“Force” arguments continue to be the rhetorical backwater of idiots

Elizabeth Stoker Bruenig has a post about Erick Erickson saying what conservatives in general believe about low-income workers. Here is Erickson, version one:

“What’s going on here — by the way, more than 90% of Americans make more than minimum wage. The minimum wage is mostly people who have failed at life, and high school kids. I don’t mean to be ugly with you people, but…If you’re a thirty-something-year-old person, and you’re making minimum wage, you’ve probably failed at life. It is not that life has dealt you a bad hand. Life does not deal you cards. It is that you’ve failed at life.”

In respectable circles, conservatives can usually keep their discipline together and ensure that they only heap disdain on the lazy, non-working poor. But sometimes they slip up and tell you what they really think. It’s not idleness that they think makes you a garbage failure of a person. Working a hard job preparing food for people to eat, a rather important social function, does not save you from their scorn. All low-income people, whether they are working or not, are regarded as inferior trash people.

It turns out that saying food service workers who are trying to pull down some of that sacred market income are categorical failures at life is generally regarded as quite heinous. So Erickson, version two, was forced to pretend that this is not what he meant:

“If you are working your tail off and doing the best you can and, perhaps you have to rely on family, friends, charity, or government to get by, as I said on Rush’s show, that’s not failing. That’s working. And work is rewarding. But if you are in your thirties, making minimum wage in a career, and standing on the street demanding the government do something about it, yes, yes you have failed at life…In fact, the people most upset with me missed the part about me specifically saying more than once that I was referring to 30 year old minimum wage workers who are blocking traffic demanding the government force their employers to pay them more. Those people have failed at life.”

For starters, surely nobody believes Erickson had any such distinction in his mind initially. The first quote is unmistakably clear. By the time people are 30, they should have gotten into a better job than food service. If they haven’t, that means they are failures. They are not failures because they are protesting. They are failures because they are not doing as well economically as they should be.

But have no fear, bullshit arguments about “force” are here. As is evident with the libertarians (who are the most intoxicated by such stupidity), this is always the great fallback of anyone who has nothing smart to say.

However, in the case of fast food worker protests, nobody is “demanding the government force their employers to pay them more,” not in any meaningful sense of the word.

If you (correctly) interpret the protesters’ actions as a way of bargaining with their employer for a raise, then there is no demand for government force. Whether it’s through a union contract or individual employment contracts, the employers will ultimately have to decide whether to agree to the workers’ demands or not. There is no law that would ever force them to do so.

Even if you (incorrectly) interpret the protesters’ actions as a way of trying to get the government to increase the minimum wage, there is still no demand that the government force their employers to pay more. As the right-wing is usually pretty eager to point out, payment of the minimum wage is voluntary insofar as employers don’t have to employ anyone if they don’t want to. There are no laws requiring businesses to hire people. They choose to do so.

In this sense, the minimum wage has always struck me as something that conservatives, in theory, should be pretty receptive to. It doesn’t violate just deserts. It pushes money through the holiest of income distribution channels, the paycheck. It’s totally voluntary: if employers don’t want to pay it, they sure as hell don’t have to. But those are considerations that only really matter to conservatives in theory. In reality, anti-poor animus of the sort typified in Erickson version one motivates the right-wing angst towards fast food workers, with “force” and other considerations just a rhetorical sheen placed on otherwise unconscionable views.

Labor’s paycheck fetishism

Via Mike Elk, I came upon this article in Labor Notes about Piketty. It is written in that affected homespun style that a lot of Labor writing is, and, also like a lot of Labor writing, flippantly dismisses as inferior anti-inequality strategies that don’t involve organizing to cram more money through people’s paychecks:

When workers bargain collectively, they can affect the distribution of wealth at its source. That’s more effective than attempting to recoup what they’re entitled to once it’s already in the boss’s pocket and out the door.

This is an empirical claim and it’s not correct. The American labor movement suffers from a serious lack of imagination about how to go after the boss or capital more generally. This serious lack of imagination has them fetishizing the paycheck as the holy grail of income channels, which is a severe mistake.

With organization and some good fighting, you can push the needle on labor paychecks a considerable amount. That’s a good thing and worth doing, but it doesn’t get us anywhere near the level of equality that we should want to see.

Despite what the author says, taking money from the boss’s pocket once it’s “out the door” has a greater capacity to cut inequality. That is, taxing and transferring has the ability to reduce inequality much more than organizing for raises does. Both can push down inequality and both are worth doing, but, as an empirical matter, the former has more potency.

Elsewhere in the world, Labor seems to be aware of this. If you delve into the countries that have the highest union membership and coverage rates in the world, you see their unions being extremely serious and proactive about getting the state to put in place equalizing tax-and-transfer schemes as well as public benefit systems. This overall approach to fighting capital and the rich is massively more effective than solely containing the fight to workplace scrapping.

Sloganeering labor movement people who act like everything is basically silly and irrelevant compared to local organizing to push up paychecks are wrong on the merits and doing a disservice to the populations labor is supposed to fight for. The labor movement should be using every channel of power to get more for the bottom of the economic hierarchy, and it can’t do that when it fetishizes workplace-to-workplace agitating to the exclusion of all other strategies.

The trouble with bad working conditions

From the New York Times:

Often companies seek out our services when they’ve begun losing valued employees [because of the working conditions in their office], or a C.E.O. recognizes his own exhaustion, or a young, rising executive suddenly drops dead of a heart attack — a story we’ve been told more than a half dozen times in just the past six months.

In a numbers-driven world, the most compelling argument for change is the growing evidence that meeting the needs of employees fuels their productivity, loyalty and performance.

First sentence: bad office working conditions are killing people. Second sentence: main reason to change bad working conditions is to improve “productivity, loyalty, and performance.”

Which makes sense. A firm can abide working conditions killing its employees. They can be replaced. They are only people. The trouble is when the conditions don’t just drive an employee into the grave, but create an ongoing drag on their productivity without killing them off. That’s what really strikes a blow to the bottom line.

The entire article reads this way. The author observes that working conditions are wrecking people’s lives and making miserable the great majority of their waking hours. And then they argue that the chief trouble with all of this is that it is bad for profitability and “long-term value” for the firm. I’ve not seen a piece this unintentionally bleak in a long while.