A strange kind of justice

Via Instapundit, Megan McArdle highlights and comments on a meme circulating amongst liberal bloggers which purports to contrast the uncertainty facing innocent UAW workers to the sleazy executives of banking and financial firms who received a cushy 12-figure bailout from Uncle Sam.

Ms. McArdle notes:

[F]inancial executives have been fired in large numbers and taking pay cuts that reduced their income to a fraction of what was expected six months ago. Auto workers have not. Financial firms are in the process of laying off hundreds of thousands of their best paid workers (50,000 at Citibank alone); auto firms are not.

The shrinkage of the financial industry, and the vastly reduced pay prospects of its workers, seem entirely reasonable to me, though of course extremely sad for people who put themselves through expensive rounds of schooling in order to secure luxe jobs on Wall Street which have now disappeared leaving them broke and trying to sell the houses and cars they can no longer afford into a panicked local market. But I am fairly sure that the auto workers do not want the deal, as a class, that those rapacious financial executives have been given, which includes horrifying job insecurity, massive paycuts at the discretion of their managers, and for many or most of them, the knowledge that they will almost certainly never again earn a tenth of what they had set their lives up to expect. Believe it or not, having your life ripped up in front of you and your industry destroyed, and all the plans you made fifteen years ago to build a secure future evaporate, doesn’t get magically more fun because you’ve got an MBA.

Some observations are in order. First, liberals routinely complain that overall, Americans are poorly educated (especially after an election where Republicans are victorious), yet their economic policies seem to aggressively single out educated professionals to bear the greatest risks and suffer the biggest financial losses. In fact, crypto-Communist progressives seem to want a system in which educated white collar business and financial professionals are deliberately left to the mercy of the system, while average blue collar members of the working class end up with totally secured jobs, health benefits, and pensions.

Perhaps this has to do with another tired leftist meme: the oppressor vs. the oppressed. Marxist-influenced thinking naturally casts the white collar man as the oppressor; he is “the man,” the one who creates “the system” and then bends and breaks its rules at his leisure, the one who never has to worry about where his next meal is coming from because he can always tap into the vast resources of “the system” any time he needs to. I believe that this kind of thinking has made such a fetish out of “protecting the workers” that many progressives have completely lost the ability to understand that humanity exists in all social classes and at all levels of income.

Consider the case of Arthur Andersen LLP. This once mighty provider of accounting and consulting services was destroyed when its management was convicted of obstruction of justice and the company was forced to surrender its CPA licenses and right to practice, as a result of its hand in the massive fraud at Enron Corporation. What had any of the nearly 28,000 Arthur Andersen employees who lost their jobs done to deserve their fate, other than to be working for the “wrong” company at the “wrong” time? For that matter, what had most of the 22,000 left jobless by the collapse of Enron done that was wrong, except once again to work for the “wrong” company at the “wrong” time? Did anyone on the left beg for the government to guarantee their jobs, or to subsidize new job salaries in order to guarantee their previous rates of pay? Did any Democrats demand that the government should restore the value of the 401(k) retirement accounts of these unfortunate workers?

Of course the fundamental flaw in the bankers vs. UAW comparison is the assumption that “all” the senior employees of a bank are responsible for its failure, while “none” of the assembly line workers at GM or Chrysler have anything to do with the condition of the company. And as Ms. McArdle pointed out, even though the banks were “bailed out” (that is, given a line of credit that allowed them to maintain a positive cash flow) they were still forced to drastically slash costs and lay off hundreds of thousands of employees. At this point, it seems that the UAW will except few, if any, reductions in the Big 3’s blue collar labor force.

Now Barack Obama says he wants to create 2.5 million new jobs through infrastructure expansion and research into alternative energy. But I wonder, is it fair to ask an MBA who earned $150,000 a year as a mid-level bank executive to take a $20 dollar an hour job as a bulldozer operator? Would the UAW approve of a $75,000 a year assembly line worker taking that job, at that rate of pay? Right now, who is sticking up for the MBA? Who is working to guarantee that he always has good jobs in the finance sector available?

Ms. McArdle’s comments actually raise an important question: why work and study intensely for four years in high school, just to qualify for admission to a top university; then work and study intensely as an Ivy League undergraduate so that you can compete for a position in a prestigious graduate school program in finance or mathematics or economics; then compete for a choice position at a financial firm — if you know that there is a very real possibility that all of it can suddenly be yanked out from under you with no benefits, no guarantees, and no safety net?

While I obviously don’t believe in exploiting the poor or the undereducated, I seriously have to wonder about a society that provides multiple safety nets for those who won’t (or in the case of the mentally or physically challenged, can’t) take risks and make sacrifices, yet treats ambitious, hard-working, self-sacrificing individuals as undeserving, or spoiled, or worse — evil villains.

Unfortunately we still have a handful of robber-barons in the contemporary guise of crooked CEO’s who reward themselves lavishly while building houses of straw. When those houses come tumbling down, the white collar professional, who loves his family just as much as the blue collar worker, who worries about his mortgage and car payments and retirement just as much as the blue collar worker, and who probably pays a lot more in taxes than the blue collar worker, ends up hurting just as much as the blue collar worker. Maybe some people think that seeing the white collar man suffer is payback or “justice” for the plight of manual laborers, but it isn’t.

I’m not demanding a union for professionals, or more government subsidies; all I would like to see is some parity in the way that our culture and our leaders treat white collar and blue collar employees. After all, they — we — are all workers.

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