Hey WaPo, There is Nothing Wrong With Making Toilets

Kristin Devine

Kristin has humbly retired as Ordinary Times' friendly neighborhood political whipping girl to focus on culture and gender issues. She lives in a wildlife refuge in rural Washington state with too many children and way too many animals. There's also a blog which most people would very much disapprove of https://atomicfeminist.com/

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47 Responses

  1. Oscar Gordon says:

    You’d think someone would watch a “How It’s Made” before assigning value to a job like that.Report

  2. CJColucci says:

    All of this is true, but, given the choice, would Bill Withers go back to making toilets? Of course he wouldn’t. He himself thought his life was better when he no longer made toilets, and in his position, so would we. And we may as well admit it.Report

    • And how much of that is due to people looking down on people in blue collar jobs as human scum? Because as a person who has worked in jobs that some might sneer at, and found those jobs to be actually quite enjoyable, even pleasant, it has EVERYTHING to do with the fact that people in certain social classes treat you as less-than if you have a job they look down on.

      Believe it or not, there are a whole lot of people out there who don’t want to be super powerful and important people. Like Jane Krakowski said on Ally McBeal once, a whole lot of us don’t want to be lawyers. We don’t want to be CEOs. We don’t want to be celebrities. We don’t want the responsibility and we don’t want the pressure and we don’t want to have to work our lives away chasing a granite countertop that we’re never home to appreciate. We don’t want to have wasted years of our lives on pursuing education or chasing down agents to get them to listen to our demo tape. We want to go to work for 8 hours, making toilets or whatever, get our money, and do whatever the hell we want to – watch football and drink beer and go out on our boat on the weekend and chill with our friends and family. We like our lives and are not secretly jealous of you. All we want is to be able to do that stuff with our heads held high, without being constantly put down.

      I wonder what Heath Ledger thought about being famous? Wonder if John Belushi thought it was that great? And how’s Amanda Bynes doing these days? I’ve seen enough movies and read enough books about the pressures of fame to know that it isn’t easy being a performer, for all the money and recognition there is clearly a massive amount of negative stuff that comes with it. In fact, the negatives very well may outweigh the positives for a whole lot of people (not to mention the huge number of people who break themselves chasing the dragon of fame and fortune.)Report

      • CJColucci in reply to Kristin Devine says:

        I can brag about my own blue-collar cred until the cows come home. If anyone looked down on me as human scum for delivering them beer, all I can say is that I never had such an experience. Few people I know among the fancier peer group I now inhabit look down on people who do honest, blue-collar work. Maybe you run in, or imagine from a distance, a snottier crowd than mine.Report

      • Jaybird in reply to Kristin Devine says:

        There was a lovely essay I read (was it by you?) that talked about Bill Murray’s thoughts when people came up to him and said that they’d love to be rich and famous too.

        His answer was something to the effect of “try being rich and see if that doesn’t take care of what you’re looking for.”

        Being famous has gotten him out of a couple of citations and into a couple of restaurants but everything else about it has sucked, apparently.

        I gathered that being rich was pretty cool, though.Report

      • Damon in reply to Kristin Devine says:

        A former coworker and still friend had a convo about our careers at a large corporation. I asked him if he wanted to be CFO on day or CEO. He said no…why? “Because they have been divorced several times, alienated from the kids, and all they do is work. I don’t want that. I want to see my kids grow up.” Totally agree….except for having the kids 🙂

        My work allows me to afford what I want to do in life…and I’m very aware of my good fortune.Report

        • gabriel conroy in reply to Damon says:

          Agreed. The person in charge of where I work makes (in my opinion) a VERY large amount of money. But I wouldn’t want to put up with the 24/7 nature of the job, especially now that they have t manage this covid crisis.

          (I realize that’s a slightly different point from what your friend was making, but I imagine it’s in the same ballpark.)Report

      • Pinky in reply to Kristin Devine says:

        Or making toilets by day and preparing French cuisine at night. Or being a CEO by day and cooking chili at night.

        Or however each of us makes a living, and our political and social debates and activism in our spare time.Report

  3. Chip Daniels says:

    My wife was watching a Twitter conversation unfold, where someone was extolling the value of “essential” but unsung workers like store stockers and truck deliverymen, when one of the heroic workers themselves jumped in and said well, these nice words are all very well and good, but I think we should be getting more money and benefits.

    At which point the conversation shifted, with comments pouring scorn on the jobs which “a trained monkey could do” and lessons in Econ 101 and price signals telling us just how valuable those jobs really are.Report

    • Rufus F. in reply to Chip Daniels says:

      The Canadian version of the Onion, the Beaverton, ran something along the lines of “Man sings the praises of workers who he will be opposed to getting a higher minimum wage in five months.”Report

      • Chip Daniels in reply to Rufus F. says:

        Its common and easy to extoll the virtues of a simple life, a life without excess.

        Yet the fear of being without affluence is one of the most potent hot button triggers for most people.

        We hear people defend the current structure of global trade by singing of how affluent we are, how medieval kings would envy our poorest citizens, how we live at the apex of human wealth and flourishing.
        Yet we, collectively, seem to be in terror of surrendering even a fraction of it.

        Imagine if that toilet factory Mr. Withers worked at, was brought back here from China. Imagine if it paid wages high enough to induce native born Americans to work there.
        Imagine if all of us were compelled to pay this difference in the houses we buy and apartments we rent.

        How much would our lives change? Would we still be living lives so obscenely wealthy that medieval kings would envy us?Report

        • I get your point, but the answer to your very last question is, yes.Report

          • Chip Daniels in reply to gabriel conroy says:

            The thing that a lot of people, even leftists, don’t like to admit is that egalitarianism isn’t free.

            In order to live in a world where burger flippers and CEOs are afforded equal respect and dignity has a cost, a really, really steep cost.

            It costs us the ability to participate in the game of social rank and hierarchy. An egalitarian world would require us to believe, to actually believe, that we ourselves are no better than the burger flipper and that’s very difficult for most of us.Report

            • What you say reminds me a little of Orwell’s thoughts on anti-imperialism. He believed that real de-colonization would mean that workers in England would be worse off than they were pre-de-colonization. (He wasn’t talking so much about status and social rank as he was material benefits, so that’s a difference from what you’re saying.)

              I’d like to think that I don’t believe I’m better than a burger flipper. However, I sometimes choose to feel myself superior. It happens more with other type of labor. I feel a visceral identification with most service workers in a way I don’t, for example, with other type of workers. (That said, I don’t claim that “therefore, I can speak for service workers.” It’s more like I really resent it when they are mistreated.)Report

              • Chip Daniels in reply to gabriel conroy says:

                I’ve read that one of the reasons that class consciousness never took hold in America is because every proletarian worker had a convenient underclass below him (Black people, Irishmen, Chinese coolies) and that afforded them the ability to enjoy class privilege.

                Even today we see bitter complaints from Trumpists about the their mistreatment by the rich elites, even as in the next breath they talk about the low IQ immigrants who are destroying Western Civilization.

                As ever, LBJ’s commentary about giving a man someone to look down upon springs to mind.Report

              • I’ve read similar things. While I think there’s truth to that, other factors also enter into the picture: non-class-centric identities (religion, e.g.); geographic mobility; craft-oriented unoinism*, first-past-the-post electoral systems.

                *which might be more a symptom of what you’re describing than a cause of anythingReport

      • Brandon Berg in reply to Rufus F. says:

        From antiquity until the mid 19th century, philosophers struggled to explain the diamond-water paradox: Why is it that water is essential for life yet extremely cheap, while diamonds are frivolous yet expensive?

        This apparent paradox was explained by the development of the theory of marginalism. How much we value something is conditional on how much we already have. If you’re dying of thirst, you’ll give everything you own for water, but once you have plenty to drink, and enough for all your other household needs, additional water is pretty much worthless to the average person. Thus the marginal value of water is near zero, although demand from agriculture keeps it slightly above zero.

        Conversely, prior to the development of industrial applications, diamonds were pretty much useless, but they were so rare that demand for diamond jewelry kept prices very high.

        Generally speaking, wages are a function of a worker’s marginal product. No matter how important a job is, as long as virtually anyone can do it without special talents or extensive training, it’s going to pay relatively low wages.

        I think there’s a reasonable case to be made for temporary hazard pay for low-wage essential workers now, especially since the US government is giving unemployed workers an extra $600 per week on top of normal unemployment payments. It’s not really fair that minimum-wage workers who got laid off are getting paid twice as much to stay home as comparable workers who kept their jobs are getting paid to go to work and risk getting sick.

        But there’s no contradiction at all in saying this while opposing a permanent increase in the minimum wage. I mean, I get that the point of the article isn’t really to make a cogent point about economics so much as to give lefties something to feel unjustifiably smug about, but still, not a good look.Report

    • DensityDuck in reply to Chip Daniels says:

      And the name of that heroic worker? Albert Einstein. And as he walked out of the restaurant he tipped his hat, and slowly all the people started clapping.Report

    • And none of those people were me.Report

    • By the way, this is about far more than just money. It is about the respect people should be treated with vs. the disdain they actually ARE treated with, while we fawn over moronic boobs who contribute nothing to society.Report

    • I’ve wondered about that dynamic myself, Chip (although I haven’t seen/read that exact anecdote). As Kipling said (mutatis mutandis) about soldiers in wartime:

      For it’s Tommy this, an’ Tommy that, an’ “Chuck him out, the brute!”
      But it’s “Saviour of ‘is country” when the guns begin to shoot;
      An’ it’s Tommy this, an’ Tommy that, an’ anything you please;
      An’ Tommy ain’t a bloomin’ fool — you bet that Tommy sees!Report

    • greginak in reply to Chip Daniels says:

      I have a cousin on FB who pretty much did that exact act. Not the price signal stuff just pouring scorn on higher minimum wages and uni health care for months but wants all the essential works to get more then those darn high paid stars he hates. There are plenty of high paid stars he loves of course.Report

    • Brandon Berg in reply to Chip Daniels says:

      At which point the conversation shifted, with comments pouring scorn on the jobs which “a trained monkey could do” and lessons in Econ 101 and price signals telling us just how valuable those jobs really are.

      It’s important to note that the scorn is entirely separable from the economics. It’s not okay to be a jerk to people who do work with low market value. We can, and should, allow the price system to work without gratuitously insulting people who do work that doesn’t pay particularly well.Report

  4. I’m reminded of the admonitions I got occasionally* in middle school and high school that we better study hard and go to college, or else we’d be “flipping burgers.” When I, at 16, got a job “flipping burgers,” I realized how hard it was and how much skill it required. True, the skills could be learned in a week or two, but it takes something to show up at those jobs and do it every day.

    And most of the workers were just as intelligent as my college-bound friends and I. Many were more intelligent. They provided a service that many of those teachers patronized and relied on.

    Now, of course, those teachers were right in a sense. “Flipping burgers” is hard in part because it doesn’t pay well, doesn’t come with benefits, and doesn’t get the respect it deserves. I’m much better off, in large part because I’ve had the chance to go to college and further (and in large part because of luck). I’ll also say that many of my coworkers, even though they were intelligent, had been dealt some rough cards in life. Or they benefited from having a partner that worked a better paying job (usually a blue collar job).

    Even though the teachers were right, they were doing what Kristin says the WaPo is doing: by emphasizing the advantages of education, they were implicitly (sometimes explicitly) demeaning honest labor. Maybe it’s impossible to do the one without doing the other, at least to a small extent. But they (and we) should remember that we’re doing it.

    *Apologies, because I’ve probably said this before.Report

  5. Aaron David says:

    One of my favorite authors, Gene Wolfe, wrote massively dense and difficult works of sci-fi. He also was an engineer and served in the Korean conflict. When interviewed by MIT (yes, that MIT) they asked

    What self-deception did the war strip away from you?

    Oh, that I was smarter than other people.

    (MIT)Well, I’m sure you were.

    [Emphatically] No. I wasn’t.

    The bigotry often expressed in out current class warfare never ceases to amaze.

    PS If you like SF, I recomend both the author and the interview

  6. Damon says:

    In my work history, I’ve worked on a farm/Ranch, assembled minivans (assembly line work), and worked for a printer who mass printed company benefit statements…That was all before my “real” job I got after college. So I KNOW the people you speak of Kristin. Black, white, native american, mormon, jewish, etc. Many of the assembly line guys had side gigs since the factory had many layoffs. They HUSTLED to make ends meet. They didn’t go to the ivy league and have their parents make intros for them to get careers. And yes, the elites look down upon the rubes in flyover land, but so do the grunts in non flyover land. This video says it perfectly


    Now, if the guy had asked if it was 1M NEW YORKERS, the answers might have changed, as I’m sure the folks were thinking “Trump voters”.

    It’s the same kind of thinking. We-rich, liberal, whatever are BETTER then you. That’s why they have no problem letting folks die–as long as it’s the opposition.

    And people wonder why I dislike new york and much of the non flyover land. Sure, there are shitheads everywhere…there just seem to be more in the non flyover areas 🙂Report

  7. Kazzy says:

    All the GD dog whistles!Report

  8. Urusigh says:

    Brilliant piece Kristin, with some insightful comments below it. This topic always hits home for me given where my family falls on the traditional “ladder to success”: Myself and my siblings were the first in our family to attend college. Neither of my parents held degrees; my Father was a locksmith and my Mother essentially a home health aid. I’m currently military, so whether I’m working in an office cubicle or out of a tent in the 3rd world varies year by year, so I’m right on the border with one foot in both worlds.

    I’ll admit I look down on McJobs (it’s not so much that I think they are easy, because they do suck to do, but rather because I always suspect that they indicate a certain lack of ambition for any worker past their mid-twenties), but I have a hell of a lot more respect for the trades and the pink collar workers than I do for most white collar jobs. I believe that “making things” (e.g. manufacturing/farming/mining) is noble in a way that merely supervising other people in their tasks is not. Is that fair? I don’t know, but it can’t clearly be put down to self-interest; I’m far enough along in my career that “supervisory” describes more of my duties than not, a fact I firmly dislike and do my best to ensure credit rolls downhill past me to the people doing the hands-on work as much as possible.

    Status in society is a weird thing, complex and hard to untangle, but it seems to have gotten worse in recent years (i.e. Based merely on things like profession, I see a lot more “liberal” commenters these days taking schadenfreude in the misfortune of blue collar workers dismissed merely with “Serves them right, they probably voted for Trump” in a way I don’t recall ever seeing regarding prior Presidents of either Party). Negative partisanship infects everything in the public sphere these days, maybe it always did but was just better hidden before instant mass communication like Twitter made it more visible. Anyway, I’m rambling, sorry. Good article, made me think a bit.Report

    • Rufus F. in reply to Urusigh says:

      You’re right about status and the rest of it, but I think there’s ambition and there’s ambition- and that too is hard to untangle. So, for instance, I work with a guy (or maybe still do) who the older workers dislike because he’s lazy and unambitious. But, it’s one of those unambitious jobs, right, so most people would say they’re unambitious and lazy too. He’s just less ambitious and lazier!

      What’s funny though is he’s a musician, and I play in a band, so it’s sort of the same thing- except, he’s well, way more ambitious. So, I’ll ask him “Hey want to jam this weekend?” and he’ll say, “Aw, man, I’d love to, but this weekend I have to go to the Toronto International Film Festival” (TIFF) because there’s a movie premiere and I did all the music for the movie, so you know, sorry”. Or, he’ll be gone for a month and they all think he’s flaked out, but he’s playing festivals in Europe or he’s in New York because Pitchfork did a piece on him recently, so his agent got him a bunch of showcase slots. Etc. Etc.

      I have no doubt this will be his profession eventually. He just brings none of that ambition to work. I think a lot of artists are that way.

      But most of the people I work with just think he’s unambitious, so he flies under the radar. It’s kinda cool.Report

      • That’s a very good point.

        There’s also the point about who has the right to judge another person’s ambition and about whether lacking ambition (however defined) is actually a bad thing.

        In my past-service-worker life, I had my own encounters with members of the “Honorable Skilled Trades” who looked down on my coworkers with disdain because they (my coworkers) did “degraded” labor they were too good to do. I got a pass, more often than not, because I still was young or looked young, and for a lot of that time, I was putting myself through college.

        And yes, a lot of the older people I worked with may have had challenges. Many of them had made mistakes they didn’t have to make. Others were very poor and probably lacked the skills to get higher jobs and lacked the resources to get better-paying skills. I’m not sure it’s up to me to judge them.Report

        • Urusigh in reply to gabriel conroy says:

          “There’s also the point about who has the right to judge another person’s ambition and about whether lacking ambition (however defined) is actually a bad thing.”

          That’s a very good point as well. American culture tends to glorify ambition, but plenty of other cultures have more mixed attitudes about it.

          “And yes, a lot of the older people I worked with may have had challenges….I’m not sure it’s up to me to judge them.”

          I feel like there’s a double bind there: If you assume that they could do better, you’re left concluding that they lack ambition, but if you assume that they couldn’t do better, you’re basically looking down on them (bigotry of low expectations). If they’re still in an entry-level job at an advanced age, it’s hard to avoid concluding that they are either unambitious or incompetent compared to the rest of their generation. Maybe that isn’t fair, but we can’t really avoid making assumptions, so what would be more fair (and at least equally accurate) assumptions than those?Report

          • gabriel conroy in reply to Urusigh says:

            You’re right, of course. Just because I make certain assumptions (or judgments), and it’s impossible not to, even if I in theory abjure the prerogative to judge. I could urge that we all adopt a posture of humility about what we don’t know and don’t have the prerogative to do. But that just kicks the can away, and never far enough that I can’t or won’t face facts.

            ETA: to be clear, I’m not criticizing your or even saying you’re wrong. I’m just musing on things.Report

            • Urusigh in reply to gabriel conroy says:

              Yep. I’m not sure we can actually do any better than just staying humble enough to remember that a likelihood is not a certainty and try to keep our eyes and minds open to the specific details of each individual that might relieve us of the need to rely on broader heuristics. Even if it doesn’t change anything outwardly, I at least hope this kind of periodic introspection helps reinforce that internal perspective and empathy. Can’t necessarily avoid that first impression being what it is, but maybe we can at least stay flexible enough to update it as better data comes in.

              I’m just musing too. It’s actually a really nice change of pace from some of the more argumentative threads here. Thanks for musing along! 🙂Report

      • Urusigh in reply to Rufus F. says:

        Interesting take. I admit I tend to forget about those kind of people who pour all their passion into something and then just half-ass whatever grind pays the bills in the meantime. I can’t wrap my head around it. I’m Aspy, not Artsy. I’m of the “Whatever you do, do it right” philosophy, and I guess I project that when I’m making snap judgements about strangers.Report

  9. What really changed his life, he said, was his 1960 live album […], which put him on the map and earned him three Grammy Awards, including trophies for album of the year and best new artist.

    As if he didn’t really live before becoming a performer.

    This isn’t about Bill Withers, by the way. It’s about Bob Newhart, former accountant.Report

  10. Murali says:

    When I tell people that I am a philosopher, a lot of people tell me that I must be very smart. I don’t know what to think about that. On the one hand, I am just very good at solving certain sorts of abstract problems. There are others who have better memory than me, better spacial intelligence etc. I’m certainly rubbish at social interaction etc.

    Then there are some people I do in fact feel superior to. I know I’m smarter than them. When I tutored symbolic logic during my PhD that was my first proper encounter with it. (I had only done some moral, legal and early modern stuff during my undergrad). Yet, I picked it up relatively easily while some students really struggled with it. I had access to the same textbooks and notes they did. I can’t explain this except by supposing that I am really smarter than some of my undergrads. But then again, perhaps what I count as “smart”is just a particular talent at solving certain abstract problems.

    Here is a kind of worry. Related to the question of whether there is anything wrong with making toilets is the question of whether we should think that there is something special about the capacity to do certain types of abstract reasoning.

    To quote Syndrome, if everybody’s special, nobody is. To say that we should valorise abstract problem solving (and some other talents) over certain other talents means that we regard it as regrettable that someone lacks at least some of those valorised talents. If we are so egalitarian that we think that flipping burgers or making toilet seats etc is no worse a job than being a doctor, engineer or philosophy professor etc then we are committed to not regarding abstract problem solving and other intellectual talents as special. After all, if it is regrettable that someone lacks any of the valorised talents, then it is also regrettable if someone has the potential to develop or exercise such talents but fails to do so or does so to a lesser degree. All else equal a person who flips burgers engages in abstract reasoning to a lesser degree* than a theoretical physicist. Therefore in order to regard all jobs as equally good, we must not regard talents in abstract reasoning as special. Yet, something seems objectionably anti-intellectual about this.

    That is to say, it seems right and proper to regard intellectual pursuits as at least pro tanto better on the basis of being intellectual. For all that my private leisure pursuits are not particularly, intellectual, I do think my life would be worse if I was working in a factory or flipping burgers than lecturing in ethics.

    One way to motivate the view is to think that the core capacity of moral personhood is the capacity to reason abstractly. Animals may feel pain, but only people reason abstractly. That’s why only people have morality. Yet, to regard the capacity to reason abstractly as no more special than any other capacity does not do justice to the way in which this capacity is almost definitive of moral personhood.

    But this has inegalitarian implications. If we regard this capacity as special, we have to regard it as at least somewhat regrettable if someone’s job does not engage this capacity to a serious extent.

    *There might be exceptions, but any abstract reasoning a burger-flipper does in his spare time could also be done by a philosophy professor. We’re evaluating the job not the person.Report

    • Murali in reply to Murali says:

      I forgot to add: If the my argument here is right, then there is something wrong with making toilets. But then again, being a singer may not be any better. This might just be the ancient philosopher-poet rivalry that stretched back to Socrates/Plato, but the cult of celebrity which is pervasive in our era seems perverse.Report

    • Chip Daniels in reply to Murali says:

      The difficulty of trying to establish one set of human attributes as superior to others is that it overlooks the essentially collective nature of our exitence, where we are each incomplete without the contributions of others.

      That our individual strengths are almost always necessary but not sufficient.

      If reasoning abstractly is the core capacity of moral personhood, is it sufficient?
      Like, do philosophers lead lives of superior morality and righteousness?
      Of course not.

      I think a just society is the sum total of it inputs, not just from philosophers who reason abstractly but others who can put those reasonings into practice.Report