Andrew Montalenti: Ask a teacher, police officer, or firefighter if they are paid proportional to the value they add

(written by lawrence krubner, however indented passages are often quotes). You can contact lawrence at:

It’s an interesting essay, but I can’t go along with the complacency that’s implied. If people are paid unfairly, then we should try address that. Programming might seem to be reasonably paid when compared to doctors or lawyers or teachers, but there is the larger issue, are workers, as a group, being paid fairly? Anyone who reads history is aware that during the Gilded Age monopolists bribed politicians to enrich themselves to the detriment of the public. The public finally fought back: between 1930 and 1980 the percent of national income going to workers rose from 35% to 65%. In recent years, that has been reversed. Since 2008, 105% of all new income has gone to the top 5%, mostly in the form of rewards to capital. Is that fair to workers?

Andrew Montalenti writes:

Ask a teacher, police officer, or firefighter if they are paid proportional to the value they add. Ask a great professor who has educated Nobel laureates whether they are paid even 20% more than their mediocre colleague who can’t even give a lecture to students.

Instead, most people are paid for political reasons or due to closeness to market transactions. For example, stock brokers don’t add much value to society overall, but are very close to market transactions for pricey financial instruments, and so they can skim off them. CEOs of BigCo’s are paid well for the obvious political reason: they sit on the board of a company with the people (board members) who set their salary.

Many pro-market intellectuals try to make arguments that these people are also adding value to society — or they might make the circular argument that whatever value the market sets for their labor, in itself, represents a proper accounting of “value” to society. This is generally a lot of hogwash.

It actually strikes me, as a programmer myself, that coding is one of the rare careers where you are able to a) get paid well, by most standards; and b) work on meaningful/challenging problems — as long as you escape corporate IT, which you should, immediately.

Further, in modern times, programming and computer science skills have been irrevocably linked with the ability to create software businesses, which can allow you to bypass all the normal rules of how corporations are run by starting your own. Or you can join some other programmer’s idea for a growing and hopefully profitable enterprise, and help her create a business that can run on its own. This will be deeply satisfying — at least, until your company becomes “the new boss, same as the old boss”.

The author makes some interesting points, but I guess I’m a little more positive and optimistic than he is about a programmer’s position in all of this. I think rather than programmers being in decline, we are increasingly at a premium. I think the rest of the world is realizing it is “program or be programmed”. I am much more worried about a non-programmer’s future on a 30-year horizon than a competent programmer’s position in all of this.