Tuesday, October 10, 2006

Analysis of "Sticking It to the Man"

I always enjoy the light reading I do in economics, not because I really understand it, but because it seems to be a way of analyzing social interactions with a conveniently observable measurement: money. So this phrase, “Sticking it to The Man” which I have always thought worthy of a chortle, does seem to bring out two different views of work.
{Audio .mp3 this essay @ 2.8MB; 4min}

Recently, this very phrase came to mind as I entered a local ice cream restaurant in order to pick up some milk. I saw a teenage boy who had intelligently placed himself between two large refrigerators, carefully hiding from direct view of management while maintaining his place at the cash register. This was all tactically arranged so that he could unobtrusively text-message his friends at off moments until his long, droll minimum-wage shift came to completion.

Yes, he was “Sticking it to The Man.” At that moment it struck me there were two ways to read what this phrase is conveying.

One view might be as follows: for most entry-level unskilled jobs, there is always the boss figure, and it seems these people are regularly hard-@$$ed, irrational human beings. In such cases, the boss represents The Man. The boss isn’t The Man, s/he just represents The Man’s interests. In my mind, I’ve always imagined The Man as a slightly cruel, donkey-headed demi-god, something akin to what Smith argued upon his noting that state and personal efforts, to promote social good, are ineffectual compared to unbridled market forces.[1] Behold ye, The Man, an unbridled donkey demi-god, represented by his viceroy, my boss – to whom, I’m trying to stick it.

Another view is that “The Man” is greater society’s tacit view of the unskilled laborer. Most unskilled jobs are always done by those who are de-valued by society, and are forced by economic circumstances to (a) take jobs that nobody wants, and (b) to work under conditions that are difficult and even damaging over long periods of time. The latter issue is well documented. Researcher G.D. Smith, in a study on employment mortality, asks and answers the pertinent question:

“[A]re some workers under capitalism paid so little that they die early? The answer is a resounding yes: a great many studies have found a significant correlation between income level and mortality rates. In 1986, researchers studied two groups of men between the ages of 25 and 64: those that made less than $9,000 a year, and those that made more than $25,000. They found that poor white men had 6.7 times the death rate of rich white men, and poor black men had 5.4 times the death rate of rich black men”[2]

I see no reason to think that things have changed since the mid-eighties. Indeed, I think The Man has become more cruel, since the real value of how much minimum wage buys now is *less* than it was in the mid-eighties, as this chart nicely shows.[3]

On this second view of sticking to The Man, since minimum wage is not what it used to be in terms of buying power, one does not, therefore, perceive owing The Man as much work. Hence, one takes personal free times (as opposed to additional initiative) when one has opportunity. In this case, one is stealing paid time from The Man.

It would not be a great leap for someone to decide that other types of “compensation” are equally adequate. For example, instead of pilfering a bit of /time/ here and there, perhaps one is willing to pilfer small /material goods/. Again, instead of skimming $2.50 worth of text-messaging time, why not skim a couple of milkshakes, which would be equivalent to that $2.50? This would demand, of course, that one is committed to only pilfering what is considered “fair” compensation from The Man, which seems a quite different matter than simply “sticking to The Man.”


[1]Adam Smith: Economist and PhilosopherLucidcafé (Accessed 10/9/2006)

[2] George Davey Smith (et.al.) "Socioeconomic Differentials in Mortality Risk among Men Screened for the Multiple Risk Factor Intervention Trial: I. White Men," American Journal of Public Health Vol. 86, No. 4 (April, 1996), pgs. 486-496; George Davey Smith and others, "Socioeconomic Differentials in Mortality Risk among Men Screened for the Multiple Risk Factor Intervention Trial: II. Black Men," American Journal of Public Health Vol. 86, No. 4 (April, 1996), pgs. 497-504

[3]U.S. Minimum Wage HistoryOregon State University (Accessed 10/9/2006)



At 4:19 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

I would make the case that a rich man's desire to live longer has increased the poor man's average age. As a rich man starts to buy quality goods that make his life more sustainable at a high price the market eventually drops the price for the poor man to obtain. Without the rich man to desire more than others, no man might ever live as long as we do now or as comfortable as we do now.

At 8:55 PM, Blogger brinticus said...

You seem to hold the unstated premiss that the happiness of the poor man depends upon the acquisition of goods. Perhaps that's true, but many terrorists, for example, are middle class and educated, but *very* unhappy with their lot. So I'm not taken by the goods position. You also seem to be advocating "trickle-down" economics. I think there might be something to this, as long as the advantages trickle down faster than the economic disparity increases between the very rich and the very poor. Here's an interesting article to that effect:

"Dynamic Capitalism:
Entrepreneurship is lucrative--and just."

Tuesday, October 10, 2006 12:01 a.m. EDT

the link is here:


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