Friday, November 30, 2007

Detcord

So I just got back from Loscon, and boy, are my arms tired. Seriously, we drove, and that always tires my arms.

One of the things about gatherings of all sorts, of course, is that you meet interesting people with interesting stories. One of the folks I shared a panel with (Future Horror, I think it was) is a special effects pyrotechnician. That's part of the deal with Loscon, the connection to the movie biz, especially the technonerdy parts, which I find fascinating because, well, because.

After the panel, he told me a story about going through airport security. The name of this company was on his briefcase, bags, etc., and it included the word "pyrotechnics" and possibly, "explosives." Never mind. He was "randomly selected" for a bag check, and the guy swabbed his briefcase, then fed it into the sniffer. He scratched his head, then took another swab sample and fed it in again. Then he looked at the guy and asked, "What's PETN?"

That would be pentaerythritol tetranitrate, official IUPAC name: 1,3-Dinitrato-2,2-bis (nitratomethyl) propane. It's the principle ingredient in detcord, detonating cord that's used as a superfast fuse for triggering simultaneous explosions.

Okay, so the name "Department of Homeland Security" gives me the Orwellian creeps to start with. I noticed several weeks ago that on the TV show Smallville, they concocted a fictional name for the same organization and called it the "Department of Domestic Security." Smallville is based on Superman, a comic book character. What does it say when a comic book story has a less hokey name than the real thing?

Many people have noted the ongoing dynamic of "terrorism," where real or imagined threats are taken as license not to make policy changes that might actually address security, but rather as excuses to erode legal rights, expand police authority, and generally harass segments of the populace. Part of the wink, wink, nudge, nudge is that the Authoritarian Right assumes that these powers will never be used on them, but rather on other ethnic groups and the Right's political—and social—enemies. They are wrong, of course, but they never figure that part out. There are Russians who still yearn for the good old days of Stalin. For that matter, some still yearn for the Czar.

A recent trilogy of episodes on South Park had the nice conceit of terrorists invading "Imaginationland," literally attacking, not reality, but our imaginations. Last June, after Amy had her toothpaste confiscated by airline security, I realized that the policy of confiscating gels and liquids was to protect us from the terrorists in "Die Hard with a Vengence," i.e., from a type of explosive that does not actually exist, but has appeared in a movie.

Then there is the phenomenon of various pundits just salivating at the prospect of another 9/11 type event, often fantasizing it taking out some "left wing type" who have transgressed, who "don't love America," at least certainly not enough to fantasize about having famous landmarks blown up because they didn't like some election result.

Okay, so none of this is new, and, frankly, there are plenty of people who have been commenting on the politics of it for longer and at greater length than I have, and many of them are better at it. So why am I adding my oar to the water? Because of the other little thing that slips by in this story.

The airport security guard who asks "What is PETN?" is not to blame in this story. He's underpaid and undertrained and he knows full well that his job is basically harassing people, not actually improving their security. Besides, the sheer boredom of swabbing people's shoes and briefcases day after day would turn almost anyone's brain to mush.

But this stuff is supposed to be important, right? Shouldn't they at least try for the appearance of competence? Well, that would violate Conservative Movement Ideology, wouldn't it? I mean, government is supposed to be incompetent.

But wait. These are not government employees. They are employees of companies that have been contracted to provide these services. These companies are supposed to be "more efficient" than government.

Ah, but more efficient at what? Well, the purpose of it all has come to be "provide shareholder value," which is to say, "to make money." And there is some efficiency there, after all. But paying your workers well, training them, well, that just gets in the way of efficiency.

I once saw a documentary on John L. Lewis, who ran the United Mineworkers of America for 40 years. It was mostly coal mining, and coal mining is dirty, dangerous, and brutal. Lewis pushed not only for more money, but also higher safety standards. And he made what amounted to a long term bargain with the coal industry: they would not oppose mechanization if the miners got their fair share of the wealth that derived from enhanced productivity. It made sense; mechanized jobs required higher skills, more experience, and were safer. But there would be fewer of them. So Lewis got more money for fewer workers, undercutting his own political power for the good of those that remained.

The same thing happened with longshoremen when containerization came in. Nowadays, "stevedore" is essentially an archaicism; the men in the longshoremens union run those giant cranes and are paid very well. Ben tells me that Eric Hoffer wrote about the phenomenon in one of his books.

That was the deal as everyone understood it after WWII: rising productivity meant better pay in fewer jobs, but the economy as a whole would create jobs, especially "knowledge based" jobs that required college degrees, etc., so overall wages would increase and productivity would rise. They hadn't coined the phrase "win/win" yet, but there it was.

Somewhere along the line, that pact was broken. Somewhere between 1950 and now, the new business model became that of a South American banana republic: beat down the wages for the masses of workers so that those at the top could skim more cream. This is sometimes called the "Walmart model."

It pains me to think that both the engineering profession and science fiction were enablers to breaking the pact, but there that is as well. Engineers have always been their own worst enemies, partly because we love the work so much, and partly because so many engineers wind up in management. But I do not get the part about slowly undercutting the value of expertise and training. It took me forever to realize that new technologies were being accepted or rejected on the basis of whether or not they allowed the substitution of unskilled labor for skilled labor. And once that process begins, you get more and more highly capable people shoved into lower and lower scale jobs. I've lost count of the number of people I know who have to "dumb down" their resumes to find employment. Then, because the workforce is, in fact, overqualified, really, really, stupid managerial decisions sometimes can be made to work—simply because of the sheer competence of the labor force.

As for science fiction, Analog magazine has been the SF equivalent of Fox News for at least a couple of decades now. When was the last time you read an SF story that portrayed a union or government bureaucrat in a favorable light?

At the top, of course, the push for this new business model is the same as it always was: more booty for those who divvy up the spoils. There has been a huge effort to rationalize the vast sums paid to these folks as "the superstar effect," as if a CEO who gets a $50 million pay packet when his company has lost $2 billion in the quarter is somehow comparable to Barry Bonds. Or some hold that "people skills" have become the most important thing in the economy. Which is true, provided "people skills" is shorthand for "kiss up, kick down," treachery, mendacity, and the ability to pass off criminal behavior as standard business practice.

5 comments:

black dog barking said...

Go back to when Superman and John L Lewis were players in the nation's interests and imagination and you'll see the social institutions of today's America in recognizable form. Church, politics, teevee, movies, baseball, college & pro football, family, automobiles, work, education: all changed, but mostly cosmetic change. And yet my children's future looks much different than mine because, as you say, we've broken the pact.

The when, where, and who of this breach of trust isn't clear to me either but one of the hows, a detcord touching off massive economic and social change came when we forgot the rationale for progressive income tax. The owners of the Daily Planet and Peabody Coal had a harsh disincentive to extract exhorbitant income from their companies. A top rate of 90% in 1960 was no barrier to national prosperity, maybe because today's executive compensation was then better spent on independent newsrooms and mine safety; reinvested. This graph of top tax rates could also be a graph of social optimism since 1960.

We did ourselves no favor when we freed top corporate management from the discipline of diminishing personal returns.

James Killus said...

Brad Delong has observed that corporations were not big winners in this matter, either. With high marginal tax rates, pay tends not to cluster so much at the top, resulting in better pay for those even just slightly down the managerial hierarchy, the middle managers and such, whose diligence is necessary for the day-to-day operation of a company.

In a previous version of this theory, I thought that the computer revolution of the 1980s allowed, for the first time, corporate downsizing at the middle and lower management levels, all the way to executive assistants, typists, etc. It's easier for someone to lay off some nameless factory worker; much harder when it's a well-respected secretary or two out of eight managers who report directly to the big boss.

The result was that the system selected for guys who had no problem doing that sort of thing, the sharks and cobras, aka borderline sociopaths.

And, of course, ideologies that emphasized sociopathic behavior came to fore.

black dog barking said...

Desktop computers did promise to automate much of the "paper pushing" that passed for middle management in the 80s. White collar productivity improved but nothing like what was envisioned/promised. One fundamental reason was the fact that getting useful work out of a circuit, even an extremely fast circuit, was much easier to imagine than to actually do.

Plus, even though the hierarchy clearly identified decision-makers and pissants, in reality many of the paper pushers and most assuredly the secretaries were the day-to-day operational brains of those organizations. Cutting the fat turned into cutting the brain. Lucky they were dinosaur-like in size and brain-dependency.

And yes, we did select for sharks. Toothy sharks.

James Killus said...

Ah, I also forgot empty suits. That would make a good title, "Toothy Sharks and Empty Suits."

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