On the Ethics of Charging to Shovel Snow

This is the update from my post below, in which I asked how much my teen daughter should charge to shovel out snow.  I’m putting it up as a separate post mostly on account of the discussion of pro bono service regimes among the children of the upper middle class:

So:  The daughter, who is 17 and strapping, has taken her shovel and gone out To Seek Her Fortune.  I’ll report back later on results.  However, thanks for the suggestions in the comments on pricing.  I was interested particularly, however, in the comment that it would be build character for her not to charge but do it gratis.

She has already done gratis the elderly on our cul de sac, so her conscience is clear.  One of the problems, frankly, of the upper middle class school regimes, public and private, is that they start from the entirely fantastic assumption that the kids are a bunch of rapacious little capitalists who need to be forced into required pro bono service to learn character.  The lesson learned is that goodness consists of working for government or nonprofits.

No kid among my daughter’s friends or my wife’s students has ever worked for pay (except maybe at camp), but they have put in vast numbers of entirely pointless community service hours in places like Guatemala and Costa Rica, entirely ignorant of the whacked aid economics of sending 14 year olds to “build” houses in rural communities in the third world.  My daughter and her friends are rapacious — not as capitalists, however, but merely as consumers.  Once my wife mentioned to someone at one of the DC private schools that this was not an effective way to help people in the developing world, and that as far as she could tell among her private school students, they understood perfectly well that this was crazy – the response was almost exactly, “Well, it’s really about our kids, isn’t it?”  The take-away by the kids was, they understood that the economics of it were whacked – and that the priority was that they have a good “experience” doing good things for poor people.  In the end, their community service was just another form of consumerism.

To the extent these kids have been educated in the ethics of production — it is entirely an ethics of therapeutic production, the helping professions, in which they are extending assistance to those not in their privileged positions, for which they merely happen to get a paycheck that appears mysteriously from some third party.  It teaches them inequality, to start with – the inequality that goes with the patronizing condescension of the expert who minister to the masses (there are indeed experts; but what I refer to here is not expertise, but the sensibility of expertise, which is a sensibility acquired long before and independent of whether one has actual expertise; my kid and her friendds have the attitudes, even by the teen years).  It also teaches them that payment comes from third parties, not the party to whom one provides the “services.”

It is not the equality of market exchange among freely consenting equals. It is not any kind of market production at all.  This is a very big problem when that is the in-training of the next elites, because what we call capitalism is as much sensibility as sense.

The great sociologist Zygmunt Bauman once wrote in Telos – not online unfortunately, but one of the finest articles Telos ever ran, dating back to the late 1980s – that the problem of poverty in the Western welfare states was that solidarity with the poor was impossible; one could feel pity, but not solidarity.  Poverty, he wrote, was merely the “condition of being a flawed consumer.”

My kid’s problem is not to learn to do good things for people.  She knows how to do that and understands too well the sensibility of it.  My daughter’s biggest need is to learn how to negotiate in a straightforward way, a business-like basis, in which she will not presume that because she’s a nice kid and this isn’t a ‘real’ market transaction, she doesn’t need to do a good job, or that she is somehow a rapacious little profiteering scamp if she thinks she should get paid.  Learn that it is okay to negotiate to a deal.  You have no idea how hard that concept is for kids raised in a purely pro bono environment.  They are scared to make an offer or bargain; it seems low class and grasping.

So, my suggestion to her, based on these comments:

  • Offer only to do front walks and sidewalks — not driveways or shovel out cars.  Why?  Driveways need bigger equipment — premium in this neighborhood is getting the walks cleared, and that’s what people should be willing to pay the most for.  They don’t need their cars right now because very little is plowed yet.
  • Charge by the job.
  • Charge $20 — it’s the bill people have in their pockets.
  • Make clear up front that she is not going to be able to get the ice they allowed to accumulate from the previous storm up — in some of the cases it is an inch or so thick, and if that’s the issue, wait for the yard care guys who will also take care of the driveway and the car, but won’t be here for another three days or so.
  • In effect, it’s premium service for walkways, on an expedited basis before the people come with real equipment for the larger areas.
  • That’s Daddy’s advice.
  • Always trust Daddy’s advice.