A few brief thoughts on the New York Times-Sulzberger-Abramson affair.
- It’s awfully difficult to feel badly for income discrepancies where people are making hundreds upon hundreds of thousands of dollars. Beyond a certain income level, which I would set at significantly less than $100,000 per year, it’s all just surplus value; its only purpose—if that word applies—is luxury purchasing for purposes of status signaling. This is not to say that women executives should be paid less than their immediate male counterparts; rather, no one should be paid so much money to be a general manager.
- In any case, the focus on corporate income inequality between men and women is a classic example of mistaking a symptom for a syndrome. Women are not paid less than men—whether in the executive office or at the greeters line in WalMart—because late capitalism is malfunctioning, but rather because that is a function of capitalism. Yes, women’s inequality long predates the modern economy, but the systems of capitalism incorporate preexisting forms of social and material inequality to their own end. A great deal of time and attention and political will is about to be frittered away “addressing the growing concern” over income inequality in the nation’s corporate media. Meanwhile, the question of what it means to have the nation’s singular newspaper a publicly traded corporate entity and the nation’s media in general an elite enterprise accessible as an occupation almost solely to those whose families have the previously acquired resources to support their effectively unpaid labor for as much as a decade will go largely unasked and entirely unanswered.
- In other words, yes, it is a problem in a narrowly defined sense that a woman reporter for the Times is making eighty grand a year while her male colleague is making ninety-five, or what have you, but it is a problem in a much broader sense that she went to Bryn Mawr and he went to Brown and both of their New York rents were floated by their parents for 4-5 post-undergraduate years of internships and sub-$30K reporting gigs; that these two employees consider this a natural state of affairs; that their employer considers it so (obviously) as well. These are the people who report on “income inequality.” In a very circumscribed sense, they experienced and performed low-income labor—for them, a rite of passage, a way station.
- Here is where the difference between the C-level and the checkout lane start to look a little more important. Let’s go back to that certain level of income. For all practical purposes, the difference between $400K and $500K—this is roughly the range we’re talking about for these Times editors—is meaningless. There is nothing of actual value that these people can’t buy; they can buy anything they reasonably want or need many times over. The idea that the arithmetical equality of dollars-per-annum for a bunch of rich people is a measure of anything beyond mere counting is the fundamental error here. What is at stake is a status claim.
- Meanwhile, a representative sentence from The New York Times:
Republicans contended [that Seattle’s attempt to raise the minimum wage to $15/hour] would be a job-killer, while Democrats asserted it would help alleviate poverty. Economists said both might be right.
- Wait, that isn’t fair! The Times has strongly editorialized in favor of raising the minimum wage!
- Well, sure, but then again, a few months later.
- Stop looking at the stories and start looking at the coverage. The narrative it builds is of a fraught and deeply technical political and economic question being argued passionately at the highest levels of government, in academia, and in the media—a debate mediated by and, in a perverse sense, for people who are making hundreds of thousands of dollars—the sort of people for whom there is something called “the economy.” “Both might be right”!
- These are the sorts of ersatz and imponderable conversations that capitalism, personified by its functionaries, likes to have both with and about itself. Have you recently used the phrase “rising inequality.” Ding-ding-ding! You listen with some anguish to NPR pieces on the “growing gap between the rich and the poor.” You, like the Times, recognize that it’s impossible to live on the minimum wage alone, and that even $15/hour condemns a wage-earner to a life of struggle and fretting over the bills. But isn’t it true that mandated upward pressure on the low end of wages will force businesses to slow hiring? The unemployment rate is so high! We need more jobs! No, we need good jobs! Oh, woe, what is a “the economy” to do?
- Pause. Here’s a question that you rarely hear anyone ask. What is money? I’ve always been very fond of the late author Iain M. Banks formulation in his first science fiction novel. Money is a “crude, over-complicated and inefficient form of rationing.”
- Rationing! You mean, like communism?
- Yes, Virginia.
- Stay with me. In 2010, women comprised 47 percent of the total US Labor Force. Now, estimates differ, as the Times might say, but broadly speaking, women are assumed to make somewhere between 75-85% of what men make in, as the Times might say, broadly comparable positions.
- Okay, I want you to imagine the Times, or any similar publication, publishing an editorial that says women should not make as much as men for the same work because of the fundamental damage that “some Republicans” or “some economists” say that “equal pay” would do to our old friend, the economy.
- Because, after all, the cost of bringing the compensation of all women in the workforce into wage/salary parity with men would far exceed that of increasing the minimum wage—even dramatically—for the just several million people who earn it. So why, then, is the one a debate and the other a moral imperative?
- I’m glad you asked! Capitalism is a system of surpluses, and it allocates them upward. It gives more rations to people who already have a pile. Should women make as much as men, blacks as much as whites? Yes. But these debates are moral proxies for debates that we are not having, at least, not in the pages of the Times. The answer to the question of whether a woman line worker should make as much as the guy next to her is yes. The answer to the question of whether Jill Abramson should have made as much as Bill Keller is smash the system of state capital and reallocate the surpluses in the form of lifetime guaranteed housing, clothing, food, and study for everyone. I am not being crass here. There is, quite literally, plenty to go around.
- Yeah, well, how does this affect Hillary’s chances in 2016?
- There is, of course, a corollary debate. This debate has to do with the question of why it is that women in leadership roles are pushy and opinionated while men are strong and decisive, or, well, you pick the opposing pairs of adjectives—why, in short, is the behavior of women judged on measures of temperament, and men’s on measures of will? It strikes me that the actual question being asked here is: why, upon achieving a position of dominance, aren’t women as free to act like monstrous dickheads as men? The management behaviors ascribed to both Abramson and her predecessors are the worst kind of B-school blowhard psychopathy: management based on fear; power maintained by its own inconsistent application. These sorts of hard-driven, hard-driving, chair-tossing, dressing-down applications of personal power within a rigid hierarchy of authority are, like that big ol’ salary, a kind of surplus; an excess; an overage. So the question can’t be: how do we permit a few more women to behave like the lunatic men who’ve been running the show all these years, but how do we prohibit or prevent anyone from acting this way? And here, too, the answer is a more fundamental sort of levelling, because the other option, which is the false promise of our society, which is the belief that it is the duty of each person to scramble madly from the broad base toward the unattainable height, is a Sisyphean punishment where we all—well, most of us—under the weight of our own bodies are forever sent tumbling down the sides of the same brutal slope.