Welcome to Behind the Lines, a weekly conversation with Salt Lake Tribune cartoonist Pat Bagley and BYU economist Val Lambson.
Bagley: The inspiration behind this cartoon was Mitt Romney’s appeal to his well-heeled business friends to encourage their employees to vote for him. I was alarmed to learn that in some states it is perfectly legal for a boss to fire an underling for not voting “correctly.” It’s no secret that I think the current relationship of workers to their employers is seriously out of whack, but this is seriously messed up.
Lambson: First, how is it that a boss can know how a worker votes? Second, would you prefer European-style labor rules that make it difficult to fire anyone?
Bagley: An employee can get fired simply for being suspected of voting the wrong way. Germany has created a pretty good system that balances the rights of workers with those of employers, and is one of the reasons it is the second-largest exporting economy in the world. (By the way, China is number one.)
Lambson: I would much rather export less than live under Chinese labor law, but I suppose honest people can disagree about that. More seriously, we have known since Adam Smith’s Wealth of Nations was published in 1776 that exports are not a good measure of economic well-being.
Bagley: Neither were workhouses. Corporations and employers fought like tigers against things that we now take for granted: the five-day work week, child labor laws, equal opportunity, etc., etc. ... . In the end, rights which protect workers from being squashed like bugs are good for democracy and good for the economy.
Lambson: I submit that you may be reversing the cause and the effect. Greater wealth allowed us to afford five-day work weeks. This wealth didn’t appear by government mandate. If it were that easy, Congress could simply legislate us all to be millionaires.
Bagley: Until we all get replaced by robots, the work of employees is an indispensable part of wealth creation. I think current conditions allow big business to shortchange employees for their contribution to that wealth creation. For those who are interested, a book called “Why Nations Fail” makes the point better than I can.
Lambson: And for those who are more interested in why nations succeed, a book called “Prometheus Unbound” is one place to begin to understand the genesis of the industrial revolution. Less serious but more fun is P. J. O’Rourke’s “Eat the Rich.”
Lambson: The top comment from last week is from Egoscio: “The heated debates in some parts of the world are regrettably still solved by rounding up in gangs and shooting each other. Heaven help that such does not become the norm here and we can learn how to agree to disagree amiably.”