Jewish World Review Sept. 3, 2004 / 17 Elul 5764

Paul Greenberg

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The labor theory of value | 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 was seldom as happy as when he could hold a pair of weathered shoes in his hands, turn them over and over, feel the tread, admire the workmanship, and sometimes even name the local shoemaker who'd done it.

He would not have used a rhetorical word like Labor for his work, but he knew that what he did took sweat, patience, craft, and some ineffable quality. Call it self-respect, and respect for the work.

His boys could remember those rare occasions when the old man showed his anger, too. Once he threw a poorly repaired pair of shoes against a wall in his 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. Labor wasn't a factor of production to him, it was a calling, and a comfort.

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The old man wasn't much on theory, but he understood value received, good will, repeat business, and, above all, the importance of trust between people - customer and merchant, boss and worker. To him commerce was friendship, which wore as well as the shoes he fixed because it, too, had to be shined and fixed up now and then.

All the talk he 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 a pair of shoes.

He had a more personal concept of how economics worked. His economy consisted of a web of 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 from him; and with his own tenants, 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 a good pair of shoes.

Like most Americans, the old man was too deeply involved with capital and labor to think in those terms. Instead, he thought of the people he dealt with as personalities - by their work, or their credit-worthiness.

There was his apprentice and helper Henry Johnson, for example, whom he'd hired as a boy and taught how to fix shoes. Henry would stay with him for the next 50 years through his various businesses, and teach the old man at least as much as he himself had been taught. The old man's apprentice would grow old himself, and die two weeks before his boss. The family smiled knowingly. They knew Henry had just gone ahead, as usual, to scout things out.

No, there wasn't much theoretical about the way the old shoemaker had lived and prayed and very much worked. Yet he would have understood instinctively the theory a politician named Abraham Lincoln once propounded before a convention of farmers:

"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."

Mr. Lincoln cited the farmer as an example of both capital and labor. But the old shoemaker wouldn't have had to be told about the identity of interest between capital and labor; he had lived it.

On this Labor Day, a great deal will be said in the usual press releases, but none of it will be more relevant than Mr. Lincoln's words, or more eloquent than work done well. To me, two new soles on a pair of well shined shoes still say more than all the Labor Day speeches ever written.

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JWR contributor Paul Greenberg, editorial page editor of the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette, has won the Pulitzer Prize for editorial writing. Send your comments by clicking here.

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