Thursday, June 21, 2012

How about we make the workers into shareholders?

At The Claremont Review of Books, William Voegeli--friend and occasional nemesis--acknowledges popular discontent with capitalism, and intriguingly suggests that can be fixed by making capitalism something people do--as opposed to something that happens to people. Most intriguingly, he suggests giving workers a stake in their companies by tying wages--in part or in whole--to the success of the enterprise. He suggests that labor unions have been the biggest obstacle to such an arrangement:
"The greatest monument to the illusion that employees can and should prosper regardless of the economic condition of their employer is the rusting ruin that's the American labor movement. In Which Side Are You On? (1991), labor attorney Thomas Geoghegan lamented that the failure to take the biggest equity position it could in the industries where it represented workers "was the longest-running mistake in the history of labor, the unwitting, almost Gandhi-like renunciation of power." Geoghegan's explanation is that unionists were so strongly committed to the idea that workers and employers' relationship had to be adversarial that they never accepted the possibility of it being collaborative. "The attitude in labor was: collective bargaining is for adults, stockholder meetings are for kids.""
Perhaps. And maybe I'm too cynical. But I think it might be difficult to persuade management and ownership of companies to share equity with their workforces--especially in the 21st century, when those workforces can be outsourced or replaced by high-tech robotics that can do the jobs of several humans, often faster and better. If there is popular discontent with capitalism, it's partly because workers perceive that they're not seen by management as collaborators--and perhaps not even quite human, but as balance-sheet entries that can all too easily be eliminated to fatten a company's margins. Maybe these issues can be resolved, however.

In any case, I'm also intrigued that Voegeli's capitalist response to the crisis of capitalism doesn't sound hugely different from that of actual self-described socialist Harold Meyerson, who regularly extols German-style industrial capitalism--in which workers are well-represented on governing boards, and thus have some skin in the game of the enterprise--as a solution to what ails us. There are some distinctions between their approaches, to be sure, but the underlying concept is sound: To restore capitalism, and confidence in capitalism, workers must be given a clear-cut stake in its success. After 30 years of watching the middle class stagnate while top incomes soared, that change in approach would be welcome indeed.

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