Jewish World Review August 31, 2001 / 12 Elul, 5761

Paul Greenberg

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Consumer Reports

Theory and reality: Labor Day 2001 -- THE old man had long ago given up fixing shoes and had gone into other work since then, buying and selling and making a nice living. But he had never found any other line of work that gave him as much satisfaction as putting a pair of good, fresh leather soles on a still good pair of uppers. Or putting a pair of Cat's Paw heels on shoes that still had a lot of wear in them, and doing it cleanly, securely, to last. He loved the feel and aroma of new leather, the grain in the old. He believed in things lasting, in the worker being worthy of his hire, in a good shine on a good pair of shoes.

He was seldom as happy as when he could hold a pair of shoes in his hands, turn them over and over, feel the tread, admire the workmanship and sometimes even name the local shoemaker who'd fixed them. He would not have used a rhetorical word like Labor for his work, but he knew that what he did took sweat, patience and some ineffable quality. Call it self-respect, and respect for the work -- and for the material that went into it. The material world, he knew, was but a reflection of the spirit that had gone into it.

His boys could remember those rare occasions when the old man showed his anger, too. One of them had seen him throw a poorly repaired pair of shoes against a wall in fury. What a sloppy waste of good leather! What a waste of time and the customer's money!

In his old age, he was unable to contain his contempt when he would drive past one of those glittery new shoe stores that sold cheap, shiny imports -- the cardboard kind sure to come apart in the first rain. He took poor workmanship as a personal affront, a fraud on the public and a grave sin. Labor wasn't just a factor of production to him, it was a calling, and a comfort.

The old man's English was incomplete -- he hadn't started speaking it till he got to this country almost grown -- and his kids used to compare the letters they got from him, trying to make out the words. The old man spelled phonetically, and his children were grown before they figured out why some of the more mysterious words seemed only scrawls. When he didn't know how to pronounce a word, their father would simply substitute a squiggle for the syllable he was unsure about. Well, he once asked with a smile, isn't that what doctors do when they write prescriptions?

The old man wasn't much on theory, but he understood value received, good will, repeat business, that the customer is always right and above all the importance of a trusted brand. The crown of a good name, he called it, using a phrase he remembered from the Talmud.

All the talk he'd heard about labor and capital, first from agitators in the old country and then as the standard fare of politics in this one, seemed textbookish to him, not real like his own web of relationships: the relationships with the customers he sold to on credit; with the workers he hired and helped and sometimes had to let go; with the banker he depended on to lend him money; with the landlord who collected the rent on the store every month; and with the tenants he himself collected from after he began to buy a piece of property here and there and even build some rent houses. He liked the houses kept up, the lawns mowed, so they would look like something.

Like most Americans, the old man was too deeply involved with capital and labor to think in those terms. Instead, like most Southerners, he thought of the people he employed by name, as personalities, by their work, just as he did those who financed his own ventures and who judged his own work and credit-worthiness. Henry for example, whom he'd hired as a boy and taught how to fix shoes, and who would stay with the old man for the next 50 years and many another business, and who would become almost a part of the family himself. The apprentice he'd hired so long ago would die two weeks before the old man himself did. The family said that, as usual, Henry had gone ahead to scout things out.

No, there wasn't much theoretical about the way the old shoemaker had lived and prayed and very much worked, and yet he would have understood instinctively what a Republican politician who had a way with words (because he had a way with thought) once told a convention of farmers. He told them that "labor is prior to, and independent of, capital; that, in fact, capital is the fruit of labor, and could never have existed if labor had not first existed -- that labor can exist without capital, but that capital could never have existed without labor. Hence ... labor is the superior -- greatly the superior -- of capital.'' -- Abraham Lincoln, September 30, 1859.

Mr. Lincoln did not deny that there would inevitably be tensions between labor and capital; what he denied was that either was a permanent class in opposition to the other. On the contrary, he cited the farmer as an example of both capital and labor. The old shoemaker wouldn't have had to be told about the identity of interest between capital and labor; he had lived it.

There are other theories, of course. In his speech Mr. Lincoln was arguing against what he dubbed the "mud-sill theory,'' the assumption "that whoever is once a hired laborer is fatally fixed in that condition for life ... and that his condition is as bad as, or worse than, that of a slave.''

Mr. Lincoln was speaking on behalf of the farmer at the time and decrying the spread of slavery, but he could have been speaking on behalf of the independent American of any age and decrying all those who would keep him in his place.

Today we keep labor in its place by onerous taxes and stifling regulation -- and by offering the poor a sham of an education in isolated schools that are protected from competition and accountability.

What Abe Lincoln called the mud-sill theory is still around and thriving. We are told that these kids in the worst schools should not be expected to score as high, and so they don't. We're told they're better off not getting a choice of schools to attend. They'd just be uncomfortable. Call it the "soft bigotry of low expectations,'' to quote another Republican president, George W. Bush.

Today the worker is told to be satisfied with a Social Security system that taxes him heavily but doesn't allow him to invest even a part of those savings on his own, and so accumulate capital and even pass it on to his children.

On this Labor Day, a great deal will be said in the usual speeches, but none of it will be more relevant than Mr. Lincoln's words more than a century ago or more eloquent than work done well. A good pair of soles on a pair of well-shined old shoes can say more than all the Labor Day editorials ever written.

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