Friday, September 21, 2012

Disdain for Workers

New Krugman:  

But here’s the question: Should we imagine that Mr. Romney and his party would think better of the 47 percent on learning that the great majority of them actually are or were hard workers, who very much have taken personal responsibility for their lives? And the answer is no. 

For the fact is that the modern Republican Party just doesn’t have much respect for people who work for other people, no matter how faithfully and well they do their jobs. All the party’s affection is reserved for “job creators,” a k a employers and investors. Leading figures in the party find it hard even to pretend to have any regard for ordinary working families — who, it goes without saying, make up the vast majority of Americans.


Where does this disdain for workers come from? Some of it, obviously, reflects the influence of money in politics: big-money donors, like the ones Mr. Romney was speaking to when he went off on half the nation, don’t live paycheck to paycheck. But it also reflects the extent to which the G.O.P. has been taken over by an Ayn Rand-type vision of society, in which a handful of heroic businessmen are responsible for all economic good, while the rest of us are just along for the ride. 

In the eyes of those who share this vision, the wealthy deserve special treatment, and not just in the form of low taxes. They must also receive respect, indeed deference, at all times. That’s why even the slightest hint from the president that the rich might not be all that — that, say, some bankers may have behaved badly, or that even “job creators” depend on government-built infrastructure — elicits frantic cries that Mr. Obama is a socialist.

More here.

It is, indeed, very troubling that the Republicans are now letting it all hang out, as it were, with their utter contempt for Americans who work for a living.  I mean, honest observers have known for a very long time that this is what establishment Republicans think about the working class, but the GOP has traditionally reined itself in, as far as the rhetoric goes, and their actions, in terms of policy, have to some extent reflected this rhetorical caution.  That is, in years past, in order to justify their favorite kind of policy action, tax cuts for the rich, Republicans usually include tax cuts for the middle class.  Cutting social programs is always about "the deficit," rather than about disdain for workers.  And so on.  But this new willingness to just come out and say that large groups of Americans are lazy parasites who refuse to take responsibility for themselves is unprecedented, at least in the last sixty or seventy years.  If history is any indicator, the opening up of honest rhetoric will continue to be reflected in policy positions--look for tax cuts for the rich to be decoupled from tax cuts for everybody else; look for animosity toward social programs to be unmasked as animosity toward people who aren't rich.

When you get down to it, the fundamental problem here is one that is so embedded in American culture that we don't even know how to talk about it: the vast majority of American workers aren't paid nearly enough for the value they provide the businesses that employ them.  My current job is an excellent example.  I'm a restaurant waiter.  Leaving aside for now the unholy sub-minimum wage compensation scheme that leaves servers to grovel for the handouts sinisterly euphemized as "tips," consider for a moment the product provided by the dine-in business.  It's not the food.  I mean, sure, food is a part of it, but you can go to the grocery store for food.  What restaurants provide is hot, well cooked food served to you at your table.  Restaurants provide an experience.  And you just couldn't have that experience without cooks and waiters.  Take out the cooks and waiters, and the restaurant business vanishes.  Given that labor is not only essential, but also a fundamental factor in the product restaurants sell - indeed, the labor itself is pretty much the largest component of that product - minimum wage is a sick joke in as much as how workers are paid for the value they create.  Restaurant workers deserve a much bigger piece of the pie as far as profits go.  But that's not how the "labor market" works.  Instead, it works this way: "It's my business, and if you want to work here, this is what I'm going to pay you."  This example can be generalized, more or less, to all fields that employ workers.  That is, there is a friction embedded in the employer/employee relationship from the get-go.  Workers are never paid what they're worth; owners pocket the difference.

Now, in the US, we've dealt with this unmentionable friction in various ways over the years.  Unions, for one, have collectively bargained for better pay, benefits, and working conditions to which employers would never agree outside of the framework of organized labor.  That's why corporate America has always been so hostile to unions; owners don't get to pocket so much of that differential between wages and worker value when unions are involved.  Another way is with progressive taxation.  Conservatives rail about "redistribution," but always without admitting that the real redistribution happens at the point of hire when a worker is told how much he will be paid--you're going to create this much value for us, but we're only going to pay you for a fraction of that.  So the "redistribution" of progressive taxation simply seeks to rectify the value imbalance that is part and parcel of American capitalism, especially when taxes go into social programs that benefit everybody.

And these two remedies, unions and taxation, have worked well enough over the years, to keep everybody from freaking out, if not keeping us all happy.  Progressive taxation is especially good for helping redress the value imbalance for small business owners, the kinds of people who get their hands dirty alongside their workers, situations where the profit margin is very low, and paying low wages is the difference between business survival and death: tax the rich and hand over the money to workers in the form of social programs and workers get a much fairer deal for their labor.  And now the Republicans are hell bent on destroying what is admittedly an imperfect and fragile relationship between workers and business, but it's one that has been historically effective.

It is becoming achingly clear that the Republicans, who for decades have brandished their undeserved reputation for economic responsibility like a sword, have no idea what they're doing.  If they succeed in eradicating our patch-work fixes for the embedded friction between workers and capital, all hell will necessarily break loose.  Imagine the massive slums of the late nineteenth century during the Robber Baron era.  Imagine the riots in the movie Gangs of New York.  Imagine your grandmother lying in the gutter and how much that would piss you off.  Imagine social unrest on a scale that's, well, unimaginable.  Imagine the economy coming to a standstill because society has become utterly dysfunctional.

In their arrogance, the Republicans refuse to understand that the ability to do business absolutely depends on a stable and equitable social context.  That is, business needs workers.  Better not screw them over.