The Bumper

The Bumper

Years ago when I started working I got ripped off. I was given a job that I wasn’t trained for. I was driving a 5-ton truck, navigating narrow alleyways getting $60/day for what was listed on the time card as an 8-hour day – $7.5/hour. The reality was never less than a 12-hour day ($5/hr) and just about every other day we did 18-hours ($3.33/hr) with at best an 8-hour turnaround. This was back in the early-90s. Today there’s some recognition that kids entering the workforce are getting shafted by crappy opportunities, low wages and inconsistent work hours. I’d argue it’s hardly unique to the millennial generation. The current Great American Shafting started years before, no doubt even before my time. And it’s gotten, I think worse, since my particular experience with it.

I had been on the job for about a week. I didn’t know anyone except the guy who recommended me for the job who I’d worked with for several days on my first job after college. I was so new I didn’t even know who my boss was yet. One day, driving that 5-ton through the narrow alleyway behind the warehouse we were working out of – brick & mortar to my left, parked cars to my right – I was driving under a mile an hour, checking the mirrors every few seconds. But it turned out the right view mirror didn’t capture stair step jutting out a few extra inches just behind the cab. That stair step managed to grab a reflector strip running horizontally across the bumper of one of one of the parked cars and peeled it off which in turn yanked the entire bumper partway off the front of the car. It made a terrible sound. The damage was technically minimal, but it looked awful. Curiously, it turned out to be my boss’s car. Her supervisor came screaming out of his office: “Your fired!” he repeated over and over again as a small crowd gathered to see the damage. He had a variety of incredulous phrases and curse words to embellish those lyrics, but basically that’s all he said. After some time the volume of his voice was quiet enough, the pauses between “you’re fired” were long enough, that I finally had enough time to respond. “I know,” I said.

As it turned out, I didn’t get fired. My rate got lowered to $50/day, and my boss took a day’s salary on top of collecting insurance to fix the car. (That’s the abbreviated telling. The truth is that my boss was thrilled I’d damaged her car. She was excited about the insurance money. Furthermore it wasn’t like I agreed to forego a day’s salary – a coveted $60 – I just simply didn’t get paid for a day’s work. It took several weeks before I found out it was not an oversight but part of her settlement agreement that was worked out unbeknownst to me.)

In those days I’d jot as many notes down as possible at work and compiled them at home and during down time. I wanted to be good at my job. Without that extra effort there was no on-the-job training. It couldn’t withstand on-the-job jealousy. The work environment was such that newbies were a threat to those with status, title and pay. The management-by-hollering approach at that and many subsequent jobs had little to do with a tough-love approach to getting the best out of staff. It wasn’t about discipline, skill-building, or building a powerful group dynamic. It was a mode of management to keep new kids bowed down with their salaries around their ankles while at the same time giving them enough leeway that they seem an up-and-coming threat to established hires.

Years later I see the same process repeated to new hires. Kids anxious to prove themselves professional are given low-pay high-responsibility jobs for which they aren’t trained. When they screw up they get threatened with being fired and are only too happy to take some kind of hit in order to survive hopefully long enough to acquire that skill and get that pay raise.

And now I see it from the other side: my bosses’ bosses see great opportunities in hiring today’s youth. They cost a fraction of those with talent, they have boundless energy and enthusiasm, and they “know all these new technologies”.

It turns out they know nothing, just as I did. They could use my help. I offer it when I can. For whatever the dynamic, they typically don’t accept it. The savings their low rates offer pale in comparison to the toll of their mistakes. Budgets double, triple, and not infrequently quintuple. Crisis mode is the rule not the exception. Newbies get berated, blamed and fired to save management ass. There is frequently a moment where someone says something about doing a “post mortem” before “we do this again next time”, but the post-mortems never come, and the process repeats itself.

This is what counts as business as usual: under-experienced new hires are positioned above their abilities, threatening sometimes actually replacing more experienced and better paid superiors. Effectively everyone is always on the chopping block. The justifications are numerous: we have to make do with the limited resources and schedule we’re dealt with, so we have to just push through this so the next gig will see an improvement, but reality is stubborn: the budget suffers, the schedule suffers, the quality of work suffers. The corporate workplace is a cauldron of pathology. It works for almost no one.

Michael Bloomberg v Trump at the DNC

Michael Bloomberg v Trump at the DNC

Michael Bloomberg really stuck it to Donald Trump — and the rest of us — right at the same time.

http://www.vox.com/2016/7/27/12302828/michael-bloomberg-dnc-speech-transcript-2016-democratic-convention

In the same Trump-bashing speech, he offered demonstratively contradictory false equivalence: “Republicans wrongly blame immigrants for our problems, and they stand in the way of action on climate change and gun violence. Meanwhile, many Democrats wrongly blame the private sector for our problems, and they stand in the way of action on education reform and deficit reduction.”

The private sector undeniably caused a hell of a lot of the problems progressive activists are pointing to. It’s worth taking the time to nuance out the complex relationship between the government and corporate interests to capture the dynamic that gave rise to stagnant wages, expensive, lackluster healthcare, failing infrastructure, and shoddy education.  Worth it but not here right now.

Perhaps the real genius of Donald Trump is that his extremist existence and sudden national clout allows the clueless and destructive opinions of billionaires to seem like a breath of fresh air.

“DON’T TELL ME HOW TO RUN MY BUSINESS”

“DON’T TELL ME HOW TO RUN MY BUSINESS”

 

It’s the kind of thing you associate with the Live Free or Die independent self-made, salt-of-the-earth American. And to the extent it points to someone running their small business, eeking out a living, they’re entitled to the full protection of the phrase. But when this gets coopted by large scale industry whose actions have significant and often dire consequence on the country and world they inhabit, that phrase don’t play. Over a certain amount of impact a nominally “private” company should be considered a public institution, subject to significant oversight by government, its employees, and the public at large. Any notion at this point in time that what ails this country is over-regulation of large institutions is the stuff of dystopian sci fi.

There’s a phrase that’s played well in many a movie: “This ain’t a democracy”. It’s a fun show-stopper. The character who says it is frequently the lead, fettered by some lily-livered nabob, a worry wart of some kind, or a clueless corporate weasel. The context is a crisis with a looming deadline before disaster. There’s no time waste. The job must get done.

Tellingly, I hear that a lot at in different work environments, particularly when the working environment becomes so mired and dysfunctional that people start speaking out. If you spend 8 hours a day, or in my case 10 to 16, the idea that “this ain’t a democracy” sounds is menacing. Are you kidding? A third – or more – of your daily life has no relationship to democracy? Back on day one we were all called into a meeting. “We want to hear from you,” said the company’s owners. “We need you to know that we value your commitment and value your input. Don’t hold back. Share your opinion. We want you to be proud, committed, and we need you to understand that this things works best when we all work together.” That’s day one. Day 3, when you see what’s up and offer some ideas about what’s wrong and what might be done now, while it’s still early to head off a looming catastrophe this is the typical reply: “I really appreciate what you’re saying, but right now we’ve got a lot to do, we’re over budget and behind schedule, so what I need from you right now is let’s just get through this. It’s not what we wanted, but unfortunately that’s where we are. We’ll get all that sorted out next go ’round.” If that happened once, I’d get it, but in my experience that’s the routine.

Later – not much later – as the advice not considered devolves into full blown crisis, the decision making goes inadequate to desperate. Steps that would have resulted in a few days overage explode into mistakes, do-overs, and ultimately massive overages and schedule delays. Frequently there’s well founded fear that the company is about to go under. Sometimes it actually does. Either way someone’s assistant gets fired, scapegoats protecting the way things are. At some point in the process, when someone with little authority speaks truth to power, it happens: “This is not a democracy”. It might be unstated, it might just be tone. In my experience they actually say it, and often. It gets a laugh, but it’s hardly a joke.

Eventually, as always, the job gets done. It’s a pale wan mess compared to the aspirations first put forth, but in the end the team is gathered together and offered these fine words: “Guys, I just want to congratulate you all. It was a tough job. We faced a lot of hurdles, but I just want to say you all really pulled through and I’m so proud of you all. You’re the greatest, and I can’t wait to work with all again soon.” Fist pumps and high fives.

With that the project ends, and the team hopes wonders whether they’ll indeed be hired again next go around. The finished product frequently doesn’t look that great on the resume, it’s nothing to be proud of, as much as we’d like it to be, but it’s money, and we all need to pay the bills. It’s not a democracy. Democracy isn’t flawless, but it works better than this.

How about a new phrase. It’s a little wordy: “That thing you made me help you produce is a travesty. It impresses no one. The way you run your company sucks. Somehow you’ve got the ear of an executive somewhere who protects your ass from the black-and-blue boot mark it deserves. About time we damn well tell you how the hell to run your sorry-ass business.”

Parking Lot Capitalism

Parking Lot Capitalism

There’s a lot prattle about how the government can’t do anything right, how market forces are the way to getting a job or service done efficiently, effectively, cheaply and how they create freedom, jobs, wealth and innovation.

There’s a parking lot in our city that succinctly lays waste to the myths that have been core to the capitalist talking points of America.

These parking lots used to be run by the city government. Each space had a meter, the price was cheap, the fines for overstaying your allotted time sufficiently motivating, spaces were plenty, getting in and out was convenient and easy. These lots at once beckoned people to park while at the same time fostering turnover that was at once considerate of the shopper’s schedule and the shop owners’ desire for ongoing turnover.

At a certain point the city “de-regulated” the lots and turned them over to be run by private companies. Before long the meter heads were gone leaving behind decapitated poles, new ticket spitters appeared at the entrances, and a cashier booths went up at the exit. The spitters at the entrance created short lines that backed up into the street from the entrance, the cashier booths formed exit codas that saw wait times of up to 7 minutes an increase of infinite percent compared to the zero wait time when the lot was still under management by the government. And then, of course there was price which went from a dollar an hour to 3 dollars every 20 minutes.

Where once there was an inexpensive, efficient system of parking, there were now two inconvenient bottlenecks, featuring longer waits and higher prices. Perhaps one could argue the parking lot managers were “job creators”: where once there was free entry, now there were hired attendants working in fluorescent-lit cashier stalls holding out languid hands for payment while drivers fished around in their wallets, all parties sucking fumes. But it turns out the city-owned lot was the better creator of jobs – the meter maid, the meter maintenance workers whose employment was higher skilled, and those jobs were better paid.

This, in a nutshell, is the face of capitalism unfettered regulation: poorer service, higher prices, fewer jobs, and a crappier workplace environment with lower skilled, poorer paid jobs. But what about consumer choice? Drivers could in theory choose their spot or choose another lot, but this pale smorgasbord featured not one iota of innovation; every lot in the neighborhood was run by the same private company the same lackluster way.

We hear so much about how incompetent government can be vs the miracles of deregulated industry. Perhaps we’re hearing it so often because the resumes can’t speak for themselves. It takes an army of PR to defeat the truth: unfettered capitalism works well for the top executive who cashes in on the bottom-of-the-line, but for everyone else it’s lose/lose. Deregulation, anti-government, pro market prattle is a myth, and these parking lots capture the scam with an efficiency deregulated markets only dream of.

Why Corporate America is like the Fanatical Religious Right

Why Corporate America is like the Fanatical Religious Right

 

Perhaps because corporate management is so aloof of what it does, so hostile to the people who do the actual work of their institution and uncomprehending of the needs of the job at hand, that they are leaders without value or meaningful purpose. They are afforded huge compensation and reward that suggest value where none actually exists. They are, in a word, frauds. Like fanatical right wing religion offering promises and twaddle in exchange for enormous profits, power and status, the corporate elite of this gilded age put most of their work into self-justification: PR, messaging, branding, packaging, promising, deflecting, influencing. They offer a tome of flimflam, and their closest relatives are snake oil salesmen of an old-school bible-thumping traveling huckster. They believe this is hard work, on a par with the kind of talent that goes into getting the actual job actually done. The only reason it’s hard work is because the gap between what they say and what they do is a chasm requiring the linguistic equivalent of martial arts to achieve. That energy would be better spent on actually doing rather than managing.

Hip Youth vs Stodgy Old Farts

A trope is haunting America. It was a good trope that served an important purpose in its time. Before it was a trope it was fresh idea that haunted those of a certain generation whose tired notions of social order were stifling and oppressive to their children. These children – generally born and raised in the 50s – embarked on a revolt in the 60s that rudely informed an older generation knew that the youth were tired of things the way they were, were hungry for fairness, and had the will, the intelligence and motivation to make manifest long-term change.

In those days simply growing your hair was a revolutionary act. Dressing outrageously, dancing freely, getting laid, getting high, each in and of itself was a political statement that contributed to social change. The kids knew where it was at. The adults were clueless. We still celebrate that revolution in movies like Hairspray, Footloose, and just about any movie featuring students and teachers, where young kids dancing, listening to music, dressing in ways to upset the older generation either break the chains of oppression or seduce the older generation to be cool and hip. Hip youth vs stodgy old farts. It’s a trope. And lately it’s been turned against us.

The most frequent version of it plays out through new technologies. That’s the domain of the young and hip. Old and stodgy is anyone less than fluent with social media. “Old people”, i.e. anyone old enough to have kids, marvel at kids of today: “They know how to use my smart phone. I don’t even know how to use it”. In corporate culture, if you want to be hip, you’re going to need some kids to come in and run new media department, because kids these days know that stuff”. They’ll work cheap, they’ll get it done fast, because… “they were born with this stuff”. And kids believe it. They know Facebook, they know Twitter, they know video games better than anyone 5 years their senior.

Kids these days are as fluent with what they’re fluent with as adults were when they were kids. No smarter, no dumber. Likewise, adults are as dumb or smart as they’ve ever been, and they’re more or less in touch with whatever they’ve been involved with. Older people today haven’t forgotten what it means to be hip.  They identify with it, and are a lot more likely to be supportive and involved with their kids than the parents of the 60s generation. They’re far less likely to use the crutch of seniority to lord over their kids an oppressive authoritarianism. This ain’t your grandpa’s century. The cult of young and hip is now a stale old idea.

Much of what passes for youth genius is frequently no more than fluency with consumer products. What’s scooped up under the moniker of old stodginess is the value of process — of values and skills accrued over time.

Corporations prey on the youth and the old alike to minimize the security, recognition, and salaries of both. Adorning themselves the patronizing tone of real grandparents, CorporateSpeak waxes incredulously at the incredible skill sets of “kids these days”, within earshot of disquieted older generation workers, who must suddenly worry about the invalidation that comes with age. Forget about knowledge and skills built on years of dedication.  You’re not hip enough. You’re replaceable by someone with skills in Facebook, because they’ll get it done for a fraction of the cost. Kids these days are young, talented and eager to please.  It doesn’t matter that many kids these days, out of their element, have no idea how to run, much less develop a system that can perform over time. They get a job that’s beyond them and lose twice: either they’re under paid for work they’re good at, or humiliated when failing to perform in a position they weren’t sufficiently qualified to do.

There once was a day when a stodgy clueless older generation, steeped in a tradition of seniority, wore out their own welcome and got their comeuppance at the hands of an enlightened youth movement. Now there’s a generation of youths less fluent with the past, endowed with a false sense of superiority by a corporate culture that pays them more in praise than in salary.

Perhaps its time to consider trotting the trope to the plank and letting it plop into the sea of history. Let it rise again should a future generation need it to right the wrongs of seniority. But right now the world needs to value youth and experience alike. The old want to stay in touch with the hip of their youth, and the youth need the wisdom and experience of the old. The youth and the old of today would do well to let Corporate America know they value each other want the stodgy authority of this generation — the predatory corporate world — to get out of their way.

My ISP

I’ve been with my ISP for about 8 years. For all of those years, this one included, the internet service conks out frequently. The standard routine goes like this: I call them up to let them know. They blame your network. They blame your computer. They explain things that they themselves don’t understand. It takes some doing, but eventually I succeed at convincing them that the problem lies with their company, not my home equipment, and they respond by sending out a tech. The tech shows up between 1 and 5 days later. The techs tend to be, by and large, competent people, but by the time they arrive the service is working again. So the tech scribbles a few notes, leaves a document, and departs. Within a few days the service is down again.

This has been going on for years. Every so often TWC does something dramatic to fix the problem: replaces a cable, replaces a line, checks a connection on the pole. Every so often that results in the service becoming reliable for a few weeks. Once it was even reliable for a few months. Inevitably it breaks down again.

I’d be glad to switch to a better ISP. The only alternative in my neighborhood is AT&T. My friend uses AT&T. She has the same problem — intermittent service — and endures more or less the same routine when she calls tech support. As for options to get home internet, that’s about it — unless you’re willing to hurl the rest of your wallet at this problem and pay for corporate quality internet service. But I frequently work for a company that has that corporate quality service. They have the same problem as I do at home. It sucks just as bad, only they pay 12 times as much.

There are a number of books and articles pointing to the root causes that gave birth to the abomination that is US ISP, most notably the regional monopolies and duopolies, the squelched competition permitted nationwide. A good anti-trust movement is long overdue. But there’s perhaps another more insidious monopoly undergirding the glaringly obvious one: it’s the monopoly, or more accurately, a monomania of low quality and poor choices that’s a taken-for-granted staple of corporate culture. No matter what company is offering what, for the most part they’re pressing their bottom line so hard that quality and pride of product have long sense left the building. That’s how you get fast food that isn’t even really food, fancy restaurants that charge an arm and a leg to serve low-grade crap with lipstick-on-a-pig grade garnish. There’s the monopoly of vision by corporate culture in general that accommodates a huge plethora of options around packaging and branding but almost none when it comes to actual quality and functionality. It’s what happens when after years of focus on spin, branding, packaging, and PR, at the expense of actually doing what it takes to produce genuine quality.

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