On the topic of the Less-Motivated Worker

You’ve probably by now heard the story behind Talia Jane getting canned from Yelp for writing a public letter about her compensation (or lack thereof) somehow not realizing that’s pretty much the worst way possible to ask for a raise. If not, you can read that here.

Now that you’ve gotten that in, read this response from Stephanie Williams, detailing why Talia Jane isn’t getting ahead in life in painstaking detail while describing her own problems getting ahead as a younger professional with a similar degree.

I’m trying not to sit in judgement of Talia here; her situation looks to be a bad case of someone who has either no idea what they’re worth, or no idea how to make it happen. I have a strong instinct that she either never actually had the gumption to ask for a raise, or perhaps she did. This is why I’m trying not to judge: I don’t know. However a few things about these two sagas did peak my interest…and so here we are.

Is she that entitled?

The biggest points of contention between Ms. Williams and Ms. Jane is work ethic. Williams clearly knows the ins and outs of working crummy jobs. She contends that she put in those awful awful times to get further ahead in life to the career she now has. She had to work crappy jobs to find out what she really wanted to be.

She makes a point saying that Talia has some prime cut Bourbon in one of her instagram shots. This reeks of getting mad at someone on food stamps because they have an iPhone, in other words, you have no idea where that bourbon came from. It could’ve been a gift. It could’ve been the result of literally months of savings. Simply saying “you can’t be that poor because you have a nice laptop” is like saying “you can’t be dying of cancer, your liver is fantastic.” They could be (and likely are) entirely disconnected.

Talia’s gripe is she can’t afford to live alone in the most expensive city on Earth (or close to it, honestly I can’t be bothered to Google it right now.) which we should acknowledge is kind of a high bar to set for oneself more-or-less right out of college. Frankly I’d never take a job in San Francisco for the exact reasons Talia is complaining about.

However, the fact that her job is not paying her enough to live I think is signifigant. She’s putting in her full time hours at a company, and let’s assume for the sake of argument she was at least middle of the road good at what she did. Yelp needs customer service reps; I mean obviously, otherwise why would they have them? She wasn’t laid off because of a lack of work. She was bringing value to that company, but in return the company was not bringing her value.

Now we can go into the niches of this argument all night, she could’ve asked for a raise, maybe she did and was denied, etc. These are all details we don’t have. But just because her job isn’t important, or isn’t horrible, means she isn’t entitled to enough compensation to live comfortably?

Why is this bothering me?

In truth this whole thing bothers the hell out of me. Every time an issue like this comes up I get worried for the future, but probably not for the reasons you think.

Did you know we’re set to automate truck driving within 20 years or so? Not many people realize that the last job that is readily accessible anywhere in the country without a college education and with little experience is about to go away. That’s not a small event to take place, how many middle state economies are built on truck driver’s salaries? How many small towns are built around a couple large truck stops? How many diners, motels, etc. are going to go under when trucks are now going all night because the computers inside don’t need to sleep or eat?

These are important questions. We’re on the verge of automating not just this, but fast food and coffee places too. Barista’s exist today solely because American consumers prefer to have their drinks handed to them by people instead of machines, but that can change quickly if the baristas start demanding more money, as we’ve already seen in many areas where minimum wage has been raised.

While us skilled workers like to point out how hard we’ve worked for what we have (and we have worked hard, not saying we haven’t) the uncomfortable truth is that the minimum wage is too low. Adjusted for inflation, the minimum wage from 1966, 1.60 an hour, works out to about 10.90 today. And that’s federal: The states usually are higher.

It’s incredibly tempting for those of us who are doing well to point to our own past of hard work and sacrifices to say that the others just aren’t working hard enough, but is that true? And even if it is, should the sin of wanting to work a 9-5 relatively simple job damn someone to starvation in the richest nation in the world? In my mind with the kind of wealth the United States creates, we should be embarassed to have cases like Talia around.

The Argument for Greed

While it’s easy to now point the finger at Yelp for paying such low wages, it’s worth noting that Talia isn’t entirely without blame here. She’s setup a pretty difficult scenario for herself, and seems to be not willing to take some of the steps outlined by Stephanie very well to help her get by, and in going forward with this open letter thing, has gotten her meager employment revoked too, so this girl doesn’t strike me as blindingly brilliant. The thing I think that the elites tend to forget in the arugment about wages is the fact that they also need those people on the bottom rungs. Let me explain.

I can make a greed based argument for basic income. As our economy has recovered, we’ve noticed increasingly that job growth isn’t what it should be. This is automation at work; fewer people doing more work with the assistance of complex machines, or people being replaced outright. It’s making it hard for the lower achievers to move forward. This, combined with the advancements made in social progress allowing more minorities and women into the job market is a good explanation for the suicide rate among middle aged white men going through the roof. There are fewer opportunities, and more people competing for those opportunities than ever before.

The simple fact is: Poor people are expensive as hell to have around. They cost us in social services, they often use more emergency care services than preventive care, they eat poor quality food and are consistently unhealthy, their old cars smog up our cities, they often have a lot of children we need to educate, they fill up the jails…I mean I’m not trying to be offensive here, I’m just stating the fact that having citizens below the poverty line is an expensive thing in a whole lot of surprising ways.

Multiple cities have created housing and recovery systems where people are taken off the street, given a reasonably nice place to live, and just told to get it together when they can. As it turns out, most people who are homeless aren’t actually incapable of earning a living or managing money; oftentimes, they couldn’t make ends meet in whatever circumstances they were in. Ending up homeless is actually way easier than you think.

The point is: Poor people, even if they contributed nothing in exchange for their basic income, would contribute to the economy as a result. It doesn’t matter how little it is, it’s a net gain overall to have people housed, fed, and kept healthy. The problem you run into is people like Stephanie Williams, who, justifiably, feel a little cheated. They had to work crappy jobs for however long to get where they are, how come this other person doesn’t? Why do they get a free ride?” They get a free ride because it makes society better, and because “not achieving enough” isn’t a crime that warrants a life sentence of ramen noodle dinners and check to check stress.

The simple fact is we’re heading for interesting times. We’re pushing to eliminate more and more low level work every year, and I think as the wealthiest nation on the planet, we should be able to come up with something better than telling everyone we’re giving the pink slips to to just “work harder.”