Jane Haddam’s WordPress weblog

The Long Week-End, Not Lost

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So it’s Friday, the beginning of a very long week-end–bank holiday, in the parlance of those of you in the Commonwealths and England–and I’ve spent most of it getting nowhere and getting  frustrated. 

But I now have four straight days when, as far as I can figure out, I have nothing to do but write and take care of business, and no reason at all to set an alarm. 

This does me less good than you’d think, because by now my internal clock knows when it’s “supposed” to wake up, and it tends to do it whether I want it to or not.

But in the meantime, I’ve had a chance to look at most of what Elf posted, and read through it a couple of times,  and wonder why it was the program passed all his posts right through but one, which it decided to treat as evil death spam.    Since I couldn’t see any difference between it and the others, I guess I’ll just have to put it down to one of the mysteries of the universe.

All that said–what bothers me about all those articles is the assumption that, with the exception of the changes they are warning us against, all the world is going to just stand still. 

I don’t think it’s true that we are doing less and less innovation, or less and less often producing new jobs in unthought of areas to replace the old ones we have mechanized.

Transitions are not instantaneous, but they do happen.  They have always happened.  Why assume–as these articles assume, and as Elf also seems to be assuming–that they will not happen any more?

My older son is fond of saying that human beings are very bad at imagining what we’re going to get good at.  The best science fiction writers of their time took us to space, gave us warp speed…and portrayed computers as things the size of small buildings.

I have the same problem with a lot of the material on climate change.  I’ve got no problem accepting that climate change is happening or even that we’re likely to be causing it. 

I don’t understand why the only response anybody can think of is “develop huge overarching global institutions to bring us back to the status quo ante.”


It seems to me that there are many possible responses to climate change, including many possible ways of adapting to it.  And adapting would be painful, but so are most of the ways in which various people have responding to it now. 

There is too much, in all of this, that seems to me to be fear of change because it’s change.

But there’s something else, and I’ve noticed it a lot not only here, but in public discussion when I was still living in England.

The futurescape suggested in these articles–and the one suggested by Michael himself–is the futurescape seen from the point of view of the coasts, and of people who see “normal” as working for large institutions (corporations, government, universities) that provide stability, broadly based benefits, and at least the illusion that the enterprise and its largesse will outlast our lifetimes.

But most people don’t work for companies like that, and they never have.  They aren’t watching such jobs disappear.  The jobs they have never had anything to do with that kind of environment to begin with.

It reminds me of an article by a very famous mystery agent, published back in the early ’80’s, about “how to tell if you’re ready to quit your day job.”

Remember, the man intoned–and he was a sweetheart, really, I shouldn’t laugh at him–you’re not just making $50,000 a year.  You’re making that plus your health insurance, your sick days, your vacation days–add it all up, and you’re really making closer to $80,00.  So, if you’re not making that much freelance, don’t quit your day job!

I nearly laughed myself silly.  Most of the people I knew who were trying to go freelance full time weren’t making anything like $50,000 a year and didn’t have any benefits.  They were working part time for minimum wage at anything they could get that would give them time to write.  A “good” job was working part time as a clerk in a bookstore. That way you always knew what books were coming out, and some of those places gave employee discounts.   Second best was waiting table where real published authors and editors hung out.  Elaine’s was the place for “literary.”  Bogey’s was the place if you wanted to write mysteries.

And, when all else failed–well, you could do pretty well if you got some training as a bartender.

I have no doubt that jobs in big bureaucratized institutions will be keenly sought after and highly competitive.  I also have no doubt that lots of people are just not going to be interested, for the same reason they’re not interested now.

Security is a good thing to have, but most of us are not willing to trade the rest of our lives for it. 

And at the same time that Watson and company are making it possible for Big Corporations and Big Institutions and Big Government to hire fewer and fewer workers, related technology is making it possible for more and more people to do without Big Institutions.   Musicians put out their own music on their own labels.  Writers put up their own books in e-formats.  Filmmakers go off on their own and make the movie they can’t make when five guys in suits are trying to make them make it just like Last Year’s Hit, which was about a rabbit who became a nun.

Part of my difference of opinion here may come from the fact that I’ve never had much use for stocks.  I’ve owned some, on and off, but if I’d ever had the chance of wanting to own some again, the Martha Stewart case killed it for me for good.

(A point here–most people say Stewart went to jail for “insider trading.”  But she didn’t.  She went to jail for telling a meeting of her stockholders that she was innocent of stockholder trading and would not be found guilty by any court.  And, in fact, she was right–they couldn’t get it for that.  But they could get her for saying that, even though she turned out to be telling the truth.  No, I don’t get it either.  And I know when I don’t know enough to keep myself out of trouble, so I’ll just pass on that sort of thing.)

“Stockholder democracy” was always a myth.  Back in the 1950s, one of the nation’s largest and most prestigious brokerages got nailed for selling stock whose prices it knew were going to decline to its small customers–the stock having belonged to its big customers, who were therefore protected.

To the extent that the idea existed in reality at all, it consisted of just those stockholder suits I was talking about yesterday, decisions that forced management to a lot that was bad for the company in the long run while looking really neat in the short.

If more and more companies are going private, I say–good.  Excellent, in fact.  I’d rather have Apple making its decisions on the basis of the owners’ passion for computers than on its stockholders’ need for an uptick in the third quarter.

And if they act like idiots–well, they’ll go down without taking my retirement account with them.

There are two other things, but I’m getting to the end of my ability to pay attention when I write.

The first thing is an unfortunate truth, that has been with us now for centuries.  As technology advances, the minimum level of intelligence necessary to function in it gets higher.   We consider people “mentally challenged” now who would have been considered perfectly normal–hell, even average, 150 years ago.

The second thing is that that imagined future world, where there are billionaires and everybody else is starving, is an impossibility.

It’s an impossibility because the billionaires only get to be billionaires by selling things to people who are not billionaires. 

If they ever managed to manufacture a world of nothing but us and them, it would collapse on their heads. 

But I’ll leave that and some other things until tomorrow, and see what I can do about this pot roast.

Written by janeh

February 18th, 2011 at 5:00 pm

Posted in Uncategorized

5 Responses to 'The Long Week-End, Not Lost'

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  1. Jane wrote people who see “normal” as working for large institutions (corporations, government, universities) that provide stability, broadly based benefits, and at least the illusion that the enterprise and its largesse will outlast our lifetimes.

    I may consider it normal to work for large corporations but I no longer expect it to provide stability. I’ve given up hope of even guessing what will be happening 5 years from now.


    18 Feb 11 at 8:03 pm

  2. ‘I don’t understand why the only response anybody can think of is “develop huge overarching global institutions to bring us back to the status quo ante.”’

    Oh, I’m sorry. I thought that was obvious. “Anybody” is defined as “persons able to propose bills or writing in prestigious magazines.” They get paid, directly or indirectly, by those overarching institutions, and the status quo ante has been very good to them. Please also remember you need a “solution” with lots of niggling detail and contradictions, because the money and power are in the permits, waivers and exemptions. Ideally, everyone should be in violation of at least one law.

    Either a flat “cap and trade” or a carbon tax would fix the problem, but leave the government without a means of punishing enemies or rewarding friends, so these are not regarded as “serious” solutions.

    A “serious” solution, by the way is “one that doesn’t inconvenience the powers that be.”


    18 Feb 11 at 8:35 pm

  3. It is also a good thing to have a way to protect those who are displaced by change. Having lived almost all my life in an area dependant on resource-based industries, with their inevitable ups and downs and, in some cases, complete collapse without a subsequent ‘up’, I’ve had a birds-eye view of the results even though I personally much prefer more stable employment.

    I also rather doubt that we require more and not less intelligence to function today than in the past. A LOT of basic, poorly-paid jobs require LESS mental ability (and often even less physical ability) than in the past. Look at the way machines do all the arithmetic for clerks, most ‘cooks’ simply follow the easily-memorized routines of fast food restaurants, most diggers and hewers simply operate machines – usually designed to be childishly simple to operate. I remember years ago hearing or reading someone opine that in the future, you would need to be able to use a computer in order to work as a cashier. He didn’t realize that ‘using a computer’, especially one custom-desgined for one particular purpose, would come to require very litte more intelligence than driving a car, and about the same level of understanding of what goes on inside the machine.

    That doesn’t mean that some people don’t require a fairly high level of intelligence in others in order to consider them ‘normal’, whatever ‘normal’ means. I’m following with interest a local case in which social services seems to have depended greatly on IQ tests to permanently remove two children from their parents. The full truth obviously isn’t out yet, if it ever will be, but it does seem like the only neglect or abuse alleged was missing a doctor’s appointment, that both parents were considered too intellectually limited to care for the children, although the father had been working for some years in the stockroom of a local business (and was praised by his employer) and the mother was a stay at home mother. They’d both managed to get some kind of school leaving certificate (they said ‘graduate’, but it may have been through an alternative program) and successfuly completed some kind of course at the local community college.

    But they weren’t academically bright, so they’re said not to be able to function as parents. How can they be said not to function if they have their own home and pay their own way and were, apparently, raising their own children until very recently?


    19 Feb 11 at 8:04 am

  4. The steel mills went away. And no jobs came to replace them.

    Many of the auto plants have gone away. And no jobs came to replace them.

    Other manufacturing jobs have gone away. And no jobs came to replace them.

    Then help desk jobs went away. And no jobs came to replace them.

    Law firms (some of them anyway) are farming out much of their legal research overseas. And no jobs have come to replace them.

    Oh, some of the people have moved on to other jobs. Low paying, usually service industry of some kind, jobs.

    Now the machines are threatening to take over even the jobs that have been shipped overseas AND higher skilled jobs that are, as yet, still here.

    There will be no jobs to replace them.

    It hasn’t worked that way in a long time.

    And these effects ripple though the economy. Those aspiring writers you were talking about may have poor paying jobs, but many of those jobs depend directly or indirectly on those higher paying “institutional” jobs with the benefits. One of the big effects not mentioned in the press of the great recession is a large drop in hospital census. My wife’s hospital (Scripps system) is re-organizing like mad, overtime for those that used to get it is gone.

    Which means that any individual medical practices out there (well, except maybe high end plastic surgeons and their tummy tucks and boob jobs) are hurting. People still get sick and hurt whether or not they’re working, but sans those benefits they just suffer until they’re forced to seek help for some reason.

    Can there be a world of billionaires and starving masses? Well, the machines still need parts. Not every business will want an in house tech, so they’ll pay for the service, even if it’s provided by someone elses robot. And the robot factories still need raw materials, even if they’re mined by someone elses robots, so they’ll have to pay for that.

    So I’m not so sure I’d bet against it 100%.

    And our (as in U.S.) business model with the owning class owning ever more of the country’s businesses and its infrastructure, getting most of the income — and paying no taxes on it is set up to head to just that dystopian future.

    And even if it really can’t get there, if indeed without a middle and working class to provide the economic engine the whole house cards comes falling down – then THAT is path we’re on. I’m not sure if that’s much better, or if it’s really any different. The numbers representing the size of the owing classes bank accounts get smaller, but they’re still the ones with the houses in the Hamptons (so to speak), the kids in the Ivy league etc. and the rest of the country still suffers. Seems a distinction without a difference, because regardless, once those jobs go they’re not coming back and there won’t be anything to replace them.


    19 Feb 11 at 10:09 am

  5. Oh, and I forgot. Yes, as technology advances the minimum level of intelligence to operate it – to have a job ahead of it, has advanced.

    Now that machines are getting set to be able to take over much of the work of doctor’s and lawyers and engineers . . . I’m not sure what is supposed to be left.

    Up to now, machines couldn’t write an essay. Not a real one anyway, although I found a “postmodern language generator” once (and yes, used it to shut someone up one time, another story) it was designed to produce jibberish.

    If, and it seems certain so it’s not much of an “if”, a ‘Watson’ can be built to write assorted short magazine articles to editors demands for anything from cooking to car care to, well, anything — what happens to writers?

    A novel is whole different level of complexity, but I don’t see a short magazine article writing ‘watson’ as being very far off the horizon.

    Think of it. A robot like the news aggregator at Google scanning the web for topics of interest for the day feeding topics to other robots to write focusing on whatever being read most that day to attract readers.

    Picture a world where if you want to be a writer at all you have to jump from being no one to being a best selling novelist to have a career.


    19 Feb 11 at 10:23 am

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