The United States is in the middle of a long-overdue resurgence in labor organizing, antipathy to corporate power, and class analysis. This is terrifying to business executives and the ultra-rich, especially those affiliated with the Democratic Party. What was once the party of Bill Clinton sounds more and more like the party of Franklin Delano Roosevelt again, as ever-greater numbers of Democratic voters bring back good-old American “us vs. the bosses” economic populism.
I’m no psychoanalyst. But I do know that when people have an anxiety which they can’t say out loud, they tend to sublimate it into public anger about something else. Many wealthy Democrats don’t want to say out loud that they’re mad about growing worker power, or they’ll be correctly labeled union-busters and oligarchs by their co-partisans. So instead, they’ve begun to scream about things that are only somewhat related, and much, much sillier: work-from-home policies and “quiet quitting” (a term I don’t think I’ve ever heard an actual worker use unironically.)
Over the last two years, we’ve seen op-ed after op-ed after study after op-ed claiming white-collar workers absolutely must stop working from home and get back into the office, under their manager’s watchful and loving eye, as soon as possible. The New York Times published a representative entry in the genre on Wednesday, an op-ed entitled “Is Working From Home Really Working?” (The metaphysics implied by the question is not explored in the op-ed.)
The piece is written by Steven Rattner, a billionaire who is Michael Bloomberg’s personal money manager. Rattner once settled a combined$16.2 million worth of lawsuits over running a pay-to-play scheme with the New York state pension fund, and was banned from the financial services industry for two years. All of this was omitted from his bio, because why let defrauding the elderly keep a man from the most-prized real estate in New York journalism?
Rattner is worried that the pandemic has changed American job habits for the worse, most especially by allowing desk workers to work from home. “The question lurking in the minds of many with whom I’ve spoken (as well as my own),” Rattner writes, “is ‘Has America gone soft?””
No, America has not gone soft. (And as long as we’re talking psychoanalysis, what a choice of words!) American workers have just started getting the barest minimum of a few lucky breaks. But that is terrifying to Rattner and his fellow moguls, so they need some sort of rational argument for why these bare scraps of power are actually bad for everyone.
If Rattner and pals could just rationalize their anxiety about their employees working from home, then they wouldn’t have to think about what that anxiety indicates about who they really are. If working from home truly is bad, then maybe Rattner and pals actually aren’t the beneficiaries of decades, if not centuries, of class dominance!
Unfortunately for Rattner, his argument in the Times is hilariously unpersuasive. He can’t manage to articulate a good case for forbidding work from home. And he can’t rationalize away his agita about losing power over workers, because the current rebalancing is just and overdue.
Rattner’s best evidence against flexible work policies is (tellingly) a string of anecdotes about his fellow business elites’ feelings. According to Rattner, JPMorganChase CEO Jamie Dimon, Salesforce CEO Marc Benioff, and Meta CEO Mark Zuckerberg all feel like their employees are less productive when they work from home.
Okay. So what? These aren’t rigorous, peer-reviewed studies, they’re the subjective feelings of CEOs who have obvious, vested interests in directly monitoring their employees — if the boss can come around to your desk at any time, it’s a lot harder to complain about him. (Also, I thought Zuckerberg’s whole pitch for the Metaverse was working wherever you want?) On the flip side, many workers would say they are actually more productive working from home, which is borne out by data collected by Stanford Professor Nicholas Bloom.
More to the point, even if JPMorganChase, Salesforce, and Meta employees are less productive when they’re at home, what’s it matter? These are multibillion-dollar companies with monopolistic or oligopolistic positions. Their product quality hasn’t suffered. And there’s been no connection between productivity and wages for decades now. Sure, the CEOs themselves want their workers to be more productive, but that’s only a relevant social goal to those CEOs, not the average Times reader.
Rattner does try to make the reader care…through some of the funniest slippery slope arguments I’ve seen in ages. He warns that the now-shuttered Silicon Valley Bank wrote in its annual report last month that it “may experience negative effects of a prolonged work-from-home arrangement.” Yeah, Steve, I’m sure that’s what did in SVB. The interest rate hikes, undiversified depositor base, and tech winter had nothing to do with it. I’m sure the lack of a chief risk officer barely mattered. And pay no attention to those payouts to insiders either. We all know that employees watching YouTube on the clock is what causes bank runs.
His other slippery slope invokes the corporate class’s go-to justification for terrible ideas these days: you don’t want us to lose to China, do you? “The Chinese expression ‘996’ means working 9 a.m. to 9 p.m., six days a week. While the Chinese government has been trying to curb this practice as part of a series of labor market reforms, in my many interactions with businessmen and investors there, I still find the prevailing work ethic extraordinary,” Rattner writes.
So by Rattner’s own admission, China is also trying to improve its work-life balance, and Chinese business leaders also find this irritating. Sounds like our nations are striving toward the same policy! However one feels about China, I really don’t think that the decisive factor of 21st-century Great Power competition will be whether American desk workers get to work from home sometimes. There are a few dozen potential military conflicts, weapons technologies, and international trade agreements that seem a bit more relevant, no?
And as long as we’re doing international comparisons, let’s look at the U.S.’s fellow liberal democracies. Americans famously work more hourswith fewer vacations and worse benefits than our peers in Europe. Rattner points out that Europeans have returned to the office at higher rates than Americans — before noting that Europeans tend to live in smaller homes than Americans, making work-from-home less comfortable in the first place. I’d add that European countries also generally have more wealth equality, stronger unions, better regulation, more leisure time, and far larger welfare states. If working from home feels like clawing a tiny bit of your life back from your boss, then Europeans are simply a lot farther along in clawing their lives back than Americans.
Yet Rattner apparently has never considered that spending less of one’s life at work improves one’s life a whole lot. “Less output — whether a consequence of fewer hours or lower efficiency — eventually means a lower standard of living (or a less quickly rising one),” he warns.
This is a classic case of an economist using a technical proposition to imply a more philosophical argument that he can’t support on its own merits. Sure, less total economic output might eventually mean that American companies will, say, develop products more slowly. But is that really what matters the most to most people? Doesn’t a high standard of living also mean more leisure time? Which would improve the average American’s life more: a slightly better iPhone camera, or more time with their families?
Rattner also conveniently forgets about how wages have been untethered from rising productivity for decades now. Similarly, the best wage gains in 30 years have coincided with the rise of work-from-home policies. And companies don’t seem to be suffering, given record corporate profits.
The most telling lines of Rattner’s piece are the ones that have nothing to do with working from home at all. He informs us that a Wall Street Journal study found 38 percent of workers and managers say the importance of work diminished to them during the pandemic, and notes that Americans now have about $900 billion more in savings than they did before the Covid-19 stimulus bills. Neither of these facts has anything to do with work-from-home policies, which are the focus of Rattner’s argument.
The fact that they’re in the piece implies that Rattner’s real issue isn’t flexible work; it’s general worker power. If people care less about work post-pandemic, they’ll be less likely to accept exploitation from their employers. If workers have more savings, especially amid a hot job market, then they’re better able to use their best countermeasure against their bosses: threatening to quit. (That is, threatening to actuallyquit, not threatening to…just do the job they were hired for.)
This is the real terror for Rattner; that workers aren’t going to put up with whatever he and his fellow bosses throw at them anymore. Castigating work-from-home policies is more socially acceptable in Democratic circles than saying “I should be able to force my employees to do whatever I want.” But if Rattner won his oh-so-minor victory against flexible work policies, it wouldn’t satisfy the real source of his frustration.
He has a telling turn of phrase right after his obligatory reference to John Maynard Keynes’ prediction of the 15-hour workweek. The United States could have taken the path Keynes predicted, Rattner writes, but “Instead, we chose to keep working in order to enjoy greater material rewards.”
No, Steven, “we” didn’t “choose” that. Your pals in the C-Suites and Congress chose it for the rest of us. And when we protested, you crushed unions, deregulated industry, and shriveled employment opportunities through corporate trade deals. The average American absolutely does not want to be working as much as they are, but they simply have no choice with the way our society has been deliberately constructed.
At long last, though, they’re starting to change the rules of society and rebalance the scales in the workplace. Whether that happens in office buildings or home desks, it isn’t going to stop. For their own mental health, Rattner and his friends better grow up and get used to it.