By Israel Rojas-Moreno '16
A year into Booth, I have a better framework for understanding the basic economic forces in our capitalist society. I have gained a greater appreciation for the Invisible Hand and its influence on my behavior. However, I have also come to recognize another equally powerful force working in the background: the Blind Eye, or the obscuring force that allows us to remain comfortable with economic exploitation when it benefits us.
Take a recent article in the NYT looking into the nail salon industry in New York City. The Times found a typical cost of manicures of about $10.50, or roughly half of the national average. Not a surprise when you learn NYC has nearly 2,000 nail salons, or about twice as many salons per capita as its nearest rivals, Los Angeles and San Francisco. Oversupply, please meet low prices.
However, another NYT finding seemed to catch the city – and nail salon customers – off guard. The NYT discovered that nail salon workers were earning a meager $30-$40 for a 10-12 hour workday. Obviously, there must be too much labor. Indeed, the Times found an overabundance of desperate immigrants working in the salons. Few of them spoke English and many were in the country illegally. With little discernable skill, the workers had few alternatives.
The NYT piece generated a lot of excitement. A common response went along the lines of: “I had no idea. Won’t be doing that again.” It seems naive at best, and willfully ignorant at worst, to fail to recognize the economics of this situation. Somebody is hurting from those low prices - clearly not the buyer. Of course, not everyone possesses as robust an understanding of supply and demand principles as we do. And yet, I rarely think twice about buying ten pounds of berries for a dollar at the grocery store.
The extremely low wages of the nail salon industry are hardly unique. Throughout history, laborers have often faced similar circumstances, whether they were laying railroad across the U.S. or reversing river flows here in Chicago. Often, immigrants are not far from the work. Always, we can rely on the arguments of low-skill and oversupply to justify the low wages. Rarely do we question, let alone seek to understand, why the low-skill situation exists in the first place. We take comfort in the fact that their circumstances are completely reasonable, given the basic principles of economics.
Still, I cannot help but feel that some economic principles remain hollow. Perhaps it is because I’m an immigrant. I came to this country speaking no English. I can assure you I had no skills. Granted, I was three years old. Thankfully, American society is more willing to avoid the Blind Eye when it comes to children. It’s a good start. But we’ve got a long way to go.
Israel will be working in New York this summer and is grateful not to be limited to nail salon employment.