Race, Class, Gender, Sexuality

Isn’t it okay to be just rich and not filthy-uber-super-disgusting rich?

One time when I was in elementary school, my teacher asked us what socio-economic class we thought we belonged to. We lived in one of the richest suburbs in our state, and yet almost all of us said we were either “middle-class” or “upper-middle-class.” No one said “I’m upper-class,” but our teacher insisted anyone living in our town was by definition upper-class. Where did we get this idea that we’re “only” upper-middle-class? Even though relatively few people in the world make over US$120,000 per year for one household, the people who do just make that mark don’t often have a yacht, a second home, a third home, or an exclusive country club membership. They are rich compared to most people, and they live very comfortably, but they can’t just spend money without thinking. Everything at that level still has to be budgeted.

Beyond upper-class… I don’t know what you’d call it—aristocracy?… there are the folks who just make such an insane amount of money that the interest they make on that money is more than most people make in a decade, donating mind-boggling sums of money actually makes them money in tax breaks, and hiring full-time employees (personal assistants, housekeepers, chaffeurs) does not even make a small dent in their savings.

Why is life like this? We’ve all heard the expression the rich get richer and the poor get poorer. I’m not trying to espouse communism here. Not everything has to be equal. But does the difference between the haves and the have-nots have to be so huge? Right now the disparity seems more painful than usual as we see politicians trying to balance budgets by cutting salaries and jobs of government employees who are barely making it while not giving themselves similar salary cuts, and as we see failing corporations giving bailout money to their top execs while laying off thousands of low-level employees.

These tough economic times got me thinking about the tour I took of the Ben & Jerry’s ice cream factory in Vermont. Before you take the tour, they show you a little video about the history of the company. I don’t remember all the details. One thing stuck in mind, though—the attempt Ben & Jerry’s initially made to prevent this ever-widening wealth gap. For years, they had a policy that the highest-paid employee could not make more than five times what the lowest-paid employee made. Of course, in 1994, they dumped that to be competitive in hiring a new CEO. I find that sad. I like the idea of no employee being paid more than five times another employee. I mean, the highest paid employee is still the highest paid, right? And not just the highest, but five times higher than the lowest. Just think how much better things would be if all companies took this approach.

Let’s look at a hypothetical scenario. Let’s say a company has 500 employees with 10 earning an average of $10 million per year, 20 earning an average of $1 million, 25 earning $500,000, 75 earning $100,000, 170 earning $50,000, and 200 earning an average of $25,000 per year.

If the $25,000-a-year employee works 50 weeks out of the year (let’s say there are two weeks of vacation), that’s about $100 per day… before taxes. In this hypothetical scenario for this hypothetical US company, almost half of the workers are pretty close to the poverty line (the poverty-line salary for a 4-person family in 2009 is supposed to be $22,050), with 2% of the company living in the lap of luxury. If you make $10 million a year, you can easily send all your children to private school, you can have fancy cars for everyone in your family, you can own several homes, you can travel often and eat dinners out often, you can donate to charity, you can buy things at auction… and you still probably have plenty leftover.

Something’s wrong with this picture. This is the picture of a company that has the highest-paid employee making 400 times what the lowest-paid employee makes.

But what if we took the same amount of salary money and distributed it so that the highest-paid employees earn 5 times what the lowest-paid employees earn? Let’s say 10 employees make an average of $1 million per year, 20 make $900,000, 25 make $750,000, 75 make $380,000, 170 make $225,000, and 200 make an average of $200,000 per year.

In this new scenario, the highest earners still outearn the lowest earners. $1 million per year is nothing to sneeze at. You can live a very comfortable lifestyle with that kind of salary. And the best part is that the lowest wage earners would be earning the median income in the upper-class town I grew up in.

If this kind of approach were the norm, instead of having the rich and the poor, we’d have only the rich and the richer.

Of course, I know I’m naive. All the economics majors out there are going to say “You don’t understand. This system isn’t sustainable. With the highest earners making only five times what the lowest earners make, there’s little incentive for the best CEOs to go to this company. They’d all go to a company that would pay them more.” Well, it couldn’t just be one company that does it. It’d have to be a bunch of companies, and they would have to “sell” the new scheme to any potential employees. There’d have to be a movement behind it, a snappy name for it, like “organic, locally grown food” or “fair trade coffee.” The idea would be that this is for justice. It’d be like Google’s “Don’t be evil” motto… but for real.

And it doesn’t even have to be this extreme. I was using a hypothetical example going from 400 times higher to only 5 times higher. What if it went from 10,000 times higher to only 100 times higher? In some ways, salaries are a zero-sum game, but the economy and living do not need to be. If everyone can have the basics (food, health care, shelter, and education), I’m fine with a handful of people having more. Right now we don’t have the basics, though. We have a handful of people getting paid billions of dollars and then putting hard-working minimum wage folks out of jobs.

Race, Class, Gender, Sexuality

Ode to Low-Paying Jobs

Warning: This essay speaks candidly about finances, even citing personal salary history, which few people talk about in polite conversation, for some reason. I believe the social convention originally stemmed from not wanting to appear haughty about having a higher salary than one’s interlocutor, but now it seems the only people who have actually divulged their salaries to me are those with low salaries. People who earn high salaries are almost ashamed of how much they make, apparently—at least as my experience has been.

When I was growing up, there was any number of “messages” that were thrown my way: Finish your dinner. Don’t spoil your dinner. Don’t talk to strangers. Look both ways before crossing. If you don’t have something nice to say, don’t say anything at all. It seems I heard these messages so many times that I wasn’t even sure who was giving me these messages or if the messages were true at all. One message I got over and over again was the message that you should do what you love, not what will pay you money. When you’re a kid, though, do you really know what profession you’ll love? And do you really know the value of money?

Granted, I was a spoiled child. No, my parents didn’t buy me whatever I wanted, but we also never wanted for anything. Even though we lived in the “poor” side of town, it was a town that currently has a median house price of $1,000,000—that’s median, not mean. I had an allowance. I had to save up for things, but my parents never gave me or my brother the impression that money was a problem. The only time money was a “problem” was when my brother and I wanted to buy things we wanted. My brother wanted clothes. He wanted CDs. He wanted weights for lifting. I wanted comic books. I wanted CDs and videos. Now, my parents didn’t consider books (which they differentiated from comic books), music lessons, or art supplies “wants.” They gladly funded these desirables as if they were necessities. There were a lot of behind-the-scenes finances in our family. Even though I occasionally heard the words mortgage or taxes, I really had no idea what those were. Mortgage to me, as a child, meant in Monopoly when you were losing money and I had to temporarily trade in your avenue or street for some cash from the bank (usually about $100).

My parents were fully supportive of me going into the teaching profession. My friends were, too. Everybody would say things like, “Oh, schools need good teachers.” They might also say, “Teachers should get paid more.” For a young twentysomething straight out of education school (as I was when I first started looking for a teaching job), the money from teaching seemed good, actually. I didn’t end up getting this job, but one of the jobs I interviewed for was a middle school public school teaching position in Wallingford, Connecticut. The job’s starting salary was going to be about $33,000. In Middletown and that general middle-Connecticut area, a decent one-bedroom’s rent is only $500. Granted, Connecticut has the highest salary scale for public school teachers in the United States, but that’s still a decent wage for such a low rent… or at least that’s what I realized when I moved to the much-more-expensive Bay Area. Now, finances were tight in Connecticut for me, though, because I didn’t get that Wallingford job. I did a lot of substitute teaching, which was $120 a day for long-term subbing (possibly the worst job to have in education) and $65 a day for on-call subbing. I had to ask my parents for money just to make that low monthly rent of $500, and they kindly obliged.

After a while, I got disillusioned with the whole public school scene, and I moved to private school. Almost anyone I talked to about this move followed the that’s too bad remarks with, “I guess so, but private schools don’t pay as much.” Well, the private school I worked at funded me just fine. Sure, all the older teachers at this school would complain that public school teachers in the same area were getting paid thousands more, none of them actually wanted to leave her cushy job to go to those higher-paying public schools. They know deep down that the perks of private school-teaching far outweigh the perks of a higher salary. For someone (like me) with no children and no mortgage, it was actually the best of both worlds. I had a good work environment and a great salary. The apartment my wife and I live in is $1300 a month (considerably more than Connecticut), and it’s in the cheapest neighborhood in San Francisco that isn’t sketchy (suburban boy that I am, I consider the Tenderloin and the Mission too sketchy to live in—sorry!). My starting salary that first year was $32,500, roughly the same amount Wallingford was going to pay me. Sure, the rent prices were higher, but this seemed reasonable to me. Shockingly, the school gave me an almost 25% raise the next year, as I moved into full-time teaching (before I was a full-time employee who was part-time teaching), putting me at $42,000. Then, I got $46,000 the next year, not including a new rent subsidy program the school had instituted. Really, I was earning closer to $50,000.

The stresses of teaching made me evaluate what I “loved” doing. I don’t regret going into teaching. I learned a lot, and I think I may have even had a positive impact on a few of my students. The martyr mentality wears thin easily, though, at least for me. I need some time and energy for myself. I can’t keep grading papers. A funny thing happened once I quit teaching: I actually wanted to design curriculum. I actually wanted to think about literature. I actually thought about what grammar matters and what doesn’t. Suddenly, I realized I wanted a boring job, one that didn’t demand so much time and energy from me. Then, I could spend my time on other pursuits. Since I’ve quit teaching, I’ve written far more of these essays. I’ve been going with my wife to a drawing co-op every Saturday to draw nude models. I even picked up my guitar again and strummed a few chords.

It isn’t all rosy in career-land, though. Sure, I love my new job, but the most they could spare me was $34,000, just a little more than my starting salary at my old school. There are no rental subsidies, no 10-25% annual raises, no free lunches (yes, my old job gave us free lunch every day). My wife took a lot of convincing—since we’d both gotten used to a cushy lifestyle where we could eat out a lot, buy luxury items, and save money—but she eventually realized how much happier I am now.

I realized an important thing. Making a lot of money (now, some people wouldn’t consider $50,000 a lot of money, but it was for me, especially as a teacher) has its down sides. It limits your options. Once you get used to a certain lifestyle, you raise your rent, you make your bills larger, you have little flexibility as far as new jobs go. They should pay either roughly the same amount or more. I just took about a $12,000 pay cut, and it’s been rough, but we’ve managed, and we’re happier for it. It was tough, though. It will not be as tough now, though, if I later on get a higher-paying job.

In the bigger picture of things, too, I realize how lucky I am. Sure, there are the odd exceptions, but of my friends who are around my age, it seems that most people either have dead-boring jobs that pay next to nothing or extremely stressful jobs that pay a lot but that are so stressful the person doesn’t even have time to spend the money (no kidding).

I’m lucky enough now that I have a job that pays decently (not impressively, not terribly), gives me a few challenges, but also allows me time and energy leftover for me. I don’t know how we’ll ever afford to buy a house or apartment, but I’ve found a good balance between stress and boredom, fulfillment and money.