Workers, Bailouts and the Question of Risk

Workers, Bailouts and the Question of Risk

The European deal to bail out Greece should not be cause for celebration, rather it should give us pause. Surely, the consequences would be worse if no bailout, but at what cost. In the typical top down approach, Greece must adopt even more austerity measures in exchange for loans, which only means that it is the typical worker who ultimately takes it on the chin. And yet, bailouts in general, like the U.S.’s rescue of the banks and AIG as well as auto manufacturers several years ago raise some serious questions about the meaning of risk in a market economy.

One of the central tenets of competitive free markets is that investors are entitled to reap the rewards of their investments, and exorbitant ones too, because they assumed risk. Of course, the argument that because they understood that there was a risk means that they have no right to request governmental immunization from risk when those investments go sour is a very compelling one. After all, they can’t have it both ways. Lost in these debates, however, is the risk that workers assume when they simply take a job.

The current wage labor system assumes that workers receive wages, and perhaps other negotiated benefits, in exchange for their labor. Moreover, it is assumed that they are entitled to no more. That their labor contributed to the success — the profitability — of a firm might have a moral point, is generally taken to be no more. Were it not for the efforts of workers, these companies would not be what they have become, their current need for a bailout notwithstanding.

The human capital investment of workers has never been likened to the property rights that are enjoyed by the liquid capital investment of shareholders and investors. Many companies seeking bailouts have also been beneficiaries of community investment in the form of tax abatements intended to maintain plants. One of the most famous cases involving a public/private partnership between General Motors in the late 1970s and the City of Detroit is particularly instructive.

GM had made it known to public officials that they would open two new Cadillac plants and create 6000 new jobs in Detroit if the city would undertake to acquire the land, clear it through the laws of eminent domain, and prepare it for construction. GM specifically wanted to locate its new plants in the Poletown section of the city, an ethnic neighborhood, and GM was also expecting tax abatements. Public officials feeling compelled to create jobs jumped at the chance, secured funding from Michigan and the federal government, and in the end bulldozed an entire community in the name of a public/private partnership aimed at achieving growth, or in the case of Detroit basic economic revitalization. This, of course, raised the question of whether such partnerships were tantamount to contracts whereby the company owed the community more than job creation.

This very issue came to a fore in a Michigan state court when the community of Ypsilanti sued GM for breach of contract following a restructuring plan that would close 21 plants in the U.S. and Canada, including in Ypsilanti. The state court initially held in favor of the community on the grounds that a contract of sorts existed, especially given that the community offered financial assistance. The Appellate court in Michigan did not recognize this new type of public/private partnership as akin to a binding contract, that it would effectively trump GM’s property rights to dispose of its property as it would see fit. Still, there an implication that the workers made a human capital investment that perhaps was akin to a property right, and that the company would not be what it was were it not for that human capital investment.

The point of this tale is that the current structure and arrangements of the free market economy would appear to be insufficient given the new global realities. We live in an integrated economy where the decisions of some affect the livelihoods of many. Workers never assumed the type of risk that investors did; after all, they would only be out of their jobs. But the poor investment decisions of the automakers begs the question: should the workers be made to suffer because of the decisions of their employers? If they are to assume that level of risk when they accept a job, should they not also reap some of the profits as well?

In his classic An Inquiry into the Nature of The Wealth of Nations, Adam Smith observed that the wages of labor are higher for those engaged in unusually dirty work or in particularly dangerous work. Of course, Smith was referring to the type of work that nobody else would do precisely because it was dangerous. And yet, he was also alluding to the concept of risk; that the one who assumes risk is entitled to more. But given the changing nature of the economy, and particularly our evolving conceptions of what constitutes property, one wonders if it isn’t dangerous these days to accept a job, especially in the absence of knowledge about the financial health of, and decisions made by, that employer. Workers, in the end, are making a human capital investment and assuming a measure of risk.

This, of course, is not to say that bailouts should not occur when in the public interest, but that the public interest, especially when taking into account the social wage and other aspects of social responsibility, should be the criterion. During the 1930s, various public programs and public works projects, along with an array of regulations, were promulgated in order to immunize us for risk. Indeed, the precedent created meant that it would be easier for those in need, including corporations, to request assistance. But now it is time to go further. The worker's contribution must be recognized as being integral to the growth of his/her company. While liquid capital investment and limited liability are still hallmarks of a free market economy, human capital investment is just as essential for companies to prosper.

Ultimately that means that workers in what might emerge as a new form of capitalism will need to have a measure of voice. To trust in corporate leadership as we have for so long is really to assume too much risk, because they aren’t only gambling with their own fortunes, but the fortunes of others. The new capitalism cannot simply be the government as bank of last resort, but must ultimately entail a measure of economic democracy. That is, labor has to have a seat at the table, rather than being viewed as the problem. It also means something else. When we see low-wage workers striking for a $15.00 an hour minimum wage, we need to place this in context of a global economy where CEO pay is on average 500 times the pay of the typical line worker. That high pay will of course be justified on the basis that this CEO assumes risk which the workers do not. But the risk this CEO assumes is with other people’s lives.