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Work, Money, and Value

    It is interesting how intelligent some of us can be, and at the same time how helpless. Most of us are unable to do normal maintenance chores and minor repairs on our cars, and homes. Most women no longer are able to cook a meal from scratch; most men can not build a cabinet or repair a leaky roof. These were common abilities a couple of generations ago, but are becoming highly valued skills today. It would seem that we are becoming a nation of savants, who do a few things remarkably  well, but have no idea about how the world in general works. There was a time when the average person understood and was able to deal with everything in his surroundings. The jobs were divided up between the sexes somewhat, but for the most part we were a cooperative, rather than a dependent people. Even up to the last century and the early part of this century , this was true; for farmers it was true up to the middle of this century. Part of this can, of course, be attributed to the considerable rise in complexity of the the most mundane things. This piece is being written (and will most likely be read) on a computer, a common household item these days. Computer chips and electronics are being used to entertain us and keep us comfortable; they adjust our heat, and help us cook our meals. We get televised entertainment off of satellites, we record our own audio and video, publish newsletters and flyers in our homes, and can communicate with all parts of the world through the telephone, and internet. Our new dependence upon each other's expertise, and upon the level of technology this dependence has produced, has expanded our capabilities to interact with the world, even as it has reduced our understanding and control of it's overall operation. As complicated as our new technological servants are, and as much as they depend upon newly discovered science and newly applied engineering, are they really that much more difficult than the common house hold devices of the last century or earlier? I suspect the answer does not lie there. It seems as if it would be much easier to explain to a pioneer woman the proper use of a microwave and timer, than to attempt to teach a modern woman to light a wood stove, pluck, gut, and dress a chicken, prepare a sauce from scratch, fetch and boil water for the dishes, etc. etc. It also seems as if it would be much easier to explain to a man of hundreds of years ago how to screw in a light bulb, or change a fuse, than to instruct a present day man in the arts of cabin building, barn raising, hunting, and tilling the soil.
    So what is it about the modern world that makes us all so interdependent, and helpless when cut off from the grid? Part of this might be that most people are creatures of necessity, and it is no longer necessary for us to be able to do everything for ourselves. This was particularly true after the second world war, when the economy was beginning to boom, and there was money and opportunity everywhere. There was a great deal of money to be made and many interesting and worthwhile jobs to be had for those who would work hard and acquire the skills. Time became very important for the new modern, post war family as they set out to get and do all of the things they had promised themselves during war and depression. One of the things which gave a direction for many of the wartime vets was college. Congress and a grateful public, passed the G.I. bill, which promised a college education to any vet who wished to have one. This offered the opportunity to not only improve individual lifestyles, but to influence and improve the world at large. These were idealistic times, and the men who had just saved the world were now interested in influencing the direction it would take. This influence had traditionally been exerted through the professions, government, and big business, not through the trades, and the blue collar worker. The common skills were disparaged because they were just that --- common; they are not common anymore, and their value has risen in response
    The distinction between the professional and the working classes, basically the college and non college classes, may be said to be the difference between those who make the decisions, and those who do the work. In technical fields it may be thought of as the difference between those who design the world, and those who keep the world going. If every automotive and mechanical engineer, and every auto designer in the world were to die tomorrow, never to be replaced, we would still be able to produce cars and keep them running. Admittedly, there would be no progress; the state of the art in auto production would not advance, but it would not have much of an effect on our daily lives. If every auto mechanic were to die, never to be replaced, we would be in big trouble. The same thing can be said about plumbers, electricians, carpenters, and most factory workers. Without these people, the world would grind to a halt. If there were not a single actor, musician, writer, or artist left in the world, our lives would be less interesting; if all of the truck drivers were to suddenly disappear we would soon starve. I recall an incident in grade school where I found out that the one indispensable member of the school staff was the engineer. The absence of any of the teachers or of the principal could be covered, but if the school engineer did not show up, there would be no one to operate the furnace, the electrical panel, or any of the other building systems. The school would have to close.
    The importance of the skilled trades has been emphasized in recent years by a critical shortage of personnel. Many of the ambitious, intelligent people who might have entered the trades in previous generations, have been encouraged to attend college, and enter the professions. This may be a good choice for some, but for many it is a gross mistake. The marketplace has responded to this shortage in the predictable manner, by increasing the value, and therefor the pay of those entering the trades. A good mechanic will make $60, 000 a year, more if he is a specialist. An electronic tech can make as much as $100, 000 a year; this is what many are making where I work now. When I was going to school to learn printing, my instructor confided in me that he was earning over $70,000 a year for running a high speed press. Compare these rates of pay to those earned by lawyers, accountants, middle management people, teachers, social workers, and administrators, and it can be seen that, outside of the technical and medical fields, a person in the trades will generally out earn a person in the professions. Only those at the top of their professions, corporate lawyers, CEO's, and the like will out earn a skilled tradesman.
    Actually, anyone who does anything at all well these days can probably make a decent living, as so many things seem to be done so poorly that competence in any field is getting to be a rare, and therefore well paid, commodity. I have known waiters and bartenders who take home $600-$1000 a week, and more, usually out earning their managers. This is a reflection of the activities of one of my favorite social tools --- the marketplace. The marketplace is where the true value of goods, commodities, and professions is determined. Government interference with the marketplace, in the form of price or wage fixing generally causes shortages or encourages the lack of quality we see in so many of the goods and services produced today. This occurs when something is either overpriced, or undervalued. In the marketplace, these things do not continue for any length of time, but when the government gets involved, they may be continued indefinitely. An underpriced good or service will suddenly be very difficult to find, or will be lacking in quality, as the lack of profits will not encourage it's production. An overpriced set of goods or services will not be purchased, as the consumer will have little motivation to throw good money away on it. The marketplace deals with this by dynamically adjusting prices to the supply, demand, and production cost. Thus, when quality goods, or people are in short supply, the marketplace adjusts to this factor by raising their cost. Note that this is also somewhat affected by the demand for the particular commodity in question. Thus a shortage of highly skilled basket weavers or saddle makers does not necessarily put these people in high demand, but a shortage of good plumbers, electricians, and mechanics will cause their wages to skyrocket.
    Those in the professions have their own opportunities, of course, but the path they follow is much less direct, and there are no guarantees for them. This is particularly true for the CEO, and others in top management positions. There seem to be only two possible states of affairs for these people, great wealth or dismal failure. In many ways the performance of those in the professions is much more subjective than that of those in the trades. This is a reflection of the type of work most of them do. Who can say whether a CEO is doing a better job running a given company than another might? Who can say whether a lawyer or tax accountant is doing the best job that could be done? In the case of these people, job performance is assessed according to perceptions, and expectations which must be made on a subjective basis. The best lawyer in the world is going to lose some cases, while the worst lawyer in the world is bound to win a couple. The same holds true for the success of the CEO, the doctor, the engineer, and the scientist. In all of these fields there will be a level of success and failure. In the trades this is generally not the case. A good production worker will produce, and may be judged by the level and quality of his production. A good mechanic, plumber, carpenter, or construction worker can be assessed by what he does on the job and how well he does it.  Those who seek fulfillment in their jobs may lean toward the professions, but may find it in either profession or trade. Those who seek security in their jobs so that they might be free to find fulfillment in their personal lives are probably better of in the trades.