The Honorable Trade of Shining Shoes

I had my shoes shined just now by a real pro, which made me remember this post from 5 years ago, which I am re-upping.

The amount of time it took me today to find a shoe shine stand in a major airport attests to how changes in men’s fashion over the past 50 years have contracted the size of the market. But I eventually located a master practitioner of the craft and emerged with my footwear emitting the distinctive soft glow of well-attended black leather.

In Mamet’s movie version of Glengarry, Glen Ross, Alec Baldwin’s character degrades the less successful salesmen by saying “You’ll be shining my shoes,” reflecting the ancient idea that what is associated with the feet is disgusting, including of course cleaning the feet of others (the Biblical story of Jesus asking his disciples to follow his example of service and then washing their feet didn’t stimulate a widespread change in attitude).

As I got my own shoes shined, I remembered a story told by former U.N. Ambassador Andrew Young. When he was mayor of Atlanta, he would get his wingtips buffed by an older man who charged $4, making a $5 bill the perfect payment including tip (This apparently is still the business model, I tend to get charged $7 to $8 today, just below the Alexander Hamilton breakpoint). Perhaps feeling a little awkward that he, a very successful post-civil rights movement African-American man, was having his shoes shined regularly by a pre-movement older African-American man, Young made an effort to get to know him and found out to his surprise that the shoe shiner restored so many pairs of shoes a day at $5 a pop that he had been able to afford the rearing of four children, including sending all of them through college.

The conclusion Young drew has stayed with me: “There is no such thing as menial work, only menial pay.”

Author: Keith Humphreys

Keith Humphreys is the Esther Ting Memorial Professor of Psychiatry at Stanford University and an Honorary Professor of Psychiatry at Kings College London. His research, teaching and writing have focused on addictive disorders, self-help organizations (e.g., breast cancer support groups, Alcoholics Anonymous), evaluation research methods, and public policy related to health care, mental illness, veterans, drugs, crime and correctional systems. Professor Humphreys' over 300 scholarly articles, monographs and books have been cited over thirteen thousand times by scientific colleagues. He is a regular contributor to Washington Post and has also written for the New York Times, Wall Street Journal, Washington Monthly, San Francisco Chronicle, The Guardian (UK), The Telegraph (UK), Times Higher Education (UK), Crossbow (UK) and other media outlets.

17 thoughts on “The Honorable Trade of Shining Shoes”

  1. I've been a janitor, I've picked radishes. There's no work that's actually needed and wanted that isn't honorable.

    I think that's something about the free market many people don't understand: In a free market, you prosper by doing things other people want. Business is inherently other-regarding, an exercise in empathy. Profit depends on understanding what other people want.

    1. Provided they have money to spend. If they don't, it all breaks down: it's only worthwhile having empathy for the few who do. Which is why extreme concentration of wealth is invidious in a market system.

  2. The Victorians should get more credit for the cultural change that went with mass sanitation. Their sewers and pumping stations were huge and glamorous temples to hygiene. The disgust by association for lowly workers dealing with excrement, that for example goes with untouchability in India, may be more standard in human culture. I've never been a janitor, but I don't in the least mind cleaning toilets with a brush. Hygeia must be served!

    Brett is IMHO right about the dignity of exchange as well as labour. Where capitalism becomes obnoxious is when moral worth is equated to income and wealth, which are mainly due to chance. Worse, ideologists outdo Marx in their reading of employment as a relationship of dominance and servility: only the self-employed and employers are free men.

    1. Ditto on the mass sanitation. Running water, modern waste treatment, now these are the kinds of things people need. We are so lucky. As for toilet cleaning, it's a weird thing but I don't think I'd trust someone who had never cleaned one. If you are nice to your housekeeper, there is no shame in having one… but this idea that one is above cleaning a toilet is weird to me. (I have one friend who's like that. I bet he's done it at least once though, I'll have to ask.) None of us is so special that we don't need to *use* one, after all.

      What I'd like to know is, how to shine a shoe properly. Also, I'd like to know whose idea it was to stop making shoes that can be re-soled. That is just dumb. Though it's true, old sneakers can be recycled now. Still.

  3. I was struck by your learned allusion to Jesus' practice. In Catholicism and other Christian denominations it is a ritual for priests to wash the feet of others. Pope Francis washed the feet of two women and Muslims at a juvenile detention center in Rome 2013.


    On the other hand, throwing shoes at a person is often an insult. Wikipedia tells us this:

    In many Arab cultures, it is considered an extreme insult to throw a shoe at someone. It is also considered rude even to display the sole of one's foot to someone. In 2008, Iraqi cameraman Muntadar al-Zaidi threw two shoes at United States President George W. Bush while the president was visiting Baghdad, and was arrested and incarcerated. President Bush ducked and was not struck by the shoes. Shoe throwing as an insult is not just limited to the Muslim world, as there are also other notable incidents that have occurred involving other celebrities and world leaders. Some of these have involved Steve McCarthy, David Beckham, Harry Styles, Lily Allen, Hillary Clinton and Chinese Premier Wen Jiabao.


  4. This is a fascinating subject. Of course what matters is quality wages – that allow one to live in the middle class, develop a savings, retirement, send kids to college, take vacations, etc.

    But – apart from exceptions – doesn't pay generally align with training – that is, the more skill you have, the more competitive you are in the market, and the higher wage you can command? So then you get a status hierarchy of skilled versus unskilled – those who have gotten good at something, versus those who haven't. Being a master welder or electrician can easily be compared to a having a graduate degree. And you can debate then cultural preferences for certain types of knowledge being valued more than others.

    But many jobs simply don't require as much skill -that is, you are about as good 2 years in as you will be 10 years in. The fact that there are so damn many of these jobs, really depresses wages, right? And you end up with low pay, low-status work. As much as I admire a shoe-shine or waiter, do I really want to raise my daughters to set their sights on a career that doesn't require much skill, and then won't command much in the form of wages? That sounds cruel, but didn't the shoe shine want his daughters to go to college too?

    1. " But – apart from exceptions – doesn't pay generally align with training – that is, the more skill you have, the more competitive you are in the market, and the higher wage you can command?"

      No. Because once production becomes cooperative, any individual's contribution to the final sale price becomes more or less unmeasurable. So the distribution of the outcome is essentially political. Electricians are not paid as much as executive trainees, machinists not as much as Wall Street runners. We use socially acceptable proxies (seniority, experience) and socially-set scales of relative position (those higher up get more – to show they are higher up; white collar work gets more, men's work gets more…). These tend to change as groups lever themselves up or fall down. Market rates set by demand and supply locally are very much exceptions and, even then, conditioned by social and political norms (the cook won't be paid more then the captain, even if cooks are essential and in desperately short supply while captains litter every strand).

      1. the cook won't be paid more then the captain, even if cooks are essential and in desperately short supply while captains litter every strand

        This is worth thinking about. Partly that happens because of the dynamics of an organization. It violates the hierarchy for a subordinate to be paid more than his boss, just as it violates the hierarchy for a junior engineer, say, to earn more than his senior, even though the younger may do better work by virtue of being more recently trained, up to date on technology, and so on.

        One frequent exception is that the earnings of salespeople are often out of proportion to their position. This is presumably because their performance is easily measured. Still, in my experience, when this happens, it is sometimes a source of discord in the organization, as others argue that they are the ones actually designing and making the products, so why should the salesperson get all the credit for the revenue?

        1. Some organizations manage to establish different salary ladders for different kinds of work (e.g. the "engineering track" vs "management track" thing at some tech companies) but, as you point out, it's really hard. Usually it takes some kind of enterprise-threatening situation (losing hard-to-replace people, slowdowns/strikes) to rejigger the hierarchy.

          Going back to the ickiness factor, there's also a weird inversion where some not-all-that-skilled jobs get paid more than skilled ones because there aren't that many people willing to do them. Trash collectors, plumbers….

          1. Great comments and a lot to think about. My original thinking is definitely uninformed, as economics is something I've never been able to think about very well. But I would have thought my idea of the labor market being relatively driven by skill and supply/demand was a rather conventional, mainstream economic view (not an implication of necessarily being correct!). If anyone can recommend some good reading on the lay-of-the land in terms of different theories on how wages get set that would be great.

          2. The answers are not in economics but in sociology. The keys are in the forms of cooperation. It's not on wages as such, but one good start is John Levi Martin's Social Structures, which gets into why nested hierarchy is the only form that scales and, as such, is essential to larger-scale cooperative production. If you then see remuneration not as a price but as a token of position, you start to see the pattern.

          3. Thanks, however any I'm wary of answers that leave out economics. As far as I can tell, there are two broad sides of the coin to look at – what drives wages in any given system, and then what kinds of systems we might have. It seems there is much disagreement not only on what the moving parts are in act doing, as well as why they are doing so.

            Of course sociology – and my personal field of expertise, behaviorism – will be enormously relevant. But alas, as much as I've always cared about social justice, it ultimately comes down to planning the kind of economic system we want, and it's all just so dismal and complex. Ironically – what is required here is a division of labor! I don't have the time to properly assess what is owed Smith/Marx/Durkheim/etc. So many talked about Piketty's Capital when it released – but how many were really prepared to understand it, an how many merely found what they wanted to hear?

            I find in absence of expertise, agnosticism is best. This brings up larger, thorny questions about the sustainability of democracy and liberty. Capitalists, socialists and anarchists are mostly full of shit, clinging to ideology. I include myself. We do make choices, and thus are political actors, with responsibility. But the world can never get enough humility in my opinion.

        2. Another exception is professional athletes, many of whom make more money than their coaches. This often leads to fans complaining that the players have more power than the coaches, which fans just assume is wrong. The outrage directed at Lebron James when Dave Blatt was let go as coach of the Cleveland Cavaliers is but one example. James was decried as a coach killer, an excoriated in parts of the sports press for presuming to more power than he should have.

          Cavaliers ownership, on the other hand, seem to have correctly decided that James was a lot more important to the Cavaliers' potential for success than was Blatt.

  5. Given Keith's profession, it could be remembered that doctors were once of much lower status than today: especially, in a reversal of the current hierarchy, surgeons. (Icky blood and pain.) Barber-surgeons, indeed. They ranked well below clergymen and lawyers. Jane Austen's heroines would not have looked at one as a suitable husband.

    For most of history, this was a fair reflection of their efficacy, that is negligible. "Guérir parfois, soulager souvent, consoler toujours", in the lovely phrase of François Ier's surgeon Ambroise Paré – and the "guérir parfois" was a stretch. The odd thing is that the rise in status of doctors in the 19th century IIRC preceded, not followed, the revolutions in medicine that allowed them actually to cure patients. The co-hero of Patrick O'Brian's Napoleonic Royal Navy saga, Dr. Maturin, is rightly presented as something of a freak. He's also Catalan, a naturalist, and a spy, an introverted Renaissance superman.

  6. For some reason (maybe since the time of the post that elapsed) comments started requiring approval, I went in just now and approved NCGSmFcts. I didn't approve AnBheal because of its profanity and nastiness to working people.

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