waging war on salary

Everything is rooted first in an idea. Seldom are things what they are–seriously, it is what it is is a phrase that needs to be obliterated outright–rather, they are anchored by presupposition, predicate events, definitions, etc.

The present is inextricably linked to the past. Nothing exists in a vacuum. (Come to think of it, isn’t that a brilliantly redundant sentence?)

With recent fiat regulatory changes to the nature of pay for exempt (read: salaried) work authorized by the erstwhile presidential administration, then stayed by a federal judge in Texas, the nature of exempt versus non-exempt work briefly became a point of conversation. In short, exempt workers earning less than $47,476 in salary were to be paid overtime as though they were non-exempt (read: wage-earning) workers.

The first glance take by many was, ‘Cool! MONEEZ!’ And that would make sense, since, hey, who doesn’t like more money? In a sustained economic climate of flat average wages and inflation, it could be seen as government throwing the gray collared class a bone.

A deeper look at the matter, though, showed the rule change for what it is: a bureaucratic and logistical nightmare for businesses and employees. Employees who were not adjusted to above-threshold pay levels would essentially lose their exempt status, the trade-off for more money being meticulously tracking time as though they were not salaried at all. Employers artificially bumped entire sectors of their business, creating a new, unintended impact to the bottom line, putting some employers in a position where they had to cut payroll to keep the books level.

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[Hmmm? Oh, I didn’t say anything. Sorry.]

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These kinds of wholesale changes are almost unilaterally nothing more than cynical pandering. Attempts to jack the minimum wage don’t just cause headaches for small business owners, but they push entire segments of the workforce closer to poverty as the other mechanisms are triggered within the economy adjust to the new baseline. Flat wages lend themselves to flat revenues; starve someone long enough and they’ll eat anything that looks like food. (Hey, they’ll get your vote, too.)

And this is what happens when we fundamentally misunderstand wage and salary. This is neither an economic nor math problem: arbitrarily rewriting numbers higher–even for the most well-intentioned (assuming noble motivation) reasons–does nothing productive when we don’t even comprehend what it is being changed.

Salary and wage are ideas. Salary is more or less an allowance: rooted in the Roman military tradition of paying salt-money in exchange for continued service. It is a forward-thinking payment that sets out to make above and beyond work worth a person’s while. Wage, on the other hand, is a reward for work already done. It is recompense for the past.

Salary, in essence, buys off a person’s commitment to a standard schedule where it is made worth a person’s while to not be confined to a shift. Wage, in contrast, is offered with clearer baseline expectations. (Anyone else ever work in an environment where overtime was discouraged, if not penalized?)

Neither are necessarily bad: some people prefer income stability, while others prefer the budgeted schedule and the chance at making a little more here and there. Some employers prefer people to not worry about the clock, others need to maintain a bottom line. It depends on the business and type of activities within it.

The problem is that workers and managers alike also seem to misunderstand this as much as, if not more than, government bureaucrats and the wage-hike cheerleaders. Salary is not designed to be abused and make people work 50-70 hour work weeks; that is an abuse of workforce and bad faith. Similarly abusive are environs where workers are either subjected to repressed wages or otherwise obligated to work overtime on a regular basis.

Simply jacking salary or wage numbers doesn’t address the actual problems however far beneath the surface. Raising the exempt overtime threshold, or the minimum wage, does not reconcile anything.

If anything, it amplifies fundamental misunderstandings and makes bad situations worse: a jerk of an entrepreneur who expected 80 hours of work per week from an exempt employee for $40,000 will expect that much more from someone when they have been required a nearly 20% raise by bureaucratic decree. That same jerk will either cut working hours or workforce entirely when wage obligations reach an unsustainable level. These are not merely math problems: they’re philosophical problems.

The part about Smith’s Wealth of Nations that people seem to overlook is that the name of the book has nothing to do with capital or capitalism. He’s pretty clear on this point, before laying out–in most comprehensive detail–his capitalist treatise: the wealth of nations is in the goodness of its people. The title is an irony. And, while I quickly veer away from the partisanship and rancor and cause all gradation of grundy such as whenever terms like ‘capitalism’ or ‘socialism’ are implied or invoked, the point I’m making is that if we understand what we’re dealing with, we stand a far better chance of actually solving problems, and doing so together. Further, I believe this is particularly true in matters of compensation.

A good and wise business owner will treat her employees with goodness and wisdom in all respects. Granted, this doesn’t happen much, but when the conditions are such that ownership is obligated to conform to a standard, the ability to demonstrate goodness or wisdom is also  necessarily restricted.

So, then, this is how we ought to interpret broad-stroke regulatory changes like the one currently stayed: as a capricious restriction on our ability to be better. The bigger check makes for stronger chains. The law brings death, and that which is dead is connected to nothing at all.

Graves have no roots. Those in them don’t get paid, either.

on suffering

Pain is a good and necessary thing.

This not to say it is good, which is to say that pain is itself pleasurable (ummm…unless that’s your thing, in which case, thanks for reading?), but that its utility is essential to living: the presence of pain or discomfort is the body identifying something wrong in its systems.

Undoubtedly, you’ve heard this before. Pain is a megaphone, so on and so forth.

Suffering is endurance of a burden: the long, drawn-out affliction. It is not pain, rather pain extended. It consumes; you know when you’re flat on your back with the flu, the room spinning around and you’re trying to remember what it’s like to not writhe and wretch.

Wholeness becomes a faint memory as suffering floods the mind and soul. Suffering is then the converse of wholeness. Wholeness turned upside down.

Be it physical, emotional or mental, it is unfathomable to those who are well, as wellness is to the one who suffers.

Within this rubric, emotional pain and suffering is reflective of a lack of emotional wholeness; often, the absence of love in loss, in being unrequited or in abandonment. Suffering becomes the test of one’s capacity for love.

Blessed are those who suffer, for they could love more than this world would ever allow. Blessed all the more are those who suffer gladly, for they never let suffering consume their joy.

Would that we retained such joy. Would that I had such joy.

why is this ok? a review of band of horses’ 2016 lp

packshot

Why Are You OK, 2016, Interscope

I’m admittedly a sucker for Band of Horses. I say this while also saying that they haven’t released a single record I can listen to from beginning to end.

The closest, 2007’s Cease to Begin, is about 70% enjoyable, with a few cuts that were completely redeemed in 2013’s sublime Acoustic at the Ryman bootleg. On the other hand, Infinite Arms, their 2010 LP on Columbia, was easily one of the worst record buys I’ve made in my adult life. Even after a trusted, close friend insisted it rewards repeated listens, I couldn’t do it.

I discovered Acoustic at the Ryman this past fall and it rekindled my love for Ben Bridwell and company, so much so that I decided to give their recent records more consideration. And here we are, with what might be the most mixed feelings I’ve ever had about a record.

First, let’s get the obvious out of the way. Several reviews out there have noted how much of an artistic risk or expansion OK is, and they’re right. After some time in Columbia’s wilderness, Bridwell’s new overlords were Grandaddy’s Jason Lytle and Rick Rubin. The latter makes sense; Rubin has a proven resume of catapulting, reinventing, rejuvenating or otherwise resurrecting artists and acts.

When you put OK on, you think you’re listening to the former. To me, that’s a problem. Lytle’s aesthetic is all over this record, and heavily so. Grandaddy, a cynical, coarse alt-synth social commentary on modern life often got so wrapped up in its own distorted, sardonic vision of .com America that it parodied itself. Band of Horses is nothing if not a straight-ahead indie rock with a twist of Dixie thrown in for good measure. The result here is what amounts to a split LP that leaves the listener wondering if the sum of Bridwell’s career is merely that he’s an avatar through which his producers have their way.

The opening track, ‘Dull Times/The Moon’, is a droning seven-minute fraternal, conjoined twins track that encapsulates everything that is to come: the front end is an ephemeral electronic lull against hollow, strummed guitars; the back a country-fried genuine rock and roll cut. How the two decided to become one are a complete mystery.

‘Solemn Oath’ is a bright, jangly sound paired against what might or might not be the existential tension between the freedom of bachelordom and a contemplation of what vows like ‘for better or worse’ can mean. A song with such catchy hooks (Bridwell and company ought not be burdened with such dark and cynical lyrics. Such is Lytle’s hallmark, subtle melody with decidedly unsubtle wordplay.

‘Hag’ is what I consider to be the first real Band of Horses cut on the record. Even with the synth work acting as a foundation, the song is an aching, four-minute ballad to love and doubt that would/could/should be handed off to an artist like Damian Jurado to make my eyes drown my face in tears. The live cut performed at WFUV and posted to YouTube should be considered definitive, but the album cut is respectable and carries its own weight.

I publicly decided that, hereafter, ‘Casual Party’ is my anthem for every social engagement I will ever attend. A taut, playful and perfectly crafted pop-rock song, it represents the best of the Lytle-Bridwell collaboration, lyrics that don’t act as a wet blanket against arrangement that invites the listener into the song. Then there’s the video. Ummm, yeah. The video. Video notwithstanding, ‘Casual Party’ mercilessly assaults cocktail hour conversation, and I can’t love it enough.

Then, GOOD GOD ALMIGHTY! THAT’S J MASCIS’ MUSIC! Lytle strikes again with a synth beat and the one song on the record that truly rewards repeated listens. And J Mascis inexplicably sings the chorus. It took probably 27 listens before I realized I really liked ‘In a Drawer’.

After a halftime interlude that might as well be a throwaway cut from Grandaddy’s Sumday, we approach the first really unapproachable song on the record. There’s nothing inherently wrong with ‘Lying Under Oak’, beyond that it just doesn’t connect with the listener.

We then get south of the Mason-Dixon with ‘Throw My Mess’, a rollicking fun three-minute cut that is way more enjoyable than it ever should be on a record where it absolutely doesn’t belong. I refer you back to the WFUV session for the definitive version of ‘Whatever, Wherever’, a gorgeous, contemplative little tune devoted to devotion that plays to the band’s strengths while Lytle’s light hand at the controls makes for a solid contribution to the record.

‘Country Teen’ takes us back south, with a little countrypolitan thrown in for good measure; a track that could probably be dropped on a Nash-Vegas FM radio station right now and be in heavy rotation by Tuesday. Another tune that has no business being on this record, but shines in the homestretch. Everything ‘Country Teen’ is, ‘Barrel House’ isn’t: the penultimate track just rings hollow and seems like a cut that might or might not have been on cusp of B-side status.

Then there’s the record’s pensive final cut, ‘Even Still’. Band of Horses has done this before, sneaking a gem in at the end of the record (‘St. Augustine’, on their 2006 debut record.) Rich with religious imagery–on its face unfazed by its confrontation with the divine, yet for those with ears to hear, brutally soul-baring; ‘let this cup pass from me’ comes to mind–and evocative vignettes of the unflinching upshots of failing companionship, ‘Even Still’ is a devastating closing cut that embraces the Lytle-Bridwell hybrid but hints that this might be where the group heads from here. This is not an avatar, as odd as that seems. While it would be just as at home on a Grandaddy record as it is here, it’s decidedly Bridwell’s work.

With so many tracks that either don’t work, are better elsewhere or otherwise seem like an impersonation of the guy in the booth, it’s hard to say I like Why Are You OK. I like songs on it, but I can’t say I like it. I also can’t say I can put it down and put it away like other Band of Horses records. The artistic risks for the most part don’t work: the best songs are the ones where it’s clearly Bridwell at the helm. A tantalizing, frustrating release, with moments that shine and others where reach exceeds grasp.

That said, if ‘Even Still’ is a bellwether for future releases, then OK acts as a dark night of the soul for Band of Horses, with hope for future output to take on more artistic, expansive themes and rescuing them from potential middle-aged mediocrity. Also knowing that the boys are adept at reworking these tunes–and earlier cuts, as well–to be more at home in their Carolina neck of the woods gives one reason to believe that there is an emerging artistic versatility that will only benefit the group moving forward.

briefly, pen on paper

A pen on paper cannot write.

It will not pen words that will help a child to read. That pen will not inspire thousands to action. It will not move millions to tears. It will not inspire on screen re-imagining, nor will it string together words to which crowds will sing along in joyous unison.

A pen on paper will not earn awards or accolades. It will not write Paradise Lost. It won’t even write Fifty Shades of Grey. It will not incite horror or laughter, joy or sorrow, pain, pleasure, political statement, psalm.

A pen on paper will not break your heart. It will not seek forgiveness. It will not incite war. It will not wage peace. It will not plead for justice or declare independence. It will not help explain the universe, challenge convention or articulate new ideas. It will not spur innovation, unveil corruption or defend the marginalized.

A pen on paper will not persuade you to vote for one candidate or another. Or neither.

That pen on paper will not help a young family buy a house, an athlete sign a contract, an executive hire or fire an employee, an employee accept a promotion. It will not sign the check that will make the last payment on debt. It will not twist words to deceive. It will not speak truth to power.

It will not encourage a student to study harder and live up to potential. It will not call another student to task for cheating. It will not do any of that for teachers, either. It is neither good nor evil; it is both reflection and extension of whoever wields it. Wielded like a weapon, for attack or defense, use or abuse.

A pen on paper cannot do anything.

The same may be said for a gun.

briefly, on getting used to very long commutes

For the past ten months, my day job has gotten me up at roughly 5 AM, on the road somewhere between 6.15 and 6.30 (or, umm, not, see also: morning, this) and in the office’s door before an 8 AM start.

At first, this was great! I love driving (when gas prices aren’t as prohibitive as they have been for the past ten years) and traveling and figured this would slay the avian wanderlust and provide opportunity to clear my head going in and coming back.

It was a lie–noble, but a lie nonetheless. And it worked for a while; it was great to be back amongst the gainfully-employed and I did indeed come to work focused and the drive home was cathartic.

When summer gave way to fall, and fall to winter, that eager approach gave way to prolonged yawns, frustrated stumbles out of bed, and that 70-mile drive from point A to point B became familiar, boring and countered any sense that it could be a good thing.

I hate the drive to work now. I like what I do–moreover, I very much like the team I work with, and I very much like getting paid–but I’m up too early, here too long, go home too late and get to bed later than I should.

Then there are the beans. Those wild, weed-esque beans. I’ve missed so much in missing three hours a day to the road. They grow faster, miss me more, get that much more hyper when I get home and just want to breathe for a moment (and wife-mama needs to .)

Well, our circumstances are changing. We just had an offer accepted on our first home and in a few weeks, I’ll be roughly two-thirding my commute.

I spent a long lunch today signing roughly 1038945790183470985 pages of paperwork with our lender and celebrated the fact my hand didn’t fall off with one of those deliciously generic cheesesteak sandwiches at the nearby mall. Behind me, in between sizable bites of chicken teriyaki sandwich and malt vinegar-laden fresh fries, was a toddler and her mama. I overheard one of those sentences virginal to all save the parents of littles, something along the lines of, ‘Don’t eat that off the floor! That’s icky!’

I could hear wife-mama saying it. I could hear myself saying it. And I smiled, in the way only bittersweet parents who sacrifice far too much of their time for their families know how. I’ve missed so much of this, the insanity of child-rearing, the naive madness of children. Days of the month lost to the road.

I turned, and saw mother and child, seated at a tiny table, turned back to the doors and made my way back to my car, to the road, to work.

The sacrifice is worth it. For many reasons–for three, for one, for all of the above.

Even so, I miss my kids.