Elbow grease?

When was the last time you cleaned your toilet?

I once got into an extended discussion with a close friend regarding the benefits of manual labor. Specifically, we were debating the implications of paying someone to do cleaning you don’t wish to do yourself, particularly in the bathroom. The job we settled on as the point of reference for our discussion was cleaning the toilet.

If you know me well, you won’t be surprised to learn that I was arguing in favor of paying someone to do the job, while my friend argued that doing so would reflect something distasteful about me as a person. I couldn’t for the life of me understand why.

I still recall where we happened to be at the time: standing on San Francisco’s Pier 39 last June, looking out at Alcatraz Island with sea lions barking noisily in the foreground. (The sea lions, by the way, mysteriously disappeared in December and did not begin returning until late February. They are now back en masse, but for a while I was thinking that perhaps our extended conversation drove them away—allowing six months or so for the content to penetrate, of course.)

In any case, my friend’s point was that there are certain jobs that build character because of their menial nature. Cleaning the toilet, scrubbing the floor, or washing the dishes are all tasks that require both a strong work ethic and humility. Not only do you have to put your back into such work—i.e., you actually exert physical effort and may even work up a sweat—but you also are reminded by doing so that you are not above these tasks. Thus, they keep you humble; they remind you that you are human.

While there is a great deal to be said for this approach, I think I made a few good points of my own. First of all, while many people may be born into the sort of privilege that allows them to pay for the completion of their housework, many more achieve this ability as the result of their own hard work. In my case, for instance, if I’m ever in the position to hire some household help, I don’t think I’ll ever forget the summers I spent cutting grass and cleaning gutters, or the winters I spent shoveling snow. In fact, having had those experiences would only make me appreciate my roots even more, reminding me of a time when I was the one being hired that way.

In addition, I think there is some work that just makes more sense for me to do. I’m not talking white-collar vs. blue-collar jobs here. I’m talking about the old economic notion of comparative advantage. If I’m better than someone else at writing a legal memo, and that person is better than me at fixing broken plumbing, then I should write the memo and he should fix the plumbing—even if he could, with some effort, write the memo, and I could, with considerably more effort, fix the plumbing. In my mind, the same goes for cleaning toilets and scrubbing floors.

Yes, said my friend, but then eventually you grow detached from your humanity. You forget that you can do things with your hands. You forget that you can make things happen using physical power rather than purchasing power. You constantly delegate “lower” tasks to someone else until you begin to think that not only the tasks, but also the people who perform them, are beneath you. Over time, you develop the very superiority complex that doing your own labor serves to prevent.

Well, I don’t know about that. I came back with a number of arguments of my own (among them, the idea that the service industry developed by people who can pay for it gives jobs to people with limited skills), but I couldn’t help but notice that I was coming across as a bit elitist—exactly as my friend was subtly characterizing me.

In the end, though, all of this talking in circles cannot compete with the reality of the labor itself—as I saw today, scrubbing my floors at home.

Yes, that’s right: after all of my high-flown words at this time last year, there I was, on my hands and knees, scrubbing the family linoleum with a good old brush and bucket and thinking back to our conversation on Pier 39.

And you know what? I decided that I was right.

Oh, I tried my hardest to see it from my friend’s point of view. With shaking knees and tired arms, I reminded myself that this was being human, that I wasn’t above this sort of work, and that physical labor has a virtue unto itself.

That lasted for all of three minutes.

By the time I was done with all of the floors, I was thoroughly convinced that MerryMaids and I would be developing a very close relationship in the coming years. If I ever want to be reminded that I can do such work myself, I can always pick up a brush or mop and give it a go. (Or perhaps I can just look to my chiropractor bills as a still more vivid reminder.) But in general, if I can afford to pay for it, and someone is more willing to do it than me, why on earth would we not take each other up on the deal made possible by his willingness and my ability to pay?

You see, I am a firm believer in the free market economy and the potential gains from trade, and I think this is a perfect example of those principles. To suggest that there is something morally superior about cleaning your own toilet seems at best inefficient and at worst supercilious, and I don’t think that all the elbow grease in the world could convince me that allowing someone to do me a service is in fact doing a disservice to myself.

Perhaps I’m wrong, but (as usual) I think not.

If you’d like to come and convince me, however, I would only ask that you take off your shoes before walking across the floor.


1 Comment

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One response to “Elbow grease?

  1. Dawn Martin

    You reminded me of all the reasons I treasure my cleaning lady!

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