Jeff’s Blog #17

Jeff’s Blog, Volume 17

Thanks for continuing to read along! If you’ve been enjoying this, consider looping in a friend or two who would also like it? It’s been really great to hear from some of your friends already.


 1. Work: from the Indo-European root erg, like energy, lethargy, synergy…
I’m taking a short hiatus from thinking about “the future of work” to consider its past. As a starting point for a reading spree on the history of work in modern societies, I really appreciated John Budd’s The Thought of Work. This was a survey of ten major conceptions of work you find in the history of ideas. Because everyone loves a list, I’ll share them: (1) work as a curse, (2) work as freedom, (3) work as a commodity, (4) work as occupational citizenship, (5) work as disutility, (6) work as personal fulfillment, (7) work as a social relationship, (8) work as caring for others, (9) work as identity, and (10) work as service. What I love about this book is that it draws from many disciplines–especially economics, sociology, psychology, philosophy, and theology–and clearly delineates where their respective conceptions of work conflict with one another. It’s useful to be reminded that when different intellectual traditions give different answers, sometimes it traces back to a fundamental disagreement about what the object under study actually is. So, for example, if work is occupational citizenship (#4), labor unions are groups of people who pool their resources because they share interests, analogous to a political party. But if work is a disutility traded in competitive markets (#5), labor unions are monopolists. And if work is about individual fulfillment (#6), a union meant to provide collective rewards seems to miss the point.

The two perspectives that were least familiar to me and that I most enjoyed thinking about were the “pluralist industrial relations” perspective and the feminist perspective. The word “pluralist” refers to the assumption that workers and management share some interests (unlike Marxists), but not all interests (unlike the “unitarist” perspective in Human Resources Management). This is Budd’s own academic speciality so he explained it extremely convincingly. The idea that really stuck with me was the notion that corporations are essentially unionized shareholders–organized collectives of individual investors pooling their resources to hire management–so a level playing field naturally requires unionized workers doing the same thing. The feminist perspective begins with the observation that the “cult of domesticity” only emerged after industrialization when men and women switched from working side-by-side on the farm to a factory-based specialization (for the man) that relied upon unpaid care work (for the woman) at home. At the risk of generalizing, a major principle of feminist labor theory seems to be that care work (broadly construed as bringing up children, educating people of all ages, meeting health needs, treasuring the environment) should be highly valued both privately and publicly. Virginia Held’s The Ethics of Care is a major work in this vein.

Finally, I enjoyed the contributions of religious thinkers to conceptions of work. “Work as curse” was a common response to original sin (God curses the ground beneath Adam’s feet and says “In toil shalt thou eat of it”), but Luther, Calvin, and Confucius said that work was a calling, a way to honor the family and please God. The modern theologian Miroslav Volf has a book about work. Most of all I liked this from Rumi, imagining the judgement day: “I gave you hands and feet as tools / for preparing the ground for planting. / Did you, in the health I gave, / do the plowing?”

2. Profit over people
Last week I wrote a bit about the “law and economics” perspective on corporations, which holds that there is really no such thing as a corporation, nor do employees have any special stake in it, because the corporation is just a bundle of contracts that could be dissolved and renegotiated to serve shareholder value. If this is true, or more to the point if the law treats corporations as if this were true, Joel Bakan argues that The Corporation is a pathological entity. In clinical terms: irresponsible, manipulative, grandiose, lacking empathy, asocial, unable to feel remorse. The basic argument of the book is that while many businesspeople are well-meaning and can, through the magic of “corporate social responsibility,” convince themselves that they are a force for good, public corporations are inevitably single-minded, and therefore indifferent to whatever human or natural obstacles might lie in the way. I think this is an extremely important argument, and I agree with it in its bare-bones formulation, but found this book disappointing in its delivery.

The most common pieces of evidence were interviews with public executives and investors who have seen the light. E.g. “The corporation is in the externalizing machine, in the same way that a shark is a killing machine…There isn’t any question of malevolence or of will.” There was Milton Friedman saying corporate social responsibility must be a sham because profit is the only bottom line. Bakan goes so far as to say corporate social responsibility might be illegal under Dodge v. Ford (1919) which held that managers must act in the interest of shareholders, but this seems far-fetched under Shlensky v. Wrigley (1968) which held that managers have extremely broad discretion in doing so. The most helpful evidence for me was Bakan’s telling of the lawsuit against GM when Chevy Malibus were exploding in collisions. GM was aware that such fuel-fed explosions were likely, but had calculated that the costs of moving the fuel tank back from the bumper would cost several more dollars per car than the anticipated legal expenses of 500 deaths per year (they were wrong about this, at least). As illuminating as that episode is, I don’t think you can hope or expect to find a smoking gun on every company that subverts the public interest. Bakan is a (Canadian) law professor, and I would have liked to see a much more legally focused argument attacking corporate personhood. There seems to be a much-ignored, barely perceptible thread in American legal history casting doubt on the idea that the 14th Amendment and other marks of personhood should be applied to corporations (count Justices Douglas and Black as dissenters). I plan to learn more about this.

3. The next Pan Am?
Everyone loves airline stories. Bloomberg had this big profile of Emirates, which has dominated the aviation business in recent years but may be “running out of sky.” Read the story if only for the slew of crazy facts about how big Emirates is–they have “an industrial-size wine cellar in Burgundy, with 3.75 million bottles aging at any given time,” the world’s largest kitchens and dishwashing operation, and they alone fly the majority of the world’s Airbus A380’s, the largest commercial plane. The interesting conflict is with the U.S. Big 3 carriers which are lobbying to shut Emirates out of U.S. airports, arguing that Emirates gets unfair advantages (no unions, big subsidies, custom-made airport) from the government of Dubai. There’s definitely some irony here if you recall when I wrote about American Airlines benefiting from a cozy relationship with regulators during the U.S. Air merger. But fun little hypocrisy aside, the American carriers are broadly right–Emirates has a ton of assets (start with location!) they will never have. The interesting thing, to me, is the possibility that this dynamic might reappear in many industries. We’re familiar with competitive advantage; sometimes the winner ends up the only game in town. But what happens when the town is the entire world, and the market is winner-take-all? Perhaps Emirates will be the only airline, Amazon the only retailer, Exxon the only oil company. More likely protectionism becomes more acceptable. The airlines are certainly counting on Trump to save them.

4. Alternatively, there’s the Trump Foundation…
I really liked Chris Blattman’s framework for charitable giving. It’s hard not to read this kind of thing as a response (challenge?) to the GiveWell model, which is presumably well-known and well-respected by people who read Chris Blattman. At first my reaction was “yeah, Chris’s approach resonates with me more than GiveWell does,” but on second thought I see how GiveWell is putting forth the most defensible, most universally unobjectionable framework for giving, while Chris’s view is more narrowly tailored to his own values, which also happen to be my own. GiveWell is careful to recommend only charities that have demonstrably positive impact on human life. Based on the stuff we know how to measure well, this ends up skewing heavily toward health and medical interventions in developing countries. That’s really important! But Chris’s view is that “the means and end to human well being is good government and political rights and freedoms,” which he acknowledges are very hard to measure. So he gives mostly to organizations that work on civil society and good governance. To their credit, the GiveWell people, through their Open Philanthropy Project offshoot, are making a massive leap into these more policy-oriented areas of giving as well. Chris gave to way more organizations than I did this year, but we had some overlap: GiveDirectly, ACLU, Amnesty International, and International Rescue Committee.

5. Why read, continued
Julia Galef created an interesting “taxonomy of ways books change your worldview.” She has four big categories: books that offer data, books that offer theory, books that change your values, and books that change your thinking style. I don’t think it really works as a taxonomy since it’s neither mutually exclusive nor collectively exhaustive, but all of the items in her list strike me as nice articulations of what non-fiction books can do. In writing non-fiction, I should strive to do several of these at any time. In this blog, I can most easily do things in the theory category: present models of how a phenomenon works, point out a problem, offer a general concept or lens. I also probably make explicit arguments about values more than you would like. The most impressive books, to me, are those that “write from a holistic value structure, letting you experience that value structure from the inside,” and those that “tickle your aesthetic sense.” This relates directly to the justification for reading full books I gave a few weeks ago: that it’s often more about getting inside the head of an interesting thinker than learning any specific facts or arguments.

6. Real conservatism
I’m in the early chapters of a book about antimodernism around the turn of the last century. More on this soon, I hope, but the general story is about members of the bourgeois elite feeling alienated by consumerism and the new industrial society, and looking to the East and Medieval times for fantasies of “more authentic experience.” There seem to be some parallels to today. In any case, the introduction provided my favorite two sentences of the week: “The more thoughtful anti-modernists remind us what Left critics too often forget: in a society dedicated to economic development and “personal growth” at the expense of all larger loyalties, conservative values are too important to be left to pseudo-conservative apologists for capitalism. In our time, the most profound radicalism is often the most profound conservatism.”

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