Wednesday, February 5

working questions

my paternal grandmother--the woman who first taught me to knit and astounded me with her skill at it--vowed to me (and to plenty of other relatives I'm sure) more than once that she would never knit for money. what she would need to charge to make it monetarily worthwhile for her would automatically make it pointless and unweildy for her to do or for anyone else to be willing to support. instead, my grandmother knitted for love and for gifts and for herself.

not everyone is like my grandmother. if you happen to be a fan of astoundingly-skillful displays of knitting, you can buy this handmade mohair shark sweater on Etsy for $1000.

my dad--the son of that hardworking grandmother of mine--always warned us as kids that we'd get paid more for thinking than for working. we'd earn extra money for things we could do with our brains than we'd ever earn in exchange for things we could do with our hands. this was a motivating stay-in-school-or-else thing to say to a child (not that I probably needed much motivation--that classes were canceled today disappointed me more than a little bit). I was too young at the time to think about the cultural differences between blue-collar and white-collar, or about education and class and associated barriers.

my dad probably didn't mean knitting, though he might have. it's not exactly blue-collar work, but its not exactly medicine or lawyering either. and however we want to divide these genres of potentially gainful employment, it was the fact that handmade knick-knacks of all kinds are being sold for hundreds and thousands of dollars that led me to question the dichotomy my dad's assertion sets up.

does mental exertion merit higher monetary rewards than physical labor? and if so, why? who says? is it that thinking is harder to teach and to see? harder to measure? is it that people sometimes don't want to think? or just that there's only so much thinking a person can do? that doesn't work, then--there's only so much pushing and pulling and running a person can do. our brains and bodies are both limited.

can we say thinking is more difficult than knitting? no, too simple. can we even say thinking is less physical than knitting, or that knitting is less mental than any other human activity? is knitting more fun than puzzling over budgets or legal precedents? maybe. but for whom? is thinking complexly and critically is more grueling and therefore more valuable and important than knitting? maybe. but to whom? that thousand-dollar knitted shark sweater is sold. you could pay about the same amount to spend forty-two hours hanging out with a plumber. or to get eighteen and a half hours of legal advice, according to the US Bureau of Labor Statistics. the price is four times as high for this fancy custom handmade steel banister. does that make so much of knitting, so much of plumbing, and so much of lawyering all worth the same, then?

I might still be too young to understand all of this. whatever we mean by 'market economy' doesn't yet have a home on the Things That Pretty Much Make Sense shelf in my brain. it's complicated. where is the line between work one does with one's brain and work one does with one's hands and body? how do we justify all the splits we carve between these activities? I am reminded of questions I asked last spring, in this post. what good is anything you can do with your brain if you can't then use your mouth and hands and fingers and toes to carry it around to the world and make it happen?


Chris said...

From the always interesting Humans of New York, a relevant thing.

Amelia Chesley said...

aha--my father is not the only one.

Unknown said...

Interesting. Thank you for posting. Reminds me of a conversation I had with some doctor at work once. He was telling me about how the billing works for different things doctors do. For some reason, doctor jobs that involve more procedures (hands-on work) gets billed higher, whereas doctor work that involves more thinking (even in-depth research and super hard critical thinking, like an oncologist might do) is lower on the doctor pay-scale. Orthopedists and other surgeons, anesthesiologists- they're rich. Primary care physicians? They come in at or near the bottom of the totem pole.
Oh, and the group of people who decide how much should each thing be worth? They're apparently mostly made up of orthopedists and surgeons (you may want to fact check that, though, because it's not something I've ever looked up personally).

Unknown said...


Amelia Chesley said...

Cassanndre, that is very interesting to hear. maybe it's because hands-on medicine has a higher risk factor and you really really really need to know what you're doing?

I should've thrown in some of the greek words distinguishing mental knowledge and practical knowledge in this post... maybe the difference in value here is rooted in our different understandings of techne vs. praxis vs. episteme vs. sophia etc. etc. etc. hmmm.

Unknown said...

Haha only throw in the greek words if you explain them to the rest of us (I'm not familiar with any of them!).
As for higher risk factor, you'd think that may be true with procedures- it's such a BIGGER ordeal to go through, true, but that doesn't make it necessarily a higher risk factor.
IE: someone comes into the ER with an abnormal heart rate. While I'm assuming you get charged more for actually shocking a patient with the paddles (a billable procedure), that doesn't necessarily mean it's the best thing for the pt, so you try to handle it with medicine, which can also be dangerous if used improperly. You need to bring the pt's heart rate down, but know if they take any other meds and how they interact, in case you bring the heart rate down too low and then the patient dies. They do make up for that somewhat, though, in allowing a doctor to bill for "Critical care"...