• Joey Lee
    author

Wages are Subnormal If

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This weekend I went to the Museum of the City of New York and learned about the history of New York, how the city developed after settlement and land that New York City is situated on. The exhibit covered a long history of the region from the 1600s up through 2012, situating much of the city's history in terms of Density, Diversity, and Money.

A particular section of the exhibit stuck out to me which covered the period of 1929-1941 & New York's New Deal. In a audio-video piece of Theodore Roosevelt, he says in a speech:

We stand for a living wage. Wages are subnormal if they fail to provide a living for those who devote their time and energy to industrial occupations. The monetary equivalent of a living wage varies according to local conditions, but must include enough to secure the elements of a normal standard of living-a standard high enough to make morality possible, to provide for education and recreation, to care for immature members of the family, to maintain the family during periods of sickness, and to permit of reasonable saving for old age. - TR

What stuck out to me was the bit about a wage that is "high enough to make morality possible." I just wanted to write some notes about why this stuck out to me in the context of current discussions around tech ethics.

When this quote was made, the discussion was framed around making sure that low-wage workers do not have to work unethically or do amoral things to make a living. This hasn't changed since there still are low-wage, low-income folks in the world. However, what prompted my curiosity was actually how high-wage workers are similarly driven to work amorally or unethically based on a standard of living that allows for moral ambiguity. Surely not all high wage positions result in amoral behaviors - most definitely not. Many high earners act in the best interest of the world and in the service of others and the planet. However, my focus here is to highlight a particular moment in time where tech workers - who exercise a lot of power and have the possibility to affect many people - are incentivized by high wages to operate in a morally ambiguous territory.

Incentives to act morally

The first thing that came to mind from that audio segment was thinking about this quote from Mike Monteiro's, Ruined by Design which quotes an anonymous employee from Facebook:

This got me to thinking about a remix of Teddy Roosevelt's saying to something like:

Wages are beyond normal if they succeed in providing a standard of living which make morality ambiguous.

I've been reflecting on why the Teddy Roosevelt quote has struck me to scribble down these notes and ideas. Ultimately, for me it has reinforced these questions about why morality is often pitted against a living wage or why we even need to make calculations about "doing the right thing" and making a living. With the far reaching impacts that tech products have in our lives (e.g. like Facebook products or AI base recidivism algorithms), I can't help but think about how "doing the right thing" is not as much about making enough to live, but rather more than enough to turn the other cheek.