What do you earn?

Helen Kelly linked to an advice column in the Herald which suggests that while it’s perfectly okay to ask people how much they paid for their house, it’s a no-no to ask about their income.

It’s a great collision between two myths which reinforce a lot of terrible ideas we’re told about people, and value, and solidarity.

Of course you can ask people – with proper etiquette – what they paid for their house. House-buyingness is next to godliness. Buy a house young and you’re an entrepreneur. Own multiple properties and preach the virtues of “treat ’em mean, keep ’em keen” and you get headlines. There’s no shame in owning one house, five houses, or making millions of dollars literally being subsidized by a state which won’t provide decent housing for people in need.

But there’s plenty of shame in asking people what they earn. That’s private information, after all, and you’re an individual standing on your own two feet and by god, if other people (who aren’t as good and productive as you) find out what you get, they’ll try to steal it!

Or as advice columnist Lee Suckling put it:

Asking somebody about his or her salary is far less permissible. This is purely because it’s none of your business.

The only people that need to know how much you earn are your boss and your spouse.

It’s the gospel of self-interest. You’re an individual. You’re think as an individual. You function as a good little rational economic unit working purely for its own gain.

One of the terrible aspects of our current system is how it unnaturally pits us against each other. You certainly shouldn’t look at the other people working around you and think “we’re in this together. We’re in the same situation! We should be treated fairly and given the same pay for doing the same work.” They’re not comrades. They’re competition!

We’re meant to take it on faith that each of us – the “you” who has to protect your good deal from the avarice of your fellow labourers – is getting the best deal. And we’re meant to see this as a good thing, because the boss wants us to sit at his table in the cafeteria, not them.

We’re meant to trust that the boss is properly sharing his or her profits with the people who created them. Unfortunately, a lot of them aren’t.

That’s what a lot of people working at Google discovered when Erica Baker created a shared spreadsheet of the salaries of people working at the company. Surprise surprise – they found people weren’t being paid equally for their work. And apparently managers at Google didn’t like this. Erica Baker isn’t working there any more.

The defensiveness is kind of understandable, but also shows the benefits of transparency for everyone involved. We know about unconscious bias. Most people don’t twirl their moustaches and announce “I’m going to pay women less because I hate them”. They don’t realise they’re doing it until it’s all laid out in front of them. And if they think of themselves as good people who aren’t sexist or racist, etc, it can be a shock to discover you were being sexist or racist, etc, in practice.

(In the same way, I doubt Lee Suckling sat down at his keyboard and thought “Haha! How can I reinforce a cult of individual self-interest today? Muahahahaha!”)

A final point: if you’re in a unionised workplace with a collective agreement – and I acknowledge they’re the minority – you do see what your coworkers are earning. You know that the same job is paid at the same rate, or that everyone in your team sits in the same pay band. It doesn’t ruin morale.

What do we see when the people in a workplace or industry are in the union? Higher wages, better conditions, and fairer pay for men and women.

the incredibles coincidence

So I’m sorry, but I’m going to keep on being impolite. Because “politeness” is capitalism’s way of tricking us into not comparing notes and realising just how much we’re all getting exploited.

Alternative numbers

In my post yesterday I said:

… there’s something obscene about the way the economic story gets framed: the figures on a page, the points on an index, the number of dollars someone can swap for a number of different-coloured dollars.

Let me revise that a little.

Numbers can be incredibly useful for telling a story. For example, in the article I linked to in that post, there are these numbers about the size of Housing New Zealand’s “priority A” waiting list:

June 2007: 133
June 2008: 248
June 2009: 261
June 2010: 368
June 2011: 402
June 2012: 425
June 2013: 1290
June 2014: 3188

There are these numbers from FIRST Union about the $4.14 million package paid to ANZ’s CEO:

“That’s $80,000 a week – more than most bank workers earn in a year.”

And it can be a problem when we just don’t have the numbers:

[Child Poverty Action Group] spokesperson Donna Wynd says, “The lack of data means the public has little idea of whether the government’s “relentless focus on work” is actually improving outcomes for children, or protecting vulnerable children – something the government claims is a goal of welfare reform.  Living on a greatly reduced income, with benefits cut by half, has major consequences for children so it’s critical to know the number of children affected by sanctions and for how long.   The public deserves to know the impact of pouring millions of dollars into reforming social assistance.”

The problem is this: to most people – even university-educated people like me – the kinds of numbers we usually hear about are completely opaque. We’re expected to take it for granted that if mean quarterly household incomes have risen, it means people are doing better. Or if the performance of manufacturing index grows for three consecutive months, it means people are doing better.

People are not doing better in New Zealand. Even people like me, who don’t have a lot to fear from three more years of a National government, do not prosper when society grows more unequal, when financial poverty forces people to live in cars, when preventable diseases are rampant, when businesses move their work overseas because of a lack of infrastructure and jobs training, when desperate people tune out of society and turn to addiction or crime.

Numbers can be a guide. They can be useful – even necessary – to figure out what’s working or where more work is needed. But unless they are related to the real lives of people, we should stop giving them weight. Because people are more important than numbers.

Numbers are meaningless when families are living in cars

Housing affordability was an issue in the election – but the discussion was derailed by arguments about the intricacies of capital gains tax and exactly how many hundreds of thousands of dollars constitutes “affordable” house prices.

This is the real story, which is now getting some post-election coverage in the Herald.

Salvation Army Manukau community ministries director Pam Hughes said some families were now paying more than 70 per cent of their incomes on rent, but could not keep up payments and came to her service in crisis.

“We are seeing an increase in families in vehicles. Families in cars have been increasing over the last three or four months, simply because there isn’t enough affordable accommodation for them,” she said.

The Tuuu family – mum, dad and their six children – have been living in a van for a week because they cannot find a house. …

Tamasailau Tuuu, his wife and their children, aged from 15 to 3-months-old, were doubling up with another couple and their three children in a three-bedroom house after their landlord sold their own rented home in Clendon, South Auckland, two months ago. But their friends asked them to move out.

“She was worried about her tenancy, and the neighbours were complaining about my baby crying at night, and the house was overcrowded and her kids needed their own privacy,” Mrs Tuuu explained.

That’s right – before they had to start living in their car, the eight members of the Tuuu family were sharing a three-bedroomed house with five other people.

Tamasailau Tuuu is a fulltime worker.

Meanwhile, on the Herald’s economy pages, it’s all about the numbers, and how “there’s something for everyone” in a recent Statistics NZ report on income:

A defender of the status quo can point to a 6.2 per cent rise in the average household income from all sources over the year to June 2014. A critic of the status quo can point to a rise of 1.7 per cent in median hourly earnings for wage and salary earners over the same period, or just 0.1 per cent after adjusting for inflation. The year before median hourly earnings had risen 3.5 per cent.

There is an interesting discussion to be had about the way numbers can be used (or manipulated) one way or another depending on the argument you’re pushing. In the run-up to the election, National were trotting out numbers all over the place – more tertiary students than ever before (don’t mention population growth)! Wages the highest they’ve ever been (ignore inflation)!

But there’s something obscene about the way the economic story gets framed: the figures on a page, the points on an index, the number of dollars someone can swap for a number of different-coloured dollars.

I’m sure the following statement will raise sneers; the right love to paint the left as silly ingenues who don’t understand big, serious economics. But I cannot comprehend a worldview which says “all is well, for the numbers tell us so” while families are living in cars, workers are losing their jobs, and children are dying from preventable diseases.

More and more people I know – comparatively well-off people – have being speaking out post-election about setting up automatic payments to charity organisations, or emailing journalists who write stories like the one above to offer direct assistance to the people whose plight makes it into the media. It’s a compassionate response. It does some real good. But it’s also a sign that we have fundamentally failed as a society.

Private charity isn’t even an ambulance at the bottom of a cliff. It’s a bandaid over a gaping wound. It can’t even begin to cover the damage caused by the decades-long erosion of our social welfare system. It does nothing to prevent that damage from happening in the first place. The only thing that does is a strong social welfare system, which treats people in need with dignity and respect, instead of suspicion, and is motivated by real success – not the numbers of people the Minister can claim “have moved off benefits”.

When we only talk about economic numbers and measure our success in percentage points and turnover, we erase people. And when we can’t even make sure every person has a home and can feed their kids, those numbers are meaningless, and continuing to use them is a crime.