Saturday, September 29, 2012

Workers are investors too

Interesting Christopher Caldwell interpretation in his FT column of the failed lockout by National Football League owners of the referees --

The 121 referees at the pro level had no obvious gifts that made them superior to the tens of thousands of college and high-school officials who would, presumably, do anything for their jobs. NFL owners soon discovered how little complex labour markets have to do with this kind of “common sense” ... The 122nd-best referee in the country was not interested in losing his own enviable job (probably working college football) for a few weeks replacing the 121st in the NFL. When the league locked its employees out, it had to descend thousands of names down the list.

This is certainly a pleasing tale for capitalists in general, since it implies that those pesky proletarian referees were indeed replaceable at lower wages, it was just that the owner-capitalists went the wrong way about it. For example, if they had offered permanent contracts to the nearly-as-good referees, they could have gotten them to come in instead of the fans-in-referee-uniform that they actually got.

Well, maybe. But there are some problems with that interpretation. First, if you've locked out the top 121 referees in the country, then you don't just need referee number 122. You need referees ranked 122-242. Hands up who would like switching from listening to the top 121 music singles in the country to singles ranked 122-242? I thought so.

Second, Caldwell's story implies that it's just a narrow gap between a NFL referee and the man who almost could have made it and is refereeing college games instead. But is it? The crucial point is surely the gulf in talent among the players in a college and professional game; by design, the players who make it to professional are in the top few percent of all college players, who in turn are in the top few percent of all players in the country. Indeed, what turned out to the signature fiasco of the replacement referees -- the botched touchdown decision in the Seattle-Green Bay game, was due to the high talent level of the players involved, who could manage complicated sporting feats faster than the normal eye could see in real time. Sorting that out needs special talents among the referees.

A few weeks ago, the frontman for the refs on the lockout, Ed Hochuli, did a quick Q&A with the New York Times Sunday Magazine --

READING Rules. Lots of rules. N.F.L. referees have casebooks with literally thousands of play situations. We have tests every week that take five hours to finish. I study every day. When things happen on the field, I can’t stop and look it up.

In other words, he invests a huge amounts of time in his job. This doesn't fit with the, say, Mitt Romney idea of investment: he's not a Job Creator, he's not putting up finance capital, and the return on his investment is not taxed like a capital gain. But it still makes him far more productive in his job than the owner fantasy of the disposable walk-on who could replace him.