A Hard Truth About Pay

By Mike Cronin

Some fields of human endeavor are inherently hard to learn. Medicine, for example. Becoming a doctor requires a person to study for eight or more years beyond the baccalaureate level and become an expert on the composition, functioning, and behavior of the human body. The sum of human knowledge on the subject increases greatly each year due to the efforts of scientists.  People who have acquired skill as a physician are relatively scarce, but because we all want to have our diseases cured and our injuries repaired, they are in high demand and they command high salaries.

On the other hand…some fields are made hard to enter by the members comprising them.  Consider: The Constitution of the United States is the ultimate law of the land.  It was written by well-educated men – in elegant prose that any reasonably literate reader can understand, even after two centuries of language drift.  It is about 17 pages long, and one need not become a lawyer to understand and apply it. Yet somehow that document can describe the limits and give operating instructions for three branches of government.   Now consider that the field of law grows every year. The vast majority of that growth is due to politicians making new laws, not by legal “scientists” discovering new truths.  And most of these new laws are written in “legalese,” which is often designed to be vague or confusing to the lay person.  Understanding modern law requires years of schooling not because it is inherently difficult, but because it is purposely made and kept so by legal practitioners. In other words, most of the difficulty in understanding law and becoming a lawyer is self-imposed by the field of law, not by the need to learn nature’s secrets.  Even so, the end result is a person who, like a doctor, has acquired a relatively rare ability set, so he or she can also command a high salary.

Some star athletes at the pinnacle of professional sports (specifically the NFL, MLB, and NBA in the US, and Soccer/”Futbol” throughout the world) get paid even more than doctors and lawyers – sometimes fantastically more.  Yet any able-bodied person can go out and play football, basketball, baseball, and soccer.  The difference is that the professional “star” athlete has a skill even more rare than medicine or law – the ability to entertain us and win championships.  Most professionals have to spend years at college to acquire the knowledge and skill to practice their trade; the star athlete had to be born with a greater degree of natural athleticism than the rest of us, and he had to learn his sport and hone his skills from elementary school through college. His career will likely be over by the time he gets to 40; the professionals in more intellectual and academic settings will just be hitting his or her stride by that point.

As difficult, or even deadly, as it is to be a teacher, or a first-responder, or a military member, or a tradesman, it is far easier to acquire the skills and knowledge to enter such professions  than it is to become a doctor, lawyer, or pro sports star.  And because they are easier fields to enter, there are lots more people qualified to enter them, and lots more people in them.  The skills, knowledge, and abilities just aren’t as rare, so the salary just isn’t as high.

We might like to think our priorities are all wrong because we pay people who put their lives at risk to protect us far less than pro athletes or entertainment stars. After all, isn’t protecting our lives more important than entertainment? Don’t teachers deserve more because they are preparing our children to be productive members of society? I think most of us would agree that our military and first-responders and teachers certainly deserve more. As a veteran, I certainly would have liked to earn more than I did, and I might have even deserved more than I got…but I didn’t get paid based on what I felt I deserved. But there is a hard, inescapable truth: No one really gets paid on the basis of what they “deserve” or on how difficult their job is. The real basis for pay is how rare and how in demand your knowledge skills, and abilities are. Those with the rarest, most in demand attributes will always be offered bigger salaries than the rest of us with more mundane skill sets.

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