Below the Fold: When Doody Calls, Cheap US Labor and the Degradation of Work

At first, I thought it was an item from that old underground favorite, Tales of the Weird. But no, it was from the Boston Globe, under an April 18 byline by Globe staffer Carolyn Johnson:

“First came the nannies, the dog walkers, the housecleaners, and landscapers. Now crews are handling another outsourced home task: removing a dog’s leftovers from lawns.”

Three hundred “pet waste removal” companies are reported to be operating nationwide. They have formed their own trade association, have annual meetings, and an annual “Golden Shovel” award. Poop-scooping has even been franchised by an outfit named “Doody Calls.”

A Boston-based poop-scooper cleans a backyard once a week for $10-15. Business, as he puts it, picks up in the springtime as people put their dogs out in the yard, and “the aroma starts hitting the open window.” Apparently friendly client-provider relationships are formed: 90% of this scooper’s clients come out and talk with him while he scoops their dogs’ poop.

You can chalk it all up, this pooper-scooper story, to another instance of how markets work to satisfy the needs of both buyers and sellers. Yes, it is about dog shit. But poop-scoopers wouldn’t offer the service if they didn’t want to, would they? And, after all, think of how many people make their living, and a good one, off of shit, from the plumber to the sewer worker to the sanitation works supervisor. You might reply that they worry about human, not dog shit. But let’s not forget where all of that Tidy Cat stuff goes…. As someone’s father always says, it is a free country. If people want to scoop up dog shit for a living, well, Godspeed. Or as the Godfather says, as long as their interests don’t conflict with mine, good luck.

Let me switch the context a bit. You are an untouchable in rural India, and your job is to clean the shit out of upper caste people’s outhouses. Lacking baggies, you use your hands. The horror, the outrage your plight ignites in western readers. How can Indian society tolerate your humiliation, your degradation?

Of course, it could be the species shift. Perhaps dog shit is cleaner than human shit. Of course, I forgot salvation by baggie. When picking up my dog’s shit, I myself prefer the blue New York Times wrappers to the Globe transparent plastic wrappers: it places a micro-thin membrane between me and the shit.

However, I don’t know whether the average Westerner would feel that much better if somehow Shiva would shower baggies on the rural untouchables, or even New York Times wrappers for that matter. The degradation is done, not by contract, but by caste.

The contract, that great leveler of social difference, stands between buyer and seller of doody scooper-power in the USA. It saves the seller from degradation and the stigma of being a poop-scooper and the buyer from the responsibility of having degraded the scooper. As long as the doody-scooper scoops up some cash, most moral doubts are resolved. A cancer cure it’s not but not everyone can have interesting, life-affirming work. And if everyone is happy, far be it from me…..

Their mutual consent to a contract prevents us from asking: why is there a market for poop-scooping anyway? Here I would argue that Blim’s Law of Degrading Labor applies: the cheaper labor becomes, the more degrading it becomes. Look, poop-scooping is never going to become my favorite job or yours. When I get the short straw at home, my partner puts the Globe bags in my hand (no blue Times bags are left, the cost of having cancelled our subscription on account of the Iraq War), and hustles me out the door with the injunction: “Let’s be careful out there. It’s a minefield.” Of course, I wish he had drawn the short straw. Does any young child wake up in the morning with the fantasy that she is going to grow up to be a poop-scooper?

Of course not. Two conditions transform my weekend nightmare – and perhaps yours – into a world where mine or your dog’s shit can be picked up for a fee. First, to avoid picking up your own dog shit, you need to have some money. If I had some money, poop-scooping services would not be high on my list, but if a person has a lot of money, my preference-ordering, and my scruples for that matter, become irrelevant. Let us suppose for a minute that everyone would hire a poop-scooper, if they could. The second condition then becomes the key. The cheaper poop-scooping is, the more likely a person would be to hire a scooper.

But what determines the cost of poop-scooping? The supply of poop? The number of scoops(ers)? Only in part. The fact that America has more rich and well off persons as a proportion of its population now than even in the Gilded Age over a century ago counts for something. There are a certain number of people, not just the Buffetts and the Gateses mind you, that have the cash. Examine your own bank accounts, and at least to thine own self be true.

The general cost of labor also weighs in. Poop-scooping labor is cheap. If you can get your yard done for $10 a week (my dog does it 2-3 times a day, so let’s call it 15 poops at 67 cents a scoop), eyeball it. That’s cheap. Economists would say it’s cheap too because people are able to replace the $10 they spend on a poop-scooper in less time that it takes the poop-scooper to scoop up the dog shit. If poop-scoopers charged as much per hour as their clients made per hour, you can bet there would be more people out in their back yards with those Times or worse Globe bags scooping up dog shit.

Don’t believe me. A recent analysis of the Swedish economy by the McKinsey Global Institute, meant to be the business guide to economic policy in social democratic Sweden, laments that high wages protected by government unemployment and welfare policies means that fewer people avail themselves of personal services and fewer frequent restaurants than any other rich society. Why? Because the services and restaurants cost so much, labor being, ahem, much more expensive than in other societies that people end up doing things for themselves. A Stockholm lawyer must reflect on whether she wants to spend $400 dollars on a meal for two at a restaurant, roughly twice her after-tax hourly wage, or stay home and cook it herself. Or per chance, pick up her dog’s shit herself. When labor is more expensive, people degrade workers less. Or it must cost them significantly to do it.

As Blim’s Law of Degrading Labor would predict, as the cost of labor in America slips, more workers do degrading labor.

With July Fourth, summer vacations really begin. If you travel abroad and find yourself in a poor country, notice how so many people do so many things, often embarrassing and degrading things, for a pittance. Or travel in America for that matter, and ask why that hotel room is a bargain, and the maid is so friendly. In both cases, you have entered lands where labor is cheap, Blim’s law applies, and cleaning someone else’s shit, and the degradation it implies, is cheap too.