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Thursday, March 10, 2011

Gee, I know it's been a while . . . .

Once upon a time, I wanted to use blogging as an outlet for my restless brain. But I have a problem. I'm a bit lazy. And at times, easily distracted (can't say whether or not it's ADHD as I've never been diagnosed. Could be.) Moreover, I am in complete agreement with the following:

"I hate writing. I love having written." Dorothy Parker.

Had I taken up the virtual pen diligently then, by now I would be regarded as quite the prophet.

For example, I drove everyone I knew crazy in 2005 (the year I started this), when I announced flatly that the 2008 Presidential election campaign would not hinge on the wars in Iraq or Afghanistan. Coming out of Mr. Bush's second-term campaign, people looked at me as though I had lost my mind. Kerry-the-Peacenik had been eclipsed by Kerry-the-Sailor-Man, the Fightin' Patrician, and his secret, Christmas-time missions to Cambodia at the behest of President-elect Richard Nixon a month before Dick took the oath of office. That Tricky Dick was so Machiavellian!
[Have you ever noticed that LBJ is the one President all the other Democrats never want to be associated with? Ok, besides Carter; but Jimmy is still alive and still behaving like a bad-tempered Blanche Dubois battling a thirty-year episode of constipation. But when a Liberal mentions Viet Nam, they almost always skip over Johnson and zero right in on Nixon. Like Akhenaten of ancient Egypt, the priests of Liberalism chisel his name out of all the historical records, never to be spoken of or have tributes to his memory. Poor Lyndon; I doubt there will ever be a super carrier named in his honor.]

Iraq was in the news, it was commonly known we would not be out of the country or even winding down by 2008, so of course the campaign would once again be about the war!

Nuh UH, not me. I told my friends that the 2008 Presidential election would be about jobs.

I had been observing the changes in work life in my little corner of the corporate professional world in the last decade and was disturbed by the trends I saw and read about. I noticed that in the run-up to Y2K, and the gargantuan efforts to review all the legacy computer code that had been written since the dawn of the digital age, corporations had discovered that, like manufactured goods in the Seventies and Eighties, modern service-level jobs could be done vastly more cheaply in foreign lands. The simultaneous expansion of the Internet, fiber optic and satellite communications, and desktop assets had rendered eager English-speaking workers in lower wage nations as close as the guy in the next cubical for everything except a quick visit. "Outsourcing" had been the wave of the Nineties; the new fad was "Off-shoring." And for those companies that didn't "Out" you nor "Off" you, they were still not finished with you.

"Multitasking" became a buzz word (buzz concept? buzz idea?) that spread through the hive-mind of the corporate world, appearing in articles, advertisements, job descriptions and resumes. Work teams that lost a member often learned that job duties were being re-distributed amongst the remaining team and that the open position would not be filled. "Do more with less," we were told, "We need you to multitask." Job descriptions became cut and paste affairs. And the work day expanded. Managers, in conferences all day, became available for status updates at 4:00 pm or later and the handy Blackberry let them blast an e-mail to the whole team before leaving the conference table, just in time to dash any hopes of dinner with the family at a reasonable hour. The explosion of functionality in hand-held mobile devices meant that simply because you were watching Jay Leno didn't mean you couldn't respond to a few e-mails. After all, it was the middle of the day in Mumbai.

And everywhere I looked, there was an atmosphere of tension, of fear. Not a great, shivering terror. But a subtle fear, like a slight bad odor in the air conditioning you only whiff at certain moments and the HVAC guys swear has no cause they can find. An underlying tension in the way people work, a feeling of fragility in the fabric of their circumstances. The momentary, millisecond of defiance forming on their faces when yet another random task is assigned to them, something that might once have been given to the "admin" person in the group before those people became rare in modern corporations, followed by the downward glance and slight head nod of acceptance and capitulation. The constant dread that, despite all efforts to be an endlessly-busy, loyal, compliant drone, somewhere far away in the corporate HQ someone who has never been out to this facility and never looked at the work flow as it really exists (not the chart everyone knows is a joke) will put some formulas into a spreadsheet and calculate that the Manila office is getting ten new positions at a fraction of what the company currently pays for the same quality of work. Of course the quality is the same! And if it isn't, we'll pretend it is and then I can get my productivity bonus. Death from above, via Excel.

And people who were let go might find a new job. This was at a time when the published unemployment rate figures were low, remember. But I had a sinking suspicion that the figures missed something: how often people were RIFed from an $80K a year job and accepted a $60K one instead. Or whatever those figures would be in the prevailing wage. It's something I must research and may write about later, but I suspect the phenomenon was more common than full-employment statistics would convey. Full employment, but diminished means.

And the question I began to ask my colleagues over drinks some evenings was "What CEO wants to pay the wages they all want to see in the incomes of their customers?" You know the answer: the other guy.

And while "prevailing wages" in the manufacturing and service sectors were morphing from a local phenomenon into a world-embracing idea that included areas of extreme poverty, prices remained strictly local. Everyone wanted to pay Mumbai, but charge Manhattan.

I know, "So sad; too bad! That's Capitalism, baby." And I DO know, for once upon a time I studied Economics diligently. Once it became possible, once it was demonstrated successfully even a single time, it would spread through the corporate world faster than you could say "Harvard Business Review." And I know that it was a transitional phase. A stimulus that would lead to a societal response. That is the nature of things. What I suspected was that this time, the reaction from the people most impacted by the change would be expressed politically, in whom they chose to elect, rather than each individual family trying to adapt to the circumstances. They would tilt away from the Republicans and towards the Democrats because the Donks stock in trade is "Got a problem? Government can help!" Middle America was fed up, already working a second job to supplement the two incomes that weren't getting the bills paid, they wanted help and no one was listening. I figured the first Democrat contender to shut up about the war and start talking about jobs and incomes, not as a side issue but as the mainstay of his or her administration, would steal the primaries and then the general election.

[I always thought that the popular backlash against the Kennedy-McCain immigration bill in 2007 was at least partly because of the fears enumerated above. It's not the same thing I know, and defeating Kennedy-McCain did not do anything to staunch off-shoring, but I think it created among people NOT affected by direct competition with low-wage illegal immigrant workers a resonant feeling of sympathy and an outlet for anger for the pressures they did feel.]

I was wrong about the major issue of the election being jobs, to an extent, because I didn't see just how irresponsible mortgage lending had become. I worked for JP Morgan Chase at the time Bear Stearns fell in March, which I think of as the first shock in the crisis that really bloomed in the Fall. But I was right as well: The mortgage crisis is really a jobs crisis first, not caused by the insolvency on Wall Street and the ripple effects throughout the economy, but exacerbated by it. People lost jobs and companies curtailed hiring after Fall 2008 as the effects deepened, but declining incomes are what started off the mortgage crisis. People with well-paying jobs can pay their mortgages and don't need second mortgages or sub-prime rates. Areas with stable employment levels don't suffer steadily declining property values and stay "above water." More on this another time; this is a blog, not a book.

When the bailouts started and got widespread support on both sides of the aisle, that sealed McCain's fate. When both Pubbies and Donks find virtue in welfare statism, people turn to the party that had always spouted socialistic answers.

That's not to diminish Obama as a politician; his singularly blank resume throughout all his offices has proved no detriment to his career. If Bill Clinton was the "Teflon President," then Mr. Obama is the "KY Guy:" so slick, he's in before you realized he was trying.

Good to be back!!

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