Politics & Policy

How a Part-Time Hotel Clerk Became an ‘Elite’

(Dreamstime image: Studio Grand Ouest)
Suddenly just holding certain political and economic views is enough to make you part of the establishment.

I am apparently a member of the elite.

I was unaware that a Midwesterner who works the night shift at a hotel for service-industry wages could be a member of the elite, but I get named as such over and over. If I don’t want to vote myself a higher wage, greater benefits, generous health care, and join my comrades on the barricades opposing globalization, well, then I must either be profiting from the exploitation or woefully deceived by social issues. The Left has always confused me with a Vanderbilt, wondering as they do, “What’s the matter with Kansas?” But, now some Trump supporters are making the same accusations.

Pro-Trump media and other Trump supporters accuse those of us who favor free trade, think immigration is a net plus, and support entitlement reform of being members of the establishment. I’m rather tired of it. My one slim claim to being an elite is that I have a master’s degree in history.  But I teach only one course a year. I am hardly rolling in gravy.

All around me, I see people nostalgic for the 1950s, when the U.S. economy represented 50 percent of world GDP. But we can’t go back to that world — not without re-destroying the global economy, and reversing the rebuilding of Germany and Japan. I see bad policies from the Left: onerous regulations, too much taxation, and Obamacare leaving potential investors more cautious about investing in jobs. I see capital deployed to consumption, subsidizing seniors and children, as well as more and more non-working adults. I see people clinging to the idea that well-paying manufacturing jobs might come back, despite being told for their entire adult lifetimes that these jobs won’t come back and that they should acquire other skills. And I see what’s wrong with these things.

On the stump, Donald Trump suggests we can recover the lost greatness of the mid-20th century, keep our entitlements exactly as they are, and ignore the jobs that are in favor of the jobs that could be. Worse still, Trump’s followers in the media and his supporters at the ballot box accuse dissenters of being part of a cabal that has rigged the system for their own benefit. Advocate the ideas of Bastiat, Smith, and Hayek, and you will be attacked as an establishmentarian. Oppose tariffs, subsidies, and regulatory barriers, and you will be dismissed as a frequenter of the country club and the cocktail circuit. Oppose technocratic planners who imagine they can design their way to prosperity, and you will be labeled a “globalist.” But I am a part-time overnight hotel clerk who works multiple service-industry jobs. If I were to rig the system, I would rig myself something better than this.

I wonder if Thomas Frank, the author of What’s the Matter with Kansas?, was on to something after all. Not, of course, that we would be better off with subsidies, tariffs, and industrial planning, but that a lot of the people who voted Republican between 1980 and 2014 were voting their social-issue preferences rather than their economic-issue preferences. Now they are making plain their economic preferences.

I don’t subscribe to my political or economic ideas out of narrow self-interest. I have disturbed my fellow hotel employees on occasion by speaking out against restricting the construction of new hotels. I have upset my fellow educators by suggesting it would be okay if we adjuncts were replaced by videos of the nation’s best lecturers. I have no illusions that I am the nation’s best, and I accept the idea of competitive advantage. I subscribe to my political and economic ideas because I think that historical and social-science data support allowing the free flow of labor and capital to their most efficient uses, and the spontaneous order this creates. If the underlying forces supporting growth flag, we will miss the benefits of robust growth. I don’t think that makes me an elitist or part of any establishment.

A regular person is quite capable of rejecting wealth-destroying policies that promise prosperity. Because the hotel markets are still relatively free, I get asked to learn new skills. People who repeatedly refuse to learn are asked to leave; people who accept the challenge and learn new skills become more valuable. This value not only has rewards within the industry, but it ultimately makes it easier to leave the hotel business. The more you know, the more marketable you are elsewhere.

A regular person is quite capable of rejecting wealth-destroying policies that promise prosperity.

As a consumer, I have reaped the benefit of a dramatic fall in prices over my lifetime. But it’s been so dramatic — and it’s happened so gradually — it’s easy to overlook. George Mason economics professor Donald Boudreaux recently mentioned a project on his blog, Café Hayek, in which he compared prices in a 1975 Sears catalog to contemporary prices and then (using wage data) figured out how many hours you’d have to work to buy that product. The results were so astonishing that I had to do the experiment myself (I extended it by doing the same things for cars and housing). And, sure enough, however I played with the data, it was clear we had grown dramatically richer over my lifetime. This is not because wages have skyrocketed — in fact, they have been mostly flat, although benefits have grown — but because the hours worked to obtain most goods, including food, housing, and transportation have fallen dramatically because the prices of those goods have fallen dramatically.

All of the examples that I have given — acquiring more skills, increased innovation, being able to change jobs easily, and most significantly, falling prices and increasing quality — are examples of what Bastiat calls the “unseen.” We notice when a business closes because of NAFTA. But the business that opens because of NAFTA goes unnoticed, unseen. The skills of a worker are taken for granted. No one asks how much less productive I would be if licensing or union rules prevented me from acquiring new skills. The prices I pay for goods today compared with the wages I earn seem “normal” — and it’s easy to romanticize the past. But when you take the time to examine the prices and wages of the past, you see how much of what is “normal” has changed.

Give me free trade, an immigration policy that allows talent to come here, and a free, generally unregulated domestic economy that is less burdened by federal mandates and spending. I benefit from that. I’m not an elite — someone whose name opens doors, or who has access to special deals or a rigged system. I’m a Midwesterner earning service-industry wages who is better off with a free market than he would be otherwise.

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