In the name of equanimity, here’s some good Conor Friedersdorf. When he’s good, he’s very good. And when he’s bad… ouch. Here he is, asking “Can Progressives Fix the US Postal Service?” I couldn’t tell you, myself. I don’t identify as a progressive; I think it’s a meaningless weasel word. But I do know that Conor’s post is a classic example of advocating other people’s sacrifice.
Conor is a bright guy who cares, so it’s extra depressing that he wrote a post that, as most conservative writing nowadays does, demonstrates total apathy towards the material well-being of broad classes of human beings, without owning up to that. The very idea that the well-being of millions of public sector employees matters— that, in fact, delivering a higher standard of living to broad classes of people is the very purpose of American society– goes unconsidered.
An expensive but inflexible labor force is a significant drag on USPS, as on any organization. It is also another example of the public employee problem that threatens the future of the whole progressive project. A basic leftist goal is to persuade the American people that Ronald Reagan was wrong — that given the proper resources, government can bring about solutions and isn’t itself the problem. Various think tank fellows, Democratic strategists, and public employee unions are working to make that case. In the long run, however, strategic communication matters less than results. So long as public employees are highly paid, enjoy benefits more lavish than their private sector analogues, and work under contracts that hamstring the ability of their agencies to perform and adapt, Americans will eventually conclude that public sector investments are folly.
Let’s decode this, shall we? Because when Conor talks about expensive and inflexible labor force, what he’s talking about is that people in these jobs are well-paid and have job security. I know we’ve all been living through decades of plutocrat-adoring Republicans defining the political vocabulary, but you know, there was a time when workers expecting to be paid well and have some job security was considered a pretty elementary part of the social compact. In fact, you might say, in this capitalist system of ours, that delivering higher wages and better job security to large numbers of workers was a fundamental part of the American dream, back when such a thing existed. But Conor, as is typical of his writing and conservative commentary in general, doesn’t even bother to weigh the social value of the high standards of living for these public employees. He doesn’t seem to recognize that the fact that these people have a mechanism for a better life is a good at all, nor does he bother to wrestle with the consequences of firing and cutting the wages of thousands of people. At all. It’s as if the material conditions of these people’s lives– because, you understand, they are public employees, and are therefore Bad People– simply don’t matter to him at all.
It’s fair to assume, I think, that Conor thinks his own job security and wage are important. I imagine he views the ability to secure decent compensation, and with it the kind of life that he wants– that his culture has promised him, again and again– as important in and of itself. What other purpose is there for this society of ours, after all, if it doesn’t work towards improving the lives of as many people within it as possible? So if there was some sort of coordinated, partisan, politically motivated campaign to attack Conor’s standard of living and reduce his wages, I think he’d argue that his standard of living matters. I mean, surely, the Atlantic could pay him a little bit less. Right? Would he really quit that gig if they paid him, say, $1,500 a year less than he makes now? How about $3,000? Is that below the threshold where he wouldn’t work, or be able to live, at all? I’ll tell you: that’s a cruel question. I don’t want Conor’s standard of living to decline. The people in his life who care about him certainly don’t, and would (and should) defend him if people started trying to attack his quality of life. But that’s how it is when you’re going after a person, rather than going across the nameless, faceless Enemy who you have decided to focus your wrath on.
Since we’re identifying basic goals here, let me name one for the right: degrading the standard of living for the large majority of the American people. You degrade the ability of everyone to make a decent wage by destroying unions, one of the traditional models for how to improve the standard of living of broad groups of the American people. (Including, incidentally, those of non-unionized workers, whose wages were historically inflated due to the threat of unionization.) You eliminate pensions; you replace them with things like 401ks, which don’t provide enough for retirement. You oppose health care reform; in fact, you work to degrade Medicare with a voucher program that doesn’t keep up with the cost of health care. You eliminate social services and government programs everywhere. You do all of it in the name of the free market. Does that sound like a healthier alternative than the supposedly self-defeating leftist plan Conor describes?
Conor writes, “Let’s make an earnest effort to fairly compensate folks who deliver parcels, teach kids, and build public works – even as we do our damnedest to avoid public employee union labor.” OK, Conor, let me ask you one more time: how? If Conor can come up with a genuine alternative to the left-wing prescription of empowered workers and a generous safety net, I’m all ears. I have been asking him to describe one in all the years we’ve been arguing online. He’s never articulated such a plan. Instead, he calls for sacrifice for other people. We have embraced the conservative, free market vision of smashing unions, eroding the New Deal and Great Society, and letting the profits on top run wild for three decades. To show for it we have endlessly stagnated wages for those in the middle and at the bottom. Your way is not working, Conor.
Now, we might want to point out a simple fact here, which is that the right to unionize is a consequences of absolutely elementary democratic rights like free speech and free association. Conor self-identifies as a libertarian, after all. But this is an inconvenient line of questioning.
But, hey, Conor’s right. In the private sector, people are rewarded for results! After all, the banking industry destroyed the world economy through their incompetence and greed, and most of the people in the industry
went to jail or got fired were remunerated beyond their wildest dreams. That invisible hand, huh? What a character. (He makes an appeal to the pragmatism of the markets! Pragmatism! They fucking drove us all to the brink of selling pencils while wearing a barrel and they made billions doing it, and this is pragmatism?)
Here’s an alternative theory for Conor: the post office provides a service that cannot be provided through markets and the profit motive. Sort of like defending the country, researching orphan drugs, and providing health care to the old and sick. It might be true both that a) we need a service in this country where you can say “hey, take this Land’s End catalog to the guy on the remote mountain in Wyoming for less than a dollar” and b) that service can’t be made profitable. Just like, say, providing health care for those with Barth’s syndrome can’t be made profitable. The public has some legitimate interests that cannot be served profitably. My ideology has a solution for this. Conor’s does not. (Conor mentions UPS and FedEx, which is always a sign of funny business when discussing USPS; neither provides anything remotely like the necessary daily, bulk, non-time dependent mail-carrying ability of the postal service.) This was Matt Yglesias’s point in the post Conor links to.
Don’t ask me, ask the Dutch. They– a much smaller nation with a much lower burden on their postal services– have waved the Libertarian Fairy’s Wand of Markety Goodness all over their mail carriers. How’s it going?
‘The TNT strategy was “We want to be one of the big players, like FedEx or UPS,” and it failed, of course,’ he said. ‘If you have to split up it means it didn’t work. In the end the shareholders were not benefiting and nor were the employees. So there were just a few managers who had a nice adventure and it didn’t work out.’ The winners from Holland’s liberalisation of the postal market, he said, were the big organisations who bulk mailed. ‘The losers? Almost everybody else. TNT, the new postal companies, the workers, the government. They liberalised the market and they’ve had a headache for five years and it’s not over yet.’
Sounds like utopia!
Conor is a bright guy, which is why I am so consistently dismayed by the most obvious attribute of his writing about unions: its utter thoughtlessness. Nothing animates his work on the subject more than the classic conservative tactic of anointing some group of undesirables responsible for all of our problems, and bitterly demonizing them. I have to laugh: we live in a country where unionism has been gradually destroyed for decades, and yet conservatives still find unions an endlessly attractive target for the politics of petty resentment. I think they need unions. I would like to see Conor experiencing an America without any unions at all, just to see puzzlement when he finds the postal service not suddenly a perfect capitalist wrecking machine, impoverished inner city children not magically turned into star pupils despite the abject degradation of their lives, and the country not one iota closer to the equitable and prosperous America of our dreams.
Instead working people would find just one more door to prosperity shut, with nothing to show for it but conservative promises about the pot of gold at the end of the free market rainbow.