Saturday, December 12, 2009


Every time I hold a Social Security hearing I briefly reflect on the value of work for pay in our society. Indeed, as I tell every claimant, the point of the hearing is for me to determine, using Social Security's rules, whether it is reasonable to expect that they have the capacity to work for pay. This presupposes that everyone ordinarily has the basic capacity for remunerative work. It also presupposes that a person can lose the functional capacity to work. In essence, a Social Security Law Judge is a person who is supposed to be able to tell the difference.

The unquestioned assumption here is that everyone can and should work if they are able. I suspect this assumption has always existed in human society. The unique feature of the modern era is the role of money in defining the worth of work. The birth of the very idea of work for wages is detailed in Adam Smith's The Wealth of Nations (1776). Karl Marx brilliantly expounds the social cost of wage labor in his giant Capital (1867). The spiritual heritage of wage earning is detailed in The Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism (1904) by Max Weber. These three classics form the basis of my understanding of why people work for pay, the social tension created by inequalities of wages and the process through which commonplace wage earning is infused with meaning.

Social Security law is not concerned with such details. There is no mention of meaningful work in the regulations. There is little notice taken of the soul crushing effects of lifelong poverty. For Social Security the inquiry starts and stops with a simple question: can this person be expected to earn enough through work to constitute substantial gainful activity? As of 1/1/10 the regulations define substantial gainful activity [SGA] as the ability to earn $1000 per month from work of any kind. At the minimum wage of $7.25 a person has to work just 32 hours a week to reach this level. We're not talking deeply satisfying work here, we're talking basic survival.

As I rolled these thoughts around in my mind the last few weeks, I occupied my lunch half-hour sitting at my desk reading The Pleasures and Sorrows of Work (2009) by British essayist Alain de Botton. As a rule I dislike books that have a lot of illustrations, but the numerous candid black & white photographs by Richard Baker of people working are wonderful. I also really like the fact that the book closely examines various types of work. De Botton chooses warehouse logistics with an emphasis on tuna fish, cookie making, career counseling, satellite launching, oil painting, electrical transmission engineering, accountancy, entrepreneurship and aviation sales. He seems to see himself as a sort of Michael Moore figure padding around in these various venues asking probing questions of unsuspecting and generally cooperative informants. It's clear that independently wealthy de Botton has scant respect for his subjects. His greatest praise is for the middle aged slightly successful artist who obsessively paints the same tree year after year. His greatest scorn is for the workers in complex enterprises: office workers, factory managers, vocational experts, scientists, engineers, sales representatives and wide-eyed inventors. He sees all of them as mildly desperate souls trying to distract themselves from their own inevitable mortality. Judging from this book de Botton most admires the stoic philosophers.

Nonetheless this is an interesting book. While de Botton is too assured of his own intellectual superiority to be a person I'd ever like to meet, he asks good questions and does succeed in opening up his subjects in a way I've never seen before. His curiosity about the ordinary and commonplace reveals whole new worlds. I never knew there was a society devoted to admiring and visiting the various types of electricity transmission pylons. I had no vision of how the French launch satellites in the jungle of Guiana. The cut-throat competition between biscuit makers was unknown to me before reading this book. I often had to keep pushing through the author's stilted prose and arch commentary to reach his really interesting insights. It was worth it, even though it was often discouraging. I'm not the only one to feel this way about this book as can be seen from the NY Times Book Review from last summer:

It took me about a month of lunches to finish the book in small bites. The exercise left me more deeply appreciative of the value of wage earning. We spend much of our waking hours doing something to earn wages. We usually endow this work with meaning beyond the instrumental value of the money it produces. People are proud of their work and happy when they do it well. This psychic value helps us get up and go to work every day, not just pull the covers up and go back to sleep. If work somehow loses this meaning, people will stop doing it. If a physical or mental injury is severe enough to overpower the meaning of a person's work, the person becomes disabled.

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