Actually, it was the best job ever because I was something of a piano prodigy as a child. Around age 12, my parents and I had to make a conscious decision about whether I was going to pursue a career in music. I decided not to, which has greatly reduced the amount of Ramen noodles I have eaten over the years.
At age 13, I decided I wanted to play the organ. I took lessons from the organist in the big Catholic church downtown. What an incredible instrument!
Playing the organ is a lot harder than it looks. In case you hadn’t noticed, there is a whole keyboard at your feet—yes, you play with both your hands and your feet. And since you can’t possibly learn all the hymns, you have to be really good at sight-reading three lines of music at once. It takes a great deal of coordination. Plus, you have two or more “manuals” (keyboards) and dozens of stops, which activate the different sounds in the organ. This is where the phrase “pulling out all the stops” comes from.
So I got a job as the organist at the Unitarian church down the street. For the first and only time of my life, I was a member of a union—the American Guild of Organists. I received my union-protected minimum wage of $50 per service, which is a great deal of money if you’re 16 years old in 1990.
$50 a week definitely put gas in my car. And there was a girl in the congregation that I dated a couple of times.
I felt sorry for my poor schlep classmates who were bagging groceries for $4/hour. They had to work 12 hours to make what I made in one.
I felt pretty smug. The high point was when I transcribed the theme from “A Clockwork Orange” and played it as the prelude for one of the church services. You can see where the subversive streak comes from.
I Got Skills
Because my skills were worth 12 times as much.
Bagging groceries is kind of the definition of unskilled labor. Literally anyone can bag groceries. The supply of labor that has those skills is limitless.
Church organists are in slightly higher demand.
But not by much! I think a church organist these days—if you are hired by the church to play every week, plus run all the choir and music programs, probably pays about $35,000 to $50,000 a year, depending on the church. So not a lot!
It’s a decent living if you like playing the organ, but you also have to deal with church politics. The wages of an organist not only depend on the supply of labor but the demand for labor as well. And church construction has gone way down in recent years. Not to mention the fact that the latest fad in religious services is “contemporary music.”
However, the fact that church organists make more money than grocery baggers does reflect the level of skill the occupation requires. Before I became a church organist, I had been playing either the piano or organ for six years. Six years of practicing 30 minutes to an hour a day, every day.
Nobody practices bagging groceries for 30 minutes a day, every day.
I don’t particularly like manual labor (though I have done it on occasion). That’s why I do my best to acquire skills that are rare and marketable so I don’t have to do things like chip paint.
In this country (and others), we have this unhealthy obsession with manual labor. Politicians talk about “working Americans” all the time. We say things like “putting in a hard day’s work.” The most popular car is the Ford F-150.
Instead, I will put in a hard day’s thinking.
Hate and Discontent
A lot of people spend too much time thinking about what other people make. It’s unproductive.
Everyone thinks Wall Street guys are overpaid, for example.
Okay, so let’s take your average ETF option trader at a bank. Say he makes $500,000 a year (which might even be generous these days). Let’s examine one trade of many that he is confronted with on a daily basis.
A sales trader stands up and yells to him, “20,000 XLE Jan 75 calls, how?”
What’s happening here is that a client is asking for a two-sided market on the January 75 call options in XLE, which is the Energy Select Sector SPDR ETF, 20,000 times, which means options on 2,000,000 shares, or about $140,000,000. It’s a big trade, definitely, but there are bigger ones.
So let’s think of all the things the option trader needs to know.
He needs to know what an option is, starting from scratch.
He needs to know what XLE is, that it’s an energy ETF, and he should have a good idea of what stocks are in the portfolio. He might have a cursory knowledge about factors affecting supply and demand for crude oil.
This requires a knowledge of an option pricing model like Black-Scholes and many, many years of college mathematics, including probability theory and differential equations.
He needs to know how he is going to hedge this option. Will he hedge the delta all in the stock? Will he hedge with other options? How will he dynamically hedge the trade until maturity? Will he lay off some of the risk in other strikes? Will he buy single-stock options on some of the names in the index, like XOM, CVX, or COP, to effect a dispersion trade?
This means he has to know what a dispersion trade is. More math.
He also needs to understand liquidity. What will be his execution impact by trying to sell 800,000 shares of XLE? This affects how wide he makes his market.
And best of all, he needs to think about all of these things in a split-second, without hesitation.
If he is off by even a penny—he loses money on the trade.
I would characterize that as “skilled labor.” And we haven’t even talked about the emotional fortitude it takes to take that kind of risk.
$500,000 a year seems low.
People get the most upset about executive pay. Here you have some dillweed CEO who is the direct beneficiary of the agency problem. If company XYZ does well, he gets paid millions. If it does poorly, he gets fired and loses nothing, personally. We say that he has no skin in the game.
Pretend we’re talking about McDonald’s. Many people think McDonald’s is doing a terrible job. There’s a lot of evidence that they are. They’re losing market share to Chipotle and lots of other “fast casual” restaurants.
But running a company is hard enough. You have 50,000-odd restaurants, you have to manage supply and distribution for this massive network, you have to do all the managerial science behind what is on the menu and how much it costs, you have to directly negotiate, and I mean meet with leaders of foreign governments, you need to go on CNBC from time to time and not be a mutant, and above all, you need to lead inspirationally.
Not many people can do all that. I can’t. Maybe I’m smart enough, but I don’t have the emotional maturity or even the desire for that kind of responsibility.
Everyone wants to be the boss, but nobody really wants to be the boss.
If you think you are underpaid—maybe you are. The labor market is not perfectly efficient. Anomalies can persist.
Take a look at people who you think are overpaid. What are they doing that you aren’t? Maybe you just aren’t willing to do those things (like kiss lots of ass).
The responsibility is yours and yours alone. And that, my friends, is something nobody wants to hear.