söndag 28 september 2014

Books I've read (July)

I didn't keep to my ordinary reading schedule at the end of my stay in the US and I instead read books at an unusually leisurely pace this past summer. The three books below all have something to do with "economy". Here's the previous blog post about books I've read. The asterisks below refer to the number of quotes from the book (further below).

****** I have read two of Barbara Ehrenreich's books before; I read "Smile or die: How positive thinking fooled America and the world" (2009) two years ago and wrote about it here on the blog. I also read Ehrenreich's most well-know book, "Nickel and dimed: On (not) getting by in America" (2001) the better part of a decade ago. "Bait and switch: The (futile) pursuit of the American dream" (2005) was written in-between and I can see how the themes from the other two books are reflected in this book. In "Nickel and dimed", esteemed author Ehrenreich went undercover (like Günther Wallraff), created a new persona and tried a variety of blue-collar jobs that were open to a middle-aged women without any education (Wal-Mart clerk, cleaning woman, waitress etc.). Her conclusion was that it's exceedingly hard for the working poor to get by in the US. In "Bait and switch" she again goes undercover, but this time creating an alternative persona with a degree, but who has stayed home taking care of kids and now tries to find her place (e.g. a job) in corporate America.

Ehrenreich's original idea was to get a job and write a reportage both about the journey to that job as well as (perhaps) scathing critique from the bowels of corporate America. It turned out to be a lot harder to get hold of that job - and the concordant oh-so-elusive position in the US middle class. "Bait and switch" in the end instead turned out to be (only) about the hunt for a job and the auxiliary service industry of career coaches and motivational speakers that has been erected around the cash-strapped but not-destitute white-collar workers who for the most part are walking the tracks of the downwardly mobile. The connection to "Smile and die" lies in Ehrenreich's unveiling of the culture of near-compulsive positive thinking that she again later encounters as a recovering victim of breat cancer. The scramble to network, the tendency to blame oneself, the insecurity and downward mobility of the (white-collar) middle class and the pure fakery of having to plaster a smile on your face (when you have very little to be happy about) are themes she comes back to in "Smile or die". Her description of corporate America is very bleak: "only one kind of personality seems to be in demand - one that is relentlessly cheerful, enthusiastic and obedient ... Cheerfulness, upbeatness, and compliance: these are the qualities of subordinates - of servants rather than masters".

Her conclusion is that there are a lot more hard-working qualified people around than there are stable, well-paying jobs (with health care benefits etc.) - and so the competition for a good job is fierce. People can thus be chewed up and thrown out of corporate America for whatever reason or for no reason at all. Out in the cold and with large holes in the social security net, they have to fend for themselves - all while projecting and trying to convince both themselves and others that they are "winners" that any company would do well to snatch up. It's indeed a bleak, uncharitable and cruel world that Ehrenreich describes. Once you are out out in the cold, you would be very happy and very lucky to find your way back to the warmth (as it is) of corporate America. That "warmth" refers to having an income, but it can easily come without decent working hours, without job security, without a good health insurance so also people who do have jobs are under a lot of pressure.

I was struck by how unforgiving corporate America is described in the book. While it would be possible to "do your thing" for a couple of years in Sweden and still (perhaps with difficulty) find your way back to a good white-collar job, it seems you for the most part are quickly cut from the herd and left to die if you ever leave, or are ejected from a good-paying white-collar middle-class job in the US. It is also interesting to reflect on the fact that this book was written before the 2008 financial meltdown and the subsequent recession:

"The economy may be looking up, the company may be raking in cash, and still the layoffs continue, like a perverse form or natural selection weeding out the talented and successful as well as the mediocreSince the midnineties, this perpetual winnowing process has been institutionalized under various euphemisms ... to which we can now add the outsourcing of white-colar functions to cheaper labor markets overseas."

Ehrenreich is a good storyteller and a good researcher. Going undercover for the better part of a year, her book says as much as half a dozen academic tomes on the same topic. I very much recommend this bleak and harrowing but eminently readable book.

I read "Freakonomics" years ago and thought I would have another go at that genre of literature, e.g. economists explaining the hidden rules behind "how the world works". I have come across "the undercover economist" now and then (for example in podcasts) and bought Tim Harford's "The undercover economist" (2005) on a whim. He has written several follow-up books if this is your thing. I found the book depressingly conventional in its explanations of "how the world works". A free market and trade is always good ("The environmentalist movement should be manning the barricades to demand global free trade immediately") and money (e.g. what people are willing to pay) is the best - if not the only - way to understand and change the world ("a price system will transform a high willingness to pay for good schools into a lot of good schools, just as surely as it will transform a high demand for coffee into a lot of cappuccino"). Bring in an economist and he will tell you how to run the world (i.e. more or less the way it is run now). Equality, justice, beauty, fairness and functioning ecosystems just aren't on the map (unless people with buying power are willing to "vote with their wallets"). Harford is just too conventional and too boring for me. He just repeats "what everyone (e.g. every economist) knows" and that just doesn't cut it for me. A provocative ecological economist such as Herman Daly is ten times more interesting to me.

At one point, Harford discusses matters that relate to sustainability. The immaturity of his thinking is staggering:

"It seems likely ... that the richest countries in the world are just reaching the point where even energy consumption per head is about to stop rising. After all, our cars and domestic appliances get more efficient every year, and when we all have two cars and a large air-conditioned house, it's hard to see where extra energy demand will come from."

Comment: These two sentences are wrong on so many accounts that it drains my energy just to point them out. A few examples: 1) "two cars and a large air-conditioned house" is unattainable for most people on earth - there just aren't enough resources since an American level of consumption assumes 4 planets instead of just one (Earth overshoot day happened on August 19 this year and the vast majority of people live with a lot less than the average American - or the average Swede). 2) It is not difficult but exceedingly easy to see where extra demand will come from - you just compare what you have with what your richest neighbour has (e.g. more). 3) Appliances might get more efficient, but we have more appliances in our households and we buy new appliances faster today than ever before.

"If we are honest, then, the argument that trade leads to economic growth, which leads to climate change, leads us then to a stark conclusion: we should cut our trade links to make sure that the Chinese, Indians, and Africans stay poor. The question is whether any environmental catastrophe, even severe climate change, could possibly inflict the same terrible human cost as keeping three of four billion  people in poverty."

Comment: I don't think Harford is up to date on what "severe climate change" implies. In short, I think most people would prefer poverty over death, and stability over chaos. However, why would these two be the only alternatives we can choose between? Alleviating (their) poverty by limiting (our) consumption and wealth could for example be another alternative. Mahatma Gandhi and the appropriate technology movement proposed some very interesting ideas for how to alleviate poverty without jumping on the modernisation bandwagon with both feet. And so on.

Let's just say that I will stay away from Harford's later books. I will probably avoid the genre of economists-as-cheerleaders for the incumbent economic system altogether from now on. In short, this book felt like a waste on my time and I retroactively regret that I picked it up.

Although published by a Axl Books, Helena Csarmann's "Berg-och-dalbanana: Jakten på den heliga G-kraften" (2007, pdf file) [The roller coaster: The hunt for the holy G-force] is her ph.d. thesis in industrial economy from KTH Royal Institute of Technology. It felt appropriate to read this book while on a sabbatical in the US since there are more than just a few amusement parks there. We almost went to Six Flags Magic Mountain north of LA before I figured out that the rides there are for youths rather than my pre-teens (we went to Knott's Berry Farm instead).

This thesis is an easy read. It provides insights into several aspects of "the roller coaster economy"; from the point of view of premier engineering firms who do research on and plan roller coasters according to customers' wishes, construction firms that build them, amusement parks who buy them and the enthusiasts who ride them. The roller coaster economy fuses engineering, business and fun in "the hunt for the holy G-force".

The book is an excellent primer into many aspects of amusement parks and the roller coasters that are their premier attractions. The layout (and lots of nice pictures) added to the pleasure of reading it. As a ph.d. thesis, I don't think it's equally successful in terms of drawing on and using theories to explain "what it's all about". It doesn't feel very methodologically strong either, but that might be an effect of the for the most part non-academic style of writing. It's easy to get the impression of someone "doing stuff" and interviewing people without having had a clear plan of what to look for in advance. Still, it was a pleasurable read - especially compared to other ph.d. theses.

---------- QUOTES: ----------

----- On the *real* function of personality test -----

"The Myers-Briggs Type Indicator, possesses not a shred of scientific respectability ... 'there is no evidence that [Briggs's] sixteen distinct types have any more validity than the twelve signs of the zodiac.' So why is the corporate world, which we think of as so fixated on empirical, in fact, quantifiable, measures of achievement like the "bottom line," so attached to these meaningless personality tests? One attraction must be that the tests lend a superficial rationality to the matching of people with jobs. ... if you failed at one job, it is probably comforting to be told that it was simply not a good "fit" for your inner nature. ... 'There's no bad worker and no bad workplace, only a bad fit between the two.'
if the function of the tests is really ideological ... they do not have to be in any way accurate as predictors of performance or satisfaction. They serve more as ... allowing employers to rationalise rejection or dismissal in terms of an inadequate "fit."
Ehrenreich (2005). "Bait and switch", p.33-35.

Comment: The quotes within the quote comes from Annie Murphy Paul's book "The cult of personality" (2004).

----- On looking for a job as a full-time job in itself -----

"job searching is not joblessness; it is a job in itself and should be structured to resemble one, right down to the more regrettable features of employment, like having to follow orders - order which are in this case self-generated. ... Everyone agrees on the necessity of managing oneself much as a real boss might
Imagining one's search as a "job" must satisfy the Calvinist craving to be doing something, anything, of a worklike nature, and Americans may be especially prone to Calvinist angst. We often credit some activity with the phrase "at least it keeps me busy" - as if busyness were a desirable state regardless of how you achieve it."
Ehrenreich (2005). "Bait and switch", p.45-46.

 ----- On "networking" as an anti-social activity -----

"'the whole networking thing' ... feels "fake" because we know it involves the deflection of our natural human sociability to an ulterior end. Normally we meet strangers in the expectation that they may truly be strange, and are drawn to the multilayered mystery that each human presents. But in networking, as in prostitution, there is not time for fascination. The networker is always, so to speak, looking over the shoulder of the person she engages in conversation, toward whatever concrete advantage can be gleaned from the interaction - a tip or a precious contact. This instrumentalism undermines the possibility of a group identity, say, as white-collar victims of corporate upheaval. No matter how crowded the room, the networker prowls alone, scavenging to meet his or her individual needs."
Ehrenreich (2005). "Bait and switch", p.62.

  ----- On career coaching and blaming the victim -----

"It seems inexcusably cruel to tell people who have reached some kind of personal nadir that their problems is entirely of their own making. ... But from the point of view of the economic "winners" - those who occupy powerful and high-paying jobs - the view that one's fate depends entirely on oneself must be remarkably convenient. It explains the winners' success in the most flattering terms while invalidating the complaints of the losers. [The people who] came to the [executive] boot camp prepared to blame their predicament on the economy, or the real estate market, or the inhuman corporate demands on their time. But these culprits were summarily dismissed in favour of alleged individual failings: depression, hesitation, lack of focus. It's not the world that needs changing, is the message, it's *you*. No need, then, to band together to work for a saner economy or a more human-friendly corporate environment, or to band together at all."
Ehrenreich (2005). "Bait and switch", p.85.

 ----- On turning to religion to find meaning in the vagaries of the labour market -----

"In the testimonies I have heard so far at Christian gatherings, God is always busily micromanaging every career and personal move: advising which jobs to pursue, even causing important e-mails to be sent. ... Thus everything happens "for a reason," even if it is not immediately apparent, and presumably a benevolent one.
What we want from a career narrative is some moreal thrust, some meaningful story we can ... tell our children. The old narrative was "I worked hard and therefore succeeded" or sometimes "I screwed up and therefore failed." But a life of only intermittently rewarded effort - working hard only to be laid off, and then repeating the process until ageing forecloses decent job offers - requires more strenuous forms of explanation. Either you look for the institution forces shaping your life, or you attribute the unpredictable ups and downs of your career to an infinitely powerful, endlessly detail-oriented God.
So this is the new ideal Christianized, "just in time," white-collar employee - disposable when temporarily unneeded and always willing to return with a smile, no matter what hardships have been endured in the off periods. Maybe one of the functions of this evangelical revival sweeping America is to reconcile people to an increasingly unreliable work world: you take what you can get, and praise the lord for sending it along."
Ehrenreich (2005). "Bait and switch", p.142-146.

----- On corporations as medieval courts; are what is needed corporate jesters (truth-tellers)? -----

"It's the internal culture of the corporation ... that fascinates me. The picture he paints resembles one of the royal courts of Europe, circa 1600, as described by Castiglione or, closer to our own time, the historian Norbert Elias. We, the PR people, are the courtiers who both despise the king and eagerly press around him, anxious for a moment of royal attention. We must learn to speak in low, quite tones, always framing our advice "strategically" and never wasting words on everything he already knows. Only if we can insinuate ourselves into his confidence can we hope to save the country - I mean, the company - and of course all the credit will go to him."
Ehrenreich (2005). "Bait and switch", p.161.


Inga kommentarer:

Skicka en kommentar