Signs of Decline

If a store uses people as signage, that business won’t be getting mine.

I was stopped at a traffic light not long ago and noticed, off to my right in front of a strip mall, a person dressed as the Statue of Liberty standing in the rain. In the past year, I’ve seen three Statues of Liberty, two Uncle Sams, and one Little Caesar. The weather in each instance was unpleasant, either boiling hot, rainy, or bitterly cold. But there they stood, beside the road, waving to passersby, directing potential customers to a place of business.

During the Depression, it wasn’t uncommon to see a man wearing a sandwich board, walking up and down the street, advertising a local business. Whenever I see someone dressed in a costume promoting a tax service or pizza joint, I think immediately of the Depression and the utter hopelessness that would compel a proud, capable man to wear a sign all day long in order to feed his family. It is honest labor, and I do not fault the man, but neither do I give my business to a company whose regard for human dignity is so low it would employ at miserly wages a man so desperate he would shed all semblance of nobility to dance on a street corner for long hours in the numbing cold. I’ll find some other corporation to prepare my taxes and pizza. Were all tax and pizza companies to take up this practice, I would cook my own books and pizzas, even if the results were jail and indigestion, which they would likely be.

The insensitivity that permits companies to create such demeaning positions is the same lack of empathy that permits them to pay their CEOs ungodly salaries while slashing worker pay and benefits. It reflects a disregard for the most vulnerable among us, a trampling on the weak and powerless on the way up the mountain.

As I said, it is honest work, but it is not ennobling work. It has not elevated the human condition, created some useful product, or eased the way for someone else. It might help a corporation to make a dab more money, but I doubt it, since many potential customers are as likely repelled by the practice as are attracted by it.

My mother worked as a school principal for much of her career. Some 20 years after her retirement, former students still write to thank her. Even the delinquents, in hindsight, seem grateful. All vocations should pay a similar dividend of enduring gratitude. For labor is not only a financial transaction, it is an emotional exchange. It isn’t enough to make money at a job, however needed that money might be. We must also believe our labor has made a positive difference in the world, thereby deriving a degree of satisfaction from our effort. The sin of the corporation is in thinking we work only for money, and will therefore do anything to acquire it, up to and including our own diminishment as humans.

It has occurred to me I might be overly sensitive about this matter, but if so it is because I am troubled by the dearth of opportunities available to young people who don’t wish to become doctors, computer programmers, or financiers. All of those vocations are certainly useful, but there is much work to be done in our nation—houses constructed, roads built, furniture crafted, food harvested, the cars I wreck repaired—that will need to be done by a generation whose worth is already questioned by a culture that believes those who labor with their hands are somehow worth less. Note the typical high school’s push to send every child to college, the decline of apprenticeships, the wholesale export of manufacturing jobs. All of them a chain leading to an inexorable conclusion—a good and capable person reduced to working as a moving billboard. Is this the best our country can offer its people?

I recently needed a vise for my workshop bench. When I went to a store to purchase one, I noticed it was made in China. The fit and finish were poor; the steel was pot metal and likely to fail. I went online to eBay, found a vise made in America in the 1950s, and purchased it. It is, in addition to being sturdy and well-finished, a handsome tool. I have no doubt those who made it went home each evening justifiably proud of their day’s work. I suspect the costumed man along the road doesn’t enjoy a similar satisfaction.

Still, our boasts of superiority continue. America is number one! Let me tell you, friend, any country that does not offer its young people the opportunity for meaningful and satisfying work is in no way superior. We are like a once-fertile field, which year after year produced bumper crops but was not fertilized, nor cultivated, nor properly managed for the next generation. The only goal was to extract as much from the field today, with no thought of tomorrow. Now the field is idle, its vigor sapped, its production a shadow of former times.

My older son, when he turned 18, visited a financial manager and opened an IRA for his retirement. He did this on his own, with no encouragement from me, though I was proud of his foresight. He selected a stock to purchase, again, without my advice, and the stock performed well, gaining 25 percent within a few weeks. Excited by his gain, and taking leave of my senses, I urged him to consider a future in finance. He informed me, in a tone only a teenage male can summon, that he wanted to build something more enduring than wealth. While I applaud his values, I worry for him, as I do for all craftsmen in a society that has lost its appreciation for hands-on work and those who do it.

In the long years of our American republic, democracy has worked because we believed our chances for success were just as good as the next person’s. But when all we have to offer a willing worker is a job as a human billboard, all bets are off. The man who walks in a costume one day will march in a mob the next. Especially if he perceives his children face an economic future as bleak as his own.

Now the Supreme Court, seated in its marbled splendor, has decided corporations shall enjoy the same rights as a living, breathing person. It is akin to holding a boxing match between a heavyweight and a welterweight, pretending their odds are even. It doesn’t take a genius to see that the welterweight, like the man in the costume, doesn’t stand a ghost of a chance.

This article originally appeared in the May 2011 issue.