Let Me Be The First to Second the Recommendation for Compulsory Diaperization of the GMU Economics Department

by Henry on July 5, 2012

Tyler Cowen thinks he has a gotcha.

David Gordon emails me on the workplace
I enjoyed reading your excellent post on the Crooked Timber workplace coercion piece. Many of their complaints also hold for the university classroom, e.g., limits to free speech, students have no say in what work is required, etc.; and often there are costs to refusing to enroll in classes the student finds onerous, such as failing to obtain the desired degree. But I doubt Bertram and his friends would regard this situation as coercive.
Best wishes,
David
Nor is it always easy to switch schools…

and who knows – when Chris, Corey and Alex start advocating for students to be penalized for having (or not having) abortions, being monitored at home, making, or failing to make, the right political donations, supporting (which was far from a hypothetical question for Corey in his own graduate student experience – he notoriously was the victim of retaliation by one of his professors) or failing to support unionization drives or the like, it might actually become a gotcha. But in the universe that we inhabit at the moment, this continues an extended (and indeed rather ostentatiously extended) exercise in refusing to get the point, let alone addressing it.

Still, if Tyler is in the market for analogies of this sort, I do have one for him. He suggests in his previous post that the problem is on the side of the employees rather than the employers:

I am not comfortable with the mood affiliation of the piece. How about a simple mention of the massive magnitude of employee theft in the United States, perhaps in the context of a boss wishing to search an employee? … When I was seventeen, I had a job in the produce department of a grocery store. … I did observe … massive employee shirking … If I ponder my workplace at GMU, I see many more employees who take advantage of the boss, perhaps by shirking, or by not teaching well, than I see instances of the bosses taking advantage of the employees.

But let’s draw the comparison out a little. What would the world look like if GMU economics professors were treated similarly to workers in low-paid jobs with little protection? No offices – at best open cubicles, so that a supervisor could stroll by, making sure that the professors were doing the job that they were supposed to be doing. Monitoring of computers to prevent random websurfing. Certainly no air conditioning. Compulsory random drug testing. Body searches, in case professors were sneaking office supplies back home. Monitoring – at best – of bathroom breaks, and written demerits and termination of employment for professors who took too many of them. Perhaps Tyler might want to argue that such pervasive distrust and supervision would hurt productivity rather than help it – but it would seem difficult plausibly to reconcile such an argument with his prior claim that mooching, slacking and skiving off is endemic among his colleagues.

Knowing professors quite well, including economics professors, I can very safely predict their reaction if they found themselves subjected to such vigorous supervision, (perhaps as a result of some general bill attacking academic privileges passed through the Virginia legislature). And it wouldn’t be a careful consideration of contracts, and a measured conclusion that given the inevitable incompleteness thereof, they would have to put up with it until they could find a job at some more enlightened institution. It would be sputtering, semi-coherent outrage at what they would perceive as a humiliating and direct assault on their professional and human dignity. Indeed, they’d have a point. But it isn’t only professors who have dignity as workers and human beings. And that’s a rather important point too.

{ 117 comments }

1

JBM 07.05.12 at 1:57 pm

But I doubt Bertram and his friends would regard this situation as coercive.

Nor is it always easy to switch schools…

It seems to me better to tackle this objection head-on: yes, absolutely, the university classroom is also potentially a coercive environment. It would therefore not necessarily be freedom-maximizing to allow professors unfettered discretion to treat their students in any abusive manner they desire, on the theory that the students freely contracted to place themselves in the situation. This is true for many of same the reasons that it’s true in the employer/employee context.

2

aepxc 07.05.12 at 2:24 pm

When it comes to the university classroom, the objection may be dismissed more simply – as a broad rule of thumb (though there are important exceptions), the person paying the money is the person in the position of greater power. Paying money means exchanging something with broad capabilities (for as long as money is trusted) for something with narrower capabilities. Broad capabilities are, by definition, more flexible and it is the differential in flexibility that one can use to coerce. If you are rich and hungry and the farmer is being uncooperative, you can hire some goons to go beat him up. If you are a farmer and no one is hungry, on the other hand…

Coercion can be present in classrooms, but its presence can to a large extent be seen as a function of the percentage of the costs of dispensing that education that is paid by the student. So taxpayer-funded, compulsory education has greater scope for coercion than an expensive, private university does. When neither you nor your parents are perceived as viable (future) tax payers and education is still taxpayer-funded (e.g. the case of Roma in Central and Eastern Europe), the scope for coercion increases further still. And so on.

Contracting works just fine when you depend on the contract less than your contract counter-party does. Libertarians tend to treat contracting like sports – the stronger player gets the better outcome only to the extent that he or she is stronger. Real life does not work like sports however – the stronger party (if sufficiently stronger) can always use that strength to alter the rules in his or her own favour, before even starting to play the game.

3

JulesLt 07.05.12 at 2:27 pm

Well obviously shop workers, who aren’t on their way to becoming University graduates, don’t deserve the same treatment as someone who paid for a degree.

(Sorry, worked for a degree).

4

Tom Bach 07.05.12 at 2:33 pm

This series of posts has been really very good. The first three show how to rigorously rout libertarian pretensions and this one shows how intellectually dishonest is Libertarians’ responses to rigorous criticism.

5

testo 07.05.12 at 2:43 pm

I second JBM (which I think is inline with Henry’s post too). Higher ed is the workplace of the student and there is no principled ground for omitting that sector from workplace rights. They will of course need to be specified differently in ways relevant to the context.

Now that the case of higher education has been brought up I have to ask: do the anti workplace regulation libertarians also wish for a deregulation of higher education so that teachers are legally permitted to offer higher grades to students in exchange for sexual favors or to give lower grades based solely on skin color?

6

Matt Waters 07.05.12 at 3:06 pm

There is a reason, though, that not just GMU economics professors but most all white-collar workers do not work under the conditions you describe. Once people become productive enough to become professors or engineers or accountants, the workers demand to have basic things like air conditioning. They also chafe under Orwellian tactics that you describe and in the end, such tactics fire back on the bosses who use them as they lose their best employees.

My fear is that CT has not really laid which employment rules they want enforced. Liberals typically argue for making unionization much easier, making firing workers much more difficult and making wages much higher. At first, employers will not change behavior right away and these rules will benefit workers. Over the long-run or even the medium-run however, consumers will demand to not pay workers wages above what they produce. Demand will go down for lower-class workers as employers find capital alternatives which are now cost-competitive with labor.

This is not idle speculation either. America had higher structural unemployment in the 70’s as very strong unions pushed wages above their market levels. From talking to some lower-class employees from the 50’s through 70’s, you had to know somebody to get into a UAW shop. Meanwhile, the non-union wages were pushed down as a result of those excluded from union shops. Furthermore, the structural unemployment was also very bad in even rich European countries like Germany and France. They only started solving their unemployment issue once they allowed temporary employment contracts for the lower-class workers.

So, however noble it is pining for workers’ rights, a heavy-handed government intervention into labor markets cannot outrun consumers demanding the highest quality for the lowest price. Anything given to workers will have to be taken from their wages. If the concessions to workers do not push down wages, then higher unemployment will result. Some concessions, such as health safety issues, should be enforced since workers cannot really judge the safety of workplaces for themselves. Other things however, like air conditioning and being able to pee, can be judged by workers themselves and air conditioned shops can in fact get workers for slightly lower wages. However, making air conditioning a requirement while expecting wages to not change at all is a fantasy.

7

MPAVictoria 07.05.12 at 3:06 pm

“But it isn’t only professors who have dignity as workers and human beings. And that’s a rather important point too.”

I love this so much.

8

Aaron B 07.05.12 at 3:08 pm

Another data point is that, as students in public universities have come to pay more and more tuition — which means the income they represent to the university is increasingly paid directly by the student, rather than being paid on their behalf by the state — it increasingly becomes necessary to treat students as customers, with the customer-is-always-right kind of prerogative that brings with it. After all, if you were getting your education for close to free (as used to be the case), the university didn’t have to worry nearly as much about keeping you happy; nowadays, the student-as-customer model means they really, really do (I’ve seen the changes in the UC in the decade I’ve been here; they worry a *lot* about keeping their customers happy).

This is especially a problem for contingent faculty (which is to say, for the majority of instructors in higher ed), since they can be easily fired and have little effective power in their workplace, while their students need to be kept happy. I have a friend doing a four year post-doc who desperately wants a secure position not only for the usual reasons (getting out of grinding poverty, etc), but so he can finally give his students the grades they deserve; as he told me, almost every student grade complaint has to be arbitrated with a dean’s office that is strikingly unsupportive of his right to give them the grade he thinks they deserve and much more solicitous of the students’ opinion than one would expect.

9

Downpuppy 07.05.12 at 3:25 pm

You can’t really generalize experiences from saltwater econ departments, or even freshwater, to the Bottled Water school at GMU. For example, in a conventional department “The Boss” is the department head & the growing army of administrators. At GMU, they appear to answer directly to the donors.

10

MPAVictoria 07.05.12 at 3:45 pm

“This is not idle speculation either. America had higher structural unemployment in the 70’s as very strong unions pushed wages above their market levels. From talking to some lower-class employees from the 50’s through 70’s, you had to know somebody to get into a UAW shop. Meanwhile, the non-union wages were pushed down as a result of those excluded from union shops. Furthermore, the structural unemployment was also very bad in even rich European countries like Germany and France. They only started solving their unemployment issue once they allowed temporary employment contracts for the lower-class workers.”

This is so wrong that I literally do not have the time to do a point by point response. I will simply say that unions have NEVER been strong in the United States.

11

Moby Hick 07.05.12 at 3:46 pm

This isn’t my first time reading CT, but it is the first time I’ve come here by way of my google alert for “wishes for economist in massive diaper”.

12

David Kaib 07.05.12 at 3:53 pm

Matt Waters @ 6:

The idea that white collar workers in general, or GMU economics professors in particular, are productive while those who engage in more prototypical work are not, assumes facts that are decidedly not in evidence.

13

John 07.05.12 at 3:59 pm

How about a 23-hour oral exam?

14

MPAVictoria 07.05.12 at 4:01 pm

“The idea that white collar workers in general, or GMU economics professors in particular, are productive while those who engage in more prototypical work are not, assumes facts that are decidedly not in evidence.”

Exactly! To rephrase what I posted in the other thread, my mechanic has successfully changed my oil every single time I have asked him to. My car, a significant capital investment, continues to run thanks to his productivity. How is he less productive them some jerk who writes poorly researched articles calling for the elimination of the minimum wage?

15

CJColucci 07.05.12 at 4:01 pm

I have nothing to add on the substance of Cowen’s response. What I wonder, though, is why he, and others like him, think — if they do — that such a self-evidently lame response really counts as a gotcha. Any suggestions?

16

Dmitri 07.05.12 at 4:03 pm

My first thought was that being a student is a temporary condition inflicted upon near-adults whereas being an employee is a quasi-permanent condition suffered by all adults for most of their mature years. OF COURSE these quasi-adults suffer a extra degree of coercion during that time. (Once they grow up and graduate they are perfectly free to shout “water buffalo” out their window.) And OF COURSE, coercion is a greater concern in an employment context, when there’s no (formal or informal) “loco parentis” consideration.

17

ajay 07.05.12 at 4:07 pm

This isn’t my first time reading CT, but it is the first time I’ve come here by way of my google alert for “wishes for economist in massive diaper”.

+1, as they say.

18

Bloix 07.05.12 at 4:28 pm

Anyone who truly thinks that students live in an environment that is as coercive as a workplace has never been in a workplace. Why is it necessary to respond to obvious trolling liars as if they are arguing in good faith?

19

Fred 07.05.12 at 4:32 pm

,” the first thing I think of is employee theft, estimated by the U.S. Chamber of Commerce at over $50 billion a year.”

I wonder if CEO compensation is included as ‘theft’ for some sure add negative value.

20

ciaran 07.05.12 at 4:52 pm

The more you read Cowen the more his pretentious style grates on you. His faux reasonableness and “centrist” both sides do it bullshit are just a front for his not so hiddeb extremism.

21

Matt 07.05.12 at 5:10 pm

Interestingly, the GMU Law School has some experience with this sort of thing. When Henry Manne took over as dean in ’86, and started the process of turning GMU Law into what it is today, he used some tactics much like those of the employers discussed before. He told tenure professors that they had to study and use economics in their work and classes. He couldn’t fire those who wouldn’t, but they got their research budgets taken away, were given offices in old broom closets, made to teach classes at the worst times and that they didn’t want to teach, and so on, until they left or retired. (I’ve been told this by several different sources, so am fairly confident that it’s accurate.) GMU Law has become more “productive” and has a higher ranking, but at the expense of becoming highly ideological and homogenous to a much higher degree than most law schools. People are shocked by this behavior because it’s so unusual in higher ed, even though it’s a less oppressive than, say, locking your workers in over-night.

22

Barry 07.05.12 at 5:19 pm

CJColucci 07.05.12 at 4:01 pm

” I have nothing to add on the substance of Cowen’s response. What I wonder, though, is why he, and others like him, think—if they do—that such a self-evidently lame response really counts as a gotcha. Any suggestions?”

If you think of Cowen as a pundit who happens to have a Ph.D., rather than a real intellectual, then it’s clearer. And if you realize that he couldn’t get a job at a real econ department (even a right-wing one), but was only fit for Koch U, it’s even more clear.

23

rf 07.05.12 at 5:27 pm

“If you think of Cowen as a pundit who happens to have a Ph.D., rather than a real intellectual, then it’s clearer.”

Yeah, that’s what I would have thought. But I have no expertise, (whatsoever), in this area, and seeing people I revere as intellectual demigods take him seriously has made me ignore my gut instinct, (that the mans a joke.) Glad to see my gut was correct all along – Hooray

24

Matt Waters 07.05.12 at 5:43 pm

Whether or not a GMU Economics professor or a mechanic is really more productive is beside my point.

My point is that Tyler Cowen has his wage reduced, however slightly, by working in a fairly comfortable office with air conditioning and a cleaning staff. He could, at least theoretically, go up to his department chair and say he could do without air conditioning and the department could pay him the money they now spend on electricity.

The point is less theoretical in the case of a mechanic. So let’s say your mechanic gets air conditioning. That air conditioning cost money. To stay in business, the mechanic will either need to reduce his own wage or charge his customers more. If he charges his customers more, then why wouldn’t you go to the shop across the street?

And that gets at where my main issue lies with the liberal employment arguments. According to you, the mechanic should have air conditioning because… the world owes it to him or it’s a “right” or some other moral indignation to uncomfortable working conditions. But it is also basic math that, to stay in business, the mechanic would have raise prices or cut his own wages to pay for the air conditioning.

To sustain a world where the mechanic keeps the same wages while taking on the additional expense of comfort, the government would somehow have to enter itself into the agreement between the mechanic and his consumers. The government would have to either forcibly keep other people from becoming mechanics, thereby raising prices on consumers and increasing unemployment, or by subsidizing the mechanic’s A/C through tax dollars.

So CTer’s, what are the concrete suggestions behind the moral indignation over employers not providing employees with enough rights? My fear, again, is that most of the concrete suggestions would serve to increase unemployment and lower standards of living, despite the well-meaningness of the suggestions.

25

kharris 07.05.12 at 5:44 pm

I realize that the legal, institutional and societal rules as regards the treatment of minors have changed a great deal in recent decades. I realized that university students are not necessarily minors. That said, don’t we still assume that institutions such as universities which oversee the behavior of minors on behalf of their parents have a different role than employers have? If we do, then Cowen should have thought a bit harder before trying this particular “gotcha!”.

There are limits on the behavior of professors (and TAs and whatevers). Because they are in a position of authority and can coerce students, we recognize the need for limits on their behavior. I understand how Cowen thinks he has scored a “gotcha!”, but only because I think he is small-minded enough not to see that he is making your point. We DO limit educators ability to coerce students because we KNOW some educators will do bad things if given too much power. We know that some managers in the workplace will do bad things, and we limit their power. The point that our hosts have made is that the limits on workplace managers are less stringent than most of us probably think they are. How does Cowen think he has answered that point with his “gotcha!”.

As to why Cowen would think this is a gotcha, well, perhaps it’s a matter of (self) familiarity breeding contempt. He is just a gotcha kind of guy. Writes crap like this all the time, and leaves us to guess at the intended effect. When politicians and intellectual prostitutes do this sort of thing, there is an element of shibboleth in it, a declaration that one stands with one’s tribe, without any real care for the substance.

26

Marc 07.05.12 at 5:51 pm

@24: Similar arguments were used against the 40-hour work week, overtime, child labor laws, and worker safety laws. I would hope that we could agree that there are certain minimum standards that it is possible to envision for a civilized society. Once you accept this boundary, it’s simply a question of what constitutes a problem requiring regulation from a problem that does not. This points to a significant philosophical issue with libertarianism, at least for me: that axiomatic value systems can yield pathological results when countervailing values are excluded.

(Providing air conditioning is an odd example, as climate control is important for modern infrastructure quite apart from personal comfort. , e.g. computers don’t do well when exposed to wild temperature swings.)

27

Matt Waters 07.05.12 at 5:53 pm

I should be clear again that I’m not as dogmatic on employment law like Cowen and other libertarians. I’m further on the left on many other issues and I have especially not liked Cowen’s reluctance to fully support looser monetary policy because looser monetary policy admits there is a market failure in the form of sticky wages.

However, my opinion is whether with monetary policy or labor law, one must take a utilitarian and not a moralistic approach. Both this blog and MR have taken a moralistic approach where employees should be comfortable and not coerced because of a moral right. MR has taken a moralistic approach to monetary policy, where their support has been muted despite all the evidence because sticky wages ultimately undermines the worldview that markets will always quickly clear.

The real answer is a utilitarian approach where labor laws are taken one at a time to see whether they rectify some market failure. If the free labor market + labor regulation increases standards of living vs. just a free labor market, then it should be adopted. This is the case with OSHA regulations, or restrictions on non-compete clauses, or other things where workers can truly make misinformed decisions. It is not the case with air conditioning, where workers can clearly tell they are working somewhere without air conditioning and decide to go to a job with A/C.

28

dictateursanguinaire 07.05.12 at 5:59 pm

Anyone who truly thinks that students live in an environment that is as coercive as a workplace has never been in a workplace. Why is it necessary to respond to obvious trolling liars as if they are arguing in good faith?

I think Henry was appropriately and forcefully rude in his critique. He doesn’t take Cowen too seriously, he just makes a serious argument for why Cowen /shouldn’t/ be taken seriously.

29

T. Paine 07.05.12 at 5:59 pm

Wow, this is quite the extended exercise in missing the point. I can’t tell if it’s deliberate or not. The original post, and the following ones in the series, are all about the level of coercion that an EMPLOYER can use against EMPLOYEES, up to and including forcing them to soil themselves during the day (and including a host of other indignities). These posts have absolutely nothing to do with whether independent businesspersons (e.g., a mechanic working for herself) is entitled to a certain level of environmental comfort or not. I think she is, but that’s not the discussion. She’s not being coerced by an employer.

I don’t know why Matt Walters wants to talk about market forces and business regulation, but it seems very convenient that the way he does so wholly elides the actual point under discussion and ignores whether libertarianism (as it actually exists and is advocated for) increases or decreases freedom and coercion within the context of the employer/employee relationship. And that failure to talk about the point at hand is what makes me suspect that people who so studiously avoid talking about this issue are being deliberately obtuse because it exposes libertarian positions for the authoritarian apologia that they are.

30

T. Paine 07.05.12 at 6:00 pm

That comment is directed at post 24.

31

hartal 07.05.12 at 6:00 pm

wow. what a great post; haven’t yet read the comments.

32

dsquared 07.05.12 at 6:01 pm

So let’s say your mechanic gets air conditioning. That air conditioning cost money. To stay in business, the mechanic will either need to reduce his own wage or charge his customers more. If he charges his customers more, then why wouldn’t you go to the shop across the street?

since this business was apparently making literally zero profit (because any increase in costs had to either be passed on to customers or offset exactly with another cost reduction, or the company would go out of business), why was the owner keeping it open in the first place?

33

Moby Hick 07.05.12 at 6:09 pm

Because the owner has job creatoring in his blood.

34

jack lecou 07.05.12 at 6:16 pm

Matt Waters:

Leaving aside the fact that air conditioning is a particularly odd thing to be picking on (since the health and productivity benefits of a workplace with a comfortable climate probably more than make up for the modest cost), I don’t see how the general mechanism of regulation and collective action is particularly mysterious, or how one could possibly frame the mechanism as “the government would somehow have to enter itself into the agreement between the mechanic and his consumers.”

A climate controlled workplace regulation would raise costs for a given industry more or less uniformly. And thus consumers. So, yes, it’s equivalent to a kind of de facto tax on consumers (and/or, possibly, workers). But like other taxes, it is presumably aimed at accomplishing a goal that is, while a net welfare positive, not otherwise achievable without some kind of state or collective action.

(I guess you could, potentially, try to argue that AC or other kinds of improved work conditions are NOT in fact welfare increasing, but that doesn’t seem to be where you were going…?)

35

Jim Henley 07.05.12 at 6:17 pm

@Matt Waters:

My point is that Tyler Cowen has his wage reduced, however slightly, by working in a fairly comfortable office with air conditioning and a cleaning staff. He could, at least theoretically, go up to his department chair and say he could do without air conditioning and the department could pay him the money they now spend on electricity.

I learned something from your comments. Specifically that you have no experience in the field of cost accounting. Or business modeling for that matter.

I can relate actually. Before these fields became my living, I was much more libertarian myself.

36

jack lecou 07.05.12 at 6:18 pm

It is not the case with air conditioning, where workers can clearly tell they are working somewhere without air conditioning and decide to go to a job with A/C.

Riiiiiight…

37

GiT 07.05.12 at 6:18 pm

If working at a corporation were like going to a university on a scholarship…

Once having passed a rigorous process to gain admission to the company, I would be able to select which working groups I participated in.

The worst thing a manager of my working group could do would be to give me a bad evaluation.

My manager could only give me a bad evaluation if I had worked for him for a significant amount of time and submitted work to him for review.

I could only be fired from the corporation and lose my salary after having accrued a significant number of poor evaluations from multiple managers.

No individual project manager would have the power to determine whether or not to fire me.

A significant portion of my potential managers would be inspired in their management methods by books like, “Managing the Manager,” “Management for Critical Consciousness,” and “Management for Freedom” by the noted Christian Socialist, anti-authoritarian management theorist, Paul Friar.

Successful completion of simple projects and tasks would guarantee me access to more complex and intellectually rewarding work.

38

Bruce Wilder 07.05.12 at 6:29 pm

Matt Waters @ 27 and earlier

The “market failures” analysis, which you rehearse for us, is bad economics, masquerading as conventional.

First of all, the employer/manager — employee relationship is not, strictly speaking, a market relationship. So, “market failure”, per se, is irrelevant. The relationship is one of hierarchical authority, domination, supervision and dependence, in which rules and roles determine behavior. Not a “market” relationship, at all, except possibly, to some arguable extent, at the moments the relationship is initiated or terminated; in between, it is might, arguably be an economic relationship of implicit, contingent and incomplete contract, under continuous negotiation, in which case, this post is about the political norms, laws and policies, which govern that relationship. And, prattling on about the problems of market exchange is just another instance of “refusing to get the point”.

As an economic matter, the employment relationship would not exist at all, if the problems of cooperation were solely a matter of allocative efficiency; and questions such as whether to provide air conditioning in the office or factory, or how long a person should work in a given day, were subjects of unique and precise allocative optimization. Those are side issues, though. The relationship exists, because hierarchy is economically useful; hierarchy economizes in production, and it doesn’t economize by effecting superior allocative efficiency. Hierarchy economizes in technical efficiency. Not to put too fine a point on it, but telling people what to do and when to do it, and making sure they do what they are told, yields technical efficiencies in a wide variety of applications: it can be highly productive. It is also obnoxious, and political, it is perfectly sensible to argue about what the legitimate bounds on telling people what to do, should be, so that we can realize the economic gains, divide those gains fairly, and avoid unnecessary costs and decay of the employment relationship into negative-sum territory.

39

MPAVictoria 07.05.12 at 6:32 pm

“He could, at least theoretically, go up to his department chair and say he could do without air conditioning and the department could pay him the money they now spend on electricity.”

No he couldn’t. Don’t be an idiot.

“The point is less theoretical in the case of a mechanic. So let’s say your mechanic gets air conditioning. That air conditioning cost money. To stay in business, the mechanic will either need to reduce his own wage or charge his customers more. If he charges his customers more, then why wouldn’t you go to the shop across the street?”

Why are you comparing air conditioning to sexual harassment or not being given the opportunity to urinate? Are you evil? Plus businesses don’t actually work the way they told you they did in econ 101.

“And that gets at where my main issue lies with the liberal employment arguments. According to you, the mechanic should have air conditioning because… the world owes it to him or it’s a “right” or some other moral indignation to uncomfortable working conditions. But it is also basic math that, to stay in business, the mechanic would have raise prices or cut his own wages to pay for the air conditioning.

To sustain a world where the mechanic keeps the same wages while taking on the additional expense of comfort, the government would somehow have to enter itself into the agreement between the mechanic and his consumers. The government would have to either forcibly keep other people from becoming mechanics, thereby raising prices on consumers and increasing unemployment, or by subsidizing the mechanic’s A/C through tax dollars.

So CTer’s, what are the concrete suggestions behind the moral indignation over employers not providing employees with enough rights? My fear, again, is that most of the concrete suggestions would serve to increase unemployment and lower standards of living, despite the well-meaningness of the suggestions.”

The logical conclusion of your argument is the legalization of slavery because hey people want cheap goods so why not. Just a tip, if your argument ends in slavery maybe it is time to rethink your argument. Also have you noticed that standards of living today are much higher then they were during the 1890s when the world you are calling for actually existed?

40

Jim Harrison 07.05.12 at 6:42 pm

Arguments about the bad economic effects of workplace regulation generally assume that greater costs for air conditioners or bathroom breaks would automatically be passed on to consumers in the form of higher prices. That CEOs might agree to make only 399 times more than janitors instead of 400 times is evidently not an option.

41

mds 07.05.12 at 6:53 pm

What would the world look like if GMU economics professors were treated similarly to workers in low-paid jobs with little protection?

More just?

42

matt 07.05.12 at 6:54 pm

Whatever you do, do not read Yglesias’ most recent post on the topic. Shield your eyes.

43

The Raven 07.05.12 at 6:58 pm

“My point is that Tyler Cowen has his wage reduced, however slightly, by working in a fairly comfortable office with air conditioning and a cleaning staff.”

This is one of those economic calculation arguments based on an assumption of linearity. It is deeply weird for me to see libertarians making arguments similar to those of a Soviet advocate of economic planning.

44

Barry 07.05.12 at 7:00 pm

Matt Walters: “My point is that Tyler Cowen has his wage reduced, however slightly, by working in a fairly comfortable office with air conditioning and a cleaning staff. He could, at least theoretically, go up to his department chair and say he could do without air conditioning and the department could pay him the money they now spend on electricity.”

This is ridiculous.

45

JW Mason 07.05.12 at 7:10 pm

The funny thing is you could turn the better-working-conditions-equals-lower-pay libertarian dogmatism could just as easily be turned against Cowen. An average amount of “shirking” must be assumed by any rational person signing an employment contract, so if businesses expect less than average shirking, they will have to pay a greater than average wage. (Efficiency wages, they’re called.) Cowen’s contractarian logic for some reason doesn’t apply here, though, for some reason, and instead we get moralistic language implying that, regardless of any implicit agreement, the boss is entitled to 100% of the physically possible maximum effort, and any employee who does less is somehow cheating or stealing.

46

Barry 07.05.12 at 7:13 pm

Another: “What would the world look like if GMU economics professors were treated similarly to workers in low-paid jobs with little protection?”

mds: “More just?”

And much more fun – we could needle them about how there’s no such thing as involuntary unemployment………….

47

Jim Henley 07.05.12 at 7:16 pm

@Jim Harrison: They also assume a frankly laughable completeness of understanding of corporate expense impacts, an ignorance of the difference between fixed and variable costs, a precognitive level of expectation of future sales and a complete disregard of other dimensions of questions like “Should we install air conditioning?” such as, “What will be the labor productivity gains, if any, from doing so?” and “How much will our recruiting costs go up if we don’t?”

If real businesses were as legible as the ones in libertarian heads, a lot of us would have very easy days.

48

rea 07.05.12 at 7:38 pm

What you tend to find in the real world is that things like functioning air conditioning in a hot climate, or regular bathroom breaks, make your workers more productive, and in the long run, pay for themselves. The worker who is fainting from heat-stroke, or who can think of nothing but how much he needs to empty his bladder, is probably not doing a good job making widgets. Abusive managers tend to be such because they like abusing people, not because their ruthless devotion to the bottom line mandates their conduct. And because much abuse of employees is not motivated by a rational reaction to the market, expecting effective market-based solutions to to problem of employee abuse is not reasonable.

49

James Choy 07.05.12 at 7:48 pm

I think the point that the Marginal Revolution folks are trying to make is that while it sucks to have a job where you have to ask your boss before you go to the bathroom, this is just one aspect of the more general fact that it sucks to be poor. If you’re poor, you also are likely to be unable to afford a nice place to live, food that you would like to eat, good health insurance, good schooling for your kids, etc. etc. I believe that as a society, we should try to arrange things to improve the lives of poor people. I think that Tyler Cowen believes this too. The question then becomes how we should help poor people. One way might be to pass a law requiring employers to let their employees go to the bathroom whenever they want. This law would make society as a whole poorer, since there are some jobs where it really is a requirement that employees be in place at all times. If an employee at General Motors leaves the assembly line for five minutes without asking, the assembly line breaks. If we passed a law forcing employers to let employees go to the bathroom at any time, the assembly lines at General Motors would have to be redesigned. However, it is possible that the cost of this redesign would come out of the pockets of the shareholders of General Motors, who are presumably richer on average than the assembly line workers, and that the workers overall would be better off. If this were the only way to help the workers at General Motors, then perhaps we should pass the law. However, there are other ways to help the workers at General Motors. We could tax the shareholders, and give the proceeds to the workers. Then the workers could choose to accept lower wages in exchange for more bathroom breaks, or they could spend their extra money on a nicer house, a better school for their kids, etc. This is the policy that I support, and I believe that it is the policy that Tyler Cowen supports. Do you believe that it is better to pass the law requiring employers to give more bathroom breaks than to tax the shareholders? If so, why?

50

RobW 07.05.12 at 7:49 pm

What would the world look like if GMU economics professors were treated similarly to workers in low-paid jobs with little protection?

Um, Tyler and the rest of the gang would demand better compensation or they would refuse to work there….exactly the point he’s been trying to make. What’s the problem? There seems very little in this supposed “gotcha” response. All the more so because it invokes exactly the same response originally adopted by the GMUers when they pointed out that workers have it better than surfs. The entire point here is that students have it better than workers so they shouldn’t complain. Well if students have it better than workers and workers have it better than surfs then the argument is over and both sides should stop now and take up the cause of the surfs….unless they actually have it better than some…..

51

Nine 07.05.12 at 7:56 pm

Jim Henley @47
“and a complete disregard of other dimensions of questions like “Should we install air conditioning?” such as, “What will be the labor productivity gains, if any, from doing so?”

I was going to make the same point ie in Matt’s toy model there don’t seem to be any productivity improvements due to better working conditions, a safe work environment etc – in the real world th0ugh, said productivity gains are very real and there is nothing “moralistic” about it. I suppose Matt’s Prof. Imaginary Tyler Cowen could also exchange his department’s entire IT budget for a higher salary ?

52

JW Mason 07.05.12 at 8:04 pm

Abusive managers tend to be such because they like abusing people, not because their ruthless devotion to the bottom line mandates their conduct.

Well, that would be nice, wouldn’t it? The interests of profit making and the interest of humanity, in perfect alignment. How lucky to live in such a well-ordered world. Obviously, the problem is simply that under capitalism, private enterprises are not sufficiently focused on profit-making. Good thing we have folks like Bain Capital around to fix that!

Except, weren’t you supposed to be disagreeing with libertarianism somehow?

53

bianca steele 07.05.12 at 8:28 pm

@45
Similar reasoning seems to be applied, incidentally, to those who think there’s an easy path from the mailroom (or an internship) to the management track: as if the general level of competence was so low that if you just make an appearance for 40 hours a week, your talent will be recognized and you’re sure to be promoted. (Intriguingly, those who are out of the loop enough to think this can define “100% effort” as “making an appearance for 40 hours a week” and conclude it isn’t burdensome at all.)

54

Jim Henley 07.05.12 at 8:37 pm

Another thing these threads have taught me is that people who say, “You obviously have no idea how a real business works” who obviously have no idea how a real business works are hilarious.

55

chris y 07.05.12 at 8:41 pm

Similar reasoning seems to be applied, incidentally, to those who think there’s an easy path from the mailroom (or an internship) to the management track: as if the general level of competence was so low that if you just make an appearance for 40 hours a week, your talent will be recognized and you’re sure to be promoted.

Curiously, I once knew a man whose career had indeed followed this path. Those who wish to emulate him, however are advised to take the following into account:

1. He was undoubtedly brilliant;
2. The person who took him up and sponsored his career was literally world famous as an eccentric;
3. He was born in 1872.

56

jack lecou 07.05.12 at 9:05 pm

This law would make society as a whole poorer, since there are some jobs where it really is a requirement that employees be in place at all times.

I think that’s at least dangerously close to begging the question.

A. Any real-world law designed to curtail abusive potty-related management practices would build in some flexibility. It would probably contain language such as “reasonable accommodations must be made, yadda yadda” or whatever. There’d be plenty of room to adapt the rule to the particular requirements of a given workplace or industry while remaining within the spirit of the law.

B. I strongly suspect that the situations where a worker would actually need to inform/ask permission from a manager (as opposed to, say, making eye contact with a coworker and nodding toward the bathroom), or everything grinds to a halt are rather rarer than the level your argument depends on. And I’m not sure there’s EVER an excuse for, say, timing bathroom breaks, or applying a limit of 2 per shift or whatever.

Then the workers could choose to accept lower wages in exchange for more bathroom breaks, or they could spend their extra money on a nicer house, a better school for their kids, etc.

Again, so much wrong, starting with:

A. No. Just no. I mean, I have no doubt that you could find people that sincerely believe an extra walk-in closet would make them happier than a work environment that treats them like a human being. But almost all of them are probably wrong.

B. I’m not even sure how this is supposed to work. Certainly you must be strongly in favor of collective bargaining (i.e., unions), to negotiate and enforce the potty/paycheck bargain with management, right? Elsewise, what, bathroom break fees?

57

Del Cotter 07.05.12 at 9:08 pm

Matt Waters @ 6:

Meanwhile, the non-union wages were pushed down as a result of those excluded from union shops.

Yes, I see it all so clearly now. Obviously the way to raise workers’ wages outside union shops is to break the unions.

Or just maybe, the only effect that would have would be to lower the wages in the formerly-union shops.

58

Substance McGravitas 07.05.12 at 9:23 pm

He suggests in his previous post that the problem is on the side of the employees rather than the employers

If we had a society that was 100% employers everything would be great.

59

Freshly Squeezed Cynic 07.05.12 at 9:40 pm

” the first thing I think of is employee theft, estimated by the U.S. Chamber of Commerce at over $50 billion a year.”

Just from a similar “utilitarian perspective”, the cost of stress to US industry is estimated at $300 billion a year, according to the APA. It’s not unreasonable to assume that a significant portion of this stress is due to overly coercive workplaces. (And this is before we get into the cost of maintenance, surveillance, or effects on hiring and turnover, as Jim Henley noted).

60

Chris Bertram 07.05.12 at 9:52 pm

_I think the point that the Marginal Revolution folks are trying to make is that while it sucks to have a job where you have to ask your boss before you go to the bathroom, this is just one aspect of the more general fact that it sucks to be poor._

I note, just for the record, that this comment exemplifies the practice of representing what X deliberately does to Y as an impersonal fact of nature outside of anyone’s control.

61

Freshly Squeezed Cynic 07.05.12 at 9:53 pm

One way might be to pass a law requiring employers to let their employees go to the bathroom whenever they want. This law would make society as a whole poorer, since there are some jobs where it really is a requirement that employees be in place at all times. If an employee at General Motors leaves the assembly line for five minutes without asking, the assembly line breaks.

Why, exactly, do we have to choose between a world (an imaginary one) where assembly lines falter because everyone’s off taking a piss without telling anyone, and one (the real one) where, as has been noted, workplaces such as call centres where the job does not require an individual to be at their station at all times?

It surely cannot be that it is supremely difficult for anyone to defend a state of affairs which is genuinely detrimental to health (in the most acute sense, the people with kidney problems who are told that they cannot take the number of bathroom breaks that they need; in any case, it is not particularly healthy to sit in a diaper of your own piss for a considerable portion of the day) and a ridiculous indignity to boot. Surely not.

62

GiT 07.05.12 at 10:06 pm

@49

“However, there are other ways to help the workers at General Motors. We could tax the shareholders, and give the proceeds to the workers. Then the workers could choose to accept lower wages in exchange for more bathroom breaks, or they could spend their extra money on a nicer house, a better school for their kids, etc. This is the policy that I support, and I believe that it is the policy that Tyler Cowen supports.”

You believe Tyler Cowen, supports significant transfer payments from rich to poor in, say, the US?

“A defense of the welfare state, beyond the level needed to insure political stability and continued economic growth, thus requires that the current American needy be given a moral priority over future generations and over the needy in other countries.

In the current political context, a “person who cares” is assumed to identify with the interests of the current domestic poor. I have tried to show that this presumption is unwarranted. A person who cares ought to consider limiting the welfare state in the interests of the greater good of other, less visible poor persons.”

http://tylercowen.com/2000/10/14/social-philosophy-and-policy-does-the-welfare-state-help-the-poor/

63

Patrick 07.05.12 at 10:12 pm

” When I was seventeen, I had a job in the produce department of a grocery store. … I did observe … massive employee shirking … If I ponder my workplace at GMU, I see many more employees who take advantage of the boss, perhaps by shirking, or by not teaching well, than I see instances of the bosses taking advantage of the employees.”

It is on the basis of these experiences that Cowen forms a strong faith in the superiority and efficiency of the private sector? I had similar early job experience(working as a telemarketer), where I found most the people I worked with to be lazy corrupt or both. (management included) I came to exactly the opposite conclusion as Cowen; the private sector has no particular monopoly on efficiency and is generally just as broken down and compromised as the public sector.

64

Bruce Wilder 07.05.12 at 10:30 pm

James Choy: “I believe that as a society, we should try to arrange things to improve the lives of poor people. I think that Tyler Cowen believes this too. The question then becomes how we should help poor people.”

I think Tyler Cowen has a job, where he’s required to promote the interests of the Koch brothers in making rich people, richer, by making large numbers of poor people, poorer, by protecting such practices from political interference. He’s paid well, in that job, and he does it well enough, that he probably gets extra bathroom breaks thrown in as a bonus. The question is why anyone else takes him seriously.

One really important way we could make poor people better off, is by making them less poor: paying better wages, and more effectively curbing the pervasive predatory economic conduct, which characterizing the American economy.

Making Tyler Cowen get a job, where he was not engaged in propaganda on behalf of economic predation would be one positive step among many.

65

faustusnotes 07.05.12 at 11:12 pm

I would love to see the economists of the US academy forced to work to some kind of productivity agreement. My starting point would be that their theories have to be validated in the real world, or they get sacked. I wonder how Cowen would fare then?

66

MPAVictoria 07.05.12 at 11:24 pm

“My starting point would be that their theories have to be validated in the real world, or they get sacked.”

Love it. Love it so very much.

67

gordon 07.05.12 at 11:27 pm

Somewhere, I think in relation to the low morale of the workforce during the terminal decline of the USSR, I read the following little motto: “As long as you keep on pretending to pay me I’ll keep on pretending to work”.

68

bjk 07.06.12 at 12:01 am

Cowen is an economist? I thought he was like the Rick Steves of food blogging. I had no idea. His modal post is a bleg for restaurant recommendations in Buenos Aires.

69

Jim Henley 07.06.12 at 12:06 am

@Nine (51):

Yes, with the best will in the world, cost accounting alone is an uncertain art. And that’s in an ideal situation where corporate (or plain old) politics do not impinge. Once that happens, just allocating an expense within a firm can become a dark art indeed. Then there’s the question of what we do about that additional expense? Raise prices or cut some wages, right? Not necessarily. Not at all! I would suggest those are the least likely things to happen in many cases. More likely someone does the following:

* decide the CEO/the board/whomever will find the expense tolerable in the overall picture – that is, they just slip it in
* presents a credible case for improved productivity or increased volume or reduced expense elsewhere that everyone agrees is at least reasonable
* presents a less credible case that fools everybody, or everybody just says, “Fine, whatever”
* just jacks next year’s volume projection up by X units so the projected total profit doesn’t go down – they may even believe the higher volume projection, because business people are professional optimists

Come next year, you will miss your budget’s profit target up or down, and maybe by a lot, because we live in an uncertain world, and it’s going to be very hard to say it was because you added the air conditioning or whatever. There are just too many moving pieces in a real business.

MEANWHILE – you’re going to charge as much as you think you can charge to hit whatever volume targets you’ve set for yourself, and you’re going to pay whatever wages you need to hire and retain sufficient staff in your localities to operate your business, which you would be doing anyway. You’re not going to leave margin on the table by keeping prices lower than you need to, and you’re not going to sacrifice incremental profit by jacking them up to the level some blog commenter thinks Econ 101 says you must.

70

dsquared 07.06.12 at 12:27 am

If an employee at General Motors leaves the assembly line for five minutes without asking, the assembly line breaks.

of course this isn’t true.

71

L2P 07.06.12 at 12:38 am

“I think the point that the Marginal Revolution folks are trying to make is that while it sucks to have a job where you have to ask your boss before you go to the bathroom, this is just one aspect of the more general fact that it sucks to be poor.”

That’s all one aspect of the more general fact that you’re in jail. And one of the mucky, you get no privileges at all, lockdown-is-at-6-you-get-30-minutes-outside jails, not one of those nice work camp jails.

When did the basic position of libertarianism become that a contract for a job should give you more or less the same rights and benefits as a lucky member of America’s penal colonies?

72

rf 07.06.12 at 12:40 am

In fairness to the libertarians, at least they’ve admitted throughout that they just don’t like poor people, which is progress from the old conservative sleight of hand that forced soiling at work is just the first step to the White House.

73

Hidden Heart 07.06.12 at 1:06 am

I remember when I first read Hayek, how favorably I was impressed by the idea that a good social order permits its members to plan. That seemed sensible. It was disappointing to learn how little libertarians actually take that seriously. Here’s something that I have never, ever seen any libertarian critique of: weekly scheduling.

If you work in retail, the odds are excellent that you have no fixed schedule. You work whatever shifts you’re assigned, and learn them with a single day’s notice if you’re lucky. If you’re not, you don’t get your schedule until the actual first day of the week. You can’t plan for anything: not a vacation, not preventative medical care, nothing. This is stressful, which has costs as previously noted, and it creates more emergency situations than would happen if people could plan sensibly. It’s also demonstrably expensive in terms of increased error rates, because the facts about the gains of stable sleep cycles are well established.

It’s prominent that some libertarian respected by other libertarians has ever spoken out against this practice, but if so, I’ve missed it. And I’ve seen more than one celebration of the advantages of this practice for firms’ well-being.

74

James Choy 07.06.12 at 2:34 am

It’s true that the cost of passing a law requiring employers to allow more bathroom breaks would be small. It’s a real cost – it would be somewhat more difficult to run the assembly line at GM; some fraction of employees would abuse the system by taking breaks every ten minutes, etc.; but in the scheme of things these costs are not large. Of course, the benefits of the law would not be large either – for most poor people, the inability to take timely bathroom breaks is relatively far down on their list of problems.

The original argument, however, is that workers are subject to 1000 other minor indignities as well. Perhaps we could pass a law to regulate away each of these indignities. But while the cost of passing one such law is small, the cost of passing 1000 such laws is large. Now the business law is too complicated for a busy small business owner to understand, so she has to hire a lawyer to figure it out for her. Even though she hires a lawyer, she probably forgets to follow one of the regulations, and the city government, influenced by the giant corporation that competes with the small business owner, can shut her down. Without the regulations guaranteeing her business, the lawyer would have become a computer scientist instead and would have invented a technology that would have benefited everyone.

Instead of passing 1000 laws each narrowly targeting 1000 different problems, wouldn’t it be better to help the poor by doing one thing that helps ameliorate (almost) all problems, namely giving them cash? The beauty of giving people cash is that it allows them to address whatever problem that is subjectively the worst for them. The workers who are seriously oppressed by their workplace rules have more bargaining power to negotiate with their employers, and more of a cushion if they decide to leave to look for a new job. The workers who don’t mind the workplace rules, but who can’t afford to buy health insurance, or can’t send their kids to a good school, can address those problems instead.

75

Jim Henley 07.06.12 at 2:37 am

James, this is the fourth post just on this topic just on this site, and yours was the eleventy-millionth comment to those posts. If you’re going to make an argument dealt with in the very first post, at least try not to sound like you think nobody else thought of it yet.

76

Moby Hick 07.06.12 at 2:40 am

The beauty of giving cash is that it changes the question from “Should we be allowed to abuse workers? Yes/No?” to something completely different and politically impossible thus distracting from an actual, workable tactic. I put a small child to bed every night. I know the tactic when I see it.

77

temp 07.06.12 at 3:00 am

If all we’re interested in is political feasibility, why even engage with the BHLs? They’re a tiny minority within a tiny minority.

78

Tom Bach 07.06.12 at 3:02 am

James Choy: “I believe that as a society, we should try to arrange things to improve the lives of poor people. I think that Tyler Cowen believes this too. The question then becomes how we should help poor people.”

It is worth pointing out that this isn’t true. Tyler Cowen thinks that:
2. A rejection of health care egalitarianism, namely a recognition that the wealthy will purchase more and better health care than the poor. Trying to equalize health care consumption hurts the poor, since most feasible policies to do this take away cash from the poor, either directly or through the operation of tax incidence. We need to accept the principle that sometimes poor people will die just because they are poor. Some of you don’t like the sound of that, but we already let the wealthy enjoy all sorts of other goods — most importantly status — which lengthen their lives and which the poor enjoy to a much lesser degree. We shouldn’t screw up our health care institutions by being determined to fight inegalitarian principles for one very select set of factors which determine health care outcomes.
http://marginalrevolution.com/marginalrevolution/2012/06/what-kind-of-mandate-should-the-right-have-supported.html
He thinks it is a the unnecessary deaths of the poors is a principle we have to accept. How, I wonder, does this indicate some commitment to making poors lives better?

79

rf 07.06.12 at 3:05 am

That’s the question temp. There’s a whole world out there, yet everyone’s obsessing over some weird American cult. I can’t put my finger on it!

80

Moby Hick 07.06.12 at 3:14 am

Katie is leaving Tom and that obsession will settle down.

81

Substance McGravitas 07.06.12 at 3:22 am

Of course, the benefits of the law would not be large either – for most poor people, the inability to take timely bathroom breaks is relatively far down on their list of problems.

Do libertarians pee?

82

Carson Young 07.06.12 at 3:31 am

“[Cowen] thinks it is a the unnecessary deaths of the poors is a principle we have to accept. How, I wonder, does this indicate some commitment to making poors lives better?”

Tom Bach: doesn’t Cowen answer that question in the very paragraph that you quote from him?

“Trying to equalize health care consumption hurts the poor [emphasis added], since most feasible policies to do this take away cash from the poor, either directly or through the operation of tax incidence.”

83

Gene O'Grady 07.06.12 at 3:39 am

Unlike most of the commenters, I’ve actually worked in what is now called a call center (it had more dignity back then), which means I was one of two or three males in a more than 90% female work place. If anyone thinks that timely bathroom breaks are a small item, they are either ignorant or malevolent.

It is, of course, notoriously worse in farm labor.

84

GiT 07.06.12 at 3:46 am

@81

Only when they want to tell you it’s raining.

85

faustusnotes 07.06.12 at 5:23 am

Yes Carson, but that’s a sop because we all know it’s bullshit. Trying to equalize health care consumption is quite easy and there’s no evidence from anywhere in the world that it hurts the poor.

86

Freshly Squeezed Cynic 07.06.12 at 6:15 am

Gene: I’ve also worked in a call centre as a customer service advisor (and far more recently). It’s not only a tremendously inefficient workspace, but also one of the worst spaces for those kinds of coercive indignities people are talking about; the tyranny of the multiple targets is horribly stressful, especially since you know they are targets that are nothing to do with the resolution of people’s problems, which is ostensibly meant to be your job. The lack of practical knowledge or agency that you have to help any of the people who called in was also rather demoralising.

I *was* allowed to pee, but not for long (the computer notes how long you are taking), and the toilets were a fair way away across the building. However, I had an agreed upon holiday marked as if I was AWOL; when I was let go, this was talked about as if it was my fault, since slowly and continually repeating to a number of different supervisors that I needed the day off for the entire month in advance was apparently not good enough.

87

Slex 07.06.12 at 6:59 am

There is coercion at both universities and work but it is done usually for different reasons and has different manifestation.

The need for coercion of students at universities comes mainly from the fact that there are externalities to the university-student relation, which sometimes can be very high. I guess it is obvious why most people would want to live in a house, built by students who were “forced” to take their architecture exams. But this where coercion mainly lies at universities and otherwise there is a considerable degree of freedom. I am not aware of universities, where students are not allowed to go to the toilet, for example.

Whereas coercion at the workplace is usually motivated by cost minimization and profit maximization. This is not to say that companies don’t care about consumer safety, but that the existing practices of coercion at the workplace usually have nothing to do with it.

88

Alex 07.06.12 at 10:51 am

I for one am impressed by Comrade Cowan from the Donetsk Metallurgical Academy’s Department of Scientific Leninism’s heroic effort to integrate the insights of cognitive psychology into economics, by accusing everyone who disagrees with him of being subject to cognitive bias. I have yet to see a post of his in which he detects “mood affiliation” or “frame-switching” among his own beliefs.

Of course, Daniel Kahneman would point out that it is extremely difficult to detect one’s own cognitive biases.

89

Hidden Heart 07.06.12 at 12:21 pm

Alex, I am very happy to think of Cowen in those terms.

I’m reminded of a panel I saw at a science fiction convention, where (I think) Michael Flynn invited the panelists to discuss views they held that they expected would seem abhorrent to most people a hundred years from now. Unsurprisingly, everyone was very happy to talk about views they don’t hold that fit the criterion. Self-reflection isn’t nearly so much fun a lot of the time.

90

Barry 07.06.12 at 1:06 pm

James Choy: “If an employee at General Motors leaves the assembly line for five minutes without asking, the assembly line breaks. If we passed a law forcing employers to let employees go to the bathroom at any time, the assembly lines at General Motors would have to be redesigned. “

Please note that in the real world, this actually has been handled for quite some time.
I would also request less straw; we’re in a serious fire hazard now.

91

Barry 07.06.12 at 1:13 pm

Carson Young 07.06.12 at 3:31 am

” Tom Bach: doesn’t Cowen answer that question in the very paragraph that you quote from him?”

Cowen: “Trying to equalize health care consumption hurts the poor [emphasis added], since most feasible policies to do this take away cash from the poor, either directly or through the operation of tax incidence.”

As has been pointed out, this is a lie. We have lots of evidence from lots of places that it isn’t so. Apparently evidence is not something in use much at the GMU Econ Dept.

92

Manoel Galdino 07.06.12 at 1:44 pm

You guys are being single-minded here. I’ll defend TC here…

Hummm, sorry, but I couldn’t. I really tried…

And + 1 to Alex (number 88);

93

Tom Bach 07.06.12 at 2:25 pm

Caron Young,
So let me get this straight. Poors die on the principle that poors have worse lives than riches consequently an attempt to improve the lives of poors through the creation of universal health care is wrong by because the poors could use the money necessary to provide them with health care to buy bubble gum is evidence of an actual commitment to help the poors? Calling this line of argumentation bullshit is to value it too highly.

94

Tom 07.06.12 at 7:16 pm

I have lived in Northern Virginia before GMU was founded. My oldest son was taught upper level economics by James Buchanan at GMU and he (my son) knows less about economics than I do and I learned my college economics back in 1955. My son, for example, aparently also was taught the same myths about union job entry in the auto factories that Matt Watters repeats . The Union shop was barred by Taft Hartley in 1948 (and I learned t,hat in high school economics).

Let’s get to the nub: The GMU school of economics is the resort of last employment for right wing/libertarian faux intellectuals morons

95

JP Stormcrow 07.06.12 at 7:17 pm

The whole Cowen take on healthcare sort of goes right to the nut of the matter: everything is fungible in libertarian fantasy world except for some abstract individual “freedoms.” Or at least everything they assume they will always have. “Fix the car so I can continue to commute to my job, or get this health condition looked at it” is not a calculation that the Cowen’s of the world ever seem to imagine they will actually have to make.

96

Jeff W 07.06.12 at 9:06 pm

Libertarians, like all humans, pee at will in response to favorable market prices.

97

JP Stormcrow 07.06.12 at 9:20 pm

95: Right, call centers should provide different wage plans which include varying levels of potty break credits.

98

GiT 07.07.12 at 12:45 am

No, no, we should go further. Workplaces should have a market in bathroom passes and snack breaks, which workers can trade and bid over. The manager can hold on to a reserve of potty credits and conduct open market operations if the potty break market becomes too illiquid (how appropriate).

“Markets in Everything,” as Cowen is apt to say…

99

Jim Henley 07.07.12 at 12:58 am

If I can’t agree to never pee again in exchange for an extra $0.75/hour until I die of septicemia I’m not really free.

100

Barry Freed 07.07.12 at 1:14 am

Jim Henley, I just wanted to say that I’ve enjoyed your comments on these posts immensely.

101

nick s 07.07.12 at 1:22 am

Do libertarians pee?

No, they just take the piss.

102

Jim Henley 07.07.12 at 1:37 am

Barry: Thank you!

103

JP Stormcrow 07.07.12 at 2:08 am

GiT@98: It’s too bad Faulkner killed off Flem Snopes. I see a continuing story where Flem hires some distant relative, has them catheterized so they can corner the market in employee-owned potty credits, and then Flem gets both the seignorage from his reserve and the kickbacks from the distant relative. The people who ran company stores back in the day had such limited imaginations.

104

Henry 07.07.12 at 2:15 am

bq. No, no, we should go further. Workplaces should have a market in bathroom passes and snack breaks, which workers can trade and bid over. The manager can hold on to a reserve of potty credits and conduct open market operations if the potty break market becomes too illiquid (how appropriate).

bq. “Markets in Everything,” as Cowen is apt to say…

They’re working on it

105

John Mashey 07.07.12 at 4:14 am

Henry: I’m not sure if there’s a long moderate queue, or if posts are stuck in a SPAM filter. If the latter, perhaps you might dig out the last one (mostly similar)?

106

anon/portly 07.07.12 at 7:31 pm

What would the world look like if GMU economics professors were treated similarly to workers in low-paid jobs with little protection? No offices – at best open cubicles, so that a supervisor could stroll by, making sure that the professors were doing the job that they were supposed to be doing. Monitoring of computers to prevent random websurfing. Certainly no air conditioning. Compulsory random drug testing. Body searches, in case professors were sneaking office supplies back home. Monitoring – at best – of bathroom breaks, and written demerits and termination of employment for professors who took too many of them.

If the things that HF mention here were productivity unenhancing, what exactly would be the issue? Workers are losing, the firms are losing. If the government can do something about it, what exactly is the argument against it? Are there really libertarians really running around saying, let’s not eat our free lunches?

So when Rob Waters or whoever constructs a hypothetical in which one of these things is productivity enhancing, it’s not exactly of much interest to point out that it isn’t. I think there are about 40 posts upthread that are completely pointless.

So please, address and construct a hypothetical. Is it possible that bathroom break rules are productivity enhancing? I have no idea whether they are or can be, but it doesn’t seem impossible. Perhaps in the absence of such rules some workers would abuse the bathroom break privilege in various ways, to the detriment of firm output.

I understand the idea that maybe we should, as a society, ban the firm or the government from instituting these bathroom break rules, even if it reduces productivity and causes the call center wage to fall from $10 per hour to $9 per hour. Maybe some things simply can’t be traded off for money. (Also, increases in human dignity may well be long-run productivity enhancing anyway). But I think all MY and TC are saying is, which things? Are there any circumstances in which we should be willing to submit to any of the practices on HF’s list? And how should we decide?

(Obviously, if workers don’t get paid their marginal product, or if there are no conflicts between “freedom” and “productivity,” etc etc etc, I have no point here – thanks in advance).

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Eli Rabett 07.07.12 at 7:33 pm

Now some, not Eli to be sure, might be concerned that much of the response is based on a category error, that those who oppress others in the workplace are the owners of the business. Except for the smallest of businesses management is not ownership and supervisors are not the ones to whom the business belongs. However, allowing this error to propagate through the GMU professorship allows them to claim to be job creators, or whatever is the flavor of the month.

The oppressive supervisors are just other employees who get their kicks from being mean bastards.

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anon/portly 07.07.12 at 7:41 pm

By the way, construct the hypothetical “FedEx and the US Post Office and airlines monitor and conduct random searches of their employees.” Obviously debilitating to the freedom of the employees of FedEx and the US Post Office.

But isn’t there a third party here? Should I have the freedom to be able to send a package containing something valuable to someone else, or put my luggage on a plane, and not have it get “lost” en route? It seems to me that at some point, in some version of the real world, there’s a possibility that employee freedoms can conflict with the freedoms of other parties. Now what?

(Again, I’m offering this as a hypothetical).

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GiT 07.07.12 at 10:49 pm

@106

Why does the burden of proof seem to start with, “show that liberty-reducing policies are not productivity enhancing,” rather than, “show that liberty-reducing policies are productivity enhancing”?

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Alice 07.07.12 at 11:13 pm

“Why does the burden of proof seem to start with, “show that liberty-reducing policies are not productivity enhancing,” rather than, “show that liberty-reducing policies are productivity enhancing”?’

Because the latter is impossible?

111

GiT 07.08.12 at 12:04 am

What? The two hypotheses are equally amenable to proof. For the first, the alternative hypothesis is an effect on productivity 0.

Go go gadget one tailed hypothesis test!

112

anon/neolibtoottoot 07.08.12 at 3:59 am

106, consider the following hypothetical – is it possible that the worker’s average productivity in your hypothetical situation would have no bearing on his wage or the price of the product? Is it possible that an employee’s wage is simply the minimum possible amount his employer can get away with paying him? (“Get away with” is intended to capture all senses of the term: legal — above minimum wage,etc — and practical — high enough that employee doesn’t starve, get too depressed about his miserable life, revolt and form a union, etc). Is it possible that the employer’s aim is just to keep as much of the proceeds of production for himself as is possible — so that if he forces his employee to follow dehumanizing rules the increase in productivity will only be reflected in the increase in the employer’s profits, not in an increase in the employee’s standard of living, or some minute but oh-so-beneficial change in the cost of the product?

I would hypothesize that these hypotheticals are beyond your conceptual capacity, so enraptured are you by the teachings of the neoclassicists, an army of tenure-wielding nincompoops, whose aim is to give the veneer of great intellectual integrity to the practice of regarding human beings as atoms out of which as much value as possible ought to be extracted by the few human beings with power, who have made the neoclassicists feel special by paying them lots of money to give talks and run think tanks.

As for your other hypothesis, I hypothesize: if I walk into a Subway and it takes 10 minutes rather than 5 minutes to get my sandwich, because one of the employees is on a bathroom break, has my freedom not been impinged? I appreciate his freedom to go to the bathroom, but does that not interfere with my freedom to get what I want now? Ideally, prices would be so dynamic that I could pay less for my sandwich as a result of it taking 10 minutes, and the change in price could by compensated for by a change in his wages, so that the owner of that Subway franchise does not lose his ability to extract profit. Then, the employee would be free to take as many or as few bathroom breaks as he wanted.

Place bathroom breaks on an X axis. Place wages on a Y axis. Imagine a line with a negative slope. (It should be a line, not a parabola, because too many bathroom breaks SHOULD lead to a zero wage, i.e., a firing). That tradeoff — that IS freedom. (And, while we’re on the topic, it’s a full and perfect picture of the individual psychology, which is nothing but a bunch of arbitrary desires which an internal indifferent overload rationally fulfills according to their relative measure. It is this very arbitariness which constitutes freedom.)

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Eli Rabett 07.08.12 at 10:32 am

Now imagine that said employee puts some bathroom break into your sandwich for behaving like an entitled asshole.

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anon/neolibtoottoot 07.08.12 at 4:07 pm

113, in that case he would have violated my sacred freedom by ignoring the terms of the contract we signed when I placed my order. My ordered preference set happens to be such that I very much do not want fecal or urinal matter on my sandwich. (Of course EVERYTHING is a trade-off so there is some point at which I would be willing to take it — say, if you paid me a few thousand dollars. But the Subway franchise owner would likely not be happy with that arrangement!)

Since our country’s beautiful freedom is built on the freedom of all us little atoms to sign millions of contracts with each other, violation of one of those contracts is a heinous offense, a threat to the tenuous cohesion of anarchic self-interested savages that we call “society”. It is an instance of fraud, and so I would support the employee being prosecuted to the fullest extent — firing, fining, jail time, the guillotine if he’s a repeat offender.

(Note also — it so happens that my ordered preferences are such that the contracts I sign place a very high cost on bathroom matter being included on my food. But it may so happen that other atoms have ordered preferences such that they place a low cost on adding bathroom matter — only a few dollars discount — or are even willing to pay for it, in certain odd cases. These people are free to sign contracts according to those terms.)

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Harold 07.08.12 at 4:18 pm

@112 @114 I almost fell off my chair laughing!

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anon/portly 07.08.12 at 6:17 pm

I would hypothesize that these hypotheticals are beyond your conceptual capacity

Oh absolutely, I couldn’t agree more. I’ve never had a clue about how wages are set in the real world. Your response was time well spent. Analytically spot on. And you amused Harold!

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Atticus Dogsbody 07.09.12 at 5:48 am

Do libertarians pee?

Of course they do. But, to be considered a libertarian there are standards. You must be able to pee through 20 mattresses and 20 feather beds.

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