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March 03, 2011


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Imagine a slightly different world to ours. In this, toilet cleaning is a highly esteemed profession

Actually, Chris, in a limited sense and until quite recently, there were circumstance in which this world operated somewhat down those lines.

One thing that's rarely mentioned in recent debates about equal pay and local authority single status agreements in one of the primary reasosn why binmen, in particular, enjoyed extremely favourable employment terms relative to comparable employees in other council departments.

Refuse collection is not an esteemed service when you've got but it become very noticable, very quickly, if its withdrawn due to, say, strike action and this has historically given binmen far greater neogtiting power than most other council workers to the extent that, with bonuses, many binmen have been able to pull down the kind of wages that elsewhere in local government would be enjoyed only by middle management.

In that sense, the notional 'value' of at least some working class jobs has been a function of the potential consequences of their absence more than of their perceived value in the normal run of things.

Luis Enrique

in your thought experiment, what happens when the ideological value of a job is increased?

presumably more people would want to be toilet cleaners, now highly regarded, which if Adam Smith is right, if anything might suggest wages fall as high status outweighs otherwise unpleasant job. Accepting you have shifted the demand curve out, have you not also shifted the supply curve? The supply of potential toilet cleaners is large, what exactly would drive up wages?

The nature of shifting a demand curve out is that people are now willing to pay more for a given quantity (quality adjusted), but they'll quite happily buy it for less, if they can.

is there a danger of confusing wages with a measure of how much our "ideology values" a job? take nurses. You can say that because their wages are (arguably) low, this shows our "society's ideology" doesn't value them. But I reckon in many respects nurses are highly value by our society, in non monetary terms, and rightly so. How do we know that nurses wages are not explained by a highly ideologically valued job for which an ample supply of nurses is keeping wages down?

you can't use ideology to explain wages if you are using wages to identify how much jobs are ideologically valued.


An American columnist was arguing that teachers should be satisfied with miserable pay because they have the bonus of working in an admired profession. It sounds stupid, yes, but it would explain why political commentators are so well paid...


Luis - it's possible the higher esteem would raise the supply of toilet cleaners, but then, it's possible that it won't (my thought experiment, my rules!)
You're right that ideology can also explain supply. Curiously, though, there's one job where there's high supply and low wages which has very low esteem - journalism.


The notion that socio-cultural coditions affect labour markets, I have no problem accepting. The question is though... how far do such explanations trump standard arguments based on labour as a commodity, and textbook demand and supply curves?

In a world where toilet cleaners are more highly valued, socially, would this necessarily mean higher wages ? We only need so many toilet cleaners, and the job itself requires limited skills as a pre-requisite. Add in a supply shift due to a rise in the job's social esteem, and one can't really imagine free market determined wages rising that much.

At the other end of the scale, we only need so many chief executives also. But, so the standard argument goes .. the pool of those capable of doing the job is smaller, the marginal product of such posts is much higher, and so the premium paid to skill (real or perceived) is much higher. Whether or not those jobs are esteemed, they will be highly paid.

It seems to me then, that real difference in fantasy world would not be whether or not we change the perceptions of the social value toilet cleaners, but whether or not we change the perceived (or actual) requirements of what is required to do different jobs well, and thereby limiting the pool of labour considered 'qualified' to undertake these tasks.

And that brings us to the core questions that I think lie underneath this issue of wages... is skill a genuine thing, or a social construct? If both, what is the relative weight of ideology? Does perceived social value drive notions of skill, or the other way round ?

The corollarly question is whether wages are a function mainly of the post due to it's organisational charactersitics (e.g. due to it's influence or hierarchical weight) or the worker (due to thir ability), and how closely do influence/ability correlate in the real world.

Those who argue for the malleability of the world would surely argue that skills are largely socially constructed, and that in fact most people could do most jobs. Others would counter that in fact highly paid jobs reflect real skill content and organisational weight, and they have to be highly paid because matching appropriate people to such posts is difficult.

What tends to raise real ire , and scepticism, is when people whose wages are enormous, reflecting "ability" or "skills" on the standard view, turn out to be not much better than confused monkeys when it comes down to actual performance. Because then we are struck not only by the unfairness, but also by the fact that we are being ideologically conned somehow.

Still, can't imagine why that would be an issue right now.


Just to add to my comment above ... I think this area is one of those where 'radical' economics and orthodox neoclassical economics have actually tended to converge in recent decades, in the sense that both schools now can accommodate issues of power asymmetry, motivation, problems of supervision, internal labour markets and so on, at least at the micro-level, as determinants of wages and so on.

Where the neo-classical school has historically fallen down, in my view, is failing to see how organisation and technology themselves partly reflect issues of power, rather than just 'efficiency' in some anodyne sense. On the other hand, many writing on these issues from a sociological or historical perspective fail to deal adequately with the issues raised by 'market forces'.

I've not seen too many good works on this kind of issue. Anyone read anything good ?

Luis Enrique

which might suggest that budding journalists in fact hold the job in high esteem?

I know the polls say journalists are held in low regard, but if you meet a stranger and tell them your a journalist, they're likely to be a damn sight more impressed than if you tell them you're an insurance broker. In some senses, journalism is held in high esteem (which of course explains the high supply low wage situation you mention)


At my school subjects like metalwork and woodwork were held in very low esteem compared with subjects like history and geography and thus not taken seriously by us middle-class kids.

This is despite the fact that a good plumber or chippy probably earns twice as much as a good historian and doesn't rack up fifty grand of debts before starting his career.

Maybe we need to start changing ideology in schools and stop brainwashing children in to believing white collar work is better than blue collar work?

scott huminski

U.S.A. State Sponsored Terror (rock music video) Released

Anti U.S. Police State Musician/activist releases his 5th rock video.


Television interview at:


Cathal Kelly

This idea is raised (but not explored in great depth) in the book by UCD's Equality Studies Centre "Equality from Theory to Action" (John Baker, Kathleen Lynch, Sara Cantillon, and Judy Walsh).

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