A lifestyle choice

If by some quirk of bureaucracy or fate I had exactly one chance to become a father that I needed to exercise in, say, the next week, I would turn it down. When I try to imagine a time at which such a scenario could play out and end with me taking the choice instead of refusing it, I’m at a loss.

The point to my sentiment about fatherhood is not just about financial well-being, or the fact that I’ve got a pretty solid Peter Pan act going, or my certain lack of confidence about being a good father. With respect to the last, the notion evokes a feeling of bemusement — not dread.

Rather, I look at what the world is becoming, and I think to myself, I am not experientially equipped to teach a child how to function in this world.

That thought is no small fraction of the source of my melancholia. Just sayin’. This would also be a good time to note that I’m not condemning those who choose to become parents. In fact, I applaud the testicular fortitude of those who do.

Between climate change, the decline of fossil fuels, the disintegration of responsible government in D.C., the evisceration of the American middle class, and my contemporary distaste for religion, it feels like the whole world has gone crazy. No-one, it seems, wants to take responsibility for solving the tough problems. I’m unable to do so myself, on many days. The expectations of the future to which I was raised have not been met, and I’m not talking about the jet-packs we don’t have yet.

The make-work nation

This hand-wringing does not mean that I’ve lost all of my faith in my nation and my species to get tbings done, to extricate victory from the maw of defeat. However, the sense of purpose and duty requisite to activating that community sentiment requires leadership — leadership that is, for the most part, absent everywhere I turn. The people who ought to be leading are instead covering their own asses and sniping at one another.

…As a result, so many things appear to have gone by the wayside. The entitlement programs that allow the poor to participate in the economy are being torn down bit-by-bit. The education system that rose to the challenge of the Cold War and won it is now middling at best, propelled by the conventional wisdom that social promotion is an entitlement of anyone who can pay for it, but very few of those who can work for it.

Most importantly, the jobs done by people who make things are largely gone, outsourced to Asia and Mexico — all so that holders of equity can burnish their wealth, while the rest of us are left to struggle on the treadmill of month-to-month living.

“…But Ben,” you might say, “your job doesn’t really make things either, even when you are billing hours.” My only defense against that charge is that — had I been born in different times or made different chioces — I probably would be.

…I’m quite serious. Engineering was at the top of my list of career choices until my sophomore year of high school, when I realized I was burning out on advanced math. Under different circumstances I would’ve studied through my master’s degree in CE or AE and probably managed to get a good job out of school. Life had other plans, however.

I recognize the value of the service industry, particularly since nearly all of my jobs have been in that sector of the economy. Dorm living and other experiences taught me that while there’s glory in making things, the people who do the invisible work — cleaners, drivers, admin assistants, call-in reps — are the oil that keeps the gears of civilized society from seizing up. I recognize glory, but I hold an awful respect for the doers of the invisible jobs.

However… when you look at the overhead of various commercial service industries and other travesties like union work rules, it becomes painfully obvious that something’s breaking down. The “FIRE economy” — finance, insurance, and real estate — is the beating heart of the United States economy. We sell time and expertise for want of anything better to sell. The people who do that work know their place, and they feel entitled because of it, not once stopping to realize that while they (notionally) subtract drudgery from the lives of their customers, they don’t actually add anything to the world around us. If I could choose the people who’d be entitled to wealth and other considerations, it’d be the invisibles, not those twerps.

The most damning part of the picture from where I stand is my own role in the mess, small though it may be. I work in information services; I specialize in designing and building interactive infosystems. When I do my job right, other people lose their jobs altogether. I don’t know if I should be applauded for being a visionary, or lined up to a wall and shot.

If I was king…

The America in which I want to live has the world’s best public education system, one that teaches people how to think critically, gives them the basic skills they need to break any problem into smaller steps and solve it — or at least how to best choose someone they can pay to solve it for them. I would gladly pay a higher marginal tax rate, if I knew that the surcharged monies were being spent on infrastructure and better health care and the aforementioned education system. I would rather live in a country where causation travels from merit and leadership skill to money, in lieu of respect being granted to those with money by default.

I also believe that barring some awful, consciousness-raising disaster, I will die never having seen that nation take shape again.

Music

R.E.M., “It’s the End of the World As We Know It (And I Feel Fine)”
@amazon
@allmusic

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Meditations on Decay

Meditations on Decay —by Ben Henick, 9 August 2010

All journal entries

  1. Talking About the Weather
  2. To the Rafters?
  3. Coming of Age with Killer Apps
  4. Race to the Bottom
  5. Meditations on Decay
  6. Net Neutrality, or the Lack Thereof
  7. Three Problems
  8. Post Mortem of a Book Project
  9. The Egg and the Chicken
  10. Yellow Dog
  11. Digging Through the Clutter
  12. Lessons from Mom
  13. Being Careful What You Wish For
  14. Out on a Limb
  15. Beliefs, No. 1
  16. Like a Chimney
  17. Does Not Compute
  18. Past Trends, Future Results
  19. Beyond These Four Walls
  20. Competence, Confidence, and Reality
  21. Anesthesia
  22. King of the Mountain
  23. “A Deer in the Headlights”

Disclaimer: This is definitely self-indulgent. If you don’t like it, read somebody else.

This nook of the Internet is my antidote for Twitter. ©2010 Ben Henick, all rights reserved.

Job, or hell?

Yesterday I happened on two links. (Good grief, I love the Web.) The first is an e-mail alideshow of sorts aimed at the guts of some hypocrite named Spencer, the author’s (erstwhile imaginary) boss. The second is an article in Slate discussing the (un-) desirability of low- to mid-level service jobs.

…And then there’s the story of the flight attendant who on Monday found a spectacular way to say “take this job and shove it” after being verbally assaulted at length by a passenger.

All three pieces are a kick. Reading them in rapid succession, as I did yesterday afternoon, is a kick in the guts. The article about jobs-in-general particularly evoked from me a visceral response.

Rich get richer, poor get poorer

The sense of entitlement to profit that I raised a few days ago is evident in every talk about compensation I’ve heard about, or participated in, in the past several years. It seems to me like the vast majority want labor for the cheapest they can possibly obtain, while remaining content to throw handfuls of money at senior management and holders of equity — even ones who, as it turns out, contribute little or nothing.

It always seems like the same old story: hire somebody with the basic minimum of proven ability in order to get away with paying them as little as possible, train them up to the minimum needed by the organization, fire the ones who don’t take comfortably to that scheme at the instant they’re identified, and work the others to the bone until they burn out.

I believe that on some level, most people recognize that this is going on. However, I struggle to understand why. It seems axiomatic to me that people who feel valued will work harder, yet the trend moves toward every possible effort to remind people that they’re replaceable and ought to get the best out of things while they can.

Compassion vs. sociopathy

The only fact that adequately explains this prevailing state of affairs is broad, unwitting subscription to the system cobbled together from the amoral rants of a mildly nutty Russian emigré. On balance that would not be so bad, except that like that ethos’ nemeses — Communism and Christianity — “Objectivism” works a hell of a lot better in theory than in practice.

I see two deep flaws with this ethos, deepening my my confusion. First, we can’t all be Howard Roark; lots of us lack the temperament requisite to that outcome. As much to the point, if we all could have and act upon that power, civilization as we know it would rapidly descend into barbarism. One man’s clear thinker is another’s cold-hearted sonofabitch, and the latter type is awfully good at inducing conflict.

Second, human beings possess and act upon compassion compulsively; the ones who habitually refuse or fail to do so are (rightly) called sociopaths. We all recognize that the chain is only as strong as its weakest link, and communities tend to raise the minimum when given the chance. Cutting loose that weak link instead… goes a bit far.

Meritocracy

The happy finish of the labor market’s neo-Nietzchean race to the botom can be found in two virtues that are compatible with all of the belief systems in play: honesty and fidelity.

As it stands, the realities of social (im-) mobility leave some with first-class tickets, and consign the rest to steerage barring both outstanding luck and superlative effort. Furthermore, there are no guarantees that anyone who manages to climb their way out of steerage won’t be shoved back down by some vindictive asshole.

Rewarding honesty and fidelity in the workplace — and penalizing those who lie, cheat, and habitually cover their asses — would go a long way toward making the labor market a better place for everybody.

We have the technological capacity to discover and promote out of steerage quickly the ones who’ve earned it, as a matter of course. We can do the reverse for those who feel most inclined to rest on their laurels. Why don’t we?

Music

Hey Lewis & The News, “Workin’ for a Livin’”
@amazon
@allmusic