Thursday, October 6, 2011

Hidden Privilege

The Trusty Servant
 From Wikipedia:

“The hircocervus (Latin: hircus, "billy goat" + cervus, "stag") or tragelaph (Greek: τράγος, tragos, "billy goat" + έλαφος, elaphos, "stag"), also known as a goat-stag or horse-stag, was a legendary creature imagined to be half-goat, half-stag. Plato utilized the idea of a fabulous goat-stag to express the philosophical concept of something that is knowable even though it does not really exist.”

This article in the NY Times points out a tragic flaw in our economy.   Farmers trying to find labor can't find Americans to do the work.  Picking crops is exhausting, back-breaking work, and people won't even do it at $11 an hour.  At what price would they do it?  How much would we pay for food?  On a recent Daily Show skit, Jason Jones couldn't even find Mexicans to do it.

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The excellent, heart-wrenching documentary Last Train Home recently aired on PBS followed the story of a Chinese couple's tribulations as they sacrificed everything to move from their rural village to a big city in order to work 7 days a week in a sweatshop.  They had moved fifteen years earlier, when their daughter was barely one year old.  They come home for one week, once a year, along with the rest of the migrant city workers wishing to celebrate Chinese New Year with loved ones.  The stations are packed by the tens of thousands, all scrambling madly, dangerously to escape the thriving smog for the impoverished, bucolic countryside.

They live in bunk beds at what appears to be the factory, or some nearby squalor, and wash from a bucket.  They send everything home, so that their daughter might have a chance to go to college and have a better life.  Yet now a teenager, their daughter barely knows them, and resent their visits.  To rebel, she flees school and finds her own job at a factory in the city.

The product of their labor appears to be designer jeans.  But it could be any product really, that we in America consume so readily and purchase so cheaply from Chinese and other foreign labor markets.

A case might be made that this is improvement for China.  It certainly is for American migrant farm workers, in the sense that they are making ten times what they might have made in Latin America. 

Yet what a convenient scheme for us.  Their servitude is our gain.  Unless of course we see a lack of jobs to replace those we have lost through efficiency.  In theory, the cheaper prices and increased productivity of business investment is channeled back into the economy where it can hire new employees for new types of production.  In theory.  I can't claim to understand economics well enough to make a claim either way.

The American job market doesn't seem to be what it once was.  Today a high school diploma, hands and a strong back won't get you as far as it once did.  You can still do pretty well for yourself by going to college and taking a degree in math or science, to do the labor that American businesses will still pay top dollar for.  But that's a selective portion of American society.  It requires a level of human and social capital that many American families don't possess - that for many was never possessed.  The difference is that in the past, you could stumble out of high school and find a cozy middle class life for yourself.  No longer. 

This seems a question for American civilization: can we as a people raise the bar enough for the average American family that even the lowest rungs - those for whom - for whatever reason - the rigor of high school and college or technical school wasn't enough?  Is this economic and social requirement too much to ask?  We've still certainly the need for low-skill, tedious labor.  Who will perform these jobs? 

You can't outsource crops.  Not at least to the extent that the land itself is a natural resource.  We've done a pretty swell job sneaking in illegal labor for now.  Our obedience to the siren song of low prices and hidden externalities has enabled a robust market for low-wage earners.  People are being taken advantage of, as they must be.  They are working in shitty conditions for compensation we would not stoop to accept.

And yet anti-illegal sentiment seems to be reaching historic proportions.  We have the gall to pretend that these people are somehow leeching off us - expecting health care and public education.  Not In My Backyard (well, unless you're here for the lawn trimmings).

Everyone wants the brainwork.  No one wants to swab the decks.  Unless the price is right.  Which it isn't.  How much would they have to pay before your daughter or son making a career out of picking lettuce, washing dishes or sewing garments seems admirable?

Someone has to do it. 

"A trusty servant's picture would you see,
This figure well survey, who'ever you be.
The porker's snout not nice in diet shows;
The padlock shut, no secret he'll disclose;
Patient, to angry lords the ass gives ear;
Swiftness on errand, the stag's feet declare;
Laden his left hand, apt to labour saith;
The coat his neatness; the open hand his faith;
Girt with his sword, his shield upon his arm,
Himself and master he'll protect from harm."
- Arthur Cleveland Coxe

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