Prestige Jobs Don’t Pay

Sign dollar and the books on scales. 3D image.Matt Yglesias smacks down Leon Wieseltier for his suggestion that the Internet is a chief reason writers are paid so little.  In addition to rightly pointing out that a lot of bloggers make more money than the junior staff at prestige outlets like Wieseltier’s New Republic, he makes a surprisingly capitalist argument for a fellow at a left-of-center activist group:

People are going to get paid what other people want to pay them. The New Republic exists because its owners are willing to subsidize a money-losing magazine. When they become less willing to subsidize losses, there need to be cutbacks. And it’s been a money-losing magazine forever, just as The Atlantic has. On the internet you have some sites (like the ThinkProgress family) that are supported by donors, and others that are supported by ad revenue. The staff gets paid what they get paid—in a nonprofit context it’s determined by donors’ willingness to support things, and in a for-profit context it’s determined by the volume of ad revenue that comes in. I don’t really know what whining is supposed to accomplish.

I couldn’t agree more.

I’ve never held a job where I thought I was making too much money.  Quite the contrary! I’ve worn many hats:  Army officer, college professor, book editor, defense contractor, and think tanker.   All of them pay better than a lot of other jobs I could have had but not as much as other jobs I could have gotten.  But, alas, the jobs that paid more were either uninteresting to me, led to a much lower quality of life, or both.  So, I worked in jobs that provided psychic rewards and generally (but not always!) avoided grumbling about the fact that other people made more money.

Recall Ricky Nelson’s quip that, “if memories were all I sang, I’d rather drive a truck.”   Certainly, long haul truckers make more money than most college professors or opinion writers.  But we didn’t turn to teaching or writing because we’d been turned down for truck driving school.  Money ain’t everything.

TNR pays promising young writers next to nothing because they can.   Despite very low wages, I would wager they have dozens if not hundreds of applicants for every job.  Because it’s TNR and provides not only a venue for expression but the imprimatur of a venerable magazine to validate that the writer must be worth reading.  It’s hard to put a price tag on that.

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James Joyner
About James Joyner
James Joyner is Professor and Department Head of Security Studies at Marine Corps University's Command and Staff College and a nonresident senior fellow at the Scowcroft Center for Strategy and Security at the Atlantic Council. He's a former Army officer and Desert Storm vet. Views expressed here are his own. Follow James on Twitter @DrJJoyner.

Comments

  1. BorderPundit says:

    “It’s hard to put a price tag on that.”

    Oh, I don’t know. Even in the environment of low pay for writers, there could be something tangible, if not blatantly capitalistic, even in left-leaning or non-profit publications. I’m not sure what you’d call it: anticipated income? delayed compensation? resume padding??

  2. Jim Henley says:

    My beloved and much-missed brother-in-law was a goldsmith who turned his garage into a home workshop some years ago. Afterward he joked that, “My mother always told me, stay in school or you’ll end up having to dig ditches for a living. Then I found out how much I had to pay to dig a ditch” to run cables and pipes into his new workshop.

  3. James Joyner says:

    My beloved and much-missed brother-in-law was a goldsmith who turned his garage into a home workshop some years ago. Afterward he joked that, “My mother always told me, stay in school or you’ll end up having to dig ditches for a living. Then I found out how much I had to pay to dig a ditch” to run cables and pipes into his new workshop.

    Yup. It’s amazing how much it costs to get unskilled or even semi-skilled labor done. And skilled craftsmen, like even mediocre plumbers and electricians, make more money than most white collar jobs requiring graduate degrees.

    Some people who’d rather be doing that kind of work might not know that. But most of us are reasonably aware that we could make more money doing those sort of jobs but have no interest in doing them.

  4. KipEsquire says:

    Same with taxpayer funding of the arts: The reason there are so many “starving artists” is because most artists stink.

    That is simply not a “market failure.” It is in fact a market success — which “enlightened” snobs in government promptly quash with PBS, NPR, the National Endowments for the Gobbledygooks, etc.

  5. Michael Reynolds says:

    Kip:

    Michelangelo, Brunelleschi, Rafael, DaVinci — all government-sponsored artists. Maybe the problem isn’t government but small “d” democratic government. Too many congressmen from Cowchip Montana, too few Medicis.

  6. Mr. Prosser says:

    It would be interesting to see how long a fledgling writer stays at a particular magazine or institute. BorderPundit is probably correct. Where did the various columnists of the day get their start? As an aside, I would agree a backhoe operator makes good money when he or she works but generally work isn’t that steady, especially for an independent contractor. Do long-haul truckers really make more money than professors? They should, I guess, driving a rig on I-70 in the Colorado Rockies in January ain’t no picnic.

  7. john personna says:

    I think you are describing a different part of the supply and demand formulation: Do what you love, but maybe not if too many other people love it too. Or, of your list of things that you love, sort them for things “under-subscribed” in the market.

    (My lesson was that in the 80’s I kept sending resumes to Macintosh programming jobs. They’d say “you already make how much?” in real-time. It took me a couple cycles to figure out that real-time programming wasn’t so bad.)

  8. James Joyner says:

    Michelangelo, Brunelleschi, Rafael, DaVinci — all government-sponsored artists. Maybe the problem isn’t government but small “d” democratic government. Too many congressmen from Cowchip Montana, too few Medicis.

    I’m not sure that hereditary rulers able to co-opt state funds to their own ends can be justified on the basis that they occasionally fund good artists. Especially when the funding is for their own benefit, with the public benefit centuries later as a happy accident.

  9. Michael Reynolds says:

    I’m confident that Florentines in the 15th century were very pleased by Brunelleschi’s duomo. It engendered quite a lot of civic pride and had the added advantage of totally kicking Siena’s ass in the annual dome-off.

    And what man has ever gazed up at Michelangelo’s David and not nudged his wife and said, “See? I’m actually huge.”

    Against that we have the free market’s notions of art as exemplified by the sorts of things free marketeers hang on hotel walls and in the lobbies of their offices.

  10. sam says:

    Maybe the problem isn’t government but small “d” democratic government. Too many congressmen from Cowchip Montana, too few Medicis.

    Heh.

    Don’t be so gloomy. After all it’s not that awful. Like the fella says, in Italy for 30 years under the Borgias they had warfare, terror, murder, and bloodshed, but they produced Michelangelo, Leonardo da Vinci, and the Renaissance. In Switzerland they had brotherly love – they had 500 years of democracy and peace, and what did that produce? The cuckoo clock.

  11. JKB says:

    Back when I sailed research vessels, I had scientist (Masters, PhD or maybe several) ask me why the Engineers (most of ours had come up from the bilge and weren’t maritime school grads) got paid so much. My undiplomatic reply was because we needed them. Scientists were a dime a dozen. Not to mention if you break down a thousand miles from anywhere, engineers are worth their weight in gold since you develop a deep need to not be lost at sea.

    The markets reward value. Engineers provided value at the basic level. No one was going anywhere without them.

    It is true that bloggers have impacted the wages of writers. Mostly, because many “writers” aren’t aware their value wasn’t in their writing ability but in their “knowledge” gained through investigation or observation. Now that it is simple to access the insight of knowledgeable people working in a field, the “writer’s” value has declined. We’ll forgive a little grammatical imprecision to access greater depth of understanding. So if your skill is only in writing and not in the field of interest or you don’t have personal observation, then having experts blogging does reduce the amount people will pay to be eloquently informed of superficial details about a subject of which you have only cursory knowledge.