What are you, 12? There's no "deserves"

eyes on the prize (the prize is the distribution of resources throughout society)

Recently a Business Insider piece reported on The New York Times jumping into the subscription newsletter waters. And, once again, there was much gnashing of teeth.

Some people have fixated on the fact that the writer “revealed” Elizabeth Bruenig’s salary of $100,000 a year. We don’t actually know if that’s what she makes; the only people who do are those she chooses to tell and the brass at the Times. I am, in fact, very close with the Bruenigs and have no idea what she makes and would never ask, as 1) I don’t give a shit, 2) I’m her friend, not her accountant, and 3) fixating on other people’s individual salaries rather than the means and nature of distribution of salaries writ large is weird and counterrevolutionary. If you are a self-identified leftist getting mad about her salary, you are betraying a bourgeois concern with individual morality at the expense of the structural forces of capital. Do better.

But OK, people were interested in a Times staff writer (maybe) making $100,000. Amusingly, this interest was expressed in two forms: “Wow, she only makes $100,000? That’s so low” and “What, she makes $100,000? That’s so much.” Let’s take these separately.

So low. I keep telling the kiddos out there this, but it’s something they just don’t want to hear: the prestige and visibility of media and journalism routinely fools people into thinking that the reliable financial rewards are better than they really are. I say “reliable” because two journalists of similar career and prestige at the same publication can have the same nominal salaries but vastly different annual earnings. Trust me, there are big-name writers whose work you read every day whose writing is respected and widely read who also have part time jobs at Loews to make ends meet. Some of the most successful freelance journalists in the country are only financially viable because their spouse provides healthcare. And yet as I said our prominent journalist with the part-time job at Loews might have a career-similar peer who makes far more. That’s because that peer might have the right combination of skills, guile, and luck to get money from consulting or similar. I’ve mentioned this before but to pick an example some who are known as data science journalists make far more from their consulting gigs than from their journalism; the journalism is for personal fulfillment, marketing, and maybe a book deal.

The point is that you can’t assume at the beginning of your career that you’ll be like Journalist A and not like Journalist B, even if you genuinely believe that you are good at what you do. If you can get a UPS job and into the union you’ll have a vastly more stable financial situation and likely make a higher absolute salary as well. It’s just a question of what you value. Which is why you have to be authentically motivated by an actual passion for the act of writing (or reporting) itself. And have a tolerance for guff from internet randos. So, so much guff.

Any NYT staffer’s salary is the product of the many variables that determine market value, such as competition, experience, seniority, the union contract, and the financial health of the publication. That you assumed a staff writer would make more is, I think, a function of an industry that has been dining out on trading prestige for declining salaries for decades. The NYT can pay people worse, in many cases, than their peers, precisely because of that prestige, which for some is convertible into book contracts, speaking gigs, etc. The New Yorker is another Mount Rushmore publication but I believe it’s still the case that most of their writers are actually independent contractors rather than salaried employees and frequently do not receive health benefits. It’s a different, less remunerative era. What’s the “right” amount that journalists should make? Useless question. But one way or another, Tina Brown is not walking through that door, folks. (Walter McCarty, however, is walking through that door.)

So high. This is mostly the product of bizarre personal animus, but let’s take it seriously. Many seem to find a six figure income for someone in Bruenig’s position to be a lot. To which I would say… is it?

The Times is, after all, a career pinnacle, perhaps the career pinnacle. There are not more than a bare handful of publications that could plausibly be argued to be a step up, maybe the New Yorker. Many, many journalists have labored their entire careers to get a job at the Times, failed to get one, and regretted it for life. In an era of declining respect for mainstream media (and thank god) the name New York Times still inspires a touch of respect in most people. Of course, prestige is not earning power. But you’d think reaching the Mount Everest of your profession wouldn’t engender so much skepticism that you make a wage below the top 15% of the income spectrum. I mean, there are cops in this country that make $250,000 a year, and I don’t mean police chiefs or commissioners but much lower-level cops.

I am not at all here to argue that $100,000 is not a lot of money. It is objectively a lot of money. But it is not a lot of money for a particular person in a particular job. Not to sound like a Cato Institute guy but the market sets the price; trying to establish some sort of absolute criteria through which any particular salary can be said to make sense or not is useless. Complaining about someone’s salary in either direction invites a basic question: what is the “right” salary? $85,000? $115,000? $7.25 an hour? It’s a pointless conversation. A writer’s supporters will think they should make more, their detractors will think they should make less. The general problem here is pretty simple: people who should know better think there is some such thing as “deserves” when it comes to people’s salaries, and there isn’t. The entire concept is broken. Jeff Bezos doesn’t deserve $100 billion or whatever he’s up to, no. But he also doesn’t not deserve it. “Deserves” isn’t the problem. The problems with Bezos’s billions, among other things:

  1. They are derived from the rate of exploitation - that is, they are the product of labor’s work which labor does not receive, and

  2. The concentration of capital in his hands reduces the available amount of money in a system that, while not fixed and in fact constantly growing, still has a finite practical capacity, meaning that there is less for everyone else to acquire and use on basic needs rather than yachts or whatever, and

  3. The principle of declining marginal utility means that the value of Bezos’s money is far lower than it would be to the thousands and thousands of people to whom it could be redistributed.

Some could look at any argument against inequality and assume that it’s an argument about just deserts. It isn’t. Arguments against economic inequality are perfectly sensible and compelling when derived from entirely amoral pragmatic considerations, such as the impossibility of meeting minimal quality of life thresholds for some when inequality is too high, the inevitable resulting corruption of political equality, and the aforementioned concerns of declining marginal utility, among others.

For intellectual consistency I must point out that while a homeless person doesn’t deserve their income either, they also don’t not deserve it as well. That is not a justification of their situation, but the opposite. The basic point of being a leftist is precisely to argue that financial security, material comfort, and the potential for human flourishing are not deserved at all. Everyone is owed them regardless of their value, whether that value is monetary or moral or otherwise. It happens that I don’t believe in moral just deserts in general, but that’s a different topic. The point to emphasize is that you don’t need to believe in “deserves” as a meaningful economic concept to believe that all people are entitled by moral principle to economic security. This entitlement stems from beliefs about what human beings are universally entitled to, no different from the way that we believe that all humans are entitled to not be sold into slavery. You are owed a safe, comfortable, fulfilling life. You don’t deserve it.

(This inherently morality-laden language of economic deserts is especially annoying when expressed by self-described Marxists, who apparently didn’t read enough Tumblr posts to learn that Marxist economics are expressly amoral in general and unconcerned about what any individual worker makes from selling their surplus value, but what are you going to do.)

Now I hate to say it but this is leading me into more Substack discourse. It continues to shuffle on, somehow, zombie-like. I already wrote a brief thing trying to answer the annoyingly persistent question, “Why is Writer X making money on Substack?” The answer is because writing is sold in a market. If enough people want to pay for that writing, the writer will be financially successful; if not, not. As I will continue to say, when people get mad about Writer X’s financial success, it makes no sense to get mad at Substack or any other platform. Writer X is as successful as the size of their audience and the percentage of that audience that is willing to pay. What drives anger over this state of affairs? For years people in media have operated under professional conditions that make popularity among other people in media the most important criterion for professional success. You know “It’s know what you know, it’s who you know"“? In media it’s the same, except it’s more like “It’s not what you know, it’s who shared their blow.” Direct-to-consumer platforms violate these norms, and thus attract the anger of those who feel like they played by the rules and lost.

A platform can make some impact on a writer’s audience through discovery tools, but Substack’s discovery tools are meager at best. Writer X is most likely successful because they had an audience before coming here and that audience followed them. (Before you start yelling about Substack Pro, let me once again point out that many or most Substack Pro writers are, like me, projected to earn out their advances, meaning Substack will be making a profit on those one-year deals - in other words, a perfectly ordinary exchange of security for profit has been made between a business and an independent contractor. Happens all the time.) You can certainly make a critique that people starting out might have an unrealistic picture of how hard it will be to achieve financial viability, but a) it’s not like a beginner making $22,000 a year with a Must-Live-in-Bushwick clause in their contract with FuckBuzz is secure either and b) Substack’s single highest earner was not famous (writer famous) when she started. It’s the writer, not the platform. The Substack wars are really the why-do-people-pay-for-this-guy’s-writing wars, but Substack is a coherent and convenient target.

It continues to not be complicated for me: I have carefully built an audience for almost 15 years. They have followed me through hardship and scandal. New people get on board daily because they like what I say and the way I express it. The audience is pretty small but they are loyal and an unusually high percentage of them are willing to pay to support my work. You are entitled to not understand why they would like my writing or want to pay money so I can write more of it. (Not “pay for more of it.” The subscriber posts are a gift of thanks and a gesture of loyalty, not an inducement to buy. They pay because they want my writing to exist for everyone, including them.) But honestly, “why do people buy [product]?” discussions are tiresome and pointless. The answer is always “because they are them, and you are you, and you are not the cosmos.” Why do people buy jeans with holes in them?!? It’s a mystery! Mind your business. I don’t go around yelling at people who can’t get enough of “These Twelve Gifs of Shaq Explain the Works of Gloria Anzaldua,” do I? You sell your writing and I’ll sell mine. I respect your right to dislike my writing. But I don’t work for you.

The new thing is to say that Substack is a bubble or a pyramid scheme. These claims might be compelling if they had content, but they don’t. I have not even seen an attempt at a meaningful argument why either of these claims are true. As far as I can tell, people think Substack is a bubble because there is a certain threshold of people out there with the cash and the inclination to subscribe to a newsletter. Well, I mean, yes, that’s true. There is a certain (though fluctuating) size of any market, and that size is subject to the influence of the overall economy; I certainly expect that in a recession I will see a hit to my subscription revenue. But there is also a certain amount of capacity for sales of Toyota Corollas in the economy. Does that mean they’re a bubble? The idea that market saturation is the same thing as a bubble is just… well, it’s disturbing that people who gather information for a living would think this.

Certainly, if you’re an individual writer debating making the leap to a newsletter, then the amount of competition and market saturation is a consideration. But the market is malleable. I assure you, if Jia Tolentino took the truly fat stacks she was offered, as I have heard - not from someone inside Substack, for the record - she would get subscriptions no matter how many people are in the newsletter market. Because she’s very popular. Even a saturated market will find room for a product that many consumers want to purchase? That’s crazy. What a country!

The pyramid scheme claim makes even less sense. It’s a pyramid scheme… why? Again, they reference the fact that there’s only a certain capacity in the market for people willing to pay $5/month for a newsletter. But again, so what? What makes that a pyramid scheme? Successful newsletters will capture more of that available market; unsuccessful newsletters will capture less. The market will shrink or expand, consumers within the market will prioritize some newsletters over others, the market will decide. I don’t even see how this is a Ponzi scheme by metaphor. If Substack had said that in order to get paid I’d have to get ten other writers to start Substacks, and that I’d get a piece of their earnings, that would be a pyramid scheme! But, well, they didn’t do that. They said “we build the infrastructure, you do the writing, we’ll give you an advance and a cut of the subscriptions the first year, after that you keep 90 and we keep 10.” If enough people continue to want to pay for my writing, I’ll be a professional writer; if they don’t, I’ll get a job at Chili’s and I’ll probably be happier. Right now I can live comfortably if I never make an additional dime a year in subscriptions, and I’m very grateful. (And I should pay higher taxes.) If Substack’s revenues from their cut of all subscription money exceeds their costs, they’ll be profitable. If they don’t, they won’t. Math!

Here’s what is really happening: as I keep saying, media is in bad financial shape and people in media are angry and scared. This is the product of the industry, the economy, and capitalism. But it’s hard to direct anger at that type of incorporeal target, so they are directing it at Substack, which has helped make some writers financially successful and which, for various sociocultural reasons, has attracted a number of writers like me who are antithetical to the social culture of professional journalism. The problem is that Substack remains a tiny part of the overall media landscape; were Substack to close its doors tomorrow, any given writer in traditional media would not see their job security or salary improve in any way. It is OK to be angry when you are facing economic hardship, but I would hope adults would be able to recognize that there are more and less constructive ways to express that anger.

The reality is

  1. You don’t like Substack Writer X for petty personal reasons you dress up as political crusade or as professional anxiety.

  2. You want their life to be harder rather than easier because you don’t like them.

  3. The money they are earning that is facilitated by Substack’s platform (not paid for by Substack) makes their life easier.

  4. Therefore you are mad at Substack for that facilitation.

OK, fine. But, like, Substack Writer X’s mom also makes their life easier. So does internet porn, Valium, and the Mets. Like Substack, none of these things a) actually hurt your life or b) are the reason for Substack Writer X’s success. You can ponder the ineffable question of why people like things you don’t for the rest of your life. Or you could just do good work. I write tens of thousands of words on topics ranging from why everyone is actually exhausted to The Giving Tree to the Nation of Islam to Instagram feminism to the charter school scam to atheism after the New Atheists (coming Monday!). Don’t like it? Write better shit, man. Or get mad online. It’s up to you. My people will support me, and I earned that.