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My take on unions

Posted October 13th, 2008 by Talin

Although philisophically I agree with the goal of improving working conditions and wages, my personal experiences with unions have been mostly negative. As a result, my stance towards unionization is more nuanced than simple “pro” or “con”.

The one-sentance executive summary of my position is: “Unions are a net benefit when labor is a commodity, and a net cost when labor is a specialty.”

To make sense of this, I need to examine what is a union, and what is a commodity.

  • A commodity is a kind of good in which all units are more or less interchangeable. Copper is a commodity – there’s no fundamental difference between copper mined in Australia and copper mined in the US.
  • A union is most fundamentally a cartel of labor. That is, it is an agreement by workers not to undercut each other on the price of their labor.

I use the term “commodity labor” to mean jobs in which workers are more or less interchangeable. This may mean that the work is simple enough that anyone can do it – like for example, washing dishes. Or it may mean that the techniques involved are highly standardized and legislated, so that there is little difference between workers. An example of this would be electricians and plumbers.

Specialty labor, on the other hand, is where each worker has a unique skill set that is not easily replaced. This is true in almost any creative field; The one I am most familiar with is software engineering.

For commodity laborers, unions provide an important benefit of maintaining a decent wage. Normally, in an unrestricted free market, the suppliers of a commodity will underbid each other until the price of the commodity drops to just above its “replacement cost”, i.e. the cost to actually produce the commodity. For labor, the replacement cost is called “starvation wages” – the lowest possible that you can pay someone and still keep them alive and producing children. Before the development of unions, such working conditions were common.

Unions are at their most powerful when they have a means to prevent independent workers from undercutting the union price, when they in effect have a monopoly on labor. This is a classic prisoner’s dilemma – an unemployed individual might gain a temporary advantage by agreeing to reduced wages, but he is better off if no one else does the same.

In a specialty labor market, things are quite different. For one thing, workers aren’t competing with each other directly on price, since workers aren’t as interchangeable. If I need someone to work on Windows device drivers, I not only need to find someone who knows about that specific application domain, I need to decide how much I want to pay vs. the skill level I am likely to get – that is, I can get someone really good and pay a lot for it, or I can get someone not quite as good and pay less.

A programmer who is highly skilled at these tasks has a great deal of bargaining power and can command high wages. They have no need for a cartel to increase their bargaining power, and in fact such a cartel would merely act as a leveler. Even a mediocre engineer with a poor track record, who doesn’t have quite as much bargaining power, still has a great deal, and they can imagine that someday they might have more. As a result, they are unlikely to want to enter into a system where wages are negotiated collectively rather than individually.

Specialty labor markets are also where the negative effects of unions are most apparent, especially when the union is in a monopoly position. Unions can be a drag on innovation and creativity in a number of important ways, such as by requiring that promotions be based on seniority rather than pure merit. They also create barriers to entry (such as the exorbitant fees required for joining some unions) which might drive away impoverished but enterprising young workers.

A young, inexperienced worker with new ideas who is not weighed down by preconceived notions might fare better in a non-union environment, especially if they are in an industry in which individual creativity and enterprise are well rewarded.

Global Warming: Blessing in disguise?

Posted August 24th, 2008 by Talin

A contrarian rant, to be taken with a grain of salt:

History tells us that when a civilization runs out of some critical resource, the result is usually the collapse of that civilization. Only the most adept and flexible civilizations can avoid this fate.

Our civilization’s critical resource is petroleum, and it is going to run out some day. Not all at once – rather, what will happen is that oil will become increasingly scarce as the years go by, with the price per barrel rising higher and higher each year. Many experts have said that if we have not already reached “peak oil” – the historical moment of maximum oil production, followed by a downward slope – that we are very close to it. The nations of the world – many of which have an increasing demand for oil – will find themselves squabbling over slices of an ever-decreasing pie.

This will no doubt lead to increasing international tensions, and probably war. Whether or not you think that the current US involvement in the Middle East is motivated by oil, the fact is that as the price of oil increases, the possibility of war becomes ever more likely. Especially given the relationship between oil and food prices, you can well imagine that a world leader, faced with a crashing economy and a hungry populace, might choose a military solution.

Everyone alive today has been blessed with the fact that they are living in a golden age – an age of unprecedented peace and prosperity. Although we have a tendency to focus on the miseries of current events, the fact is that world has been getting steadily better (with occasional fits and starts) for the last 700 years or so.

But all of that could come crashing down if we run out of oil. 

But what about alternatives – Nuclear, solar, wind, geothermal, and so on? The question is how quickly we can make the transition. National infrastructures aren’t built in a day, and if recent history is any guide, they aren’t built in a decade either.

Take for example the auto companies response to higher gasoline prices: They knew that it was coming, yet they continued to maintain production lines for gas-guzzling SUVs until the very last possible moment, when it became clear that they simply could not sell them any more. And now they are frantically trying to retool to build hybrids, but they can’t switch over quickly enough.

There’s no reason to believe that we as a society would be any less short-sighted. We would continue to ignore the problem until we absolutely had to do something about it – and by then it would be too late.

But suppose Рwhat if there were another factor in the equation Рsomething that would create a powerful incentive to reduce our use of oil before became scarce? Something that would motivate us to stay ahead of the increasing price curve, so that instead of reducing supply, it would reduce demand? It would need to be a strong motivation, on the order of a threat to our survival and prosperity, otherwise we would (again) dismiss and ignore it.

I think by now you can see what I am (ahem) driving at.

Unconscious Conspiracies

Posted August 16th, 2007 by Talin

I’ve been meaning to write about this idea for a while, but a recent posting on Boing Boing reminded me of it again.

I believe that most so-called “conspiracies” are in fact subconscious conspiracies – meaning that one can be a member of a conspiracy without actually knowing it.

A subconscious conspiracy behaves much like a conscious one – that is, you have some group of individuals who share a covert agenda, one that would be considered detrimental or even diabolical by the general public. There are secret meetings, cover-ups, and a web of insidious influence. And yet, no one in the group realizes that this is going on.

One might ask how such things can go on without the participants being aware of what they are doing? As I often say, “never dismiss human dismissiveness”. It’s easy to convince yourself that what you are doing is “just natural”, that there’s nothing special or untoward about your actions.

Here’s how subconscious conspiracies work: Say you have a group of people in power – goverment officials or perhaps a corporate board of directors. Say also that these individuals are tightly-knit, with a common history and shared goals. Now, also suppose that this group is somewhat insular, isolated from the outside by a layer of protection (by this I mean things like office assistants, press secretaries, and others who mediate the discourse between members of this group and those outside the group – what Heinlein called flappers.) What happens is that these individual eventually, and inevitably, take on a cult-like aspect.

I’ve personally seen this kind of groupthink at work: What ends up happening is that, for any given member of the group, the vast majority of their discourse is with other members of the group. A given factoid (by which I mean literally “having the form of a fact”, which is implied by the suffix -oid) will bounce from one member to another, until everyone ends up believing it, irregardless of its actual truth. “We have the best product in the industry!” says the CEO. And when you ask the CEO why he believes this is true, he replies that it’s because the engineering VP assures him that this is true; And when you ask the same question to the engineering VP, he’ll say that it’s because the CEO says it’s true. And so on.

In a subconscious conspiracy, everyone believes that they are in fact working for the public interest – it’s just that their view of the public interest is completely skewed beyond all recognition.

And of course, when they try to communicate with people who aren’t in the group, there’s a disconnect – they sense that these outsiders aren’t aligned with their goals, and they begin to percieve them as a threat. And of course, once the human threat response enters the picture, collective insanity is not far behind. They begin to exclude outsiders and other people who “wouldn’t understand” from their circle; their thoughts turn to how they can discredit and undermine their enemies – all in the cause of what’s good and righteous, of course.

The most important thing to understand about subconscious conspiracies, however, is that they are merely symptoms of a deeper cause. And as usual with symptomatic maladies, merely treating the symptoms does no good. With a regular, conscious conspiracy, all that you need to is round up the ring leaders and toss them in jail. But with a symptomatic conspiracy, the same conditions that created the conspiracy will simply continue to create new conspiracies to replace the old one.

Atheism and Separation of Church and State

Posted April 1st, 2007 by Talin

Atheism is really Robert’s hot topic, not mine, but I wanted to comment on an article I recently discovered via Newstrust (which I highly recommend) entitled Myth: Atheism is Promoted By Church/State Separation & Religious Neutrality. In the article, the author is attempting to debunk the notion that by maintaining a strict separation between church and state, governments are actually promoting atheism.

I agree with the author this much: that by not promoting a specific religion, the government is not intentionally promoting atheism. But “intentionally promoting” is only a narrow interpretation of the word “promoting”, in that you can promote something without meaning to. The effects of not endorsing a specific religion are complex, and I would argue that in the long run, atheism does much better in an evironment in which there is no established religion.

First, there is the obvious point that in a state with an established religion, it is hard for other creeds or (dis)belief systems to gain a foothold, regardless of whether they be theist or atheist in nature.

However, there’s a more subtle point: Atheism is, in my view, a branch of Skepticism, which has a long and established philosophical history. The other main branch of skepticism is what you might call spiritual skepticism, which expresses doubts about the power of logic and human reason. This other branch is little known today, but was a major force in philosophy during the period of the Greek and Roman civilizations all the way up through the middle ages. Rational skepticism, which we know today, is just the opposite – it expresses doubts about our ability to know the supernatural, while maintaining a strong belief in the power of logic. The reason that this latter form of skepticism is so widespread today is because of the stunning success of the Enlightenment, that is, we live in a world in which logic and reason have been demonstrated to have great power. During the earlier period where we didn’t have such a good understanding of physics and the other sciences, it was possible (even reasonable) to claim that we would never be able to comprehend nature and the “workings of God”.

Despite the fact that these two forms of skepticism are mirror images of each other, they also have much in common.

If we look back over the source of history, we find an interesting pattern, which is that skepticism (in its modern, rational version as well as its historical, spiritiual version) tends to flourish in societies where there is a lot of competition between various faiths and worldviews.

In other words, if everyone around you believes exactly the same thing, then you’d likely come to the conclusion that there must be something to it; Whereas if everyone around you believes something different, but they all claim to know the absolute truth, then you’d know that majority must be wrong; And from there its only a small jump to thinking that they must all be wrong!

Remember the story of the blind men and the elephant? Suppose those six blind wise men came to you and reported their findings. One claims that it like a rope, another like a wall, and so on. Now you have to decide which one to believe. Would you simply pick one at random? Unlikely. Perhaps you have some preference as to which of the six men you consider the “wisest”. Maybe. But most likely of all, you would probably decide that they are all wrong, and that some phenomena had occurred which was beyond their understanding entirely.

Thus, a pluralistic society such as our own, in which there are a multitude of religious beliefs and many arguments over who has the “correct” belief, is exactly the kind of environment that fosters skepticism towards religion in general. And that tolerant, religiously diverse society would be impossible if there was a state-endorsed religion.

The irony here is that it is each religion’s insistence that they are right and all others are wrong that weakens their case; In an environment where each creed insists they alone know the truth, the more they assert this argument the less believable they become.

Which matches very well with my own experience talking to friends and co-workers about religion. I am far from the so-called “bible belt”, so clearly my social network is not representative of the country as a whole. But most of the people who I talk to seem to feel that religion is not only untrue, but unimportant – irrelevant. Not something that they really need to concern themselves with, except for the occasional political junkie who is concerned about the impact of religion on the political process.

I should also mention, it is because of this argument that skepticism flourishes in an environment in which there are competing belief systems, that I also believe that public schools should be allowed, if they wish, to offer religious instruction. I would only offer one restriction: That they must offer the students a choice of which religion they are taught! Or better yet, teach them more than one. No public school would be allowed to teach only a single religious view, there would be a “diversity requirement” for any religious curriculum such that the school must offer a wide enough range of viewpoints.

The benefits of this approach would allow students to extract much of the value of religion (and I would claim that there is much cultural and historical value to be gained), without instilling in them the poisonous dogmatic mindset that is responsible for much of our nation’s ills.

Democracy and Faith in Institutions

Posted October 23rd, 2006 by Talin

Here’s what bugs me: It isn’t just Iraq that’s in a mess. Democracy itself, as an institution has suffered some serious body blows in the last 5 years, and that worries me more than even terrorists.

Social institutions only work if people believe in them. And what we’ve seen over the last 5 years is an object lesson in the impotence and failures of democracy.

I’m not an “I-told-you-so”-er, but I’ve said along that you can’t just wave your arms and say “Domini, Domini, Domini, you’re all living in a democracy now.” It takes many years to build up the kind of faith that is required for these things to work. America didn’t just become a democracy on the day that the Constitution was signed – we had over 200 years of colonial governmental traditions to draw upon and believe in.

It isn’t enough simply to believe in the power of democracy as an abstract concept – you need to have faith that when things start to go wrong, your society will continue to hold together, and not degenerate into civil war.

For one thing, you need a loyal opposition. You need to believe in your heart of hearts that the other side, the people you despise, will at least have the courtesy to talk things out, and not just storm the parliament building with guns when they don’t get their way. Otherwise, what’s the point of even participating? Why not just get your own guns and storm the building first before they get there?

You need to believe that the game is fair – that people aren’t rigging the system, gerrymandering you into irrelevance or stealing your vote.

You need to believe that the people you elect are more than just incompetent, selfish boobs interested solely in lining their own pockets. That you have a real choice, not just a contrived and trivial one between lesser evil and mediocre evil.

Instead, we’ve seen – both at home and abroad – a cascade of examples that seem almost designed to rob people of their faith. To dispirit and destroy their belief that they truly have the power to change things.

Politics is an area where success breeds success, and failure breeds failure. What I worry about is whether other potential proto-democracies are going to look at the Iraq example and maybe think twice about this whole democracy thing. And I worry that the people here will also get dispirited, although not for quite the same reasons.

We (the Enlightenment and its descendants) took power away from the oligarchs because we showed that our way worked – and worked better. The only way the oligarchs can ever get their power back is to somehow demonstrate that it doesn’t work so well after all. And the way to do this is to take the tool that we created and misuse it.

You see, like the free market, democracy is not a natural law – it is a machine, constructed by humans, to solve a certain set of problems. It is no more a natural law than Robert’s Rules of Order. But that machine only works if you give it the correct environment – it’s source of power is emotional investment of the citizenry within in, an investment that they will only give so long as they perceive it to be capable of solving their problems.

Thus, the way to destroy democracy and its institutions is to attempt to apply them in contexts in which they will surely fail.

I’m tired of the word ‘bipartisan’

Posted October 20th, 2006 by Talin

Kind of reminds me of “separate but equal” (which is neither separate, nor equal, but that’s another rant.) Bipartisan is kind of like those old (bad) sitcoms where the two housemates, unable to resolve their differences, paint a big white line down the center of the apartment and insist that each other stay on “their side”. (And then spend the rest of the episiode predictably arguing about what belongs on their side, or what the exceptions should be, and so on.)

So I don’t see “bipartisan” as a compliment – how about “non-partisan”, or even better “unified”?

Irrepressible

Posted June 19th, 2006 by Talin

You might have noticed the small banner ad in the right hand-column. This is a little bit of Javascript that links to Amnesty International’s Irrepressible campaign home page.

The general idea is to support efforts against Internet censorship by spreading politically censored content as widely as possible, making it impossible to block. I had a similar idea a while back about creating a “poison pill” that would force the Chinese government to block large numbers of web sites, thus making the “great firewall” a self-imposed denial of service attack.