Breaker Morant and the little man

I watched Breaker Morant this weekend. It’s a good movie. The IMDB summary

During the Boer War, three Australian lieutenants are on trial for shooting Boer prisoners. Though they acted under orders, they are being used as scapegoats by the General Staff, who hopes to distance themselves from the irregular practices of the war. The trial does not progress as smoothly as expected by the General Staff, as the defence puts up a strong fight in the courtroom.

That touches one of the foundation blocks of my whole worldview, that the little guy gets screwed and you should side with the powerless and the poor against those who exploit them. For instance, when I was a kid, I had a paper route for the Seattle Times. For those of you who didn’t have to do this (and these days, I think it’s increasingly adults with much larger routes), here’s how that worked when I did it:

  • You’re assigned a route of n customers
  • The Times delivers your “draw” to a central location (“The Shack” which I hear was replaced by block delivery to the paperperson)
  • At the end of the month, you go collecting door-to-door
  • You pay a guy from the Times for total papers they sold to you, and keep the difference

And all the routes in my neighborhood were handled by teenage boys, often low-teens because you could get the job before you could work at Subway or the video store (oohhh, there was a plum job…). Every afternoon, it was an hour or more of unassisted labor on bike and foot, in Seattle weather, for what worked out to be under minimum wage.

Everyone screwed you. I had a customer on my route, Mr. Larson, who was a substitute teacher, and whenever he’d go on vacation, he’d screw me by deducting days * the cover price from his monthly $8.50. So a ten day vacation, he’d clip nine weekdays at 25c + a Sunday at $1 … even though for the month, he didn’t pay (26 * .25) + (4 * $1) = $10.50. And it wasn’t as if he ever tipped me, either, to make up for screwing me every chance he got. Hey, if you happen to read this, Larson, you owe me some money.

There were other customers who were totally dicks about paying their $8.50. They’d force you to come back over and over, and you don’t get paid for collecting, so at some point you have to decide you’ll get them the next month, or you cancel their subscription.

Here’s where the Times comes in. You couldn’t cancel someone’s subscription without a huge hassle. And if you canceled someone for non-payment and they complained they didn’t want to cancel, and you hadn’t come by, the Times would turn them back on — increasing your draw — and the area supervisor guy would chew you out. So the Times would force you to keep on late/non-paying customers to keep their paid circulation up, and because they didn’t have to collect from those people. And miss a delivery while things are confused as you try and shut them off and they claim they’re still customers, and the Times will fine you $1/missed paper. When you’re clearing $60/month if you’re lucky, that’s a big deal.

And take the draw. Say your draw’s off by one. Someone cancelled and the Times didn’t lower your draw. Now you pay 20c/day out of pocket for that extra paper, and getting it fixed could take many phone calls over days, and it’s not as if the Times would go back once they figured it out and make sure they credited for you for 20c/day * number of days it took you to get it fixed.

Or, to go back to Mr. Larson. Lord forbid you try and get the area supervisor to help you out with that guy. Some customer rips you off for $1 every month or so? That’s not worth their time.

So we trudged these routes, trying to figure out where it was best to get off our ratty BMX bikes and walk the coul-de-sac or string of houses, in the drizzle and the rain and the summer sun, and some of the people we delivered the papers to were trying to screw us, and the paper itself was definately trying to screw us… teenagers, making sub-minimum wage.

This is the way of the world, and it sucks. The management at a car dealership might set sales incentives and commission schedules that encourage their staff to jack up the prices and really twist arms for the sale, but if someone investigates, they’ll look aghast when they find out about those renegades, and take appropriate action immediately by firing them.

Or… there’s a million other examples. Bank fees that disproportionately are incurred by the poor who can least afford them. The prison torture by U.S. forces in Iraq and worldwide, gets blamed on bad apples when there’s a ever-increasing mountain of evidence that it’s part of a larger policy (and, as in some Gitmo cases, directly endorsed by Rumsfeld for high-priority prisoners). Companies that manage to keep their employees just under 40 hours a week so they can turn them onto public health care problems instead of expenses…

I know it’s sort of strange for me, a notoriously antisocial guy, to be a rabid populist on a lot of issues, but yeah. When you stop being able to identify with the little man, something of your humanity dies.

And “Breaker Morant” is a good movie.