The Conservative Nanny State : A Book Review Part Two : Job Protectionism and Differing Sets of Rules

Continuing our discussion of Dean Baker’s The Conservative Nanny State, we’ll address a powerful function of the nanny state : job protectionism.  Conventional wisdom among the elite and intellectual sector is that though lower income earners face harsh competition because of a heightened labor supply (read : too many people vying for the same job), we in the higher income brackets don’t face competition because we were sufficiently lucky or prudent to seek work for which little labor supply exists.  It turns out that this self-congratulation is a bit premature.

Poor People Should Compete with Foreign Workers, But I Don’t Have To… I Shouldn’t Have ToHelp Me Nanny State!

Baker begins with discussing a rather well-known feature of the neoliberal program : the offshoring of labor and the import of foreign labor which pits low-to-mid income earning tradespersons in the United States against very cheap labor in the third world.  Thus, despite close to a doubling of the economy and worker output since 1980, these income earners’ wages have quite predictably stagnated.  Despite this, those of us in the top five percent have experienced great wealth gains in the same period, also a rather well-known but perhaps harder to explain phenomenon.  Baker suggests that the stock answer to why this is the case tickles the ears of the purveyors of the conservative nanny state, as highly compensated persons in the aforementioned bracket are important in maintaining the mythology : go to school, work hard, then make big bucks; those who ignore this advice deserve poverty.  In fact, highly educated acquaintances of mine from across the political spectrum often happily claim that the sum total of their income is due to their substantial, innate value after heeding the mythology, yet poor people either should get off their lazy asses (the conservative version) or utilize government incentives for vocational training (the so-called liberal version), a dichotomy Baker coincidentally references almost verbatim.   So what is the truth?  Baker offers a rather astonishing observation : the U.S. immigration policy, discussed in Eric Freeman’s Barriers to Foreign Professionals Working in the United States, along with protective licensing agencies and diffuse, indeterminate standards, ensures that fewer highly skilled professionals are available than are needed.  A few years ago, both the New York Times and The Atlantic offered a discussion of the difficulties facing foreign doctors in obtaining licenses to practice medicine in the U.S., describing the labyrinthine procedural hurtles depriving these competent, well-trained, desperately needed professionals of a career here in the States.  The New York Times reported in 1997 that the U.S. government actually paid hospitals in New York not to train foreign doctors.  Imagine if the U.S. government actually paid an automotive firm not to offshore manufacturing?  Baker continues by spelling out the cost of this protectionism, coinciding nicely with its very justification :

[i]f free trade in physicians brought doctors'
salaries down to European levels, the savings
would be close to $100,000 per doctor,
approximately $80 billion a year... [ten]
times as large as standard estimates of the
gains from NAFTA.

It’s worth remembering that the absurdly mislabeled “free trade agreements” NAFTA and CAFTA have virtually nothing to do with higher-compensated trades such as doctors, lawyers, and technocrats.  After all, it wouldn’t do to compete with every competent Chinese or Indian doctor, even if the healthcare savings conferred to the weary working class would be immense.  Yet anecdotally, doctors tell me that skyrocketing tuition, malpractice insurance, and the cost-of-living require much higher salaries.  Baker doesn’t address tuition and rising costs-of-living directly in this book, though I speculate he’d attribute at least the former if not both to the conservative nanny state.  Noam Chomsky has speculated that tuition hikes are a mechanism for control of young college students rather than an economic necessity in sustaining the university system.  Baker’s point here is that the protectionist barriers for doctors, lawyers, and technocrats have absolutely nothing to do with market principles, as none of us could compete in an absolutely free and open market with the wages we receive today.  The incredibly high cost of the American medical system drives hundreds of thousands of people into bankruptcy each year, roughly sixty percent of the 1.5 million people who file each year, according to The Huffington Post in 2015, no doubt partially explaining a phenomenon known as medical tourism, or Americans traveling abroad to receive medical treatment.  CNN reports that the increasingly growing industry grants Americans access to world-class healthcare at maybe thirty to forty percent the cost of the same care here.

Yet another device of protection for physicians is the American Medical Association, an organization of physicians with substantial political clout, largely responsible for ensuring tough immigration standards and difficult standards.  It turns out we have another label for this : a trade union.  “Union” has become a terribly dirty word in Americana, as what should be a revered, indispensable public institution has largely succumbed to a massive, unremitting campaign of propaganda; we’ll return to this topic shortly.

So is this really happening?  Baker suggests that denialism is the most widely cited defense against these allegations.  He refers to hilarious anecdotes such as “my doctor is Pakistani” as the defense mounted by those who stand the most to lose by acknowledging this protectionism.  I could make the same observation that I’ve worked with many foreigners over the course of my career in technology, so even my initial knee jerk response was disbelief.  Baker retorts that citing a Mexican avocado in an American grocery store as proof that the U.S. government doesn’t restrict agricultural trade would receive unbridled derision and heart laughter right out of the economics profession.  Per Baker, we should treat this denialism in kind.  He argues, rather poignantly, that

[t] truth is that the "free traders" don't
want free trade--they want cheap nannies--
but "free trade" sounds much more noble.

So what can we do?  First, we recognize the protectionism extant in our own fields; next, we recognize the solidarity we should share with those less fortunate tradespersons not conferred the enormous benefits of said protectionism.  Finally, we fight for a better path forward.  Baker’s proposal, which he by no means claims is the only means of improvement, is to enact true free trade agreements which establish international standards meeting or exceeding our own in each industry.  Further, highly-skilled professionals migrating to America could pay a percentage of their incomes back to their home nation for the purpose of training other professionals; many repatriates send money home to their families in any case, generating demand in third world nations, an obviously desirable feature if we’re to speak of serious market application.

Baker ends this section with an important point about a more egalitarian market-based approach reducing salaries for highly compensated earners : if the cost of doing business falls because of an increased pool of workers, the cost transfers to the population at large.  This, in turn, tends to reduce the cost of living for everyone.  None of these changes would happen immediately, but it’s nonetheless worth remembering that reductions in healthcare costs means more money for wages for everyone, including those of us in the technocracy.

The other point worth making here is that protectionism, if applied at all, ought to apply equally.  Factory workers, welders, and janitors ought to receive equal protection for their livelihood.  As we’ve suggested before, the rise of Trump easily follows from a highly disenchanted working class marginalized by globalization and a hostile overclass enemy; these are issues not just critical to good citizenship, but now perhaps for the very survival of our species.

Never Make a CEO Compete…

Before moving on, I feel it’s important to address thoroughly one point Baker omits in his discussion on protectionism for the well-to-do (though he picks up the general topic later in the book) : the most highly-compensated sliver of the economy, particularly CEOs.  I’ve worked in technology companies for over a decade, some of whom are in the Fortune 500, and an (admittedly) anecdotally pervasive theme is the frustration with, disapproval of, and devaluing of each respective executive leadership team.  Generally the sentiment is that chief executive officers (CEOs) and their directs are pampered, overpaid, egotists whose positive contribution dwindles as the machine grows : by the time corporation reaches a slow stage of monolithic decay, say as in a defense contractor, the CEO doesn’t seem to serve any function except to drain resources from the remaining parts of the business.  My first job, stated before, was in precisely such a company, and we referred to the executives collectively as “mahogany row,” owing to the rather beautifully polished paneling in their luxury, separate-but-not-equal building complete with covered parking (fellow Texans understand that perk, considering heat and hailstorms).  Our offices, by contrast, reminded me of my elementary school : seemingly ancient construction with doubtless asbestos-filled flooring and lowered ceilings to conceal the cigarette smoke stains, an artifact of the smoke-filled days of yesteryear.  In any case, my thinking is somewhat more elementary : whatever skills an executive requires to perform his duties no doubt exist elsewhere.

Considering the well-documented, exorbitant increase in CEO pay with no obvious, market-based cause, we might suspect they somehow are gaming the system.  Baker describes CEO pay later in the book, referencing L. Mishel, et al.’s The State of Working America, an exposition on the stunning explosion of the CEO-to-average worker pay factor, roughly forty in the 1970s, obscene three hundred in late 1990s, then back to still obscene two hundred as of the mid 2000s.   He also points to The Growth of Executive Pay by Lucian Bebchuk and Yaniv Grinstein, a discussion measuring pay of the top five executives in each of 1500 corporations over 1993 to 2003; they conclude that CEO pay jumped at least twice as quickly as could be explained by a number of success metrics, including company profits, industry mix (concentration by region of business types), and market capitalization (the total value of the corporation).  That is to say, scarcity and demand of a business, value of the business, and profitability of the business fail to explain skyrocketing executive pay over the period studied.  Continuing with Mishel’s analysis, Baker explains that CEO pay in the United States is two-and-a-half to five times larger than that of CEOs in Canada, France, and Japan, despite industry leaders in these nations wresting substantial market share from their American competitors, meaning the American system somehow rewards incompetence with skyrocketing wages.  Worse yet, American executives often enjoy zany contract clauses conferring the so-called golden parachute, a severance package so exorbitant that ordinary Americans could easily retire on it.  Imagine living in a world where taking a job is win-win; even if you find yourself fired for aforementioned incompetence by the board of trustees, you’ll depart with barrels of cash.  Aside from the astonishingly anti-market nature of this practice in principle, there are many measurable, deleterious effects in action as well, documented in Bebchuk et al.‘s “Golden Parachutes and the Wealth of Shareholders” appearing in the Journal of Corporate Finance.  In any case, the practice persists : what a country club indeed.

So what explains stratospheric CEO pay?  It seems rather elementary, as American CEOs can raise their own wages by appointing friends to his corporate board, the body responsible for setting his wages.  He, in turn, serves on their respective boards, returning the favor in a spectacularly golden tsunami of quid pro quo, unaccountable to shareholders because of the difficulties of organizing them and the many shenanigans encoded in the corporation’s charter, such as stock proxying; that is, if the shareholders hold a vote on replacing the current CEO, any shareholder who fails to vote by default votes for the CEO to remain.  Imagine if that were common practice in our government elections : the incumbents would be virtually unbeatable!  Baker concludes his chapter on CEO pay with suggestions on how to improve the system, including tying executive pay not to profits only (such as what happens when the cost of oil skyrockets), but relative performance to the industry, and more Congressional oversight.  He cites the Private Securities Litigation Reform Act, passed by Newt Gingrich’s Congress in 1995 over Bill Clinton’s veto to further diminish shareholders’ access to the courts when executives manipulate stock prices, as an example of the power Congress can exercise, though this was in a destructive direction.  As usual, empowering the super-rich and undercutting everyone else somehow receives the lyrical moniker “reform”, a staple of the conservative nanny state’s propaganda.

It turns out there’s more to the story on how CEOs siphon vast cash reserves from corporate profits above and beyond what first-order effects can explain : anecdotal discussions with corporate insiders reveal a rather odd practice of organizing compensation committees intent on basing CEO pay on some arbitrary percentile, say the seventy-fifth, of market pay.  Any astute data scientist understands such implications : a steady-state solution requires CEO pay to grow until all resources deplete.  That is, if a CEO joins a company, the committee decides his pay should target the 75th percentile.  By increasing the rate of pay of a single CEO, the 75th percentile gradually eases upward independent of other market metrics.  Recent scholarship by the Economic Policy Institute lends credence to rather dodgy practice, apparently owing to what economists call “rents”, or excessive increases in market cost for whatever purpose. Aside from the silly, baseless justifications for this practice, why not let CEOs compete on the open market?  Again, to one of Baker’s central theses, markets simply aren’t the desired mechanism for these folks.

So how can we make these folks compete?  We’ll touch on corporations in an upcoming part of the series, but suffice it to say there are many examples of worker owned businesses, documented by the National Center for Employee Ownership in 2016, designed often so that if employees want management changes, they fire their leadership.  Imagine if an incoming CEO recognized fully that he is accountable to the employees?  It turns out that employee-owned companies could be a means of requiring the shareholders and the stakeholders to be more closely aligned.  Another key question is to what extent an organization of employees needs a CEO : decentralized autonomous organizations represent one extreme possibility, in which leadership largely follows computer-encoded rules; some of these organizations exist as of the time of this writing.  Certainly, a robot CEO wouldn’t ask for extreme pay.  In any case, it seems as though more democratic control within the organization could ensure that unnecessary leadership overhead vanishes, and where leadership is required, greater control would rest with the employees; perhaps employees could take turns playing the CEO.  In the world of start-ups and technology, businesses could operate more easily in this mold, adopting as part of their charter a constitution, if you will, fostering a more egalitarian, democratic operating principle.  As Baker points out, and we’ll discuss it more thoroughly later, the classic corporation framework isn’t necessarily the optimal solution (and we have pretty good evidence to the contrary), nor is it a law of nature.

We’ll continue in the next discussion with trade unions, and Baker’s definition of the Federal Reserve.

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