Get a Life

kafka

The front page of the Sunday New York Times carried a very long exposé on human resource practices at Amazon. Today, the following Monday, the CEO, Jeff Bezos, responded refuting all the claims made. If true, and much of it is likely to be more or less true, given the reputation of the paper, the article makes the term, human resources, come alive in a very unflattering light. The secondary headline,”The company is conducting an experiment in how far it can push white-collar workers to get them to achieve its ever-expanding ambitions,” added a particularly negative tone. We do not allow uncontrolled human trials on unproven drugs, why not also for work practices? I won’t comment on all the many details; you should go to the article for these.

This is not the first instance of Bezos and company exerting their muscle. They used their market power to extract tribute from those write and produce the books they sell. Their power is unusual in that it displays two forms of market domination, monopoly and monopsony. They are able, if they desire, to collect rents from both buyer and seller. Rents, in these cases, are the difference in cost or price from that to be found in a competitive situation. Walmart comes close but is more a monopsony, able to drive down the prices of its vendors, but it still must compete with many other retailers. it, too, has had a bad reputation in the ways it treats its employees.

I am appalled whenever I read about workers being treated as machines. While I do not understand or agree with everything that Immanuel Kant wrote, his command to treat humans always as ends, not means, seems inviolate. That does not mean that humans do not have to bend to the needs of our highly impersonal economic system, but it does set limits of the inhumanity of the system. I thought we, in the US, gave up the idea of the sweat shop, decades ago. At minimum, human beings should be treated in ways that serve their safety and dignity. Regarding the former, we do have regulations that attempt to keep the workplace safe from dangerous production practices, like machines and toxic chemicals. Even these exist in spite of eternal opposition from those who see the idea of worker protection as a government plot.

I interpret Kant’s imperative in terms of human flourishing as the manifest end he points to. The ultimate manifestation of human being is flourishing, a term that captures many other sub-traits, like dignity, freedom, health, and so on. Safety is a part of the broader term of health, which still is a fraught concept in business. The centrality of work as the means of gathering economic resources grows in proportion to the dominance of the free market. The freer the market, the more dependent are people on monetary resources since that becomes the only significant means of exchange. Work, as the source of these resources, dominates all others. Whether the employer should provide economic resources, like access to health delivery services, beyond wages is arguable, based on criteria like equity and efficiency. It seems to me that, as an employer demands more and more of a worker’s life, they should be more and more responsible for treating them as ends. The opposite seems to be happening. (It has ever since Esau sold his birthright to his brother.)

The article notes that Amazon demands secrecy from every employee. Secrecy is not bad per se; it is necessary to protect a firm’s competitive edge, but it has limits when that edge depends on unsavory or illegal practices. Insider trading has been a similar issue. It requires secrecy because it is illegal. But secrecy is not always required to give a firm an edge. Toyota has shared its famous production system widely with other manufacturers, counting on other competitive advantages. Toyota has argued that they grow as the reputation and quality of their whole industry does.

Should working conditions ever become so stressful that employees breakdown at their desks, as reported? Should businesses practice Darwinism, winnowing out the least “productive (whatever that means)” on some relative basis, ignoring whatever contributions have been made. Whatever process Amazon uses must be based on collapsing the capabilities and performance of someone to a number. Okay for machines, but not for humans. Deliberate Darwinism promotes dishonesty as Amazon employees are able to tattle privately about others with no ways to verify the content. Another subtle affront to dignity.

I found this next item particularly troublesome.

Company veterans often say the genius of Amazon is the way it drives them to drive themselves. “If you’re a good Amazonian, you become an Amabot,” said one employee, using a term that means you have become at one with the system.…In Amazon warehouses, employees are monitored by sophisticated electronic systems to ensure they are packing enough boxes every hour. (Amazon came under fire in 2011 when workers in an eastern Pennsylvania warehouse toiled in more than 100-degree heat with ambulances waiting outside, taking away laborers as they fell. After an investigation by the local newspaper, the company installed air-conditioning.)

Becoming “one with the system” is tantamount to entirely giving up one’s dignity. It is the very same criticism we have historically made about life in totalitarian regimes. Do Kafka and Orwell live at Amazon? We know that no “system” yet invented has been able to mirror the full metaphorical essence of human being. History is full of failures of institutions that fail to enable humans to exist such as to achieve their full genetic and cultural potential. We cannot even discover what that kind of existence that is without being critical about—stepping back from—the life we do lead. Complete uncritical allegiance to the “system” dooms efforts to discover the fullness of human existence, the condition I call flourishing.

I can go on with more from the report, but I have made whatever point I am going to make. Notwithstanding all the positive arguments that were made, I find this situation to be a great starting point for those who wish to criticize raw, market-driven capitalism for its failure to accommodate human being as more than economic activity. Capitalism is supposed to be an antidote to totalitarianism. Has Bezos found a way to outsmart it?

(Kafka cartoon from the Prague Post)

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