24 December 2012

Michigan's Right-To-Work and The Hostess Bankruptcy: The Two Non-Stories Of the Year

originally appeared in Forbes:

Op/ed editors are more privy than most to what’s on the minds of opinion writers. There’s no money to be made on this information, but editors know ahead of time what the commentariat considers news.

Over the past six weeks this editor of what is a consciously libertarian page has been inundated with all manner of downcast op/eds on the Hostess bankruptcy, followed by upbeat ones about Michigan instituting a right-to-work law. While the submissions were almost invariably good, it says here that they were a near total waste of time.

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Considering Hostess, the fact that it’s a great brand with even better snack foods (my favorite are the chocolate chip muffins) means that soon enough someone will buy the company out bankruptcy. Thank goodness. Bankruptcy, though trumped up by bank and car bailout apologists as code for disappearance, really only means a positive change of ownership.

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Still, amid Hostess’s hurtle toward bankruptcy copious amounts of ink were spilled on how the snackmaker’s decline signaled the horrors of labor unions stuck in the past. About this, labor unions are stuck in the past for presuming that the very investors who set wages will give in to their wage demands, but that’s really beside the point.

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Not asked enough amid Hostess’s decline was why its management employed American workers to begin with. Forget about the fact that the workers were unionized and led by unions demanding absurd levels of compensation, the better question was why Hostess snacks were being baked in the U.S. at all.

Mass production of sugary U.S. goods is very much yesterday’s work, so for so many conservative and libertarian commentators to frame the Hostess story as one of profit-seeking management beset by gluttonous unions was for them to miss the real story. It wasn’t one about an iconic brand thrown into bankruptcy by greedy unions; rather the real, unreported story was that Hostess’s decision to bake its goods in the U.S. was a waste of limited labor, and as such, anti-profit.

If not by labor unions, the very presumption of Hostess’s management that it could profitably mass produce Hostess snacks in the U.S. ensured its future bankruptcy, or departure from the U.S. Of course when Hostess is inevitably purchased, it’s a fair bet that its new owners will quickly shift production to Mexico or some reasonable facsimile.

The above will constitute a good story about free trade and the always healthy division of labor, though it’s a near certainty that when this happens, conservatives and libertarians who should know better will frame the out-migration as evidence of the horrors of labor unions. Not defending unions for a second (though individuals should be allowed to sell their labor any way they wish, including from within unions), they’re really not the Hostess story.

Moving to last week, economically depressed and unionized Michigan adopted a right-to-work law that will give the individual the freedom to not pay dues and not join a union in a unionized workplace. Hysterics on the left talked up the cruelty of such an anti-worker law, but the real truth there is that those who feel their needs are better served by unions will still be free to join them.

On the right, those made downcast by Hostess’s bankruptcy were positively ecstatic about what had transpired in the Wolverine state. In a sense their excitement was warranted when we consider that the right to free association is one of our most fundamental ones. The shame is that states can restrict such a right as is.

After that, there’s really no story to the story that captivated so many who lean capitalist. Indeed, if it’s true that investors, not CEOs, ultimately set wages, and it is, good luck finding investors willing to fund such a labor intensive business in today’s United States. Labor intensive production has long been moving offshore, and that’s been a good thing for the economy as U.S. workers migrated to higher value service work.

About the above, those who should once again know better would cite unions as the cause of work being moved offshore, but this would be a false read. The better answer is that basic economics has pushed low value work out of the United States. As evidenced by low factory pay in China, investors have long understood that the work is worth the price of a Starbucks latte – and falling – on a daily basis, so factory jobs would have left no matter the status of labor unions in the United States.

Much as the economic nostalgists in our midst might wish otherwise, factory labor is yesterdays’ work, and the pay is all the evidence we need. If ever manufacturing jobs come roaring back to the U.S., we’ll know we’re in trouble. Investors loathe backwards moving economies, and manufacturing screams blast to the past. Enough said.

Of course union bashers will trot out statistics showing that job creation is greater in right-to-work states, but it seems here the economists who divine these statistics are mistaking cause and effect. Indeed, what investor would commit capital to any kind of business that has the potential to be unionized as is?

Instead, it’s probably a safe bet that states which coddle unions are generally less pro business than are states that don’t. Businesses that can be unionized increasingly don’t make sense (see the bankruptcies of airlines and car companies, plus their friends in Washington) absent political pull, so the existence or lack thereof of a right-to-work law wouldn’t matter much in today’s advanced economy. But businesses to varying degrees migrate to the environments most conducive to business, which likely explains the job disparity.

Back to Hostess, one can only hope it’s sold soon so that its numerous devotees can start enjoying its snacks again. As for Michigan, it should be applauded for embracing a law that is pro business; the problem again that unions lost economic relevance long ago. Because they did, the Hostess/union story is a non sequitur, while the Michigan one is mostly meaningless as it applies to the state’s economic health.

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