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A Yankee Notebook

August 27, 2012


EAST MONTPELIER, VT – I keep on my desk pad a little list of column ideas, some that I use eventually, and some I don’t. They take a back seat to comments on current events, but stay there from month to month as extra anchors to windward. This is one I’d just about decided to let fade away, but Dear Abby mentioned it in her column for today, and revived it.

“ [W]hen a baby starts to fuss, the infant should be taken out of the theater...” she writes. “To do otherwise is unfair to those who have also spent hard-earned money to enjoy a film without distraction.”

A few minutes later, surfing the turbulent seas of the blogosphere, I came across the same expression again: “Our Communist government wants to take away our hard earned money and give it to people who wont [sic] work for it,” fumed a whiny prole.

The theme here is neither crying babies with insensitive parents nor stingy citizens who think that a government can “want” anything. The theme is the phrase, “hard-earned money.” What, exactly, is it? And why does almost everyone think that’s what he makes?

Years ago, when archeologists exhumed the ruins of Pompeii and Herculaneum, they were able, as they studied the skeletons preserved by volcanic ash, to determine their probable former occupations by the size and condition of the bones and the prevalence of arthritis. It should be no surprise that the bones of smiths, carpenters, and stone masons were quite thick in their dominant arms, and, if they lived to maturity, arthritic, as well. Former porters had clearly suffered spinal damage. The wealthy, whose skeletons showed lead poisoning caused by plumbing and drinking warm wine from lead-glazed pottery, were relatively untouched and undeformed by what I’m sure the poor considered hard labor. But hard labor isn’t hard-earned money.

We hear the expression most often during election campaigns, and almost exclusively from those candidates trying to appeal to citizens who fancy themselves rugged individualists who’ve personally hewn whatever they have of this world’s goods from the adamant of opportunity. It’s actually a pretext for cutting government aid to the poor, elderly, unemployed, ill, and disabled.

My first real job – a summer one – began each morning when an alarm bell rang in the shoe factory, and the big main shaft and wheels began turning the belts that ran the individual machines. Five minutes later the bell rang again, and we were supposed to be at our machines, busily turning out expensive women’s shoes. Nobody spoke much English, except the owner and the manager, so I spent my lunch hours with Charles Dickens, fancying myself a stove black labeler in darkest London. I worked my machine all day in conditions that would have shut the place down in a minute if OSHA had existed then and had seen them. At the end of the week, my gross pay was $30. With income tax and FICA deducted – I’ve been paying Social Security tax for 62 years now, and get a bit grumpy when some politician calls it an entitlement – my net pay was around $23.

But that wasn’t “hard-earned money.” It was money! and I was delighted to have it. The job wasn’t exactly a world-beater, maybe; but it paid for clothes, textbooks, and my first 3-speed record player. I was good at what I did, and the manager wanted me back the following summer, but he couldn’t match the $1.37 I got for wiping the grease-pencil picture-alignment targets off television screens at GE.

From there it was a steady progression: construction jobs; working in the woods for the Conservation Department; carpentry; selling bus tickets, schlepping luggage, and cleaning the men’s room at a Trailways station; teaching school. I don’t recall that any of those jobs was particularly cushy – they ranged from deathly boring (highway flagman) to highly exciting (guiding trigger-happy downstate deer hunters) – and they all required energy, initiative, humor, and a lot of time. But none of the money I made was hard-earned. Well-deserved, perhaps. But I’d have thought it churlish and unappreciative of fortune’s favors to hold it tight and call it hard-earned.

This is not to say that Americans don’t work hard; we do – and generally longer hours than workers in other industrialized nations. According to one recent poll, three out of four American workers report job-related stress, mostly related to money. But before we kvetch about how hard it is to make a sufficiency here, and think ourselves ill-favored, we ought to consider the labors of, for example, the miners of West and South Africa. They may or may not work harder than many of us, but they receive a lot less for it. Women widowed by wars in Africa earn as little as thirty cents working all through a sweltering day, bent over in farm fields. Now, that’s hard-earned money. What we grouse about turning over to our government in taxes pays for what we all enjoy: a reasonably reliable infrastructure, social stability, and the opportunity to improve our lot.

We do our jobs and pay our taxes; they’re our dues for living here. But when some bloviating talk show host or politician tells us how we’re being victimized, it ill befits us to accept that without considering how good we’ve got it. Real hard-earned money is the ration of the dairy farmer with rising costs in a falling market; the paychecks to the single mother with two kids who’s working two jobs to support them; the pittance paid the migrant worker who’s nevertheless doing better here than he would in Chihuahua. We’re doing fine, comparatively. I’m looking forward to leaving behind a fascinating skeleton for future archeologists. It’ll have a smile on its face.

Photo by Willem lange