Saturday, November 21, 2009

The Recession and "Labour Conservatism"

At home growing up, I heard my father talking about problems at his work. As a manager, he had to deal with technical problems as well as managing people. He did not own the factory he managed, but truly took its problems to heart. The company took care of him, and he took care of the company as though his livelihood depended upon it as indeed it did. Listening to him over the years gave me an ability to empathise with a boss and with management. It remained a strong influence upon my political outlook.

I am very skeptical of Horatio Alger stories in which a boy works his way up from sweeping floors to being a multi-billionaire. It is the very rarity of such stories that makes them attractive. What is far more common is for a wise boss to reward and promote an employee who pulls his weight and produces wealth by doing his job. There are modest success stories which can be attained by a good worker who is employed by a boss with the right attitude.

The Marxist attitude that workers and business owners have an irreconcilable antagonism has poisoned political discourse and labour relations. There are bosses who are out to keep their employees at the edge of starvation. There are also lazy workers who begrudge their boss a day's work. There are good and bad spouses. That does not mean that capitalism is good or bad. It does not mean that marriage is good or bad. An institution is only as good as the people in it.

There is an inequality between boss and worker that makes it glib and fallacious to say that a worker can pack up and leave if he does not like the terms of employment. A person can walk out of a store and go down the street to a competitor. The shopkeeper will see a general trend. He will compete or perish.

A worker can go elsewhere. But he is really like a merchant who his selling all his merchandise to one customer. It is possible but more risky to pick up and go elsewhere. Sometimes, seniority and other considerations make risk taking less desirable.

In reality, workers and bosses need each other. Setting up a business that assures a cash flow takes talent. but it also takes the ability to organise, coordinate and mobilise a work force around a task. Conversely the best idea can not get off the ground without workers. Anyone who works for an enterprise as owner, manager or worker is best off realising this.

Unions are only one possible way to manage workers. But far too often, they take an adversarial tone. What absolutely kills competitiveness is the rigid definition of tasks. Making a company hire an electrician in case a fuse or light bulb needs changing instead of giving the task to a mechanic or janitor adds to overhead. Flexibility means a worker can produce more. It enables a business owner to save on payroll costs and to pay high wages.

There is an image that flashes through my mind when I hear the phrase "class warfare" it is usually of workers marching down a street, clenched fists and banners flapping in the breeze. But warfare means two sides fighting. What is the image of the other side?

When I call customer service to discuss a usurious credit card bill and get a "relationship specialist" in India on the phone who is getting $200.00 a month, it means an American is out of work. The credit card company can set up a shop in New Dehli or Mumbai. But the American who is out of work can not commute and follow his job to Mumbai. Technology makes it easier than ever to outsource jobs. It's not just auto workers. Computer programmers are finding their work outsourced. In the 21st century, class warfare is transcontinental. And workers who must now settle for lower wages now have less money to spend on anything more than basic needs. This puts more workers out of work. Trickle down economics means leaving business owners with enough money to invest and benefit others. But what about trickle up economics? Well paid workers will spend more money on things that create and sustain jobs. Low wages truly have a ripple effect.

Then there is the effect of outsourcing our manufacturing. Most of our electronics goods are made in Asia. We buy a large percentage of our oil abroad and pay mostly lip service to the idea of energy diversification and independence. What does this do to our balance of payments? What happens to all those dollars in foreign banks? Of course the dollar is declining in value.

There is a place for international trade. National economies can complement each other. Developing nations can widen their consumer base. India has come up with a $2500.00 car. There are growing numbers of people in that country who own televisions and radios. There is vast room for growth. There is no more need for nations to be economically adversarial that there is for citizens within a country to be so.

We are building better computers, better televisions and developing better cars. Anything we produce has two facets. The first is how well it works. The second is how well it sustains those who produce it. As a society, we pay a lot of attention to how well a car or an I pod works. But we need to pay more attention to how workers are doing who produce our luxuries and necessities. We should factor such information into our buying decisions.

There is no form of government that will automatically make us into good people. Values transmission in families can make or break any political system. A person who believes in a Higher Power and universal moral laws against murder, theft and cruelty will be a better citizen than a person who is ruled by their urges. Any political system will be made or broken by the moral fiber of the individuals within it. It is that simple.

Any human relationship thrives on altruism, upon concern for the welfare of others in a relationship. Wisdom means realising that the welfare of others is ultimately our own. Any economy is indeed a network of relationships. And any thoughtful examination of an economy invites the realisation that our destinies and well being are intertwined.

Class warfare has doomed communism, which simply lent a new vocabulary and ruthlessness to old economic relationships. It has also poisoned capitalism. The enemy is not the bourgeoisie and certainly not the proletariat. It is the idea that the bourgeoisie and the proletariat should be enemies at all.

I have looked in vain for some reflection of what I call "labour conservatism" in America's mainstream political parties. It is a body of ideas that has yet to gain critical mass or receive a fair political hearing. In our economically troubled times, it is natural to look for solutions. Labour conservatism seems to be a good starting point. Sphere: Related Content

1 comment:

Jason said...

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If you would like to, please leave a comment under my "Compadres" page stating that you've added my link and I'll return the favor.