“Whether by minimum-wage boosts that make them more expensive to hire, licensing requirements that make it more difficult to get a job, or other forms of regulation that will likely mean fewer nail salons and fewer jobs, it’s not hard to imagine displaced nail salon workers in America driven more deeply down into the black market, or into something worse…

…By contrast, wouldn’t a simple guest worker program help those here illegally more than a higher minimum wage? Likewise, wouldn’t a concerted effort that helped these women learn English do more for their opportunities in life than enforcing paid sick leave? Come to think of it, wouldn’t a rapidly growing economy creating jobs give them more avenues of escape from an abusive boss than piling more regulations onto an already sluggish economy? In the end, the only real leverage a worker has over a boss is her ability to tell him where to get off—secure in the knowledge that she has other opportunities. Which is exactly what Eliza Doolittle does at the end, when she’s acquired the English and manners that mean she no longer has to put up with the bullying of Professor Henry Higgins.”, William McGurn, “Audrey Hepburn Teaches Economics”, The Wall Street Journal

Opinion

Audrey Hepburn Teaches Economics

Progressives rushing to help New York nail-salon workers should rent a copy of ‘My Fair Lady.’

Rex Harrison and Audrey Hepburn in a scene from the film ‘My Fair Lady’, 1964. Photo: Getty Images/Warner Bros.

By William McGurn

If only the men who write our musicals would write our labor laws. Not only would they be more entertaining, they would likely be more practical.

Take Audrey Hepburn in “My Fair Lady.” In her role as Eliza Doolittle, she not only turned in a wonderful performance but also delivered a lesson about upward mobility that is particularly timely today in light of the latest war of modern progressivism: on nail salons.

It started, as these things often do, with a two-part exposé in the New York Times, one focusing on the lousy pay and the other on the health threats. This provoked howls of outrage, and was in turn followed by Gov. Andrew Cuomo invoking “emergency measures,” Sen. Dianne Feinstein (D., Calif.) citing federal legislation on product safety she’s introduced and of course New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio presiding over a “day of action.” The left-leaning Economic Policy Institute declares nail salon abuses a function of “national policy failures.”

Enter Audrey Hepburn. In her opening scene, her Eliza Doolittle is selling flowers on the street when she realizes someone is taking down every word she says. She confronts him, insisting she’s a “respectable girl” who is doing nothing illegal. It turns out the man—played by Rex Harrison—isn’t a copper but a professor of phonetics.

In the discussion that follows, Professor Higgins notes that it is Eliza’s “curbstone English that will keep her in the gutter to the end of her days.” He boasts that with a few months under his instruction, she could get a job “as a lady’s maid or a shop’s assistant.”

The next morning, Eliza appears at Professor Higgins’s doorstep to hire him to teach her English because she wants to be “a lady in a flow’r shop, ’stead of sellin’ at the corner of Tottenham Court Road.” He accepts.

Note the assumptions. Eliza didn’t place her hope in new regulations for street-side flower mongering. For Eliza, upward mobility was about acquiring the skills she needed to get ahead, in this case proper English and the manners that went with it.

How different this is to the approach to nail salons now being worked out in New York and Washington. Like so many other bursts of progressive passion, chances are that while their bid for more government will make the pols and activists feel better about themselves, it will do little to improve the lives of these women.

That’s because most of what they propose does nothing to resolve the fundamental issues the Times rightly identifies as making these women workers vulnerable to abusive bosses: They don’t speak English, they don’t have skills, and about a quarter of them are here illegally. All this greatly limits their job opportunities.

To put it another way, will a crackdown on licensing really help women who will need to complete the 250 hours of study for a New York state license? What about closing down the salon of a rotten employer because he doesn’t pay the women sick leave?

In a 2001 column, no less than Paul Krugman noted a similar case of good intentions that had terrible unintended consequences, citing a bill proposed in the 1990s by Sen. Tom Harkin (D., Iowa) to outlaw child labor in products made overseas. The threat of the legislation succeeded in the sense that some companies in Bangladesh stopped hiring children.

But Mr. Krugman noted that follow-up research by Oxfam found that the displaced child workers ended up in even worse jobs, or on the streets—and that a significant number were forced into prostitution.

Whether by minimum-wage boosts that make them more expensive to hire, licensing requirements that make it more difficult to get a job, or other forms of regulation that will likely mean fewer nail salons and fewer jobs, it’s not hard to imagine displaced nail salon workers in America driven more deeply down into the black market, or into something worse, such as prostitution.

By contrast, wouldn’t a simple guest worker program help those here illegally more than a higher minimum wage? Likewise, wouldn’t a concerted effort that helped these women learn English do more for their opportunities in life than enforcing paid sick leave? Come to think of it, wouldn’t a rapidly growing economy creating jobs give them more avenues of escape from an abusive boss than piling more regulations onto an already sluggish economy?

In the end, the only real leverage a worker has over a boss is her ability to tell him where to get off—secure in the knowledge that she has other opportunities. Which is exactly what Eliza Doolittle does at the end, when she’s acquired the English and manners that mean she no longer has to put up with the bullying of Professor Henry Higgins.

Posted on June 1, 2015, in Postings. Bookmark the permalink. Leave a comment.

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