Why Does Essential Work Pay So Little… And Cost So Much?

Yves here. While there’s a great deal of useful grist in Rebecca Gordon’s piece on the nature of work, I have to quibble with her characterization of the “Golden Age” of labor in the United State, when working call men supposedly were uniquely able to support a stay-at-home wife.

I don’t recognize this picture, on two levels. First, her focus is implicitly on the Industrial Revolution to present, at best. Before the commons were enclosed in the UK, peasants could support themselves with very little work by modern standards: farming a cow or some goats on common pastureland, hunting, and fishing. In fact, one of the justifications for seizing the commons was that peasants were so idle that many spent a lot of their day in a cheery beer-addled haze.

Second, in the US, through much of the 19th century, subsistence farming was the most common occupation. The long-standing saying was “A man may work from sun to sun, but woman’s work is never done.”

Even in not-exactly-agriculture-friendly Maine, my family consisted for generations of farmers and fisherman. The women cooked and tended house, and that entailed a lot of hard labor: beating out rugs, churning butter, pumping water from wells, cleaning clothes by hand. Wives of commercial fisherman and whalers were on their own for weeks at a time; that’s the reason for “widow’s watches” being a common feature of old ocean-front houses and Maine women being no-nonsense even now.

My father recounted how his grandmother was given a wringer washer as a present in her 90s, yet still insisted on cleaning clothes using a washboard with her arthritic hands. So where does Gordon’s claim that women working outside the house for pay was normal, save for teachers and servants, come from? How would women even leave the house to go to an employer, given the lack of two car households?

Even my pre-WWII ancestors belie Gordon’s claim of the specialness, with respect of lower-class men supporting stay-at-home wives, of the post WWII era. Both sides of my family were blue collar (one grandfather was a rogue in his upper-class family: kicked out of college for violating his sports scholarship by boxing professionally in college, never spoke to his only brother after the brother started supporting the Nazis in the early 1930s; maintained equipment at amusement parks after an injury ended his sports career). My grandparents and great grand parents had stay at home wives.

There is a factor that Gordon omits: the 1920s were the era of the first consumer durables due to more and more homes being electrified. By the 1950s, washing machines, vacuum cleaners, and refrigerators (as opposed to ice boxes) were common, and dishwashers were starting to get traction. Prepared foods (remember those Betty Crocker cakes?) also became popular. Women had to spend less time doing housework. That allowed not just upper class but even middle/lower class women to get involved in their communities as volunteers.

By Rebecca Gordon, who teaches at the University of San Francisco. She is the author of American Nuremberg: The U.S. Officials Who Should Stand Trial for Post-9/11 War Crimes and is now at work on a new book on the history of torture in the United States. Originally published at TomDispatch

In two weeks, my partner and I were supposed to leave San Francisco for Reno, Nevada, where we’d be spending the next three months focused on the 2020 presidential election. As we did in 2018, we’d be working with UNITE-HERE, the hospitality industry union, only this time on the campaign to drive Donald Trump from office.

Now, however, we’re not so sure we ought to go. According to information prepared for the White House Coronavirus Task Force, Nevada is among the states in the “red zone” when it comes to both confirmed cases of, and positive tests for, Covid-19. I’m 68. My partner’s five years older, with a history of pneumonia. We’re both active and fit (when I’m not tripping over curbs), but our ages make us more likely, if we catch the coronavirus, to get seriously ill or even die. That gives a person pause.

Then there’s the fact that Joe Biden seems to have a double-digit lead over Trump nationally and at least an eight-point lead in Nevada, according to the latest polls. If things looked closer, I would cheerfully take some serious risks to dislodge that man in the White House. But does it make sense to do so if Biden is already likely to win there? Or, to put it in coronavirus-speak, would our work be essential to dumping Trump?

Essential Work?

This minor personal conundrum got me thinking about how the pandemic has exposed certain deep and unexamined assumptions about the nature and value of work in the United States.

In the ethics classes I teach undergraduates at a college here in San Francisco, we often talk about work. Ethics is, after all, about how we ought to live our lives — and work, paid or unpaid, constitutes a big part of most of those lives. Inevitably, the conversation comes around to compensation: How much do people deserve for different kinds of work? Students tend to measure fair compensation on two scales. How many years of training and/or dollars of tuition did a worker have to invest to become “qualified” for the job? And how important is that worker’s labor to the rest of society?

Even before the coronavirus hit, students would often settle on medical doctors as belonging at the top of either scale. Physicians’ work is the most important, they’d argue, because they keep us alive. “Hmm…” I’d say. “How many of you went to the doctor today?” Usually not a hand would be raised. “How many of you ate something today?” All hands would go up, as students looked around the room at one another. “Maybe,” I’d suggest, “a functioning society depends more on the farmworkers who plant and harvest food than on the doctors you normally might see for a checkup once a year. Not to mention the people who process and pack what we eat.”

I’d also point out that the workers who pick or process our food are not really unskilled. Their work, like a surgeon’s, depends on deft, quick hand movements, honed through years of practice.

Sometimes, in these discussions, I’d propose a different metric for compensation: maybe we should reserve the highest pay for people whose jobs are both essential and dangerous. Before the pandemic, that category would not have included many healthcare workers and certainly not most doctors. Even then, however, it would have encompassed farmworkers and people laboring in meat processing plants. As we’ve seen, in these months it is precisely such people — often immigrants, documented or otherwise — who have also borne some of the worst risks of virus exposure at work.

By the end of April, when it was already clear that meatpacking plants were major sites of Covid-19 infection, the president invoked the Defense Production Act to keep them open anyway. This not only meant that workers afraid to enter them could not file for unemployment payments, but that even if the owners of such dangerous workplaces wanted to shut them down, they were forbidden to do so. By mid-June, more than 24,000 meatpackers had tested positive for the virus. And just how much do these essential and deeply endangered workers earn? According to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, about $28,450 a year — better than minimum wage, that is, but hardly living high on the hog (even when that’s what they’re handling).

You might think that farmworkers would be more protected from the virus than meatpackers, perhaps because they work outdoors. But as the New York Times has reported: “Fruit and vegetable pickers toil close to each other in fields, ride buses shoulder-to-shoulder, and sleep in cramped apartments or trailers with other laborers or several generations of their families.”

Not surprisingly, then, the coronavirus has, as the Times report puts it, “ravaged” migrant farm worker communities in Florida and is starting to do the same across the country all the way to eastern Oregon. Those workers, who risk their lives through exposure not only to a pandemic but to more ordinary dangers like herbicides and pesticides so we can eat, make even less than meatpackers: on average, under $26,000 a year.

When the president uses the Defense Production Act to ensure that food workers remain in their jobs, it reveals just how important their labor truly is to the rest of us. Similarly, as shutdown orders have kept home those who can afford to stay in, or who have no choice because they no longer have jobs to go to, the pandemic has revealed the crucial nature of the labor of a large group of workers already at home (or in other people’s homes or eldercare facilities): those who care for children and those who look after older people and people with disabilities who need the assistance of health aides.

This work, historically done by women, has generally been unpaid when the worker is a family member and poorly paid when done by a professional. Childcare workers, for example, earn less than $24,000 a year on average; home healthcare aides, just over that amount.

Women’s Work

Speaking of women’s work, I suspect that the coronavirus and the attendant economic crisis are likely to affect women’s lives in ways that will last at least a generation, if not beyond.

Middle-class feminists of the 1970s came of age in a United States where it was expected that they would marry and spend their days caring for a house, a husband, and their children. Men were the makers. Women were the “homemakers.” Their work was considered — even by Marxist economists — “non-productive,” because it did not seem to contribute to the real economy, the place where myriad widgets are produced, transported, and sold. It was seldom recognized how essential this unpaid labor in the realm of social reproduction was to a functioning economy. Without it, paid workers would not have been fed, cared for, and emotionally repaired so that they could return to another day of widget-making. Future workers would not be socialized for a life of production or reproduction, as their gender dictated.

Today, with so many women in the paid workforce, much of this work of social reproduction has been outsourced by those who can afford it to nannies, day-care workers, healthcare aides, house cleaners, or the workers who measure and pack the ingredients for meal kits to be prepared by other working women when they get home.

We didn’t know it at the time, but the post-World War II period, when boomers like me grew up, was unique in U.S. history. For a brief quarter-century, even working-class families could aspire to an arrangement in which men went to work and women kept house. A combination of strong unions, a post-war economic boom, and a so-called breadwinner minimum wage kept salaries high enough to support families with only one adult in the paid labor force. Returning soldiers went to college and bought houses through the 1944 Servicemen’s Readjustment Act, also known as the G.I. Bill. New Deal programs like social security and unemployment insurance helped pad out home economies.

By the mid-1970s, however, this golden age for men, if not women, was fading. (Of course, for many African Americans and other marginalized groups, it had always only been an age of fool’s gold.) Real wages stagnated and began their long, steady decline. Today’s federal minimum wage, at $7.25 per hour, has remained unchanged since 2009 (something that can hardly be said about the wealth of the 1%). Far from supporting a family of four, in most parts of the country, it won’t even keep a single person afloat.

Elected president in 1980, Ronald Reagan announced in his first inaugural address, “Government is not the solution to our problem, government is the problem.” He then set about dismantling President Lyndon Johnson’s War on Poverty programs, attacking the unions that had been the underpinning for white working-class prosperity, and generally starving the beast of government. We’re still living with the legacies of that credo in, for example, the housing crisis he first touched off by deregulating savings and loan institutions and disempowering the Department of Housing and Urban Development.

It’s no accident that, just as real wages were falling, presidential administrations of both parties began touting the virtues of paid work for women — at least if those women had children and no husband. Aid to Families with Dependent Children (“welfare”) was another New Deal program, originally designed to provide cash assistance to widowed women raising kids on their own at a time when little paid employment was available to white women.

In the 1960s, groups like the National Welfare Rights Organization began advocating that similar benefits be extended to Black women raising children. (As a welfare rights advocate once asked me, “Why is it fine for a woman to look to a man to help her children, but not to The Man?”) Not surprisingly, it wasn’t until Black and Latina women began receiving the same entitlements as their white sisters that welfare became a “problem” in need of “reform.”

By the mid-1990s, the fact that some Black women were receiving money from the government while not doing paid labor for an employer had been successfully reframed as a national crisis. Under Democratic President Bill Clinton, Congress passed the Personal Responsibility and Work Reconciliation Act of 1996, a bill that then was called “welfare reform.” After that, if women wanted help from The Man, they had to work for it – not by taking care of their own children, but by taking care of their children and holding down minimum-wage jobs.

Are the Kids All Right?

It’s more than a little ironic, then, that the granddaughters of feminists who argued that women should have a choice about whether or not to pursue a career came to confront an economy in which women, at least ones not from wealthy families, had little choice about working for pay.

The pandemic may change that, however — and not in a good way. One of the unfulfilled demands of liberal 1970s feminism was universal free childcare. An impossible dream, right? How could any country afford such a thing?

Wait a minute, though. What about Sweden? They have universal free childcare. That’s why a Swedish friend of mine, a human rights lawyer, and her American husband who had a rare tenure track university job in San Francisco, chose to take their two children back to Sweden. Raising children is so much easier there. In the early days of second-wave feminism, some big employers even built daycare centers for their employees with children. Those days, sadly, are long gone.

Now, in the Covid-19 moment, employers are beginning to recognize the non-pandemic benefits of having employees work at home. (Why not make workers provide their own office furniture? It’s a lot easier to justify if they’re working at home. And why pay rent on all that real estate when so many fewer people are in the office?) While companies will profit from reduced infrastructure costs and in some cases possibly even reduced pay for employees who relocate to cheaper areas, workers with children are going to face a dilemma. With no childcare available in the foreseeable future and school re-openings dicey propositions (no matter what the president threatens), someone is going to have to watch the kids. Someone — probably in the case of heterosexual couples, the person who is already earning less — is going to be under pressure to reduce or give up paid labor to do the age-old unpaid (but essential) work of raising the next generation. I wonder who that someone is going to be and, without those paychecks, I also wonder how much families are going to suffer economically in increasingly tough times.

Grateful to Have a Job?

Recently, in yet another Zoom meeting, a fellow university instructor (who’d just been interrupted to help a child find a crucial toy) was discussing the administration’s efforts to squeeze concessions out of faculty and staff. I was startled to hear her add, “Of course, I’m grateful they gave me the job.” This got me thinking about jobs and gratitude — and which direction thankfulness ought to flow. It seems to me that the pandemic and the epidemic of unemployment following in its wake have reinforced a common but false belief shared by many workers: the idea that we should be grateful to our employers for giving us jobs.

We’re so often told that corporations and the great men behind them are Job Creators. From the fountain of their beneficence flows the dignity of work and all the benefits a job confers. Indeed, as this fairy tale goes, businesses don’t primarily produce widgets or apps or even returns for shareholders. Their real product is jobs. Like many of capitalism’s lies, the idea that workers should thank their employers reverses the real story: without workers, there would be no apps, no widgets, no shareholder returns. It’s our effort, our skill, our diligence that gives work its dignity. It may be an old saying, but no less true for that: labor creates all wealth. Wealth does not create anything — neither widgets, nor jobs.

I’m grateful to the universe that I have work that allows me to talk with young people about their deepest values at a moment in their lives when they’re just figuring out what they value, but I am not grateful to my university employer for my underpaid, undervalued job. The gratitude should run in the other direction. Without faculty, staff, and students there would be no university. It’s our labor that creates wealth, in this case a (minor) wealth of knowledge.

As of July 16th, in the midst of the Covid-19 crisis, 32 million Americans are receiving some kind of unemployment benefit. That number doesn’t even reflect the people involuntarily working reduced hours, or those who haven’t been able to apply for benefits. One thing is easy enough to predict: employers will take advantage of people’s desperate need for money to demand ever more labor for ever less pay. Until an effective vaccine for the coronavirus becomes available, expect to see the emergence of a three-tier system of worker immiseration: low-paid essential workers who must leave home to do their jobs, putting themselves in significant danger in the process, while we all depend on them for sustenance; better paid people who toil at home, but whose employers will expect their hours of availability to expand to fill the waking day; and low-paid or unpaid domestic laborers, most of them women, who keep everyone else fed, clothed, and comforted.

Even when the pandemic finally ends, there’s a danger that some modified version of this new system of labor exploitation might prove too profitable for employers to abandon. On the other hand, hitting the national pause button, however painfully, could give the rest of us a chance to rethink a lot of things, including the place of work, paid and unpaid, in our lives.

So, will my partner and I head for Reno in a couple of weeks? Certainly, the job of ousting Donald Trump is essential. I’m just not sure that a couple of old white ladies are essential workers in the time of Covid-19.

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  1. PlutoniumKun

    I’m old enough to remember the drudgery of small farm life before the 1980’s. In Ireland, there was traditionally a firm divide between male and female work on the farm. The men did the ‘cash’ farm – i.e. the cows and sheep and crops. The women looked after the house and curtilage – the chickens and pigs (and the children of course). The number of bachelor farmers told the story of whether women wanted that life – most young women in rural areas took the first chance they could to emigrate or get jobs as nurses or secretaries in towns and cities, leaving a surplus of men behind. You can see the same process in many developing countries, peasant women usually got out faster than the men. Paid work was a sort of freedom, although many (including my mother) gave that up on marriage. I always look back in amazement that my parents could raise five kids in relative middle class comfort on my fathers very average public service wage. It certainly would not be possible now.

    In urban areas, working class women almost always had to work, unless they were lucky enough to have a husband with a skilled, and so relatively well paid job. Middle class women had more freedom, and of course labour saving devices transformed their lives and suddenly showed that looking after a home without a servant was not necessarily a full time job. Of course, the flood of middle class women into the job market in the post war years led to huge productivity rises, and so that particular aspect of feminism was welcomed with open arms by capitalism.

  2. GettingTheBannedBack

    Where I grew up, women looked after the home and men worked outside the home. In fact, women in government jobs were obliged to leave their jobs upon marriage.
    So one wage households were the norm. By and large, kids were fed and clothed and housed and educated on one wage. Courtesy of free public schooling, affordable houses when they were for shelter not investment, and the minimum wage provisions coupled with strong unions to police the employers.
    I went to school with children of miners, labourers, transport workers etc. And we went to a lovely new high school with dedicated teachers, all free. It’s all changed now of course, public schools are being defunded using every trick in the book, while privately run schools, mostly religious, are wallowing in government cash.
    This was a golden age for kids, not so much for any women who wanted something more out of life. Kids came home to a house where their mother provided afternoon tea, a hearing of the day’s dramas, and basically a safe and secure place. Of course there were a proportion of homes where this didn’t happen due to domestic violence, substance abuse, desertion etc.
    But the point is that the constellation of government policies and funding plus plentiful jobs with pay enough to support at least a modest lifestyle, made it possible to have a modest 3 bedroom home, food and education funded by only one income earner. My mother had a fridge, a washing machine, a vacuum cleaner.
    Whereas her mother had beaten rugs outside with a big stick, washed in a copper with a mangle, and cooked on a wood stove which she fired up every morning around 4am so that my grandfather could have his breakfast before going down the mine. And the toilet was outside, there was no bathroom or shower in the house either. Sounds a bit ‘when I were a lad’ I know, but this was what happened before WW2.
    So I don’t know what happened in the 50s and 60s in the US, but the image of an idyllic 1950s and 1960s is certainly true for the majority of families in Australia.

  3. Christopher Herbert

    The doctor example is misleading, I think. When you are in mortal danger, how much is the person who shows up worth to you? Might not even be a doctor or nurse. Could be the EMT and or firefighter who extricates you from your burning car. Or a policeman who captures a murderous felon who was about to make you his (or her less often) victim. Whatever. The takeaway is that the bottom tier of workers need to receive more than a subsistence minimum wage. Congress chooses how much unemployment will be allowed, and how much people are paid at minimum. Pick an effing formula and stick to it. Insure full employment already.

    1. FKorning

      Low job earnings are not so much about how essential the services performed by the worker are, than as a function of scarcity and spot need. manual labour is termed unskilled because it is relatively little training is needed to get a newbie productive, albeit with slower hands and poor efficiency, and there are vast pools of potential applicants and replacements depressing wages. doctors, lawyers, engineers and professionals need years of schooling before being deemed adequate to practice, and while you don’t need one every day, when you need one, you *need* one, and there are only a few qualified professionals around.
      But simply relying on markets is predatory and not progressive. That’s not to say we need to accept the market’s yoke in poorly pricing wages. That’s why we need to have redistributive policies, not just living wages, but subsidised healthcare, childcare, education, legal aid, unions, etc. Other countries manage it better now. The profligate US and UK managed it, in the golden post-war period.

  4. Charles 2

    Power, just power.
    They are many ways to extract and wield power, so a MD (in the US), a lawyer, a CEO, a trader in the banking sector will all be well paid but will get their power from different mechanisms, sometimes mixing several mechanisms.
    For instance a MD pricing power stems from a mix of skill acquisition inertia (it takes time to become proficient), numerus clausus in MD school and, especially in the US collaborating with the insurance sector for price setting.
    Being essential can grant some power (look at the example of airline Pilots), but that power is just as good of the capacity of being replaced.

  5. fresno dan

    Even before the coronavirus hit, students would often settle on medical doctors as belonging at the top of either scale. Physicians’ work is the most important, they’d argue, because they keep us alive.* “Hmm…” I’d say. “How many of you went to the doctor today?

    Dean Baker at CEPR also notes this. One always has to remember that the genius of the US system is that besides making working class poor, it makes the professional class rich…

    And medicare reimbursement rates for specialties is completely controlled by the specialists. Which of course means its completely overpriced.

    * O good grief. What keeps the vast majority of people alive the vast majority of the time is public health – clean water, safe food, and vaccines. Just as I attribute cop shows on TV for much of the inability of public policy to regulate police appropriately, much of the hero worship of doctors is the incessant hero worship of doctors on TV, and the fact that the portrayal of all the people who DON’T get medical care because they can’t afford it is never, ever discussed.

  6. AD

    I’ve been stuck in a job I had every intention of leaving at the one year mark (June) when the labor market was “tight.” Wfh of course has meant that the hours of this endlessly demanding (often for no reason than to please the bosS’s ego thru busy work) job are even greater. After all, what else do I have to do? After complaining to friends and family, the inevitable response is always that I should be “grateful” for the job. The neoliberal gaslighting in this country has come full circle—work if any kind is now a precious commodity.

    1. paul

      Which is why ‘work’ is hoarded at the top.
      worked example:
      Gideon Osborne
      1 month shop assistant
      7 years in a tory research grotto (research not found)
      5 years as chancellor of the exchequer (failure)
      Editor of the Evening Standard
      Visiting fellow at Stanford
      Adviser to U.S. fund manager BlackRock (a one-day-a-week advisory post that earns him £650,000 a year)
      Chairman of The partners council of Exor,(Agnelli family racket)
      Plus a little walking around money from the Washington Speakers Bureau.

      To be fair, he always said that work should pay.

  7. William Hunter Duncan

    The corporate shareholder model of Capitalism I have pointed out for 20 years is merely an appropriation up the pyramid, of the capital production of working class people, to the “shareholders” and executives. When I was at Sam’s Club in 1991 I was paid $7/hr. That same Sam’s Club pays $9/hr now. Even with the manipulated CPI of the Fed, that $7 in ’91 is about $14/hr now. Across the big box spectrum that is $5/hr at least that went from the pay of millions of working people into the coffers of the corporate professional class, investors and billionaires.

    At Home Depot a manager told me he made $12/hr when he started in 1994, and was at $14 within a year. When I showed up in 2013, though I was and am a professional builder/remodeler and a talented gardener (garden center), I made $10/hr, 25 hrs per week, 5 days a week, with the schedule changing every week. That is how you generate a precariate. I have called it stealth wage theft, but most of the people I know left or right have been too enamored of consumerism to care.

    In that sense, even the $15/hr living wage movement is a bit of a canard, demanding we get back merely what should have been at a bare minimum. That does not account for the ten or twenty or whatever trillion that was effectively stolen all those years. At the same time, I do not really sense any kind of awareness of these dynamics among working people. They know what they are paid is barely enough to get by, but for the most part they act like that is all they deserve and they best they can get.

  8. Steve

    Wish to offer a couple of inchoate ideas for consideration. The author states “Ethics is, after all, about how we ought to live our lives….” and profoundly disagree without predicating other concepts which must have already occurred for the statement to make any meaningful sense. For Ethics to apply in my opinion only, self awareness has to have already occurred. Minimally IMO for self awareness, a conceptual understanding that you are one of tremendous many. Rising throughs layers generally speaking ,and feel free to substitute your own terms for what I describe as; family, neighborhood, community, city, county, state, nation and at the top – the whole world. With that as backdrop consider the statement “Ethics is a shared understanding of what living organisms in the ecosystem would say, think, or feel about our actions in the ecosystem.” It is a definition which better follows what happens actually happens in the world we live in today.
    As examples (United States centric): Young children are not charged with Murder – they lack self awareness and intent the ecosystem requires them to have for the ecosystem to levy the punishment. Similarly, It accounts for the mentally disabled and the very aged who have suffered cognitive decline. It also offers in a real way how military, police officers, and government actors receive “qualified immunity”. This post is to not to debate the rightness or wrongness of the last sentence, and it is thought provoking that an ecosystem mankind has built also has “white blood cells or an immune system” human actors that are not only allowed, but encouraged, to damage others cells of the larger organism if those cells are not following a norm of the ecosystem as lived through shared values.

    The next item distinct and separate is to address why does Why Does Essential Work Pay So Little… And Cost So Much? Consider the idea that there is less natural profit in these types of activities, as they are endemic to survival of the host. Additionally consider there is more room for financialization for these types of activities as the actions must be performed for the ecosystem to live. Stated another way, essential activities is ripe for exploitation, and those who are exploiters have been in this field for untold generations. Believe Socrates even had words on this very subject with his – If I want wealth, I would buy the next harvests grain now…..

  9. The Rev Kev

    If Rebecca Gordon happens to be reading this, then the answer is for God’s sake, no! Don’t go! You and your partner’s risk profile is far too risky. Just remember that if you want to vote Trump out, then that requires the both of you being alive in November to actually go vote.

    Having said that, I don’t buy asking a bunch of students who to put at the top of a scale and disagreeing when they said doctors. It is a matter of context. If she had asked a bunch of patients in an ICU instead, then they would have been correct if they had said doctors or even nurses. I suppose that the idea of the utility of professions of people can never be a static thing but is time & place dependent. As a personal example, I have just paid big bucks on vehicle insurance but just because I did not use it today does not mean that I don’t need it.

    And to argue which professions are more important than the other is to start moving in the direction of the functionalists who would judge your standing in society by your profession. But in any modern economy, jobs and professions are far too interlinked to think in such terms. perhaps the best way to judge the importance of an occupation is to see what happens when people stop doing it. I am reminded of the story of the housewife who thought that her husband did not understand what happened in a house while raising kids. So one day she did absolutely nothing. No housework. Nothing. The husband came home and saw the messes on the floor, the dirty dishes, the full laundry hamper and the dirt and said ‘Good god, what happened?’ She told him ‘Nothing. Absolutely nothing.’ So this minor anecdote illustrates the importance and necessity of her job so by imagining this on a larger scale, you could see the actual, importance of professions and jobs in our society and how long it could function without them.

    1. flora

      … perhaps the best way to judge the importance of an occupation is to see what happens when people stop doing it.

      I think that’s the logic of wildcat strikes for better pay and working conditions, like last year’s k-12 teacher strikes in several states.

  10. Jeremy Grimm

    This post is disappointing. I hoped it might discuss how it is that the owners of businesses providing vital services or products could charge so much for the service yet pay so little to their workforce. I can think of two examples right away day-care and home nursing services.

    Day-care for my kids took quite a bite out of my paychecks, yet as I found out talking to the care-providers, paid abysmal wages. I even got the impression from a little nosing around that even the owner of the day-care business was not rolling in dough. Where was all the money going?

    Years ago I rented a room from a nurse and her mother while I was looking for an apartment. I talked with both in their kitchen late one evening and was told the nurse provided home care for quadriplegics injured in car-accidents and provided for car insurance companies. She told me she was paid a little more than $7 per hour and she had heard the nursing service she worked for received $21 per hour for providing her services. The nursing service consisted of a business address, phones, and some low paid scroungers who called around to insurance companies and sometimes hospitals locating jobs. Supposedly there was also a nutritionist “on-staff” — whatever that meant — as required by the licensing board handling nursing services. Where was all the money going?

    Instead of what I hoped to learn more about the post rambles on about the ethics of how much pay different work deserved to receive — which seemed an odd question with an odd framing for the question. [I could not help recalling a grade-school joke about an argument between the organs of the body about which organ was the most important. Grade-school children are not very precise about their word usage — the most important organ according to the joke is an orifice which I’m not sure qualifies as an organ.] From there the post wanders into raising some old battle-of-the-sexes battle flags and recalls an ‘interesting’ review and portrayal of recent history. In closing, the post bemoans some aspects of the Capitalist system — workers grateful to have job, and “Even when the pandemic finally ends, there’s a danger that some modified version of this new system of labor exploitation might prove too profitable for employers to abandon.”

    I think the author might benefit from reading Edward Skidelsky’s “How Much is Enough?: Money and the Good Life”, and reframe the questions about the ethical distributions of income.

  11. Kirk Seidenbecker

    Every business ‘owner’ or manager should be forced to learn about Samuel ‘Golden Rule’ Jones concerning the ethic of reciprocity.


    Agree with WHD’s comment about shareholder value maximization- because of it, ‘wealth love’ has been generally embedded and normalized into the collective psychology.

  12. Scott1

    When designing a new nation my description of it has been as a company, country, and work of art. Currency, banking and the financial system is definitely a work of conceptual art. A fiat Treasury and the power that represents for us realistically is awesome. Our federal government can afford to make possible all lives to be lived within the perimeters of a “high bottom”. When the markets will not provide for a small company profits enough that all those laboring at the work mission of that company, our government can provide the rest to make sure every paycheck will cover all the necessities.
    According to my sense of life and lives, we each have a soul or what ethically amounts to one. What I mean is that we each have a destiny. We each discover and are discovered to have things that are easier for us to do. The same things are hard for others to do. I told my daughter for instance, to not be afraid to do what comes easiest. What is practical for you may not be practical for anyone else.
    In an ethical country all citizens must be given or allowed to have enough money to live with shelter, clothing and food. Every citizen must be seen as having no other resource but their citizenship. From the first day of their lives to the last it must be assumed that they are alone. When the nation allows that there be jobs that do not pay enough for someone to have the necessities it must mean that that nation expects that person, that citizen to be part of a family and dependent on others. It is obvious that not everyone has anyone left. I don’t know about you but I’ve known people who had no one.
    This ought be enough said for you to see my point. I can give an example from an institution such as our Armed Forces where paychecks are higher for generals than they are for privates and none of them are particularly needed when there is no war to fight, while they are all needed to prevent there be a war to fight.

  13. Anarcissie

    If Essential Workers are so essential — as they certainly appear to be — why isn’t someone organizing them? Then they need not wait for someone like Samuel Golden Rule Jones to miraculously along, which may take a few centuries.

  14. Sound of the Suburbs

    Actually, capitalism shouldn’t be like this.

    The Classical Economists spotted the problem immediately.
    The Classical Economists had a quick look around and noticed the aristocracy were maintained in luxury and leisure by the hard work of everyone else.
    They haven’t done anything economically productive for centuries, they couldn’t miss it.
    The Classical economist, Adam Smith:
    “The labour and time of the poor is in civilised countries sacrificed to the maintaining of the rich in ease and luxury. The Landlord is maintained in idleness and luxury by the labour of his tenants. The moneyed man is supported by his extractions from the industrious merchant and the needy who are obliged to support him in ease by a return for the use of his money.”
    There was no benefits system in those days, and if those at the bottom didn’t work they died. They had to earn money to live.

    Ricardo was an expert on the small state, unregulated capitalism he observed in the world around him. He was part of the new capitalist class, and the old landowning class were a huge problem with their rents that had to be paid both directly and through wages.
    “The interest of the landlords is always opposed to the interest of every other class in the community” Ricardo 1815 / Classical Economist.
    They soon identified the constructive “earned” income and the parasitic “unearned” income.
    This disappeared in neoclassical economics, which is why it’s such a big problem today.

    The capitalist system actually contains a welfare state to maintain an old money, idle rich in luxury and leisure.
    There were three groups in the capitalist system in Ricardo’s world (and there still are).
    Workers / Employees
    Capitalists / Employers
    Rentiers / Landowners / Landlords / other skimmers, who are just skimming out of the system, not contributing to its success

    From Ricardo:
    The labourers had before 25
    The landlords 25
    And the capitalists 50
    ……….. 100

    He looked at how the pie got divided between the three groups.
    That made it too obvious and had to go as classical economics moved to neoclassical economics.

    So that people don’t notice there are idle, rich people at the top they had to get everyone thoroughly confused and make out it’s those at the bottom that are the problem.
    It’s not so easy in the UK, as we still have an aristocracy, and I couldn’t help noticing there was something wrong with current thinking.

    1. Sound of the Suburbs

      I was being blasted with the usual stuff about “hard work, drive and ambition” being the key to success.
      Then the UK press started following Pippa Middleton around (Kate’s sister, who is Prince William’s husband).
      Wait a minute, she doesn’t do a stroke and she’s at the top. She seemed to be following the old social calendar and attending all those events the idle rich used to in the past.
      The Daily Mail’s society pages also gave away far more than they should have done, and blew the lid on the whole thing.
      The UK still has an old, money idle rich that are doing very well for themselves.

  15. Ron

    Thinking about it, all wealth is accumulated by getting people to do things for you. They get paid a wage, you get the benefits of all their work which are much more than is paid in wages. So the goal of everyone should be find people to work for them. Obviously this doesn’t scale, but it may be one of the reasons some things are breaking down. All the smart people (and the internet has made everyone smarter) realize they should not work for someone else but should find a way to get people to work for them, so nobody wants to be a working chump and everyone is trying to trick people into working for them. The end result is nobody is willing to do the real work (except the immigrants) or sees doing real work as only a temporary stopgap on their way to the big time (and hence puts little effort into it).

    Also, there has been news of companies trying to pay employees less when they work from home because their expenses are less or they can move to an area where a home costs less. But what about the added costs of maintaining an office at home? Employees should be paid more to support the cost of their home offices. I worked from home for many years and can tell you these costs are not insignificant. International phone calls, high speed internet access, the loss of the use of a room in the house, heating/cooling/lighting, buying duplicates of tools available at the office, and more. I’m sure that some companies reimburse those expenses, but many companies just now switching to work from home likely are viewing it as a free lunch.

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