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Is Blue Collar Work "Smart?"


I don't really want to stick around for 246 pages of Matthew Crawford explaining why his parents and friends were wrong to question his decision to go into motorcycle repair. But his New York Times Magazine article on the subject is well worth a read.

Crawford's point is simple enough: Physical labor is not dumb labor. Motorcycle repair is tricky, technical work. Sociologist Mike Rose made this argument with rather more empirical data in The Mind at Work. The crucial innovation here is Crawford's credibility: A PhD in political science, and a stint as executive director of a D.C. think tank. He can pronounce motorcycle repair an intellectual exercise because his curriculum vitae names him as someone who knows from intellectual exercises. He's like David Brock for the blue collar set.

But Crawford's argument goes a couple of steps too far. What he's got is an argument for the dignity, and even fulfillment, of physical labor. What he wants is an argument for its economic returns. And so he enlists Princeton University economist Alan Blinder's work on the vulnerability of white collar jobs to outsourcing (“You can’t hammer a nail over the Internet.”) and makes rather a lot out of his own salary: $20 an hour, plus book advances and freelance commissions.

collegepremium.jpgThe problem can be seen in the graph on your right. The college wage premium -- the extra salary that apportions to the average bachelor's degree -- remains high. And over the past 25 years, it's actually risen. Lawrence Katz and Claudia Goldin can even explain why. (Short version: the growth in the supply of college graduates slowed even as the growth in demand for college graduates quickened.)

And that, I'd submit, is the real reason that people assume the physical trades stupid. We associate compensation with intelligence. Indeed, I'd go a step further: It's important to us to associate compensation with intelligence. Our society wants to believe the economy relatively just. People can accept that the hand is invisible, but they don't want to believe it capricious. There should be a "reason" that bankers make more money than construction workers. Something more virtuous than the economy happens to prefer people who move money to people who move plywood. And there are generally two acceptable candidates: They work harder or they're smarter. Hanging drywall isn't an air conditioned endeavor, so relative toil doesn't obviously favor the finance people. That leaves intelligence.

Physical jobs -- and for that matter, service sector jobs, which the Bureau of Labor Statistics projects will dominate job growth in the coming years -- will be more respected when they're better compensated. That's the story of manufacturing in the 20th Century, and finance in the early portion of the 21st (being a banker, as they say, used to mean you were boring, not that you routinely ate at Masa and summered in the Hamptons). We rationalize this process through a sort of tautology: People want money. The intelligent thing is to work in a high-paid profession. Intelligent people thus work in highly-paid professions.

But the more basic economic answer, according to Katz and Goldin, is that the supply of college educated labor is constrained and so commands a higher wage. Barriers to entry give them more bargaining power. But that's obviously not the only way for workers to secure bargaining power. Examined broadly, the history of manual labor in this country doesn't suggest that physical jobs secured more respect by convincing people of their complexity. They secured more respect by unionizing, and thus becoming good, even coveted, positions.

(Photo credit: AP Photo/Chris Carlson; Graph credit: Wall Street Journal.)

By Ezra Klein  |  June 1, 2009; 10:00 AM ET
Categories:  Unions  
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Great post Ezra. But I would caution you to more clearly define the "we" you are using. What you are saying is probably true of a lot of middle and upper class people--and even a lot of upwardly mobile lower class people. But there are lots of people around the country--I know many in the Midwest--who genuinely value working with ones hands as "real" work. In Charles Taylor's Sources of the Self, he argues, incorporating, but also expanding Max Weber's argument, that valuing such work is a constituent part of the western "self," and became strengthened and defined in various forms of Protestantism. Now, you might argue that Weber's argument actually backs up your wealth argument--equating wealth with goodness or virtue of some kind--, and I would agree; however, the value of working with your hands as per se good also emerged in a generalized way. I think you will find this attitude in vast swathes of the Midwest where parents encourage their kids to pursue "practical" jobs, which may include good-paying blue collar work. Moreover, as someone who is interested in the union movement, you must know that in the Labour movement in Britain and the Socialist parties in Europe the value of honest work with ones hands were nurtured by unions. It is similiar in the United States.

Posted by: Castorp1 | June 1, 2009 10:20 AM | Report abuse

Ezra, I think you should consider what the underlying behavior is that makes a degree worth more: it is more likely that the hirer thinks the degree on the candidate's resume insurers the hirer from responsibility for quality of work, than it is that the degree actually guarantees the quality sought. In days of yore, purchasers bought from IBM because it was a safe choice rather than the best choice. But don't get me wrong, having a college education IS a good idea in general.

However, the US economy ahead will not be typical of post-WWII US economic performance. Other nations now produce just as good college graduates, and they produce them in greater numbers. If the likely relatively flat performance of the US economy proves to be true over the next 10-15 years (and the evidence is becoming more prevalent), the question becomes what the prospects for a job that lasts and allows acceptable income to support life adequately and provide for a family.

I'd argue that inherently local activities provide the best prospects for stability and happiness, but with a much lower standard of living. Plumbers, carpenters and other 'trades' will be employable. And it won't be the unions that make them 'good jobs' - it is the inherent safeness of doing necessary work.

Banking, finance, corporate middle management in huge companies, et. al. are going to go where the price is right and acceptable candidates are available. There is no prospect that the US will continue to be a safe harbor for these jobs, any more than manufacturing has proved to be in the last 30 years.

The US is still living on the dream that we are better, but the facts say we are not, in occupation after occupation.

You want happiness and security? Follow the Danes: low expectations, a balanced life, and an economy that is realisticly in tune with world trends is all that we can hope for. The US Empire is about over.

Posted by: JimPortlandOR | June 1, 2009 10:35 AM | Report abuse

But motorcycle repair usually requires some additional schooling. As do most typical "blue collar" jobs. If you're working a line or selling things at Wal-Mart no. But if you're doing HVAC, yes.

Posted by: endaround | June 1, 2009 10:45 AM | Report abuse

$20 an hour? Ha. If that's all he's making, he's underpriced. Garages typically bill mediocre car mechanics at $50 an hour or more. Plumbers are $50-100 an hour even in relatively low-wage areas.

The funny thing is, companies that recognize the importance of blue-collar skills and profit from doing so still get dinged by business pundits whose heaviest labor is hitting shift and some other key at the same time. Consider Costco, which regularly gets slammed for paying its workers too much, even though the reduced turnover and increased productivity reportedly well outweigh the extra direct costs...

Posted by: paul314 | June 1, 2009 1:01 PM | Report abuse

I was a bit ambivalent about that piece, not least because it tended towards purple prose. The basic thesis is fine -- working in a skilled trade is a job with pride, but pride alone doesn't pay the rent/mortgage.

But people in the skilled trades during better times basically bought into the idea that their jobs would give them a secure, productive if unspectacular life. Instead, the economy is configured to reward the investor class and rent-seekers. (NB: Jobs requiring degrees are usually jobs with 401(k)s.)

You can really strip it down to a pretty vulgar class analysis, which was in evidence during not-Joe the non-plumber's 15 minutes of campaign fame.

Posted by: pseudonymousinnc | June 1, 2009 5:28 PM | Report abuse


Matthew Crawford got his Ph.D in political philosophy, not political science.

Posted by: jpliving | June 2, 2009 9:06 PM | Report abuse

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