Saturday, March 29, 2014

What is the worth of a man?

I wrote the following draft in 2006, and then set it aside, because I couldn't reach a conclusion, except that this is wrong:

This has bothered me for some time now. When I was young, and more, when my dad was young, a man could do a day's physical work, and earn enough money to buy himself food, and a place to sleep. This is what Roger Miller sang about in "King of the Road": "two hours of pushin' broom Buys an eight-by-twelve four-bit room." And if you had a skill, or a college education, you could earn more than that, maybe enough to buy a house and start a family.

Sometime between then and now, it's gotten too expensive to be a working American. Now, a man doing a day's physical work doesn't make enough money to pay the rent, and if he has a family, he and his wife both have to work two jobs just to get from one end of the month to another. And the kids stay home alone after school because there's no money for child care.

What happened? I'm afraid globalization is what happened. Factory jobs went from a place where people want safe working conditions, and a break for lunch, and a pension, and maybe to buy a house - to places where people are happy to work for $5 a day or less, and don't complain about working conditions or lunch breaks. This is why the stuff at Wal-Mart is so cheap, and not just Wal-Mart.

In the case of jobs that can't be exported, like fruit and vegetable picking, we imported the people instead: that's what the illegal immigrants everyone's talking about are doing. And because they're illegal, they're doing it for less than minimum wage - how can they complain? So to keep the produce we eat cheap enough for us to buy it, we pay the pickers so little that Americans can't afford to do the work. The immigrants live four or six to a room, and send money home. And a job that Americans did seventy years ago (what do you think the Okies came to California to do, during the Dust Bowl?) is no longer an option, even if Americans wanted to do it. Some people say Americans "won't take those jobs." Well, they certainly won't at those wages.

It's not just factory jobs anymore. Eighteen years ago I became a computer programmer, because it was a good career path. Now, there are damn few entry level computer jobs; they've gone to India where they can get a kid with a college degree in computer science for $20,000 a year. I've read complaints that American kids aren't studying engineering, especially computer engineering, in college. Why should they? The jobs are in India. And senior people with long careers are told they're "not measuring up", and then replaced by a college grad for a quarter of the salary.

That was in 2006.  It's now 2014.  The intervening 8 years have made it brutally clear that the America I grew up in no longer exists.  We've reverted to the America my grandparents grew up in - historians call it "The Gilded Age."  The age where all employment was "at will," there were no work rules and no safety requirements, and if you got sick you went home to recover or die, without pay, because there was no "sick leave" and only the rich could afford doctors.  Check it out on Wikipedia - the first pre-paid health care arrangements coalesced into Blue Cross in the 1930s, and employer insurance came in during World War II because wartime regulations didn't allow salary raises (see the Wikipedia article cited above).

Income in America today is appallingly unequal.  I'd usually cite the research, but we've all read it.  The rich now own Congress - hell, the rich now are Congress.  And the Supreme Court supports them.  Justice Scalia goes duck hunting with them.  Sure the judiciary is independent.  
How can we be proud of an America where you're either Mark Zuckerberg, with more money than he knows what to do with at age 30, or you're working two jobs at $8 an hour and still can't pay the rent, like far too many people in the San Francisco Bay Area?  When did we decide that $2,500 a month was a reasonable rent for a 1 bedroom apartment?  When did it become "reasonable" to pay a few bankers millions of dollars a year for bankrupting our economy through fraud?  

What do we do about this, and how?  I wish to God I had answers.  I hope to God that the money we've saved up will last us the rest of our lives; it seems like a lot to me, who grew up with my mother making all my clothes, and canning fruit every fall; but we're still comparatively young, and we have no kids to "help us out."  Not that anybody's kids can help them out when the kids are also making $8 an hour, if they have a job at all.  

Whatever the solution is, if there is one, we have to work together to do it.  The rich have gotten where they are by scratching each other's backs, and setting less wealthy people against each other.  In case you wondered, that's where all the rhetoric about "welfare queens" and the "lazy poor" comes from.  Until the rest of us realize that we have more in common with each other than we do with "the 1%", and start collaborating on solutions, things will stay exactly as they are.  There are more of us than there are of them; but they're really good at the old "divide and conquer" routine.

Tuesday, March 18, 2014

Google Glass Can Now...

I've had my doubts about Google Glass for some time, and not just because I'm not one of the beta testers.  I don't think I can be - I wear actual glasses to see with, and I've never seen any explanation of how a four-eye like me could even put them on.  Over my glasses?  I don't think so.  My metaphysical objection to Google Glass is that it - they? - make it way too easy to get lost in your little digital world, and to forget that your physical body is doing something actually dangerous, like driving a car, or crossing a street.  After all, those are two of the most dangerous things you can do these days, in terms of the death rate.

Google Glass strikes me as a solution in search of a problem to solve.  It can do some very useful things - but that tiny heads-up display could all too easily be a fatal distraction.  Yes, military pilots use heads-up displays in very tough situations, but they also go through hours of intensive training.  Sooner or later Google Glass will kill someone - a man merely texting while driving just killed two people in Santa Rosa (of course, he was also high).  (Sorry, the article is behind a paywall but you can see the headline and summary.)  I'm not the only one who thinks this, either; San Francisco Chronicle columnist C. W. Nevius came to the same conclusion about 10 days ago.

It wouldn't break my heart if Google Glass never came out of beta. But it almost certainly will, and now we learn there will shortly be a video game for Google Glass.  Oh, great, a video game.  Even better, the game is "Global Food Fight."  I am not making this up.  You will now be able to walk down the street, wearing your Google Glass, weaving and bobbing your head and shoulders back and forth to control a Global Food Fight game that only you can see.  Isn't that precious?  Take a minute and imagine what it will look like. And somebody will do that - it's inevitable.

Cell phones are bad enough, useful as they are.  In the bad old days when phones lived in phone booths, if a man walked down the street gesturing and talking loudly to himself, you could assume he was crazy.  Now if a man does that (or a woman), you have to look for the Bluetooth headset before you write them off as short a couple of shingles.

I never walk down the street talking on the phone.  It's a great way to get your phone stolen.

Imagine the joy of watching a Google Glass wearer bobbing and weaving down the street, indulging in a Global Food Fight.  Now imagine them playing the game and talking to someone on the phone about it.  Since Google Glass is a Bluetooth headset, they'll be walking along, talking to themselves, moving their head back and forth and shrugging their shoulders...

After all, as the article says, a virtual food fight game "is a fun way to engage people to play with the potential of this new device."

And of course, in San Francisco, it's possible that no one would notice.