First, by conditioning and psychological manipulation; second by tweaking them to have some skin in the game, forcing them to have something significant to lose if they were to disobey authority —something hard to do with gyrovague beggars who flouted their scorn of material possessions. In the orders of the mafia, things are simple: made men that is, ordained can be wacked if the capo suspects lack of allegiance, with a transitory stay in the trunk of a car —and a guaranteed presence of the boss at their funerals. For others professions, skin in the game come in more subtle form.
Ironically, you could do better having an employee than a slave —and this held even in ancient times when slavery was present. Let us say that you own a small airline company. You are a very modern person, having attended many conferences and spoken to consultants, you believe the company is a thing of the past: everything can be organized through a web of contractors. It is more efficient to do so, you are certain. Bob is a pilot with whom you have entered a specific contract, in a well defined drawn-out legal agreement, for precise flights, commitments made long time in advance, which includes a penalty for non-performance.
Bob supplies the copilot and an alternative pilot in case someone is sick. Tomorrow evening you will be operating a scheduled flight to Munich as part of an Oktoberfest special and Bob is the contracted pilot. The flight is full; with motivated budget passengers —some of whom went on a preparatory diet; they have been waiting a whole year for this Gargantuan episode of beer, pretzels, and sausage in laughter-filled hangars.
Bob calls you at 5 P. You know , they had an offer from a Saudi Arabia Sheikh, a devout man who wants to take a special party to Las Vegas, and needs Bob and his team to run the flight. The offer is so generous that it covers whatever penalty there is for a breach of a competing contract by Bob. You kick yourself.
There are plenty of lawyers on these Oktoberfest flights, and, worse, retired lawyers without hobbies who love to sue as a way to kill time, regardless of outcome. Rerouting passengers is costly and not guaranteed. You have all this equity in a firm that is now under severe financial threat. You are certain that you will go bust.
You start thinking: well, you know , if Bob were a slave, someone you own, you know, these kind of things would not be possible. Contractors are too free; they fear only the law. But employees have a reputation to protect. And they can be fired. People who like employment like it for a reason.
They like the paycheck! You lose your flexibility. Talent for talent, they cost a lot more. Lovers of paychecks are lazy … but they would never let you down at times like these. So employees exist because they have significant skin in the game —and the risk is shared with them, enough risk for it to be a deterrent and a penalty for acts of undependability, such as failing to show up on time.
You are buying dependability. And dependability is a driver behind many transactions. People of some means have a country house, which is inefficient compared to hotels or rentals, because they want to make sure it is available if they decide they wanted to use it at a whim. Yet many people own boats, planes, and end up with that something else. True, a contractor has downside, a financial penalty that can be built-into the contract, in addition to reputational costs. But consider that an employee will always have more risk. And conditional on someone being an employee such a person will be risk averse.
By having been employees they signal a certain type of domestication. Someone who has been employed for a while is giving you the evidence of submission. Evidence of submission is displayed by having gone through years of the ritual of depriving himself of his personal freedom for nine hours every day, punctual arrival at an office, denying himself his own schedule, and not having beaten up anyone. You have an obedient, housebroken dog.
Employees are more risk averse, they fear being fired more than contractors do being sued. Even when the employees ceases to be an employee, they will remain diligent. So if employees lower your tail risk, so do you lower theirs as well. At the time of writing, firms stay in the top league by size the so-called SP only about between ten and fifteen years. Companies exit the SP through mergers or by shrinking their business, both conditions leading to layoffs. Throughout the twentieth Century, however, expected duration was more than sixty years. Longevity for large firms was greater; people stayed with a large firm for their entire life.
There was such a thing as a company man restricting the gender here is appropriate as company men were almost all men.
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The company man —which dominated the twentieth Century —is best defined as someone whose identity is impregnated with the stamp the firm wants to give him. He dresses the part, even uses the language the company expects him to have. His social life is so invested in the company that leaving it inflicts a huge penalty, like banishment from Athens under the Ostrakon. Saturday nights, he goes out with other company men and spouses sharing company jokes.
In return, the firm has a pact to keep him on the books as long as feasible, that is, until mandatory retirement after which he would go play golf with a comfortable pension, with as partners former co-workers. The system worked when large corporations survived a long time and were perceived to be longer lasting than nation-states. About in the s, people suddenly realized that working as a company man was safe… provided the company stayed around. But the technological revolution that took place in Silicon valley put traditional companies under financial threat.
Even their sense of humor failed outside of the corporate culture. Up until that period, IBM required its employees to wear white shirts —not light blue, not with discreet stripes, but plain white. And a dark blue suit. Nothing was allowed to be fancy, or invested with the tiniest amount of idiosyncratic attribute. You were a part of IBM. If the company man is, sort of, gone, he has been replaced by the companies person, thanks to both an expansion of the gender and a generalization of the function.
For the person is no longer owned by a company but by something worse: the idea that he needs to be employable. A companies person is someone who feels that he has something huge to lose if he loses his employability — that is, he or she have skin in the game. The employable person is embedded in an industry, with fear of upsetting not just their employer, but other potential employers.
An employee is —by design— more valuable inside a firm than outside of it, that is more valuable to the employer than the market.
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Perhaps by definition an employable person is the one that you will never find in a history book because these people are designed to never leave their mark on the course of events. They are, by design, uninteresting to historians. Ronald Coase is a remarkable modern economist in the sense that he is independent thinking, rigorous, creative, with ideas that are applicable and explain the world around us —in other words, the real thing.
His style is so rigorous that he is known for the Coase Theorem, an idea that he posited without a single word of mathematics but that is as fundamental as many things written in mathematics. A free market is a place where forces act to determine specialization and information travels via price point; but within a firm these market forces are lifted because they cost more to run than the benefits they bring. So the firm will be at the optimal ratio of employees and outside contractors, where having a certain number of employees, even when directly inefficient, is better than having to spend much resources negotiating contracts.
As we can see, Coase stopped one or two inches short of the notion of skin in the game. He never thought in risk terms to realize that an employee is a risk management strategy. Had economists, Coase and Shmoase, had any interest in the ancients, they would have discovered the risk management strategy relied upon by Roman families who customarily had a slave for treasurer, the person responsible for the finances of the household and the estate.
Because you can inflict a much higher punishment on a slave than a free person or a freedman —and you do not need to rely on the mechanism of the law for that.
A slave has more downside, and you run a lower financial risk by having the steward function fulfilled by a slave. Now, enters complexity and the modern world. In a world in which products are increasingly made by subcontractors with increasing degrees of specialization, employees are even more needed than before for special tasks. If you miss on a step in a process, often the entire business shuts down —which explains why today, in a supposedly more efficient world with lower inventories and more subcontractors, things appear to run smoothly and efficiently, but errors are costlier and delays are considerably longer than in the past.
One single delay in the chain can stop the entire process. Slave ownership by companies has traditionally taken very curious forms. The best slave is someone you overpay and who know it, terrified of losing his status. Multinational companies created the expat category, a sort of diplomat with a higher standard of living representing the firm far away and running its business there. A bank in New York sends a married employee with his family to a foreign location, say a tropical county with cheap labor, with perks and privileges such as country club membership, a driver, a nice company villa with a gardener, a yearly trip back home with the family in first class, and keep him there for a few years, enough to be addicted.
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