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Fair

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I’ve probably used that as a post title before. 

I’m too wrung out to go look at the moment.

But I knew, all the way back two weeks ago, when the electricity had been out for five days, that what was going to come of that was that I was going to get sick, and I got sick. 

I got royally sick.

This morning, though, I just feel–after eleven hours of sleep–as if I’d run two marathons back to back and will never want to move again.

But I can type, so here I am.

I’ve been watching with a certain amount of interest the discussions in the comments, and I want to make a few observations:

First, I’m with Robert on the issue of “sustainability.”  What cannot be sustained will fail.   Sometimes what would fail needs to be accounted for in some way–say, the generators at the local hospitals, which were not meant to go continuously for nine to eleven days–but other times it does not, and the present distribution of wages in corporations seems one of the latter. 

But the thing that really struck me was the thing about how, even though American workers have become so much more productive, their wages have not risen accordingly. 

And it struck me because it’s one of those things whose particulars are never spelled out.

In this way, it reminds me of the thing about “back in 1970, families could afford to have mother stay at home full time with the children.”

The problem with that one is that its underlying assumption–never actually stated–is that the only reason most mothers are now in the workforce is that their families can’t afford to have them stay home.

I think that is probably demonstrably false, and that if we went back to a family-wage system with lots of money for the breadwinners, most women now would still elect to work, even when their children were fairly small.

The problem with the productivity and wages of American workers is this:  it does not indicate in any way why American workers are more productive or if those workers are the same ones who were doing the jobs 40 years ago.

The way the proposition is stated makes it seem as if what is going on is this:

Susan works as a typist.  Through her own effort, industry and talent, she has made adjustments to the way she works that result in her greater productivity for her employer.  Therefore, it is only “fair” that her salary should have risen with her productivity.

I don’t really like the whole “fair” thing.  I’m with the people who say it’s mostly a childish world, meant to demand a world that does not exist. JFK was right, life isn’t fair, and never will be–and it probably shouldn’t be.  Justice is one thing.  Fairness is–well, nobody quite knows what it is.

In this case, though, I think the underlying, unstated assumption is almost certainly wrong.

If Susan is more productive at her job, it is not because she worked and innovated to get that way, but because somebody else, somewhere else, invented new machinery or processes that make it possible for her to be more productive, even if she’s done nothing about how she herself works at what she does.

In that scenario, I don’t see how even a vague standard like “fairness” would require us to pay Susan more.   Susan’s greater productivity is not the result of anything she has contributed to the enterprise.

And even with that, I’m outside the realm of the real world, where even if Susan HAD behaved as in the first scenario above, her salary would be determined by the law of supply and demand.

But let’s leave the law of supply and demand for the moment and look at the other part of the problem:

The “is it fair” scenario assumes that the worker whose productivity has risen is the same worker, or at least a worker with similar qualifications as the first.

But this is not necessarily the case.  In fact, it’s not even likely.

Fifty years ago, a worker who could barely do arithmatic couldn’t work as a cashier.  With the old, non-digital cash registers there was still quite a lot of arithmatic to be done. 

You can see the issue clearly in those few restaurants and bars where “servers” still run banks–that is, they’re given a set amount of money at the start of the night and expected to make change for customers from it.  When the night is over, they dump their money out, pay back the house the amount in the original bank (they’ll have given the money collected from tabs to the house as the night went on) and whatever is left is their tips.

This is a lot harder than it sounds. 

But these days, a worker whose arithmatic is rank awful, or nonexistent, can still work as a cashier in anyplace where servers don’t run banks, because digital cash registers have taken all the guess work and side problems out of cashiering. 

Hell, in some places, workers can be cashiers even if they can’t read.  Some of the fast food restaurants have cash registers with pictures of their products on them, and the cashier doesn’t even have to punch in the price.

Forty years ago, a worker with these skill levels would not have been working as a cashier, and would have been working at something (if at all) paid much less than cashiers were paid then.

That worker has seen her wages rise, even if the wages for the position have not–it is a position she could not have held before the technological changes, and all the positions she could have held would have paid much less.

And, I will admit, my best guess is that what we’re seeing is more like scenario three than the original set of unstated assumptions.

And at that point, what we’re seeing is not only not “not fair,” but the whole thing about “workers’ wages are stagnating” is mostly an illusion.

And that is especially the case if the worker with the skills required for the original position as cashier has gone on to another job which, due to technology, now requires her skills instead of the greater ones she doesn’t have that would have made her ineligible for it.

Okay, I can type this morning, but maybe I can’t write.

I can see a lot of things that I think are illegitimate in this system as it stands.

I don’t think it’s “socialism” as of yet–the largest difference between socialism and capitalism is not whether or not business are regulated (there’s always some regulation) or whether or not social programs exist (there have always been some of those) but whether redistribution of resources is seen as a fundamental function of the government–and we are, thankfully, not there yet.

I do think that we’re rapidly going down the road of corporatism, and that is just as bad and possibly worse.

That is,  there should have been no bailouts, and the people at the heads of the banks and the coroporations that engaged in that spree of risky lending should have been allowed to crash and been held liable in courts for the money they bilked people out of.

But the bubble and the crash  came about precisely because we didn’t make that a principle up front–because through Fannie and Freddie we guaranteed risky mortgages that were likely to fail, thereby making banks feel they had nothing to lose by making such mortgages, since they couldn’t get hurt if they DID fail. 

And that was as much a matter of Democratic Party policies as Republican ones.  It was the Clinton administration that demanded that the banks make more loans to low-income people and Barney Frank that led the charge requiring Fannie and Freddie to lower their accounting standards in order to guarantee such loans.

It was both Bush and Obama who pushed for bailouts.  The big difference there was that the Bush administration was just bailing out the banks.  The Obama administration seems to have been bailing out everybody.

“Fair” is not only not possible, it’s not even advisible.

Rational, however, is both, and nobody is being rational here.

I’m going to go have some tea and music.

I throw this out

http://lareviewofbooks.org/post/12835528594/the-educational-lottery

as being on the subject we started talking about all those weeks ago.

Written by janeh

November 20th, 2011 at 11:19 am

Posted in Uncategorized

3 Responses to 'Fair'

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  1. I felt the statistical productivity rise was a snare, too. Very few jobs are what they were 30 years ago. Some whole categories are largely gone, or newly invented. Let me pick which professions are “equivalent” and I can get any result you want. (Then we can argue over inflation djustments. Quick! What’s the 1956 price of a laptop computer? The 2011 price of a player piano roll?)

    And as you say, there are changes. I spent some years as a carpenter, and I could put up a LOT more wall in a given length of time than my generational predecessors. Of course, I was using metal studs, power drills and screw guns and vinyl-wrapped drywall. They were hammering wood posts and applying plaster to laths. As with being a cashier, it’s more productive, but not because of anything I did.

    I have in recent years seen people who really did work smarter or harder in an office environment. Discussions of pay are frowned upon, but they still had jobs when colleagues didn’t. It’s worth noting that often union agreements discourage precisely that discrimination. If everyone with five years’ seniority must receive the same pay, and layoffs are by “last hired: first fired” you CAN’T keep and reward the better worker. If you want to, you have to put him on some other sort of work.

    So I’m a little afraid that we’re up against economic laws and not just some plutocrats refusing to ante up.

    Problem is, that doesn’t mean the game isn’t rigged at a deeper level. As I wrote before, if we’re governed with a great deal of detail and discretion–Widget Maker X gets a loan guarantee; Widget Firm Y does not: Joe faces the full force of the law; Mary gets a waiver–so nearly as I can see it’s about bound to be corrupt, to be inefficient economically and to favor the wealthy and well-connected. The description in ATLAS SHRUGGED of marketing various types of “pull” is starting to seem very prescient.

    And by simple supply and demand, a huge increase in unskilled labor isn’t going to be good news for the high school dropout. Now, is it “unfair” to bring in millions of immigrants with grade-school educations, or is it “unfair” not to let them come here and work? Why I say “fair” has to be defined–and carefully.

    We’ve been here before, I think: very detailed tariff structures, and government grants to specific companies to encourage certain industries with a background of unskilled labor immigration seems very like Twain’s “Gilded Age.” The “reform” era of TR through Hoover saw the start of the regulatory state–the ICC, the FDA, the broadcasting regulators and a number of others. That one we call the “Jazz Age” or the “Roaring Twenties.” Both periods were marked by sharp income disparities, corruption–and spectacular economic crashes. I’d say if those aren’t things we like, we should pursue different policies. Not much sign of that yet.

    This is depressing. Can we go back to the liberal arts education now?

    robert_piepenbrink

    20 Nov 11 at 2:04 pm

  2. How does someone in a “free market” compete for work against free labor?:

    http://www.thedailybeast.com/newsweek/2011/11/20/why-students-shouldn-t-take-unpaid-internships.html

    michaelwfisher@cox.net

    21 Nov 11 at 7:40 am

  3. Michael? Kids take unpaid internships ecause they think it will improve their resumes and result in higher-paid (or at least some) employment later. Haven’t you ever done something you weren’t strictly required to do in the hope of a promotion, a raise or at last being the last person laid off?

    If there is no serious job prospect, the gag gets old fairly rapidly, which is why medical interns work field hand hours and Chemistry GTAs still work regularly, but there is starting to be “labor unrest” among the English and History PhD candidates–and Humanities majors are a notoriously gullible bunch. (I can say that. I was one.)

    But if people really will do something for pleasure, your job prospects are thin. That’s why I’m not reading mysteries or playing wargames for a living, and probably why London doesn’t have anything like the percentage of prostitutes it had in Gladstone’s day. If a thing is done for the love of the sport, it’s not a profession, but a hobby.

    robert_piepenbrink

    21 Nov 11 at 5:11 pm

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