The Myth of “Unskilled Labor”


If we look at reality for more than an instant, if we look at the human beings passing us on the street, it’s not bearable. It’s not bearable to watch while the talents and the abilities of infants and children are crushed and destroyed. These happen to be things that I just can’t think about. And most of the time, the factory workers and domestic workers and cashiers and truck drivers can’t think about them either. Their performances as these characters are consistent and convincing, because they actually believe about themselves just what I believe about them — that what they are now is all that they could ever have been, they could never have been anything other than what they are. Of course, that’s what we all have to believe, so that we can bear our lives and live in peace together. But it’s the peace of death.

– Wallace Shawn

For those of you who know Wallace Shawn simply as Vizzini in The Princess Bride, or as the Grand Nagus in Deep Space Nine, it might be surprising to discover the thinker behind the actor. If you haven’t read his essay “Why I Call Myself a Socialist,” I encourage you to follow the link above and do it, now.

In the meantime, a thought:

A post I wrote last week touched on the topic of “unskilled labor.” In an election cycle defined, at least partly, by the question of the minimum wage, and the level to which it should or should not be raised, I think this is a rabbit trail worth following.

You’ll notice that I place the words “unskilled labor” in quotes. That is because, simply, I do not believe such a thing exists. In reality, this is a distinction we make in order to justify valuing the work of certain individuals at lower levels of pay than that of others.

A professional is someone who does their job well, regardless of the line of work they are in. A barista or a waitress possesses a different skill set than my job demands, but it’s a skill set nonetheless. And their expertise is worthy of our respect.

Sadly, though, what they usually get is our scorn and impatience. They get to not only serve us; they get to put up with us in all our vainglory, as well. If the waiter, say, takes just a little too long to refill our water glass. Or if the gas station attendant is cleaning the restroom right when we need a pit stop. (Of course, had we arrived and found dirty facilities, we would have complained about that, too.)

There is a Spanish word that springs to mind: menospreciar. Literally, it means “to assign a lower price.” To value less, a habit born out of a false sense of superiority: after all, they are “unskilled,” right?

And yet, our day is built on the backs of these “unskilled laborers.” The woman who rings us up at the gas station or the fast food joint; the man who cleans the lint traps at our laundromats; the people who stock the shelves at our grocery stores, so that we don’t have to visit the warehouse each time we want a can of tomatoes or a stick of butter; or the folks who pick the apples that we so conveniently find, laid out and ready, in the produce section–in short, our lives as we live them would be impossible without these amazing and ubiquitous people.

Furthermore, if added value is the criterion by which cost is determined, then these lovely people deserve more than most “skilled” workers receive. Think about it: how important is what you do, really? None of us bats an eyelid when our favorite actors or sports figures threaten to walk out because their paycheck is too low on zeros. But perish the thought that the people who serve us our food or keep our workplaces clean get any more money than they should.

I catalog books, which requires a certain level of skill. But at my most skillful, I’m not nearly as indispensable as the guys who collect my trash or make sure the milk on the shelves hasn’t gone bad. These people are in disease prevention, just like the doctor who charges you $100 an hour to take your temperature. They are, in their own way, healthcare professionals.

Me? I just make sure books line up in alphabetical order. Helpful? Sure. But not exactly “Save the cheerleader, save the world” material.

“Unskilled labor” is the backbone and foundation of our existence. How dare we then begrudge these people, these professionals, an actual living wage? The $15/hr demand carries a moral weight that far outstrips the statistical considerations with which we counter it. What does it matter that more jobs are created if the ones that already exist cannot support the people who fill them?

What it comes down to is this:

These “unskilled laborers,” professionals all, take care of us day in and day out. So is it really too much to ask that we take care of them, too?

Four More Years (of the Same Damn Thing)


Now, what I want is, Facts. Teach these boys and girls nothing but Facts. Facts alone are wanted in life. Plant nothing else, and root out everything else. You can only form the minds of reasoning animals upon Facts: nothing else will ever be of any service to them. This is the principle on which I bring up my own children, and this is the principle on which I bring up these children. Stick to Facts, sir!

– Thomas Gradgrind

I’m not gonna lie: I’m a little disappointed with Tuesday’s primary results.

The problem with the American electorate is that it suffers from a remarkable lack of imagination. And it has, once again, scared itself off just short of greatness.

Why are we, in this country, so afraid of big ideas? The Cold War ended 25 years ago; let the bogeyman go, people! In any case, no one is suggesting we go around calling each other “Comrade” and painting things red. And let’s be clear: Joseph Stalin was not a socialist, he was a dictator who used socialist rhetoric to consolidate and validate his rule. Not unlike certain other dictators (like Museveni in Uganda or al-Assad in Syria) who hide behind the rhetoric of democracy. Or xenophobic narcissists who build their movements on a platform of patriotic nationalism. Not that there are any of those around lately.

“Socialism,” as the younger generation of voters has responded to it over the last few months, is not (as has been condescendingly suggested by talking eggheads on news networks) just about “free college.” That’s part of it, but not remotely all of it…or even most of it.

The “New Socialism” is in many ways a restatement of Rawlsian “justice as fairness.” At its most basic, it’s about sharing. This is not a novel idea; most of us were taught to share as children. We just forget as we grow older. We’re not talking proletarian gray, here, either: no one’s calling for a complete leveling, just a little long overdue balancing in an effort to bring social divisions a bit closer to true.

It is not enough simply to preach faith in the American dream because the unpleasant truth is that not everyone is “created equal.” Donald Trump, for instance, did not earn his fortune. There were no bootstraps involved in his ascent; his is not an Alger-esque tale. Being born black is not the social equivalent of being born white; being born female is not the social equivalent of being born male; being born gay is not the social equivalent of being born straight. Not in practice. Doesn’t matter what the eyes of the law see; the eyes of prejudice are blindfolded.

What I advocate is not the abolition of success; it is the democratization of opportunity. Too many of our so-called entitlement programs are step-stools to nowhere. Even if all the unemployed were employed, the pay for “unskilled” labor will never amount to a living (never mind that our daily lives depend on this “unskilled” labor in almost every way). Why? Not because employers cannot afford to pay a living wage, but because doing so would cut into their profit margin. There is no will, so there is no way.

The only way to get past the “unskilled” jobs is to go to college, and increasingly, undertake some form of post-graduate study. But who can afford that? Working one’s way through college isn’t a feasible option anymore. So there’s the student loan. Which defeats its own purpose. These days, it’s a double whammy: not only will a college degree not net you a good job, but your unemployment will be complicated by debt payments people with jobs struggle to make.

This is the socialism of the Bernie Sanders supporter: Make America Fair Again. It’s not about free enterprise; it’s about freedom of movement. Freedom of access. Above all else, recognition of one another as interconnected. “Free college” is not an end in itself; it is a means to an end. It creates a ladder out of disadvantage to a career, and a living; it creates an educated electorate that knows the difference between a brain and a hairpiece; and it raises the bar for all of us by raising the level of public discourse in our communities.

The rationale behind reining in the banks and drafting the support of the über-rich is simple: wealth hoarded, in the vicinity of so much disadvantage, is immoral. It is also unsustainable. The idea that affluence is the ultimate expression of the American dream is ludicrous, especially if my dream fuels another man’s nightmare. When we have what we need, we don’t need any more; however, the capitalist impulse creates the impression that we can never have enough. Which makes us blind to all our fellow human beings who actually don’t.

We need leaders who both acknowledge these imbalances, and who are willing to try and rectify them. Even if by way of baby steps. I support Sanders the democratic socialist because at the end of the day, a small step is still a step in the right direction. And if that’s as far as he managed to go, at least the next guy or gal will have one less rung to climb.

Here’s the thing about Hillary Clinton: she could easily run as a moderate Republican. Bernie, on the other hand, represents the true progressives among us. True progressives are, by definition, ahead of the curve; they make change by tugging the narrative forward, not by pushing it from behind. Not that Clinton will do either. If her tack holds, she could win, take a four-year nap, and still deliver as promised.

It’s not enough just to get four more years. We need someone who will actually do something with them.

The Kids Are Alright


(Image from

Kick down the barricades
Listen what the kids say
From time to time people change their minds
But the music is here to stay 

– Bryan Adams

What I wouldn’t give to be a college student again!

Say what you will about the “damn millennials,” they’re more than just lazy punks with a poor work ethic. Much, much more. They are, like it or not, the future.

My undergraduate presidential election was Bush v. Gore, in 2000, which of course bled over into 2001 as Bush v. Gore. At the time, I was a junior at Southwest Baptist University in Bolivar, Mo., studying to be a Baptist minister. So, you can imagine where I came down on things: I was a Christian, and Christians voted for the guy on the right. Very little thought, backed by all the blind conviction I could muster.

Sixteen years later, I realize the myopia of my ways. It is, then, with profound respect and admiration that I watch the undergrads and young adults of this election cycle readily and competently engaging the political realities around them. Not just as it affects them personally, but as it impacts the larger world to which they understand themselves to belong.

There is, sad as I am to admit it, more social awareness and concern in their little fingers than I possessed in my whole being at their age. Perhaps the Internet has yielded a few positive dividends, after all. I wonder if, given access to social outlets like Twitter, Facebook, and the blogosphere, my friends and I might have been a bit more conscious of our surroundings in our early 20s.

Then again, there are existential differences that carry weight, as well. My parents handed me a well-endowed college fund that got me through all but the very last semester of my undergraduate career. Unlike many students today (and then, for that matter), I didn’t have to work while going to school, and even had I had to work, I could have feasibly made it through without having to take out a loan. I finished well before the market crashed in 2008 and took out other college funds as well-endowed as mine while their owners stood helplessly by. College was a cakewalk for me, comparatively speaking.

In retrospect, having married into my wife’s undergrad debt, I’ve gained more perspective on the issue, and the injustice of the system fires me up, too. But I didn’t live it like these guys do; I didn’t have to sink in order to swim; I didn’t have to choose between education and future solvency. This is their issue in a way it can never be mine; they’re paying through the nose, and it’s coming out bloody. And they’re coming out swinging.

They also don’t carry the same historical baggage as my generation. The Cold War is in my past, but it is in their prehistory. The only Mutually Assured Destruction they fear is the possibility of Trump in the White House. And, as one interviewee remarked in an article on, “socialism shouldn’t be a dirty word.”

I almost cheered when I read that, sitting here at my work desk: this is a major, monumental step forward. We have a generation of emerging citizens capable of envisioning socialism as something other than the USSR, as a cooperative ethic rather than as a clash of civilizations. Why? Because, quite simply, they are not us. Socialism is, to them, a new idea, not an old bugbear or cautionary tale used to stave off the liberal mind. They are throwbacks to the dawn of the concept, when it was about knocking down the fences that cut people off from the land, before it became about authority and still stood for community and solidarity.

If anyone can make this work, these are the ones to do it: they are not afraid to try new things, and they have one mother of a stake in the game. If Bernie Sanders falls short of the Oval, at the very least he is a hero for flipping the switch in young people’s minds, and showing them what fellow feeling is and can do if everyone works together in the interests of everybody else.

So the kids are taking control, which is as it should be. It’s their future, their world to make or break. I’m approaching 40, and while I’m not even close to being out of the game yet, with each passing year my role in all this becomes less about me and more about them. Which is also as it should be. It’s the long game I’m looking at here: I’m halfway to the finish line, but my nieces and nephew have their whole lives ahead of them. And I’m voting with the kids for my kids.

Thank goodness for the “damn millennials.” The future is theirs, and as such, it’s in good hands.