Thursday, April 14, 2011

Detroit & Paul Simon

I may need to rename this blog "Kerry stumbles upon the obvious" or something like that, because I'm about to explain to you about how I started reading this book about the history of Detroit and was somewhat surprised to find out that it's largely about the auto industry and unionization. I know. I'm not actually that oblivious, I'd just been thinking about Detroit from a slightly different direction when I picked the book up, and I generally try to make a habit of reading books without too much premeditation in general, cause it tends to work out for me.

Anyways, unions. I think unionization is one of those issues that Americans in general are a little fuzzy on, although since I've already made such a point of my obliviousness in the last paragraph, the fact that I am my own best example for this point isn't going to get me very far. Even so, I know when I think about unions, I start from the obvious point that of course people should be able to withhold their labor if they object to the terms of employment or the level of compensation, and of course people should be able to band together so that withholding their labor has more impact...and then I kind of wave my hands around and pretend that's the basis for the modern labor movement. I know that once you go past those basic premises, there's also some uncomfortable conflict with free market principles and private property rights...things that I also technically believe in...but mostly I just assume that it all makes sense, and if I ever bothered to listen to the full philosophical arguments in favor of labor unions I'm sure I'd agree. And my guess is that I'm pretty typical in this regard.

One book about the history of Detroit later, I feel like I know significantly more about the reasons I'm in favor of labor unions. The book kind of has a gloomy tone generally, and sometimes I suspect it of a little bit of bias in that direction, but it's hard to ignore how intolerable the status quo for labor was at the beginning of the 20th century. The example that really stood out for me was the copper miners. The industry increased productivity by moving from teams of men with picks to two man pneumatic drills, and finally in 1911 to lightweight drills that a single man could operate alone. Except men didn't want to work alone, thousands of feet underground, without seeing a single other person for 10 hours at a time (p. 158). The conditions on factory assembly lines might not quite match the obvious drama of a copper mine, but as owners upped the pace of production and employed more and more technology, those jobs became just as isolating and inhuman. At the same time, really reading about the history of the early labor movement...seizing plants (p. 342), organizing sit downs (p. 343)...makes it hard not to confront that uncomfortable conflict with free market principles and private property rights. I'm less sure now that there's a philosophical argument that will make it perfectly clear that stealing is illegal, but taking control of somebody else's factory until they give you what you want isn't.

That doesn't really bother me though. The people who were being given no way to support themselves outside of the inhuman working conditions of pre-union industrial society had a right to change things. If they didn't have that right by law or laid out for them in the constitution, they had it by right of revolution. I think it's interesting that we've managed to make it from there to here and still feel like we're a society that lives by free market principles and protects private property rights. It seems like kind of a brilliant compromise between the people who wrote the original set of rules for their own benefit and the people who may not have wanted to pay the full costs of a revolution. The results are kind of fuzzy ideologically, at least in my opinion, but I'm ok with that. As Nietzsche* pointed out, the human brain is limited...if we know two things to be true, but can't figure out how they could possibly be consistent with one another, that doesn't mean that one is false.

*Quick point about Nietzsche...I don't know nearly enough about Nietzsche's actual writings as I should. I have some half remembered things I learned in college that I've probably twisted to mean what I want them to mean that I refer to now and then, because I think they're cool. On the bright side, if what I remember is even half right, Nietzsche himself would be pretty ok with this.

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