Thursday, July 14, 2022

Homo Economicus Sings the Blues, And We All Suffer For It

 In last month’s post, I contrasted the positive, intrinsic view of work that underlies high-road HR strategies with the negative, instrumental view of work frequently seen in songs about work. Continuing with the theme of how we think about work, varying perspectives on work often correspond with assumptions about work embedded in different academic disciplines. In general terms, economics treats work as a commodity and as a lousy activity endured because of a need for money, whereas psychology focuses on personal fulfillment, and sociology on social norms.

Most songs on work are consistent with how most economists think about work. And thus, work songs are a revealing way to illustrate the dominant assumptions about work inherent in economic analyseswork as a commodity, as a pain cost, and as an opportunity cost.

In a commodity conceptualization of work, labor is an abstract quantity of productive value governed by the impersonal forces of supply and demand. We can see this reflected in songs that lament factory closings due to cheaper labor elsewhere, such as Billy Joel’s Allentown or Harry Chapin’s The Day They Closed the Factory Down:

      So they're moving somewhere else now
      With their cloths and fabric press
      They found themselves another town
      Where they'll make shirts for less

In terms of the actual work experience, the mainstream economics view of work is that it’s the opposite of something that brings you positive utility. That is, the direct experience of work makes you worse off. Traditionally this was seen as a pain cost. We can see this reflected in songs about long hours, hot and dangerous working conditions, or, as in Dolly Parton’s 9 to 5, bad bosses and disrespect:

      Workin' 9 to 5, what a way to make a livin'
      Barely gettin' by, it's all takin' and no givin'
      They just use your mind and they never give you credit
      It's enough to drive you crazy if you let it
      9 to 5, for service and devotion
      You would think that I would deserve a fair promotion
      Want to move ahead but the boss won't seem to let me
      I swear sometimes that man is out to get me
      They let your dream, just watch 'em shatter
      You're just a step on the boss man's ladder
      But you got dreams he'll never take away

In modern economic theorizing, work doesn’t have to be inherently bad (a pain cost), but working can still make you worse off it reduces the amount of time you can spend doing things that you find more enjoyable (an opportunity cost):

      It's always better on holiday, so much better on holiday
      That's why we only work when we need the money
      It's always better on holiday, so much better on holiday
      That's why we only work when we need the money

      (from Jacqueline by Franz Ferdinand)

So why work? To earn money to live. That is, Workin’ for a Livin’ in the words of Huey Lewis & The News. But don’t oversimplify and take this to mean that economics predicts that people won’t work hard. Rather, economics predicts that people will work hard when the pay is worth it, as captured by Gretchen Wilson’s Work Hard, Play Harder.

While songs can usefully illustrate these perspectives on work that underlie economic approaches to work, perhaps they run the risk of normalizing these approaches. If the nature of work is seen as beyond our control, then instead we might just focus on Working for the Weekend. But there ought to be better ways. Partly this entails increasing our demands for better work. But we also need to dig deeper. In particular, making work into a commodity in our collective imaginations dehumanizes it, reducing workers to productive inputs tracked in headcount analyses and income statements. This sterile conceptualization is not innocuous—in contrast, it’s a key conceptual step towards exploitation. That is, it’s harder for leaders to exploit workers who they see as human rather than as numbers in spreadsheet.

      I work my back till it's racked with pain
      The boss can't even recall my name
      I show up late and I'm docked, it never fails
      I feel like just another, spoke in a great big wheel
      Like a tiny blade of grass in a great big field
      To workers I'm just another drone
      To Ma Bell I'm just another phone
      I'm just another statistic on a sheet
      To teachers I'm just another child
      To IRS I'm another file
      I'm just another consensus on the street

      (from Feel Like a Number by Bob Seger)

Also, economics perspectives on work implicitly or explicitly emphasize individual free choice. If you don’t like your job, tell your boss to Take this Job and Shove It, and then find something better. But we need to recognize that labor markets don’t always work as nicely as mainstream economics wants to assume. There can be power differential in societal institutions and discrimination. Not everyone has the same options. Not everyone is rewarded fairly. Economic theorizing on work (e.g., personnel economics), and mainstream economics more generally, often sanitizes this by ascribing different outcomes to different personal choices or productive characteristics rather the systemic inequalities.

Unsurprisingly given their roots in real life experiences, there are songs that can remind us of the imbalances that workers must navigate. Class-based inequalities are evident in Worker's Song by Dropkick Murphys:

      We're the first ones to starve, we're the first ones to die
      The first ones in line for that pie in the sky
      And we're always the last when the cream is shared out
      For the worker is working when the fat cat's about

Margo Price’s Pay Gap and Cher’s Working Girl address gender inequality. And Nina Simone’s Backlash Blues starkly reminds us of race-based inequalities and discrimination which must not be overlooked:

      You give me second class houses
      And second class schools
      I know you think that all colored people
      Are just second class fools
      Mr. Backlash, I’m gonna leave you
      With the blues, yes I am
      When I try to find a job
      To earn a little cash
      All you got to offer
      Is your mean old white backlash
      But the world is big
      Big and bright and round
      And it’s full of other folks like me
      Who are black, yellow, beige, and brown
      Mr. Backlash, I’m gonna leave you
      With the blues, yes I am

In conclusion, then, the economics assumption about work being lousy is richly illustrated in a wide range of songs about work. But as a society, we should challenge why work is so lousy while also questioning the implications of other longstanding hallmarks of traditional economic thought—seeing work as a commodity, defaulting to assumptions of competitive markets, and embracing self-interest as the fabric of societal interactions. Homo economicus has many reasons to be singing the blues, and we all pay the price.

Monday, June 27, 2022

The Divergence Between Work Songs and High-Road HR Strategies

Different HR strategies for managing people are founded, at least in part, on different ways in which we think about work. Is work simply an input into a productive process that’s tracked and traded like other commodities? Or something bad that individuals do primarily for income? Or a source of personal satisfaction? A way to serve others? A way to fulfill societal expectations?

Low-road, market-drive HR strategies are based on the depersonalized commodity view, incentive-based HR strategies are rooted in seeing work as a necessary evil to earn income, and high-engagement or commitment strategies are based on views of work that see the potential for personal and broader satisfaction. 

Ultimately, work is exceptionally complex and multi-layered, so I think it’s best to see these alternative perspectives as all being relevant—that is, we should see them as complements rather than competitors. But just for fun, I’ve noticed that it’s very difficult to find songs (or comics or other forms of pop culture) that celebrate any joys of working. One of the only songs with a positive view of work I can find is The Happy Working Song, which is from the Disney movie Enchanted (as an aside, I’ve seen Everything is Awesome from the Lego Movie suggested as a positive work song, but it might really be about conformity—and in either case, we’re still left with positive work songs only in kids movies).  

In sharp contrast, there are many, many songs about work being commodified, lousy, and something to avoid, from old folk ballads, blues, and disco to 2020s post-grunge with lots of genres in between. That is, work through the lens of songs definitely favors the economics views of work. Indeed, these views can be illustrated by a single artist: Bruce Springsteen.

In The River, we can see work as a commodity left in the hands of market forces:

      I got a job working construction
      For the Johnstown Company
      But lately there ain't been much work
      On account of the economy
      Now all them things that seemed so important
      Well mister they vanished right into the air
      Now I just act like I don't remember
      Mary acts like she don't care

In Factory, we see the daily punishment and toil of work:

      Early in the morning factory whistle blows
      Man rises from bed and puts on his clothes
      Man takes his lunch, walks out in the morning light
      It's the working, the working, just the working life
      Through the mansions of fear, through the mansions of pain
      I see my daddy walking through them factory gates in the rain
      Factory takes his hearing, factory gives him life
      The working, the working, just the working life

And hot (or cold) repetitive toil is evident in Working on the Highway:

      I work for the county out on 95
      All day I hold a red flag and watch the traffic pass me by
      In my head I keep a picture of a pretty little miss
      Someday, mister, I'm gonna lead a better life than this
      Working on the highway, laying down the blacktop
      Working on the highway, all day long I don't stop
      Working on the highway, blasting through the bedrock
      Working on the highway, working on the highway

In modern economic thought, work doesn’t need to be directly painful (or boring or stressful or…), it can simply be an opportunity cost. That is, work might be OK, but it’s a costly use of your time if non-work activities are better. We can (sort of) see this in Night, where night-time drag racing is a lot more enjoyable than working (though work here is negative, too):

      You get up every morning at the sound of the bell
      You get to work late and the boss man's giving you hell
      'Til you're out on a midnight run
      Losing your heart to a beautiful one
      And it feels right as you lock up the house
      Turn out the lights and step out into the night

In these Springsteen songs, we can also see the reason for working—to make money to support your family and your more pleasurable pursuits, which again is a theme in many other songs by diverse artists. It’s not a source of deep rewards, as sought by high-road HR strategies.

 We can question whether popular music accurately represents views of work across the population—maybe the mournful aspects of work just make for better songs—but the extent to which these songs resonate with so many people should cause us to question the match between the assumptions of high-road HR strategies and how significant numbers of people actually experience their work. Though by itself, this can't answer the question of whether high-road HR strategies are fundamentally flawed (e.g., due to inherent conflicts of interest between workers and employers) or are simply difficult to achieve in practice.

Friday, January 21, 2022

Using Political Party Manifestos to Investigate the Relative Importance of Industrial Relations Ideas in Politics

Note: if you'd prefer an animated version of this posting, see:

Before almost any major election in democratic countries, each political party publishes its manifesto which declares the party’s values, goals, and policies it will pursue if elected. In order to fully inform candidates from that party as well as voters, manifestos comprehensively cover a wide range of topics. Researchers have created ways of categorizing these topics to study them. In fact, researchers from the Comparative Manifesto Project have assembled a data set of manifestos for over 1,000 parties from more than 50 countries across 700 elections. The earliest manifestos in the data generally date back to each country’s first postwar national election, so some start in the 1940s with other countries coming into the data set in later years. The data include countries from five continents. 

The key variables in this data indicate what fraction of a manifesto’s statements pertain to each of 56 possible topics, some of which distinguish between positive and negative mentions. Across all of the manifestos, welfare receives the most attention, on average. Our focus is on work-related mentions; more specifically, the “Labour Groups: Positive” and “Labour Groups: Negative” categories. The positive category includes pro-worker ideas, like calls for more jobs, fair wages, good working conditions, and stronger labor unions. The negative category almost exclusively consists of anti-union statements.

Across all years and countries, parties dedicated about 2.8 percent of their manifestos to labor groups positive topics—that is, pro-worker ideas—and 0.15 percent labor groups negative topics—that is, anti-union ideas. While these might seem like low rates of industrial relations content, ultimately what matters is the relative importance of these categories compared to others, and the implications of variation in these categories across time, place, and parties. Over time, there was a decline in pro-worker mentions in the 1980s and 1990s, but since then there has been a resurgence, and today pro-worker mentions are more common in manifestos now than they were even during what might be considered the heyday of the labor movement following World War II. Anti-union party platforms are consistently less prevalent, but there have been some periods with greater anti-union attention, such as in the 1970s and 1980s which include the anti-union platforms of Thatcher’s conservatives in the UK.

To think about these dynamics more deeply, we contend that political party manifestos are ideational documents. They are not simply a listing of policy proposals. Rather, a manifesto provides the means for a political party to give meaning to its platform, and allows politicians, policy makers, and voters to more deeply understand a party’s platform. In other words, it embodies ideas about the issues a party sees as important, and attempts to use these ideas to persuade others that these are the best ways to think about those issues.

But where do a manifesto’s ideas come from? We theorize three channels. One, party manifesto ideas on work-related issues may be rooted in a party’s entrenched values based on longstanding historical traditions, ideologies, or beliefs about work and workers. Parties that are ideologically farther left are expected to have greater pro-worker content, while manifestos will be more relatively anti-union among right-leaning parties due to their core beliefs. Two, industrial relations ideas can end up in party manifestos due to new thinking that reflects deviations from the party’s longstanding ideological positions. Three, ideas can arise in party manifestos because of the reactive mirroring of ideas to which the party believes voters will be most receptive, usually in an attempt to gain political power. If voter interests shift regarding how work should be governed, so too might the ideas placed within a party’s manifesto, reflecting an attempt to demonstrate commitment to the new interests of their constituents. 

We use these three channels to motivate statistical analyses of the frequency of pro-worker and anti-union ideas in political party manifestos using the Comparative Manifesto Project data combined with other measures that we merge in, although we cannot directly observe the three channels. Specifically, we estimate OLS regression models with two dependent variables: the percent of pro-worker and anti-union mentions in a manifesto. Depending on data availability, our regressions have between 2,000 and 4,500 observations. 

With respect to party family, socialist parties have the largest average pro-worker mentions, followed by social democratic parties, just as one would expect. Looking first at a party’s enduring ideology as reflected in its mean ideology across all elections, parties that are more right-leaning have fewer pro-worker mentions than left-leaning parties, even controlling for the party family, but there are mixed results for deviations from long-term ideology. These results suggest that entrenched values are an important foundation for political parties’ ideational strategies pertaining to work while the support for the new thinking or reactive mirroring channels is not as strong. We also explore the explanatory power of other measures relating to party extremism, parties’ responses to competitors, labor movement and economic conditions, and political systems characteristics. 

But do voters care about work-related mentions? Yes. We find that more pro-worker mentions predicts greater votes and seats won in an election, and pro-worker ideas is one of only 7 (out of 56) manifesto categories correlated with greater vote share. 

In conclusion, political parties are under-researched actors in industrial relations, and we hope that this study of their ideas spurs additional research into the importance of political parties in industrial relations. With respect to the emerging scholarship on ideas in industrial relations, we’ve tried to illustrate that political manifestos are useful documents for capturing ideational thinking that are unadulterated by necessary legislative or political compromises required to govern. Methodologically, we hope our large-n analyses shows that quantitative analyses can make unique, complementary contributions to the qualitative literature. For example, our finding of an enduring use of pro-worker ideas paired with more episodic deployments of anti-union ideas could be hard to see in a focused, qualitative study. This should also serve as an indicator that there are consistencies in ideas over time such that ideational research needs to incorporate theories of long-term stability with theories of shorter-term change. Conceptually, the three-channel framework sketched here for thinking about the ideational content of manifestos can also be applied employers or unions. As the environment changes, how do they navigate the tensions between staying true to their core ideas, introducing new ideas, and being responsiveness to what their constituencies want?

Source: J. Ryan Lamare and John W. Budd (forthcoming) "The Relative Importance of Industrial Relations Ideas in Politics: A Quantitative Analysis of Political Party Manifestos across 54 Countries," Industrial Relations [free access to the pre-publication version here].