Month: November, 2011

Who knew?


Lack of class in the upper class…

“What dismays is the utter lack of class in such businesses and businessmen here parading their skills in distortion. Michael Eisner appears twice in the table of the 25 largest compensation packages paid in a single year. In 1993 he took home $203 million. In 1998, $575.6 million.

“That money was taken, directly, from company shareholders. But the loss, viewed on a larger scale, is a loss to the community of people who believe in the capitalist free-market system. Because extortions of that size tell us, really, that the market system is not working — in respect of executive remuneration. What is going on is phony. It is shoddy, it is contemptible, and it is philosophically blasphemous.”

— William F. Buckley, in 2005

The Art of Cooperation.


The New York Times ran an article yesterday (with great photos, one of which is hearkened to on the left) about how some conservationists are learning to cooperate with ranchers in the effort to preserve wolf populations. Endangered wolves have been re-introduced to the Northern Rockies, where they become a costly, deadly nuisance to ranchers. They eat calves, and the ranchers say they dramatically reduce the weight of the cattle, who spend a less time eating, and more time scanning the surroundings for wolves.

In response, a “handful” of conservationists are investing time and money to help ranchers keep the wolves away from the ranches without killing them.

It shows a rare kind of cooperation that I consider to be the acme of approaches to complicated modern problems: The conservationists recognize that the wolves could go extinct, and they’re passionate about preventing it. It seems reasonable. The ranchers meanwhile want to make as much money as they can for their hard work, and of course they want to prevent the loss of their cattle. This also seems reasonable.

So what’s really exciting is the way the two sides are listening to each other–sometimes, anyway. The “handful” of conservationists recognize that the ranchers’ interest in their livelihoods is valid, and they are taking responsibility for upholding that interests alongside the interests of the wolves. On the flip side, it seems like at least some of the ranchers understand that extinction is bad, and they are willing to cooperate with the conservationists so long as the conservationists take a share of the responsibility for making it work.

The article makes clear that the process is neither simple nor easy. It is neither being resolved with pat answers nor with a single meeting at the bargaining table. Instead, it looks like it’s will be resolved through an on-going, frequently-adjusted, and labor-intensive process. To wit: it is going to be hard. But I think the result is likely going to be better than would have been had if nobody had done anything.

Isn’t that just what we must accept, and expect from life? That we will have things to do that are hard, but that they are worth doing because the result will be something better?

I really like it. I wish Congress worked this way.

Love’s Austere and Lonely Offices

Thinking about this today — not really by dint occupying such an office, and particularly not by dint of occupying one well…

Those Winter Sundays

Sundays too my father got up early
and put his clothes on in the blueblack cold,
then with cracked hands that ached
from labor in the weekday weather made
banked fires blaze. No one ever thanked him.

I’d wake and hear the cold splintering, breaking.
When the rooms were warm, he’d call,
and slowly I would rise and dress,
fearing the chronic angers of that house,

Speaking indifferently to him,
who had driven out the cold
and polished my good shoes as well.
What did I know, what did I know
of love’s austere and lonely offices?

— Robert Hayden

The Dawn of the Robots

Source: NPR

“…[C]omputers still aren’t very good at many menial labor jobs like cleaning bathrooms and other janitorial work; we still need humans for that. So it turns out for many very low-skill jobs, there’s still demand. For high-skill and high-touch jobs like being a good manager at a company, a doctor, or a nurse, we need humans. But many middle-skill, middle class jobs are where we’re seeing the squeeze.”

— NPR,  “How Technology is Eliminating Higher-Skill Jobs”

Although the US GDP has returned to pre-recession levels, unemployment still remains about as high as it has been since the mortgage crisis began. Many companies have found ways to increase productivity with a smaller work force, and technology has a role in making it happen.

NPR seems to be developing a bit of a thread around this idea, and I think that’s a good thing. It’s a fascinating phenomenon that has the potential to influence modern life more and more powerfully, and — if it is pursued without careful consideration — perhaps not in the best ways.

The basic dynamic is simple. A new technology, from AI to articulated robots to TurboTax, makes it possible for more work to be done with fewer people, and so people are put out of work. This saves a company money, and that money tends to travel uphill.

Even critics of the pure free market would have to admit there’s something natural about the cycle, and free-market devotees would argue that there’s nothing wrong with it. Of course people are displaced by innovation, and of course they should be expected to reinvent themselves, in some small or large way, and dive back into the job market.

I taught an economics class a few years back in which we discussed this “creative destruction” of technology replacing human labor. The kids found it really depressing — even though I offered them the free-market argument that it was pretty natural. They weren’t convinced.

So to stir up the discussion, I asked them to imagine some dramatically pre-industrial tribe hunting and gathering on the savannah. Suppose those folk fell into possession of a bunch of robots; what then?

The kids agreed those folks would be tremendously liberated — until the robots started breaking down, that is (or until they became self-aware and started cooking schemes of Skynet and big, pink-bulbed battery towers.)

But for us, in the modern era?

The robots are worrisome for us, the kids said again.

It seems to me that the question of whether labor-saving technologies are a blessing or an irritant to the job market may boil down to a question about sharing. No matter how one navigates the details, the I think the core issue might really be pretty simple. There are wealthy people who could choose to share wealth with others, to the greater benefit of society, who don’t — and, in aggregate, when wealthy people in this day and age are the benefactors of creative destruction, and therefore faced with the choice of sharing or not sharing, they tend to choose the latter.

This, of course, is what fuels the “Occupy” movement, and — of course — it is an observation with some serious limitations. It is way too simplistic to effect policy change (as one hopes the “Occupiers” will learn). However, I don’t think it’s false, either; I think it’s apparent. So while it won’t effect change by itself, I do think it adequately calls for some.