Tuesday, September 12, 2017

Deep thoughts on sabbatical?

I’m currently on sabbatical. A sabbatical is a leave negotiated by my union to allow workers some time away from day-to-day duties (e.g., teaching, administration) to focus on learning. We often call it research time, but I do research as part of my normal duties. The real boon of a sabbatical is that it gives me time to read around, reflect on what I’ve learned over the past few years, and integrate it into my thinking.

For whatever reason, I do my best thinking while I’m doing something else: cycling, walking, paddling or (at the risk of over sharing) showering. Last week, I finished reading a very frustrating set of social media posts wherein workers were opposing minimum wage increases (a position that benefits employers and disadvantages workers). I always struggle to listen to workers who over-identify with their employers' interests.

So I went down to the river to paddle. Grinding upstream against the current is good exercise but can be monotonous. I looked over at the shore to gauge my progress and saw a pile of old animal bones that one of the gold-panners had stacked up on a boulder. That got me thinking about bones and anthropology and, finally, evolutionary psychology.

Evolutionary psychology suggests that we can sometimes better understand our thoughts, emotions, and behaviours by recognizing that our minds developed over a long period of time. During this developmental periods, our ancestors typically lived in small nomadic groups. We retain much this “savannah mindset” even thought we now live in radically different circumstances (e.g., industrial societies where capitalism organizes production and distribution).

This approach can, for example, help us understand why the motivational effect of additional wages is nonlinear and decreases after a certain point. But, like any lens, the savannah mind focuses our attention on some things (i.e., determines what is valued) and obscures other things (i.e., what is not valued). So I started to think about how a savannah mindset might explain workers arguing for public policy that is contrary to their collective interests.

To the savannah mind, employers are valuable allies because they give us resources (e.g., wages with which to buy food). Consequently, we want to retain their favor and help them out. Any threat to employers’ interests produces anxiety. That employers pocket (say) two-thirds of the value we produce for them before giving us as little wages as they possible can is not something the savannah mind can grapple with (there was no real surplus value for the powerful to extract in nomadic bands).

Consequently, the idea that there is surplus value that can be distributed to workers as additional wages or retained by employers as profit) does not emotionally resonate with workers. (Just to forestall this critique, I’m not arguing that employers have profits in the amount of twice the wage bill. Simply that there is profit skimmed by employers from the value created by labour.) Similarly, the idea that we belong to a class (i.e., a social group that exists across society) is foreign to the savannah mind. The savannah mind is more likely identify with the group of people we see every day (including our employers).

Conversely, workers view taxes (and the state that levies them) as a threat to their interests because it reduces the resources available to workers. Again, the the savannah mindset struggles to recognize that the state then uses these taxes to provide important things (e.g., schools, clean water regulations, fire departments). These features of our environment appear natural (they have “always existed” for most of us), rather than being the product of a profound (and mostly invisible) level of cooperation among a large number of actors whom we'll never meet.

So, when the (bad) state suggests forcing (good) employers to pay low-wage workers slightly more, this appears (to our savannah minds) to be profoundly threatening to our (group's) interests. Of course there are lots of other reasons why workers might oppose minimum wage increases. workers are subjected to endless employer propaganda and negative religious views on human nature. And, for most workers, minimum wage increases yield limited personal value.

But it struck me that employer lobbyists (intentionally or not) are tapping into a bit of a psychological hot button for most workers when they complain about the (largely imaginary) negative effect rising minimum wages. So what does that means for proponents of public policy initiatives like increasing minimum wages? I don’t know off-hand—I got distracted by an eagle sitting in a tree above my kayak. Maybe the next time I hit the water, I’ll have another brainwave.

-- Bob Barnetson

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