Right to work

Freddie wants me to talk about the human costs of not having the auto bailout.  That's easy:  they're terrible.  Lots of people will lose their jobs.  Those that don't will have their expectations for an upper-middle class life crushed.

Am I glad to see this?  No.  Am I rooting for the demise of the UAW?  No.  I don't buy American cars.  I don't work for an American car company.  I could care less about the UAW.

I do think that the UAW is perhaps the grossest example of something toxic about what a lot of American unions have turned into.  I don't care, particularly, whether unions use their power to wrest higher wages and benefits from companies.  Even if they kill the company with excessive demands--hell, they're the majority of the workforce, they can destroy their jobs if they want.   I feel bad for the non-union workers.  But I don't want to, say, legally prevent unions from forming or negotiating.  (I don't want to legally encourage it, either.  I think the government should be neutral, unless companies use physical force.)

What bothers me is twofold.  First, after the unions have put companies into an untenable position, they come to the rest of us looking for a handout to continue the unsustainable levels of pay and benefits.  Almost everyone I know makes less than an autoworker, and has a whole lot less job security.  Why should they pay autoworkers for the privilege of making cars no one wants?

I also really loathe and despise the way the unions use work rules and featherbedding to make their companies and industries less productive than they otherwise would be.  Salary and benefit negotiations seem to me to be neutral; there's a zone of possible agreement, and I don't care if the unions claim all or most of the value in that zone.  But the way economic growth happens--the way we become a richer, more productive society--is to produce more stuff with the same amount of people.  The union goal is to keep the number of people at least even, and if possible increase it, regardless of the level of production.  Hence the fight between the west coast port operators and their unions, who wanted to keep exactly as many jobs loading ships as they'd ever had, even when there were vastly more productive ways to do things.  I don't think any thinking liberal should support this.

Nor am I a fan of seniority rules and job protection.  Most of us function perfectly well without these, and I don't think that advancement solely by time-in-grade, or protecting everyone who does not actually set the plant on fire from being sacked, is either reasonable, or economically desireable.  I understand that people want these things, but I would also like to be able to force other people to buy me dinner at will; this does not mean that I should be given that right.  I too, would enjoy being protected from ever losing my job no matter what, and having all my raises based on my ability to keep my butt in a chair.  But I don't think this would be good for my employers, my readers, or for that matter, me.

But that doesn't mean I don't understand how awful and terrifying it is to have expected a certain life, and have it stolen away from you by a fate you do not very well control.  In June 2001 when I graduated from business school, I had a management consulting gig that was scheduled to pay over $100,000 a year and had just moved back to New York.  Two months later, two planes crashed into the World Trade Center, killing a number of people I knew and leaving the rest of us traumatized.  Four days after that, I was working at the World Trade Center disaster recovery site, trying to come to grips with what had happened.  Four months after that, the consulting firm, having pushed back my start date twice, called my associate class and told all of us that our services would not be required.

For the next eighteen months, I struggled to find a job, in the teeth of a recession that kicked MBAs especially hard.  It was awful in a way that is difficult to describe to anyone who hasn't been unemployed long term; the thing makes you question everything about your life.  I remember going to see Avenue Q on a date, and writhing in humiliation, thinking that my date must be identifying me with the aimless failures on stage. I was 29 years old, and living at home.  I had money--I always managed to work.  But as far as I could tell, I had no future.

When I finally did get a job, with The Economist, it paid about a third of what I'd been expecting as a consultant. I  had about a thousand dollars in loan payments, and of course, I had to live in New York, where my job was.  For the first time in my life, I understood what Victorian novelists meant when they described someone as "shabby".  Over the years since I'd had a steady income, my clothes had stretched out of shape, ripped, become stained, gone out of style.  I couldn't afford new ones.  And I wasn't one of those whizzy heroines who can make over her own clothes.  Instead, I frumped around in clothes that never looked quite right, and felt the way my clothes looked.

It took me a long, long time to crawl out of that hole.  I'll never make what I expected to make as a consultant.  I'll never have the job security that I had learned to expect in the pre-9/11 world.  The universe will always seem a potentially malevolent place to me, ready to unleash some unknown disaster at any moment.

I was in a better position than auto workers in many ways; I didn't own a home in a dying area, or have children who needed to be educated.  I'm not trying to claim that I managed to overcome with hard work and pluck, so why can't they?  What to do with a fifty year old who pegged his future to a failing industry is a real question.

Nor do I think it's funny to see autoworkers who lived quite a bit better than most of America get their comeuppance.  It really doesn't matter what you make; losing everything, most especially your dreams and your sense of security, is one of the worst things that can happen to a person.  Laid-off consultants don't starve, of course, but neither will laid-off auto workers.  They'll just be forced several rungs down the economic ladder.  It will be humiliating, difficult, and it will sour a number of them permanently on life, and their country.  If I could stop that from happening to people, without making some other aspect of life much worse, I would.

But whatever your feeling about government intervention in the economy, or the correct level of income inequality, I think there's one thing we can all agree on:  for the world to get better, things that don't work have to fail.  We cannot keep alive every company, every car and every job that someone once liked, because that way lies stagnation and death.  Places where production decisions are made based on how much labor they can consume, rather than how much value they can produce, make everyone in society worse off in the long run.

So while I fully understand the human cost (I think), it has to be borne, for the same reason we couldn't save all the folks who loved their gentle home-weaving traditions, or their jobs making buggy whips.  This is, of course, easy to say, when I am not bearing it.  But I'm not against helping the auto workers transition to doing something else; I think unemployment assistance is a good idea, and should be extended during this crisis to at least 52 weeks.  I would be fine with a job training program, if we could find one that works (so far, government training programs seem to run from useless to actively harmful).  I'd be happy to take some of the money we aren't using bailing out auto companies, and offer relocation assistance to people who are trapped in factory towns.

I understand that this is not what the auto workers want; they want their jobs.  But while I am happy to help the auto workers, I am not happy to help them manufacture undesireable cars at massive social cost.  I too, would have liked to keep my job as a management consultant.  But I didn't have a right to have the job I wanted merely because I liked it.  And it wouldn't have been good for America if I had.