The Funky Fishscale Fog

Detail of 'La Pêche Miraculeuse', ca. 1610, by Peter Paul Rubens.

The fictional Jebediah Springfield famously explained, “A noble spirit embiggens the smallest man.” In the modern day, wise men like Bill Maher question the vapidity of the word “spirit”. Either way, a transfusion seems out of the question:

So, Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker (R) is blocking health care benefits for low-income families in order to help them “live the American dream” and Gov. Pence is curtailing food aid in order “ennoble” people.

How very gracious of them.

In theory, the “give someone a fish” adage sounds quite nice, and in a booming economy with low unemployment and broad job opportunities, we can have a credible conversation about work requirements and the safety net.

But Pence, like Walker, runs the risk of sounding horribly out of touch – their argument is predicated on the assumption that the economy is in great shape, and everyone who wants a job can easily get one. I suspect most of the American mainstream would offer a different assessment of economic conditions.


We might also note that while once upon a time perhaps it was possible to teach a man to fish, such that he could do the work properly and earn a living, in a day. In modern times, though, that isn’t quite so easy. That is to say, we can certainly test the thesis, but probably need not: Go out on the street and give a job to the first unemployed person you find.

The objections and complications are easily predictable.

Who says that person is qualified, for instance? Maybe she was a waitress before the restaurant closed to make room for the McDonald’s in the Walmart, or he was a janitor who cleaned the school restrooms before being laid off for budget cuts. In either case, though, you need a “people person” with strong reading, speaking, and interpersonal skills, and maybe, just maybe you can teach that person to solicit telephone survey responses and appropriately record the data in a day.

Or maybe not. Either way, that person is going to need to eat at some point during the day.

And, you know, in most markets you’re probably going to be paying that employee less than they need to continue living in order to do the work.

And let us take a moment to consider a troubling aspect of that reality, anyway: When was the last time you answered a telephone survey? It is actually worth doing sometime. Like one occasion when someone wanted to ask me questions about what radioα I listened to. Obviously, one of the major conglomerates had commissioned the survey; I informed the woman on the phone what radio stations I listen to, none of which run traditional commercial advertisements, and that was the end of the survey because her employers did not want that data, and did not teach her how to fish under such circumstances. That extended, “Uhhhh …”, informed me that she was not prepared for such answers.

But have you ever sat on the other end of the line, listening to someone who never learned how to read properly try to recite survey questions? In a way, it is much like the Weiner dystopia in which the only work for humans is the sort of work that only a human can do. In the case of telephone surveys, a robot could probably do the job better, and its job performance won’t be degraded by constant fretting about whether the pittance it is paid will feed the kids.

And speaking of fish, we might point out that most people buy their fish these days; in that context it does occur to wonder if they still withhold that first paycheck for an extra period.

Because if you’re hiring a telephone survey agent, you might as well teach them to fish while you’re at it.

Foodservice? You mean that business model that depends on employees receiving public assistance? Remember that one of the controversies in our political system right now is the number of workers we are importing from abroad to fill the better-paying tech-sector jobs. Maybe if it comes down to teaching people to fish, metaphorically or otherwise, we should actually teach them to fish.

And something goes here about how child homelessness has reached three percent. Maybe we could put the kids to work, you know, as some Republicans have suggested not so long ago, except of course for the fact that there aren’t enough jobs, anyway.

And how would that be for family dinner time? “Fuckin’ low-bid me, you little brat?”

Then again, this is what people voted for, this year. And let’s be honest, sarcastically congratulating Americans for their astoundingly stupid cruelty doesn’t actually accomplish anything useful.

It’s one thing to worry about the health of our society. It’s another entirely to fret because the patient is still alive.


α That would be KUOW and KPLU, both of which are NPR stations, and KEXP, which is also supported by endowment and public donations. In Seattle, the only reason to listen to other radio stations is that you’re too lazy or cheap to finish your Supertramp collection, or have a thing for grotesque former child stars who finally found respectable work making crude jokes for the morning show, or just plain like listening to commercials.

Benen, Steve. “Indiana’s Pence hopes to ‘ennoble’ hungry workers”. msnbc. 19 November 2014.

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