Law in Contemporary Society
I'm a UAW kid. For that reason I'm sure it isn't coincidental that Mike Rowe, host of the television show Dirty Jobs, has always been a source of constant fascination for me. In case you're unfamiliar with the show, each episode of Dirty Jobs documents Mike Rowe spending one day doing some socially integral job that we, despite having reaped the efforts of the workers, have probably never ever considered. It's fascinating if you have any interest in learning how exterminators kill rats or how old mattresses are disposed of, but there's probably sufficient entertainment value to be found in watching Rowe inseminate sheep or fall in pig shit even if you couldn't care less about the industrial foundations that make "civilized life possible for the rest of us," in the words of the show's introduction. It depends on your entertainment goals I suppose.

After reading the first few chapters of Veblen's The Theory of the Leisure Class, I definitely was reminded of Mike Rowe, but I started thinking less about what he taught me about how the Golden Gate Bridge gets painted and more about his opinions regarding societal attitudes about industrial work. I think that Mr Rowe, having spent thousands of hours actually performing over 250 different jobs, is in a fairly unique position to comment.

In this video, which is about twenty minutes long, Rowe tells some funny stories and cracks some jokes but also hones in on what he calls America's "war on work." The video is great but if you don't want to spend your time watching it there's a link over on the right side of the screen to expand a pop-out transcript.

Rowe's "war on work" reminds me eerily of Veblen's "tabu on labor." Rowe and Veblen each have radically different hypotheses explaining its origin and Rowe's "solution" seems ham-fisted and of dubious efficacy, but I still think it's interesting how two individuals expressing their opinions over one hundred years apart seem to independently (well, I would presume independently) come to the same conclusion. It's enough to make a union boy weep. No wonder Ford hired him to sell pickup trucks.

-- AndrewCascini - 05 Apr 2010

Andrew - interesting comparison. For some reason, your post reminded me of an article I read recently in the New York Times which made me consider the status of Veblen's "tabu on labor" today. For those who don't have a chance to read the article, it is a description of a new Do-It-Yourself "Market" at the Grand Hyatt. The idea behind the market is that people prefer to be able to have the food that they want when they want it as opposed to having to wait for room service.

It will be interesting to see if it catches on. Room service is one of those things that enables one to do as little work as possible. Not only does the purchaser not need to cook, he doesn't even need to get out of bed. It is a symbol of leisure. It also allows for conspicuous consumption, as the evidence of expensive room service often lingers in the hallway for a few hours after it has been finished, where the neighbors can see it. At the same time, it can be inconvenient - as the article mentions, it is often slow.

Having to go downstairs to a "do-it-yourself" market represents labor. Granted, the Grand Hyatt seems to think people prefer a little bit of labor in exchange for timely service, but it will be interesting to see if this idea catches on and if the people who order room service will be willing to "work" for their food, and be seen working for their food. In other words, does this demonstrate a chipping away at the "tabu on labor"?

-- DavidGoldin - 07 Apr 2010

I used to work for the union that represents the Grand Hyatt workers. We had a wonderful work stoppage there once, about some sulfuric acid that was dripping out of the rooftop a/c system. You can read about it here: The hotel has a love-hate relationship with its room service. Many sports teams (including the Orioles, as the article mentions) treat the Hyatt as their official hotel in NYC because it's the only hotel in the city with 24-hour full room service. Thus the room service brings in millions of dollars a year. However, in order to have hot meals 24/7, the hotel has to keep a tournant (hot-line cook) on the job 24/7. Tournants earn about $24 an hour, room service waiters earn about $11 (I'm guessing what the pay rates are these days, back then it was $19 and and $8, I recall). Other hotels in NYC also claim "24-hour room service," but what they really have after 11pm or so is just an $11/hour waiter bringing cold food up on a tray. (The hotels also have the option under the contract of paying one person to work as both tournant and server at the $24 rate; maybe the Hyatt does that after midnight or so; I don't know.) The Times article tries to wonder if the advent of the Hyatt Market represents a sea change in our culture, that we now prefer speed to luxury (and, as Dan points out, don't care so much about the tabu on labor anymore). I doubt it. It seems like just another Starbucks-type place. Today's leisure class doesn't seem to think of waiting on line to get our arugula salad as tabu labor. Rather, I think the article made it into the Times because so many Times readers commute through Grand Central Station and might want to give the Market a try for breakfast. Then the reporter just added on some thinky stuff.

Times thinky stuff can be very naive, however. Today's article "A Mine Boss Inspires Fear, but Pride, Too" is an attempt at praise of the owner of the chronically unsafe mine where at least 25 people are now dead in an explosion earlier this week. The article makes me sick, and I commented accordingly:

> "Yet even some of his longstanding adversaries respect his commitment to his principles."

What principles? Putting his profits over human lives? Copying the ancient tactic of dangling an extra few bucks' pay in front of his employees in order to keep them from having safety and pensions?

Who speaks well of this man? A few employees who've fallen for his hardly original method of manipulating workers' thoughts and fears. A lawyer who has cut settlements with him (out of which I'm sure the lawyer gets a comfy percentage. Great gig -- open your law practice near a sleazy mine owner, wait for the deaths and the suits to roll in, then sue and settle with the guy out of court. Of course the lawyer "respects" this scum, he's his meal ticket.) People who are more economically independent of him have nothing nice to say at all.

I find it really disturbing that the NYT tried to write a flattering profile of this person. It speaks to our current worship of any CEO or financier who manages to get rich, no matter how they did it. (Admit it NYT -- you think Dick Fuld, Hank Greenberg, and these other billionaire capitalist ubermen who wrecked the economy are superior to plumbers and waitresses, don't you? And you think this guy is superior to the workers he's killed.)

The article is also just childlike in treating his anti-union tactics as if they're an outgrowth of some complex set of "principles" he's developed. They're just ways to keep a union out that you can find in any union-busting guide of the past 70 years. Union mines are proven safer than non-union mines. The miners would be home with their families today if the boss weren't a greedy you-know-what. He's not smart, he's not complex, he doesn't inspire pride -- he's the same sleazy employer who was a heartless killer in 1890, in 1932, in 1955, and now today.

- Amanda Bell

First off, I just want to say that Amanda's comments were super helpful and interesting. That is an impressive piece of political/media analysis.

I also am puzzled at the veneration of Blankenship. When I was at a conference on climate policy in DC last year, I spent some time talking about the coal industry with activists from West Virginia and Kentucky. There does seem to be, to borrow a phrase, a "reality distortion field" around Blankenship in particular and the coal industry in general. People living there know intimately the harms of coal mining, especially mountain-top removal; at the same time, there is a perception that there is no alternative.

A few months ago there was a really interesting debate between RFK Jr. and Blankenship at Charleston University. You can check it out here. It's particularly interesting to see how Blankenship interacts with the host and crowd.

One last note - paging Thurman Arnold: "Some Massey families fly the Massey flag — white with a large flaming M — in front of their homes." Note how the Times refers to them as "Massey families."

-- DevinMcDougall - 08 Apr 2010

@Amanda, what a disgusting ariticle. Further proof that the NYT caters to its audience, which tends not to be working class people. Speaking of the newspaper of record, here is their resident conservative "thinker" on work:

David Brooks: Yes. I was going to say that for the first time in human history, rich people work longer hours than middle class or poor people. How do you construct a rich versus poor narrative when the rich are more industrious?

Gail Collins: It may be true that the more hours you work on average, the wealthier you are likely to be. But while it’s harder to quantify, I’m pretty sure that the work gets more and more pleasant the higher up the ladder you climb. Forty hours in a chicken-plucking factory feels a lot longer than 60 hours managing a large corporation. Is it possible that college-educated parents are spending more time passing down their advantages than other parents?

David Brooks: Here’s the trickiest case of all. I don’t know if you saw Tara Parker-Pope’s piece in the Science section on Tuesday, but she reported on an interesting set of statistics. First, parents are spending more time with their kids today than in previous generations. Before 1995, mothers spent on average 12 hours a week with their children. By 2007, that number had leapt to 21.2 for college-educated moms and 15.9 hours for those with less education. Paternal time leapt from 4.5 hours to 9.6 hours, among the college-educated and from 3.7 to 6.8 among the less educated.

I was fascinated by how parental time correlates to education. Is it possible that college-educated parents are spending more time passing down their advantages than other parents? Could it be that the rich replicate themselves by dint of hard work and parental attention, on top of all the other less worthy advantages?

Uncomfortable questions.

The whole thing is much worse than the part I quoted. Veblen's response would be that "industrious" work does not include making bets on mortgage defaults. For a satisfying frying of Mr. Brooks, I present Matt Taibbi. (Warning strong language and vulgar name calling). JohnAlbanese - 12 Apr 2010

I think this article does a good job of showing how someone like Blankenship gets venerated. The article, talking about a tv show "Undercover Boss", can't help but compare the CEO's to gods and kings. The writer is aware of what she's doing - she mentions that the show is largely advertising pageantry - but parrots the advertising lines anyway.

“Undercover Boss” fulfills a meeker yearning: if only the sultan or the czar (or, in Soviet times, Comrade Stalin) knew how bad things really were, surely he would intercede and make them better. Many employees prefer to believe that their superiors are well meaning, just misinformed, because it leaves open the possibility of redress. Any worker dreams that good work, once noticed, will not go unrewarded. And the conceit is just as gratifying to those who identify with the top: employers, like kings, gaze into a reflection that glows with compassion and largesse.
StephenSevero - 12 Apr 2010

I read this article in October 2007. I couldn't help remembering it less than a year later, in September 2008 when Lehman fell. For those who don't have the chance to look at it, it is a profile of Dick Fuld, the man at the head of Lehman Brothers when it collapsed. Both the title of the article ("The Survivor") and the tone of the article seem to venerate Mr. Fuld, despite the fact that even the article's writer acknowledges the many risky steps Lehman was taking and the fact that Mr. Fuld was not a particularly nice person to work with.

I mention this because I thought Stephen's post was particularly on point. We, as a society, venerate our CEOs. We tend to give people like Blankenship and Dick Fuld the benefit of the doubt, despite the gravity of their wrongs. And when things truly do fall apart, they drop from our consciousness pretty quickly. Until Amanda mentioned him, I had never heard of Blankenship and I certainly haven't seen very many profiles of Dick Fuld in the Times lately.

-- DavidGoldin - 13 Apr 2010

I think we venerate or at least wish to believe the best of CEOs and such leaders for a couple reasons. One, without NYT and Vanity Fair articles about how these people are so intelligent, wonderful, principled and superior, and more posts like Amanda's, we'll want change and change is messy. Even in that NYT article profiling families of miners after the last disaster, there was much respect and nostalgia for the industry as a tradition of the area and a great employer - it was presented as something people really want because the $30+/hour will provide a kid right out of high school with a wife, kids and a house. Such an article is a lot easier to right than one outlining what could be done to avoid disasters, how to limit and phase out the industry in general and how to enable the mining families to find other sources of middle-class comfort. And two: Remember our first lessons about the Civil War, how we learned that most of the pro-slavery advocates were actually middle-class or poor farmers with one or zero slaves? One of my teachers explained that with slaves around, they can feel better about themselves and aspire to own one or two. Perhaps we give the CEOs and such the benefit of the doubt (but does the same apply to governors and senators?) because we wish to identify more with the mine owner than the mine worker. Not just we law students but any self-identified middle-class, upper-middle class person. Also, growing up we were taught to emulate successful people, and even how we ask for examples of graduates who have successfully pursued some career path we're interested in. Those articles are sort of like unrealistic "how-to guides": if you think this way, and have this work ethic, then you might be successful too! making fun Disney CEO


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r10 - 13 Jan 2012 - 23:32:13 - IanSullivan
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