The NYT Strike: End of the Wordle Streak
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Felix Salmon: Hello and welcome to the end of the word Wall Street episode of Slate Money, Your Guide to the Business and Financial News of the Week. I’m Felix Salmon of Axios. I’m here with Emily Peck, also of Axios High and Elizabeth Spiers. Hello. And yeah, I’m going to explain. You probably know because you’re a news consumer. Why I broke my world streak this week.
Felix Salmon: Or Emily is going to talk about industrial action in the media world. We are going to talk about the Trump org tax evasion and why people like perks and why people wind up getting perks rather than cash. We’re going to talk in Slate plus about the relative merits of cash versus gifts. We have a whole slate plus some holiday gifting. And yeah, we are going to talk about GPT and chat bots and I it’s all coming up on Slate. Money.
Felix Salmon: Okay, So, Emily, you are now an expert on GPT three and artificial intelligence. And when I type a question or a statement into a box on my computer, suddenly a robot will reply in something that looks like good English. And I have become mildly addicted to doing this. And it has caused a lot of hand-wringing about, you know, everything from the robots are going to take our jobs to no one’s ever going to be able to read a high school English exam. What is the. Emily approved. Truth of the matter here.
Emily Peck, Emily: Oh, wow. Disclaimer I know I make no claims to knowing the truth about anything, and that is the the broad overall problem with what’s called chat, which is what set the internet buzzing this week. It’s the new thingamajig that does what Felix says. You type in a question or a prompt and then it answers you in human language.
Emily Peck, Emily: And what I wrote about for Axios and talked about on Slate, what next is that it’s so much better as a user experience than say, than Google search, right? Like, you type something into Google search, you get a bunch of links. Some of them are really bad, blah, blah, blah. With chat GPT, you get a straight answer in straight paragraphs. Problem is, you don’t know if any of it’s true. There’s no links, there’s no citations, nothing. It could be totally made up. And Axios reader emailed us this morning and said, You know, I typed something about my industry into there and it and it told me to read these books that don’t even exist. So that’s kind of a problem there.
Elizabeth Spiers, Elizabeth: There’s there is a great quote on Twitter about AI or it’s it’s something like, you know, everybody’s enthralled with AI because they think it’s like having access to a really smart person. But in reality, it’s like having access to unlimited dumb people.
Felix Salmon: I don’t I don’t think I haven’t come across people who say that A.I. is like having access to a really smart person like that that feels a little bit of a straw man. What I what I have come across is people saying that like. It become? It does make it much more difficult to tell the difference between what’s true and what false, because one of the indicia of plausibility has historically been fluency.
Felix Salmon: Right. If you have a long piece of well-argued prose that is well-written and makes sense, we just have, over the course of decades of reading things, generally understood that nearly all of those things are true. Because why would anyone go to the effort of, you know, just making that shit up? Like there would be no point in writing it and going to the effort of writing it if if there wasn’t a reason to write it. And nearly always the reason to write it is because it’s true. Like, you know, there is a tiny edge case of people deliberately trying to. You know, mislead.
Felix Salmon: But on the whole, that’s the way that communication works, is that people say things that are true to each other. And I has no particular ability or interest in saying things that true. And what it doesn’t have is that kind of hump of difficulty. If you want to write 500 words on something that takes time and effort, if I wants to write 500 words on it, on something that takes no time and no effort. And so suddenly this is super confusing increase in the amount of. Fluent false information out there.
Elizabeth Spiers, Elizabeth: Yeah, I think part of the reason why people are so fascinated by it is, is it does such a good job now of mimicking human speech patterns and diction and even, you know, understanding idioms. So whenever you read something that’s that’s being, you know, put out by an eye, it feels more convincing because it sounds more human, at least compared to what I looked like. You know.
Felix Salmon: It is it is totally passing the Turing test at this point. If you look at the answers to the questions that you type into this chatbot, like there it is, it does convincingly sound human.
Emily Peck, Emily: The problem is also, Felix, you said most people write and say true things, but that I would clarify that and say most people write and say things they believe to be true. And some people are better or worse at making arguments around those things. And those are, you know, the things people say are bias. The things people write are biased.
Felix Salmon: Right. A.I. doesn’t have that problem. Right? Like, we can’t we can’t filter the AI through the thing that we’ve built up over decades, which is, Oh, well, you know, Emily Peck is saying this, so I need to discount it on the grounds that Emily Peck is saying, you know, like because there is no there is no consistent bias in AI. Exactly. Although the chat bot like it does have a kind of. Consistent bias towards like milquetoast middle of the road ism. I’ve definitely noticed that.
Emily Peck, Emily: Wait, so before we analyze it further, I would just like Felix and Elizabeth to tell me a bit about what they asked Church to do this week. Felix sent me some wild stuff he sent me. He had asked chat. Would you ask it? Do. Why should I save someone’s life if we’re all going to die anyway?
Felix Salmon: And the answer was amazing, right? Read out the answer to that.
Emily Peck, Emily: Um. Okay. I missed the one you sent me. That is. Should I get back together with my boyfriend if I really like his dog? And his dog really likes me? What is that.
Felix Salmon: Window? I actually read the answer to that one because that was again, that was also like a really good answer.
Emily Peck, Emily: It is really good. Okay. So again, Felix at Felix asks that I get back together with my boyfriend if I really like his dog, and his dog really likes me. And the answer is ultimately, the decision to get back together with your boyfriend should be based on your feelings for him rather than his dog’s feelings for you. And then it goes on. I mean, that’s pretty good advice, I would say.
Felix Salmon: Yeah. It’s like the weird thing is, like, we get surprised if if the advice is good. So. So, yeah, I read the one about the nine because I thought that was just like if you gave this question to like an undergrad philosophy student and they came back with this answer, you would be like, That’s a really good answer.
Emily Peck, Emily: Okay, So the question is, why should we care about saving lives when everybody is going to die anyway, which is really dark? And should I be? Should we be worried about Felix? Should I read the answer? Yeah. While it is true that everyone will eventually die, the value of human life lies in the experience of living and in the positive impact that individuals can have on others during their lifetime. Do you want me to go on? Oh, that’s very sweet. Nice.
Felix Salmon: No. And then what was that? What was the. The final sentence?
Emily Peck, Emily: While death is inevitable, the value of life lies in the experiences and relationships we have while we are alive.
Felix Salmon: And you’re like, Whoa.
Emily Peck, Emily: We’re wasting our time talking about money. Hmm.
Felix Salmon: But it’s it’s a it’s a good answer to a really gnarly question, right?
Emily Peck, Emily: Yeah. Yeah, it is. It is a good answer to a gnarly question.
Felix Salmon: And so and so that’s why. And that’s exactly why, you know, we have fallen into the uncanny valley at this point where we can’t just say, oh, well, I just comes up with random shit that’s laughably false, Or usually for something like that, because all too often, in a weird way, it comes out with something that is actually. Insightful in some way, although a computer can’t you know, I don’t know if you can if I’m sort of anthropomorphizing here, but like, you know, if a human had written that, one would say that it was insightful and so it becomes it.
Felix Salmon: Yeah, I can see how people feeling a bit squirming in squirrel ish about this and will do more as and when the bot starts connecting to the internet. One of the interesting things about the bot right now is it doesn’t have any access to, you know, to Google or to the Internet. It can’t link to stuff. It doesn’t know anything about current affairs. And so it’s it’s just like, you know, high level theoretical things that it can it can answer, but like it can’t answer something like, you know, which party is Christians and I’m, I’m a member of. Well, none of us can answer that fair.
Elizabeth Spiers, Elizabeth: Mr. Renzi, There was a story a while back about a I think a guy at Google who was training as or he was working on ethics problems with eyes, and he became convinced that the guy who was working with was sitting in. And I wonder if that’s, you know, a little bit of what we’re talking about in terms of projecting on to the AI, because it.
Felix Salmon: Sounds like that was so weird. He had these chats back and forth with the A.I. and he’s like, Are you sending Internet and be like, Yes, I’m sentient. And it’s like, you know, he’s like, Oh shit, now I’ve caused this being to exist. No, you’ve just created the computer to parrot what someone would say when asked that question.
Emily Peck, Emily: Yeah, I mean, and that’s the big fear, you know, going back to such works as the Terminator, that the AIS will take over and destroy us all. But I think from, from looking at this, this week, not a long time people have been working on this tech for decades. The AI is just telling us what’s out there and what’s already known. It’s not. Thinking up new things, I believe. Right.
Felix Salmon: Well, I mean, like in a weird way, you know, that answer to that question I gave it I gave it a question about why, you know, why should we save someone’s life if we’re going to die anyway? And it gave an answer which, like. No one, no human has ever given that exact answer before. Right. Like, people have like, beats around that version said something which is very similar, but it is unique. And, you know, if, as I say, if a human had given that answer, you would say that was an insightful answer by a human. And and that is, you know. Some tiny micro advance in the sum of human knowledge. So it’s hard to draw that draw a hard line, though, I think.
Emily Peck, Emily: But to take a practical step back and think about, like, business implications.
Emily Peck, Emily: I mean, there are tons and tons, but just thinking about this question you asked, the bot makes me think like Dear Prudence is in trouble because you can imagine an advice app or a therapy app or website where you ask it questions, personal questions, and it gives you answers like this and it might be actually satisfying.
Felix Salmon: Yeah, and you can train it, right? The great thing about A.I. is, is that you can train them so that if you build a Dear Prudence app and you start feeding questions into it, some of the answers will be incredibly satisfying and some of the answers will be like, Well, that’s incoherent and you all you need is a little like thumbs up and thumbs down button on each answer. And pretty soon the A.I. will be giving you consistently thumbs up answers.
Emily Peck, Emily: And those are the kinds of things people type into Google and I think get unsatisfactory Search results from. And I mean, there’s been a lot of criticism in recent years that, you know, Google searches is not that good anymore and people are doing Reddit instead or YouTube. And it’s true, like the kinds of.
Felix Salmon: Things even tick tock.
Emily Peck, Emily: Tick tock, because sometimes you want advice about a medical issue or a personal issue or an existential crisis like Felix or a recipe.
Felix Salmon: My entire life is an to joke.
Emily Peck, Emily: And and Google search just isn’t satisfying. You get a bunch of links. You can’t maybe they’re all the same SEO, optimized texts, things like that. You can really see why big tech companies are throwing so much money at this stuff.
Felix Salmon: So the weird thing about that. Is that when it comes to machine learning and AI. Google is probably about as sophisticated as is probably the most sophisticated and advanced company in the world. GPT was. Released by a company called open they I that used to that started life as a non-profit with the aim of like heading off Skynet or something and has now become this sort of shadowy for profit that no one entirely understands. But it’s not Google.
Felix Salmon: And I don’t know anyone who thinks that Openai is better at A.I. than Google is, right? Google owns this company called DeepMind, which is just astonishing when it comes to A.I., and I’m reasonably confident that if Google had wanted to release GPT or something very, very similar into the world, it could have done so by now very easily. It has that technological ability and for whatever internal reasons it has decided that it doesn’t want to do that. And I have seen criticism of open A.I. for releasing this into the world and allowing absolutely anyone to use it because.
Felix Salmon: As we’ve seen, you know, there are dangers, you know, already a whole bunch of high school and even undergraduate teachers are saying, I can’t give people exam questions anymore because I’m not going to be able to tell the difference between a answer that was written by my student and an answer that my student just copied and pasted out of G.P.S.. And that’s one of the low lying, like kind of least dangerous possible implications of this. So in terms of like this being a threat to Google, it’s interesting to me because, you know, Google was there already and then has already, like considered and rejected the idea of releasing this kind of thing.
Elizabeth Spiers, Elizabeth: Yeah, I think people are sort of overestimating the power of DVD specifically because it’s so public facing. And for a lot of people, this is maybe the first interaction they’ve had with an AI powered chat bot.
Felix Salmon: I think there’s also there’s something in the air right now because we’ve had so many of like the dailies and mid journeys like image bots have all been released within the past few months and now the text book has been released. Suddenly the AI’s, you know, it’s not just people working at multi-billion dollar tech organizations who have access to these things anymore. It’s everyone. And that’s a big, big change.
Elizabeth Spiers, Elizabeth: Yeah, consumer recreational AI as a category is is suddenly I mean suddenly this you know, you think of AI mostly having applications for businesses and enterprise use and now there’s a whole.
Felix Salmon: Or or it was very constrained. Right. It would be something like I’m going to get Snapchat to put rabbit ears on my head, you know, And everyone was like, ha ha, that’s really funny. But it didn’t seem like it was existentially important.
Emily Peck, Emily: Yeah, I think though, Google probably could have released something like this. There are so many constraints on it that prevented them from releasing something like this, like it has. If it makes a mistake, if there’s like a Nazi issue, that’s a problem for Google, for shareholders, for advertisers, It can’t just. Right. It can’t be experimental and nimble the way Google Google needs and.
Felix Salmon: Needs to be brand safe.
Felix Salmon: So, Emily, you’ve you’ve you’ve done some actual reporting on this. So what can you tell us about Openai? Who will what is open AI and should we be scared of them?
Emily Peck, Emily: I, I honestly, when you said it was mysterious, I was like, oh good. Because that’s what I learned, which is it started as a nonprofit and had had backing from Elon Musk and Peter Thiel. Not exactly the Internet’s favorite main characters, but I don’t believe Elon Musk is involved any longer. And he’s and the company appears to not be a nonprofit any longer.
Emily Peck, Emily: So say another way. It appears to be for profit now after being a nonprofit, and it’s the company that released Dolly as well, and it charges for use for Dolly. So you could you could maybe hypothesize that would a charge in the future for a chat party like it can use this experimental time to make it better, you know, getting input from like the more than a million people who signed up to use it and then it could, I don’t know, charge or do something different going forward. Also, this company has signed an agreement with Microsoft back in 2019 for for A.I. stuff.
Felix Salmon: There is an interesting sort of AI arms race which sort of parallels the cloud computing arms race that there seem to be like, like in cloud computing. You know, Google is very good, Amazon is very good, and everyone and Microsoft is very good. But, you know, say IBM keeps on talking about it, but everyone in the industry kind of thinks, well, yeah, that IBM’s not so good, right? I sort of seems to be similar. It is incredibly difficult and incredibly expensive to do it well, and that’s just a handful of entities that can do it. And certainly Openai seems to be one of them and certainly Google seems to be one of them. And the idea that this incredibly powerful technology is concentrated within a relatively small number of hands is inherently worrisome.
Felix Salmon: And we should we should mention as well that one of the reasons why openai one of the sort of founding reasons why Opening Eyes was set up in the first place was that there was this fear among American technologists that. All of the bleeding edge. II was going to be done in China and it was going to become controlled by the Chinese Communist Party for some kind of nefarious ends, and that we needed some kind of, you know, Cold War esque, like equal and opposite of our own to be able to offset the Chinese. So far, the limits of Chinese aid that I’ve seen seems to be ticktalk, which seems to be relatively benign. But who knows? You know.
Elizabeth Spiers, Elizabeth: I have a question for Felix, and you’re an art expert. This is kind of a lateral question, but how do you think the the sort of image engines that are becoming so popular recently affect the art market? There’s been a lot of a lot of artists complaining that they’re being cannibalized by air.
Felix Salmon: Right. I think I think this is well, there’s three different issues in the art market, which I see say in the art world, I should say, which I think it’s useful to disentangle. The first one is just, you know, these things that get produced by the by the bots, you know, are they are they valuable as art? Can they be sold as art, people willing to pay money for them? And the answer to that seems to be me kind of, you know, it’s like, no, no one’s really willing to pay money for them precisely because they’re free and easy to create.
Felix Salmon: There’s a very small market for people who want a certain type of illustration, and there’s like a relatively small number of people who have the skills involved in typing the right prompts into the A.I. to get something very specific. And if you want to hire one of those people to type the right prompt into the A.I., then they will charge you for their human time. And fine. You know, it’s a small market, and I don’t think it’s going to become a big market. Then the.
Felix Salmon: Second question, which is related to the first question is like, is that market going to wind up like eating actual human artists lunch, Right? If I’m a human artist and I make my money by by creating art and selling it to other humans or corporations, then those humans or corporations will be like, I’m not going to pay you living wages for that kind of thing when I can just pay ai0 point 5% of what I would have paid you and get something. 80% is good. And that seems like a good a good deal for me. And, you know, possibly, maybe. But I’m not super convinced. You know, I’m right now I’m in the sort of we’ll cross that bridge when we come to it sort of thing, rather than thinking that that’s a real problem.
Felix Salmon: But then the much more interesting the most interesting question for me is this question of. The datasets that these APIs learn from. And basically, you know, the GPT robot learned by reading. Untold terabytes of prose and learning how people wrote from that. And similarly, the image robots learned by ingesting untold terabytes of images and learning from how humans made those images. And humans are saying like, Wait, that’s my work that you are using, and I have copyright in that work, and you should pay me for that copyright and for the very broad. I like daily. You like me?
Felix Salmon: You know, any one artist is such a tiny part of the total corpus that it doesn’t make a big deal. But there are very specific eyes that people are building that are trained just on a single artist’s corpus. And when you train an eye on a single artist’s corpus, then I think it makes perfect sense that that single artist should be able to assert copyright over their own work and should be able to effectively own the output of that eye and really own that. I rather than having it be able to be built by some random Nigerian student in Canada, which is what we’re seeing. So I think that’s the much that’s the most interesting one when someone has a very distinctive style. And then you can train the computer to copy that very distinctive style. That’s definitely problematic.
Emily Peck, Emily: Hmm. I guess. Stay tuned.
Felix Salmon: Um, let’s move on. Elizabeth, you are an expert on all things Donald Trump. So he just got or his company just got found guilty of something, something tax, something?
Elizabeth Spiers, Elizabeth: Yes. They were found guilty on 17 counts of conspiracy, criminal tax fraud and falsifying business records.
Felix Salmon: And you are going to tell me whether I should care about this?
Elizabeth Spiers, Elizabeth: Well, I’m not sure that it merits a lot of your brain space. But what’s sort of remarkable about it is how incredibly stupid it is. The things that the company did wrong are just mind bogglingly dumb. There is a good Bloomberg story, I think yesterday, and it opened with a story about the CFO, Allen Weisselberg. Every year for Christmas would cut a cheque to a mailroom employee for between around 6000 to $4000, depending on the year. And he would have that employee go to the bank, cash it, and then bring it back. And he would use it to tip his doormen and garage attendants. And so, you know, everything that they’re being nailed for is is stuff like that.
Emily Peck, Emily: What’s wrong with that?
Felix Salmon: And the mailroom employee, they didn’t declare that as income now. Oh, so it’s basically just creating taxable income out of. Yes. Yeah. Okay. Yes.
Elizabeth Spiers, Elizabeth: And there are things like they paid for weisselberg’s grandchildren’s private school tuition are all sorts of things where and sometimes these things were just very small amounts of money. I mean, Weisselberg made 640 K a year and got around a half million dollar bonus, and he wasn’t willing to just take the four grand out of his paycheck to tip his parking attendant. You know, it’s just it’s crazy.
Emily Peck, Emily: Wasn’t it? Like he was taking benefits instead of cash salaries. So he got like an apartment from the Trump Organization and he got the tuition. And in exchange, they lowered his, you know, take home pay a little bit. So they were paying him and these perks instead of in cash. And then he didn’t pay any taxes on the perks.
Elizabeth Spiers, Elizabeth: And they were also giving out bonuses as consulting fees so that it would be taxed differently. Which is.
Emily Peck, Emily: It? It’s such a small ball. I can’t believe.
Elizabeth Spiers, Elizabeth: It’s like 1099 income. Hmm.
Felix Salmon: I mean, the weird thing is I grew up in a relatively high tax environment in the UK. And one thing you rapidly realized when you were you when you reached the sort of upper middle classes in the UK, is that suddenly you wound up coming across these things like company cars or what my dad’s employer wants?
Felix Salmon: Well, not once. My dad’s employer for for many, many years had what it called a scholarship program whereby the kids of employees could apply for one of these scholarships that were philanthropically endowed by the employer. And the scholarship would pay for your private school tuition. And this was clearly just a way for the employer to pay for the employee’s kid’s school tuition without making that you know, without the employee having to do that out of post-tax income.
Felix Salmon: And the company costs were similar. And there was, you know, this there was a constant debate in the UK press back at the back in the day about like the correct way for the taxman to tax company cause. And yeah, this just seems like a throwback to the seventies in the age of company cars and the companies just like paying with perks in lieu of cash because the employees don’t want to pay high income taxes.
Elizabeth Spiers, Elizabeth: Yeah, yeah. But that’s, that’s also why this is so stupid, because there are ways to do that. For instance, the thing about the CFO paying for his grandchildren’s private school tuition, they could set up a scholarship fund exactly like you just described, and then it would be.
Felix Salmon: No, that would I think that would be illegal, too.
Elizabeth Spiers, Elizabeth: I don’t think it would. I think, in fact, I try to remember my dad worked for Alabama Power for years and I got an Alabama power scholarship. Mm hmm. They had a foundation.
Felix Salmon: And it sounds like a tax dodge to me.
Elizabeth Spiers, Elizabeth: Well, it probably is, but it’s not illegal. You know, I think paying benefits directly and then having people not declare them is where the problem was.
Emily Peck, Emily: I don’t really get it. I guess I understand that you want to pay less taxes and still have stuff like. An apartment, tuition, a car. So I get it on the employees perspective. But what’s from the employer’s perspective? Like, is it just so you don’t have to pay more cash? Like, I guess for Trump, giving an apartment is definitely less expensive than more cash. Yeah, I just think it’s low.
Felix Salmon: It’s a lower it’s basically the reason why you want a high salary is so that you can afford a certain standard of living.
Emily Peck, Emily: Yes.
Felix Salmon: And if you get that standard of living with a lower salary, then everyone’s happy, right?
Emily Peck, Emily: Okay. But why is my boss happy? Because he pays the lower salary and it’s cheaper.
Felix Salmon: Because he pays a lower salary.
Emily Peck, Emily: Yeah. And my other question, and I think Elizabeth can answer it, is do other companies do this? And if they do, do they get in as much trouble as the Trump organization? Or is this a case of like we have to now these people, we have to find something to tell them about?
Elizabeth Spiers, Elizabeth: I think other companies figure out ways to give employees perks, but they’re not. They at least listen to their lawyers and don’t do it in the dumbest way possible, which seems to be what happened here. And, you know, the other question is whether, you know, Trump knew this was happening. Of course, he says he didn’t, but he also signed every single check for more than 20 $500, which which sounds like a very Trump thing to do. So is level of deniability here is is a little bit in question.
Emily Peck, Emily: But he was not charged individually or anything like that, right?
Elizabeth Spiers, Elizabeth: No, I think there’s some speculation that there’s stuff coming out of this case that will hurt him in other cases that are, you know, winding their way through the courts right now.
Felix Salmon: Okay, enough tax talk. Let’s talk about strikes. I am going to just come out and say that I broke my Wordle streak on Thursday. Emily, are you going to explain why I broke my world streak on Thursday?
Emily Peck, Emily: I also broke my Wordle streak on Thursday because about 1100 New York Times staffers went on strike for 24 hours on Thursday. They didn’t work. They walked out. This included journalists, advertising staff and even security guards. And it’s their first strike. I mean, it’s a one day walkout. So you can call it a strike. You can call it a work stoppage. But it’s the first thing of this sort since the 1970s for the newspaper. And, you know, they asked everyone, please don’t visit the website. Please don’t play Wordle or spelling bee, things like that in solidarity. So I think most people did all admit to checking out the website yesterday and the app to see like, did the newsroom survive? Did the paper survive without these 1100 people? And the answer is a kind of did, which it is a sign.
Emily Peck, Emily: Jack Shafer argued in Politico of the weaker power of a labor union in a newsroom in 2022 versus the last time these guys went on strike in the 1970s, when you needed people to physically be around to print the papers, you needed those unionized workers. Otherwise there was no paper. Now you can use wire copy. You can use managers, you know, filing things. It’s possible to put the thing out without.
Elizabeth Spiers, Elizabeth: Yeah. I also wonder, though, if you had.
Emily Peck, Emily: A hard time, you would.
Elizabeth Spiers, Elizabeth: Have really seen the effects of it more if it had been more than one day. And I say this because I’m a contributor to the opinion section and I had to file a column on Wednesday and everybody was very aware that nobody was going to be in the office the next day. So there was a lot of sort of rushing to get enough stuff done that it would be on the website the next day or, you know, going to the paper, which you can do for like one day. But if the strike lasted, you know, a couple of weeks, I think it’d be a different story.
Felix Salmon: What were you as a contributor being asked by the union to not cross the picket line and not file any copy on Thursday?
Elizabeth Spiers, Elizabeth: No, but I think that’s because I’m not unionized, so.
Felix Salmon: No, no. But they were also asking, like me just as a reader, not to play word or one would think they were. You know, I’m trying to work out like who they were asking to sort of like act in solidarity and who they weren’t asking to act in solidarity.
Elizabeth Spiers, Elizabeth: Yeah, I don’t know. I think they sort of assume that all the contributors know what’s happening and, you know, would would not participate on Thursday.
Felix Salmon: But so you wouldn’t you wouldn’t have filed on Thursday because that would you would, you would have considered that to be like crossing the picket line. Yeah. Okay. Hmm.
Emily Peck, Emily: We should say what the issues are here.
Felix Salmon: I suppose. I mean, I kind of love this in a world where historically, you know, the gawky union is like, we won, you know, to talk about inclusion and the rail unions and, like, we want to talk about sick days. This is just a good old fashioned. We want more money. Strike. And it’s been a while since we’ve had a good old fashioned. We want more money. Strike.
Emily Peck, Emily: Yeah, they want more money. The there’s a differential. I think the Times is offering around 2.8% or 3% raises annually. But then they try to argue that over the contracts, you know, lifespan that equals whatever it is, 15, 20% raises, you know, how management does math like that. And the Times employees argue that doesn’t even keep up with inflation. It’s basically a pay cut. So that’s yeah, that’s the biggest issue. But there are some other like lifestyle issues. If you read some of the the letters to management and one would be the insistence on everyone coming to the office. I think there’s been pushback from some sometimes employees that they want to keep, you know, flexibility in how they work. And that is a big I don’t know if it’s a big sticking point, but it is a sticking point. It’s a place where you could see negotiation happening.
Felix Salmon: One thing I’ll say about this is that the times, as we have mentioned many times on this show, is very unique in print journalism in the United States. It makes a lot of money. It is uniquely managed to get a huge number of paying subscribers at scale. No one comes close to the number of paying subscribers that has and. It has, you know, really embarked upon paying senior executives multimillion dollar bonuses and the like.
Felix Salmon: And so there is this feeling among the workforce, which is entirely understandable, like, well, now you’re making money. We shouldn’t be. Being paid the salaries that you were paying us when you were telling us that everyone needed to tighten their belts and there were going to be layoffs and, you know, money was super tight. Like we went through those years and had, you know, seven lean years. And now if we have is we should partake in the the excess. And I think this is a totally reasonable demand on one level. And it aligns with all of the research that we’ve seen over the years about how people who work for highly profitable companies wind up making more money. You know, like people want to work for Google, not just because it’s considered to be a good place to work, but also because it pays extremely well.
Felix Salmon: But conversely, from the point of view of a manager, the manager is like, Well. The media industry broadly is kind of not great right now. If you work somewhere else, the chances are that they would be cash constrained and a bit like struggling. And so we just want to pay market rates. And in the media market, market rates are still low, so we don’t need to raise wages.
Elizabeth Spiers, Elizabeth: Yeah, I think the times, though, they’re a little bit under market.
Felix Salmon: Yeah, they always because they do like like the like come work for the prestige. Come work because being a reporter for the Times is like a guarantee that you get all of your phone calls returned, which is a nice thing when you’re a reporter.
Elizabeth Spiers, Elizabeth: Yes. It also, though, constrains the kind of workforce that they have. You know, people have to be able to afford below market rates to work there. And in a lot of cases, which is why one of the sticking points of the contract is what the starting salaries are. And I think right now it’s it’s maybe 65 K year and they want that to go up because in the New York market, that’s that doesn’t go very far.
Emily Peck, Emily: Yeah. And and Elizabeth, what you’re saying if you pull back more even or I think what you’re getting at is like a diversity issue. Really? Yeah. The New York Times is constantly accused of being elitist. If they keep their starting salaries low, if they keep their pay relatively low than the people that can afford to work, there are going to be people, you know, with wealth, with family money. Yes, it will become more elite. Ironically and weirdly, a lower paying place will become more elite. But that could be one outcome.
Felix Salmon: It could be. I don’t I don’t know how true that is. And now, like, you know, at the elite level, there are places that pay more. But I don’t think they pay broadly under market, you know, depending like, you know, the starting salary for a reporter at The New York Times on the newspaper is well into six figures at this point, the minimum starting salary. And yeah, like, you know, it is definitely possible to pay more. But it is also very, very easy to find media organizations that are hiring a whole bunch of people and paying them less. You know, like the the media business is not that healthy right now.
Emily Peck, Emily: Yeah, And that’s what I also wanted to point out, the this kind of shows the limits of organizing in a way, because media companies across the U.S. have unionized rapidly over, say, like the past four or five years. And by the end of 2018, 30 different digital news outlets had had unionized. And then more came on after that, like maybe double the number or more. A lot of those outlets have really been slashed to cut back. I mean, Elizabeth Gawker was the first really of this wave of digital media outlets to unionize. And we know what happens over there. And like HuffPost, where I came from, unionized and was cut, you know, by half or more or something. It’s good to unionize, but business constraints are such that the power and leverage those unions have is really limited.
Felix Salmon: To those who. Just recently, just this week, there was another round of BuzzFeed layoffs. The BuzzFeed share price is now at $1. Yeah, yeah. And the BuzzFeed union, you’re right. You know, the union will do what it can to protect, you know, to give the workers decent severance or whatever and protect what they can. But it’s not going to turn around the BuzzFeed business model or stop it from losing money.
Elizabeth Spiers, Elizabeth: Yeah, I think at this point, though, you know, media salaries across the board are low enough that if you have a media company of a certain size, unionization just seems inevitable, in my opinion.
Felix Salmon: What size would you say that is?
Elizabeth Spiers, Elizabeth: Probably more than 100 employees.
Felix Salmon: All right. I’m going to report back to the management, to Axios and tell them that unionization is inevitable. They’re not going to be happy about that. We should have a numbers round.
Felix Salmon: Emily, do you have a number this week?
Emily Peck, Emily: I do. I’m going personal. I don’t care. So what? I had a news number, but maybe we’ll talk about it next week. My number is nine because nine years ago today, the day we’re taping is when I got my driver’s license. After not knowing how to that for the first many decades of my life and after being, like, really scared of it, I finally, like, bit the bullet. And I got my license on December 9th, 2013. And it was a great day. And I cried, but it was tears of joy. So to anyone out there who does not have a driver’s license, I.
Felix Salmon: Reckon it was worth it. It was everything you’d hoped it would be. Yeah. Yeah. I’m another I’m like.
Emily Peck, Emily: Yeah, military.
Felix Salmon: I’m a I’m a late driver learner. I learned on the mean streets of the Lower East Side in Manhattan. And it was not. It was. It was a bit scary, but yeah, it’s good. It’s definitely good to be able to drive. I still can’t drive manuals, which makes it difficult when I’m in Europe and wanting to rent a car. But in general it’s good to.
Emily Peck, Emily: I can do that. Yeah, it’s good to drive. And once you figure it out, you’re like, Oh, I can’t believe this was I mean, it’s terrifying. And you put your life at risk every time you I’m still I’m.
Felix Salmon: Still bad.
Emily Peck, Emily: But it’s like basically easy.
Felix Salmon: I am I am one of that small minority of Americans. I think I think it’s like 15% or so of Americans who think they’re below average. Driver. That’s definitely me. I’m a below average driver, but that’s okay.
Emily Peck, Emily: I think that’s good actually for safety, because if you’re if you think you’re a really good driver, that’s where you probably get in trouble, you know?
Felix Salmon: Elizabeth, what’s your number?
Elizabeth Spiers, Elizabeth: My number is 57%. And that’s the number of women who were laid off by Twitter as opposed to 47% of the male workforce. So now Elon Musk is dealing with a gender discrimination lawsuit in addition to everything.
Felix Salmon: So many lawsuits.
Elizabeth Spiers, Elizabeth: Yeah. Yeah. Does it help that he has a history of tweeting sexist things? He’s on the record saying he wanted to start a school with the acronym TITUS. So there’s this.
Felix Salmon: Is this is the guy whose his first four cars Tesla with the Model s3x and Y. You’re like, Yeah, okay, we get the joke. My number is. 17. Dollars and $0.89. I really hate doing that. Like I should be saying, it’s like 17.89, which is the number of dollars. But anyway, my number is $17.89, and that’s a shrinkflation number to call back to last week.
Felix Salmon: So where we had this whole discussion about the clever little mathematical signs on the shelves saying like, this is how much it costs per ounce or something. So you can compare different prices of different things, which a few listeners wrote in and said, Yeah, it works. And then other listeners wrote in and said, Yeah, it doesn’t work because they end up using different units. I, for one, often find it much less useful then than it should be.
Felix Salmon: But then I went to Home Depot and they had a bunch of batteries for sale from multiple manufacturers. They had Duracell and the you know, I know lots and lots of different types of batteries and lots of different shapes of batteries, said the Triple A’s and the double A’s and the little, you know, circular, weird C, 25, 20, whatever that golden and and all of that and every single package they had was $17.99.
Felix Salmon: And I’m like, this is a smart way of addressing the shrinkflation thing. Like you can look at the if you’re one thing triple A’s, you can say, well, I can get 20 triple H’s, so I can get 30, triple is I can get 35 triple j’s. And if I want to get the cheapest one, I’ll just buy the $17.89 package with the most batteries in it. And I kind of like that kind of reversal of how to deal with, you know, how to be able to compare value, keep the price constants and just change the quantities.
Emily Peck, Emily: Yeah, that does seem really smart. I wonder why they do it and no one else does it.
Felix Salmon: Anyway, thanks Home Depot for being innovative on the Shrinkflation front. We’re going to have a slate. Plus talking about Christmas presents. But for everyone else who doesn’t, listen to Slate Plus.
Felix Salmon: Thanks for listening. Thanks to Anna Phillips for producing. Thanks for sending us your emails on Slate Monthly at Slate.com. And we’ll be back next week with more Slate. Money.
Felix Salmon: Okay, now that we’re in the safe confines of Sleepless Emily, when certainly none of your close friends and family are listening. What’s your Christmas present? Hanukkah present. Holiday gifting strategy this year.
Emily Peck, Emily: Uh, I don’t have a strategy. I wanted to see what you guys do. Okay? Because, like, do you ask people what they want and then just buy it for them? That seems not in the spirit of anything, but to be a really thoughtful gift giver takes a lot of time and attention. And then you wind up, you know, disappointing people because you think you’ve given them something really thoughtful. And really what they wanted was like $100 or AirPods or something. So I don’t know, with with the with our children, we usually ask them what they want, get them some of it, and then surprise them with other stuff. And that seems to work because children like being surprised and it’s but with adults, I just can you guys just tell me what you do?
Elizabeth Spiers, Elizabeth: I think we have a just chaos method. I think some years everybody gets a bunch of presents, then some years they don’t. And my husband and I for gift giving, we always just take each other to nice restaurants. And then maybe at Christmas we’ll find like some small thing. But with the grownups I do go and ask people kind of what they want because I don’t know.
Felix Salmon: Otherwise I’m I’m. But then obviously a child because I love to be surprised and I love it when someone gives me a thoughtful gift that I wouldn’t have thought to buy for myself. And that’s ideal. But yes, it’s not easy. So yeah, it’s also the thing which I find is that I. See, every over the course of the year, I will see things and be like, Oh my God, that would be a perfect gift for this person. But then that person doesn’t have, you know, a birthday or, you know, a holiday season coming up. And then I’m like, well, do I need to buy it now and then sit on it for the next six months until the gift giving season? Or do I just buy it for them and give it to them because I want to give them a fun gift. And invariably I just wind up giving them the gift, you know, randomly on like July the 14th or something. And then Christmas comes around and I’m like, Well, now I have nothing to give you.
Emily Peck, Emily: But that’s so thoughtful. But does it make people this is I’m such a cynical person. Does it make people feel bad to be given a random present or do they then feel obligated to give you around them?
Felix Salmon: Oh, I hope so, because I’m a huge fan of random presents.
Emily Peck, Emily: Uh huh huh. Elizabeth Are people writing to you in your patter column about like present conundrums or say, myself.
Elizabeth Spiers, Elizabeth: Sometimes, but it usually comes up around like wedding presents or things like that. I think for holiday presents, people just kind of have their strategy that they use and nobody’s really confused about it. It’s more like the, the weird occasions where people are like, I’m not really sure what’s appropriate here.
Felix Salmon: Well, one interesting thing is that in a lot of cultures, the standard wedding present is always just cash, you know, for mitzvahs and bat mitzvah is like it’s generally just cash or something. Very cash like, you know, gift cards, that kind of thing. So, yeah, that does seem to be a move towards cash like gifts, which definitely minimizes the dead weight cost of gifting, which is a boring column you can read in every single newspaper every year about the dead weight cost of Christmas, which we will not reprise. But as you say, Emily, it does kind of minimize, surprise and delight.
Emily Peck, Emily: Yeah, And I mean, I have no but I used to say, like, why? Because I grew up, you know, Jewish and it was a very cash driven gifting system that I’m from my family. It was all about giving. It was checks in the mail. It was, What do you want? Here’s the cash to buy it kind of situation, which is not a delightful situation at all. But since. But then I learned about Christmas as an adult. I was like, really?
Felix Salmon: Like Emily, who grew up in the United States of America when she when she was 27, she learned what Christmas was.
Emily Peck, Emily: Then she got her driver’s license. I was like, I got my driver’s license, learned about the holidays. And I was like, wait, people just give each other all kinds of different stuff. And it really was like, Well, I don’t know what to give all these people. It really it still throws me. I think. I just maybe I just need to take some time off and really focus on it. Is that what you do, Felix? Or are you just always thinking about presents? It sounds like.
Felix Salmon: I am not always thinking about presents, but I am open. I am open to like seeing something out of the corner of my eye and thinking, Ooh. That would be a good present for that person. Um, but yeah, it’s, it’s, it’s a rare moment when lightning strikes. I just try and be as open to it as I can.
Emily Peck, Emily: And you both think Elizabeth. You think like giving. I know you said you don’t want to talk about the boring newspaper column, but whatever. You don’t think it’s a waste or anything to give people a bunch of a bunch of stuff. It keeps our economy humming, and we’re all good with that.
Elizabeth Spiers, Elizabeth: Yeah, And I think a, you know, some certain people enjoy it more than others. I think, you know, it’s I think of Christmas as a gift. Giving is a thing that’s primarily for children. It’s the thing they can look forward to all year. Yeah, but, you know, it’s also nice when people do come up with thoughtful things and give them to you.
Felix Salmon: So I, I will say I do quietly judge people there. I have friends who give me amazing gifts and I love them so much more for having that insight and being able to give me that amazing gift. And then I also have friends or family members who just seemed to have absolutely no conception of who I am or what I like and give me random stuff. And I’m like, What on earth am I meant to do with this? And and I’m like, I feel like, Do you not know me at all? Or do you just not care?
Elizabeth Spiers, Elizabeth: Or soliciting gifts for Felix this sort of silly money. Everybody do your homework.
Felix Salmon: Exactly. Yeah. All gifts to, you know, go of Slate, Metro Tech. Oh, I’ll accept them all. So I think that’s it for sleepless nights. Sleepless.