(This is a snapshot of my old weblog. New posts and selected republished essays can be found at raganwald.com.)

Thursday, July 26, 2007
  Haggling about the price

A few minutes ago I saw this interesting post: Ajax Web Developer: $240k per year… with only one catch. If you want the executive summary, the job location is Iraq, a battle zone.

What I find interesting about jobs like this are the people who debate whether $240,000 is enough to compensate for the very real possibility of being killed:

Unfortunately, the whole 12/hr/day, 7/day/week deal works out to only about $52/hour…

I think that for $240k a year, I could shift my sleep schedule to iRaq time…

I think it would be a cool opportunity, but the 12 hour days, 7 days a week drops the money down to just over $50 an hour. If there is the possibility of being shot at, I need at least $80 per hour :-P

I would take 300k, though probably (?) not 200 to work in Iraq…

And lots of people were debating the tax-free status of this position, as if that’s the only deciding factor between staying or going. I’m sure many of the people commenting were being facetious, however Winston Churchill really put things into perspective in this apocryphal exchange with a socialite:

Churchill: “Madam, would you sleep with me for five million pounds?”

Socialite: “My goodness, Mr. Churchill… Well, I suppose… we would have to discuss terms, of course…”

Churchill: “Would you sleep with me for five pounds?”

Socialite: “Mr. Churchill, what kind of woman do you think I am?!”

Churchill: “Madam, we’ve already established that. Now we are haggling about the price.”

If you’re going to sacrifice your life on principle, I commend you for your bravery.

But when it comes to money, either you incorruptible, or you have decided that your life is a commodity, something that can be bought or sold, traded or bartered, played as a pawn and sacrificed so that some contracting company somewhere makes another billion dollars for its shareholders.

but I’m not working in a battle zone…

This all seems very surreal, I’m quite sure few or none of my blog readers are wearing combat fatigues and body armour right now.

But the principle applies elsewhere. If you ever find yourself being subjected to personal abuse, or manipulative behaviour by your manager, or asked to lie to clients, or outright cheat such as double billing, you are in the exact same position as someone asked to sacrifice their life. You have to decide whether you are sacrificing your self-esteem for a noble cause, or whether it’s about the money.

And trust me on this one, if it’s about the money, you are on the road of perpetual unhappiness, where every well is dry and every inn is full, and your journey never ends.

If you have a dream, and making that dream a reality involves tough business decisions, good for you. I commend you for having the courage to duke it out with VCs, lawyers, and whomever else will try to get you to mortgage your honesty to fill their coffers.

But if you are dragging yourself to work every day, if you hate what your boss makes you do, if it’s about the money and the vacations and the toys, but not about fundamental satisfaction with your job, you need to stop right now, sit down with the people you love and trust, and reëvaluate your choices.

Trust me on this one. If $100,000 isn’t enough, neither is $200,000, and $300,000 won’t do it either. We’ve established what they want you to become. All you’re doing is haggling about the price.

the sun also rises

The good news is that unless you have signed up for a two year tour of duty with the army, you can stop any time. You can get off the treadmill. You can just stop doing things that aren’t consistent with your values.

I’m not saying you shouldn’t work long hours, or compromise your technical integrity by using a for loop instead of a map function. Making tough choices is part of growing up.

But you do not need to compromise your integrity, ever. And the good news is, you can just say no. Tell your boss to handle all communications with the client if he doesn’t want you to mention that you only put in twenty hours on their project last week because he has you working for two clients at once.

Tell your client that no, you cannot submit an invoice for $2,500 but accept only $2,000 in payment, with her skimming the extra $500 as a secret commission.

It’s incredible, but this little word, no, it really works. The world does not stop. You don’t get dragged from the room and imprisoned without trial. If you are let go, you will find another job, a better one, a job with people who like you and respect you and want to make money in an honourable fashion.

We have a lot of freedoms. The point of those freedoms is to have an almost completely unrestrained ability to pursue happiness. All you have to do is make the right choices. And the first choice is to simply say no to anything you cannot abide.

That is the road that leads us into the sunshine.



Comments on “Haggling about the price:
Personally, I look at a job offer like that in an entirely different light. To me, it looks like you get to go somewhere interesting on somebody else's dime. It's just that the somebody else is evil. Other than that it looks like a fantastic offer. However, this whole frame of mind is predicated on the assumption that I'll somehow magically survive any danger I encounter, which is not an entirely rational assumption.

But I have to admit, I'm massively tempted. All that frustration about not having any practical foundation in the Middle East, and needing to have an opinion? Having an opinion would be easy.

(This is probably why Pat Maddox said I was crazy.)
Nice article, but a misplaced metaphor. Doing something dangerous for reward is not the same as doing something against your principles.
No, it's not the same thing at all. What is the same is believing that there's some price at which it goes from being wrong to right.

If you're a professional soldier of fortune, you'll work for any decent price, but of course you prefer to get the highest pay possible for the least danger. It's a mistake to believe that putting your life in danger for $5,000,000 is sensible but stupid for $5,000. (There's an amusing issue to debate about whether taking $5,000 means you have to expose yourself to 1,000 times the danger).

But still, it boils down to this: if you don't want to put your life in danger for money, the amount of money is not an issue. And if you have principles, again the amount of money is not an issue.
People risk their lives just walking across the street to the liquor store. Even eating a big mac or smoking a cigarette reduces your expected lifespan.

When it comes to putting our life at risk, we're already for sale.
People risk their lives just walking across the street to the liquor store. Even eating a big mac or smoking a cigarette reduces your expected lifespan.

Very interesting argument. Let me see if I understand you. We risk our lives every day in the pursuit of alcohol, nicotine, and fast foods, all things that are bad for us that other people sell us for their own monetary gain.

So as long as we're doing that, we're just haggling about the price when we debate risking our lives for other people's profit. If that's what you're saying, I tend to agree with you, although the obvious choice to make is to stop drinking, smoking, and eating fast food.

But if you don't want to give up your unhealthy habits, consider this: presume you enjoy a cigar from time to time. It's harmful. So as long as you can smoke a cigar, why not get shot at for a living? The difference is that the job in Iraq offers no advantage over staying in Canada besides the pay. A cigar offers me fleeting pleasure, so I can weigh one against the other. You may say you can buy pleasure with $240,000. But my experience is that indirect pleasure is no substitute for direct hardship. My personal opinion (it isn't a lay of Psychology, I am not an authority) is that jobs must offer direct satisfaction. See Giles' response above: he sounds liek he'd enjoy the job directly, maybe it would be appropriate for him.
I think the Iraq metaphor is problematic, because it's not clear whether you consider extra compensation for danger to be prostituting oneself, or if the prostitution comes from working toward a cause you oppose.

Hard as it may be to believe, there exist informed, intelligent, people of good will who support the effort in Iraq.
I make no claims whatsoever about whether Iraq is a cause I oppose or support.

What I said, in fact, is: If you’re going to sacrifice your life on principle, I commend you for your bravery. Meaning, if you believe in a cause, I support your putting yourself in harm's way to further that cause. Whether I personally support the cause or not.

However, if you are indifferent to the cause, then my suggestion is that money is not a good reason to put yourself in harm's way.

In this particular case, I doubt very much that even if you support the cause that you can consider yourself to be furthering it in a meaningful way. It's a web developer's job, working as a civilian contractor, not as a soldier or a nurse or a teacher. It is about as far removed from the work being done as paying taxes that finance the operation or voting for people who support the operation.
I think pretty much all jobs offer a mix of things we like and dislike to do, combined with compensation for doing them.

Flipping burgers at fast food is composed largely of tasks no one likes doing and offers rather poor compensation. On the other hand, if you need to money to keep a roof over your family's head and you can't find any other job, if you're smart, you'll go flip burgers until you find something better.

By contrast, if you have a programming job, you are hopefully paid pretty well, and if you are well-suited to the industry and the employer, you like much of what you get paid to do. Even still, there are generally days you'd rather do something else, and tasks that you don't like at all.

But whether you're flipping burgers or writing software, doing a job is about trying to find a good tradeoff between the money you need to make to keep a roof over your head and what you have to do to get paid that money.

Outside of being asked to compromise a principle you hold, haggling about the price is the fundamental characteristic: more money is a better deal, and a better job is a better deal. Unless you find a rare situation where the more you like your job, the more you will be compensated, tradeoffs are pretty much inherent.

While risks to life and limb are rarely involved in accepting a software job, they may be a significant factor for a job as a coal miner, deep sea fisherman, etc. Many people would choose a comparatively well paying job in a coal mine (and the corresponding risk) to working in a safe job as a burger flipper, because it's very hard to support a family as a burger flipper.

Now, once you get up to $100K vs. $240K, things tie less directly into putting a roof over your family's head, of course. But it may still be relevant: perhaps you and your spouse wish to retire at 50, move back to the family ranch, and take care of your aging parents. If so, the extra income to help reach your life goals may be well worth a modest risk. Perhaps bad investments or unexpected medical expenses have left you at risk of personal bankruptcy. And so on. The point is, the tradeoffs involved may not simply be the typical "fancier house, nicer luxury car, more elaborate vacations" ideas that typically come to mind. Sometimes money means the ability to live your life or follow your dream, and not just more cash to blow on frivolities.

Outside of being asked to compromise a principle you hold...

Uh, that's the exact point of the post. Not getting killed for work is a principle I hold. Not telling falsehoods for my manager is a principle I hold.

The amount of money involved has no bearing on my decision. For other things, sure, negotiate to your heart's content.

BUT, if you are willing to be killed or maimed for $240,000, don't be surprised if one day you find yourself in harm's way for considerably less.
The point of this article is clear and author's opinion is understandable. However, what about all these 'trust me', mentor tone and advices what people should dream of or work at? Are you working in human resources and can find a perfect job for everyone, or your life experience is so rich that it is supposed to enlighten all the rest of us?
Anonymous, thank you for taking the time to respond.

Are you working in human resources and can find a perfect job for everyone, or your life experience is so rich that it is supposed to enlighten all the rest of us?

First, the function of Human Resources is to maximize the value of employees for the benefit of the business. My life experience tells me that it is a grave mistake to think that HR is worried about finding you the perfect job.

That's your responsibility.

As for my tone, this is a weblog. It contains the opinions of the author. What do you expect from a weblog? Do you want everything watered down with "you might want to consider..." and "Your mileage may vary, but..." and "just my two cents..."?

This weblog represents my opinion. I have one. It's up to you to decide what you want to do with it, if anything.

Are you offended? I'm sorry, I really am. Articles like this are challenges. They are meant to provoke an emotional response. They can't all be positive responses, but even so I am sorry to think that you were disquieted.

Now about the richness of my life experiences. You have a hidden assumption, namely that there is some sort of hierarchy of people, with the more experienced or "better" ones on top dribbling insights and experience to the "lessers" below.

This is not my belief. I am able to learn from all sorts of people, including those with much less total experience than I have in a particular area. The question is whether they have something that is new to me.

In return, I do not claim that I have more experience than you. I share my experience, and you decide for yourself whether it is valuable on its own merits.

To say that I have some rich experience, and therefore you should listen to me is a well-known fallacy, the appeal to authority.
I agree with the general point of your article: one should not compromise their principles.

Your army example is not a good one. Your suggesting that putting ones self in more danger is something that we should avoid. As someone pointed out, we put our lives in danger every day. There is a risk that the same person who would shoot me in Iraq could come to America and shoot me here.

If your argument is about degrees being irrelevant in this discussion, you could make the same argument about moving anywhere that is more dangerous just for pay. I'm in a rural town now. If I move to say New York for a higher paying job, I'm making exactly the same choice as I would be moving to Iraq.

Further, as a non-combatant in a military instillation, I would be significantly safer then I am now.

There are downsides to that job, but they aren't different then most jobs.

To your actual point, that works for simple morals. But if your morals are more complex, you may have to pick which ones you will uphold.

For example: I want to protect my love one and I do not want to lie. If my only choice to protect my love ones is to lie, I must violate one of my morals.

So I need to prioritize them (I choose my loved ones). If I needed my job to support my children, say getting medical treatment, and my job required me to do something unethical, I would do it in a heartbeat.
First off, it looks like you're equating risk with sacrifice. They aren't the same and using the term "sacrifice" to refer to programming in Iraq is problematic for that reason--particularly when it is clear you are specifically referring to the risk to life in going to Iraq to work.

Because of this (IMO) invalid equation, your invocation of principle to describe the situation is problematic--mainly because you are creating an inapplicable infinite cost argument. There's a large difference between claiming that no amount of money is adequate to compensate you for the risks of going to Iraq and implying that anyone who decides that the risk is worth the money is somehow a prostitute in doing so.

I explored this in a post of my own (talk about prostitute!) a month ago. The thing is that you already risk your life for money right now. Let me elaborate. You risk your life every day you choose to drive to work. Even if that isn't a specific consideration in accepting a job that pulls you out of the house, the fact that you are willing to drive (or bus, or walk, or bike) somewhere to earn money shows that there is a degree of mortal risk you are willing to accept in exchange for money.

There simply is no way not to risk your life for compensation of some sort. Living means risking. Your personal reluctance to accept the price offered for some specific risk doesn't make you any better than those who choose to accept it. We are, on this scale, all prostitutes willing to risk ourselves for pecuniary gain. While I agree that the price isn't worth the risk to me personally, I acknowledge that others may legitimately accept the offered reward for the given risk without feeling morally superior to them.
To all the people saying that we risk our lives every day and that all we are talking about is the a balance between the degree of risk and the monetary reward:

If you feel that way and you want to go, I'll wave good bye. Have fun, learn something, you'll have interesting stories to tell your grand children.

But funny thing, and I admit I am terribly biased about this: I have a feeling that these arguments are things that the people who profit from putting your life on the firing line tell us as part of their sales pitch.

There are people with a vested interest in getting you to devalue your own survival, and they are very good at persuading you to see things their way.

The whole 'slippery slope' argument just doesn't grab me the way it seems to grab you. Somehow, I can tell a little white lie to a new mother about how wonderful her baby is, yet I refuse to lie to a client about the state of their software project.

And I don't think they're just degrees on a smooth continuum, I have convinced myself that one is right and the other wrong.

How? By thinking about what I'm doing for people, how I'm making their lives better or worse.

Likewise, while I refuse to live in NYC (forget the crime, I don't want to leave the Ontario health care system), I go rock climbing and scuba diving, so obviously I can live with a non-zero risk of death or injury. yet I see going to Iraq on behalf of some contracting company in a completely different light.

Why? because I don't rock climb for money, of course. To get me to Iraq, you have to show me how I'll get fulfillment out of the job.

I am no saying you can't find deep meaning in Iraq. In fact, I said that if you are going on principle, I admire you for it. But money isn't one of my principles, so haggling over how much is meaningless to me.

p.s. Shoot them over there so they won't shoot you over here? Seriously?
I never saw that job offer that way. To me, it looks like a gamble; "will I live long enough for that $240,000 to benefit my family."

It doesn't go from "wrong" to "right" at any point; wrong and right don't enter the equation at all. The switching place would be if I actually sat down and figured out how long I might live, and how much I'd earn in that amount of time, weighed against how much I wanted to leave my family; the opportunity cost, if you will, of leaving my wife and 2 young girls for Iraq.

For, frankly, a job that can be done from anywhere with an internet connection.
Allow me to clarify my point above because I think we're talking at least partially past each other here. I agree with your broader point that principles you can sacrifice for money don't really qualify as principles. And your corollary that compromising professional integrity for money will leave you dissatisfied on a fundamental level that will affect both you and your employers in negative, long-term ways. Your quote from Churchill is a good illustration of this point as are your later examples.

Further, you are correct in your follow-up comments to point out that slippery slope arguments don't really belong in a discussion about principles. That's because principles are absolute by definition (which is why compromising a principle for money calls the principle itself into question). Principles can interact with other principles in strange and interesting ways and maintain their integrity as principles (as in the abortion debate where protection of life conflicts with personal freedoms and self-determination). But accepting cash for an activity otherwise considered wrong is not such a case.

Where I see most of the commenters (myself included above) bogging down is in your initial example. On its face, it doesn't illustrate your point very well because accepting rewards for risks is a normal human activity and one you really cannot escape. Using this as your initial lead-in to your topic is confusing and doesn't flow well to your broader point (though I can see how it would form the impetus for where you ended up going). It may very well be that the discussion in the comments of the post you linked delve into the principles involved in such a choice, but the case as related here doesn't support your later point (IMO).

Not that principles cannot be involved in risk assessment. As I close towards 40, I find myself eyeing motorcycles with increasing yearning. It's a classic mid-life, well, crisis is too grand a word, call it early-onset senility maybe. However, as a father of four and sole support of my family, the risk of riding motorcycles on a regular basis is an unacceptable one no matter how cheap the motorcycle or how enjoyable the riding experience (or how good my insurance). If someone offered me a $200k yearly stipend to compensate for my motorcycle riding, I would turn it down. Or $2 million or any sum you care to name. The principle of caring for my family and helping to raise my kids (including being there during their growing-up) overwhelms entirely the increased risk of death and/or dismemberment.

But it isn't accepting money for risk by itself that I would feel wrong about--raising my risk of dying that high at all violates my principle of responsible fatherhood. In terms of your initial example, it would violate my principle of responsible fatherhood to accept a job in Iraq right now no matter what the salary offered were. Again, raising my risk of dying for a higher yearly salary isn't itself enough to make that a violation of principle. At least, you don't make that case in this post (and that'd be a hard case to make because you'd have to create a threshold where it becomes unacceptable, because as I said in my first comment, you accept risks for pecuniary reward any time you step outside your house to go to work). It isn't until you include other factors that you bring principles into scope. If your initial example had included factors that made that risk a violation of principle, I think you would have had a better example and made a better case.
In the Iraq example, it's a matter not of principle, but odds. There's a chance you could die, and a chance you could live a very comfortable life. It's cost/benefit. The would-be-whore understands that she'd have to live with the shame, but that cost is offset by the benefit of having millions of dollars she wouldn't otherwise have. If my boss asks me to lie, I have to weigh that against a period of unemployment, a round of interviews, and the uncertain nature of the next position. Principles are only for men who lack the reason required to balance costs and benefits.
An interesting analogy you are trying to create, but I don't agree with your equating taking higher pay for a position that involves an undesirable location with the issues surrounding the ethics of the workplace.

As someone who has been placed in the position of committing fraud to stay in a well-paying job or quit and who after a lot of soul-searching opted to quit; your advice to walk away is quite short-sighted. My decision was made over 10 years ago and my career has never recovered. Meanwhile, the unethical, lying, and still-employed folks that were involved have since gotten continual pay raises and the issue has long been forgotten. And even though time proved I was in the right, no one cared.

Given the opportunity to make the decision again - I am just stupid or principled enough to do the same even knowing the outcome.

Comparing the decision to not apply or not accept a job based on ethics to the decision to leave one is like comparing a tri-cycle to a Harley.

And offering crazy prices for jobs based upon their being in a dangerous or undesirable location is far from new. I know someone who was offered a crazy salary to work in Iraq almost 50 years ago, long before most people had even heard of Iraq or Saddam Hussein was even out of the schoolroom.
Working for someone, even yourself, is selling your life a piece at a time. What is life? Is it time? You can sell that to McDonald's by the hour, $6.50 per. Is it struggle, the effort to create something? You can sell that too, for a little more money.

Your life is the one thing that is uniquely yours to sell.
First off, great post. I think the analogies worked quite well. The primary point being that decisions based on principles should be unchanged by money.

I commend you and the commenters from letting this devolve into some political or moral debate about Iraq. Many forums would!

But I find the argument about "life is all about risk - the minute you walk out the door for a job, you are a prostitute..."

This is very different. It is not a matter of degree to go from walking out your door to accepting a job in Iraq. Walking out your door is a decision to live your life in a normal fashion where you accept the minimal amounts of risk inherent in normal activities. Alas, even staying IN your home can be dangerous. So going out to shop, go to school, go to concerts, go to work - that is all part of living which most people have decided is a risk that people must take (it's pretty unavoidable even) and the risk is generally not effected by choosing one job over another (for programmers anyway).

Going to Iraq for a job represents a significant increase in risk. It is this *increase* that is new and poses a challenge to your principles. It is not just a matter of degrees - there is no way to have 0 risk. Working in a non-war-torn city could be called "standard risk" - And working in Iraq is "high risk". So, as the original author suggested, taking a job in Iraq for money is to put a price on your life that I would argue you were not doing when working a job in a non-war-torn city.

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Reg Braithwaite

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