ANY SON-OF-A-BITCH

This is one of my favorite passages from anything written in the English language, in this case The Grapes of Wrath:

"Well, I was there. They wasn't no agitators. What they call reds. What the hell is these reds anyways?"

Timothy scraped a little hill level in the bottom of tile ditch. The sun made his white bristle beard shine. "They's a lot a fellas wanta know what reds is." He laughed. "One of our boys foun' out." He patted the piled earth gently with his shovel. "Fella named Hines-got 'bout thirty thousan' acres, peaches and grapes-got a cannery an' a winery. Well, he's all a time talkin' about 'them goddamn reds.' 'Goddamn reds is drivin' the country to ruin,' he says, an" 'We got to drive these here red bastards out.' Well, they were a young fella jus' come out west here, an' he's listenin' one day. He kinda scratched his head an' he says, 'Mr. Hines, I ain't been here long. What is these goddamn reds?' Well, sir, Hines says, 'A red is any son-of-a-bitch that wants thirty cents an hour when we're payin' twenty-five!' Well, this young fella he thinks about her, an' he scratches his head, an' he says, 'Well, Jesus, Mr. Hines. I ain't a son-of-a-bitch, but if that's what a red is-why, I want thirty cents an hour. Ever'body does. Hell, Mr. Hines, we're all reds.'" Timothy drove his shovel along the ditch bottom, and the solid earth shone where the shovel cut it.

Tom laughed. "Me too, I guess."

This is illustrative of a very important hill on the rhetorical battleground in modern politics, the idea that self-interest is good for some people (say, high income earners who don't like paying taxes) but evil when pursued by others (say, people living hand-to-mouth). We are inundated with this message by our media and political elites. Banks have a right to make a profit; people who want to retire at a semi-reasonable age and perhaps collect a few Social Security checks are unreasonably greedy. CEOs must be rewarded with outsized compensation packages; workers must be Reasonable and understand that wages have to fall. Shareholders deserve a return on their investment; those greedy bastard teachers are destroying the country with their incessant demand for a 2% cost of living raise.

If you pay attention you will be floored by how often you hear expressions of condemnation or surprise because some individual or group is logically defending its own interests. Look at the salary those lazy UAW bastards want! Look at all these hippie protesters demanding more, more, more! Look at these old geezers complaining about Medicare cuts! Look at how Joe leaves work every day at 5:00 on the dot…it's almost like he doesn't want to work uncompensated overtime! The problem with the world these days is that everyone wants to work as little as possible rather than as hard as they can!

This is little more than a symptom of the market-as-religion mantra – that you and I can't make any demands about our salary, working conditions, and so on because they are set by The Market. Mortals must not distort The Market by trying to get anything more than what the company feels like paying. When The Market decides that you no longer get vacation days or health insurance you are a greedy SOB for trying to hang on to them. A normal person would just accept that with a big smile and keep working harder, according to the David Brookses of the world.

In reality, any rational person would defend his or her own interests in this situation. If Social Security was the most bankrupt, lavish, excessive pension system on the planet, it would still make perfect sense for seniors to try to prevent cuts to it. It benefits them. Why would they give it up without a fight? That would make no sense whatsoever. It doesn't imply that they're right or that Social Security (in that hypothetical) is a well designed system, but from the individual beneficiary's perspective it makes perfect sense to fight any attempt at cuts.

I make it a habit to answer rhetorical questions of this type. When someone asks, "Can you believe that these UAW guys want to get paid to not work?" I respond with a hearty, "Of course. That sounds awesome." This type of response is not only irritating but also completely honest. What in the world could be better than getting paid to not work? If someone offered to pay you to not work, you would throw your back out jumping at the opportunity. While that is the unassailable truth, you won't find many water cooler blowhards, media personalities, or comment trolls willing to admit it in the "OK for me, but not for thee" society we have built for ourselves in the past thirty years.

38 thoughts on “ANY SON-OF-A-BITCH”

  • I've always been struck by the inverse of this argurment – that billionaires, giant companies, and wall street need (and deserve) infinite support and subsidies and tax relief and protection from regulation because they're such delicate little hothouse flowers who will wilt if their forced to compete for a single penny, but the vast array of ordinary people are spoiled and lazy and always wanting things like a roof over their heads in their old age, or not to be bankrupted by health expenses – which exposes a great flaw in their character and can only be dealt with via "tough love" and austerity and exposure to the darwinian marketplace.

    Nice racket they've built over the last 30 years.

  • But that's because CEOs, hedge fund managers, and D.C. political pundits all create value, whereas auto workers, school teachers, and such are basically freeloaders.

    Also, if you get sick or become old, it's probably due to poor life choices.

  • Being just a hair shy of 30 myself, here's a question for Ed or indeed anyone with the experience or familiarity to answer it: have things gotten that much worse in the past thirty years? My social and political consciousness basically only goes back a handful of years and I find it maddeningly difficult to get a straight answer about this kind of thing.

  • @Nate–the debate has shifted at least. The Reagan Revolution's entire mantra was that Government Is The Problem, which allows those who think that way to push for tax cuts, deregulation, culture wars, and anything that can benefit Us while basically fucking Them in the ass. That rhetoric is amplified daily by a full-time media arm which didn't exist thirty years ago and a middle class of GOP and Indepenedent voters who are staggeringly unaware of their own self-interests and a Democratic party that, by and large, with some exceptions, has been either bribed into complacency (a la David Brooks and George Stephanopolous) or cowed into fear (every limp-dick Harry Reid type) by some apparently inexhaustible well of reprisal courtesy of the GOP. Give the GOP credit: They suck my ass at governance but are astonishingly good on message.

  • have things gotten that much worse in the past thirty years?

    Yes.

    The most prescient statement of which I'm aware in 20th century American politics is :
    "This country is going to go so far to the right that you won't recognize it."
    Nixon's Attorney General John Mitchell, 1970

    He was right. I no longer recognize this as the same nation in which I grew up.

    I regard the bitter determination of the 1% to squeeze blood from everyone else, and the collusion of both parties and essentially all the national media in this program, as Reagan's great and lasting evil achievement.

  • Really, really good post. I was chatting with a hyper-conservative friend of mine, and I brought up labor unions. He said he didn't like them because they distort "market systems." Collective agreement and pursuit of self-interest goes don't go against market forces. They're just an attempt to take control of them.

  • I'd like to read a well-written history of public sector employees and private unions, because part of me suspects that the real anti-public-worker and union sentiment took off when minorities finally manged to start making good on the equal protection clause and getting traction with the EEOC, and public-sector aptitude tests and advancement rules, and union rules, gave them enough of a level playing field to do so.

    In other words… I'm a child of the early 70s so my memory doesn't go back far enough to say for sure, but I feel like there's a clear connection between the contempt for public/union employees and the fact that the woman at the DMV is likely to be black, and the bus driver is likely to be Asian, and the meter maid is likely to be Latina, and the janitor is likely to be… well we don't know what he is but he's real dark, you know.

  • Thanks for pointing out that socialism does not require people to be altruistic or put the needs of the whole above their own. It is little more than the expression of the workers' own self-interests.

  • Middle Seaman says:

    This post is the best I read from your. Bravo!

    For Nate and other converts for the current post only: the glorification of the rich (business, banks, private enterprise, right wing hooligans, etc.) is well correlated with the affluence of the country. Other countries, with stronger labor unions, gotten as morally corrupt as we did in the process of becoming affluent in the last 30-40 years.

    We do have now a nonviolent resistant movement to the rich: occupy wall street. The rich still control the vault (their guard is Obama) and they live in a high walled castle. Changing the narrative is not guaranteed or easy. In particular, half the country is red as in GOP, i.e. the South and a lot of the West.

    Major lesson for the young and recently converted (I am already at the gates of SS) are: demand your SS and even demand to increase it, Medicare is your right and is a very limited right, workers such as janitor, farm workers, engineers and teachers deserve a higher pay and to be treated with respect.

  • Change over 30-ish years – YES.
    In 1929, the banks crashed. In 1930, the first bank regulation was put into place & strengthened in 1933 (FDIC). The first act of deregulation happened in 1980 followed by more big deregulations in 1999. The results of which allowed for fancy financing on houses including the lack of proof of income to pay back that mortgage. Creating the housing problem that we see now.
    Just one example.

  • My response to the post: WE (I am almost willing to dump every person on the planet into that WE) grow accustomed to what WE have. No one wants to get less, WE generally live on what WE have. (Even those of you who save 25% of your paycheck.) I get 10 hours of vacation time every two weeks, I plan accordingly. If my boss were to turn around and say, you are only going to get 8 hours every two weeks from now on – hell yah I'd be upset. & When it increases to 12 next summer I'll be happier, because I will have more time to play with.

  • I find it encouraging that the right keeps teabaggers, FOX News and Reason on their payroll to push this nonsense. It tells me they're not convinced of their omnipotence.

  • c u n d gulag says:

    4th generation trust fund baby?
    Go ahead, sit by your heated pool, stuffing bon-bon's in your hole, and sipping champagne, you've earned it!

    But if you're a white, or especially a dusky he or ho, who lost or can't find a job, you're a leach!

    We revere the wrong revolution.

  • I was on a commercial flight out to LA, in my airline uniform because I was on my way to work.

    The guy sitting next to me was in real estate. When he saw my ALPA (Airline Pilots Union) lanyard he started going off about unions.

    Now, when I'm in uniform I'm representing the company so I tried to be as diplomatic as possible. The guy just wouldn't let it go. He kept going on about how unions "stifle creativity".

    I finally had enough and said (loudly) –

    "Sir. It's not about creativity. It's about me not planting 300,000 pounds of screaming metal in your back yard in the middle of the night because I'm too damn tired to do my job properly."

  • This also points out that capitalism can work so long as it is applied fairly. Y'know with regulations and laws and stuff….

  • c u n d gulag says:

    Major Kong,
    This may be a stupid question, but – did he get it?

    Or did your point sail over his head like a jet safely piloted by a union crew?

  • "Defense Secretary Leon E. Panetta is considering reductions in spending categories once thought sacrosanct, especially in medical and retirement benefits…" —NYTimes today.

    "Especially?" They mean benefits for sorry-ass, beat-up veterans returning from Iraq and Afghanistan. Sure, let's screw 'em.

    But go easy on the arms suppliers and R&D aerospace programs.

  • @ Major Kong:

    Lemme guess – he figured that The Market would self-correct for that kind of situation without unions because nobody would want to fly on an airplane for a company that didn't let its pilots get enough sleep!!!!

    Yes, I've actually heard people make that type of argument and I boggle. I'd rather make sure the sleepy pilot incident /never ever/ happens then wait for the news stories about crashing planes.

  • With few exceptions, the top .1% are unimaginative, and will stick to a bad idea long after it sours. The point being, a busted economy may let them feel exclusive, but it's unprofitable, just look south to see all the success stories of nations with complacent, cheap labor. Pity they don't breed for brains.

  • Darby Witherspoon says:

    I used to work for Burger King and for Taco Bell and at both I was called lazy for refusing to clock out but keep working. At BK it was literally against the GM's rules to look our superiors in the eye.

    I also worked for a privately owned restaurant once where the I was told that if inquired further into what unemployment was or how to collect it that the owner would show up at my house in the middle of the night.

    Now, I know from video games that warfare is fought in all manner of ways, not just physical confrontation: economics, diplomacy, information, culture, psychology. Its the same for the class war.

  • The funny thing is that my airline, which I'll refer to as "Global Mega Package Delivery Corp" didn't even have a union until 1996.

    Management had made certain promises to the pilot group, in writing, that they then backed out of when it was convenient for them.

    Once the pilot group realized that the promises weren't worth the paper they were written on – they voted in ALPA.

  • I used to work for a major publishing company that boasted all the time about its highly educated workforce. Then they would have big meetings where the president would tell us that we should rejoice because the company had a 20% increase in profits the previous year….. and ten minutes later tell us we should rejoice because the average employee would be getting a 4% raise. Um. It didn't take a highly educated workforce to realize that we were getting screwed. But the shareholders! they were making out like bandits.

  • I really wonder how long it's going to take for the mega-rich to figure out that other mega-rich people/corporations have all the money and are thus much better targets? I thought we'd finally reached that point when AIG and all that shit went down. When there are no more trade ships, that other pirate ship loaded with gold starts to look pretty good. But then they went back to trying to destroy the poor and middle class.

  • @anotherbozo: This is why the Super Duper Committee is a joke.

    Supposedly, the impetus for the committee to create a "bipartisan" deficit plan is the threat of cuts that both parties will find unpalatable — namely, entitlements and defense.

    But of course the defense cuts will fall mostly on veterans' benefits, pensions, etc. They aren't really going to cut any defense programs.

  • I find myself in strong agreement and disagreement both. The agreement: yes people ought to be able to fight for their own economic betterment without being shamed for it, via unions or otherwise. The disagreement: no, it is not OK for the UAW guys to get paid to not work (assuming this is what the UAW actually wants and achieves, which is probably false, but it was the premise of your argument). The labor movement is about solidarity and justice as well as material gain, it is not about each group trying to grab arbitrarily large slices of pie for themselves. Getting paid for not working is unjust to all the other people who do have to work, and have to buy cars and thus would be subsidizing the leisure of UAW workers. If the UAW fights for that, they have no argument in fairness or justice to back them up, only mere strength. And while middle-class professionals like myself would support a labor movement based on fairness, why should I if it's just about them being grabby? Then it's just costing me money.

    In short, you are projecting the values of the Wall Street grab-what-you-can crowd onto labor, which does not deserve the insult.

  • AN APOCRYPHAL tale is told about Henry Ford II showing Walter Reuther, the veteran leader of the United Automobile Workers, around a newly automated car plant.

    “Walter, how are you going to get those robots to pay your union dues,” gibed the boss of Ford Motor Company.

    Without skipping a beat, Reuther replied, “Henry, how are you going to get them to buy your cars?”

  • @Hazy

    Thanks for the graphs. They're very illuminating. So are the comments there. Christ. "Leftist propaganda". Obviously Colbert was right when he said reality has a left-wing bias.

    So then the corollary to my question is, what changed to make this happen? Or maybe, what can we do to make it stop? A Newer Deal?

  • A few months ago, in "AN OPEN LETTER FROM THE BOOMERS TO THEIR CHILDREN", Ed excoriated boomers (I'm one) for doing exactly what he now says is reasonable: I want to keep my pension and social security. Seem to be contradictory views to me.

  • Collective bargaining is the market at work. If a company agrees to terms with a union that are unsustainable, maybe that company deserves to fail.

    Am I doing it right?

  • Ubu Imperator says:

    @Dan: did you miss the part where Ed pointed out that while Boomers want to keep their pensions and Social Security, they were–more in sadness than anger, really–willing to tell anyone younger to go eat a bowl of salted dicks, 'cause we've got ours, Jack?

    The point is that it's hypocritical to deny other people the same basic level of security that you insist is a God-given right for yourself for no particular reason other than Fuck Them.

  • "This also points out that capitalism can work so long as it is applied fairly. Y'know with regulations and laws and stuff…."

    You can't have "fair" capitalism. Capitalism is fundamentally based on exploitation and unequal relationships between the workers and the owners of capital.

  • After a couple of visits it was obvious that Ed's blog had some of the best writing on the web.

    After reading the comments today, with so many pertinent anecdotes and eloquent points, I now realize that this is some of the best commentary on the web as well.

    Now, how to harness this much clarity and quality of thought. It's got to get us somewhere, no? Somewhere besides this downward spiral we're in? Maybe there's room for optimism after all. Maybe.

  • Another point is that we are all like 500% more productive than we were 30 years ago. For instance, I watch Mad Men and can't help but think of the labor expense of the 1960's secretary pool, that has all been replaced by a couple of personal assistants with laptops and software by now. But do we get to work fewer hours for the same pay? Do we get paid more now in proportion to our added productivity? I doubt that. It seems that the entire goal of each generation should be to advance toward that point where everything is done so efficiently, that we all can work about 5 hours a week and still maintain a decent quality of life.

  • This post reminds me of a conversation I had once with a Conservative friend. He posited that an employer owes his employees no more than just enough to keep them from quitting. I responded that I would agree with that, if he would agree that employees owe their employer only enough work to keep from getting fired.
    He was horrified by this thought. It was, he said, what was wrong with America. Apparently, giving your employer your best effort is a moral imperative, no matter how low your pay. OTOH, compensation is not a moral imperative.
    Morals, you see, run in one direction, and always are something expected of the individual, but not the company.

  • "This post reminds me of a conversation I had once with a Conservative friend. He posited that an employer owes his employees no more than just enough to keep them from quitting. I responded that I would agree with that, if he would agree that employees owe their employer only enough work to keep from getting fired."

    He's actually right, in a fundamental way. And that's the problem with capitalism. So instead of asserting the employees right to work just hard enough not to get fired, it's time to just take the employers' shit and make them work for a living like everyone else.

  • @Dan— What Ed was saying (not speaking for him, just stating the clearly apaprent meaning og his "Open letter" column) is that it's unreasonable for Baby Boomers to deny the younger generation pensions and social security while wanting to keep theirs. This article riffs on the same topic— it's unreasonable for people to think that the management has every right to ask for whatever "the market" will yield to them, but that workers who try to put a squeeze on the market are greedy and undeserving.

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