Saturday, December 20, 2014

Work Ethic

Interesting article in the NY Times about the apparent statistical correlation between higher taxes, stronger social safety nets, and lower unemployment rates. It makes sense to be at least skeptical about whether correlation is causation (hint:  it generally isn't), but there are a couple of things worthy of note, if for entirely different reasons.

Robert Greenstein, the president of the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities, notes that wages for entry-level work are much higher in the Nordic countries than in the United States, reflecting a higher minimum wage, stronger labor unions and cultural norms that lead to higher pay. (In October, my colleagues Liz Alderman and Steven Greenhouse wrote about $20-an-hour Burger King employees in Denmark.)

Perhaps more Americans would enter the labor force if even basic jobs paid that well, regardless of whether the United States provided better child care and other services. The employment subsidies Mr. Kleven cites surely help coax more Scandinavians into the work force, Mr. Greenstein agrees, but shouldn’t be viewed in isolation.

“You get into trouble when you cherry-pick things,” Mr. Greenstein said.
Needless to say, there are a few things to unpack here. First is the seeming philosophical disparity that the notoriously Calvinist (at least as applies to work in general, rather than a specific teleological view) work ethic of Northern European countries. Scandiwegian countries may be louche and highly sexualized -- and only an American puritan would think that was a bad or questionable thing -- but they get shit done, and do it well, and have consistently high levels of quality of life and general happiness 'mongst their plebes.

Second is the reflexively (and again, almost uniquely) American stance that fast-food work is and deserves to be the lowest-paid in the conventional (in other words, non-immigrant) workforce. While it's true that, at least in theory, compensation in the American workforce is based more on value-added and difficulty of training or replacement, rather than mere difficulty or exertion of the workload, this principle completely ignores how it takes money out of the economy. If you pud-pay the masses for their grunt work, they don't have any discretionary income after paying their bills. And the one-percenters can buy only so many toys.

The American business community is obsessed with the quest for "optimization," yet that differs from how other business cultures understand that word. A European businessperson will optimize processes in order to maximize profit; their American counterpart will re-jigger every process possible -- even if the process becomes more inefficient or dangerous -- if it will increase profit even a hair. And where the European executive will generally spread at least some of the spoils downstream, there's no fucking way any self-respecting 'murkin bidness tool will do jack shit for the peons unless forced at gunpoint.

And as always, the wealthy actually have the working poor on their side, so there is literally no disincentive to bad behavior or sociopathic indifference.

The second quote, completely decontextualized but valid all the same:

The system is designed to keep us working.

You're goddamned right it is, until the Age of Automation takes over, and everything that can be commodified will be. Then we'll see what the powers that be figure out to do with you lot. I'm guessing something of the soylent variety.