Thursday, July 19, 2007
Assessment 4: A free market "cultural revolution"
In August 2003, eight months out from my “retirement” layoff from information technology, I showed up early one rainy morning at a Bloomington, MN hotel to be screened for a possible job as an airport screener for the Transportation Security Administration (TSA). After initial processing, we were to go through hours of “assessments” – first a personality test, then other tests, and then a medical. It was supposed to be possible to get a job offer in one day. At the time they needed to hire people badly. I didn’t finish it because there was a misunderstanding about pay scales. But this was a warmup that makes a point. After I moved back to Va, I took another test at a Compusa store for part-time screeners, and did not pass (because there was a test on recognizing baggage that would probably require one to have been trained).
I’ve taken the exams to become a USPS letter carrier and that broke down because the medical records from my former hip repair in Minnesota were not available. But I was told in the interview that this was a very “physical job.” Indeed, a letter carrier has to case the mail and then drive and walk the route and make no mistakes.
I worked part-time for fourteen months calling for contributions to an Orchestra (with some success) and two months as a debt collector before moving back. The collections job was the first one where I punched a time clock. There were volume benchmarks: you were supposed make 175 calls a day (8 hours) and at least 50 contacts. This might have worked if I had not come back (most collection jobs are in the Midwest) because there could have been a need for medical collections, and I do have a lot of health care background. I also worked three volunteer nights in fast food at the Metrodome for MCC. That’s my only experience working in “retail” with a cash register.
Now, Barbara Ehrenreich reported her experience as an undercover low-wage worker in her book Nickel and Dimed. She makes the good point that we should be ashamed of our dependency on the unpleasant labor of others and that it is so underpaid and exploited. Of course, this drives much of the illegal immigration problem. But when I started my working adult life in 1970, I ran into this quickly as I explored my social and political environment in New Jersey and New York, even before “coming out” again. The Far Left, particularly, made a lot – with quite a bit of anger and indignation -- of the unfair exploitation of the drudgery of others. That went along with an opposition to allowing inherited (unearned) wealth (which can have strings attached through the “dead hand” -- and what about caregivers?). The climax of this in the far left, of course, came with the Cultural Revolution of chairman Mao in Communist China in the 1960s, where intellectuals were shipped to join the peasants (the “proles”) in the countryside. (That happens in North Korea today.) This is not an idle concern. The recent indie film “Manufactured Landscapes” shows how western consumerism can exploit third world labor and leave it littered with toxic waste. And it isn’t hard do see how expansion in the Third World, where people want our living standards, will raise divisive political and moral issues about energy use and “carbon footprints.”
Now I thought I was paying my dues fairly by remaining an individual contributor (the nice HR word for paean) in my computer programming jobs and doing more of my share of the nightcalls – without extra pay, sometimes staying up 24 hours straight. This got to be part of my answer to the questions about “work ethic.” In the late 1980s, employers began to perceive the street-smart fear that “data processing” was not a “real job” and that spoiled programmers (who didn’t face the competitive pressures of “real men” with sales jobs) could be eliminated by data center consolidations after mergers and hostile takeovers. I wrote a term paper about this (“The Job Market for Computer Professionals”) for a recertification course at Northern Virginia Community College in 1995; I have lost it, but some of this essay is the gist.) It turned out that demand would roar back for Y2K and development of mid-tiers, but then collapse after the 9/11 and scandals period. Nevertheless, the position of many “salaried professionals” is a bit tenuous and can be undone by a “free market cultural revolution” (or counter-revolution).
What we are talking about, of course, is jobs that require a lot of regimentation or physical stress. Discover has a series “dirty jobs.” Sebastian Junger wrote a book about dangerous jobs and “paid his dues” by cutting trees. His “The Perfect Storm” created some controversy by pointing out the terrible conditions of men who work in commercial fishing and get paid only when they bring in the catch. It may be stressful to stay up all night to get a computer cycle run, or a law passed, or a trial argument prepared, but that’s not quite the same thing. Now (after some other complicated career and retirement issues discussed elsewhere) I have taken advantage of Virginia's lax hiring of substitute teachers without licenses, when some might say I should "pay my dues" by working a dangerous graveyard shift at a 7-11, limit the bathroom breaks, and balance after the shift.
With a bit of pluck, I remember being teased about this in other social circles. At the Ninth Street Center (posting June 27), back in the 70s, I was prodded to do my part of the washing of dishes after the chicken aspic Saturday socials. (Oh, well, that happened on a Sierra Club trip in Texas, too.) I have even been told that it would be good for me to be sponged off of. I have, but only minimally (in the followup of the 1980 "refugiados cubanos" crisis in Texas).
During my jeunesse, I was a lot more exposed to this sort of thing. In 1968 I was “drafted” and, like almost everyone else, went through Basic Training. There was a lot made of physical perfection in foot and wall locker inspections (“all buttons buttoned” – “you will shine your boots, you will shine your low quarters, you will clean my barracks” – it’s hard to get things really immaculate!) , with the drill sergeant maintaining (correctly) that following military orders precisely could make a life and death difference some day in combat. A couple days in Basic, we had “detail unit”, and one assignment was a light construction detail. Someone complained that I was the “worst detail man he had ever seen” and he was going to report me to my “First Sergeant” for an “Article 15” to “ruin my life.” I told that “bad detail man” story on a subsequent assignment at the Pentagon and it did not come across well. Later on KP someone asked me “how many jobs have you been fired from?” I do remember cleaning the grease pit with a toothbrush on Sunday, March 31, 1968, a low point. I survived and bounced back.
In those days, student deferments had been the moral issue, until the lottery was instituted in 1969. The draft would end in 1973, although Selective Service Registration of males continues today. In earlier times, men understood that they took their chances defending the freedom of others until they had a right to their own lives. That doesn’t comport with modern ideas of freedom because we think we are safer now. But in the post 9/11 world, talk about the unfairness of the “backdoor draft” in Iraq, and restoring the draft or some kind of mandatory national service comes back.
There was an even earlier instantiation of this sort of thinking – family, especially my own father. While I was talented in bookish pursuits and music, he tried, at times, to make an issue of the way I did chores (lazily). Manual labor and elbow grease had become intrinsic virtues in his world. His favorite mantra was “learn to work.” He was concerned about the way I did these tasks in situations where the end results probably were not important, but what he saw as a moral principle was. Extent this kind of thinking today – if everyone has to pass algebra to graduate, should everyone be proficient in physical fitness, learn to swim, perform “volunteer” manual labor? You can see how this plays into the battle over racial and cultural divides in public school populations. Even NIH, during my stay there in 1962, had an occupational therapy program that emphasized having the discipline to perform a repetitive task for a scheduled work shift.
My father’s intent was, of course, to prepare me for the responsibilities of pampering or protecting a future wife and raising children. If someone masters these “manly skills” he is much more likely to “grow up straight” and “normal” according to all of the old-fashioned moral wisdom. The “sissy boy” is the right wing equivalent of the left wing decadent, parasitic bourgeoisie. That was the fantasy of the right, just as much as “cultural revolution” was the province of the left. It’s funny how they come together behind the scenes. It’s interesting to me how the “threats” to resume the draft (and include women, of course) come mainly from the Left, as a tool, however, to protest the war in Iraq as Vietnam II, like a movie franchise. (Charles Moskos, in fact, thinks that the draft would be a good ploy to finally end the misguided “don’t ask don’t tell” for gays in the military, which he largely authored in 1993.)
Here, I have to come back to my own “morality paradigm” that, as I said in Sunday’s posting, deals with performance, merit, ability to support others and to some extend share their burdens. I said that family and procreation are means to that, but not moral ends of themselves for everyone (otherwise you reach a contradiction when people are marginalized and muzzled). It is the capability that is more like the end. I took piano for nine years and went into chemistry and then mathematics over Cold War concerns over what would happen to me if I were drafted early. In retrospect, given the mores of the time, that almost sounds cowardly. Had I competed for a music career and been successful, any of these issues about “proving myself” as an amateur or being coerced to support others out of common moralism would go away. (At least, unlike the prodicy boy Ephram in Everwood, I didn’t knock anybody up; I wouldn’t have, and that is the tragic irony of that WB show for me; Ephram was so determined to prove himself a “man” at 16. But my first piano teacher did say she was concerned that I grow up as a "normal boy" -- as if doing so were a fundamental moral duty.) Being childless also goes away as a “moral” concern, although success in what I really wanted to do and found expressive might have led to marriage after all.
I looked into volunteering for the Peace Corps in 2002 (after the layoff) and found that one needed a background of previous volunteerism and connectedness to make an effective application. What happened to me is that I was somewhat driven away into urban ghettos for three-plus decades, living in relative individual freedom, but disconnected from shared burdens and responsibilities. The moral climate regarding sexual “abnormality” (it’s hard to find a word that isn’t pejorative) said, “we don’t want you sharing the burdens of real men – fighting in the Army, raising or taking care of kids.” Fine, most of the time we didn’t have to think about it. In the 80s we fought for our own lives as AIDS marched through like a tornado. The storm let up, and in the 90s the concerns over shared burden ran underneath the more obvious debates about equal rights – to marry, to adopt, to serve in the military. Most gay men really could do these things well if allowed to. In my own case, it is less clear.
After Katrina, I did volunteer some in the Red Cross call center here in Falls Church. 75% of the time the best we could do was refer the callers to an overloaded FEMA 800 number for aid. When there was a real problem, I could get a mental health professional or nurse to come into the cubicle and talk about issues like diabetes medication for two hours with the client. That was rewarding. At a visible Washington church that I know pretty well, some high school and college kids raised money and went down to New Orleans for a week, and then some adults went down later. They both reported that they were not allowed inside wrecked and flooded homes because of the liability risk connected to mold, but did light work cleaning streets. You wonder why the efficiency of corporate America (Wal-Mart, Lowes, Home Depot, etc) isn’t delivering more premanufactured housing to let the victims start over on higher ground; there may (despite all of the Habitat for Humanity and Jimmy Carter “service” volunteerism) more efficient ways to help people after disasters that bit by bit. I do need to find something, however small and low-level, to do about this.
Today there is renewed talk of familial and community interdependence, because of the developing critical issues like global warming (carbon footprints), and the possibility of having to manage a pandemic (using recovered people as caregivers). Sometimes it's easier for people to see themselves in terms of family, and they will expect others to do the same. We face problems that indeed test our foundation free market economy, and whether the market ("extreme capitalism") will always be a moral denominator. Although the personal concern over volunteerism and participation is strong, it does not seem that our institutions (that is, the news media, the columnists, and the politicians – on either right or left) know how to debate these moral issues in terms of sharing of responsibilities and even “sacrifice” – with parasitism the ultimate “vice.” The ideas we had about “public morality” seventy years ago presumed all of this without discussion. One problem even then was class and race – rich people often got “out of it.” Today, responsibility has a lot to do with individual family circumstances (including filial responsibility, which seems so inequitably distributed by just plain luck) as well as personal brain wiring. It needs to get back into the debate, and that’s hard in a partisan climate.
older "Pay Your Bills and Pay Your Dues" essay (2004)