Thursday, December 2, 2010
Lessons in my laundry - part 1
Anyway I stayed with some friends who turned out (somewhat to my surprise) to be more prosperous than I imagined. They lived in a three level beautiful inner Chicago house designed by a very stylish architect. I was there getting over jet-lag and cooking in their beautiful kitchen. (I cooked braised pork with sage, shallots, and star anise.)
I also did my laundry. Much to my surprise my hosts did not have an ironing board.
I told my wife by phone - and she thought they must be absurdly wealthy - but then even the wealthy in Australia have an ironing board. Sure they were a highly motivated and extremely hard working professional couple and ironing was hardly a priority - but it was still strange.
And then in Brooklyn - a week later - I worked it out. I dropped my laundry off at a Chinese Laundromat and got back a few pressed shirts, my jeans, socks etcetera and paid $11.75. I figure the same basket would cost me $28 in Australia. Why would you bother to wash and iron if you were prosperous and laundry was that cheap... moreover there was at least two laundries between my home and the subway. I did not need to go out of my way.
This was all because of something I knew on paper - but the price of washing made it personal. Australia does not have large numbers of very low wage employees and - even in the days machines - laundry is a labor intensive and non-traded commodity. Laundry is expensive in Australia because the person doing it expects to make $15 plus per hour. Sure minimum wages are a little lower than that - but most lowly skilled workers are paid more than the minimum. The laundries I pass in Brooklyn take the clothes to a large warehouse-type room filled with Chinese women who speak little English and who almost certainly work for less than minimum wages. And a upper middle-class New Yorker either never sees them and can ignore them. A large low-wage group make the (very rich) lifestyles of the American elite possible. They make it possible to never do your washing, eat in up-market restaurants, have nannies look after your children and have a material standard of living that even very rich Australians might envy.
If you are minimum wage worker and you have a job it is clearly much better if you live in Sydney or Melbourne than Brooklyn. At the moment of course Australia is the far-better bet - low wage workers are more likely to find a job down-under and the job is certain to pay better. But that is not the pattern of the last twenty years. Mostly Australia has run unemployment a percent or more higher than the United States and there has been less low-pay work. (Of course the reason why there is less low pay work is that we do our own ironing, cooking, cleaning and child minding as a response to the high price of these services.)
I don’t want to say that this is just a result of minimum wage laws. I was careful to note that in Australia the norm would be to pay more than the minimum and less than the minimum is common in the US. Whatever this is an extreme society and the results are - to my eyes - often peculiar. Lightly traded labor intensive goods and services are - at least to my eyes - startlingly cheap in America. And whilst laundry is my case example - the one I most enjoy is berries. Strawberries and raspberries are highly labor intensive fruit. Picking them is backbreaking and/or prickly work and they need to be transported to very tight timetables. Like laundry the cost in New York is about a third that in Sydney. And whilst clean clothes are nice - raspberries are wonderful. So a little self-consciously I literally enjoy the fruits of American inequality.
America was not always this unequal. Australia has got more unequal in my adult life. And inequality is not all bad - not only do I eat fine raspberries - but it makes some people more productive if there is a (financial) tree to climb. Its just - along with the side of the road Americans drive on and the endless adverts for medical services the most visible difference between Australia and America. I can’t help but be aware of it.
PS. Part II will be about traded and non-traded goods in the Eurozone. And the price of laundry...
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