Archive for June, 2014

The right man for the job

June 28, 2014

As Britain’s first postwar batch of Widmerpools rolled off the production line at King’s College, C.S. Lewis delivered the enterprising students a memorial lecture, known now as “The Inner Ring“:

It would be polite and charitable, and in view of your age reasonable too, to suppose that none of you is yet a scoundrel.

On the other hand, by the mere law of averages (I am saying nothing against free will) it is almost certain that at least two or three of you before you die will have become something very like scoundrels. There must be in this room the makings of at least that number of unscrupulous, treacherous, ruthless egotists.

The choice is still before you: and I hope you will not take my hard words about your possible future characters as a token of disrespect to your present characters.

Lewis went on to describe a scenario that each young catechumen in his audience should expect to face ‘in whatever hospital, inn of court, diocese, school, business, or college you arrive after going down’:

And the prophecy I make is this. To nine out of ten of you the choice which could lead to scoundrelism will come, when it does come, in no very dramatic colours. Obviously bad men, obviously threatening or bribing, will almost certainly not appear.

Over a drink, or a cup of coffee, disguised as triviality and sandwiched between two jokes, from the lips of a man, or woman, whom you have recently been getting to know rather better and whom you hope to know better still — just at the moment when you are most anxious not to appear crude, or naïf or a prig — the hint will come. It will be the hint of something which the public, the ignorant, romantic public, would never understand: something which even the outsiders in your own profession are apt to make a fuss about: but something, says your new friend, which “we”— and at the word “we” you try not to blush for mere pleasure — something “we always do.”

And you will be drawn in, if you are drawn in, not by desire for gain or ease, but simply because at that moment, when the cup was so near your lips, you cannot bear to be thrust back again into the cold outer world. It would be so terrible to see the other man’s face — that genial, confidential, delightfully sophisticated face — turn suddenly cold and contemptuous, to know that you had been tried for the Inner Ring and rejected.

And then, if you are drawn in, next week it will be something a little further from the rules, and next year something further still, but all in the jolliest, friendliest spirit.

It may end in a crash, a scandal, and penal servitude; it may end in millions, a peerage and giving the prizes at your old school. But you will be a scoundrel.

Lewis characteristically declared that the lure of the Inner Ring was a perennial one that dwelt within the heart of all men.

But it’s no accident that his examples of vaulting scoundrelism came from the managerial and liberal professions (academic, ecclesiastic, legal, medical).

After all, the latter’s exalted social position and wage premiums could be explained, according to one subsequent economic theory, by an insider-outsider model.

And, of course, in the service professions  accounting, law, financial services, medical practice  the prevalence back then of business partnership arrangements, now dwindling, nurtured a natural esprit de corps among partners and aspiring salaried associates.

No mundane sociological explanation would have appealed to Lewis, keen as ever to dispense solemnities.

Déformations professionnelles could not crudely be overplayed, as though only some occupations were open to beckoning solicitations from the market.

In 1944, moreover, yuppies were not yet a recognizable social type.

But there is little denying that social position provides some groups with more occasion than others for displaying his vice, i.e. places them more commonly in situations where they might have incentive to follow or indulge the lure of the Inner Ring.

Lewis thus refrained from observing, while nonetheless implying, that an inclination for ‘buying-in’, and related preferences, are fostered and cultivated by the university system. Its ceremonial rites, emblems and incantations form youthful preliminaries in an exclusive order’s sequence of social initiation, one with its own ‘slang, the use of particular nicknames, an allusive manner of conversation.’

In what manner is this done, and for what purpose?

Managerial and professional workers occupy that portion of the labour market known as the independent primary segment, where there are flexible work rules (autonomy from routines), little direct supervision, higher earnings, motivational alignment with employer goals through internalization and independent initiative, well-defined career ladders (internal labour markets with clear promotional paths), secure tenure, agreeable job amenities and low turnover.

These prebends and perquisites announce, for the upper salaried layers that enjoy them, a rather different method of enforcing the employment contract than is applied to the less tractable bas-fonds.

Suppose the administrative hierarchy of a business enterprise is organized according to the familiar pyramidal structure.

The firm’s shareholders (through the board of directors) appoint senior executives. The latter in turn delegate much of their managerial authority to a lower level of division heads, etc. The job of these managers involves overseeing and supervising those subordinates at the bottom level (productive workers) to whom they must apply extrinsic motivators (sanctions and rewards).

Managers thus directly oversee the behaviour of employees, issuing directives or commands that the latter are compelled to obey. Or they may alter the technical conditions of production (e.g. by introducing machines, networked computers or an assembly line).

In this way employees’ routines are prescribed, their range of possible actions is constrained and performance of certain tasks is ‘automatically’ elicited, they cannot shirk, are constantly spurred to work at pace, and so on. The most powerful of all straitening mechanisms is the threat of unemployment.

Consider Herbert Simon’s model of the ’employment relationship.’ By hiring out his capacity to work, the employee agrees to surrender, for a specified period, disposition over his labour.

The employee must carry out the commands of the employer or managerial agent:

We will say that [the boss] exercises authority over W [the worker] if W permits B to select x [a ‘behaviour,’ i.e., any element of a set of ‘specific actions that W performs on the job (typing and filing certain letters, laying bricks, or what not)’].

That is, W accepts B‘s authority when his behaviour is determined by B’s decision.

In general, W will accept authority only if x0, the x chosen by B, is restricted to some given subset (W’s “area of acceptance”) of all the possible values.

This is the definition of authority that is most generally employed in modem administrative theory.

At higher levels of the enterprise or organization, these formal relations of hierarchy and vertical subordination, and the threat of unemployment, are less important.

Instead, independent decision-making and personal initiative are relied upon.

Yet this poses agency problems.

How is it, asked Simon, that executives and managers are trusted to do something for which they could be expected to have no intrinsic motivation, expending energy in pursuit of some goal that isn’t, initially or by inclination, their own, but that is functional and thus desirable for some group or organization?

Counted by the head, most of the actors in a modern economy are employees, who… are assumed to trade as agents of the firm rather than in their own interest, which might be quite different…

This raises several questions, among them ‘how the employees of a firm are motivated to work for the maximization of the firm’s profit’:

What’s in it for them? How are their utility functions reconciled with those of the firm?… Why do employees often work hard?… In particular, how are employees induced to work more than minimally, and perhaps even with initiative and enthusiasm? Why should employees attempt to maximize the profits of the firm when making the decisions that are delegated to them?…

[Most] producers are employees of firms, not owners. Viewed from the vantage point of classical theory, they have no reason to maximize the profits of firms, except to the extent that they can be controlled by owners…

Employees, especially but not exclusively at managerial and executive levels, are responsible not only for evaluating alternatives and choosing among them but also for recognizing the need for decisions, putting them on the agenda…

To be docile is to be tractable, manageable, and above all, teachable. Docile people tend to adapt their behaviour to norms and pressure of the society… In some contexts, this responsiveness implies motivation to learn or imitate; in other contexts, willingness to obey or conform.


Docility is used to inculcate individuals with organizational pride and loyalty. These motives are based upon a discrimination between a “we” and a “they.” Identification with the “we,” which may be a family, a company, a city, a nation, or the local baseball team, allows individuals to experience satisfaction (to gain utility) from successes of the unit thus selected. Thus, organizational identification becomes a motivation for employees to work actively for organizational goals.

Of course, identification is not an exclusive source of motivation; it exists side by side with material rewards and enforcement mechanisms that are part of the employment contract. But a realistic picture of how organizations operate must include the importance of identification in the motivations of employees.

Simon’s ‘docility’ here invested with all the dignity of management theory  is a set of attitudinal traits or behavioural dispositions closely resembling those decried by Lewis as ‘the passion for the Inner Ring… most skillful in making a man who is not yet a very bad man do very bad things.’

In Simon’s terms, it involves adding an increasing number of arguments (or independent variables) to the employee’s utility function.

The ideal manager, and the well-socialized scoundrel too, take ever more matters into account as relevant to their personal happiness: responding with sensitivity to external motivators (rewards, sanctions), plus augmenting their own intrinsic wishes with the firm’s objectives (‘organizational identification’).

Put otherwise, and no less neutrally, there is multiplication of what an Epicurean would consider false wants: a proliferation, to the benefit of the employer, of non-necessary, non-basic, if not vain and empty desires.

Simon extols this propensity as being ‘teachable’, not to say impressionable: being susceptible of instruction and prone to aping others. What role does formal instruction play in its development?

Cultivation of these traits through formal education is less a matter of ‘explicit curriculum [than of] the socialization implied by the structure of schooling’. Students rewarded with success are those who display approbativeness, obedience to authority, willingness to join existing research programmes, etc.

Evidence shows that individuals with higher levels of educational attainment (measured by university credentials or years of study) fetch better rewards in the labour market (greater earnings plus occupational status, promotional advancements, etc.).

Investing in additional years of schooling or higher education does accrue a return.

Jacobsen and Skillman - Labour Market and Employment Relationship

Heckman education

But are productive skills (specialized or technical knowledge, or cognitive aptitude measured by IQ or test scores) the main attributes that employers look for and which help to determine labour-market success, and for which a diploma is proxy?

Not according to James Heckman, University of Chicago econometrician, who points out the importance of what he calls non-cognitive, socio-emotional or ‘soft skills’.

The latter include personality traits, attitudes or behavioural dispositions such as prudence, diligence, conscientiousness, patience, perseverance, attention, obedience, motivation, punctuality, agreeableness, self-confidence, sense of personal efficacy, identification with the objectives of others, etc.

Possession of such traits may involve a reduction in the disutility of effort (‘strong work ethic’), greater degree of subservience to managerial authority (‘willingness to follow direction’), increase in the desirability of retaining a job (non-myopic time preference, ‘orientation towards the future’), or high marginal utility of income (‘ambition’).

Beneath the benevolent sheen of doux-commerce, the lesson learnt is how to mind other people’s business for them. Unyielding garde-fou against unruly elements below; pliant custodian to those above.

In the world’s advanced economies, as I’ve mentioned before, a substantial slice of the population (lawyers, public administrators, providers of business and financial ‘services’, real estate, advertising, insurance, managers and supervisors, security guards, etc.) are engaged in activities that, while unproductive themselves, sustain and preserve the existing social structure: enforcing contracts (e.g. the employment relationship) and upholding claims to wealth (i.e. property rights).

US Standard Industrial Classification - productive and unproductive industries

US Standard Industrial Classification - unproductive and productive services

For the private appropriation of social resources isn’t secured merely by the efforts of the propertied classes themselves.

It demands, as described in this New York Times article, a vast technology of extraction (locks, alarms, cameras, weapons, deeds registry) and an army of functionaries (foremen, supervisors, judicial apparatus, asset brokers, commercial lawyers, conveyancers, bankers).

The latter’s size as a proportion of the workforce has grown spectacularly over the past century (in the United States, lawyers per head of population more than doubled between 1950 and 2013; supervisors now make up around 18% of the labour force).

The duty of this contingent, taken as one, is to enforce titles to wealth, transfer holdings between agents, and uphold the various social relationships (employment, independent contracting, credit relationships, etc.) deriving from this distribution of resources.

Jayadev and Bowles - Guard Labor JDE

This social layer, spanning the middle and working classes, thus receives its income and privileges neither as payment in exchange for productive employment, nor as reward for private ownership of assets.

Instead these upper-salaried workers, whose occupations involve preserving the existing distribution of property, capture part of the surplus extracted from other employees (those who perform productive work).

This sharing of the spoils occurs in a variety of ways: artificial shortages of certain skills, sustained through high training costs or guild-created barriers to entry, which raise the rewards fetched by their holders; the granting of sinecures; patronage and clientelism; rent-seeking at the public trough, etc.

In recent decades, the wages paid to supervisory workers have absorbed an increasing proportion of society’s surplus product (net output minus compensation paid to productive employees).

The increase in the rate of surplus value from 1982 to 2001 financed… a change in the weight of supervisory workers (share of employment down by 3.8%, share of hours down by 5.2%, share of wages up by 19.6%).

Thus, almost all of the increase in the rate of exploitation found its way into the labour income of supervisory workers…

Production workers in productive sectors (productive labour) saw a collapse in their relative wage share of some 14.6 percentage points. Just over a third of this shift in share accrued to supervisory workers in productive sectors, and just under two-thirds to supervisory workers in unproductive sectors.

Supervisory workers in productive sectors (a stable proportion of 11–12% of total employment) saw their share of total wages rise by almost a quarter, to 28% of all wages.

Supervisory workers in unproductive sectors increased their share of FTEs [full-time employees] by more than half, albeit from a low base, so that they were still less than 7% of total employment by 2000. However, they more than doubled their wage share to nearly a fifth of all wages.

Most of these increases occurred after 1979…

[For] supervisory workers, annual hourly real wage growth after 1979 is more than half as much again as in the earlier period, and more than 27 times higher than the concurrent annual hourly real wage growth of productive workers…

The growing extraction of surplus value out of productive labour, which is so marked a feature of the US economy after 1979, was appropriated not as corporate profits, but primarily as the labour incomes of supervisory workers.

Full-time employees and wages - productive, unproductive and supervisory workers

What does this imply for our starting point, now seeming more than ever like antediluvian piety?

Lewis’s portrait of middle-class status-seeking, collusion and misfeasance was never exactly politically trenchant. Nor, to be fair, was it intended to be so.

Now smelling mustily of an antiquated commercial society of dense professional networks and family firms, long since past, it needs updating for a postwar capitalism in which, among other changes, most professionals no longer earn partnership income in jointly-owned enterprises, but are salaried employees of corporate bureaucracies. (Meanwhile, deepening the opacity of class positions, capital owners, for tax purposes, increasingly rebadge their dividends and interest revenue as partnership income).

Are not weak interpersonal ties, rather than gentleman’s clubs, more crucial for professional success and recruitment to the social elite?

To postmodern eyes, Lewis’s vision of the Inner Ring may thus appear hackneyed and lurid.

To induce individuals to corruption, professional misconduct or a drop in personal standards of probity, there need not be any conspiracy devised in a smoky boardroom, basement auditorium, wood-panelled Cabinet or party room. There need not be any direct application of pressure, explicit coercion, controlling intelligence or indeed any awareness at the managerial heights.

For example, institutions may simply be designed to reward conformity, the dynamics of which are well known. The psychological mechanisms generating group loyalty via hazing rituals are also understood. Competition for some scarce prize, such as a promotion or bonus, may provoke an escalating arms race, war of attrition or ascending-bid auction of boundary-pushing and rule-bending.

Meanwhile the enormous post-1945 expansion of access to university education, and growth of the new media industries and advertising with their plebianization of culture as entertainment, flattening of the fine-arts hierarchy, and recruitment of a vast new literate and educated public for intellectual products — seem most sharply to divide Lewis’s age from our own.

In fact, however, such developments merely furnish a mass market for that commercially available ‘lifestyle’ (on the bookshelf, prize-winning middlebrow novels left over from college; in the lounge room, relics from the arthouse festival circuit of ‘world cinema’) by which the middle classes hope to distinguish themselves.

Photography and architecture conveniently replace easel painting and belles-lettres in the aesthetic hierarchy, as more outwardly visible, and readily brandished, displays of discernment.

Today’s consumers are increasingly encouraged  through ‘versioning’product differentiation and ‘group pricing’ to sort themselves into differentiated market segments and fine-grained niches based on personal attributes, spurious distinctions in taste, and willingness to pay.

Firms selling information goods attempt to build ‘networks’ or subcultures from which they can extract monopoly rents (e.g. locked-in dedicated Apple users).

Thus, for all that, today’s professionals and managers understand and revel in their wage premiums, and build exclusive claustral enclaves, in much the same fashion as Lewis described in the ‘Inner Ring’.

Boundaries of in-group membership are patrolled, and entrants self-congratulated, by display of positional goods: informal shibboleths, esoteric knowledge and badges of (putative) cultural sophistication.

Fredric Jameson describes, in rather frenzied, overwrought period fashion, how ‘yuppies can find some satisfaction in sheer know-how’:

[It] is no longer exactly profit as such that forms the ideal image of the process (money is merely the external sign of inward election, but fortune and “great wealth” are harder to represent, let alone libidinally to conceptualize, in an epoch in which numbers like billions and trillions are more frequently encountered).

Rather, what is at stake is know-how and knowledge of the system itself: and this is no doubt the “moment of truth” in postindustrial theories of the new primacy of scientific knowledge over profit and production; only the knowledge is not particularly scientific, and “merely” involves initiation into the way the system functions.

But now those in the know are too proud of their lesson and their know-how to tolerate any questions about why it should be like that, or even worth knowing in the first place. This is the insider cultural capital of the nouveaux riches which includes the etiquette and table manners of the system; along with cautionary anecdotes, your enthusiasm — fanned into a veritable frenzy in cultural spinoffs like the cyberpunk corporate fiction already mentioned  has more to do with having the knowledge of the system than it does with the system itself.

The social climbing of the new yuppie in-group knowledge now spreads slowly downward, via the media, to the very zoning boundaries of the underclasses themselves; legitimacy, the legitimation of this particular social order, being secured in advance by a belief in the secrets of the corporate life-style that includes the profit motive as its unspoken “absolute presupposition,” but which you can’t learn and question all at once, any more than you can mentally redesign a sailboat you are doing your first sailing in.

Gratified by journalistic talk about ‘skill-biased technical change,’ members of the liberal professions (certified academics, architects, lawyers, accountants, etc.), together with civil servants and other members of the skilled professional salariat, imagine that the income premium they command, and other privileges, are due to their ‘different genius’ (as in Adam Smith’s parable of the philosopher and the street porter).

Their relatively high earnings (compared to the wages and salaries earned by employees generally) are understood as a just reward for talent.

According to the prevailing economic ideology, the level of payment they fetch in the labour market (or receive as proprietorship or partnership income) is set by the worth of what they contribute as an input to production.

The latter capacity is held to derive either from intrinsic characteristics of the person themselves (superior cognitive skills), or from a provident and well-calculated investment of time and effort in education: foregoing earnings for several years of additional study, bestowing upon them a stock of human capital.

These qualities (so it is believed) also manifest themselves in good taste and discernment in consumption, e.g. the best food, clothes,  furnishings, décor, cultural products, tourist destinations, etc.

Products marketed at this audience thus often contain deliberate signs of ‘quality’, difficulty and seriousness. These are a kind of screening device: consumption of such products is a reliable signal of the consumer’s underlying ‘type’, since it requires a costly investment (e.g. of effort, time or money spent acquiring the taste, knowledge or capacity for appreciation) that most cannot afford (due to lack either of resources or motivation).

Through these products, consumers can thus signal their correct thoughts, depth, sophistication, possession of good taste, and status as a Serious Person.

product differentiation

Long ago, Adam Smith gave expression to this middle-class self-regard, describing the mental atrophy induced by ‘the employment of the far greater part of those who live by labour, that is, of the great body of the people’:

[The] understandings of the greater part of men are necessarily formed by their ordinary employments. The man whose whole life is spent in performing a few simple operations, of which the effects are perhaps always the same, or very nearly the same, has no occasion to exert his understanding or to exercise his invention in finding out expedients for removing difficulties which never occur. He naturally loses, therefore, the habit of such exertion, and generally becomes as stupid and ignorant as it is possible for a human creature to become. The torpor of his mind renders him not only incapable of relishing or bearing a part in any rational conversation, but of conceiving any generous, noble, or tender sentiment, and consequently of forming any just judgment concerning many even of the ordinary duties of private life. Of the great and extensive interests of his country he is altogether incapable of judging…

In our fallen present, amid the market populism and aesthetic dreck of late capitalism, such reproaches to the demotic have lost their sting.

They bear little meaning for middle classes whose members are themselves, for the most part, now collected into paid employment, barracked inside grotesque office towers, and culturally as far as anyone from the Bildungsbürgertum of old.

Of course, similar consolations are available to those of more modest means, such as office clerks and other predominantly young employees, for whom educational qualifications are necessary, but whose material position and social standing is tenuous, and for which symbolic esteem serves as a surrogate.

Those lacking the purchasing power for true luxury consumption (yachts, antiques, jewellery, fine art) may yet, as compensation, use private consumption choices and leisure activities to flaunt credentials, intelligence and adherence to in-group norms (in the manner satirized by Stuff White People Like).

Outside the true citadels of social power, however, today snobbery and hauteur accompany, as a marketing device, the horizontal distinction of consumer niches, rather than pointing to any vertical differential of standards, now much diluted.