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.
The 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.)
June 1, 2009; 10:00 AM ET
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