Jane Haddam’s WordPress weblog

Free Whatevers

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Well, today has come, and I feel almost human.  At least for the moment. 

I think I might be able to get back to the Liberal Education thing by the week-end, if the holiday doesn’t kick my ass in ways that require me to rant nonstop for a couple of days.

But let’s get to Michael’s question:  how does someone in a free market compete for work against free labor?

And the question confuses me in a number of ways.

The first part of my confusion is that it seems to be an unnecessary question–you can see it all around us as we speak. 

A job pays what it has to pay for an employer to find people willing to work for him who have the skills and credentials he thinks he needs to get the job done.

If an employer tries to pay less than that, he gets people without the skills or qualities he wants.  If he pays more, he either kicks himself in the butt or he can demand higher skills and credentialing levels–he can count on being sought out by the best of the best in the skill/field/vocation.

There is, of course, no “free labor” in the US at this time, not only because of the minimum wage–which is largely a negligible factor, for a number of reasons–but because of things like antidiscrimination law, which require employers to be very careful about any standard they set that might end up looking as if it has a “disparate impact” by race or gender.

Henry Ford could probably not get away with his famous $5 wage rate (or its equivalent) today, because he’d almost certainly find that the standards he was setting for hiring would be declared discriminatory.

But in spite of the modifications, we compete in the labor market with “free labor” all the time. 

Which made it a little confusing as a question.

But I think the underlying assumptions run like this:

Big corporations have all the resources and they control all the jobs.  They can set wages anywhere they want.  If they are not restrained in some way–minimum wage laws; unions; whatever–they will set those wages at starvation rates, and we will have to grovel and take it because otherwise we will go homeless and starving in the streets.

Actually, the assumptions go even deeper than that, but let me try to work with the above scenario.

1) It’s an incredibly passive way of looking at the world.   All productive activity occurs elsewhere.  All invention happens elsewhere.  “Ordinary people”–meaning people who aren’t, say, Steve Wozniak–have no other choices but to take whatever they’re handed. 

But this is not the world I live in.  I come from the ethnic traditions I come from–THERE’S a grammar disaster for you–and that of course skews my perceptions some, but one of those traditions feels about working for other people the way Jewish dietary law feels about pork.

Never mind the fact that most people in the US don’t work for large corporations.

What working for a large corporation does–or has done at times–is to afford some people a stable source of employment that comes with lots of perks, like company-subsidized health insurance and retirement pensions. 

And that, of course, is very nice.  It’s a lot easier than what my grandparents (and a fair number of my cousins) did and are doing.  It takes a lot less effort, at least seems to eliminate a lot of uncertainty and worry, and provides that “middle class way of life” whose standards are always steadily marching upwards.

But it’s an illusion to think that it was ever the life for more than a tiny minority of people in this country, never mind on this planet. 

Of course, there are also

2) Unions, which are kind of a mixed bag. 

Unions may work for their members, if the conditions are right.  They did very well by auto workers for decades, for instance, but they did so because:

a) manufacturing could not be shipped internationally.  It had to be done here, which limited the available labor in one way and

b) it consisted largely of skilled work, which limited the available labor in another way and

c) the companies involved were not only prosperous, but prosperous in such a way that they had no significant competition from anywhere else.

Given those conditions, labor unions do a wonderful job for their members. 

Some of what they do will even spill over to their nonmembers.

But one of the things I have always found curious is the tendency of people proclaiming the Postive Unalloyed Good of Unions to face the fact that for nonmembers, unions often don’t look like such a good deal.  And that goes for forced members, too.

Go down to your local community college, and you’ll find a nice handful of highly educated people who are liberal in every other sense who froth at the mouth at the mention of unions.  They’re “adjuncts,” and they are required to pay for “representation” by the local college teachers’ union which sees its job as protecting the perks and pay of full time faculty against the very part time faculty they claim to also “represent.”

This system has resulted, by the way, not in better pay and conditions for college teachers, but for better pay and conditions for a small handful of college teachers and largely worse pay and conditions for the part timers. 

And that’s in teaching, which is a profession that fits the above three conditions.

Union demands pretty much killed off newspapers in most major cities, because in a world where newspapers had to compete with television and radio, they couldn’t pay the demanded salaries and benefits and still produce a product at a price people were willing to pay for it. 

So unions will modify the landscape for some people under the right conditions.

What modifies the landscape for all people is labor law, which is something very different.

It’s more stable, but it ends up hitting reality in the face in the same way as above, it just takes longer.

3) But the REAL underlying assumption is this:  somebody else has put his life, his effort, his money into building a business.  If he wants to hire people to work for him in that business, he automatically owes those people (irrespective not only of the market, but of reality) a certain standard of living.


The guy who invents the automobile can make his product himself by hand in his garage and get rich selling each individually crafted project to people who want it. 

In fact, that happened. 

Henry Ford, among others, figured out that he could make even more money mass producing them. 

But the choice was not between “having a good job with Ford” and “having a bad job with Ford.”  It was between “having a job” and “not having a job.” 

The jobs did not need to exist.  They aren’t a natural resource, just there for us to stumble upon. 

And, hell, natural resources require all kinds of inputs from actual human beings before they’re worth anything.

Change is inevitable.  You cannot protect yourself from it in the long run.  None of us is guaranteed that the world we’re born into will look anything at all like the world we leave when we die. 

All life is risk and uncertainty.

And in reality it can never be anything else.

Written by janeh

November 21st, 2011 at 11:55 am

Posted in Uncategorized

2 Responses to 'Free Whatevers'

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  1. The minimum wage may not be quite as negligible as you think. My father spent decades in jobs requiring labor estimates–none of it minimum-wage labor–and always expected increases in the minimum wage to increase his labor costs over the next year or two, since if Joe who never showed up for work on time got $5.00 an hour, Sam who was a reliable worker would hold out for $6.00. But since there was no increase in productivity to go with the wage increase, inflation wiped it out–and until it did, unemployment rose, since there was a tendency to not pay Joe at all if you could get Sam, and to look more closely at what labor-saving devices were available. Hikes in the minimum wage always tend to track with higher unemployment among the unskilled, unconnected and uncredentialed. I think you’d have to seriously reduce the supply of unskilled labor to make a real difference–and that takes us back to elementary education.

    The family story on labor unions is of Grandfather coming home from work and telling the family he’d been given to the union as a concession in labor negotiations. The didn’t convince him that they were working in his interests. They just squeezed the company until Grandfather had to pay union dues and submit to union rules to keep his job. Before I was born, and it still stings. But I can remember a cousin working for the city one summer telling how the union city employees explained to him that he was producing too much per hour, and that this had to stop.

    My conviction that labor unions are sometimes necessary and useful is an intellectual one. My heart tells me something quite different–that a union office-holder is one more boss in a world that already has too many.


    21 Nov 11 at 5:29 pm

  2. My experiences are similar to Robert’s. I’m pro-Union because workers need powerful representation when dealing with powerful employers. I’m anti-union when they are treated, or behave, as an end in themselves and, in the Australian context, I’m anti the preponderance of often brutal thugs who dominate the most powerful unions and, through them, the Australian Labor Party, historically the creature of the Union movement. The average Australian union heavy would terrify Jimmy Hoffa were he still alive, and Junior would wet his pants.

    In theory unions are great; in practice, rarely so.


    21 Nov 11 at 7:47 pm

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