Wednesday, November 25, 2009

Thanksgiving is the perfect time to reduce the minimum wage. Wait, why are you laughing?

Sean, who ReadsTheNews, draws a holiday lesson from this Forbes article about programmers who give away their software for free because they're in it for sheer love of the pixels. Sean:
The result is an off-beat story about interesting people doing important work. I love stories that show there is no one right way to live your life. As we get ready for Thanksgiving it's important to give thanks for an economy that both produces and supports people's infinitely varied creative urges, even in this case when that support is non-traditional.
Which reminds me, somewhat tangentially, of this paragraph from Edward Banfield's "The Zoning of Enterprise." The essay explains why putting a state-of-the-art IBM factory in the middle of 1960s Bed-Stuy ended up doing very little to help the residents of that distressed area, the reason being that IBM didn't offer the kind of workplace they wanted. What kind did they want? Banfield explains:
The kind of firm that could succeed in a place like Bedford-Stuyvesant . . . is in almost all respects the opposite of IBM. Such a firm pays low wages (below the minimum when possible), offers no job security (like the workers it employs, it is here today and gone tomorrow), its rest rooms are dirty, its foremen are rough, it does not trouble itself about the health and safety of its workers (they can take their chances or get out), and it does not ask them to learn skills, take responsibility, or contribute to factory morale (its investment is a short-term one). This is the only kind of firm that can profitably hire the lower-class worker. It is also the only kind of firm that the typical unemployed male will work for. If he comes to work one day and not the next, nobody cares. If he comes late and half-drunk, nobody cares (although he may be told to stay away until he is sober). Firms of this sort were once common in the cities. They were driven out by laws and ordinances intended to improve working conditions (or, if one prefers, to eliminate "unfair" competition with firms operation more nearly in the IBM manner).
Let's leave aside for the moment whether Banfield's picture of the Bed-Stuy work ethic is fair or not. It doesn't matter that much anyway. His description may not have applied to everyone in that troubled neighborhood, but it certainly applied to the ones IBM was trying to help: the chronically unemployed, the ones whose joblessness created all the social problems that kept the Ford Foundation up at night.

So what's wrong with Banfield's picture of old-fashioned factory life? It had its dangers, but weren't they just the price of working for an employer who didn't care if his workers showed up drunk once in a while? We've all called in "sick" when we just didn't feel like going to work, and our employers (who, let's not kid ourselves, always knew) held it against us not so much because our labor that day would have made any vital difference but because that's not the kind of attitude they want to encourage in their employees. But what if our employers didn't give a damn, so long as we showed up nine times out of ten?

In other words, what is being able to drink on the job worth to you?

Everyone accepts that work isn't the most important thing in life, but a culture that took that platitude seriously would allow for the kind of firm Banfield describes. No one knows which trade-offs between long-term career advancement and short-term happiness are worth it; best to let everyone do the math for himself.

Or, as Graydon Carter said to Eric "Drinky Crow" Kaplan when Kaplan told him he could make more money as a typist than SPY was offering him as a staff writer: "Yes, and you can make $15 an hour digging graves." You better believe SPY writers drank on the clock.

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