The Make-Work Economy

Why are the most essential people generally paid the least?

Photo by Emmanuel Ikwuegbu on Unsplash

Even before the pandemic, a lot of us realized who the essential workers were, but COVID-19 really drove home the point. They were the doctors and nurses who cared for those whom everyone else was afraid to touch. Other essential people, also at great risk to themselves, kept the buses and subways running and the mail delivered. Many heroes kept raising, growing, harvesting and packaging our food and driving the trucks to deliver it to stores and restaurants, where another group of fearless workers made the food available to us or brought it right to our doorsteps. Utility workers kept the lights on, the gas flowing and the water running, while plumbers plugged any sudden leaks, police and firefighters kept answering emergency calls, and sanitation crews picked up our garbage. Teachers did their best to conduct education over Zoom. Thanks to all these essential people and many more, life went on during lockdown.

A large number of businesses and activities, deemed nonessential, were forced to shut down, and their workers suffered dire financial losses. But millions of professionals could do their business—whether essential or not—over the Internet without ever leaving their homes, or country houses. Wealthy and totally nonessential retirees like me could live in perfectly safe, if rather boring, isolation, using our computers to watch our dividends flow into our brokerage accounts and to order everything we needed from Amazon. It didn’t seem fair for some of us to be safe and others to be in danger. But then life has rarely been fair.

I’ve given much thought over the years to the nature of work and the division of labor in modern societies. Our prehistoric ancestors wouldn’t be able to comprehend all the stuff we do. When humans first evolved, almost all of them were, like other animals, perpetually busy getting food, raising offspring, and making sure their families had shelter from the elements. As civilization progressed, humans gathered and grew food more efficiently, and many people were freed up for other pursuits, such as trading, toolmaking and eventually manufacturing and banking. Early on, some people became leaders and others followers. Finance, the ownership of property and the use of weapons and force created societies marked by stark economic inequality. In medieval feudal systems, kings and lords and their armies ruled over the peasants, who did all the essential work.

As recently as in the 19th Century, Europe’s landed aristocracy lived the good life made possible by households full of servants and estates full of tenant farmers. The lords might manage their holdings, but no self-respecting aristocrat, and certainly not his sons or daughters, “worked” for a living. In Russia, the underclass was so oppressed and exploited that these unfortunate souls came to be known as “serfs.” Most cruelly of all, the American South powered its economy by importing and enslaving Africans. These most extremely unequal societies were unstable and crumbled during the U.S. Civil War and the Russian Revolution.

The Industrial Revolution brought sweeping changes around the world. Machines made it possible for relatively few people to supply society’s most essentials needs: food, clothing and shelter. The rest of the population had to figure out some other way to make a living, and capitalism creatively spawned or greatly expanded our industries and professions, including all sorts of health care, education, scientific research, finance, law, government bureaucracies, religious and other non-profit organizations, political lobbying and consulting, telecommunications, journalism, marketing, advertising, public relations, philanthropy, art, entertainment, sports, and on and on. Computers and other technology helped make the possibilities endless and helped keep almost everybody very busy. Many of the new jobs seemed essential to modern society, but the large majority, I would argue, were not essential at all.

With the rapid development of industry, technology and public institutions came a new attitude toward “work.” While the elites before the 20th Century looked down upon workers (benevolently or not), these days work is the goal for most people and being “out of work” is a problem. Even the richest people in the world “work” at their hedge funds or corporations to make themselves richer or “work” at the philanthropic institutions they have created. To be idle even when rich is considered disgraceful. The Industrial Revolution unleashed a mad scramble to create new things for people to do. The result is what I call the Make-Work Economy.

That economy has long been prone to booms and busts, with corporate and financial tycoons achieving riches that most people could only dream of. The Roaring Twenties, for example, gave way to the Great Depression. It was only after Franklin Roosevelt launched his New Deal, and America and our allies won World War II, that our Make-Work Economy began to work well for most of the population. Wealth was shared, and the middle class expanded rapidly. But the wheel of fortune turned again in recent decades. The middle class has been shrinking lately, and extreme economic inequality has returned

Nowadays the definition of “work” has become infinitely malleable. At one end of the spectrum is “labor,” which I would define as hard work. By hard, I don’t mean difficult. Labor may or may not be difficult. But it can be hard on the body. It can be hard to endure. It can stink, like emptying bedpans in a hospital. It often involves using your muscles to move heavy objects or moving things so fast for so long, and in such a repetitive manner, that the effort strains every part of the body, from the eyes to the feet. I’m talking about the people cooking at McDonald’s or packing orders at an Amazon warehouse—the people who haven’t yet been replaced by robots. Labor doesn’t always involve big muscles, and it can sometimes be pleasant and rewarding. Under the umbrella of labor, I would include the most essential hard workers of all: child-care specialists, teachers and mothers or fathers who stay home to care for their children. Anyone who’s been around kids knows what hard work they are. That labor can feel wonderful much of the time, but it is often tedious and hard to endure, and if you’ve ever changed a diaper or cleaned up vomit, you know that the job can sometimes stink.

Our language is still a little fuzzy when it comes to the distinction I’m making between labor and other less onerous types of work and make-work. We consider “work” to be one of the main purposes of living, and we all “work” if we can. But in political and sociological discussions, you often hear condescending references to “the workers,” “working people” or “the working class”—which we see as an admirable, but underprivileged segment of society. It’s a linguistic admission that the rest of us aren’t really working very hard.

Let’s face it. If we are not interested in caring for children or cultivating a garden in our back yard as a hobby, labor is something we try to avoid. That’s why we hire laborers and buy labor-saving devices, such as washing machines. And avoiding a life of labor is, I submit, the main reason why many of us get an education, especially a college education. It makes economic sense, and it is one of the greatest ironies of modern society. Because of the proliferation of professional jobs and specialties—some of them essential and many of them make-work—getting a college education or technical training enables some people to make much more money than others who work much harder for a living.

Consider my own case. I was not born into a rich family, and as a boy, I did my share of labor. I mowed lawns for money, I helped make deliveries for my uncle’s furniture store, and, while I was not a member of the local country club, one summer I ran the concession stand next to the club’s swimming pool, flipping burgers and selling candy to rich kids. The work was hard but not bad, and I enjoyed having enough pocket money to buy 45s by the Beatles, Beach Boys and 4 Seasons. But during the summer after my sophomore year in college, I learned what real labor was all about. I got a job at a sock factory, working the “graveyard shift,” from 11 p.m. to 7 a.m. All night long I had to race around an array of 20 sewing machines, which were spewing out cheap white socks at a great rate of speed. My sole task was to turn each sock inside-out because it needed to be inside-out for another work station to complete the next step in making the sock—sewing up its toe. You don’t need to understand that last sentence. Just understand that my job was very hard because of the speed required to keep up with the machines, excruciatingly boring and totally exhausting. All I could do at the end of my shift was drive home and fall into bed. If I needed any incentive to study diligently and finish my B.A. degree, my summer in the sock factory did the trick.

After college, I spent four years teaching algebra and biology in high school. I was an essential worker—essential at least to the basic education of my students. But the work was hard and the pay was pitiful. So I switched careers and went into the journalism. That’s not always highly paid either, but I successfully rose to be a writer and editor at Time magazine. My work at the magazine was often difficult. I felt pressure to meet deadlines and experienced a great deal of anxiety. But the work was usually fascinating. Some writers may actually sweat at their computers, but I never did. Between the deadlines there were plenty of wine-soaked lunches with sources and colleagues and a lot of enjoyable boondoggle trips to faraway lands. After the tension of writing a story or editing a section of the magazine, I had the joy of seeing my work in print on Monday morning, a thrill that could not be matched by delivering a pizza or emptying a bedpan. I did not have a career of hard labor. I had a career of fun and excitement with some difficult but interesting work mixed in. On average over the years I was paid about 5 times as much as I would have earned as a teacher. Yet I’ve often thought that I would have been of greater value to society if I had remained a teacher. It’s certain that 5 teachers could have been supported with what I was paid.

Backed by no data but many observations, I would say that, in general, the amount of money people are paid is inversely proportional to how essential they are to our daily lives—how important they are to our getting our food, clothing, shelter, education and health care. The more essential they are, the less they are paid. There are of course many exceptions to this generalization. Doctors are essential. They are also highly educated, engage in extremely hard, tension-filled, exhausting work, and are highly paid for it. But many of their helpers, including the nurses and hospital orderlies, are examples of essential workers who are not paid what they are worth. Actors and other entertainers are not essential at all, but life would be boring without them. They can strike it rich, but most don’t make a lot of money. Then there are the workers who are not essential, not well paid and do nothing but make your life miserable—like the junk callers, junk texters and junk emailers just trying to sell you junk. In a way, these people are the most unfortunate creations of the Make-Work Economy.

It’s no mystery why there are sizable disparities in pay. It’s reasonable that someone who’s invested in education should make more money than someone who hasn’t. And it’s inevitable that LeBron James should make more than a teacher. He is almost unique—so talented that he is much more difficult to replace than a teacher. But should he make a thousand times as much as a teacher? The disparities in our society have become absurd. Why should a CEO make hundreds of times as much as the average worker for his or her company? Some brilliant and benevolent CEOs have greatly enriched the lives of their workers, but too many are just incompetent parasites who live long enough on the labor of others to get fired and fly away in a multi-million dollar golden parachute.

According to the New York Post, Jeff Bezos is retiring as Amazon’s CEO with an estimated $197 billion, which the newspaper says is 739,489 times the wealth of a median American at age 65. He’s certainly a brainy guy who built a wildly successful company, but shouldn’t he have done much more to share the wealth, both with his employees and with society at large? At least his ex-wife is giving away her Amazon billions as fast as she can.

Don’t get me wrong. I’m not a Communist who believes that everyone should be financially equal. Initiative, energy and innovation should be rewarded. And I’m not against the Make-Work Economy. It’s a miracle of our imaginations. We would be in real trouble if we had not figured out so many new ways for people to make a good living. We can’t all be teachers and farmers.

But the distribution of jobs is all out of whack. The legal system and lawyers are essential, but the legal profession has made the system so complicated that much of what lawyers do is make-work. When was the last time you signed up for something on the Internet and actually read the “terms and conditions,” written by an army of lawyers, that you had to agree to? There are more than 2,000 TV channels on my cable system. Is that really necessary? We love our athletes, but do we need every one of those ex-jock analysts and sportswriters on ESPN and the other sports channels and websites? Journalists are essential, but while local reporters are becoming extinct, the thousands of national journalists all covering the same handful of stories are mostly redundant and uninspired, perhaps including yours truly. University faculties are bloated, making college ridiculously expensive, and a hefty percentage of the courses offered are useless for any practical purpose. Then there’s the gargantuan military budget, financing such questionable, costly and tragic ventures as the inconclusive 20-year war in Afghanistan. The most overgrown enterprise of all is financial services. All those bankers, hedge fund titans, investment advisers, portfolio managers and talking heads on CNBC and Fox Business? They’re putting in the hours, but they’re not working hard. They’re having fun competing in a big game with other investors. They are gamblers in the giant casino that is Wall Street.

Again, I’m not against the Make-Work Economy. Something like what we have now was the inevitable result of capitalism, which is the best economic system yet devised. If you have come up with a creative way to make a buck, if you are a new star of TikTok, if you can sell ice to the Inuit, then more power to you. I made my money, invested it, retired early and haven’t had to work full-time in 20 years. But can’t we have more respect for essential people who have to work hard almost all the time? Can’t we offer more support for the workers who keep us alive, who provide our basic daily needs. Why can’t we raise the federal minimum wage? Why do Republicans keep insisting on more tax cuts for corporations and the rich? Why can’t the tax system be made more progressive again? Why can’t we have more teachers and nurses and child-care and elder-care workers and fewer sports and financial analysts? Why do we let essential public services decline and starve when so many resources are going into such nonessential crap? This week New York City threw a ticker-tape parade for the essential workers. Is that all we can do?

Many of us lounge in luxury, while many others struggle to survive from paycheck to paycheck. An unexpected expense of as little as a few hundred dollars can throw millions of families into financial crisis. The U.S. Government stepped up and spent trillions to bail out families devastated by the pandemic, but Republicans are already calling for that support to be ended. Millions of essential workers—especially Blacks and Latinos—are toiling for peanuts, some of them holding down two or three jobs to care for their families. They serve us and meet our every need, but the conditions they endure—the inadequate income, subpar education and substandard housing—are not all that much better than 19th Century slavery. It’s 21st Century-style slavery. You just can’t see the chains.

History shows that societies tolerating such enormous inequality are unstable and ripe for revolution. In this day and age, I don’t see how an army of underpaid essential workers could challenge the weaponry of the U.S. Army. But our total reliance on computers has made “the establishment” and our economy vulnerable. Hackers have now shown just how fragile our civilization has become. Isn’t shutting down the Colonial Pipeline proof enough? So far, the hackers have been mostly pranksters, extortionists and other criminals. But if the working class ever gets fed up, gets organized and enlists an army of revolutionary hackers, then we should look out for a world of trouble. It would be better, as Bernie Sanders and Elizabeth Warren have advocated, to have a peaceful, progressive political revolution and to treat essential workers the way they deserve to be treated.