A RECENT report by the Survey Research Center of the University of Michigan indicates that the American people rank labor…
Arecent report by the Survey Research Center of the University of Michigan indicates that the American people rank labor unions second in influence on national affairs, immediately after the federal government and ahead even of “big business.” Social scientists—if we are to judge by the relatively small proportion of energy and research funds they apply to studying its various aspects—do not rate labor that high. But they do take it far more seriously than they did in the early 30’s, when only a few isolated specialists concerned themselves with the character and problems of American unionism. Since those days labor and industrial relations have become leading subjects of study in various fields of social science.
First to be affected, perhaps, were the economists; the “labor economist” emerged, representing a substantially new branch of the profession. Even in “theoretical” economics, however, the change has been noteworthy, as anyone can see by comparing the attention given to labor matters in the treatises of Marshall and Taussig a few decades ago with the consideration devoted to labor in any of the better works current today. Almost every other branch of the social sciences has by now also developed a “labor wing.” Industrial psychology, industrial sociology, and latterly even industrial anthropology, have become recognized branches of study.
The most publicized development in the study of labor has undoubtedly been in the area of “human relations in industry.” As a result of the desire of some management officials to find out how productivity could be raised, and the discovery that the psychological well-being of the worker played an enormous role in that respect, a whole new field of research was opened: the analysis of conditions so affecting the worker’s psychological state as to increase or reduce his efficiency. In his article “Adjusting Men to Machines” (COMMENTARY, January 1947), Daniel Bell gave an informative and critical survey of the main work in this field. In the four years since that article appeared, perhaps more new books and studies have been published on this subject than in all preceding years.
The studies which developed the “human relations” approach were conducted among non-unionized workers in the early 30’s. The basic assumption of these studies was the idea that conflicts and difficulties in industrial relations, as in other areas of human life, were essentially due to blockages in “communication.” These blockages might be caused by emotional difficulties, by lack of information, or by both, but in any case the obvious task was to devise and implement techniques for “clearing the channels of communication,” or to put it in more everyday language, for getting people to “understand each other.” The field is full of examples of cases where an undesirable situation in production was cleared up by the discovery of some “blockage” in communication.
But how is this principle to be applied to industrial relations when unions enter the scene? Will it hold when management deals not with a mass of formally unorganized employees but with an organization that claims to speak for them? The “human relations” experts believe that it will. They insist that in dealing with unions, as in dealing with individual workers, failures in communications are the principal cause of dissension. Thus one writer in this field (Glen V. Cleeton, “The Human Factor in Industry,” The Annals of the American Academy of Political and Social Science, March 1951) asserts: “Although the cleavage at the outset of intergroup discussions usually places management and its representatives on the one side and workers and their representatives on the opposite side, continuation of the discussions brings a realignment of groups which paves the way for mutual understanding.” Freeflowing communication between management and workers is felt to be the key to industrial relations.
This faith in the effectiveness of communication implies that there are really no conflicts of interest between unions and management, only false beliefs that there are such conflicts, and that these false beliefs can be dissolved by good communication. Psychological problems alone exist in the “human relations” approach. But conflict between unions and management surely involves far more than psychological difficulties of mutual understanding—though it may of course involve these too. As John T. Dunlop writes (“Framework for the Analysis of Industrial Relations: Two Views,” Industrial and Labor Relations Review, October 1950): “The interest and ideas regarding communications have been derived, with few exceptions, largely from studies in which no union was present. The analysis of communications is more simple and probably more useful in the absence of the union. . . . It is no accident that the great interest in communication arises in management circles. It is no doubt a useful tool of administration. But as a framework for industrial relations analysis it can be only very limited.”
The fact is that from the point of view of the “human relations” approach, attempts on the part of the union to communicate with workers in an industry seem only too often to be an obstacle or blockage in the one system of communication which is felt to be important—that which connects management and workers in a single plant. The union introduces a “foreign” element which obstructs the free movement of information and leadership along the channels of the factory hierarchy; under union conditions, the worker tends to align himself with the union on the “outside” and take his cue from it rather than from his “natural” work leaders, foremen or management, on the “inside.” In their own way, many “human relations” experts are arriving at very much the same conclusion that the hard-boiled industrialists of an earlier age reached without academic assistance—that unions are “trouble-makers” and are always getting in the way of good “face-to-face” relations between management and workers.
At bottom, the orthodox “human relations” approach would seem to be rooted in a rather naive conception of human nature and human relations. This conception, as I have suggested, seems to be that all conflict among men is due to “misunderstanding” and that “talking it over” is the sure road to agreement. Indeed, in a book bearing this title (Roads to Agreement, Harper, 1951), Stuart Chase contends that our troubles with Stalin are in large part semantic: neither side at Potsdam “knew what the other meant by ‘democracy.’” Mr. Chase therefore urges that the UN employ approved communications devices in order to bridge the chasm between the United States and Russia and to “engineer solutions in matters for which, on a two-power basis, there are no solutions.” Most “human relations” sociologists are not quite so optimistic, but their essential point of view is not very different. The fallacy in this line of thinking is obvious. There are not only “misunderstandings” and “emotional blockages” to be dissolved by better communications and “human relations.” There are also real conflicts of interest among individuals, groups, and institutions that are not to be conjured away by information or psychology, but have to be adjusted and readjusted in changing structures of justice; and sometimes, unhappily, this can be effected only by recourse to temporary non-communication and resort to various types of pressure and force.
The “human relations” approach inherits from Elton Mayo, the pioneer and founder of the school, a fear of facing up to the implications of conflict. Mayo, it seems, abhorred conflict in social life and strove to bring about a unity akin to that prevailing in primitive societies (see Reinhard Bendix and Lloyd H. Fisher, “The Perspectives of Elton Mayo,” Review of Economics and Statistics, November 1949). He had little understanding of the sources of social conflict and no feeling for the fact that, “conflict and competition between individuals and groups is one of the cornerstones of democratic Western society.” Dunlop, from whom I quote, is quite right in saying that in the matter of industrial relations, “the communications framework advocates a single unity and corporateness in the work community which is basically incompatible with collective bargaining and democratic traditions.” On the ideological level, there are striking parallels between the social patterns and values of the “human relations” school and the various forms of organic society advocated by reactionary thinkers, who likewise aim at the maintenance or restoration of a community of labor held together by primitive myths and other devices.
Meanwhile, the economists have been discussing labor in quite a different context, remote from the insights and naiveties of the “human relations” sociologists. Here an interesting cleavage has developed between the “theoretical” economists on the one side and the “labor” economists on the other.
The former, by and large, though by no means without exception, are frankly hostile to unions. Just as the “human relations” specialists are impatient with unions for “obstructing the free flow of communications,” so the economists are seriously annoyed with the labor movement for interfering with the operations of the market. When one takes up a book such as The Impact of the Union (edited by David McC. Wright, Harcourt, Brace, 1951), presenting a report of the Institute on the Structure of the Labor Market held at the American University in Washington, D. C, in May 1950, in which “eight economic theorists evaluate the labor union movement,” one is rather taken aback by the virulence of the hostility to organized labor there displayed. Of the eight, only John Maurice Clark and Kenneth Boulding are in any way sympathetic. Almost all of the others express their antagonism without much attempt at qualification. They talk about the Taft-Hartley law as a “relatively mild measure of control” which needs “stiffening,” consider restricting the scope of unionism to the company, and even discuss “abolishing” unions altogether.
Professor Boulding was aware of this antilabor atmosphere and felt rather uneasy about it. His attempt at explanation is interesting: “In considerable degree, this attitude arises out of the nature of our specialized skills as economists, and out of the nature of the abstraction which is economics. We are specialists in exchange, in the price system, and in the market. The labor movement is part of the expression of that hatred of the market which has dominated the history of the West in the past hundred years, and which reaches its supreme expression in socialism. But the market is our baby; we cannot help loving it a little.”
And so the economist “loves” the market, while labor “hates” it. There is certainly a good deal of truth in this rather unacademic way of putting it. Even if, in his modernity, the economist abjures “value judgments,” he cannot, especially if he is of the neo-classical or neo-liberal school, help feeling that the “right” wages are those that result from the automatic operations of the market on the basis of marginal productivity. When unions interfere with these operations1 by forcing wages up, they bring about either unemployment or inflation or both and threaten the entire economy (Charles E. Lindblom, Unions and Capitalism, Yale, 1949). Some economists, such as Milton Friedman of Chicago (in The Impact of the Union), believe that the effect of unions on wages has been much exaggerated but still think that unions are a nuisance and should be restricted or “abolished.”
Yet one of the curious things about the contemporary state of economic theory is that for all the economists’ love of the market and distaste for union “interference,” there is no firm body of doctrine on the effects of unionism upon the wage structure or for that matter on how wages are actually determined. All sorts of possible causes and consequences, positive and negative, are isolated, weighed, and discussed, but nothing in the way of any well-defined wage theory emerges. (For a good summary of conflicting opinions on unions and wages, see Daniel Bell’s article “Do Unions Raise Wages?” in the January 1951 issue of Fortune.) In one of the little jingles that enliven The Impact of the Union, Professor Clark hits off this deplorable situation:
If workers, low-paid, seek to better their lot
By grabbing some dough from the rich,
It makes jobs for more workers—or else
it does not;
I cannot be positive which.
The love of the market, which is, so to speak, the professional passion of the theoretical economist, is apparently, like so many other love affairs, accompanied by a thoroughly uncritical idealization of the love object. For the market is not the beautiful self-acting, self-adjusting, self-validating mechanism of the economist’s dream, apportioning to each “factor” what belongs to it by virtue of its productive contribution; on the contrary, it seems to be a rather confused conglomeration of particular situations in which all sorts of forces, economic, social, and political, are merged and combined. Elements of monopoly and oligopoly pervade the entire system; political factors affect not only wages but farm commodity prices and manufacturing profits as well. The labor market itself does not consist of abstract, homogeneous labor. “In a real sense, each buyer in a labor market is distinguished from all other buyers. There are thus as many labor markets as there are employers of labor” (Gordon F. Bloom and Herbert R. Northrup, Economics of Labor and Industrial Relations, Blakiston, 1950). The perfect Dulcinea of the economist’s impassioned imagination turns out to be the very imperfect peasant girl of real life.
It is this very imperfect peasant girl of real life that is the preoccupation of the “labor” economist. The labor economist takes as his point of departure what even some theoretical economists are ready to grant, that “most economic adjustments contain a substantial margin of indeterminateness. . . . Within this ‘indeterminate’ range, other [than economic] influences play upon the result” (Clark, in The Impact of the Union). It is within this margin of indeterminateness, we are told, that collective bargaining operates. Exactly what unions can do in the way of changing the wage structure and exactly what effects such changes may have on the economy is as widely disputed among labor economists as among their theoretical colleagues, but the labor economists, despite some weakness in theory, seem to bring to their discussions a much livelier sense of social reality, a much keener feeling for the interpenetration of the economic and the socio-political, than the pure devotees of marginal analysis.
There is little question in their mind, apparently, that labor unions do raise wages. Two recent discussions of the wage problem by labor economists deserve particular mention. Sidney C. Sufrin, director of the Business and Economic Research Center at Syracuse University, comes to the following conclusion: “In the long run . . . wages seem to be related to productivity. . . . In the short run, however, an apparent indeterminacy is indicated [and] there is not much doubt that unions are successful in raising wages . . .” (Union Wages and Labor’s Earnings, Syracuse University Press, 1951). Sufrin believes, moreover, that even in the long run “the indirect effects of trade unions . . . have been to raise wages”; he refers to the pressure of trade unionism “in goading management into technical improvement and increased capital investment.” Very much the same point was made, incidentally, by the conservative London Economist in a recent statement reproaching the British unions for their past “moderation” as in part responsible for the stagnation and low productivity of British capitalism and comparing their policy unfavorably with the more aggressive policy of the American unions whose constant pressure for higher wages has helped to keep the economy dynamic and progressive.
Arthur M. Ross, of the University of California, displays a somewhat different emphasis. He is inclined to attribute all-around efficacy to unions in the matter of wages. “Real hourly earnings,” he affirms, “have advanced more sharply in highly organized industries than in less organized industries. . . . No reason has been found to believe that this relationship is coincidental” (Trade Union Wage Policy, University of California Press, 1948). And he does not think that the consequences of this fact have been unfavorable to the economy as a whole.
Sufrin and Ross have somewhat different views, too, on what constitutes a “responsible” wage policy on the part of unions. Sufrin thinks such a policy would include four considerations: ability to pay, living standards, productivity, and the growth of the economy. Ross is much more skeptical as to the possibility of determining the consequences of any particular wage adjustment for the industry and for the economy as a whole. The employment effects of wage increases, he says, are “unpredictable before the fact and undecipherable after the fact.” He therefore holds that a responsible wage policy cannot be based primarily on speculations as to the over-all economic consequences of the union’s demands. Greater responsibility, he contends, can be brought into the wage bargain if “erratic fluctuations in business activity are reduced”; if union security is increased since such security is “the sine qua non of responsible behavior”; and if the scope of the wage bargain is extended to cover a larger section of the economy.
The gulf that separates theoretical and labor economists can be judged from the fact that whereas Ross urges a master wage bargain for the entire economy as the foundation of economic responsibility, Chamberlin, Friedman, and others participating in the theorists’ symposium seriously propose restricting the scope of union activity to the single company!
Whatever may be their differences, Sufrin, Ross, and most other labor economists agree in emphasizing that trade unions are not primarily economic institutions in the way business concerns are. Trade union leaders are understandably annoyed when economists present them with “irrefutable” economic arguments against their demands for a wage increase. For they know that trade unions are not merely economic institutions, operating by a simple economic logic. Trade union leaders have to think of their members, of the internal opposition, of other unions, and of a whole range of political considerations foreign to economists, though less foreign perhaps to businessmen.
Ross has formulated this insight in a striking manner. “A trade union,” he says, “is a political [i.e., power] agency operating in an economic environment.” Both sides of this formula—the political and the economic—are important. The “human relations” specialist has much to learn about the political side; he has to realize that one’s ability to make oneself “understood” and to get others to “listen to reason” is not unconnected with the possession of power to give force to one’s argument. The same lesson about the union as a political (power) organization could be of value to the economist who tends to think of unions as monopolistic business concerns intent on maximizing income. Ross shows very well the futility of this approach. Of course the union leader must get economic returns. But he must also confound his factional opponents in the union; he must show his organization to be better than its rivals; he must gain the support of the rank and file, he must preserve the union. And this might lead, for example, to striking for some small advantage that would be completely outweighed, economically, by the losses incurred in the strike.
By that same token, the trade union leader, while very well understanding the power mechanics of his organization and of collective bargaining, is apt to forget that he is operating in an economic environment, which makes demands, sets limits, and enforces consequences, although unfortunately these are not always very clear. And both the political and economic aspects of the union have particularly to be urged upon those who, like Frank Tannenbaum (A Philosophy of Labor, Knopf, 1951), tend to think of unionism in oversimplified sociological terms as a kind of new “society” giving the workers status amidst the disintegration of community resulting from industrialism. Ross’s formula—“a political agency operating in an economic environment”—seems to me to embody an authentic understanding of trade unionism in our society.
Ross is particularly forceful in his analysis of the union as a power organization. He makes a distinction between the union as an institution and its membership, and he further distinguishes both from the union leadership, and shows how the various factors operate in the process of collective bargaining. The operating rationale of unionism is “survival and growth,” the “maintenance of the union as a going concern,” with which the interests of the members and the “professional ambitions” of the leaders are intimately though not always harmoniously linked. This pressure for survival, security, and expansion is a major factor in collective bargaining. Collective bargaining is, of course, also an economic affair, but the economic forces do not operate simply and directly, as they are supposed to do in the mechanism of the market. For “political stakes are paramount over economic bargaining; power is worth money and often more than money.”
Ross’s “political” categories make intelligible what has always puzzled the naive economics-minded observer but is quite axiomatic for every union leader and seasoned union member, namely, that the “recognition,” security, and power of the union are essentially inarbitrable and take precedence over all considerations of wages and earnings. Unions are basically power institutions whose social function it is to protect the interests of those who take orders in the economic process by establishing an effective counter-power to mitigate the unlimited and irresponsible power of the order-givers (management). This social function is recognized by the labor economists and the more social-minded, less market-enamored theoretical economists alike. “The trade union as the constant watchdog of the interests of labor is wholly desirable and to be applauded,” Sufrin states. “Unions are vitally needed for [non-wage] purposes, connected with the protection of the human rights of workers on the job,” Clark emphasizes in The Impact of the Union. But it is doubtful whether most of the theorists would agree; their notion seems to be that if the market were freed from obstruction and interference, it would give the various “factors,” including the workers, all the protection they need.
Ross frequently refers to the wage activities of unions as their “foreign affairs,” thus reminding us of another important field of union activity, one that is of an inner or “domestic” nature. A recent collection of papers entitled The House of Labor: Internal Operations of American Unions (Prentice-Hall, 1951), prepared under the auspices of the Inter-Union Institute and edited by J. B. S. Hardman and Maurice F. Neufeld, shows how complex and far-flung these internal activities are. (Perhaps “internal” is not the best word, since both politics and community services are included; perhaps non-economic or even non-wage would be better.) This collection is a pioneer work and is bound to prove immensely useful. Not that all the papers are of the same quality; some are merely official press releases and others unimaginative though valuable compilations of facts. But at its best—in the contributions of Hardman and Neufeld, in the discussion of union administration, press, and staff activities, in the piece by William Gomberg on industrial engineering—it is very good indeed. The contributors to this volume and the economic theorists who participated in the symposium recorded in The Impact of the Union seem to be living in different worlds; yet they are talking about the same thing and it would be well if they got to know each other.
One of the most serious internal union problems is that of membership control of the almost unlimited power of the union leader. The matter is not a simple one. “The provisions of trade union constitutions and by-laws,” Ross points out, “are ordinarily as democratic as any advocate of popular government could desire. But an apparatus, no matter how carefully designed, cannot guarantee the objective it seeks. It is not proof against the need for technical knowledge and tactical skill, a need which constantly enlarges the scope of authority of leadership and limits the role of the rank and file. . . . The procedures for rank and file participation in the wage bargain have increasingly become tools for the use of leadership. . . . [In other words] the procedures originally designed to guarantee control by the rank and file have become devices for the control of the rank and file. . . .”
There is frank and intelligent comment on this question in The House of Labor, in papers by the two editors. Hardman, for example, notes how difficult it is to have effective democracy in unions “with the structural absence of separation between executive, legislative and judicial powers, and with no press to voice or support dissent, except the official journals controlled by the administrative authorities.” But no one has yet suggested any solution to the problem.
Ross’s work, and some of the essays in The House of Labor, help supplement and expand the point of view which seems to be the most adequate so far developed for the understanding of the American labor movement: the philosophy of the “Wisconsin School,” initiated by John R. Commons and now headed by Selig Perlman. In A Theory of the Labor Movement (Macmillan, 1928), Perlman almost twenty-five years ago marked out the distinctive characteristics of the American labor movement. He has himself recently summarized his approach in the following way (in The Annals, March 1951): “Labor [is] building up two kinds of unofficial ‘governments,’ each around the job interest. One [is] a government for the labor movement itself, erected on the principle of exclusive union jurisdiction. . . . The other kind of government, dealing as it [does] with the conditions of employment, [has] to reckon with the employers, but under it the unions [seek], wherever possible, full possession of the job territory, through the closed union shop.”
American unionism is thus a “job-conscious” unionism. “Job consciousness,” Perlman says, “is primarily an emphasis on what is nuclear, what is the central core of labor’s interest, which under the spur of changing conditions is likely to compel a widening area of labor interest,” including not only the so-called “fringe” demands but politics as well. Yet throughout, “the job interest must remain the nuclear one if the movement is not to weaken or disintegrate.”
This conception not only does justice to the basic facts of American labor reality; it also stands as a warning against the fantasies of certain sociologists and “progressive” labor leaders who are beginning to think of the union as somehow possessing jurisdiction over the entire life of the worker, as competent to meet his needs and interests on every level, and therefore entitled to claim control over all his activities. American unions make no such totalitarian pretensions. They are, as Philip Taft puts it, “singh-purpose organizations.” This the Perlman theory makes quite explicit and emphatic. It thus serves well as a philosophy of democratic unionism in a democratic, pluralistic society. (See my article, “For ‘Limited’ Against ‘Tbtal’ Unionism,” Labor and the Nation, April-May 1946.)
The increasing preoccupation of organized labor with political action in the form of electioneering and all-year-round political lobbying has been frequently noted in recent years.2 Perlman has urged that this tendency represents no break with the “job-conscious” philosophy of American unionism but rather a continuation of the same fundamental attitude under drastically changed conditions (Labor in the New Deal Decade, ILGWU Educational Department, 1945). Others have dissented. But aside from a few valuable articles in Labor and the Nation and some special studies in more academic journals, very little work has been done to bring to light the implications of this major development in American labor policy. Labor leaders themselves have not been particularly helpful, for their thinking on the question has rarely got beyond the level of denunciation and self-justification, while sociologists and political scientists have by and large remained content with the repetition of untested and uncriticized generalities. Here too a new approach, taking into account the many dimensions and levels of trade unionism, might prove rewarding.
It is obvious that there is a good deal of sociology implicit in the work of the “Wisconsin School” and of power-conscious labor economists such as Ross. But no systematic sociological study of the American labor movement has yet been undertaken. The writings of Philip Taft on judicial procedures in unions, on union administration, and union opposition movements are of notable value, and so too is the work on leadership and membership participation being done by Joel Seidman, Jack London, and Bernard Karsh at the Industrial Relations Center of the University of Chicago. But these, and others that might be mentioned, are only isolated contributions and tentative beginnings. There are dozens of treatises on the economics of industrial relations and collective bargaining, but so far in this country there is hardly one that may be said to deal with the sociology or politics of trade unionism and labor relations.
In part, this lack may be due to the inveterate prejudice that unions are primarily economic institutions, business firms on the other side of the fence, so to speak. In part, it is no doubt due to the difficulty of applying the familiar techniques of sociological research to the labor union situation, and in part, too, to the natural reluctance of union leaders to permit “outsiders” to snoop around and quiz them and their members. But largely, it seems to me, the reason is simply the traditionalism and routine-mindedness of the academic world. The conventional scheme of “social problems” is there and is rarely questioned. But labor unionism is not just a “problem” in the economics of the market or in the mechanics of social equilibrium and conflict; it is one of the major social institutions of our time and should be studied as such. A respectable amount of research now goes on; in view of the significance of labor unionism, far more is necessary. But this will hardly be possible until sociologists become more conversant with the “house of labor” from the inside and learn to know their way about. Perhaps what is really needed is a new kind of social scientist who is at home in, because he really belongs to, both the academic world and the world of organized labor. A few such social scientists there already are; upon them rests the major responsibility.
1 Not merely unions but even the elementary feeling of solidarity that makes one worker reluctant to underbid another and take his job away is deplored by the market-worshipping economist. Thus Paul A. Samuelson states (in The Impact of the Union): “I did not say it was just unions. I said the feeling of class consciousness and all the rest so that a man has no way of going to Detroit and saying, ‘Give me the job; I will do it for less.’ In fact, once he gets in the plant, he immediately changes his attitude and won't do it for less.” Whereupon Professor Kenneth Boulding mischievously comments: “If you went to the University of Michigan and said, ‘I can do Boulding's job for less.’ . . .” But of course even professors—including professors of economics—have wage scales, seniority, and job security, under rather different names.
2 The involvement at various times of large sections of the American labor movement in radical socialist, syndicalist, and Communist politics has left almost no mark on contemporary academic writing dealing with the labor movement. The subject will receive large-scale consideration in the the repetition of untested and uncriticized generalities. Here too a new approach, taking into account the many dimensions and levels of trade unionism, might prove rewarding.
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The Study of Man: When Social Scientists View Labor
Must-Reads from Magazine
The Elon Musk problem.
No one has ever mistaken me for a business writer. Show me a balance sheet or quarterly report, and my eyes will glaze over. Bring up “chasing alpha” at the bar, and I’ll ask for the check and give you the old Irish goodbye. Business chatter—the kind you can’t help but overhear from young stockjobbers at the gym and bloaty middle managers on the Acela—bores me to tears. I’m especially allergic to the idea of “The Market” as an autonomous, anthropomorphic entity with a unitary will and mind of its own.
But even I can tell you that Elon Musk is imploding.
The latest omen came Friday when footage of the South African-born magnate smoking a fat marijuana blunt dropped online. The video is worth watching; the Guardian has the key bits from the 150-minute interview (do people really watch interviews this long?).
Rogan, whose fame has been a mystery to many yet is an inescapable fact of our online lives, offers the joint to Musk but is quick to add: “You probably can’t [smoke it] because of stockholders, right?” (On second thought, I think I know why Rogan is famous—because he knows how to push his subjects’ buttons.)
“I mean it’s legal, right?” Musk replies.
And so Elon Musk—the founder of an electric-car company worth $50 billion and a rocket company worth $20 billion—presses the blunt between his lips and takes a drag. He washes it down with a sip of whiskey on the rocks.
“I’m not a regular smoker of weed,” Musk says a few minutes later. “I almost never [smoke it]. I mean, it’s it’s—I don’t actually notice any effect.” His speech by now is noticeably more halting than it has been earlier in the interview. “I know a lot of people like weed, and that’s fine. But I don’t find that it is very good for productivity.”
The Market was not amused. News of two senior Tesla executives quitting their jobs broke soon after the interview appeared. Tesla shares slid 8 percent. On Twitter, where he competes with President Trump for the World Megalomaniac Award, Musk tweeted out his Rogan interview, adding: “I am a business magnet.” Perhaps he was still coming down.
These disasters follow the summer’s going-private fiasco. In early August, Musk claimed he had secured the vast funding needed to take his company private and then did a switcheroo. Tesla short-sellers, whom Musk constantly tries to show up, were vindicated. The Market got angry; shares slid.
“Moving forward, we will continue to focus on what matters most,” Musk wrote in a statement to investors two weeks later, “building products that people love and that make a difference to the shared future of life on Earth. We’ve shown that we can make great sustainable energy products, and we now need to show that we can be sustainably profitable.”
That apparently entails shooting the THC-laden breeze with Joe Rogan for two and a half hours.
The question now is: How did Musk ever get so big in the first place? There were many Tesla-skeptics, of course, chief among them those very short-sellers. They were onto something, perhaps because they sensed that a sound inventor-investor-executive would be more concerned with producing a reliable, profitable, non-subsidized automobile than with . . . showing up short-sellers. Even so, Tesla shares climbed and climbed. Even now, after Friday’s Harold and Kumar routine, the stock is trading north of $260.
Two explanations come to mind. The first is that, after Steve Jobs’s death, Wall Street and Silicon Valley types were seeking the next Eccentric Visionary to whom they could hitch their dreams. And Musk was straight out of central casting for Eccentric Visionary. Ending climate change. Colonizing Mars. Super-trains linking cities across vast distances. Everything seemed possible with him. Who knows, maybe the hopes were well-placed at one point, and the adulation went to the man’s head?
The second explanation, which needn’t be mutually exclusive with the first, is ideology. So much of Musk’s business reputation rested on his claims of solving climate change and other planetary crises that loom large in the minds of the Davos crowd. Musk embodied the ideological proposition that no modern problem eludes solution by noble-minded technocratic elites. The Market, it turns out, was as prone to magical thinking as any of the rest of us.
Clarification: News of the Tesla executives’ departure broke following Musk’s pot-smoking interview, but at least one of the departures had been finalized earlier this week.
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The course the West followed has been a disaster.
The West has squandered the last, best opportunity to rid the world of the criminal regime in Syria.
Damascus was designated a state sponsor of terrorism in 1979, and it has lived up to that title every year since. Syria’s descent into civil war presented several opportunities to dispense with the despot in Damascus and avert a crisis in the process, but they were all ignored. As I wrote for National Review, Syria is a case study in the perils of ideological non-interventionism. The results of the West’s over-reliance on covert action, outsourcing, and diplomacy in Syria is arguably the worst-case scenario.
Had Barack Obama not abandoned his infamous “red line” in 2013, the U.S. might have preserved the 100-year prohibition on the battlefield use of chemical weapons. The collapse of that taboo has been rapid and terrifying. In the years that followed, chemical arms have been regularly deployed in Syria, and rogue powers have been using complex nerve agents on foreign (even allied) soil in reckless state-sponsored assassination campaigns.
Ideological adherence to non-interventionism well after it had proven an untenable course of action allowed the flourishing of terrorist organizations. Some parties in the West with a political interest in isolationism deliberately confused these terrorist groups with secularist movements led by Assad regime defectors. In the years that followed, those moderate rebel factions were crushed or corrupted while Islamist terror networks, which provided a politically valuable contrast to the “civilized” regime in Damascus, were patronized and nurtured by Assad.
The incubation of terrorist organizations eventually necessitated the kind of American military intervention Obama had so desperately sought to avoid, but at a time and place not of America’s choosing and with a footprint too small to achieve any permanent solution to the crisis. All the while, a great human tide poured out from Syria in all directions, but especially into Europe. There, an influx of unassimilated migrants eroded the continent’s post-War political consensus and catalyzed the rise of illiberal populist factions.
Even as late as the summer of 2015, there was still time for the West to summon the courage to do what was necessary. In a stunning speech that summer, Assad himself admitted that Syrian forces suffered from “a lack of human resources” amid Western estimates that nearly half the 300,000-strong Syrian army had been killed, captured, or deserted. “Based on current trend lines, it is time to start thinking about a post-Assad Syria,” an intelligence source told the Washington Post’s David Ignatius. But Obama dithered still. Just a few short weeks later, Vladimir Putin, upon whom Obama relied to help him weasel out of his pledge to punish Assad for his crimes, intervened in Syria on Damascus’s behalf. That was when the greatest crimes began.
Russian intervention in Syria began not with attacks on “terrorists,” as Moscow claimed, but with attacks on covert CIA installations and arms depots; a dangerous campaign that continued well into the Trump era. The Syrian regime and its Iranian and Russian allies then embarked on a scorched-earth campaign. They bombed civilian neighborhoods and hospitals and maternity wards. They surrounded the liberated cities of Homs and Aleppo, barraging and starving their people into submission. They even targeted and destroyed a United Nations aid convey before it could relieve the famine imposed by Damascus. All the while, Moscow’s propagandists mocked reports of these atrocities, and the children who stumbled bloodied and ashen from the ruins of their homes were deemed crisis actors by Russian officials and their Western mouthpieces.
America’s strategic obligations in Syria did not diminish with Russian intervention. They increased, but so too did the danger. Early on, Russian forces concentrated not just on attacking Assad’s Western-backed enemies but on harassing NATO-aligned forces that were already operating in the Syrian theater. Russian warplanes harassed U.S. drones, painted allied assets with radar, conducted near-miss fly-bys of U.S. warships and airplanes in the region, and repeatedly violated Turkish airspace. This conduct was so reckless that, in November of 2015, NATO-allied Turkish anti-aircraft fire downed a Russian jet. On the ground, Moscow and Washington engaged in the kind of proxy fighting unseen since the collapse of the Soviet Union, as U.S.-manufactured armaments were routinely featured in rebel-made films of successful attacks on Russian tanks and APCs.
In the years that followed this intensely dangerous period, the Syrian state did not recover. Instead, Syrian forces withdrew to a narrow area along the coast and around the capital and left behind a vacuum that has been filled by competing great powers. Iran, Russia, Turkey, Jordan, Saudi Arabia, Qatar, the United Arab Emirates, Canada, the United Kingdom, France, Australia, and the United States, to say nothing of their proxy forces, are all competing to control and pacify portions of the country. Even if the terrorist threat is one day permanently neutralized in Syria—a prospect that today seems far off, considering these nations’ conflicting definition of what constitutes a terrorist—the state of competition among these powers ensures that the occupation of Syrian territory will continue for the foreseeable future.
And now, the final battle is upon the rebels. On Friday, hundreds of Syrians waving the “independence flag” poured into the streets of Idlib, the last of the country’s free cities, begging the international community to spare them from the onslaught that has already begun. The United Nations has warned that up to 800,000 people could be displaced in Damascus’s efforts to retake the rebel-held enclave, and the worst of the seven-year war’s humanitarian disasters may be yet to come.
Over the last two weeks, the United States has issued some ominous warnings. Senior American officials have begun telling reporters that the evidence is increasing of Damascus’s moving chemical munitions near the frontlines with the intent of using them on civilians. Trump administration officials announced in no uncertain terms that they would respond to another chemical attack with disproportionate force.
In response to these threats, Moscow deployed the biggest Russian naval taskforce on the Syrian coast since 2015. Simultaneously, Russia has warned of its intent to strike “militant” positions in the country’s Southwest, where U.S. soldiers routinely patrol. American forces are holding firm, for now, and the Pentagon insists that uniformed personnel are at liberty to defend themselves if they come under assault. If there is a conflict, it wouldn’t be the first time Americans and Russians have engaged in combat in Syria.
In February, Russian mercenaries and Syrian soldiers reinforcing columns of T-72 tanks and APCs armed with 125-millimeter guns engaged a position just east of the Euphrates River held by American Green Berets and Marines. The four-hour battle that ensued resulted in hundreds of Russian fatalities, but it may only have been a terrible sign of things to come.
Of course, a Western-led intervention in the Syrian conflict would have been accompanied by its own set of setbacks. What’s more, the political backlash and dysfunction that would have accompanied another difficult occupation in the Middle East perhaps presented policymakers with insurmountable obstacles. But the course the West followed instead has been a disaster.
The lessons of the Syrian civil war are clear: The U.S. cannot stay out of destabilizing conflicts in strategically valuable parts of the world, no matter how hard it tries. The humanitarian and political disasters that resulted from Western indifference to the Syrian plight is a grotesque crime that posterity will look upon with contempt. Finally, the failure to enforce prohibitions against chemical-weapons use on the battlefield has emboldened those who would use them recklessly. American soldiers will suffer the most in a world in which chemical warfare is the status quo of the battlefield of the future.
American interventionists are often asked by their opponents to reckon with the bloodshed and geopolitical instability their policies encourage. If only non-interventionists would do the same.
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And the demands of realpolitik.
Earlier this week, my housekeeper, Mary, arrived to work decked out in a bright red T-shirt emblazoned with a photo of Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte, who came to Israel last Sunday for a three-day official visit.
Mary was at the Knesset on Monday, one of several hundred Filipino workers among approximately 28,000 in Israel, enthusiastically cheering her strongman president.
I asked her what she thought of Duterte–a leader who makes President Trump seem eloquent and measured, by comparison–and I was taken aback by her effusive, unhesitating endorsement: “Oh,” she enthused, “he is a very good president! The best!”
“But,” I suggested, carefully, “he says and does some pretty extreme, crazy things. Does that concern you at all?”
“Oh, no!” she collapsed in laughter. “He doesn’t mean that. It’s just his style.”
Indeed, Duterte has “style.” Bragging of his intent to kill millions of Filipino drug addicts, and invoking Hitler and his genocidal rampage, approvingly, in this context; referring to President Obama as a “son of a whore”; boasting of his parsimony in keeping multiple mistresses available in low-end hotels; approving of sexually assaulting women, particularly attractive ones. And then there was the outburst during the Pope’s visit to the very Catholic Philippines in 2015 when Duterte called him a “son of a bitch” for causing a traffic jam while in Manila.
Mary is not a simple woman. She is university educated, hard-working, pleasant, and respectful. And whatever makes her overlook Duterte’s thuggish tendencies should interest us all, because there are many Marys the world over supporting populist leaders and governments. Mary admires Duterte’s strength of conviction in dealing with drug dealers, addicts, corruption and Islamic extremists.
Human rights activists and journalists, of course, see only a brute who visited Israel to shop for weapons and defense capabilities, which would be put to questionable use. Then again, Duterte is hardly the first and far from the only unsavory ruler to come shopping in Israel, America, or elsewhere, for arms.
Israel deftly managed the visit and optics. Whereas many were disgusted that the PM and President Rivlin gave Duterte an audience, according him a legitimacy and respect that is undeserved, their meetings were brief and remarks carefully calibrated.
In addition to acknowledging his personal gratitude to the Filipino caregiver who was a companion to his father in his final years, Bibi reminded us all of the enduring friendship the Philippines has shown Israel, and Jews, for decades. Prior to WWII, then president Manuel Quezon made available 10,000 visas as part of an “open door” policy to accommodate European Jewish refugees. Only 1,300 were used, ultimately, due to the Japanese invasion which closed off escape routes.
In 1947, the Philippines was the only Asian country to vote in support of the 1947 UN Partition Plan, providing critical support for the momentum building towards the creation and international acceptance of the Jewish state one year later. These are important, historical events about which Bibi, quite rightly, chose to remind us all.
I am no cheerleader of dictators and thugs, but I do wonder why the morality of many objectors to the Duterte visit is so selective. Israel (and all western nations) has relations and ties with many countries led by dictators and rulers far more brutal than the democratically elected Duterte.
Much ado has been made in recent months of Bibi’s meetings with a number of right-wing populists and, worse. Some link it to what they see as disturbing, anti-democratic tendencies in his own leadership of late. Others, myself included, would read it as a careful effort to maintain and cultivate as many international relationships as possible that may enhance Israel’s strategic and economic interests, particularly in this period of extreme global political, economic and institutional instability.
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The paradox of success.
The monthly jobs report from the Bureau of Labor Statistics released Friday morning shows that the economy continues to flourish. 201,000 new jobs were added last month, while the unemployment rate stayed steady at a very low 3.9 percent.
Unemployment rates for African-Americans and teenagers continued their decline to historic lows, while US factory activity was at a 14-year high and new unemployment claims at their lowest point since the 1960s. The long-term unemployed (those out of work for 27 weeks or longer) has fallen by 24 percent in the last year. The number of part-time workers who want full-time work has gone down by 16 percent over the last 12 months. Wages are rising at a faster pace than they have, a sign of a tightening jobs market.
Corporate profits are robust (thanks partly to the cut in the corporate income tax) and consumer spending has been rising. The GDP has been growing at a more than 4 percent rate in recent months. In short, the American economy has rarely been this good and certainly wasn’t during the long, sluggish recovery from the 2008-2009 recession under the Obama administration.
In an ordinary year, one would expect that with economic numbers this good, the party controlling both houses of Congress and the White House would be looking forward to doing well in the upcoming midterm election, even though the party holding the White House usually loses seats in midterms. But, of course, no year is an ordinary political year with Donald Trump in the White House and the Democratic Party moving ever more to the left.
November 6 will be an interesting night.
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We deserve better.
You could be forgiven for thinking that everyone active in American politics has lost their minds.
What we’re witnessing is not, however, collective madness. The political class in the United States has adapted to a constant atmosphere of high drama, and they’ve adopted the most theatrical poses possible if only to maintain the attention of their fickle audiences. What might look to dispassionate observers like mass hysteria is just overwrought performance art.
This week was a case study in our national insanity, which began aptly enough on Capitol Hill. There, confirmation hearings for Judge Brett Kavanaugh got underway, but Judge Kavanaugh’s presence was barely noticed. The hearings soon became a platform for some familiar grandstanding by members of the opposition party, but the over-acting to which the nation was privy was uniquely embarrassing.
New Jersey Senator Cory Booker chewed the scenery, as is his habit, by declaring himself Spartacus and demanding that he be made a “martyr” via expulsion from the Senate for releasing one of Kavanaugh’s emails to the public, supposedly in violation of Senate confidentiality rules. But there was no violation, said Bill Bruck, the private attorney who led the review of Kavanaugh’s former White House records in the Senate. “We cleared the documents last night shortly after Senator Booker’s staff asked us to,” he said in a statement. Perhaps by engaging in what he called “an act civil disobedience,” Booker was only following the lead of his colleague, Senator Sheldon Whitehouse, who declared the committee’s process illegitimate, thereby supposedly rendering the rules of the United States Senate unworthy of recognition.
Outside another congressional committee’s chamber, the crazy really ramped up to absurd proportions. Following a hearing on alleged bias in Silicon Valley, Senator Marco Rubio was confronted by the rabble-rousing conspiracy theorist Alex Jones, which rapidly devolved to the point that both Senator and agitator were soon threatening to fight one another. “I know you’ve got to cover them, but you give these guys way too much attention,” Rubio later told reporters. “We’re making crazy people superstars. So, we going to get crazier people.” He’s right.
The Trump era has provided the press with fertile soil in which a thousand manic flowers have bloomed.
Amplified by the president himself, Jones has become one of the right’s favorite grifters. Unfortunately, he’s in plentiful company. The press has discovered a sudden interest in conspiracy theorists like Jack Posobiec, Mike Cernovich, and Laura Loomer partly because they make for such compelling television but also because they’re willing to confirm the pro-Trump right’s most paranoid suspicions.
The “Resistance” has been a valuable vehicle for the unscrupulous and under-medicated. Congresswoman Maxine Waters has been feted in the press and in apolitical venues such as the MTV Movie Awards not despite but because of her penchant for radicalizing the left and feeding them fantasies about a coming anti-Trump putsch. Former British MP Louise Mensch, “D.C. technocrat” Eric Garland, and Teen Vogue columnist Lauren Duca spent most of 2017 basking in attention and praise from respectable quarters of the Washington political and media class. Their manifest unfitness for such elevated status somehow evaded drama addicts in mainstream political and media quarters.
And whether you’re pandering to the pro-Trump right or the anti-Trump left, there’s plenty of cash to go around for those who are willing to indoctrinate children or undermine the integrity of apolitical American institutions.
The week’s most hysterical moment belongs to the president and his aides—specifically, their reaction to an anonymous op-ed published by the New York Times purportedly revealing the existence of a cabal in the administration dedicated to thwarting the president’s worst impulses. Now, some have expressed perfectly reasonable reservations about the Times’s decision to publish an anonymous op-ed. Others have fretted about the pernicious effects this disclosure might have on the already mercurial president’s approach to governance. But lost in the over-the-top reactions this piece inspired among political observers is the hackneyed nature of the revelations it contained.
In sum, the author disclosed that many members of this Republican administration are movement conservatives dedicated to conservative policy prescriptions that are antithetical to the policies on which Trump campaigned. As such, they have often successfully lobbied the president to adopt their positions over his own preferences.
The admittedly dangerous “two-track presidency” has been observable for some time, and is the frequent subject of reporting and opinion. For example, the op-ed highlighted the discrepancy between Trump’s conciliatory rhetoric toward Russia and his administration’s admirably hawkish posture, which has become such a glaringly conspicuous feature of his presidency that Trump has recently begun trumpeting his contradictory record as though it was a unique species of competence. There’s nothing wrong with taking issue with the way in which the obvious was stated in this op-ed, but the statement of the obvious should not itself be a source of special consternation.
But was it ever. The Drudge Report dubbed the author a “saboteur,” despite the op-ed failing to describe even one action that was taken on the part of this so-called “resistance” against the president’s expressed wishes. “Sedition,” former White House Aide Sebastian Gorka echoed. Sarah Huckabee Sanders attacked the anonymous columnist as a “coward.” The president himself pondered whether the op-ed constituted “treason” against the United States and demanded the Times “turn over” this “gutless” columnist to the proper authorities, whoever they are. This is certainly one way to refute the charge that Trump’s “impulsiveness results in half-baked, ill-informed and occasionally reckless decisions,” but it’s not a good one.
It’s hard to fault politicians and the press for selling drama. Banality doesn’t push papers, drive up advertising rates, or turn out the vote. At a time without an urgent crisis, when the economy is strong, and the fires abroad are relatively well-contained, it serves the political and media classes to turn up the temperature on mundanities and declare all precedents portentous. But radicalizing voters for such purposes is both trite and irresponsible. In America, healthy and productive politics is boring politics. And who would tune in for that?