An Open Letter to Silicon Slopes About the Forgotten Worker

Jon Ogden
Jon Ogden
Feb 3 · 8 min read
Photo by Ben Hershey on Unsplash

In Utah, workers in tech jobs make an average of $102k.
Workers in non-tech jobs make an average of $58k.

A government official shared a version of this stat last week at the Silicon Slopes Tech Summit, and it immediately struck me. I thought of those in non-tech jobs who make far more than $58k, from doctors to lawyers to real estate executives.

But I also thought of those who make far less. People on the periphery. The men and women, mostly middle-aged, who helped put on the Tech Summit we just attended. They prepped our food, served us lunch, took our trays, and emptied our trash. According to Indeed.com, they make roughly $13 dollars an hour for custodial labor and roughly the same for catering. In short, they make less than $30k a year.

They’re at every conference we go to.

They vacuum carpets and empty the trash in our offices after most people have left for the night. They’re behind the counters at gas stations where we fill up our cars. They work in fast food restaurants, middle-aged men and women making $8 an hour or $16k a year.

And while there is pain in all of our lives — even in the lives of the wealthiest among us — I have a hunch that on average the pain of those making less than $30k exceeds those making $100k or more.

I have this hunch from personal experience. When my income veered toward $30k early in my career while trying to raise a family, there were moments when I wished I didn’t exist. I wanted all the cells in my body to vanish into the ether. The stress of being one medical bill away from losing my savings, the anxiety of knowing I wasn’t building toward retirement, the embarrassment of feeling like a loser in society — it got to me.

So when it comes to finances, I’m happy to have a job in tech. I feel immensely grateful and privileged for it. I have sufficient for my needs.

And yet I think there’s something broken with the dominant politics of Silicon Slopes.

Why do I say this? Largely because of what so often goes unsaid about the forgotten worker.

For instance, we had several sessions about the Silicon Slopes Computer Science Fund without a single mention of increasing teacher pay — even though we’re experiencing a prolonged teacher shortage largely driven by low salaries (starting at around $35–45k).

We had a service project where we boxed a million bags of macaroni and cheese for underprivileged families. It was well organized, and I happily participated. But there was no mention that for most of the recipients, increasing wages would largely eliminate the need for these kinds of food relief efforts.

And then there was the gubernatorial debate. In it, Jon Huntsman said—to ample cheers from the crowd—that he supports President Trump for creating “an economic dynamo for this country.” Because of Trump’s economic dynamo, Huntsman said, “all groups have been lifted.” He added, “You look at all categories that have previously had a high unemployment rate, and today people are doing well.”

What went unsaid here is that the unemployment rate has been steadily declining since 2010. Look at the Federal Reserve Economic Data (FRED) and see if you can point to where Trump created this “economic dynamo:”

Unemployment has been in steady decline since 2010. . Source

Here’s the truth: In the three years prior to Trump, the unemployment rate dropped 2%. In the three years since Trump it dropped 1.2%.

While it makes little sense to attribute unemployment rates to a single person (even a president), it’s disingenuous to say that Trump has done wonders on this front. To the contrary, the decline in the unemployment rate has slowed since he took office, as can be expected the closer it gets to zero.

What also went unsaid is anything about higher paying jobs for the lowest wage earners. For instance, see if you can spot the “economic dynamo” Trump has created in manufacturing.

Manufacturing employment has barely budged since 2010. Source

Can’t see it?

That’s because there has been no economic dynamo. The people who lost their manufacturing jobs in the early 2000s aren’t “doing well.” They’re having to find other work (perhaps catering for corporate events, making less than $30k).

It’s the same across the board: Under Trump, wages are still just as stagnant and GDP growth has been slower than the three years before his administration. However, the cost of rent has risen and Trump is on track to balloon the deficit to more than $1 trillion. Put simply, Huntsman’s talk of Trump’s “economic dynamo” is highly disingenuous.

But Huntsman wasn’t the only one spouting political opinions that ignore low wage earners. Spencer Cox, who said he supports Trump but not his “style” (as though cheating on three wives and getting accused of sexual misconduct 23 times is just an issue of style) also expressed concern that the other side is scary. “It’s really scary to me,” Cox said. “If you want to see a Great Recession, there are several people running on the other side that will get us into that recession as quickly as possible.”

It was a pointed attack on candidates with progressive views, such as a core progressive view that the United States should cover healthcare for all citizens, including low-wage earners.

And yet it’s hard to see what’s scary about this core progressive view when other nations do it while spending far less.

The United States spends roughly the same as other countries when it comes to public spending *and* way more when it comes to private spending. Source

These other countries enjoy far less spending because they restrict insurance costs, pharmaceutical costs, and hospital costs. This approach also frees up entrepreneurs from having to worry about losing healthcare when leaving a job to start a business. And these countries are doing it while keeping pace with the US economically.

Most importantly, universal healthcare is an enormous boon for low wage earners. Think of it this way: If you make more than $100k and are inflicted with a medical bill of $5,000, it might pinch. But if you make less than $30k, a bill like that might knock you off your feet.

Another core progressive view has to do with public higher education. In the past, a high school diploma was enough to get a job with a livable wage. Now it’s not. Since the recession, 95% of the economic growth in the United States went to people with “education beyond high school.” Those with only a high school education saw almost no gains (and many saw their wages drop).

And yet there’s a strange unwritten rule in America that public education should be forever limited to K-12, even though people now need training beyond high school to get a job and grow their wages.

If graduating from high school is no longer sufficient for finding a job, we need to change our approach. The public needs public support.

This isn’t a radical idea. Just as public K-12 was once controversial but now has almost universal support, expanding to some form of public K-14 or public K-16 will one day be widely viewed as an essential step toward increasing economic growth for all citizens. And it’s not beyond our reach. For context, Trump raised the annual military budget by $145 billion since taking office and no one blinked. The increase barely made headlines. Covering tuition for everyone attending public colleges right now would cost $80 billion — a little more than half of Trump’s military increase. So the money exists. We just need to prioritize the education of our future workforce.

But all of this went unsaid.

Finally, there’s the matter of what Mark Zuckerberg left unsaid in his conversation with Clint Betts, Executive Director at Silicon Slopes.

When Zuckerberg talked about being a brave proponent of free speech, what went unsaid is that he doesn’t want to deny potential advertising revenue from deceptive politicians.

When he talked about giving everyone a voice, what went unsaid is that he’s amassing tremendous monopoly power (sucking up Instagram, WhatsApp, Oculus, and nearly 80 other companies) to ensure that would-be competing entrepreneurs and innovators don’t have a chance against him.

When he talked about connecting the world, what went unsaid is that his efforts have led him to amass fiscal power in the realm of $80 billion (enough to cover the tuition of every single person attending public college in America), power that gives Zuckerberg an outsized connection to powerful people around the world. (On this last point, I feel I should give a shoutout to Clint Betts—who I’m constantly impressed with—for telling Zuckerberg that even though he’s essentially the same age, he’s had quite a different life than Zuckerberg and has only just paid off his student loans. It made the conversation human. It represented the humility and heart I’ve always felt from Clint.)

In the end, what I’m talking about here is what goes unsaid.

When we talk about education, what goes unsaid is that we have a teacher shortage largely because of low salaries.

When we make a million meals for the poor, what goes unsaid is that for most recipients a wage increase would go much further to alleviate hunger.

When we applaud Trump, what goes unsaid is that he hasn’t created an “economic dynamo” and has done little to nothing to truly help the forgotten worker.

When we talk about core progressive policies (all of which are worthy of rigorous debate), what goes unsaid is that some of these policies may be the exact thing that people with low wages need to thrive.

When we applaud Mark Zuckerberg, what goes unsaid is that he’s the beneficiary of a system that rewards ruthless monopoly power resulting in ungodly (or perhaps godly?) amounts of wealth while millions of other citizens scrape by with less than $30k a year.

What I mean to not leave unsaid is this. Too often, there’s a sense in our Silicon Slopes community that government is good to the extent that it enables the work of venture capitalists and boards of directors and bad to the extent it gets in their way.

The problem with that worldview is that it too often means we neglect workers on the fringes of the economy—the forgotten workers who serve us meals and move our trash.

What I mean to say is this:

We should remember them.

Jon Ogden

Written by

Jon Ogden

In search of truth, beauty, and goodness.

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