Today I am 40.

I’m alive. I made it. I beat the odds. Wow.

People like me–autistic people–live, on average, about 37.5 years. Some of it is epilepsy (which often comes with autism) and congenital defects and genetic glitches that we’re born with; but a lot of us who die early could have lived to be sixty, seventy, or eighty. It’s bad health care, abuse, outright homicide; it’s a higher suicide rate. Sometimes the cops kill us, or our parents do. Jordan Neely, who died on May 1st, was autistic, and age 30. I guess when you’re a scary black man with schizophrenia, you’re fair game for any homicidal Marine who thinks choking somebody to death is heroic.

You wanna know what would’ve taken actual courage? Talking to the scary black man. Asking him if he’s OK. If he’d like a sandwich or a drink or somebody to talk to. Taking the risk that maybe he’s pissed off enough at the world that he’ll punch you in the face, because you don’t think that being pissed off at the world on a subway car deserves the death sentence.

Being 40 means being a survivor. Here are the reasons I’ve survived: I’m white, I’m short and non-threatening, I’m smart, and I can make people see that I’m human.

None of those things are anything I can help. They’re simply the luck of the draw. I’m 40, and other people will never be 40, because of sheer luck and the arbitrary things that make the world more hostile for some people than others. Okay, so my ability to make people see I’m human–that is, to communicate well enough so that neurotypical people understand there are thoughts in my head–is a learned skill; but my ability to learn it in the first place was a genetic quirk. I could’ve turned out quite non-verbal, had I gotten slightly different brain wiring, or a brain that didn’t work quite so efficiently.

I’ve tempted fate, sometimes. Done things that are supposed to be “risky”. When George Floyd got murdered I made myself a sign and stood at an intersection in my town, and people cussed at me, and a guy ran his car up on the sidewalk trying to scare me. But the risk I took then was tiny compared to the risk your average black dude takes just existing. The world’s unfair like that. And anyway, the other people in town came out eventually. There were five hundred some of us in the end, which in my town is one in ten people. Sometimes folks just need a spark, that’s all.

I look back on forty years (minus some infantile amnesia) and I think, wow. I’ve come quite a ways. Twenty years ago, I thought I’d be a scientist. Now I’m disabled, and living below the poverty line, and somehow I’m still making a difference–more than I would have if I’d become a scientist and either tried to push the creation “science” I was raised with, or joined the cutthroat world of academia. I thought I’d have to do amazing things with that brain of mine. Turns out, what I needed was just to do useful things.

It wasn’t the life I thought I’d have. I didn’t realize just how disabling my autism would turn out to be, or how much extra trouble I’d get from depression and PTSD and ADHD. But I wonder whether I wouldn’t have been an absolutely insufferable ass if I hadn’t had weaknesses. Maybe it’s a good thing that it turned out I wasn’t going to be able to use my brain to become successful in the typical sense.

I dropped the homophobia and the Creation science and the legalistic independent-fundamentalist-Baptist upbringing; but I didn’t lose my faith. I follow Jesus, still. I don’t go to church anymore–I’m limited to churches who’ll take a queer, non-binary, asexual autistic with a buzz cut and a chip on their shoulder about people who don’t recognize the value of other people. Those that would welcome me–and there are quite a few, actually, because many Christians came to the same conclusions I did–are simply too far away for someone who doesn’t drive. And then there’s coronavirus, of course. Large gatherings aren’t exactly the best move, even with a vaccine. My grandmother–she died during the pandemic, and I still dream of her–once told me that I live like a nun, because I use as little as I can manage, and live as simply as I can, and spend as much time as I can making myself useful to others. So I suppose I’m a convent of one. Or a monastery. Is there even a non-binary word for that?

I still love reading and learning. I always have, but when I was younger I took it for granted. Now I know that just the ability to get my teeth into a subject and teach myself is an extraordinary skill. I taught myself how to write well; now I have a blog. I taught myself how to do basic web design and that turned out to be useful for those memorial web sites. I learned how to care for animals; so I used that to become a shelter volunteer. And of course I love libraries–so now, as a library volunteer, I help keep my local library running.

I’m not disappointed in myself. I think I did okay with those forty years. You know how, when you use a campground, you’re supposed to leave it nicer than you found it? That’s what I hope I’m doing with my life. Leaving things nicer than they would’ve been otherwise.

Somewhere along my life’s journey, I let go of traditional measures of success. I don’t care about money or reputation. I don’t have to have people tell me I’m wonderful. I just have to make myself useful, and if I can do that, then I’ll be satisfied with my life.


Library volunteer

Welp. I’m officially taking risks again.

Me: High-risk individual, disabled, etc. Also your basic nerdy type who believes very strongly in free access to information and education, and knows that libraries are revolutionary community centers.

My library: Underfunded, overworked, and just started accepting volunteers again.

So… well, I started volunteering at the library again. I was the second person to come back, and the first to do a full shift. Masked, of course. I walked into the back room and the whole thing was just clogged with book carts waiting to be shelved. The reference librarian and the computer guy were taking out little carts in between their regular tasks. They had no dedicated pages at all (a page is a low-level library worker who does shelving and shelf-reading and easy stuff like that). I put away a few cartfuls and one of the librarians looked at me and said, “It hasn’t been this roomy here in ages.” There were still a dozen carts lined up. She said she was trying not to cry because she was so happy. I guess a single pair of hands, dedicated to shelving and not having to do it catch-as-catch-can between other duties, can make a difference.

They need me. Badly. I’ve gotten very good at not touching my face, I have N95 masks and I know how to keep them on properly, and the library itself is kept clean and nobody crowds anybody else. There are the school kids and the babies coming in–but 8 of my 10 weekly hours are before 3 p.m., so that’s minimized. My community tends to be conservative, so I suspect many/most of the children and some of the adults are unvaccinated… but on the other hand, it’s a library. People who love books tend to be much more sensible about these things.

And even more than that, when I came back with a new name, because I had to sit with myself during quarantine and came out as non-binary during lockdowns, everybody made a point to call me by my new name. Nobody used my old one at all, not a single person. I was immediately given an updated name tag.

Man. I love the library. And they need me. So I guess it’s worth the risk. I know it’s the same risk other high-risk people were taking, even before vaccines, and without proper masks; but unlike many people branded “essential workers” and made to take these risks even though they knew they could die if they caught the coronavirus, I had the privilege of being able to isolate at home until vaccines came in and even after that, when they were shown to be less effective at preventing COVID than at preventing dying from COVID. I had the privilege of being on disability, and not needing to work for my $800-some per month; I had the privilege of being introverted and not suffering badly from lack of social gatherings. I hope I’m making the right decision. Coronavirus deaths have come down tenfold from the peak of the pandemic, so it’s safer now than it used to be.

And there’s so much less whiteness at the library than there is everywhere else. I’m white myself, but I moved to my smallish suburb from a city, because I had an opportunity for a lower-rent apartment; and I didn’t know until I moved how much I would miss the diversity. Anywhere you go in town, you see 97% white faces. In the library, it’s more like 90%. There are whole families. You hear languages that aren’t English. You see hijabs on occasion. I know that doesn’t sound like much more, but it means that this library is a haven for minorities, especially families, especially immigrants. The library welcomes language tutors and GED classes and all kinds of useful things like that. It’s a community center for low-income people. Disabled people frequent it too; and most of the volunteers were disabled before coronavirus. And of course, if they welcomed me and my non-binary name, then they’re going to welcome queer people too.

I love this library. I don’t know if I’ll hate myself for doing this if/when I get Covid, but I have to face facts; things aren’t going to get any safer for me than they are now, and they need me, so what else can I do?


Okay, here’s the scenario. You’re an autistic kid. You’re, let’s say, four years old. You like spinning, because it helps you feel all of your body at once, and calms the flood of sensations that makes you feel like your body is flying apart into uncontrollable atoms. You love looking at your string of Christmas lights, because they’re beautiful and they’re calming and they make you feel happy. You hate looking at people’s eyes, because it’s overwhelming; there’s too much information, and you can’t listen and look at the same time. You prefer to snuggle with your parents, and you love to sniff your parents because they smell comforting and they smell like family.

And then your parents put you in ABA. They want you to make eye contact and sit in your chair. Suddenly, you don’t get to look at lights when you want anymore. You only get to look at them after you follow a command to “Look at me”. You want to look at those lights. They make you so happy. Being without them makes life feel hollow. So you try your best. You stare at the therapist’s eyeballs until your brain flies apart. And then you finally get to look at the lights… but they’re taken away, all too soon, and you’re still overloaded, and now they’re saying, “Look at me! Look at me!” And they won’t let you spin, and your body is flying apart, and everything is confusing; and you can’t please them; and they won’t let you run to your parents and sniff them and feel better because that’s “inappropriate”; and now there’s no comfort in the world, and everything hurts, and nothing makes sense; so you start crying, and you curl up on the floor; and they ignore you because that’s “undesirable behavior”.

As time goes on, you start to learn how to ignore your own body and your own mind, to tolerate distress. You learn how to do what you’re told, even when it hurts, even when you can’t think. Sometimes, your therapy almost becomes fun; between the pain and the confusion, there are small moments of relief. It’s just enough to keep you from shutting down entirely, just enough to keep you vulnerable. You deny yourself the things you love. You forget what it was like to be a little child, spinning, looking at lights, feeling happy. You learn how to sit still and look. Your brain is still flying apart, but now you know how to pretend everything is okay. “I love you,” you say, on cue. But you’re not allowed to hug your parents and sniff their smell and feel at home. You’re taught how to hug your parents “appropriately”. It’s not the same.

The stress builds. Sometimes you have meltdowns. You’ve learned not to say, “That’s wrong. That hurts. I don’t want to do that,” because you’re supposed to pretend to be neurotypical, and if you were NT, it wouldn’t hurt. You get frustrated. You cry and bang your head. They call it “problematic behavior”. Maybe they tie you to your chair–for your own safety, of course. Maybe they put you in a “quiet room”, where you’re alone and lost. You’re not one of the unlucky kids who end up suffocating during a restraint, but it’s traumatic, all the same. One day an adult pins you down and you just can’t take it anymore, and you bite them. Now you’re “violent”, too.

They add medication to your regimen, medication that makes you feel sleepy and makes it even harder to learn, even though it makes you more compliant and easier to “handle”. Not that learning is something you want to do anymore; the world is no longer an interesting place to explore. It’s a place where all your favorite things are taken away, and only given back if you do things that are confusing, painful, overwhelming, and unnatural.

You learn how to pretend to be neurotypical. You hide your pain. You suppress your desires. You learn how to do things that don’t make sense. You learn how to say “Yes,” and “Thank you,” and never to deny what an adult wants. This makes you very vulnerable to abuse of all kinds, but it’s what you were taught. Good children say yes. Good children do what they’re told. Good children are neurotypical. You must pretend to be a good child, because if you don’t, they will find out just how fundamentally unacceptable and wrong and unlovable you are.

Mary Sue–Feminist icon or literary criticism?

It started out as a parody Star Trek character called Mary Sue.
A Trekkie’s Tale

The original Mary Sues were impossibly young and hypercompetent–and they hadn’t had to work for those skills; their writers simply handed them over. Mary Sue was better than the canon characters at their own game, and showed them up at every opportunity. She could never lose, because the author would not let her. Her main purpose was to fall in love with the character that the author desired, and perhaps to die so that the writer wouldn’t have to deal with writing a realistic relationship. The setting, characters, and plot were twisted out of recognition by a young writer making this fantasy happen.

Mary Sue was, at first, simply a character made to attract a man that the author liked. The hypercompetence and inability to lose were side effects–because, of course, to attract the perfect man, she had to be the perfect woman.

As Internet use became widespread, from about 1995 to 2018 or so, Mary Sue was a term used for literary criticism in the fan fiction world. She was a symptom of bad writing–generally immature writing by those who were just getting started and didn’t realize you had to write a lot of garbage before you could get to the good stuff. Sues were author self-inserts who were also writer’s pets, who were given powers they hadn’t earned, could do no wrong, were never made to face consequences, and had about as much personality and inner life as a cardboard cutout.

Sues still stomped all over the setting and characters, romanced characters the author liked, and died dramatically; but during the Internet age, when the term was first widely used, the definition quickly expanded to include male characters–Gary Stus–who were very much like the Sues, but more likely to be extremely violent and to collect female lovers like trophies rather than focusing on a single perfect mate. Like their female counterparts, they had little or no personality of their own.

“Litmus test” checklists proliferated during this time, pointing out problematic character types and bad writing.
The Universal Mary-Sue Litmus Test

(Notice the author’s addendum at the top of the test. This is a recent addition, and reflects the recent re-definition of the term Mary Sue.)

During the 2010s, Mary Sue was also expanded to include criticism of published media. The most notable example of these published Mary Sues is probably Twilight’s Bella and Edward, who generated their own hatedom thanks to their lackluster personalities and toxic relationship. But many other characters have also been criticized this way, including:

  • The majority of tough-guy male leads in hail-of-bullets action movies.
  • Vampire hunter Anita Blake, who gains powers constantly and gathers a harem Gary-Stu style.
  • Ayla from Earth’s Children, whose intelligence comes entirely from the author telling her about modern ideas.
  • Silver Age Superman, who got new powers as the plot demanded them and became nigh-invincible.
  • Drizzt Do’Urden, with his angsty origin and flashy equipment.
  • Natty Bumppo, whom Mark Twain criticized most thoroughly in “The Literary Offenses of Fenimore Cooper”.

Pre-2010, female characters were still the majority of fan fiction Mary Sues; but then again, the majority of fan fiction writers were female, and Mary Sues were still primarily seen as self-insert writer’s pets. During this time, there was a proliferation of parody Sues and creative critique of bad fan fiction (often the author’s own first attempts), in the form of Mystery Science Theater-style commentary, or as metafiction in which the author created heroes to go into the problematic story and fix it–often by executing the Sue in question.

But then feminism reclaimed the term. In the late 2010s and into the present, feminist bloggers encountered the idea that Mary Sue meant “powerful female character” and embraced her as one of their own. These writers dropped the idea of Mary Sue being written to be the perfect love interest for the author’s favorite character, de-emphasized the power fantasy and power without effort aspects of the Mary Sue, and ignored Gary Stus entirely.

It didn’t help that the Mary Sue label had been quickly affixed to Star Wars‘s Rey, who overshadowed the established characters, gained new Force powers and skill with a lightsaber more quickly than any other Jedi had ever been shown to gain them, and couldn’t seem to lose. Simultaneously, misogynistic fans were complaining about having to deal with a female lead at all, and fans in general were complaining about the low quality and disrespect for canon of the newly made Disney Star Wars movies.

The anti-Sue community, accused of misogyny, tried to fight back, explaining that they did not feel that Mary Sue was a feminist icon at all; in fact, she was anti-feminist.

PPC FAQ: Isn’t this sexist?

But the new meaning stuck. “Mary Sue” is now half-reclaimed, half-critical, and doesn’t really work very well for either purpose. The idea of a female power fantasy to balance out all the male power fantasies is certainly attractive; but is it good writing? I don’t think so. I think characters shouldn’t be handed power and competence without effort; I don’t think they should be infallible or impervious to the consequences of their actions.

If you’re annoyed by male characters getting all the power and none of the personality and getting off scot-free in critical terms, while an equivalent female character is quickly called to task, then perhaps you should be demanding that male characters be held up to a higher standard, rather than championing poorly-written female characters.

But the term “Mary Sue” is steadily becoming impossible to use to say that. Nowadays, when we talk about wish-fulfillment, author’s pet, overpowered, invincible characters with little emotional depth or realistic personality, we have to use the full definition instead of saying “Mary Sue”, which used to be such a handy shorthand way to say the same thing.

Why do Autism Parents mourn the neurotypical child they never had?

I don’t condone it, but I think I can sort of explain why it happens. Do you know how, when plans are changed suddenly, you feel sort of out of balance, and might even have a meltdown if it’s bad and sudden enough? Neurotypicals make plans for their children. They have a mental picture of their future, which includes their child’s personality and cognitive traits. They build these castles in the air–they imagine future scenarios–that may or may not be anything like the reality they’re going to have.

When their child is diagnosed with autism, these future plans disappear, and they feel off-balance like we do when our schedules are suddenly changed and we don’t know what’s going to happen.

Some of them adjust pretty quickly, because they realize that their child hasn’t changed; it’s still the same child they’ve loved all along, and it’s not like those mental plans were ever going to be accurate anyway. Most are scared because they don’t know what life with autism is going to be like and they worry that their child won’t be happy, and it takes a little while for them to regain their equilibrium; instead of a stereotypical future, they’re gazing into the unknown. That, we can put down to an autism-unfriendly world that doesn’t give them enough examples of regular families with autistic people in them.

But others hold on to their mental future, and even reject the actual child they have. Those are the ones who focus on the will-nevers, who love the neurotypical child they would have had in an alternate universe in favor of the autistic child they actually do have. This is a form of emotional abuse.

Back to normal

Everyone is talking about “getting back to normal” even though coronavirus deaths are still high. They should be talking about making it normal to take precautions–things like normalizing working from home, establishing mandatory paid sick leave, distributing free masks and tests, and making schools safer. If the coronavirus is here to stay, we should make permanent changes. Instead, they are talking about taking off the masks, stopping testing, and acting exactly as we did before the pandemic.

That they are not talking about making any changes tells me that they want a pre-covid “normal”… for everyone but the vulnerable, who will have to isolate indefinitely. They would rather shut us away than have a world in which we make small adjustments so that the high-risk can be a part of society.

Instead of locking us into asylums, they are making the world too dangerous for us to live in it. Those who are old or sick or just unlucky are now being forced to quarantine–or, if they cannot, to face a very real risk of death. All because the public in general is unwilling to make small adjustments–unwilling to take a test or wear a mask or give their employees the ability to stay at home when they are sick.

We are disposable people. Our lives are not worth the inconvenience.

“Profound autism”

There’s been talk about a new “profound autism” category meant to highlight the service needs of people who are autistic and need intensive support.

Defining it as “profound autism” is just about the worst thing you could do. People who got put in that group would be written off, assumed to have no talents and no potential. Bad idea. Absolutely horrendous.

Many of us who can use language fluently now were considered “profound” in the past and would never have been given the opportunity to learn had we been categorized that way. People who still can’t use language very well nevertheless have potential that can be ignored–and can have things to say that would be dismissed–if they are labeled “profound”.

Instead, advocate for people with high support needs–universally, not just autistics. We already have an “intensive/pervasive support” category to describe it (intensive meaning “must have aide 24/7”; pervasive meaning “must have aide plus medical care”). Don’t make a new diagnostic category. Just categorize how much support they need, and then insist that they get it.

We don’t need to know exactly “what it’s like” to advocate for universal rights for people who need a lot of help. But they are not Other; they are not a separate group. They are autistic and they have important things to say, whether they speak or sign or bite the aide who’s been abusing them; it’s all communication. What we should do is listen to them and amplify what they have got to say.

Labeling people “profoundly autistic” is a way of silencing them and writing them off.

Should libraries seek more current replacements for books that mention “Asperger’s”?

A lot of autistic people don’t like the term “Asperger’s” very much anymore, ever since the evidence came to light that Hans Asperger was a eugenicist who made the argument that his (verbal, intelligent) boys were valuable to the Third Reich, but also sent more disabled children to institutions, where they died from neglect or were murdered. (The research was summarized in a book called “Asperger’s Children”, which I cannot recommend highly enough. Asperger’s here in the title refers to the doctor himself.)

The trouble is that this is recent information, and many good books about autism were written when “Asperger’s” was the term popularized by Lorna Wing to describe autism that did not affect one’s language ability or ability to care for oneself.

This was needed because before “Asperger syndrome”, autism was thought to be always severe, very rare, and always associated with extreme disability. People with less-extreme symptoms were being overlooked, and without a diagnosis or any help they often ended up jobless, homeless, and mentally ill.

So “Asperger’s” did do its duty as a diagnosis–we needed it–but with the recent revelations about Hans Asperger being a eugenicist rather than simply a doctor who made excuses for his patients, the specific term has become a little bit troublesome to us. Many of us do still use it, but it is increasingly gaining an association with the functioning labels that deny help to the “high-functioning” and agency to the “low-functioning”.

Asperger’s was merged into autism spectrum disorder primarily because it is not medically distinguishable from classic autism. Although people diagnosed with Asperger’s don’t have a speech delay, they do have unusual speech and communication problems; and although they don’t have delays in basic ADLs, they often have serious problems with other aspects of independent living. And when someone diagnosed with Asperger’s is evaluated according to the DSM-IV criteria of Autistic Disorder, they fit those criteria more than 90% of the time.

One of the problems the autism community faces, internally, is something we call “Aspie supremacy”. These are people–often quite young people, teenagers and twenty-somethings still dependent on the ableist framework they were raised in–who declare themselves to have Asperger’s, not autism, because they are smart and talented and not disabled, and therefore are superior to other autistics–and perhaps even to neurotypicals.

This is a problem because they are assuming that disability means one cannot be talented, cannot be smart; and that one must be either inferior or superior to others. And of course it means leaving behind anyone who cannot mask their autism enough to be included in the upper “Aspie” class. It is essentially Asperger’s eugenics, and yes, it does trouble us greatly, especially since these people are often deeply hurt by years of bullying, abuse, and ableist exclusion, and want to solve the problem by taking themselves out of the “disability” category rather than by advocating for disability rights.

I am only one autistic person and this is only one perspective. I will leave it to the librarians to use this information to judge whether, and which, books should be updated.

Is activism a moral obligation?

Yes, it is, but with one caveat: Activism has a wide definition.

Let’s say you are a busy person, middle-aged with three children and a job, and not closely identified with any oppressed minority or social justice issue. You have to spend most of your time keeping your family fed, and in your spare time you still have to ensure that your children have someone to love them and watch over them. For you to go off getting arrested during a public civil disobedience publicity stunt would actually be irresponsible, because your children might lose you as a parent, and if you made the wrong sort of enemies, you might put them at risk. Some people might call that cowardly, seeing as how the children of oppressed minorities are at risk by default; but I call it natural, because you are a parent and your children come first.

However, that doesn’t mean you can’t be an activist. Look at those children–you can teach them what you know about being kind, about taking care of the world around them, about paying attention to the news and to current events; you can teach them about critical thinking and about how to argue without becoming (verbally or physically) violent. You can, of course, do things that don’t involve endangering your children, like taking part in a pride parade, writing letters to the editor, or joining a peaceful, child-friendly demonstration. You can use money and influence to support the causes you care about.

Activism does not need to be formal. You can be a quiet supporter of those who need support; you can quite casually reprimand those who do and say things that make your community hostile to one group or another. You can encourage fairness and kindness in everything you do, without ever having to preach. In a perfect world, that would be the only sort of activism we ever needed.

There are many other situations in which activism is made difficult. Some people are in an oppressed minority, and so badly affected by prejudice that it is simply unsafe for you to speak up. Think of a transgender teen in a transphobic household who is likely to be beaten up; or a disabled person living in an abusive institution who will be mistreated for doing anything but pretend to be “grateful” for their “care”. Sometimes, in those situations, activism means simply surviving, as best you can, and clinging as tightly to your morals as you can, being as supportive as you can of anyone else in the same position as you, while keeping it clear in your mind that the things you see happening around you which you cannot prevent are not your fault–they are the fault of your abusers.

And sometimes, it’s simply difficult to get started. You don’t have the skills; you don’t know where to go or what to do. It’s very difficult to be the first to hold a sign, alone on a street corner; or the first to say, “I don’t think this is right,” when everybody else seems to take it for granted; or the first to stand up to someone who has been taking their unjust use of their power as a given. Even more than that, it can be difficult to be an activist when you don’t even know what is wrong with the world or how that wrongness perpetuates itself. Sometimes, activism can mean just learning more. It can mean reading books or blogs or finding other people who also care and talking to them. It can mean finding someone else who can be the first person on the street corner, and joining them. It can mean taking it in stride when you are embarrassed to discover that something you have been doing was hurting people, to recognize that because you grew up in a prejudiced world, you were indoctrinated with those ideas, and that this isn’t your fault.

One form of activism that many people completely ignore is the practice of volunteering. Of course, volunteering has to be done right–you have to evaluate your skills, find out where you are going to actually do some good, and use those skills to their best effect. Just doing things for the sake of doing them–or, even worse, for the sake of selfies and reputation–is not going to help anybody. Find out where the need is, find out what you can do, and figure out how to match those things in a way that’s effective. And above all, never use your volunteer work to diminish the self-determination and self-respect of those you help. Empower them.

Activism is more than just the stereotypical protest and civil disobedience. But being an activist is part of being an ethical member of your community. We are human beings; we are meant to work together. If we don’t use our skills and resources to make our communities better, in whatever form that takes for our particular circumstances, then we are giving up part of what it is to be human.

Why we need a higher minimum wage

Imagine an auction where your work is up for sale; but many other people’s work is also up for sale, so that some lots will always remain unsold. There are more workers than jobs.

What is the best strategy for someone who wants a worker, any worker? It is to be the first to bid, bid the minimum, and then not raise anyone else’s bid. Raising is counterproductive because supply exceeds demand, and one can always wait until other buyers have hired their workers to bid the minimum on one of the lots left over. Because this is the ideal strategy, everyone will be using it. Every lot of work that can be bought, is bought, and for the minimum possible price.

For the worker, the only possible strategy is to accept any bid, because if they do not accept, they will be left till last and their work will be one of the unsold lots.

There is a way out for the worker, and that is to learn a skilled trade. However, this is a way out only for that worker. Other unskilled workers are still caught in the same system, and because there are still unskilled jobs and unskilled workers, the minimum-wage auction will go on as before.

Moreover, if too many workers learn skilled trades, employers in those trades will fulfill their quotas, leaving these overqualified workers to compete for unskilled jobs where their skills are irrelevant–back to the minimum-wage auction.

When the minimum wage is too low, the unskilled (or overqualified) worker naturally tries to fill their own needs, usually by taking more than one job, and by adding more family members–children and spouses–to the job market, to take jobs rather than being homemakers or students. This unbalances the system even further: There are yet more workers, and yet fewer jobs. The employer is able to bid even lower, and the worker must immediately accept any offer they can, for fear of not being employed at all.

When the employer hits the federal minimum wage, they cannot reduce the worker’s pay further; but they can still split jobs into part-time positions without benefits, hire people to work for tips, and hire “self-employed” “independent contractors” who can be paid less than minimum wage because they are technically not their employees. And this is what they do, because the market permits them to do it, because people still take those jobs, because those are the only ones they can get.

We have too many people in the work force and too few jobs for them to do. A low minimum wage forces more people to take more jobs, while simultaneously allowing employers to pay less.

If we raised the minimum wage, then there would be fewer workers, because a minimum wage job would once again be enough to support a family. Many jobs are being replaced with automation, but because of the higher minimum wage, those jobs would no longer be desperately fought over by unskilled workers.

As more jobs are replaced by automation, we may end up with the same scenario again: People fight over jobs, and employers find ways to pay less and less. At this point, we would need to institute a universal basic income, paid for by taxes on corporations. There’s simply no way around that–even though it might slow down when employers are forced to stop hiring so many part-timers and contractors, the number of jobs will eventually be much less than the number of people willing to work. At that point, those extra workers will be supported by universal basic income and, instead, do unpaid work like art, volunteer work, or study. The only alternative to this is a world in which a majority of unskilled workers are barely scraping by on half a job, crammed together in apartments that take five salaries to pay for, unable to afford health care, higher education, or anything but the next day’s low-quality food–and sometimes not even that.