Tuesday, July 31, 2007
Cubicle Life, Fact And Fantasy
I've blogged about James Thompson's The Cubicle Survival Guide before, but here is a piece that nicely samples some of Mr. Thompson's more amusing or outre suggestions. It also describes the technical innovations of an even more hands-on cubicle life improver, David Vaughan, combining Vaughan's inventions with Thompson's notions in a synergistic approach to cubicle life that is at once facetious and practical.
Considering the recent weather, I had wanted to find something sufficiently informative about "personal cooling gadgets" to help keep one's cubicle cool during the dog days of summer. I didn't find much - your office is probably air-conditioned anyway - but I include the link to what I did find below.
The full title of Thompson's book, by the way, is The Cubicle Survival Guide: Keeping Your Cool In The Least Hospitable Environment On Earth, so perhaps these next tidbits will inject a breath of fresh air in the comical sense. Thompson focuses on issues of etiquette. For instance, do you or do you not say, "Bless you" when someone in a nearby cubicle sneezes? Tackling this quandary, Thompson draws the line. Say "Bless you" when the occupant of an adjacent cubicle sneezes, but don't bother if he or she is two or more cubicles away. On the more serious issue of theft, which thrives in cubicle farms, Thompson suggests placing simulated "security cameras" to discourage office chair rustlers and such, or leaving about crumpled tissues and spent medicine containers to frighten thieves away with the threat of contagion. Bosses have to be monitored as well as thieves, of course, and Thompson suggests using mirrors or even "video baby monitors" which, when strategically placed, will warn the cubicle occupant of approaching managers.
David Vaughan founded a company called CubeSmart to actually create the sort of things that Thompson imagines. Having noticed makeshift barriers that fellow cubicle dwellers had fabricated from "shower curtains and duct tape", Vaughan introduced a whole suite of products that offer differing levels of privacy to cubicle dwellers. "The CubeBanner is a 1 1/2-foot-tall translucent banner with an American flag logo and a script that reads 'I'm busy'. The CubeDoor Classic is a polymer mesh device with no logo that allows someone approaching the cube to see through it, but increases the illusion of privacy. Finally, they offer the CubeDoor, an opaque barrier that offers the most privacy." Where Thompson has complained of cubicle occupants chattering loudly on cellphones, Vaughan contemplates devising something like "an all-enclosed stormtrooper type helmet" which would allow the wearer to engage in phone conversations in total privacy. Thompson deplores the tendency of some cubicle dwellers to gorge themselves on odoriferous lunches, but Vaughan is yet to either invent or imagine any workable "anti-odor devices".
"Guide helps make cubicle life more bearable" from Greatreporter.com
Cubicle Survival Guide blog
"Gadgets To Beat The Summer Heat" from eMediawire.com
Monday, July 30, 2007
White Collar Workers' Day! (in China)
On July 28th, a radio station in Shanghai - Love Radio 103.7 - held a special "White Collar Workers' Day", in conjunction with a local website and the cast of a new Chinese TV office comedy entitled From Nine To None. That title - From Nine To None - refers to the schedules of Chinese white collar workers, which notoriously stretch from nine in the morning to some uncertain hour well after a reasonable quitting time. The "white collar" radio show appears to have been a publicity stunt for the TV show, which is currently in production and will air later in the year. The all-day show addressed "exhaustion from over-work, too much gossip, too much ambition, love affairs at work, when the boss makes a move, who can you trust? How can I get noticed? Neglecting my spouse, and dozens of other topics." There were "workshops" and "surveys", and issues "such as 'annoying meetings,' 'office politics' and 'fun after work'" were discussed by audience members via both the Internet and the live broadcast. Last but not least, the stars of From Nine To None presented "their singing and performing skills during the evening gala at Daning International Commercial Plaza in the city's northern Zhabei District."
It is perhaps comforting to note that even in the People's Republic comical critiques of office life provide opportunities for commercial enterprise.
"White Collars: Let Out Steam!" from ShanghaiDaily.com
Friday, July 27, 2007
More On Democracy Skeptic Bryan Caplan
The article at the link below takes a fly-on-the-wall view of democracy-basher Bryan Caplan as he preaches to the choir - i.e., the Cato Institute and its fellow travelers. Despite the sympathetic sponsorship, a few sages at the event offered their critiques. Moderator Will Wilkinson, himself a Cato editor, asked Caplan if low voter turnout was a bad thing. Caplan retorted that it wasn't because it kept the dummies out of the polls, and better educated folks voted more often than the dumb folks anyway. He also urged passivity on the part of uneducated citizens, "If you can either encourage people who don't know what they're doing to not vote or at least not encourage them to vote, or you could have massive public education to raise the level of awareness in everyone up to the level of a Ph.D. -- if there are even such resources in the universe -- I think it's better to just encourage people to be lazy. Say, 'You know, if you don't really know what's going on, it would actually be the more responsible thing not to participate.'"
Caplan railed against the "irrationality" of voters worldwide, even venturing to rank countries by their level of irrationality. The French - the people who brought us Pascal, Descartes and Poincare - were particularly "irrational", according to him. Caplan trumpeted his notion that citizens of all countries should abdicate their will to the consensus of economists.
Pew Research Director Scott Keeter critiqued Caplan's assumption that his profession even had a consensus, citing a 1996 survey of economists that found "wildly different views of whether new jobs are lower-paying, whether income is keeping up with the cost of living, and whether tax cuts and regulation are good."
Others questioned why the opinions of economists, even when they were coherently expressed as a consensus, should be more important than those of other experts. For instance, wasn't "the consensus of healthcare experts advocating universal healthcare" possibly more valid than the opinions of others? No, claimed Caplan, because healthcare experts know nothing about economics. Ditto also for lawyers. One suspects that Caplan would dismiss even the framers and amenders of the Constitution for giving U.S. citizens universal suffrage because they, too, were not "economists".
The article concludes by reflecting on the source of Caplan's success - the misguided notion among professionals in a given field that they have all the solutions to the world's problems. "It's easy to think economists have all the right answers when you're an economist in a room full of people that agree with you. But it probably strikes most average people as absurd. These people aren't irrational. They just have different values. Unfortunately, the people in the auditorium nodding in agreement didn't share them, and they happen to come from some pretty powerful places. Some of them even get to make policy."
"The Myth Of Bryan Caplan's Seriousness" from The American Prospect
Thursday, July 26, 2007
Cubicle Culture Column At WSJ
Here is a regular column in The Wall Street Journal that I (pathetically) only just discovered. It's called "Cubicle Culture", and is written on an apparently weekly basis by a journalist named Jared Sandberg. I include a link to column's electronic archive. I've already read several of the entries. One's about what to tell your kids when they ask what you do, and you seem only to talk and to type on a computer keyboard - just like them in their own spare time. Others are about the annoyance of shared electronic office calendars, where you cannot hide from a colleague who wants to include you in a meeting - or how to play dumb to avoid office tasks like changing a toner cartridge or making coffee - or the blessings of not having a speaking relationship with your boss. This column is right in line with some of the lighter aims of the White Collar Warrior blog, so I'll be visiting it frequently in the future.
"Cubicle Culture" archive at The Wall Street Journal
Wednesday, July 25, 2007
Don't Be A Wimp At Work!
Careerbuilder, the job-hunting website that I - and perhaps you - occasionally utllize, often contributes articles to MSN.com on work-related matters. At the link below, you will find a piece that warns you not to be too much of a nice guy (or "altruist") at work - especially if you're an American. According to one researcher, "Nice gets you in trouble. Nice gets you exploited."
Here are common modes of being too nice - with my own annotations:
1) You Let Others' Mistakes Inconvenience You - Actually, even not-so-nice people (like me) use this tactic to their advantage. The mistakes of others can give you the opportunity to outshine them by retrieving their fumbles and completing the play. It can also give you the satisfaction of feeling smarter than the idiots around you.
2) You Let Others Take Credit For Your Ideas - I agree here. This is never a good thing, but it's generally inevitable in a hierarchical situation. Make the best of it however. If you let someone take credit for what you did - particularly if the culprit is a colleague or a manager just a notch above you - play the emotional blackmail card to the hilt and make sure they know they owe you.
3) You Apologize Unnecessarily - It's always better when the other guy makes the mistakes. If you make them, never affix blame to yourself if you can. Be clever enough to identify extenuating circumstances that nobody else would have thought of, and your gaffe will appear like the inevitable setback of a pioneer - not the pratfall of a clueless doofus. Only apologize when you obviously don't need to, imbuing your apology with a barely detectable tinge of sarcasm that implies that the one you're apologizing to is more to blame. This will help you amass emotional blackmail capital for the future.
4) You Work Without Breaks - If you're inclined to do this, make sure you're paid on an hourly basis. Long hours with no vacations can be a fool's gambit for a salaried employee, but it can be gravy train for a contractor. Establish a reputation as (relatively) indispensable first - perhaps by doing a lot of Number 1 above or Number 5 below - and you'll be able to milk the sow of the corporate consulting budget for all it's worth.
5) You Do Others' Work For Them - Do this only if you know you can do at least as good a job as the person you're doing it for. Like correcting others' mistakes, taking on others' assignments is conquest by territorial annexation. The more that your employers depend you to get done, the more "indispensable" you will appear.
"Stop Being So Nice to Your Co-workers" from MSN.com
Tuesday, July 24, 2007
Handling Job Interviewers Who Ask Illegal Questions
Although it's been illegal for forty years now for a prospective employer to discriminate against job applicants "on the basis of race, color, religion, sex, age, or national origin", you still have interviewers who will ask you how old you are or what your religion is. They're not supposed to, but they do. The offenders are rarely human resource professionals. They're more likely to be the people you're going to work for - your immediate boss, to wit - and they should know better. This suggests that smaller, more informal companies may be more guilty of such lapses than larger ones, but non-HR types can certainly interview you at big firms as well.
The practice is as much a problem for the interviewers as for their, shall we say, "victims". According to employment lawyer John Petrella, "It's a very easy area for employers to get in trouble. It's really easy to run afoul of the antidiscrimination laws. You have to be vigilant and diligent about training." Female interviewees can typically be asked about whether or not they have children, are married or engaged, or even whether or not they support themselves - all under the guise of "harmless" chit-chat meant (or so you'd think) to break the ice. Both sexes can be indirectly obliged to reveal their ages, which is often the real agenda behind pre-hiring "background checks" that require the submission of passports, drivers' licenses and other documents.
Interviewees who are faced with such illegal inquiries face a dilemma. If they give their interviewers what they want, but are not legally entitled to, they may become complicit in an act of discrimination against them - but if they protest, they may not get the job anyway. The best approach is to respond with cheerful indirectness, not quite answering the question but using it as a springboard to another topic which you can spin to your own advantage. In other words, fight slyness with slyness - if you're so inclined. A capacity for cunning might actually be what they're looking for a new hire anyway. On the other hand, you may want to consider whether or not you would want to work for such an insidious employer to begin with.
"What you need to know about what they can ask" from The Christian Science Monitor
Monday, July 23, 2007
Send The Plutocrats Back To Pluto
New York media personality and sardonic futurist Kurt Andersen weighs in on the Blackstone group and its residing exhibitionist, Steve Schwarzman, at the link below. He cites the usual reasons why people should be mad at Schwarzman - his hyper-ostentatious birthday bash, his notorious Gilded Age behavior, the fact that private equity gains are taxed at only 15 percent - and adds some of his own. He points out that the whole raison d'etre of private equity firms is that they thrive on taking public companies private, and restructuring them beyond the scrutiny of either shareholders or the SEC to make them more profitable. It is easy to see how private equity firms would boom in these times of increased accountability and disclosure among public firms. In light of this fact, Andersen further notes that Schwarzman is hypocritical in the extreme to bring his own firm public, and cynically reflects that Blackstone is sensing the end of the private equity era and is attempting to cash in on "dumb IPO money" while it can. That may be.
Andersen is no friend of the common man. He had his own "subscribers only" Internet info startup Inside.com and made merciless fun of the little people in his novel Turn Of The Century. Hence, it is surprising to hear him sound the populist alarm against the barons of Wall Street. What is even more striking, however, is how other rich dudes view people like Schwarzman. According to Andersen, "The new head of the National Venture Capital Association went on the record last month about Schwarzmania: 'We’re where we are right now because of the unbelievable egos of guys running the private-equity firms like Blackstone. They put big targets on their backs by what I consider stupid actions like throwing these big parties.'" Andersen adds, "some of the more thoughtful members of the high-finance fraternity also worry that the suddenly enormous scale of private-equity control of the global economy is a little scary. In 2001, all the private-equity takeovers totaled $71 billion; in just the first half of this year, the deals amount to more than $600 billion. The handful of largest firms now control a trillion dollars’ worth of companies."
Andersen concludes his essay with an appeal to, of all things, conscience. He urges that we step up taxes on private equity moguls like Schwarzman not just because their gains are currently undertaxed, but because their mode of investing is relatively risk-free and, as such, more parasitical than dynamic. In his words, "The new brouhaha is not about igniting a 'class war,' but about avoiding one by constraining the most grotesque unfairness. It’s a question of grace—noblesse oblige, if you will. Yes, we want to encourage businesspeople to take risks—but private-equity and hedge-fund managers have invented businesses from which real, personal financial risk has been practically eliminated. 'They’re not risking anything,' says my private-equity friend. In fact, don’t we owe it to these postmodern heroes of global business to threaten to tax them fairly... in order to inject some real, invigorating risk into their world?"
"Greed Is Good And Ugly" from New York Magazine
Friday, July 20, 2007
Many naive idealists believed that, once the SEC's new executive-pay disclosure rules went into effect, CEOs would either tone down their greed out of "modesty" (that's a laugh) or, at the very least, shareholders would rise up in anger at the unambiguous evidence of excessive pay and do something about it. Now those long-awaited reports have appeared, and nobody's doing anything. The new rules have done little beyond empowering the latent exhibitionism of corporate leadership, and they are unabashedly exposing their ill-gotten family jewels.
The average S&P CEO took home $8.3 million last year, and ten made more than $30 million. CEOs as a class earn 400 times more than the average worker - as opposed to only 20 times as in "all other advanced nations".
Barney Frank has proposed an "advisory vote on executive compensation", but that will remain merely "advisory" and may literally fall on deaf ears. CEOs will still pay themselves what they wish, let the world know about it without shame, and go on with their lives of monomaniacal acquisition as before. Congress is far too timid to impose "hard-knuckles political solutions", such as "restoring the upper-bracket tax rate to 70 percent (which was what JFK and Congress lowered it to in 1961, down from 90 percent)".
The article at the link below warns that "wealth polarization in America is now at levels not seen since the late 1920s, and with each subsequent episode of 'CEO pay gone wild', the sense that something is not right in our economy grows a little bit more." The article goes on. "With each passing year," it warns, "as those greedy CEOs keep rewarding themselves for cutting costs, moving jobs overseas, and other cunning ways to further distinguish themselves financially from the great unwashed rabble, they tug a little harder on the rubber band that binds society together."
The emperor has no clothes on anymore, and it will soon become time for us to either ridicule him or throw him in jail.
"COMMENTARY: The Endlessly Amazing Greed of American CEOs" from HuntingonNew.net
Thursday, July 19, 2007
The Empire Strikes Back
The article at the link below summarizes efforts CEOs and their supporters have been making to roll back legislation intended to curb abuses.
Corporate leaders claim that Sarbanes-Oxley - nicknamed SOX here - drives "financial business away from the United States" and that efforts to comply with its accounting disclosure rules "cost too much". Worst of all, "last month the House passed an amendment delaying 404 reporting for smaller companies - the very ones most likely to issue false financial statements." The SEC chairman calls this "a terrible precedent", and it may well presage further rollbacks.
While some shareholder activists have proposed class-action lawsuits as a means of checking abuse in corporate boardrooms, the conservative judicial system is cracking down on such suits as "frivolous", and the number of new lawsuits "plunged to a record low of 110 last year."
The article concludes by reminding readers that, as the result of "a 1994 Supreme Court decision, shareholders cannot sue any corporate advisers - lawyers, accountants, investment banks - that 'aid and abet' a fraud." For instance, the courts recently killed a lawsuit against various banks and investment firms complicit in the Enron scandal.
The article appeared in Newsweek under the byline of popular investment journalist Jane Bryant Quinn.
"Little Guy Has Little Recourse" from Newsweek
Wednesday, July 18, 2007
More On WARN Act Reform
Here is an update on WARN Act reform from The Toledo Blade. Toledo is in the middle of the Rust Belt, so local concern about blue collar layoffs might enhance The Blade's interest in this issue. However, although "Congress designed the WARN Act largely to assist blue-collar workers who were losing their factory jobs", it's a different world now, and "with major changes in the U.S. economy over the last two decades, the victims of sudden company closings and major layoffs have spread from blue-collar workers to white-collar employees." Marcus Courtney, head of the IT workers' union WashTech, recently testified in Congress about the need to "beef up" the WARN Act to help workers. He said, "One of the shocks for the service workers is they call me and say, 'I lost my job and everybody lost their job without notice. Isn’t this against the law?' It’s a huge shock to white-collar workers."
Corporations use many tactics to justify violating the law. "Employers often claim that the WARN Act shouldn’t apply to their business because their layoffs were caused by a business circumstance they couldn’t predict or they were in the process of negotiating with lenders," The Blade reports. "These common defenses often slow the litigation process and delay any damages that would be received by workers." Another tactic is to deliberately spread layoffs out over time to avoid hitting the trigger minimum that necessitates giving 60 days notice to employees. Such legal experts claim that a "bad faith" penalty should be applied to employers like these who knowingly violate the law, as opposed to those who might be construed to have a valid excuse.
Barack Obama is among those supporting WARN Act reform. "As we work to restore America’s competitiveness and revive our manufacturing sector, we must also ensure that workers have the skills and training they need to perform their jobs in today’s economy,” he said. “We must give the WARN Act teeth, to ensure that workers are not left in the lurch without a job or a paycheck."
Here's a list of some of the key reform proposals (as quoted by The Blade):
1) Lowering employee thresholds so more employers would be covered by the law and requiring businesses to provide notice if they lay off a large number of employees or shut down.
2) Increasing the notice time from 60 days to 90 days or even six months to give workers more time to adjust and to provide additional time for the business to examine options to save jobs.
3) Giving the Department of Labor the responsibility to enforce the law, while preserving the right of workers to hire attorneys if the government does not act.
4) Boosting the penalties to provide a steeper consequence for employers that violate the law and punish employers that purposefully break it.
"Reform overdue, WARN Act critics say; worker advocates look to eliminate flaws, loopholes in federal law" from The Toledo Blade
Tuesday, July 17, 2007
Take A Break From The Hamster Wheel Of Life
The dog days of summer will be with us in a few weeks, vacation time is ahead (for those of us lucky enough to be able to take vacations), so we might as well as try to relax. Here is a link that I picked up from Web Worker Daily about relaxation techniques for harried workers. Three among these might appeal to the office-bound as realistic alternatives to relentless work focus - "Meditation Nap" (most of us can afford to at least close our eyes for 5 minutes), "The Bathroom Break" (as the post says, "it isn't called the restroom for nothing"), and my own personal favorite, making an "Appointment with Yourself". I think I will try to fit myself into my own calendar somewhere... "Play Hooky for the Day" is another life-altering possibility. It is very doable for an IT contractor, and tempting too - but I lose money every day I take off from work. So nix on that one for me...
The Attleboro Sun, in erstwhile Puritan cum Dotcom Massachusetts, claims that playing hooky from work is a growing problem. It notes that, in 2006, "the rate of unscheduled absences reached its highest level since 1999, costing some large employers an estimated $850,000 per year in direct payroll expenses." Nonetheless, this sounds like a good trend to me - and one from which, according to the article, many workers may be implicitly shielded by the tight job market. Tight job markets, like summer days themselves, are as evanescent as mayflies, so we might as well take advantage of them while they last.
Web Worker Daily meanwhile adds its own techniques for varying the enviable "grind" of working from home - or, as the author calls them, "a few ideas for breaking up the routine of having less routine." These include acting as if you're going to work, which involves dressing up, getting in the car, and driving around the block or making some other perfunctory and meaningless circuit about the neighborhood. That's too weird for me, reminiscent of Lifetime TV potboilers about sociopathic slacker husbands who pretend to have jobs that don't exist. The other alternative is actually going to work in a regular office! A real refresher that would be for the average pajama-clad telecommuter. Our culture may indeed come full circle to the point where visiting a business office for a spot of drudgery becomes a welcome break from Real Life.
"Getting Off The Treadmill Of Life" from Lifehack.org
"It's Summertime...Let's Play Hooky" from The Attleboro Sun (Massachusetts)
"Getting On the Treadmill of Life" from Web Worker Daily
Monday, July 16, 2007
Layoffs Without Notice Turn Workers Into Lemmings
The Worker Adjustment and Retraining Notification Act, passed in 1988, was intended to protect workers - both blue collar and white collar - from being laid off without sufficient advance warning for them to prepare for the change and start looking for a new job. The law currently covers all companies with 100 or more employees, requiring them to give at least 60 days notice if they anticipate laying off 50 employees or more. What happened then in the case of Meridian Rail of Illinois, which laid off 129 workers after only 8 days notice? Or at Mortgage Lenders Network of Middletown, Connecticut, which laid off 1,200 white collar workers after assuring many of them that their jobs were safe just a week before they were dismissed?
The WARN Act is riddled with loopholes that allow it to be violated on a regular basis. The Toledo Blade analyzed 226 lawsuits filed against corporations for WARN Act violations since 1989. Half of them were thrown out of court. According to The Blade, "In the majority of those decisions, judges cited loopholes in the law, ranging from companies that said they tried their best to give notice to employees to firms that claimed they couldn’t predict bad financial times. In 108 cases, WARN Act lawsuits resulted in settlements or with the courts siding with the displaced workers. But in dozens of those cases, workers received only pennies on the dollar of what they felt they were owed." Corporations use many tactics to get around the rules, such as laying off 45 employees per quarter to take advantage of the 50 employee minimum rule, or by extracting severance waivers from employees, allowing them to be fired without notice in exchange for a few weeks' severance pay.
Presidential candidates Clinton, Edwards and Obama would like to reform the law, and Senator Sherrod Brown is actively working towards that end in Congress. Howard Metzenbaum tried to reform the law in 1994, and Tom Daschle tried again in 2004. Metzenbaum's proposal included raising the 60 days notice requirement to 90 days, lowering the minimum number of layoffs covered by the law, and "allowing the Department of Labor to bring lawsuits on behalf of displaced workers." Maybe the Democratic Congress - while it lasts - can finally achieve this much needed reform.
"Without warning: Flaws, loopholes deny employees protection mandated by WARN Act" from The Toledo Blade
Friday, July 13, 2007
Using Debt To Trap Young Workers Into Obedience
Here is a review of a book by Daniel Brook entitled The Trap: Selling Out To Stay Afloat In Winner-Take-All America. Its thesis is that economic constraints on recent college graduates in the United States have conspired to prevent young people from making a difference in their society outside of just working for a living. These constraints include the high cost of health care, mounting debt from student loans, and the "obscene" differences in salary between entry level jobs in law or finance and those in teaching, social work and other professions undertaken for what used to be called "the public good". Brook compares the economic scene of today with that of decades past. "In 1970, when starting teachers in New York City made just $2,000 less than starting Wall Street lawyers, people who wanted to teach taught.. Today, when starting teachers make $100,000 less than starting corporate lawyers and have been priced out of the region's homeownership market, the considerations are very different." The mountain of economic constraints has even inhibited entrepreneurship among young people. According to Salon magazine, "Surveys show that almost twice as many Americans as Europeans have considered starting their own business, yet only 7.3 percent of our workforce takes the leap, compared with 14.7 percent across the pond." If I'm reading these figures correctly, that means that Europeans who consider becoming entrepreneurs are 4 times more likely to actually realize their dreams than in the United States. Whatever happened to the "land of opportunity"?
He atributes part of the blame to the right-wing emphasis on the concentration of wealth that has dominated American economic life since the Reagan era and which, Brook claims, had a dual agenda from the very beginning. "Conservatives saw what America looked like in the 1960s, with the most equal distribution of wealth in its history and liberals sitting-in and marching for even more, and they didn't like what they saw. The wealthy were being taxed to open up their elite colleges to bring middle- and working-class students. The students were questioning authority, not cozying up to it in hopes of landing a job." The conservatives turned the tables as soon as they could, starving young Americans into slavish compliance while enriching themselves even further in the process.
"The Trap" from Salon
Thursday, July 12, 2007
The Work-Life Dilemma
Here is a meditation on the "work-life balance" from an Australian newspaper. Apparently, even down-under work is consuming more and more of a person's time. The article notes that "globalisation and technology have created the syndrome of 24/7 availability" in which, implicitly, young married couples go to bed with their Blackberrys as much as with each other. And most young people in Australia aren't even married. 75 percent of Australian women work, the same proportion of Australians under 35 have never been married, and 23 percent of all households have only one person. Is it because they are so busy or because young Australians, like so many young American college graduates, have huge loans to pay off and can't afford to get married? The article doesn't say.
The article cites, as an example of what to expect among elite earners in Australia, the "extreme workers" of the United States. Two million "high-income earners" in America are "required" to put in more than 70 hours a week at their jobs and two thirds said "their jobs required them to be available to deal with emergencies at any time." 58 percent said their work interfered with their lives as parents, 46 percent said "it hurt their relationships", and half said their jobs had destroyed their sex lives. Yet, according to the article, "strangely, they claim to be happy." According to the study, two thirds loved their jobs - including three quarters of those who worked for "global companies".
These people feel "exalted" by their work. "Many people love the intellectual challenge and the thrill of achieving something big. Others are turned on by the oversize compensation packages, brilliant colleagues, and recognition and respect that come with the territory." Obviously, these people are a kind of new priesthood - and nearly as celibate as priests and nuns to boot, it seems. This week - in Australia - "a group of academics at the Work and Family Policy Roundtable recommended that all fathers receive two weeks' paternity leave," but the Workplace Minister (what a title!) warned not to legislate this, and to leave it up to companies themselves to institute it. But of course they won't. "Studies and anecdotal evidence suggest choosing flexi-time and part-time work can damage career prospects, even more so for men because the perception is there is something wrong with them."
The current generation worldwide is one of corporate warriors, of templars at prayer in the churches of finance. Apparently, even family will be sacrificed at the altar of this crusade.
"Work-life balance rides the see-saw" from The Age (Australia)
Wednesday, July 11, 2007
Political Correctness At The Workplace
Here is a first person account of a white collar worker's jaunt to a "sexual harassment conference" in California. He has reservations about "political correctness" training - one of which is his objection to the corporate assimilation of academic buzzwords like "political correctness" when corporations already bandy about enough buzzwords as it is. When not having his intelligence insulted "with common sense advice like, 'Don't joke about spanking'", he reflects on the real place of such training on the corporate agenda. He remarks that it serves more to deflect legal culpability than to actually make workers more sincere and sensitive - "that the stick waved in front of us was the threat of lawsuit and company liability, rather than the carrot of realizing an office-place paradise, where employees are hard-working and passionate, and managers are forward-thinking and supportive." He adds that "plausible deniability is the key, and so long as you can show proper protocol was followed, it's less about justice or fairness and more about the $65 million word corporations fear most: liability."
He also believes that a focus on mere political correctness keeps corporate attitudes towards social reality on a superficial level. "So long as the superficial is policed," he says, "there's little pressure to instigate progressive change." Moreover, he suspects that the emphasis on surface politeness is a stealth strategy for suppressing legitimate dissent. In his words, "political correctness often seems best at neutering the forthright and critical, if not always tactful, than fanning any inclination for mutual acceptance and societal well being. As a result, the rest of us must acquiesce to a somewhat silly pageant, in which we nod sympathetically at very polite speakers telling us things we should have learned in kindergarten. It's difficult not to feel stupid, but then maybe that's not a wholly unintended consequence. Infantilizing the modern workforce with mandatory sensitivity training seems like an effective way to indoctrinate 21st century office culture to not rock the boat."
"Sexual healing vs. societal change - the office is a battlefield" Ledger-Dispatch (Sacramento)
Tuesday, July 10, 2007
Some Of Globalization's Dangers
Ready for some more irony? Here's some in regard to globalization. One objection that supporters of our price-gouging domestic pharmaceutical industry raise against our buying Canadian drugs is that they are not subjected to the rigorous FDA inspections conducted (supposedly) on red-white-and-blue drugs. The article below reminds us that, due to globablization, "about 20 percent of generic and over-the-counter drugs and 40 percent of the active ingredients for pills sold here by the major pharmaceutical companies -- all proclaimed safe by the FDA, all sold at usual American prices -- come from factories in India and China that are more likely to be struck by lightning than inspected by the FDA. Yet the FDA's record shows concern over the safety of drugs not from India and China but from our underdeveloped neighbor to the north." Last year, the FDA conducted only 32 inspections of drug factories in India and just 15 in China. Meanwhile they conducted 1,222 in the United States. Moreover, "the U.S. inspections were surprise visits; in China and India, the FDA phoned ahead in every case." Loath as we are to ruffle the feathers of our free trade partners overseas, we do them the courtesy of warning them before checking out their facilities, giving them plenty of time to clean up whatever lethal mess is on the premises on a daily basis.
Here's something else. Free market enthusiasts are dead set against the U.S. government investing any money in American industry. They fear the horrors of nationalization. They also believe that the U.S. government should not be arbitrarily favoring some industries, or companies, and not others, thereby hand-cuffing the invisible hand of the economic process. Yet at the same time - again as a direct result of globalization - "foreign governments [that] control a cool $5.4 trillion in foreign currency reserves... have begun to invest a chunk of that in American companies." For instance, China - and we mean the government of the People's Republic, not some Chinese corporation - has invested $3 billion in Blackstone, the well-known private equity firm that just went public. Globalization means that foreign governments - including totalitarian states that violate human rights and would constitute "bosses from hell" by any rational definition - have the right to own large portions of the American economy, even as our own government is warned "hands off".
Are you scared yet? I am.
"Globalization's Stir-Fry" from The American Prospect
Monday, July 09, 2007
Office Workout Machine Revisited
Here we revisit the "vertical work station" developed by researchers at Mayo Clinic. Although the intentions of the device are good, it is most amusing to see such a potent symbol of mindless and incessant wage slavery revived as a cure for the ills of the wage slave. The image of a treadmill with a hapless serf trapped inside, huffing and puffing to keep up, has been with us since the dawn of the industrial age. As it happens, most wage slaves these days are sedentary. Indeed, according to researchers, "more than half of the workforce will sit at computers by 2010." Concerned scientists, devoid of a sense of irony for all their benevolence, have returned the treadmill to the workplace as an exercise device. Workers typing on the run, so to speak, might burn as many as 100 to 150 calories an hour and possibly drop as many as 50 pounds a year. The Mayo Clinic model is only one of many designed along the same idea. A spokesman for the project "estimates that 1,000 U.S. workers have built their own treadmill desks since the 'vertical work station' idea appeared on Good Morning America two years ago." Perhaps those folks didn't have a sense of irony either.
Skeptics claim that workers can get as much exercise by taking 20 minutes hikes at lunch. Nonetheless, workstation designer Dr. James Levine says that "in today's workplace, many employees never get to leave their cubicles. [My] thought: If they can't get to exercise, bring the exercise to them." The author of the CNN piece below apparently conducted his interview while treading alongside the inventor, and claims he developed a "Zen-like" sense of calm after 10 minutes of being lashed to the machine. Who'd a thunk it? A symbol of the rat race yielding Buddhistic bliss.
The online science magazine Discover lambasted the original BBC article about the work station as the "worst science article of the week", and numerous bloggers have found the device ridiculous. I was pleased to learn that there is still a sense of irony out there somewhere.
"Connecting treadmills to your computer" from The Arizona Republic
"Worst Science Article of the Week" from Discover
"A workout for your mind... and body!" from CNN.com
"Doc Creates Walking Desk To Stay Fit" from WBALTV (Baltimore)
Friday, July 06, 2007
Are U.S. Programmers An Endangered Species?
The Programmers Guild, "a nonprofit group with 1,500 members, most of them older than 40... many of whom can't find jobs in their areas of expertise," has put on YouTube a video it has pirated from the website of Cohen & Grigsby, a Pittsburgh law firm specializing in high tech immigration. The video shows a lawyer stating that the firm's goal is not to find qualified US workers for its corporate clients. The Programmers Guild is using the clip in its fight against legislators who allow U.S. corporations to openly discriminate against American workers to hire foreign workers on H-1B visas. The foreign workers themselves arguably don't benefit from these hiring policies, as their U.S. employers routinely pay them $12,000 less on average than American programmers. This outrageous YouTube spot shows that you can't screw over American techies with impunity. As The Christian Science Monitor says, "the Internet has changed the balance of power in a dispute between employees and employers and thus, perhaps, changed the balance of power in Washington's political arena. That's particularly true when a group of sophisticated computer experts use their expertise in a public policy fight."
H-1B supporters contend that the low 2.4 employment rate for computer programmers reflects the "shortage" of such workers in the United States, and justifies a "no holds barred" approach to granting H-1B visas. In fact, wages for computer programmers are currently "stagnant", and many highly qualified programmers have left the field after searching fruitlessly for new jobs and are now attempting to pursue other occupations. Even more blatantly, "several computer companies have laid off thousands of workers, while at the same time complaining of shortages."
Even though, as some believe, the United States has been the traditional world leader in software development, the number of "computer-science students has fallen by 50 percent since its peak in the 1990s", paving the way all the more for the H-1B juggernaut. The progressive and deliberate replacement of American workers with H-1B hires may not only be bad for our domestic workforce, it may completely destroy the maverick and innovative culture of American software development, replacing it with one of slavish subservience, in which the expedience of the short term wins out over the visionary future.
"The vanishing American computer programmer" from The Christian Science Monitor
Thursday, July 05, 2007
More On "The Myth Of The Rational Voter"
Here, from The New Yorker, is a thoughtful review of Bryan Caplan's elitist excrescence, The Myth of The Rational Voter: Why Democracies Choose Bad Policies. It cites Caplan's main thesis, which is that most voters are ignorant of politics - and, especially, of economics - and obliviously vote into office candidates who vow to implement their pig-headed and ignorant views. Caplan suggests two possible solutions. One, that better educated citizens - particularly, one suspects, the holders of MBAs and bachelor's degrees in economics - should be given votes that carry more weight than, say, those of high school dropouts or former English majors. Two, that democracy should be disbanded altogether and all government policy should be mandated by an oligarchy of economists.
According to the article, Caplan is aware of, but discounts, the "Miracle of Aggregation" through which "a large number of people with partial information and varying degrees of intelligence and expertise will collectively reach better or more accurate results than a small number of like-minded, highly intelligent experts." Markets work this way, for example, as do - as The New Yorker notes - stock prices. Curiously, and somewhat hypocritically, Caplan believes that the "wisdom of crowds" is fine for the maintenance of "free markets", but will not do for politics - especially if the practice of democracy threatens the operation of those same "free markets". This is an interesting paradox. His explanation is that voters are not like consumers because they rarely vote out of self-interest, but out of a peculiar muddled altruism that inspires them to vote for what they think is right - but which, because it may not serve their interests directly, is not soundly rational. The article cites as an example the phenomenon of "the [conservative] auto worker who supports the elimination of the inheritance tax and the [liberal] Hollywood producer who votes [to keep it]..." Hence, it is not the reflexive selfishness of voters that renders democracy unworkable, but a pretension to high-mindedness that betrays their best instincts.
Caplan triumphantly asserts, with the heedless zeal of the emotionally tone-deaf wonk that he undoubtedly is, that free market competition lowers prices, ramps up productivity and rewards the public with an ever growing cornucopia of affordable products. Downsizing thousands of workers out of jobs they depended on for decades, closing down mom-and-pop shops across the land to make way for mega-stores and their red-smocked serfs, and paying CEOs hundreds of millions of dollars more a year than any human being could possibly need are, like greed, all good - because they support the free market's inexorable march towards the apotheosis of materialism. If material goods were all that mattered, maybe "econocracy" would be fine. But, as The New Yorker points out, democracy serves complex human needs that transcend rationality and materialism. "Negotiating the tension between 'rational' policy choices and 'irrational' preferences and anxieties - between the desirability of more productivity and the desire to preserve a way of life - is what democratic politics is all about. It is a messy negotiation. Having the franchise be universal makes it even messier. If all policy decisions were straightforward economic calculations, it might be simpler and better for everyone if only people who had a grasp of economics participated in the political process. But many policy decisions don't have an optimal answer. They involve values that are deeply contested: when life begins, whether liberty is more important than equality, how racial integration is best achieved..." and much else. Democracy is a human enterprise, not an economic one.
"Fractured Franchise" from The New Yorker
Wednesday, July 04, 2007
No Free Speech At Work
According to a recent AFL-CIO study, 80 percent of American workers believe they retain the right of free speech in the workplace. The plain fact is that they are wrong. The first amendment was intended to shield the right of free speech from the actions of the government, not from the actions of private employers. The article at the link below is an interview with Bruce Barry, a management and sociology professor at Vanderbilt and the author of Speechless: The Erosion of Free Expression in the American Workplace. He criticizes the political consequences of the American tradition of "employment at will" which, he says, is "a legal and economic system under which employers don't just buy a person's labor, they also reserve the right to rent an employer's conscience, ideology and social identity." In contrast to the United States, "most western-style industrial democracies have built into their system of employment law some sort of just-cause protection and due process reights. There is a convention of the International Labor Organization on discrimination in employment that has, in addition to protection against employment discrimination for race, religion, sex, and national origin, [protection of] political opinion. 160 countries have ratified that convention. The United States is not one of them."
The bottom line is that the one nation that most fulsomely boasts of how it has brought "the untamed flame of freedom" to the world is also the one that most stubbornly resists extending political freedom to the workplace. This is a serious omission in a society in which work consumes more of its citizens' waking hours than ever before, and where many of what used to be government or community functions have been privatized. In fact, as civil community has progressively declined in the United States, the workplace has come to replace it. The workplace may be the only context in which Americans from different walks of life may communicate and cooperate with one another, and yet they are barred at the risk of dismissal from expressing themselves above the most dronelike level of superficiality.
There are two parallel trends at work in corporate society that will inevitably collide. American workers have less job security than ever. Instead of working for one company for a lifetime, they are forced to move from one job to another - if they can. They are denied benefits they once took for granted, and are treated less as partners in an enterprise than as human overhead to be trimmed away at a moment's notice. This not only destroys their sense of security, it utterly obliterates any loyalty they might feel for their employers. Yet at the same time corporations are investing more and more in their public image, and in influencing legislative bodies to support their interests. They have become exponentially more sensitive to dissent among the rank and file, at the same time that their lack of consideration for the welfare of their employees engenders ever more dissent.
In the interview, Barry provides recent examples of employees who have been dismised for their political beliefs. In Alabama, a Republican boss fired a worker who refused to remove a John Kerry bumper sticker from her car. In Tennessee, another boss fired a worker who wrote a letter to the editor of a local paper about welfare policy. In Texas, a community activist was "forced out of his job" for supporting affirmative action. Any employee who blogs (at least under his or her own name) is also fair game for dismissal. Even though internet technology has given workers a greater chance of getting their voices heard, it has also given employers a greater ability to find that voice and destroy its livelihood.
"Speechless At Work" from The American Prospect
Tuesday, July 03, 2007
The Effects Of Outsourcing Are Truly A Global Affair
The United States is not the only nation affected by outsourcing. According to the article at the link below, high wage-earning countries like Singapore, Australia and Japan are being forced to outsource to remain competitive in the global market, and their white collar labor forces have suffered as a result. Singapore, once "a showcase example of a rapidly growing newly industrialized country," has recently had to farm out electronics manufacturing to countries like China, Thailand, Vietnam and the Phillipines. "Now the global outsourcing trend is putting pressure on white-collar jobs, including [those] in the crucial finance and engineering industries," the article says. "While the Singaporean economy is still growing outwardly at a healthy rate, the office employment figures mask a mounting loss of white-collar jobs. That includes scores of highly trained engineers, many of whom now drive taxicabs to make ends meet while they look for new employment." Sound familiar? It certainly does.
If outsourcing is an innovation, America leads the pack. It is pushing forward the frontiers of middle-class disenfranchisement. The average American worker has a "one-in-six chance of seeing his or her income drop by 50% or more from one year to the next" and 90 percent saw their real wages decline in 2005. With figures so progressive, we certainly are a shining example of something or other, don't you agree?
Outsourcing has spread to Australia, too. The Australian parliament nonetheless supports outsourcing, claiming it is instrumental to the nation's global competitiveness. "We have to be careful we're not protecting current Australian jobs to the detriment of future Australian jobs," harrumphs alpha banker David Murray. "Everyone knows the value of free and open trade!" he declaims - and you can almost hear the cries of "Hear! Hear!" echoing through the Anglophone boardrooms of the world. In the meantime, Australian unions are organizing a desperate campaign to save white-collar IT jobs from offshoring, using as their rationale "the bogey that outsourcing frequently compromises data security."
Although Japan has traditionally kept the design of its products secret through a tactic known as "technology blackboxing", other Asian nations - particularly China - have been able to reverse engineer those products and replicate them far more cheaply in their own lands, thus destroying any advantages Japanese manufacturers might have enjoyed. It is only a matter of time before the notoriously insular Japanese must resort to outsourcing as well, ultimately adding to the woes of their already overworked and insanely repressed white-collar classes.
One wonders where it will all end. It is one thing, as an American, to gloat with schadenfreude at the rise and fall of Asian techies. It is quite another to know what will happen next - and to whom. What happens when Indian and Chinese workers become too prosperous, forcing their production costs to rise, and causing even those nations to outsource labor to somewhere else? Maybe by that time the children and grandchildren of laid-off American white-collar workers will have sunk low enough to represent an affordable labor option once again, and the rest of the world will start outsourcing to us!
"White-collar Asia feels outsourcing pinch" from Asia Times
Monday, July 02, 2007
White Collar Layoffs Are The New "Normal"
Here are a couple of recent articles from the Chicago Tribune about the prevalence and effects of white collar layoffs. One article focuses on an affluent community in the suburbs of Chicago named Barrington. Although the median household income is $110,000, "below the surface of a strong economy is an unsettling trend that may be contributing to worrying changes in the school lunch program and elsewhere. Residents seem to be losing jobs at a faster clip. They land back on their feet but not necessarily at the kind of salaries to which they had become accustomed." Fear of losing their jobs has shifted the priorities of Barrington's residents considerably. When surveyed in 1996, they listed "difficulty finding child care" as their prime concern. In contrast, "By 2005, 'involuntary job loss due to downsizing or other reason' topped the list, followed closely by 'difficulty paying bills' and 'put off health care' because of cost or lack of insurance. By comparison, child care had become a minor issue." When the 2005 survey was done, 16 percent of the respondents reported that either they or a loved one had lost their jobs within the last year.
Income loss is more permanent, but less visible, than job loss. Although a glance at unemployment figures suggests that the nation is doing well, many of those employed make far less than they once did. According to Princeton job-loss analyst Henry Farber, "The average earnings decline including lost raises was 21 percent for workers forced to find new full-time jobs between 2001 and 2003, four times the mid-1990s rate." The earnings decline after a layoff is particularly acute for white collar professionals, especially for those in middle age. The psychological impact is also more profound, and that in turn jeopardizes the health of many whose health care benefits have vanished. Richard Price, a leading researcher in the psychological effects of job loss, says the "increased rates of illness, depression, anxiety and marital conflict that [have been] documented among displaced U.S. workers stem mainly from the economic fallout -- the 'cascade of stressors' flowing from reduced income and loss of benefits like health care."
Nearly 10 percent of white collar workers lost their jobs between 2001 and 2003 - as opposed to only 7 percent during the recession of the early eighties. According to Price, "Globalization is a small piece of it. Businesses have gone from making things to buying each other, and that has produced these large-scale changes in the predictability of jobs at all levels."
When complacent economic pundits review the statistics with their rosy-colored bifocals, they cite the low unemployment rate, but not the dramatic losses of income in the recent history of those employed, praise the rise in "average income" when they really should be looking at "median income", and declare the land virtually inflation-free simply because wages remain flat while gas prices, health care premiums, tuitions and countless other key expenses are skyrocketing. It is time we looked beyond the disingenuous optimism of the so-called "experts" at the reality of what's really going on.
"Layoff fears part of 'new normal'" from Chicago Tribune
"Tough Climb To Reclaim Career" from Chicago Tribune