In which the tech industry angrily punishes the monster it spawned and nourished

Charles Hugh Smith recently called attention to a controversy over a Yelp employee who was fired for publishing an open letter to her CEO about the hardships she and her age-peer colleagues faced. I’m disappointed to have to say that I believe Smith misrepresented the young woman’s complaints pretty badly, since I’ve usually found his assessments fair-minded, even when I’ve disagreed with them. He described Talia Ben-Ora’s  open letter as a self-parodying outburst of callow privilege. Having first read his commentary, I was floored to discover that the original letter included specific complaints that:

1) Ben-Ora had taken to sleeping under multiple layers of clothing because she could not afford her PG&E bill;

2) A CVS employee had taken pity on her and given her $6 so that she could purchase BART fare to work one morning;

3) On another occasion when Ben-Ora had no money for BART fare, her manager had advised her to drive to work instead, deliberately jump the toll at an automated bridge toll plaza, and pay the fine later;

4) Ben-Ora had been gorging on free supplies of bread provided by Yelp exclusively for employee consumption at work in the hope of needing to eat less after work;

5) After work, she had been subsisting on little more than a bag of rice and had been drinking large quantities of water before bed in an effort, sometimes futile, to stave off hunger pains overnight;

6) A colleague had complained on an office white board that he was facing imminent homelessness, and Ben-Ora was convinced that another colleague was already homeless;

7) A third colleague had started a GoFundMe page because she couldn’t make rent on her own;

8) Ben-Ora had financed her move to the Bay Area using credit card debt;

9) She was spending 80% of her income on rent, with a thirty-mile commute to work;

10) She is afraid that she will not be able to service her debts;

11) She cannot afford copayments on her medical insurance.

Frankly, a number of these complaints are Dickensian. The tone in much of Ben-Ora’s open letter is snarky, passive-aggressive, immature, flippant, or otherwise not ideal, but the specific complaints I just listed are so damning of Yelp on their own to excuse deficiencies in her tone. What Ben-Ora describes of her eating habits is severe malnutrition. When civilians in war zones are reduced to subsisting on bags of rice, whatever free bread they can scrounge from benefactors, and excessive volumes of water to suppress their own hunger, it’s an international outrage.

Smith advises her to buy fresh vegetables at Chinese groceries and find trustworthy housemates to split a common residence. This would be sage counsel if Ben-Ora hadn’t been trying to make ends meet on $733 biweekly with crushing personal debt in an extremely expensive urban area. She is far from the only person to have moved far into the suburbs in the hope of affording to hold a job in San Francisco. It would not be at all frivolous of her to say that she does not have the time or energy to cook or make new friends, and the wisdom of cramming strangers together as roommates in a strange city is always questionable at best.

Realtalk, anyone with regular gainful employment should be able to afford a studio apartment of her own. Full stop. It’s more Yelp’s problem than its employees’ that they cannot. I have to wonder what rationale inspired Yelp to establish a major customer service center in San Francisco and not, say, Sacramento. It was asking for this sort of employee hardship and resulting negative publicity by bringing debt-plagued youngsters with no local ties into one of the most expensive rental markets in the country on salaries a bit over half what they’d get to manage a Dunkin’ Donuts store in rural Maryland.

Smith is wrong about Ben-Ora being an insolent whiner. She’s a whistleblower. The California state prison system would be ordered into receivership anew if it were feeding inmates the way Yelp’s junior customer service employees have been eating. In spite of the recurring  bog-standard Millennial children’s bitchfest tone of Ben-Ora’s open letter, it’s probably the least frivolous, most damning list of grievances from a direct stateside employee of a major tech company that I’ve ever read. She and her colleagues truly cannot afford to feed themselves or heat their bedrooms.  It’s especially ironic, of course, that Ben-Ora got fired for publicly complaining about a company renowned for facilitating frank public consumer reviews of businesses. Shoe don’t fit so nice on the other foot, do it, massa?

Talia Ben-Ora should sue Yelp for a lot more than some free soup. To misappropriate Kennedy a wee bit, ask not what you can do to pop your punk-ass boss; ask what your punk-ass boss can do to pop you. Say, Mr. Stoppelman, a Seagram’s ginger ale on the rocks sounds delicious. Meet me at the South Medford Burger King at 2130 hours sharp, and don’t forget to bring the drinkin’ money.

Sure, that’s a bogus order. Discovery orders on behalf of plaintiff’s counsel in the coming class action by Yelp’s starving employees, however, will be valid and legally binding. Please to enjoy.

No C-suite prick gets to tone-police my white ass as long as I’m doing farm work and scavenging deposit bottles at rest areas for extra pocket change. BottleDrop is bae as shit, y’all. I say this as a rank dilettante who has never brought in a single respectable garbage bag full of cans. BottleDrop is still bae as shit. That right there is how a decent society treats its poors. Yelp, on the other hand, is shit. Just shit. That’s how it treats its employees, and that’s what it is. I can’t concede it any more nuance or benefit of the doubt than that. If its employees can’t afford groceries, they’re 100% in the right to go public with complaints that bitch I can’t feed myself on what yinz are paying me.

There but for the grace of God go so many of us. We need to keep speaking up about the unconscionable, even if it makes us insolent little brats. No governor has the authority to deny us permission to speak, and no citizen should ask permission in the first place.

That’s my five-star review of the Bill of Rights, I guess.

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2 thoughts on “In which the tech industry angrily punishes the monster it spawned and nourished

  1. I am bemused by the exchange over whatshername. The standard take is that she’s an entitled millennial who made “poor choices” and now complains about the consequences.

    At the same time, everyone seems to recognize that over the last few decades working for a living has become working for less and less of a living until finally you can’t make a living working, thus whatshername. And the way all that’s currently being addressed seems to be the presidential candidacy of Donald Trump. We don’t coherent much anymore. Or at all.

    One thing is, 60 years ago if a girl left her home in the hinterlands to go to the big city to work and find her fortune or a husband, as the case may be, she didn’t go trolling around town for a roommate – she brought one with her. Which is a long winded way of saying she wouldn’t have gone on such an urban adventure alone. And that might have eased things here a bit. But that’s a minor point.

    One of the most frustrating aspects of a “slave mentality” is where the slaves themselves enforce the regime of servitude against any slave uppity enough to complain or to strike out on their own. The insulting, tedious and intellectually lazy critique of this young woman is better characterized as that, methinks, than anything else.

    Another truly annoying aspect of it: the ubiquitous references to her “useless” degree. America has always been fundamentally philistine, pretenses to “education” notwithstanding. But we used to know enough to be embarrassed about it. Now we show contempt for learning that isn’t immediately profitable even as we shower money on the vainest stupidities. Even the Romans at their most corrupt and decadent weren’t this bad.

    We generally don’t pay enough for an honest days’ work in this country and it’s a real problem. People talk about the minimum wage, but people’s pay never really depended on that. You know how the stories came out about lots of Wal-Mart’s employees being on food stamps? 60 years ago a story like that would have shamed Wal-Mart right out of business. Not only would management, and in particular the Walton family, have been mortified, but people would be ashamed to shop there lest their neighbors see them.

    Now a lot of the same people whose reaction to that story was “well, at least they have a job they should be grateful” are climbing all over this young millennial’s complaint and applauding the company for immediately firing her.

    Obviously, her point was well taken and the company, as you say, is just shit.

    • There’s an odd backstory of sorts to Charles Hugh Smith’s hot take on this spat that I didn’t think to mention. Like me, he has longstanding ties to the Bay Area (he’s lived in or around Berkeley for most of his adult life, apparently), and he has often complained about the strangulation of the workaday people who keep the Bay Area running by official overreach and featherbedding, sky-high housing prices, and so forth–critiques that I largely second. He extends many of these critiques to California as a whole, and again, I’m largely in agreement with him. In the piece that I linked, he expressed empathy for Talia Ben-Ora’s circumstances, but then qualified it with lengthy commentary about how she just isn’t disciplined enough. “Slave mentality” is a pretty accurate description, I’m afraid.

      Smith moved to the Bay Area at a time when it was objectively much, much easier to make ends meet on low wages. This was true even when I was a young child in Palo Alto in the eighties and early nineties. It was an indescribably different place when my parents and I moved to Pennsylvania in 1992 than it is today, and by then the inflation of housing prices was already underway to an extent that would have alarmed people in most of the country.

      Ben-Ora’s complaints about the cost of BART fare are understated, if anything. BART is by far the most expensive rapid transit system of its sort west of the Mississippi. The light rail systems in Sacramento, San Diego, and Los Angeles all offer low, flat fares for comparable distances, and parts of the Los Angeles system are operationally on par with BART. BART hoses its riders to an extent that may be equaled only by the Washington Metro, and the featherbedding by its operators’ union is a matter of well-established public record. A number of these people pull down six-figure salaries with overtime for jobs that do not involve actually driving the trains, but merely pushing start buttons and making announcements. It’s frankly scandalous, and it’s been a matter of great controversy in the Bay Area for years. BART also imposes surcharges of roughly $5 per ride to SFO, ostensibly to pay for the extension of the system. These surcharges are patently bogus, and the proceeds are almost certainly being embezzled or looted in effect.

      Young people today (men, too, I’d tend to say) go it alone when they move to the big city because we’re in the midst of something like a sixty-year secular high in cocooning and low in social engagement. By Akinokure’s accounting, the last time social engagement was so anemic was the mid-fifties, and that was on the upslope of a secular high in socioeconomic equality. Today we’re more or less at an extended eighty-year secular high in inequality. That is, we’re doubly screwed. I find it horrifying to think that young people today were socialized to be spergs and then turned loose to navigate a society trashed to hell by robber barons and yuppies for close to two full generations. It’s hard to think of a way for a society to do worse by its youth.

      Again, if anything, young people today tend to be restrained in their criticism of their having been sold this bill of goods. I get the feeling that much of the youth revolt criticism curated on major blogs and the like for mass consumption is selected for its vapidity in an attempt to make young people look whiny, entitled, and illiterate. Not to put too fine a point on it, many of us do NOT write like that, at least not earnestly.

      You’re right about American philistinism. I guess I tend towards a certain quiet, practical philistinism in my own worldview, just because I’ve ended up in some surprisingly awful socioeconomic circumstances in spite of (or perhaps on account of) my having a bachelor’s degree in the liberal arts from a nominally prestigious institution. I found myself a year and a half out of college with shit for prospects, and that was with a geology degree. It was disillusioning beyond words. I briefly worked at what was by most accounts one of the better run environmental consulting firms, with above-industry-standard pay, and even there we were all surrounded by corporate dysfunction and long knives. Muh STEM.

      Anyway, this philistinism is a recurrent scourge in American politics, in all sorts of socioeconomic conditions. Coming from blowhard politicians, it’s annoying but to be expected. What I find unconscionable is to see it explicitly promoted by the academy or else tacitly encouraged, to even greater effect, by the most unspeakably crass and anti-intellectual behavior on the part of college administrators. Every few days or weeks I receive correspondence from Dickinson College that was clearly written by people who are frankly less educated than I am and manifestly have no transcendent intellectual interests of any sort. If they did, they wouldn’t be mailing me such embarrassing drivel. These fuckers want my money, of course. Chances are that I’m sleeping in my car every few nights, but they wouldn’t care. I do not appreciate being lectured about the value of a liberal arts education by these bagmen. It isn’t just that I haven’t done well financially as a college graduate; they’re parasites on salt-of-the-earth faculty, too. Apparently it’s much worse at other schools.

      By this point, bloggers, not universities, are the curators and custodians of the intellectual traditions worth saving. I feel a bit arrogant to think of myself in this fashion, like I’m Solzhenitsyn or Havel or some shit, but it’s true. Academia has been colonized by the worst sorts of charlatans, racketeers, and self-dealing showmen, while the silent majority of faculty, the ones who actually educate students, are offered increasingly offered adjunct jobs that leave them paupers. At the administrative level, these institutions are crooked to the core, and Americans are right to distrust them and their motives.

      The crass way to look at this is that the universities have broken their promise to serve as useful Veblen goods enabling the purchase of second-order Veblen goods. The crassest schools have always marketed themselves as Veblen goods (e.g., Harvard), but in less treacherous times they actually deliver something of economic value to their graduates, and they did it at much more reasonable prices. The crude truth of it is that you just don’t spend $200k on a life of the mind. The constant-dollar prices would have stunned students at the most expensive schools in 1970.

      As you mention, Trump is getting traction because he’s promising to clean up this mess. Maybe it’s incoherent, and maybe Trump is insincere (a billionaire with a monogrammed 757 promising populism, etc.), but he and Sanders are the only two candidates in a combined field peaking in the dozens who appear principled and willing to turn the tide on this corruption. Most of the rest have been obviously dirty.

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