Magazine | March 24, 2014, Issue

To Work Is to Live

The dignity of a day’s labor

Why do people work? With millions upon millions lingering in unemployment with no relief in sight, the answer may seem obvious: We work for a paycheck. But if we were to send everybody in the country — or the world — a paycheck every two weeks prorating $100,000 a year — or $100 million a year, pick your figure — people would still need to work. In fact, they would still need to work exactly as much as they do now in order to maintain our current shared standard of living.

This is not to go all reductio ad absurdum on the Democrats’ arguments for ever-extended unemployment benefits and ever-more-generous welfare payments, but to illustrate something much more fundamental and physical. The point of work is not to collect a paycheck, but to produce something: food, shelter, custom automotive upholstery, orderly business offices, artisanal glassware. Every good thing in this world is the product of somebody’s work. Under the influence of naïve Keynesianism in the Robert Reich mode, our policymakers have fallen into the error of thinking about practically all economic action as playing out on the consumption side. Call it “leaky Keynesianism,” the osmotic transmission of consumption-side thinking to the production side of the equation. So leaky is the current fashionable Keynesianism that we now think about work in terms of consumption, those “good-paying jobs” that politicians are forever going on about, rather than in terms of production.

Good-paying jobs doing . . . what?

That is the question that our leaky-minded friends on the left refuse even to think about seriously, though they may mumble something about wind turbines from time to time. Instead, they have gone all reductio ad absurdum on themselves: Witness the ascendency of the phrase “job lock.” When the Congressional Budget Office estimated that the Affordable Care Act, a.k.a. Obamacare, would result in the exit of some 2.5 million full-time workers from the ranks of the employed (more precisely, the equivalent of that number, with two half-timers equaling one full-timer, etc.), the Democrats celebrated as if they had struck oil. This is a good thing, they honestly tried to convince both themselves and the general public, because they obviously didn’t like those jobs very much anyway. Obamacare has saved them from job lock, and they now will no longer have to work for the things that they used to be working for.

As it turns out, a great many people have jobs that they do not like. That’s why they have to pay you to do them.

You can make the statutory minimum wage whatever you like — $10.10 or $110.10 — and it will not change the physical reality that the value of an hour’s labor is not what you get paid for it but what you produce. Money is just a means of facilitating trade, and the real problem facing low-skilled American workers is that they don’t have enough to trade — a condition that will not be relieved by price-fixing, which is what the minimum wage is. Trying to improve the condition of the working poor in real terms by manipulating statutory wage floors is like trying to improve the life of a farmer with one acre by putting a floor on the price of wheat and doing the same thing with the one-acre corn farmer down the way: They each have so many bushels to consume or to trade with one another, little green pieces of paper notwithstanding. What they need isn’t higher commodity prices but superior seed, more acreage, tractors, fertilizer, etc. Progressives think that they can make the community as a whole richer by reassigning acreage from one farm to the next and shuffling the seeds around.

To grow more, somebody has to clear new land and plant it. Somebody has to do the work.

The unspoken premise of 21st-century progressivism is that downscale American formerly blue-collar workers are wearing the scarlet “ZMP” — “zero marginal product.” This is an intellectualish way of saying that they are worthless, that they have nothing of any value to contribute to the economy of their families, their communities, their country, or the human race. For progressives, a jobless worker is not a potential resource to be employed but a problem to be kept at bay by stuffing welfare benefits into its ravening maw. Progressives have, without usually saying as much, committed themselves to the idea that some non-trivial share of the potential American labor force should be paid to exist — because they do not believe that those poor hapless slobs without MFAs or public-policy degrees or even a single lousy year in law school are going to get paid for anything else.

#page#And after a childhood spent sitting in progressives’ schools and marinating in progressives’ culture, the American worker, I am afraid, may have come to share their low opinion of him. If a man is not going to be a rock star, an investment banker, an industry-changing entrepreneur, or a wildly successful member of an occupation about which they make reality-television shows, what is he going to be? A $10-an-hour loser hoping to work his way up to being a $13-an-hour loser?

Consider the case of immigrants over the past 40 years or so. If you’re old enough, you might remember the tall wave of Iranians who came here after the ayatollahs decided that they would try to create a new society combining all the nastiest aspects of Castro’s Cuba and Khalid’s Saudi Arabia. They started calling themselves “Persians” and started little businesses (they had very high rates of self-employment) or took jobs driving taxis and operating bodegas. The thing is, those Iranians who had the personal wherewithal to escape revolutionary Iran and come to the United States to be bodega owners and taxi drivers were not, for the most part, bodega owners and taxi drivers back home. They were educated professionals, many of them members of the Iranian elite. Starting over in the United States had a very steep downside for them, but not so steep a downside as being clapped into prison or worse. Even in their reduced circumstances, they had enough self-respect to do what needed doing, and sufficient sense of family obligation that, like Indians, Chinese, Lebanese, and Eastern European Jews before them, they made meaningful investments in the next generation, which is why your kids are working for their kids. The parents must have felt the loss of status deeply, but they were playing a longer game.

Status is a funny thing. My mother was a secretary, and the man to whom she was married during my teenage years was a janitor at a high school. With four children and a combined income that I would be shocked to learn touched $35,000 in today’s terms, money was a constant issue, but you eventually figure out how to live on what you have. (To this day, exactly how they managed remains a mystery to me.) What really pushed their buttons was the issue of status. He had had a respectable job with a trucking company before a long and fairly dispiriting bout of unemployment, and while I suspect that his total compensation working for the local school district was about as attractive as that from his old trucking job, he was keenly aware of the low esteem in which janitors are habitually held, especially by snooty high-school kids — and he worked at Snoot High. My mother, on the other hand, was paid approximately the same pittance as any other secretary was paid, but she worked for the most prestigious institution in town, the local university — in a dean’s office, at that. She was treated as a colleague by the professors, dealt with representatives of foreign governments, proctored exams for master’s candidates, and generally felt herself to be a valued member of an important institution.

Same money, roughly; very different jobs.

I cannot recall hearing her complain about her pay (though I am sure she did), but I have vivid memories of her throwing enraged, weeping fits after being told that she could not do something for want of a credential beyond her high-school diploma, or when she believed (often wrongly) that her ideas and suggestions were being dismissed out of hand because “I’m nothing but a dumb secretary to them.”

Of course money matters. But it is not all that matters. The first step toward changing our national attitude toward work is remembering what work is for — it is how we live, and everybody has a part to play, none dishonorable unless we choose to make it so.

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