artificial inflation

i recently read this old post from my friend Tami's blog, in which she touched on populist opinion running both in favor of preserving UAW workers' salaries, and against the executive compensation packages at companies involved in the recent bailouts, and how it smacks a little of wage/class envy. i think she's right, and i started to comment on it...and before long i realized i was writing a book. most of the following marathon of keyboard calisthenics has been building for a while now, but she deserves credit for the spur. i encourage you to read her post first, as she's more talented at this (and generally more interesting) than i am, and since this post began as a comment on her post, it probably works better with the segue than it does on its own. feel free to click away, i can wait...

see? i'm still here.

as i was saying, rather than post this indulgently wordy manuscript as a comment, which would be somewhat bad form, as her post is fairly old and this rambling diatribe is ridiculously lengthy for that format, i posted here, simultaneously contributing to my cobweb-covered blog (which will no doubt amaze and/or horrify both of my long-neglected readers), and exploiting the convenient push to facebook, where excessively careless f-bookers might accidently click the link, fail to recognize their error, and start reading.

it's a given that 90% of those unlucky, click-stumbling accidental readers have, by now, navigated expeditiously away, but the remaining 10% may have gamely pulled on their galoshes, wading in further. of those, i estimate 50% will soon give up their well-intentioned self-delusion of interest and move on to something entirely more satisfying. i hereby absolve the aforementioned 95% of all Guilt, and bid you/them a fond farewell (pre/post-exit as appropriate).

extensive privately-funded (uncorroborated) laboratory studies show that 50-75% of both the remaining errant facebook clickers and prior-inf-blog-readers will fall gratefully asleep long before reaching the end of this post, and to those i hasten to express my sincere gratitude for the attempt, and wish the very sweetest of pleasant dreams. if they could put me in a bottle, i would be quickly rushed through FDA trials, as i'm an amazingly effective sleep-aid, and profoundly non-habit-forming.

that leaves maybe 1 or 2 people with a reasonable chance of making it to the finish line. depressing as that may be, this does not deter a True Wordsmith (or, for that matter, people like me). if you're one of the intrepid finishers, this post is Especially for You.

(commemorative trinkets available for a nominal fee in the Finisher's Circle, all proceeds benefitting the nonprofit National Organization of Disenfranchised Investment Counseling Experts, aka "NO DICE".)

for You (Especially) i begin the actual post, again:

there was a time in this country when labor unions were absolutely necessary but, for the most part, that time's passed. the labor laws and labor market conditions in general, not to mention organizations such as the National Labor Relations Board and OSHA, state depts. for workers (Labor & Industries in WA), etc., have long since addressed the majority of issues the unions were formed to deal with, and by and large, unions now function primarily as redundant systems for these formerly union-exclusive areas, and exist as collective bargaining systems and self-perpetuating fundraisers.

i've held union construction jobs, and have a reasonable degree of experience working with and/or supervising union workers (in the entertainment industry), and it's my experience that, as a rule, the majority of union employees are overpaid for their skills and effort and routinely need and expect a lot more coddling. it generally requires more of them to accomplish anything, and they have an overwhelming tendency to Whine and be a Pain in the Ass. as with all rules, there are exceptions, and i speak from my own experience (individual results may vary).

furthermore, during my own union employment, with Local #292, Everett, WA, i've been in a position to require their advocacy and they did not/could not/would not effectively resolve my issues. the union's attempt at advocacy was wholly half-hearted to begin with, their representative was unreliable, and i was forced to seek outside help. the National Labor Relations Board took my case for free, immediately consulted with me, gathered detailed information, and pursued my claim for months, ultimately resulting in my day in court. the details of my case aren't important; let it suffice to say the union didn't earn their money, and the federal gov't was there to pick up their slack anyway, and i began to form my current opinions.

in terms of the UAW: absolutely its members should earn compensation somewhat commensurate with others in similar industries, but the vast majority of them will do whatever is in their own immediate financial best interest, which means perpetuating the union stranglehold on the Big Three, and collectively swamping their own boats. as long as the federal gov't is demanding others jump in to man the buckets, why should they abandon the heavily-listing Detroit? why would investors?

[cue "disgusting sucking noise" and "faint human female shrieking noises", intended to conjure mental image of 1950s-B-movie-style Giant Leech]

this is also true of the (decidedly non-union) financial sector companies benefiting from the ludicrously bloated bailout fiasco.

[end sound effects]

the "little guy" at the bottom end of the U.S. economic food chain (others like me) is probably going to disagree with me about the UAW, but they're all wrong, and i'm right: workers cannot continually take more from a company than it can afford to spend, and remain employed, without an endless supply of injected capital. the marketplace cannot infinitely expand to supply that capital, and there's no justifiable reason to place that burden on the public at large.

the exorbitant executive salaries at the tops of these and similar pyramids- morally offensive to many, and not unjustifiably so- don't equate to any significant increase in the average pay of a pool of workers that large, or to the value of individual shareholder earnings, nor do they significantly impact the profit margins of the companies or the price of the goods they produce. though there are exceptions, most companies that set labor policy without collective bargaining agreements do a fair job of creating shareholder value, and a pretty fair job of compensating their employees. conversely, despite and (partially) because employee compensation at UAW plants is artificially inflated, Detroit is generally unable to create shareholder value. an unsustainable level of wages, health care costs and retirement benefits (in no particular order) is the biggest problem in Detroit. the other is mismanagement.

the people making the decisions there haven't made products attractive enough to the marketplace, or made them efficiently enough, or marketed them well enough to support themselves as currently organized. to quote my friend, and use one of my son's favored terms: EPIC FAIL. propping up companies that fail epically, perpetuating artificially inflated compensation packages and shareholder earnings, is the corporate equivalent of non-results-oriented sports [shudder], and should be relegated to things like lemonade stands. are we really so desperate for mismanaged companies to exist that we should go to ANY lengths to perpetuate them? i don't think so. if they dried up and blew away, all the hungry-to-reproduce investment capital will seek out new, feasible opportunities, and eventually those businesses will need employees, and everything will balance out.

the UAW may finally be acknowledging the unsustainability of their previous agreements, as evidenced by recent changes in contracts with Ford and GM, in which the union assumes responsibility for large portions of workers' benefits packages. it will be interesting to see how that plays out in the long term.

it's arguable that the most exclusively talented people (i.e. top executives) should be paid a lot more than entry-level workers. assemblers shouldn't make as much as machine operators, machine operators shouldn't be paid as much as machinists, machinists shouldn't be compensated like engineers, etc. it's perfectly reasonable that the more responsibility you hold for an organization's success, the more you should be compensated. it's also therefore reasonable that the most responsible people be held the most accountable for performance. people who run companies into the ground should not leave with huge bonuses. companies that extend wildly lucrative offers to entice superstar executives without tying those contracts to performance are Stupid, and taxpayers shouldn't be strongarmed into paying for them.

the kind of twisted logic in which that's acceptable equates to raising the price of admission at the zoo to cover the medical bills/funeral services of people who jump into the tiger cage. "what? that's ridiculous! the sign's on the 15-foot bars of the cage! it says 'caveat emptor' in 3 languages, and there are little pictograms for people who can't read! there's a 20-foot wide moat! and they told everyone at the door, and it's printed on the back of the ticket!"

maybe they should forego the other measures, and show patrons the video of the tigers eating the last guy.

there's a lot more unaccountability at the tops of these corporate pyramids than at the bottom. i suspect it's because the people who make the decisions are the ones at the top of the pyramid. (no, i'm not a rocket scientist, i just play one online.) how long does Mary Assemblyline last if she holds up the line? about 5 minutes. her Golden Parachute is an empathetic manager who makes sure the door doesn't strike her in the behind on the way out. (OK, he's also minimizing the company's exposure to litigation.) the lack of accountability at the top is a real problem- and it's their problem, not yours and mine.

it's no mystery why the politicians aren't hearing the masses gathered around the bases of these pyramids. the pyramids are staggeringly tall and steep-walled, and their offices are at the very top. the mosh-pit of suits present are tripping and climbing over each other, scrambling for position, screaming at the top of their lungs, pointing fingers at each other, and slapping their IOUs down on the desk.

i'm running off on a tangent. (unless you're new to this blog, you're used to that by now.)

in Detroit's case, the UAW has been the biggest problem. those workers' wages and benefits have been artificially inflated over decades. i think everyone knows this, including the UAW and its members- but the members don't want to hear it. picture kids with their hands over their ears, eyes clamped shut: "NANANANANA I CAN'T HEAR YOU!" but the fact is actually OBVIOUS: those workers can't go find a comparable job in another industry for anywhere near the same money, or with anywhere near the same level of benefits, or some combination of those. this is a testament to the effectiveness of collective bargaining, but it's also an indictment of the possible end results. (the prosecution rests.) the workers aren't going to willingly let go of their jobs, or their artificially inflated compensation packages, or the union that secures them. i believe something similar is happening in the majority of longstanding collective bargaining situations, but the UAW, in my mind, is the poster child of artificial wage inflation.

artificial inflation is rampant everywhere, from health care (and insurance costs in general) to union and government wages to commodities and housing markets to protectionist industrial and monetary policies, professional sports complexes and on and on. speculation in the marketplace (by fat cats who can't get fat enough) and collective bargaining agreements (by alley cats with sharp teeth and claws, who got fat representing scrawny stray kittens, and stay fat representing pretty-well-fed housecats) and government subsidies and selectively-favorable policies (by fat cats elected and influenced by other fat cats) push values of certain things too far up, and eventually the bubbles must burst. they were never sustainable to begin with; they weren't based on anything real. it's all, to quote another pretty fat cat, "irrational exuberance".

when it falls apart, a whole bunch of people lose their shirts. we're getting the Grand Mal lesson in seizure of property right now, a very expensive primer on how much the fattest cats hate to go shirtless, even if it means taking the shirts off everyone else's backs. more fat cats pontificate passionately and pound the pulpit in Righteous Indignation, and while we're lulled listless by their loquacity, or scared silly by the sermon, they're skillfully- with practiced hand- removing our shirts and handing them over, freshly pressed, in boxes with pretty bows. they're gifts, alright...but don't expect a thank-you card.

the problem for taxpayers is NOT that this bank or that huge insurance company fails, or that any particular piece of "real" estate "lost" half its "value" overnight; it's that the value these things were (mis)construed to hold was artificially inflated in the first place, even willfully misrepresented in the most blatant cases, and that these misconceptions were reinforced, even encouraged, by policies that made these values SEEM reasonable, and that this was true for a long enough period of time to ensure that almost everyone everywhere has some amount of exposure to the risk.

that's enough to make some people believe in conspiracy theories...but not me. i don't think anyone's got enough intelligence. there are too many competing agendas and players for anyone to manipulate events that deftly. i'm convinced that more harm is done by combinations of ordinary greed, shortsightedness, failure to learn from mistakes, and (most of all) misguided faith in the ability of individuals to fully comprehend- and by extension, organizations to effectively manage- complex systems (read: hubris) than by your garden-variety Evildoers.

i give you, by way of example, weathermen. people have been studying the weather for untold years, and increasingly complex and comprehensive observation, analysis, statistic gathering, variable quantification, and computer modeling still can't accurately predict what's going to happen. they can make some very educated guesses- but they're still guessing, and they're still wrong a LOT. full-scale economies are the financial equivalent of weather, and economists are like photogenically-challenged weathermen- except the weathermen freely admit when they're wrong a lot of the time. people used to own barometers, and pay enough attention to the world around them that they could make their own educated guesses what the weather was going to do today. not anymore. that's what weathermen are for. it's a pretty good system, but don't bet the house on it.

if Detroit needs to die to fix Detroit, i say, "so be it." if AIG needs to die, RIP. there is no fixing some things. in many cases (in language Detroit can understand) they're totalled. they're zombie corporations, the fiscal living dead, and they want to eat your brain. all these failed companies are going to be sold off at a loss eventually, and all the stakeholders involved are going to suffer anyway, and no matter what, a bunch of other people (and many of the same people that lost money) are going to make a lot of money in the long run from their failure. if we're collectively smart and careful enough, they won't create as much artificial money next time around.

surely, allowing the hands-off failure of overgrown financial institutions would have huge, unforeseen consequences, and yes, those consequences would impact millions, but how is that any different than what's already happening? at least if these companies are allowed to fail, people might start to learn from their mistakes. is anyone really smart enough or qualified enough to orchestrate a significantly less destructive failure? the "experts" are grasping at straws. economists certainly don't agree on things- except that the sky is falling. maybe everyone just needs to completely lose their ass, so we can collectively get a re-education in the meaning of "risk".

no single person, no organization can fully comprehend the unfathomably convoluted machinations of the global economy. it's just too big, and too complicated. policies which attempt to address these problems at too large a scale are inherently doomed to failure, because they have consequences even their architects don't understand.

i suggest we therefore step back a bit, and begin by addressing how money unduly influences the political process. it's the wellspring of a whole river of other problems.

(looking down, the Author realizes his equine companion has long since ceased respiration, and abandons the lash, continuing afoot.)

along those lines of thought, imagine what the average American workers' pay would be if we had to compete industrially in a completely free global market. there are reasons people are flowing inexorably north from Mexico by the thousands, and immigrating to the U.S. from every corner of the world (in numbers unequalled anywhere, at any point in history): there's more opportunity here. why? partly because of artificial controls that insulate America from the global economy. we're not alone in this; to some extent, all the industrialized countries in the world are guilty of Protectionism. the P-word is another way of saying 'artificial inflation'. if some of those controls didn't exist, the already huge numbers of immigrants would be astronomical, and if others weren't, the discrepancy of conditions that causes the influx of (artificially-inflated-wage-killing) cheap labor in the first place would diminish. jobs go overseas because in those places, less is more. less is more overseas because the jobs are all over here. when sufficiently capitalized countries make infrastructure investments in less-developed markets, they make a lot of money, quickly.

if you're going to re-tool your widget factory, why do it in the U.S. labor market, when there's Indonesia, Taiwan, China, Bangladesh, Turkey....? Iceland's national power company Landsvirkjun recently made huge investments increasing hydroelectric power capacity, to entice struggling American aluminum company ALCOA to build a massive smelting plant. ALCOA has considered building a 2nd smelter there as well. all things being equal, it's simply good business for developing or struggling economies to collaborate with industries struggling to survive in the most industrialized countries. (Environmental arguments aside, that's a different, if related subject.)

in my opinion, the existence of truly open, free global markets is the human rights issue of our time. there are literally hundreds of millions of people the world over who will gladly work at least as hard as the average American, for far less than any American workers will at the same job. even living here, they still work for less, meeting the same types of financial obligations you and i do. the only argument anyone can make to restrict immigration is that this depresses wages in U.S. labor markets. (incidentally, increasing legal immigration and cracking down employers exploiting illegal immigrants mitigates that effect to some degree.) the immigrants' standard of "a good living" is just much, much lower than ours. our whole idea of what constitutes "a good living" is artificially inflated, because we're insulated from the types of challenges the majority of the developing world faces. for the fattest cats among us, that standard is an order of magnitude or so higher, but it's the same thing, isn't it?

damned if Joe Sixpack will willingly give up his seat at the nice, clean table so some faceless untouchable scrabbling for existence in a muddy hovel somewhere can belly up. damned if Joseph Reginald Fatcat III, Esquire will willingly give up the Kobe prime rib and the private plane for the occasional dinner at Olive Garden and a Kia.

this speaks to us all, as individuals, and how we act collectively. a "higher" moral standard, or an elevated standard of what constitutes basic human entitlement (i.e. posturing like i've been throwing out for paragraphs now) doesn't necessarily preclude acting in our own self-interest, but they're not exactly complementary philosophies.

where's the balance, then? that's the $1M question.

i submit we should try not frown too much as the latecomers file into the cafeteria, that we make as much room as possible at our tables, and that setting up some picnic benches outside will probably be necessary; that to the extent we're able- without taking too much food off our own plates, or failing to feed our own children- we should let as many people as possible come to the buffet; that we collectively keep an eye on the biggest bullies stealing food off other plates, and send them to the back of the line; that we try not to let our eyes grow too much bigger than our stomachs.

when everyone's better fed, there'll be plenty of help with the cooking, and eventually we can build more and bigger cafeterias.

that was my Kum Ba Yah moment. i don't have a whole lot of them, so it's equivalent to, say, seeing a shooting star, or buying a winning scratch ticket.

i'm not preaching here; i'm as guilty as anyone else of looking out for myself and my own. it's what we do here; there's nothing wrong with self-interest. but forgive me for not spending much time lamenting the loss of American jobs to people who watch their children starve and have no shot at an education, and for my failure to cry long over the crash of artificially inflated wages or stock values, or the demise of companies that slit their own throats, or for people who bought $1M+ houses on $60-$80K incomes. too many of the people who are yelling the loudest right now invested and doubled down and frantically overextended themselves trying to parlay their artificial profits into the Motherlode.

we should be identifying with lower-middle class people who've lived within their means their whole lives but lost their retirement money in investments that were deemed safe by "experts"; with people who showed up every day and worked hard at their jobs but lost them anyway. we should be holding the companies and people that negligently gambled away other people's money on absurdly complex financial instruments accountable. they've unapolegetically made BILLIONS for their investors over the years, and just as they were legitimately entitled to their profit, they're absolutely responsible for their own losses. we should be concerned with pulling licenses of companies and prosecuting sharks who lied about the terms of mortgages (a far smaller group than might be indicated by the clamor of people upside-down in their properties). we should be far more eager to show all these incompetent "experts" the door, and carefully supervise the next crop of (hopefully actual) talent while they cautiously try to fix things. we should be Meaningfully Reforming the regulatory agencies that fell down on the job, and we should be taking stock of the names of politicians responsible for their oversight and booting them out of office ASAP.

(all Faithful Readers have hereby proven themselves Fully Worthy, and are coming around the bend now. sprint to the finish!)

recently unemployed though i may be, and broke as i definitely am (i lost about 1/3 of my only savings, a 401k probably worth less to begin with than most), if i don't do something pretty soon i'm going to lose a lot more than that. but i still can't seem to summon up a full head of self-pity. i'm typing this on a computer, in a heated house, with a well-fed animal that i have no intention of eating lying contentedly under my chair. i can go take a shower, and there's some (admittedly unremarkable) food around. i even have some beer left in the fridge. i will eventually get hired somewhere, and depending on where that is i may have to give up some things. if that happens...i'm not going to step in front of a train.

a long time ago i spent a large portion of time, including a very cold winter, living in a 1-room warehouse with no heat, no running water, no toilet, no way to cook food. i was lucky: i had a $300 car that lasted me a year, and usually a couple gallons of gas in the tank, and a couple places i could go to take a shower. i've also spent a lot of time working graveyard shifts in downtown Seattle in the winter, watching frozen homeless people shuffling from trash can to trash can, wearing every filthy stitch of anything they could get their hands on, while i decorated 60-foot trees with pretty lights, all the way to the top, so people would be encouraged to come spend money.

things could be a lot worse here, for me, and in general. we should try to remember to count our blessings; fat cats, auto workers, market players, homeowners and taxpayers all. a little less-artificially-inflated sense of entitlement can serve us all well.

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