Economy and Humanity: The High Cost of Instant Gratification

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171 Responses

  1. greginak says:

    I read that piece this morning. Amazon sounds like a pretty terrible place to work in a lot of ways. Certainly some like but there was a real sense of cult like obsessive need to achieve. Great for Type A’s and vicious to those who aren’t. Do they really need to be that way? Well of course not, but that is their choice. Some people always need to keep proving themselves and seek places where they can hop on the Let me make you happy treadmill.

    I think the problem they have is most new tech innovations are really such small improvements. They have to sell them like they are mind blowing and likely some believe they are reinventing a wheel made of slice bread, but they are pushing out marginal gains at most. Sort of like the Apple Watch and its ilk. People may like it and all. But easily portable cells phones were a huge change from not having them. Smart phones gave us the internet all the time; that was a huge change from previous. Smart watches; nice but taps to notify you of a message or tell you which way to turn. Nice, maybe, but not revolutionary. Delivery within a hour or hours. Same deal, nice, maybe but not much more.Report

  2. Will Truman says:

    I have a lot of sympathy for a lot of Amazon workers, but it seems like a lot of the people in that article are folks that have options and choose that sort of oppressive environment for whatever reason (they like it, they want more money, whatever). That’s sort of a different thing than the people in the Amazon warehouse getting stiffed for the time spent in the security queue.Report

    • greginak in reply to Will Truman says:

      Yeah. Amazon seems to treat all its workers poorly. But the middle and upper management people could survive. They would have bounced out at some point. But the warehouse workers were far more screwed. However some of the stories about how they treated people with illnesses suggests there is a quite a bit of cruelty and nastiness involved. Also the anonymous gossip network sounds like an obvious problem designed to keep people on edge. They either have to be clueless to not see how it will be misused or content with the damage.Report

      • Saul Degraw in reply to greginak says:

        My undergrad had an anonymous gossip server on our intranet. It was a den/hive of scum and villainy. The admin at my alma mater would have loved to shut it down but couldn’t think of how to do so without being called fascist (because college students exist in a weird world of adult and non-adult.)

        But perhaps Amazon/Bezos has thought about how it will be misused and just doesn’t care?Report

        • greginak in reply to Saul Degraw says:

          The way it will be misused is so obvious i have to guess they don’t care. I would guess they believe losing a few good workers is worth the gains and the really good workers will show through despite whatever happens.Report

        • Barry in reply to Saul Degraw says:

          “But perhaps Amazon/Bezos has thought about how it will be misused and just doesn’t care?”

          They deliberately set up a ‘secret snitch'[1] program. They could quite easily terminate it.

          There’s a big difference between a university and a company.

          [1] I’ll bet that it’s not secret, to the people running it. Just like ‘the Memory Hole’ in 1984 actually preserved everything, the ID’s are there, and available to upper management.Report

    • Saul Degraw in reply to Will Truman says:


      I partially agree and partially disagree. I think it is clear that many of the white-collar Amazon workers do know they are signing up for a tough job environment that is very competitive. But I think it is possible to think “I will be expected to work 70-80 hours a week” and still be completely surprised/gobsmacked/whatever about being threatened with termination or placed on management oversight because you were diagnosed with a disease like cancer and this required a recovery time.

      There is a tough work environment and then there is absurdity. Amazon easily goes into the absurdity category.Report

      • Amazon sounds like a pretty terrible place to work. I’ve worked at a pretty terrible place once. One that is in some ways even worse than Amazon is described. I have no love for that place other than some of the great stories I can tell about it, but… eh… I feel bad for those who didn’t know what they were getting in to, but I’m not sure you can extrapolate much from outlier employers when the people who work there could – for the most part – be working somewhere else that isn’t like that.

        (I left that job after a couple months, which was a couple months short of when I figured I would leave it. It pained me a great deal when they said they were sorry to see me go and thought that I might be a lifer. I felt like they were insulting my character, but I guess they meant it as a compliment.)Report

        • And, to be clear, I’m not saying Amazon shouldn’t be criticized. I certainly criticize that employer. Rather, I think that given the givens the criticisms should be at Amazon and not capitalism, the state of labor rights, or the notion of convenience unless it can be said to be a systemic problem. But Amazon is getting this attention in part because it’s not typical.Report

  3. Kazzy says:

    Reminds me of this:

    However, I think you are wrong to say that the treatment of Amazon’s employees alleged here is a “cost” of instant gratification. Amazon likely could offer the same level of service to customers without doing what they are supposedly doing. For whatever reason, though, they opt not to. Maybe there is a link but I don’t see it being demonstrated here.

    I also wonder how you’d feel if, instead of an Elsa doll being delivered, it was groceries or medicine. What if the recipient was someone living in poverty who previously would have had to spend half a day getting to a brick-and-mortar store but now can have Amazon deliver same day. Amazon seems to be helping people achieve dignity and a quality life or whatever it is you were walking about elsewhere.Report

    • Saul Degraw in reply to Kazzy says:

      Medicine is different of course but there are emergency rooms and EMTs to call. I am not saying that we can live in a world without high-pressure jobs or situations. There are always going to be high-pressure jobs and last-minute stuff that is literally life or death. I do think we needlessly make stuff more high-pressure than it needs to be though.Report

      • Kazzy in reply to Saul Degraw says:

        But part of that is because we are extending certain qualities of life to more people. The uber wealthy could always get things same day because they’d just send out an employee of one kind or another to fetch it. But now the working class single mom whose kid is napping can get the Tylenol her daughter needs delivered instead of waking the child or having to leave the house with a sick kid in tow. Ideally we’d do that without making stuff high pressure and maybe we can.

        But the issue here isn’t same day service. It is Amazon’s management team. I mean, you don’t get more immediate gratification than Netflix. And yet they manage to seemingly run a healthy work environment. That is surely due to the very different industries they are in but there also seems to be a corporate culture at Amazon that is toxic regardless of the speed of their delivery.

        How much do you know about Amazon’s corporate culture?Report

        • greginak in reply to Kazzy says:

          I’d be really surprised if that 23 minutes delivery for rare item like an Elsa doll apparently is wasn’t pretty damn expensive. I doubt a poor working mom who needs the kids tylenol will be able to afford the mark up or if Amazon will be offering that level of service that widely.

          Grocery delivery for many disabled or elderly people could be a great thing. But will it be offered or affordable to the people who couldn’t allready afford it.Report

          • Kazzy in reply to greginak says:


            From Amazon: “Orders under $35 are just $5.99 per order for Prime members, and start at $9.98 for non-members.”

            So, it ain’t cheap but it isn’t only for the uber wealthy either.

            My real point is that we have two different phenomenon potentially going on:
            1.) Increased ability for instant gratification
            2.) Amazon having a seemingly toxic corporate culture

            #1 can yield positive, negative, or positive and negative results.
            #2 is almost surely negative.

            However, I don’t think we can connect the dots and say that #1 causes #2. And given the potential for broad benefits associated with #1, I don’t think we should be trying to root that out in the hopes it addresses #2.Report

            • greginak in reply to Kazzy says:

              Is that all they charge for delivery with an hour?

              I agree with your point. Whether amazon is a hellhole to work in doesn’t relate to peoples desire for instant gratification. Amazon didn’t invent “I WANT IT NOW.” I would hope other companies decide to compete with amazon for local delivery. It would be better for everybody.Report

              • Kazzy in reply to greginak says:

                It appears that way. I don’t know if it is more or less for larger orders (I can see reasons in both directions).

                I’ve heard of apps/services where people can ‘hire’ other people to do small jobs for them. I think TaskRabbit is a big one and I would assume a lot of that is, “Run to the store and get me milk,” or “Go pick up my dry cleaning.” That is obviously a completely different model — I think it is basically Uber but for people/errands — but obviously there is a recognition out there of an increased demand for faster service and I do think other companies will start to fill the void. Little Caesar’s has “hot and ready” pizzas that don’t require ordering or waiting. Giant/Stop-and-Shop supermarkets (for years now) have instituted self-check out and check-out-as-you-go in some stores; it isn’t always faster but by giving the customer control, they have some say over how fast it goes (or at least the perception thereof). I’ve also seen self-checkout at BJs and CVS. Obviously, many stores offer online shopping with increasingly speedy delivery or same-day pickup in stores for items in stock… I’ve seen this at Target, Gap, Walmart, and HomeDepot.

                I don’t know if any company will be as centralized as Amazon. But, yea, I think other companies will compete (and likely outcompete) Amazon in this area, especially for more essential goods and services.

                And none of this really relates to Amazon’s company culture except insofar as they can get away with it because the supply of workers (currently) outpaces the demand for work. Or because they are doing something else that makes it worthwhile to work there and these issues are either isolated or affecting only a particular class of workers. If it sucks to work at Amazon for pregnant women or people with cancer… well, that is awfully shitty and is something that should be corrected… but most employees don’t fall into either category so maybe it ain’t so bad for them.Report

              • Michael Cain in reply to Kazzy says:

                Self-check at some of the supermarkets here is popular enough that you occasionally see people waiting in line for self-check while a cashier and bagger stand idle nearby. I’ve been known to do it myself because while the cashiers are fine, the baggers are a disaster. Especially for someone like me who packs everything in one giant canvas bag.Report

              • Kazzy in reply to Michael Cain says:

                I prefer self-checkout but if there is someone waiting behind me, I feel pressured to move at light speed… Independent of anything they do.Report

              • dragonfrog in reply to Kazzy says:

                If it sucks to work at Amazon for pregnant women or people with cancer… well, that is awfully shitty and is something that should be corrected… but most employees don’t fall into either category so maybe it ain’t so bad for them.

                Most employees aren’t pregnant women or people with cancer.

                But all employees could get cancer. Many if not most female employees could get pregnant. And of course I don’t need to point out fathers also need the opportunity to have a real family life

                And if it’s a terrible place to work when you have cancer or are pregnant, how would it not be a terrible place to work if you have depression, or HIV, or anxiety, or chronic back pain, or marital difficulties, or any other issue that might affect your work and require HR to make a decision between compassion and cruelty?Report

    • Saul Degraw in reply to Kazzy says:

      FWIW I generally think that being a lawyer is a high-pressure position and should be because client matters are serious for that client and lawyers are invested with a great amount of power over the fate of their client’s cases, causes, businesses, life, etc. Law is a justly hardcore profession.Report

  4. krogerfoot says:

    I need to read that article. Just as some anecdata, I have worked as an employee trainer for Amazon Japan for about four or five years. I’ve worked at many companies in that capacity, and there is really no comparison to any other company I’ve worked with: Amazon’s employees seem by far to be the happiest and most engaged in their jobs. Either Amazon Japan’s culture is fundamentally different from Amazon in the U.S., or it’s paradisiacal compared to other Japanese companies.Report

    • Kazzy in reply to krogerfoot says:

      “However, more than 100 current and former Amazonians — members of the leadership team, human resources executives, marketers, retail specialists and engineers who worked on projects from the Kindle to grocery delivery to the recent mobile phone launch — described how they tried to reconcile the sometimes-punishing aspects of their workplace with what many called its thrilling power to create.

      In interviews, some said they thrived at Amazon precisely because it pushed them past what they thought were their limits. Many employees are motivated by “thinking big and knowing that we haven’t scratched the surface on what’s out there to invent,” said Elisabeth Rommel, a retail executive who was one of those permitted to speak.

      Others who cycled in and out of the company said that what they learned in their brief stints helped their careers take off. And more than a few who fled said they later realized they had become addicted to Amazon’s way of working.

      “A lot of people who work there feel this tension: It’s the greatest place I hate to work,” said John Rossman, a former executive there who published a book, “The Amazon Way.””

      This seems… somewhat relevant. You might have missed it. It was about one page down in the article you posted. Sigh.

      The article goes out of its way to describe the current culture as part of an “experiment”. Amazon is trying something new out and there will inevitably be missteps… perhaps large enough to sink the plan. I agree that if the collateral damage of that plan is women, parents, or cancer survivors, than there are very real issues with the plan and it should be scrapped or heavily modified. But given the level of secrecy that Amazon maintains over its employees and corporate culture, it is really, really, REALLY — impossible some might say — to draw any definitive conclusions about Amazon’s workplace culture from some admittedly very bad stories (in which we are only getting one half of the story). And, furthermore, to attempt to attach this to some broader criticism of capitalism or society at large is beyond grasping at straws… it’s grasping at coffee stirrers.Report

      • dragonfrog in reply to Kazzy says:

        Let’s keep in perspective, we’re still only talking about a minority of Amazon’s workers – the white collar workers. So this is only about how badly they treat their best-treated workers.

        Their mistreatment of warehouse workers has been documented in the past.Report

    • Glyph in reply to krogerfoot says:

      “or it’s paradisiacal compared to other Japanese companies.”

      That was my first thought. After the tales of Japanese salarymen working themselves to death and such, maybe Amazon seems like a vacation to them. The work is perhaps no harder at least, and if Amazon’s culture is as described, perhaps the freedom to express themselves and effect change feels liberating (I’m working off the old cliches about Japanese business culture valuing group consensus and tradition over conflict and change).Report

  5. Zac says:

    Just to throw some other anecdata in the mix: my last job was as a contractor for Amazon, and at least from what I saw they had the most grossly back-stabby corporate culture I’ve ever encountered. The managers all had their little fiefdoms and were constantly at war with each other, and it made it ridiculously more difficult than it should have been to get a lot of things done.Report

  6. krogerfoot says:

    This seems… somewhat relevant. You might have missed it. It was about one page down in the article you posted. Sigh.

    I’m guessing this isn’t directed at me, judging from your next paragraph. If it is, I did say right at the outset that I hadn’t read the article yet.Report

  7. Lyle says:

    Is it perhaps that the startup culture has remained in place at amazon. The idea of the 80 hour week etc, is very common in startups which encourage their employees to believe that if they work very hard they can get rich quick.Report

    • LWA in reply to Lyle says:

      ” and so then, with their eyes gleaming they see a signed marked “This Way To The Egress” and eagerly make their way to what they are assured is, just around the corner, a marvel to behold.”


  8. North says:

    Amazon will have to deal with the downsides of this posture eventually, particularly as the economy recovers, and those costs could be steep. I don’t, like many of the others, see this as some intrinsic cost to the service they deliver though.Report

    • Jesse Ewiak in reply to North says:

      You’re running under the assumption the economy ever recovers back to the point for many of their workers. Some engineers or designers, maybe. But, the warehouse workers? For many of them, as crappy as it is, in many places, that warehouse job is the best thing they can get.Report

      • North in reply to Jesse Ewiak says:

        Even if the economy doesn’t get to the point where Amazon’s warehouse workers are being sought after by other businesses Amazon’s going to have to deal with the cost of all that turnover eventually. Especially once they stop all their loss leading activity.Report

        • Kolohe in reply to North says:

          Something I looked up after this story went viral was Amazon’s staffing level. It’s really exploded in the past few years. tripled since xmas 2011 and at least ten times more than it was around 2006-07.

          Regardless of their business model or their business niche (i.e. retail or tech or both) they’re in a different phase of organization size (and probably lifecycle) than they ever have been.Report

      • Brandon Berg in reply to Jesse Ewiak says:

        But, the warehouse workers? For many of them, as crappy as it is, in many places, that warehouse job is the best thing they can get.

        In other words, Amazon is offering them a better deal than anyone else is. Which is to say, as bad as their situation may be, Amazon is literally less responsible than anyone else in the world for that fact.

        But I guess if you subscribe to the Copenhagen interpretation of ethics, it makes perfect sense to blame them for it.

        Also, today I learned that Amazon gives severance pay to warehouse workers who quit voluntarily.Report

        • Jaybird in reply to Brandon Berg says:

          That Copenhagen essay was really, really good.Report

        • DavidTC in reply to Brandon Berg says:

          Which is to say, as bad as their situation may be, Amazon is literally less responsible than anyone else in the world for that fact.

          Well, no. If Amazon fires them for having ‘poor performance’ when they’re not there, Amazon is *at least* as responsible for them not having a job as anyone else. Quite possibly more so, because without Amazon, they might have gotten a job at a more ethical place.

          Part of the confusion here is that Jesse seems to be talking about warehouse workers. That’s not really what the article is about. The article is really about Amazon’s completely insane white collar workplace, which I can’t even imagine is even slightly useful.

          That said, talking about the warehouse workers experience, Amazon *is*, indeed, responsible when workers pass out from heat exhaustion.

          But I guess if you subscribe to the Copenhagen interpretation of ethics, it makes perfect sense to blame them for it.

          Yes, there are idiots who will blame *charities* for interacting with poor people and not fixing the situation. However, people who complained about New York keeping track of the non-helped might not be those people, because I suspect what they were *actually* complaining about was NY spending $X of tax money *watching* a lot of people not get helped, when that $X could have been spent actually helping a few dozen more people.

          That sort of wastefulness is a generally reasonable thing to get upset about the government doing. (However, research actually is *needed*, and in the long term is helpful to figuring out how to help poor people, so I don’t *agree* with the complaints. Science is not free. But the complainers aren’t crazy.)

          But that’s not what’s going on with warehouse workers, hell, it’s not even what was going with the homeless hotspot operators. In those cases, those people were *employed*, and when people are employed by someone else, the employer has specific minimum standards they have to hit, in an attempt to keep employment from spiraling down to ’12 hours a day for a piece of bread in a warehouse where they risk heat exhaustion’. There is a difference between ‘charity’ and ’employment’. There are minimum rules about employment.

          And, yes, BBH Labs was actually paying the homeless more than min wage ($50 for 6 hours), but the people complaining did not understand this, because they were staggering payment to the homeless to $20 a day, as recommended. But that’s a failure of knowledge, not a failure of understanding ethics. (In fact, the article you linked to misunderstands this!) It is perfectly reasonable to complain about a company apparently *violating minimum wage law*.

          I know you probably think ‘But giving someone a job at even $1 an hour, or, in this case, $3.33 an hour, makes them better off than them not having a job’, but the problem is, that’s always *individually* true, but, as I said, it results in a downward spiral for society into all jobs being crap.

          Meanwhile, I find it interesting that *supposedly* people called it ‘sexist’ that someone said ‘If women are only getting paid at 70% of men, then it would be smart for companies to start hiring a bunch of women and could pay them more than they normally get paid, but still less than men’, considering that’s pretty much exactly what all sorts of people have been pointing out for years, including a lot of feminists, for *exactly* the reasons outlined in the article. I can’t imagine who is criticizing this idea, or are these people just random morons on the internet?Report

  9. Oscar Gordon says:

    Amazon is well known around here as a place that grinds up people, but pays well & provides valuable experience.

    I’m more curious how they manage the turnover.Report

    • Barry in reply to Oscar Gordon says:

      “I’m more curious how they manage the turnover.”

      That puzzles me, especially with high complexity. People who are being burned out and are on their way out the door are not going to document things well for their successors.Report

      • Saul Degraw in reply to Barry says:

        @oscar-gordon @barry

        I think certain companies and firms are just always hiring and training new people especially when they got to a really big size.

        When I was 22, I taught English for a private-company in Japan. They also had a high attrition rate. Largely because they designed their business model on having most of their teachers be kids who were 22-23 and just out of college. Most teachers would stay for a year or two and then go home. They also had schools all over Japan (they had like 900 branches of varying sizes). They just simply did training and orientation almost every week of the year except from mid-December to early-January.

        I can also see large companies like Google and Amazon also being perpetually in orientation mode with standardized weekly orientation meetings.

        By contrast, law firms that are large enough to have official recruiting tend to do it at the same time every year. Maybe twice a year.Report

        • Kolohe in reply to Saul Degraw says:

          Google is not a particularly big company by employee count, somewhat over 50K but at least 20K of those are a legacy of the Motorola acquisition. Big Blue is 7 times bigger, Gates’ baby is 2.5 times bigger, and Jobs’ daughter is twice as big.Report

        • Brandon Berg in reply to Saul Degraw says:

          I think certain companies and firms are just always hiring and training new people especially when they got to a really big size.

          I have it on good authority that employers don’t train workers anymore.Report

        • Brandon Berg in reply to Saul Degraw says:

          I can also see large companies like Google and Amazon also being perpetually in orientation mode with standardized weekly orientation meetings.

          This is correct.Report

      • Oscar Gordon in reply to Barry says:

        There is also the fact that the normal Amazon interview process (for positions not on a warehouse floor, AFAIK) is a whole day affair involving multiple people. So everytime a position needs filling, a day is spent wasting a few hours of a large number of peoples time.

        So I’m curious how they justify that.

        As for the complexity, my understanding is that Amazon demands written reports on damn near everything. If they have a robust knowledge management system, that could alleviate a lot of the pain of turnover.Report

        • Saul Degraw in reply to Oscar Gordon says:


          Everyone I have ever known who has interviewed for one of the big tech companies (whether in an engineering role or not) has claimed it was a several interview process and took many days.

          The HR departments are defiant in their attitude that they will interview someone for as long as it takes to get the best of the best. I saw this when working on the do not recruit cold calling case and some executives complained that the numbers of interviews HR demanded was a drain.

          By contrast, smaller organizations don’t have the money to do such things.Report

          • Oscar Gordon in reply to Saul Degraw says:

            Sure, that makes sense, if the company is known for long term retention.

            If you have high turnover, then such a process becomes harder to justify. A company should either deal with the causes of turnover, or find a better interview process.

            (note that the people involved in the interviews are not HR staff)Report

        • Brandon Berg in reply to Oscar Gordon says:

          So everytime a position needs filling, a day is spent wasting a few hours of a large number of peoples time.

          Many days, since, of course, they interview multiple people for each position.Report

  10. LeeEsq says:

    The only logical answers is that the higher ups of Amazon get some sick pleasure out of the organized cruelty that comes from working there. Even in a very cut-throat industry, there is simply no economic reason to give employees who suffered from major illnesses a hard time. Any economic benefit it serves is marginal at best but is more like non-existent. There does not seem to be any other tech company that goes to such extremes in how they expect their employees to act. Therefore, the reason they do this is because they are sociopaths that take delight in human suffering.Report

  11. Amazon is structurally different from most tech companies. The latter have the advantage of unbounded economies of scale: if, say, some Twitter employee improves tweeting (say, by developing an “amptag” that begins with & instead of #), and that results in more and more satisfied customers, it almost doesn’t matter how much he’s being paid or whether it took him an extra couple of week to finish it. The added value to the brand vastly exceeds the former, and there’s no significant cost to the latter.

    Amazon, on the other hand, has to procure and ship a huge volume of stuff, and had to average a profit on each piece in order to pay off their fixed costs. Some of that is Twitter-like: if you buy a book for download or stream a movie, there are no humans involved in the transaction, and the value of any added efficiencies in the process scales almost infinitely. But most Amazon sales involve tangible goods, giving Amazon the same concerns with supply chain management and labor costs as Walmart, and making it not too surprising that the two use similar tactics to address them.Report

    • LeeEsq in reply to Mike Schilling says:

      Amazon is probably best understood as a combination retail/tech company that uses retail techniques in order to stay in business like a more cut-throat version of Sears. The Kindle arm of Amazon is the most tech oriented and would not surprise me if that was a relatively low pressured place to work compared to the other departments.Report

      • Michael Cain in reply to LeeEsq says:

        I would have said that Amazon Web Services (AWS) is the most tech oriented. The Kindle was/is a derivative piece of technology. AWS largely invented the idea of cloud services sold on a massive scale for other companies to use, and had to solve a lot of problems that hadn’t been solved by someone else before in order to make it all work.Report

      • Alan Scott in reply to LeeEsq says:

        I know a dude that worked on Kindle Worlds, and while he is likely the sort of person that jumps at a challenge, he is also one of the most laid-back and anti-drama people I know. So I wouldn’t at all be surprised if his corner of Amazon is a lot less terrible that what’s been described on this thread.Report

  12. Doctor Jay says:

    This sort of thing is clearly bad for people. It frequently is framed though, as bad for women, and a factor driving women away. I’m sure it drives women away. It drives men away, too. I don’t understand why we frame these workplace, quality-of-work issues as “bad for women”.

    It was bad for me, at a certain company or two I worked at while having children with some health issues. I felt incredibly isolated, as there was maybe some support out there for “working moms”, but dads were assumed to not care.

    There’s some aspect of this that is due to the Great Recession. Jobs were hard to find, especially ones with good career growth options. So they could afford to squeeze their employees mercilessly. Where else could they go? If they did find someone to leave, they would get 300 resumes in a day looking to replace them.Report

    • Saul Degraw in reply to Doctor Jay says:


      I concur. I suspect that we consider it a women’s issue because women brought it up originally and that is how it got framed. Women were/still are seen as the primary caregivers for children and elderly parents and these responsibilities did not ease up as they entered the workforce. So women were the ones who started bringing up issues of life-work balance.

      I suspect that a lot of men even progressive ones still have notions that they support their children best via financial support only or they have internalized that men are expected to be work-machines with few avenues for downtime and recreation.

      Male competition also seems to be more about endurance tests so a certain subset of men like doing the I can work 75-80-85-90 hour thing.

      I would say that the article interviewed plenty of men who thought Aamzon’s work culture are clearly nuts.Report

    • LeeEsq in reply to Doctor Jay says:

      I think these quality of life issues are framed as women’s issues for a variety of reasons. Even though both genders are effected, women probably feel the pressure more than men do because women get pregnant, give birth, and do a lot of the childcare for the most part. In a very high pressure work place like Amazon, all these things mean that women get harder because of pregnancy and childcare requiring them to have time away from work. Modern dads might do more childcare than men in the past but it still isn’t as much as women. Men do not pregnant or give birth either. Women are also more likely to need time off to care for parents and other older relatives than men because of traditional gender roles still persisting.

      The other thing is that because of traditional gender roles, men are supposed to suck up and endure a competitive and hard working environment even though adequate time off from the job was a big fight for unions during the 19th and early 20th centuries. This never really trickled up to the white collar work force and the techies seemed to have taken some inspiration from East Asian corporate culture when it comes to working hours.Report

  13. Kazzy says:

    LeeEsq: The only logical answers is that the higher ups of Amazon get some sick pleasure out of the organized cruelty that comes from working there.

    Is that REALLY the only logical answer? Come on, dude.Report

    • Mike Schilling in reply to Kazzy says:

      It’s not the only answer, though it fits the facts quite well.Report

    • LeeEsq in reply to Kazzy says:

      @kazzy There are plenty of other companies that do perfectly well without Amazon’s level of organized cruelty in the work place, which seems almost but not quite unprecedented in the work place. Other companies do similar things but making a woman who just miscarried twins go on business trip seems to be the action of a sociopath rather than a normal human. Even first class jerks and a-holes usually know better and can muster enough empathy, kindness, and sympathy to make the moral choice.

      After reading this story, I can not discern anything practical benefit that would come from creating such a high pressure work environment. It certainly isn’t helping Amazon be profitable. Only emotional pleasure from the pain of others can be the explanation.Report

      • Kazzy in reply to LeeEsq says:

        What is that saying? Do not attribute to malice that which can be attributed to stupidity? Something like that, right?Report

        • Barry in reply to Kazzy says:

          “What is that saying? Do not attribute to malice that which can be attributed to stupidity? Something like that, right?”

          Yes, there is such a saying. So what?Report

        • LeeEsq in reply to Kazzy says:

          Nobody this stupid could run a company the size of Amazon. In this case, malice is the simplest and most likely explanation.Report

          • Chris in reply to LeeEsq says:

            Malice attributes too much agency to it, I suspect. I’m sure there are people involved who get a perverse pleasure from some of the things described in the article, but attributing this level of workplace culture and functioning to individual malice is, I suspect, to misunderstand how this stuff works.Report

          • Kazzy in reply to LeeEsq says:


            As evidenced by Bezo’s response, it appears unlikely that any such behavior came at his behest.

            Let’s use the example of the woman with the miscarriage. She claims her boss said, “I’m sorry, the work is still going to need to get done,” she said her boss told her. “From where you are in life, trying to start a family, I don’t know if this is the right place for you.”

            Assuming her recollection is perfect and those are exact quotes attributable to her boss and there is nothing omitted and no major context missing that would lead us to read them differently, you STILL have a hard case to make that malice is at the heart of them.

            Were they likely heartless? Thoughtless? Devoid of compassion? Sure. But that still doesn’t suggest malice.

            And then you throw in all the other possible considerations… maybe she was the only person on the team who could make that business trip work and a huge deal was relying on her pulling it off and if it fell through millions would be lost and several people would be out of jobs. Is he being malicious then?
            Maybe HIS boss is breathing down HIS neck and if the trip doesn’t happen as scheduled, he loses his job. Selfish, sure, but malicious?
            Maybe he was TRYING (and ultimately failing) to be compassionate in saying, “Hey, this is the kind of place where we don’t really give you extra sick days because of a miscarriage… certainly not with a trip planned. If I was you and was trying to start a family, I’d find a more family-friendly employer.” Malicious? Hardly!

            SO, yea, I can think of all sorts of reasons why the described behaviors might have happened that have nothing to do with malice. Do you really think Amazon execs are just sitting there twirling their mustaches while their employees are tied to the proverbial train tracks? THAT would sink a $250B company long before some idiot in middle management would.Report

            • LWA in reply to Kazzy says:

              I personally don’t think they are consciously malicious.
              If only because no one ever is.

              Connect this to the article by Tokumitsu about the “do what you love” ethos and there becomes a culture which leads inescapably to this end point.

              To say after the fact, “I never wanted it to end up this way” is excuse mongering, like the guy who stops after work to have 2 or 4 or 6 beers, then says he never meant to hit those pedestrians with his car.

              CEOs really only have one large purpose, which is to frame the culture of their company.
              They don’t make the product, or design the product, they don’t manage the accounts and they don’t manage the line employees.

              They basically do nothing but manage the managers, and instill in them what is important and what is not.

              Jeff Bezos has imprinted upon his company what’s important and the middle managers know it, even if they have never in their life spoken to him. I’m pretty sure that he thinks to himself that he instills a proper work ethic, and that the long frenzied hours are a morally uplifting thing.

              But like in my other post below, he willfully blinds himself to what lies behind it, and what the ultimate outcome is.Report

              • Kazzy in reply to LWA says:


                I don’t know how accurate your assessment is (I really know nothing of Bezos), but I think it an entirely fair line of critique. I balked at Lee’s assertion that the ONLY possible excuse was that Amazon was run by a bunch of sadists.Report

  14. LWA says:

    Reading this through my own filter, it does seem like a problem of if not instant gratification, of gratification in general.

    Because we do hear that the justification of Amazon’s practices, like 3rd World sweatshops, are simply the price we have to accept for the cheap consumer goods we have.

    So Saul’s point here is not Amazon, but the culture that exists with their customers and management.

    It isn’t that the midlevel managers have no other options- but this is the option that will get them the massive amounts of consumer goods that they lust after.

    Yeah, I am slipping into my Jeremiah self here, but I really don’t see it any other way. If it is accepted as truth that a 5 dollar shirt is a better outcome than a 7 dollar shirt, regardless of its provenance, then the problem is us.

    Or let me spin it in a more positive manner- suppose we were to somehow coerce Amazon into treating its people better; would the lives of Amazon customers and midlevel managers be better or worse?

    Lets stipulate that their prices would rise by some amount. How much are we talking, and how would that affect our lives?
    And would we consider it to be worth it? Suppose we all had to pay a little more, or make our cars and clothes and computers last just a little bit longer than they do now?

    See, I think a lot of this is like Erik Loomis’ insight in Out of Sight ($14.95 at Amazon)
    that so long as the nasty trail of our consumer goods is kept safely outside our vision, its easier to convince ourselves that it doesn’t matter.

    But there is more to it than just keeping it out of sight- we also must be allowed to tell ourselves that there is no alternative, that this is all inevitable and part of the natural workings of the universe.

    So even when are confronted with the fact that the child who assembled this laptop I am typing on, or the shirt you are wearing, may have been subjected to rape or torture or merely slavery, we are told, and eagerly believe, that this cannot be changed, and would result in horror and destitution for us and our children if it were changed, and anyway the child would have been raped and tortured and enslaved anyway, so is it our problem, or whatever other lie we have to speak and believe.

    Because again, the goods that come off the tail end of this horror are pretty wonderful.Report

    • Will Truman in reply to LWA says:

      If they are working under horrible conditions to have more money to buy more stuff, they are both the victim and the perpetrator. I can lament that their value system does not entirely align with my own, but the degree to which it is my business is limited (unless there is some personal connection).

      And the association or connection to people working jobs that do not have other privileged options are rather limited.Report

      • LWA in reply to Will Truman says:

        Your comment about whether it being “your business” is interesting.

        Certainly on one level the moral choices that others make is none of your, or my, business.

        But does that mean that you and I are entirely detached from them, or that you and I have no connection to their moral frameworks?

        I don’t think so.

        My moral outlook, my politics, aesthetic choices, and consumer choices are heavily influenced by the culture in which I swim. You and I share a culture, in which certain choices are lauded and rewarded, while others are criticized and punished in ways that are subtle or overt.

        That’s why I see the problem as learned or even desired helplessness- culture doesn’t just happen- you and me and all of us create it, shape it, direct it to where we want it to go.Report

    • DensityDuck in reply to LWA says:

      Don’t exactly recall signing up for child rape so I could have an iPhone.Report

  15. Rufus F. says:

    There’s this weird contrast that I can’t quite put into words that I find in a lot of the work I do where they’re very “rational” in how they decide the conditions of your employment, while being very moralistic in how they try to motivate you. In both of my current jobs, I’ve been given these long speeches about what my motivation level says about my character in spite of the fact that we all know they’re jobs in which its not possible to advance in any way with their current structure regardless of performance.Report

    • Saul Degraw in reply to Rufus F. says:


      This is covered in this interview:

      Lam: Do you know where it came from?

      Tokumitsu: So in my book I have my theory about where it came from. I really feel like it comes out of post-World War II prosperity. The Protestant work ethic is work, work, work—work is a calling, work is virtuous. I felt like that was with us for a long time, but pleasure never factored into that much.

      But then come the Baby Boomer generation—you have the wars seemingly over and there’s a lot of prosperity, though it’s been spread pretty broadly throughout society. And that gave people the opportunity to indulge themselves a little bit. And within the U.S. particularly, there arose a culture of self: thinking about what makes me happy and how to improve myself. [I argue that the] virtue strain of work and the self strain of work combined in the late 1970s and 1980s, and in a way pleasure-seeking became the virtue.

      Lam: The way you describe it in the book, this has almost reached absurdity. Even menial jobs now require a worker to be super passionate.

      Tokumitsu: When I found that Craigslist posting [for cleaners who were passionate], I was super depressed. You’re demanding that this person—who is going to do really hard physical work for not a lot of money—do extra work. On top of having to scrub the floors and wash windows, they have to show that they’re passionate too? It’s absurd and it’s become so internalized that people don’t even think about it. People write these job ads, and of course they’re going to say they want a passionate worker. But they don’t even think about what that means and that maybe not everyone is passionate.


      • LeeEsq in reply to Saul Degraw says:

        It makes sense as an explanation. For most of human history, humans really did not have much of a choice of what they did for a living even if they were at the top of society. Custom governed a lot of you could do with your life. If you the second son of British peer, you could not go into business because that would mean you would be in trade and it would be demeaning to your station. You had the choice of the army, the navy, the Church of England, being a barrister, or some other government position. That is about it. In a lot of Protestant countries, if your father was a Pastor than you became a Pastor. It was only during that 19th century when people became more free to select their own job if they could get the education they needed for it. It really only became common with the prosperity and the explosion of university education that occurred when the Baby Boomers grew up.Report

        • Jaybird in reply to LeeEsq says:

          The jobs that require some degree of training have to deal with the issue of “from whom do you get training?”

          If it’s your father, you’ve already got yourself an in because, odds are, he’s been treating you like slave labor since you’ve been old enough to follow instructions.

          If it’s someone else’s father, how are you going to get him to train you? If you can’t wheedle your way into his good graces, it’s back to subsistence farming and hope your offspring has better luck than you had.Report

          • LeeEsq in reply to Jaybird says:

            From what I understand that even though most sons followed in their father’s professions, they tended not to get training from their father but an associate or close friend of their father’s.Report

            • Jaybird in reply to LeeEsq says:

              Assuming two or more blacksmiths (or coopers or carpenters or whatevers) in an area large enough to support two or more blacksmiths (or whatevers), we’re talking about them trading their children among themselves?

              That strikes me as wrong.

              Without getting into issues of the percentage of people likely to not live in areas not large enough to support multiple tradesmen.Report

              • Michael Cain in reply to Jaybird says:

                You’re talking village-level systems. As soon as you get to the point where there are towns and small cities, guilds arise that organize things differently. IIRC, the carpenter’s son would learn the trade and inherit the business. Most of the basic work, though, was done by apprentices recruited from peasant families (a 12-year-old boy is a net loss to a farm operation because of the amount they eat). As apprentices graduated, they might stay around if the town/city was growing enough, or they might get sent out to find a place that needed a carpenter (with the guild enforcing anti-compete rules as necessary).Report

      • Oscar Gordon in reply to Saul Degraw says:

        Saul Degraw: Even menial jobs now require a worker to be super passionate.

        We run into this a bit at work. The company has trouble sometimes finding talent. We need good developers and good engineers, and we really need good engineers who know how to write software. Those dual-class employees are vital, and hard to find (most engineers aren’t interested in writing software, those of us who are, are actually kinda rare). Our owner is very reluctant to pay to lure such dual-class people away from other employers, like Boeing, Google, Microsoft, etc., relying instead on trying to find people who are so dissatisfied with those corporate cultures, or so bored with the work, that they’ll entertain a move with a pay cut, or without much a pay bump, and a more limited set of benefits.

        Suffice it say, that makes recruitment & retention hard.Report

    • Saul Degraw in reply to Oscar Gordon says:

      I am not sure what is response is supposed to prove or how much weight we should give his response.

      Of course, he and other executives are going to respond. This is their company and it would be almost negligence not to respond or it could be interpreted as an admission via silence.

      I think a lot of political debates revolve around where people weigh the evidence. Amazon defenders (not saying you are one) seem likely to just single the people in the article as exceptions not rules. Others might see the NY Times article as evidence of “where there is smoke, there is fire”.

      So people don’t given agree on how to weigh the evidence.Report

      • Oscar Gordon in reply to Saul Degraw says:

        Two things:

        First, I linked the article just to offer the counterpoint.

        Second, the memo the article discusses was (reportedly) sent to the workforce. Here you have the CEO telling everyone that X is not tolerated, and is bad, and here is my email should you feel you are being treated badly. Assuming the email is legit & Bezos acts upon any reports in a positive manner, this is a pretty big deal.

        Thing is, for any organization that has a deep Org Chart, it is pretty easy for the lower end of the org chart to get an idea lodged in their heads about what the upper end wants, because the upper end was less than clear about what it wanted*. Then, if there is no clear way to jump the chain and make the upper end aware of what is broken (or if the upper end does not take such chain jumping seriously), things can stay broken.

        Sometimes until somebody writes an expose in the NYTs. We’ll see if things change.

        *I saw this a lot at the Lazy B. Upper end is busy, and there are often egos at issue that just don’t want to take the time to be clear & articulate.Report

      • Kazzy in reply to Saul Degraw says:


        You’re not really talking about weighing the evidence. You’re talking about the ability to extrapolate. What we have is X number of stories alleging behavior Y. Assuming all X stories are true, what we now know is that X number of times, Y happened. There “smoke and fire” people *need* to extrapolate and say, “There is evidence of Y happening X times. We assume that means it is happening Z times,” with Z being much greater than X.

        Extrapolation isn’t inherently wrong, but it requires certain parameters to make it reliable. As it stands — given evidence to the contrary in the article you linked to it doesn’t seem reasonable to conclude that Amazon is rampantly doing what X stories allege they are doing.Report

  16. Dave says:

    This does not come without costs to Amazon’s employees though. Amazon practices something that they call “purposeful Darwinism” that sounds like it could come from a 1920s Eugenics society convention

    It also sounds akin to my Wall Street experiences when I was an employee at one of the I-Banks (2005-early 2008). As bad as it can be at the banks, it’s even worse at the law firms. That’s probably why my outrage factor didn’t soar when I skimmed through the article.

    @kazzy mentioned this quote above and it resonated with me as well:

    In interviews, some said they thrived at Amazon precisely because it pushed them past what they thought were their limits. Many employees are motivated by “thinking big and knowing that we haven’t scratched the surface on what’s out there to invent,” said Elisabeth Rommel, a retail executive who was one of those permitted to speak.

    When I was working on the Street, it wasn’t the thinking big and motivation to innovate to drive people. It was the idea of making ridiculously large amounts of money, and in order to do that, as much business that could possibly be done in any given time had to be chased hence the ridiculously long hours, the ultra-competitive environment within each class of people and the more senior people that would most benefit financially pushing people to their limits knowing that if people dropped out, they could hire others tomorrow. People that thrived in that environment and didn’t have to worry about sacrificing family obligations, kids, etc. definitely had a leg up on those that did. My former firm, probably like the others, did rank employees for a given title and typically the bottom people got weeded out.

    I’m not defending Amazon’s corporate culture (I wouldn’t go back to the world I lived in 10 years ago), and I think subjecting certain kinds of workers to this culture is too much, especially those that can’t provide much input, defend their ideas and have little choice other to take it on the chin (i.e. warehouse workers), but for the more skilled worker base that see this is an opportunity to make an impact and think they’re competitive enough to fight it out with their coworkers, they know exactly what they’re getting themselves into, at least they think they do. In theory, it’s no different than what I did all those years ago.Report

    • Kazzy in reply to Dave says:


      Interesting point. One of the (many) reasons I left my most recent school was it wasn’t competitive enough. There was NO evaluation, NO feedback, NO reward for excellent work, and NO consequences for poor work. The woman who was late every day because she couldn’t juggle her daughters’ drop off time and her arrival was never even addressed. I hated it. Does it sounds like Amazon has gone too far? Yes. Are they the tip of the spear that will lead everyone to be ground into dust because people like fast delivery? Jesus no. And there is no evidence to support that argument.Report

    • LWA in reply to Dave says:

      So these people were motivated into working insanely long hours with furious dedication by…receiving higher pay?

      Hmm, an idea just so crazy it might work!Report

      • Dave in reply to LWA says:


        So these people were motivated into working insanely long hours with furious dedication by…receiving higher pay?

        Who are we talking about specifically?Report

        • LWA in reply to Dave says:

          Would it matter?

          I’m just riffing off George Carlin’s routine about how Wall Streeters need high pay in order to be incentivized, but poor people need less money to , y’know, give them incentive.Report

          • DavidTC in reply to LWA says:

            Look, it’s simple: With how to incentive the rich, the goal is to make the *rich* richer, but with how to incentive the poor, the goal is to make the *rich* richer.

            Wait a second, something was wrong with that sentence.Report

            • LWA in reply to DavidTC says:

              Looking at the astounding salaries that companies are forced to pay for CEOs its obvious that we need to have Congress revise the visa laws to import massive numbers of Indian and Chinese businessmen to fill the CEO shortage.

              I mean really, Mr. Dimon, aren’t there a thousand clever businessmen in the 3rd World who can do your job?Report

              • DensityDuck in reply to LWA says:

                “Looking at the astounding salaries that companies are forced to pay for CEOs ”

                Yeah, a week’s salary from every employee. Truly astounding, to think that if only that damn bastard fat-cat CEO weren’t there every employee would have 2% more income than they have right now.Report

              • LWA in reply to DensityDuck says:

                Yeah, 2% isn’t much.

                By contrast, propose taking away 2% of any CEO’s income, and hear the howls of outrage.Report

              • DavidTC in reply to DensityDuck says:

                So what you’re saying is, if CEO salaries were closer to other workers, the company could hire 2% more workers, scheduling them where everyone could get an entire extra week of vacation.

                Oh, wait, excuse me. An extra week of *paid* vacation.

                Well, you’ve sure convinced *me* that 2% doesn’t matter to workers.Report

              • DensityDuck in reply to DavidTC says:

                None of the people I work with (including me) take vacations. We like what they’re doing too much to want to stop doing it. If we didn’t like it we’d be doing something else.

                The kind of people you imagine that CEO’s salary going to help don’t take vacations either, because part-time workers don’t get vacations and a 2% salary increase isn’t going to turn them into full-time workers.Report

              • DavidTC in reply to DensityDuck says:

                The point isn’t that people would actually take vacations, the point is that that ‘2%’ you were so dismissive of literally translates to an *entire week* of work every year.

                Either an entire week off *with* pay, or, alternately, an entire extra week of pay with no additional work, both framings work.Report

          • Dave in reply to LWA says:


            Actually yes it did matter because I made a specific statement and you seemed to respond with something more general, to the point where I had no idea if you had any interest in a serious conversation. Given that I’m not the most patient type…well, you know…

            but poor people need less money to , y’know, give them incentive.

            A position I have championed on the pages of OT how many times? My guess is somewhere between zero and zero. I don’t support Amazon’s culture as it applies to the lower-wage, lower-skilled workers for reasons I mention above.

            In theory, I support $15 per hour wages for fast food workers. However, I’m a realist and according to Dave’s First Rule of Capital, it’s a non-starter if the goal is to increase total $ income.Report

        • LeeEsq in reply to Dave says:

          I believe that @lwa was suggesting that employers could motivate employees by giving them decent salaries and wages rather than expecting long, grueling hours for nothing in return.Report

            • Jesse Ewiak in reply to Jaybird says:

              If automation is happening anyway, as libertarians and conservatives remind every low wage worker who dares ask for a decent wage, why shouldn’t low wage workers get what they can while they can?Report

              • Jaybird in reply to Jesse Ewiak says:

                For what it’s worth, I think that corporations will eventually regret this whole automation thing.

                The great thing about minimum wage jobs is the whole issue of how there is a large segment of teenagers that do them and these teenagers eventually become young adults who make more than the minimum wage.

                If you were running a company, would you rather hire the 23 year old fresh out of college that has never had a job or the 23 year old fresh out of college who has held jobs off and on since s/he was 13?Report

              • greginak in reply to Jaybird says:

                Just like some chains such as Five Guys are making big inroads with the weird “serve higher quality but still fast food” concept, some places will have dealing with actual people as a part of the experience. It’s hard to sell you food as more hand crafted or at least less factory produced when you order at a kiosk. Dealing with people will be framed, in many ways accurately, as a good thing. Especially when good service is part of the deal.Report

              • Dave in reply to greginak says:


                It’s hard to sell you food as more hand crafted or at least less factory produced when you order at a kiosk.

                I agree with this on one level, but I’ve seen the automated kiosks used in the deli department in my grocery store (it’s not fully automated but it helps when real busy). The menu choices and options can get down deep into the details.

                I suppose that the challenge in a food establishment that serves more specialized food is making the use of the kiosk more convenient (or equally) than ordering. I don’t see this being an issue for McDonald’s, Burger King, etc; however, for something like Chipotle? Not sure.

                Then again, places like Chipotle, Five Guys, etc. can use good service to draw customers like you said. That will appeal to people.Report

              • Will Truman in reply to Dave says:

                It’s honestly a lot easier to get precisely what you want ordering from a kiosk than a person.

                I’m a lot more particular at Sheetz (which is like Wawa) than I am at a fast food place.Report

              • Dave in reply to Will Truman says:


                I prefer using the kiosk at the deli counter, and only order from people if I’m the only person there. It’s not that the people don’t know what they’re doing but having something in writing or on screen that they can reference and double check significantly reduces the margin for error, something I like since I don’t like spending a lot of time in a grocery store let alone a high traffic part of one.Report

              • Kazzy in reply to Dave says:

                I like the kiosks unless I have a hyper specific order like Mayo’s cheese. He likes it cut very thick… thicker than their “Thick Cut” option but not quite their “Slab” option. So I usually have to tell the person what number to dial the machine into. But, otherwise, yea, I like machines.

                Semi-related, Domino’s recently added Voice Ordering to their phone app. SERIOUSLY!?!?! JUST FUCKING CALL THE STORE IF YOU ARE GOING TO TALK INTO YOUR PHONE TO REQUEST FOOD!!!Report

            • greginak in reply to Jaybird says:

              If they wanted to automate they will do it no matter what. As the piece noted, and i’ve seen other places, people buy more from automated kiosks than people. That is the direction those kind of jobs are going. You can bet they will be putting those same kiosks into freedom loving states with lower minimum wages.Report

              • LWA in reply to greginak says:

                It also proves what lie the old “If you work for less, there will be more jobs!” stuff is.

                Given that your real “competitive wage” = $0.00/hr.Report

              • Kazzy in reply to greginak says:

                Semi-related… I visited the American Museum of Natural History, which has a “suggested donation” in lieu of an admissions fee. You can order at the kiosk but then you are required to pay the full “suggestion donation”. The machine actually tells you that if you want to pay less, you have to go speak to a human. I doubt this is a software issue: it seems very easy to have a, “How much would you like to donate today?” screen. Rather, I think they know people will have a harder time paying less when faced with a human than with a machine who won’t judge them.

                The answer? Machines that judge.Report

              • greginak in reply to Kazzy says:

                I’m sure you’re right….darn east coast snooty machines looking down on all the nice ordinary real americans who come to visit.Report

              • Kazzy in reply to greginak says:

                “Here’s your ticket. Enjoy the museum… fatass!”
                “What’d that machine say?”
                “Hey… we just upgraded him to be less ‘East coast snooty’. He didn’t comment on your socks-and-sandals combo or the stains on your shirt that could only have come from the Olive Garden in Times Square, now did he?”
                “That was part of the initial programming?!?!’
                “Yes… fatass.”Report

              • LeeEsq in reply to Kazzy says:

                When my parents were kids and young adults, the museums in New York had no admission prices or suggested donations because enough people thought they were public goods that should be supported by taxes. They should be.Report

              • Kazzy in reply to LeeEsq says:


                Can we do that for sporting events, too? I’d love those to be considering public goods. And I’d venture to guess more people agree with me than with you.Report

              • LWA in reply to LeeEsq says:

                Griffith Park in LA was given to the city with stipulation that no admission ever be charged.

                Jonas Salk refused to patent his vaccine.

                And copyrights used to be brief, temporary things.

                Culture, and our understanding of the proper role of the individual within it is highly malleable.


                Given that Scott Walker gave 250 million dollars to millionaires to build a stadium, why would it be unreasonable to suggest a municipal owned team which never charged admission?

                It’s entirely doable, save for the fact we consider it unimaginable.Report

              • Kazzy in reply to LWA says:


                In all seriousness, I don’t think any public funds should go towards private or even quasi-private stadiums. And I think I saw a headline about a federal bill doing just that.

                And if a stadium is built with public funds, than it belongs to the city and they should charge hella rent to these billionaire companies.

                I’m a sports fan. But I’m not an idiot.Report

              • LWA in reply to Kazzy says:

                I’m not saying we should, mind you.

                I’m just repeating a variation on the theme that often in our public discourse, certain framing is accepted as a given, where certain options are categorically taken off the table as unimaginable.

                The other example I’ve used is that had anyone proposed in 2003 that we invest 4 thousand billion dollars over 10 years for schools or infrastructure, he would have been laughed at.
                Yet we are on track to spend about that on the wars, with very little discussion, and about 27% of the electorate eager for more.

                Again…things are unpossible only because we choose them to be.Report

              • LeeEsq in reply to Kazzy says:

                @kazzy, that Federal bill will go nowhere because too many rich people want to get their money via public tax dollars.Report

              • Kazzy in reply to LeeEsq says:


                Doea that include lawyers who want publicly funded museums with no admissions costs… Like yourself? Or is that just different because, ya know, art?Report

              • Mike Schilling in reply to Kazzy says:

                And those jerks who want publicly funded libraries and schools — the hell with them!Report

              • Kazzy in reply to Mike Schilling says:


                That analogy fails because no one is getting rich off libraries and a very small handful of people MIGHT be making a pretty good living off of schools.

                Yes, sports teams owners are making mint. But big wigs in libraries are also highly compensated and @leeesq would like to see that done on the public dime.Report

              • Mike Schilling in reply to Kazzy says:

                big wigs in libraries are also highly compensated


                My impression (based on no facts) is that while that might be true of art museums with large endowments and exhibits of high-priced art, it’s not true of, say, natural history museums. Which I personally think are valuable in the same way as schools and libraries.Report

              • Jesse Ewiak in reply to Kazzy says:

                Yes, shockingly @leeesq and I believe that somebody who is well educated, and is in charge of administrating many people should be paid around the same amount they would in the private sector.

                Now, I realize that since middle class people have Kindles, they no longer need libraries, so much like anything else middle class people no longer need, it no longer deserves funding.Report

            • LeeEsq in reply to Jaybird says:

              Is there any room for simple decency or dignity in your world or are we at the mercy of harsh economic forces grinding everything down?Report

  17. Brandon Berg says:

    greginak: If they wanted to automate they will do it no matter what.

    Business owners generally don’t “want to automate” because it’s cool. They do it because it cuts costs. Whether it cuts costs depends very much on the cost of the alternative, i.e. wages.Report

    • greginak in reply to Brandon Berg says:

      But automation, like kiosks in fast food joints, have been talked about for a while. People do apparently buy more food when the use a computer. Also kiosks don’t talk back or need health insurance or take days off. Increased wages might slightly at most tip things towards automation but there was already a significant push for it. Simply automation provides a lot of benefits regardless. A couple or three bucks per hour more isn’t nothing but i can’t see it completely changing the calculus. They didn’t just start experimenting with kiosks when people talked about the MW.Report

      • Kazzy in reply to greginak says:


        Interesting to note about the increased purchases at a kiosk. I’ve only used a kiosk ordering system at WaWa’s and Quickcheks to get sandwiches made. I greatly prefer them because I tend to be a bit picky and I am more confident in the machine (even though a human still makes the sub, they are working off a printout versus hearing what I call out over the counter). I could see the increased purchases be the result of upselling with pictures (“Do you want to add these crispy looking, enlarged-to-show-texture tots to your order?) versus upselling with bored teenagers (“Do you want fries with that?”). But that’s just a guess.

        I’d be curious how online ordering versus phone ordering for take out/delivery impacts things. GrubHub, Seamless, and the like might have interesting data.Report

        • greginak in reply to Kazzy says:

          My guess is people would order more with a kiosk since they wouldn’t feel embarrassment about ordering a giant sack’o’food with a machine but would feel that way with a person. They wouldn’t feel judged. Of course the pix on kiosks are better then the bored teen at upselling as you note.Report

      • trumwill in reply to greginak says:

        I used to think kiosks were inevitable, then I saw Jack in the Box try and fail with them. After that, I figured it would be a niche (like self-checkout)… but I do think a sufficiently high minimum wage will tip scales that otherwise wouldn’t be tipped. Jack tried to induce customers with free tacos. At some wage point either a future Jack has enough of a price point to draw customers, or enough of them do it that people get used to it.Report

        • greginak in reply to trumwill says:

          It wouldn’t surprise me if kiosks don’t end up working all that well. If they don’t work then the MW wont’ make a difference. If kiosks work well then people are out regardless. I don’t see the MW as a major issue regarding automation. It might be nice for a company to blame the MW for canning people instead of just saying they were firing them.

          A free Jack taco is not what i would call a powerful inducement. It’s right up there with a free cup of water. They have good burgers though.Report

          • trumwill in reply to greginak says:

            It strikes me as improbable that the machines will work well and therefore it was inevitsble, or they won’t and it won’t happen, but a dramatically increased minimum wage will play no role in the equation.

            They almost certainly will, because labor costs are a part of the equation. We’re talking about raising wages, and therefore labor costs, very significantly. It may well be a risk worth taking or a price worth paying, but it just strikes me as incredible to believe that adding these labor costs won’t affect the calculations upon which these decisions are made.Report

            • Jesse Ewiak in reply to trumwill says:

              I think @greginak’s belief (and mine) is that a higher minimum wage make kiosks say, a 9 year possibility instead of a 10 year possibility, instead of what many doomsayers say, which is it turns a 10 year possibility into a 2 year possibility.Report

              • Dave in reply to Jesse Ewiak says:


                I think @greginak’s belief (and mine) is that a higher minimum wage make kiosks say, a 9 year possibility instead of a 10 year possibility, instead of what many doomsayers say, which is it turns a 10 year possibility into a 2 year possibility.

                Based on what specifically? The WSJ ran an article that quoted comments made by Wendy’s senior management during its most recent earnings call. Rather than cite the WSJ and all the editorial junk I don’t care to read, I’ll go straight to the earnings call transcript:


                One quote is from the beginning of the Q&A between management and the Wall Street analyst and the other is right at the end.

                Todd Penegor (CFO): So we continue to see pressure on wages two fronts, one is minimum wages at the state level continue to increase, and as there is a war on talent to make sure that we’re competitive in certain markets. So we’ve made some adjustments to that starting wage in certain markets. The impact hasn’t been material at the moment, but we continue to look at initiatives on how we do work to offset any impact to future wage inflation through technology initiatives, whether that’s customer self-order kiosks, whether that’s automating more in the back of the house in the restaurant, and you’ll see a lot more coming on that front later this year from us.

                Emil Brolick (CEO): And our franchisees, I find them to be very astute business people, and they have a great sense of their trade areas where their restaurants are and a great I think understanding of what the competitive environment is in terms of their capacity to price. I think the reality is that what you will see in like some of these markets, the New Yorks, where there is these very significant increases, is that they will be – our franchisee will slightly likely look at the opportunity to reduce overall staff, look at the opportunity to certainly reduce hours and any other cost reduction opportunities, not just price. There are some people out there who naively say that these wages can simply be passed along in terms of price increases. I don’t think that the average franchisee believes that, and there will have to be other consequences, which is why we have pointed out that unfortunately we believe the some of these increases will clearly end up hurting the people that they are intended to help.

                This isn’t different than what I’ve heard coming out of other companies. My takeaways are:

                1) Small increases in minimum wages aren’t significant enough to put a material dent in the profitability of franchisees so workers will see the benefits from them, however small;

                2) Large increases in the minimum wage will not benefit workers much on a total $ basis because the potential impact on profitability is significant enough that franchisees will make adjustments. Anyone that thinks that franchisees will just roll with this change are fooling themselves.

                3) Companies are taking serious looks at ways to reduce labor costs via automation, something that will be a very strong possibility in the event that labor costs increase significantly due to minimum wage laws, unionization, joint employment, etc.

                4) Your timeline is a function of the degree of the increase in minimum wage. The “doomsayers” (realists like me perhaps) are going to be correct if the increases are significant. The primary reason for it is because the franchisors (i.e. Wendy’s corporate) are going to need to do what they can to keep their existing franchisees happy and show potential franchisees that they can make money owning an operating a Wendy’s location. Trying to operate a Wendy’s while juggling a barebones stuff just so someone can earn a return on invested capital won’t be worth the headache.

                Fight for $15 is nice, as is unionizing fast food workers and paying them living wages, health benefits, etc, but the economics of the business are such that the end result is more automation and other ways to contain labor costs.

                Why do you think it would be any other way?Report

              • Mike Schilling in reply to Dave says:

                there is a war on talent


              • Dave in reply to Mike Schilling says:

                Apparently in some markets, workers do have leverage, albeit not much.Report

              • Mike Schilling in reply to Dave says:

                Much less so if they’re required to sign no-compete agreements, of course.Report

              • Dave in reply to Dave says:


                Was it you that made me aware of non-compete clauses for fast food workers? I’m having a deja vu moment but can’t quite put my finger on it.Report

              • greginak in reply to Dave says:

                It came up regarding non-compete clauses for Sandwich Development Specialists at Jimmy Johns.


              • Dave in reply to greginak says:


                Beyond stupid doesn’t begin to describe requiring workers at that level to sign what are basically unenforceable non-compete clauses.

                It takes a certain kind of paranoid piece of s–t to require one for fast food employment.Report

              • Oscar Gordon in reply to Dave says:

                The big problem I have with non-competes isn’t the idea, it’s the execution. There is no negative for an employer to demand one except that it might discourage some employee candidates from joining. I mean, aside from getting a job, what is in it for me?

                For instance, if a non-compete had two clauses:

                Laid off or otherwise let go – non-compete is unenforceable absent some kind of evidence that the employee was or is engaged in some degree of corporate espionage (e.g. Employee works for Boeing but was in talks with AirBus).

                Voluntary termination results in employer providing 75% salary to employee or equivalent severance until non-compete terms are met or employee finds gainful employment that satisfies the non-compete.Report

              • Jaybird in reply to Oscar Gordon says:

                I don’t mind non-competes that say “we’re going to give you OJT that will make you worth more. As part of that deal, we’re going to prevent you from leaving the second you can command a higher salary at our competitor.”

                I very much mind non-competes being wielded against people who were worth the minimum wage when they walked in the door and will be worth the minimum wage when they walk out. That’s anti-social, immoral, and ought not be legally enforceable.Report

              • Oscar Gordon in reply to Jaybird says:

                An OJT non-compete on it’s own is still has no downside for the employer. A good OJT non-compete would assign a fair market value to the value of the OJT (a value that could be reasonably determined so employers aren’t tempted to just list the value at One Beeelllion dollars! (Muahahaha!)) and then prorate the value over a few years. So if I want to leave early and go join the competition, somebody owes the previous employer the pro-rated value.

                If the OJT is to prevent relevant operational or trade information from crossing to the competition (as many white collar non-compete are used for), that’s different.

                In short, if the information in my head is so valuable that you need me out of the loop for a year or more, you should be willing to put some skin in the game to make sure I stay out of the loop happily.Report

              • I suspect they meant to say “war for talent”.Report

              • LWA in reply to Michael Cain says:

                Or maybe it was a Freudian slip, since the entire purpose of automation is to “de-skill” jobs, and thereby reduce the market power of the human.Report

              • Oscar Gordon in reply to LWA says:

                Not usually. Sometimes automation exists to improve quality of product by reducing human error & rework, and sometimes it exists to protect human life.Report

              • LWA in reply to Oscar Gordon says:

                Yes, which in the end has the same effect. It produces a higher level of quality, with fewer and less skilled workers.
                If you work backward and imagine how many workers of what quality it would require to reach the same end product, you always will end up with more workers at a higher level of skill.Report

              • Oscar Gordon in reply to LWA says:

                Working backward, I also end up with a product that required the efforts of so many highly skilled persons that it becomes unaffordable for many.

                There is a balance point in there somewhere, and we are constantly seeking it.Report

              • Certainly this was the case for printed circuit board assembly, something that I watched evolve over the last few decades. Automation was introduced because humans are terrible at the job. Back in the day, for a board of moderate complexity, a hand-soldered board without at least one flaw was rare; but even crude wave soldering machines produced perfect boards 99 out of 100 times.

                Ideally, automation leads to “re-skill” rather than “de-skill”. A person doing hand soldering has to have a particular hand-eye coordination, knowledge about care of the tools, etc. The operator of a wave-soldering machine has to have skills in setting up the machine and monitoring its performance. The latter are more useful when the next stage of automation — a pick-and-place machine for putting components on the board before soldering, say — is added.Report

              • Oscar Gordon in reply to Michael Cain says:


                It’s the re-skill part we have trouble with. Some people are a lot easier to re-skill than others. The guy who is only qualified to work the counter at McDs is going to be a lot more challenging to re-skill than the guy who knows how to fix & maintain all the appliances in the back.

                This is not to say we should slow or halt progress, but we do need to get better about addressing the re-skill, or we risk lost generations.Report

              • Oscar Gordon in reply to Dave says:

                The two things everyone forgets about franchises is that they have thin profit margins, and there is considerable price sensitivity.

                People forget about the thin margins, I get that. But the failure to recognize price sensitivity is a case of painting wide with your personal preferences. If McDonald’s raises prices by 5%, I might not notice much, since I don’t eat there terribly often, so prices are not in my head or too much of a concern. But I’m not the normative customer. The regular customer is probably much more price sensitive, and a 5% increase might be enough to cause them to alter their purchase habits from items with a higher margin to dollar menu items that are probably low margin or loss leaders. I still remember college, when I was much more price sensitive, and how that affected my decisions.Report

        • LWA in reply to trumwill says:

          But isn’t this just just another variation of “if you work cheap enough you will underbid the robot”?Report

  18. LWA says:

    So it seems to me that the end result of all this is that automation will make our traditional concepts of capitalism and markets obsolete.

    If the components of wealth are property, capital and labor, and automation continually makes labor less valuable as it gobbles up more and more territory;
    Then the only things of value are land and capital.

    So our traditional understanding of the justness of exchanging labor for capital to exchange for land doesn’t work anymore and we have to find a new order of justice to explain the distribution of land and capital.Report

    • Michael Cain in reply to LWA says:

      Absolutely. And the process of getting from here to there will be ugly.Report

      • North in reply to Michael Cain says:

        Well every change in the world is usually messy and complicated but in relative historical terms it doesn’t have to be ugly.Report

        • Oscar Gordon in reply to North says:

          It’s always ugly to the people negatively impacted by the change. Isn’t that what we argue about a lot here, how best to lessen the impacts through policy?Report

          • North in reply to Oscar Gordon says:

            In talking about a transition to a post or near post labor society I think the people negatively impacted by the change would potentially be very few and would be left still very comfortably well off (and arguably better off in the big picture scheme of things) so on this subject specifically there’s potentially no true losers.Report

            • Oscar Gordon in reply to North says:

              But if we are talking about the line workers who used to run the spot welders on the car body being replaced by robots, then we have some policy work to do. Especially if the company/union failed those workers by only doing the minimum training needed to do the job, instead of offering the training to make them certified welders who could potentially find gainful employment in another auto plant, or other industries.Report

              • North in reply to Oscar Gordon says:

                Yes, if that were what we were talking about then there’d definitely be specific problems to worry about. But in this subthread where the subject is the wholesale obsolescence of labor and how it should upend our entire system I dissent in that I suspect both that the system is robust enough to absorb and accommodate this change and that the transition of society need not be ugly.Report

              • Oscar Gordon in reply to North says:

                Oh, well, yeah, in that case….

                Sorry, I must have missed that the topic was post labor, rather than just specific instances of obsolescence.Report

      • LWA in reply to Michael Cain says:

        Not everyone inhabits the same world at the same time.
        That is, the Industrial Revolution happened not just slowly, but at different speeds in different parts of the world; there are still places where it hasn’t happened yet.

        This allows people to game the systems, reaping the advantages of progress here, while enjoying the advantages of the legacy system there. Which in turn produces a sense of injustice by those unable to enjoy the same advantages.

        I enjoy first world wages set in Los Angeles and enjoy prices set in China, reaping the differential. At this moment my skillset has not been automated, even if those below me have; yet I reap the benefits of shopping online by those skillsets that have been consumed by the machine.

        I didn’t do anything to “earn” this differential, aside from choosing my parents carefully;

        A person in China, or displaced worker in Los Angeles could challenge the legitimacy of my claim to wealth- by what logic is it “mine”?

        Where is the moral nexus between my effort and my earnings, aside from the fluke of luck and circumstance?Report

        • Michael Cain in reply to LWA says:

          I acknowledge everything you wrote. I greatly like many aspects of a first-world society — clean water, high-end medical care, computers, indoor plumbing, bright lights on demand, etc. There isn’t a day that goes by that I don’t think how lucky I am to have been born into a time and place where such are available. I understand, at least at an intellectual level, the resentment of people that weren’t born into the same time and place. It would be lovely if everyone had access.

          However, energy constraints alone mean that planet can’t support 7.5B people in even a reduced first-world lifestyle. My back-of-the-envelope guess is about 1.2B in the long term (more in the short term if we’re willing to burn through the coal stock faster and/or build nukes carelessly fast — electricity is the key). I also admit to parochial priorities. I care more about my granddaughter having continued access than about poor people in, say, Africa gaining access. Hell, I’ve said that I’m willing to sacrifice the unity of the United States if that’s what it takes to keep the lights on for me and my granddaughter (it seems likely to me that it will).

          I’m sure ethicists can have a field day tearing apart my position.Report