Time for some History Lessons with Kitty and Piggy!
America is an interesting example of a country whose economic needs have flip-flopped wildly since its founding. The most interesting aspect to me is the story of American labor.
In the days of the American Revolution, labor was the scarcest commodity in the colonies. Which is hardly surprising if you think about it.
The continent’s native population was decimated by disease and genocide. The flow of fresh immigrants was far too slow to meet the demands of a vast new continent rich in resources and poor in infrastructure. Indeed, land was so cheap and natural resources so abundant that day laborers were the most expensive and hard-won resources to be found.
From Richard B. Morris’s The Emergence of American Labor:
From the beginning, labor was a seller’s market. All contemporary authorities agree on the relatively high wages prevailing in the colonies. Governor John Winthrop of Massachusetts relates the story of one master who had to sell a pair of oxen to pay the employee’s wages. Having done so, he informed the worker that he could no longer afford his services. “Sell more cattle,” the worker advised.
“What shall I do when they are gone? ” the master asked.
“You can serve me and get them back,” was the reply.
When building your own house and starting your own homestead was a supremely affordable option, nobody really felt like folding ye olde t-shirts at Ye Olde Aeropoftale. How extremely surprising!
Is it just me, or do labor shortages sound pretty rad?
The central consequence of this labor shortage was unprecedented economic mobility.
People who would’ve been destitute in other countries—mainly immigrants and unskilled workers—could attain many of the advantages of middle-class life around this time in America. And they could do so within a few years, rather than the few generations it might have taken their family members back in Europe.
Poverty was described as essentially nonexistent, as anyone who wanted to make a living could easily do so. Gabriel Thomas wrote in 1698 that in Pennsylvania there were “no beggars to be seen,” adding “it is a shame and disgrace to the state that there are so many in England.”
Indeed, the concept of bootstrapping one’s way to easy wealth seems to have taken seed as far back as the 1600s. In 1622, Peter Arundle reported of the Virginia colony, “Yea I say that any laborious honest man may in a shorte time become ritche in this country.”
… In related news, Bitches Get Riches is announcing the release of our period financial self-help pamphlet, HOW TO GET RITCHE IN A SHORTE TIME!
For all its shortcomings, America led the way in reinventing social norms regarding work. Strong wages tore down the centuries-old wall demarkating where gentlemen ended and laborers began. A middle class of educated, respected laborers arose to challenge the hegemony of the British class system.
This culminated in the Big Bang of American cultural identity: Benjamin Franklin’s invention of rustic folksiness.
This queen… this queen… that’s right. Ben Franklin EXPLODED the powdered-wig set by showing up looking like Fess fucking Parker in a fur cap. It’s history’s best example of the phenomenon of a cool person making an uncool thing extremely cool. And it defined the American character abroad as hardworking and humble, self-made and unashamed of it. This mythos lingers even now, hundreds of years later.
Baked into the Constitution
Such social mobility and bargaining power among the lowest class of working poor were absolutely unprecedented in the founding of any country, to my knowledge.
As such, I don’t think it’s a coincidence that the Founding Fathers talked such a big game about the sanctity of human life and liberty. These principals were famously called “self-evident” not only because it felt true in their hearts, but because it was true in their economy.
… as long as you were white, of course! The mass importation of chattel slaves from Africa was how we ultimately chose to address the labor shortage. The practical “necessity” of this solution was dire enough to make many idealistic men ignore the obvious ethical cognitive disconnect.
Now the tables have well and truly turned. Computers, robots, and overseas workers are significantly more cost-effective to corporations than American workers. I am unsurprised to see a corresponding degradation of the value of human life and liberty in our politics today.
Remember my analogy about McDonald’s napkins from our Should Artists Ever Work for Free article? When something is free, we don’t feel any consequences for wasting it. You take fifteen napkins when two will do, and you stuff the unused ones in the trash without a care. But if the napkin dispenser had a tiny penny slot, forcing you to acknowledge the value of each one, you would be far more likely to walk away with only the two that you need.
This is exactly why a labor surplus is terrifying. It means there are lots of entities lining up to use you like a McDonald’s napkin.
Labor in the present time
Our nation’s last significant labor shortage was around the time of World War II. It was due to all the able-bodied future-grandpas being busy punching Nazis and not feeling all that conflicted about it.
There’s been talk for some time of another pending labor shortages in America: this time, in highly-skilled jobs. The main difference between now and then is the speed at which markets can shift to accommodate a labor shortage. Transcontinental travel now takes hours rather than months. If jobs can be exported overseas to countries with more talented workforces, they will be. If powerful institutions demand more lax immigration laws, their wish will almost certainly be granted.
But to be perfectly honest, I’m excited by the prospect of future labor shortages. For most of my adult life, human labor has been disturbingly cheap. There’s been a general feeling of racing to the bottom. One poll from 2013—still deep in the Great Recession—showed that 60% of workers were worried about losing their jobs.
This kind of fear is a terrifying incentive to settle for too-low wages over no wages at all. It causes good people to stay quiet about workplace harassment, or look the other way when ethics violations happen, or work too hard at the expense of their physical and mental health, or any number of other inhumane compromises. The lack of qualified local applicants may also spur American businesses to take a greater interest in lobbying for needed education investments and reforms.
Certainly, labor shortages are not all fun and games. They can contribute to economic stagnation and disruption. But my cynical heart says that periodic shortages are one of the few tools we have to shift power into the hands of the working classes.
And I love the irony of ending an article about American history on such a distinctly Marxist note.