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The Intellectual Bankruptcy of Modern Conservatism, Part the Million

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Rich Americans have long fetishized the free market, going all the way back to the post-Civil War era. Gilded Age liberals, which in today’s parlance, would be free market conservatives–the robber barons like Andrew Carnegie who literally thought his wealth was evidence of the theory of evolution personified in him–were so convinced of the deification of the free market, even as they sought government protection for their interests, that any moderate worker movement was the Paris Commune crossed the pond and any monetary reform movement like the Greenbackers or Farmers Alliance was Satan arrived on our shores. Think the Liberal Republicans who hated Grant. Their intellectual inflexibility meant that as the contradictions and oppression of the Gilded Age grew, there was simply no way out except for the most perceptive and intellectually engaged of them, such as William Dean Howells, whose opinions shifted pretty massively over time.

Things aren’t really that different in the New Gilded Age. Today’s free market fetishists may recognize that there are problems in society but they simply have no ability to articulate a moderately rational or sensible response. Demonstrating both this and the art form of the negative book review is Suresh Naidu’s review of Oren Cass’ (former Romney domestic policy director) terrible looking new book about work and income inequality in modern America.

This is why “More Perfect Unions,” in which Cass describes a conservative vision of collective bargaining, is the book’s most interesting chapter. Cass recognizes the inequality in bargaining power between employers and individual workers, and understands that collective bargaining might mitigate that power. Instead of the traditional unions protected by the National Labor Relations Act (NLRA), he envisions a competing ecosystem of nonprofit “coops” that would negotiate with employers in exchange for voluntary dues payments. Like unions, these coops would be granted exclusive bargaining rights, but they could not compel dues, nor engage directly in political activity. These coops would not necessarily bring about good labor relations nor skilled, loyal workers, but the ability to contract around federal regulations. Thus their added value is that they would let an employer bargain with workers around federal defaults; coops would add flexibility, rather than reduce it.

This is a promising idea, but the devil is in the details. Why would the employer have to negotiate with the coop? Cass is silent on the role of strikes and the vital ability of collective bargaining units to threaten economic harm on their (generally wealthier) partner in the event of an impasse. Current labor law allows permanent replacement workers during strikes, defanging unions’ effective threat and severely reducing any benefits of collective bargaining. While nobody likes acrimonious, costly strikes, their unexercised threat underpins the bargaining power that Cass deems necessary. We should want powerful, disruptive strikes to be safe, legal, and rare.

Cass would also prohibit multi-employer bargaining when, in fact, this is needed. Many pathologies of U.S. unions flow from the contractual jurisdiction that limits bargaining to one establishment, reducing incentives to internalize effects on other employers and workers. Sectoral wage boards, the extension of collective bargaining agreements to all workers in a sector, joint employer liability, and bargaining with firms higher up the value-chain (such as the Coalition of Immokalee Workers securing agreements with companies such as McDonald’s to source their products in ways that benefit farmworkers) would all update collective bargaining to increase worker coverage under a single agreement. As owners of firms are increasingly distant, financialized, and concentrated, the scope of a labor action required to pressure an employer is much larger than it was; collective bargaining must therefore expand beyond the firm-based entities protected by the NLRA.

Further, to have bargaining power, unions must finance strike funds, staff and lawyer pay, and other expensive services. Without the ability to compel dues, unions would spend all their time campaigning. While the problem that worries Cass—unresponsive and corrupt unions coasting on coerced dues—is real, it is also rare, and there are better mechanisms to ensure accountability than eliminating agency fees. Cass could have proposed a “voluntarily compelled” dues structure that was like an assurance contract: everyone commits to pay contingent on at least 50 percent of workers paying. Cass could also have suggested a matching funds approach, where governments match workers’ voluntary dues. But Cass leaves his coops with no sword and no shield. Why would an intransigent businesses bargain with them?


Well this certainly seems poorly thought out, not that such a thing would impact Cass’ wingnut welfare salary. But the review gets better:

The Once and Future Worker refuses to hold the owning class responsible for stagnant wages and unfulfilling work at the low end of the labor market. Cass cannot bring himself to systematically punch up instead of down, and so he can only envision policies that improve workers’ fortunes without harming those of their bosses and their bosses’ bosses. Perhaps driven by his conservative audience, Cass poses tradeoffs between the welfare of an imagined heartland industrial worker and somebody outside the Republican coalition: an immigrant, a foreign power, a liberal professional, or a metropolitan service sector worker. His enemies line up with the culture war, not the class war, and he clearly doesn’t think the institutional or individual concentration of economic power is either real or a real problem for a good jobs agenda. The silences in Cass’s book on weakened antitrust enforcement, increased transfers to shareholders, hypertrophied finance, and low pay/high turnover practices of employers are perhaps predictable from a conservative writer. He opens the book lamenting stagnant wages, but doesn’t mention the skyrocketing stock market. And the resulting agenda of ostensibly pro-worker policies constrained by U.S. profit margins can’t help but be cramped.

Despite some new policy ideas, Cass is still conservative in politics, unwilling to challenge the discretion of employers, industrialists, and financiers to determine the level of employment. The drive to line shareholder and financial industry pockets got us outsourcing even without globalization. It contributed to ever-increasing consolidation in U.S. businesses, generated HR practices coordinated on low wages and high quits, incentivized firms to overstaff on supervisors and understaff line workers, overinvest on monitoring technology and underinvest on productivity improvements—all to economize on wages per unit of effective labor. Increased wage-setting power, union busting, declining federal minimum wages, undignified levels of workplace surveillance and routinization, and consolidation in small-town tradables all have contributed to lower wages and lower employment. The neoliberal playbook, empowering shareholders and constraining unions, cutting taxes at the top and curbing minimum wage growth at the bottom, is the basic force that despoiled the labor market for non-college-educated workers. Some of Cass’s prescriptions do in fact curb neoliberal policies (such as free trade), but most don’t, keeping faith that the job creating class is in fact interested in creating dignified, good-paying jobs rather than maximizing profits for themselves and their capital suppliers.

Cass’s political limitations create many missed opportunities for ideas about creating good jobs. Cass could have discussed what a robust high-road employment industrial policy could look like. Current technological change is driven by financial arbitrage, advertising revenue, and the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency ecosystem, none of which have any particular interest in raising the productivity of low-education workers. But modern manufacturing, systematically declining as a share of employment since the 1950s, has extremely high value added per worker, so it is extremely unlikely that manufacturing will ever account for a huge share of employment in the near future. Beyond manufacturing, one could imagine building on technologies, for example via U.S. National Grand Engineering Challenges, that make human decision-making and judgment integral parts of artificially intelligent systems, raising productivity of both humans and machines in the process. Cass thinks a small town getting an automated 3-D printing hub owned by a conglomerate will experience a stunning revival, but he ignores the job-creating parts of climate change adaptation and mitigation generated by a much less science fictiony Green New Deal. Instead he bemoans EPA regulations that hem in an energy sector that employs fewer workers than Walmart.

A book that truly cared about jobs more than bondholders would also discuss how to run the macroeconomy hot for a generation. It would praise a willingness to risk creditor wrath over inflation and austerian wrath over deficits in exchange for massive infrastructure spending and unemployment around 1 percent. As the recovery from the Great Recession fades, we may see many of the nascent positive social changes wrought by a decade of employment growth, especially pressure to raise wages, wither and die before taking hold. A more systematic approach to maintaining high effective demand, where workers can quit their jobs easily and fearlessly, could begin the road of repairing labor’s share of national income.

Beyond its missed opportunities, the book suffers from a selective and sloppy review. From howlers about the “stuff” intensity of modern consumption and the postwar neglect of employment, to pretty dishonest presentations of the evidence on minimum wage and immigration, examples cited as evidence are cherry-picked and unconvincing. To the extent that intellectuals should agree on how the world is even as they disagree on how it should be, a fair representation of the evidence is required.

At the end of the day, promoting a pro-work supply-side and deregulatory agenda is an interesting, but ultimately self-limiting, endeavor. Cass is only able to consider policies that hurt foreigners and coastal professionals, not those that hit millionaire business owners, the C-suites, or the stock market. The book stands as a compelling exhibit of Corey Robin’s dictum that regardless of the particular domain or policy prescriptions, the basic conservative animus is restoration of privilege lost to subordinates. Even while giving up the free market, National Conservatism cannot give up the rule of the wealthy. The privilege redeemed by Cass’s book belongs to the white male industrial worker, against depredations of developing countries, migrant workers, more “feminine” occupations, and the environmental claims of future generations, but never against his employers, landlords, or creditors.

By the time any conservative policy idea about the working class makes even a modicum of sense, I will be long be dead and maybe the Earth will be an uninhabitable cinder as well.

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