Against “Efficiency” in Corporate Labor Practices

It’s practically a meme at this point: Democrats are regularly guilty of adopting Republican framings in policy discussions. And of course, a generation of assuming median voter theorem is still in force has made some folks incapable of doing anything else. But I think we haven’t really assessed how deep this impulse runs.

I have often, in the last 4-5 years, talked with skeptical folks about the ills of privatization and the idea that nationalizing certain industries will lead to better outcomes for working folx. I have often, in a nod to their underlying feelings about the government, said something along the lines of “well, the government does what the private sector does at 80% efficiency”, as a way to meet them halfway. But I’ve come to realize that framing is also harmful. Let’s talk about why I’m abandoning this hedge entirely.

I’m on my third government job.

Government jobs aren’t all that uncommon in the law. I think it’s easy for non-lawyers to underestimate exactly how many lawyers work in some government capacity or another, especially those that directly represent the government in either contract negotiation/review or in litigation. If you consider public defenders government employees (and they are usually at least government contractors even if they’re not officially employees), then at least one in nine lawyers works for the government in some capacity.

The government lawyers I know work hard. Perhaps not as much as those in the private sector, but I’d argue it might actually be harder to coast in a government lawyer role than at some (not all) big firms. But they get a somewhat more regular workweek and a reasonable salary (one that’s still well below what anybody with similar experience could make in the private sector). All in all, it’s a trade that plenty of people choose to make and plenty of others choose not to, which makes sense.

But the professional class isn’t what the term “government job” typically evokes in normal conversation. Every single one of us knows the tropes at this point, they’re so ubiquitous. The BMV (or DMV, or SOS) clerk on their phone while your new driver’s license has been sitting in the ID printer’s tray for a good 20 seconds. The post office clerk more intent on having a conversation with somebody in the sorting room than getting your package weighed and getting you out the door. The receptionist at the county courthouse who has no idea where you’re supposed to report to jury duty and has no interest in finding out.

(As an aside, did you picture at least two of these government workers as women of color? Because if so, you should think about why.)

The visceral reaction is easily anticipated. How are these folks getting paid well, on my dime, with good benefits and good retirement (maybe even a pension), while I do things the “right” way?

But of course, as we know, the failure to pay folks a living wage results in massive taxpayer costs as well. The Wal-Mart public assistance study did some touchy extrapolating, but the taxpayer costs associated with making sure low-wage workers at Wal-Mart have enough food to eat and not lose their home is easily billions of dollars per year. (One particularly fun right-wing “debunking” of this claimed that it shouldn’t matter because Wal-Mart paid a roughly equivalent amount in taxes that year…but even if that’s true, it makes Wal-Mart’s functional tax burden zero, if they’d directly paid their own workers instead of relying on the government to do it for them.)

Indeed, let’s consider what we’re really agitating for in terms of economic justice these days. Much of it is really just trying to enforce the laws that are already on the books, but if we lay it out, it’ll look something like: An actual living wage, with the ability to save for retirement or otherwise have disposable income; a relatively predictable and stable work schedule, and the proper escalators for working overtime; clear rules for things like vacation and sick leave and strong non-discrimination protections when it comes to all of these questions.

When you lay it out like that, it’s kind of ridiculous that this is the platform that gets vitriolic pushback from the right. But putting that aside, these are attributes that you generally find in a government job. You’re usually clocked in for exactly as much time as you expect. The pay scale, at least at the federal level, is uniform and predictable, and there are written policies for everything. And sometimes that means the red tape feels excessive, but it’s done in the name of predictability and fairness (and at least theoretically, less opportunity to discriminate).

Indeed, making this connection, it struck me that it’s the private sector, prioritizing “efficiency” over its workers, is the one with misaligned priorities right now. But in truth, that’s what a corporation in a capitalist system is designed to do in pursuit of increased margins. Corporations may have different goods, services, or objectives, but ultimately, most all of them (and all of the ones that are large enough to be household names) are in the business of devaluing labor.

I’m just gonna repeat that: Corporations are in the business of devaluing labor.

It’s sort of inevitable in a system where the dollar matters more than anything else. Why cater to people when it’s going to decrease your margins? Even if it’s your workers?

And so, while these corporations are devaluing labor in the name of “efficiency”, that “efficiency” becomes a code word for denying and ignoring the humanity of the folks who provide the labor.

“Efficiency” becomes Amazon employees being told to go back to work after their coworker dies. “Efficiency” becomes 4700 yearly fatalities from crashes involving large trucks for companies that refuse to ship their goods, a little more slowly, by rail. “Efficiency” becomes a matter of creating union-busting flyers as a matter of normal business. “Efficiency” becomes an economy that has seen a near-doubling of worker productivity since 1973 but wages that have been parked at the same level for nearly half a century.

So the framing of government workings as “inefficient” feels more like a distinctly CEO-oriented framing, a dollar-worship framing, a conservative framing to me. It makes more sense to me to advocate for this balance between the worker and the employer as the norm.

So that government “bloat” or “inefficiency”? It’s not inefficient.

It’s worker-centered.

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