There’s nothing either good or bad but thinking makes it so (W. Shakespeare)

Really, if the lower orders don’t set us a good example, what on earth is the use of them? (O. Wilde)

Everybody ought to have a maid (S. Sondheim)

All but the richest Americans have always been awkward about and around domestic employees.  It grates on the ears of one not raised with household servants to hear them addressed by their first names and not return the familiarity to the lady and gentleman of the house.   Jacob Davies reflects on servants and opines that the main cost of dependence on cheap servants is to compromise middle class support for (for example) immigration reform, and its “natural” alliance with the poor against the super-rich. I do feel for Republicans who want to drum up votes by scaring us about immigrants and also want their pools cleaned and vegetables picked and meat packing plants staffed by a cheap, docile, labor force…

Very few people aspire to the status of butler or housecleaner or family cook, and it seems degrading to classify someone as a ‘servant’.  Why this is so is sort of obvious intuitively but not so clear if we try to figure out why.  I sense that the social status of the following occupations is roughly as follows:

Heart surgeon


Accountant (in accounting firm)

Accountant (family practice)

Municipal streetlight maintenance worker

Municipal sewer worker



Personal trainer

Housecleaner (many clients)

Hotel housekeeper

Household maid (live-in)

Higher professional qualifications, at least more education, obviously moves one up the scale.  Other things equal, being involved with dirt and yucky stuff moves one down.  Being responsible to a task rather than to an individual is higher-status, and so is supervising others (though I didn’t include that in my notional scale).  The sewer worker, at dinner out, will receive personal service from the waiter, but the sewer worker’s service is not individualized to anyone on a lateral of his pipe.  The plumber’s services are individualized on any given job, but he has many clients; why does he rank above the waiter, though?  Probably because he has specialized technical knowledge and uses tools, and because the waiter is expected to do more generally “what his diners want” rather than just take orders and deliver them to the kitchen; perhaps because the service of the waiter is performed in public and because part of his pay is at the post-service discretion of the diner.  It’s always lower-status to be paid what the client unilaterally wishes  than a  rate or amount contracted in advance: equals make deals, superiors give charity to inferiors.

None of this has much to do with the actual value created by any of these example occupations: a household maid may well do just as much cleaning up, bedmaking and laundry per day, and exercise much more discretion and planning about it, as hotel workers do in 8 hours, but it seems more dignified to do it for people with whom one has no ongoing personal relationship and as one of many workers in a company.  If you separate the drinking water from the sewage in a nonindustrialized indigenous community, you double life expectancy, while the proctologist and all his colleagues only get us about another five years; I’d much rather go without doctors than plumbers. If you think about it, the only value any of us can create is to be of service to others, and the consensus hierarchy is deeply absurd.

I’ve always been a little puzzled that my own work is cleaning up and processing the most dangerous and repulsive thing in all of human experience (ignorance), that a lot of it is personalized, indeed advising graduate students is more highly regarded than teaching a large course, and yet I have status beyond what my income would suggest.

It’s a strange world.

Author: Michael O'Hare

Professor of Public Policy at the Goldman School of Public Policy, University of California, Berkeley, Michael O'Hare was raised in New York City and trained at Harvard as an architect and structural engineer. Diverted from an honest career designing buildings by the offer of a job in which he could think about anything he wanted to and spend his time with very smart and curious young people, he fell among economists and such like, and continues to benefit from their generosity with on-the-job social science training. He has followed the process and principles of design into "nonphysical environments" such as production processes in organizations, regulation, and information management and published a variety of research in environmental policy, government policy towards the arts, and management, with special interests in energy, facility siting, information and perceptions in public choice and work environments, and policy design. His current research is focused on transportation biofuels and their effects on global land use, food security, and international trade; regulatory policy in the face of scientific uncertainty; and, after a three-decade hiatus, on NIMBY conflicts afflicting high speed rail right-of-way and nuclear waste disposal sites. He is also a regular writer on pedagogy, especially teaching in professional education, and co-edited the "Curriculum and Case Notes" section of the Journal of Policy Analysis and Management. Between faculty appointments at the MIT Department of Urban Studies and Planning and the John F. Kennedy School of Government at Harvard, he was director of policy analysis at the Massachusetts Executive Office of Environmental Affairs. He has had visiting appointments at Università Bocconi in Milan and the National University of Singapore and teaches regularly in the Goldman School's executive (mid-career) programs. At GSPP, O'Hare has taught a studio course in Program and Policy Design, Arts and Cultural Policy, Public Management, the pedagogy course for graduate student instructors, Quantitative Methods, Environmental Policy, and the introduction to public policy for its undergraduate minor, which he supervises. Generally, he considers himself the school's resident expert in any subject in which there is no such thing as real expertise (a recent project concerned the governance and design of California county fairs), but is secure in the distinction of being the only faculty member with a metal lathe in his basement and a 4×5 Ebony view camera. At the moment, he would rather be making something with his hands than writing this blurb.

24 thoughts on “Servants”

  1. One thing–as to waiters, "part of his pay is at the post-service discretion of the diner"? I'd suggest that, at least if you limit the discussion to the United States outside of California, that should read "the overwhelming majority of his pay". This only highlights your point, as the waiter's relationship is not only servile in the sense of the tasks performed, public (a good point) and individual, but heavily dependent. This is particularly obvious in the behaviour one can all too commonly see directed at the waitstaff; compounded by a cultural acceptance of a 'customer is always right' philosophy that is often heartily endorsed by management in restaurants.

  2. One of the customs that held feudal society together was that a future knight would start as a page, a personal juvenile servant to an adult male of the same class. And many powerful offices of state started out as senior servants in the royal household, chamberlain, steward. That society was explicity founded on inequality; reciprocal obligations were normally located on a gradient of higher and lower status. Our¨servant problem¨ is the contradiction between an ideal of equal citizenship and the fact of pervasive economic equality.

  3. Your status stems from your association with your institution. Compare your status with that of a private tutor, or even with someone who runs a tutoring franchise (and makes more money than you do).

  4. Interesting. I would put plumber up with Accountant, maybe because of the need for independent judgment. Each person probably has her/his own way of re-arranging the list.

  5. I think the status of live in servants has gone down over the centuries as the quality of broadly-available housing and associated amenities has gone up. To be a head butler to a wealthy family used to mean that one was living in housing of a quality well above that enjoyed by most most working people (e.g., with plumbing and a roof that didn't leak, nice grounds, maybe gas lighting too).

  6. Those of us who teach at the high-school (especially the public high-school) level, of course, have significantly lower status than you do at the post-secondary level. Interestingly, society claims to value us (think "great teacher" movies), but steadfastly refuses to give us a salary commensurate with our supposed status. Perhaps this is because the people that we "serve" are seen by society as less important than those who actually make it into college?

  7. "the main cost of dependence on cheap servants is to compromise middle class support for (for example) immigration reform,"

    I've got a mixed view of this. On the one hand, it does appear to me that dependence on cheap servants IS the main obstacle to what most people mean by "immigration reform"; Actually securing our borders.

    On the other hand, the idea that the middle class have any particular dependence on servants who, even with massive illegal immigration, are expensive enough to be a luxury reserved for the top couple percent of earners, is rather NOT "reality based". I'm an engineer, my brother also. My sister is an executive chef. None of us are exactly poor, but none of us could afford to employ domestic servants, except perhaps a baby sitter for special occasions. And in those cases, a younger relative, not an illegal immigrant!

    I'm not sure what's behind this notion, and it being taken seriously, that domestic servants are common among the "middle class". Watching too many episodes of "The Nanny"? Blog comments by people who make more than 98% of the population, but who don't like to think of themselves as wealthy?

    But I will agree that the use of domestic servants IS warping our immigration policy. Not, however, their use by the middle class, who only in their dreams could afford to employ a nanny or house cleaner. No, their use by the decidedly NOT middle class, political class. America's nomenklatura. Among THEM, it's a common practice, and they are the ones who see to it that our immigration policy continues to maintain high levels of illegal immigration, in the teeth of middle class opinion.

  8. What you don't mention, Michael, is the corroding effects that servants have on the society they serve.

    In the US the fraction of society with servants is so small and so wealthy that you can chalk their behavior up to money.

    I, however, grew up white in white South Africa, back in the "good old days" when pretty much every white family could have their own personal live-in slave. And regardless of what Aristotle (or Margaret Mitchell) might claim, this did NOT make for a refined society, composed of natural aristocrats, intent on using their additional leisure time to better themselves and improve their world. It created a society of entitled, self-satisfied, pricks.

  9. One historical peculiarity about the word "servant" in USA usage–by the 1840s, it was common for slaveowners, particularly in the Upper South, to euphemize "slave" as "servant." Hence free people working as butlers, maids, and so forth, would indignantly refuse to be referred to as "servants", insisting that some other title be employed. European visitors found this bizarre.

  10. Brett- happy again to find something we agree on!!! Which is, that many of our media folk are way richer than the rest of us, and this warps the coverage. I imagine this is true regardless of outlet. Well, except for newspaper reporters who appear to be getting unjustifiably hammered by the economy.

    I'm interested though in where you live. I live in Southern California and here it is quite common for middle-class people to hire household help, whether a nanny or a housecleaner who comes a couple times a month. (Yes, that counts.)

    This happened sometime during the 90s, I think. It has to do with immigration, yes, but also I think the need for two-earner households, wage stagnation, etc. etc. I suspect that many people in 80-hour a week jobs fervently wish that they could live a more balanced life and raise their own darned kids, but, they have little choice if they want to live here. Back to that old free will/not question.

    So, this didn't happen where you are?

  11. Oh, and since I'm here, and that marvelous "class" piece fell off the big board, what I was mad about, and am still annoyed by, is that this Henderson person, whoever he is, apparently caused a big ruckus and then took his posts down before I could read them.

    Where do I go to complain?

    What kind of a blog is this? I expect at least a summary or something so I can know what happened, if for a good reason something's got to be removed. From what I could gather, someone became too uncomfortable with people speculating about his income? I can very much sympathize — I am little bit of a privacy freak myself, to the extent this is even possible now.

    But is it too much to ask for someone to at least summarize what the person's point was? You know, some of us are too busy to sit here every minute.

    There must have been some substantive point this person made, and I for one would have liked to have known what it was.

  12. "but it seems more dignified to do it for people with whom one has no ongoing personal relationship and as one of many workers in a company" — more dignified to work through an intermediary (who takes a cut out of your salary), more dignified to work in a factory? As someone who has done both and found the first both more pleasant and more profitable, I question this automatic assumption, as I question even more the common feminist assumption that paying another woman to do the household "shitwork" is degrading to that woman.. Somehow the women who proclaim this nonsense (as I see it) feel no compunction about using a host of high-tech, iincreasingly cheap products, produced in factories all over the world. The important thing, it seems, is that one have no "ongoing personal relationship" — that any such relationship can only be exploitative. That I dispute;;..

  13. "We have a problem here–basically, Professor Xxxx Xxxxxxxxx is what we call an unreliable narrator.

    On the one hand, Professor Xxxx Xxxxxxxxx says that his household income exceeds the $250K/year threshold "but not by much." On the other hand, he says that Obama's failure to reenact the4.6% unfunded Bush-era reduction in the top income tax rate from 39.6% to 35% will raise his taxes "significantly."

    He cannot have it both ways.

    The arithmetic says so."

    'Professor Xxxx Xxxxxxxxx says that this failure to reenact a 4.6% marginal rate reduction will cost him $10,000/year."

    Somebody is an "unreliable narrator, but it ain't Professor X, who did NOT say it would cost him $10,000 a year, but only that it would cost him that much if he made $450,000 a year. It's pretty lame when somebody demonstrates that they can't read simple English, to the extent that they gladly print the quote to prove them wrong.

    Here's the quote: "First, two percent of $450,000 (again, not even close to our income on the high side) is nearly $10,000."

  14. Brett, I think you're right and that Brad slipped a gear on that. However, starting just with what's known about full prof salaries at top private law schools (eg, Michigan median $247K) several commentators including Forbes are pegging prof. H's family income above $400K

  15. PS. These posts do of course describe how many American women feel about employing household help — also the differing assumptions, between Americans and Europeans. Thus, when my daughter was an exchange student in Antwerp, Belgium, and the daughter of the exchange-family was simultaneously studying in West Virginia, my daughter had a wonderful time ("mamie" treated her as a replacement for her own daughter), but Dominique, alas, did not. And a good part of it was cultural misunderstanding. Dominique's (large) family did employ household help; so her American host family thought of her as "rich" and wondered why she brought almost no dresses for church (which in Belgium, Dominique's family rarely attended). She thought of THEM as rich because of all the electronic equipment they owned and wondered why they were so miserly with food (quality, not quantity)…

    As far as the "servant" situation reflecting a "feudaL" society, in my shoestring travels through rural France, I saw no such thing…. in fact, I'm told that the latest statistics now show greater "social mobility" in Europe than in the USA…

  16. It's interesting that your read on status differs from mine in a couple key points: I would have thought of a nanny as having higher status than a daycare worker, and a maid who works for one family as having higher status than one who works in a motel

    I'd also note that in terms of social benefit vs status, it's not really fair to compare a municipal sewer employee with a doctor; comparing medical personnel (from doctors to CNA's) and sewer personnel (from civil engineers to ditch diggers) would work better. I'd say the medical personnel are still higher status, but less markedly so.

  17. NCG:

    There must have been some substantive point this person made, and I for one would have liked to have known what it was.

    I believe it was "I am not rich enough to deserve to pay income tax at Clinton-era rates", or more generally: an income in excess of $250k/yr doesn't necessarily qualify a household as "rich". The conversation appears to have flamed out by becoming gratuitously personal.

    A more useful point he could have made was a good deal less subjective: "rich" and "wealthy" are adjectives generally used to mean "having a lot". It makes more sense to measure this as a 'stock' than as a 'flow'. But because the Federal government levies an *income* tax rather than an assets tax, our language for talking about economic inequality is hobbled by a clumsy definition of what exactly is unequal about us.

  18. "Brett, I think you’re right and that Brad slipped a gear on that. However, starting just with what’s known about full prof salaries at top private law schools (eg, Michigan median $247K) several commentators including Forbes are pegging prof. H’s family income above $400K"

    You know what's even more lame? Deleting any comment that points out his mistake…

  19. I think the position of "plumber" is an important discussion. From a financial point of view, a couple of plumbers in the right place could quite possible make more than the Hendersons. But socially, they'd always be inferiors because of their lack of socially-recognized postgraduate training. (Ask a plumber how many training courses they have to go through to get certified on PEX and every other new kind of fancy fixture or coupling.) Meanwhile, accountants, who typically get paid less, are more socially acceptable. (And of course the "work with your hand/get dirty" stricture doesn't apply to doctors, even those whose work has a minimal health-critical component.)

    But as for servants, I think on of the things (especially in the US) that necessitates their low status is the unmentioned power of access that they have. Homeowners have few secrets from their cleaning people, and even fewer from any live-in staff. The only way to counterbalance anxiety about that access is to erect an overwhelming social gulf.

  20. Thanks to Michael O'Hare for linking to the scandalous posts!

    Although that guy makes vastly more than I ever will, I can relate emotionally to what he's saying. I know people like him. They make a lot of money, but they work long hours and don't enjoy their lives as much as I think they deserve to. We Americans are a little crazy, and life for pretty much everyone has gotten too hectic.

    I define the "rich" as people who live off investments, and the "working rich" would be people like this guy. People who would be broke not that long after losing a job. This guy may be a bit of a venter, and I'm sure he realizes how lucky he is when/if he reads the paper, but he is out there slogging away, and for this, I salute him. He was just blowing off steam. Probably just not getting enough sleep if he's got a new baby.

    I just think he puts the blame in the wrong place. This president isn't the one who started two unnecessary and grotesquely expensive wars. (Not to mention the loss of the flower of our youth blown to smithereens in places where the people don't want them.) I don't see a huge government expansion taking place, and like many, I think we should have had single-payer health care. I still hope we get it. At least for healthcare spending, we get something back.

    Anyway, let's soak the people who have the money — did anyone raise the taxes on hedge fund types yet? It is ridiculous that they pay less than working people. Bunch of bums!! ; >

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