“Do Smart, Hard-Working People Deserve to Make More Money?



Will writes from Washington, D.C. (well, Arlington, Virginia). You can reach him at willblogcorrespondence at gmail dot com.

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27 Responses

  1. Avatar Trumwill says:

    He lost me when he said that hard work should not be rewarded. While there’s a good argument to be made that intelligence is sufficiently external that the divide between “smart workers” and “hard workers” is unfair, I start getting a lot queasier when we start talking about work effort.

    Maybe Kwek is right and not everybody can decide to just start working hard. But anybody can decide to be lazy. There are enough people that need the right motivations in place that it would simply be disastrous not to reward hard work over laziness.Report

  2. Avatar Scott says:

    The answer is join a union so you can be lazy and be well paid.Report

  3. Avatar Ian M. says:

    Scott – really? My parents came home exhausted every night from union jobs. I would be very interested in the well paid low effort union jobs you’re describing. Do you have a particular incident or field in mind, or is this some off the shelf trope purchased at wholesale from the conservative boogeyman store?Report

    • Avatar Scott in reply to Ian M. says:

      It is what my my wife experienced first hand having to deal with with some unions in her job as a convention planner.Report

      • Avatar Ian M. in reply to Scott says:

        Yeah, conventions are a great well of anti-union stories where professional electricians wait around for people to tell them what to plug in a where. But I would challenge you to find a lazy assembly line worker in an auto plant. On the other hand, I’ve generally seen managers work to outsource responsibilities and creatively interpret their job descriptions to include drinking with other managers, traveling to interesting cities, etc… From my point of view, management is a much quicker road to well compensated indolence.Report

        • Avatar Mark in reply to Ian M. says:

          I dated this girl whose uncle got her a summer job when she was 19 at a bumper factory that contracted to GM. Her previous place of summer employment was Jamba Juice. She made $24,000 working the swing shift for 12 weeks, and she got two weeks off in the middle of the summer, an annual plant shutdown negotiated by the workers.

          And what did she say about the job? “Everybody I work with hates the union.”

          Some people just can’t deal when the bosses are making 49% gross margins instead of 50%.

          As for management, my forays into it have resulted in me being over-worked and poorly-compensated. But that’s because I work for a startup. Middle management in a big company is the key to doing nothing and being well-paid…Until you finally get laid off and can’t find another job.Report

  4. Avatar Jaybird says:

    There are a lot of ways to look at “luck”.

    When I worked at (Huge Multinational Company), I was in the IT department. I got one of my friends a job there as well. My friend is somewhat of a pessimist in outlook. I am somewhat of an optimist in outlook. (This was in the mid-to-late 90’s and before everything was outsourced)

    We had a million different departments. Event Detection and Notification. Tools Support. Operating System Support. Oracle and Webserver Support. Core Operating System Support.

    We were both on Tools at the same time. This is where the story begins.

    I busted my hump. I was the best guy on tools there. I knew how to do any and everything related to this, that, and the other tool. My buddy was good too. I got kicked to the Unix support team and so did he. He immediately started complaining. “This is a dead end job,” he said. “They never promote anybody.” I busted my hump. I became the best guy on Unix support there. When a server went down, I brought it up within 20 minutes or you knew why I couldn’t within 15. I reached the point where I could read tombstones manually and, when I had to call in a ticket, I could say “look at CPU #3” or “check out the memory” before the poor shlub on the other end of the line fed the file to the program. My buddy complained. “This is a dead end job. Nobody ever gets promoted.”

    I got promoted to Oracle and Web support. He asked to be transferred to Windows support. It was a lateral move for him. He pointed out that his new job was also a dead end job. Nobody ever gets promoted. I busted my hump. They asked for volunteers to work the Thursday-Monday shift. I took it. I became the guy who knew how to do any/everything in Oracle/Web support.

    My buddy was still in windows support. They had begun outsourcing the tier I and tier II support groups to Singapore by this point. He was being laid off. I got promoted to Unix Core Support. I busted my hump.

    A year later, a guy at another company said that he was expanding his team and he needed a guy with a lot of all-around experience with applications, databases, operating systems… but, mostly, he needed an optimistic guy who was willing to put up with chaos. His wife remembered me and suggested that I apply. I applied. I got the job at a real company as a real employee.

    My friend has a support job at another company. He complains. He calls it a dead end job where nobody ever gets promoted.

    He calls me “lucky”.Report

    • Avatar Ian M. in reply to Jaybird says:

      Kwak’s point is that luck starts before you are born – genetics. Then continues to other things you cannot control like upbringing, schooling, etc… Your initial endowments are a matter of luck. Your buddy through whatever circumstances (bad parenting, unhappy relationships, particular neurochemistry) sounds like a bummer. You sound like a go getter. Kwak’s point is that neither one of you made a full informed tabula rasa decision to be that way. You are lucky to be the way you are, you should be happy about that. The point is that you shouldn’t be crapping on your former coworker.Report

      • Avatar Jaybird in reply to Ian M. says:

        I was crapping on him?

        Anyway, let’s say that I was. If I said that I can’t help but crap on him, is there a response to that? Lucky people can’t help but take advantage of the fact that they’re lucky?Report

        • Avatar sidereal in reply to Jaybird says:

          I think the point is that ‘crapping on’ is not ‘taking advantage’. My sense is that Kwak’s main theme is that you can derive the benefits of (genetic and environmental) luck without misconstruing fortune as virtue. Or as whoever wrote the Good Book wrote: “When pride comes, then comes disgrace, but with humility comes wisdom.”Report

          • Avatar Jaybird in reply to sidereal says:

            Ecclesiastes was right.

            That said, it is possible to mitigate stuff. Will it work 100% of the time? Of course not. I have plenty of friends who bust their humps but have crappy stuff happen to them. I have plenty of acquaintances who… let’s find a non-judgmental term… they “coast”. They do well for themselves despite this.

            Of course that’s true.

            That said: I know a lot more people who got to where they were by busting their humps (perhaps before they started coasting) than I do people who got to where they were by coasting.

            Working hard, having a good attitude, taking your vitamins, etc will not guarantee success. But, if you’re a betting man, you’re more likely to win money by betting that way than against.Report

            • Avatar sidereal in reply to Jaybird says:

              Yes, let’s call it 55%. Unfortunately, nobody likes fractions and partisans will continue to rise up and gun down strawmen with arguments like ‘Yes, it’s not ALL fortune. Effort matters!’ and ‘But it’s not ALL effort. Luck is a big part!’ And everyone gets to feel great about themselves.Report

  5. Avatar Ian M. says:

    Sorry the phrase from the article was “look down our nose” which I think you were doing. If you cannot help but crap on him, I would agree that personal individual freedom of action is a myth and you like everyone else is trapped in a cage of your intellectual upbringing. I’m surprised you don’t think people are free actors, I got the sense you were a libertarian of some stripe.Report

    • Avatar Jaybird in reply to Ian M. says:

      I do think that people are free actors… but I also don’t see the difference between my buddy and me as one of “luck”, necessarily.

      I see “luck” as a learnable skill or, more accurately, as a suite of skills. The suite includes: working hard, optimism, willingness to learn, sense of humor, ability to put up with chaos, etc.

      Now if you want to say that people can’t help not being inclined to want to work hard, they can’t help their outlook, willingness to learn, sense of humor, ability to deal with chaos, etc… I’d be down with that, I suppose. But, at that point, aren’t you the one who doesn’t believe that people are moral actors?

      What would you say to the counter-argument that I cannot help but be the way I am?

      Or is it one of those things where some people are more of moral actors than others? (This is an interesting argument but can lead to ugly places…)Report

      • Avatar Ian M. in reply to Jaybird says:

        I did reply to the counter argument that you cannot help but be the way you are. You are not free and are controlled by your upbringing, genetics, etc… It seems to be working out for you. There’s an old saw that luck favors the well prepared and I agree – you can take any situation and maximize your chance of it working for you. But the key word is chance.
        The idea of the rugged individual, “man in a state of nature” or fully autonomous decision making is simply absurd and unworthy of deep thought. You could no more choose to become a socialist than I could choose to flap my arms and fly to the moon.
        By the way, I did not say that people were not moral actors, I said they were not free actors. Of course people are moral actors in the tiny constrained diorama of their life.Report

        • Avatar Jaybird in reply to Ian M. says:

          I don’t understand how someone who is not free to choose even something as tiny as his or her inclinations could possibly be called a moral actor.Report

          • Avatar Ian M. in reply to Jaybird says:

            I have said they are moral actors in a “tiny constrained diorama”. There is constrained choice, not free choice. Perhaps you can exercise free will and read the posts – this is twice in the same thread you’ve tried to subtly twist what I’ve written. This habit of mild dishonesty makes your initial post about luck highly suspect.Report

            • Avatar Jaybird in reply to Ian M. says:

              I have, elsewhere, defined choice as the ability to choose between X and Y.

              If I don’t have control over even my inclinations, I don’t see how the choice between X and Y in possible for any trivial difference in values between X and Y.

              The dilemma of “you can do whatever you want but you can’t want whatever you want” results fundamentally in a situation without even “free choice” within a tiny constrained diorama.

              And I still don’t understand how it doesn’t.

              Perhaps another accusation of bad faith would help me understand.Report

              • Avatar Ian M. in reply to Jaybird says:

                An inclination is a tendency or bent of mind – the definition of the word precludes you from being in control. If you are making a pun on the definition of inclination as the angle something is at, then you have a great deal of control.

                I prefer to think that you are not closely reading (first accusation) or are trying to twist my words (second accusation) than to say you are incapable of understanding.

                I have many inclinations – a fondness of socialism being one of them; however, I occasionally reverse this inclination by admiring a thinker such as Adam Smith. I also have an inclination towards joking and humor, but can be serious if the situation calls for it. These are aspects of myself that came about mostly because of my family.
                Perhaps the best way to get this across is your definition of choice – “to choose between X and Y.” I would agree this is a choice, but there is usually A through Z and people only really consider an X and a Y because of their inclinations which they have accumulated by living.Report

              • Avatar Jaybird in reply to Ian M. says:

                I’m not going to tell you how to live, of course. But, quite honestly, I don’t understand the distinction between “free action” and “moral agency” and I don’t see how someone who is capable of free action within even a limited diorama would not have the option of pushing the limits of his or her sphere of influence within said diorama to the point of making more options available.

                If people don’t have free will, this is all moot.

                If they do, it’s like a muscle. Exercising it will make it stronger. Perhaps even to the point where, hey, the diorama is manipulable. It just takes, among other things, hard work. And luck, I suppose.

                (I actually wrote an essay about this a while back… http://www.ordinary-gentlemen.com/2009/07/the-vector-a-post-theist-moral-framework/ (yes, I *AM* shameless))Report

  6. Avatar sidereal says:

    Kwak focuses too much on the inputs to ability, not the implications. In a competitive market with reasonable property law, success (if you want to define success as wealth) comes from satisfying the desires of others through mutually beneficial exchanges. It may be that a person’s original resources (either capital or labor) were not earned or were unjustly apportioned by luck. But none of that changes the fact that that person now has an increased capacity to satisfy the desires of others and is rewarded for doing so.

    I might (and do) believe that the homeless guy at the shelter downtown who was born into poverty and suffered bad luck throughout his life and even inherited a compromised genetic legacy is still just as human and just as deserving of basic decency as Bill Gates, but none of that changes the fact that Gates has orders of magnitude more capacity to satisfy the desires of other people, and is rewarded for it.

    Which is why I’m a proponent of a mixed economy and find principled absolutists bizarre. A full throated libertarian would tell you that the homeless guy, due to his lack of any capacity to make any exchanges, should just crawl in a ditch and die. A full throated socialist would tell you that even though Gates has the capacity to satisfy an enormous amount of desire he should be prevented from doing so (or should be encouraged or forced to do so without compensation).

    They’re both nuts.Report

  7. Avatar Sam M says:

    I think the question is, what are the alternatives. Right now, the system incentivizes people to take advantage of their luck. To work hard. Etc. If we were to eliminate that system, why would anybody, even people predisposed to work hard, work hard? You would be foolish to. So should a system take advantage of the environment’s most productive aspects, or ignore them in the name of equality? Does this make anybody better off?

    “But I would challenge you to find a lazy assembly line worker in an auto plant. ”

    I have worked in production plants. Not UAW, but further down the line, in the parts plants. Heavily union. Tons of lazy folks. I am not sure the percentage is higher than in non-union plants. But I see no reason to assume it’s lower. The classic example is the NUMMI plant in Fremont, CA. It was a GM plant until Toyota took over in the 80s. At the time, the workers constantly went out on wildcat strikes, filed grievance after grievance, and posted an astounding 20 percent absentee rate.

    Toyota turned it around. But still sought to build non0union plants moving forward. And did so. Did the non-union workers make as much as the union guys? No. But I think they make a pretty good living.Report

    • Avatar Ian M. in reply to Sam M says:

      “At the time, the workers constantly went out on wildcat strikes, filed grievance after grievance, and posted an astounding 20 percent absentee rate.”
      It takes an enormous amount of industry and independence to go on a wildcat strike (which is NOT union sanctioned). Filing grievances also takes energy and time. You are describing aggressive advocates for individual self interest which most conservatives would admire. It didn’t line up with the interests of the employer, but two sides negotiate a union contract. The the 80s Reagan had destroyed PATCO and unions were on watch – cause to much trouble and the government will disband you. You would think conservatives would be outraged, but docile workers who get paid less sounds just great to many conservatives regardless if intervention from the federal government was the cause.
      Assembly lines move at a more or less set pace (with stoppages when things go wrong) and people stand there and work. There is much less time for slackness and (ahem) blog commenting.Report

    • Avatar Jaybird in reply to Sam M says:

      This is a good point.

      We have been blessed with a number of nephews (and “nephews”) and we do stuff like buy them books and give them advice like “study and work hard”.

      We do not tell them to read Ecclesiastes.

      For the most part, this is because our nephews are bright, vibrant, and under 10 years old.

      Now… if one of them were 27, divorced twice, kinda stupid, and wondering why everything happens to him… well, I would probably be tempted to give him Ecclesiastes and tell him that life is exceptionally capricious.

      At this point, however, I’m still telling them that they need to work hard, study, be Little Red Hens and Ants rather than geese or grasshoppers.Report

  8. Avatar Katherine says:

    Better question: Do smart, hard-working people make more money? Answer: No. CEOs who run their companies into the grounds and give themselves million-dollar office renos make more money. There are hard-working people with three part-time jobs who just manage to scrape by.Report

    • Avatar JosephFM in reply to Katherine says:

      Well, some do. Not the most money, maybe, but my family is proof that its not impossible. And my girlfriend’s family is proof that it’s far from inevitable, especially when your choices are restricted by both culture baggage (e.g. internalized sexism) and political persecution. Which is an argument increasing incentives for people to take advantage of their situation, not restricting it.

      But a lot of it depends on being in the right place at the right time. Obviously within the same strata, as in Jay’s anecdote relating to himself and his coworker, one has choices that can indeed have a major impact.
      And of course, what counts as “hard work” or – even moreso – valuable work is very subjective.Report