Oh, the things we tell ourselves

Some weeks are better than others when it comes to displaying just how laden with contradictions the American scene can be. A part of me wanted to begin by using the phrase ‘the cultural contradictions of capitalism” (big Daniel Bell fan). Upon reflection, though, what caught my eye is a distinctly (I hope) American state of dysfunction that can’t be separated from the culture and blamed on an economic system.

Exhibit A (although temporally second) is Meg Whitman. You know her, hard charging CEO/hero. Built eBay into a powerhouse. Made a gazillion bucks so why not run for Governor even though she’s avoided the most basic duties of a citizen like voting and jury duty for a huge chunk of her adult life. That Meg Whitman.

Her campaign hit a road bump over the allegations by a former maid/housekeeper–you pick the word–that Whitman fired her when the campaign started even though she’d know for years of her illegal status. (Get up to speed including the ridiculous statement that appears next on the Times blog, registration required.)

The maid, says Ms. Whitman, was a “…friend and part of our extended family…” all of which made firing her “…one of the hardest things I’ve ever done.” (Emphasis added) This is enough to make a mockery of what the bold-faced nouns mean.

It seems to me that all human beings eat and excrete and get their clothes and selves dirty. (I’m leaving out activities such as respiration where the waste product is beyond anyone’s control.) When you pay someone to be in your home doing these things you’re in a power relationship and in the superior position.

It is the way of the American privileged classes to abhor power relationships, perhaps most especially the ones they enter into as the more powerful party. So  we get rhetorical tricks like calling the help “family” or saying “I’m so good to my cleaning lady” or “my cleaning lady loves me.” (These last two more or less verbatim from colleagues.)

Let’s be clear–if the paying party really thought the paid party was their equal the rates of pay would be the same. Maybe I should say should be the same. Whichever, the logic remains the same. The payer’s time is worth a certain amount at market rates. If they are freeing up that time from the mundanities of human existence then whatever they are paid is what the time is worth.

Notice I did not say what their time is worth. This is where, in common parlance, we bury the power relationship. Disparate pay rates are NOT a function of intrinsic worth or even marketplace worth. What they are is a reflection of power structures no matter whether we are comparing the tasks that define the job or the genders of two people doing the same job. So when you pay the cleaning lady who loves you and is a member of the family less than you get paid you are exploiting. Anything else is rationalization.

But the privileged classes are very good at rationalizing. They have a penchant for, in Arlie Russell Hochschild’s fabulous phrase, commercializing intimate life. Which brings us to the other exhibit raging around on The Atlantic’s site.

James Fallows has been blogging about a  law school prof whose household income is above $250K and who complained for the record about being singled out by the proposal to not extend the Bush tax cuts to households with income above that level.

The vituperative responses to Fallows’ several postings on the subject have been quite entertaining to read. It’s a quite varied mix of respondents with at least some folks having some perspective. And yet I can’t help getting the sense that even some of the writers are congratulating themselves for not being quite as tawdry as the law prof. I got a strong whiff of not quite sanctimony in the same way that Megan McCardle’s thread on choosing NOT to chase the bucks on Wall Street elicited from readers.

Perhaps it’s just unclear that money is a lousy metrical device and that elitism is not confined to the economic realm.


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