Category Archives: Things Falling Apart

Uncle Andy’s Four-Phase Plan

Earlier this week, Governor Andrew Cuomo released a four-phase plan by which businesses in New York State would reopen as the coronavirus threat passed:

  • Phase 1: Manufacturing, construction, curbside pickup for retail;
  • Phase 2: Retail, professional services, real estate;
  • Phase 3: Hotels and restaurants;
  • Phase 4: Schools, arts, recreation, and entertainment.

The state has been divided into ten regions for the purpose, with reopening in each region, and advancement through the phases, consistent on meeting a set of metrics.  Most of the metrics relate to hospital usage, which makes sense, although some of the thresholds seem arbitrary.  The threshold is a minimum 30% available hospital beds and intensive care beds, which most of the state passes, but if the threshold were 20%, the entire state would pass.

The one metric that worries me is the need for contact tracers.  The virus was spreading for a month and a half before it was determined to be an emergency: contact tracing now seems pointless and silly. 

Nevertheless, under the plan, there need to be a minimum of 30 contact tracers for every 100,000 residents: New York City will need over 2500.  Organizing and training a force of that size will be at least a three-month project.  Are we to remain on lockdown until then?

More worrisome is the authority to be vested in these contact tracers.  Will they have the authority to compel people to be tested?  To separate people from their families for isolation (as is happening in California)?  To compel answers to, ‘Are you now or have you ever been…’ or ‘Tell us about your friends and associates…’?

The only thing that such an effort would appear to accomplish is practice for a new Stasi whose authority, in the name of public health, would extend beyond biological viruses to embrace improper thoughts and improper speech.  That may be unconstitutional, but what the hey: it’s an emergency.

When I first read about the plan, I expected that we might be reopening in a few weeks.  I thought my work life would get back to normal in 4-6 weeks, and my wife and I would be able to enjoy dinner out in maybe 6-8 weeks.  Live baseball this summer, alas, would be a lost cause.  But if New York City will not come off ‘pause’ until we have 2500 contract tracers on staff, fully trained and ready to go, it will be a much longer wait.

I sure hope Uncle Andy reconsiders. And it’s disgusting, but right now, that’s all I can do.

*          *          *

Since the 1960s, when young men ran off to escape the military draft, the notion of running off to Canada to elude whatever turmoil the US was suffering has been with us.  It’s crossed my mind a couple of times, never very seriously, the last time in 2004 when President Bush was re-elected.

Now, in the name of public health, our liberties are basically gone.  Yes, there’s still freedom of speech, but only over the Internet, open to government monitoring.  Yes, there’s still freedom of religion–you can believe whatever you want—but all the churches are closed.

Alas, escaping to Canada won’t help.  They’re just as bad as we are.

19 Days Later

Every day, I gird myself to watch the news.  I stopped needing to look at the Johns Hopkins dashboard when the United States topped the list.  We’re number one: there isn’t much more to say.  There now more dead in New York City than China will admit to in the whole country.

But while the news media is still in the mode of ‘get ready to die next week,’ the reality is a bit different.  Most of us are alive and well, and not coughing.

More than anything, it’s weird:

  • The supply chains have recovered from the initial jolt, and the stores are pretty-well stocked again, except maybe for disinfectants and hand sanitizer.  But there’s a line to get in the local Trader Joe’s that stretches (with everyone observing six-foot social distancing) down the block and sometimes around the corner.  It’s usually a 40-60-minute wait.  Some of the other local stores also have queues waiting outside.
  • Buses creep me out.  The driver pulls up and you get on in the middle of the bus, through what’s usually the exit door.  The MTA has given up on collecting fares, so the ride is free, and the front of the bus is roped off.  Signage in the bus reminds us that ‘buses are for essential travel only.’  I’d skip the buses entirely, but the creepiness doesn’t bother my wife, and I go out with her to do shopping a couple of times a week.
  • The subway trains now run every 20 minutes (the usual schedule for the middle of the night) 24 hours a day.  Ridership is still very light: one can almost, but not quite, maintain the six-foot spread on the train.  I find myself walking out of the home or office, checking when the next train will show up, and then walking one or two stations to catch it so that I’m not standing on the platform, waiting.
  • And yes, I do have to ride the train.  My business has been deemed ‘essential,’ and I still have to perform on-site testing.  I don’t really have to go to the office, but it’s convenient to the field sites, and I’m usually more productive there than at home.  (I’m also sure that I’m annoying my wife when I have video conferences and go running off at the mouth, but so far, she seems to understand.)  Life at the office has gotten especially weird:
    • There’s no heat or hot water in the building.
    • In normal times, there are a galaxy of choices for lunch.  No more:
      • Most of my usual choices have closed for the duration.
      • The Chopt salad place near my office closed, but there’s another one nearby.  However, you can’t go there and order a salad: you have to use their app or Web site.  I did it once and saw why: the store itself is roped off: you go to the vestibule, state your name, and the staffer hands over the bag.  There isn’t even a credit card machine: you have to have paid in advance.  Alas, it isn’t the same as when the guy is tossing the salad in front of you and you can tweak up your salad (‘a little more dressing’) on the spot.
      • One of the essential charms of McDonald’s is the fountain sodas, big and icy.  But when I went to the McDonald’s near my office, I was told, ‘no soda.’  I have cans of soda in my office, but it isn’t the same.  Perhaps one of the other McDonald’s near my office still has a working soda fountain.
      • The Chick-Fil-A near my office, two weeks ago, had markers taped on the floor to remind everyone of the need to keep six feet apart.  A week ago, the markers were removed, but there were hardly any customers: Governor Cuomo had halted work at ‘non-essential’ construction sites, and that was much of their market.  The next day, they were closed.
    • After I bring my lunch back to the office and eat it, I have to take the wrappings out and pitch them in a litter basket in the street: the lady who usually comes to the office to empty the baskets and occasionally vacuum is gone for the duration, too.
    • Even an afternoon snack has become a production.  Most of the Dunkins near my office are closed.  Needing a snack, I went to nearby drugstore for a candy bar.  But the racks of sweets near the cashiers have been removed: I guess single candy bars are not hygienic.
  • At the beginning of March, New York State banned single-use plastic bags to carry goods purchased at most retail stores.  But they’ve made a comeback.  I’m told that San Francisco, which banned plastic bags in favor of reusable bags over a decade ago, has reversed themselves: reusable bags are now forbidden.

In recent days, we’re being told that we’ve turned a corner, and the number of new cases is abating.  On the other hand, there are others telling us that the emergency will last all summer.  On St. Patrick’s Day, when all the restaurants and bars were closed, I estimated the emergency would last 6-8 weeks.  We’re now about halfway through that, and it seems about right, today.

Next week is anyone’s guess.

The Kevlar Bubble

 “Deficits don’t matter,” we were told in the 1980s, as the Reagan Administration started running what seemed at the time to be huge budget deficits ($200 billion!) to defeat the Russians.  We had seen much smaller deficits associated with price inflation in the 1970s (‘too much money chasing the same goods’), but were told not to worry.

Remarkably, it seemed to work.  The Russians were defeated (although, in fairness, the Reagan defense buildup had relatively little to do with it), the economy generally prospered, and prices for consumer goods remained stable.  The Federal deficit moderated, and even came close to running a surplus in the late 1990s.

But since the turn of the century, the government has been running larger and larger deficits.  Under the Bush (43) administration, deficits ran around a half-trillion dollars per year, and the Obama administration introduced the trillion-dollar deficit.  President Trump campaigned that he would not only eliminate the deficit, but would retire the entire debt in eight years.  (In fairness, that was one campaign promise I didn’t take very seriously.)  In fact, deficits under Trump have gone back into trillion-dollar territory.

And yet price inflation has been moderate.  Yes, the government figures understate the case.  But while today’s Federal deficits, as a percentage of GDP, are at least twice what they were in the 1970s, real price inflation has been less severe.  What happened?

One of the most basic equations of economics is:

MV=PQ

where:

  • M is the quantity of money in the system
  • V is the velocity with which money changes hands
  • P is a price index
  • Q is the value of goods and services transacted (in some unit of measure unaffected by transient price changes)

So, since about 2000, M has gone way, way up; Q has stagnated, rising very slowly; P has gone up moderately.  V, in consequence, has dropped like a rock.  Money doesn’t change hands like it used to.  It disappears out of the economy almost as fast as it’s created.  How does that happen?

For starters, every year, there are roughly $700 billion in imports that have no corresponding export.  Once one of those dollars leaves the country, it isn’t coming back.  That, in itself, will make a big dent in the effects of a trillion-dollar Federal budget deficit.

Perhaps a bigger factor is the inequality that has overtaken the American economy since 2000.  Another place the money can go to have no further effect for ordinary people is into the pockets of the very, very rich. The rich have relatively little need for consumer goods (how many Lamborghinis can one drive at once?) but will seek to invest their new-found gains to at least preserve their value.  So the stock market rises, independent of the productive values of the corporations on it, and real estate goes up, which causes some incidental problems for ordinary people who want to live in places like New York and San Francisco, but nothing major.

Yes, it’s a bubble.  Bubbles usually pop when people realize that the object of the bubble isn’t returning value and they want their money back.  But the essential difference this time is that the money won’t stop.  As long as there are huge new debts, the money has to go somewhere.  This bubble is made of Kevlar, and so far, is puncture-proof.

About 30 years ago, I read The Great Depression of 1990 by Ravi Batra.  At the time, its essential premise seemed ludicrous: that the very rich would suck all the money out of the economy and impoverish the rest of us.  Yet that’s exactly what’s happening now.  The vast Federal deficits, nominally intended to help the people, are in fact helping the very rich become even richer.

Yet it works, for now.  The Federal government borrows money that doesn’t exist; the money passes through ordinary people, but doesn’t really circulate very much before it ends up in the hands of a big bank and its owners, who effectively sequester it so it can’t do any further damage in terms of price inflation, or the money simply leaves the country, never to return.

It’s a delicate balance.  If you cut budget deficits, suddenly banks and big corporations would have to work for a living, and the stock market would plummet.  If people became more prosperous and traded among themselves, rather than buying imports, money wouldn’t be flushed out, and prices would rise.  And if, as some of the Democratic candidates for President imagine, you mobilize millions of people and pay them union wages to go out and fix climate change, they will find that their new paychecks won’t actually buy very much.

A while back, I entertained in these pages the notion that the economy we experienced was a simulation of sorts that had become divorced from the economy of the stock market and the Federal government.  No, it’s not quite a simulation, but it’s pretty close.

It Would Be Simpler If We Would All Just Die

Time magazine recently designated Greta Thunberg, the Swedish teenage wokescold, their Person of the Year for 2019.  It really isn’t surprising: the title seems to have always been based on notoriety rather than merit: past designees have included Adolf Hitler, Josef Stalin, and the Ayatollah Khomeini.

Watching Greta’s speech at the United Nations, I could barely get through twenty seconds without bursting out in laughter.  Perhaps she meant to be deadly serious, but it came across as overwrought and silly.

I’ve always been a bit skeptical about global warming, or climate change, or whatever they’re calling it this week.  The basic premise—that human activity is putting more carbon dioxide into the atmosphere than natural systems can take out—is beyond controversy.

But I’m skeptical about the effects.  I can’t observe climate around the world, but I am aware of long-term trends where I live.  I’m writing this on Christmas week, in New York City.  The temperature outside is 48 degrees Fahrenheit, a little warmer than it has been in the past few days.  Last week was right around freezing.  About 15-20 years ago, it was warmer, with milder winters and several days each summer with high temperatures over 100 degrees Fahrenheit.  But in more recent years, the weather has become more like I remember it, with over-100-degree days being genuinely rare, every winter bringing snow and at least a week or two of temperatures close to zero, and mid- to late-December being right around freezing, like it is this month.

Nevertheless, it’s always fair to check one’s premises, and when my professional society made a presentation on the subject available, I checked it out.  You can review it for yourself here.

My essential question for Greta Thunberg and all those who go around screaming about the ‘climate emergency’ is: what do you propose to do about it?  Part of my skepticism is that climate change seems to be a pretext for Draconian government control of our lives.

The presentation had some useful insights, but they were very grim.

  • Exxon, in the early 1980s, had endeavored to project future levels of carbon dioxide and global temperatures.  Their projections have turned out to be accurate, nearly 40 years later.  This answers another of my points of skepticism: there were many predictions in the 1980s that low-lying Pacific islands would be underwater today, but that hasn’t happened.  But here is a prediction from the 1980s, by an entity with a business interest in accurate results (what will be the future market for their product?), that is coming to pass.
  • Carbon emissions and global GDP (is it really a ‘domestic’ product when one is considering the entire world?) have moved in lock step for the last 50 years.
  • Even on the level of households, there is a strong relationship between energy consumption and income.
  • To meet the goals of the Paris climate accords, the world will have to reduce its carbon dioxide emissions by 7.6% per year in the short term.
  • Doing so will mean that global GDP will have to necessarily shrink.

My wife and I could reasonably reduce our household’s emissions by 7.6%.  This would mean (as a quick approximation) not only using 7.6% less energy at home, but traveling 7.6% fewer miles and eating 7.6% less.  But if we must do it again and again over successive years, we will ultimately be starving in the dark!

And we’re doing pretty well in the world: for many, even a slight reduction in consumption would be a real hardship.  Some countries and peoples simply can’t reduce consumption; others won’t.

It would be simpler if we would all just die.

In the recent Democratic debate, the candidates all insisted they would do something about climate change, although exactly what was still very fuzzy.  But what will they do, if elected?  What can they do?

Remediating the effects of climate change will be a vast project: it will entail implementing new sources of energy, building infrastructure to hold off flooding, and possibly relocating whole populations.  Can our government do those things competently and even-handedly? 

And if not, as seems likely, what would they do instead?

The Seeds of Its Own Destruction

Twenty-five years ago, when the Soviet Union imploded, I remarked that ‘Communism carried the seeds of its own destruction:’ the Communists worked really hard at educating their own people (when in the past education had been limited to the very wealthy and to royalty), and after a couple of generations, the newly educated people realized that they didn’t want to be Communist.  The Reagan Republicans were so proud that they had defeated Communism, and while they doubtless accelerated events, the writing was on the wall before they started.

As I’ve been watching a lackluster economy muddle through the last few years, I’m starting to wonder if capitalism doesn’t carry the seeds of its own destruction, as well.  I always understood capitalism as somewhat of a competitive sport, and competition brings the need for optimization: why do X when Y is easier/better/cheaper/faster?  If you don’t optimize, your competitors will.

But what if optimization leads to destruction?

The other day, my wife was watching a speech by Peter Thiel, the founder of PayPal and the first outside investor in Facebook.  (The introduction and the graphics are in Korean, but the speech and the Q&A session afterward are in English.)

And about five minutes in, I heard something that was jaw-dropping:

People mistakenly think that ‘capitalism’ and ‘competition’ are somehow synonyms.  I think they are antonyms.

On one level, of course, Thiel is right.  The most profitable businesses are those that don’t have to compete.  The ideal case is a monopoly, but running an enterprise subject to heavy government regulation (which has the effect of making competition impossible) or being a member of a cartel (so that you don’t have to compete on price) is almost as good.  Once an enterprise gets to a certain size, it can lobby the government to enact regulations to ‘protect the public’ (that sounds good!) but more practically serve to entrench the enterprise and preclude competition.

Moreover, competition is, well, wasteful.  It means that companies must do things that won’t always succeed, and will sometimes lose.  If we could optimize away the need for competition, the waste could be turned into profit.

While that may be a charming thought, competition is what keeps capitalism dynamic.  Capitalism without competition is… something else.  It may be corporatism, or fascism, or even feudalism.  Capitalism without competition is the fat, dumb, and happy getting fatter, dumber, and happier, and the rest of us getting screwed over.

And there is the nub: in optimizing past the need for competition, capitalism has defeated itself.  It no longer does the things we expect capitalism to do: it doesn’t provide opportunities on a broad scale; it doesn’t inspire us to do better and try harder.  Unless you have connections or are spectacularly lucky, post-competitive capitalism has nothing to offer you.

Is This What the End Looks Like?

About a week ago, a fluorescent desk lamp in the office failed.  No problem, I thought: the bulb must have burned out.  I was ordering office supplies anyway, so I threw in a couple of replacement bulbs for this particular lamp.

The next day, the bulbs arrived, and my assistant changed out the bulb.  It didn’t work.  Further investigation revealed that the little electronic module in the base had burned out.

Oh, crap.

It is now illegal in New York City to throw electronics in the trash.  On the other hand, light fixtures can be tossed.  So what was this thing sitting disassembled on my desk?

I deemed it a light fixture, bound up the cord neatly, and threw it in the wastebasket.

If I disappear all of a sudden, now you know: I was hauled off by the trash police.

This morning, I passed Staples on my way to work.  This particular Staples opened not too many years ago.  Whenever I’ve been there, it’s always as quiet as a library.  I’ve never seen it busy.  But as I had bought the lamp in question from them a few years ago, I thought I could pop in and get a new one.

“Desk lamps?  We don’t carry then anymore.  You’ll have to order them through the Web site,” not one but two staffers told me.

So here I am, in midtown Manhattan, presumably the focal point of the entire known universe, and I am unable to buy a simple desk lamp.  In another time, not that long ago, there would have been a half-dozen commercial office supply shops within spitting distance, any one of which could supply a desk lamp.  But now there is just Staples, and they no longer carry them.

Fluorescent desk lamps used to be somewhat clunky things, with the tubes in a steel enclosure topped with a red button to turn the lamp on and a black button to turn it off.  I remember them from my youth and my first experiences in the working world.  They were clunky but pretty much indestructible.  Surely someone must still make them, right?

A peek at Amazon turned up something similar to what I remember.   But the customer comments told a sad story: a couple of years ago, the manufacturer changed the internals of the lamp, replacing them with cheap Chinese junk.

You really can’t go home again.

*          *          *

Recently, Samsung had the distressing position of having to recall millions of their latest Note 7 phone because its battery had a tendency to explode.  But Samsung’s woes are far from over.  This afternoon brought another tale of things falling apart.  The Consumer Product Safety Commission issued a warning about Samsung washing machines, recommending that people use only the gentle cycle to wash some items because the machines had a tendency to shake themselves to bits.

C’mon, people: it isn’t rocket science: it’s a bloody washing machine.

*          *          *

And just as I was wrapping up my thoughts about Samsung washing machines, my laptop screen went dark.  I rushed to plug it in, and my text was still OK, but the screen was flickering terribly.  A restart brought everything back to normal, but that was another unpleasant surprise.

But then again, perhaps I shouldn’t be surprised.  My laptop, after all, is more cheap Chinese junk.

The Genius of ISIS

A week ago Saturday, at about 9:30 am, a pipe bomb went off in Seaside, New Jersey, along the route of a charity race.  Nobody was there because the race had been delayed (ironically enough, by a suspicious package): if things had gone as planned, the consequences would have been more severe.

That night, at around 8:00 pm, an explosive device went off in a dumpster on West 23rd Street, injuring 29.  Another device, in a pressure cooker, was found by police a few blocks away.

Mayor DeBlasio was quick to note that the 23rd Street explosion had ‘no evidence at this point of a terror connection.’   After it happened, given recent events in San Bernadino and Orlando, and the guy who tried to set off an SUV bomb in Times Square a few years ago, I imagined the perpetrators of these events as people who were born in the United States, grew up here, and then turned to radical Islam.

I was close.  The alleged perpetrator of both the Seaside and New York events arrived in the US as a refugee from Afghanistan as a child, became a naturalized citizen, went to high school in New Jersey, and worked as a fry cook at his father’s fried chicken place.

So what happened?  Therein lies the genius of ISIS: they don’t actually have to do anything, in terms of actually committing violence, to be effective.  This isn’t to say that ISIS isn’t doing anything, or that we don’t have be mindful of the possibility that they might do something, but that’s not the real problem.  All ISIS has to do to be effective, and encourage others to commit violence on their behalf, is present a compelling alternative to the vapid cultural neutrality of our time.

Consider the case of a young Muslim male growing up in this country.  His parents tell him that he has to keep his religion under wraps when dealing with others.  Even if there isn’t overt discrimination, those who might otherwise be his friends would be weirded out.  And many Christian and Jewish parents, I’m sure, tell their children the same thing.

As he grows up and sees the world around him, it doesn’t fit with his upbringing.  It isn’t so much a matter whether it fits with Islam or not.  Our secular culture encourages us to indulge in whatever physical pleasures come to hand, and reminds us that morality is a quaint anachronism.

And then what?  Well, find some more physical pleasures.

And if you’re still unhappy?  Then there must be something wrong with you.  We have pills for that.

And then our young man finds out about ISIS, and it’s a revelation.  There are rules; there is right and wrong; there is honor in doing the right thing.  ISIS is bold, strong, compelling, and dangerous.  And if you fail, you will have died with honor, with 72 virgins waiting for you.

Indeed, it’s a compelling alternative even if you aren’t a Muslim.

So what do we do about it?

The icky part is that the government can’t fix it.  The best they can do is to turn the country into a police state, watching everything we do and say and read.  And if they could monitor our thoughts, they’d do that too.

For my part, I don’t want to live in a police state, even if they can effectively protect me from terrorists and terrorist wannabes. Imagine the most officious, overbearing boss you can, and then imagine him in charge of your entire life, and if you disagree with him, he can kill you or throw you in prison to rot. I’d rather take my chances with terrorists.

The government can also address the threat of terrorism by going to war, i.e. ‘taking the fight to the enemy.’  We’ve been at it for 15 years now, having accomplished, well, zilch.

This isn’t to say that government doesn’t have a role in fighting terrorism at all.  The government should be looking out for threats from abroad, as well as such domestic threats as can be discerned while respecting our Constitutional rights.  A few years ago, people asked ‘should terrorism be dealt with as a law enforcement matter?’ with the notion that those who answered in the affirmative were really soft on terrorists and the real answer was to use the military.  But having seen how that worked out, I’m not so sure.

But the real answer, the more difficult answer, is that we—all of us—need to build a society in which the nihilism of ISIS is not a compelling alternative for a young person looking to make something of his life.  And the government, by itself, can’t do that.

Gender

When I was very little, I learned the concept of what I now know as ‘gender:’ people are male and female, boys and girls, men and women.  I was really young when I learned this concept, so young that I can’t remember not knowing it.  And along with gender, I learned some other concepts, which I never really thought about until much later:

  • Essentiality: A person must have a gender.
  • Binary states: One is male or female: there is no other alternative.
  • Mutual exclusivity: A person must be male or female. One cannot be both at the same time.
  • Immutability: One cannot change one’s gender.  (One can impersonate the other gender, but it isn’t the same thing.)

I learned all of this just by observing the world around me.  So far as I know, my parents never had to explain this to me, nor did I have to explain it to my son when he was little.

So now we’re facing the onslaught of people who believe that requiring men and women to use different bathrooms is somehow evil: you’re denying people their basic human right to a comfortable place to pee!  We’re told that we have to look out for the transsexuals, who need to go to a bathroom that does not correspond to their physical gender.

Since this is ludicrous on its face, it’s actually pointless to argue logically against it.  Ayn Rand said, ‘Don’t bother to examine a folly—ask yourself what it accomplishes.’  Nevertheless, to establish that the issue in question is a folly, it is necessary to argue against it:

  • Yes, there are some (very few) transgendered people who have issues with using one restroom or another. But there are many more maladjusted but otherwise normal men who enjoy peeping at women’s private parts.
  • There are also many more non-transgendered people who have no question about which restroom to use, but are nevertheless uncomfortable with public restrooms. I used to be one of them, and I got over it as I got older.  It isn’t the responsibility of the world at large to furnish me a comfortable place to pee wherever and whenever I need it.

And what does this accomplish?

  • It raises what seems on its surface to be an affectation to a ‘protected class,’ where to even identify it is to be discriminatory.
  • It’s another way to get people who disagree to shut up for fear of offending someone. (Remember that liability makes cowards of us all.)
  • It’s another effort to erase the distinction between men and women. But this difference has been part of our nature since the beginning, and has been integrated into every human society to date.  It seems pointless at best and dangerous at worst to try and eliminate it.

None of this means that men and women shouldn’t have civil equality.  Men and women should have the same rights before the law and in commercial transactions, including receiving the same pay for the same work (this last has, in fact, been the law in the US for over 50 years).

But underneath it all, men and women are different.  That difference is to be respected, admired, cherished, and enjoyed.  To deny, disparage, or deprecate it is to deny reality.

Supermarkets

When my wife and I moved into our current apartment in 2003, there were three nearby supermarkets.

The Key Food on Court Street closed a few weeks after we moved there.  It was replaced by a drugstore.  At the time, we didn’t think much about it.

A couple of years ago, the Met Food on Smith Street closed.  It wasn’t the nearest supermarket, but it was close enough, and near a subway station, so it was convenient, and they had good meat.  It now appears that the building will be demolished and replaced with overpriced apartments.

That left the Pathmark, a bigger, almost suburban supermarket in an industrial space by the Gowanus Canal, with a parking lot out front.  But Pathmark is an A&P brand: A&P went bust last year, and the store closed just before Thanksgiving.  (‘A&P,’ short for ‘The Great Atlantic and Pacific Tea Company,’ was one of my earliest childhood memories.  Oh, well….)

One used to be able to take for granted that living in the city meant being no more than 10 minutes’ walk, at the absolute limit, from a functional supermarket.  But not anymore.

Now, there are still plenty of places to buy food:

  • There are a couple of gourmet grocery stores on Court Street, with good produce and really expensive meat.
  • There is a Trader Joe’s on Atlantic Avenue, in a former temple-of-capitalism bank building. Trader Joe’s turns on the notion that if one carefully selects the merchandise, one can have a functional grocery store in a relatively small space.  And it works: about 90% of the foodstuffs we buy come from there.  But the place is maniacally crowded on Sundays and the day before a holiday (or snowstorm).
  • There is a Fairway in Red Hook, about 15 minutes away on the bus. They include a full selection of packaged goods, as well as a full gourmet grocery selection.  But they’re expensive and a bit awkward to get to.
  • And there is the nearest old-school supermarket, the Key Food on Atlantic Avenue. I was in high school when the place opened in the 1970s.  It’s cramped and a bit decrepit.  While it’s a serviceable supermarket, it’s a hike from our apartment.

While we’re not at risk of going hungry, there is no longer one place that we can readily visit that has meats and vegetables and pasta sauce and diet Coke and dish soap and toilet paper, all under one roof, at reasonable prices

While Trader Joe’s has most of the foodstuffs covered, they’re wanting in the packaged goods department.  Some of the drugstores sell detergent and other household items, and cases of soda, but it’s a bit hit-or-miss.

I found that Amazon, of all places, has many of the packaged goods, in larger sizes than the grocery stores (e.g. 27-roll packages of toilet paper), but at competitive prices with free (postal service/UPS) delivery.  It boggles the mind that, someone in a far-off warehouse can box six cans of pasta sauce, and post them to my house, for about the same price (actually a little cheaper!) that I would pay in a supermarket.

The only non-perishables that Amazon doesn’t do well are beverages: bottled water and soda.  I could pay for Prime Fresh, but the extra $200/year over Amazon Prime isn’t worth it.  (Prime Fresh also has groceries—including perishables—for overnight or later-the-same-day delivery.  But having tried them before they raised the price, they’re only so-so at meats and produce.)  But I’ve found other sources for those items, as well.

It used to be so simple, and now it’s gotten so weird.

Village Voice

The Village Voice didn’t mean that much to me growing up, but once I finished high school and started out in the world, it meant something.   I tried placing a couple of personal ads back when the notion of getting to meet another person through a written note wasn’t thoroughly obsolete; I found their leftist tack on the issues of the day enlightening, although I often disagreed with it.

When I was living in Pittsburgh in the early 1990s, recently divorced, broke, in exile from the city where I was born, the Voice (available every Monday in the newsstand at Ross Park Mall) was a beacon of what was waiting for me on my return.

And the Voice, oddly, brought a special disappointment every June when I would pick it up and find… the Gay Issue.  I’m just not interested.

But the classified ads in the Voice were the stuff of legend.  Besides the personals, there were apartments and jobs and all manner of human services, some of which I wasn’t quite sure were legal.  When we last moved to a new place, in 2003, I found our new apartment through the Village Voice.

But that was then; not anymore.  (Except, perhaps, for the Gay Issue in June.)

Last night, indulging my idle curiosity, I picked up the current Village Voice from a box in my neighborhood.  (In the mid-1990s, if memory serves, they went from paid to free circulation.)  My immediate thought was that I was missing something: the old Voice was over 100 pages, but this one was 36: barely larger than the throwaway dailies that I pick up for Sudoku.

There was one news story, about how the city was putting more chlorine in the drinking water in the summer months, so if you noticed your tap water smelling funny, that’s why.  The Voice readers of another time would have probably never noticed; the report from another time would have discussed a vast corporate conspiracy to put toxic chemicals in our drinking water.  Alas, no more.

The cover story was a collection of 30 emoji that supposedly represented life in New York.  Too many of them were overly detailed to fit in an emoji.  Some were clever, but in the end, it was tiresome.  In fairness, I don’t really use emoji, and perhaps there are already emoji for what I think are the essential New York goods, services, or states of mind.  But emoji hardly count as edgy counterculture.

And in the back, there were just two ads for rental apartments: a 2-bedroom in Carroll Gardens for $3500/month, and a 1-bedroom in Jackson Heights (‘Clone Manhattan’) for $1750.  I remember looking for my first apartment, in 1982, making $7.50/hour or so, and coming across a dozen plausible candidates in every issue.

Those were the days….

Hitting the Wall

To the Wall Street economists, it’s an article of faith that the wants of mankind are infinite. And the best way to satisfy these infinite wants is for the economy to freely adapt to new means of production, new technologies, new systems. Sometimes the old ways of doing things get swept aside, but it’s ‘creative destruction,’ and it’s all good.

For example, when we went from horses to cars for personal transportation, the buggy-whip manufacturers went out of business. But the new machines brought a need for mechanics to look after them.

And for that reason, we’re not supposed to complain when all the manufacturing jobs that enabled vast numbers of us to enjoy a middle-class lifestyle get shipped off to China. Some great new endeavor will appear, bringing new worlds to conquer, new jobs, and new prosperity.

But is that really true?

When the Internet became a popular phenomenon in the 1990s, I thought it a useful means of communication and media distribution, but it wouldn’t be more than that unless we evolved a new sense organ. I fancifully imagined an Ethernet jack growing behind one’s left ear.

But we do have a new sense organ in the form of the smartphone. And it has enabled the Internet to become more than it was in the 1990s.

And yet, as an economic driver, the smartphone hasn’t given us new worlds to conquer:

– There are only so many of us, and each one of us has only two ears and one brain.

– Smartphones have gotten to the point where there is little room for technical improvement. (Apple calls the displays on their newer devices ‘Retina’ because the resolution of the display is comparable to the human eyeball: any further improvement would be of little practical use.)

– Facebook and Twitter have changed the way people communicate, and while they have been profitable for their founders, they employ relatively few people, with the vast majority of their services rendered by machines.

– Time spent on one’s smartphone is generally not productive time, and displaces other activities that are more productive, or at least more engaging.

So while smartphones are fun, and some of us find them useful, they are not the engine of prosperity we’d imagine them to be.

But what is the next engine of prosperity?

Meanwhile, events this week brought another perspective: our Senator, Chuck Schumer, was proposing that the commuter rail authorities and Amtrak pool their resources and create a new joint authority to build new rail tunnels between New York and New Jersey under the Hudson River.

The original tunnels were built over a century ago by the Pennsylvania Railroad. They financed the construction with their own corporate resources and no government subsidies. They built them to last and they serve us to this day.

And if the Pennsy hadn’t been run into the ground after World War II, they might have built additional tunnels in the 1950s or 1960s. But now, there is no government or business entity capable of managing an essential piece of new infrastructure.

And the only solution is apparently to create yet another government agency.

Disgustipated

My mother used to say ‘disgustipating’ to refer to things that she thought were really rotten.  I hadn’t thought of it for a while, until this week.

Yesterday, the Supreme Court issued a decision that gay marriage is a Constitutional right, and that the remaining states where gay marriage is forbidden will have to allow it.

Hooray for Marriage Equality
Hooray for Marriage Equality

While I was out this morning, I saw the sign above at a parking lot.

I really have no problem with gay civil marriage: gay people should be able to express their commitment to each other, and secure their legal rights with respect to each other, the same as heterosexual couples.

But is it ‘marriage equality’?  Hardly.

All but a tiny handful of the seven billion of us walking the planet today are here because, at some point in the past, a man and a woman came together and caused us to be.  Not all of them were married, but it is that essential fact of our existence that is the origin of marriage.

And until and unless there is a race of literal Amazons who reproduce through parthenogenesis, so it will continue to be.

What bothers me about yesterday’s Supreme Court decision is that, first, there is nothing in my reading of the Constitution that infers a right to gay marriage, either directly or indirectly.  Many, many decisions are made (in business, politics, and life in general) by coming up with the answer first, and assembling whatever arguments are needed to support it.  But I expected the Supreme Court to be above that sort of crap.

What’s far worse, though, is that the government is now empowered to clonk those of us who believe that ‘equal under the law’ is not ‘the same thing’ upside the head and tell us to get with the program.  We already have laws preventing discrimination based on sexual orientation: those, together with yesterday’s decision, mean that gay civil marriage will not be containable as ‘civil’ for very long.

*          *          *

The other disgustipating Supreme Court decision concerned Obamacare.  The law, as written, indicated that subsidies would be available for individuals who had purchased insurance through ‘an exchange established by the State.’  We normally don’t say that in American law.  You might say ‘a State’ or ‘the States,’ referring to one or more of the 50 state governments, or ‘the States or the Federal government’ if that’s what you meant.

We had understood that the intent was that a state would have to set up an insurance exchange for its residents to get the subsidies, as a means of encouraging states to set up exchanges.  But most states didn’t do that, leaving it to the Federal exchange.

But if people couldn’t get subsidies, the insurance wouldn’t be affordable, so an executive decision was made to allow subsidies to residents of all of the states.  You could reasonably read ‘an exchange established by the State’ to refer to, not a particular one of the 50 states, but the government in general.

Ultimately, this one doesn’t really matter for me.  New York did set up an Obamacare exchange. (Alas, I earn too much to be eligible for a subsidy, and even if I got one, it wouldn’t make a dent in the actual premium.)  Nevertheless, with or without the subsidy, Obamacare remains the most breathtakingly bad public policy decision that I can remember in my life.

But I’m sure something will come to top it later this year.

Gay Marriage: A Moral Issue?

I really didn’t want to write another gay marriage piece: it’s getting tiresome. But I wanted to get my thoughts out ahead of the Supreme Court decision that’s due any day now.

Some of my conservative readings rail against gay marriage as a moral issue. Homosexuality is identified in the Bible as sinful, so admitting gay marriage in law is sinful and immoral. Then again, the proponents of gay marriage sometimes frame their position as a moral issue, a matter of justice and equality for all. So which end is up?

“You can’t legislate morality,” my mother told me years ago. It fit my view of the world as a teenager, and I didn’t challenge her on it. But now, thinking about it, one can legislate morality. Alas, one ends up with a state like Iran or Saudi Arabia, where the church is the state and the state is the church and the government can do no wrong as it is run by men of Allah.

In our society, it is not the responsibility of the government to enforce morality. It is the responsibility of each of us to live a moral life. Religion is useful in pointing the way to a moral life, but it’s not the only way.   (Indeed, the functional purpose of religion in society is teaching morality to children.)

But the conservatives who frame gay marriage as a moral issue have a useful concept: ‘natural marriage.’ Natural marriage is that which has been around with us for millennia. Natural marriage is exclusively, by definition, between a man and a woman. If you’re religious, it is a gift from God; if you’re not, it’s a consequence of our nature as sexual beings whose young require years of care and upbringing before they can be fully functional. It is also immutable.

To reconcile natural marriage to the government, which needs to track such things, there is civil marriage. Civil marriage is a construct of law and regulation. When a community legalizes gay marriage, they are legalizing gay civil marriage. They cannot change the definition of natural marriage.

And alongside natural marriage (which can’t be changed) and civil marriage (a construct of government) is popular marriage, i.e. marriage as understood in the culture. Gay marriage wouldn’t be worth getting bothered about if it was accepted as a bureaucratic workaround by which gay couples who were committed to each other could secure their rights with respect to each other, and for the rest of us, a curiosity, a weird exception to the rule, and nothing more.

But that wasn’t what happened, or at least not how it’s being presented in the mass media. People are apparently falling all over each other to embrace gay marriage, even though the vast majority of them are unlikely to participate in one. And if you’re not embracing the concept, you must be hateful or, worse, homophobic. (And calling people ‘chicken’ or ‘afraid’ or ‘phobic’ to shame them into agreement is, if not the oldest trick in the book, somewhere in the top ten.)

That the popular culture is so quick to ditch natural marriage (which was already happening well before gay marriage became an issue) is sad, but does that mean that we all have to embrace gay civil marriage as equivalent to natural marriage? I’d like to think not.

It certainly isn’t the same as racial discrimination. At one time, some places denied people of different races the right to natural as well as civil marriage. Thankfully, we’re long past that. But all our good thinking about fairness and equality will not turn civil marriage into natural marriage. And it’s not fair to anyone to maintain the delusion that they’re the same.

As for the question before the Court—is there a Constitutional right to gay marriage?—I’m not a legal scholar. But a commonsense interpretation of the Fourteenth Amendment—the right to equal protection of the laws—doesn’t get me there. Natural marriage is gender-neutral: you need to have one of each. And if someone had suggested a century and a half ago that the Amendment would one day be used as the basis for a right to gay marriage, nobody would have believed such a ludicrous notion.

It remains to be seen if the Justices are, um, phobic….

The Power Beyond

One of last week’s crises was resolved this week, as the Republican Congress passed a ‘clean’ funding bill for the Department of Homeland Security and President Obama signed it, funding its operations for the remainder of the fiscal year, including Obama’s executive action to legalize some five million illegal immigrants.

In other words, the Republicans caved.

As I understand the logic behind the decision, since a Federal judge ruled against Obama’s executive action policies, the Republicans need do nothing further to stop the policies, as they can let the matter play out in the courts.

Well, maybe.

To my view, if Congress passes a bill allocating funding to an executive agency, knowing damn right well what they’re going to do with it, then they have effectively authorized the agency’s actions.   And I’m sure the Administration will make that point.

So why did the Republicans give up so easily?  And why has it been, throughout the Obama administration, that the Republicans have never been able to make headway while President Obama and his crew have been blundering about, making up rules as they go along, and taking a Roger Rabbit approach to the Constitution?

The Democrats have demonized House Speaker John Boehner as the locus of the opposition, but everything I’ve seen suggests that he is just another politician, whose high-sounding principles vanish the instant they become inconvenient.

My unfortunate hypothesis is that there is a Power Beyond Congress and the President, and that this Power Beyond is OK with open borders and OK with our blundering administration.

There are any number of conspiracy theories about the Council on Foreign Relations or the Bilderburg group or Skull and Bones or whomever.  They may be right that one or more of these may be the identity of the Power Beyond.  At this point, I don’t know.  But I’m pretty sure is isn’t God, and it isn’t the people (i.e. the government deriving its power from the consent of the governed).

The Power Beyond manifests itself in other ways besides government policy: it’s also why the mainstream media, now organized into six giant corporations, won’t actually tell us anything that we’d really need to know.  It manifests itself in our non-educating educational system, where young people learn… I’m still not sure myself.  It manifests itself in our fluoridated water, originally promoted as combating tooth decay, but having no practical positive effect, and yet we continue to do it.

There have always been people for whom the world has been a plaything.  The Russian revolutionaries who organized what became the USSR would not have been able to do so without financing from the capitalist West.  Perhaps the capitalists thought it a nifty experiment at the time.  And perhaps, for these people, the United States was fun while it lasted, and now it’s tired and broken-down, and it’s time to move on.

Fake News

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The front page of Thursday’s Daily News brought us the earth-shattering news that Beyoncé was having lunch earlier in the week in Los Angeles with a shirt tied around her midsection and (gasp!) no brassiere.

The next day brought us the burning question of whether some dress was either black and blue, or gold and white.  Now I’d like to believe that most of us past the age of, say, six or seven, know that an object can appear to be different colors depending on how it’s lighted.  Nevertheless, it was a matter for heated discussion, to the point where they spent almost as much time on the local and network TV news talking about ‘the dress’ as the weather.

Why, oh why, is this news?  As long as Beyoncé isn’t walking naked down Fifth Avenue, I really, really, really don’t care what she wears to lunch.  And if it’s now a revelation to the vast majority that one can change the appearance of an object by lighting it differently, perhaps the real news is that the vast majority has gotten really, really stupid.

Meanwhile, there is real news out there:

  • After weeks of tough rhetoric, the Syriza government in Greece began negotiations with the bankers, and promptly caved.  There was an agreement for another four months of bailouts, with ‘reforms’ to be named later.
  • Late Friday night, Republicans and Democrats came to an agreement to fund the Department of Homeland Security for another week.  The Republicans don’t want to fund the President’s executive actions to address illegal immigration; meanwhile, the Administration has acquired five million new residency cards to be issued to those who would be former illegals, and tied funding for this effort to funding for the rest of the Department of Homeland Security.
  • The Federal Communications Commission voted 3-2 to regulate Internet service providers in the name of ‘net neutrality.’  I’ve written about this subject before, and at the time, I thought there was some justification for regulation, although I wasn’t sure it was the right idea.  But now we’re told that there are 322 pages of rules, drafted in secret, that will be released for comment sometime in May, and these rules not only relate to Internet communication (processing and forwarding packets) but also content.  I guess if it’s posted on the Internet, it isn’t actually ‘speech,’ which involves the movement of air over someone’s vocal cords, and it isn’t actually the ‘press,’ as no ink or paper is involved.  We’ll find out.

But these items were only mentioned briefly in the news.  Clearly, Beyoncé’s lunch and the multicolored dress were more important.

The Creature from Jekyll Island

For the last two weeks, I’ve been reading The Creature from Jekyll Island, G. Edward Griffin’s book about the Federal Reserve System.  I knew, before I read the book, that the Federal Reserve is the US’s central bank, that its origins and operations were shrouded in mystery, and that people rail against it because the US dollar has lost 95% of its purchasing power in the century since the Federal Reserve Act was passed.  And I considered that, if we were as strong and prosperous a country now as we were a century ago, having a currency that rots by 3% per year as the price of that strength and prosperity wouldn’t really be such a bad deal after all.

Some of my other reading suggested that the Federal Reserve, in its original plan, was actually a good idea: since previous busts and panics had their origin in banks getting caught short: a lender of last resort that the banks could turn to would be useful.  Today, the Federal Reserve has taken on the task of pumping up asset bubbles to maintain the illusion of prosperity.  So somewhere along the line, perhaps it lost its way.

No, that wasn’t it at all.

Griffin asserts and documents that the many of the turning points of American history were organized and engineered by what we now call ‘the banksters.’  They had a hand in the Civil War, which in its origins wasn’t really about slavery at all.  (My mother used to tell me, as if reciting from her lessons years before, that the Civil War was primarily about economics, and secondarily about secession and slavery.)  They led us into both World Wars and the Great Depression,  And well before the events of 2008, they had scored multi-billion-dollar government bailouts of failed businesses.

And then I have to wonder:

  • I’ve been led all these years to believe that there was an America past in which free enterprise reigned and a man could succeed or fail on his own wits.  Was that ever really true, or was it all an illusion?
  • I’ve railed against our current President for what I believe are wrongheaded decisions.  And the Republicans rail against him, too.  But I don’t see that the Republicans are actually doing anything to try and stop him, although they have the ability.  And so I wonder: does it really matter who the President is?

Vaccines

The recent spate of measles cases traced to Disneyland (my sense of poetic justice is amused) has brought the issue of vaccination into the news.  When my son was little, I was totally OK with the vaccines that were recommended at the time.  Now I’m not so sure.  Let me explain….

One of my childhood memories is looking over my father’s shoulder at the records he kept of my vaccinations.  I apparently received a whole pile of them on the day I was born: I must have been a little pincushion.  I was glad that it happened when I was a baby, so that I didn’t remember it.

When my son was born in 1985, the vaccine regime hadn’t changed much.  The vaccines were the same as I had seen in my childhood records:

  • Oral polio vaccine
  • Diphtheria/pertussis/tetanus (DPT)
  • Measles/mumps/rubella (MMR)

I remember that there was an organization of parents whose children had not reacted well to the DPT shot, but the numbers of children affected overall were vanishingly small, so I had no objections to vaccinating my son.

A little later, a vaccine came out for:

  • Haemophilus influenzae type B (HiB) (interesting that it doesn’t have a simple name in English like the others)

and my son received it.

A vaccine for;

  • Varicella (chicken pox)

came out a little later, but my son had already had chicken pox, so he didn’t need it.

But time and Big Pharma have moved on, and the recommended vaccine lineup now includes, in addition to all of the previous:

  • Hepatitis A
  • Hepatitis B
  • Rotavirus
  • Pneumococcal disease
  • Infliuenza (‘flu shot’)
  • Meningococcal disease

I’m compelled to wonder if it’s all necessary.  Other than the flu, I’ve never heard of the diseases and viruses in the post-1980s group representing public health problems.  And I have to wonder if there is a point of diminishing returns where the side effects of the vaccines become worse than the diseases they are intended to prevent.

I had a case of the chicken pox when I was six; my son had it when he was eight.  I’ve considered it somewhat of a rite of passage: this is what a ‘real disease’ feels like.  A vaccine to prevent it seems more a convenience than a real public health necessity.

And then there is the specter of autism.  We’re told that there was one study relating vaccines to autism; it was debunked and retracted; so don’t consider the possibility anymore.  But one in 2000 children or so had something resembling autism in the 1970s, now it’s one in 68 in the US.  And maybe vaccines didn’t have anything to do with it, but there are too many reports of parents seeing the spark die in their children’s eyes immediately following vaccination.

On one level, I don’t have to worry about this personally anymore. But sometime in the next 5-10 years (I hope), my son will get married and have children.  I can’t advise him, as my parents might have advised me, not to worry and proceed with the usual series of vaccinations.  (Indeed, I hadn’t asked my parents at the time, as I didn’t consider the matter to be controversial.)

Telling him to exercise judgement over which vaccines his child should receive isn’t a practical option either.  The data he’d need for an informed decision aren’t readily available, and he’d likely get into arguments with his child’s doctor.  But beyond that, New York state law requires children to be immunized against almost all of the diseases and viruses listed above (the exceptions today are Hepatitis A, rotavirus, influenza, and meningococcal disease), in order to attend school.  One can assert a religious exemption, but it would have to apply to all vaccines, which isn’t prudent either.

I can’t get upset about parents who refuse vaccinations for their children.  I live in New York City, and people come here from all over the world, some vaccinated, some not, and life goes on.  Ultimately, access to clean water and proper sanitation is more important to public health than this or that vaccine.  And if an enemy wanted to conduct biological warfare using some exotic virus, all the childhood vaccinations in the world wouldn’t help.

What was a simple and noncontroversial decision in the 1980s has become a minefield.  And I don’t have any magic way out.

Enhanced Interrogation Techniques

If we are the civilized people that we claim to be, the only appropriate policy direction on torture, or anything resembling it, is not to do it.  There are two essential reasons:

  1. If policies admit torture as acceptable in some circumstances, some of our people, perhaps being restless or bored, will do it for sport.  (See Abu Ghraib.)
  2. We like to believe that we face danger bravely, being appropriately apprehensive, but we don’t let it scare us.  A policy admitting torture is the mark of a scared people.

Last week, the public discourse included reheated discussions arising from the Senate report on the Central Intelligence Agency’s use of ‘Enhanced Interrogation Techniques.’  It was the same discussion that we had years ago, and the report (a Democratic partisan effort) revealed some of the gorier details of these interrogation methods, but otherwise revealed nothing of consequence we didn’t know before.

Was it torture?  I don’t know if there’s a formal definition, but as I think about it, torture would include any of the following:

  • Violating the subject’s body.
  • Causing permanent physical injury to the subject.
  • Offending the subject’s basic human decency.  This would include something like parading the subject naked in the town square; offending the subject’s personal beliefs is fair game.
  • Using drugs or poisons on the subject.

By that definition, yes, we tortured people.

Did it work?  This is the part where the debate has swirled for years.  But it was only a couple of days ago that I understood what we were really up to.

  • If you interrogate one person, the results will be hit or miss.  He might tell you the truth, and he might not.
  • If you interrogate a dozen people on the same question, you’ll get a dozen stories.  But by cross-checking them, you can usually reconstruct the truth, or a good approximation.

We weren’t just practicing enhanced interrogation on a handful of terrorist kingpins.  We were doing it on a broad scale, getting dozens of answers to the same question and reconstructing what happened from the result.

Once again: did it work?  The answer to that is probably–justifiably–secret.

In fairness, most of the enhanced interrogation techniques that have been discussed at length (waterboarding, sleep deprivation, stress positions) don’t meet my earlier definition of torture.

But that doesn’t make them right.  They can still be abused for sport; they’re still the mark of a frightened people.  We’re saying that the ends justify the means: the first step on the road of evil.

And finally, to turn to the favorite argument of the defenders of enhanced interrogation: what if you had someone who knew the details of the atomic bomb that would destroy New York City tomorrow?  Would you play nice with him, or bash his face in?

Of course, you’d bash his face in.

But there’s a big difference between doing that, as an agent exercising his judgement in an extreme situation, and a policy admitting face-bashing as a normal interrogation technique.

What’s the Point?

It’s been a rotten week.

At work, I got into a pointless argument: pointless because I should have known that I couldn’t win, regardless of the merits of my position.  But I persevered anyway, and lost. And I wasted another week on a project that’s already horrendously late.

A few weeks ago, my office sent out a pile of drawings.  I spent a day and a half checking the technical details of the drawings, making sure everything was correct. This week, the client noted that half the drawings identified the wrong location in the drawing title.  It’s not a real problem: the drawings are a work in progress anyway, and everyone understood what the correct location was, but it’s still just stupid.

I’ve been so busy with real engineering issues that I haven’t had time for the more routine items, like… sending out invoices. But if I don’t do that, I won’t get paid.

The other night, I was watching the evening news when a commercial for Chase Private Client came on.  The happy couple invited their banker to their retirement party, and the banker said he’d be ‘honored’ to join them. I fought the urge to throw my remote control through the TV screen: I bank at Chase; they’re falling-all-over-themselves polite when I go there, but are practically useless; I fully expect to retire in a coffin.

And last night, I found myself watching the recent James Bond movie, Quantum of Solace.  One of the things that makes James Bond stories work is that Bond’s bosses are always on the side of rightness and justice.  But in Quantum, we learn that the corruption goes all the way to the top.  What is the point of serving Queen and country, when Queen and country are in bed with the villains?

It seems the entire country is becoming unglued.  We’re trying to make Ukraine and Syria safe for democracy while neglecting our own borders.  After fussing for years about the deficit, Congress has abdicated its Constitutional responsibility to manage the nation’s debt, by abandoning the debt ceiling and authorizing the Treasury to borrow whatever it needs for a set time period.

And someday soon, perhaps within the next two years, the hammer will drop, and my family and I will be trundled off to a FEMA camp, or be killed by marauding street gangs, or starve to death in our apartment.  Or maybe New York will be obliterated by an errant atomic bomb.  (Growing up in the 1960s, with the notion that the Russians could toast us with scarcely a moment’s warning, was nowhere near as bad: I had the sense that both the US and the USSR were run by responsible adults.  Today, I’m not so sure.)

Meanwhile, I’m running myself ragged, scrambling to meet deadlines, and having less and less to show for it.  Maybe I could prepare for the oncoming disaster, but I don’t have the time or the money or the energy.

The Trouble with Ukraine

The story, according to the news media:

The good people of Ukraine, yearning for freedom and prosperity, seek a closer relationship with the European Union.  But the government of Ukraine, with it’s President supported by the Russians, wants a close relationship with Russia.  The matter came to a head during the last week of the Winter Olympics, and the government was thrown out.  The new provisional Ukraine government wants a new relationship with the European Union, which would also bring billions in aid.

Meanwhile, the Russians have moved into the Crimea, a peninsula in the southeast of Ukraine that is ethnically Russian and the site (for years and years) of a Russian/former Soviet naval base.  The troops don’t carry Russian insignia, and when pressed, Russia indicates that they’re merely protecting their interests and the Russian population.

So we’re led to believe that the provisional Ukraine government stands for freedom and constitutional democracy, and all good things.  It’s a good story.

And if I believed it, I might feel differently.  But I wonder:

  • Are our hands clean in this exercise?  Or did we put the Ukrainians up to it?
  • It appears that this provisional Ukraine government is made up of the worst kind of right-wing reactionaries–the spiritual if not physical descendants of the Ukrainians who stood with Nazi Germany in the 1940s.  Why are we supporting these people?
  • The government that was deposed had been validly and noncontroversially elected.  What is the justification for throwing them out?
  • If Ukraine joins the European Union, they will indeed get aid.  But most of the aid will be in the form of loans that will have to be paid back.  Ukraine will have to take austerity measures to be able to repay the loans, like Greece.
    • Is this a ploy to acquire for the Europeans (and deny to the Russians) Ukraine’s coal and natural gas?
    • If the people of Ukraine understood the dimensions of the issue, would those in favor of joining the European Union still be enthusiastic about it?

Once upon the time, we were the strongest and most productive nation on Earth.  We could and did go meddling in the affairs of other countries not only because we could do it, and we thought it was right, but because we could withstand the consequences of our actions.  The rest of the would couldn’t do very much to hurt us.  And we had enough common sense not to mess around in our adversary’s home turf, which, in fairness, might result in consequences that we couldn’t shuck off.

But we’re not the country we were fifty years ago, nor even during the Reagan administration.  The Russians can inflict far more severe consequences on us than we can on them, because we are hugely and catastrophically in debt to the rest of the world.

The best thing we can do in Ukraine is to leave it alone.

Sad Decisions

I used to enjoy baseball games.

In the 1990s, when life was calmer, I went to perhaps a half-dozen Mets games a year.  (Not the Yankees: rooting for the Yankees is like rooting for Apple.)  One year, I had bought a Sunday ticket package, and went to see a World Series game.

For all its shortcomings, I remember Shea Stadium fondly.  More recently, I went to Citi Field, and was not impressed.  OK: the seats were nicer, and I had maybe an inch more legroom.  But it’s still a baseball game.

Alas, this may be my last year.

Major League Baseball has determined that, effective 2015, all attendees at baseball games will have to submit to metal detector screening.  I’ve put up with the bag checks that started after 2001, but one can avoid those by simply not carrying a bag.  I’m also OK with getting frisked: it takes only a few seconds, and I don’t have to empty my pockets.

But I draw the line at the full airport treatment to watch a baseball game.  I accept it at airports because there are many things that one might carry on an airplane that can  be dangerous: the practical need for airport security is broader than just looking out for terrorists.  And I don’t just jump on a plane and fly somewhere without a good reason.

But baseball is supposed to be an entertainment.  It’s supposed to be fun.  It’s supposed to be a respite from many of the other annoyances of life.  It’s not supposed to be an empty-your-pockets moment (except perhaps at the concession stand).

For much the same reason, I’ve given up on the Monday night summer movies at Bryant Park.  They don’t have metal detectors, but your bags are subject to inspection.  The inspection seems pointless: the mind boggles at the things that I could stuff into my briefcase and sneak through.

But a real inspection isn’t the point: it’s to cover the organizers of the event if anything goes wrong.  Beyond that, it’s yet another instance of security theatre so that we all get accustomed to having our stuff searched.

*          *          *

Next week, I’ll have been married for 13 years.  My wife is not a citizen, but has been a permanent resident for most of that time, and would be eligible to be a citizen now if we filed the papers.

The subject came up at lunch today.

If we had met each other, say, ten years earlier, it wouldn’t have gotten a second thought: of course she would become a citizen.  And if she felt strongly about it now, and wanted to become a citizen, I wouldn’t be writing about it now: it would simply get done.

But, now, neither of us can see any point in it.

I used to be proud of my country.  But now, I’m just waiting for the hammer to drop.

Sharing is Scary

Edward Snowden, the man who made public and overt what we long tacitly understood about the government’s surveillance activities, issued a video last Christmas in which he remarked:

A child born today will grow up with no conception of privacy at all. They’ll never know what it means to have a private moment to themselves — an unrecorded, unanalyzed thought. And that’s a problem, because privacy matters. Privacy is what allows us to determine who we are and who we want to be.

That’s perhaps a slight exaggeration, but only a very little one.  What’s worse is that we seem to be willing to do it for ourselves.

The other day, I noticed that a small Facebook logo had appeared on an update to the media player on my tablet.  I selected it to find a control to publish what I was currently listening to on my Facebook account.

I hit ‘cancel’ and shuddered:  I was glad, in that moment, that I do not have a Facebook account.  The thought of someone, outside my home, tracking my personal choices in music, gave me the creeps.  (Not that it might not happen anyway, given the state of government surveillance, but why would I volunteer what is intensely private for me?)

But there are doubtless people who are happy to post their current selections to the world.

The latest trend in managing education seems to be to give ‘high-stakes’ tests to children as young as 5.  I’m not sure of the wisdom of giving standardized tests to kindergarteners, but I had them from about the second grade, and nobody thought they were anything other than a part of the school experience.  (I actually liked test day better than the regular school day, as it was quiet and I could focus.)

But some of the reports of teachers who have to administer standardized tests to young children are telling: this is apparently the first time the children are asked to perform as individuals, and for the children, it’s not a comfortable experience.  Some of them, brought up with the notion that ‘sharing is caring,’ tried to help their classmates; some of them, realizing that they would have to work alone, got physically ill.

When I was a kid in school, there were things that we did collectively, and things we did as individuals, and that seemed the natural order of things.  There were things to share, and things not to share.  But now, the individual doesn’t matter, it seems.  Everything is to be shared.  The trend was there when I was growing up: the school’s biggest complaint about me as a youngster was that I ‘didn’t get along with the group.’  But the notion has apparently come to full fruition now.

To be sure, indiscriminate, overreaching government surveillance is evil.  But if the young are brought up to believe that the collective is everything, and their individuality is only relevant as it relates to the collective, then it doesn’t matter what the government does.

We will have surrendered our privacy ourselves, as much as the government took it from us.

The Age of the Skyscraper Is Past….

When I was in middle school, CBS was broadcasting Bicentennnial Minutes in the runup to 1976.  For a Friday assembly one week, the teachers had us make up our own Bicentennial Minutes, imagining what we would say in 2175 about events 200 years earlier.

One of my classmates spoke about the World Trade Center towers, imagining that they would be demolished 200 years hence, as they would then be among the shortest buildings in New York City.

At the time, it seemed totally noncontroversial: we would go on putting up ever-taller buildings until the mighty Twin Towers were dwarfed by their neighbors.

*          *          *

Of course, the Towers met an untimely end, but that isn’t my point today.

One WTC

The other day, my wife and I were walking around Chinatown, and I saw the new One World Trade Center tower rising into the clouds.  And I wondered: since the construction of the original World Trade Center, and the Sears Tower in Chicago (now called the Willis Tower as Sears has pretty much imploded), how many buildings taller than the Empire State Building (the quintessential skyscraper when I was growing up) have been built in the US?

There have been two:

  • The new World Trade Center tower;
  • The Trump International Hotel in Chicago.

But then again, there are so many practical reasons not to build really tall buildings: they’re too expensive to build, horribly expensive to insure, difficult to evacuate in an emergency, and what happens if one gets hit by an airplane?

So much for our middle-school imaginings….

This is not…

Magritte-Treachery of Images

My wife and I were visiting the Museum of Modern Art a few weeks ago, and we encountered The Treachery of Images at the Magritte exhibit.  The words in French read, ‘This is not a pipe.’

The painting is an iconic image; I had seen it before.  I had thought of it as somewhat of a joke.  But Magritte’s reason for painting a beautiful illustration of a pipe with the legend ‘This is not a pipe’ was to remind us that it is a picture of a pipe, and not a pipe itself.  You can’t fill it or smoke it.  It is a simple yet profound truth.

The thought came back to me yesterday when I heard on the news that the Dow Jones Industrials closed at 16,479.88, a new record.  We like to believe that a surging stock market is a sign of prosperity.

But it isn’t.  The economy is still doing rotten for most of us; the official unemployment level has dropped to around 7% only because people are giving up on working in droves.

And price inflation is still very much with us: one of my little pleasures is Chewy Chips Ahoy cookies.  A year ago, there were 28 cookies in a package; the most recent package I opened, a couple of days ago, had 23.  The price, of course, has remained unchanged.

If I eat five cookies for an evening snack (belated dessert?) instead of six, it’s probably better for my waistline.  But does that count as a hedonic adjustment?  In other words, it’s still an evening snack, even though it’s smaller, so the effective price of the cookies hasn’t changed: I still get about 4.5 evening snacks out of a package.

But then again, if I had six kids, the difference between 23 and 28 cookies would be glaringly obvious.

The Dow at 16,479 is a datum of prosperity.  A picture, perhaps.

But it isn’t the real thing.

Just like the pipe….

This is a major company??? Hard to believe

I am wondering if I am wasting my time and wondering if anybody over there cares at all.

I am referring to the helper’s job I got at UPS.

Yesterday they called at 7:20 and told me they had a driver to set me up with. They gave his cell phone number and told me to call at 9.

I called at 9. I could barely understand “John”. He had a heavy Hispanic accent and I had to keep asking him to repeat what he said.

He said, “Do you know where Party City is?” I told him yes. “You can meet me there but I am not there yet…call me at 10 am.”

I waited the hour. He told me to meet him at a warehouse about 10 or 15 minutes from here.

I got to the site and he had the uniform. I also had with me a booklet they told us to give to the driver we are working with; in there is a checklist for the helper to see if he complies with rules: did the helper wear steet tip shoes, do they follow rules when exiting the truck, etc.

He said no. He said to me, “Go to Toys R Us and meet me there in about 20 minutes.”

It’s about quarter of 11 at this point.

He showed up at about 11:15. And told me I could change into my uniform in back of the truck!

I told him I’d go inside the store to change into the uniform, which I did.

He asked me if I knew how to use the scanner. We were shown nothing in orientation — we were told to be there at 7 am the next day and the bunch of us wound up waiting in a waiting room until they called us one by one to have a photo taken for the ID; we were seen in order of arrival — so by the time I got into the orientation meeting itself I missed a good 45 minutes of what was said! And the guys who came into the meeting after me missed more than I did.

Have us sit for the photos AFTER the meeting! How does that sound????

I worked with John for about 20 minutes when 2 more trucks with drivers pulled up — I don’t know what was up with that —and a third, with the guy who ran the orientation session.

“These guys will be working together. You can go home; we don’t want you out on a commercial route. We will call you at 3 pm and a driver will be assigned to you; you’ll do the residential area in your town,” he said.

So all told — including the wait from 9 until 10 and the time it took me to drive to the first site and the little bit of work I did with him — I worked 2 and a half hours.

I got no call at 3 yesterday and none today at 3.

I also still have not seen a check for orientation. Nobody seems to know where it is; the only answer I got was “it will be in the mail.” This is an orientation period that took place nearly 3 weeks ago! Why wasn’t this check dropped into the mail????

This is breaking about at least 2 or 3 labor laws. By law that paycheck needed to be given out within the week; I think that is the rule, anyway. (I will bet you that no check for me was cut and they only realized it today)

Today they told me it would be on the way. I called again and after playing Dodgephones with 2 or 3 people at the main office, I finally got somebody who said the check would be mailed.  Should have been put into the mail 2 weeks ago when the pay period ended on the 20th.

She then said, “are you still interested in being a driver helper.”

Isn’t there any sidenote or notation or log on your end that shows I was out on the road with a driver, albeit for a very short time period, yesterday morning? What’s going on over there?

I have no idea how they will “mark” the hours I was in the mix yesterday. I would say that it should be 21/2 hours, starting with the call I made at 9am to see where I’d meet him. I saw no time card, no sheet with my name on it, no nothing. How is this any way to run a railroad???

None of this is well planned, nor well thought out.   I will bet you that the main players on this board and I could run that company by ourselves in a far better way.

In other news:

Another dud interview. Very bad news. Wasted my time.

An email from atty today; the sheriff was coming out today. Bro left for work at 12:30; I saw no sheriff here at all and I am a nervous wreck.

Life sure SUCKS. I am at wit’s end here and I am racing against time.

Cavalcade of Stupidity

Thursday night, I was watching NBC Nightly News:

  • Federal regulators are contemplating changing the rules to enable passengers on airlines to use their cell phones during the flight.  The practical answer is that as long as cell phone use doesn’t affect the safety of the flight, and doesn’t interfere with the operation of the cell networks on the ground, it should be OK.  But the news report was full of angst over the possibility of having to listen to one’s seat mate yakking nonstop from coast to coast.  Get over it: Amtrak and the commuter railroads have successfully dealt with this for years.  We used to have smoking and non-smoking sections on planes; it shouldn’t be terribly difficult to have yakking and non-yakking sections.  It’s a problem for the airlines to solve, not the government.
  • A 747 Dreamlifter landed at the wrong airport in Kansas.  The Dreamlifter is an oversized aircraft used to transport components of the Boeing Dreamliner 787 and other large airplanes.  You’d think that the pilots of the Dreamliner would be able to tell which airport is which.
  • The Senate Democrats changed the rules to allow nominations for most judges and other Presidential nominees to pass on a simple majority vote: the Republicans were denied the ability to filibuster the nomination.  While this may not be a big deal in itself, it upsets the balance of the Senate, and opens the door to bolder rule changes in the future.
  • The Administration was pushing back against reports that American troops could remain in Afghanistan for another ten years.  The Afghan government held debates on this arrangement.  The Afghan President assured the assembly that the Americans wouldn’t be involved in combat missions anymore.  (How would he know that?)  OK, we had bases in Europe after World War II (and indeed still do).  But is a presence in Afghanistan, the graveyard of empires, really necessary?  And then our President promised that the Americans would:

…make every effort to respect the sanctity and dignity of Afghans in their homes… just as we do for our own citizens.

You mean like the NSA?

  • An elderly veteran of the Korean War fulfilled his lifelong dream of revisiting North Korea.  He went there for a 9-day tour, and was arrested on the plane that would have taken him homeward.  The last time I checked, the Korean War had not yet ended.  For a Korean War soldier to go back to North Korea would seem most unwise.
  • The Dow Jones Industrials closed over 16,000 for the first time ever, an all-time high.  The pluffing of the stock market continues, without any real productivity underneath.
  • The Seattle Metropolitan Chamber of Commerce ran a full page ad encouraging Washington state legislators to pass a transportation package (presumably more tax breaks) to that Boeing would build their latest aircraft in Washington state.  Unfortunately, the ad featured a picture of an Airbus jetliner, made by Boeing’s strongest competitor.

 

A Foul Mood

I was in a foul mood last week.  I think I was on the edge of coming down with a cold, and I was teaching a class, so I had to be bright and chipper through the workday, only to come home and want to just drop into bed.

But beyond that:

  • It seems inevitable that Bill deBlasio will be our next Mayor: so inevitable, in fact, that I didn’t bother to cast an absentee ballot (more on that later).  He promises ‘a break from the Bloomberg years.’  I take that to mean a break from low crime and competent city administration (except for the snowstorm a couple of years ago).  Meanwhile, he promises to fight the good fight to reinstate the ban on large sodas.  I remember the ‘bad old days’ of the 1980s.  It didn’t bother me so much back then, as I was in my 20s and felt pretty much indestructible, but now I’m worried.  Moreover, deBlasio is a community activist, with no experience running either public or private enterprises, other than his own office as Public Advocate.  And we all know what happened the last time we elected a community activist to executive power….
  • Across the nation, the reality of Obamacare is seeping in: that if you’re not covered by your employer, you’re required to pay out of your own pocket for health insurance.  In NY, many of the requirements of Obamacare were already state law, so premiums in fact may be going down a few ticks.  But elsewhere, premiums are skyrocketing.  And then there’s the thought that, if you live in one of the states without a state insurance exchange, you’ll have to go to healthcare.gov, and tell it all your personal secrets.
  • One of the items on the ballot this year is a state Constitutional amendment to allow casino gambling.  I used to think that casinos were cool, until my wife and I went to Las Vegas and got bored with it after about an hour.  (I also can’t bring myself to wager more than about $10 at a clip on a game I know is rigged in favor of the house.)  The modern casino is a factory performing the industrial process of separating patrons from their money.  The particularly galling thing, though, is that the state wrote up the description to play up the benefits of casino gaming (more money for schools! whoopee!), rather than a more neutral description, as that way people would be more likely to vote ‘yes.’

I attend a professional conference the first week of November.  For the last couple of years, I made it a point to cast an absentee ballot, but was just too busy over the past few weeks.  But the election seems a lost cause anyway.  Tomorrow (Tuesday) is the first day of the conference.  I was going to be a tourist today with my wife, but we’re both feeling rotten.  At least I can catch up on some paperwork.

Why I Don’t Eat at Wendy’s Anymore

When I was in my twenties and early thirties, Wendy’s was probably my favorite fast food place.  I especially liked that I could choose what went on my burger.  And then, about ten or fifteen years ago, I stopped eating there.  I wasn’t sure why; I just didn’t feel like it anymore.

I had a nighttime work assignment last night, so my usual strategy is to pig out at lunchtime and try to get a few hours’ sleep before having to go to work.  I was doing paperwork in the office through lunchtime, and the usual places I go to for lunch aren’t really for pigging out (as I get older, I have to worry about keeping my figure), so I thought I’d revisit Wendy’s, and get a double burger and a Frosty.

“Hi,” I said to the staffer behind the counter.  “I’d like a double, with cheese, ketchup, pickles, and onions….”

“Um… what?” she replied.

“A double, with cheese, ketchup, pickles, and onions.”

“I can’t follow…. Can you tell me what you don’t want on it?  Would you like mayonnaise?”

Oh, bother.  Now what are all the possible things I can get on a burger at Wendy’s?

“No, no mayonnaise.  I’d like a burger with cheese, ketchup, pickles, and onions.  Nothing else.”  How hard can that be?

“OK….”

My burger came with… cheese, pickles, onions, lettuce, and tomato.  No ketchup, and no mayonnaise (thankfully: I really don’t like mayo on a burger).  My wife is always after me to eat my vegetables, so I kept the lettuce and tomato; I put ketchup on myself; the experience was salvaged.

And I realized why I stopped going to Wendy’s.  It’s really annoying to deal with the staff stumbling about with an order that was uniformly handled with deft precision twenty years ago.

At least the Frosty hasn’t changed.

Benchmarks of Decay

Yesterday, I was looking for an electronic item for work.  It was something I could get over the Internet easily enough, but I wanted to see the item first.  Best Buy has a useful selection, good in a pinch, but the best store to look at electronics in New York is J&R.  The company was started in 1971 and is still family-run, and until recently, had a row of storefronts in the block facing City Hall Park.

Yesterday, I went there, and found this:

J&R Gone Vertical

The remaining storefronts were dark and empty, with signs indicating that they were available for rent.  Essentially, J&R appears to be in the process of relocating itself into about 40% of its original space.  I suspect that also means that half the staff has been let go.

*          *          *

A while back, I needed some postage stamps.  I expected to get a packet of little paper squares with the American flag or some other clever design, printed in advance.

Instead, I got this:

b130526b

Has the Postal Service gotten so desperate that they can no longer afford to print postage stamps?

A Hard Weekend

I woke up this morning feeling rotten.  I can’t really afford a day off–too many deliverables and too little time–but I gave in.  “You’re not in your twenties any more,” my wife remarked.  “You need to take a day off sometimes.”

This past weekend, I had worked 29 hours doing equipment testing.  The nature of this testing is that it has to be done on nights and weekends, or in the very worst case, Sunday morning before daybreak.  And the tests must be successful: if something doesn’t work, the failure must be run down and fixed before our allotted time runs out.  If we fail, the consequences are dire.  The crew joked about our failure being reported on WINS (the local news radio station) on Monday morning.  But it isn’t a joke: it could really happen.   And public notoriety would be the least of our problems.

“Good luck,” my wife told me as I headed out this past weekend.  But my mother always said that luck is the residual of effort.  And the time I spent fussing over drawings and chasing bugs paid off: the work took a little longer than planned, but was finished in good time; everything worked in the end; nobody got hurt.  There was no report on WINS.

We got it done this time, but as I look around, I wonder.

As the designated engineer, I run the tests, assisted by the test leads, who are out in the field at the equipment.  All the people I know who are qualified as test leads are older than I am: most are in their sixties.

There used to be up-and-comers: younger colleagues, hot shots, anxious to learn the business.  (Indeed, I used to be  one.)  But they are fewer and farther between.  In fact, I can think of a couple of genuine hot shots.

Most of the people I know in this business have been around for years.  Too many of them are still doing the same things they did twenty years ago, because nobody has risen through the ranks.

 

We got it done this time, and we’ll get it done the next time, and the next time after that.  But five or ten years hence?

I worry….

End of an Era

I read in the paper this morning that my alma mater, the Cooper Union, will start charging tuition starting with the class entering in 2014.   The full-scholarship policy, under which I paid $300/year when I was a student, had lasted for more than a century, but not anymore.

The official tuition is $38,500/year, but students will still receive a half scholarship, and have to pay about $20,000/year.  (Books and dorm space, of course, are extra.)  It’s half of what NYU charges, but it’s still a lot, and if you have to borrow to finance your education, you could end up with a debt well in excess of what you might expect to earn in your first year after graduation… in a normal economy.  You could buy a modest house for that, in many parts of the country.

I used to think that Cooper Union was special, and that I was lucky to be able to go there.  But now, they’ve become just another college.

Not that different from NYU up the street.

OK, maybe cheaper, and with a different curriculum.

But just another college.

Benchmarks of Madness

Yesterday, my professional society sent me links to three articles that illustrate our screwed-up world:

US visa day sparks new debate on IT pros

In what has become an annual rite for the tech sector, the US government opened applications for 65,000 spots for highly skilled workers under the so-called H-1B visa program.

US Citizenship and Immigration Services said it expects to receive more requests than available visas by April 5, and if so will set up a lottery.

So American firms are indeed hiring… just not Americans.  I’ll bet the H-1B candidates don’t have to face the soggy saga that is the subject of the second item….

With Positions to Fill, Employers Wait for Perfection

…the average duration of the interview process at major companies like Starbucks, General Mills and Southwest Airlines has roughly doubled since 2010.

“After they call you back after the sixth interview, there’s a part of you that wants to say, ‘That’s it, I’m not going back,’ ” said Paul Sullivan, 43, an exasperated but cheerful video editor in Washington. “But then you think, hey, maybe seven is my lucky number. And besides, if I don’t go, they’ll just eliminate me if something else comes up because they’ll think I have an attitude problem.”

It’s not just pipsqueak firms that go for overly elaborate hiring processes.  So they don’t have money to actually pay new hires, but they do have money to burn on umpteen rounds of interviews.  Is anybody at these firms doing any actual work?  Or are they busily fumbling about on efforts like this….

Tracking Sensors Invade the Workplace

A few years ago when Bank of America Corp. wanted to study whether face time mattered among its call-center teams, the big bank asked about 90 workers to wear badges for a few weeks with tiny sensors to record their movements and the tone of their conversations.

The data showed that the most productive workers belonged to close-knit teams and spoke frequently with their colleagues. So, to get more employees mingling, the bank scheduled workers for group breaks, rather than solo ones.

Let me understand this: Bank of America spent a pile on technology and software.  They made their employees wear wires.  And from this elaborate technological exercise, they established something that a half-decent manager from 20 years ago could have told them off the top of his head, with no software involved?

Yup: we’re nuts.

What Keeps People in Line?

A recent correspondent wrote:

I have come to believe that what makes people law-abiding is the sense that they will be caught and punished, and to a lesser extent, having something to lose through criminal prosecution.

Well, maybe.  But if that’s really true, we’re screwed.

One of the things that set the United States apart from the rest of the world, for much of its history, was the presumption that people would generally do the right thing without having to write a law.  We presume that criminal defendants are innocent until proven guilty.  And somehow we got through most of our history with a smaller and less onerous government, with far fewer laws, than we have now.  Not did we ‘get through it,’ the United States was the most productive and prosperous country the world had ever seen.

John Adams wrote that, ‘Our Constitution was made only for a moral and religious people. It is wholly inadequate to the government of any other.’  It would certainly not work for a people whose only respect for the law is rooted in the fear of its consequences.

It’s true that we’ve become less constrained by religion and morality over the years, and we’ve had to face the consequences.  Businesses used to be run to do whatever it was had set themselves up to do: build cars, refine oil, provide transportation, bake bread.  Now businesses, especially large ones, are run to maximize profits, and the actual function of the business is secondary.  Meanwhile, in our personal lives, it used to be taken as a given that most of us would get married first, and then have children.  Now, only fools get married, or so the modern theory goes.

But what is it that leads people to respect the law and follow the rules?

The short, obvious answer is that it’s something that one learns from one’s upbringing.  You learn from your parents and your teachers and even your friends that it’s worthwhile to respect the law, even when it’s more difficult in the short term… or you don’t.

But it’s broader than that.  Respect for the law goes with other behaviors like being true to one’s word, facing the truth even though it may be unpleasant, and following through on one’s promises: in other words, a sense of personal honor.

But personal honor gets in the way of having fun!  We can’t have that!

Then we’ll have to face the consequences.  And the worst of that hasn’t even begun.

Waiting for the Sequestration Axe to Fall

I was going to call this “Waiting for the Furlough Axe to Fall”, but that draws too much attention to the 14 days without pay that I expect to take between mid-June and the end of September.  What we are forgetting is that the Budget Control Act of 2011 lasts for 10 years, so barring amendment or repeal of the law, I expect sequestration to have an impact on government spending through the end of September 2022.

Here are my assumptions for how things will go over the next few years:

1.  Items that are protected from sequestration, such as Social Security, food stamps, and Medicare/Medicaid will continue to be protected, though there is likely to be a change to how inflation is calculated to reduce the growth in Social Security payments.  Payments to providers for Medicare/Medicaid are likely to be  reduced.  There may be tightening of restrictions to qualify for food stamps/TANF as well as greater enforcement efforts.  States do have the option of using different income levels to qualify for benefits than what the federal government publishes. 

2.  We will have a drawdown of military forces, as happens every 20 years or so.  This will have several outcomes, such as cancellation of weapons programs and the offer of separation incentives for military and civilian personnel.  More money will need to be provided for repairing and maintaining military equipment at the expense of new systems.  Offering separation/retirement incentives just shifts costs to another account, though the cost is less than having the person remain employed full-time. The hiring freeze that is in place at DoD will remain in place for several years, with new hires requiring approval 2-3 levels above the hiring authority.

3. Further implementation of the Affordable  Care Act (ACA, i.e. “Obamacare”) will put additional stress on Defense and other programs to find savings to offset the cost of the expansion of Medicaid.  The federal government is supposed to pay for the ENTIRE cost of the Medicaid expansion for three years, with the states taking over a small protion of the cost after that. Right now, the main change is that people who contribute to a health savings account had their maximum contribution cut from $5000 to $2500.  This cost someone who made a maximum contribution about $600 in extra state and federal taxes. Health care premiums have been going up in price in anticipation of implementation of the ACA, in part because the ACA requirese that at least 85% of premiums be spent on actual health care services, not adminsitration costs.

4. Non-defense federal programs will at best tread water.  The emphasis will be  maintaining or completing existing programs rather than undertaking new initiatives. Remember, in the first few years, all that is being cut is growth from the “baseline budget”.  It’s in years 3 and later that more painful cuts will have to be made.

There was a lot of excitement over having to take 22 days of unpaid leave, an amount that has since been reduced to 14. I’d rather take unpaid leave than have to work the time with a 5.4% pay cut. Either way, I lose out on 5.4% of my salary, but at least furloughs allow me to maintain my hourly rate. I didn’t see this as the event that would have a major impact.  I was looking at future years, although from the prism of my current job.

Ideally, agencies should be planning for FY14, which begins in October, and being more forthcoming about what they expect to happen well in advance of the beginning of the fiscal year.  I would expect the number of support contractors to decline, but that might just be wishful thinking on my part. I can understand furloughing federal employees rather than contractors now because of the notification requirements under the WARN Act that would need to be met and the fact that not letting the contractors work as scheduled would put the contractor in a position to make a claim against the government for more than the money that would be saved.  There should be plans being made now to reduce costs that will have an impact on both procurement and personnel.

For instance, the Army needs to find $50 billion in savings in FY13.  Furloughing civilian employees for 22 days only gets them 10% of that amount because both military personnel and contractors are not subject to furlough. One step that the Secretary of the Army took was to defer depot  maintenance on equipment for the rest of the year.  Congress appropriated money to fund depot maintenance, much of which supports “reset”, which is fixing vehicles and equipment so that they are ready for the next deployment cycle.  I expect upgrades of military housing to be deferred, though necessary repairs will be made.

Until you begin digging into the budget, it seems like it should be no big deal to cut 5% or 10% from the budget, even with protecting a sizable chunk of the budget from cuts.  What we don’t see are the fixed costs of government. It isn’t as simple as saying, “Army, you can have 10% fewer people and systems.”  Most of the costs are incurred in operations and sustainment, not research and development or production, in part because weapons systems can last for decades.  How long have we had the Colt 1911 .45 caliber pistol? The B-52 bomber has been “extended” to last util something like 2042.

The need to generate savings in the “out years” may well hasten the reduction of the U.S.  presence overseas, though it won’t be fast in the sense of deploying the Army to Iraq was.   We have spent hundreds of billions building military bases in Iraq and Afghanistan that will be turned back to those countries.

I think that sequestration has the potential to have a far greater effect on the economy than the debt ceiling battles or the expected tax increases that were put into effect  early this year could have for a simple reason: sequestration removes the stimulus that was passed early in Obama’s first term, although by a different route and at a different rate.  I am not sure when that stimulus package is set to expire, but we do face the double whammy of sequestration and the end of that stimulus.

Preparing… for What?

I have the feeling that there is something terribly wrong in the world.  I don’t believe I’m alone.

I could start with the Federal deficit: every day the government spends about $10 billion, of which maybe $6.5 billion is funded by taxes.  The government must then borrow approximately $1 trillion every year to fund the rest.  There is no sign that tax revenues will increase  substantially (perhaps a few ticks, but not enough to make a dent) or that spending will drop (everyone loves to talk about it, but no politician actually wants to cut spending) to make a difference.

Debt serves a useful and necessary purpose an a productive economy: it enables people to do things today on the premise that they will be paid for by future productive activity.  And as long as the new debt does not outstrip the rate of growth of productive activity, the whole system floats skyward and everyone is happy.  Bad things happen, as they do now, when debt grows and productive activity is stagnant.

The debt problem is causing trouble all over the world.  The Cypriot parliament was considering a measure this week to tax people’s bank deposits (not just the interest, but the actual amounts on deposit) to help fund a bailout.  As of now, the thought is to tax only large deposits.  Alternately, Cyprus could end up being the first country to be tossed out of the Euro zone.

Meanwhile, back in the US, the government is becoming increasingly authoritarian.  If the powers that be wanted it, I could get locked up at any time and the key thrown away, on suspicion of being a ‘terrorist.’  And who exactly is a terrorist?  A terrorist is anyone deemed as such by our leadership.

So what can I do about it?

It’s beyond my power to change politicians or public policy: I can write to my elected representatives, but I’m better off saving my breath to cool my porridge.  I can vote for the other guy, but even if he wins, nothing changes.

OK: what can I do to save myself?

I know the conventional prepper wisdom: move out to the boonies; arm yourself; stockpile food, water, and ammunition; don’t tell anyone your plans, unless you’re positive that you’re in the company of like-minded individuals.

But I bristle at some of these suggestions: I’m a city boy, always have been, and was bored to tears–literally–living in the suburbs of Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania; I don’t know how to shoot and don’t have time to learn; I live in a relatively small apartment without very much storage space.

And then I ask, what am I preparing for?

The prepper answer is some kind of extended public emergency, with no electricity, no banks, no supermarkets, no police, no ATMs, for a period of weeks or months, if not longer.  It is typically accompanied by widespread destruction, either as a cause or a consequence of the emergency.

But is that a realistic assumption?

I look back through history for an event in which civilization in a region simply shut itself off in a period of days or weeks and didn’t try to restart itself.  I’ll exclude events resulting from an attack by a foreign military, and I’ll consider events in the last 200 years.

I was coming up empty until just before I wrote this, but there is an example: the Khmer Rouge regime in Cambodia, which emptied the cities and forced everyone to work in the fields.

As much as I wonder what our government may be up to, I don’t see that as a realistic alternative.

Isolationism 101

It is attractive to think that we can save money on a national level by withdrawing our military from other countries or cutting off foreign aid or ending offshoring of jobs. What we see reflects national priorities, and the country doesn’t matter too much.  If one goes to a British or German grocery store, tea, bread, and cheese are relatively cheap relative to U.S. prices in a British store and grains, vegetables and chocolate are relatively cheap in a German grocery. Walk into a U.S. grocery store, and chances are that you will be met with a display of soda and snack foods as the specials of the week.

The main thing that “free trade” does at the consumer level is to roll back or eliminate tariffs on imported goods.  The government misses out on the revenues that they would raise from the tariffs, but people will get somewhat cheaper goods. Another way to get cheaper goods is to reduce the cost of production.  This can take the form of reducing wages or using cheaper ingedients and even reducing the size of the package while keeping the cost of the package constant. This is not an exhaustive list.

One reason that countries or regions of the same country trade goods is because certain areas make certain goods better or more cheaply.  The prospective buyer sees value in the other region’s goods. At different times, foreign-made goods can be seen as either a superior or inferior good.  People are willing to pay more for a BMW than for a Kia. As long as we insist on cheap goods, it will be diffficult for jobs to return to the U.S. because goods of acceptable quality can be made elsewhere.

One can argue that the U.S. provides a huge subsidy to the rest of the world because we have such a large military and that we maintain a military presence in most countries. I don’t know how often the status of forces agreements that the U.S. has with other countries are renegotiated.  These are what allows us to maintain a military presence in the country. We were heading for the end of a status of forces agreement in the Phililppines some years ago when Mount Pinotubo erupted.  The Philippines wanted us out anyway, but the fact that the base was destroyed in the eruption probably allowed us to avoid any termination costs under an “Act of God” clause.

We used to have many more military bases in Germany than we do now.  The Army base at Heidelberg is scheduled to be turned back to the Germans, which is why US Army Europe headquarters was relocated to Wiesbaden. Maintaining bases in Europe isn’t cheap. There is no end to the litany of damages that the Germans seek to charge.  It’s a lot like what happens to you in England if you run over a sheep that is crossing the road:  you have to pay not just for the sheep, but for all of its offspring, so killing one sheep can cost you twenty times the value of the sheep in damages.

I expect the military to offer certain incentives to its personnel to leave or retire early within five years.  The last time around (1992-94), someone who volunteered to separate received a pro-rated pension for twice their length of service provided that they had more than 10 years of service , so someone wth 15 years of service got a pension for 30 years that was worth about 30% of their base pay. The separation incentive for a civilian is much less generous:  $25,000 and a five-year ban on federal employment. However, this matters less if you are immediately eligible for retirement.

People who want us to take a more isolationist stance often don’t look at the unintended consequences. We are going to abandon a lot of military bases in Iraq and Afghanistan, but it doesn’t deal with what to do with the people.  I’m happy to let the contractors take it on the chin, because they made at least 3-4 times what the soldiers did, plus got much of their income tax-free, as any cmtractor who works overseas does.  If you are a contractor who works overseas under a status of forces agreement, you get an exemption from U.S. income taxes of about $100K plus don’t have to pay taxes to the host country. If they didn’t have the sense to save their money, too bad for them. For every military slot that you cut, there is somewhere around 5 support billets that go along with it.

Unfortunately, it looks like federal employees will take the hit of budget reduction, at least this year. In part, this is a function of contracts having been signed, but in the case of Department of the Army, iis also a result of being “overstrength”.  Military personnel can’t be furloughed by order of the President, so civilians have to make up the budget cut. Other agencies expect far fewer days of furlough than the 22 days that Department of the Army employees have been told to expect.  22 days is the maximum amount of days that a federal employee can be furloughed without it being considered an adverse personnel action. 

Want to bring the troops back home?  Look for a spike in unemployment, both at home and abroad, because we employ foreign nationals overseas.  This is not an argument not to do it, but understand that the jobs that will go away will be good-paying jobs with benefits, not McJobs. It’s a macroeconomic problem that I can’t address adequately in a blog post, given the effect on the economy of military spending. When Congress wanted to get the B-1 bomber funded, they made sure to put a piece of the work in every congressional distrcit.

Stupid Mistake Week

This past Sunday, I found myself revisiting an old habit from high school days, in that I was watching TV while doing homework.  I was watching Ax Men on the History Channel, seeking relief from the inanities of my life in a world where people know what they’re doing.  Alas, not this week: it seemed that all of the drama turned on someone’s stupid mistake, or an old hand’s inability to adapt to changed circumstances.

Monday was not a good day at the office.  A few weeks ago, I sent reviewed and sent out a passel of about 150 drawings.  Monday one of them came back because it was missing a date.  An instruction manual also came back, disapproved by the client.  I had drawn an illustration with colored arrows to illustrate signal flows, then used other arrows in the same colors to point out devices in the illustration.  It also gave the client the opportunity to do a hunting and fishing expedition through the rest of the document, which they were previously happy with.  Stupid, stupid, stupid.

This morning, the two New York tabloids, which normally try to outdo each other with witty headlines, ran the exact same headline for the same story:

Meat the Wife

This morning I got a message from a client on another project that a large group of drawings were rejected, and many of them will have to be updated.  I didn’t prepare these drawings, so it’s not an immediate crisis for me, but it’s the latest in a long line of oopsies on that project.

This afternoon, my telephone rang with a call from the trenches: more glitches to be fixed.  And while I can say ‘I didn’t do it’ in this case, I’ve still gotta fix it.

Meanwhile, in Washington, the horror show continues.  A year and a half ago, to resolve the budget crisis of the week, the parties agreed that if they were not able to reach agreement on how to at least move things a little closer to balance, there would be automatic spending cuts (the ‘sequester’) eighteen months hence, i.e. this Friday.

And now both sides are moaning and wailing about how the sequester is a bad idea.  It’ll cut teachers!  It’ll weaken our defense!  It’ll be the end of the world as we know it!

In reality, if you consider that entitlements and debt service are sacrosanct, you end up with about a 10% cut of everything else.  Yes, it’s painful, but hardly the end of the world.  But it is another example of how we have been overrun with stupid mistakes.

And it’s only Tuesday….

The Lost Art of Documentation

When I first worked with computers in the 1970s, they were not meant to be user-friendly. You had to go to class, or read a long and detailed manual, before you could expect to be able to step up to one and do something useful. And you had to interact with the machine through a keyboard and text display. I accepted it as a fact of life; I got good at it.

In the 1980s and 1990s, graphical user interfaces came into use. For some things, it’s useful. It would be really, really difficult to draw on CADD without a graphical interface. (And when I first used CADD, in the 1980s, it was still an old-school system in that one had to go to class and read the manual before using it.)

But graphical interfaces made it possible for other programs to have a more user-friendly, point-and-click interface. You didn’t need to read the manual anymore.

Just mouse around: you’ll figure it out.

Well, maybe.

I remember one frustrating evenìng in the 1990s with a graphical spreadsheet program. I wanted to change a column width and couldn’t find the command for it. It took ten minutes of cursing and swearing before I realized that I had to grab the end of the column header with the mouse and pull it to the desired width.

So instead of interacting with the machine like an adult, I have to point at what I want, like a three-year-old.

I learned that trick, and many others, and I’ve made my peace with graphical interfaces.

Meanwhile, the manual that used to be required reading before doing something useful has atrophied and disappeared. The last software that I bought that had a proper manual was QuickBooks, back in 2005. It included not only a description of how to use the program, but a discussion of some of the basic and necessary principles of bookkeeping. It was the last and finest of the dinosaurs.

I had made my peace with this method of working, until this week.

I rent a computer server in a data center somewhere for my business. Last Sunday, it failed. Not a major problem: I had some measure of warning, and I keep backups, so no data lost. The good people at the data center changed out the server and set up a new one.

Most of the reconfiguration went smoothly, until it came time to install the SSL certificate for encrypted Web transactions. One of my clients insists that their data be secured in transit, even though it’s not financial and nor particularly confidential. On the first server, I had used the data center to acquire the certificate, and it went smoothly. I had the files from the original installation, which I needed to reinstall.

OK: mouse around, without a manual, find where the SSL certificate goes, paste it in, then go to ‘Domains and Websites’ to turn it on.

OK, now I’m in Domains and Websites: how do I turn it on?

The data center has tutorials for doing things, and I found the little tick box and selector to turn on the certificate. OK, now we’re good.

Well, almost. I tested the connection with several browsers. It worked with all of them except for Internet Explorer, which somehow got the wrong certificate and said that the site was possibly fraudulent.

I then spent a day and a half trying to fix this: looking around through the user interface, examining files on the server directly, testing. I thought of swapping the certificates inside the server, but couldn’t determine if there were other consequences (like not being able to access the server again). Still not working.

Could I have asked the people at the data center for help? That didn’t work when I tried it before: I couldn’t get e-mail working when I first got the server, wrote in for help, and they couldn’t figure out why it wasn’t working. I found that to start e-mail, I had to issue the command to turn it on, and then restart the server.

Finally, last night, I Googled the problem with a different turn of phrase, and found the answer. I should properly have installed the certificate in a different spot, and enabled it through the IP address, rather than the domain name. With that information, I fixed the problem in three minutes.

Just mouse around. You’ll figure it out….

But when?

Windows 8

My wife has a MacBook Air.  From a hardware perspective, it’s a gorgeous machine in its slim aluminum case.  But as the family IT guy, I hate it: I save files on it and can never find them again.  I have a special distrust of the Mac e-mail client: when it fails to send or receive, it just sits there looking innocent, and I don’t have a way of poking it in the ribs to see if it’s actually working.  To that end, when she got the machine last year, I installed Thunderbird on it and insisted that she use it.  So far, it’s worked.

But for myself, I refuse to use a Mac.

My current business laptop went in service in early 2009.  It’s still functional, but getting long in the tooth: time for a new one.  The new machine is a Lenovo Twist with Windows 8.  I had read bits and pieces about how Windows 8 was hard to deal with, but I thought it couldn’t be worse than the Mac.

I was mistaken.

Like my wife’s machine, the hardware is gorgeous.  It’s a pleasure to hold in one’s hand, set it on the table, turn it on.  It’a a joy that it boots up in under 30 seconds.

And then the bottom drops out.

While it’s waiting for me to log in, it displays the next appointment from my calendar.  Now that’s what I call operational security!

I can log in ‘locally,’ or with a Microsoft account.  Why I’d want to do the latter is unclear: who appointed Microsoft to be the gatekeeper for my computer?

After I log in, I’m dropped into the user interface formerly known as Metro.  It’s now called ‘Modern:’ apparently Microsoft hadn’t done their due diligence, and discovered, too late, that ‘Metro’ was trademarked by some other firm.

It’s a grid of squares and rectangles that blink, show pictures, and present weather reports, e-mail counts, and other varied data.  I get dizzy looking at it for more than a few seconds.  It’s a plausible interface for a mobile phone for a hyperactive teenager.  But I’m not a hyperactive teenager, and my computer is a working tool, not a toy or a status symbol.

I installed Microsoft Office, which resulted in a pile of little squares being added off the right edge of the screen.  I scroll over to the squares, click on one of them, and am dropped into a desktop where I can actually run Word, or Excel, or whichever.  In theory, if I wanted to run another tool, I would have to go back out to Modern-Metro-land, click on another square, and be dropped back into the desktop.  There is no Start menu as in previous versions of Windows, or in the various incarnations of Linux that I used to run.

And as much as I hated the e-mail client on my wife’s computer, the current version of Windows Mail deserves its own special place in hell.  One morning, I answered three e-mails on my new computer.  The machine made reassuring noises, and the icon appeared on each of the original messages, indicating I had answered them.  When I went to other machines, and other e-mail clients, they all showed the little arrow that indicated an answered e-mail.

The only problem is that the answers never actually got sent out!   I found them three days later, still in the outbox.  And so ended my use of Windows Mail.

As much as I like the idea of Linux, Microsoft Office is a mainstay of my business for which there is no practical substitute.  (No, OpenOffice doesn’t quite cut it.  Yes, it can handle 95% of what Microsoft Office does.  But that last 5% is the difference between looking professional and looking like a turd.)  So it’s either Windows or a Mac.  I can’t stand Macs, and now the latest version of Windows is just as bad.

Yes, life will go on.  I’ll find an aftermarket Start button to install on the Windows 8 desktop, and ultimately move my other files and programs.  It’ll be almost as good as Windows XP.

But it’s another way that I can’t go home again.

Unless I can turn myself into a hyperactive teenager….

God Bless Us Every One….

Last night, I found myself watching an episode of Sliders on the tube.  This time, Our Heroes found themselves in a world where the commercial aspects of Christmas had taken over, and people were enticed by subliminal advertising into a lifetime of literal debt peonage.

The episode aired for the first time in 1996: not that long ago, but the world has changed so much since then!  We don’t have literal debt peonage, but we’ve come awfully close.  The desperate characters that stood out in the 1990s seem to reflect all of our lives now.  And while subliminal advertising is still illegal (at least I think it is), that’s hardly a problem as we have so much overt advertising coming at us nonstop.  In 1996, the Internet was still mostly a curiosity, something that you experienced while sitting at a designated machine, typically over a telephone line.  (Remember them?)  Today, we have Web sites and blogs and e-mail, all laden with the message to buy! buy! buy!!!!

I had missed the first part of the episode and wanted to watch it again.  It’s available, on Hulu Plus, for the low low price of $8/month, along with piles of other videos.  I know the racket: yes, you can cancel any time, but somehow you never get around to it.  And I have little enough time to watch videos in any case.

I mostly missed Christmas this year, trying to meet deadlines in the face of constant interruptions.  The decorations are up in my office building and in the lobby of my apartment building, but I didn’t have time to clear out the junk and set up a Christmas tree.  The weather hasn’t helped: with lows in the 40s for most of December, it hasn’t felt like Christmas.  And last week I had a nasty head cold.

Still, I should count my blessings: I’m employed, able to keep the lights on and a roof over our heads, and fix a nice Christmas dinner.   My wife keeps me company and puts up with my bad moods.  Tonight, she insisted that we go out for a walk: it felt good to get the blood moving.

Is this what I thought my life would be like in 1996?

Alas, no.

In any case, Merry Christmas to all, and to all a good night….

Stupid Pills

Is everyone taking stupid pills these days?

Others on this site have reported on the abject stupidity that seems to go along with running a small business.  I like to think I can do better than that, but even then, I know I’m not immune.  But even among people who should know better, things still seem to go off the rails.

  • On one of my projects at work, a manufacturer–who has been in the business for over 100 years–was supposed to wire some equipment cabinets in a tearing hurry.  Last weekend, I found out that they had to rip out the wiring and start over again: they had used the wrong sort of wire.
  • I was surprised and disappointed by Clint Eastwood’s speech at the Republican convention.  Yes, he’s an American cultural icon, and he might not be around in 2016, and what he had to say would play well with the Republican base.  But his rambling delivery was just sad.
  • Mitt Romney didn’t do much better.  His speech was not only uninspiring; he left me with the impression that he didn’t believe a word he was saying.  I’m disgusted with President Obama, and so are many others.  But as we learned in 2004, it’s not sufficient to say, “I’m not the incumbent.”
  • A high-school student on a bus trip was killed when he stuck his head out the roof hatch of the 13-foot tall bus and got clonged by a 14-foot-high overpass.

What the heck is going on?

Fake Merit?

This week, I’ve been reading Twilight of the Elites: America after Meritocracy, by Christopher Hayes.  He asserts that meritocracy–the belief that the best and brightest among us deserve outsized rewards, because they’ve earned them–is the root of our problems, and that a program of government equalization is necessary to restore balance.

I read on, even though I didn’t agree with his premise.  I believe in the concept of the meritocracy: I like to believe that I’ve gotten where I am in the world through my wits and my skills.  My mother always used to say, “You’re only as good as the good you do.”  And I believed her.  But Hayes is right: something has gone seriously wrong.  Our best and our brightest seem to be the root of our problems.  Instead of actually improving things, they bring chaos and dysfunction.

A local news item provided an insight.  A group of students at Stuyvesant High School (where I went years ago) were found to be cheating on their state Regents exams by photographing the test papers with their phones, and sharing the tests (which are supposed to be kept secret) and the answers.

It isn’t that merit, and meritocracy, are bad.  It’s that merit has become debased.  Fake merit has overtaken and displaced real merit.

Real merit is hard.  When I was in Stuyvesant, the Regents exams were understood to be a challenge to us as individuals.  We studied; we followed the rules (most of us, anyway); we earned our scores.  More generally, achievement in the real world is hard.  The laws of physics are ruthless.  The court of physics admits no pre-trial motions and no continuances.  Verdicts are instantaneous and final.  And if you don’t like the result, the only alternative is to try, try again.  And in every field of productive endeavor, it’s true.  Engineering is hard, but so are railroading, running a factory, baseball, ballet and rock music.

But fake merit is easy.  Sharing pictures of the test papers is easier than actually studying math and physics and chemistry and French.  (And after all, the idea of taking an exam as an individual is kind of archaic: doesn’t everybody understand that collectively we all know more than any of us knows as an individual?)  Investment is hard; running a Ponzi scheme is easy.  Making real music is hard; making noise, then hiring a press agent to make people believe that it’s music, is easy.

Through fake merit, it’s easier to claim greater achievements than if you actually went and did the work.  And people will hold you in higher esteem, as if your fake achievements were  real… at least until the roof falls in.

It isn’t the meritocracy that has let us down, it’s the concept of merit itself.

No Room for Rookies

Most of what I know as an engineer, I did not learn from a book.

Yes, I went to college, and studied the math and physics and stuff, and that’s a necessary starting point.  But when I started working as an engineer, I was initially given the simplest tasks.  Then relatively simple projects.  And as time went along, I learned my craft from more experienced staffers, and moved on to bigger and better things.

Now I have broader responsibilities on my projects.  In another time, I would have expected to have two or three junior engineers as part of the team.  They could do simpler tasks under my direction, and learn, and move on to bigger and better things themselves.  As far as I can tell, that’s the way things have been in my craft since the beginning.

But business doesn’t work that way anymore.  Carrying rookies and training them on the job is an extraneous cost that can be squeezed.  The work that used to be done by drafters and junior engineers is reflected back upward.  And in the short term, it makes sense: very often, it is quicker for me to simply do something than to explain it to a subordinate, wait for him to do it, and then inspect the results (and possibly have him do parts of it over) before sending it onward.

But in the long term, where does the next generation of engineers come from?

The Famous Fit

Once upon a time, I managed a group of about 15 people.  When I was interviewing candidates, my only real concern was if they would be able to do the work.  Once they were on board, if they did the work, were reasonably civil to their colleagues, and didn’t smell like donkeys on arriving for work in the morning, they were good.  I never even gave a thought about how a candidate’s personality would ‘fit’ into the organization, beyond looking for an appropriate attitude toward the tasks at hand.

Today, it seems, ‘fit’ is everything, perhaps even more than the actual ability to do the work.  One of my old bosses sent me a psychological test the other day, and suggested that I might use it when hiring people for my business.  I’m not interested.

Once, years ago, a ‘partnering facilitator’ had everyone working on one of the company’s major projects (a total of about 100, including my entire staff) do Myers-Briggs Type Indicator tests.  We were given lapel pins with our type (mine is ISTJ: I’m Still a Total Jerk), talked about the results for a couple of days, then forgot about it.  It was an interesting curiosity.

Would I give a Myers-Briggs test to prospective employees?  No: I don’t think it would tell me anything I need to know.

But why are managers now obsessing about how people ‘fit’ into the organization?  Well, when I was growing up, somehow I learned what appeared to be universal truths about working:

  • Work is serious.  You show up with your game face on, focused, rested, and ready to face whatever it is.
  • Your boss knows what he’s doing.  If he tells you you’re doing something wrong, listen.  He may not always be right, but he’s trying to do what’s best, which could include concerns that you are unaware of.  And if he really is mistaken, and he’s a reasonable boss, he’ll respond far better to a rational discussion than yelling or pouting.

But perhaps we can’t presume those things anymore.  Hence the need to test, and the obsession with ‘fit.’

Why Is This Time Different?

In 1979, when I was finishing high school and starting college, I read Howard Ruff’s How to Prosper During the Coming Bad Years.  I was aware of inflation, was starting to understand what it meant, and I remember a few perilous months in early 1980 when the price of gold shot up, and it seemed at one point that the economy might go off the rails.

Now we face the same problems as back in 1979, only worse.  Howard Ruff has updated How to Prosper.  But we got through the last thirty years in mostly decent shape.  There was no hyperinflationary collapse.

Why is this time different?

More specifically, the bad things that we feared at the end of the 1970s never materialized.  Why should I worry this time?

Two thoughts:

  • In 1979, we were still a productive country.  The Chinese were not in the business of manufacturing anything and everything for export.  There were still many businesses that were run in the interest of providing whatever goods or services they purported to provide, rather than making this quarter’s numbers.
  • In 1980, Ronald Reagan was elected President.  Much has been written about how he turned the country around and made us prosperous again.  But he didn’t balance the budget, and indeed, first brought us into the era of huge deficits.  Reagan was every bit as inflationary as his predecessors, if not more.  But there’s one difference:
    • Under previous Presidents, inflationary spending went everywhere in the economy, and consumer prices went up along with everything else.  When the price of bread and gasoline go up, people get angry.
    • Under Reagan and subsequent Presidents, inflationary spending got directed into the investment markets.  Consumer prices still went up, but nowhere near as quickly as before.  But the stock market and the real estate market shot up.  When the prices of houses and stocks go up, people are happy, as they think they’re getting richer.

In 1979, we had margin for error.  That margin has been relentlessly squeezed out over the last 30 years.

Yes, it’s different this time.

Job Creation, Multitasking, and Stimulus

I moved from Germany to Colorado a couple of months ago, and have been buying a house and getting settled.  One of the disappointments of my house was that I had to replace the bathroom floor.  It cost me $800, including a new flange for the toilet.  Carpeting in a bathroom is a huge mistake, particularly when one of the residents uses a commode.  I’ve been tearing up the carpeting to be sure that there are no more surprises.  So far, so good.

Did I create a job?  I hired two people to do the work, one for the plumbing and the onther one to put down linoleum, which made me think that jobs are not so much created as demanded, and companies are not willing to keep a stock of people on hand for work that MIGHT need to be done. The “nice to have” tasks are falling by the wayside, and this can be tracked in many occupations.  The one that I see most is the decline of adminstrative personnel. Had I had the time (and another bathroom to use while I made the repair), I could have done the work myself.  I might have saved $400 or so, but I didn’t have the time to do the work immediately, because I had to pick up my car in St. Louis.

Another point about hiring people is that I took referrals, because I didn’t know anybody in town who did such work, and I may well have gotten hosed on prices.  No matter.  What I do know is that the sinking feeling when I sit on the toilet is now gone.  I won’t end up in the crawlspace under my house unless someone puts me there or I go there voluntarily.

When one moves from overseas, their vehicle goes to a “vehicle processing center” (VPC) , and there are about 10 around the country.  I was told that the closest one is St. Louis, but it’s in Dallas. I could have had my car shipped to me for $650, but I was given a week off to get the car, so I went to get it. The St. Louis VPC is in Pontoon Beach, IL, which gave me the pleasure of getting from the St. Louis airport to there, which required a train, a bus, and a taxi ride.

I usually bring something to read wherever I go, and one of the statistics that I came across is that we have on average 150 things that need to be done. I came up with 50 things for my “things to do” list when I first arrived. I know that I missed a lot of things, but these were the tasks of highest priority. I don’t believe that it is possible to multitask. We can be aware of certain things and that gives you an edge in getting things done, but that isn’t the same as doing them.

I consider “economic stimulus” to be the big lie of our time.  I paid cash to get my bathroom floor fixed, and we can argue about what the multiplier effect will be of the money that I spent.  The only money that gets spent that has a positive economic effect is money that comes from savings, not money from debt.  It takes over a dollar of debt to get an increase of a dollar in GDP.  Withdraw the stimulus and GDP collapses by the amount of the stimulus.

But Will It Help?

Last week, I was having a chat with a conservative friend.  He was my boss, years ago, and since retired.

“The conservatives say that one of the reasons we’re not doing so well is excessive government regulation,” I said.  “Supposedly, if we ditch all these rules, we’ll unleash growth and create jobs.”

“Right.”

“But there are vast enterprises, with billions of dollars and tens of thousands of workers, associated with these regulations.  Not just the government bureaucrats, but private-sector consultants and others, all associated with the maintenance of and compliance with these regulations.  What happens to them?”

“That’s not my concern.  They’ll just have to find work for themselves in the new environment.  Did you expect the government to help them?”

No, I really didn’t expect the government to help them.  In fact, however onerous and pointless they may seem, most government regulations have a political constituency behind them, which will make them hard to get rid of.

But as much as I’d like to believe otherwise, it seems more likely that cutting government regulations will destroy more jobs than it creates.

Oh, bother.

Disappointment

Last Tuesday, I had wanted to watch the President’s State of the Union address, but my wife wanted to watch a Korean soap opera.  I deferred to my wife: I find the Korean soaps entertaining, or at least the ones with English subtitles.  And I could watch the address later, or at least read a transcript.

This morning, I finally got around to watching the speech.  I’m genuinely disappointed:

  • President Obama told us that ‘innovation’ was the way out of our troubles.  OK, but the problem with innovation is that it ends up getting manufactured in China.
  • He gave us chapter and verse about how education needs to be improved in the US, and got a standing ovation for stating the obvious about respecting teachers.  But there was nothing about how, specifically, we might enhance school performance.
  • He also agreed that it was necessary to do something about government spending.  However, entitlements were completely off the table, although they represent most of our problem.
  • He noted that the Federal government would reorganize itself to become more efficient.  That’s certainly a good idea, but hardly a source of jobs.
  • He indicated that he was willing to consider changes to last year’s health reform law, most specifically the onerous requirement for businesses to report virtually all of their spending to the government.  Funny, but if everyone hates the idea, why didn’t it get changed in the ‘wonderfully productive’ lame-duck session of Congress before Christmas?

Captain of Industry?

My wife is a member of the Screen Actors Guild (SAG), and as a result, we get advance DVD copies of movies so that my wife can watch the movies and vote in the SAG awards.  I had wanted to see The Social Network, but missed it in the theatre, so now was my chance.

I’m glad I saved the $25 that two movie tickets would have cost.

It’s not that The Social Network is a bad movie: it has a compelling script, is well-photographed, and has excellent performances.  The cast and crew have more than done their job in bringing the story of Facebook to life.  But I very quickly came to the realization: I don’t like these people.

I remember old movies about how great enterprises came to be.  Their founders struggled with practical problems, overcame them, and proudly succeeded.  But we see nothing about the practical problems of creating Facebook: instead we see how its founder promptly got embroiled in lawsuits.

In fairness, perhaps I’m biased.  Facebook, we’re told, is the social experience of college wrapped up in a Web site.  Alas, I had no social life to speak of in college: we were all engineering nerds, and what few girls there were in class quickly got snapped up by the guys who were better at that sort of thing than me.

But if Jesse Eisenberg’s portrayal of Mark Zuckerberg is supposed to be what a modern captain of industry looks like, we’re all in deep, deep trouble.

Why We’re Screwed

Usually, February is one of my favorite months.  The cold weather invigorates when I get out; the distractions of summer are absent; it’s time to buckle down and accomplish something.  But not this year.  I’ve felt tired and cranky most of the month; things have gotten bogged down at work; I find myself, too often, in the state of not wanting to do anything.

I can point to the economy and the health care bill that refuses to die (and as a result stifles my plans to expand my business) as causes, but there’s something deeper.

Today’s businessmen, and women too, aren’t like Hank Rearden of Atlas Shrugged: they aren’t out to exchange their best effort for the best effort of others.  They aren’t even like Henry Ford, who paid his assembly-line workers twice the prevailing wage to assure himself of the best possible labor force.  Today’s business leadership wants to achieve the greatest return on its money with the least effort.

This is why manufacturing in the US is a shadow of what it used to be: if you want to manufacture something, it’s easier and cheaper, in many, many cases, to do it elsewhere.

But there are, or have been, domestic opportunities that have resulted in growth in the recent past.

One such example is residential construction.  When we had easy mortgages, many people wanted to live in new houses.  Since there was a ready market for these houses, and residential construction is fairly simple, the market responded with an abundance of new houses, many of which can now be acquired for a fraction of the original price.

Once upon a time, banking and finance was relatively boring.  It existed to support other, more visibly productive sectors of the economy.  But in recent years finance, and the art of the deal, became an end in itself.

A generation ago, health care was about 8% of the economy, close to most other industrialized countries.  Today it’s about twice that in the US, while in the rest of the developed world it hasn’t changed much.

Why the growth?

Health care was another easy place to get good returns.  On one level, health care is a maintenance function: it doesn’t make new things possible in other domains; it just helps keep people alive.  And it’s an easy sell:  after all, one’s health is ‘priceless.’  Moreover, most of us don’t pay directly for our health care: either the government or private insurance pays for most of it.

This isn’t to say that modern American medicine hasn’t accomplished wonderful things.   But the growth in the health care sector was not accompanied by growth in other sectors.  As a result, it is starting to take over the economy.

Basically, as more visibly productive sectors of the economy, like manufacturing and transportation, have shriveled or remained static, money and investment have flowed to other sectors that represent support functions, like finance and health care.  But these sectors can only thrive, in the long run, if there’s something productive going on to support them.

Ultimately, to get back on track, and build real jobs, we need to rediscover the basics: that in order to ‘add value,’ we need to actually make or do something valuable.

But what?