Thursday, December 8, 2016

What If A Real Populist Had Run?

My second take on Trump, which I never got around to writing, boils down to the observation that Trump offered rural whites an explanation as to what has caused them to fall so far behind and a way to reassert control over their own lives. While his explanation is bullshit, it's at least an explanation. Democrats offered concrete policy improvements but they didn't offer what mattered to voters, an explanation, a solution, and most critically a way to have some control over their lives, such as whether or not their local plant closed. My impression is that rural voters are a lot less worried about wages than they are about the mere continued existence of their jobs; in low wage, less urbanized areas a higher wage through policies such as a minimum wage hike could often be seen as a threat to the continued existence of the crap job that's at least a job.

But what if Democrats had offered something more concrete then the 30 second hate offered by Trump about devious, cheating foreigners stealing our jobs through some magical, unspecified mechanism? The following is a brief outline of the dream speech of my idealized next populist candidate. Warning, it's NSFW, I believe that a key way to connect with low information voters is to violate elite norms, swearing like a sailor is a norm violation that doesn't involve racism and misogyny.

Every day I hear from Americans frightened that the plant they work for will close down, their company will fold, or that they'll get laid off. They tell me about how they're so frightened that they can't say not to anything the boss asks of them. They're working so many hours that they hardly see their kids, that they're stressed all the time, and that they feel work has taken over their lives. Then they repeat the lies they've been told every day of their lives, that this is because of foreign competition, robots, or because they don't have the right skills.

This is bullshit. The person to blame for the hours you work, the local plant closing down, and your home town withering isn't some faceless foreigner or market forces. It's the guy that closed the plant. It's the motherfucker sitting in a board room claiming he's doing it because stockholders are demanding higher returns, he traded your life and everything you value for a fucking one cent increase in the damn share price. To make it even more insulting, something my MBA taught me is that the majority of offshoring fails. They know this, they aren't doing it because that one plant was a bust. They're doing it because they know that if they close this or that plant that you're going to be fucking scared. And if they can keep you scared they know they don't have to give you a raise, that you won't join a union to stand up to them, and that they can keep fucking you however they damn well please while your life falls apart around you.

To add insult to injury, they don't think there's anything you can do about it. They own the fucking media and most of the fucking politicians so they know that there's no way to organize opposition to them, whenever you get mad enough they'll just fill the news with some bullshit about foreigners while they reach into your back pocket and steal your wallet.

Well, it's time that we take our country back from these lying motherfuckers. I am going to propose a constitutional amendment to recognize employee's property rights in the companies that they work for. You built those companies, not some rich asshole who bought a bunch of stock and tours a facility now and then to look self important and make everyone bow and scrape.

Anyone that has held a job knows that they, and their coworkers, often go above and beyond to make things work in their business. They build up best practices, innovate new ways of doing business, make suggestions, work a bit off the clock to make things run smoothly, and do hundreds of other little things that are necessary for a real organization to work and improve. This is all investment. But unlike the asshole that ponies up a few bucks for a share you don't get shit for all this hard work.

My pledge to you is that this will change. We will create a national corporate law which recognizes an employee's contributions to the company and which gives employees a right to representation on a corporate board. Employees rights will be proportional to their contributions relative to those that contributed capital, so in the oldest, largest companies employees will get to choose the vast majority of board members with stockholders only having a handful, while in smaller, newer companies the founder will maintain control until the company grows beyond what it can be reasonably said one man had built. We will further extend provisions for employees to choose their own management, in the largest companies only the employees being supervised are really in a position to understand what they need in a manager, I'm sure you've all seen how often disasters are picked by those higher up the ladder.

I can be certain that these proposals will be met with the most vicious opposition by the managers, large stockholders, the media, and the other powerful members of the elite. We are going to be taking away their power after all. But we will be leaving them with their wealth, we aren't taking anything from them but their power to treat you as a dependent and make decisions for you. What they're really afraid of is that you will take personal responsibility in your workplaces and hold these assholes accountable for their fucking actions. They've taken the dignity of independence and responsibility from you, it's time to take rewrite our corporate laws to hold those guilty of this accountable.

They're going to be lying about how important they are, calling themselves brilliant and necessary for the functioning of the economy. But don't listen to their propaganda! The only thing they know how to do is to take credit for the investments you are making in these companies. They'll tell you how important they are for making investments, but all they're doing is taking the advice of a finance department. Each and every one of you would be a brilliant investor too if you had millions to invest and a staff doing nothing but tell you where to put your money. They'll tell you that they're necessary for making business decisions. You are the ones that meet with customers every day, know the problems and bottlenecks production is facing, and do the daily work of the business day in and day out. You know more than any outsider can, you're the ones with the special, firm specific knowledge necessary to choose a CEO. There's a reason that so many CEOs are bad fits for the company, that so many fail, and that so many do little other than collect fat paychecks for failure. It's because it is some outside investor, with their hands in so many other companies, are the ones choosing executives and not the employees. And they're choosing these executives from the same narrow, elite group that has been doing nothing but fucking up the economy for the past 10 years.

They'll tell you they're the best, the brightest, and have most merit. Well, not only is this easy if you have a staff, but even if it's true who do you think is going to do a better job, someone chosen to work in your interest or someone brilliant but chosen to work in someone else's interest? I think the answer is obvious, but if you ever wondered why the rich keep getting richer even though Americans lack jobs, our companies are only doing OK, and everyone is pissed off and angry you need to look no further that our companies are run in the interests of outside shareholders rather than the employees that make up the company. They talk about the importance of having skin in the game, but who has skin in the game? You, whose mortgage, car payment, groceries, and maybe your kids education are on the line, or the diversified stockholders who will write off any losses as they manage the rest of their portfolio and write off your plant, and your life, failing as nothing but the cost of doing business.

So what can you do to change this? You can vote. Not just for me, the President can't do this on their own, but for my party in offices at every level. We will need Congress, both the Senate and the House, to pass the bills. And we will need large majorities, I know the elites are running scared and are going to do everything they can to subvert the will of the people. But it's not even just the national level, I know at least half the Supreme Court will be in the pockets of the elites they attend cocktail parties and play golf with. They will do everything they can to stop this, even though we clearly have Constitutional authority under the commerce clause. To forestall this we will need a Constitutional Amendment so that even the most corrupt Supreme Court can't tear down what we've built. This will mean controlling the state legislatures and Governors, we will need three quarters of them to make this vision a reality.

Now, I know, many of you like divided government. But our system is built the way it is to prevent major changes like this unless there is overwhelming support. So to do this, to take America back from the elites that have stolen it from us, we will need overwhelming support. No matter what the other party once stood for, with this proposal the elites will unify behind them to stop you. And we can't let that happen.

To do this we will need every American to vote. Our victory must be overwhelming to overcome America's checks and balances. And everyone has a stake in this. For those without jobs, who do you think is more likely to increase staff levels, employees at local firms who are sick of 60 hour weeks or the stockholders who are profiting from those long hours? Who is more likely to invest in new plants in America, the employees of profitable companies or the stockholders who will turn around and use those profits to "diversify" their portfolios? For everyone that has ever said that both parties are the same or that both sides do it in this election there is a clear choice, a party that believes that everyone should have a say in the big decisions that effect their jobs and lives and the other party who believes that the elites should be making the decisions that effect you for you. In this election, with the forces arrayed against us, every vote will count. You might be the straw that breaks the camel's back. But you can be more than a single straw! Make sure your friends vote, your relatives, you can even harangue strangers at the bar to vote! This election can be what puts America back on track, the one day that can finally stand up to those that have taken so much from you and say I built that, this is mine, and I need to have a say in the company that I built! We will no longer stand for boards of directors chosen by shareholders claiming to represent the companies Americans work for. The employees are the fucking companies! NO MORE REPRESENTATION WITHOUT ACCOUNTABILITY! Those that claim to represent us WILL BE ACCOUNTABLE TO US!


  1. Great speech! Easy to be labeled as communist though, although what you are suggesting is up an running for quite some time in Germany for instance (running at ~10% of GDP surplus now I hear...).

    1. Thanks Kuori. I think this model of company control works better everywhere it has been tried. I prefer to think of it as a small government alternative to big government regulation of companies, rather than socialism however.

      If someone with a prominent position would advocate it this way I think it might gain some traction. Communism/socialism are generally viewed in the US as having to do with the government, giving employees greater voice is as local and small government as you can get.

    2. But the owner built it, not the workers...

      Some believable argument, U.S. generated, with resonance to the regular Jane/Joe needs to be made. How can one promote the idea of "ours" in the U.S.?

    3. If someone with a platform would push the idea, I am not sure it would be all that difficult to convince people that they built it and not the business owner. People already talk about the investment in their careers and in how they are invested in a job. People feel betrayed when they get laid off or when the town factory gets closed down. My belief is that people already feel that they have a stake in a company, the problem is that no one seems to be tying these feelings to an actual program of reform.

      I've noticed people tend to talk about a company as if it is a separate entity with a will of its own; legally it is. There's a slight of hand that happens, however, when an owner talks about changes that are bad for the company and good for him as something that is good for the company.

      Make this explicit. Call the Boards of Directors what they are, a bunch of Hobbesian collectivists usurping control of a company with a right to a separate identity and self determination. Companies should be organized under a Lockean conception of organization, a free association of property owners deciding on the best course of action to find their common interests.

      I think there are explicit parallels between our modern problems and the contrast between the pre-modern British and French systems. In France, the great landed magnates found it most efficient to strip rights from the people that actually worked the land, they profited through reducing what those on the land received. This is comparable to shareholder capitalism. In Britain, the enclosure movement gave rights to great and small alike (I admit I am making this a bit rosier than it was). Once people had a right to the place they worked they found ways to make it more efficient and everyone wealthier.

      What we need is a new enclosure movement to recognize the investments that employees make in their companies every day. Right now, all rights are assigned to those that invested the capital, barring some tech start ups and small partnerships, this is far off of people's daily work experiences. This is basically the exact same situation that prevailed in the struggle between landed magnates and the people that actually did the work. There are decades of propaganda that the right has devoted to the idea of an ownership society. Appropriate it. Giving employees a say in the company they work for is the very essence of ownership. Giving some distant individual out of touch with the day to day operations of what they control is what most people associate with collectivism. Call the Board of Directors an elitist Polibureau usurping the rights of employees to have an ownership stake in their company and making employees into a bunch of dependents. Take the language of ownership back to promote the idea that people should have a say in the decisions that have an impact on them and to brand those that want to make the decisions about them for them as a bunch of collectivists who don't respect personal responsibility.

    4. So, if I remember correctly, somebody was trying to address this tension between labour and capital almost 150 years ago, a guy named Marx...Bad, bad guy, very bad (sorry for talking like Trump).
      I totally agree with you because from an ethical perspective, coming from behind the veil of ignorance, this social world of ours is partly a prison of our own minds that nobody would risk being born into...
      I am afraid that your message will not reach the minds of the average Joe/Jane until the situation will become worse in term of survival.
      And then, despite all the guns in the States, I am also skeptical of the ability of such a diverse society to protest and organize effectively outside the approved channels, elections. Everything being monitored, twitter, email, facebook, any emerging leaders/organizers would be immediately removed surgically and people's physical existence threatened.

      Furthermore, I am deeply skeptical of the masses, the unwashed masses, uneducated and driven by frustration, rather than by a cold, logical determination.

    5. I think I may have to do a post laying out the system I have in mind and the logic behind it, while my rhetoric presents a labor/capital dichotomy my critique is really one of corporate governance and my skepticism that a large organization can be effectively governed through external control. That kind of language isn't very motivational, so I dress it up a bit.

      I also agree that any political movement would have to occur through elections, democracy provides a way to fundamentally reform institutions without the use of violence. Once violence gets involved someone will appropriate any movement for their own ends, especially one that hinges on some rather technical points of our legal system.

      I have slowly developed more respect for the unwashed masses. The problem is that any political movement relies on elites to shape what the masses are saying into actionable demands. The problem we are stuck with is that pretty much all of our elites benefit from the laws and institutions that the masses are unhappy with. Thus no one is articulating a message that meets their demands and would actually give them what they want. So we end up with someone like Trump, who responds rhetorically to people's concerns but has no idea how to deliver any of it. He also has seriously misdiagnosed the causes of their problems, but it is too much to expect an uncoordinated group to identify causes themselves.

      I should mention, I think the voice of the masses is pretty clear right now. A common theme on both the left and right is a desire to hold someone accountable. There are significant differences in who they want to hold accountable but there seems to be a pretty significant crowd willing to listen to a an arguments, it doesn't have to be a good argument, regarding who they should hold accountable. Elected Democrats have been willing to talk in a fairly vague way about corporate power but they haven't really zeroed in on a diagnosis of why elites have become so distant and unaccountable. While the Trumpist argument regarding who to blame is rather transparently wrong and terrible the fact that the Democrats can't seem to agree on who to point the figure at aside from the Republicans tends to lend some credence to it that it doesn't really deserve.

  2. Exercise:
    Walmart is one of the biggest employers in the U.S.How would you go about to organize that workforce such that in the end they will have similar benefits and treatment as a Walmart worker in Germany?

    1. I wouldn't try. That' not my goal.

      My critique is essentially that external control doesn't work. Accountability has to be reciprocal. My idea is that external selection of boards of directors has to be replaced by boards of directors selected by employees at large companies. This would be a gradual process, as a company grows employees would get to select increasingly larger proportions of the board (far more analysis than I am capable of would be required for this, but I'd put the minimum size of 50 employees for the first employee representative and complete employee control would be somewhere north of $100 billion in total assets). Minimum election standards would have to be part of this corporate law reform, but other than not giving management more voting rights than regular employees I don't have a strong opinion on this, though employees should be able to select their own candidates through a petition process rather than relying on selection of candidates by executives (unequal voting, within limits, for characteristics such as seniority seem to make sense in a corporate context).

      This would give employees responsibility for their own working conditions. They would have ultimate responsibility for weighing things such as trade offs between price levels and compensation, executive compensation, mergers and acquisitions, and other executive level corporate decision making. They could take local contexts into account, it does make sense that someone in rural Alabama may be willing to accept lower wages to keep a plant in their town compared to someone in New York City. These decisions should be made by people accountable to those that will be impacted by these decisions rather than by executives accountable solely to shareholders.

      I'd also add that the government would have to put in place protections for shareholders to prevent short sighted employee selected shareholders from not giving them a fair return, but unlike with labor legislation, the government has access to excellent data to put in place enforceable policies to protect shareholders. It simply doesn't for labor protections, making this change in division of labor make even more sense.

    2. Just to add, I think that another way to frame this is that capital should stick to the business of allocating capital, it just screws up market signals when it also sticks its nose into running business. People with local knowledge, specifically employees, are in a much better position to actually control the business. The market can concern itself with starting new firms and with allocating capital among firms seeking to expand their business. This looks a lot more like the kind of model presented in the caricature of economics that people seem to have in their head, capital and labor negotiating rates of return based on supply and demand, than the current system where capital has extensive legal rights whereas employees have very few rights unless they are part of a particular class suffering from a particular form of discrimination.

  3. After reading your last posts, the word that comes to my lips is partnership. It would indeed be a phenomenal shift, from "ownership" to a sort of "partnership" that ultimately say: money and/or corporate structure do not rule supreme.

    I do not think that the current conditions in the U.S. would allow such laws to be passed. Only an existential threat. Or a very smart, educated and conscientious citizenry. But remembering George Carlin, I think only the first option is likely to be the source of change.

    1. Partnership would be a good term for it. I may end up borrowing it, I am working on a near future sci-fi novel, currently at the outline stage, where a failed attempt at this model touches off the collapse of the republic.

      Regarding the US, under the current regime I don't see anything happen. If there was some way to get the Democrats to start talking about it I see some ways forward. As a realistic political program I would start with the bankruptcy courts. Create a job preservation fund which would identify companies undergoing bankruptcy due to high debts incurred by investors and use the fund to finance a restructuring and recapitalize it through an Employee Stock Ownership Plan (ESOP). Current corporate structures for employee owned firms are less than ideal but it's a starting point.

      The next step would be to create Federal incentives to encourage employee ownership. This would be policies such as preference given to employee owned businesses in Federal contracts, favorable tax treatment, and Federal subsidized financing similar to SBA programs. Since employee owned firms tend to out compete regular firms of similar size a Federal push to get these off the ground could build momentum fairly quickly if pursued seriously.

      These are a lot less far reaching than what I have been writing about, but they are more realistic in the near term. I do think there are some disaffected voters that could be reached by a more ambitious program but right now it is outside the realm of what people think of as political questions for it to even be a topic of conversation.

    2. Absolutely no problem.

      All these ideas are very sensible without pushing the envelope and without destroying anything. It just allows the existence of other types of "partnerships". The issue is how to convey such messages to the average voter, because we both know, it is dull and boring and has nothing to do with feelings, of the gut kind...

      I am a big SciFi reader myself and I wish you luck with your novel. You can test it on me if you want. Presently I read only SciFi or non fiction.
      For non fiction I highly recommend the last two volumes of Francis Fukuyama on the origins of political order and political order and political decay as well as the following volumes by Nick Lane: Oxygen, Life Ascending, and The Vital Question, in this order.