Saturday, February 04, 2006

Protestant work ethic or screwing the poor?

SusanG has a diary at DailyKos about the Protestant Work Ethic and the way the Democratic party embraces it. It would make a great "elevator pitch," but only because it relies on dangerous Republican mythology.
Which brings me, at last, to why I'm a Democrat (with a big "D"): Our party has a long and proud history of striving to ensure the safety, efficiency and dignity of the individual worker - and by extension, honoring the value of work itself. We've led the fight in abolishing exploitive child labor, legislating safety protections, instituting the eight-hour workday (both a safety and efficiency issue) and challenging workplace discrimination. To Democrats, workers matter. Work itself is a value we believe should be encouraged by paying people enough money to live on in dignity, creating conditions for an accessible job market, and putting into place a job training network that helps Americans remain flexible in a shifting, challenging economy that continually requires updated skills and approaches.

As John Edwards so succinctly put it during the 2004 campaign: Democrats value work over wealth.
I, personally, don't value work over wealth. Making a lot of money is not something I've ever been very concerned with, but suffice it to say that I'm not going to show up to a boring job for the the knowledge that I did the job well. People work at McDonald's or a grocery store to survive, or hopefully survive comfortably. If you gain satisfaction from knowing that every customer has enjoyed their McFood, that's great, but in no way should it be considered one of the perks of a job.

The problem with a stratified society is not that wealth is valued over work, but that wealth and work are decoupled from each other. The Democratic vision of the world is one where everyone can survive, but that from that springboard they can rely on their ingenuity and hard work to make their lives into what they want them to be.

The problem is, as a commenter on Kos notes, people associate Republicans with hard work and discipline:
Here in Mississippi, many of the people I've spoken to vote Republican consistently, and for exactly the same reasons you have so eloquently delineated. Personal responsibility, work ethic, fortitude in the struggle for stability, an ability to care for one's self and family - these are the things that these southern rural republicans hold dear. They have worked hard to get where they are today, and they will fight hard to stay there.
Republicans have been smart to keep the concepts of work and wealth coupled, but they've also relied heavily on the questionable corollary to the coupling: if you're not wealthy, it's because you're not working hard enough. This idea is attractive to a lot of parties - if you have wealth, it's because you earned it, and if you don't, you just need to work harder to get it. Never mind the realities of employees being robbed of benefits or fair wages, or discrimination on the basis of race, gender or sexuality creating unfair barriers between people who work hard and the monetary compensation they deserve. Even without these problems, there's always bad luck.

Given historic Republican loyalty to discrimination of all types (racism, sexism, homophobia, xenophobia), and the number of wealthy people who are loyal to the Republican party, it's safe to say that pushing the protestant work ethic in a world where compensation is not just functions to maintain the power differential between the haves and have nots. Republicans asking those who cannot live on their wages to take satisfaction in a job well done is an egregious insult.

A few years ago, I read a story in a local paper about a woman whose daughter was receiving pro-bono dental work. The mother explained to the reporter that her child had not seen a dentist in years, but that on her income, it was not affordable. She also added that she usually refused charity, wanting to show that she could be self-sufficient. My thought was, "Lady, fuck your self-sufficiency and your pull-yourself-up-by-your-bootstraps mythology, and get your kid's teeth fixed. Your pride should not allow your kid's teeth to rot inside her head." Even given the resources to meet basic needs in her family, the protestant work ethic stood between this family and health. People of limited means do not need these head-trips in addition to poverty.

When people cannot support themselves, they are not able to make rational decisions about how to allocate their resources. One cannot rationally choose between paying for food or medicine. Desperation, not reason, governs these choices, and it does as much damage to the rationality of the free market as it does to the lives of those who are trying to live by its whims. Only with social survival programs like health care, welfare and social security can the free market - or, more accurately the people participating in the market - be expected to value commodities and services rationally.

The notion that people need survival as motivation to work is backwards in a capitalist economy. Contributing to the workforce and spending in the marketplace can only be done rationally by people who have the means to survive. From that level playing field, the free market can dictate what works and what doesn't, given a regulatory body to maintain the coupling of work and wealth. Democrats need to show that they value work by delivering fair compensation to workers, not by duping people with feel-good consolation prizes.

Cross-posted on 43rd State Blues

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