Friday, April 27, 2007

heaven and earth

I found this ad from a recent print version of the Economist to be problematic. It’s a picture of a hotel worker holding aloft an umbrella so a wealthy Western couple can waltz on the rooftop in the rain in Singapore. Very romantic, if not particularly practical. But what bothers me is the explicit servility of the worker, who gets drenched so the couple can do something absolutely frivolous. It’s just an ad, and in all likelihood no one has ever done this or ever will, but it’s an ad that has run for some time now presumably because it strikes a chord with the traveling business class. This lays out one of the principal failings of the present economic system: extreme inequality of outcome. This inequality is magnified across national boundaries. It’s not as though these three people grew up together, went to the same prep school in Connecticut, but one made foolish life choices and ended up as a bellhop while the other two became a corporate executive and spouse. This ad makes evident the way local workers are orientalized and made invisible to the superrich who inhabit the higher strata of the business world. The ad is meant to show the extreme lengths to which Shangri-La workers will go to enhance the comfort of their guests, which one surmises can be attributed to some deep inherent hospitality of the “native” population. In reality, it’s simple poverty of opportunity that makes a person submit to another in this way.

Picture an ad showing a ritzy hotel in Atlanta with a black bellhop holding an umbrella over a twirling white couple. The ad above is no better.

. . . adding that what bothers me most is not that, in all likelihood, the white guy in the picture makes 20 times what the brown guy does. It's the fact that one guy gets to dance while the other gets soaked. We have reason to believe that the system by which top executives, partners at white shoe law firms, or hedge fund managers are selected to receive the full munificence of the global economic engine is not a particularly fair or rational one. Those born into bad situations tend to stay there, while on the other hand we have . . . our ever-loving president (I rest my case). But even if the labor market evolved to the point where it could pluck out of the global masses the person whose talents and characteristics most suited a particular job regardless of the station of that person's parents, someone would still have to scrub the toilets. And scrubbing toilets sucks. Now I'm not saying we all need to move to a commune and let the economy go to shit. Division of labor is one of the foundations of modern life--it allows me to type on this computer and listen to streaming radio, talk to my family on the phone, do moderately interesting work, etc. etc. But that still doesn't get us around the unpleasant reality that scrubbing toilets for a living really really sucks. I'm reminded of the comment Imus made years ago about PBS journalist Gwen Ifill being a cleaning lady. Well, Don Imus is a pretty big loser. But there's a good reason that "cleaning lady" is considered an insult, notwithstanding the increasingly tortured efforts of the privileged classes to embue blue collar work with an honor and dignity it usually lacks. The reason is that spending your days scrubbing toilets, shining shoes, or carrying a goddamn rickshaw is unpleasant and demeaning and I've never met anyone in a job like that who wouldn't trade up if they had half a chance. If the casual reader of the Economist doesn't realize that the guy holding the umbrella in the picture above really fucking hates the people under the umbrella, then (a) he's never worked a crappy job and/or (b) sooner or later, he's in for an unpleasant wake-up call.

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