Too Much Time on Their Hands: The Underemployment of Our Managerial Class

I keep hearing hand-waving stories from right-leaning members of our managerial class about how unemployment benefits are dampening the desire to work among rank-and-file workers. Let me give you a small glimpse into the work ethic of this same managerial class in my own case. I’ll leave you to decide, at least in this case, whose work ethic could use some improvement.

I’ve been writing here since October about the eight month gig I recently did working full time for Operating Room Environmental Services (OR EVS) at Hunterdon Medical Center in Flemington, New Jersey. About seven weeks ago, I gave notice at the hospital, telling both Surgical Services and HR that I would continue to work at HMC’s OR once a month as a per diem worker at the same rate as I’d earned before. They were delighted to hear it; OR EVS has been decimated by turnover, and was practically dying for weekend coverage. I could easily have insisted on a raise, but didn’t. This, by the way, for an institution that failed to give me bereavement leave after the unexpected death of my wife in March.

For the uninitiated: OR EVS is responsible for cleaning and setting up the OR between and after surgical cases. Between cases, we do quick turnover cleanings, setting the OR suites up for imminently forthcoming cases; at end of day, we do deeper terminal cleanings, setting the suites up for the next day’s case. We’re also expected to clean the scrub rooms adjoining each operating suite, along with a series of ancillary areas (offices, workrooms, break rooms, locker rooms, restrooms), as well as the “core,” where surgical cases are set up, and finally, the long hallways, or “raceway,” circling the OR as such.

I worked the evening shift, 3-11:30 pm. Unlike any white collar or academic job I’ve ever done, OR EVS was expected to work essentially without stops or breaks for the entirety of our shift. We were legally entitled to a single half hour break, whose duration was exactly 30 minutes, and, on a discretionary basis, to two fifteen minute breaks which we often missed. The rest of the shift was solid work. My base pay for the evening shift was $14 an hour. Day shift was $13 an hour.

It’s worth bearing in mind that despite our low pay, OR EVS makes surgical services possible: no EVS, no surgery. A truism that also happens to be an undeniable truth: unless EVS cleans and sets up an OR suite, it’s unusable for surgical procedures. Since surgical procedures are the revenue engine of a hospital, it’s no exaggeration to say that by making surgery possible, EVS makes the hospital’s most fundamental revenue stream a reality.

That particular revenue stream aside, in my experience, hurried clinicians in the OR–nurses, anesthesiologists, surgeons–consistently make apparently minor mistakes that violate state or federal regulatory law, most commonly HIPPA rules governing confidential material, or any of the myriad rules governing the disposal of hazardous waste. Each of these “mistakes,” if caught, is worth tens of thousands of dollars in fines. And each, in my experience, was made dozens of times a day. Unlike universities, whose accreditation agencies are a pathetic joke, hospitals are accredited (at a minimum) by the Joint Commission and by both state and local health departments, which are not a joke. It’s EVS that makes the goal-line saves that save the hospital from the fines that these agencies are only too willing to impose.

Finally, EVS, as I’ve argued elsewhere, is the last line of defense against hospital-acquired infections, a perennial problem in contemporary hospitals, and a driver both of cost and of (serious) iatrogenic illness.

In addition to working the regular work week, OR EVS, at least at HMC, “took call” on weekends, just like clinical staff. OR EVS call works as follows: one person is designated as “on call” for 32 hours of a given weekend. In other words, from 8 am to midnight on both Saturday and Sunday of an on-call weekend, the person on call is expected, on receiving a call from the hospital operator, to answer their phone and proceed immediately to the OR to do whatever cleaning is required. If what’s required is a turnaround, this is in effect an emergency call. If what’s requested is a terminal clean, it’s not precisely an emergency call, but still demands speed. (And of course, combinations of both might be requested.) Since only one EVS person is on call during the weekends, there is no EVS team to rely on; you’re on your own. And since tech and transport staff don’t take call, EVS is expected to take on some of their responsibilities.

All of that, in case you’ve forgotten, is being done by people earning a base pay of $13-14 an hour. Those same people are also facilitating the activities (and incomes) of an entire bureaucracy devoted to the rule-governed, revenue-driven side of health care–patient access/scheduling, accounts receivable, revenue cycle management, and the like. To paraphrase Cardi B, it’s the mops that make the money move–just not to the people moving the mops.*

And now, back to my story: Around the end of May, three weeks after I gave notice, the supervisor of OR EVS put me on the OR schedule for this past weekend, the weekend of June 26-27. That was fine by me, but what about the details? How would I transition, bureaucratically, from FT to per diem work?

Over the course of the next several weeks, I repeatedly asked HR, and then Surgical Services, how my transition from full time to per diem work would be handled. I got no acknowledgement or answer. Finally, after a last minute query on Friday afternoon, seven weeks into this drama (and a few hours before I was supposed to go on call), I was told that I was “not in the system” and therefore could not be put on call–despite the fact that I had raised the issue seven weeks ago, and been on the call schedule for almost four.

Pause on this for a minute. The issue is not so much that my being taken off the call schedule deprived me of the munificent $200 or so I would have made had I been working in the OR last weekend. I could use a weekend off. The issue is that no one at HMC realized that no one was available to cover OR EVS for an entire weekend. Put another way: no white collar worker had, in seven weeks’ time, bothered to resolve my transition from full time to per diem status despite my repeated queries, and despite the institution’s own desperation for labor–desperation caused by the turnover experienced by the OR EVS unit.

Put yet another way: had the hospital operator called me last Saturday requesting my presence in the OR, and had I shown up, my ID would, on clocking in, have indicated a lack of authorization to work. And so I’d have faced a dilemma created for me by management: should I bail out on the OR after being called in to, say, an emergency case? Or should I work illegally, despite lack of authorization, despite lack of indemnification for legal liability, and despite the possibility of not being paid?

Pressed to resolve this on the spot, it’s possible that no resolution might have been forthcoming. Had I bailed out and simply walked out of the hospital, no one else might have been willing or available to cover for EVS, and so the OR would have gone without environmental services for a weekend. That might have meant the cancellation of all procedures in the OR for an entire weekend–including emergency procedures–not for my lack of willingness to work, but for management’s failure to put me “in the system.” Imagine a hospital’s having to ship its surgical patients out to another hospital by ambulance for failure to get the OR EVS schedule right. It doesn’t take much imagination in this case. It almost happened. Yet another goal-line save by EVS, this time pro bono.

So here’s one upshot. The next time you hear someone mouthing off about workers’ “unwillingness to work,” consider the number of untold stories by workers about managers’ failure to do their jobs. The reason why such stories aren’t told more often is that managers have control over hiring and firing. Say the wrong thing about them (anywhere, including on a private setting on social media), and you’re headed for unemployment. I could easily lose my job for saying what I’ve said in this post. And yet I stand by every word in it. Every word in it is true, overdue, and needed saying. If anecdotes like this can’t be related in public, discussion of the workplace is effectively off-limits in public discourse. What we’re left with is Delusional Happy Hour with the LinkedIn Cheerleading Squad.

Another upshot: remember cases like this also when people go on and on about left-wing “cancel culture.” In an at-will employment environment, people get fired without notice or cause every day–not for ideological reasons but without any discernible reason at all. Unlike professors made famous by their tribulations with “woke mobs,” none of these terminations ever make the news. I have seen (literally, not hyperbolically) dozens of them at multiple institutions, involving academic, white collar, and blue collar workers. None of the victims ever become celebrities, whether minor or major. They’re simply the casualties of our labor market and our legal system, the human refuse that managers flush out of the corporate system every day with total impunity.

If you find it tiresome to hear me complaining (“ranting,” “bitching”) about these things, think about how tiresome it is to live them, day in and day out. And just to be clear: I don’t live them, not any more. I couldn’t. I got out of full time OR EVS to get a white collar job in hospital revenue management, keeping just one per diem toe in the blue collar world to keep things real. But far too many people (primarily of the white collar managerial class, but some academics as well) dwell perpetually in unreality on the subject of labor relations. Spend some time living it, and I think you’ll change your tune.

“People,” I keep hearing about the unemployed, “don’t want to work.” A suggestion: take a harder at some of the people who have jobs, and ask some hard questions about what they’re doing with the time on their hands.


*Anyone sincerely “offended” by Cardi B’s “Bodak Yellow” (as so many people are) should perhaps stop to ask themselves which is more offensive: a song that parodies the ethos of a high-handed boss, or an actual boss of the sort being parodied?

42 thoughts on “Too Much Time on Their Hands: The Underemployment of Our Managerial Class

  1. I guess a lot of listeners aren’t sure “Bodak Yellow” is a parody. The details of the lyrics seem to match the details of her life; and bragging about one’s own wealth, power, status, and badassery, the expensiveness of one’s purchases, etc., is a common theme in rap music. It’s what made a counter-song like “Thrift Shop” so popular:

    To be sure, many people seem to be more offended by aggressive braggadocio rap when it comes from a woman than when it comes from a man, which suggests a different set of problems.

    Like

    • The considerations you mention don’t rule out the song’s being either a parody, or self-parody, or both. I think the video makes that clear: it’s too silly and over-the-top to be intended or taken seriously. Cardi B is obviously the kind of gal who wants to have it all ways at once, so while the song/video engages in a fair bit of self-celebration, I think the self-celebration itself is meant to be self-parodic, as well as a parody of the boss ethos itself. It sounds paradoxical, but art as preposterous as “Bodak Yellow” transcends our ordinary aesthetic categories. (Where have all the dialecticians gone?)

      Her comic delivery is impeccable, by the way. I can’t listen to the song or watch the video without laughing out loud at the line, “He wanna swim with his face/I’m like…OK.” That provokes laughter even on the tenth or twelfth listening. I actually find most of the lyrics pretty hilarious. I even find the Arab stereotypes she exploits funny. Humor in bad taste is pretty amusing if done right.

      I’ve had arguments with people who take the song absolutely seriously, and are offended by what they take to be its uninhibited celebration of hierarchy, greed, etc. That just isn’t the right way of listening to music in this genre. I wish people had gone after David Kelley with the kind of zeal they reserve for Cardi B, after he did that stupid interview with John Stossel a few years ago, defending “greed.” The difference is that David meant every word he said. Cardi B doesn’t.

      Put another way: David is unintentionally funny. Cardi B means it.

      Like

  2. Tangentially related from the Drive-By Truckers. About a fuck-up employee getting fired and blaming it on his boss, the system and everything but himself (with a side helping — in the refrain — of a take on social justice and its relevance and irrelevance to the situation). Somebody’s gotta mop up the A1, somebody’s gotta mop up the blood. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=YzTPQPwDM_A

    Liked by 1 person

    • I don’t know if I agree with that interpretation of the song. I like the lyrics, but the Drive by Truckers aren’t my style, musically speaking. According to the Infallible Gospel of Google, the last line is actually:

      Somebody’s gotta mop up and eat one.
      Somebody’s gotta mop up the blood.

      I kind of like your “A1” line, though!

      Like

      • Another lyrics site says ‘A-1’ (the name of the sauce is actually ‘A1’). I’m sticking with that! Musically, Shit Shots is just average, if that. I like them better, and I think the music is better, when they go more hard-rock and emotionally wrenching and less close to pop-rock (you’ve responded positively to their harder, more emotionally wrenching stuff in the past — Lookout Mountain, I believe, a Patterson Hood song). They are great lyricists though, especially Mike Cooley (this is a Cooley song — not his best lyrics, but still quite good).

        Liked by 1 person

      • Wow, some of these lyrics sites just suck. Reading through one for this song, there are at least three errors, including the ‘A1’ error, that affect the meaning of the song quite a bit. Especially with a wordsmith like Cooley, you gotta get it right!

        Like

  3. cut-and-pasted from comments on the original Facebook post…

    (1) You are right that responsiveness to incentives not to work is, if anything, weakly correlated with any morally problematic “lack of work ethic.” And firm managers (and all of us) should recognize and appreciate the crucial low-wage mop-pushing etc. work that people do. But that is something of a separate issue from whether our legal and social system should treat labor as a commodity (it should, I would argue, despite the moral costs) and have employment-at-will (again, I think it should, despite the moral costs). The right justification for setting things up in this way relies largely on appeal to basic social practicality (consistent with broad individual autonomy) and the systemic economic benefits of a productive system that is one of exchange or trade.

    (2) Labor-remuneration schemes directly based on productive contribution — the very intuitive standard for valuing labor suggested by your post, whether or not you intended it — though often appropriate in personal contexts of dividing the product of joint effort, do not scale up to generate clear and on-their-own-terms non-contentious standards that work for exchange, functional markets, effective production and innovation. I suspect that, if we tried to scale-up such a primarily-contribution-sensitive scheme to a societal level, we’d end up, at best, fighting a lot and not really having markets or being very economically productive. For these kinds of reasons, I say: pride of place to market-style justice-norms and market-style valuations of labor (and of all the other things that we need to or that we benefit from exchanging or trading). This, I think, is one of those morally-counter-intuitive priorities or norms that universal/commercial (Scott Alexander) and WEIRD (Joseph Henrich) culture gets right. But, because it is morally counter-intuitive (and definitely has moral costs), it is perennially condemned as immoral and has to be defended anew in each generation.

    (3) There are important moral/justice issues and costs. A system that treats a person and her labor in this way immediately raises the question of avoiding unfair distributions of benefits and burdens (and also, as you stress in your post, the moral costs of encouraging false vice-based moral justification of wage rates; and also related costs of “commodifying” a person and her labor, in this way not treated her as a person fully). Though it is not obvious just what is required to meet the fair-distribution requirement, high-rent, low-wage market conditions seem to violate appropriate fairness standards. For one thing, those in these conditions might appropriately resent and object to the rest of us or society subjecting them to these conditions (Thomas Scanlon’s “contractualism” but with my little twist on it). So: though I still think there is a ton to be said in favor of libertarian approaches to addressing such distributional issues (e.g., deregulation, aversion to coercive pursuits of contentious social-justice ideals), I’m open to the idea that part of the best solution is something more direct and left-wing like wage supplementation for lower-wage working folks (n.b., not guaranteed basic income, not higher or “living” minimum wage). Your posts help me see the stark reality of market-justice-induced unjust outcomes (and inappropriate right-wing moralizing rationalization of them) more clearly. Much thanks for this.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Thanks for those comments. They sort of flush me out to ask where I’m going with all this class warfare rhetoric I’m serving up. So with the proviso that I didn’t directly make the arguments you’re addressing here, I still regard them as on-target and fair game. I’ll respond to each one separately, lest my WiFi cut out, and I lose the whole comment. Which I’d have to blame on The Man, because it sure as hell wouldn’t be my fault.

      Liked by 1 person

    • I’m reproducing your comment so that I can see it as I write:

      (1) You are right that responsiveness to incentives not to work is, if anything, weakly correlated with any morally problematic “lack of work ethic.” And firm managers (and all of us) should recognize and appreciate the crucial low-wage mop-pushing etc. work that people do. But that is something of a separate issue from whether our legal and social system should treat labor as a commodity (it should, I would argue, despite the moral costs) and have employment-at-will (again, I think it should, despite the moral costs). The right justification for setting things up in this way relies largely on appeal to basic social practicality (consistent with broad individual autonomy) and the systemic economic benefits of a productive system that is one of exchange or trade.

      Your second sentence really captures the essence of what I’m getting at. As for the two points of contention:

      (a) I don’t think there’s any alternative to treating labor as a commodity, but if “managers should appreciate” the work of low-level employees, I’d think that they should treat them as a more valuable commodity than they do. In my example, EVS makes a large revenue stream to the hospital possible, saves the hospital from big fines, and constitutes the last line of defense against hospital acquired infections (which are a potential source of legal liability, hence expense). And yet, no one in our EVS unit except the supervisor could afford a one bedroom apartment on their wages.

      Even on grounds of instrumental rationality very narrowly construed, it is counter-productive to underpay people like that, and worse still to underpay them in an at-will environment. The minute you hire such a person, he’ll be looking to leave. The second he gets a better paying job, he will leave. And he can get a better paying job across the street, at Target, or down the street with Lawn Doctor, or a few towns over, at the local waterpark. Does that make any sense? Why would people doing such crucial labor be paid so badly? All I want to say is: it doesn’t make sense. It’s stupid, and the results are predictable: constant turnover, mediocre job performance, lack of pride in the work, lack of loyalty to the institution. Yet these managers sit there, scratching their heads as to what’s going on in an OR yards away from them. It’s not a mystery to anyone, except them. And yet it’s their job to unravel the mystery, and they get paid handsomely, despite their systematic failure to get it right.

      Part of the point of the example I cite is the remarkably cavalier attitude that management has toward its “low level” OR staff. Seven weeks after my resignation from FT work, not only do I not have the paperwork for my conversion to per diem work, but there is no ETA on getting it. This in an OR that is dying for workers, where the few people in the EVS unit are working up to 20 days in a row to cover the weekend call schedule.. The supervisor practically begged me to go out there (pro bono) and find him a replacement for me among the legions of janitors I know. In fact, I know like two–one, the janitor in my gym, the other the janitor in the landromat I use. I asked them both if they wanted to take my place in the OR, but neither was interested. Why would they be?

      I’ll get to calculations of what would constitute a fair wage in a separate comment. But my aim here is not to point fingers at particular individuals or even at a particular institution. It’s to make the general point that this is how managers of “low level employees” function. For further confirmation, I’d suggest reading Barbara Ehrenreich’s Nickel and Dimed, which chronicles and documents the same attitudes across a small handful of professions. Her observations are very astute and on target.

      (b) I fundamentally disagree with you on at-will employment. At-will employment has one lethal downside: neither side in the relationship is able to trust the other, and neither has a sense of security over that which it needs security. The worker sits around in terror at the thought of being capriciously fired. The employer wrings his hands in anxiety that half the staff will find better-paying jobs tomorrow, and leave without notice. The result is a suspicion-ridden, defensive ethos in which workers either kiss ass in the delusional belief that it buys job security (it doesn’t), or work to satisfy a checklist that “proves” that they’ve “done the job they were asked to do” in the same delusional belief (which doesn’t get them any more job security than ass kissing). Between ass-kissers and check-listers, the job never actually gets done properly. Meanwhile, management oscillates between Bad Assery and Flattery–bad-assery when it thinks that you’re working in terror of being fired, flattery when it realizes you have other job prospects. Between playing the one or other role, they lose any sense of what it means to manage people. Play-acting is not personnel management. But play-acting is their forte.

      There is also the subversion of honesty and fidelity, especially on the management side. If you give people the power to fire for any reason or none, with or without notice, they will abuse it–and do. They will simply fire people for no reason at all, on the basis of passing whims or moods. Or they’ll manage the workplace by wielding the threat to do so. The result is total non-accountability in termination that then starts to affect hiring decisions. Management wants to hire people susceptible to the bad-ass/flattery dynamic. That, in turn, subverts any semblance of merit or even instrumental rationality. I would say that the downsides of this dynamic trump the supposed upsides of flexibility involved.

      Put it this way: imagine that we treated rental leases as at-will arrangements. The tenant could leave at will, and the landlord could evict at will. That seems insane. But it’s no less insane when it comes to employment, because it amounts to the same thing. If you lose your job capriciously, you’re at risk of losing your housing just as capriciously. And vice versa.

      Liked by 1 person

    • In your second comment, you say:

      (2) Labor-remuneration schemes directly based on productive contribution — the very intuitive standard for valuing labor suggested by your post, whether or not you intended it — though often appropriate in personal contexts of dividing the product of joint effort, do not scale up to generate clear and on-their-own-terms non-contentious standards that work for exchange, functional markets, effective production and innovation. I suspect that, if we tried to scale-up such a primarily-contribution-sensitive scheme to a societal level, we’d end up, at best, fighting a lot and not really having markets or being very economically productive. For these kinds of reasons, I say: pride of place to market-style justice-norms and market-style valuations of labor (and of all the other things that we need to or that we benefit from exchanging or trading). This, I think, is one of those morally-counter-intuitive priorities or norms that universal/commercial (Scott Alexander) and WEIRD (Joseph Henrich) culture gets right. But, because it is morally counter-intuitive (and definitely has moral costs), it is perennially condemned as immoral and has to be defended anew in each generation.

      My overarching comment is that on the one hand, I think you’re over-reading me (attributing a stronger view to me than I hold), but I grant that you have a point about scale.

      I wouldn’t say that labor remuneration should be based directly on productive contribution. It’s unclear how one would do that, at least in any precise way within a market context. And you’re right that the kind of scheme that works for informal labor at a very small scale does not scale up to a whole economy the size of a country like the US or even UK or Germany.

      Fair enough. But surely productive contribution has to be a relevant consideration? Can it really be totally irrelevant to remuneration that EVS makes a causally fundamental contribution to surgical procedures?

      At a simple instrumental level, isn’t it instrumentally irrational to underpay people who are crucial to your operation? The miscalculation here appears to be that EVS workers are easily gotten, fungible, and easily trained. The idea seems to be: you can just sort of grab any idiot off the street, put him in scrubs, and make him a competent OR EVS worker, in the way that you can (supposedly) grab anyone off the street and have them flip burgers or wait tables. So it’s OK to underpay OR EVS, because if you lose one guy or gal, well no problem! Just grab another one off the street! Pay them $13 or $14 an hour, and they’ll have no choice but to take your offer. I mean, they’re too dumb to do anything else, right? So you’ve cornered the market on dumb laborers.

      Frankly, I have my doubts about the very idea that there is such a thing as “unskilled labor” that is relatively fungible and therefore legitimately paid a very low wage. But set that contentious claim aside. The “unskilled, hence fungible, hence OK to underpay” assumption is certainly NOT true of OR EVS. And yet the sorts of managers who run things in hospitals consistently, systematically make the miscalculation that it IS true of OR EVS. If all that I did in my post was to puncture the fundamentally classist complacency involved in that miscalculation, I would regard my work as 90% done.

      I don’t know how exactly to integrate “from each according to his budgetary constraints, to each according to her productive contribution” into decisions about wages at a scalable level. My way of punting on that question is simply to say that it would be preferable on grounds of both justice and rationality to operate in an economy where asymmetries of bargaining power played less of a role in labor negotiations than they currently do. And the most obvious way of decreasing those asymmetries would be to have robust labor unions negotiating over wages with management in order to produce real contracts rather than employment-at-will arrangements. I am not knowledgeable enough about labor economics or labor history to tell you why that is no longer feasible, or how to make it feasible. I’m content just to say that, and leave it there. People with greater expertise can take that insight and move it forward.

      What I would say, though, is that I regard the phrase you use, “market-style justice-norms,” as a contradiction in terms. If you look carefully at your own justification for the commodification of labor, what stands out is precisely that it has nothing to do with justice. It’s justified on grounds of efficiency, productivity, feasibility, lack of labor-management friction, etc. It has nothing to do with rewarding productive contribution, and nothing to do with incentivizing moral merit or moral virtue. As I’ve said, employment-at-will incentivizes dishonesty and non-fidelity. Markets do not reward productive contribution in the colloquial sense. They reward marginal contribution in the microeconomic sense.

      It’s interesting that while libertarians and welfare liberals like to focus on the differences between Rawls and Nozick, one thing both agree on is that norms of pre-institutional moral merit have no place in the market. The market cannot incentivize or reward moral merit, and should not be expected to do so. In Rawls, this comes up in section 48 of A Theory of Justice (“Legitimate Expectations and Moral Desert”), and in Nozick, it comes up in the section of Anarchy, State, and Utopia where he argues that liberty (as he conceives it) upsets patterned theories of justice (“How Liberty Upsets Patterns,” p. 160 on). It’s worth contrasting both with Ayn Rand’s bold claim at the beginning of “What Is Capitalism?” that capitalism is the only system that can be justified on the basis of justice.

      The one thing that has undermined my commitment to libertarianism over the years (insofar as I ever had one, itself a vexed issue) is my realization that Rand is fundamentally wrong about that. The only attenuated connection between capitalism and justice is supplied by the non-initiation of force principle: if it’s unjust to violate the principle, then consistent adherence to it is just. But as for moral merit, there is no connection between market norms and what we deserve. Peikoff, in OPAR, tries to rescue this by distinguishing between what we earn and what we deserve, but that just gives a name to the problem without solving it. The problem remains.

      Relevant, and worth reading:

      https://www.theatlantic.com/ideas/archive/2021/04/theres-no-such-thing-as-a-low-skill-worker/618674/

      Liked by 1 person

      • Reply to your reply to my [2] here. This is quite helpful. I caught at least one important error in what I had to say earlier. And I clearly needed to think about this stuff some more!

        (i) The most important question here — that I did not address clearly — is whether one of the conditions that would make a wage-rate unjust is its failing to adequately correspond to degree of productive contribution. We should acknowledge the justice and injustice in the wage-bargaining process (and thereby, in a certain respect, of the wage rate settled on) as well, but this need not be the only way in which a wage can be unjust. We have to consider the broadly desert- or merit-related justice-evaluation, as well as the fair-bargaining-based evaluation, of wage rates. Many crude, rights-based versions of libertarianism get this wrong.

        (ii) Schematic case: X’s labor makes for 80% of the $10M/yr product in an enterprise, but things are set up such that X is a wage-laborer and X’s labor is valued on the market at $50,000/yr (suppose this is due, in large part, to a fat supply of the sort of labor that X is offering; assume further that there is nothing justice-wise wrong with bargaining processes that determined this wage rate). It is quite plausible that, prior to sometime in the 1980s, many popular music artists in the U.S. were in a position like this (whether or not their compensation was precisely wage compensation). They were not fairly compensated but there was a market consensus to compensate them this way.

        (iii) However, I think such extreme and clear cases are pretty rare (at least at the level of occupation F in industry G). There are two quite-general reasons for thinking this (even if, to get definitive and detailed results, we would need conceptually-clear empirical studies). First, it is not clear that at what level there are determinate quantities of productive contribution and, in any case, it is hard to determine and come to reasonable agreement about it. This suggests that the relevant requirement of justice is something like this: that the wage not be such that, by non-contentious standards or standards that all reasonable folks would agree on, it is clearly out-of-whack with degree of productive contribution. I suspect that this standard is quite hard to meet, especially at the level of occupation F in industry G. I’d be interested to know what this might look like, spelled out fully. Second, market prices, including wages, are the product of our judgments about underlying merit (this brand of washing machine works well or gives me status; this wage-labor task contributes that much to this sort of productive endeavor). And they function like a kind of public consensus regarding the underlying merits (high price = in general, folks think this has a lot of relevant sorts of merits). If this is right, then we should expect a general correlation between our (crude, low-resolution) standards of degree of productive contribution and prices wage levels for a profession. That is consistent with individual cases, and even persistent contexts, of “fair market wages” being all-in unjust due to being too-out-of-whack with clear, shared, reasonable standards of productive contribution.

        (FWIW, my real estate partnership foundered partly on our trying to determine compensation via discerning and directly applying standards of productive contribution. Until we valued my labor at its market value, we had no good way of determining relative levels of compensation based on productive contribution. Importantly: in my negotiations with my partner, ‘we couldn’t do what we do without me doing K’ were ubiquitous — but useless for determining differential degrees of contribution and impossible to commensurate. More precise determinations did not seem possible — and due to the subject matter, not due to our epistemic shortcomings. One thing that did work, to an extent, was simply agreeing on certain compensation arrangements that seemed “fair enough” by productive-contribution standards. I suspect that appealing to the market value of my labor was analogous to coming to agreement on something that was “fair enough” — but better due to the price-verdict being both more-informed and a matter of public consensus. The number we got jibed well enough with our prior intuitive (and in a sense primary or most basic) contribution-based standards. It seemed more like a measurement or sensible determination of this, not something foreign to productive contribution.)

        (iv) I appealed to utility a bunch. I think appeal to utility (here, to economic productiveness in letting the market set wages for the most part) in these sort of contexts functions to help us choose between arrangements that are not-unjust. Put another way: once the basic requirements of justice are met (so that the arrangement is not-unjust), we are permitted — and it might be best — to prefer a less-just to a more-just arrangement on grounds of utility. I had this sort of tie-breaking-like role in mind in writing [2] in appealing to considerations of more productive and efficient production through market wages. However, what I said implied a choice between market-process fairness and productive-contribution-proportional fairness in wages, with the conflict between the different standards settled in favor of market-process fairness by appeal to utility. That was wrong — and a roundabout way of getting to something very much like a traditional rights-based libertarian position. But the reality is: both conditions need to be met in order to avoid injustice. So utility can do its tie-breaking kind of work only from among alternatives that have met both fair-bargaining and productive-contribution-correspondence conditions.

        [Sorry about that length of this!]

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        • I meant to say earlier (what I’ve said many times over the years) that you should be mining your real estate experience for material on business ethics and other related topics. You have far, far more experience in business than the average academic expert on business ethics, and at least as much in the way of analytic chops.

          That said, I think the issue of directly determining compensation by identifying exact shares of productive contribution is a red herring. Even if there’s no way to do that, you can know, in a qualitative way, that one or another party to a venture has made a substantial contribution while the other has not. Instead of trying to determine an exact quantity of compensation corresponding to each quantity of productive contribution, simply ask whether those who have made a substantial contribution are being compensated well enough to be free of anxiety in meeting their basic needs for well-being, pruning one’s understanding of that last concept in whatever way is reasonable.

          For instance, if one party is capitalizing the venture and the other is putting in the labor, it should not be the case that the person putting in the labor has to suffer breakdown-inducing anxiety in order to meet ends meet while the capitalist sits pretty a thousand miles away, saying things like, “If it weren’t for my money, you’d be nowhere!” I’m not saying that was your situation; I’m simply adducing it as a simple but easily overlooked case. There’s no need to get bogged down in some latter-day equivalent of the labor theory of value. The issues here are much simpler than that. There’s no need to over-complicate them.

          There is a real sense in which money is not an appropriate compensation for labor, anyway. I’m writing a post on this, so I don’t want to over-telegraph my message, but the reward of satisfying work is not monetary compensation but mastery of the work itself. One gets paid in order to free one’s mind of ancillary worries about the bills that need paying, not because there is some intrinsic connection between output and compensation, much less because the market rate for labor determines its actual moral value, or worse still, the moral value of the worker.

          Other things equal, the better your pay, the less reason for anxiety (about those things). So I’m not denigrating the idea of being well compensated. But the value of money is external to the value of the task for which one is paid. In a sense, monetary compensation is irrelevant to the motivation for work. A nurse or physician does not (or should not) consciously be thinking that the reason for doing a given medical procedure is that it has such-and-such revenue code, and think of the revenue stream that can be gotten by doing it. That goes for EVS as well. There is no intrinsic connection between the quality of the work I do when I clean an OR and the wage I’m paid. If I accept the job, it would be delinquent to do a bad job even if the pay was low–even if it’s low enough to be unfair. “We don’t play just for pay” is a common musical refrain (I got it from an AC/DC song, but it’s a common enough sentiment).

          I’ve been reading Aristotle lately on nemesis, or righteous indignation, which is the virtuous emotion one feels (though not a virtue itself) when one encounters the spectacle of undeserved good fortune–e.g., the dishonest person who makes a munificent, undeserved income. Apparently, Aquinas’s objection to Aristotle’s view was that righteous indignation presupposes an overvaluation of the goods of fortune relative to the value of virtue. You would only feel righteous indignation at the spectacle of a rich malefactor if you thought that wealth was a reward for virtue. But it isn’t. The rewards of virtue are the moral pleasures consequent on the practice of virtue. Money plays only a peripheral background role there, in ensuring that the virtuous agent has opportunities for the exercise of virtue. It would be absurd to think that the justice of a just act was compensated for by a big monetary award.

          I don’t entirely agree with Aquinas’s view, but he has a point, one that induces one to think harder about how it is that the goods of fortune (e.g., money, reputation, etc.) constitute compensation for virtuous activity (e.g., productive work). Here’s the paper, by the way:

          https://place.asburyseminary.edu/cgi/viewcontent.cgi?article=1315&context=faithandphilosophy

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          • IK: “…simply ask whether those who have made a substantial contribution are being compensated well enough to be free of anxiety in meeting their basic needs for well-being, pruning one’s understanding of that last concept in whatever way is reasonable.”

            MY: This would only set some kind of a just wage floor in relevant contexts (presumably, not one of general, desperate poverty). Don’t we want an idea of just, roughly contribution-proportionate compensation for labor (that is, to some degree, independent of the wage-rate result of fair or otherwise good enough market bargaining) to do more work than this? One way for it to do this work is indirectly, through social consensus, arrived at based on the right sort of reasons or sensitivities that speak to the necessarily-inexact and messy idea of “how much” one is contributing (or how important or indispensable one’s contribution is). It seems plausible that the facts about “how much” one contributes, though real, are not specific enough to produce the kind of specific social consensus that we need (I’m talking about a consensus that might come apart from market dictates, perhaps even if the bargaining process is fair, etc.). Might it be that, in a given situation, the only viable way to come to this sort of consensus is via a market negotiation that is good enough in being fair and perhaps also in the participants being adequately sensitive to degree-of-contribution as a factor? Or maybe, in the right circumstances, the results of market negotiations track reasonable agreement on degree of contribution well enough but not necessarily because anyone takes this into account? I don’t know. In the case of my real estate partnership, I took the market-bargaining consensus pay rate for property management to determine, as best as we could and in a definite way, how important my contribution was. That’s just my reporting an intuition and all I’ve got for explanation/justification is the couple ideas just mentioned.

            Also (separate point): though it might not be nice to say “I’m paying you the going rate — and this corresponds well enough to how important or indispensable your services are for us to produce what we produce — but whether or not this is adequate for you to live in an adequately anxiety-free way is not my responsibility; it is, if anything, society’s responsibility,” it is not obvious that this policy is not perfectly fair (in fact, I’m inclined to say that it is, especially if society has, rightly in my view, taken up this responsibility). Relatedly: an employer unreflectively take the going market rate as fair and well-enough reflecting value of contribution (even if she does not explicitly distinguish the two measures or consider how they might come apart). Such an employer, I would argue, is not as sensitive to justice as she might be, but is not violating any requirement of justice. By contrast, if this employer explicitly does not care about value of contribution or whether the market wage tracks contribution (or reasonable consensus on contribution) well enough, the insensitivity to justice is here a more serious matter. Perhaps it would make sense for us not to tolerate or allow such an attitude, so that the attitudes, thoughts or actions of the employer would count as violating a requirement of justice? Worse, due to unfairness in the bargaining process or special exigent circumstances, the employer might accurately judge that the market wage rate is exploitative (is obviously and uncontentiously at odds with productive contribution) and offer only that much anyway. This, I think, is a clear case of violating a requirement of justice (even if there are strong-enough reasons of economic efficiency or respect for autonomy or whatnot favoring not legally disallowing such not merely not-nice but wrong actions).

            I’m making this, or some of this, sound more definite than it is in my mind. On the core issues of (i) what, precisely, productive contribution is, (ii) how, directly or indirectly, to take this into account in determining what wage-compensation employers should, as a matter of justice (or in line with a requirement of justice), offer or give, and (iii) how the results of market bargaining over wage rates might, in the right conditions, well-enough track productive contribution (or reasonable consensus on such) — the most honest thing to say is “this is really complicated stuff and I don’t know; so I go with my pro-market-rate intuitions as a default, with some speculative explanatory/justificatory elements that fit my intuitions thrown in, but my confidence in any positive picture I paint here is pretty low.”

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  4. Your last comment:

    (3) There are important moral/justice issues and costs. A system that treats a person and her labor in this way immediately raises the question of avoiding unfair distributions of benefits and burdens (and also, as you stress in your post, the moral costs of encouraging false vice-based moral justification of wage rates; and also related costs of “commodifying” a person and her labor, in this way not treated her as a person fully). Though it is not obvious just what is required to meet the fair-distribution requirement, high-rent, low-wage market conditions seem to violate appropriate fairness standards. For one thing, those in these conditions might appropriately resent and object to the rest of us or society subjecting them to these conditions (Thomas Scanlon’s “contractualism” but with my little twist on it). So: though I still think there is a ton to be said in favor of libertarian approaches to addressing such distributional issues (e.g., deregulation, aversion to coercive pursuits of contentious social-justice ideals), I’m open to the idea that part of the best solution is something more direct and left-wing like wage supplementation for lower-wage working folks (n.b., not guaranteed basic income, not higher or “living” minimum wage). Your posts help me see the stark reality of market-justice-induced unjust outcomes (and inappropriate right-wing moralizing rationalization of them) more clearly. Much thanks for this.

    Why are so many of my friends so fucking right wing? “Aversion to coercive pursuits of contentious social-justice ideals”? Against a living minimum wage? So basically, you want PLUTOCRACY, leavened by a bit of cheap, half-hearted melioration. The workers of the world are not going to be pleased with that thin gruel, let me tell you. (I know how you love left-wing rhetoric of this sort, so I thought I’d throw some in.) Anyway, I half agree with what you’re saying. I mean, I’m kind of a plutocrat, too; my favorite character in Atlas Shrugged is Fred Kinnan, the corrupt labor leader, whom I regard as a role model.

    Here’s the least contentious way of saying the contentious thing I want to say. It is not in management’s interest to have a workforce that suffers from chronic anxiety about how to make ends meet. Workers in that predicament cannot be relied on to stay for long in one job, or to do a good job in the one job they have. It is instrumentally irrational for managers to hire such workers, train them, then see them leave before the institution has really begun to reap the rewards of their productivity. Management consistently underestimates how long it takes to beat the learning curve on labor-intensive jobs because most managers have themselves never done the job, and have no clue what it takes to learn it and do it well.

    To pay people properly, you have to be somewhat attentive, not just to your supply-side concerns, but to their needs as human beings. The two most important considerations are health care and housing. Let me skip health care for now. Housing is expensive. The general rule of thumb is that it is a bad idea to pay more than 1/3 of your income on housing. So a living wage, as I think of it, is one such that a generic worker should be able to adhere to the preceding rule. It should actually be feasible for a real-live person to earn enough income at a full time job such that she need only devote 1/3 or less of her income to rent a one bedroom apartment within reasonable commuting distance from the job (for a two-bedroom, assume two incomes). (I added “within reasonable commuting distance” as an afterthought, because rents decrease in inverse relation to their distance from job centers, so one way to satisfy the proviso would be to calculate rents hours away from the job, which is obviously unreasonable and unfair. Hence the addition.)

    I realize that roommate arrangements decrease the rent paid per capita, but I don’t think that roommate arrangements should be the default assumption. I can elaborate on why, but for now I’ll just state the point and leave it there.

    Suffice it to say that very few entry-level jobs meet the requirement I’ve just stated. My claim is that they should strive to do so within whatever budgetary constraints they face, being honest about the priorities reflected by those constraints. Budgetary constraints should not be given an artificial fixity that they need not have (where fixed costs are conceived in such a way that the needs of workers are never factored in).

    One agreement I have with you concerns deregulation. One way to meet my “living wage” proviso is to increase wages, but a complementary way to do it is to reduce the cost of housing, which is basically a matter of de-regulating the housing market. .

    Enough for now.

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    • Briefly (response to your response to my [3])…

      So I guess you are agreeing with my left-wing social-justice-y respect of injustice (entirely distinct from any injustice from wages not corresponding to degree of productive contribution)? Cool. In principle, the wage supplementation can be as big as you like. Or as big as I like! Workers of the world, unite around me — not Irfan!

      Your socially-just wage standard does not seem unreasonable, though I think the adequacy of housemate arrangements is negotiable (shoot, there go the workers of the world back to you…). Maybe we decide between these standards via considerations of utility (both options being not-unjust). That strongly socio-economic-class-based society sucks, regardless of justice-status, is an under-rated consideration in political argumentation! But: injustice so sexy! Also: I think coercive attempts to meet such standards are usually unjust (so no forcing employers to pay, public purse has to pony up). Two cheers for libertarianism! And employers. Now I’ve definitely lost the workers…

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    • Also: I agree with you about instrumental stupidity on the part of management. As will become more and more obvious as low-skill jobs fade in favor of robots, retraining costs are a big part of the ballgame. So you gotta keep the folks you have if they are any good. That means treating them well and paying them better. But I don’t think such instrumental reasons have much purchase in discussions of justice. They have more purchase the closer you get to electoral politics though. The more sensible business-folk might be open to the government doing, or that others do, what they are trying to do to retain employees.

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      • Well, instrumental reasons require an appraisal at least of the merit or worth of an individual in instrumental, institutional terms, so there is some connection there to justice. Some sense of justice is required to give a correct appraisal, even in terms of instrumental rationality of a person’s value to an endeavor, as opposed to the falsely casual, hurried, insensitive, off-the-cuff-, money-obsessed, short-term appraisal that so many managers seem so eager to give. There is injustice in taking people’s productive contributions for granted, even if doing so is instrumentally irrational, and justice in taking stock of them, even if one has an instrumentalist motivation for doing so. Instrumental reasons are irrelevant to pre-theoretical moral worth or merit, but that’s not the only kind of moral desert in play.

        I had intended to be relatively neutral on government policy, both in my original post and in my comments. What I’m really focused on here is less policy prescriptions (in the governmental sense) than moral evaluation. It would be great if managers could be induced to be more instrumentally rational, and more sensitive to the various species of moral desert, pre- and post-institutional. But if they can’t, plenty of questions can be asked about how it is that they come to acquire the power they have in a semi-capitalist regime. A huge amount of it rests on monopoly power of one kind or another that can legitimately be called into question.

        So don’t make me call on my anarchist attack dogs. There isn’t a concentration of power or instance of asymmetric bargaining power anywhere in the world that they can’t trace back to monopoly power of some kind, hence to a rights violation of some kind. And what are rights violations but injustices demanding to be rectified at gunpoint, with guns held by a woke mob? I don’t believe half of what they say, but I will start to believe it on instrumental grounds if you force me into it.

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  5. I pretty much agree with what you say in [a], but I think the meat of the issue is the interplay between the private values that people have (and the values that predominate in a given firm) and what the relevant kind of labor is worth in the market. That’s a complicated question, but I don’t think the former has no effect on the latter. But if we take the market value of the labor as fixed, one might still do well, as an employer, to pay above-market wages and treat employees well — the ability to do so depending partly on slack in one’s profit, partly on positive effects of profit due to consumer perception of moral treatment of workers, partly on extra productivity and lack of turnover among the well-treated employees.

    Regarding [b], what you say makes sense. However, it could be that the best solution to these problems (the way to address these problems without too much compromise in productivity or economic efficiency) is through changes in private (and firm-level) values and policies, not through fundamental changes in the law regarding at-will employment. That would be my initial move, though I’d also be open to a fundamentally at-will regime that has some not-at-will add-ons or caveats (or more than we have). I’m assuming that (and I think there are good studies to support this) at-will employment law significantly contributes to economic productivity/efficiency. I could be wrong about this. My impression is that a whole lot of economic thinking (certainly pundit-level, but also professional-level) is driven by value priors (what is being studied being so complicated that slam-dunk evidence one way or another is hard to come by). So we all need to be humble and intellectual virtuous about these points.

    FWIW, I’m by-the-month at-will with my tenants and all parties prefer it that way. The stability/reliability of the relationship is informal, but I insist on these understandings of reciprocal intent. We all need, and I insist on a commitment to, providing maximum notice of changes in lease terms, move-outs, etc. Part of the lesson I draw from this is that legal and informal/moral constraint (rules, policies, expectations) are different and a morally spartan version of the former combined non-legal-constraint add-ons can work quite well.

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    • The above comment beginning with ‘I pretty much agree…’ is a response to your response to my [1]. For some reason, WordPress is not letting me edit my comments (and ordering/indenting the comments in an unhelpful way).

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    • Well, recall that my preferred policy move is not regulatory legislation, but unionization. One of the best inducements to getting employers to pay “above market rates” is to make what’s “above market rate” the market rate. That’s ideally what unions do. They also negotiate real, binding contracts. So there’s two managerial Goliaths killed with one unionized stone.

      I wouldn’t dispute that a quasi-at-will relationship can work in some places. But month-to-month isn’t quite at will. And at-will employment doesn’t just apply “in some places”; it applies indiscriminately, everywhere, and in ways that explicitly supersede the terms of the “contracts” people sign. A firm will write up an entire employee handbook, demand that all employees agree to its terms, and then assert on the first page that every provision in the handbook can be abandoned at will, come the day that the boss decides, for no reason whatsoever, that he would just like to fire X out of the blue. Employment-at-will is, in practice, contract-nullification-at-will. It’s just a means by which powerful people exercise their power with impunity.

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      • I’d say you are talking about a specific form of abuse of the employment-at-will contract: employees are required, on pain of being fired, to sign apparent contracts pertaining how their job is to be done (and sometimes other things vaguely related to their employment, the reputation of the company, etc.), while the employers can effectively back out of the such agreements at any time by simply firing the employee. This does not seem like literal contract nullification to me, but the arrangement does function in something of the same way. I see the problem here not with the “either party can walk away at any time (given two weeks notice or whatnot)” employment contract — and not as best or more generally and essentially characterized as de facto allowance of some kind of contract nullification — but rather as a power imbalance between employer and employee (that allows for abuse in changing the specifics of on-going formal or informal arrangements on a moment’s notice, on pain of ending the relationship). This is largely due to the employee’s asymmetrical reliance on the employer for livelihood. This reliance is often there, to some significant degree, even when there are other good jobs available and the cost of walking away is not nearly as great as it might be. This power-imbalance problem is somewhat independent of pro-employer power imbalances in the negotiation of wage rates and the setting of market prices for labor. (In principle, but only rarely actually, these imbalances can tilt either way.)

        The regulatory solution here is to forbid employers from doing certain particularly abusive things with their outsized power (e.g., mandated bathroom breaks). Unions work to lessen the power imbalance (a different, in many ways more flexible, path to solutions), though I would insist that unions not use state (or private) coercion. It is not clear to me how the government can or should encourage unions without coercing people into joining unions or being represented by them. The potential downside for even not-coercive unions is that their having too much power relative to employers can gum up otherwise efficient, innovative markets. We are all-in better off when the employers or capitalists have more, but not unchecked, power in these negotiations or relationships (of course, within the bounds our not tolerating or allowing the worst abuses of this power). That might not be the most just arrangement, but as long as justice constraints or requirements are not violated in the arrangement, productive efficiency can, and maybe in some sense should, play the deciding role. And, of course, lesser abuses of this power can and should be called out and dealt with in piecemeal (or not-piecemeal) private ways.

        All of this fits well with additional regulation, and the existence of reasonably-powerful unions, within a fundamentally formal and informal at-will employment-contract framework.

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        • Whether at-will employment is a literal nullification of the concept of a contract, or a subversion of the norms of contractual reliance through asymmetrical bargaining power, is analytic logic chopping. Either way, one faces the same problem, and the problem is more intense than you describe.

          Take the “two weeks” notice provision. Strictly speaking, a “two weeks notice” provision contradicts an at-will employment arrangement. If you can leave at will, you can literally walk off the job (or be fired on the job) in the middle of doing it. It’s worth concretizing this. In OR EVS, that means that you could literally walk off the job in the middle of doing an emergency case.

          It’s worth concretizing that yet further. I was once in a situation where I was doing a terminal clean of OR 6, after having been told that it was now ready for terminal clean. The procedure for doing a terminal clean is very different from the one for doing a turnover clean. For instance, for terminal clean, you take all of the equipment in the room, push it into the center of the room, mop the edges of the room, then push the equipment back to the edges. It’s time consuming and laborious, and there’s absolutely no time to do that during a turnover.

          Anyway, I had done just that: all the equipment was in the middle of the OR suite, and I was mopping the edges. I was in the middle of it when a nurse pops her head into the room with a sort of worried look on her face (nurses never look all that worried, even if the sky is falling), and says, “How fast can you turn this room over?” My first, brainlessly reflexive reaction was: “Fuck you! You told me to terminal clean it! I’m not turning it over now, bitch! Half the equipment is in the middle of the fucking room!” But I suppress that reaction and say (with admirable calm and civility), “How fast do you need it?” And she says, “Well, the patient is outside the room bleeding out.” I wasn’t about to quarrel with that, so I moved my ass and did what she asked.

          What makes this example interesting is that it involves a reversal on the part of the clinical staff. They told me that OR 6 was ready for terminal clean; then they changed their minds and demanded a turnover clean. This is a serious pain in the ass for me, but it’s what I regard as a reasonable reversal, the kind of reversal that’s part of the job. A charge nurse has to have the flexibility to change her mind in this way. An EVS worker who threw a fit in response, or refused to obey the order (and it is an order), would be doing something gravely unjust, no matter how poorly he was paid, and no matter what the pay differential between him and the charge nurse. Those things are, under the circumstances, morally irrelevant. If she says, “Turn it over” in these circumstances, it’s time to swallow your complaints and rock and roll.

          It should be a reductio that employment-at-will allows the worker to walk off the job under these circumstances with legal impunity. But it does. If Nicole tells me to turn the room over because someone is bleeding out, legally speaking I can say, “Fuck Nicole!”, drop my mop, leave the equipment where it is, and walk out the door. What if that means that the patient bleeds out? Then the patient bleeds out. Handling that becomes the OR’s problem on a moment’s notice. That basically gives the EVS worker the power to kill the patient. The assumption is that no one would have the chutzpah to do that. But believe me, they would.

          To disincentivize scenarios like the preceding (in other words: to give management a sense of stability), HR “requests” two weeks’ notice from anyone looking to resign. But the double standard here is pretty amazing. The way they enforce this “two weeks notice even though you’re allowed to leave without notice” proviso is that if you don’t give two weeks’ notice, they’ll refuse to re-hire you in the future, and they’ll pocket your unpaid PTO. They would, if they could, pocket your unpaid wages, as well. I know of one place that did that to a friend of mine–fired him without notice and without genuine cause, then pocketed his unpaid wages.

          Notice that in the name of the “freedom of contract” allegedly expressed by at-will employment, HR faces a problem that it solves by helping itself to benefits that you had already earned, re-describing them as up for grabs…so as to disincentivize workers’ making use of the at-will provision of their employment arrangement. Is this a literal nullification of contract? No, but it’s a convoluted, semi-insane state of affairs.

          Of course, HRs gambit will only work in some cases. If a given worker has taken all of his PTO, has recently gotten his paycheck, and doesn’t care to be re-hired by that hospital, he can in principle walk off the job in the middle of a surgical case, even if that means leaving the patient to bleed there on a stretcher as the nurses figure out, from scratch, how to transform the mess that the worker has made into a viable surgical suite.

          I’ve mostly been criticizing management in this post, but I would criticize workers as well: I don’t think a worker should be allowed to walk off the job in the middle of the day (or in the middle of a case), at least not without legal consequences. But the consequence for such a worker should not be the absurd re-definition of PTO as something that isn’t really yours. The worker’s abdication of responsibility should be treated as a legal breach of contract. But of course, that can only happen if there is a contract which stipulates duration of work–precisely what contract-at-will rules out. (This is one of several examples I would adduce, not just in health care. Similar things happen in the market for adjunct labor in higher education.)

          But here is the double standard. HR sees the problem that might arise if the worker walks off the job without notice or cause, and has a half-assed remedy for it. But there is no comparable remedy for when management does the same thing to the worker. My view is that a genuine contract resolves both problems at once, and only unions can negotiate such contracts.

          I prefer unions to free-standing regulation without unions, because without unions, regulations are just propositions written on the pages of some administrative handbook without genuine enforcement provisions. People love the idea of writing regulations to solve problems, but forget that a “regulation” by itself solves nothing. It has to be enforced. Who is to enforce it, day to day? It can’t be enforced day to day by a regulatory agency. No regulatory agency has the personnel to sit there and monitor regulatory compliance on a daily basis. Neither does the regulatory compliance division of the institution itself.

          The only people who can do real-world regulatory compliance are the front-line people on the ground at the job site itself–the workers. The options for doing this fall into three categories: have them report regulatory infractions to a government agency, have them report infractions to the regulatory compliance division of the institution, or have them report infractions to a union boss. I mean that as a three-place disjunction with emphasis on the last disjunct. You get real regulatory compliance only if you have workers reporting infractions to a party that is sufficiently interested and sufficiently proximate to the work site to do something about them. Otherwise, what you get is the regulatory equivalent of a Potemkin Village. You get regulatory agencies that make periodic visits to hastily cleaned-up job sites that cover their regulatory tracks, or you get regulatory compliance enforcement by people who know more and care more about nit-picking legalisms than about the actual conditions of front-line work.

          So, to summarize: I think you’re understating the harms and double standards involved in at-will employment arrangements, and don’t think regulation can be made to work unless done in tandem with unionization. How exactly unionization is to take place now that unions are half-dead, I don’t know. What exactly counts as “coercive” when it comes to union activity (apart from the blatantly criminal), I also can’t say from an armchair.

          I still take issue with this:

          We are all-in better off when the employers or capitalists have more, but not unchecked, power in these negotiations or relationships (of course, within the bounds our not tolerating or allowing the worst abuses of this power). That might not be the most just arrangement, but as long as justice constraints or requirements are not violated in the arrangement, productive efficiency can, and maybe in some sense should, play the deciding role. And, of course, lesser abuses of this power can and should be called out and dealt with in piecemeal (or not-piecemeal) private ways.

          I don’t really see why we’re all better off when capitalists enjoy an asymmetric power advantage in labor-management relations. My own view toward the capitalist managerial class has now become a mirror image of their attitude toward me. They’re very proud of practicing “zero-based budgeting,” which means that when they do an annual budget, they don’t treat any costs as fixed; all costs, including labor costs, must always be justified and re-justified from scratch at each iteration of the budgetary process. Last year you paid EVS $14/hour? No reason to assume that this year you will pay them $14/hour. You have to look into the possibility that you can get away with paying them less this year, even less next year, even less the year after…. This process is iterated across the board for literally every item in the budget, year after year. Zero balance budgeting is a nullification of any conception of progress. You’re obliged to pretend to be a tabula rasa each year, re-building the world from scratch as though the preceding year had never really happened.

          That’s how the capitalist class should itself should be treated. Instead of assuming that they know what the fuck they’re doing, we should do zero based moral budgeting with them–assume nothing about their fitness for the positions of power they hold, and let them prove their competence to us by continual action that proves it. From this perspective, there is no a priori reason to think that we are better off when capitalists have the upper hand. The a priori default assumption should be that labor and management are morally on par, and should encounter one another under conditions that approximate equality, eliminating asymmetric bargaining power to whatever extent is possible. The stronger unions are, the closer we get to that ideal.

          When productive efficiency, as capitalist managers conceive it, plays the deciding role, the inevitable, predictable consequence is injustice. It’s not a matter of piecemeal injustices here and there. It’s a matter of a systematic tendency to exploit workers out of a sense of total indifference to their welfare. Unionization is my black box remedy for that, but the more important point for me is to chip away at the rosy picture of labor-management relations you’re defending. It’s false. Capitalist managers are not the competent, trustworthy, loyal, helpful, friendly people that capitalist mythology describes them as being. They’re ruthless, unscrupulous, and enormously dishonest, and incentivized to be that way. The only rule for dealing with them is caveat emptor.

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          • There is a lot there and a lot there that I agree with.

            Due to time considerations, I’ll address just one issue you raise at the end (and probably in something of an reactive, atavistic libertarian-knee-jerk, inadequate way).

            Isn’t the central Adam-Smith-type idea that markets and capitalists, at least with the right regulative constraints in place, tend to achieve uniquely productive results without intending to (even if the actors, the capitalists and managers, the producers and the consumers, are by and large pretty short-sited and often act on bad motives, including exploitative ones)? And, beyond trying to get the best price, none of the agents really need to be competent in order to achieve important productivity or efficiency virtues in the system. I can’t speak very well, at any level of detail, to what conditions are necessary for the “magic of markets” to occur, but we do want it to occur (without requirements of justice being violated — or at least without the super-important, legally-enforced ones being violated) don’t we? And doesn’t the profit motive of managers and capitalists play an indispensable role in the system being productive?

            The moral evaluation of capitalists (or managers or employers — or employees) is an entirely different matter, right? This is one key point I am making: as long as we don’t tolerate or allow things that we shouldn’t — as long as the requirements of justice and morality are respected — shouldn’t we reap the benefits of the capitalist system of production and price-setting, even at some expense to justice and morality (perhaps even at a price of systemic, incentivized injustice — though if this is our situation, I would recommend inventiveness in institutional design, not complacency)? Are you treating all considerations of justice as requirements of justice (or perhaps tending to view considerations of justice as requirements of justice)? I don’t think we want productive efficiency to count for nothing against any consideration of justice, however small.

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            • I guess the problematic feature of your comment is right there staring us in the face. An uncharitable way of re-stating it: if we take an Olympian and highly idealized picture of markets, drawn from Adam Smith and textbooks of microeconomics, markets appear to work productive magic without moral friction, but if we look at how they actually work, it appears that there’s enormous leeway there for unspoken and easily ignored injustice.

              I guess I would stand back from the issue and say this. What markets do is to respond to/satisfy/reward consumer demand, which is another way of saying that they reward desire plus the capacity to pay market-clearing prices. There is good reason to think that that set of incentives and dynamics will generate wealth, but there is no reason at all to think that it tracks moral desert. In many contexts, there are reasons to think that it tracks anti-desert. This is why I keep bringing up the PornHub human trafficking case in such an obsessive way: .

              https://twitter.com/lailamickelwait?lang=en

              Reflection on this case tells you something about capitalism that you’re not going to get by reading a textbook of microeconomics, or by reading articles in The Freeman. This is a case of a gigantic industry that perfectly tracks desire and the demand side of the market, but systematically violates rights and degrades people in the process. It’s of no use to sing the virtues of the market when confronting a case like this, and somewhat point-missing to say that, well, the market presupposes libertarian rights, and trafficking violates them. All of the efficiencies in this case are overriden by considerations of justice. The whole enterprise just consists of ill-gotten goods.

              I think it’s a mistake to tolerate a dualism of “economic” and “moral” considerations of the kind your comment implies. Managers don’t stop being moral agents simply because they’re operating within the framework of a market. The principles of justice have to be made consistent with the demands of efficiency, but that’s not the same as treating justice and efficiency as operating, in effect, in two different and unrelated realms.

              One of the best things to read here is Roderick’s, “Why Libertarians Should Be Social Justice Warriors,” in Bissell, Sciabarra, and Younkins’s The Dialectics of Liberty. It’s highly relevant to this discussion, and worked out in more detail than I can provide in a comment.

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              • I’m not entirely sure where, or how much, we are disagreeing here.

                There is the hard issue of whether, or under what conditions, market processes and results track desert (and what type of desert). It seems plausible that, in the right conditions — including some market-exogenous virtue-conditions for the agents involved (often unduly minimized or taken for granted by market enthusiasts) — market price tracks something like generic instrumental or utility value and that being rewarded for producing precisely this is what we deserve from markets. If this is right, then the implementation of market norms, but also some important “structuring” market-exogenous norms, is an important producer of justice (whatever the costs in morality or justice).

                An important thing implicit in what I just expressed is this: the proper unit of analysis is a “package” of market and market-exogenous norms and institutions. And, in order to sufficiently avoid injustice, you need more than just some canned set of property and contract rights for moral content (just think of some morally horrible or oppressive thing or set of conditions, not technically violating some prima facie sensible property and contract rights, that have desirable aspects that might well be “demanded” by paying customers in a market). I think this implies something like what you are calling a non-dualism regarding market and moral considerations.

                My most basic point, though, is this (and it applies to things other than markets, really to all of practical existence for humans): once the requirements of morality or justice are met, it is a fundamentally contestable matter how to balance moral and non-moral considerations (including considerations of justice, insofar as these are not requirements). We regard to markets (and elsewhere), I’d also plump for a stronger claims, perhaps somewhat conditional on certain value-commitments implicit in WEIRD culture (or some similar cultural unit): it is all-in better not to turn the being-moral dial up to 11 while ignoring the practicality dial or turning it down to 1 or 3. I’d make this case even apart from things like non-market-oriented politico-economic systems tending to cause humanitarian disasters, lead to national decline, etc.

                I’ll definitely read Roderick’s paper — I’ve been meaning to.

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  6. What renders at-will employment toxic is the institutional structure, which we left-libertarians argue is the result not of the market but of interference with the market. Y’know, Kevin Carson und so weiter.

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    • I could use a reference, but I guess I don’t really buy that. What I mean is: without disputing your causal explanation for why employment at will is particularly toxic in our current state, I’d say that it’s a doctrine ripe for abuse regardless of that causal story. A contract that combines elaborate procedures with at at-will escape clause that says, “All these procedures go out the window if we suddenly decide they do” is, practically speaking, a contradiction in terms, and an invitation to abuse of power. Maybe government makes that worse, but it’s bad enough on its own.

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  10. “On January 4, Romanski was in the middle of a 36-hour shift when she received an email from Burnette. She was no longer employed by HospitalMD — and, in effect, the hospital, he wrote.

    Should I continue working? Do I even have malpractice insurance right now? Romanski wondered.”

    Yikes.

    Regarding non-payment: it is hard to say what, institutionally, can or should be done about this kind of thing. No doubt different jurisdictions do things differently and perhaps something could be learned about what institutional improvement makes sense. I’m glad the contractor got around to having a responsible attitude toward the folks owed salary. But I imagine that he is telling the truth that he is not presently in a position to pay. Big companies and corporations tend to do better, but especially smaller businesses tend to be less professionalized and reasonably often get way too far out over their skis with income and expenditures: if you lose your biggest client or customer and do not have a pretty large reserves, you can easily end up not being able to make payroll. I could imagine a public system that assured continued payment to subcontractors, workers, etc. and then sorted things out in bankruptcy or otherwise.

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  11. Pingback: Desert and Diachronic Fairness | Policy of Truth

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