Wednesday, April 14, 2010

The Politics of Clean(s)ing, Revisited

What follows is a very long investigation of all of the assumptions and logical arguments that went into the writing of the original post, and my responses to many of the counter-arguments put forward in the comments afterwards. Please do not think that because I have not changed my opinion, it is because I have not listened closely and thought deeply about all of your ideas and objections. And please do not take personal offense when I say that, on the whole, no one replied with a counter-argument that I had not yet considered in coming to the conclusions I did (in fact, some I even directly addressed, however parenthetically, in the original post itself, and I will attempt to point out where I did so whenever I can).

The Shape of My Argument

[1] One thing that becomes immediately apparent to me in reading through the many comments is that most of you focused on only one half of what is irreducibly a two-part argument. The argument made in the original post takes this form: (a) here are some of the potential negative consequences of doing x; (b) here are some of the potential positive consequences of doing the alternative, namely y; in conclusion, (c) generally I believe it is better to do y than x. The counter-arguments provided in the comments focused almost exclusively on the first part of this argument, offering many opinions on why my discussion of the negative consequences of doing x were inaccurate, exaggerated or simply in error. Now, I disagree with many of the counter-arguments put forward (and I will get to that in a second), but first I want to point out that, because of the form of my argument, lessening or even wholly disproving (a) does not necessarily affect (b) or (c).

[2] Imagine that (x) and (y) are two sides of a single scale, and our conclusion (c) is influenced by which side is "heavier." For every positive consequence of doing y, we add a weight to the (y) side to make it heavier and for every negative consequence of doing x, we add an "anti-gravity-unit" to the (x) side to make it lighter, and vice versa. Personally, I found many of the positives on the side of (y) (i.e. doing your own housework) to be quite heavy and moving, and many of the negatives on the side of (x) (i.e. hiring a housekeeper) to be quite impressive in their negative quality. In my view, this swung the scales decidedly towards (y) as a fruitful, meaningful and natural alternative. This did not seem to me to be a radical argument in any way, shape or form. But supposing for just a minute that I really am wholly and completely wrong about (x). Is this enough to even out the scales, or possibly even tip them in (x)'s favor? Only if I am also completely and wholly wrong about (y) as well and the positive "weights" I found in (y)'s favor are also exaggerated, inaccurate or flat-out wrong. Yet even those of you who argued against my conclusion suggested that you, too, found my arguments in support of (y) to be powerful and moving (Nettle, for instance, in one of her earlier comments). In the end, even if (x) turns out to be positive, unless it is "more positive" than (y), I am inclined to stand by my original conclusion (c), that is: in general, it is better to do y than x.

[3] This is why I have not yet been swayed to change my opinion on this matter. Not because I have not listened to or considered your points carefully enough, but because even when I agreed with some of them (and there were plenty of points commenters made with which I do in fact agree), they did not strike me as "heavy" enough to affect the overall conclusion. Perhaps your counter-arguments could potentially serve to mitigate the dire tone of my original post to some extent... but without addressing the second half of this two-part approach, the conversation inevitably remains lopsided. I actually point this out in the original post itself, when I state that I do not know of a reason why someone should hire a housekeeper instead of doing their own housework (excepting age, illness or disability — the role of exceptions in the formation of a logical argument is something I will also come back to later). In other words, one effective counter-argument would be to offer a compelling reason why doing x is not only neutral, not even simply good in itself, but why it is actually better than doing y. No one, as far as I can see, actually attempted to provide such a reason, but focused instead on the task of establishing (x)'s neutrality. (If you have a compelling reason after all, please chime in and let me know — but please also finish reading the whole of this reply first, as you may find your response has been addressed already in some of my arguments further on.)

[4] In responding to your comments, therefore, I will again follow this two-sided approach to the question of our relationship to cleaning and cleansing. First, I will address those counter-arguments presented in disagreement with my first assertion, (a), that doing x has potential negative consequences. Then I will go back to my second assertion, (b), that doing y has some profoundly positive consequences, and I will attempt to elaborate on some of the philosophical underpinnings of my view, in order to point out how they differ, sometimes sharply, from some of the unexamined cultural assumptions used in counter-arguments against assertion (a), and at other times are completely in keeping with some of the arguments made by yourselves in the comments. In my personal opinion, I find the second half of my argument, in which I talk about the positive consequences of doing your own housework, to be much more meaningful, powerful and relevant than the first part of my argument. But perhaps this is only because I am personally much more inclined to appreciate "pro-active" arguments for making positive change than I am "reactionary" arguments against making poor decisions. We all make poor decisions in our lives sometimes and trying to avoid every single one of them can leave us feeling trapped and restricted to the point of suffocation — all the more reason to focus on those positive changes and creatively-engaging activities that we can do, and that can bring us joy and gratitude as well as benefit to others.

Counter-Arguments in Support of Hiring a Housekeeper

[5] Many (though certainly not all!) of the counter-arguments you presented in the comments were of one (or sometimes both) of two main types: an unnoticed logical fallacy, or an unexamined cultural assumption. Some of these flaws are subtle and easily missed, others are very, very common and so we've learned to overlook them. Often cultural assumptions and logical errors function in ways that are mutually supportive, making them almost impossible to notice in the flow of a conversation (especially one that is emotionally intense or prone to distractions and interruptions, like those taking place in a blog comment thread). Because I have spent a lot of time arguing some admittedly outside-the-mainstream ideas in the past, I've become pretty familiar with some of these counter-arguments, which tend to come up again and again in only slightly altered forms around almost every controversial topic you can name (including vegetarianism and pacifism, two of my old favorites — for this reason, I might, if I have time, point you back to some previous blog posts and comment threads in which I have argued against these same logical fallacies and cultural assumptions in the past).

The Limits of Knowledge and the Primacy of Individualism

[6] One of the mot frequent logical fallacies has already been largely addressed above, and more widely it is formulated as the following: "the absence of evidence is the same thing as evidence of absence." This mistake usually happens when someone is trying to prove a negative, i.e. to prove with absolute certainty either that something is impossible or that something doesn't exist. The absence of irrefutable evidence in favor of the existence of deity, for instance, is often taken by atheists as evidence in support of the irrefutable absence or nonexistence of deity. In this particular discussion, the fallacy appeared in a more tame form, and was expressed in the argument: "I have not experienced any negative consequences from x, therefore x does not have any negative consequences" (or, in a slightly tweaked form, "if it is possible that there are no negative consequences of x, then x is a perfectly good thing to do" — this second variation is more like mistaking neutral evidence, rather than a lack of evidence, for favorable support).

[7] It might seem at first that I fall back on this fallacy in reasoning through my own argument, when describing the dystopian scenario of hiring a housekeeper as a compilation of all the potential negative consequences and unhealthy relationships that might result, as if this is concrete proof that such consequences are always the case and no positive consequences or healthy relationships are possible. However, I am careful to point out that this is a collection of details to consider, and not a definitive characterization of all relevant scenarios possible. As I discussed already above, if even a few of these negative aspects or consequences are present, the main thrust of my argument has hit the mark, and in the off chance that no such negative consequences can be found, this is only enough to argue for neutrality in this particular instance and we still then require some evidence of positive consequences in order to be relevant to the final conclusion.

[8] Another fallacy is that anecdotal evidence holds as much weight as or may even replace a broader perspective that surveys and takes into account general cultural trends. In order to counter this tendency within many comments, I quoted earlier some recent statistics about relative wage and earnings, to illustrate that while my characterization of housekeeping may not always be true, it is still a fair description of the work in general. I had hoped to be able to supplement this information with some further demographic details culled from old college notes and my various sociology books, but they are unfortunately still packed away after my recent move. Luckily, Clare has stepped in with some anecdotal evidence of her own to lend that touch of immediacy and emotional resonance that sometimes only a personal account can deliver. (Note, however, that Clare's personal accounts can no more take the place of that broader perspective than can Thora's or Nettle's or Cat's or anyone else's, and it is by collecting all of these accounts and many others than we can slowly come to understand the vague shape and color of the "Big Picture," such as it may be.)

[9] It seems to me that these two logical fallacies are so common today because they are supported by an unexamined cultural assumption that I have decided to call the "Inherent Right to Fist-Swinging." In modern Western culture, we put a tremendous emphasis on individualism and individual rights, and when speaking about the limits of these rights, we often recall the saying, "your right to swing your fist stops at my nose." In a kind of bizarre twist, we often extend this argument to the assumption that, "my capacity to speak about the value of fist-swinging cannot extend beyond my own nose." Rather than exercise our ability to gather information, perceive patterns and make general evaluations regarding the virtues and drawbacks of certain actions, we restrict our opinions to only those things we have directly experienced, lest we trespass on someone else's fist-swinging rights. We might safely make statements about our experiences of swinging our own fists without being challenged (or, when we are challenged, such debates devolve quickly into he-said-she-said shouting matches), but we cannot dare draw any broader conclusions, nor may we draw conclusions about anything we have not directly experienced.

[10] With this unexamined cultural assumption in place, it becomes obvious why anecdotal evidence comes to hold so much more weight and relevance than the analysis of large amounts of collected data. Such data speaks for no one in particular, and therefore exists in the murky, uncertain realm "beyond my own nose" about which we feel uncomfortable and even fundamentally incapable of making value statements. The fear of trespassing however unknowingly on the rights of others has also worked to transform the territory of neutrality into one of positive preference. An argument that puts limits on our ability to speak confidently about universal or broadly-applicable virtues and values (because we can't know for sure that a given person might not actually enjoy doing x and benefit from it, for instance) is seen as one that appears to preserve the sanctity of the realm "beyond my own nose," keeping it free and clear of our meddling opinions, which is itself a good thing. In other words, if something isn't absolutely bad all the time, then it has the potential to be at worst merely neutral, and refusing to form an opinion about something which is neutral is, in fact, a good thing. Thus, the absence of irrefutable evidence (for instance, if we cannot prove for certain that doing x always has solely negative consequences for everyone) is mistaken for the irrefutable evidence of absence (i.e. our inherent inability to make value statements that might apply to others), and this in itself is viewed as a positive good, insofar as it preserves the sanctity of the realm of others' fist-swinging rights. This is slippery and convoluted thinking and gives rise to the common assumption that, because we cannot know everything about everyone, therefore we cannot claim to fairly evaluate anything about anyone except ourselves.

The Sin of Hypocrisy in a (Class-)Free State

[11] The next few logical fallacies tend to show up during counter-arguments utilizing a particular brand of rhetoric to expand the limits of an argument beyond the bounds of its original conclusions in order to prove that it is inconsistent or hypocritical. One such fallacy is really better described as an inappropriate or sloppy use of analogy. While analogy can be a particularly powerful tool when used to lay bare the fundamental relationships and logical connections between two ideas by substituting alternative examples and seeing if "the logic still holds," it can be badly abused if it is used instead to presume or imply similarity. Take, for instance, the analogy kitten:cat::puppy:dog, or "kitten is to cat as puppy is to dog." The relationship between the first and second of each of these pairings is that of child or youth to mature adult; however, because both pairs also hold other similarities in common (e.g. both are small, furry mammals that have been domesticated into common household pets), one might draw certain irrelevant or unsupported assumptions about what this analogy is saying either intentionally or implicitly about cats and dogs as larger categories. If we were then to make a claim such as, "kitten is to cat as calf is to cattle," a person who was distracted or confused by the irrelevant similarities of the first analogy might draw from this new analogy the false conclusion that we mean to claim that cattle, too, are common household pets. They might go on to reject this new analogy, objecting that it is not logically sound precisely because cattle are not pets.

[12] I bring up this point more in anticipation of future counter-arguments than because of past instances (although Cat's response to Jeff's hyperbole regarding Obama's cleaning habits could potentially be considered a variation). Later in this discussion I will be speaking about cultural assumptions that have been used in support of hiring a housekeeper, and substituting other situations or examples in which such assumptions might also function, in order to examine whether or not we always come to the same conclusions. I will appreciate it a great deal if you pay careful attention to the logical construction of these analogies and do not mistake them for statements about similarity. For instance, if I bring up the fact (as I did in the original post) that certain Libertarians argue that by hiring prostitutes we are doing them a favor because otherwise they would be unemployed, and I compare it to the argument, made a few times in the comments, that by hiring housekeepers we are doing them a favor because otherwise they would be unemployed, I am not suggesting that housekeepers are prostitutes. Rather, I am looking at the way in which the statement "at least doing x is better than unemployment" functions as a counter-argument, in order to discover if it is really a substantive or relevant objection.

[13] Another fallacy that hinges on mistaken similarity takes the following form: "if x and y hold characteristic z in common, an argument in support of (or against) x must also be in support of (or against) y, regardless of whatever other relevant characteristics x and y do not hold in common." This argument was actually used several times in your comments above: first when Nettle asked me if I held an equally negative view of hiring child care providers because, like housekeepers, they tend to be women doing what is traditionally considered "women's work," and again when Thora assumed that because I value cleaning as an aspect of self-reliance, I must therefore believe that we must all take our own waste and garbage to the dump as well. Now one salient characteristic that both waste management and child care happen to hold in common, and which distinguishes them both from private household cleaning, is the role of community involvement. I am a strong believer in the saying that "it takes a village to raise a child," and while I do agree that the role of the parents in a child's life and development is of utmost, possibly even paramount importance, I see no reason why this cannot also be supplemented appropriately with the care and support of non-parental child care providers in ways that are beneficial for everyone involved. However, I would not argue that child care providers can completely replace or take over the responsibilities of the parents. Likewise, the management of refuse and waste is not merely a private concern, but one of social implications for sanitation, health and even infrastructure; this is why waste management workers are hired by the city and paid with taxpayers' dollars. However, once again, I would not suggest that waste management workers hold the sole responsibility for the garbage generated by a community (I refer you to the following parenthetical paragraph, below). Meanwhile, the maintenance of a private household is by definition a private concern of the individual homeowner(s); it is therefore precisely the epitomic realm in which both waste management and child care find their expressions in personal responsibility. In my opinion, I feel that this attitude towards private household cleaning as being naturally the realm of personal rather than social import may actually be reflected in the generally lower status and wages for housekeeping cleaners (as compared to child care workers, waste management workers and even "janitors and cleaners" hired to maintain public spaces such as schools, office buildings, etc. — as per the employment stats listed in my earlier comment).

[14] (Incidentally, however, my views of cleaning as a valuable form of self-reliance do in fact extend to waste management as far as an individual or household is capable: I believe we should strive, through reduced consumption, reuse of materials, recycling, composting and home water-recycling and -filtration systems, to lighten our burden on community sanitation as much as possible. Like Jeff, I can't help but wonder if more people would find it in their best interest to reevaluate their consumption habits and reduce their waste if they were left to deal with the consequences of those habits directly, rather than having their waste shuffled quickly out of sight via convenient roadside service. Though I would not seriously suggest we do away with garbage pick-up entirely, I do try to form healthier, more socially- and environmentally-respectful habits based on this awareness.)

[15] The final fallacy-of-similarity that I want to address is one I have already mentioned: that is, the role played by exceptions in the construction and support of an argument. I notice that although I was careful to mention at the very beginning of my original post that exceptions such as old age, poor health or disability could certainly be valid reasons to hire a housekeeper, they were brought up time and again in your comments as though they were powerful counter-arguments against my more general claim about the benefit of doing your own housework whenever possible. It seems to me that the reason so many of you either unintentionally overlooked or deliberately ignored the qualifications I made sure to include in my original argument might be because of an increasingly prevalent tendency to assume that if there are potential exceptions to a particular given principle, then that principle must not have any value worth working towards. This kind of thinking is also very common among people who reject the vegan/vegetarian diet as a viable alternative to the Standard American Diet (SAD), based on the argument that some individuals suffer from particular (although exceptional or relatively rare) forms of nutrient absorption problems, or by proposing the (again exceptional) scenario of being lost and starving in the woods and resorting to hunting out of necessity. Again, this argument is used when dismissing the principles of nonviolence as ineffectual, by bringing up dire circumstances of self-defense against sociopathic homicidal maniacs or other similarly unstoppable or irrational forces, as if these characterized the majority rather than the minority of cases.

[16] The use of exceptions which are relatively uncharacteristic of most of the people to whom a given principle might apply, in order to argue against the worth of that principle in general or as a whole, is really a very weak counter-argument in itself. But I include it here as a fallacy-of-similarity because I think it exposes a flaw in how we make comparisons of value; i.e. in such an argument, we take the exception as the norm towards which we conform our expectations of ourselves and others, rather than striving towards the norm laid out by the general principle, even when such a principle is far from a radical ideal. In other words, we tend to look towards those alternatives that we resort to in times of extreme difficulty or under unusual circumstances, as harmful or lamentable as they may be, in order to define the standard of everyday behavior. Because we might react instinctively with violent defense against a maniac, we assume that violence is an acceptable norm of daily life; because we might resort to eating animal flesh in harsh climates or extenuating circumstances where better food is not available, we assume that meat-eating is the basis of an average healthy diet. And because a small minority of the population may require the assistance of a housekeepers or because we might ourselves one day become too sick or too old to clean for ourselves, we feel comfortable justifying the reliance on a housekeeper as an acceptable practice even during the healthy prime of our lives.

[17] The problem with such an approach is that, when we take for granted that the norm should be defined by those rare exceptions, we tend to see in ourselves and in others a similarity with those exceptions. And so, for example, every instance of violence becomes in our minds an instance in which we are defending ourselves instinctually against an irrational maniac (even when this is not in fact the case). Likewise, one reader of my original post claimed to suffer from dust allergies that, as far as is known, she has never exhibited in the past decade, and which have only begun to plague her now that she has both the financial means and the social pressure to hire a housekeeper. In such a situation where we are expected by others or even by ourselves to conform to an "exception" that will justify our violation of a generally valuable principle, we are likely to begin believing, whether consciously or subconsciously, that we are in fact such an exception and to exhibit symptoms or problems accordingly.

[18] I believe that one reason we have this tendency to define ourselves and others in terms of "exceptions" and to thus dismiss principles that might otherwise have value for the greater majority is, in part, related to the point I made above about the "Inherent Right to Fist-Swinging." If we cannot know for sure that another person is not indeed a legitimate exception, then it is more valuable in our estimation to "play it safe" by downplaying the value of the ideal or higher principle so as not to trespass on another's rights or cause unintentional offense by appearing judgmental. But I think that the use of exceptions as supposedly powerful, and potentially even definitively devastating counter-arguments goes beyond this, to the issue of hypocrisy and our cultural assumptions about freedom.

[19] What all of these fallacies-of-similarity have in common, as I mentioned above, is the attempt to extend or warp an argument beyond its intended, logical conclusion and thus demonstrate that it is inconsistent or hypocritical. To prove an argument is inherently hypocritical is assumed to be a fatal blow to the value of such an argument. Indeed, in our culture it is much worse to be a hypocrite than to be a failure, and we assume it is also much more likely, so that any occasion when someone fails to live up perfectly to the values they espouse, we accuse them not of imperfection, but of hypocrisy. If a person who upholds the values of pacifism cannot always perfectly conform to the ideals of nonviolence, but may occasionally slip up out of ignorance or natural human shortcomings, then the philosophy of pacifism itself is assumed to be impractical, hypocritical and relatively valueless. (You will also notice in this conclusion again the assumption that a principle must be judged not in terms of its broader implications but by the individuals who embody it, another example of our cultural assumptions about the primacy of individualism.) In this way, too, if a person who argues in favor of the value of self-reliance cannot be completely self-reliant to the extreme of total isolated independence from others in all cases — a ridiculous notion considering our nature as social creatures and our physical as well as spiritual interconnection — then the principle of self-reliance is dismissed as hypocritical and valueless.

[20] Why is hypocrisy considered such a sin in our culture? For a time, this question puzzled me. But I have come to believe that it is because of another common cultural assumption which goes largely unexamined today: that our society is a free and open one, and one in which "class" exists only insofar as it is an incidental stratification through which we can pass almost effortlessly in fluid social mobility. It is often said that Americans show a great amount of "can do" attitude — certainly it was that sentiment that became a catalyst and catchphrase for the most recent successful presidential campaign — and we believe this quite readily about ourselves at times and, perhaps even more importantly, about others. With such an assumption in place, we therefore conclude that anyone and everyone is fully and completely capable of living up to and realizing whatever particular values or principles they claim to hold dear. We may not always hold ourselves to these standards; after all, we are very much aware of all of the limitations, restrictions and obstacles that we face personally every day and which might prevent us from reaching our ideals — all the more reason to identify ourselves as and show solidarity with others who may be "exceptions." And so we find ourselves suspicious of anyone who aspires to any ideals with which we might potentially one day take exception. We assume, first of all, that if they express such ideals it is because they are not exceptions themselves and must not have mitigating circumstances of their own. We accuse them of not having considered such exceptions, of being unfair in their expectations of others, and of being hypocritical in the application of their values to themselves when we discover that they are not actually perfect or perfectly capable. This is often true regardless of whether or not a person has in fact behaved hypocritically, and our mistrust is only reinforced by the fact that so many of our public figures and political and cultural leaders do so often hide behind a mask of very real hypocrisy.

[21] Oddly enough, because our underlying cultural assumptions often slip by unexamined and can inform our attitudes without us consciously noticing their effect, we are perfectly capable of holding two contradictory assumptions at once. Such is the case with our assumption that this is a completely free and open society full of can-do people who have no excuse for failure or imperfection, but who are also, as it happens, woefully crippled by myriad exceptions, handicaps and extenuating circumstances around which we must constantly tiptoe with care if we are to avoid accusations of prejudice, ignorance, imposition or, worst of all, hypocrisy. We may, during any given argument, swing towards one of these views rather than another, depending on how we view the individual against whom we are arguing, but many of us comfortably hold both in our arsenal of counter-arguments, ready to use this one or that one when the other one fails us.

The Broken Window Fallacy

[22] There is a parable told by Frédéric Bastiat in an essay (published one hundred and sixty years ago, in 1850) that illustrates starkly what he called, and what has since come to be quite well known as, the "Broken Window Fallacy." In Bastiat's parable, a shopkeeper's son accidentally breaks a window and the shopkeeper must hire a glazier to repair it; when the shopkeeper laments the incident, onlookers remonstrate him, saying that certainly this unfortunate event at least benefits the glazier, and after all what would become of the glaziers if windows were never broken? But, Bastiat says, "if, on the other hand, you come to the conclusion, as is too often the case, that it is a good thing to break windows, that it causes money to circulate, and that the encouragement of industry in general will be the result of it, you will oblige me to call out, 'Stop there! Your theory is confined to that which is seen; it takes no account of that which is not seen.'" In other words, such a conclusion can result only from the narrow consideration of a single economic transaction, and takes no account of all of the other potential uses to which both the glazier and the payment given to him might have been put instead. The shopkeeper, had his son not broken his window, might have instead spent the money on a new pair of shoes or a new book for his library, or on food for his family, or on a night at the local concert hall, benefitting the cobbler or the printer or the grocer or the musicians. Likewise the glazier, had he not been employed repairing the broken window of the shopkeeper's place, might have been employed to fashion windows for the new town hall or the beautiful new church being built, or perhaps he might have had some even greater personal project to which he could have devoted himself and that would have had the potential for greater enrichment of both the personal and the financial sort. "Thus, the child did not bring any net benefit to the town. Instead, he made the town poorer by at least the value of one window, if not more."

[23] Yet despite the obvious flaw in this kind of specious reasoning on a small scale, the Broken Window Fallacy is employed with gleeful abandon even today to justify everything from the economic advantages of war to the misguided spending practices of state infrastructure projects. It has become the common wisdom of economists and politicians to cheer on the industries of warfare and weapons manufacturing as providing essential opportunities for employment and economic growth, especially during times of hardship and recession, and yet such industries not only pour tremendous amounts of human labor and material resources into crafting objects which will inevitably be destroyed — indeed, this is their whole intended purpose — but which do no small amount of damage themselves before their own eventual destruction. In short, the military-industrial complex takes the Broken Window Fallacy to new levels of myopic stupidity and has become, essentially, an industry devoted to the manufacturing of Window-Breaking Machines.

[24] However, there are subtler forms of this fallacy no less unfortunate in their application. When the coal mining industry began to crumble and collapse, leaving a great number of the working class unemployed across central Pennsylvania, the state turned to the reliable wisdom of the Broken Window Fallacy and put many of them to work in road construction through the Department of Transportation (more commonly known as PennDOT). Intentionally relaxing standards for construction and maintenance, they were able to employ many who might not otherwise have had the training or skills for such work; in addition, the less competent repair work would often last only a year or two before needing further maintenance, ensuring an endless round of construction projects and an indefinite number of employment opportunities stretching into the future. As a result, years later, many of these lowered standards (and the resulting lower pay for less-skilled work) persist and the condition of the roads state-wide has continued to grow worse and worse. Such an approach, though not nearly as misguided as the wanton and intentional destruction of the military-industrial complex, has certainly left the state of Pennsylvania poorer in the long-run with barely a benefit to the workers themselves. (Contrast this to the city of Pittsburgh, which responded to the decline of the city's once-thriving steel industry by actively encouraging the growth of careers in medicine, education, architecture and most recently "green technology," as well as funding cultural programs in the arts.)

[25] I bring up these examples not to distract from the original discussion regarding the relative merits of hiring a housekeeper, but to illustrate in what way these examples utilize, applied on a larger scale, some of the same logical failings and cultural assumptions many of you used in your own counter-arguments. For what the Broken Window Fallacy really concerns itself with is the too-often unseen or unrecognized detriment, to both the individual worker and the community as a whole, of employing someone to do unnecessary work, what we might call the "cost of opportunity." This may be true even when the work, such as that of the glazier, is otherwise potentially enjoyable or well-paying, but it becomes especially relevant when we begin to speak about menial and traditionally "lower-class" work. In such instances, the fallacy manifests itself most readily in the counter-argment, already previously mentioned, that insists: "at least doing x is better than being unemployed." Such is the objection, almost word for word, that the townspeople of Bastiat's parable make to the complaints of the shopkeeper, and yet it is one, as he points out, that rests on assumptions about the unseen and a narrow consideration of alternatives.

[26] One red flag that should make us immediately suspicious of the logic behind this counter-argument is that it is almost never used to justify a regression to some previous economic state (I say almost never, knowing full-well the resurgence in marketing for so-called "clean coal" alternatives in central Pennsylvania in recent years), but is instead used practically exclusively to defend the current status quo. The logic "at least doing x is better than being unemployed" was once used to argue against the raising of the minimum wage that would force businesses to lay-off elevator operators; yet after the resulting invention of the automatic elevator, few would suggest that we have done a great disservice to those who, for lack of elevator operator work, have found themselves homeless and starving on the streets. Likewise, having fought valiantly in this country to establish child labor laws to protect the rights, health and safety of those underage, rarely do we hear an argument supporting the repeal of these protections so that families might be relieved of their burden in times of financial or physical hardship. Such suggestions immediately present themselves to us as ridiculous and wrong-headed, as does similar reasoning when it is applied to circumstances in other countries or cultures far below the lowest acceptable standards of our own. Thus we make no objection to the call to boycott sweatshop-manufactured clothing produced by workers being paid seven cents an hour. We do not worry that, as a result of our boycott, such workers will be forced into poverty and starvation, since to our eyes they must already be living in such conditions to accept so pitiful a payment.

[27] My point here is not to suggest that housekeepers are equivalent or even similar to unprotected underaged workers or grossly-underpaid sweatshop employees in the Third World (please see my discussion above about the use of analogies for clarification on this matter). Rather, I mean to illustrate that, under certain conditions, we find the counter-argument "at least doing x is better than being unemployed!" to be clearly flimsy, pessimistic and sometimes downright backwards in its outlook and assumptions about the world. In fact, the conditions under which we reject this kind of reasoning could be characterized most generally as precisely those times when we have clear evidence for the viability of more advantageous alternatives. In this, we are often lacking in both optimism and imagination, refusing to believe such options exist or are even possible unless they have been fairly well-established for us among the norms of our own contemporary culture, and leaving others to take on both the risk and the resistance of establishing more progressive standards for the future. But if we can only accept the Broken Window Fallacy as reliable and soundly-reasoned wisdom in situations where we are fundamentally uncertain about the potential alternatives, then it must also be clear to us that our relative reliance on this logical fallacy is determined largely by what our cultural assumptions tell us, overtly or implicitly, about the unknown.

[28] So what are the whisperings and whistlings in the dark that arise from our cultural assumptions when it comes to the question of housekeeping and other forms of menial labor? In my experience one particularly pervasive assumption — which might even be described as the most persistent and driving primary anxiety of a capitalist society — is that, to put it simply, there are only a limited number of "good jobs" available, and its corollary, that these are always fewer than the size of a given population. There is no particular reason why this must absolutely be the case, and indeed we have very little evidence to believe it to be inherently and irrevocably true other than the insistence of practically everyone else around us. Yet the healthy functioning of a capitalist society rests on this incurable belief, tied intimately to the (presumably loose) stratification of class, as the impetus to competition behind our strivings for creativity, innovation and efficiency. Even those of the highest class buy into this cultural assumption. As only one example, the doctor examining Jeff's broken foot recently treated us to his impromptu ponderings on his son, third in his class at a prestigious local private school, working diligently to "beat out" the two Korean kids above him, apparently under the impression that there are only two well-paying job openings available for prep-school graduates.

[29] When the competition even among the upper classes for meaningful and gainful employment is so fierce, those of us with the liberal ideal that everyone deserves the right and opportunity to work often find ourselves defending the strange and unfortunate notion that, in order for this to be possible, we are obligated to create "bad jobs," relatively low-paying and unskilled work that we might otherwise do for ourselves or find creative alternative methods to avoid altogether. Thus, the Broken Window Fallacy slips in practically unnoticed to bolster our belief and alleviate our quietly nagging guilt, assuring us that this is to the benefit of the workers as well as the community because without such jobs available many of the people so employed would soon find that all of the better jobs had already been taken. Thus we shift our focus from our own choice about how to use our financial and material resources, to the apparent lack of choice that we assume others must face which would lead them to pursue even the lowest-paying menial work, and so we offer such jobs as a kind of consolation prize to those to whom life has handed the short straw, lest they be left with nothing. This, at least, is what we tell ourselves in excuse, though rarely do we refuse or even pause to consider when the latest technological advancement allows us to replace telephone operators, factory assembly line workers, bank tellers, agricultural workers, gas station attendants, grocery store cashiers and any number of other positions, with automated systems or technological tools that give us the same level of competence or personal control. Indeed we roundly acknowledge that higher levels of education open up greater, not fewer, opportunities for employment, in part because they equip us with the skills and creativity to forge wholly new career paths if we choose, while the viable options for menial labor erode under constant threat of being rendered redundant or irrelevant by the next wave of technological innovation. Still, we persist in the belief that it is the market of well-paying and respectable career options that is glutted and only by hiring others to do our own undesirable tasks can we, with patronizing affection, offer that helping hand so desperately needed.

[30] The slightly more sinister assumption lurking behind this logic is the belief that some people — due to personal disadvantages of background or education, gender, race or ethnicity, personality, or physical or mental deficiencies — simply are not capable of doing any better. Accordingly, this counter-argument suggests, by creating Window Repair work for such individuals, far from doing them a disservice, we are in actual fact doing them a favor. Here again we see the insidious work of two cultural assumptions in collision: the assumption that in a free and open society of can-do citizens no one would be working a low-paying, menial job unless they were essentially incapable of doing any better, and the habit of mind that assumes that if they are incapable of doing better it is due to the exceptions of personal disadvantage (such as disability or lack of intelligence or initiative). Such exceptions, as I have discussed already, are believed to be much more common than they truly are for a variety of reasons, and offer more acceptable explanations of disadvantage than an acknowledgement of broader social trends (often existing in that uncertain space "beyond our own nose") where systemic injustices and inequalities might function apparently beyond the scope of any one individual's or group's ability to neatly control the results. It can often be difficult, even among the highly-educated, for a person to gain enough cultural and historical perspective to develop a firm grasp on social trends and their myriad consequences, whereas almost everyone can name at least one friend or coworker who has benefitted from a diligent work ethic or some well-timed brown-nosing, while another has been passed over for promotion time and again due to a confrontational personality, laziness on the job or even poor personal hygiene. We are not only prone, in a culture preoccupied with individualism, to believe more strongly in the individual's responsibility or culpability for finding work, but it makes more immediate sense to us, for we are often more likely to see the immediate causes and effects on this smaller scale than the echoing, shifting tides of systemic conditions stretching back for several generations.

[31] All of this assumes, of course, that such menial work is undesirable and ideally avoidable, and yet there is often an oddly-reasoned view that accompanies our patronage of those whom we hire for such tasks, that would have us believe that because even the best job can be miserable and demeaning under certain repressive or unfortunate circumstances, therefore even the worst job can be a welcome dream-come-true if approached with the appropriate attitude. It is this kind of thinking that leads some Libertarians to the defense of prostitution as a woman's rightful alternative to the poverty of unemployment, and leads others to the defense of housekeeping and similar menial work because it is a more dignified or more ethical alternative to prostitution. In both cases, the argument applauds those individuals in situations of disadvantage for "owning" the conditions in which they find themselves and making the best of the situation through hard work and a kind of stubborn humility. What such rationalizations hold in common is the readiness to believe that attitude is everything, and the willingness to view our exploitation of someone else's disadvantage as a twisted form of generosity and empowerment.

The Location of and Right to Self-Identity

[32] An unexamined but pervasive cultural attitude that colors and complicates this discussion to the point of inanity is the deep-seated assumption that a person's self-identity is defined primarily by how they earn money. This unacknowledged view brings us immediately back to the concerns raised in my discussion about the "Inherent Right to Fist-Swinging," and threatens to transform almost any discussion about how we choose to spend our time, energy and resources into a discussion about the demands others have the right to make on us for these things. It is this cultural assumption that, I believe, truly lies at the heart of the transformation of my actual argument about the drawbacks of hiring a housekeeper, into the one portrayed as and responded to in your comments, namely an imagined argument about the drawbacks of employing housekeepers (plural), as if they were a single, monolithic group of individuals whose self-identity rested solely in their line of work, and whose self-identity as well as livelihood is therefore threatened by my particular perspective.

[33] The fact that there are indeed some (exceptional) individuals for whom housekeeping and other such work is a calculated (and often temporary) choice that confers advantages such as self-employment, schedule flexibility and independence, only serves to reinforce this view. In such a situation, an argument against hiring a housekeeper might, if taken seriously by too many people, negatively impact such individuals' ability to find this type of employment (though they would, presumably, have other options available to them). Yet, these individuals will argue, isn't it their right to work as a housekeeper if that is the profession they choose? Of course, you won't catch them arguing for their right to work as an elevator operator, a gladiator, an assistant juniper-berry picker, or a lunar tour guide — such a counter-argument is, as usual, confined only to the relevant aspects of the current cultural status quo one feels is in need of defending. And so we come to a discussion about the precise location of such work-related self-identity and the implications of the belief in an individual's right to choose.

[34] For in this highly individual world, I agree whole-heartedly that a person's self-identity is something sacred, to be celebrated and cultivated with care and craft. However, if we assume that this self-identity rests exclusively or even primarily in that person's choice of career, and yet we persist in our belief that it remains of the individual's choosing, then we are led to some rather unrealistic and even contradictory conclusions about the nature of the market economy and the function of its producer-consumer relations. The fact of the matter is that consumer choices, not those of the workers, largely dictate what types of work will be available, and what little power workers are able to exert to this effect, for instance through organized labor unions, is often constricted in focus and negligible on a larger scale. It is our choice as consumers to support certain industries over others, to overlook the injustices or harmful consequences of this one while speaking out against the similar effects of that one; furthermore, we are very much aware of this power of ours and understand that it is to be wielded carefully and consciously whenever possible.

[35] However, when we insist that anyone who chooses to earn a living and create a self-identity based on a particular form of work has the right to demand our compliance and support for that choice, we find ourselves squeezed uncomfortably into the same fist-swinging paradigm that would restrict our own choices of lifestyle to those safely within the bounds of "our own nose," fearful that any more wide-spread implications might trespass on another's right to their chosen self-identity. To my mind there is little difference between the argument that we are wrong to praise the values of self-reliance and cleaning our own homes at the apparent expense of those who choose to be housekeepers, and the argument that we are obligated to support not only the troops, but the war, simply because some individuals have chosen to be soldiers. The logic is the same in both scenarios, though I think most of you would object to the latter. The question of what right individuals reasonably have to choose the means by which they earn a living is an essentially different question from our rights as individuals to make choices about how to best spend our time, energy and resources — for while one is a relatively simple question of employment that can be answered at least in part by the current circumstances that exist in the market economy, the other is a question about our self-identity as creative beings engaged in shaping the world around us, and it is here, precisely in this realm "beyond our own nose" that we share with and engage with each other in ways that render our self-identity meaningful.


  1. And here I put in all those nifty internal hyperlinks at each paragraph for easy referencing during debate... and not one single comment. :-p You guys are no fun.

  2. Clearly, this has expanded waaaaaaaaay beyond the issue of housekeeping to address a lot about society in general. Still, I want to expand the venue of debate even a bit further.

    In paragraph 30, you talk about the "sinister assumption... that some people — due to... mental deficiencies — simply are not capable of doing any better."

    I taught special education for many years, and one of the reasons I left that field (I teach advanced placement science now) was my growing sense that the "anyone can learn" philosophy of special ed was doing a serious disservice to some of my more limited students. There was one in particular, whose life's ambition was to become an HVAC technician like his godfather. The local vocational school wouldn't take him because his reading skills were too low, so we were doing our best to teach him to read at the regular high school while giving him enough shop classes to keep him at least minimally engaged in school. This was justified on the grounds that even traditionally "vocational" jobs these days required "college skills" (like math and computer programming) and therefor vocational schools had to strive just as fiercely as any others to be considered "academically rigorous." We weren't able--in many cases, flat out weren't permitted--to suggest alternative goals for our students that didn't include the word "college." We had to hold the "anyone can succeed" line. We were told that this was because every once in a while there was a special ed kid who did make it through college with appropriate accommodations and go on to be successful in life. But really it was because our whole economy is shifting away from manufacturing and labor and towards increasing levels of technology, and no one wants to admit that there will be people who just can't keep up. And certainly, no school is ever going to admit that THEIR students are the ones who can't keep up.

    What we didn't offer our kids was any other vision or what it could mean to be "successful." And that's what I'd like to hear more about from you.

    You've latched onto housekeeping as the archetypal shit-job, but let's face it, ALL service sector jobs pretty much suck, and they're getting suckier as our society becomes more high-tech oriented. Your mechanic used to be somebody with an 10th grade education but who knew how to tune an engine; now it's somebody who can run a computerized diagnostic on an electronic fuel injection system. So where does that leave my 10th grade special ed student?

    We talked lots of statistics in special ed, and they were all true. But none of them answered my questions. None of them gave me any hope that I could pass on to my students.

  3. Peter, Thanks for your comment, and for reading this incredibly long post to begin with. :) Really what you're asking is something I've been trying to work on for my last post in this suddenly-a-series, a statement of affirmation and action that outlines not just what kinds of arguments to avoid, but the kind of worldview or set of principles that might be a better guide for us. I'll try to say a bit here briefly, though, in hopes that you'll come back and read the long version, too. :)

    You're right to bring up ¶30 as an important consideration for the kind of situation you describe, though there's a reason I waited until after the discussion of the roles of exceptions (in ¶15-17) to approach that topic. In talking about what kinds of general ethical principles we can strive towards, there can be a danger in basing our arguments on exceptions, for we can come to believe that they characterize a broader range than they do in actual fact, and this can warp our perception of viable possibilities and alternatives when difficulties arise. On the other hand, I think you and I both agree that any kind of ethic that would dismiss the disadvantaged or the vulnerable in a society as unworthy of consideration would be fundamentally flawed and quite likely unjust, and so the point you bring up is an important one to look at.

    So. Given the fact that, though they are not the vast majority, there are individuals who suffer from physical and mental disabilities or illnesses that make it difficult to "fit in" to the mold of our current society and find meaningful work for a living wage.... Do I acknowledge this is a sucky situation and hope seems pretty dim? Yes. Do I believe this is a reason to willfully create more "shit jobs" because these individuals "can't do any better"? No. And I say no for two reasons.

  4. Firstly, the question of whether or not they "can't do any better" (or, as you put it, whether or not "anyone can learn") is a question that presupposes a lot about how society works and how individuals fit into that society. I'm struck, for instance, by your example of "teaching to the test" in an attempt to help students qualify for certain programs or careers. If we adopt the belief that "anyone can learn" but then go on to define that "learning" in narrow and culturally-myopic terms, then we will quickly find that we are wrong, that some people are just not very good at this skill set while others are simply rather bad at that one. In a culture that drastically favors this over that, some people will inevitably be left in the dust, as you rightly point out. This is true among the population generally and not just of those individuals with special needs.

    However, when I speak about education, I mean to evoke an ideal of education — not merely cramming empty (and sometimes flawed or "damaged") vessels full of useful and/or necessary knowledge, but a form of education that challenges individuals to discover both their own passions and talents, and their own limitations and weaknesses, and to learn how to work effectively and creatively with these to first discover/uncover their potential and then live up to or fulfill that potential. I do honestly believe that everyone has potential, some potentially meaningful contribution they can make and work that they can do which will leave them with a sense of dignity and joy as well as being useful or necessary for society. Will such potential be readily encouraged, realized and appreciated by a given society during a given period of history, especially one as lopsided in its values and expectations as ours has become? Well, no, and that's the sucky part. But while I believe that "anyone can learn" as a trite, naïve form of optimism is as useless as the parental insistence that "you can be anything you want to be when you grow up" (my 4'9" cousin, Amie, for instance, will never be a WNBA basketball star, let's face it), I do believe in something you could call "creative realism." In other words, I do believe that we can look honestly at everything we have available to work with, including our own limits and flaws and the inevitable flaws and injustices of social or cultural conditions, and we can learn, with help and patience, how to respond to these less-than-ideal conditions with creativity and engaged presence that allows expression to our deepest selves even in the worst situations. Part of this is learning how to find out what our "deepest selves" are really like, and then listening to that truth as it attempts to speak in whatever voice it chooses, rather than letting our own expectations or those of society try to force us into a mold (and sometimes that means reevaluating the career that our godfathers pursued because maybe it's not the right one for us, and other times it means holding fast to that dream because it expresses our deepest passions and then finding a way to make it happen). The more we strive to do this kind of work, the more we break ground and make it easier for others to do the same. Yes, it is difficult even for the average person, and yes, it is even more difficult for those with disabilities or illnesses that place them outside that comfortable norm... but simply because something is difficult does not, unfortunately, excuse us from trying, or from trying to give our best to others facing such difficulties. That is my view, at least, and I realize that to some it may sound stubbornly hopeful.

  5. The second reason I answer with no to the question of creating "shit jobs" for others, besides the lack of long term benefit for everyone involved in a Broken Window Fallacy scenario, is that I do honestly think things are getting better, and while we may romanticize a past in which a man with a 10th grade education could earn a respectable living as a mechanic, we overlook both the many injustices and flaws of that past (I doubt a woman would've had such an opportunity, for instance) and the very real progress being made today. The fact that special- education programs even exist today is a huge step forward, for instance. Another cousin of mine, to give a personal example, suffers from autism that would have probably eventually landed him in some kind of sanitarium even as recently as fifty years ago, but instead he'll be graduating with a college degree and entering the work force in a year or two. (Meanwhile, my mother works for a nonprofit company devoted to providing health and social services to individuals with disabilities of all kinds, including career counseling. One of the prints hanging in my new apartment was bought at an auction this company sponsored that featured art work created by men and women, some of whom had lost one or both arms or suffered from other debilitating illnesses, but who allowed their passion for art to help them forge careers for themselves or find alternative ways to continue a career that they loved. And this was no pity-auction, either; you would be hard-pressed to pick out which of my various prints and paintings it is, because the artwork rivals any created by more "capable" individuals.) These are all anecdotal examples, I realize, and cannot take the place of a broader perspective that takes your experiences into account as well. But I do very strongly believe not only that progress is being made, but that further progress can be made, and that our best response is to persevere, not acquiesce, to stubbornly insist on better education and more effective programs, and to continue to do our part to shape our society into one in which every individual's work can be both meaningful and appreciated.

    We're not there yet. And if you ask me what I would say to your former students to give them hope... well, I cannot give an honest answer beyond what I've said above, partly because to be any more specific and relevant I would have to know and respond to each student as an individual. The worst mistake we can make, I believe, is to treat people as categories instead of individuals, and to pat them collectively on the head and say with apparent wisdom, "This is the best we can offer and it's certainly the best you can do." I can't make that judgment; all I can do is talk about the reasons why I do still have hope, and to continue to hold compassion and service as primary values that guide the way I live my life and interact with others.