Thursday, April 9, 2015

Why I really hate minimum wage

This may be my last post ever on this blog.  Why?  Because I finally understand minimum wage.  No, I don't understand everything about it. I haven't found academic literature that does the subject justice.  It has been the target of a fair amount of statistical and economic research.  Just take a quick peek at the insanity that is the wikipedia article on minimum wage.  I have only read the highlights of this research, but let me tell you, I'm not really satisfied by what I've seen.  Science is hard, I can appreciate that, but I expect we'll get better, more detailed, and more conclusive research on this subject in the future.

After 2 years of blogging, I finally have a basic understanding of how minimum wage affects the economy.  I also appreciate the spectrum of political and philosophical views of its legal, social, and economic purpose.

I'm not an expert, I've just reached the point where I am personally satisfied with my understanding of the policy.  Not that I wouldn't mind learning more, but it won't be a priority for me going forward.

Some people may ask: Why minimum wage?  The short answer is I am unemployed.  Minimum wage is one of the only government policies that directly affects me.  I don't earn money, I don't pay taxes.  I rarely drive, and only buy stuff from the grocery store.  All my life I have been taught about the principles of hard work and self sufficiency.  These things are important.  But I am a young person, trying to find my place in a world where hard work doesnt seem to guarantee results.  I'm not the only person facing these challenges.

For the purpose of nonbrevity, I'm going to tell a detailed story now.  You should probably just skim over it.

A personal story

This story is told most dramatically and accurately by my college transcript.

In sharing this transcript, I am not doing so casually or flippantly.  I feel it is an important part of my story and I want to share that story, both with friends and family and with the public.  There's stuff in here that I could brag about, and there's stuff that might be considered embarassing.  That's not the point.

I realize that it is easy to fake these kind of things, but I'm not trying to prove anything.  My motivation is sharing my personal story.  People who know me will be able to make connections with specific parts of this transcript.  For me, every entry on that page is a unique and detailed story.  Not everyone cares about every detail, but the transcript as a whole creates a clear trend that emphasizes parts of my history that I want to share.

There may be copyright issues related to publishing this.

I want to draw your attention to specific details.  Look at my first year and my AP scores.  Wasn't I a bright and dedicated student?  I did pretty well.

October 2005 I left on an LDS mission for two years, came back home, and resumed my studies.

My academic performance was still excellent.  At least at first. . .

Over time the letters on my report card got much more diverse and colorful.  How great is that!

My first big challenge was a course called Advanced Programming Concepts, CS240.  The first day of class the professor told us a third of us would fail.  We aren't some scrubs who have never written a line of code!  We're veterans with at least 2 semesters of college level programming.  Who does he think he's talking to?

The course has several programming projects, and a large one near the end. The professor tells us to expect to spend at least 40 hours on the big project, but some of us may take more than 100 hours.  Due to the abstract and rigorous nature of programming, there is a wide disparity in productivity levels for different programmers.

Before that class I always thought of myself as a quick and efficient programmer.  I even won a speed programming competition hosted at the school.  CS240 taught my I was wrong.

I probably spent 60 hours on that project before throwing in the towel.  This is in addition to spending a significant amount of time on the other projects for the class, and taking an intense timed 3 hour programming exam twice.  3 credit hours doesn't do it justice.

That class was a gateway to the Computer Science major.  You couldn't take any upper level course until you passed.  I prioritized it above all my other classes, and all my grades suffered.

Trying to optimize your allocation of time when you are falling behind in school is a hard problem.  You always have to give up something to work on something else.  Some people respond by dumping all their time into their school work, and neglect to take care of themselves or relax on a regular basis.  Other people respond by being fatalistic, giving up, or doing the bare minimum.  Initially I took the first approach, but over time, the second became my go to option.

I hadn't experienced this before.  Sure, I had to work hard in school, but I had never fallen behind, not since sixth grade when I didn't do any homework.

This put me on tilt and the same scenario repeated itself with other classes.  In CS312, algorithm analysis, I got the high score or tied for the high score on every written test, but only completed one or two of the projects.  Got a D-, which doesn't count as a major credit.

The second time I took the algorithms class, I completed half the projects, more than before, but still not enough.  This time the class was more competitive(tougher teacher), and my tests scores were less outstanding, but still good.  I got a D+.  Barely below passing.

It's not that the projects I finished were done poorly, they were done well.  I just made bad design decisions several times that meant I had to restart the whole thing.  My creativity and love of the subject were hurting me.  While most people leaned heavily on the TAs to know exactly how to implement details correctly, I made a lot of mistakes and had to redo things from scratch.

My second time taking that course was a real blow.  I talked to the professor once at the start of the semester, explaining how I was retaking it, because I understood the material well but struggled to implement the projects in a timely manner.  I talked to him again in the middle of the course when it was clear I was repeating the same disaster as the last time around.  He said that the only thing I could do to mitigate the project workload was apply for disability status.

I seriously considered it.  Did I have an attention or time management problem?  There was an instance where I had face planted on concrete after trying to jump over a rail to circumvent walking down three steps while exiting a crowded theater.  I wasn't knocked out, but I could've had a concussion.  The next day I had gone into work and tried to program like normal, but I didn't feel the same.  After a couple days everything was back to normal and nothing lost.  That was about a year previous, was there some connection?

In the end I decided not to apply for disability status.  This was challenging material, and the problems I was working through were legitimate.  Someone is not disabled because they require extra time to master the application of advanced algorithm analysis.  I might have cognitive or mental health issues, but I didn't feel they were significant, which would make diagnosis more difficult and confusing.  Ultimately it would take time away from what I wanted to be doing.

The double failure in the algorithms class prompted me to switch majors.  I didn't want to switch just because I was incapable.  If I wanted to do CS, I should forge through it, whatever it took.  But Math seemed like a more general purpose degree with a greater diversity of future options.  I was inspired to study computer science out of curiosity, a desire to learn the subject matter.  I am very happy with what I learned.  But moving forward I should base my choices on career considerations.  Math would still allow me to be a programmer, but also present many other options that excited me.

I met with a counselor and reviewed my graduation path.  CS is a long major while Math is a short one, so the switch would add only a semester.

After the switch I did much better.  I learned that actuarial science isn't my thing, even though I found it fascinating.  I loved abstract algebra, and a short time later I got a job as a research asssistant to a mathematics professor in the computational number theory group.  That group studied group theory, among other things.

Despite the improvement, my performance in school was never the same. I had severe senioritis and a little bit of arrogance.  I attended my graph theory class only a few times.  The first day the professor said he knew nothing about graph theory, but it was ok because he knew how to read.  He was one of those entertainer types and the class was mostly Math Ed majors, not us "serious" math majors.  I had been a TA for a CS class that focused on graph theory and discrete mathematics.  In my research work we had worked on the hadwiger nelson graph theory problem.  The professor said your grade on the final is your grade on the course, so I bailed, only to return triumphantly for the final to claim my credits.  Oops. The final tested theorems that I had no familiarity with, I gave myself insufficient time to study, and I barely didn't pass.  The teacher was the kind who gave out a lot of favors and bonus points, so my lack of attendance didn't help.  When you're a slacker, college grades can quickly become a crap shoot.  The grading is always so different.  But that particular failure was completely my fault.

College is a fantasy world where you slave away for letters on a page with no direct monetary value.

But you also learn a lot, dramatically improve your career earning potential, and have a great experience, so it's worth it, right?

BYU's tuition pricing is amazing, it's definitely a great deal.  On the other hand, if you end college with no career and tons of debt, that's basically a sham, so the value of college depends on what you get out of it and how much you pay.

I made two big mistakes at this point in my college career.  I don't regret these mistakes, and I might repeat them given the chance, but the outcomes weren't great.

My first mistake was not having clear direction in my education path.  Your first couple years, sure, derp around, learn stuff about yourself.  But in the last half of college you need to focus on getting where you want to be next.  If you aren't 100% sure that's okay.  Plans change often.  You'll be able to make new decisions when you are presented with new opportunities.  But have a specific plan that you follow as a default, even if you are interested in other options.

In my position, I could've worked hard to find an off-campus job, intially part time or as an internship, that could've become a full time job opportunity.  Don't do something you hate out of obligation, but be proactive and practical.  I quit my programming job after working that and my research job in parallel for several months.  My research job would've been a great option had I been committed to graduate school, but I was undecided.

My second mistake was to stop going to church while attending BYU.  When I stopped attending, I still believed everything, but I was disillusioned and frustrated.  In LDS scripture, there is a passage about experimenting on the word, basically saying you can't know until you try.  I had always applied this as a way to motivate me to be diligent and obedient, but this time I decided it was unobjective to only apply this principle in one direction.  All my life I had attended church, and worked hard to do what was expected of me.  I had probably missed the same number of Sundays as years I had been alive.  If there was any chance that my belief was only due to experience and bias, I wanted to be able to say I had given the alternative a fair chance.

My last year at BYU I attended church only a few times.  To anyone who knows how ecclesiastical endorsements work, this is a big no no.  Former LDS are not eligible to attend BYU.

For more details, you can read about BYU's policies in their honor code on the following page:

This page states specifically, "Former LDS students are not eligible to receive an ecclesiastical endorsement (See Withdrawn Ecclesiastical Endorsement below)."

My plan was to graduate before my endorsement ran out.  But I failed a couple classes and then withdrew spring semester to complete my last 3 courses through independent study online.

After spring semester, my endorsement had lapsed.  I completed philosophy through independent study, but I knew they wouldn't let me actually graduate without renewing my endorsement, even if I finished my other courses.  If I were to initiate the endorsement process, that could've led to unintended consequences.  I had failed to proactively plan the timely completion of my coursework necessary in order to avoid the great day of judgement.  Double oops.

The fact that I had conclusively decided I no longer believed the Book of Mormon, Joseph's Smith's teachings, or even the bible, meant that the endorsement process would be difficult if I was honest.

I had already told my family how I felt, so going along with it in an agnostic kind of way would've been hypocritical.  You can certainly get away with this and finish your BYU degree.  I didn't want to try.

In an endorsement interview, if I expressed my views honestly and completely, things would not have gone well.  Worst case, it might have ultimately led to what is called a "Court of Love".  This is the church's final disciplinary process for members.  From what I have heard it is an intense and thorough interview involving a panel of church member judges.  To maintain your membership, you have participate in this interview, and talk about the personal matters that have jeoparadized your church status.  I had a tough time in one on one interviews with a bishop already, talking with the same candor to a group of several church leaders would've been hard to deal with.

I don't know much about the church's disciplinary process, I have tried to avoid it.  It is scary and intimidating.  If I had tried to renew my endorsement and failed, that would have led to an update of my status in BYU's IT systems.  I have some familiarity with this because I worked there for almost 2 years.  I understood how a new update to my status in their computer systems would make it impossible for me to transfer my college transcript to another institution.

Eventually, I did get my transcript sent to UVU, applied to school there, was accepted and ready to matriculate.  My Dad and other family members genorously offered to help pay tuition, despite other disagreements.  I decided to decline this offer for a couple reasons.  I didn't feel ready to commit myself to a practical career path, and I didn't want to feel further obligated to family if I failed once again to complete my schooling.

All of this probably makes me sound like an entitled jerk, and I admit, there is truth to that.

This is where things get interesting.

Just after my last semester attending BYU, my best friend and I took a road trip to Mexico.  This may sound like an extravagent expense for someone who wasn't currently employed, but all together it probably cost me less than $200(except for the now $600 speeding ticket I got).  We stayed mostly with my family, in Vegas and LA, and stayed one night at a hotel in mexico.  Total it was a five day trip.

We chose Mexico because we had both learned to speak spanish on our respective LDS missions.  We had both served in different areas inside the U.S. but wanted an opportunity to visit another country, interact with the culture, eat some good food, and practice spanish a little bit.  It was a great trip, but also a real eye opener for me.

I had been to Europe once in high school, England and France, and before that I had visited Canada once and Mexico once on family trips.  So total I have been outside of the U.S. four times in my life.

That may not sound like a lot, but having the opportunity to travel internationally is a real privilege.  We get used to our local way of life and unconsciously assume that people have the same perspective and life experience that we have.

When I was younger, I recognized that another country or language was foreign to me, but I didn't have the maturity to appreciate all the ways that our society, laws, culture and economy affect day to day living.

I got a sense of that on this road trip.

LA feels like a utopia built in the 80s for the 80s.  So many freeways everywhere, hollywood, great beaches and mountains, amusement parks, and so much traffic and sprawl.

It's a great area, very beautiful, but it seems weird in some ways as well. Very 80s.  I wish I had a better way to describe its weirdness, but that's all I got.  I had been there plenty of times before, but noticed that the most this time around.

The drive from LA to San Diego is longer than I expected, and there's actually fairly empty space in between.  We took the 5 which has a beautiful view of the ocean all the way down.  We stopped once at rest stop on a cliff edge overlooking the ocean which was overrun by begging squirrels.

San Diego is a very different city from LA and definitely a border town.  It's beautiful as well and it has its own vibe.

Driving south on the freeway out of San Diego towards Tijuana you can definitely tell that something is different.  I remember there being fewer and fewer cars approaching the border and also fewer places to divert and go somewhere else.  I felt a building suspense like I was on splash mountain before the fall, to use a California analogy.

When you cross over into Tijuana, you know you are in Mexico.

San Diego isn't the nicest town in the world(except downtown, where it actually is).  It has some areas that are poorer and more run down.  We got lost and ended up driving through a lot of San Diego looking for a place to exchange our money.  Like any US city, it has parts that are nice and parts that are less nice.  I'm sheltered, I get it.  San Diego may be a little crummy, but it is no preparation for Tijuana.

I don't hate Tijuana.  It seems like a great city with a unique personality.  But it's amazingly rundown.  Some of the roads are unimaginably terrible for your average Estadounidense.  The most alarming thing was seeing the slums on the sides of hills.

I have seen pictures of crowded slums in India, but it's completely different when you look off the side of the freeway and see vast communities of squatters.

I have heard numerous people talk about how glad they are to be an American, how we have freedom, how they went to Mexico and they saw it was terrible and they never want to leave this country again.

That is not what I felt at all.  Crossing the border from the U.S. to Mexico was not about leaving a good place for a bad one.  It was more like leaving a fantasy amusement park and entering the place where that park deposits all its trash.  The alarming transition was more the fault of the U.S. than it was the fault of Mexico.

Mexico is a beautiful place.  I love it.  Ensenada was interesting, a cruise ship town where half is a beautiful tourist trap and half is crowded housing and poverty with a smell that doesn't leave.

If you travel to a tourist area of Mexico, it's not hard to see they are dealing with international issues involving the United States.

Northern Mexico has significant problems caused by the drug cartels thanks to US drug policy.

The more you get away from the influence of the US, the fewer problems Mexico seems to have.

That was my take at least.

Noam Chomsky seems to agree.  He has talked a lot about how the US foreign policy negatively affects the rest of the world.  I embedded a video of one such lecture in an earlier blog post.  Check it out.

Without this travel experience, I'm not sure I would understand what Mr. Chomsky was talking about.


I get back home, we had a great trip, we only got lost in San Diego, not in Mexico, even though we had no GPS and only a crappy computer-printed map.  We weren't kidnapped by a drug cartel, so it was good deal.

Over time, my perspective on what I saw on that trip further fueled my disillusionment and rebelliousness.  I didn't know what to think of everything I saw at first, but I began to develop those perspectives I just described to you.

I feel terrible about rejecting 2 significant forms of accepted authority in the space of two years.  First I rejected the legitimacy and authority of a church that I had enthusiastically supported my whole life.  Then I rejected the legitimacy and authority of the United States socioeconomic system.  Practically speaking, this just meant I was quickly becoming a stubborn and lazy perpetual dependent.  That's how I handled it at least.

The way I have treated myself and my family has been unfair and inappropriate.  But for some reason, I can't bring myself to engage in a serious job search, whether that be a career oriented job or just any kind of employment.

I have applied for a few jobs here and there over the past three years and had a few interviews.  Not surprisingly, this has turned out to be insufficient.

Perhaps my bad experience with church authority and BYU policy has soured my taste for rules and pushed me down the libertarian dark side.  Whatever the reason, I am now the epitome of your ostensibly omniscient fedora wielding trilingual neck beard, except the only fedora I wield is linux.

A new beginning

The rebellious energy of my rejection of social authority focused itself on a specific target: minimum wage.  I didn't see it coming.  It sneaked up on me unsuspectingly.

I was just chilling with some married friends in a hot tub like any devout single person, sprawling myself out unabashedly while trying to get the courage to break the ice with any honor-code bending swimsuit clad hotties that crossed my path.

Somewhere in conversation my friend's wife started talking about the place where she worked.  She mentioned how they always had so much turnover in their dishwasher position.  I was coming up on 8 months not employed (I had been trying to "incubate" my own "startup"), so I might as well try to get a job, if all it took was a casual comment with some friends in a hot tub to get the ball rolling.

"I wouldn't mind washing dishes."

This idea caught on, as one might expect, and before we went home we had agreed that she would help get me an interview.

We did this, and the next monday, I believe, I had an interview.  It was fairly brief, but like any interview, I was asked some seemingly oddly irrelevant questions.  "Where do you see yourself in five years?" To which I replied something like "running my own software startup".  This is actually a semi-relevant question, but not all of them were so relevant.  Job interviews are weird, but they have to get to know you somehow.  At the end, the interviewer didn't seem fully convinced, but I think the great reference pushed me over the top.  He offered me the job.  He then mentioned the relevant documentation and paperwork they needed before they could hire me, to which I replied, "Hey, I have a recently expired passport." "That'll do."

My Dad had dropped me off at the interview, and I told him I would walk home.  In some ways I try to be as unentitled as possible to compensate for my dependency.  If I really wasn't entitled, I would have walked the 5 miles both to and from the interview, but this isn't Africa, so don't expect too much.  On the way walking home I ran into an old college roommate of mine who was also a programmer.  What serendipity! Except I walked all the way across Provo so the chances of seeing some former acquaintance of mine were actually pretty good.  This is my stomping ground after all.  Anyway, we started talking.  He started talking about promises and futures, I think some java-esque language, not really my cup of tea, though the functional parts seemed pretty cool.

I mentioned that I had just got a job, except when he heard that I would be dishwashing at a local cafe, he just laughed.  I owned it, and he wasn't being insulting or anything, you'd have to know him.

I enjoyed working at the cafe initially.  My friend's wife, who I consider my friend as well, was great to talk to and had a contagious positive attitude, though everyone admitted the job sucked and the music got really old after a while.

But my first week was her last.  After she quit, I felt no social obligation to save face or work through things.  I had had some pretty cush jobs recently, with completely flexible hours, good pay for a student, and almost no oversight, so I wasn't acclimatized to long shifts of standing and being continuously engaged, even if it was only 5 or 6 hours at a time.

I wanted to keep working, I really did.  I liked the work at first, it was refreshing to be doing something.  But somehow the monotony and constant demand of the work quickly led me to resent it.  I had worked a custodial job once, and I recalled the same crushing and mentally exhausting feeling, but in that instance it took three months to emerge, instead of a single week.

I knew, or at least I told myself, that I couldn't work that job any longer than 3 months.  I did some rough estimate calculations like I usually do, and I realized that if I wanted to move out, 3 months of work would only cover 4 months of rent and expenses.  What a bummer.  If I moved out I would basically have to keep working the whole time until I got a new job.  Hopefully the next job would be better.

I guess that's what I should've done.  For as intelligent as I often present myself to be, I can also be pretty stupid sometimes.  I have a friend who always reminds me of this.  I didn't really think about the possibility of continuing to work that job only until I got another one.  All I saw was what was immediately in front of me.  I guess I was blinded by my newly discovered libertarian rage. Yes Luke, give in to hate.  Join the Dark Side.

I only worked there 2 weeks.  And that was that.  I haven't had a job since.  I've spent a lot of time complaining on the internet, not surprising for someone in my position.

Now that you've heard this great story, I have some amazing materials I want to present to you about about the welfare of your soul. jk. flashbacks, that's all.

But seriously, like... I still hate minimum wage.  Washing dishes, I realized that I hated the constraints of the job much more than the actual work:  Show up everyday, exactly when you're expected.  Work continuously on one task for this precisely fixed amount of time so we can run a fast food franchise that pretends it isn't fast food, because we use dishes which is so amazingly eco friendly (it actually is, for eating out, but cooking at home is better).

I had spent 4 years of my life studying machines, computing machines, but I was not ready to become one myself.

I convinced myself that maybe if I had more flexibility in the wage I accepted, then I could find an employment relationship that I found reasonably tolerable.  So off to the internet I went, to embark on my crusade.

I had some false starts and some terribly written articles.  But over time I had small successes as well.  I had an opinion piece published in my local paper about the respective roles of local and federal government with regard to wage regulations.  No one in my family showed much sympathy for my political views at first, but when that showed up in print I recieved some positive comments from relatives.

It has been a long and arduous journey, but really only long, not arduous, it's been mostly video games and tv watching.

But now, I feel I have arrived.  I thought I would see if I could share this detailed and revealing story to wrap things up.

I guess this wasn't the last post.  I have one more describing the math I did to reach my final conclusions about minimum wage.