Who’s “We”?

In “Is Working From Home Really Working?” (paywall-free version here), Steven Rattner opines — or rather pearl-clutches — that the phenomenon variously known as quiet quitting, working from home, or the Great Resignation, reflects a change in American attitudes toward work. And changed in a way that he views as “not for the better.” This new attitude towards work, according to Rattner (typical of the new breed of centrist bedbugs who occupy most of the column inches in the New York Times editorial section these days), “threatens to do long-lasting damage to economic growth and prosperity.”

As Rattner describes the alternatives, “economic growth and prosperity” are things that exist completely apart from the actual happiness of most human beings, and whose continuation requires the sacrifice of those human beings. 

Until Covid, most employed Americans had workdays that followed a decades-old pattern: Wake up, shower, breakfast, commute, spend at least eight hours in an office or a factory, commute home and maybe enjoy a glass of wine or a beer. Rinse and repeat, every Monday through Friday.

This pattern, which he admits was “drudgery for many and enjoyment for a few,” was “just a fact of life for most.” And he admits that the daily routine of working from home was considerably less unpleasant, for most people.

Days were different during the height of Covid, particularly for office workers. No need to fuss about wardrobe. No wasted travel time. No hovering bosses. At least for some a less-crowded calendar of meetings.

Because most people who experienced these new conditions preferred them — and for obvious reasons — Rattner laments the difficulty of keeping them down on the farm when they’ve seen Paree. Even after the external pressure let up on employers to allow working from home, and employers began to agitate for a return to the office, former office workers still continued to “reassess their relationship with work.” Worse yet, even among those who did return to in-person work, “the share of Americans ‘actively engaged’ at work has been falling since 2020.”

And some people cut their work hours, or simply stopped working altogether. According to Rattner, we have two million fewer people in the labor force today than we would have, had participation rates stayed constant since pre-COVID times. And record numbers of people are “working part-time for noneconomic reasons (i.e., not for a lack of available work)…. And all that’s despite the availability of nearly two full-time jobs for every unemployed American.”

The next sentence says more about Rattner, and the sort of people he hangs out with, than it does anything else: “The question lurking in the minds of many with whom I’ve spoken (as well as my own): Has America gone soft?” Indeed, he seemingly went out of his way — with predictable results — to sample the entire spectrum of opinion from A to B: “Every senior executive of the several dozen with whom I’ve discussed this issue believes that operating from home is simply less productive than being in the office.”

Rattner also makes a feeble attempt at class warfare — always comical, coming from the kind of Thurston Howell wannabe who can’t go to the beach without a briefcase and sock-garters:

Of course, the notion of flexible work is a form of white-collar privilege. Americans who labor in factories or in restaurants or stores don’t have the luxury of working from home (or the quiet quitting that can accompany it).

Hmmm. To me, that sounds less like an argument for reducing the privilege of white collar workers by forcing them back to the office, and more like an argument for powerful labor unions — or better yet, for blue-collar workers just expropriating industry, managing it themselves, and setting whatever kind of work hours they want.

For a moment, Rattner appears to concede some legitimacy to the desire for fewer work hours: “It’s fine with me for Americans to tone down or eliminate the rat race from their lives. Indeed, growing prosperity should allow for more leisure.” 

But then he spends the rest of the op-ed directly contradicting this apparent concession. Most of the remainder is a digression on the past century’s debate, since Keynes’s 1930 essay “Economic Possibilities For Our Grandchildren,” over the standard work week and the tradeoff between leisure and output.

As productivity increased since Keynes’s time, we could have cut back our hours on the job far more than we did and easily maintained a 1930 standard of living. Instead, we chose to keep working in order to enjoy greater material rewards; real incomes have increased more than sevenfold since 1900.

Whoa, whoa, wait a minute — “we chose”? I must have missed that vote. I think my parents and grandparents did, too. As Max Moran put it:

No, Steven, “we” didn’t “choose” that. Your pals in the C-Suites and Congress chose it for the rest of us. And when we protested, you crushed unions, deregulated industry, and shriveled employment opportunities through corporate trade deals. The average American absolutely does not want to be working as much as they are, but they simply have no choice with the way our society has been deliberately constructed.

Rattner is typical of apologists for any structure of power. The way things are is something “we chose,” because “that’s the way people want it” — not because some people have more power over economic and political decision-making than others, and the policies chosen benefit those who chose them at the expense of everyone else.  

Now many may be making a different choice. That’s OK, but we shouldn’t kid ourselves: Less output — whether a consequence of fewer hours or lower efficiency — eventually means a lower standard of living (or a less quickly rising one)….

Rattner really needs to show his work here. For one thing, I’d like him to make it clear what he means by “output.” Because as economists use the term, “output” doesn’t equate to the actual use-value we consume. Output — GDP — is simply the sum total of the dollar value of all goods and services produced by the economy. This includes things which amount entirely to waste as such, in their final form: e.g. “defense,” the prison-industrial complex, and suburbanization. But it includes waste inputs even in the production of things that do have value to human life: planned obsolescence; subsidized shipping costs for goods that would be produced more efficiently in relocalized industry; the increased costs of mass-marketing and distribution that result from production on an artificially large scale, rather than on a demand-pull basis; the gatekeeping, bean-counting, supervisory, and other “bullshit jobs” that exist only to cope with the conflicts of interest and irrationalities built into absentee ownership and authoritarian hierarchy.… If we eliminated all these things, we could have Keynes’s 15-hour work week with no decrease in standard of living — and a significantly increased standard of living for those currently at the bottom.  

We actually have a lower standard of living because of the imperatives of a system geared towards serving the interests of people like Rattner, and those he represents.

Ratner continues:

But we should be aware of different choices being made in other countries, particularly China, our biggest strategic adversary. The Chinese expression “996” means working 9 a.m. to 9 p.m., six days a week. While the Chinese government has been trying to curb this practice as part of a series of labor market reforms, in my many interactions with businessmen and investors there, I still find the prevailing work ethic extraordinary.

It’s telling that Rattner blithely bases his assessment of things entirely on his “many interactions with businesssmen and investors there” — what, no “entrepreneurs”? — completely oblivious to the optics of his failure to consult with (say) any of the workers subject to those 996 schedules. My god, even Tom Friedman sometimes pretends to talk to taxi drivers. But then, this is the same guy who says the hours and working conditions currently prevailing in the United States are what they are because “we chose” them.

The reference to competition with China is also revealing. It reminds us that, for Rattner and his ilk, “the economy” is an entity over and above us, that we serve — like Moloch — independent of the actual quality of our daily lives. In 2003, around the time the Iraq War started, I remember some neocon talking head on CNN observe that, rather than better wages, better housing, better public transit, more job security, and more vacation and sick leave, like the folks in Europe had, “we” had “chosen” to work harder so we could have all those aircraft carriers that “we” could send to the Indian Ocean. Well, yeah — who wants more choco-rations when you can have another Floating Fortress off the Malabar Front?

And I can’t let slip an opportunity to point out that most of that economic competition with China was manufactured — by the same people whose interests Rattner represents. The global manufacturing economy was created through massive subsidies to the offshoring of capital, and by an international legal regime centered on the intellectual property provisions of the Uruguay Round of GATT and all those other “Free Trade Agreements,” whose main purpose is to enable companies that don’t produce anything any more to outsource all actual manufacturing to nominally independent contractors while maintaining a legal monopoly on disposal of the product. 

By now you’ve probably forgotten Rattner’s aside halfway through this piece: “It’s fine with me for Americans to tone down or eliminate the rat race from their lives. Indeed, growing prosperity should allow for more leisure.” That’s probably good from his standpoint, because in his concluding statement he directly repudiates it:

The changing work habits have spawned a push for a codification of what may already be a reality: a four-day workweek. Legislation to that effect has been introduced in California, Maryland and other states. Proponents argue that with an extra day of rest, diligent workers can accomplish as much as they did in five days. Perhaps. But put me down as skeptical about that and much of the notion that when it comes to work, less can be more.

Well, yeah. I’d expect Rattner to be skeptical, just based on the fact that every single outside authority he cites as an influence on his opinion is a “senior executive,” “businessman,” or “investor.” And that he frames a system of power run by managers, executives, and investors in their own interest, with virtually no accountability to the rest of us, as something “we chose.” 

Then, too, we could hardly expect anything else, if you look at his background. Rattner is typical of every single person who’s ever written a “Guest Essay” at Pearl-Clutching Bedbug Central — er, the New York Times— on the issue of working from home. His current position is “chairman and chief executive officer of Willett Advisors LLC, the private investment firm that manages billionaire former New York mayor Michael Bloomberg‘s personal and philanthropic assets.” Before that, he served in the Obama administration as the guy who oversaw the auto industry bailout. Before that, he was a cofounder of the Quadrangle Group, a private equity investment group. And before that, an investment banker at Lehman Brothers, Morgan Stanley, and Lazard Freres & Co. 

Get that? Basically one vulture capitalism job after another. His entire career has been in service to the senior executives, businessmen, and investors whose opinions he so values. So on second thought, when he says “we chose” the way things are, maybe he’s talking about himself and his golf buddies. And when he says fewer work hours eventually means a “lower standard of living,” maybe he means a lower standard of living for the only group of people who matter. (That last carries even more weight when we consider that production workers’ wages and salaries have been decoupled from productivity increases for decades, and that productivity gains are mostly expropriated in the form of rentiers’ passive income or senior management compensation).

Regardless, his interests and those of the class which he serves are directly contrary to ours. It’s in our interest to eliminate all waste production, irrationality, and inefficiency (things which are vital to the existing capitalist economy, in order to eliminate idle productive capacity, keep the wheels turning, and provide a profitable outlet for all investment capital), eliminate rent extraction and unearned income, and shorten work hours accordingly. And we do so by stripping people like Rattner and his country club buddies of their power, taking control of production, and managing our own work in our own interest.

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