Monday, March 21, 2011

Lisa Dodson's "The Moral Underground"

Author: Lisa Dodson
Title: “The Moral Underground: How Ordinary Americans Subvert an Unfair Economy
Publication: New York: The New Press, ISBN 978-1-59558-642-1, 227 pages, paper (also available hardcover), Four Parts and an Addendum; Eight Chapters. Amazon link

My previous readings in this area have centered a lot on the books by Barbara Ehrenreich: “Nickel and Dimed” and “Bait and Switch” (see this blog, March 28, 2006).  Particularly in the former, that earlier author had described the experience of “paying her dues” and undergoing the demeaning experience of minimum wage work.

Dodson focuses mainly on how employers (supervisors and managers), teachers, social workers and various others have to “break the rules” to help minimum or low wage workers.  She does spend some space, intermittently, on the absolute view of “personal responsibility,”  which would maintain that parent should not have had children (or engaged in behavior that could procreate them) until established economically in life.
She describes a concept called “cultural logic”, which more or less distinguishes between how high and low income families view child rearing.  It is a little bit like the blue-and-red family dichotomy, but not exactly. Low income families, she maintains, expect their kids to remain tied to extended family but also expect them to learn to fend for themselves. This sounds like a bit of a contradiction.  One could say the low income family expects to provide for everyone as a member of a family at a minimal level, but doesn’t feel responsible for letting children get a heads-up on education or career, or on being able to compete on a global board game “individually.”

Toward the end, she makes several points (five of them) of what must change.  They seem clear enough.  We must pay the people who do the work we don’t want to do (like caregiving) enough. And we must give parents (especially working mothers) equal access to advancement.  There are others, as about poverty and education.

In the end, however, an unfair economy is “fixed” only by rethinking the “social contract”, or of what is to be expected of every individual, outside of what a market economy can mediate.  That gets into a lot of moral areas, like sharing risk, service, and the cultural battle between families and the childless, and will tend to lead us into recommendations that sound like contradictions, at least with a moral standard based just on narrow ideas of “personal responsibility” inherent in libertarianism.  It could get us into discussions about the “natural family” of Carlson and Mero (this blog, Sept. 18, 2009).  For example, suppose you argued that if you employ a nanny or caregiver at below a certain level, you could become responsible for her children.  Imagine the flow of argument.

Hour-plus interview of Dodson here from YouTube:

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