Saturday, July 7, 2007

The 4-Hour Workweek (Plus The Extra Hours the Brown Guy Works)

I just got back from Borders, where I read the first third of Reading Lolita in Tehran (starts out with so much promise, but then... sort of forces and fills things to make a single idea expand into book-length) as well as the newest economic-theory sensation, Tim Ferriss' The 4-Hour Workweek.

(Abi, if you haven't yet looked into/blogged this, you should. I think it would be a very interesting book for you to read.)

The thesis of the book is the same as the best-selling Rich Dad, Poor Dad: if you pay other people to do your work for you at a lower total cost than the amount of revenue their work can generate... you can earn money without having to physically labor at it.

(Note to S. and other economists: this is rather the fundamental principle of all businesses, yes?)

Unlike Mr. "Rich Dad" Kiyosaki, Ferriss is less about "accumulating as much cash so you can buy wicked cool stuff like summer homes and jet skis" and more about "living simply so you can make your income stretch as far as it can, and traveling and doing good in other parts of the world." (One bonus -- which Ferriss notes -- is that living in most "other parts of the world" is much cheaper than living in the U.S., so the money stretches farther. )

Kiyosaki was all about employing those close to you (his first employee was his sister, whom he paid 25 cents/hour). Ferriss does him one better. Forget those close to you, he writes. You have to pay them in dollars, which are worth too much. Go hire some Indians instead!

Which is exactly what Ferriss does, hiring a small cadre of desis to market his product, secure contacts with influential people, and even manage correspondence with his wife. She may think that sweet email is from her beloved husband, but it was written by some guy in Bangalore.

"They work while you sleep!" Ferriss writes, over and over, as if he had just discovered that India has a different time zone than America. "They work while you sleep!"

Let's take a moment to examine this seriously. Perhaps it is, after all, a win-win situation. Ferriss gets his money, and so do his Indian employees. Sure, Ferriss gets considerably more money and does much less work, but he's the visionary and those poor desis are probably really happy to have any kind of a job at all, given the Indian economy and the blah-blah.

But there's something just a bit icky about a book which spends its first half saying "don't you hate being a working schmuck, having to do what some boss tells you to do" and then its second half saying that the way out is by becoming a boss yourself and hiring your own schmucks. But it's different, y'know, because you'll be a benevolent boss. Um... yeah.

(Question for Team Readers: what are the various Indian-language words for schmuck? Knowing my readership, I am expecting responses in at least Hindi, Telugu, and Punjabi. Very curious to find out how this word translates.)

After reading the book, I am curious to know your thoughts on this particular issue.

Is it a good thing, a bad thing, or an inevitable thing for young American entrepreneurs to outsource to India? Is this an idea that should be promoted, or dreaded?

I guess (it's probably my white liberal guilt showing through) the thing that feels weird to me is this sense of entitlement (and icky racial politics) it implies. The sort of "look how smart of a guy I am, because I found this country full of poor brown people who will do all my work for me, and I hardly have to pay them anything!"

I mean, we did that -- didn't we? -- about a century ago, and here we are doing it again.

I leave the debate up to you.


Abi said...

Your team of loyal readers includes a few Tamils too! And Tamils don't enjoy exclusionary insults (unless we are the ones hurling them ;-). Beware!

If 'schmuck' is a generic insult, 'Pakki' could be an equivalent. If you want something along the lines of 'half-baked', we have 'arai-kurai'. For 'moron' and 'idiot', we have 'madaiyan' (male) and 'madacchi' (female). 'Mundam' is a stronger word (literally headless, and therefore brainless).

It's interesting that you think I should read a book some of whose content you find 'icky' and whose author deserves to be called 'schmuck' in multiple languages. Makes me wonder about the kind of reputation I have around here ...

Blue said...

Abi, your reputation is that of an A-list blogger who posts on nearly every economic trend to hit the newswaves... yes??? And so I would hate for you to miss this one, particularly since a good half of the book is about how to use/abuse desis to economic advantage.

Thanks for the word list. Tamil, eh? I will not leave you out again. ^__^

Daniel said...

Schmuck is Yiddish, and literally translated, it means "jewels," i.e. family jewels...aka testicles. In modern parlance, though, it's come to connote more of a stupid idiot.

As for this author, I'm gunna say he's a schmuck. We in this country work SO hard to try and prevent against exploitation of foreign workers (who too often are children). Even the conservatives shouldn't like this idea, cuz it's "outsourcing" our jobs, something they're not too keen on.

No, I say the author's a dumb-butt, and shouldn't be promoting something that isn't morally correct. If people in India are doing work that people in America would be paid $5.75 an hour for, people in India should be paid the exact same $5.75. Grrr.

Blue said...

No, Daniel, it's even worse than that. Or better, depending on your POV.

Ferriss explains on his website (, obviously) that for an Indian worker, earning $4 an hour (which is what he pays his team) puts him into the upper middle class, where he can enjoy fun things like owning a cellphone!

Eventually, as more people figure this out and even the smallest of businesses outsource everything, more and more jobs (bookkeeping, accounting, researching, corresponding, analyzing, ordering, you name it) will end up in India.

So we'll have a larger group of Indians with (relatively) decent salaries (yay!) and a larger group of Americans with smaller (or no) salaries (boo).

But then again, so is the way of the world.

It's not his economics that trouble me. He's paying his workers a liveable wage. It's his attitude. It's his "oh my GOD, can you believe that there are these crazy people on this freaking subcontinent who think $4 is a lot of money and will do absolutely anything I ask????!!!!"

That's what troubles me.

Thanks for the etymology of schmuck, btw. Knew you'd share it with us. ^__^

Daniel said...

I feel like if there were governmental regulations against paying foreign workers amounts of money less than what American companines are required to pay American workers, there wouldn't be as much outsourcing, there wouldn't be this imperialist ideal of: we're better than you so we'll pay you less money to do the same work, and there wouldn't be the racist ideals present which cause brown people to be looked down upon as lesser people.

I don't like him. Boo.