Posted in Rants on March 16th, 2014 by Ed

The conservative's answer to any and all complaints about working conditions and compensation is as familiar as it is invariant: "If you don't like it, quit." This is the kind of response that shows us the capacity (and fondness) for deep thought among the members of the Party of Ideas, the keenness with which they recognize the complexity of an issue and structure a response accordingly. For those of us who recognize that, you know, people usually have a job because they need it, issues about compensation, working conditions, and the like are not quite so black and white.

The remark reflects the central tenet of the conservative faith: that markets are efficient. Certainly the need to attract the best workers will drive wages upward, whereas if the job requires no particular skills the market will drive wages lower. Rather than debate the kindergarten-level simplicity of that worldview, I have a better question: If one's choices are reduced to working at a given job or being unemployed, is the labor "market" a market at all?

In a market, labor could choose among opportunities just as businesses choose among the labor pool. In the glorious New Economy, we are a nation full of people who know goddamn well that if they lose their current job it may be a very long time before they see another one. "If you don't like it, quit" makes sense in some ways if we assume alternatives; the guy who doesn't like what Ford pays can go to work for Toyota. If we replace that alternative with "Sit at home and go broke" or "Work for minimum wage in the service industry and not be able to support yourself anyway" then quitting isn't really a means of letting the market mete out some economic justice. It's a way of saying that your only option is to commit financial suicide.

I think about this a lot, and I hear it a lot from my (non-random sample of) friends and acquaintances in careers ranging from writing to food service to skilled trades to White Collar. The job I have right now took me four years to get. During that time I supported myself with temp work that barely kept me out of legally-defined poverty. If my employer treated me like shit (note: they don't) what would my options be, really? The odds of getting another job offer are statistically zero, even for the most successful people in this profession. I could choose between being gainfully employed or…quitting, and being unemployed. Alternatively, I could return to the herd of adjuncts making $11,000 per year. I'm fortunate to have a good job, but I have to be frank (Hi! I'm Frank!)…it really doesn't feel like I have any freedom, and the Job Market doesn't feel like much of a market at all. It feels like a thousand people in the water scrambling for 50 spots on a lifeboat. If you make it on board, someone else controls your fate. If you don't like it, you can always jump back into the water and drown.

I've never been one for broad conspiracies about a They that secretly controls all of our lives. It certainly is a better time to be an Owner than a worker bee, though. With the long-term unemployed numbering in the millions, most of us who don't live on a cushion of trust funds and inherited wealth cling to any stable employment we can find – and we're continually reminded that we should feel thankful to have it. In an actual market, an employee could do something about being underpaid or overworked or mistreated or stuck with a low standard of living. I'm no economist, but if that option is unavailable to all but a small segment of the labor force (bonus points for the first person who uses the comment section to brag about how you're in such high demand that you're sick of being offered jobs!) then the concept of market efficiency isn't even relevant. If you have one job and it's the only job you can get, you could be in a true market and very bad at your job. That's what we're encouraged to think. But that changes if we reject the flawed premise that the "Labor Market" is anything close to what its name suggests.