The Corner

Economy & Business

Is This about Avocado Toast?

(Ralph Orlowski/Reuters)

In response to Getting Snooty about Service Jobs

In response to a column about those of us who have qualms about the explosion of service work, Kevin implies factory work is just miserable and no one wants it. Is he sure? He mentions eggs. They likely come from an industrial farm. I worked in a factory, and it had its trials, benefits, and even dangers. My father-in-law worked in a factory for decades. Lots of people — workers, not just entrepreneurs — would love to make plans that stretch that long. My brother-in-law works in a factory, and he does the midnight shift. For Kevin, factory work is just crab guts. For people in my family, the factory and its smells are a sign of major capital investment, which can be a rough market signal of stability, a place where employer and employees make long-term commitments. And that helps the employees themselves make long-term commitments at home. My brother-in-law just got engaged, hence why he took the better-paying night shift. I guess in 2019 America we could say that my brother in law has the “perk” that he won’t be terminated by app. Who is sneering here?

Kevin says (and has said before) that “anybody who wants a 1959 standard of living can have one — cheap.” I’m never quite sure what to make of this. Yes, a 20-year-old Volvo is cheap to purchase. But there are lots of people who want to economize on a car. They don’t typically buy cars that are 20, 30, or 50 years old. This isn’t because these buyers are snooty people who don’t appreciate how good they have it in the present moment, but because 1990s cars can be ruinously expensive to keep running in 2019.

And yes, I grant that homes like the ones that Kevin’s grandparents live in can be had for $20,000. Though, I’m not sure this stands in for 1959. Where I live the two words “pre-war” are used to justify a premium price, not a discount. I can look up the precise house that my grandparents bought in their 20s on a single-breadwinner salary. I lived in it with them when I was a child. It’s right there on Zillow with an estimate next to it. The house has a few updates, sure — 1950s finishes are unavailable at Home Depot — but there are no expansions. It’s smaller than the median-sized American house today, though it wasn’t then when it was relatively new. Currently the house of their 1959 lifestyle is bigger, more expensive, and closer to New York City than the one I live in now in my 30s. Kevin says it’s because I’m opting for the 2019 lifestyle. Is this the avocado-toast argument? Try buying a 1959 car seat for a child. In many states its not even legal to put a child in a 2009 car seat. Is the 1959 level of insurance available somewhere, cheap? Is it legal? Kevin says that people in 1959 economized by cutting their own hair. People in the infinitely more wealthy America of 2019 still do the same. Less often perhaps. My kids have nearly eight years of life between them now. Not one visit to the barber yet. Maybe I shouldn’t admit that, because for some reason — even though my piece argued for policymakers to think harder about policy — Kevin seems to upbraid me for not believing in the division of labor.

There is a difference between a car detailer who owns his business and a Mercedes, and a worker who enters the gig economy, or who goes into domestic service precisely because a cash job is their only legal bet. There’s also a difference between that and someone who enters the gig economy — say, a freelance Amazon delivery contractor — after having seen their career investment dry up into nothing.

And it’s useful for Kevin to point out that some service jobs are more attractive than factory jobs. These are tremendously large categories. Historically, many people loved escaping domestic service for the factory. And some people I’m sure have preferred the movement in the other direction. But not all.

My worry is that the newer type of service jobs, the ones not available in 1959, are a product of economic policies that discouraged long-term investment in American workers (at least relative to others), consequently leaving many of them in precarious arrangements that are not as useful for forming families and investing in civic life. Unfortunately, few nations have solved the modern problem. The countries with intelligent industrial policies tend to have birth rates as bad or worse than ours, though they are blessed with moderate political cultures. We were once so blessed. But, as Kevin reminds us, we were cutting our own hair then.

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