The Fallacy Fallacy [sic] of Mood Affiliation (Workplace Domination Part Two)

In his initial response to the the Crooked Timber bloggers, Cowen also suggests that he doesn’t like the “mood affiliation” of the CT bloggers:

I am not comfortable with the mood affiliation of the piece.  How about a simple mention of the massive magnitude of employee theft in the United States, perhaps in the context of a boss wishing to search an employee?

Cowens’ “fallacy of mood affiliation” is an interesting and useful attempt to describe a kind of sophisticated motivated skepticism that occurs when we evaluate evidence that counters our basically optimistic or pessimistic views of the world. When he first introduced it, Cowen described mood affiliations that caused people to misrecognize particular evidence regarding innovations or environmental effects because the particular evidence fails to confirm their preferences for optimistic accounts of future growth and environmental improvements.

But to those clear examples of the optimism bias, he added two other examples that are only indirectly related:

3. People who see a political war against the interests of the poor and thus who are reluctant to present or digest analyses which blame some of the problems of the poor on…the poor themselves. (Try bringing up “predatory borrowing” in any discussion of “predatory lending” and see what happens.) There’s simply an urgent feeling that any negative or pessimistic or undeserving view of the poor needs to be countered.

4. People who see raising or lowering the relative status of Republicans (or some other group) as the main purpose of analysis, and thus who judge the dispassionate analysis of others, or for that matter the partisan analysis of others, by this standard. There’s simply an urgent feeling that any positive or optimistic or deserving view of the Republicans needs to be countered.

#4 is also clearly a bias where in-group solidarity blinds us to evidence, and Cowen has written about this well in the past. It is not, however, an obvious “mood affiliation” except by analogy, and it serves a pragmatic purpose: you can only call your friends our for being biased so often before they stop being your friends.

#3, though, is neither a mood affiliation nor an optimism bias. We might call it an “unjust-world fallacy,” if we really need a name for it. However, I’d suggest we might want to avoid prejudicing discussions of what makes people poor with attributions of fallacies and congitive biases until we’ve evaluated the evidence.

Since “what makes people poor” is a hotly debated academic question, there’s a lot of evidence, and it pushes in multiple directions. (My own money is on some version of Buddy Karelis’s book, The Persistence of Poverty (pdf) though there’s plenty of room for poverty traps and marginal tax rate arguments.) People affiliate around these positions in many of the same ways that they affiliate around political parties. But there’s a serious dispute in the literature and the question really, really matters, so let’s not glibly reduce our opponents to fallacy-mongers here.

This is relevant to blogging about the workplace only because, by analogy, we’re supposed to believe that employees might be partly to blame for their domination in the same way that poor people are partly to blame for their poverty. But note, there are particular actions the poor engage in that make them poor: failing to finish high school, committing crimes, and getting pregnant out of wedlock are individual actions that primarily harm the individual who enacts them by reducing lifetime wages. In the workplace example, there just aren’t particular actions that workers engage in that justify their being searched or filmed while going to the bathroom (except maybe being unwilling to quit, fight, or unionize). Invading my privacy because somebody else has been stealing doesn’t really fit the kind of personal responsibility motif that Cowen was pushing in the original discussion of poverty. Plus, employee theft costs our economy about $15 billion, which is 0.1% of GDP, and that’s including serious embezzlement in addition to retail “shrink,” so it’s not really so big a deal as Cowen makes it out to be.

Mood affiliation concerns don’t appear to be relevant to workplace domination issues, they threaten to resolve into ad hominem and fallacy fallacy [sic] issues, so let’s drop them and look at the data and the arguments.

Exit, Voice, and Cheap Talk (Workplace Domination Part One)

Tyler Cowen returns to the issues of employer/employee domination today, but since I never blogged his first response, I want to start working through this debate from the beginning.

The Crooked Timber bloggers offered a lengthy list of workplace depredations, and then suggested that these depradations require government intervention in the form of workplace regulation. It’s a long and interesting post, and it takes a couple of stances that I strongly disagree with (against the Basic Income Guarantee, for one) but the attacks have mostly been focusing on the idea that worker mobility (quitting) is a better solution than workplace regulations that give workers recourse. This is generally described as the difference between “exit” and “voice.”

In his first response, which was off-the-cuff “due to travel commitments,” Cowen seemed to treat the issue as if all complaints about domination in the workplace could be treated in terms of worker’s “willingness to pay” for various protections, and that regulations might better be replaced with cash. This attempt to treat economic efficiency and liberty as interchangeable irritated many bloggers, who went on to call for the “Diaperization of the GMU Economics Department.”

Of course, this is silly, but worse, like most ad absurdum attempts at refutation, it’s non-responsive, as Matt Yglesias shows here.  If anyone actually thought that abusing faculty would increase revenue, they probably would do it, and academics with less bargaining power do experience some of the depredations that Henry Farrell jokingly described. I’ve personally had to work in open cubicles, under nosy supervisors, and with no air conditioning, and anyone who’s ever been to a faculty meeting or an APA keynote knows what it’s like to have workplace commitments require a strong bladder. (Maybe diapers aren’t such a bad idea… but no: never bite the bullet on an ad absurdum.)

We accept these dominations when they seem justified or when we don’t have a better recourse. The academic job market makes exit a very difficult proposition; mostly, we’re glad to be employed. The overall increase in administrators who find ways to tighten the screws on academic workers looks both bad and inefficient, but given that we’ve got one of the best jobs in the world, we often don’t complain very loudly.

What we need is a distinction between productivity-enhancing workplace rules and circumstances that merely enhance a manager’s ability to dominate his subordinates. In reality, many instances of manager-domination are actually productivity-reducing, and lots of businesses limp along at less-than-optimal productivity this way.

A firm that has *no* recourse mechanism will not realize that they are losing good employees to bad managers, but because recourse is sometimes expensive it may seem that firms are better off simply ignoring these problems. Yet I would argue that there are many pro-employee workplace innovations that reduce domination and increase productivity, yet are often not implemented. These are proverbial hundred-dollar bills on the ground, and the “pro-exit” stance taken by many of the Bleeding Heart libertarians and GMU economists looks, to me, like a simple mistake akin to the response “That $100 bill can’t be there; somebody would have picked it up!”

Cowen has already complained that this is merely a theoretical $100 bill, however, and that if I and the CT bloggers have real innovations of this sort in mind, we ought to either propose these innovations so that others may use them or keep them a secret and go start a business with them and make lots of money making the workplace more free. I intend to say more about specific proposals, but this post is already too long, so….