What’s the Matter with Michigan?

So asks Adam Garfinkle over at The American Interest.  That’s the title of his piece on Michigan’s recently-enacted right-to-work (or as he terms them, “so- called right-to-work”) laws.  You can’t tell from reading it whether he chose his title in admiring emulation of the similarly titled book about Kansas from a few years ago, or in ironic allusion to it, or in gentle mockery of it.  That doesn’t really matter, in truth, even though to ask what is the “matter” with someone or something necessarily supposes that he or it has gone off the rails in some respect.  And that assumption is abundantly clear from the article.

Garfinkle brings an interesting background to the debate; he allows, “I am the son of a rare Jewish member of the Teamsters union.”  That’s OK; Sandy Koufax is a Hall of Famer not because he was Jewish but because he was one of the all-time great pitchers.  Where Garfinkle provides some helpful cross-fixing (the navy navigator in me always like to have at least a three-point fix if I can get it) does in fact come from the Judeo part of the Judeo-Christian heritage, and specifically the ancient Israelite usages of what we would describe as unfree labor.  Garfinkle laments (and I’m sure he’s right) that inartful translation of the Torah has resulted in these unfree relationships being tagged as “slavery,” and the texts therefore as implicitly endorsing the unequal relationship between the worker and the one employing the worker.  [Aside:  Garfinkle thinks he is ameliorating the ancient worker’s condition to describe him as being more in the nature of an indentured servant. He needs to familiarize himself a bit more closely with what indentured servitude actually looked like on the ground, for example in colonial Virginia.  Ex:  Maiming, the chopping off of digits, was considered a not-inappropriate disciplinary device to deploy with an indentured servant.] 

Where the Torah passages referenced become relevant is in Garfinkle’s statement that, “But the idea that one Israelite would literally enslave another is quite foreign to the sense of the text.”  It is relevant because, while Garfinkle expressly rejects the marxist description of showing up to work with nothing in your hands but their palms and getting paid to use them as “wage slavery,” he still puts an enormous amount of weight on what he describes as the “inherently unequal relationships between those who have capital and those who work for those who have capital.”  It is the “inherently unequal” aspect of it that seems to trouble Garfinkle as being foreign to America’s Judeo-Christian heritage.

Here’s Garfinkle’s tie-in paragraph:

“Barring some very improbable mass return to a more egalitarian and self-sufficient pastoral life, or a leap forward to a comparable situation where people in much greater numbers work for themselves, there is nothing to be done about this. It just is what it is. (Attempts to eradicate the problem by having the state play the role of capitalists, whether in “soft” Left socialist or “hard” Left communist terms, haven’t worked out so well, and indeed they didn’t even solve the basic problem.) A work contract within any for-profit enterprise, even in America today, is still essentially a form of indentured servitude, though for the vast majority of us it is so very mild a form that the term doesn’t feel right: We can quit and seek work elsewhere on pretty short notice or no notice, we can get severance pay, we have certain rights of redress, we can get government unemployment benefits if one party or the other breaks the contract, and so on and so forth. All the same, no one who does not work for himself or within an integral family unit is truly free and “at liberty” the same way that someone who does work for himself is.”

With all respect for Brer Garfinkle’s thoughtful approach (and it is thoughtful, in contrast to the usual suspects’ blather about “workers’ rights” and so forth), in this paragraph we see the nub of why I think he’s mistaken, even on a theoretical level.  The key part of indentured servitude was the indenture.  It was the contract which the master could terminate, but not the servant.  It was the contract which forbade the one (the servant) to seek that application of his talents and efforts which would best serve his desires — all of his desires, and not just the how-much-do-I-get-paid-for-how-much-work issue — but imposed no such restriction on the master.  It was the contract which gave direct, physical, corporeal dominance to the one over the other. Garfinkle in fact refutes his own argument:  In a mass economy of millions upon millions of people, and thousands upon thousands of different ways to make a living, and with at-will employment on both sides, outside of the limited context of the nearly-extinct company town (see, e.g., Coalfield, West Va., as depicted in Homer Hickam’s Rocket Boys; I worked a summer in Welch, that county seat), the employer simply does not have anything like the power that master of even non-indentured servants had 200 years ago.

There are these days precious few skills which a man or woman may not learn and carry with him from one employer to the next, or out on his own.  One of our little town’s largest employers got his start selling office furniture out of the back of a station wagon.  One of my more successful clients is a commercial contractor who’s been in the business for 30 years (and has never been sued, which is nothing short of miraculous), and who once remarked to me, “Not bad for a country boy who started out with a pick-up truck and a Skil saw.”  Whether you’re a machinist, or work on hydraulic lines, or do custom welding, or whatever; this country is swarming with people who started out with nothing more than the silk loom operators of Paterson, New Jersey and who now work for themselves or with equal partners.  Even that four-loom system which was the downfall of the Paterson silk workers needed someone who could install it; someone who could fix it; someone who could fabricate replacement parts for it.

Garfinkle also doesn’t seem to realize just how many people out there are wholly or partially self-employed.  About ten or fifteen years ago I saw a number from the BLS that was in the 35% range for both.  That’s a third of the workforce, guys.  According to this BLS publication, as of 2009 just over ten percent of the total workforce was self-employed (I didn’t see where they captured the partially self-employed, that is, people who work for someone else and also for their own business).  Garfinkle characterizes the self-employed as enjoying some sort of “radical liberty,” which is true if by “liberty” you mean a Hobbesian state of nature.  Rousseau, a goober of the first water, allowed that man is born naturally free, and is “everywhere in chains.”  Errmmm . . . Jean Jacques (and Adam Garfinkle), those cast on their own resources are not hyper-free.  There is no such thing as paid time off; there is no such thing as employer-provided benefits; there is no one to whom you may storm in and demand a raise.  If you are not personally attending to your business you are losing money, either because your business is suffering or because you’re having to pay someone else to do what you would otherwise.  As one’s own boss, there is no room to specialize on what you do best.  You must be your own marketer, your own bookkeeper (even if you hire someone for that function, if you take your eye off that ball you’re screwed), your own accounts receivables manager, your own collection agent, your own HR department, your own regulatory compliance department . . . and oh by the way you actually have to, you know, do the underlying work as well.

Garfinkle makes some entirely valid points about what any employer with more than walking-around sense already knows.  If you employ anyone other than drudges, you’d better see to it that your employees have a safe, clean (or at least as clean as your business can make it), productive atmosphere in which to work.  You’d better pay attention, close attention, to what they think about how you’re doing your job.  You’d better pay attention to morale sumps in the workplace, whether they are of operational, physical, or personal origin.  You have to be a good butcher.

Where Garfinkle doesn’t quite seem to Get It is that he assumes that an organized workplace fosters any of the above, either in theory or in practice.  There is not one single thing about collective bargaining, against the background of a closed shop, which necessarily trends towards any of the productive organic relationships which Garfinkle extols.  The essence of the closed shop is the establishment of a legal system in which no one may be hired unless he is a member of Group X, and no one from Group X may be fired, or his job altered, or the manner in which he does his job altered, or his pay changed, except upon agreement by the representatives of Group X.  What is inherent in the nature of a closed shop is that it is manifestly in the interest of each member of Group X to increase his own rights and privileges as a member of Group X rather than to increase the number of members of Group X, or even to prevent the decrease in the number of Group X.  What is also inherent in the closed shop is that the person hiring Group X is provided a disincentive, which increases with each incremental advantage gained by Group X, not to increase the number of Group X.

From everything I’ve read, and from all my circle of acquaintance who have experience in organized workplaces (both as management and as unionized workers) the most pernicious effect of organization is not so much the inflated wages of the job-holders, but the restrictive work-place rules.  I don’t have to do X because I’m in Group Y is the perennial cry of the union worker.  Doesn’t matter than X desperately needs to be done and you’re the only one available to do it; I’m in Group Y and The Collective Bargaining Agreement says I don’t have to do X.  This attitude is not peculiar to the manual laborer, either.  Once Louis XVIII fell off his horse at a parade.  He lay there on the ground, the King of By-God-France, until the “correct” official came to help him up (he was too fat to manage the trick himself).  Earlier on an exalted person (can’t recall if it was king, emperor, or pope) died of heat stroke sitting in front of a raging fire (to ward off the plague) because the correct official could not be timely located to remove him or the fire.  When Albert of Saxe-Coburg-Gotha married Victoria of Britain, one of the banes of his existence was the fractured nature of the Royal Household.  It took months to repair a broken pane of glass in a window, because there was no single person to whom he could say, “Fix that damned window by close of business tomorrow”; no, it had to go through the steward of this-that-and-the-other, the lord-warden-of-thus-and-such, and the clerk-of-keeping-Her-Majesty’s-ass-freezing.

When you’re the King of France, or the emperor, or By the Grace of God Queen of Great Britain Etc. it doesn’t matter, really, that you require that sort of crap to attend to even the most dinky little workplace tasks.  When your net profit at the bottom of the page is about ten percent of gross revenue from operations, and from that you have to pay all the shit that the tax laws require you to capitalize, even though you’ve had to pay cash for them, it matters.  It really does matter.  If you don’t fund  your depreciation reserves in cash, then you know what happens when that Jumbo-Mega-Thingummy-Jig that is the core of Plant No. 3’s operations wears out?  You have no cash to buy a new one.  You either shut Plant No. 3 entirely, or you find something else to do with Plant No. 3, like turn it into a warehouse that employs 25 people instead of 172 (if you can; and maybe you can’t), or you borrow the money to replace it.  And if the latter, you’ve just cranked up your fixed expenses by the note payments, even though you can’t write off the principal portion of the payment.  All of means that when The Next Big Thing hits your industry, you’ll have that much less maneuvering room to respond to it.

The results of work-place organization are thus entirely predictable:  They result in a steady bleeding of the host organism until it hits the point of non-viability, at which point it implodes and suddenly no one has a job, on any terms.  In the meanwhile there are hosts of people who didn’t get a job.

Garfinkle’s central mistake is to mythologize the employer-employee relationship.  Both enter into solely for their own good.  Both desire to remain in the relationship only so long as it suits their own ends.  The definition of “fair market value” is that price (or other terms) upon which two persons would agree upon, acting at arm’s length and adequately informed of all material information, and neither being compelled to deal with the other.  Collective bargaining in the closed shop destroys that last element.  Without it, no one can answer the question, “What is my X worth?”  Without a reasonably accurate answer to that question, no one can make an informed decision as to whether and how he ought to continue to provide that X, whether that X is a job position, or a set of job skills, or the product of the conjunction between the two.  It results in the systematic misapplication of the world’s finite resources. 

In a perhaps unintended irony, Garfinkle pointed out that the attempts of the state to supplant the role of the independent employer-employee relationship have universally failed.  He does not ask why they have universally failed.  At its root, Garfinkle’s misapprehension arises because of a failure to give due consideration to the fact that, outside the bounds of family relationships (which he in fact cites in the context of ancient Israel) and explicitly charitable undertakings, no one will act in another person’s self-interest except to the extent that prospective action is also in his own self-interest.  Collective bargaining introduces a formalized adversarial element to the workplace relationship; it in fact overlays the entire relationship in an adversarial framework.  This is seldom helpful to either side.  I am a lawyer; it is how I feed my children.  And yet, as I have observed to numerous prospective clients, introducing a lawyer to a situation is not a universally-applicable method to improve it.

Michigan’s right-to-work laws do not destroy anything sacred.  What they do is require a union to demonstrate to its consituents that what it is doing is in the workers’ interests.  And I will state that there is nothing, nowhere, in any context in which requiring someone to prove his value to his fellow humans is any other than a Step Forward in Progress.  I mean, think about the contrary position:  You must fade money and resources, foregone opportunity, to a group of persons without their needing to demonstrate any benefit to the person from whom the money or resources are demanded.  You must, in other words, give something for nothing.

With appreciation to Mr. Garfinkle for his thoughts and input, I just don’t think that Michigan’s taking a step away from a world the viability of which rests of the thesis that you can take something for nothing repeatedly and over time in a world in which barriers to free movement of people, finances, and goods are coming down about our shoulders is any but a Very Good Thing.

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