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Gas Station Attendants and the Working Class Economy

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Parts of the internet have gone crazy with the news that Oregon has loosened its law requiring a gas station employee to pump their gas, which many native Oregonians don’t really know how to do. Ha ha, I guess. Now, the change in the law is actually very tiny–it allows stations to remain open in rural areas if there are no nearby options and the owners are away. This is a logical policy change. But it also opened the door all the same arguments that not allowing people to pump their own gas is a stupid, terrible, no good policy that deserves derision.

I have a number of problems with this. But before I do, sure, having to wait for someone to pump your gas slows you down a little bit. It can be a bit annoying for this reason, especially when employers don’t hire enough gas station attendants. There are times when I would like to just pop out of my car and pump my own gas. But then I realize that these are jobs. And jobs are important. The dismissal of these jobs goes very far to show how strongly we have internalized right-wing arguments about employment and innovation. Earlier today I discussed the idea, proposed by Democratic leaders a mere 40 years ago, that we should be able to sue the government if we can’t find a job and how this is completely lost to our ideas of what our relationship to the government could be in the present. In a similar vein, the idea of actual working-class employment repulses many of us if it bothers our idea of what work should be.

Oregon and New Jersey are the only two states to mandate gas station attendants. Are these great jobs? No. But what do you think actual working-class employment looks like? In a deindustrialized and automated economy, how many options do people like this have? It’s not a great job, but it tends to pay $1 or $2 higher than minimum wage so it places a slight upward pressure on wages for unskilled workers. Most, but certainly not all, gas station attendants are working class men. Many of them likely do not have a high school diploma. Some are missing teeth and things of this nature that make their employment in other fields kind of hard. This is also a job that allows people to interact with others, be outside, and work hard for a wage. For a lot of people, that is their desired result from a job.

Now, you might say that this job provides no value added, that you could do this much faster, that we should be focusing on building other sorts of jobs. I am not arguing that this is some amazing jobs program that will transform the economy if implemented nationwide. But for working class people in Oregon and New Jersey, these are real jobs that they have and why shouldn’t they continue to have them? So many of the comments when discussing this on Twitter today talked about how pointless and meaningless this job is. Pointless and meaningless to who? Such statements always reflect the position of the person saying it, which on Twitter means educated people. Why should I assume that my belief about a “meaningful” job is correct? Why should you?

Moreover, what do you people think low-skill, blue-collar jobs are going to look like? Is cleaning hotels a better job? No. Actually, it’s much harder. But since you and I don’t want to clean our own hotel, that’s OK. And that’s what so much of this comes down to. People are impatient and they don’t want to interact with others. The number of people who are admitting that their position on low-skilled service jobs is based on this is amazing to me. What the hell kind of economic program can be based upon “I don’t want to talk to people or wait 2 minutes?” What a tremendous lack of self-awareness. And yet, in this narcissistic society based on atomistic individualism where we wear our politics on our sleeves like a new tattoo, there’s nothing surprising that people would actually choose desired policy decisions based upon the slightest inconvenience to them. After all, what is more important than my time! It’s the same with my hated grocery store self-checkout machines. These are even worse because these are often union jobs being stolen while you do free labor for Safeway and Kroeger. Many of the gas stations attendants at the grocery store stations are also unionized jobs.

It’s also worth nothing that the most common economic argument against gas pumping is that it adds a “tax” on the drivers. But the impact on prices is low. Oregon’s gas is cheaper than either Washington or California. New Jersey’s is the cheapest in the region. That’s because there are many reasons for the prices of gas. New Jersey’s is cheap because of low gas taxes, for instance. But that just goes to show that there is no reason to believe that mandated gas pumping is a drag on the economy because of higher gas prices, which we should be paying anyway. I don’t know if economists have estimated the total impact, but it’s not great compared to many other factors, including taxes, refinery issues, weather, the transition to cleaner gas in the spring, etc. It’s also worth noting that a lot of drivers have physical aliments that make it hard for them to pump gas. This is a non-zero policy concern in the debate as well.

This is where Universal Basic Income proponents start popping up. They argue that no one should be a slave to the gas pump. But again, there is no shortage here of pushing your own values on others. I want to be liberated from work so you want to be liberated from work too. Well, maybe? Now, I have no real opposition to UBI in theory. If a serious UBI proposal might pass Congress that didn’t take away from other social programs, I’d probably support it. My opposition is rooted in my own analysis of American history. Nearly our entire social safety net is based around benefits earned at work. And I don’t see much evidence this is changing. There are tens of millions of working-class households that value WORK. The job well-done is something of great value to many, many people. This is taught to children by their parents from a very young age. Welfare is seen as a terrible thing to be avoided at all costs. And while we can argue that this is a hegemonic capture of the working class, yadda yadda, it’s also very real. We have to deal with this fact. People want to work. People will demand work. They will vote on their desire to work. Some white working class people voted for Donald Trump for this very reason in 2016, as much as many liberals want to dismiss this. They will vote for demagogues demonizing others for their economic problems again. This is simply a fact of American history and society. Work and economic self-sufficiency are at the center of American culture and mythology. Deal with it. Or don’t, at your great peril.

This is why I strongly believe in full employment policy as the core of how to escape the jobless future. We can have a wide definition of what full employment is and we will need to. These are not easy policies to work out. But it’s a more solid political position, in my view. Even if a UBI is passed, Americans will still demand jobs. Even if you don’t want to work or think work sucks or want to be emancipated from work, you aren’t most people and neither am I.

Again, there’s nothing magical about gas pumping jobs. They aren’t great. But they are real. When we make fun of them, we need to examine our own prejudices toward working people and to examine how deeply we have internalized really awful narratives about work, technological innovation, and society. There may be reasons to not have gas pumping, but those who hate this aren’t really presenting very good ones. What would you have low-skill workers do? And if your primary driver in creating economic policy is “I don’t want to talk to people” or “This is dumb” or “I could do this faster,” you need to think a whole lot harder about your place in society and the world. A full employment economy may in fact require small sacrifices around the margins to make this work, such as you waiting 3 minutes for your gas to be pumped. This is not necessarily a bad thing given the societal benefits of full employment.

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