with the bickety bammage

As per the recommendation of a friend, I just watched the pilot of the TV show “Damages.”

It lost me… because of money.

The opening scene finds Bambi T. Ingenue graduating from a prestigious lawl school, whereafter she is shocked to receive an offer of $150,000 from a major Manhattan firm. One with which she has a preexisting relationship. And one which specializes in corporate litigation – which in terms of profits is to the 21st century what being in the colonialism biz was to centuries past.

We are told that the size of the offer is due to their particular interest in wooing her. We are meant to think that the offer is exceptionally large, even for the profession.

Doe-Eyes McFortunateFall is appropriately appreciative of the offer. She even swears. (With one of the Words You Can’t Say On TV!)

I find it highly unlikely that a law school graduate – with implied years of experience working for a major firm – would be entirely ignorant of the sums of money involved in joining said firm. Why else was she at law school? Why, certainly, was she working in The Devil’s Own Legal Specialization – unless she has some sort of insatiable fetish for pretrial motions, which her character would rather suggest is unlikely.

But that is not my primary difficulty, which is: $150,000 is not enough money.

A first-year associate at a major Manhattan firm starts – starts! – at
$240,000 per year. A boutique firm specializing in litigation could
easily pay more, into the 300s. And that’s starting salary.

(Starting salary. This does not include bonuses, such as (but not limited to) the signing bonus. Which could be into the  hundreds of thousands of dollars. If you’ve clerked for a supreme court justice – as dozens of people do every year – Sullivan & Cromwell pays you a quarter million. Flat out. Right on the first day. 150k for a federal judicial clerkship -Bunnie T. Naive’s whole salary. 100k just for a stint in the office of a two-bit rural DA. And those are just the prescribed bonuses; this says nothing of discretionary signing incentives. AKA, whatever the hell the partners want.

Also there is my favorite bonus – TUITION REIMBURSAL. Because such “scholarships” are tax deductible, firms love them. Everyone goes home happy!)

(Assuming money makes you happy.)

(It seems to work on me!)

…& this is just speaking comparatively. Let us speak in absolutes. Let’s face it: in Manhattan, $150/year is not a large salary.

It’s nothing to sneeze at. But it’s very much not worth a cuss word and a look of Acting Class shock.

Let’s break it down. $150 a year is $90 after taxes. $60 after rent. $50 after insurance. $40 after clothing (that is an amazingly conservative estimate; the common denominator of men’s suits, Brook’s Brothers, charges 1500-3000 per suit. & these are just barely of a level that would keep your fellow associates from pointing at you and laughing. And you need probably a dozen. At minimum. Per year.)

So assuming that you have no other bills, no car, dress like a cenobite, walk to work every day, nothing goes wrong, you spend nothing on anything else, and you eat nothing but a ladle of uncooked rice per day, a salary of $150 in Manhattan will leave you about $30 at the end of the year. To do things like eat. Or go to the laundry.

[Which is probably not enough to afford a ladle of rice per day, if
you have to buy it at a Manhattan grocery store.]

I know it’s not the poverty line. This is not me attempting to justify
a six-figure salary as being any other than extreme wealth and opulence just because it is common in a given population. Thirty thousand dollars a year of discretionary spending is, to me, well past wealth. I’d rather be a
carpenter in Manhattan than a prince in Montenegro. But that’s just
it: A carpenter in Manhattan WILL make a six-figure salary. They have to. The rents are so much higher, the food prices are INSANE, everything is more expensive… Manhattan Dollars might as well be their own currency,
existing in their own closed system, where everyone makes twice as
much because everything costs twice as much (at least!).

A person who works in Manhattan and commutes in from (say) Elizabeth, NJ, is going the right way down the water-slide of Purchasing Power Parity. The “exchange rate difference” in that example is comparable to an Arizona dishwasher sending a few USD home to Peso Country. Even ignoring the true salaries of comparable members of the legal profession: $150k/year by Manhattan standards is just not all that much.

Therefore, there are a few ways we can read their offer of a (mere) 150k.

1) The show is set in the 80s; this is all an error of inflation

2) The show is set in some sort of bizarro universe where rent in
Manhattan is cheap and plentiful, presumably because the island is
actually the size of England or Westeros and/or the borough presidencies are all held by dogmatic Anarcho-Syndicalists who have collectivized
Williamsburg

3) This is all meant to show how naive the protagonist really is, and
later, when she learns the truth, she will demand a *real* salary

4) The protagonist suffers from a rare combination of incalculalia and
dyslexia which has led her to believe that she is actually making a
different amount of money; this will be explained in subsequent
episodes, presumably through FLASHBACKS

5) The protagonist has taken a vow of poverty en route to becoming a
Poor Clare or possibly a Beguine

6) The writers just did not do their homework because they are all
screenwriters and therefore have Down Syndrome (to go with their assured Tay-Sachs)

7) The screenwriters were fully aware that the average first-year
litigator at a major Manhattan firm makes 2 to 3 sticks a year. They
were also aware that most people are not aware of this, nor of the
context of Expensive Manhattan – nor are they really aware of how hard
these people work – nor are they really able to internalize the fact
that “earning their money” is a totally silly and bougeoisie concept,
for these people are paid this much for one reason alone: that’s what
the firm has to offer to be competitive with the other firms. It’s a free market that has reached a stable equilibrium. Whether you think it rational or not: the market hath spoken.

And, as such – in order not to scare Maw and Paw at home – the
screenwriters DELIBERATELY LOWBALLED THE AMOUNT.

I expect that #7 is the most likely candidate. Because trying to get people to understand that a dollar here isn’t a dollar there… is much harder than changing the currency used to be the Dollar-There.

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~ by davekov on 4 July 2013.

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