This Morning

This morning, I don’t get paid enough.

I know that’s not a complaint unique to me, and it’s not one unique to teachers. But it’s the truth: I don’t get paid enough. The job is appallingly stressful, and also poorly paid compared to other careers with similar requirements as to education and credentials. 11.1% less than comparable careers, according to this article. In the past, this was compensated for by the benefits, which were better than most other careers offered; now, of course, that is no longer true. Teacher benefits are not any better than most other careers, or not much; and it still doesn’t make up for the pay  gap — that article actually shows that teacher pay is 18.7% less than other careers; the 7% boost in benefits that teachers average is what brings us to almost ten percent lower pay.

Almost.

But none of this is news, neither to you nor to me.

What was news, though, was this. Turns out, I’m paid WAY better than I thought.

I got this — letter — in the mail. It describes my compensation.

This is strange for a few reasons.

First, because why is this in the mail? Why wouldn’t it be an email?

Second, because — I already know my compensation? I signed a contract for the year with a number on it; that number doesn’t change. It’s a year-long contract. That’s what I get paid. There isn’t any change to my compensation in the letter. (There is a single notification that they will be increasing their 401k contribution. But that’s buried in the 5th paragraph, and doesn’t apply to me since I don’t donate to a 401k so they don’t match.) So why send it?

The letter says (And I would include a picture, but I don’t actually want to throw the school I work for under the bus; even for those who know what school I work for, this post should not and will not have their name on it, so as not to make this inappropriate for an employee to post. I thought about redacting names and addresses and such and then posting an image, but the company logo is in the background of the compensation chart. Is that why they used letterhead? To prevent me from doing exactly this? Whatever: the letter is addressed to me, it’s my property; I’m going to share its contents, at least in  part. Consider it part of my compensation.) “The leadership is pleased to provide you with your annual, personalized total compensation statement.”

Notice it doesn’t say why they’re pleased to share this with me. I’ve worked there for five years, my wife has worked for the same school for three years; we’ve never gotten these letters until this year, when we both got one.

It goes on to say that my compensation package includes a benefit program “designed to furnish you with protection against financial devastation due to illness, disability, loss of work, retirement, or death.” As a rhetoric teacher, I find the order of the items on that list fascinating. The letter also says that my compensation package includes the contributions made directly by my employer. A strange statement: contributions to me? Of course. Contributions to a third party? How is that my compensation? Is this like one of those deals where you donate to a charity in someone’s name and call it a Christmas gift?

The letter says that some of these benefits are mandated by state and federal law, but “most” are provided by the company because “your wellbeing is important to us.” Then they encourage me to review the statement and share it with my family, so that they are aware of the benefits that apply to them. Seriously? You think my family doesn’t know what benefits I have? You think if my family doesn’t know, it’s because I forgot to tell them? They do, actually, because it says, “Often our day-to-day responsibilities distract us from truly knowing and understanding what protections we have and the value of that protection for our loved ones.”

So they think I don’t actually know what my compensation is. Not my TOTAL compensation. Including contributions made by the company. Well, let’s turn this bad boy over and look at the graph on the back!

Here’s what we see: a header that reads “Cash Compensation and Benefits Summary,” over a passage that reads: “The amount of your total compensation is much more than what is indicated in your yearly earnings statement. In addition to direct pay, your total compensation includes the value of your health care insurance, disability, life insurance, retirement benefits, and government mandated benefits.”

Oh it does, does it?  See, I was under the impression that my compensation was what you paid me. Money that goes to the government doesn’t seem like my money, somehow. I also like how they’re taking credit for what the government mandates. “And also, we didn’t murder you. Not once. That’s 365 days  of no murder, every year. You’re welcome.”

Regardless, here’s where the breakdown starts. And it’s immediately weird, because it has my salary (That would be the “direct pay,” which all other compensation is in addition to) as $48,585. Then it adds the $2,200 I earned for being Highly Effective on my last evaluation, to hit $50,785. But the odd thing is, my contract salary is actually $46,785. And that includes the $2200.

Well, they must be including some of the value of my insurance and so on.

But no, because the next row is where we hit the insurance: my contribution ($6,557.98 annually for employee+spouse for medical, $609.96 for dental, $67.08 for vision) next to the company contribution, which is $7,386.02, apparently. Now interestingly, when you add up my three contributions,  which this form does not do, you get $7235.02. That is a lot closer to their number than the single number that theirs is listed next to, which is just my medical contribution. Why, if I were the suspicious sort, I might think they intentionally put their largest possible number next to a number that is not as large as it could be, so that  their number seems relatively higher.

Good thing I’m not the suspicious sort.

We drop down a few rows of zeroes, because I don’t have life insurance listed on here (Which is also odd, because in fact, I do have life insurance  through the company, as does my wife. Maybe the value of that explains the discrepancy in my salary. But you’d think that value would go here, and also, since the life insurance policy is, if I recall correctly, for $50,000, I’d think they’d stack all $50K onto my total compensation. Maybe they could offer a murder program so I could collect on those benefits. Anyhoo.) or long term disability or HSA contributions. Then we hit the Social Security and Medicare contributions. Mine are $3885.05, and the company’s are the same.

See, here’s that Charitable-Gift-In-Your-Name thing. It’s real nice that the company gives money to the government — also known as “taxes” — but I don’t see how that’s my compensation. It’s not money that I owed the government. I paid the government what I owed them. You could argue that I will get that money back from the government in my SS and Medicare benefits, but we all know that’s not necessarily true. So I question this being part of my “total compensation.”

Hey — it must because this is a government of the people, for the people, and by the people, so really, the taxes the government collects? That’s my money. My compensation.

Then we hit a subtotal line, where they put my contributions at $11,120.07, and my employer’s at $11,271.07. (I’m really just curious now about that extra $151.) And then comes the final math and the grand total. Ready?

“Cash compensation,” $50,785. Benefits, $11,271.07. Total, $62,056.07.

Hold on. So not only are we including the company’s contributions to Medicare and Social Security — you know, paying their own payroll taxes — but also, we are NOT subtracting MY contributions to the same government funds? Nor my payments for my medical insurance? So the money I pay to the government, and to the insurance company, which I never get to spend, is somehow still my money? And the money the company pays to the government, which I also never get to spend, is also my money?

Here’s what I really want to know. I want to know why the administration can’t comprehend debits and credits, first of all; but really, I want to know why they sent me this paper. To make me think that they pay me better than they do? Even though I see what’s on my check and what’s in my bank account? Is this so that if anyone questions their budget numbers, they can claim this is what they actually pay me — are they hiding money somewhere, and using this letter to blur the numbers? Is this so that teachers will think that we already get a big enough piece of the pie, and thus we won’t demand more money? Because they’ve magicked another $15,000 into my compensation? I can accept their contribution to my medical insurance as my compensation; I gain a benefit from that, namely medical insurance. But that still only puts me at $54,171.02 (The actual $46,785 on the contract I signed plus their somewhat dubious number for company contribution to my medical insurance).Where’s my other eight grand, homey? DUSTY NEEDS A NEW PAIR OF SHOES.

This upsets me. Partly because they think I’ll believe this nonsense. Partly because they seem to be imagining me not only buying this wholesale, but then proudly sitting down to share this with my family so they can see just how much bacon Daddy brings home. Partly because this is the kind of shit that gets out into the world and gives dumbass anti-teacher conservatives their ridiculous arguments about how well-compensated teachers are. “Hey, I wish I made $60,000 a year!!!” I’m just surprised this paper doesn’t also say, “And look, you get summers off! And you only work until 3 in the afternoon, and most of your job is just playing with kids, right? Am I right?”

No. You’re not right.  You already pay me less than what I’m worth: don’t try to dazzle me with this malarkey. It just gives you one more reason why you should be apologizing to me.

You already have enough of those.

 

Throwback: Stop Buying Crap

(This, again, was from my former blog 20/Infinity, which started off being about what I would do with a time machine, but quickly turned to — who would have guessed? — ranting. But I like that this one made me giggle while I was writing it, and I actually wrote the giggle into a parenthetical comment.)

Good, But Not Cheap

 

No time machine needed this week, because this one is appropriate right now. Stop throwing things away.

That’s the best advice I can give. It needs to be said to everyone in this society, including myself. Stop throwing things away.

Because whenever we throw something away and head on down to Wal*Mart to buy a new one, we encourage the culture of consumption that has been gradually built in this country since the 1950’s, and perhaps even earlier — though the scrap metal drives and paper drives and rubber drives and string drives of the WWII era, and the sheer desperation of the Depression before it, lead me to believe that it was indeed the 1950’s, still seen by Republicans across the country as the pinnacle of America, that started us down this road.

We should be able to make things that last, and we don’t do it. And the only reason we don’t do it is because we, as a people, would rather buy something cheap that will only last a short time, and then when it breaks, throw it away and buy a new one. Paper plates, for instance, and paper napkins and Starbucks cups. The only reason we use paper plates is because we can’t be bothered to wash the real ones; ditto paper napkins. Oh — and they’re cheaper. But look at what’s happened: when was the last time you saw cloth napkins outside of a fine restaurant? Does anyone have cloth napkins any more? Where would you even buy them? Maybe I’m just not paying attention, and cloth napkins abound in the linen aisles which I don’t often frequent (Word geek moment: often frequent. That’s a fun phrase. Sorry — back to what I was saying), but I do know that there are a dozen stores that I do frequent, and often (hee hee!), that carry paper napkins. They are the stores I’m in every day, so they are the stores that shape most of my daily purchasing. If they carry paper napkins, chances are good that I’m just going to get paper napkins, and not think about it. And paper plates. And sugar in little paper packets, instead of a bowl. So it goes.

We as a society shape what’s in the stores, and then what’s in the stores shapes us as a society; it’s a kind of biofeedback on a grand scale. When we are given a choice between, say, a $100 toaster that will last for twenty years, and a $30 toaster that will last for two, most of us buy the cheaper toaster, for two reasons: we don’t think that far ahead — the cheap toaster will make toast when I get it home today, and that’s as a far as I’m planning — and we are not willing to wait and save up the $100, or wait and go without the other things we would buy now with the $70 difference. Anyone who can buy the $30 toaster can save up to buy the $100 toaster, but in the interim, there will be no toast — and we can’t abide that. So we buy the cheap toaster, and then when it breaks in two years, we go back out and face the same choice — and come to the same conclusion: this one will make toast now, and I won’t have to wait to spend money elsewhere.

End result? Over twenty years, we spend $300 on toasters, rather than $100. And the landfills are nine toasters closer to overflowing. And the stores stop stocking the $100 toaster, because it doesn’t sell, and after twenty years when we lose our patience and just decide to drop the money on a toaster that lasts, we can’t find one, and we bewail the fact that nobody builds things that last any longer. Oh, yeah: and the toaster repair shop is out of business, because nobody is going to spend the money to fix a $30 toaster (they would to fix a $100 model) and Wal*Mart has built 3,000 new stores and half of the US’s GNP is in Chinese bank accounts.

All right, it’s time to stop beating around the bush and confess. This is not an arbitrary topic, culled from the massive crop of ideas neatly filed in a drawer in my home. This is really about coffee.

My coffeepot doesn’t work. There’s something wrong with the water intake, so when you turn it on it makes that gurgling noise that signals the last sips of water being sucked up, even though there is a full reservoir of water in the machine, waiting to be run through and turned into liquid gold. It’s probably hard water deposits, somewhere inside the tube, because it can be fixed by running vinegar through the Cleaning cycle — it has a cleaning cycle, which I think just makes it go slowly and maybe a little hotter than normal so as to melt away any dirt or coffee oil residue. This happened for the first time last week, and then again today.

The coffee machine is six weeks old.

Now, I admit to drinking a lot of coffee. No, scratch that; I drink an inhuman amount of coffee. It is no mistake that my online handle, for years, has been “Coffeesaint” or some permutation thereof. I invented, and celebrate, Coffee Day (February 11 — join the fun!). I drink something like 6 pints of coffee a day — that would be around 20 cups if I used a normal sized mug, the kind they serve coffee in at Denny’s or IHOP — and on days when I’m tired or crabby, I can hit the gallon mark. I started drinking coffee regularly when I was 18, and for the last 15 years, not one day has gone by that I have not had coffee. So as you can imagine, my coffee maker gets quite a lot of use, since my wife also drinks what most people would consider a lot of coffee on top of what gets poured down my own bottomless coffee-hole. I can understand that my coffee maker will break down sooner than it would in other people’s households.

But six weeks?

We have gone through three coffeepots in the last year, five in the last five years. The last four pots have all come from Wal* Mart, mainly because that is the only large retail store in town, but also because of the monetary impatience I described above. I really don’t want to wait to get a new coffeepot. I don’t want to do without coffee, and I like my morning routine of waking up, turning on the coffeepot (I grind beans and pour water the night before, so all I have to do is hit the button) and then getting in the shower, coming out to fresh coffee. I don’t want to boil water and pour it into a French press or something like that, some low-tech version of a coffeepot that would last many more years without breaking, but would take twice the time and thrice the effort to make my morning coffee. I hate that idea. I just want a coffeepot that will last for more than six weeks, or six months, or two years. I want one that will last, with some maintenance and maybe a trip to a repair shop, for twenty years. But I can’t find one. At least, I can’t find one at a price that will override the momentary temptation of a $29.99 price tag and coffee right now. So I do the same thing everyone else does: I buy that $30 coffee pot and complain.

But here’s an interesting thing. Like most people, I hate being a hypocrite. I hate telling people to do one thing and then doing something different myself. When I assign an essay to my English class, for instance, I often write the essay myself. Even though I don’t want my dog to eat too many salty snacks, if I get out the box of Cheez-its, I give him one — because I shouldn’t be eating them either, so if I can ignore my health for the sake of a happy belly, why can’t he? So now that I have written this little chunk of handy advice, I’m going to have to take it myself. See, I realize that our society is the way it is because we make it so. As I said, there are no decent coffeepots because we don’t buy them, because we’re not willing to do without, or to make do with some less efficient or easy system. We are willing, even eager, to use shoddy goods and throw them away so long as it spares us some effort, so long as it saves us time. And that’s why the goods we buy — everything from our clothes to our computers to our cars to our food — are poorly made, overly disposable, and cheap.

My father told me a maxim many years ago, and it’s amazed me ever since with how many applications it has in daily life (and he’d love that, because he loves aphorisms — I think he’s always wanted to be Ben Franklin. Or maybe Jesus.). I’m positive that it will come up several times in future columns, and I’m not surprised in the least that it has come up in the first five. The maxim is this: “There are three qualities you can have in any thing you pay for: cheap, fast, and good. You can only have two of them at once. If it’s cheap and fast it ain’t good, if it’s cheap and good it ain’t fast, and if it’s fast and good it ain’t cheap.” He told me this in reference to hiring workers, plumbers and electricians and the like, and I’ve found it to be unfailingly true; in fact, sometimes you can only have one of the three. But you certainly never get more than two. Look at my coffee makers: on the whole, machines are faster than percolators and French presses, so I’m always getting fast as one of my qualities; the only question is whether I want a good machine, or a cheap one. For the last five years, I’ve consistently made the same choice.

This is a truth that we as a society need to remember. We have spent long enough buying fast and cheap. We need to go back to good, because good things do not get thrown away, and so they do not use up our resources and they do not fill up our countryside with garbage. Of all the things we can do to improve our world, I think this is the easiest, because honestly, it would make us happier if we owned nice things, good things that worked well and didn’t need to be replaced while we still have the original receipt stuffed in the checkbook.

So my first piece of advice is this: buy good products. If it means you have to save up for the good products, then save the money; make do for a little while now, and then buy something that will actually make your life easier, and save you money, in the long run instead of just saving you money out of this paycheck and simplifying things right now. And my second piece of advice is this: if you, like me, do some things that you know you shouldn’t do, and you let yourself get away with it because it’s easier to ignore the issue than fix the problem, then start giving people advice. It’s like a nicotine patch for hypocrisy.

Now I have to buy a freaking French press.