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Bathroom breaks banned on factories?

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Wheylous posted on Wed, Jan 2 2013 10:47 PM

I am critiquing the Raikoth anti-libertarian FAQ and I stumbled on this section:

I note in the same vein stories from the days before labor regulations when employers would ban workers from using the restroom on jobs with nine hour shifts, often ending in the workers wetting themselves. This seems like the sort of thing that provides so much humiliation to the workers, and so little benefit to the bosses, that a free market would eliminate it in a split second. But we know that it was a common policy in the 1910s and 1920s, and that factories with such policies never wanted for employees. The same is true of factories that literally locked their workers inside to prevent them from secretly using the restroom or going out for a smoking break, leading to disasters like theTriangle Shirtwaist Fire when hundreds of workers died when the building they were locked inside burnt down. And yet even after this fire, the practice of locking workers inside buildings only stopped when the government finally passed regulation against it.

We've covered the TSF thing before, so I am not looking for arguments against that specifically (though I would appreciate any you might have). I am more interested in the bathroom break thing. Why would employers do this? Did it really take away that much from employment time? What are some citations on this. How widespread was the issue? Was this a long-term problem or was it restricted to a few situations?

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And a slave usually prefers to obey commands to the likely alternative results of confronting his master or slave-driver.

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Answered (Not Verified) DD5 replied on Fri, Jan 4 2013 3:31 PM
Suggested by z1235

Wheylous:

The point, however, is that given that at the time people were banned from doing this, government could have stepped in and "improved" a market outcome.

 

So why do you have "improved" in quotes if you do not understand the solution to your problem?  

Why is government stepping in and banning locked bathroom doors any different then banning wages below say 25 cents an hour or whatever a low "inhumane" wage was considered to be back then?  

Let's change the problem:  allowing everybody to go to the bathroom whenever they want would cost the employer say 2 cents an hour per worker in productivity.  Such a factory worker would now earn 23 cents an hour instead of 25.  What difference does it make to the greedy employer what the total remuneration is comprised off - 23 cents with bathroom anytime, or 25 cents with no bathroom (wet your pants).  In the free market, employers competing for workers will provide the optimal "package" according to the preferences of the employees.  So peeing in their pants for 2 extra cents could be a real bargain for some people.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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I took the point that the government could have stepped in as pointing out that anyone calling for legal protection was calling for something that already existed, except that the government didn't care to do anything about it. And the scare quotes around improved seemed to be communicating that while others beleive that government intervention would have improved the market, Wheylous didn't concur on that.

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I used the quotes because interpersonal utility comparisons are impossible. However, I don't think that this should be the argument with which libertarians charge forward.

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DD5 replied on Fri, Jan 4 2013 4:47 PM

Wheylous:
However, I don't think that this should be the argument with which libertarians charge forward.

This argument is economics.  You don't think that libertarinas should use economics to "charge forward"?

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DD5 replied on Fri, Jan 4 2013 4:54 PM

Blargg:
t. And the scare quotes around improved seemed to be communicating that while others beleive that government intervention would have improved the market, Wheylous didn't concur on that

So if he (and probably you also) know that the government does not imporve by banning "no bathroom breaks" then why not simply reveal this truth in explaining such [hypothetical] outcome markets?  It's like if you believed that alcahol consumption was immoral or something, and so you refused to acknowledge that others may demand it on the free market.

 

 

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It's too powerful yet appears picky rather than substantive.

For example, imagine if Bill Gates were to go to Africa and hire people to make something for him. He pays them low wages, though he could easily pay them more without having to fire them on the margin (by assumption). The working conditions are such that they can only go to the bathroom once every two days (because he thought this would be funny to do, although it is in no way required to satisfy his main goal). If they choose the work, it obviously must benefit them relative to their current conditions.

However, if government were to regulate this and say "no, they should be able to go every 6 hours", the conditions of the workers improve (because by assumption they will not be fired on the margin). The loss to Bill Gates is small - a mere amusement. However, the benefit to the workers is quite substantial. We know that interpersonal utility comparison is useless, but to the common reader it seems like we're being uselessly pedantic. And the claims of "well, I believe in a society where...." begin.

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Answered (Not Verified) DD5 replied on Fri, Jan 4 2013 5:09 PM
Suggested by z1235

Wheylous:
The loss to Bill Gates is small - a mere amusement.

Amusement is consumption.  If your Bill Gates stops his "wasteful" capital consumption, then the workers would benefit.  That is basically your argument. 

I assure you that if Bill gates decided to consume less in other ways also, maybe less luxury trips or whatever, and hand those "savings"  over as gifts to his employees, then they would also benefit.  So what?

The fact is that capital consumption puts Mr. Gates at a competive disadvantage on the free market.  Such business "policies' could never become norm on the free market.  The more efficient competitor that do not conduct business according to mere self amusements, but only according to monetary profits would outcompete him.

So again, you are left with acknowledging the possible market outcome that some people may indeed prefer to hold it in for exchange of money.

 

 

 

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The FAQ says, however, that such conditions were both widespread and long-term.

If this is true (I partly doubt it),they were likely so due to a flux of immigrants who depressed the wage level.

This means that factories could allow their workers to use the restroom to little cost to them but didn't due to immigration.

 

I think I've found a good economic argument:

The author argues that if the government were to step in, then it would have improved the lives of the workers to very tiny cost to the employer. However, if this is so (and we assume that the employer was profit-maximizing), then the employees could bribe him into giving them bathroom breaks.

That is, if the cost that the employer bears upon forceful government mandate is very low, then the workers could easily pay him that cost to go to the bathroom.

The fact that they (supposedly) didn't shows that either the costs were high or that they did not care as much for the bathroom break.

 

The argument is slightly Coasian and in the neo-classic welfare tradition, but I think it's legitimate.

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cab21 replied on Fri, Jan 4 2013 8:00 PM

say any worker can do any deal with any boss excluding inalianable rights, that would not include being locked in a factory, but it could include being locked out of a bathroom. bathroom breaks would just be part of contract negotiation, as long as the company does not breech the contract, they are ok.

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The problem with Coase theorem is that it assume's some general social utility for resource allocation, when it doesn't really exist.

What exists are tradeoffs. 

From the worker point of view, there's the tradeoff between his gains lending his labor to someone and the alternative uses he could give to his leisure.

From the employer point of view, there's the tradeoff between the costs of getting more labor from any given worker and the gains such aditional labor would produce.

The settling of such individual tradeoffs will produce the usual labor arrangements we see in the  market.

These arrangements can be even things that are not usually considered contracts, like slavery.

If the costs of getting slaves are quite reasonable, and the gains expected are nice, slavery will happen, simply because it's rational for a potential enslaver to pursue that.

That's for instance still happens in some places, like in african regions with lot's of diamonds to be found and avaliable poor people to be enslaved.

Government is not a "solution" though. These concrete costs and benefits are not something that can be simply decreed out of existence.

If these benefits are nice, the guys with the big guns will probably want their share too.

Because "government" is not some outsider force of real life. Government is just a bunch of other players in this real world nasty game of seeking oportunities to survive and trive. Generally speaking, they are the players driving the tanks.

 

 

 

 

 

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Marko replied on Tue, Jan 8 2013 1:55 AM

So they forbid urination breaks while working. In Russia, people working in such conditions would just piss on the floor somewhere, or somewhere nearby, and the low level supervisor would probably do the same.

When is the last time you saw somebody spit on the floor in the USA inside a building? OF course, only in bad conditions, but Europe is full of places so dirty that nobody even bothers to wash their cups, because they are cleaner than what's around anyway.

I think people have a different mentality in the USA. Partly because people are conditioned that way, to put up with it, in school, and feel social pressure if they don't hold it in until "allowed" by authority. Same in Russian schools actually, but in Russia people get into the real world sooner and realize how rubbishy conditions are and just go ahead and do it.



Russians are more anarchic and less respective of authority. Just weeks ago at this Russian-themed blog I visit there were two Russian etatists raging about their countrymen, because there had been this poll and only 50% of Russians said they would report a drunk driver, where the score for Britain and America was 90%. Also they were complaining Russians 'will not call police if they discover their neighbour doing something illegal or cousin buying a driving licence'.

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z1235 replied on Tue, Jan 8 2013 7:58 AM

Wheylous, 

DD5 gave you the correct answer to that FAQ. 

Also, you are starting off on a very slippery slope with your "improve" assertion. Why stop with employers and employees? Wouldn't gov intervention "improve" a market outcome by taking ALL of Bill Gates' money and buying sandwiches for a billion hungry children? Marx is waiting for you on the other side of that tunnel.

 

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z1235:
Also, you are starting off on a very slippery slope with your "improve" assertion. Why stop with employers and employees? Wouldn't gov intervention "improve" a market outcome by taking ALL of Bill Gates' money and buying sandwiches for a billion hungry children? Marx is waiting for you on the other side of that tunnel.

I already tried that a page ago.  I was told: "This, however, appears to be quite different."

 

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JJ, I said it was different because it appeared that the employers were gaining relatively little out of it while the employees were losing out a lot.

This, however, turns out to have been a mistake on my part (a bad shred of neoclassical thinking), due to the reasons I presented in the bargaining case above ^

Furthermore, I forgot for some reason that working conditions are part of compensation. Hence, they work just like any other aspect of the job in negotiation.

 

I think I will write this up and call it a day soon.

I'm still a little unsure as to the ethics behind the Triangle Shirtwaist factory thing, though. It's tricky, because it relies on some theory on who carries liability for workplace injuries. To what extent can we say caveat emptor? To what extent is the employer responsible?

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