Saturday, December 22, 2012

What a real right to work would look like

It would start with a right for everyone to actually work, and get a decent living for it.

The recent GOP push to double down on their agenda for the rich and powerful by passing "right-to-work" laws was a typical instance of their love of Orwellian language, not to mention their utter corruption by the rich. It was really about whether a company should be faced with a unified, organized workforce, (i.e. a union shop), or not. Whether companies have an unbridled right to put people out of work.

I have plenty of problems with unions. They are clumsy, highly unfair, and in the public sphere have generated reprehensible corruption. It is a poor mechanism to foster labor power. But if no other way is offered, it is better than nothing.

What might be a better way? The most appalling aspect of our current economic crisis is that millions of people are being crushed- unions do not care about the unemployed, and nor does anyone else. They are forgotten, and after about six months, no one even wants to see their resumes.

The Fed has long been more concerned about inflation than unemployment, (though in fairness it is doing more about unemployment than most central banks around the world), and one of our political parties takes positive glee in celebrating the success of the successful and moralizing about how the victims of this downturn have no one to thank but themselves, so get out there and find a job, even when there are five or more applicants for every opening. Republicans cater to one interest- the rich, whose power over workers has been ironically and horrifyingly increased by the mismanagement of our economy by the fabulously rich and corrupt.

So the first ingredient in a humane economy is to provide work and income to anyone interested in working. This is well within the government's power to provide. We have crying needs for infrastructure renewal, ecological restoration, sustainable power, child care, not to mention the normal needs of any municipality- general cleaup, care for public properties, housing for the homeless, health care for the elderly, and a million other needs. (My prior, more extensive treatment of this concept, including how one pays for it.)

How much should this kind of program pay? It should pay a living wage, which would be at least one and a half times the current poverty level. It should be available to anyone who asks, with the condition that it is real work, and the person can be fired for cause just as at any private sector job.

This would transform our society, from one based on fear of the employer, to one where everyone reasonably willing is welcome to work in a dignified manner. Private employers then would have to bid over this base level of income and in addition have to offer reasonable working conditions in order to get employees. Would that be a terrible or dangerous situation? No, though prices for services currently provided by the underpaid would certainly go up. Concomitantly, the need for welfare and incarceration (and probably mental health care and homelessness), would go dramatically down, if everyone had access to some basic level of dignified existence.

In addition, health care and pensions should be decoupled from the particular employer you work for, (or union you are a member of), but instead be universal. The pension "system" is phenomenally unfair, with no rhyme or reason to which employers offer them (fewer all the time, understandably) or not. Ideally, we would double social security for every worker, and do away with all private pension contracts, since they are unreasonably forward-looking commitments for corporations having much shorter time horizons. The only way to do this kind of thing fairly is to make it a modest, but universal program. Then it would be up to individuals to save for their retirements, over and above this decent minimum.

Beyond this, I would envision a much more vibrant job market, where workers are continually plugged into a market system that matches employers with candidates. The current online systems are OK, but I think the scope can be quite a bit more broad, as sort of a merging of linkedin with monster in a way that would convince employers to use this kind of service routinely and uniformly, as well as encouraging third-party matchmakers to actively roust up options for those not actively looking for work. Right now, only the least relevant and often diversionary postings seem to occur on these systems. In any case, once the power of employers over the health care, pension, and income of the worker is mitigated in these ways, we would see much more mobility in the workplace- more power in the hands of employees.

Proceeding along in my fantasy of an ideal employment world, the taboo of income secrecy would also be broken, and companies would all operate with open books, so that everyone's cards are on the table. This would eliminate a great deal of inequality and subterfuge, and again put a little more power into the hands of employees.

"A thoughtful person, faced with the thought that economic policy was being pursued on this basis, might reasonably wonder what planet he or she is on. An obvious example is that the DSGE story has no real room for unemployment of the kind we see most of the time, and especially now: unemployment that is pure waste."

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