Friday, April 25, 2008

The Wrong Question

My wife and I recently went on (and thoroughly enjoyed) our first cruise. The picture is of me standing in front of the boat. I found myself totally fascinated by how *big* the thing was. The day our cruise departed, we could see the boat from our hotel room. If you had turned it on it's side, it would have been taller than most of the tallest buildings that were in the area. And our boat (at 855 ft) is not even close to the biggest cruise ship. Not only do these things have all the accoutrements of a resort hotel, but the thing is mobile! Most of the pictures that I took, much to the surprise of my wife, were to capture the awe that I had of that situation.

One accoutrement that we really enjoyed was the attentiveness of the service staff. For long time cruisers, this is not surprising. But for my first time, the fact that our cabin steward remembered my name after my having told it to him only once, and that our wait staff were genuinely friendly was a level of service that my wife and my frugality do not usually encounter. We really liked the different animals that we'd seen on our bed that were constructed from towels.

At some point, my wife and I started to consider the tip that we should be giving to the service staff. The cruise director made some comment that was created for the purpose of encouraging bigger tips. She said that a large proportion of their earnings came from the tips, so tip generously. So we did a little math, and concluded that these people were making significantly less than minimum wage for the amount of work that they did. When we talked to them, we discovered that 14-15 hour days are normal for them. Our assistant waiter, Erix, had been on the boat for 6 months (a standard length of time). During which time, his most recent child was born, whom he had not yet met. He expressed quite a bit of excitement for the current cruise to end because he was going home to meet his child.

For my wife, this was an unforgivable horror. How could the cruise line not allow him to go home to be with his wife during the birth of their child? For me, considering the pittance of wage that they made, it seemed extreme and I was washed over with a pang of guilt. So much work was being done for us, and we were paying almost nothing for it. I confirmed with my wife that she was feeling the same thing. This feeling was strong enough that it made me seriously consider whether or not I would go on another cruise in the future.

Fortunately, I remembered economics, and I realized that we had assumed an answer to a question, but that it was the wrong question. So I asked our head waitress, Chonmila, why she did this job. Why would she submit herself to long work hours, the long stays away from home, etc. Her answer was what I expected but was a complete surprise to my wife: "Because the money is so good." Chonmila went on to say that she's lucky to have the job. The line of people waiting to get the job is really long.

We had fallen prey to viewing the world of the service staff through the lens of living in the wealthiest country in the world. We assumed that pay that was less than the U.S. minimum wage would be grossly insufficient to make ends meet. But we'd ignored two important things in coming to our initial conclusion:
  1. The cost of living in the country where the person resided
  2. The alternative wages available to each server on the boat
And the 2nd point is the most important. Whatever you think of the U.S. minimum wage for Americans, it's might be a huge salary in some other country. Additionally, if the only other alternative for me is making much less money, then even the minimum wage seems like a great deal.

Now to be certain, there are probably people on the boat who are likely making less money that the people we got to talk to. Perhaps they're making much less than the alternatives available at home, but they're holding out hope for a promotion in order to make much more than their alternatives. Or perhaps they're from a wealthy country, but they take the job that pays them much less because they enjoy taking a day off on a nice sunswept beach. I have no idea why all of them are there. But I'm certain that none of them are their by force. All of them are there because they believe that this is the option that best maximizes the things they want at this point in their lives, be it money, leisure, etc.

So stopping cruising is the wrong thing to do. If all of the customers felt guilty enough to stop cruising, every single person on the boat would have to go get a job that was less than this option for them. We would, in fact, be appeasing our moral sensibilities at the expense of their jobs. We'd be limiting their freedom in order to feel better about ourselves.

There's no rational reason to feel guilty about cruising. I'll gladly do it again... as soon as I save up enough money to afford it.

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