A Carpenter's Level
Matthew Crawford | The Proletariat Workers Alliance | Calibrated Contribution, Not Quiet Quitting | Noncompetes | Bossism
Apologies for the low rate of posting here. I fell victim to Covid-19 before the holidays, and it took two weeks before I could really do anything serious. Even now, a few weeks later, I am not 100%. I hope to get back to a twice-a-week cadence soon.
Strangely enough, I’ve had a recent spike in subscriptions, which might be the result of my new role as ‘philosopher-of-work’ for Sunsama. Here’s a piece I wrote for them in December": Take a Breath. Sign up for their weekly newsletter for more (it’s at the footer of that article).
Quote of the Moment
Those who work in an office often feel that, despite the proliferation of contrived metrics they must meet, their job lacks objective standards of the sort provided by, for example, a carpenter’s level, and that as a result there is something arbitrary in the dispensing of credit and blame.
| Matthew Crawford, Shop Class as Soulcraft: An Inquiry Into the Value of Work
The Proletariat Workers Alliance
Nathan Grayson makes the inevitable ‘LOL’ response in Video game studio called Proletariat declines to recognize union (lol):
Earlier this week, however, Proletariat leadership shared an update: Instead of voluntarily recognizing the union, [The Proletariat Workers Alliance] will conduct an anonymous vote through the National Labor Relations Board (NLRB).
Proletariat is owned by Activision, a decidedly anti-union company, and has ‘been accused of employing union-busting tactics in its negotiations with two other subsidiaries that have voted to unionize, Raven Software and Blizzard Albany’.
You can’t make these things up.
Calibrated Contribution, Not Quiet Quitting
Jim Detert wants to change the dialogue — or at least terminology — around the ‘quiet quitting’ phenomenon, after introducing two hypothetical workers, Alex and Janet, who tried to make improvements or were ground down by customer anger:
Like millions of other Americans, Janet and Alex eventually concluded that what they were getting out of work — be it their financial compensation or a sense of control or respect — didn’t match what they were putting in. They were, in short, giving more than they were getting, so they decided to scale back their efforts. Janet still does her job well, but she won’t stay late or take extra shifts. Alex still handles the same volume of support calls, but he has stopped speaking up or investing effort in coming up with potential improvements.
This is nothing new, this has been going on for decades. What’s new is calling this ‘quiet quitting’, and he dislikes the connotation of the term:
What I’m bothered by is the label: Quitting seems like a decidedly derogatory, adversarial term for situations like these. Why not call Janet and Alex calibrated contributors — employees who are rationally matching their effort to what they get in return?
The notion of calibrated contributing would recognize that Janet and Alex are simply trying to enact their views of fairness or balance, having concluded that their employers and our laws in the U.S. aren’t going to do that for them. Their choices illustrate equity theory’s core prediction about motivation.1 Put simply, equity theory says that fairness is a relative judgment — the ratio of what one puts in and gets out compared with some relevant other’s contributions and rewards. When the comparison a worker makes leads to the conclusion of “This isn’t fair,” they can either try to get more (such as a pay raise or increase in benefits) or, when that’s not possible, give less (stop working late or helping coworkers, for example).
He cites the most glaring examples of work unfairness [emphasis mine]:
Considering the following facts, a person isn’t lazy, selfish, or a “quitter” just because they’ve concluded that something needs to change.
The federal minimum wage, adjusted for purchasing power, is at its lowest point in 66 years. A worker paid today’s minimum wage earns about 25% less (in inflation-adjusted terms) than what workers earned when the rate was last raised in 2009, and about 40% less than those paid the minimum wage at its 1968 high point.
CEO pay relative to the average worker’s pay has skyrocketed in recent years, unchecked by global recessions or a pandemic. At America’s lowest-paying companies, the ratio of CEO compensation to median worker pay grew again in 2021, to 670%.
The percentage of income received by those at the very top, whether measured by the Gini coefficient or any other proportional statistic, is at its highest level in the U.S. in many decades and continues to climb. Income inequality in the U.S. now reflects levels traditionally seen only in economically undeveloped or extremely corrupt countries.
In 2021, unions — which help individuals collectively negotiate better pay and working conditions — represented only 6.1% of the U.S. workforce, the lowest percentage since at least 1955.
There has been no significant federal legislation strengthening workers’ rights to better terms of employment in decades. Decades after nearly every other advanced economy adopted paid medical leave for events like childbirth, we still have no such requirement. Similarly, the U.S. has one of the lowest levels of paid vacation among advanced economies and no federal law requiring that companies provide it.
The bottom line?
Let’s reserve negative labels for those who don’t, by choice, do their in-role job descriptions but still expect full pay and benefits. And let’s continue to celebrate those who go above and beyond for their extra-role efforts and citizenship behaviors. But let’s stop using any version of the word “quit” to describe those who are doing their job description, just not more.
I think we need to go past Detert’s call for a middle ground and adopt a fully adversarial stance in the workplace, considering the degree of unfairness that has become institutionalized, as indicated by Detert’s litany of egregious backsliding by employers.
Noah Smith has a good summary of the recent moves at the Federal Trade Commission by Lina Khan to put an end to noncompetes (too long to summarize). We’ll have to see where that leads, but it would be one counterexample to Detert’s assertion that ‘There has been no significant federal legislation strengthening workers’ rights to better terms of employment in decades’. Well, it’s about damn time.
John Ganz wants to draw our attention to the impacts that tech oligarchs are having on the political/societal level, through a set of beliefs he calls bossism:
Something like a class-consciousness of the most reactionary section of the tech bourgeoisie now appears to be crystallizing and, with it, a concomitant set of political practices and ideologies. (Musk and Thiel formed PayPal together.) The ideology, stripped of all its mystifying decoration, is actually pretty simple and crude: it says “bosses on top.” This is the unifying thread that runs through Yarvin’s [a crony of Thiel] tedious peregrinations from radical libertarianism to monarchism: the authority and power of certain people is the natural order, unquestionable, good. It is, to borrow a term from the history of apartheid, baasskap—boss-ism. “I no longer think that freedom and democracy are compatible,” Thiel once wrote, calling for a kind of “technocratic rejection of politics as such,” to quote the sociologist Dylan Riley. But this vision of “freedom” is not only shared by the bosses and their paid ideologues—there is a “mass” component of the politics as well: this ideal of freedom is shared by a mob that worships the power of the oligarchs and wants its own freedom to consist in the total license to behave online without encountering moral sanction from the pestering wokes or to have personal consequences of any kind. Through the adoption of crackpot racial or IQ notions they can flatter themselves that they are part of the elect, minor shareholders in the oligarch’s baasskap.
An outline of the institutional shape of this politics is coming in to view as well: there’s rich donor oligarchy on top, in the middle there’s the think tanks, magazines, and podcasts that serve as kind of currency exchanges where the coin of mob grievance is turned into respectable notes, and the concerns of elite politics are translated into terms the mob can understand and use, and then there’s the public platforms where little armies of trolls are mustered for whatever task is required by their political masters. In short, it’s a model of the kind of corporate society they wish to secure and reproduce on a larger scale: big bosses, middle-management, workers, all happily coordinated and cooperating. No unions, no pesky social movements, no restive professional managerial-classes with their moral pretensions, no federal bureaucracy meddling and gumming up the works with regulations. The “cancellers” will themselves be cancelled: subjected to harassment and intimidation by the mob if they get out of line. There will be no epistemic hierarchy: just “freedom,” an informational anarchy that translates into the impossibility of the exchange of real content and any rational deliberation. Just memes, nonsense, idiotic enthusiasms and fads, etc.
A terrifying vision. Sounds like the plotline of a new streaming series on Netflix. But that doesn’t mean Ganz is wrong. Clearly, we are in a time of ‘bosses on top’, and we have to slow their roll.