About Me

A blog wherein a literary agent will sometimes discuss his business, sometimes discuss the movies he sees, the tennis he watches, or the world around him. In which he will often wish he could say more, but will be obliged by business necessity and basic politeness and simple civility to hold his tongue. Rankings are done on a scale of one to five Slithy Toads, where a 0 is a complete waste of time, a 2 is a completely innocuous way to spend your time, and a 4 is intended as a geas compelling you to make the time.

Tuesday, March 1, 2011

Going Busting

I'm scared by the full-throttle attack on public employee unions that's taking place in many of these United States rights now.

Not unambivalently. Unions can stand for featherbedding, for archaic work rules, for stagnation. But they can also help individual employees to stand up to large corporations, to help raise living standards for their members. Bottom line, there's a reason why big corporations fight so hard to keep unions out, and it isn't because they're looking out for the little guy. And every bad thing you can say about unions, you can say sometimes about employers. If there are union heads living high on the hog off member dues, there are corporate CEOs doing the same. There are businesses that are staying wedded to old ways of doing things. I spent seven years working for Scott Meredith, who was in many ways the epitome of a bad boss.

Public employee unions are a little bit more awkward for me, largely because most politicians of my acquaintance especially here in New York City are very fond of having union support, union phone banks, union contributions, and are very eager to do the bidding of unions in ways that are harmful to everyone else in the city. For many years in NYC, any felony trial required the jury to be sequestered during the deliberations, even if nobody in the media was covering or would care about the trial. This was expensive, disruptive, unappealing to potential jurors. But it also meant jobs for court officers who had to watch over the jurors. As a result, it took many many years to do away with this stupid law. Multiply that out by negotiations across the country, where public employee unions have won things in the legislature that they couldn't win through collective bargaining or gotten things in collective bargaining that have price tags paid after the mayor leaves office, and yes, public employee unions have contributed to the financial crisis that states are facing.

But...

It isn't just an expense problem that's leading to the fiscal crisis. It's also a revenue crisis because of the economic collapse, the Great Recession, of recent years.

The general tack of the argument is to say that public employees should be happy to give up on things like good medical care or good defined benefit pension plans or good protection against unjust job termination because workers in the private sector have seen all of these things eviscerated in recent years.

It says that your goal isn't to uplift people but to bring them down. It buys into the worst short term logic of the capitalist marketplace that puts short term profit over all other concerns. It buys into the idea that no government is good government and that the best tax is no tax.

And I don't buy into that philosophy.

We aren't going to make our country better, our business climate better, our prospects better, by having a country full of people who can't afford good medical care, who can't afford to retire, who have to worry that they'll be fired for teaching evolution.

The United States is a rich country. It shouldn't squander its resources, no person or family or business or government should, but rich people are quite capable of spending money in frivolous and silly ways, and some of that money can be paid over in taxes to the greater good of all of us. Regulation can create an environment where business can go and thrive just like good parenting can do that for children, and this is an analogy I'll take and run with. Corporations are often like children, rapacious in their quest for immediate gain with no cognizance that it isn't always good to get exactly what you want at any given particular time.

I'm a businessman. I get to deal with government red tape. It can be a pain in the neck. But I can see as my authors work with publishers how my ability to leverage a client list helps every author on my list to do better -- and could do better still if authors could actually collectively bargain with publishers. Follow the logic of Scott Walker, and if one author will agree to a 4% royalty then all should, if one author will sell film rights then all should, the goal should be to single-handedly protect the interests of the publisher until every author is thoroughly impoverished.

I want to say that some of the public employee unions have had this coming because they've been very corporate in their rapacious approach to using all tools at their disposal to get pension and benefit programs that are ultimately unsustainable. And how many of those unions would support a governor who says "no raises, I need to fund the pension plan!"

But we as a society won't be better off if we can cut them off at the knees, if we do away with the idea that good benefits and good middle class jobs are something worth fighting for. That's something Henry Ford recognized, that his employees had to have some chance of buying his cars.

1 comment:

Perri said...

Well said! Thanks, you articulated much of what I've been feeling about what's happening in Wisconsin.