Wednesday, January 28, 2015

The Real Story About Jobs

In the early 1990s I read a book by Jeremy Rifkin.

The book talked about some things I had thought about occasionally so I found it to be a pretty interesting book.

Those things I had thought about I thought that I had thought about somewhat deeply.

What made the book interesting was that the way Rifkin presented those things showed me that my thinking had been pretty close to no thinking at all.

“Shallow”, one would probably say; certainly not deep.

But that was it: The book was a deeper dive than I had done at the time into some things that were of interest to me.

It was interesting but not life changing.

Nonetheless, I have always remembered that book.

And I kept it for some future read.

That future read has recently come and gone.

And what I found interesting several years ago now reads like the pronouncements of some prophet on some mountain top in some dystopian nightmare.

Here is a quote.

“After years of wishful forecasts and false starts, the new computer and communication technologies are finally making their long anticipated impact on the workplace and the economy, throwing the world community into the grip of a third great industrial revolution.  Already millions of workers have been permanently eliminated from the economic process, and whole job categories have shrunk, been restructured, or disappeared.”

And he wrote that in 1991 or so.

Or how about this?

“In the years ahead, new, more sophisticated software technologies are going to bring civilization ever closer to a near-workerless world.”

Or here’s another good one.

“Redefining opportunities and responsibilities for millions of people in a society absent of mass formal employment is likely to be the single most pressing issue of the coming century.”

And these quotes are all from page one of the first chapter of the book.

It gets better – if “better” is a word to be used about a clear and accurate vision of mass human oblivion.

I say “clear” because, as can be seen from the three quotes I have cited one can see that Rifkin minces no words and says what he means.

I say “accurate” because – especially as the book gets beyond page one – what is being described is what we – all of us here and now – are dead in the middle of.

And Rifkin is equally clear about how we got here, what it means, and what we might want to do about it.

And he never once berates “The Takers” nor praises the “Makers”.

Ayn Rand is never mentioned.

He never even talks about the glory of the “Job Creators”.

He merely points out that machines and their software brains are rapidly taking over every menial and low level form of work.

He also points out that, as that process marches forward, and as jobs are streamlined, combined, and made vastly more productive, jobs that were once thought to be sophisticated rapidly become menial  and are, in their turn, sucked into the voracious maw of rapidly advancing automation.

He also points out that the people who are unleashing this endgame of work – people who are way smarter than most of the human race – are left in possession of the last jobs not subject to automation.

He also points out that those jobs are the continued invention and deployment of ways to utilize the voracious maw.

He also points out that, in the process of all of the previous points, those few are amassing vast wealth.

And he suggests that the rest of us are left to stand by and watch.

Rifkin has a lot more to say.

He says that the disappearance of whole segments of human labor is occurring so quickly and on such a vast scale that, in effect, huge populations are suddenly without work and without the skills – without, perhaps even the raw ability – to do the new jobs that are being created.

He says that those jobs have high math skills, high technical skills and high communication skills as their entry level requirements.

He says that ,in general, the vast hoards left without work lack all three of these requirements.

He specifically states that no amount of community college is going to transform a huge workforce that had, until its recent loss of work, prided itself upon being able to show up to work on time most days and turn the same bolt for eight hours, into an entrepreneurial and highly technically and mathematically skilled knowledge worker.

He also says that, even if it were somehow possible to wave the magic community-college-wand over a gathering of fifty year olds whose last contact with math and thinking was freshman high school algebra, it wouldn’t change anything.

There aren’t that many of the new type of jobs.

The fact that Rifkin’s observations are all twenty years old would cause one to think that someone nominally in charge of things would have noticed that where we are today and why we are there had all been laid out clearly long ago.

And one would think that some sort of plan to deal with it would have been created and have been in the process of being deployed.

Rifkin suggested that some of the wealth accumulated by the new ruling class probably ought to be transferred to those who have been left behind.

And he suggested a basic reason why that might be a good thing to do: Self Interest.

The world he described is made up of the hopeless, terminally unemployed is a world of people who first lose their self respect, then lose hope then lose their humanity; then drunkenness, domestic violence, crime, homelessness and regional anarchy reign supreme.

The world he described is one in which the few, the privileged - the new rulers - withdraw into walled and gated compounds and let the groundlings destroy the rest as civil unrest spreads outside their gates.

The world he described is one of nearly limitless goods resulting from ultimately human-less and maximally productive processes.

The world he described is one in which there is a vanishing market for those goods: the people who previously bought the stuff no longer have any money.

Self interest, Rifkin asserted, would make a rational society see the need to remedy these things.

Since I live in a nominal democratic republic my first reaction to my recent re-read of The End of Work was to wonder if our elected representatives recognize the problem.

Without much thought it has been easy to answer that question: “Are you nuts? They are too busy playing with themselves”.

But then I read the current issue of The Economist today.

It turns out they seem to be beginning to blather about the problem.

“My BIG fear: the condition of your birth does not determine the outcome of your life” (Paul Ryan).

“Opportunity is slipping away.” (Elizabeth Warren).

“Each element (of the sequence of events that lead to success) is eroding away” (Marco Rubio).

“Of course you have to work hard, of course you have to take responsibility, but we are making it so difficult for people who do those things to feel that they are going to achieve the American dream” (Hillary Clinton).

How nice.

As the upcoming presidential fiasco approaches, some of them are feigning their understanding.

So, if one accepts that they understand (rather than feigning understanding) what is it that they are proposing to do about it?

They haven’t a clue.

Paul Ryan (author of the Get-Rid-of-Social-Security Bill) recommends that we adopt the “policies” of Ayn Rand, a highly successful mid Twentieth Century writer of stridently anti-Socialist bodice rippers.

He makes Rand’s tomes assigned reading for his staff.

The rest just mumble and mutter.

I suggest that someone read The End of Work.

Rifkin actually has some ideas about what we might do about this cataclysm.

Saturday, January 17, 2015

I Saw the Big Pool Today

I saw the Big Pool today.

And I was eleven years old.

And it was late in winter.

And I looked out of the picture window of my grand parents’ house.

You know – the house on the little hill above the little stream.

You know – the stream that wanders out of the woods.

The stream that fills the Big Pool.

The stream that disappears into the culvert that goes under the half-mile long round-smooth-worn-gravel driveway.

You know - the driveway that leads from civilization to magic; the driveway that leads to the turnaround where the Fowlers,when they visit,  park their 1948 Chrysler – the one with the huge external sun visor that shields the windshield of that large navy blue hulk.

That driveway. 

The driveway that terminates at the garage where Grandpa parks his Ford.

You know - the stream that exits the culvert into the lower reaches of the property.

The stream that drops off the property and down a dirt cliff, the place where the slope of the land has been scraped away to the level of the ground below. 

The stream that feeds the alder swamp that spreads across the scraped ground below.

You know – the swamp on the school grounds.

You know - the swamp that is the home to my tadpoles.

I am glad to see the Big Pool because it is the central point of that magic place of stream, swamp, culvert, woods and driveway.

That magic place of my Grand Parents.

And today I saw it.

I was there and I was eleven.

But not really.

I wasn't there.

And it wasn’t there.

And It wasn’t then.

And I wasn’t then.

It was wherever it still may be.

It was whenever it still may be.

And I was here and now.

And the view through the slanting blinds of the bay window of the dining area was my vista today.

It wasn’t that picture window.

And I didn’t see the Big Pool.

I saw cotoneaster berries.

Deeply orange phasing toward red they were clinging tenaciously to dis-spirited looking winter twigs.

The berries each with a crystal drop hanging.

Off-color rubies and diamonds.

That was all I really saw today.

But I did see the Big Pool.

And I know why.

It was the rain

That same rain hung in gray skeins over the Big Pool that day when I was eleven.

And that rain, hanging today like ominous festoons of dark lace over the rubies and the diamonds, washed me back from now to then.

And – I saw the Big Pool today.

Thursday, January 15, 2015

So I wasn’t Even in a War

There was a time when I was young and had wanted to be an entertainer.

That was going to have been how, I Had hoped, that I would earn my living.

To that end I had gotten together with two people who had real talent – my talent probably was more in management – and had formed a singing trio.

And we were pretty good.

Who knows what might have happened if we had been able to pursue our musical frolic.

But we weren’t able to do that.

There was Vietnam.

And Vietnam meant that young American men had to make some sort of choice – desert to Canada, enlist in the army (and probably get killed) or …

I chose or …

I became and Air Force Officer.

And I had a great time in Saigon in ‘67.

So I did get to be in a war.

Or I had thought at the time it had been a war: the generals – I briefed one daily, so I had reason to think this – all said we were.

Lyndon said we were.

Robert kept saying we were.

But who knows.

Who really cares any more?


And that is all prologue to what I really want to talk about here.

In the early years of this millennium I was still in the work force, and my part in that workforce required that I travel on airplanes quite frequently.

So I was in airports quite a lot of my waking hours.

And I was interested by what I was seeing: for the first time in decades the airports were filled with young military people, just as I had been in the mid ‘60s.

But, unlike me, they all were wearing fatigues.

In the Vietnam era, all of us who traveled on government tickets were required to wear class A uniforms – the equivalent of a business suit. .

It really irritated me to see my later day descendants wearing fatigues.

People running around in clothes that look suspiciously like weird splotch patterned pajamas didn’t seem to me to represent our country in a manner that I found to be proper, or in a manner that I and millions of others had previously done.

Finally one day I decided I needed to find out why this was happening.

I walked up to a group of five or six young men, all in desert fatigues, and asked why they weren’t wearing class A uniforms.

They looked at me as if I were stupid, uninformed, and – probably – not a red blooded ‘Merican, and in unison answered me:

“Because we are at war”

“Oh” I said.

And I slunk off to the bar.

I wish Vietnam had been a war.

Sunday, January 11, 2015

Metamorphic Muslims

A couple of days ago I posted a brief thought about the apparently universal reaction of individual muslims to the terrorist organizations and the individual terrorists who do their actions of terror under the banner of islam.

That reaction, I pointed out, is “they aren’t muslims”.

Since that is a rather bland assertion and since it is totally contrary to the “we are muslims” assertions of those about whom they are making it, I have been puzzled.

That puzzlement led to the post about the phenomenon.

To unpuzzle it – so I could do my post – I needed to cast around for some intellectual scaffolding upon which I could hang an apparent dichotomy: on the one hand there are a lot of koran quoting individuals who claim to be muslims and indulge in acts of horror; on the other hand there are a lot of other koran quoting individuals who claim to be muslims but don’t indulge in acts of horror; the latter claim that the former are not muslims.

I couldn’t see any religious affiliation difference between the terrorists and the non terrorists.

Thus I was puzzled.

Then I found the necessary scaffolding and was able to hang the dichotomy on it and thus unscramble the puzzle.

And so the post of a few days ago.

And so the comment, “neat trick”.

The key to the trick is: the horror group are “radicalized”; the “they aren’t muslims” group are “non radicalized”.

So “being radicalized” is the difference.

Maybe that would point to “they are radicalized” as being a more accurate statement than “they aren’t muslims”, but what the heck. A neat trick is a neat trick.

That perception had the beguiling characteristic of allowing me to accept that ‘neat trick” as a valid sort of verbal and intellectual gymnastics.

Since posting that personal revelation something about it has been goading my subconscious to do a little more thinking.

I have had the feeling that I have left something out.

This morning I figured it out.

I definitely have left something out.

Two words need to be added to “non radicalized”.

Those words are “not yet”.

Given the vagaries involved with becoming “radicalized” (does this phenomenon occur only to muslims?) and given the fact that the French have six or seven million “not yets” in their midst, I can see how the average non muslim French person might have to stifle an occasional bout of paranoia.

Friday, January 9, 2015

I Guess It’s All How You Define Things

Recently I have noticed an almost ubiquitous trend: a statement made by garden variety muslims, you know, those who apparently have not yet been “radicalized”.

The statement is used when the “not yet radicalized” are asked to comment on all the various forms of Islamic nut cases ranging from the decapitators of Iraq/Syria to and including the Paris Allah Akbar crew. 

You know –  the “radicalized” ones.

“They aren’t muslims” the “non radicalized” say with the uniformity of a script.

Neat trick.

Monday, January 5, 2015


Back when I was a kid I went to Madeleine grade school in Portland.

One day a significant event occurred.

A new magazine title appeared on the magazine rack at Anderson’s Drug Store.

Anderson’s was a couple of blocks up 24th from Madeleine.

The magazine was Mad.

Mad being available on the shelves of a store only a couple of blocks away from a 1950’s Catholic school created an interesting cultural conflict.

Mad immediately caught the attention of many of the students from the school just down the street.

The fact that after school, the stools of the soda counter at Anderson’s were frequently occupied by young male Catholics perusing Mad quickly leaked back to the nuns.

That information leakage quickly generated a trademark activity of that era of Catholic gradeschoolism: a witch hunt.

I can’t remember anything about that witch hunt except that I was a witness to one of its sessions.

I have no idea why I was there; I’m pretty sure I had never looked at Mad.

I was too stupid to get it so I didn’t read it.

I probably didn’t have enough money to buy it either.

We were pretty poor.

Anyway, I remember an ebb and flow of that session’s investigation of the threat that Mad posed to the souls of the Catholic youth of Northeast Portland.

But I have no memory of what any of those threats might have been supposed to have been.

But I remember one thing.

Sister Ellen Marie was the leader of the inquisition meeting.

In a lull in the enumeration of threats she said something that I have always remembered.

At the time it had seemed, from the viewpoint of an eleven year old, to have been a non sequitur.

From the vantage of years it seems to have been a sort of prophesy.

“Well, it’s certainly sexy” she said.

And I thought I saw the flicker of a smile pass her otherwise stern face.

Sunday, January 4, 2015

Les Berges

A few weeks ago Mysti and I were walking toward la Tour Eiffel on la Seine.

I was hoping that we would encounter a pigeon dropper or two.

But we didn’t.

My other hope was to be able to show Mysti Les Berges.

Les Berges is/are a major expansion of people access to the river.

As it turned out, we had a great encounter during our walk down that expansion.

One of the features of Les Berges – almost as impressive as the fact that it is a major reclamation of the highway that used to hug the river and returns that highway to the feet of the people – is (what a surprise) the barges.

They are big molded pre-stressed concrete things that float.

They are like giant concrete Tupperware containers with no lid.

Instead of a lid they are filled with vast piles of dirt – soil – and planted with hoards of native plants.

So the river bank has been extended to incorporate little islands of plants that also support aquatic plants on their river flanks and provide nesting places for various waterfowl.

Most of those waterfowl are Mallard ducks.

It is really nice.

We were looking at one of these floating islands when we saw an older couple – older, being about our age – looking into one of the thickets of native plants.

This thicket appeared to be roses.

The flowers were long since gone but the flowers had left their late season children.

The thicket was awash in a flood of little red orbs clinging to the rose thorns where the flowers had previously been.

“Rose hips” I said out loud.

Just as I said that the two people who had drawn our attention to the red splashes of color pushed their way into the thicket.

We stopped and watched.

After quite a few minutes they came out and seemed to be eating something.

I have always heard that rose hips are edible so I was fascinated.

My fascination must have been obvious because the man of the pair offered me a handful of the little red things.

I took one and tasted it.

It had a lot of seeds, but it was soft and fragrant and tasted somewhat like a dried apricot.

He offered one to Mysti.

She took it and tasted it.

“Apricot” she said.

“Merci, merci, monsieur” we both said.

“Je vous en pris” he said.

We parted friends and mutual imbibers of a pretty exotic fruit.

I Am Pretty Nervous

I have never liked cops.

When I was about four years old my mother was double parking, waiting to pick up my father from work.

A cop came up and was quite abusive to her.

One of my earliest memories is that of the red faced, big bellied blue presence just on the other side of the driver’s side window of the car yelling and screaming at my mother.

That was not an auspicious beginning.

Double parking being among the most heinous of crimes, if I had been a bit older I would probably have understood why the cop had needed to act that way.

But I was so young my mother was still the center of my universe and anyone yelling at her naturally fell into the category of being an enemy.

Later, when I was about ten or eleven I realized that, from my viewpoint, cops were the guardians of the rich.

And they were the controllers of the poor (in support of their defense-of-the-rich mission).

That was a refinement to the blue-bellied beginning.

Later still I realized that there were a bunch of other people – I had heard the term middle class, and had assumed that that must be me – who were left out of the mission of the police: “guardians/controllers”, and who (the middle class) were therefore an anomaly from the viewpoint of the cops, and who, therefore, from their (the cops) viewpoint, were a threat to be dealt with.

But the middle class needed to be dealt with off the record.

I should point out that I have no idea what the middle class might be if it indeed exists or ever did exist; and if it does or did ever exist, as I have gotten older, I have modified my viewpoint to be that cops just kill anybody that they can get away with killing and bide their time with the rest – except for the rich. 

They are the hired pigs of the rich.

Defending the rich is their mission.

And they do a lapdog job of performing it.

So I have  always been careful around cops.

But I have never felt other than queasy when I have been around that sort of slime.

There has been nothing in my subsequent lifetime to change my viewpoint.

I remember it from an early age and carry it with me today.

On the other hand, I can see many things that reinforce that viewpoint.

Cops killing unarmed young black men comes to mind.

Or the New York Police Department – employees all, and therefore subject to what the elected executive believes to be the right thing to do - being in open rebellion against that elected executive also pops into my thoughts.

We need to keep this in mind: these guys – cops - are paramilitary thugs. 

We need to keep that in our minds.

And we need not to just accept that what they do is all right.

We need to keep that in our minds.

And we need to drop the farce that what they do is laudable.

And we need to drop the changing of the subject from the cops’ deep culpability in murders of unarmed young men to the “tragedy” of a couple of them getting gunned down.

And we need to refuse to join them in their farcical frenzy of lashing out at “all those black people who are the root cause of the tragedy”.

And we need to support a mayor who believes that killing black people indiscriminately is a bad thing.

And we need to support a mayor who believes that people have a right to dare to oppose the cops’ belief that they have a carte blanche to kill.

I am sure that these are unpopular viewpoints.

But then, I guess being “safe” is better that being “free”.