NextBurgh, PA          @VannevarB      About      Pittsburgh Murals
June 17, 2010

So, You Should Make Less, They Say

I'm seeing an anti-salary bias among people who should know better.
       PAT bus finances screwed up? Bad, overpaid bus drivers.
       School district facing a pinch? Bad, overpaid teachers.
       Lose 9, 12 games in a row? Bad, overpaid players oops

At one time it was just Jack Kelly, but now it's spreading. I'm reading a lot of comments like this: Somebody with a GED makes more than me, and I have a master's degree? That is just wrong.

Taking up the last, first: if you spent $120K on a BS/BA and can only find a job that pays $25K, or you only choose to take a job that pays $25K, or you can only get a job that pays $25K - you really didn't make a wise decision, did you? So stop telling people about it.

Does the economy owe you a certain income because you have a degree? That's a spirit of entitlement that seems directly opposed to the fiscal austerity these skinflint pity-me-MFA's seem to espouse when it comes to others.

Let's apply the Categorical Imperative. Would it be all right if everybody pursued the "I deserve xyz income level because I spent four six years in college" benefit? Do we owe our veterans who spend four six years in Afghanistan and Iraq a certain income? If we don't justify it for four years in Iraq, it's certainly not justified by four years at Podunk State.

Economic Schadenfreude

To revert to the first (and larger) issue: the desire to see other people make less is nothing but than the internalization of the Corporate desire to keep salaries low. Capital learned a lesson when they started paying Labor for their time: when you pay people more, at a certain point they'll find an equilibrium at which they're willing to curtail their efforts because they've earned enough. To prevent this employee empowerment, and to ensure a steady supply of dependent laborers, Capital will always seek to suppress wages.

I understand why Capital (and later, the Corporation) seeks to suppress wages; it's in their rational self-interest. What I don't understand is the desire among Citizens to see other people make less.

The middle class has seen an unprecedented reduction of their buying power since the 70's; that's (part of) why two parents now work to procure the livelihood that one parent used to generate. Largely because of the loss of manufacturing, the erosion of union power, and the WalMarting of America, real incomes have been continually reduced. There's a word for it: Deflation, which can lead to Depression, which can lead to Collapse.

Some segments of the labor force have managed to hold onto good salaries and good working conditions. Generally, they're established, unionized, blue collar, and they're often public employees. They "elite manqué" who've invested in certain success only to see their dreams dashed by the Corporate abandonment of the old Social Contract are presented with a discontinuity: that bus driver is making more than me, and I've got a Master's Degree. Something must have gone wrong here. Can't be me. Must be them!

Cognitive Dissonance is a funny thing. (It's a great blog, too.) When presented with the evidence, nobody races to say "gee, maybe I didn't make a smart decision when I spent $75K pursuing an advanced degree in Aramaic n'at"; instead, people race to find fault with those who are succeeding. "Gee, those rat bastard bus drivers, they have a union, they've banded together and they're screwing the whole city! And last year, one of them was rude to my cousin Effie's classmate's Aunt!"

And yet, these people consider themselves educated.

As our society becomes more complex and increasingly interdependent, there really aren't too many "unimportant" jobs.
       The plumber who keeps the sewage out of my bathtub? Priceless.
       The tech who fixes the MRI that scans the shadow in my chest? Priceless.
       The clerk who handles my direct deposit? Priceless.
       A bus driver who fights Pittsburgh traffic and deals with The Public? Priceless.
       The teacher who educates my children? Priceless.

I want more people to make more money, not less. It's okay if they make more than I do. What would happen if they made more, if they all made more? They'd have more to spend. They'd buy more. They'd be less stressed. They'd go fishing more often. They'd make economic decisions beyond survival. They'd have better lives. The stress and pressure would shift to the employers and management. That's all good.

Where would the more come from? It is a zero-sum world; it's all, who eats whose lunch? Let's shift the wealth from the Corporations, who would be considering pathological if they were really people, to Labor.

Less you think I'm naive or too theoretical, let me acknowledge that all power bases result in some abuse. Should all PAT driver overtime go to the most senior drivers, and then should it count in the retirement calculation? No. Should teachers have no accountability for the performance of their students? No. How did these abuses happen?

Who set up these situations? The "managers" who bargained with the union, who said "I need this from you, I'll give you this in return". And now that everybody isn't getting the same amount of ice cream, some people want to renounce the deal. Who picked the people who bargained? You did, Mr. Voter. Quick question: who was the last person that you elected as Mayor of Pittsburgh? Yeah, I thought so.

It's not the teachers, bus drivers, or the ballplayers. It's the school board, the Port Authority CEO, and the Management. (edit)

If working people get mad at each other and bicker and snipe at those who make more, we're dividing ourselves, focusing on the wrong definitions, and advancing the Corporate agenda.

We need a greater common denominator, not a lowest common denominator.

(And - I'm sorry about this - but you're no John Galt, either.)


MH said...

Bargaining starts from a baseline status and proceeds as allowed by laws set in the past. Most of the pattern was set before I or the average blog reader was able to vote. And the only alternative party to the one that runs the city isn't going to help me relative to the corporations. Maybe I should move to Butler, but other than that it seems a bit rich to blame it all on Mr. Voter.

And when unions are dying in the private sector and only growing the public sector, it seems a bit off topic to mention taking money from the corporate sector. When a bus driver gets paid out of local taxes, it may or may not be a fair wage (I would want to do it), but it is in the net a transfer from poorer to richer. Based on the median local income and the regressive tax structure, it can't be anything else.

Vannevar said...

Dear MH, I always enjoy your thoughtful comments and there's always good points in them.

Do we honor our past agreements? Our contracts? Or do we take on the practice of Corporations like USAir and abandon our agreements that become inconvenient?

What is so precious about the Corporation that we would prefer enriching the Corp. to making the bus driver, the clerk, and the plumber only slightly more comfortable?

Just food for thought. I'd like to offer you the last word, and I look forward (hopefully) to reading it. With great respect, Vannevar.

Bram Reichbaum said...

I'm with MH wrt parts of your criticism seeming "off-topic". I think there's a distinction to be made that places people's gripes with some generously (lavishly?) compensated public employees outside of mere schadenfreude. Not only have these workers "banded together" to bargain collectively but they also get to endorse their bosses' bosses, and do so rather effectively, and often from a pretty narrow self-interest. I respect all forms of honest labor and like seeing other people make money, but this leads quickly to unsustainability and sub-optimal performance. That doesn't justify anger against those workers (I reacted very similarly to the passage you highlight) but it does justify anger against the insularity of a public endeavor. When you're talking about complex public institutions, we are the stockholders, we are the owners as well as the consumers, we just don't get (much) of a vote.

MH said...

Well, I agree that economic Schadenfreude isn't helping anybody in the part of society that depends on a wage to live. But there is "won't honor" past agreements and "cannot honor" them. USAir, like so many individuals and corporations, made promises that it could not keep. They hardly behaved perfectly, but there was no way they could continue to exist and honor all of their agreements, which is why we have bankruptcy laws. People do not tend to think of governments in the same way because it isn't as easy to notice in the short run, but Pittsburgh, having borrowed so much (including under-funded pensions) and lost so much population is in a similar condition. Increasing taxes will eventually drive away enough of the tax base to offset the increased tax rates. (The Port Authority is a county thing, so not in such bad shape.)

Also, divide and rule is hardly a strategy limited to corporations. Look at how they try to get taxes for transit. Instead of a general tax or a tax on those who can pay or a tax on those who use transit, they try to tax drinkers and people who drive on I-80. They are picking the low-hanging fruit and trying to tax people with the least power to object by saying, "we're only taxing them."

I guess a shorter way to put it would be, I don't trust the government much more than I trust Bank of America.

On the more specific bus issue, I agree with you and other commenters at "PGH is a City" that raising suburban fees is the best of a set of tough choices. Of course, I live in the city so I'm just saying we should cut service for somebody else. On the question of whether a bus driver is paid too much, I certainly don't have a number, but I will say that a good bus driver deserves to be well paid. I've seen too many bad ones to think it is an easy job to do right.

P.S. I don’t think you need to make this the last word, especially being as this is your blog.

illyrias said...

I think it's also crucial to mention that the Port Authority is a county authority, not a city authority. We have to blame both the county government and the city government for its current state of affairs.

Overall, you hit the nail on the head with respect to salaries. Complaining about how much bus drivers make is besides the point. As a college-educated person, I have no gripe. They're doing a job I don't want to do, and I'm getting paid appropriately for a job I want to do. There's definitely an over-emphasis on going to college in our school system which leads to a sense of entitlement and elitism for those that do go to college. But there's a very valid reason that many fear the next financial crisis will involve student loans. (

MH said...

We have to blame both the county government and the city government for its current state of affairs.

And the state government. I think you could only blame the feds in more general way (for subsidizing driving/sprawl).

Kejad said...

I think people grumble a little when we hear about factory workers with GEDs making over $60k/yr, but that's the problem of a private firm if they want to overpay for an employee. The issue with the bus drivers is that they're being payed with our f&#ing tax dollars. This isn't some idiot CEO paying too much; it's me paying too much for a guy with no special skills that could be replaced within a few weeks. They should absolutely be paid good wages, but paying them more than a teacher and letting them have pension funds before age 65 is ridiculous.

Anonymous said...

I think it's ridiculous to pay bus drivers $130,000 per year, yes, while at the same time listening to PAT claim that they are bankrupt. This is WHY college graduates aren't earning that much money, because they don't work for UNIONS and they work for BUSINESSES who don't pay people high ridiculous salaries if they don't have to. Because BUSINESSES would be BANKRUPT if they did.

It's quite simple, really.

MH said...

it's me paying too much for a guy with no special skills that could be replaced within a few weeks.

That's just not true and that the attitude is so common probably reflects poorly on the cohesiveness of society and the idea that 'skills' and 'credentials' are the same thing. I've certainly seen bus drivers who were very bad, but most of them are highly skilled and it would take more than a few weeks for somebody to do the job well. And, the six figure salaries are going to the guys who are working non-stop. That the PA will pay that much overtime is a side effect of the ridiculous benefit packages. The few guys that make $100k+ are just a factoid.

Post a Comment

Comments and Feedback? Love that stuff. Please leave your thoughts in the box below--