing. It is true across the board and a lot of pressure to apply power in one way or another has nothing to do with anything remotely political.

If you really want to cut this kind of thing out, you need to replace dictator-like power with rules. Rules will strip Google of the power to act and give it an ironclad reason to refuse to act. When rules are in place, Google would turn to the pressure groups and say “sorry folks, our hands are tied.” And, once the rules are well-established, it wouldn’t even have to do that because nobody would bother to pressure them in the first place, knowing it was futile. By removing the power to fire, you remove the demands to fire, killing two birds with one stone.

I understand why libertarians and management types object to rules requiring a “just cause” for termination. But I can’t figure out why more economically squishy social conservatives like Dougherty object to them. From the outside, it seems like yet another instance of social conservatives being taken for a ride by the business wing of the conservative coalition.

The Trump NLRB Will Smash the Google Guy

The Google Guy who wrote the memo about Google’s diversity efforts has provided great fodder for the take-makers. Was he doing free speech? Was Google doing political correctness? Can a non-government actor hurt free speech? These and other profound questions about the nature of liberalism are all at stake.

Curiously enough, nearly every person’s opinion about the correct application of underlying speech principles in this case can be predicted by their substantive political orientation rather than their views on liberalism per se. The same of course was true in the Kaepernick case before this one, or the Duck Dynasty case before that, or the Dixie Chicks case before that. If you were inclined towards cynicism, you might even conclude that nobody actually cares at all about abstract procedural liberalism, that society is simply an unending power game, and that nobody is actually motivated by the arguments they write for publication.

Thankfully, we don’t even have to consider any of that here because this post is not about that. It is about the Google Guy’s chances at the NLRB, a topic I have been urged to write about by multiple people.

I said on Twitter and still believe that, under current NLRB law, the Google Guy has a good chance of being reinstated for the following reasons:

  1. The Google Guy complained about working conditions to other employees, which is generally protected activity under Section 7 of the NLRA.
  2. Although the Google Guy used corporate email to communicate with other employees, the NLRB ruled in Purple Communications that you can do that.
  3. Although the Google Guy’s comments were offensive to many, they probably are not so offensive that they lose protection of the NRLA under the NLRB’s Atlantic Steel test. For example, this statement from Pier Sixty, LLC is not so offensive as to lose protection: “Bob is such a NASTY MOTHER FUCKER don’t know how to talk to people!!!!!! Fuck his mother and his entire fucking family!!!! What a LOSER!!!! Vote YES for the UNION!!!!!!!”
  4. Although the NLRB has never directly confronted the issue of what to do where the way someone has engaged in protected activity could also be a violation under Title VII of the Civil Rights Act, the Administrative Law Judge in Arthur Young & Co. dismissed an employer’s attempt to use Title VII to defend its termination. The judge rejected the defense in a short footnote, saying the employer’s assertion that there may have been a Title VII violation was implausible. My best guess is that the claim this email represents a Title VII violation is similarly flimsy and thus a defense that said “we had to fire him because we needed to protect ourselves from a Title VII lawsuit” would be similarly rejected by the current members of the NLRB.

But this analysis will all change once Trump’s appointees to the NLRB come in:

  1. The Trump NLRB will want to overturn Purple Communications, which was decided in 2014 and reversed prior NLRB precedent on the question of the use of corporate email. The pre-2014 rule favored by conservatives says that corporate email systems are company property and so employees have no right to use them in ways not sanctioned by the boss.
  2. The Trump NLRB will also want to give employers as much latitude as possible in firing someone for offensive remarks, and so may even be willing to interpret Atlantic Steel to permit termination in this case. By lowering the bar for what counts as too offensive to be protected, they will make it easier for employers to find ways to get rid of union activists.
  3. Since the Title VII argument has not been directly confronted by the NLRB before, it is also conceivable that the Trump NLRB would rule that employers have the right to terminate employees engaged in protected activity where there is any colorable Title VII claim resulting from the way that activity was conducted.

In basically all cases, a conservative NLRB will want to reduce the ways workers can coordinate with one another, and increase employer discretion to terminate employees. When I raised this point on Twitter, someone said that this might be different under Trump because wouldn’t such a ruling feed into the political correctness and whatnot that he hates. And to that I can only laugh: at the end of the day, what conservatives want to do is shift power to bosses over workers, and they are really good at keeping their eyes on the prize.

The Success Sequence Is About Cultural Beefs Not Poverty

This post was originally intended for the launch of the People’s Policy Project website. But as that is running behind schedule, I figure I will post it here.

The Success Sequence is back! The ad-hoc anti-poverty process first endorsed by Isabell Sawhill and Ron Haskins at the Brookings Institute has been picked up by Brad Wilcox and Wendy Wang at AEI. George Will also recently mailed in a column on the topic by doing a rewrite of the AEI product. I’ve written before about some of the problems with this particular framework, but in light of this new push, it is worth rehashing them here.

The Curious Case of the Different Success Sequences
If you are a long-time observer of the Success Sequence community (like I am), you may have noticed something a little strange about it. Though everyone in this community claims they are interested in the same anti-poverty process, in reality, each publication defines the Success Sequence somewhat differently. And those differences tell you a lot about what actually motivates the folks who push this concept.

For Sawhill and Haskins, the Success Sequence consists of the following five rules (they express them as three rules, but their third rule is a compound rule that I prefer to break up):

  1. Graduate high school.
  2. Get a full-time job.
  3. Get married before having children.
  4. Wait until at least age 21 to get married.
  5. Wait until at least age 21 to have children.

In their AEI paper, Wilcox and Wang claim to be using the Sawhill and Haskins Success Sequence and even cite to their work. But they aren’t actually. The Wilcox and Wang Success Sequence has only three rules:

  1. Graduate high school.
  2. Get a full-time job.
  3. Get married before having children.

Rules four and five, the delay-marriage and delay-parenting rules, are gone! What happened to them? How could such an oversight have been made?

The answer is pretty obvious. Wilcox dropped the delay-marriage and delay-parenting rules because they do not mesh with his particular conservative worldview. His cultural and religious commitments make him uncomfortable advocating for the delay of marriage and childbirth. So he doesn’t.

Sawhill and Haskins have no similar compunction. In fact, Sawhill so loves delaying childbirth that she has spent the last few years of her professional life advocating that we fight poverty by giving poor women free IUDs so that they don’t have poor children, a borderline-eugenic proposal that oddly attracted praise from some prominent liberals.

This discrepancy between Haskins/Sawhill and Wilcox/Wang reveals that many of the rules of the Success Sequence are just the tacked-on cultural preferences of the authors. The rules to delay marriage and parenting after age 21 do not really do anything to cut down on poverty, which is why Wilcox can easily drop them and still arrive at a low-poverty rate for Success Sequence followers.

But the delay rules do not actually cut down poverty because none of the rules provide meaningful poverty reduction after you have applied the full-time work rule. The authors in the Success Sequence community smuggle their cultural views into the anti-poverty debate by embedding them into a sequence with full-time work, which drives nearly all of the low-poverty outcomes that they find. When their superfluous cultural preferences collide with one another, they end up coming up with different Success Sequences.

Trying to promote your cultural views as the panacea to poverty is a smart strategic move. It brings attention to your cause in excess of what it would otherwise get. Just look at the education reform folks who have been doing the same thing for decades. But one does have to wonder how a teenager reading this literature will be able to figure out which set of competing cultural preferences swirling around in the Success Sequence community constitutes the One True Success Sequence.

Work Does All of the Work
I noted this briefly in the prior section, but it deserves further explanation. You can demonstrate (as I have) that full-time work is responsible for the low-poverty results of the various Success Sequences. But you don’t even need to do that. It’s perfectly obvious if you just think about it for a second.

A full-time worker who is paid the $7.25 minimum wage has an annual income of $15,080. If they live alone, the poverty line for their one-person family is $12,486. Since $15,080 is greater than $12,486, no full-time worker who lives alone is in poverty, at least as poverty is measured in the official statistics. What this means is: a person can only be in poverty (1) if they do not work full time or (2) if they live with other people who do not work full time.

If the Success Sequence was not just a vehicle for litigating cultural beefs, what it would really say is that individuals wanting to minimize their risk of poverty should work full time and live alone. Or, if individuals insist on living with others, they should only live with other full-time workers, such as in a double-income-no-kid (DINK) arrangement. Stay away from children, individuals with a work-limiting disability, elderly people, students, unpaid family carers, and those prone to joblessness. If you keep these types of people out of your household and make sure you work full time, you will never be in poverty. That’s the truth.

Despite what the Success Sequence says, marriage does not help you except insofar as marrying adds another full-time worker to the family. If it does not do that because the person you are marrying has a disability or some other work limitation, then marriage will actually increase your risk of poverty.

A high school degree does not do much for you either. It might help you get a higher wage, but minimum wage keeps you out of poverty anyways. A minimum wage could leave you in poverty if you have dependents you are caring for (such as children), and in those cases a higher wage driven by a high school degree might pull you out of poverty. But if you have found yourself in a household with dependents, you are already ignoring the most correct wisdom about staying out of poverty, which is to never live with non-workers.

To be clear, I am not actually saying people should pursue a life where they either live alone or only with other full-time workers. My personal view here is that our economic institutions, and especially our welfare state, should be designed to ensure that nobody is in poverty and that people can form the families they would like. But in our current economic system, it is the no-dependent lifestyle described above that actually minimizes your risk of poverty, not the lifestyle envisioned by the Success Sequence.

What About the System?
Success Sequence writing, like so much other writing on poverty, proceeds by cherry-picking some characteristics that are more prevalent among those in poverty and then identifying those characteristics as the “causes” of poverty. In the case of the Success Sequence, the causes are low work activity, low education, no marriage, or insufficient delaying of childbirth and marriage. But it could be anything. Find some variable, do a regression, and you have finally proved where poverty comes from.

The problem with this type of theorizing is that it ignores the role of the system. Any given cause you identify can only result in poverty if the economic system allows it to do so. Thus, in all cases, the way we have set up the economic system to distribute income in society is a necessary cause of any observed poverty.

This might seem like a cute point, but it is not. Few would quibble with it if we were debating health uninsurance rather than poverty. Just like with poverty, you can find all sorts of things that are correlated with high rates of health uninsurance, including low work activity, low education, and so on. But if someone were to say something like “single motherhood is responsible for health uninsurance,” the most obvious response would be “only in America.” Not in Canada, where everyone has insurance. Not in the UK, where everyone has insurance. Not anywhere in the developed world where universal health care is the norm.

Just as we can set up our system to ensure nobody is without health insurance, we can also set it up to insure that nobody has an income level below the poverty line, if we want to.

The Garbage Generation?
As a final note, I think it would be fun to ask ourselves how many people have followed the Success Sequence throughout history. If this really is a standalone indicator of virtue, rather than a contemporary backfilled set of cultural grievances calibrated to blame the poor for their plight, then surely it will have some sort of universal applicability. At minimum, surely it would describe the typical behavior of people in our own country just a few decades ago, right?

Wrong!

Remember the first prong of the Success Sequence is to graduate high school. In 1940, three-fourths of adults aged 25 and over lacked a high school degree. Even as late as 1966, the majority of adults had no such degree. Was the Greatest Generation really the Garbage Generation?

Young parenting, discouraged by Sawhill/Haskins but not Wilcox/Wang, was also far more prevalent in the past than now. The CDC data only goes back to 1970, but in that year, the mean age of first birth was 21.4. This means that nearly half of the women in that period were violating the delay-childbirth rule.

One might respond to this point by saying those were different times. That was then. This is now. But this is precisely my point. What we have in the Success Sequence is not some kind of time-immemorial wisdom about how to live a virtuous life. Indeed, if the Success Sequence were applied backward in time, it would conclude that almost everyone who has ever lived in the world is an immoral wreck.

Instead of providing generalizable guidance about the good life, what the Success Sequence does is offer up a totally ad-hoc set of rules that are plausible enough within the context of contemporary lifestyles to allow conservatives to say personal failures are the cause of poverty in society. When contemporary lifestyles change, the Success Sequence will have to be rewritten because it will sound just as absurd as the current Success Sequence would sound to Americans in the middle of the last century.

Fifty years from now, conservatives will write op-eds saying the real trick to staying out of poverty is a college degree, cohabitation, and delaying child birth to age 30. No Success Sequence will stay around if it stops describing most middle class lives or if it begins to describe too many poor lives. The goalposts will shift constantly but the conclusion will always remain the same: the poor did this to themselves and the rich should be spared from higher taxes.