In his most recent column, which I saw in today’s Pittsburgh Tribune-Review, Thomas Sowell patronizes the working class by imagining a group of educated people who look down on manual and semi-skilled labor. He characterizes Utopian intellectuals who “lament that many people work ‘just for money’” and want every job to be self-fulfilling, which Sowell says the Utopians say excludes janitors and fast food cashiers. Sowell ends his article, titled “Meaningful Work,” by lambasting those who tell young people that certain jobs are “menial.”
Sowell, who has been touting rightwing causes as a senior fellow at the ultra-conservative Hoover Institute at Stanford for decades, pretends to be a friend of young people and the working class, protecting them from the hectoring of the elitist college police.
Let’s forget about the fact that Sowell doesn’t name one of these elitists, although he alludes to an unnamed “internationally renowned scholar who recently said that what low-income people needed was ‘meaningful work.’” Nor does he cite any studies, e.g., of attitudes of educators, the wealthy or some other groups towards manual and semi-skilled labor. It’s painfully clear that Sowell has created a straw man—I guess I should say, straw group—so that he can assert his pride in the working class.
When it comes time to actually do something for young people, minorities or the working class, whatever the proposal is, Sowell is ready to shoot it down. Money is the ultimate sign of respect in our society, so let’s take a look at how Sowell stands on issues that put more money into the pockets of manual and semi-skilled workers.
Sowell is against any kind of minimum wage, because he says it distorts the marketplace. Like a doting uncle, Sowell worries about the young people who lose job opportunities because employers can’t afford to hire people to do certain jobs. It’s a bunch of malarkey. Employers make money on every employee, either directly or because doing the work frees a more valuable employee to make money directly. Employers only hire workers they need, and when they need a worker, they hire one. The minimum wage makes sure that everyone gets paid fairly, no matter what the job or the age of the worker.
Sowell also despises unions, which catapulted millions of manual and semi-skilled laborers into the middle class for decades. It’s not a coincidence that as soon as union membership started to shrink, so did the real buying power of the average worker. Unions not only ensure high wages for union members (even college educated ones such as teachers and nurses), but they also put pressure to raise the salaries for all jobs at a company or in an industry, both management and nonunionized workers. Again, like a good uncle, Dr. Sowell says he only has the best interest of workers in mind when he says that “unions are for unions.” Sowell shows only mock concern for employees, who he assumes can buy each other a better deal with the employer than each could if teamed with all her/his fellow employees. After all, it works for Alex Rodriguez and Kevin Durant. And I’m sure it worked for Sowell in his last contract negotiation, too.
In his article, Sowell says that people who lack skills can “take jobs for which they are currently qualified and then move up the ladder as they acquire more experience.” What ladder is he talking about? He’s a social scientist who is supposed to keep up with the literature. Hasn’t he heard that a recent study demonstrated that it’s significantly harder in the United States to move up the economic ladder than in any other westernized country, and it’s hardest to rise from the lowest rungs?
If Sowell were truly interested in young people, the uneducated or minorities, he would work to instill an attitude of respect towards all jobs and all kinds of labor. Now in America, that means supporting policies that increase the wages paid to the people who perform manual and semi-skilled labor.