Wednesday, July 24, 2019

Rethinking work in the 21st century

The danger of using superlatives for describing one book is when you read the next one, and find it gives you a verbal bear hug every bit as strong as the previous one. Nonetheless, the joy is all mine in reading the latest contribution from Ellen Ruppel Shell.

The Job: Work and its future in a time of radical change  (2019)

As I was reading it I couldn't help but think: I wish this was the book that I had been able to write five years ago when I was deep into my own story (see left side bar link). It acts as a perfect sequel to the musings from my slim volume.

Shell is a professor of journalism from Boston University. She has provided her thesis with an enviable depth of research that, at last, has given her subject the gravitas it deserves. Chapter 8 in particular made me feel vindicated in a way few other authors have articulated. Mind the (skills) gap elucidates the fantasy of widely available stable, living-wage jobs, and characterizes this wishful thinking as "toxic alchemy." This truth alone, makes it harshly obvious that if the poor have no choice but to take any job they can get, then they are participating in the precarious, low-wage jobs that keep them poor in the first place. Perfectly stated this way:

“Because it incentivizes more people, no matter their skills, to accept any job they can get, it reduces the need for employers to create better jobs, or to open up better jobs to people closed out of them, people who may lack credentials or a certain pedigree but who, like Susan and Leroy, are willing and able to work.”  “The idea that a lack of skills is preventing many people from working their way out of poverty is wrong,” Edin said. “‘Skills’ is a smokescreen for other things.”
"This "skills gap" finding was so widely quoted that it became a sort of cultural meme. But other than the say-so of employers, there was little if any evidence to support the vague and slippery claim."
We are often told that the future is an open field for those educational concentrations involving science, technology, engineering and math, but she reports that the supply of STEM graduates is 2 to 3 times larger than demand. Even Paul Krugman has coined the term "zombie idea" to indicate beliefs that have been "repeatedly refuted with evidence and analysis but refuse to die."

This ruse does not escape the notice of grads:

 “Smart students preferred not to invest their hopes, efforts, and intellectual capital in sectors that no matter the hype dumped workers at the least provocation, sometimes only to replace them with cheaper workers, whether they be domestic or from abroad.” 
Then in Chapter 11, The Finnish Line, when you are good and ready for some solutions, Shell delivers with a truckload. Finland certainly wasn't on my radar, but putting it there was a welcome education. We are introduced to Pekka Pohjakallio, whose firm is rethinking work for the 21st century. In contrast to how most Americans conceptualize the urgent call to innovate, here a more realistic version prevails.

 “The innovation bubbles up most often when the brain is relaxed and deep in thoughts beyond the particular problem at hand—that is when we seem to be least productive.”
“Reflection is what makes most of us more efficient, not less, Pohjakallio said, “But we are given no time for reflections because it’s impossible to measure, and impossible to bill against. We are constantly fixated on the ends, not the means, and that holds us back. If we really knew what was valuable, many of us might easily be able to accomplish what needs to get accomplished not in ten or twelve hours a day but in four.” 
If you are hungry, even starved, for hearing about methodologies that function at human scale this book doesn't disappoint. In fact, it elevates the reader's potential to believe that improvements are possible. Shell refers to our current system as our nation's work disorder, and rightly partners with those who predict it will not be solved by technology, but by a change in the rules.

And it gets better

Chapter 12, Abolish Human Rentals. In this chapter Shell makes clear that the very basis of our interactions binding us to forces of commerce create in us a violation of what would otherwise be an equalized sense of duty to each other, collectively.

“Regarding ourselves as “human rentals” makes it more difficult for us to make meaning of our work, for the very reason that we are human and therefore subject to certain assumptions, including what social scientists call the “reciprocal obligation.” In employment context, the reciprocal obligation involves a psychological contract between employers and employees--the implication that each party will work together for mutual benefit. Employment at will essentially breaches this implicit contract: since it allows employees to be fired for almost any reason, or no reason at all,…”

In every subsequent passage and chapter the author never backs down from revealing every layer of sham contrivance made for the advantage of the employer. And then, in Chapter 14, Homo Faber, I came across an explanation I've wanted to hear for a seriously long time.

“For nearly a century, corporate social responsibility was subjugated to--and some argued legally trumped by--a fiduciary duty to make shareholders as much money as possible. This duty--later articulated by Milton Friedman--was first made law through the case of Dodge v. Ford Motor Company in 1919, in which Henry Ford was overturned in his effort to employ as many men as possible so as to spread prosperity (and presumably demand for his cars). Oddly the ruling also thwarted Ford’s efforts to lower the price of his cars, and to raise wages. The Michigan Supreme Court declared that Ford shareholders must take precedence over the needs of employees and even customers. Over time, through both law and custom, the concept of “shareholder primacy” became the default position for all publicly held companies.

And in this last chapter as much as I could agree with the author, I still had questions I would have loved to invite her to answer. But to prevent this review from going on indefinitely, I'll leave you not only with a hearty recommendation to read it for yourself, but also one last necessary quote:

“Growing efficiencies was a fixation of the industrial age. It’s a fixation we can no longer afford. We must quell the GDP fetish, a metric that overvalues work of the sort that brings outsized profit to the few and underrates and even fails to measure what matters most--work of intrinsic value to those who do it and to those who need it done. …”

Thursday, June 27, 2019

The Human Game: all bets are off

If you read only one book in 2019, let it be this one:

Falter: Has the Human Game Begun to Play Itself Out?  by Bill McKibben

This four-part narrative frames the continued existence of the human species as a collective game played on a board, the earth, in a cosmic casino. If you shy away from topics that focus attention on the toll our existence is having on the planet, then you'll definitely have to bear the discomfort. But I heartily invite you to withstand the blows. Our continued ignoring of the increase in climate change has forced the game to two imperatives: 1) keep it going and 2) keep it human.

McKibben gives the Koch brothers and their advocacy groups credit for "committing treason against an entire planet," and for supporting the denial of climate science. These manipulations have prevented us from developing solutions formed from political will. But there is plenty of blame to go around and Silicon Valley moguls are equally deluded through their embrace of the ethos promoted by Ayn Rand. This is a bizarre allegiance considering that Rand's political beliefs represent "...toxic overshoot of a natural and appropriate reaction to the totalitarian threats of the blood-soaked twentieth century." 

As if the geological force exerted by human existence wasn't enough, part three, The Name of the Game will leave you positively unnerved. Here the focus is on the progenitors of artificial intelligence, and the logical consequences of its unregulated development. McKibben posits that genetically altering humans before they are born will only rob human life of meaning.
"Sometimes we need to engineer ourselves: hence Prozac. But you can stop taking Prozac. You can't turn off the engineered dopamine receptor. That's you, and you will never know yourself without it. As climate change has shrunk the effective size of our planet, the creation of designer babies shrinks the effective range of our souls." 
Before reading this section I had only a cursory understanding of the reach of AI (artificial intelligence). But McKibben deftly illustrates its capacity to make irrelevant human life as we know it. The promoters of the technology seem to have weird obsessions for lengthening lifespans indefinitely, and as he notes:
"A world without death is a world without time, and that in turn is a world without meaning, at least not human meaning."
Just when you can't handle one more bit of bad news, part four is called: An Outside Chance. The stakes couldn't be higher, ecological hell or post human meaninglessness.
"If we are to build the political will to deploy renewable energy fast enough, we'll need a bulldozer for reshaping the zeitgeist. That's the job of movements." 
It is the method by which the active many can overcome the ruthless few, but clearly:
"You can't spend your entire life building movements--almost by definition they burn bright and then burn out." 
We have it in us to take the steps to save ourselves because the human game is a team sport and our impulse is toward solidarity. Even with its final hopeful message, I found this book a sobering work to digest, but the writing is so timely and the style so plain-spoken that its urgent message cannot be ignored. Now if only those titans of industry got it, too.

Wednesday, January 27, 2016

The World Desperately Needs Us But NOT Online

Today is Wednesday, January 27, 2016 and the good ol' Seattle Times has given me the best excuse to make a decision to stop blogging.

So let's get right to it. What was on the pages of the Times this morning?

It was the confluence of two different but somehow related stories that really caught my attention. On A2 the headline reads: Panel urges all U.S. adults be screened for depression. Then, on B1 the headline reads: Mayor Ed Murray defends actions on homelessness.

There is something about that A2 headline that kinda makes me laugh. If you've been paying attention at all to how people feel these days about the prospects for their lives, do you really think screening them for depression is going to unearth anything valuable? If it is not obvious by now what would drive the average person to be depressed, confirming the fact won't change a damn thing.

It is a newspaper article after all so they're required to get quickly to the bottom line: lost productivity cost an additional $23 billion in 2011. Lost? I don't think so. You may have picked up on the fact that the productivity of an American worker is not reflected in his wages but in the profits sent much further up the food chain. Nothing is lost. We're just bumping up against the limits of corporate greed by seeing the toll it takes on people whose only ambition is to work for a living.

Perhaps the strangest statement came at the very end. The task force gave the recommendations a grade of B based on how much clinical evidence there is to support their findings, a rating that should provide coverage for the screenings under the Affordable Care Act.

So let me get this straight: If theses folks all agree that the depression situation is bad enough, well, gosh, then if we rate it as above average in severity and importance then at least the govmint will pay for us to tell folks, uh, yup, you're depressed all right.

...But dang! Please don't start abusing stuff or gettin' in trouble cuz darn it, you just won't be productive enough.

Please take this pill instead. NEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEXT! 

It turns out even the mayor of our fair city has reason to be depressed these days. The Times tells us: Seattle will spend about $50 million in 2016 to combat homelessness, but Murray said the city can't solve it unless it receives more help.  

I'm not always a fan of Ed Murray, but I will say he appears to know what he's talking about when he says:

It's about the fact that we don't fund mental health. It's about the fact that we're in a national heroin epidemic, he said. It's about the fact that income inequality has made it hard for some people who work to sleep anywhere except in a tent in an illegal spot.

Both of these articles make it abundantly clear that we have plenty of experts who know exactly how to identify the causes of problems. Unfortunately, even when these problems are at the peak of crisis the main cry is always that somehow there isn't enough money to deal with them. As long as we believe this we will suffer the consequences. There is enough money in the world, its just managed by people who control way too much of it. You do know the difference between a billion and a million, right?

At times like this I am often reminded of the adage that in this world there is always enough for human need but not enough for human greed.

My human need is to step back from time spent online so that I can better attend to the matters of real life. I've allowed myself to get so caught up in the things that bring us all down. It takes time away from what I might be doing to bring my loved ones and I back up. Redirecting the only energy I've got is pretty important business.

I've loved blogging, but I'm just one more voice in all the noise that we're drowning in. I'd like to see what I can do besides "pushing electrons" as my darling husband puts it.

So it is with a sense of relief and fairly drawn conclusion that I bid a very fond farewell to The Twenty-First Century Citizen. I appreciate any and all who have read my meandering thoughts and chimed in or even just smiled.

Hang in there. Be well. Love your peeps.

Tuesday, December 8, 2015

Writing the never ending story

How do you know when the book is finished?

Earlier this year someone advised me that maybe I was too hasty in wanting to finish the production of my book.

More editing, more revisions. I realized that I already knew my energy was spent. If I had forced myself to go through more rounds of revisions, I would have created a different work, but would it be better?  Everything in me said: No. I'm done.

For better or worse, my book became its present form from that decision. I realized that so many of the things I touched on, especially in chapter five and the epilogue, could have been expanded and made more elaborate. That would have taken more time, effort, ruminating.

Ah, rumination. It is what cows and goats do. When you have multiple stomachs it comes easy. I only have one and I have to save it for current nourishment. I can only be an expert in how to manage my own life. I look to the experience of others to see if anyone else is doing it better or smarter. The people I mention in the book are prominent in the area known as "thought leadership." It is a useful term.

It is difficult to describe or explain that sense of knowing that the finish line has been achieved. To give you a Hollywood metaphor, it is similar to when George Bailey, after having seen life in Bedford Falls without his presence, realizes he still wants to live.

He tells Clarence that he wants to live again. "Please, God, I want to live again." At the invocation of the deity, it begins to snow and Bert shows up to take him home.

The events described in the book changed me. Some for the better, some definitely for the worse. Some tendencies I already knew I had were made deeper and richer, but not in a good way. I've mixed a sort of gallows humor with all the characteristics of a classic misanthrope. Even as I think the human species is worth saving, I think it shouldn't be. I'm kind of beginning to see why the major world religions believe in a god oriented toward punishment. If I were god, I'd say we're long over due for a plague of some sort. But wait, you could argue we are in multiple global ones right now, and we just don't see it. But all that is just mind play at the moment.

I want to get back to real life. Even though it may be economically hindered, it is still mine, and I'll take whatever I have left of it. I'm ready any time, Clarence.

Tuesday, December 1, 2015

The Quest 2016

Today's response prompt asks:

What I most need to tell myself about 2016 is....


You already know that you're connected with the people who can help you piece the puzzle together. You are not alone. Your work will become as visible and embraced as you want it to be. I'm willing to support you. Are you willing to support me?

No question will go unasked. No question will go unanswered.

May there be laughter along the way.

Thursday, November 5, 2015

Cave woman in the information age

This morning someone encouraged me to blog about why I self-published my book. I'll tell you why.

After making a few attempts at writing a marketing piece, a proposal, and an author's bio, I had to step back and reflect.

Do I know what I'm doing? Am I any good at this? No. It makes me feel like an impostor, and that has nothing to do with self-esteem. I esteem myself just fine, I just don't think I do this marketing thing very well.

I think the reason for that is because I associate marketing with spin, and with lies, or at least half-truths. So what can I do? I can talk about my book, and why I wrote it, and what I was trying to accomplish from having written it. I know, you may be saying, but Marcella, that IS marketing.

OK. Granted. But the truth is I fear there will be rules to follow that I don't know about, and if I try this thing called marketing then it is clear to me that I will break ALL OF THEM.

Then I will be found out as the newbie, and that silly person who has that special blend of confidence and naivete that we call gumption--the kind where they pat you on the head and say, Aaww, how cute, you published a book all by yourself, aren't you a clever girl.

Good grief. See where this is going? It is already laughable, and I want to be a serious author, dag nab it!

So I'm going to step back again and see this from a distance. I live in a time in history that allows me access to certain miracles of mass communication. That's how I think of self-publishing. It is all very new to me. I am a completely self-taught participant. It has been a lot of work, but also a lot of fun. I have absolutely no background in traditional publishing and no contacts in that world. I wouldn't know where to begin the process of presenting myself to a publisher. I have no particular authority or expertise; I have no readership, no author platform. Approaching any publishing house, I would come armed only with a manuscript of unknown quality just like thousands and thousands before and after me.

It's not difficult to see how easily intimidation like that works within a single mind, let alone so many others who want to publish their work. The only difference is that I gave myself permission to do so. Yep. That's it. I just did it because I really, really wanted to. I have the same needs for self-expression as most people do. For me, self-publishing the book is just like that cave woman dipping her hand in red pigment and pressing her palm against the wall. Living in the information age just means not having to wait to be discovered by some wandering shepherd.

I'm willing to wait for all the souls wandering the internet.

Monday, November 2, 2015

Epigraphs and anticipation

As I eagerly await this Saturday's event, I'm on a continuous path of imposing organization to my physical environment. Just as I think entropy is going to overtake me, I come across a piece of paper on which I wrote something that I thought was important. Today's finding comes from the wonderful Barbara Ehrenreich:

Never wallow in your troubles; despair must be kept private and brief. This is typical advice, and I've tried to follow it as much as humanly possible. The drawback of being intelligent and well-informed is a dangerous inability to think your despair doesn't matter. Even if you come to the conclusion that ultimately you can do very little about it, you must still, at least, consider the source of it carefully enough to understand the real root.

This is from her autobiography, Living With a Wild God. I have since come across many other quoted sentences that didn't make their way into the book, thoughts from Dmitry Orlov, Chris Hedges, and so many more. It seems there is no end to all the things that might have made their way into the book. The endless process of picking and choosing what to include and how to weave it into the narrative kept me busy for two years.

Now with the launch of my book I'll have to construct conversations around why I did it and what the hell I thought would come of it. At least, I'll have to think about how I might like to answer some of the more typical questions that will arise. As with so many unanticipatable events, I'll probably just open my mouth and start expounding on whatever is forefront in my mind at the moment. I've been living this topic for so long it isn't difficult just to begin. Where it goes from there--Who knows?

There is a certain relaxation you can experience when you realize how worn down you are. Like an old river rock, you've been battered by the endless stream of water washing over you for so long, that now your edges are gone, the surfaces are smooth, you are perfect as an egg, naked, raw, and unmistakable. This is what I aspire to be.

I have no ulterior motives left. Sitting with a certain emotional honesty is all that matters in the end. No one's truth is greater than you're own. We show up so that we can stand in witness with others who are willing to be there with us and if we're lucky they'll say: Yeah, you know, I think I see your point. I still think I would have done it differently, but to each his own....

And so ends this stream of consciousness for today.