Thursday, 25 August 2016

On rugby and sex work

Someday, I will figure out a way to blog fast enough to respond to things in real time instead of commenting on news from a month ago. Until then, this is what you get. Content note: sexual assault, misogyny, racism, slut-shaming.

Back at the beginning of August, the Waikato provincial rugby team, the Chiefs, hired a stripper for a social event in a place called Matamata. They sexually assaulted her and blocked her way when she tried to leave the venue. She has since lost her job, apparently for agreeing to let them touch her for an extra $50 – under some duress, by the sound of it, and she didn’t get the $50. There followed the predictable faux-scandalized response in the media and the usual nonsense about rugby-players being “role models”. I mean, they’re role models in the de facto sense that New Zealand males do, in fact, follow their example. It’s nonsense to recommend that anyone should follow their example.

Yes. Yes, it is absolutely a rugby problem. That is exactly what I’m saying. (OK, one qualification: it is a men’s rugby problem. I’d bet good money no women’s rugby team would ever do this.) I would expand on this, but while I was busy on the previous post two other bloggers did it for me:

Which is why the “Come on guys, we’re better than this” tone of much of the mainstream media response to the Chiefs’ sexual assault scandal rings so hollow. Rugby is not better than this. Rugby is this. Rugby is where boys will be boys, and gay people will be abused, and women will be assaulted. And if you don’t like it, that is because you and your PC mates are destroying Our Country, where whacking your kids and then leaving them in your car while you get pissed with The Boys is the only way to stop us turning into a society of “Male Mothers”...
Because on a very basic level we all know... that This Is What They Are Like, the ruggers. We all walked the school hall in fear of their approach, or sided with them so as not to fear... We all worked that hospitality job where The Boys descending on your bar / hotel / restaurant was the occasion for the spilling of blood and beer and piss and puke and the boss said to grin and bear it because it’s The Boys, and Boys Will Be Boys.
The incidents arising out of the Chiefs rugby team’s “Mad Monday” celebrations in the Waikato town of Matamata have been presented to the public as the deeply regretted failure of a number of young sportsmen to live up to the ideals of their code.
Alternatively, the behaviour in question, far from being aberrant, could be seen as entirely consistent with the values of twenty-first century professional sport. These young men are paid to live in a “hard” culture where the slightest indication of “softness” will be taken as proof of either femininity, or queerness, or both... It wasn’t an aberration – it was the norm.

Monday, 15 August 2016

How to pour money down the drain

Ever commit yourself to something and then regret it? I’m starting to feel that way about this blog post. I realized something, you see, for whatever that’s worth, and I thought I might share it. But in order to explain it I first have to go over basic economic theory. Only, some people who are close to me in their politics have a very different economic theory, which doesn’t yield the same insight. So I have to start by explaining the two theories and why I think the first one has more explanatory power, and then I have to show that, although politics like ours traditionally uses the second theory, it doesn’t need it. I would rather just skip ahead and tell you my idea, but it doesn’t make sense if you haven’t sat through a few economics lectures. So here goes.

Where does profit come from? Capitalist economists explain with the trade theory. Suppose your old car is getting elderly and taking up space in your garage. You reckon that if someone nicked it you’d only be down $2500 all told. At the same time, I need a car for my work, doesn’t have to be flash or new, but I figure even an old banger will easily net me $4000 with the use I can make of it. So I offer you $3000, which is $1000 less than what I’m expecting to gain. You take it, because that’s $500 more than the car is now worth to you. This is what’s called a “positive-sum interaction”. You gain $500 in cash, and I gain $1000 worth of car. A total of $1500 has appeared out of nowhere. This $1500 is “surplus value”.

Economists apply this theory to all kinds of transactions, including labouring for a wage. The labourer is the seller and the employer is the buyer, and obviously the wage must be worth more to the worker than their time or they’d quit, while the labour done in that time must be worth more to the employer or they’d lay the worker off. Karl Marx disagreed. Goods don’t appear out of nowhere. Goods are made from raw materials when labourers put labour into them. Therefore, the labour is the source of the surplus value (measured as the price of the product minus the cost of the materials), and the labourer is the rightful owner of that value. According to the labour theory, an employer who then takes away the goods, sells them, pockets the profit, and doles out a fraction of it back to the worker, is nothing but a thief.

Which theory works? Another parable. Mr Miggs runs a back-shed factory making plastic coat-hooks that you can stick on a door. He sells them at $5 for a packet of three, but his cost to make those three, including labour, is only 50c. According to the labour theory, he’s robbing his staff of $4.50 per unit. But one day Mr Miggs buys a 3D printer, an automatic packet-sealing machine, and some drones to carry things around the factory. He sets up an automatic e-mail system to alert his courier when there’s a shipment ready. In short, Mr Miggs automates his process totally, and lays off all his employees. He can now make his coat-hooks at a cost of 10c per unit. He drops his price from $5 to $4.80, which raises his sales by 2%. Not only is he selling more units, but his profit per unit has gone up from $4.50 to $4.70. The trade theory easily accommodates this scenario; the labour theory boggles. Whose labour is Mr Miggs exploiting? Where is that $4.70 coming from?

Score one for the trade theory. But I would have to query whether Mr Miggs’ staff, back when he was employing staff, were genuinely free agents. When your only choice is between two bad alternatives (such as: break your back working for peanuts, or watch your children starve), then technically you could count as a gain the advantage that the lesser evil holds over the greater, but that seems awfully sophistical. If someone mugs you for your wallet, they get your money and you get to stay alive – it’s a win-win! The higher the stakes are for you, the smaller your bargaining power. The outcome might well be positive-sum, but if you can’t realistically negotiate your share of the benefits, they’ll be massively skewed in the other party’s favour. That sounds like exploitation to me.

Actually, “the higher the stakes” is not a good way of putting it. A speculator might lose millions in a day in a derivatives clearinghouse, whereas a drain-layer begging for a raise is only dropping a few hundred a week if their employer decides to fire them instead. That doesn’t mean the speculator is in direr straits. What constrains your bargaining power is how much you’ll be left with if things go sour. Back when I was taking my first semester of economics lectures, I wrote a post about what I saw as the major problems with economic theory as it is taught to university students. If I were writing it now I might moderate my tone in places, but I would not make any substantive changes. And the main point of that post is the proportionality issue I’m talking about here: some people can better afford to lose millions than others can afford to lose hundreds.

Now my realization is about the destruction of value, which the labour theory also doesn’t account for. If value can come out of thin air, it can also vanish into thin air. A simple example might be if you were competing with yourself. If that sounds like nonsense, think of professional sports. Their revenue comes from two sources: stadium seats and television ratings. These two are in direct competition with each other. The more people watch from the sofa, the emptier the stands are. Some portion, at least, of the advertising for either one shifts revenue around instead of increasing it. The money spent on that portion of advertising might as well be dumped into a shredder.