This is where I will modify it. They didn’t walk into a bar. They walked into a workshop in a university classroom in Krakow, Poland.
The room was quiet and full with students. The lull is broken by the woman giving a presentation about the possibility of careers in the official bodies of the European Union. She goes on about different job prospects, listing out various aspects of the jobs, including the salary.
“As a starter in this grade,” she said, “you will start with a salary of 6000 euros a month. As you can see, we give competent salaries.”
She talks a bit more about other benefits, and the Belgian raises her hand. “And what is the justification for such a high salary?” she asks the woman giving the presentation.
The woman pauses for a moment, trying to think if she heard it right; “You mean why the salary is so high?”
“Yes,” the Belgian replies with indignation, “Do you have a justification for why the salary is so much more than the average salary of employees in other fields who may be at the same level? These salaries are paid by public money, by the taxes of the people.”
The woman muses for a moment, trying to explain that this is the level of salaries of people working for European bodies, trying to answer her question, but eventually gives up, saying she has no idea as she is just an employee there and she couldn’t possibly give a justification for the salary.
The Belgian comments a bit more about how the salary seems a bit outrageous, and was totally unrequired and uncalled for.
The Egyptian sitting in front of me turns around to face me, confusion writ on his face. “So is she saying the salary is too less or too much?” he asks me.
“Too much,” I reply with a whisper.
“She means the salary is too much?” he asks me once more.
“So why is she complaining?” he asked again, genuinely unable to understand why the Belgian would complain about being paid too much for a job.
Once the workshop is over, the Swiss steams off. “I don’t get why she was complaining at all, this is the average salary in Switzerland. Why should people not be paid if they are doing work? There are CEOs who sit on shitloads of money and don’t deserve it at all, while here are people who are actually doing work for the welfare of the governments and countries, how is it possible to complain if you’re doing work for it?”
Since we all know each other, while we are later siting in a park, this topic comes up again.
“Why were you complaining that the salary is too high? The Egyptian asks blankly, looking at the Belgian.
“It’s not a good thing,” the Belgian says, “when we talk of social equity, it’s not fair that some people get so much more money that they need, especially when all this money goes from public funds.”
“What do you mean so much more money?” the Egyptian asked, “You get more money, good, enjoy it! Buy a boat!”
“No but you don’t need it,” the Belgian says, “I mean come on 6000 euros, that’s way too much! For even a city like Brussels, you can live more than well in 2000 euros a month. If you get 6000, you will just spend it buying things you don’t need.”
“But why are you thinking this way,” the Swiss chipped in, “the person is giving all his productive time of the week to this organization, is it so bad to be well compensated for it? And it might not be just that person, I mean by the time you can do this job, you’re already in your late 20s or early 30s. You might have a family, a child that you need to support, his school fees, music lesson, sports class- once you factor all that in, it’s of course justified.”
“It’s still not justified, because you still don’t need that much. The more money you get, the more you will spend, and buy all these things. 6000 is completely unjustified, and it will only go higher from there- you will have a lot of spare money all the time that you would want to spend.”
The Egyptian shook his head. “I still don’t see the problem here. In my country, if you get more money, you just take it. You don’t complain.”
I understood all three of them of course, and they were all completely justified in their points. I related with what the Egyptian said the most, though and I tried to explain it to the Belgian and the Swiss. “You all are speaking from very different standpoints. Think about where you came from, where you grew up. In countries like ours, where you don’t have social security, where you haven’t had a lot of money in the past, it’s impossible to think like this. Our parents, or the parents of our parents, never had the kickoff money, and they started from scratch, so of course they want us to do well and earn. More money for them is a better life. And if you don’t have social security, you depend on money for everything, for your healthcare, schooling, everything. You have to have savings for it and so extra money.”
Yet the more I thought about it, the more I was convinced that all three of them were absolutely right, although they said contradictory things.
How could a Belgian understand the struggle for attaining things, where basic needs couldn’t be fulfilled, and the only way to upward mobility was through money?
How could an Egyptian understand the need to reject extra money for the sake of principles, as a move against capitalism, when everything in the society he’s known aims towards money?