Thursday, December 22, 2016

Hard Work

American culture tends to assume that people who have a lot—of money, power, stuff, whatever—work hard for it. Maybe they didn't at first; maybe they started off with an advantage... but they have to work to keep it and grow it. And that people who have little must be lazy.

This assumption has deep roots in the Puritan ethic that played a huge role in founding our country. The Calvinists who believed that their fates were predestined and completely unaffected by their actions still saw success and prosperity as signs of their favor from God. And, although their fate after death was already written, they did not seek to anger God by frivolous activities and self-adornment; their asceticism meant that their hard-won profits were re-invested in their livelihood.

But today, while we have shed that asceticism and instead revel in pursuit of worldly signs of wealth—nice cars, big houses, designer clothes, or even less conspicuous consumption such as constantly climate-controlled houses or lights on in every room—we retain the notion that affluence is a sign that you are favored by God. Even if we don't consciously understand it this way, we still implicitly assume that those who have, worked for it; those who lack, deserve it.

We've entered a Bizarro world where, not only do we assume that wealth requires hard work, we actually rate the hardness of work based on the wealth it generates. We think of “flipping burgers” as easy, even as we watch people sweating over fryers, running back and forth to fill orders, and taking flak from abusive customers with a smile on their face. We think, “I would never want to do that.” and yet, we consider it “easy.” We don't think it's easy because we have any reason to think the work itself is not hard to do, but merely because it is low pay. And then in a strange tautology, we think the work should be low-paid because it is so easy.

Consider how hard is the work of a megacorp CEO sitting at a desk larger than my son's bed, in an office larger than the typical American living room, with an en-suite bathroom and multiple assistants for various tasks? To be sure, CEOs do work hard. They often work 60+ hours a week, evenings, weekends, travel away from their family, manage meetings with very powerful people and millions of dollars on the line. Their work is stressful. But when they are taking home millions of dollars per year, how do we compare that to the “hardness” of their work?

On the other hand, consider a man who wakes at 4 a.m. to get ready for his first job. He showers quickly, dresses in worn but rugged clothes, and reports to a shuttle point by 5:30 to go to a far-flung construction site. By 7 a.m., he's doing heavy lifting and working with tools that can maim or kill if used incorrectly. As the sun rises in the sky he starts sweating. The dust kicks up and sticks to his brow. He gets a half hour for lunch, and an occasional bathroom break; he knows they're supposed to give him two 15-minute breaks on the clock, and he knows of union jobs where that happens, but he's never been able to get one. Here, he's an “independent contractor,” hired as a temp with no benefits, no paid time off, no job security. Keep your head down and don't complain; you're lucky to even have a job.

He comes home at 5:30, showers, grabs a bite to eat, and leaves for his evening retail job. If he's lucky, it's in a tipped establishment and he can smile and accommodate his way to more money. If he's unlucky, it's again temp work, seasonal, could end at any moment... and an inconsistent number of hours stocking shelves, ringing up customers, and trying not to take it personally when people yell at him for not being able to meet their every unreasonable demand.

Meanwhile, he barely sees his spouse and children. That's who he's doing this for: working 60+ hours a week at low wages, so that his spouse can work a more flexible job and sometimes show up for the kids' holiday programs and school open houses. But 80 hours a week doesn't cut it anymore for a family of four. If they are compensated for 50 weeks a year (because in jobs at this tier, you don't get vacation time, and sometimes don't even get sick time), at 80 hours a week, at an average of $10/hour (nearly 40% higher than the Federal minimum wage), after payroll taxes they've got about $3,000/month to pay rent (that's not enough income to get a mortgage), buy groceries, put gas in a car or buy a bus pass, pay utilities, buy clothing and school supplies, pay for after-school care, and handle any other expenses that come up – such as a $2,000 emergency room visit or a $4,000 blown head gasket in their 12-year-old car. Health insurance? Savings? Laughable—every dime is spent the second it comes in.

Who works “harder”? That's a ridiculous question; the work isn't remotely comparable. They both work hard. But does the CEO's vastly higher compensation actually cause him to “work harder”? At some point, does more money actually get more product?

Now we've elected a President who definitely “has.” His home glitters, his name illuminates skylines. He travels in the rarefied circles of world leaders and business magnates. He's famous for being rich, and rich for being famous. He can lose $916 million in one year—enough to give every Pennsylvanian in poverty $550—and just keep on chugging.

Does he know what it means to work hard?

Many of us assumed he did. We assumed that it has to be hard work to maintain that empire. But the more we get to know him, the more it seems that he doesn't ever actually do that work himself. Intelligence briefings are boring—go meet with Kanye. Let's take a phone call from Taiwan; it's too complicated to understand why that pisses off China. Rather than finding people with impeccable qualifications and distinction in the relevant field, let's just pick our friends and colleagues, or their spouses, to fill our Cabinet. It would be too much work to do otherwise.

We need to change our understanding of work, and hard work, and how it relates to assets. We need to remember that farm work is hard. Caring for children is hard. Preparing safe and appetizing food is hard. Stopping fires is hard. Chasing down criminals is hard. Cleaning offices is hard. Constructing new buildings is hard. Mining coal is hard. Managing a store is hard. We ALL work hard. We ALL deserve to be able to come home after 40 hours a week, know that there's enough food, that our housing situation is stable, and spend time with our children and partners free of stress and worry. This isn't a rural issue or an urban issue. It's not a white issue or a black issue. It's not a coastal issue or a plains issue. It's not a Boomer issue or a Millennial issue. It is a human issue.