Monday, May 02, 2005

One of those counterfactuals...


I wish I knew what conservatives believed would happen if liberals had their way--and I would be most grateful if someone would tell me. In fairness, I should give an account of what I think would happen if conservatives were able to push through their agenda.

Suppose that conservatives had a free hand and reorganized things in the US so that there would be less bureaucracy and regulation, lower taxes and less support for public services, and much of what government delivers in other affluent countries would be the responsibility of individuals, families, churches and other private organizations.

Life would be much, much riskier: the kinds of lives we lived would depend far more on dumb luck. The luck of the draw--whether we were born rich or poor, black or white, male or female, smart or dumb, able or disabled--would play a greater role in determining our lot in life and at every stage of our lives we would be vulnerable to the slings and arrows of outrageous fortune. Those of us who could afford it would be able to save or to buy into insurance schemes to protect ourselves, but the ability to afford these hedges would itself be a matter of dumb luck.

If conservatives have their way, most of us will be more dependent on the good will of others. Workers will depend on the good will of employers for reasonable wages and decent working conditions, and employers who are morally committed to treating their employees decently will find it hard to compete: nice guys will finish last, and the Walmart model will triumph. The elderly will depend on their children for housing and financial support and the poor will depend on the voluntary contributions and support of those who are better off.

Public facilities will become a last resort for the poor. Outside of wealthy suburbs, where very few of us can afford to live, public schools will become charity institutions for the destitute and near-destitute. As middle class parents opt out of the system, public schools will increasingly become holding tanks for the "unsalvageable."

Society will become increasingly fragmented and tribal. The rich will live in gated communities patrolled by private security guards, send their children to private schools, generate their own electricity and drink bottled water as they do in other Third World countries. The white working class, attracted by affordable, segregated housing will increasingly migrate to exurban boom towns floating on a low-wage, low-skilled service economy (like Surprise, Arizona). Urban areas will become the exclusive property of the very rich and the very poor--the urban elite, gay and straight, who neither marry nor are given in marriage, living and working in glitzy high-rises, in a world without children, surrounded by squalid slums where the non-white underclass, new immigrants, and all the disabled, chronically ill and elderly who have no families to look after them, live in fear of violence and crime.

As opportunities and support services for women diminish, educated women married to high-earning upper middle class men, who can afford to stay home, will drop out of the labor force. At the same time, as wages and benefits for working class males decline, more working class women will be squeezed out of the home and forced into dead-end pink collar shit work in the expanding service sector. More women on net will enter the labor force but sex-segregation and the wage gap will increase as women become a permanent class of drudge workers.

On the bright side, as we become poorer, less educated and willing to accept less desirable work at lower wages, off-shoring and out-sourcing will decline. Firms, both domestic and foreign, will increasingly exploit cheap, largely female labor to do tedious tasks for low pay. Maquilladoras will move across the border to the US, sweatshops will flourish and Indian firms will contract work to American call centers. The declining dollar and exports of sweatshop products will diminish our trade deficit and, as we take our place in the Third World, people in other poor countries may resent us less and even forgive us.

46 comments:

Anonymous said...

I have in my possession a children's annual dated 1937 that takes a look at the future "50 years from now". Apparently we were all supposed to be living in mile-high cities, commuting to and from work in personal gyrocopters etc. etc. Most attempts at future-gazing seem to me to be wildly over-optimistic or dystopic. I guess this one counts as the latter! One of the few things that futurologists seem to agree on is that linear extrapolations are only of benefit in the short term. Beyond that it's open to externalities that create stepwise change. So I suppose the question to ask is "what sort of thing is going to stop this process dead in its tracks?"

I can't really comment, as a European, on the future of the US. I really, seriously, do not understand this wild-eyed obsession of dividing up everything into liberal and conservative - not as a descriptor of actions but of people individually or by group. Nor do I understand the way in which Americans accede to this classification and turn the descriptive into the prescriptive. What's going on? And why?

Not - I hasten to add - are these strictures aimed in your direction, Dr. Baber. One of the interesting parts of visiting your blog is witnessing you giving your own side a good kicking when they get above themselves!

Best regards - Ian

MikeS said...

Charles Murray wrote a column for the Times a few weeks ago arguing, convincingly it seemed to me, that your scenario was already playing out across the USA.
Incidentally, I assume that you are not a Humean compatibilist? Obviously for those of us who are the counterfactual is not persuasive.

H. E. said...

I really, seriously, do not understand this wild-eyed obsession of dividing up everything into liberal and conservative

Liberal/conservative is code for class. The American ideology of a classless society with endless opportunities for anyone willing to work hard precludes our using the C-word--even though the discrepancy in wealth between the rich and poor in the US is greater than it is in other affluent countries and growing. Moreover almost all Americans except for the ultra-rich and the homeless consider themselves "middle class.

Coding class differences as ethical and political ones allows participants in Culture Wars to dress up their snobbery and resentment in moral terms, and to congratulate themselves for it. "Liberals" who would never dream of saying, even to themselves, "We don't like lower class people because they're boring, have bad taste and are just unpleasant to deal with" can castigate them as intolerant, bigoted Fundamentalists on jihad, who are unsympathetic to cute furry animals and trash the environment. Working class people who resent "Liberals" for being snobs and enjoying wealth and privilege that they don't seem to have earned, condemn them as unpatriotic cowards and libertines out to undermine important moral values. So everyone is convinced that they have the high moral ground.

I don't claim that the liberal/conservative divide tracks class perfectly or that the endgame scenario I described--American sweatshops and call centers--is likely to happen: this is my blog so I can have fun and I don't have to be careful or footnote. But I think this is roughly the way things are and, as Mike has pointed out, the scenario is already playing out. Check the link to the NYTimes Magazine article on Surprize, Arizona--there are exurbs like it in my area, as well as expensive gated communities, and some coastal cities especially are getting close to what described.

Anonymous said...

Thanks for that - it certainly makes sense to me.

I wouldn't quibble with the observations about direction - rather, I was trying to draw attention to the fact that historically such long-run trends are quite rare and are more frequently interrupted by supervening trends whose origin lies elsewhere. A group of events that includes violent revolution of course.

In this context, have you read Stanley Kurtz's article in Policy Review "Demographics & the Culture War"? That would meet the criteria in Europe and, I guess latterly, in N. America too. To what extent it will happen is another matter of course. - Ian

H. E. said...

Interesting article on declining population--have to say though the artificial womb scenario seems even less convincing than the mile-high city and monorail fantasies. Some European countries have been able increase fertility rates by offering generous parental leave, child care and other benefits--no artificial wombs.

Re futurology, I just lectured on Turing's 1950 paper Computing Machinery and Intelligence in which Turing predicted that "within 50 years" computers would be able to fool people into thinking that they were people. So far none have won the Loebner Grand Prize for managing it.

What neither Turing or anyone else at the time predicted was that computers would become common household appliances or that people like me would carry around notebook sized computers, pick up the internet on wifi, display stuff in class, and have students online to chatterbots--who can't pass the Turing Test. Somewhere in the 60s I think some pundit predicted that "within 20 years" computers would be the size of houses.

WildMonk said...

I agree that a radically deregulated state with no safety net may devolve into something approaching the dystopia you describe. However, I think that you commit two fundamental errors in the development of your thesis: one qualitative and one quantitative.

The qualitative error is that you place far too much faith in your assumptions about the nature of human nature and American culture. I would thus dispute your conclusions to the extent that I disagree with these assumptions.

I am familiar with the left's copious documentation regarding "dumb luck" (e.g. Barbara Ehrenreich's book) but, honestly, I just don't find it convincing (Ehrenreich, for example, never stayed in any position long enough to earn the trust of those who might help her improve her supposed lot in life).

This is the Left/Right dichotomy in a nutshell: the belief or doubt in the efficacy of human initiative. The Left sees people as mostly helpless and believe freedom must be enabled by the state (re. our previous discussions of Amartya Sen). The Right sees the individual's behavior as determinative of his or her own fate and describes freedom in terms of the right to take responsibility for one's own actions. Neither view is wholly defensible but both have enough evidential support that entire intellectual movements have been built around them. Thus, while no thinking person can deny that chance plays a part in life, it strikes me as profoundly wrong and, indeed, inhumane to argue that personal initiative plays little determinative role in the unfolding of our lives.

Returning to your explanation, we split on the effectiveness of the individual in mitigating his or her own life risks: I would argue that personal initiative and a culture that celebrates and rewards the same is a powerful bulwark against the 'risk' you decry. Furthermore, I'd argue that perceived self-sufficiency is an essential attribute of human nature. For example, you may call this "rough individualism" but nearly every man I grew up with would prefer to live in a modest but loving home by the fruits of their own labor than to live in a mansion by virtue of handouts. This preference may make no sense for Homo Economicus but it apparently is a common feature of Homo Sapiens.

Now, is this smart? Well, in a culture supportive of individual initiative, it is the foundation of self-respect, happiness and a powerful engine for wealth creation. In contrast, a culture that assumes citizens should be the 'good children' of the state, derides or denies the association of effort with reward, and elevates the corporate-drone pop star over the physician, it leads to alienation and "right-wing" anger.

Both of these cultures have always played some role in the American national personality. However, I think it fairly obvious that the rise of Progressive politics from the 1920's on has been accompanied by an ascension of the second culture over the first.

The problem for the Right is that many of the drivers of these cultural changes were morally necessary: the civil rights movement, the busting of big business trusts, and the efforts to suppress organized crime were all disruptive of the culture of self-sufficiency. So how do you restore a culture of self-sufficiency while preserving the Liberal values of racial equality and respect for all men regardless of wealth? The Republicans have tried to answer this question with initiatives like the 'Ownership Society.'

The Left, however, does not appear to understand that there is anything even at stake here because they simply don't share or understand the underlying ethic of self-sufficient individualism (witness the argument in "What's the Matter with Kansas").

Thus, rather than engage the arguments inherent in the Ownership Society, the Left has found it easier to brand this initiative - as well as the wider opposition to the cultural changes of the 20th century - as rooted in racism or the result of the Right-Wing brain washing of unwitting 'dittoheads.' Correspondingly, the Left now finds itself politically adrift.

Thus, I disagree with the dystopian vision captured by your piece first because I think the underlying assumptions of human nature from which your predictions spring are incorrect. They are close enough that I think that some predictions might come to pass. But, on the whole, I doubt that they would characterize most of American society.

My second objection is quantitative: I seriously doubt that all but the most strident Right-winger would want to eliminate all regulation. It might be convenient to speak in these terms when you are trying to roll back our regulatory burden from 100,000 pages to 80,000 pages but Americans - including most Republicans - simply would not stand for the wholesale abolition of our environmental and financial regulatory laws. Thus, you are abstracting from rhetoric that is clearly and obviously political in nature. To your broader question - what would society look like if we engaged in several serious rounds of deregulation, lower taxes and welfare "reform" - I think the answer is pretty clear. The economy would expand (as it did in the 80s and 90s) and welfare rolls would shrink while a variety of social ills would be ameliorated or left unchanged (as they did in the late 90s). If the changes went too far, then obviously you would not enjoy these benefits. But I think that you do not need to speculate on the likely outcome of a reasonable shift toward more Conservative policies because the last 25 years have given you a real-world laboratory in which to study exactly this proposition.

Anonymous said...

What I believe would happen if liberals had their way would be a collapse of the system due to dead weight.

Our well being comes from a vital society and economy. The vitality is a function of the incentive to accomplish be it the creation of an invention, a cure for cancer, a business, an idea, a piece of the American Dream, or simply the satisfaction of a good day's work. Vitality is drained by free-loaders. There is an inevitable tipping point when free-loaders reach a critical mass and bring it all down. The art is to care for those who cannot contribute, through no fault of their own, while discouraging free loading.

We incentivize freeloading when we deliver maintenance services to those who are too lazy or irresponsible to go out and get them on their own. Your "dumb luck" factor applies primarily to those born handicapped in some irreversible way. Reversible handicaps, OTOH, can be a great source of motivation to accomplish or they they can be turned into irreversible handicaps, and freeloading, depending on how society treats them. If we incentivize laziness, irresponsibility, and wallowing in reversible handicaps, we are adding to the dead weight of society. Too much of that and we no longer have an economically vibrant society .

Where liberals cross the line, IMO, is when they award a right to maintenance to all members of society--the old world-owes-you-a-living saw. Charity is one thing, entitlement is another. If there is no penalty attached to declining to contribute, then fewer will contribute. That is simple human nature. It is all well and good to help the needy either through private charity or public charity. It is unhealthy for society to guarantee a living for everyone as a matter of entitlement. We would be better served if we were less tender-hearted and more thoughtful about the importance of incentives . To avoid reaching that tipping point it is important that there be some penalty for freeloading be it the actual denial of free maintenance or the returning of shame at being on the dole or both. If you can coast through life and still get your quadruple bypass when indolence catches up with you, why be responsible; why contribute?

We already go too far to indemnify people from their "dumb luck." At a minimum we need to replace middle class entitlements, which solidify--codify--the entitlement mentality, with private insurance and to tolerate more risk in laziness and irresponsibility rather than less. And we need to remember the motivating power of handicaps for personal accomplishment, the personal satisfaction of accomplishment, and the benefit of individual accomlishment to all of society.

H. E. said...

Read Rawls?

WildMonk said...

RE: Rawls...

I'm not sure if that is directed at me but I'll admit to only having read synopses and analyses of his work and not the original.

I've accepted as reasonable the argument that his thought experiments, while compelling, make important but unstated assumptions about the character of the abstract individual featured in the experiment. These assumptions appear to be closely matched to the assumptions that you have made in this piece and that I have criticized. To wit: your assumption that human nature is rooted in a fear of human weakness and dependence and that our greatest need is succor.

Is it fair to say that your piece springs from a Rawlsian assumption that humanity is composed of mere children and that the state, in its corporate form, somehow transcends these human limitations to achieve the status of 'adult'? I appears so but, in this, I am a bit surprised. I really hadn't "read-out" that assumption in your thinking from other things you had written.

H. E. said...

Is it fair to say that your piece springs from a Rawlsian assumption that humanity is composed of mere children and that the state, in its corporate form, somehow transcends these human limitations to achieve the status of 'adult'

Rawls doesn't make this assumption--try reading him sometime.

You suggested in your post [oops--I see it's the anonymous post after yours] that people won't work without incentives. Rawls notes that incentives have to be built into the system to keep everyone working up to speed and that since we especially need to get the most talented workers contributing this will mean inequality.

No serious Liberal, least of all Rawls, suggests that we're children who need the protection of a nanny state. We're adults duking it out in a tough world, where markets are not perfectly efficient and unregulated competition won't produce results that are either efficient or fair. The costs of competition in some areas can outweigh the benefits. Social support services, like education, can make people who might otherwise be wasted, more productive and safety nets can encourage people to assume risk and promote overall productivity.

That's Liberalism--not for wimps.

Anonymous said...

That "anonymous post after yours" would be mine. [In the commenting scheme, if you're not a blogger and you don't have a web page, then you're "anonymous."] I recognized that the Rawls comment was aimed at me.

I have not read the original Rawls, either, only about his work. I come at this from a systems perspective, which is my background. The most reliable systems are the most natural ones. Whatever system we use, we need production. There is no motivation to produce more essential in humanity than personal satisfaction. Let's not fight human nature if we don't have to. If we can find a way to use that engine of productivity in a constructive way, we are way ahead of a system that requires us to superimpose an incentive scheme "to keep everybody working up to speed."

I will have to track down Rawls's incentive scheme to see just how contrived and unnatural it may be. The more contrived, the less reliable. I am skeptical about any system that requires a lot of management, particularly political management, most particularly the management of fairness. Systems are too easily over-managed and fairness is a figment, or at the very least in the eyes of the myriad beholders. Any system that depends on tinkering and a consensus on what is fair is a disaster in the making. --Karen

H. E. said...

Rawls doesn't recommend superimposing an incentive scheme to build in incentives so much as imposing constraints on programs geared to promote equality in order to avoid interfering with natural incentives. The idea is that we want to reduce the effect of dumb luck and provide safety nets for the unlucky, but not to such an extent that we discourage the lucky, wipe out natural incentives, stifle growth and leave everyone much worse off. Here is a short piece that sums it up.

The negotiation concerning the social contract behind the Veil of Ignorance is a fiction aimed at pumping our intuitions about what fairness is. Rawls isn't suggesting that there ought to be constant workers' meetings or political confabs to decide on fair allocations of burdens and benefits. What Rawls envisions is not a centrally planned economy with elaborate, contrived incentive schemes, 5 year plans, propaganda and ongoing micro-management but something more on the lines of a pragmatic, mixed-economy social democracy where we try to see to it that everyone has a minimally decent life.

With systems--and I'm an ignorant non-techie so I'm not sure what you're talking about--some are designed while others just evolve, and evolution isn't always efficient much less beneficial to individual members of the species. Artificial systems are designed to be robust and by that criterion Mac OSX/Unix is better than Windows because it's stable. But animals and societies of animals aren't designed, and the kind of tinkering liberals propose isn't like fiddling with Windows but attempting to design a more stable, more efficient system that benefits people, creating a better design on the fly.

The practical problem to me, and the one that more than anything else motivates my political views, is the fact that most jobs don't provide any personal satisfaction. Most tasks are so routine that there isn't even any way to excel: you spend the day typing, filing, inputting data--there's no way to do these things well or poorly--you either do them or don't. If you work fast you just get more of the same to do or spend the rest of the day trying to look busy. There's no reward for achievement, no sense of accomplishment, no possibility of advancement, no room for ingenuity or opportunity for problem-solving, no chance to learn or sharpen skills, not even the chance to move around or do anything physically strenuous.

Drudge work has got to get done, but with liberal tinkering you can try to organize things so that people have opportunities and can make trade-offs, so that fewer people are stuck doing this work all their lives and so that those who are at least have decent working conditions and decent pay.

Anonymous said...

When I talk systems, I'm not talking techie. There are systems all around us--economic, social, logistic, etc. Systems are susceptible to many ailments, one of which is inefficiency, which can easily be fatal. You spoke of "attempting to create a more stable, more efficient system that benefits people, creating a better design on the fly." I have argued that a design focused on equality of outcome, fairness, and compensation for dumb luck in inherently incompatible with efficiency and thus unstable. And even if it weren't, you'd first need a consensus on what was fair, an exercise in futility if I ever saw one, and a determination of what constituted dumb luck and how and how much to compensate for it, for example, alcoholism, stature, a bad temper, introversion, whatever. We haven't yet sorted out nature vs. nurture and you want to add another layer for dumb luck.

The simplest example of system inefficiency centered on fairness I can think of is the tax code. We keep adding this to make it more fair to some, then adding that to make it more fair to others. We end up with a monster that is a huge drain on productivity with its armies of specialists who might otherwise be engaging in productive activity like designing mousetraps or curing cancer yet we still waste energy around the water cooler or the legislature considering how unfair it is. The more we tinker, the more we create dead weight in the name of fairness, yet fairness will always elude us because it's a moving and variable target.

Some system experience of mine that speaks directly to fairness and efficiency is in employee performance systems. I have personally designed two, twenty years apart, for two big bureaucracies. One was a merit pay system and the other a pass/fail system. I will mention just one of many relevant lessons learned. The pass/fail approach was adopted largely to escape from the fairness trap. The previous five-tier system determined its rating through a five hundred point system. What ended up happening is that each year employees and supervisors would spend their time arguing about the unfairness of John getting 347 points this year when he had gotten 352 the year before or when Jane in the next cubicle got 348 even though those numbers resulted in the exact same bottom line rating. People are hypersensitive to perceived unfair treatment and of course almost always think they are undercompensated. It is human nature and not something to mess with if there is an alternative.

I'm not arguing that your fairness approach isn't a nice idea, only that it is unfeasible and would crash and burn or backfire. It's too contrived. I think it's better to use the marketplace, which has a natural fairness rhythm of its own and, out of charity and practicality, not entitlement, to take care of those who, for whatever reason, simply can't survive on their own.

[I was startled and saddened by your assertion that "most jobs don't provide any personal satisfaction." I don't know who "types, files, and inputs" all day anymore. In my experience, professionals now do their own, integrated with their more creative work, and no longer shunt it off to some automaton. Most jobs can be engineered to be satisfying unless one is predisposed to be unsatisfied. Some of it is attitude. Are you laying bricks or building a cathedral? Are you dicing celery or part of the team making your restaurant into a fine dining experience? Jobs that are inherently boring to your or me are fine for people with limited capacity for whom they are challenging. And they're also fine for all of us when we are young or to tide us over until we can work our way into something better. Your assertion just doesn't resonate with me.] --Karen

H. E. said...

I was startled and saddened by your assertion that "most jobs don't provide any personal satisfaction." I don't know who "types, files, and inputs" all day anymore. In my experience, professionals now do their own

You must live a sheltered life. In fact bad jobs have gotten worse over the past 30 years as they've been "de-skilled"--broken down into simpler components and divvied up amongst more specialized workers doing tasks that are even more mindless and repetitive. So there are fewer traditional secretaries who work to one boss, typing, filing, answering phones and doing varied tasks, and many more workers who spend the entire day sitting at terminals and inputting data or xeroxing or filing all the those papers that didn't disappear when computers were supposed to have made office work paperless.

Low-skill, repetitive jobs like this aren't atypical--they are the norm. They're also dead ends because there's no rational reason for employers to promote workers from these jobs: doing them doesn't teach or improve skills that would be useful for other work. Having lots of workers doing repetitive, unskilled tasks for their entire careers is efficient too because turnover doesn't matter--it's cheap and easy to replace them.

Some of it is attitude. Are you laying bricks or building a cathedral?

No amount of attitude adjustment can make bad work significantly better. If you're on a long plane flight to a place you really want to go it's still miserable. If you're in labor and know there will be a baby at the end of it (what could be better?) it's still painful. It's adding insult to injury when you tell people who are doing boring work to think of the end to which they're contributing and see themselves as members of the team--even if you are gung-ho about your membership in the team it's still miserable. Try it some time.

Jobs that are inherently boring to your or me are fine for people with limited capacity for whom they are challenging.

So we would like to think but also false. Some people do tolerate boredom better than others but it is just not the case that people with "limited capacity" in general don't suffer as much as you and I would if we were doing the work they do.

Face the facts: most people do jobs that make their lives miserable and have no other options. Now you can argue that this arrangement is efficient and that the cost in misery is outweighed by the benefit to the economy that raises all ships--that's a reasonable argument even if it's not one that I buy. But you cannot deny the brute fact that it is a cost: the suggestion that the dumb people who are stuck doing these jobs don't suffer as much as we would or that they would suffer less if they had good attitudes (and are blameworthy if they don't) is self-serving self-deception.

they're also fine for all of us when we are young or to tide us over until we can work our way into something better

Middle class kids do flip burgers but the most people who do drudge work are in for life and there's no way of working you way into something better from these jobs. Kids get out when they go to college or, if they're recent grads, when they finally land a job commensurate with their abilities and qualifications. Most people though are stuck.

Again, if you want to claim that the greater good requires this sacrifice I'm open to argument. In time of war some people have to get shot at and killed for the greater good--I'm no pacifist and I believe that. But it's still a cost and we try to minimize it. You can certainly argue that the cost of having lots of people doing boring, dead-end work with no way out is worth it. But the myth that people get personal satisfaction out of their work or would if they had the right attitude or could work their way into something better if they had the right stuff ignores the costs and makes rational utility calculations impossible.

Anyway, no one is suggesting that there be elaborate point schemes or constant negotiations about what's fair. The idea is to take an empirical, bottom up approach and recognize that there are some arrangements which most people recognize as unfair and calculate the costs of improvement--it's unfair that poor kids go to substandard schools, it's unfair that Walmart doesn't promote women. Even apart from fairness, some of these arrangements are just inefficient--markets, including the labor market aren't perfectly efficient. Life is crumby for most people and that's just a matter of dumb luck. Most people have few opportunities and that's something that the very few of us who have options don't recognize.

Anonymous said...

One more point about systems and fairness that I forgot to include. In bureaucracies, particularly union contracts, and in law, fairness has a proxy and that proxy is due process. I don't know if that came to be because folks back when, like the framers of the Constitution, understood the elusive quality of fairness or not but they gave us due process as the mechanism for formal determinations of it. Due process means objective, measurable standards. Since so little is measurable, we set up as standards what we can measure rather than what is salient. And then we have review processes to assure due process. Once we have completed that circuit, we are said to have achieved fairness, or as close to it as we can get. Of course, these processes carry a lot of overhead and can also weigh down our system and impair productivity. And we may or may not get actual fairness.

Re job satisfaction, no, I haven't lead a sheltered life. The things you talk about like specialization and economies of scale were on their last legs when I studied them in biz school in the mid seventies and job enrichment was starting to bloom. If your concern is with data entry pools, perhaps the more direct approach of using some managment or systems consulting to enrich the jobs would be better than re-engineering society to compensate those who have the dumb luck to be stuck in them.

No, I don't want to claim greater good nor do I want anyone to sacrifice, except perhaps for their kids, if need be. Just the opposite. What I want is a robust system.

The idea is to take an empirical, bottom up approach and recognize that there are some arrangements which most people recognize as unfair and calculate the costs of improvement

That would be a great exercise. I've facilitated a lot groups for consensus decision making and I can map that exercise in my mind. If you test it, be sure to get a diverse group. It would be fun to try to get consensus on, per your example, the unfairness of Walmart's promotion practices. You may think that's a given but it's not.

This exercise reminds me of the ones they used to do on balancing the budget where they'd get a small group to sweat their way to consensus on what to cut. The participants found it very rewarding and they came up with some good solutions. Problem is that you can't do that or your exercise with anything larger than a small group. You can't do it for a whole country. And no one who wasn't a participant in the group process will accept the group's results. It takes running through the process to produce buy in. Otherwise, people will prefer their own opinions. What you're suggesting is just not scalable. But maybe you should try the exercise and test the idea for yourself. --Karen

H. E. said...

Don't jump to the conclusion that I'm jumping to conclusions about the Walmart case--I've followed the case quite closely. I work with a colleague in econ on these issues. But put that aside--I don't know anyone who wouldn't agree that it would be good to see to it that poor kids don't go to substandard schools, even if there's lots of disagreement about how to accomplish it.

Re job satisfaction, no, I haven't lead a sheltered life. The things you talk about like specialization and economies of scale were on their last legs when I studied them in biz school in the mid seventies and job enrichment was starting to bloom.

Funny I haven't noticed any blooming at this end. I'd say biz school was sheltered--have you done pink-collar shit work yourself for any length of time? It looks pretty different from that end of things. Things haven't changed much--the difference is that now with data input, supervisors can monitor every key-stroke.

If your concern is with data entry pools, perhaps the more direct approach of using some managment or systems consulting to enrich the jobs would be better than re-engineering society to compensate those who have the dumb luck to be stuck in them.

Why should management "enrich" jobs when it isn't in their economic interest--with unskilled work and a large pool of women who don't have any other options it's cheaper to just keep the jobs turning over. I also don't see why management's fiddling with these enrichments (and wouldn't it take a lot of fiddling and negotiation about what kinds of enrichments and how much and for whom?) is more direct than monitoring firms to see to it that they don't discriminate? And would you yourself think that being stuck doing woman crap however enriched was reasonable compensation for being excluded from a wide range of jobs and opportunities for advancement that are still de facto virtually closed to women?

There is plenty of data showing that discrimination in employment against both women and minorities is a fact of life. See, e.g. Blau & Ferber, The Economics of Men, Women and Work, Barbara Bergmann, The Economic Emergence of Women and In Defense of Affirmative Action and Robert Cherry, Who Gets the Good Jobs?

I wasn't talking about focus groups or some ridiculous exercise in "consensus building" when I said "bottom up"--don't pin this flakey fruits-and-nuts garbage about "consensus" on me. I'm talking about piecemeal, pragmatic policies to deal with bread-and-butter issues, like improving schools, committing more money to grant and loan programs to see to it that qualified students aren't kept out of college for financial reasons and a more serious attempt to enforce anti-discrimination laws that are already on the books. That's hardly "re-engineering."

Anonymous said...

I wish I knew what conservatives believed would happen if liberals had their way--and I would be most grateful if someone would tell me.

I looped back to review what it was that started this colloquy. I think I answered your question, although I'm not conservative but libertarian. Answering your question required making some assumptions about what you meant by liberals having their way. I read that as social democracy of a sort and responded accordingly. Whether that's what you had in mind or not, I don't know. We seem to have strayed from that.

have you done pink-collar shit work yourself for any length of time?

I noticed your recent post about loving your job. I, too, have loved my job so much that I couldn't believe I was being paid to do it. I've also done pink-collar work, maybe five or six or years of it. Indeed, there's a difference in job satisfaction, but I never had a pink-collar job that I didn't find satisfying. The difference I experienced was satisfaction between glances at the clock vs. satisfaction with utter disregard for the clock. Still satisfaction.

And would you yourself think that being stuck doing woman crap however enriched was reasonable compensation for being excluded from a wide range of jobs and opportunities for advancement that are still de facto virtually closed to women?

Now this I do not get. I'm obviously older than you. I went to college to get my "Mrs degree" and minored in secretarial training so I would have something to fall back on if something happened to my husband and I ever had to work. Such was the thinking of the day. The choice of careers for women was that or teaching; that's it. In high school on career day I went to the session for civil engineering and was patronizingly steered away. I was married at a time when a married woman could not own property in her own name. My husband had to cosign my first car loan although I could well afford it on my salary. One of my pink collar jobs was at a mortgage brokerage at a time when a wife's salary could not be included for qualifying for a loan unless she could prove that she couldn't have children. I was a military wife but had trouble getting pink collar jobs because they thought I wouldn't be around long enough or because I was overqualified. I heard "overqualified" a lot. Much later, I was the first woman manager in that organization. When I was interviewed for the job for the fourth time, my wary boss threw the f-word into the discussion to get my reaction because he didn't want some prissy woman who would destroy the tenor of his management team meetings. Now what were you saying about job opportunities for women?

Sure, there's still discrimination, but at this point in time we're at the point in the curve where the marginal value of going after it is greatly diminished. If people want to pursue those last vestiges then they should, but it's hard for me to consider it a priority. I'm watching with some interests the current activity in Congress about women in combat but I can't find a way to get exercised over pink collar jobs. What is left of the clerical ones will be overcome by technology at some point regardless of what we do.

Why should management "enrich" jobs when it isn't in their economic interest...?

They shouldn't. No one should do what is not in his best interest, IMO. But with the quality movement of the eighties came the confluence of economic interest and job enrichment for those enlightened enough to see it. Those that haven't seen it have failed, at least where there is competition and failure is possible. Elsewhere, it may very well be business as usual as you say.

I'm talking about piecemeal, pragmatic policies to deal with bread-and-butter issues, like improving schools, committing more money to grant and loan programs to see to it that qualified students aren't kept out of college for financial reasons and a more serious attempt to enforce anti-discrimination laws that are already on the books.

If your approach to that is liberal, then you're talking about federal government programs, which require a political process of consensus building and/or negotiation and a critical mass of buy in. Introducing the notion of fairness overtly into that process is distracting and counter-productive IMO. Best to just propose the program you want and see if you can make it happen in the face of the fact that there are voters out there who think that the best way to improve schools is to break the teachers' union, that the government shouldn't be in the business of school grants or loans, and that anti-discrimination has long since turned the corner into reverse-discrimination. --Karen

H. E. said...

Well we're not going to agree about ideology, so just some empirical observations:

Discrimination and sex-segregation aren't vestigial. Women have made significant advances in the professions--and I don't get exercised over the situation of women who occupy these positions. But for the majority of women in the labor force it's business as usual. At my university, women are well-represented among faculty in all fields, including math and engineering, and in upper administrative areas. But most staff positions are 100% sex segregated.

This isn't an anomalous: sex segregation and wage gaps are much more significant for men and women without college degrees. See e.g. the Cherry book I recommended for data as well as discussion. It looks like we're establishing a three-sex scheme based on class: traditional men, traditional women and a relatively small unisex elite.

As for job enrichment, as Bergmann notes most jobs don't require any high level of skill or training and can be done equally well by lots of people so there's no penalty for discriminating--on the basis of sex or race or any other arbitrary characteristic you please. Beyond that there's some benefit to hiring "traditional" workers: people like to see people who "look right" in their jobs, especially important in sales; employers worry about introducing workers of the wrong sex because it could be disruptive to the work team. Ceteris paribus discrimination pays and for most jobs, where the chief qualifications are showing up on time and sober, ceteris are paribus.

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