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Work and “work”

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coal miners

Robert Samuelson thinks Americans should work longer and retire later:

For most of the last century, Americans’ health has slowly improved. Mortality rates — the share of the population that dies at a given age — have dropped. The result is, for example, that the mortality rates for today’s 55-year-old men equal rates for men who were 49 in 1977. Suppose, ask the economists, today’s 55-year-olds worked in the same proportion as the 49-year-olds in 1977. Eighty-nine percent would be working now, as opposed to the 72 percent of 55-year-old men who actually work.

The study performs similar estimates along the 55-to-69-year-old age spectrum. In 2010, 37 percent of 65-year-old men worked; the rate would have been 77 percent if the 65-year-olds had worked in similar proportions as men in 1977 with the same death rates. The assumption is that people with the same death rates have roughly the same health and are equally capable of working.

“Americans” make up a pretty broad category. Let’s engage in a bit of class warfare, statistically speaking:

Wealthy and middle-class baby boomers can expect to live substantially longer than their parents’ generation. Meanwhile, life expectancy for the poor hasn’t increased and may even be declining, according to a report published Thursday by several leading economists.

Call it a growing inequality of death — and it means that the poor ultimately may collect less in money from some of the government’s safety net programs than the rich.

As of 2010, the average, upper-income 50-year-old man was expected to live to 89. But the same man, if he’s lower income, would live to just 76, according to the report. . .

Peter Orszag, one of the chairmen of the committee that wrote the report and a former senior official in the Obama administration, said he was surprised by the differences among this group by income.

“The bottom of the socioeconomic distribution isn’t experiencing any material increase in life expectancy,” he told Wonkblog.

A more accurate description of the situation would be: in recent decades, the health of upper income older Americans has improved drastically, while that of low-income older Americans hasn’t improved at all. Combining these two trends leads to Samuelson’s overall moderate improvement. (The old statistics joke is that if you have one foot in a campfire and the other in a bucket of ice water then you must be comfortable, because the average temperature of your two feet is quite pleasant).

Samuelson gestures vaguely at these facts, by acknowledging that “even a gradual increase in Social Security’s eligibility age would fall hardest on the poor, who have shorter life expectancies.” But the real story isn’t that the poor (broadly defined) have shorter life expectancies than the upper class. This has always been true. The real story, in regard to debates about old age entitlements in contemporary America, is that this gap is much larger than it used to be and is growing rapidly.

Samuelson’s crusade to raise the social security retirement age (which has already been raised from 65 to 67 for everyone born after the 1950s) also ignores a couple of other awkward issues:

(1) Less than half of adult Americans have full-time jobs, and only about 57% are working for money period. Now this may be because our overly generous social welfare system is handing out T-bone steaks to strapping young bucks etc., or it may because surplus labor is an endemic issue in a technologically-advanced economy, and will become even more so as robots are designed to do everything from drive cars to assemble Washington Post op-ed word collations. A social structure that expects 69-year-olds to get along without social security benefits will only exacerbate this issue, driving down wages even further (needless to say from the perspective of capital this is a feature, not a bug).

(2) Speaking of Washington Post op-eds, it’s remarkable (this is a rhetorical gesture; it isn’t) that Samuelson doesn’t even gesture at the difference between expecting 69-year-olds to keep cranking out the same stupid opinion pieces year after year and expecting them to do real jobs, as opposed to bullshit jobs.

Even when you watch the process of coal-extraction you probably only watch it for a short time, and it is not until you begin making a few calculations that you realize what a stupendous task the ‘fillers’ are performing. Normally each man has to clear a space four or five yards wide. The cutter has undermined the coal to the depth of five feet, so that if the seam of coal is three or four feet high, each man has to cutout, break up and load on to the belt something between seven and twelve cubic yards of coal. This is to say, taking a cubic yard as weighing twenty-seven hundred-weight, that each man is shifting coal at a speed approaching two tons an hour. I have just enough experience of pick and shovel work to be able to grasp what this means. When I am digging
trenches in my garden, if I shift two tons of earth during the afternoon, I feel that I have earned my tea. But earth is tractable stuff compared with coal, and I don’t have to work kneeling down, a thousand feet underground, in suffocating heat and swallowing coal dust with every breath I take; nor do I have to walk a mile bent double
before I begin. The miner’s job would be as much beyond my power as it would be to perform on a flying trapeze or to win the Grand National. I am not a manual labourer and please God I never shall be one, but there are some kinds of manual work that I could do if I had to. At a pitch I could be a tolerable road-sweeper or an inefficient gardener or even a tenth-rate farm hand. But by no conceivable amount of effort or training could I become a coal-miner, the work would kill me in a few weeks. . .

Watching coal-miners at work, you realize momentarily what different universes people inhabit. Down there where coal is dug is a sort of world apart which one can quite easily go through life without ever hearing about. Probably majority of people would even prefer not to hear about it. Yet it is the absolutely necessary counterpart of our world above. Practically everything we do, from eating an ice to crossing the Atlantic, and from baking a loaf to writing a novel, involves the use of coal, directly or indirectly. . .

It is not long since conditions in the mines were worse than they are now. There are still living a few very old women who in their youth have worked underground, with the harness round their waists, and a chain that passed between their legs, crawling on all fours and dragging tubs of coal. They used to go on doing this even when they were pregnant. And even now, if coal could not be produced without pregnant women dragging it to and fro, I fancy we should let them do it rather than deprive ourselves of coal. But-most of the time, of course, we should prefer to
forget that they were doing it. It is so with all types of manual work;it keeps us alive, and we are oblivious of its existence. More than anyone else, perhaps, the miner can stand as the type of the manual worker, not only because his work is so exaggeratedly awful, but also because it is so vitally necessary and yet so remote from our
experience, so invisible, as it were, that we are capable of forgetting it as we forget the blood in our veins. In a way it is even humiliating to watch coal-miners working. It raises in you a momentary doubt about your own status as an ‘intellectual’ and a superior person generally.

Orwell, The Road to Wigan Pier (1936)

Coal mining is not as awful work today as it was in 1936, just as it was far “easier” in 1936 than it had been in 1856. But it is still awful work in comparison to what the knowledge class gets paid to do, or not do. And of course the reason it’s less awful is that it has been mechanized and automated, which in turn has eliminated the vast majority of the jobs in the industry.

Which gets us back to the whole issue of surplus labor, not that Samuelson ever got there in the first place.

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