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Tuesday, November 28, 2006

Keyboards vs. sweatshops...A follow up on The Freelancers Manifesto and related issues...

Maybe I just finished reading too much about and by Milton Friedman, who passed away a few days before I tackled the topic of The Freelancers Manifesto in my last post.

Maybe my progressive tendencies are slipping away because I don't feel as close to some kind of proletarian struggle as I once did.

Maybe, though... Just maybe, I'm right.

This post starts where the last one left off. I argued that the market will naturally set appropriate prices for freelance writing services and the idea of organization on the part of writers to influence that price was ill-fated.

I wrote that even though I am a fan of organized labor (at least in principle, if not always in practice). I wrote that even though I found myself agreeing with Lou Pan, whose comment in response to the post presented some important arguments that seem to cut against my stance.

I didn't want Lou's analysis to disappear into the realm of seldom-read comments, so I decided to drag them into this post.

I want to talk about the difference between sweatshops and keyboards (a gross oversimplification, but a handy tagline) and how those differences influenced my argument with respect to The Freelancers Manifesto.


In my discussion with Patricia Skinner, I mentioned my belief that the markets would determine the appropriate value and asked "what am I missing?"

Lou responded:

"Historically, a free market has not created a fair wage.

That was true in the early 20th century, when Rockefeller said "I can hire one half of the working class to shoot the other half," while making his massive fortune off their labor. It remains true in the early 21st century, when workers in Asia make high-priced athletic shoes for a daily wage that won't purchase three meals. Nike and others may sell their shoes at a fair market price, but the income is not shared with the labor force."

No doubt about it. She's right. Historically, capitalism has done a fine job of sticking it to the proverbial little guy. It's created a series of ugly messes and as I write this, market-driven approaches bear a great deal of responsibility for the fact that someone in El Salvador is doing piecework for less than a buck a day so that others can fly around in jets wearing insanely expensive shoes. I get that. I take that seriously.

However, I don't think that the argument is wholly pertinent to the question of freelance rates. Here's why.

First, there is a difference between fair wages and optimal prices, as determined by the marketplace. In order to successfully argue that writers are being exploited, one would need to prove that the payment received by writers represented an inadequate percentage of the profits earned by the buyer.

If the buyer gives the writer $50 for a quantity of content, adds his or her work to the product, and makes $51, you can't really claim writers are getting screwed by capitalism in action. Even if the buyer used the profit to leverage gross earnings of $150, you can't necessarily assume that means the writer deserves more. Marketing, assembly, ideas, design, etc. are all added to the content to generate the income and those efforts have fair value, too.

Now, if someone could prove that $50 worth of content at current prevailing rates required very little additional work or addition in order to create a massive profit, I'd feel quite differently. Of course, if everyone was REALLY getting rich off of our work that easily, none of us would be freelancing, would we?

Buyers are adding their efforts to the content and they are the ones taking a risk in hopes of generating profits. As it turns out, those profits are usually NOT so substantial as to prove an argument for exploitation.

Second, Lou's argument centers on the concept of wages. I don't think of my earnings as a "wage" in a traditional economic sense. As the sole proprietor of Content Done Better, I actually own the means of production for my product. I have my own little factory here. I am not dependent upon anyone else's tools or willingness to part with wages in order to manufacture what I sell.

That isn't just a difference in semantics, either. In most cases of significant worker oppression, artificially low wages are usually allowed to exist because the employees have little or no alternative due to their lack of ownership and control over the means of production. The Nike cobbler has little or no opportunity to produce his or her own shoes (or anything else) to sell on the open market. He or she either takes what "the man" is willing to toss in his or her direction or goes home hungry. Sometimes both.

I'm an owner. I'm management. That makes a difference.

Lou continued...

"There is a difference between free trade and fair trade. There is also a difference between 'wage fairness based on supply and demand' and a fair wage. That's what you're missing.

I doubt that many freelance writers are as poorly paid as Nike's sweatshop workers, if only because they have other employment options. However, expecting an open market to ensure a fair wage to writers is, to say the least, unrealistic."

Again, I tend to agree with the general outlook but don't think it really applies in this situation.

First, the presence of other options is meaningful.

Second, as discussed, there is absolutely no evidence to suggest an undervaluing of our work as writers relative to the benefits gained by those who buy it from us.

Third, unlike most oppressed labor, we are not really victimized by governmental policy and outside market interferences that tend to allow for the ugly jackboot of greed to land on the throat of piece workers in so-called lesser-developed countries.

Fourth, although we can argue whether all people deserve (have a right to) a fair, living wage, I don't think there is a compelling argument that all people who want to be writers should qualify. Maybe the markets will set a price for certain types of online written materials that won't lead to a fair and reasonable wage equivalent. If that's the case, it's because the materials produced in that segment don't contribute sufficiently to anyone's profitability enough to justify the increased expenditure.


When I read The Freelancers Manifesto page and saw the reference to "sweatshop wages," I cringed.

I am currently sitting in a comfy, oversized desk chair in front of a nice flat-screen computer monitor. The HVAC system has the room at an ideal seventy-two degrees. If I get hungry, I can pick up my multi-line phone or cell phone and call a restaurant who will deliver a big lunch to me within a half hour. When I'm done working, I can flip through several hundred channels while I sit on my sofa in my carpeted multi-room single-family home with a new car parked out front. My family won't starve tomorrow. I won't be homeless. We all have shoes.

To compare that situation and the situations shared by most of us who consider ourselves freelance writers of any sort to the plight of people working in REAL sweatshops is whininess of the highest order. My fingers might get a little tired and my eyes a little blurry after a long day. My bad posture might give me an occasional backache.

One might even be able to argue that I am exploited by the negative forces of capitalism on multiple levels (and you'd probably be right). But to compare the this lot in life to those who labor in sweatshops... Well, as it's been said, "Get off the cross, someone else needs the wood."


I heartily embrace Lou Pann's overall outlook toward the dangerous of unfettered capitalism. Although Glenn Walker, a former economics instructor of mine, would rap me upside the head for saying this, I think Milton Friedman was wrong about a lot of stuff--but not everything. Even though I do live in the 'burbs with a well-stocked fridge, I do still care about the plight of the less fortunate and the more seriously oppressed among us.

That doesn't, however, mean that I think writers are "entitled" to a wage based on their chosen occupation.

If writers don't like the rates they're offered, they can do something else. They can try something new. They can shop for different clients. They can explore different markets. They can prove to prospective clients that the work is worth the number stamped on the virtual price tag.

They can also try to band together to earn more, but that strategy isn't going to work.