The Bear’s Lair: Serfs do better after pandemics

The Black Death of 1348 was a gigantic human tragedy, but for most of those involved and their descendants, it had one enormous silver lining: serfs’ rights and living standards soared to previously undreamed-of levels in the following 150 years, as labor shortages took hold. As we emerge from a similar albeit thankfully less severe pandemic, an equivalent rise in living standards is unlikely. Nevertheless, for the “serfs” employed by large companies in big cities, there may be some upside.

Nearly 300 years before the Black Death the Norman Conquest of England had sharply compromised the living standards of the indigenous Saxons. The Normans appropriated the large landholdings to themselves, exterminating almost all the Saxon nobility, then imposed the more severe French version of feudalism on the remainder of the indigenous population. In consequence, most of the Saxon population existed in an un-free status for the next 300 years, providing labor and possibly military service to their feudal lord, and receiving no cash compensation for doing so. After the late 12th Century, as the country became more settled and its wealth increased, more land in England was cleared and cultivated. However, Malthusian population increase among the serfs kept them mired in serfdom, even though the non-rural sectors of the economy were developing a cash economy with free exchange.

Then the Black Death happened, wiping out at least a third of the population, and possibly as much as half of it. The result was a severe labor shortage, combined with a decline in food prices since there was no longer enough labor to cultivate all the available land. Initially, the upper classes who controlled Parliament at this date passed the Statute of Labourers Act, 1351, prohibiting working men from demanding higher wages. (Parliament already had the “40-shilling freehold” franchise qualification in many constituencies that it was to have until 1832, but 40 shillings was worth a lot more in 1350 than in 1820, so the franchise was correspondingly more restrictive.)

Initially, these restrictions were effective, but over generations, with people moving, new employers emerging, new job types appearing, they became a dead letter – the “Peasants Revolt” of 1381 and other labor unrest were symptoms of the ex-serfs asserting their new autonomy. By 1400, and certainly by 1470-1500, the restrictions had effectively disappeared, and so the descendants of the serfs freed themselves and worked for the much higher wages now available. This period was in retrospect known as “Merrie England.” For the ex-serfs if not for their former masters embroiled in the Wars of the Roses, it was indeed Merrie!

This liberation happened across Europe at this time for similar demographic reasons, but England and the future Netherlands saw workers liberated more fully and permanently than in France, Spain or the Holy Roman Empire. Thus, even though living standards declined again with increasing population after 1500, the greater freedom of English labor, maintained even through the impoverished early 17th Century, was an important contributor to the Industrial Revolution.

The wealth effect of the Black Death was not due to some magical enriching property of disease; it was caused by the sharp decline in population, increasing the cleared land and other assets available per capita (abandoned cottages, for example, could be used by new homeless owners). Among the richest societies in human history were colonial America (where the Native American population had been decimated by disease) 1880s Australia and 1929 Argentina, all societies in which population density was very low compared to the land available (which by 1880 or 1929 had mechanical assistance to clear, plant and harvest it). No such efflorescence of wealth is likely from the Covid-19 epidemic, because population density is already excessive and the epidemic is only moderately lethal.

That does not mean that the “serfs” of today, those working in large companies in big cities, will derive no benefit from the aftereffects of the Covid-19 plague. It may seem eccentric to describe office workers as serfs but consider the position of the young Millennial office workers in relation to their Boomer predecessors of 30-40 years ago. Their bosses who run the companies no longer have a similar albeit richer lifestyle than they do, for two reasons. First, the wage gap between ordinary workers and CEOs at Standard and Poor’s 500 companies has widened inordinately, from 61 to 1 in 1989 to 320 to 1 in 2019. With senior management pay trending upwards with that of the CEO, the gap between corporate serfs and corporate lords is at 13th Century levels.

Second, if top management is of an older generation than the employee, then the chances are, it bought its big-city home in the 1980s or the 1990s, well before the rise in prices caused by Fed mismanagement. The 35-year-old employee doing quite well in New York or Silicon Valley today is living in a rented shoebox; 30-40 years ago the equivalent employee was living in either a substantial purchased apartment, or, better still, in a modest purchased house in a suburb that was well within commuting distance. The Millennial employee contrasts his shoebox with his boss’s palazzo, and naturally feels there is no chance of replicating his boss’s lifestyle or indeed, of marrying and raising a family. Serfdom will be his for the remainder of his existence.

During the pandemic, the corporate serfs have tasted freedom. Freed to work from home, they have discovered that a modest house in the unfashionable outer suburbs, well within their purchasing capacity, is now affordable. Suddenly, a family and a decent lifestyle no longer seems impossible, provided only that they are not forced to go into the big-city office too often. Naturally, preserving this new-found freedom is a top objective for the serfs’ post-pandemic living, just as preserving the freedom of working for a decent wage was vital for the serf of say 1370.

The Financial Times this week expressed surprise that CEOs had been back in their offices for months but were having difficulty enticing ordinary staff back. Given the social dynamics, however, this is to be expected. The CEOs have large well-decorated offices, and even in 2021 have at least one if not several secretaries dedicated to their needs. Everybody at the office obeys them, and their job is mostly thoroughly satisfying. Even their commute is probably quite short – the length of Manhattan, say – and undertaken in a chauffeur-driven car. The office is their source of psychic gratification and one of the most opulent comfortable environments known to man.

For the corporate serfs, on the other hand, the trade-off is very different. The commute may well be much longer and undertaken by public transport that is crowded and often delayed and filthy. When they get to the office, it is no longer the modest separate office with shared secretary to which they could have aspired 40 or 50 years ago; it is a noisy cubicle, with no services, no privacy and tasteless coffee from a machine. In truth, the corporate serf can be infinitely more productive from home if he wants to be.

Of course, from the CEO’s viewpoint, this is very dangerous. At home the corporate serf may goof off while providing the same amount of work that is expected in the inefficient office, may look for other jobs without being supervised (probably unlikely) or, worse still, may work on his own venture or consultancy, setting himself up for the existence that will liberate him from corporate serfdom once and for all.

The natural reaction of CEOs to the corporate serfs’ desire for freedom in the new world will be the same as it was in 1351: pass legislation or corporate rules that make it impossible for the serfs to liberate themselves. California’s 2019 AB5 law, restricting the rights of the self-employed and increasing their taxes, was a first attempt in this direction; it will not be the last. CEOs and other barons of our society should beware however. The 14th Century attempts to restrict the freedoms of serfs with new economic power ended in the 1381 Peasants’ Revolt and the assassination of the Archbishop of Canterbury Simon Sudbury. Sudbury was one of five Archbishops of Canterbury to meet violent deaths in office: Alphege (murdered by Vikings), Becket (murdered by Henry II), Sudbury, Cranmer (burned by Mary I) and Laud (murdered by Parliament). Of the five archepiscopal victims, Sudbury’s murder was the most justified; he was a cruel, greedy and dishonest man, like many CEOs today.

Eventually, the 14th Century serfs got their freedom. This is likely to be true also for the great majority of the corporate serfs who have tasted freedom during Covid-19. The CEOs will find themselves with two choices: either they can sit in solitary splendor in their big-city offices, with staff visiting them occasionally and otherwise communicating via Zoom, or they can sit in solitary splendor in their big-city offices, with no staff at all and their corporate empires collapsing around them.

As after 1348, the changes to come will be salutary, if painful for big-city real estate prices.

(The Bear’s Lair is a weekly column that is intended to appear each Monday, an appropriately gloomy day of the week. Its rationale is that the proportion of “sell” recommendations put out by Wall Street houses remains far below that of “buy” recommendations. Accordingly, investors have an excess of positive information and very little negative information. The column thus takes the ursine view of life and the market, in the hope that it may be usefully different from what investors see elsewhere.)