Murphy\’s Bye-Laws

Law #4: Any fool can make a rule, and any fool will mind it. –H.D. Thoreau

A Valuable Theory of Labor

Posted by PintofStout on October 10, 2007

I thought I’d take this opportunity to try and recharge my will power this afternoon by writing a blog entry since cheesy, delicious Egg McMuffins are currently unavailable. I need the recharge because my meter is currently reading “fumes.” So before I had to get out and push, I thought I’d try a stop-gap of writing. So far so good.

While on the subject of will power, especially at work, I am reminded of a brief conversation with a druncle this weekend about what constitutes labor. He is a long-time auto worker in Ohio and considered what us “educated kids” do something other than labor. Under the protective umbrella of common usage, labor is typically meant to be manual labor and the shadow of that umbrella cast on everything else makes it look like labor’s arch-nemesis, management. Divide and conquer, I suppose. But there are many ins, many outs, many what-have-yous in terms of classifying and defining labor.

Most tend to draw a single line, as often happens, and create a false dichotomy thus losing the subtle differences and distinctions where so much of importance hinges. So should a line be between manual and mental, menial and meaningful, or something else, or several things? I’m not sure how to neatly classify it, but I can attempt to define labor in a way that would help. I see labor as being the cost exacted in non-tangible objects (tangible objects being such things as cash, gold or goods) for an exchange of necessity in which there is some disadvantage to one side of the trade, the difference in value created being the labor. The more uneven the trade the more labor gets extracted. The leverage applied against the laborer isn’t always applied by the collector of the labor. Though there is always some motivation for doing so, the applier of leverage to the exchange doesn’t always collect directly or even semi-directly from the situation. I’ll leave the rest of the proofs and mapping of leverage and benefit to the conspiracy theorists.

The most common leverage applied today, in my opinion, is lifestyle, which leads to debt and a need to labor. This is a dastardly cycle because sometimes lifestyle can be addictive, which leads to yet more debt. Attempting to pay the debt also has associated costs. Would every household need to own a car or two, with all the costs associated with vehicle ownership, if there was no need to go to work in order pay off debt? With the scaled down housing and other costs of not maintaining an artificially high lifestyle, one needs to work a hell of a lot less to maintain themselves. Requiring much less means less work, which is more likely to be found closer to home and allowing for reduced car ownership. On top of being a near perpetual cycle, taxes and the invisible tax of inflation make it more and more difficult to repay the debt and remove the leverage.

Since we can’t all be Henry David Thoreau, most of us labor for someone. It seems to me there are two considerations in how one labors and for who. Not only should we weigh the return that we get for the labor, but the toll that is extracted (the essence of labor). Some people have intellectual and mental assets that return to them more than using their bodies in physical labor. Some people have little choice but to use their bodies in physical labor. The return on the labor is obviously the largest consideration when comparing, but the toll that the labor exacts can be excessive. We have all seen the images and imagery of the old mill worker whose body is spend and used up from a lifetime of unpleasant physical labor. The images of an “educated” worker whose intellect and very will to think and live are spent are not as prevalent. These tolls are often taken from the laborers most valuable assets, making them sting even more.

Purpose in the job should be the norm, but when purpose can’t be found, the toll is increased. The work becomes menial and has no other purpose but to complete this necessary, though uneven or possibly forced, exchange. In the realm of physical labor, this is close to servitude. Menial labor takes a larger toll for the same or less return one might otherwise achieve. Entrepreneurs and the self-employed are less likely to labor, as are those with little to no debt and a properly scaled lifestyle. The key is when the leverage that creates the uneven exchange is removed. Only then can each party truly decide what is best for themselves and achieve an equal trade.

I am trying to establish the context of modern exchange in our current economic situation in regards to employment. In my awkward attempt at isolating the uneven exchanges in which leverage is applied, I have cited lifestyle as the main lever that applies this pressure. To break the concept down a little further, the arm of the lever is the market intervention of the state in favor of employers (in most cases). But that arm cannot apply as much leverage as when it has the fulcrum of our lifestyle choices to add mechanical advantage. A person simply choosing to find employment in order that one doesn’t starve would only encounter a disadvantage in so far as employment laws such as minimum wages, taxes, etc effect the entire market. This person could also choose to eat from a garden that he plants in order to avoid working in the rigged employment market (assuming he had the land, etc., etc.). Add the fulcrum of a car payment, or an expensive mortgage, or a gourmet food habit, or a drug habit, or the pressure to wear the trendy fashions and the need for their employment just got much more urgent. So the leverage is now against them when shopping for an exchange, like not showing desperation or even interest when dealing with a salesman in order to not drive up the cost.

So regardless of what the employment consists of, whether it is breaking your back and working with your hands or starring down tables of figures and reading reports all day, it is still counted as labor so long as the exchange is forced or uneven. They both take a toll from that person’s most valuable asset.

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3 Responses to “A Valuable Theory of Labor”

  1. thesofine said

    I feel that writers and singers have romanticized the manual laborer (maybe to the point of hyperbole, but that may be a personal bias).

    It seems like every romantic labor-profession had a hero: Paul Bunyon deforrested our great expanse (now we rebuke other countries for doing the same), Johnny Appleseed then cultivated the west, John Henry then brought indrustry, etc.

    Who will be the new hero for the service industry? Will we ever tell our grandkids of our iliadic works from behind the desk?

  2. That was a great comment, sofine…sorry, Thesofine.

    I would like to nominate Alice from Mel’s Diner and Peter Gibbons from Office Space.

  3. This is cogent to Thesofine’s comment and the post. From the Writer’s Almanac:

    http://writersalmanac.publicradio.org/programs/2007/10/08/#friday

    Poem: “Men at the Gates” by Gary L. Lark, from Men at the Gates. © Finishing Line Press, 2007. Reprinted with permission. (buy now)

    Men at the Gates

    They wait at the gates
    in flannel shirts and heavy denim pants.
    They wait for the gates to open,
    the whistle to blow
    signaling change of shift.
    They wait for the mill jobs
    to come back, with wages
    that will feed a family,
    wages to be proud of.
    They wait in the parking lot
    where one-stop-shoppers
    now, twenty-five years later,
    look through them like ghosts.
    They wait in a rain
    of gadgets and plunder,
    companies from somewhere else
    picking their pockets
    trying to sell them everything
    they don’t need at bargain prices.
    They wait for the world
    to make sense again,
    where calluses grow on your hands
    and the soreness in your back
    means you’re worth a damn.

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