Animal rescue once sent me a fabulous mutt. She was usually obedient and heartbreaking in eagerness to please. But I couldn't get her into the basement. I'd go down the stairs waving an entire bag of treats. With a pained look of indecision, she would not follow. During an earlier life, clearly, bad things had happened to her in a cellar.
We humans are animals. Whether a CEO or factory hand, we respond to rewards and punishments. In recent decades, our economy has piled rewards on executives and punishments on ordinary workers.
If a CEO says, "I won't get out of bed for less than $5 million a year," his defenders argue that you must pay large amounts to attract such prodigious talent. If a laid-off factory worker says, "I'm not giving up my unemployment check for a modestly higher pay stub," his detractors don't say, "Offer him more money." They say, "Government benefits have made him lazy." Recent stories of U.S. factories unable to fill openings have fed such negative views.
This is not to suggest that extended unemployment benefits don't sometimes deter people from accepting work. They may have other means of support or free places to live, or are learning a new trade. And don't dismiss their possible bitterness at an economic system that seems rigged against hardworking blue-collar folks.
Let's pose some questions, however, about the rewards and punishments that are shaping these idle workers' decisions.
Imagine you are jobless in La Crosse, Wis., and hear of good manufacturing opportunities in Cleveland. Are you going to uproot your family and move 600 miles to work in an industry that four years ago was laying off tens of thousands?
Or, laid off in Indianapolis, you are now studying to be a nurse. A factory across town has started hiring and is paying higher wages than a hospital would. Are you going to pass on the high-demand profession of nursing to rejoin an industry that experience tells you does not offer secure employment?
Long before the economic meltdown, many Americans harbored prejudices against manufacturing. They'd rather sit in a cubicle for eight hours than work with their hands at better pay. Grandpa may have told them tales of toiling in the dirty and dangerous factories of yore.
But even those who know the cleaned-up truth of modern manufacturing may not qualify for modern manufacturing jobs. Such operations are computer-based and so need a higher order of skills than before.
"An auto mechanic 35 years ago could learn to fix carburetors by watching others," MIT economist Frank Levy told me. "There was no extreme pressure to read and write. Once you move to computerized fuel injection, you have to read manuals." Diagnosing these systems requires more abstract thinking.
When some car dealerships embarked on forced retraining, Levy added, about a third of the workers failed. Many had been good mechanics, but they couldn't read.
Needless to say, this is one heck of a time to cut funding for federal training programs. There are now 6 million more Americans looking for work than there were in 2006, and 18 percent less federal money for retraining them.
What does education have to do with rewards and punishments? Spending public money on training (even just reading and writing) is part of a positive message for workers - that America wants to invest in them. It wants them to experience the rewards of higher pay.
The punishment route would be to end unemployment benefits and, while you're at it, lower the minimum wage. Cry class warfare, if you must, but blue-collar workers also need reasons to get out of bed.