killers vs. chillers

Building off of a Mother Jones article about the increased demands on workers with commensurate increases in pay, David Roberts at Grist describes his own approach: the “medium chill”.

[My wife and I] now have a smallish house in a nondescript working class Seattle neighborhood with no sidewalks. We have one car, a battered old minivan with a large dent on one side where you have to bang it with your hip to make the door shut. Our boys go to public schools. Our jobs pay enough to support our lifestyle, mostly anyway. If we wanted, we could both do the “next thing” on our respective career paths. She could move to a bigger company. I could freelance more, angle to write for a bigger publications, write a book, hire a publicist, whatever. We could try to make more money. Then we could fix the water pressure in our shower, redo the back patio, get a second car, or hell, buy a bigger house closer in to town. Maybe get the kids in private schools. All that stuff people with more money than us do.

But … meh. It’s not that we don’t think about those things. The water pressure thing drives me batty. Fact is, we just don’t want to work that hard! We already work harder than we feel like working. We enjoy having time to lay around in the living room with the kids, reading. We like to watch a little TV after the kids are in bed. We like going to the park and visits with friends and low-key vacations and generally relaxing. Going further down our respective career paths would likely mean more work, greater responsibilities, higher stress, and less time to lay around the living room with the kids.

So why do it? There will always be a More and Better just beyond our reach, no matter how high we climb. We could always have a little more money and a few more choices. But as we see it, we don’t need to work harder to get more money to have more choices because we already made our choice. We chose our family and our friends and our place. Like any life ours comes with trade-offs, but on balance it’s a good life, we’ve already got it, and we’re damn well going to enjoy it.

That’s the best thing about the medium chill: unlike the big chill, you already have it. It’s available today, at affordable prices!

Reihan Salam counters with the idea of “killers”:

My own view is that a fairly large number of people are believers in “medium chill” and that a relatively small group of people — I call them “killers” — constitute a neurotic, ultraproductive minority that drives our economy forward, and sometimes backward. Roberts might see these people as deeply mistaken about the sources of the good life. I think of them as differently wired, like the sleepless elite, and their tireless efforts account for many of the things the rest of us enjoy. Killers are the people who found high-growth business enterprises and who work crazy hours staring at spreadsheets or running regressions. Sometimes they do it in the often false belief that it will improve their status, thus winning the affection of members of the opposite sex, etc. There are also killers who just like the thrill of competition. Killers can be found in non-profits and the public sector, though not quite as often as they are found in lucrative slices of the for-profit economy. I’d like to see more killers in the public sector, which is why I favor more autonomy for public sector workers and more dispersion in public sector compensation. I tend to think that our policy environment is not sufficiently pro-killer, but of course others will disagree.

Both of them make good points, on issues that I have been struggling with myself over the last few years. Am I a killer, or would I be happier with the “medium chill”? Is our policy environment “not sufficiently pro-killer”, with the associated implications for long-term economic growth?

On a personal level, the tension between “killer” and “medium chill” has caused me a lot of stress since leaving school four years ago. I had (and continue to have) the good fortune to be blessed with a supportive family with the means to send me to a good school, and was able to come out with an academic record that enabled me to get a great job at which I probably could have been comfortable for the rest of my life. It would not have led to insane riches, but paid well for me to earn a comfortable living in San Francisco (NOT a cheap city) and, judging by my coworkers, could have supported a family as I rose through the ranks if I had chosen to go that route. It would not have been hard to just settle in and make that my long-term plan.

But it didn’t feel like enough. Whether it was my own inner “killer” that was pushing me or whether I was falling prey to the idea to which Roberts responds “meh”, I’m still not sure. Either way, I decided against that version of the medium chill, and opted to return to school to get a PhD, in hopes that it will either lead to a “More and Better” currently beyond my reach, or maybe just a “medium chill” of a different style. As a friend’s dad put it when I talked to him about the possibility of leaving my job: “If you’re going to do it, now’s the time. No kids and no house to worry about.”

But I realize as I do this that not everyone has the freedom and the advantages that I have and had, and that’s why I think that Salam is right that our current policy environment is not sufficiently “pro-killer” (As an aside, he picks an interesting term there… how many people do you usually find arguing for a society that is more “pro-killer”). But I think we differ pretty substantially in our views about what kind of society provides the best seeding ground for killers.

I would qualify myself as a liberal, but not the “commie-hippie-leftist” that some Republicans seem to see in anyone who would consider raising taxes or advocating for a single-payer health care system. I believe that a stronger social safety net is beneficial to the long-term success of the United States economy. Essentially, I see it as a numbers game. If we have more people who don’t have to worry about the basic necessities (health care expenses, feeding themselves and their children, education), I believe that will enable more people to follow their killer instincts: a more productive workforce frees up resources that can be allocated towards new ideas, people will no longer be stuck in jobs because they are afraid of losing their health insurance, kids from poor families can go to college without worrying about taking food out of the mouths of their families, etc.

Republicans worry that the costs of providing this social safety net are more harmful than beneficial: if killers can’t get rich they won’t pursue the ideas that create jobs for medium chillers, and an overly generous safety net makes people complacent and encourages mooching off of the government and the taxes paid by productive members of society. These concerns aren’t completely without merit, but I think that we are far from this scenario on either end. The total effective tax rate on the top 1% was 29.5% in 2007, with an income tax rate of 19.0%. Marginal tax rates for the top income tax bracket (which began at $379,150 for a single filer in 2011) are at 35%. These rates are down from Clinton-era rates (39.6%) and well below the rates during most of the Reagan years (69.13% in 1981, 50% from 1982-86). GDP growth got as high as 7.2% (1984) during the Reagan years. Meanwhile, the Bush tax cuts led to the two slowest five-year periods of growth since 1961.

As to concerns that overly generous welfare programs keep people dependent on the government . . . I just don’t buy it. Given a chance, I believe that the large majority of these people would take the chance to work and improve their incomes. Maybe I’m wrong about that. But if that’s the case, then suddenly we’re in a situation where the rich are very sensitive to changes in income (due to changes in the tax rate) while the poor have no desire to better their own situation. If anything, I would think it’s the other way around.

Certainly, we should work towards improving the efficacy with which public services are delivered. But that is not what Republicans are talking about right now; instead, they’re talking about making cuts to the existing programs that they hope will lead to improved efficiency. I think that this will lead to more of Salam’s potential “killers” being stuck in situations where their “killer” nature can’t thrive, and that’s a bad thing for America.

——-

While I was writing this, David Roberts posted another article on the “medium chill” at Grist. He took the words right out of my mouth.

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