Published August 10, 2023
For the past two years, two surprising words have characterized the post-pandemic recovery across the United States: “Now hiring.”
Seemingly every coffee stand, auto body shop, restaurant, school, police station and shipping company is looking for warm bodies. Even the toy company Mattel is looking for a “Chief Uno Player.”
And this growth has benefitted those who often get left behind. Since the beginning of 2021, workers without a college degree have seen faster wage growth than those with an associate or bachelor’s degree, according to data compiled by the Federal Reserve Bank of Atlanta. Earlier this year, the unemployment rate for Black workers reached its lowest rate in at least a half-century.
The strong job market does make the Federal Reserve’s ongoing effort to bring inflation back under control a little trickier. But as a new book by the provocative writer Sohrab Ahmari underscores, that’s a good problem to have. Giving more bargaining power to workers is an essential part of what makes capitalism work. And this realization means that any self-described party of the working class must learn to embrace the beauty of tight labor markets.
The founder of a new journal aimed at envisioning “a strong social-democratic state that defends community,” Ahmari’s “Tyranny, Inc.” attempts to mount that defense of community against what he sees as the oppressive hand of corporate America.
Classical definitions of tyranny, like Aristotle’s, have stressed the danger of “any sole ruler … who rules over subjects all equal or superior to himself to suit his own interest and not theirs.” Most modern political theory tends to see the state, with its monopoly on the legitimate use of violence, as the most likely institution to fall into some form of autocracy.
But Ahmari sees a similarly oppressive hand dictating the lives and livelihoods of workers across the income spectrum. “Coercion,” he writes, “is far more widespread in supposedly noncoercive societies than we would like to think — provided we pay attention to private power.”
Of course, there is already a political movement whose primary aim is to curb the power of corporations and bolster traditional worker organizations like labor unions. Historically, it’s been found within the Democratic Party.
And read in isolation, “Tyranny, Inc.” might strike the naïve reader as fitting into the long tradition of leftist provocations against corporations using their market power to enforce cultural conformity and prioritize efficiency over all other goods. If you don’t like Amazon’s terms of service, some may initially think, just turn off your Alexa.
But Ahmari is at his most effective when he takes a page from the late liberal journalist Barbara Ehrenreich, uncovering stories of workers treated unfairly, the Kafkaesque process of private arbitration that too often stacks the deck in favor of corporate interests, and what happens when the search for a return on investment outweighs any sense of fidelity to the common good. (If you, like many, were disgusted by college football allowing the pursuit of TV money to destroy centuries-old rivalries, you’ll thrill to Ahmari’s critique of private equity funds doing the same to storied brands like Sears.)
As the GOP increasingly becomes the party of the working class, it could find common ground with the left on issues such as curbing noncompete agreements and curtailing so-called just-in-time scheduling that leaves too many workers at the mercy of their employer’s algorithms (Oregon became the first state to ban the practice in 2018).
Conventional Republican orthodoxy has favored policies that tend toward lower labor costs for employers. But as the parties realign along educational grounds, and tight labor markets mean firms must now compete for workers, these types of reforms might get a new hearing.
Gov. Larry Hogan, the former Republican governor of Maryland, required that the state get rid of requirements that discriminated against job-seekers without a traditional four-year degree; Democratic governors in Colorado and Pennsylvania took similar action. And as the past two years have indicated, the power of a labor market in which employers are desperate for workers can in and of itself curb some of the abuses and indignities that characterized low-wage employment for most of the past two decades.
And the rethinking of economic policy should include how Republicans see the Federal Reserve as well. The booming economy of President Donald Trump’s (pre-COVID-19) time in office was due in no small part to Fed Chairman Jerome Powell allowing interest rates to rest below what many conventional Republicans thought was appropriate. This allowed the economy to run “hot,” encouraging business owners to invest in hiring and expanding job creation. Updating GOP orthodoxy on monetary policy could be immensely pro-worker.
Just this past week, for example, the Teamsters and UPS reached an agreement that will bring the average salary and benefits for a full-time delivery driver to $170,000 annually by the end of their recently-negotiated contract. Tight labor markets aren’t a panacea, but they are necessary to ensure that both employees and employers have credibility at the bargaining table.
A pro-worker political agenda would encourage appropriately aggressive fiscal policy while seeking to build the country’s economic capacity through supply-side reforms. That type of conservative economic policy wouldn’t necessitate the full legal and regulatory revolution Ahmari suggests in “Tyranny, Inc.” but would adopt the type of pro-worker mentality for which the author advocates. Like other heterodox writers, such as Michael Lind and Oren Cass, Ahmari would like to see populist-leaning Republicans to rethink their reflexive positions in favor of policies friendlier to the changing face of the GOP. And their voters may like to see that as well.
Patrick T. Brown (@PTBwrites) is a fellow at the Ethics and Public Policy Center and a Deseret News contributing writer.