Instead of Designing for Better Outcomes
Design for bringing out the best in us.
Quote of the Moment
Humans have a more complex motivational structure and more capability to solve social dilemmas than posited in earlier rational-choice theory. Designing institutions to force (or nudge) entirely self-interested individuals to achieve better outcomes has been the major goal posited by policy analysts for governments to accomplish for much of the past half century. Extensive empirical research leads me to argue that instead, a core goal of public policy should be to facilitate the development of institutions that bring out the best in humans. We need to ask how diverse polycentric institutions help or hinder the innovativeness, learning, adapting, trustworthiness, levels of cooperation of participants, and the achievement of more effective, equitable, and sustainable outcomes at multiple scales.
| Elinor Ostrom, Nobel Prize Lecture
Jamelle Bouie invokes philosopher Elizabeth Anderson in a scathing attack on the businesses that compelled workers to labor up until the destruction of their workplaces, and in some cases the loss of their lives, during the recent tornadoes in the midwest:
For a vast majority of Americans, democracy ends when work hours begin.
Most people in this country are subject, as workers, to the nearly unmediated authority of their employers, which can discipline, sanction or fire them for nearly any reason at all.
In other words, Americans are at the mercy of what the philosopher Elizabeth Anderson calls “private government,” a workplace despotism in which most workers “cede all of their rights to their employers, except those specifically guaranteed to them by law, for the duration of the employment relationship.” With few exceptions — like union members covered by collective bargaining agreements or academics covered by tenure — an employer’s authority over its workers is, Anderson writes, “sweeping, arbitrary and unaccountable — not subject to notice, process, or appeal.”
Despite our history of rejecting the more extreme sorts of authoritarian rule in our government, we have accepted authoritarianism at work as a given.
With that in mind, to say that most workers are subject to unaccountable “private government” is to make clear the authoritarian character of the American workplace. And it is to remind ourselves that in the absence of any countervailing force, the bosses and managers who wield that authority can force workers into deadly environments and life-threatening situations, or force them to remain in them.
That is what appears to have happened on Friday at the Mayfield Consumer Products factory in Mayfield, Ky. There, more than 100 people, including seven prisoners, were on the night shift, working even after tornado sirens sounded outside the facility. “People had questioned if they could leave or go home,” one employee told NBC News in an interview. But, she said, they were warned: If they left, they were “more than likely to be fired.”
Eight people on site were killed, and three missing after the tornado passed.
A similar story in a nearby Amazon warehouse, in Edwardsville Illinois, where six died.
Had either of these groups of workers been empowered to say no — had they been able to put limits on work and resist unsafe working conditions — they may have been able to protect themselves, to leave work or miss a shift without jeopardizing their jobs. In the absence of that ability, they were, in effect, compelled to work by the almost sovereign power of their respective employers, with horrific consequences for them, their families and their communities.
Put another way, these disasters cannot be separated from the overall political economy of the United States, which is arguably more anti-labor now than it’s been at any point since Franklin Roosevelt signed the Wagner Act in 1935. A society organized for capital — a society in which most workers are denied a meaningful voice in their place of employment — is a society where some workers will be exposed, against their will, to life-threatening conditions.
The immediate solution is as it always has been: unionization, collective bargaining and workplace democracy. This is easier said than done, of course, but it still must be said. Our democracy is and will remain incomplete for as long as most Americans work without power or representation under the authority of private governments. Whatever democratic habits we hope to instill in ourselves and our children cannot be sustained, in the long run, when democracy is banned from the shop floor.
Or, as the sociologist Oliver Cromwell Cox once wrote, “The people are not free when a relatively few masters of industry could deny them control of their resources” — and to that, one might add control of their selves.
I wrote about Elizabeth Anderson’s private governments several times:
How long is the average work week in Europe.
In The End of a Return-To-Office Date, Emma Goldberg tells the back story of companies backing away from a hard back-into-the-office deadline:
A late August survey of 238 executives, conducted by Gartner, found that two-thirds of organizations had delayed their return to office plans because of news about coronavirus variants. Apple, Ford, CNN and Google are just a handful of the employers that announced postponements, along with Lyft, which said the earliest that workers would be required to return to the office is 2023.
The pandemic hasn’t been an optimal time for assumptions of any kind. Some employers went ahead and made them anyway, trying to position themselves as bold decision makers by setting concrete R.T.O. dates. Many have since given up on that level of specificity.
“Folks have hedged appropriately this time around and they understand that it’s a dialogue with their employees, not a mandate,” said Zach Dunn, co-founder of the office space management platform Robin. “If that sounds a little kumbaya, maybe. But the reality is, folks are learning that sharing the intention of their return plan is more important than sharing the plan itself.”
In other words, it’s better to communicate ambiguity than to be wrong, according to Mr. Dunn. Executives are accustomed to projecting a sense of certainty about company policies, by necessity; it’s tough to get people to follow rules when even the leaders don’t believe they’re enforceable. The bumpy road to office reopenings, though, has tested that ethos of confident, rigid management.“The average C.E.O. has very little command over the state and progress of a global pandemic,” Mr. Dunn continued. “It feels like in a moment of crisis they should be showing leadership by sharing a clear vision for what they expect, but that’s backfired for most folks.”
And the longer the pandemic lasts, the less willing people will be to go back.
How Bonuses Get Employees to Choose Work Over Family — Rachel Kim Raczka reports on ‘research by Ashley Whillans and colleagues shows how incentive pay encourages workers to think of downtime as wasted time’. Cites Are they useful? The effects of performance incentives on the prioritization of work versus personal ties.
Dave Lee reports that DoorDash breaks gig worker model to hire couriers as employees in New York trial.
Lazaro Gamio and Peter S. Goodman draw a picture of How the Supply Chain Crisis Unfolded: