IN THE RIVERS of words poured out on the problem of unemployment, virtually no mention is made of the two elements of the problem that to me, as a consumer and self-employee, are its most striking features. One is that our situation today is one of not a shortage of jobs but for a shortage of labor. The other is that the federal government is a prime promoter of unemployment.
I feel a particular concern for these features because implicit in them is the extinction of persons like me who must meet the conditions of the marketplace unprotected by special privileges and immunities. The free society is already finished. In its place wea are getting the staked-out society in which various interests, institutionally protected from competition, levy trinute on all whocome their way, as medieval barons did on shipping.
In support of my theses that we have a labor shortage, let me recall some experiences of the kind the reader can readily match with his own. last year our 1959 dishwasher broke down and the sensibel thing seemed to be to buy a new one - until we learned that installation would cost $125. That meant we'd be paying the plumber more than $35 an hour. Even an unlicensed plumber, the dealer said, would charge $75.
If I was shocked, I was even more so last fall when three men in a pickup truck asked $150 just to help me fell four tyres so they would not fall on the power line. This would require putting a ladder up the tree, tying a rope around it, sawing through the butt and pulling hard on the rope. It is work I habitually do myself, so my estimate that the men were asking about $40 an hour is probably sound.
A bill of $17.04 from a Ford dealer for repairs seems little enough, but all it paid for was the replacement of the socket of a license-plate light. The washing machine we bought in 1959 started acting up and the mechanic who previously had repaired it sent his son, who may have graduated from high school, but if so, only barely. It cost us $13 to have the lad put in an appearance and $3 for every 10 minutes of his time thereafter.
That is a good deal more than any of my friends make after 30 years or more of hard intellectual application. it is a good deal more than I make with diplomas from Harvard and the National War College, 11 years experience in the State Department, dozens of articles in leading magaznies and 13 books to my credit. Consequently, it was more than I could afford.
SUCH GOUGING of the customer would have been inconceovable in the Depression of the 1930s. Nearly everyone was desperately glad of the chance to do a day's work for a day's pay. Businessess profiteering in repairs would have found their shops emptied by mechanics working in their back yards. Today, if there is any competition to render the services so outrageously priced, it is not in evidence.
It would be difficult to convince me that unemployment statistics mean what they meant in the 1930s. Then there was no paid work for about a quarter of the labor force apart from federal programs. Today there is plenty of work at pay commensurate with its demands, at least outside areas of peculiar industrial depression.
Why, then, it is so difficult to get manual work done without haveing to pay disproportionately for it? My guess is that the able-bodied unemployed lack the skills in demand, even skills that can be required in two or three months, or lack enterprise and initiative or would rather not do work they find uncongenial even if it means living on the labors of other.
Vacuum cleaning, moping, dusting, washing woodwork take little skill, but seven or eight years ago we gave up trying to get anyone to do them for us once a week. What such work does require is consientiousness, and everyone we tried - I should say who condescended to try us - proved undependable and slapdash.
Despite women's liberation, educated women are apt to be less liberated not than they were 50 years ago when they hadd a servants. Men and women of talent today are forced to take time from the improvement of that talent, from which society would gain, for tasks around the house that could as well be performed by others whose own maximum contribition to society, and to their own satisfaction in life, would come from the superior performance of those tasks to which they are fitted.
There are, no doubt, those who contend that working in another person's household is degrading where living in idleness at the expense of those whom one is too good to work for is not. This is a point of view the founders of our democracy and those who made it successful through the years would surely find incomprehensible.
CONSPIRING to the elimination of domestic help is the minimum wage law. There are, granted, strong reasons for the law. But whatever else it may achieve, the law ensures that men and women - and young people - whose abilities command less than the minimum rate will be denied employment, pride in working their way and the chance to improve their skills on the job and their earning ability. If the AFL-CIO has its way, the minimum wage will be $3 an hour. It is anyone's guess how many thousands that would render unemployable.
Another way by which government promotes unemployment is by providing a widely acceptable alternative to employment - and with welfare payments now coming to $36 billion a year and talk heard of a guaranteed minimum income, it is easy to see us achieving the distinction of Britain, where, as Chancellor of the Exchequer Dennis Healey observes, one can do almost as well on the dole as in a job.
A third is in exempting labor unions from legislation forbidding combinations in restrain of trade and granting them monopolies. Labor unions can and do set up barriers to employment that exclude many willing hands and, by forcing wages to artificial heights, prevent businesses from hiring as many workers as they could if wages were set by competition for jobs, as they are among non-unionized workers.
The time was when unions were labor's defense against brutal exploitation. Today they are the exploiters and their prey is the consumer. When Chrysler sits down with the UAW, the question is how big an increase in wages the poor dumb public can be made to pay for. The decision last month, according to the CBS Ecening News, was a new hourly rate equivalent to $15 - well over the hourly earnings of the governors of some states - and an average boost of $500 in car prices.
Unions insists that increases in the productivity of labor call the proportionate increases in wages. Though the nation seems to have swallowed it, the principle is without warrant. Labor itself is seldom responsible for its increased productivity. That comes about ordinarily from improved management, more efficient technology and larger-scale operations.
I doubt that a society can long survive when the ultimate power and the ultimate responsibility are divorced. Increasingly in ours, the one is exercised by heavy-handed interest groups while the latter devolves upon a government that is more and more their adjunct.
My anticipation is not that our society will expire but that, as government is immobilized by its inability to challenge the domineering, mutually hostile interest groups, society's frustations will become intolerable and that this will lead to the reunion of power and responsibility under authoritarian rule.
We shall turn to a charismatic leader to make us whole again, with a national voice, and he will do so - at a price. If we are lucky we shall all be brought to heel impartially. One thing at least we can count on: Our new master will not treat manual labor as a pampered aristocracy. Even the Soviet Union, proclaiming the dictatorship of the proletariat, knows there is no future in doing that.
Ogburn's latest book is "The Adventure of Birds. "