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17 March 2009 @ 04:09 pm
Atlas Shrugged  
"Do not expect them to produce, when production is punished and looting is rewarded."
- Francisco d'Anconia, Atlas Shrugged, Ayn Rand

Say it with me, what is hard work rewarded with?


My doomy prediction that the days of well-paid / dilettante computer geeks is coming to an end

There is exactly one thing that motivated me to become a Computer Engineer. Money. I looked at the job market as I wrapped up my tryst with high school and saw that it was the relevant field in which I could make good money, and in which I could easily make back the debt I was about to incur by putting myself through college. I could make enough money to do whatever I wanted. Learning some of the skills would be difficult for me, but it was doable. So I did it. And it was indeed difficult.

I have always been goal-oriented.

I have always taken great pride in whatever work I do, no matter how menial.

I like being good at stuff.

My first job that moved me from technical monkey (CompUSA employee, fixer-of-printers at Hill's Pet Nutrition, design of EPA Crystal reports) to technical professional was my IT position at the KU Center for Research. I was an efficient worker and found myself spinning my wheels a lot. One day, I sat down and talked to my dad about my frustration that I was being paid so well and not really earning it. He said, "Kim, you're insurance. You're there for if something goes wrong." I took his words to heart and it brought me some comfort, but deep down, I still felt like I wasn't really earning the money I was making.

The next two jobs were full-time QA positions - 1 at Netopia and 1 at Amazon.com. I pulled my weight at both jobs and while I feel that the salary was both more than I earned and less than some of my male counterparts were making, I was most definitely earning it relative to my peers making similar or greater wages. The harder and better I worked, the more work I was given until I was context-switching so often that I wasn't getting anything done, and having to rapidly learn some very important boundary communication skills. I was also frequently busting my ass on projects that had no tangible outcome or were essentially vaporware projects from the get-go, which severely degraded my morale (maintaining Catalog QA sucked but at least I knew I was responsible for millions of products being listed correctly across our US and international sites on a daily basis so I had a sense of accomplishment with that).

My health deteriorated. I went to Europe for a vacation. I saw a whole different way to live, while at the same time I was beginning to explore Taoism. I decided, Hmm, I think I need to become a contractor - so I can do my highly efficient thing in fits and bursts with attainable goals and fixed end dates and then live on my excess money in the in-between times. That's what I did, and is what I've been doing for the last 5-6 years.

My contracts with MusicNet, Saltmine and Isilon have required various degrees of initial overhead while I came up to speed with the various technologies. Once I had the hang of it, though, I could slam through my tasks at 3-4 times the speed of the average of my peers without a lapse in quality. Gaby at Saltmine was at my level of focus and efficiency. Case at Isilon was heads above me. And most of the Isilon crew is pretty hard core too. But for the most part, I'm a rock star as long as I'm interested in what I'm doing and I understand how to do it. Why am I a rock star? Because it takes very little effort beyond focus, know-how and attention to detail. Easy. Done.

This often leaves me feeling like I make way too much money for what I do. I have always felt grossly overpaid, while at the same time often being underpaid by the industry standard. I have absolutely no complaints about this, of course, and have, I assure you, taken full advantage of it.

At all of my contracts and definitely at my salary positions, most of my immediate peers spend 2-4 hours per day surfing the internet and fucking around. Duri always called this "Presenteeism" - basically face time for a full 8 hours so no one knows that you were able to do your entire job for the day in 4 hours. I've never been willing to engage in Presenteeism. If I'm done with something in 6 hours, I'm done, I'll bill you for that, and then I'm out of there to enjoy my life for which I work.

For a long while, I've watched the software industry get bloated with middle men. The Purple Store is a great example of that - all the products we sold are already available, we're just the middle men who consolidate that availability to a focused target audience. Technically-incompetent (or worse! technically-competent) people are promoted to over-bored middle management who often, unfortunately, lack the technical acumen to make good big picture decisions about technology. (See again the top quote RE punishment vs. reward; if they're technically-competent, we're punishing them with an unfulfilling job, if they're technically-incompetent we're rewarding them with a promotion. wtf.)

These are just anecdotal observations from my personal experience, but I think all of these things when combined with the recent and ongoing lay-offs in the computer industry, are road markers for the beginning of a normalization in the computer industry which will cause it to be more like other skilled labor positions and no longer dilettante positions for hyper-focused geeks. I actually believe my days of making $65/hour have come to an end. I will be very happy, of course, if I'm wrong about that, but if I'm right, it was fun while it lasted.

It does cause me to ask myself: What would I like to do next? This at less pay, or something else?

Think global, act local: so, given that, how did we get into this economic depression?

As far as the economy as a whole goes, I can't speak to it. I got an F in Economics 101 the first time and a D the second time. It never made a bit of sense to me. I feel very much that the laws of Physics should not break down when it comes to money, and yet they do. You cannot create or destroy matter, but you can create or destroy money. My brain always just freezes right there and that's the end of talking MacroEconomics with me.

However, I love money, I get money, I'm good at money, on an individual level, and even on a small business level. And I want to be a controversial and self-righteous twit and assert that if more people adhered to my core monetary principles, we might not be in this national wreckage:

1. If you are in debt, your top spending priority (after basic cost of living) is paying off your debt. Full-stop.
2. Do not spend beyond your means / Do live within your means.
  A. Save up for things and buy them outright instead of charging for them.
  B. Only take out loans for things you need or which you feel you can pay off in a reasonable time frame. And as far as houses go, be pragmatic. If you're a single, childless man of 50, now's not the time to take out your first home loan for a 3-bedroom house in spendy Seattle. Rent. Consider housemates. Etc. Yes a house is an investment. And I hate to be a cunt here, and maybe I'm being naive and ignorant while I'm at it, but an investment is a gamble - I'm sure every home owner on my friends list has an opinion about this at the moment. Gambles are not actually guaranteed to be a positive outcome. If there's a positive outcome guaranteed in a gamble, somebody is full of shit. Hedge your bets.
  C. Don't file for bankruptcy. You fucked up, you own up. We're lucky in that debt is no longer a criminal offense and we no longer go to debt prison. We should be grateful for that. I can on some level comprehend bankruptcy for businesses, but for individuals? We can't destroy matter, we shouldn't be able to destroy money like that. All this hand-waving and magic words with money has always made me very nervous. I strongly believe in taking responsibility for our own actions, even "unfair" effects of causes like marrying some lying fool who charged up your credit card and disappeared to Guam. I lost more than $15k to Duri that I thought I would see again, and that was a very expense learning lesson, but an important one. I fucked up. (And sure, Duri chose not to keep his promise, but I'm still with the Japanese on this one: Fix the problem, not the blame.) Since Duri created the problem with my sanction and was unwilling to fix it, it was up to me to fix it. I think that's as it should be.

There are so many practical applications to #2 that I could really just kind of rant about this all day and probably manage to offend pretty much everyone on my friends' list at some point, heh. For instance, student loans, right? If you can't afford college, I feel strongly that either you should (1) not go until you can afford it or (2) pick a degree that will enable you to pay off your college debt. If you're taking out student loans to the tune of $20k per school year for your Jewelry-Making degree, I think you're a fucking idiot, and you're going to discover you're really bad with money and always in debt.

What I'm trying to say is... AIG did this, WAMU did that, the government does this ... look at what we're doing. We fucked up. Our entire "Keeping up with the Joneses" mentality has caught up with us, and we're fucked. If everybody is indebted to a bank for their mortgage, then money is a myth. Of course the whole system is going to collapse. The system was a myth, a mutually-agreed upon paradigm of bullshit to begin with. We have no gold standard. We have government-sanctioned bankruptcy. We have credit card offers out the ass.

Due to my ignorance around the 1099 filing, I'm going to be pretty badly in debt for awhile. It bothers me very much, but it will be my top priority to get that paid off and back to having money to exchange for the things I need and want.

In conclusion:

I hate Economics.

I love Money.

I'm probably wrong about some of this due to naivety and ignorance. Feel free to educate me, but if it's about macroeconomics, don't bother. Many a smart person has already tried and failed on that count, and it also happens that I don't care. What I'm interested in is how our daily and lifetime habits with money add up to create this level of crisis. The only question I'm interested in answering on this topic is, What can I do differently?


Updated to Add:
Get Back to Work - a TED Talk by Mike Rowe from Dirty Jobs courtesy of sarmonster.
Current Location: 98112
Current Mood: possibly opinionated
Schmischmi on March 18th, 2009 12:40 am (UTC)
I agree with almost everything you say, especially the part about being overpaid for the kind of work I do. I was talking to another engineer friend of mine the other day about this who commented that - "Trained monkeys can do our jobs." and it's pretty much true.

I'm actively *trying* to change this though - to seek out and do work that thrills me and makes me feel like I'm earning my keep, rather than pushing papers and going through the motions.
Schmischmi on March 18th, 2009 12:41 am (UTC)
Oh and you really inspired me when you told me about how you plan your life so that you have significant amounts of down time in a year. When I finally get my green card I'd love to factor in that kind of flexibility into my life.
Kburgunder on March 18th, 2009 12:43 am (UTC)
That makes me so happy to hear!
Kburgunder on March 18th, 2009 12:47 am (UTC)
Ha! I'm so glad to read this. When I saw your name as the first comment, I was all flinching to see how much you disagreed with me in a well-formulated scathing commentary with footnotes.

The core of everything I have to say here is stuff that Ayn Rand and I agree on, all Atlas Shrugged stuff. Maybe that core is what originally attracted you to it too? I find that the number one thing that repels me from Objectivism is ... Objectivists! I don't know what to do with the ones who want to Talk Objectivist Philosophy; I'm all - Uh, shouldn't you be, y'know, doing, instead of talking? Isn't that the whole point? Heh. (Says the girl who just totally posted philosophy, but in my defense, I'm also acting on all of said philosophy, uhm. O:> )
Schmischmi on March 18th, 2009 01:17 am (UTC)
To be honest, I agree with a lot of what Ayn Rand talked about in Atlas Shrugged. Dagny Taggart is still my hero. I firmly believe that catastrophes aren't a normal part of human existence. I believe that people should be compensated according to their abilities.

But - I also find that while her ideas are good at the core, they appear severely flawed because of the way she presents them. In her world the playing ground is equal for everyone and merit is all that matters. We do not live in such a world and the minute you stop recognizing that humans aren't machines divested from their emotions, her ideas fall apart.

Mind that I was a staunch Objectivist through most of my teenage years and early twenties. It's only when I started educating myself about feminism, LGBT issues, the civil rights movement, US hegemony in the economic world today that I started getting undeceived and needing a new philosophy.

Like you said - I greatly dislike Objectivists. The typical Objectivist to me is a young, white entitled male who does not realize the amount of privilege he has in being born male, born white and in a capitalist country that happens to be one of the richest in the world. Most Objectivists I have encountered have been completely close minded too - simply unable to compute a reality different from the one they have absorbed from Rand's writings. I didn't quite know how to peg you when you first mentioned that you were an Objectivist, so I let my past experience inform that statement.

Incidentally, the first time I realized that Ayn Rand was not perfect was when I read her essay called - "Why a woman could never become the President of the United States". I don't know if you've read it, but it calls out how women inherently because of their mental and biological makeup could never do such a job. Even at that age my ill-formed feminism trumped by well-honed Objectivism.

I could write pages about this. We should get together sometime and exchange thoughts.
Douglaschiaspod on March 18th, 2009 12:52 am (UTC)
Money isn't matter.
Money is a commonly accepted unit of barter.

But ultimately, it's just a symbol.

It is a symbol that has value because we accept it has value, and because others accept it has value. But money, truly, is no more material than an integer, or a letter, or a color.

If I tell you "I will work for one hour for one cookie" and you need the work and have the cookie, we're in business. But if you don't need the work, but have the delicious cookie, how am I to obtain it from you? I present to you a symbol of one hour's work that you can use some other time. Maybe it's a promissory note, saying "I, Douglas Taylor, will do one hour's work when you request." Or maybe it's something that you would work for one hour to obtain - flour, or oats, or sugar. Or maybe it's just a commonly-accepted symbol that you can take elsewhere to someone who also agrees that it's worth an hour of work, and get something of equal, mutually agreed-upon value.

Money's not matter. It's nothing more than a concept, discrete from the cloth it's printed on. If I hand you 20 quarters, or a $5 bill, or a check made out for $5 - they're different materials, different physical values, different manifestations. The only thing in common is the shared hallucination by society at large that each of those is "worth" the same thing.
Kburgunder on March 18th, 2009 12:58 am (UTC)
The only thing in common is the shared hallucination by society at large that each of those is "worth" the same thing.

Yes! That! That's a part of what I'm (ever so ineloquently) trying to get at. It's this totally freaky cascade of assumptions and delusions that boggles my mind. I start at the loan level with "but where did the $300k for the house come from?" and then I wind up staring at quarters and shaking my head in awe. I am, however, far less disquieted by the quarter than I am by the entirely intangible digital representation of $300k.

Would you say that back when we still maintained the gold standard, money had actual value? I say no, because the value of gold also requires a shared hallucination.
Douglaschiaspod on March 18th, 2009 12:59 am (UTC)
let me answer your question with a riddle:

To a man alone on an island, how much is an ounce of gold worth?
Kburgunder on March 18th, 2009 01:09 am (UTC)

I'm re-reading Atlas Shrugged right now and while I still mostly agree with the principles outlined in this book, I just got to one that made me laugh out loud:

"If you ask me to name the proudest distinction of Americans, I would choose - because it contains all the others - the fact that they were the people who created the phrase 'to make money.'"
- Francisco

I think Making Money by Terry Pratchett will cover it far better than I could, but I'm kind of increasingly of the mind that the concept of making money is inherently problematic. Like it implies an exponential curve that eventually gets totally out of control as it approaches infinity, hence inflation, hence all the macroeconomic crap that is over my head.

If the quote was about earning money, I'm totally behind that. But making money? Hmph.
Sarah: coffeesarmonster on March 18th, 2009 02:27 am (UTC)


I just watched this...and it kinda ties in, and it's awesome.

At my last wage job I was willing to admit that I was overpaid for what I was DOING most of the time, but I was underpaid for what I KNEW, so I was OK with that.

What bothered me the most is when I worked in the warehouse for a day when they had a big shipment and were short-staffed. Physically, these guys work 20 times harder than I do. They get paid less than half as much. Sure, they wouldn't know server-side from client-side, but I certainly didn't think it was fair.

Thats not going to be fixed until we have the kind of respect for hard labor jobs as we do for high knowledge or high responsibility jobs. I believe that wave will crest when out infrastructure's cracks become apparent.

I think $65 an hour is more than fair for someone of your knowledge and experience. With the price of the American dollar dropping, I think you'll easily be able to pull in that kind of money.
You just have to find clients that have ways to distribute the cost (say 5000 people want the software, or it saves them hiring two additional employees to maintain their data). How many people out there are learning what you know? I think we will become a valued generation. We don't sit in front of a magic box we only know a few things about. I think the generations on either side of us are end users. The older folks learned what they could to keep in the loop, the younger ones are going to have a hard time catching up, and they don't feel they need to-everything has an interface, you don't have to speak directly to the machine.

And BRAVO on gambling! So are stocks. So many people today saying they lost half their retirement value in the stock market. OK, you took it to Vegas, and while the odds were in your favor most of the time, it was still gambling.

#$(&*^#$ Student loans. I'd have been better off going to a community college to get my degree instead of AIS, but we pay for the dumb decisions we make at 18. Ah well, if I can come up with 8k, I'll be FREEE! And I look forward to that day.
Kburgunder on March 18th, 2009 02:35 am (UTC)
I think we will become a valued generation.

I hope so! I love my lifestyle and my reasonably-priced-only-for-Capitol-Hill apartment, and would ideally like to keep both.

I had to leave public university for awhile to do community college because I just couldn't swing tuition one semester, and I'll be damned if that wasn't a far better teacher:student ratio and passionate-teacher education than pretty much anything I experienced at KU. 18 seems like such an absurd age to make decisions like this ... I know I didn't stop reinventing the wheel, solving the same problems in my own sweet time, and didn't start listening to the wisdom of other people's experience until I was well into my 20s. Funny that we're all making decisions at that time that incur debt on us 15 years later... a lot of my 30 something friends are still paying off student loans.
Kburgunder on March 18th, 2009 03:04 am (UTC)
I fell in love with Mike Rowe for his brief cameo in Boom De Yada. I've been meaning to both: watch TED talks and avoid TED talks. The former, because they're important and inspiring, the latter, because of the obsessive watching factor. :)

Watching it now...
Kburgunder on March 18th, 2009 03:25 am (UTC)
I have the most fantastic chills.

Yep. Still in love with Mike Rowe.

It's funny, because, the first answers I had to the "What next?" question, for me... they're all hard labor of one kind of another, and then I think about the skills I lack. But the inclination is ... car mechanic, electrician, train mechanic (or, more fanciful: conductor), plane mechanic ...
Sarah: V cookingsarmonster on March 18th, 2009 04:26 am (UTC)
Being an electrician would be SO handy. If the opportunity comes up to get training, I'm all over it.

I once fancied being a car mechanic, but after fixing a few of my own to save money decided it was one of my least favorite chores.

I'm so hooked on the TED talks. Better than a crack habit or desperate housewives, anyway.

Rowe's awesome competes only with Stephen Fry & David Attenborough, IMHO.
junoimeldajunoimelda on March 18th, 2009 02:34 am (UTC)
Yep, I totally resemble the college remark. I was bitter for a long time after graduating because all the pretty words and the papers and the DJing and the goddamn useless Golden Key Society Membership did next to nothing to get me gainful employment. I was sheltered and naive and did not really take the time to educate myself or create a Post College Plan. Enjoyable and (occasionally) enlightening though college was, I should never have taken out those student loans - which I am STILL paying off. College, 3K square foot houses, luxury cars, have up to this point been considered necessary parts of life for a large chunk of the population. I learned the very hard way the difference between needs and wants.

I hope that our society changes as a result of this downturn. Up until very recently many people indulged in an orgy of consumption, truly to the point of sickness in my humble opinion. It's bad for the planet and clearly bad for the economy.

Kburgunder on March 18th, 2009 02:41 am (UTC)
I have the same wish. Ever since the Big Snowpocalypse, when I noticed the pace change and people being more accepting of early restaurant closures and empty shelves at the grocery store. "Yes," I thought to myself.

There are a lot of really good lessons to learn right now about community, ecology, moderation ... so here's to hoping everyone is paying attention and keeping a mindful eye on the bigger picture.

The more-more-more acquisition culture started really bothering me and I started making amends after I saw how the Dutch do Capitalism. My Very Nice Apartment is probably the biggest way in which I fall down, but oh how I love my Very Nice Apartment. And, Ok, my books. Heh. I only get to be a little bit self-righteous about going from 4 full size bookshelves in 2001 to 1.5 now given the rather creative ways in which I manage to fill that 1.5 shelves. O:>
Sarah: RVsarmonster on March 18th, 2009 02:57 am (UTC)
I felt completely out of place when I got back from Europe... Americans by comparison seem so decadent and wasteful. We just assume there's going to be another one for a couple bucks at the store. It took me a couple years to stop being outright offended by it, though I still think its wrong.

When I go Christmas shopping I always think "What does (person) need?" and the first thing that comes to mind is "A house fire." I feel bad getting rid of things, but it's so damn liberating once its done.

My current lifestyle doesn't allow for much of that, and I feel guilty throwing out or getting more Ziplock bags fer chrissake, I feel like I should wash and reuse the ones I have- fine if I'm storing cookies, but these had RAW CHICKEN in them. So I don't. I buy more every six months.
Kburgunder on March 18th, 2009 03:02 am (UTC)
Tim and I were talking about this the other day - his time in China, my time in Europe. The culture shock wasn't going there ... it was coming back.

I'm still awed by that.

It was like, I knew something wasn't right all these years and I got over there and said, "Ah." (in recognition and relief)

I love you so much for feeling guilt over the acquisition of new Ziplock bags. I'm coming to the end of my kitchen trash bags after living off a roll I bought more than two years ago and I know it's cheap but it's plastic and it's ... I'm dreading that purchase. I take it all that seriously, I do. *chagrin*

Dear Santa,

This year for Christmas I want a house fire, but don't kill any of the pets Ok.


(Yeah, someone needs to make a comic variant of that, clearly)
Schmischmi on March 18th, 2009 04:42 pm (UTC)
I'm glad I'm not the only one who has guilt issues about using plastic trash bags. :|
Schmischmi on March 18th, 2009 04:42 pm (UTC)
I solved the problem of using ziplock bags by substituting with glass containers.
Beththepresident on March 18th, 2009 02:39 am (UTC)
well, I have a BA in spanish (and a BS in environmental science) and now make more than my dad ever has in his life at a large computer company as a UNIX admin (i don't know if that proves anything other than I am not entirely retarded.) I think it doesn't really matter what you get your Bachelor's in - it's no measure of whether you actually have the skills to do anything in your field. a lot of the CS people at OSU didn't know shit.

as far as being paid a lot + student loans, hell yeah. I am putting 25% of my income towards student loans and attempting to put 25% towards savings. i have also never carried a balance on my credit card. at this rate I will be entirely out of debt in about 2 years (OMG!!!) :-) don't even have a car yet.

I figure after all my loans are paid off maybe I'll move to Costa Rica for awhile and work for my company there (I work closely with the people there as part of my job now, and I probably get to go on a business trip there in june. OH darn. ;-))

have you see getrichslowly.org? It's a really cool personal finance blog based in Portland.
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Kburgunder on March 18th, 2009 04:00 am (UTC)
I would be curious to hear how you think a business should have an avenue for avoiding paying bad debts, but individual private citizens should not.

It's a problem I can't figure out how to solve.

If the business is useless and has debt, who would pay the debt? The employees? The original owner(s)?

I'm all for plundering their assets for debt payment if they even have assets, but what more is to be done after that? Who takes on the burden of debt? Maybe it's just a gaping loophole in our corporate sanction of individual-non-accountability (which is in itself problematic in a whole horde of ways, see also Cube), but since it's there, I can't see how to solve the problem without having a concession for business bankruptcy.

This is the way in which I comprehend bankruptcy at the business level. It's not comprehension so much as, I can't wrap my head around it any other way.

Your thoughts?
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Kburgunder on March 18th, 2009 04:07 am (UTC)
Owning your own home with no mortgage drastically changes your required cost of living.

Absolutely. However, I know so few home owners without a mortgage that it's pretty much negligible. My parents are retired - Dad's 62, Mom will be 60 in September - and they still have a mortgage.

But this is all about that whole "be pragmatic" thing, right? If they're still paying off their mortgage in retirement, I'm not sure they made a pragmatic choice about which house to buy, and I'm not sure they made a pragmatic choice about ... that thing where you take out a loan against your mortgage, the name is utterly evading me at the moment, they did that. In my naive manner of thinking, it seems to me that the mortgage should be done by retirement so that fixed income coincides with reduced cost of living.

What is your temporal goal for being mortgage-free?
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Kriskfrye on March 18th, 2009 03:11 pm (UTC)
One of the issues with mortgages is the fantastic tax benefits you get when you have one. The government pays you money for having a mortgage (I got a crazy amount of money back from the state and feds after my first full year of owning a house). Once the mortgage is paid off, you lose the benefit.

You also get a bigger benefit for having a larger mortgage. This is one element in encouraging people to buy bigger and bigger houses, which then require more and more energy to heat and cool. As a side benefit, owning a house makes your job choices much more inflexible since it becomes difficult to move to another city, and also makes it much harder to move to a cheaper locale if you do lose your job. I think we need to do some major soul searching when it comes to home ownership in this country.
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Varnvarn_ix on March 19th, 2009 02:18 am (UTC)
Aside from the dubious wisdom of living on borrowed money -- after all, you need a place to stay and it's theoretically better to pay for something you're eventually going to own -- a house is an investment only as long as the prices of real estate are realistically increasing. Otherwise, it's something you need to maintain and is therefore a liability.