Wednesday, May 5, 2010

Friedman's Wage Laborer, Revisited

"Television is dramatic - it appeals to the emotions. It captures your attention"(3). Though Milton and Rose Friedman were writing of their TV miniseries, the same could be said of the print version of this important economic work. Milton and Rose Friedman ensnare us in cinematic portrayals of the potential for prices to seamlessly articulate every facet of human life, understood as a delicate consumer/producer balance. It’s interesting to read a text I’ve been so deeply trained to disavow, as its arguments, taken as Friedman presents them, have a kind of warped salience. When I consider the extent to which his examples are cherry-picked, and the immateriality of the processes as he describes them, the problems with his arguments become most clear. At points, his work illogically merges the scales at which economic interactions play out. His appeals to individual - and understandable - sensibilities often run counter to the ways in which economic activities are inhabited. Despite some obviously fallacious foundations - that America was "an empty continent to conquer" (3), for example, Friedman issues broad and seductive claims about the government's ideal role as an "umpire". Indeed, this text certainly complicated my senses of the positivism of government intervention – though it by no means bolstered my faith in the private sector. I want to revisit it now for my final prĂ©cis, and focus on his Chapter 8 “Who Protects the Worker?” to supplement the disparate images of the working class we’re seeing in the films this week.

Friedman conflates the motives of the individual with those of the "cooperative". His work hinges on notions of freedom, but ones that are awkwardly mobile and intangible. He moves from a coercion-free sense of liberty (Smith), fundamentally underpinned by basic Jeffersonian ideals. Early on, Friedman implicitly counterpoises Jeffersonian positive freedom - 'equality' - with Mill's negative 'freedom from harm'. This tension, one explored in the second session regarding this book, surfaces prominently in his discussion of wage labor. Chapter 8 broadly illustrates the problems inherent in his understandings of freedom, as well as scale. Especially given the disparate images of the wage laborer we're now seeing in The Fountainhead and The Grapes of Wrath, it's useful to return to Friedman's portrayal of the worker to ground the philosophies behind (at least one of) these renderings.

Friedman argues that ‘labor’ is not synonymous with ‘labor unions’ (a claim potentially at odds with his earlier notions of the “cooperative”). Likewise, the interests of the individual laborer are not synonymous with those of the labor union. He evidences this claim by suggesting that unions are not borne out of industrial development, but rather pre-industrial guilds. He seems disinterested in how these workers may be situated in relation to their employers; here, his definition of a union doesn’t distinguish between self-employed merchants/craftsmen and wage laborers. He suggests that unions put the freedom of the worker in jeopardy, but doesn’t explore how threats to freedom are also produced both by the precariousness of their work; that union formation is not solely active, but re-active.

The Grapes of Wrath scene of the tractor demolition challenges Friedman’s obtuse portrayals of self-interested individual laborers. The threat of the sharecropper shooting the tractor operator is diffused by dispassionate acknowledgement of their similarities and powerlessness. The individualism that motivates the tractor operator’s demolishing is indeed his own, but it is born of a forced compromise between moral and physical priorities.

Friedman argues that labor unions only work to make high wages higher, and that cuts to corporate profits (6% of national income) are insufficient to meet the demand unions place on wages (80% of income). However, this claim is challenged by more recent studies of wage and corporate profit trends. His example of the American Medical Association supports his claim that unions can be extractive from the general public, by charging more for high-priced services and reducing the size of the labor pool, but I find this sole example a heavily biased one. I find that the practices he indicts the AMA for facilitating are not so much characteristic of unions as of economic posturing at large. The same could be argued for corporate buy-outs of smaller vendors (or farmers, in the case of Grapes of Wrath). Friedman also manages to argue against physician licensure – yet offers no alternate system of accountability. It is a little far-fetched for him to use such a polar example of a union to speak to the work that unions do more generally.

He complains that those who testify in favor of higher minimum wage levels are “not representatives of the poor people”, but of unions. (Who and where, exactly, are these representatives of the poor?) He goes further in saying that minimum wage laws are “one of the most, if not the most, antiblack laws on the statute books”. Despite his attempts at empirical salience, citing disparate unemployment rates, Friedman neglects to thoroughly examine the causality. Do minimum wage laws themselves discriminate against blacks – or do employers inequitably estimate the value of their laborers based on existing racial stereotypes?

Friedman uses Babe Ruth as an example of who wage laws fails to protect: “he had to bargain with the Yankees, using the threat of not playing for them as his only weapon”(245). His choice to use such a monumental figure to legitimize his claims about the problems of having “only one possible employer” mirror Rand’s figuration of Roarke in the Fountainhead. These illusions of the vindication of the uber-talented reiterate the insidious individualism that permeates both of their philosophies. This is reiterated with Roarke’s contrived flirtations with the wage-laborer life, and the way Rand’s film works to preserves his monumentality through this. Okie wage laborers seem to function, then, at the opposite pole of in Friedman’s “least bad”(246) system of labor/employer competition, suffering from extenuating corporate and economic circumstances.

Emma Tome

No comments:

Post a Comment

Note: Only a member of this blog may post a comment.