O! the Humanity!!

This is why I enjoy reading articles appearing in Alternet.org that a friend of mine links to, in support of his visceral revulsion against all things capitalistic.  They’re so clownishly badly reasoned and poorly supported.

This one is outraged that an operator of warehouses, very large spaces (a sizeable number of which have roofs that measure in acres) in which it’s easy to . . . ummmm . . . lose oneself, wants to know where its employees are, what they’re doing, and how long it takes them to do it.  This, so Alternet’s Tana Ganeva, makes work “more like a prison.”  Ummm . . . Tana, in prisons the folks who “work” there aren’t at liberty to remove their orange jumpers, leg irons, or whatever, tell the warden to go pound sand, and march out the door.  That lack of liberty is a prison’s defining trait, Tana.  Even the closest America has ever got to debt peonage, the Appalachian coal company town, was never a prison.  People left all the time.  In droves.  In Eastern Kentucky the Three Rs were readin’, writin’, and Route 25 North.  I’m just going to assume that the inmates of Tesco’s (the arm-band brandishing Stalag commandant cited) are not locked in, and that if they truly, genuinely, to the soles of their being felt the degradation of these arm bands as deeply as Ganeva describes, they are perfectly able to drag up and go find a job for some other company that can’t afford arm band technology . . . and that likely can’t afford all manner of other perks of working for Tesco’s.  Like having a career path.  Or being able to move clear across the country without having to change your employer.  Or having multiple different job fields available all within the same employer.  Or (granted, Tesco’s is British, and so the distinction isn’t as great there) health benefits, or a 401(k) with actual, honest-to-God employer matching contributions. 

If they really wanted to go work for some small company where the owner knows everyone’s name, everyone’s spouse’s name, and most of their children’s as well, they could go do that.  There are numerous advantages of doing so.  There really are, some of which have a price tag and some of which are literally priceless.  Of course, when you work for a company like that you’ll never rise above a certain point, because you’re not family.  Even more perilously, your job’s existence — in fact, the company’s existence — is exposed to all manner of circumstances which have nothing to do with the underlying health of the company.  Like the owner’s getting divorced.  Or acquiring a drug habit.  Or developing severe health problems.  Or dying and leaving a bunch of children who haven’t agreed on anything since it was time to figure out who had to take a bath first.  If the owner decides he’s just lost interest in the company, you’re toast.  If the owner’s other business ventures tank and he’s forced into bankruptcy, guess what?  Your job is now part of his bankruptcy estate.  Big companies do go under too (Westinghouse, anyone?  PanAm?), but they do so for reasons that everyone can see coming.  Westinghouse didn’t go down because some guy and his soon-to-be ex-wife couldn’t agree on who was going to get the condo in Vail.  So you can hitch your horse to that wagon and hope the horse doesn’t cast a shoe and the driver (who will never be you) doesn’t run a wheel off . . . or you can suck it up and deal with the impersonality of working for a Tesco’s.

Now, Alternet’s a proudly left-wing site, and the articles I’ve seen posted there are of similar strain, mostly.  So what I do find mildly ironic is that the horror of Tesco’s and the other unnamed employers’ productivity monitoring is that it enables the employer to assign to the individual workers (rather than the entire facility) a “productivity score,” which fluctuates by, among other things, how quickly they accomplish their job tasks.  A Tesco’s employee describes how if they do a particular task in X minutes they receive a 100% score; if they do it twice as fast they receive a 200% score; but, if they took a break their score would plummet.  They might even be called on the carpet by “management” if their scores are too low.  I wouldn’t expect an Alternet contributor to be all that mindful of history, but the guy who really put the bite into employee productivity monitoring was not Henry Ford or Frederick Taylor [Aside: Taylor, who was admitted to Harvard but didn’t attend, became a shop-floor machinist after a lengthy apprenticeship.  I know it tarnishes Ganeva’s oppression meme to think that Taylor was just some suit who knew bugger all about the view from the other end of the scope, but there it is.].  No, the gentleman who — and in an actual, not metaphoric, prison setting, no less — hit upon the magic formula for increasing piecework rates was a worthy named Naftaly Frenkel.  There’s a picture of him in The GuLAG Archipelago, and Solzhenitsyn devotes an entire chapter to the workings of the differentiated ration.  If you made your “norm,” set by someone known in the camps as the “norm setter” and who was generally a trusty — for which read a career criminal, stool pigeon, or party functionary serving out a cushy term, but who in no event knew a damned thing about whatever industrial activity you were engaged in — you got a full ration.  If you didn’t, well, you got a smaller ration, which since the full ration didn’t contain the caloric content needed to sustain even ordinary levels of human physical activity that meant that you rapidly became unable to attain even that insufficient level of output, which meant that your ration got cut again.  And so forth until you became a “goner,” picking through the camp garbage looking for anything at all you still had the strength to chew and swallow.  It can’t be an accident that most of the camp survivor’s memoirs out there (or at least the ones I’ve come across; one of the few exceptions is Shalamov, at whose survival Solzhenitsyn marvels) all were written by people who for large portions of their “tenner” or their “quarter” managed to avoid “general labor,” which was where the differentiated ration system devised by Frenkel had its deadliest impact.

Not directly articulated in Ganeva’s argument, but easily discernible from the sinister presentation of technologies which make it impossible for co-workers to “cover for each other, by letting them punch in for tardy co-workers” (oh come on, Ms. Ganeva; why don’t you call things by their correct names, viz. “defraud the employer”?), is outrage that these technologies enable the employer to track the actions of specific employees.  It is one thing for management to realize that for whatever reason this one facility, or this one shift, just can’t quite seem to get the work turned around as well as its peers.  You can’t fire an entire shift, can you, without shutting down your facility.  About the only thing you can do is stand on the shift supervisor’s neck and fire him if you see no aggregate-level improvement.  But so long as the individual workers can “cover for each other” then ultimately the insistence of the employer on Doing The Job Better will be stymied.  But lo! if you can point to specific employees and document that it’s the same four guys who take 15 minutes to drive a pallet of cardboard waste to the compactor across a distance of 300 feet, or who spend seven minutes of every hour (that seven minutes is over 10% of the time you’re paying them for, by the way, which means that by paying 60 minutes’ wages for 53 minutes’ work your labor costs just went up by 13.2%) in this one corner of the facility for no apparent reason, which just happens not to be easily observable from any location where you’re likely to find a manager, or it’s the same three women who seem to need to go take a leak every 35 minutes . . . well, it’s pretty easy to figure out where the weak links are.  The dead-beats and the free riders cannot hide behind their more hard-working fellows, any more.

And that’s really the nub of Ganeva’s objection, when you get down to it.  The issue is the employer’s ability to insist on getting what it is paying for, and the inability to hide one’s own lack of efforts, or inefficient efforts, behind the diligence of others.  This is entirely in keeping with leftism’s approach to life in general.  You must cover for me.  If I make bad life choices you must bear the cost of them for me.  If I choose to develop a skill for which no one in particular has much use (like getting a degree in the various grievance studies), you must pay me as if I were actually useful to you.  For lefties it’s all about the collective, and these monitoring technologies are the antithesis of that frame of mind.

There’s a throwaway paragraph at the close of the article on how application of the same management practices to things like hospitals and the nurses (and increasingly, doctors as well) has a negative impact on the quality of service.  In point of fact she is entirely correct on this score.  On the other hand, if she thinks that it’s private employers only who transgress in this respect and that if only you could remove the capitalistic profit motive from the equation then all will be aright, she needs to pay attention to some other news coming from Britain, specifically its vaunted single-payer NHS.  Seems that quality of care isn’t terribly safe in governmental hands either, and for very similar reasons.

Utterly absent from Ganeva’s take on things is any examination of why employers might be interested in such things as these technologies allow them to monitor.  Let’s forget about piffling things like the liability limitation aspect of it (female employee accuses male co-worker of improprieties, and a quick check of the records indicates that the only time they were within fifty feet of each other the entire day in question there were six other people standing in their immediate vicinity and none of them claims to have seen or heard a thing).  Warehouses are very complex operations.  They’re not just your pantry writ enormous.  Juggling what comes in and where, the locations it’s stored, its storage location relative to the other things stored near it, the times it needs to be moved, and from what location to what other location, the times it leaves the warehouse, and at what times and in what order, are all matters of critical importance to supplying thousands of different items in exactly the right numbers, at the right times, and to the right places, when you’re trying to keep dozens if not hundreds of places across an entire country supplied at once.  Yes you can to some degree automate the process, but at some point you’re going to have to rely on your employees to get it right.  Knowing where they are, how long they take to get from Point A to Point B, where they have to stop in between points, and how long it takes them to accomplish whatever task is at hand is not a trivial issue.

Or let’s look at the call center employees cited by Ganeva.  They’re given a certain number of seconds between calls to process specific paperwork.  Seems pretty damned dictatorial, doesn’t it?  But against whom is this call center competing, and what are its competitors’ costs per call handled?  I’ll give you a hint:  If you run a call center in, say, Norman, Oklahoma your competitors are not in Hartford, Connecticut.  Oh, they may be in the same business as you, but your competitors are in Jalalabad, or Peshawar, or Singapore, or Costa Rica, or in fact pretty much anywhere at all these days.  Your only hopes for staying in business against them are (i) offering a level of service which they can’t match (such as having native English speakers available to talk to some 70 year-old woman in Rock Hill, South Carolina whose grandchildren just got her a smart phone with Skype installed so that she can talk to them while they’re forward-deployed to Iraq), and (ii) a fanatic attention paid to every last fraction of a second of every day, 24 hours a day, for which you’re paying people to service those calls.  That’s just reality, Ms. Ganeva, and unless you want to return to the days of Smoot-Hawley [I would encourage you, Ms. Ganeva, to read some of the histories about how that statute played out across the world, with particular attention paid to what it did to the economies of Central Europe, and specifically to the economy of Germany, in the period prior to January 30, 1933.  How many workers and peasants died in the fall-out from that?] there is nothing you can do to wish it away.  You cannot remove the pressures under which employers operate.  You just can’t, and you never will be able to.

Are these sorts of monitoring efforts pleasant to live under?  No.  Do they produce workplace stress?  Hell yes, they do.  But you know what produces even more stress?  Not being able to find a job at all and losing your home.  Is it pleasant for the employees’ children to have a parent who comes home emotionally drained from the knowledge that Big Boss has been peering with cyber-eyes over the shoulder for eight hours straight?  Absolutely not.  But what destroys children’s souls even more are the terrors of uncertainty.  Are mommy and daddy going to be able to pay this month’s rent?  Will we have to move again this year?  Will Johnny finally get to finish a school year in the same place he started it?  Those sorts of things are the fruits of economic instability.  What creates economic stability, to the extent it can be created at all, is the ability to control as much as possible of the universe within which the employer does business.  It can’t control its market, however, even though it may be able to influence it.  So it must necessarily focus its efforts on controlling what it can, to the extent it can. 

I’ll observe, by the way, that a good part of why companies at the present are sitting on in cases piles of cash is precisely uncertainty.  They don’t know what Dodd-Frank will do to their industries; they don’t know exactly how extortionately the “Affordable Care Act” is going to increase their cost of labor.  They don’t know which will be the next industry chosen for demonization by a one-trick-pony administration whose single trick is class-based demagoguery.  They don’t know who will be the next prominent company to be singled out by one of the most corrupt Justice Departments in memory to be litigated into oblivion for having failed to cooperate with the regime (multi-billion dollar suits against S&P, anyone, for having expressed an opinion five and six years ago?).  This administration is shot through with Maoists (one Dear Leader’s closest aides even allowed that her most admired hero was Mao), and so it’s not inappropriate to see in Eric Holder’s DOJ an application to lawfare of the Chinese maxim, “Kill the chicken; make the monkey watch.”

I’m done with Tana Ganeva.  Hers is the sort of thinking that will stand on the weather deck in a hurricane and piss and moan about the officer of the deck’s driving getting all this salt water on her skirts.  My inclination to that sort of complaining is to heave to, put her ass in a row boat, and see how she weathers the storm now.

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