Capitalism’s Golden Rule

Those who make the rules, make rules that help them get more of the gold

This essay brings together key elements of arguments I made in my three most recent essays: counting CO2 Emission’s, counting medals, and promoting national healthcare. The common aspect of the two essays on “counting” was my claim that counting inevitably entails convention. That is to say: counting presupposes prior specification of how to go about counting, which is itself, importantly, the convention for counting of which I write.

More importantly, I claim that such presupposition of convention contributes to production and reproduction of the very relations of power that gave rise to this convention instead of some other convention in the first place. And, not surprisingly, in a capitalist system—and particularly in a capitalist system—the convention for counting that (appears to) “make the most sense” is the one that pleases most of the capitalists, most of the time.

Relations of power are built upon always already systematically asymmetric access to instruments of power. Those instruments include money, resources, culture, earlier arrival—and, greater influence over a society’s “counting rules”. That is, what counts as “what counts” and how to count it “correctly” are elements of how capitalists reproduce their power.

At this point, you may be wondering—perhaps impatiently—“When is he going to reconnect back to healthcare reform?” The answer is now, and I hope to do so by introducing a vary large cost that the counting conventions authorized for use during the debate-cum-shouting-match over healthcare reform just didn’t address. To do that, I have to tell a story…

Back around 1980, I worked as an applications engineer at the Chevrolet Engineering Center. It was a job that my Masters Degree in Engineering Mechanics from the University of Michigan made me appear—on paper, at least—to be well qualified for. But, my heart was in public policy, a field in which I had more recently earned a Masters from Michigan. By then, I had come to see engineering as a practice that some people engaged in only after some other, more important (more self-important?) people had “always already” (that phrase, again) formulated, asked, and answered all the questions that the counting conventions they had internalized required them to do.

I took the job because it was offered to me, because I wanted to continue to live in or near Ann Arbor, because I didn’t get any other offers—and because the job came with good healthcare benefits. Picture this “play on” Mark Twain’s Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur’s Court: “Ann Arbor lefty in GM’s engineering center. I gave it my best shot, but I just couldn’t get interested in either the task of writing applications when I could smell things starting to rot around me.

What do I mean by “rot”? Well, here are three, first-hand experiences. The first came in conversation I had with one of the top applications engineers in our group. I had asked him why GM’s engineers offered so few suggestions. He replied with an evocative two-word image: “Golden Handcuffs”. Then he explained that because he was so well compensated for his time (I guess I just presumed that he was thinking in terms of overall compensation: salary, company car, and healthcare benefits) that he wouldn’t risk being wrong, because that might jeopardize his well compensated job. And besides, he added, his managers would accept his doing professional-quality work, meaning what his bosses counted as such, which rarely challenged established GM orthodoxy. His answer to all questions was, I imagine–and I say this both impersonally and with compassion—“Yes, sir.”

The second personal experience came in conversation with one of GM’s top users of the applications software that the group I worked in had written. I noted that he didn’t look healthy—or happy. And he confided to me that he wasn’t happy. So, I asked him why he just didn’t look for a job elsewhere. He answered grimly, “My wife has cancer.” Then he added, poignantly, “It’s a previous condition.” So, he had no choice but to do what his boss told him to do, and to respond with a cheerful, “Yes, sir.” When asked… anything. What else could he do.

Then there was the third anecdote, which could have been a jokester’s pulling my leg. In conversation, I suggested that we were all over-compensated, compared to factory workers, generally speaking. My co-worker replied that his higher pay was justified because he went out and spent it; thus creating more jobs. How do you respond to an argument like that?

Let me throw in a pointer to a fourth more recent (10 years ago) anecdote that I was personally involved in.  This link identifies the subject again: institutional ossification.

Finally, I get to my point! I doubt that any portion of the collapse of GM was included as a cost of NOT having national healthcare. But all those Golden Handcuff’s that GM’s employees understandably put on their own wrists as the only way they could see for keeping their loved ones healthy and covered just might have contributed to the recent very expensive collapse of the company, the company towns, all the nameplates and jobs.

letcherAs I wrote a few essays back, this is not your Father’s economy. Indeed, it may be more like my Grandfather’s economy. And it may all have been avoided, had GM supported different, more organizationally challenging management practices, and had the country adopted national health insurance.

Robert A. Letcher, PhD

Robert A. Letcher, Ph.D describes himself as “an academic with a disability instead of a portfolio, a writer, and a Qigong practitioner who tries to help people learn”.


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