Note: This commentary was first published on Nov. 9, 2013, long before the so-called invisible white working man voted Donald Trump into office. I find upon a later reading that a lot of my writing is crap, but I think this piece is an exception and hope you agree.
Tens of thousands of workers in one of the few remaining free-market industries in America can be seen crisscrossing my hometown of metro Phoenix each day in trucks of every description. I can see them, but they are invisible to the media, politicians, regulators, and the Chamber of Commerce, even though they comprise one of the largest industries in town.
They are invisible to the establishment because they operate in a free market. Unlike just about every other American worker, they are not part of an organized special-interest group, guild, union, trade association, or large corporation. They don’t have the political power to obtain work, subsidies, contracts, protective tariffs, rents, and other competitive advantages from the government. Nor do they need political power to defend themselves from government regulators and apparatchiks, because their industry is unregulated and unlicensed.
The government and its grant-seeking lackeys in academia don’t even know how many invisible men work in the industry, what their average income is, what their accident and injury rates are, or any of the other data that are maintained and scrutinized on workers in other industries. Yet the prices they charge can be easily discovered, because the prices are open, highly competitive, and not distorted by the government—unlike prices in industries long controlled by the government, such as medical care and education.
The invisible men don’t employ lobbyists, lawyers, public relations people, high-paid specialists in regulations, or low-paid handlers of government paperwork. Nor do they issue press releases that the lazy media regurgitate. And when they die on the job, there is no headline coverage, no wailing by the public, no exaggerated claims that they were heroes, no funds established to help their families, no statues erected in the public square, and no parades of police cars and fire trucks as they are driven to the cemetery.
Paradoxically, such fawning is reserved for those with government sinecure, privileges, and generous death benefits and pensions, not for those who have fended for themselves. It’s a strange world in which those who are protected the most from the vagaries of the free market get the most sympathy from the public and the press—a press that prides itself and lies to itself that the primary mission of the press is to look out for the little guy.
The most politically powerful groups in just about every state are teacher unions, other public-sector unions, realtors, insurance brokers, municipal bond bankers, car dealers, lawyers, and sports barons. By contrast, the invisible men have no political power.
Unlike unionized public school teachers, who use the ploy of “It’s for the children” to extract more money from gullible taxpayers, the invisible men only get more money by working harder and providing better service. Unlike realtors, they are not allowed to restrict competition through licensing or to put advertising signs (aka for-sale signs) on street corners and front yards. Unlike car dealers, they do not use government regulations to restrict how their products can be sold so their profits can be higher. Unlike sports barons, they don’t use taxpayer-funded facilities to line their own pockets. Unlike the drivers of public buses and light-rail trains, they can’t threaten to strike and leave their customers stranded in order to get richer pay and pensions.
The invisible men also have no political power at the national level. Unlike farmers, they get no subsidies. Unlike milk and sugar producers, they get no protective quotas and tariffs. Unlike auto companies and banks, they get no bailouts. Unlike solar companies, they get no political patronage. Unlike banks, they do not have a valuable franchise from the government and Federal Reserve that virtually guarantees high profits. And unlike loafers, they get no unemployment pay, no handouts, no unwarranted disability payments, and no other incentives for not working.
Who are the invisible men? They are landscapers. They are the hard-working men (virtually all of them are men) who do gardening, lawn cutting, tree trimming, and irrigation repairs. This is a big industry in a desert metropolis like Phoenix, where vegetation grows year-round and needs to be trimmed year-round, where non-native shrubs and trees have to be irrigated and fertilized, where winter lawns have to be seeded, and where summer lawns have to be de-thatched, aerated, and sprayed with herbicides. The work is difficult, hot, dirty and dangerous.
One of the most dangerous and exhausting jobs of the invisible men is climbing 40-foot palm trees with saws hanging from belts to cut off dead fronds. The typical price is $30 per tree for about an hour’s work. After hauling the fronds to dumps and paying dump fees, the invisible men keep what is left to support their families. The most ambitious of them work seven days a week. One has to wonder what they think when they hear public-sector workers sniveling about how they are underpaid and overworked.
Most of the invisible men are of Mexican descent, and most of them are living the American dream, the dream of working hard so that the next generation can have it better than they have. It’s as fascinating to watch them slowly climb the socioeconomic ladder as it is to watch them climb a palm tree. They start out with a beater of a pick-up truck and a few manually-operated tools. A year or so later, they add a trailer and power tools. Still later, they buy a new truck and chrome wheels. Along the way they increase their value by learning about horticulture and by obtaining the skills to install and repair irrigation timers, valves, and pipes. Those who are the most ambitious, personable, articulate, and presentable become business owners, who hire and train other invisible men, invest in additional trucks and equipment, and expand their business beyond residences to large commercial properties.
Yes, many of them are in the USA illegally. Yes, many of them put a drain on schools, social services, and the justice system. Yes, they come from a culture that doesn’t put a high value on formal education. And yes, they tend to depress wages for native-born Americans.
Of course this in nothing new in America. After all, the first immigrants were white Europeans who crossed the Atlantic, took the land of Native Americans, and granted themselves de facto amnesty. Their descendants would later import Africans into slavery to toil at zero wages. Still later, Chinese workers were imported to build railroads at low pay, to the chagrin of Irish railroad workers. At about the same time, slave owners instigated a war with Mexico in order to extend slavery (cheap labor) into Texas and, they hoped, further west into Mexican territory. And in the mid-19th century and early 20th century, industrialists imported millions of poorly educated Irish and Southern Europeans as cheap labor for factories.
Now Mexicans are doing something similar to the Gringos, and, understandably, white men don’t like it.
Strangely, black Americans are noticeably missing from the landscaping industry, including in states with a large unemployed black population. If Mexicans can make a harrowing trip across the border to find work in a country where they don’t even speak the language, why can’t native-born blacks travel a few miles to do the same? Is this due to the legacy of slavery and Jim Crow, or is it due to the harmful effects of welfare?
This is such a politically-loaded question that if it were ever run through the machinery of political correctness and racial sensitivities in think tanks and universities, the question would no longer be recognizable and the answer could not be trusted.
I hope that this commentary does not result in the invisible men becoming visible. If that were to happen, they would be extorted by politicians and harassed by bureaucrats and regulators until they organized to defend themselves. Eventually, they would use their political power to obtain government-granted privileges. At that point, like so many other Americans and American industries, they would no longer operate in a free market. Then, when landscaping prices inevitably increase while work quality declines, the media, do-gooders, and other illiterates in economics will claim that the fault lies with the free market and demand a socialistic solution. Eventually, there would be Obama Lawn Care for all.