“Stability” really matters, for people who already have capital (earned or inherited)

OK, I am “retired”, and I “depend” on past accumulated wealth, much earned but some inherited, to keep these blogs going because they don’t pay for themselves.  They don’t require much money (or Piketty-style capital) to run in the grand scheme of things, but they depend on stable infrastructure, security, and stable economic and personal circumstances for me.

Yes, stability.  And judging from the “outside world” events of recent weeks, it doesn’t sound like something I can count on as much as I have.

For most of my adult working life, I was very much in command of the possibility for my own mistakes to undo me and possibly end my stable I.T. career (as with bad elevations into production).

But early in my life I was forced to be much more aware of eternal demands by the community I was brought in.  Gender conformity had to do with that.  Then came the military draft and Vietnam.  There was an expectation of eventually having a family even if running a gauntlet that could expose me to some personal fair share of community hazards.  This had much more to do with my own “mental health” problems in the age 19-21 range than I probably realized (including a brush with nihilism in 1964).

It is true, of course, that my employment could be affected by outside business events like mergers and takeovers, but in my case these actually worked out in my favor.  And earlier in my work life I was concerned about staying near a large city (New York) where it would be easier for me to “come out”;  the energy crisis was actually a threat to my mobility, as was potentially NYC’s “drop dead” financial meltdown when I was (finally) living there.

So it is, in retirement.  If you have accumulated wealth, you want the world to be stable so you don’t have to watch your back, and face sudden expropriation because of political deterioration (maybe combined with a natural catastrophe).  You want to believe if you pay your bills, make good choices, and play by the “rules” you will be OK.  And you find people knocking for attention your life, and you have to deal with the knowledge that they didn’t have the situational stability that “you” did.

It’s possible to find one’s life suddenly becomes a political bargaining chip. For example, Congress could try to means-test Social Security recipients (even current one) as part of its debt (and debt ceiling) issue.

I have to say I do have a gut reaction from “extremists”, whether associated with Communism (North Korea) or radical Islam, who make threats that sound personal, as if they saw someone like me as a personal enemy.  I do understand the racial contact, that some people will take statements (hate speech) made on the alt-right that way, also. But combativeness has become a problem that I had not anticipated throughout most of my working life.

It is true, also, that the most extreme scenarios from foreign enemies could reduce me personally to nothing.  The conservative Weekly Standard, after 9/11, liked to use the term, being “brought low” because of the resentment of others.  In the North Korean threat, there are many nuances.  The right wing talks about EMP, and the major media refuses to mention it.  It could become a real threat, but my own probing of the utility world suggests it is making some progress in making transformers less vulnerable (to “E3” threats, also posed by extreme solar storms).  (The power companies won’t say exactly what they are doing, for good security reasons.)  Personal electronics, cars, and data can face threats from a different mechanism (“E1”) which actually might be easier for an enemy (including retaliation by the DPRK) to pull off.  This is a developing topic that the major media just doesn’t want to cover yet (outside of cyberwar, which is better known, as with the psychological warfare implications of the Sony hack).

I have to say, too, that for one’s life to come to an end out of political expropriation or violence is particularly ugly.  I was privileged enough to avoid Vietnam combat, and I was “safe” enough not to get HIV, which previously could have been the most dangerous threats I faced.  I was economically stable for my entire work career, which sometime after 9/11.  I did have some family cushion.

The basic reaction from most people is to “belong” to something bigger than the self.  I think all this relates to “the afterlife” and I won’t get into that further right here. In retirement, I’ve had to deal with constant reminders of how narrow my capacity for personal intimacy can be, even if it can be intense in the right circumstances.  Yes, now I have to throw the “psychological defenses” (Rosenfels) to maintain my personal independence and stop being dragged into the causes as others.  Solidarity alone seems rather alien to me, even if I can’t count on affording that kind of attitude forever.

Again, as to the “belonging” idea, throughout history, individuals have suffered because of the actions of their leadership.  In Biblical times, it was considered morally appropriate that all members of a tribe be punished together for “disobedience” (to “Jehovah”).  In modern times, it’s the “everybody gets detention for the sins of one in middle school” problem,

I want to reemphasize my intention so see all my own media initiatives through.  That includes getting a novel out in early 2018, trying to market a screenplay, getting some of my music (written over 50 years, some of it embedded in two big sonatas) performed.  The best chance to make some of this pay for itself would be to get some (perhaps conservative) news outlets interested in some of my blog content, especially in undercovered areas (power grid security, filial responsibility laws, downstream liability protections in online speech scenarios including copyright, defamation, and implicit content (which can include criminal misuse like trafficking).  The intention is to help solve problems in non-partisan manners away from the bundled demands common with “identity politics”.

I tend not to respond to demands for mass “solidarity” with so many other causes, and I usually am not willing to “pimp” someone else’s causes as my own.  But I realize I could be riding on partially unearned privilege, which can become dangerous.  Indeed, having inherited wealth subsumes a responsibility to address needs as they arise;  to ignore them would be tantamount to stealing. I tend to think that helping others is easier if you are in a relationship or have had kids (that became an issue when I was working as a substitute teacher).  I think there can be situations where one has to be prepared to accept others as dependents and “play family” (and this often happens in estate and inheritance situations anyway, although it did not specifically in my own situation). We saw this idea in films like “Raising Helen” and in the TV series “Summerland”.

I’ll mention that it looks like I’m selling the estate house and moving out in October. That would remove the hosting opportunities for now; but, after downsizing, it could make other volunteering much easier and even open up the possibility of volunteer travel (although I need to stay “connected” at all times when traveling as it is now).

I have to add that taking on dependents grates against complacency. It means more willingness to sell other people’s messages rather than on sticking to your own.  Our culture has developed a certain split personality: resistance to sales people or middlemen and to being contacted by cold calls (the robocall and cold call problem), yet an expectation of voluntary personal generosity and inclusivity online.

The sudden announcement of the intended termination of DACA is a good example of how instability affects those less fortunate. Although I really believe Congress will fix it in the required six months, today “dreamers” would have to deal with employers or schools who are uncertain as to what their legal status might be in less than a year.

(Posted: Tuesday, September 5, 2017, at 7 PM EDT)

How would various earned income tax credit reform proposals affect family structure, and incentive to work?

Dylan Matthews, of Vox Media, explores a proposal by Len Burman, an economist with the Urban Institute and Syracuse University, to raise middle class standard of living, with a Flat Tax Credit, where the federal government matches the first $14000 of wages regardless of family structure.  He pays for the program with a European-style Value Added Tax, or VAT, of about 15%, which makes most goods and services more expensive for everyone (food might be excepted).  It also throws middle class wage earners into higher tax bracket.  It’s not immediately how this applies to freelance income or commissions.

The Vox article, “A bold new plan promises to fix middle-class wage stagnation”, provides comparison to the current Earned Income Tax Credit, or EITC, which only goes to families or people which dependent children. The new proposal is much more helpful to the childless.  Burman would also incorporate a separate Child Tax Credit, which dwindles away for richer families.

Two big ideas come to mind.  One is the balance in wealth between conventional families with children and single childless people.  The social climate today is much more nuanced now with allowing same-sex marriage and encouraging gay parents than it was twenty years ago, as my own I.T. career was near its maturity.  Back then, pundits talked about the “marriage tax” and at the same time complained about unfair treatment of singles.  In practice, I had a lot more disposable income than most of my married-with-kids coworkers, because my housing and auto costs were less and I borrowed much less – even if I made less and sometimes paid higher taxes.  A couple times co-workers actually complained that I could spend all my income on myself and they (because of their “choices”) could not.  But it seems that even then the EITC should have been helping my coworkers more than it actually was.  Many of them complained about debts and bills.

It’s pretty easy to see how this idea can migrate into right-wing concerns about low birth rates and people waiting too long to have or adopt children.

The other issue here would seem a statement about the value of work, itself.  Indeed, Burman’s ideas also take a step toward addressing the problem of young adult men dropping out of the workforce and becoming “watchers”.  (See May 3, 2017 for link).  I think it also applies to retirees.  Indeed, I tended to “coast” in neutral gear after retiring, as I found many of the opportunities laced with hucksterism and manipulation.  That has an effect on my own credibility as a freelance writer now, as I have explained.  With Burman’s ideas in place, I’d need to take much more seriously opportunities to get paid by other parties who say “We give you the words”.

Matthews also provides a comparison to proposals for Universal Basic Income.

(Posted: Saturday, Aug. 26, 2107 at 11 AM EDT)

How an article on the workplace and automation leads us back to network neutrality and other potential issues for Internet user-generated content

A guest post by 30-year-old Australian blogging (and physical fitness) guru Ramsay Taplin (aka “Blogtyrant“), in “Goins, Writer” about how to deal with the invasion of robots and artificial intelligence in the workplace (when these innovations threaten to replace you) rather accidentally re-ignites the debate over the future of the Internet and ordinary speech on it in the United States.  (Before I go further, I’ve love to meet the huge cat on Ramsay’s Twitter page.)

Ramsay’s post seems to be a bit in the tradition of libertarian George Mason University Professor Tyler Cowen’s book “Average Is Over,” outlining how middling people need to deal with the changing modern workplace.  At a crucial point in his essay, Ramsay, after suggesting that employed people consider starting small businesses on their own time, recommends most business owners (as well as professionals like lawyers, financial planners, agents, and even book authors) stake out their property in “modern real estate” with a professionally hosted blog site.  But then he dismissively adds the caveat, “unless the Internet changes dramatically through removing net neutrality…”

Later, he writes “make sure everything you do on the Internet helps someone,” a very important base concept that I’ll come back to. He gives a link to a compelling essay on personal and workplace ethics in a site called “Dear Design Student”, about how you can’t lead a double life and be believed forever.  You can see my conversation with him in the comments.

Whoa, there.  OK, Ramsay works (“from his couch”) in Australia, part of the British Commonwealth, and, like most western-style democratic countries, the Aussie World maintains statutory network neutrality regulations on its own turf (I presume).  But, as we know, under the new Trump administration and new FCC chair Ajit Pai, the Obama era’s network neutrality protections, largely set in place (in 2015) by maintaining that self-declared “neutral conduit” telecommunications companies are common carriers, will almost certainly be disbanded late this summer in the U.S. after the formal comment period is over.  Pro-neutrality advocates (including most tech companies) plan a “Day of Action” July 12, which Breitbart characterized in rather hyperbolic farce.

That situation puts American companies at odds with the rest of the capitalist democratic world (definitely not including Russia and China).  There are plenty of political advocacy pressure groups with “Chicken Little” “Sky Is Falling” warnings (along with aggressive popups for donations) about how exposed small companies and individual speakers online may be intentionally silenced (as I had outlined here on May 11).  Right away, I rebut by noting that not only is there to be (according to Pai) “voluntary compliance”, but also every major general-purpose telecom company in the US seems to say it has no intention to throttle ordinary sites.  In fact, most consumers, when they sign up for Internet, want full access to everything out there on the indexed web, so doing so would make no business sense.

Even so, some comparison of the world now to what it was a few decades ago, when I came of age, is in order.  Telephone companies were monopolistic but were regulated, so they couldn’t refuse service to consumers they didn’t like.  None of this changed as ATT break-up into the Bell’s happened (something I watched in the 80s-job market for I.T.)  But until the WWW came along in the mid-90s, the regulations only protected consumers getting content (phone calls), not wanting to upload it with no gatekeepers for pre-approval.  Back then, in a somewhat regulated environment, companies did make technological innovations for big paying customers (like DOD).  Pai would seem to be wrong in asserting that all regulation will stop innovation.

It’s also noteworthy that the FCC regulated broadcast networks, especially the number of television stations they could own (I remember this while working for NBC in the 1970s).  Likewise, movie studios were not allowed to own theater chains (that has somewhat changed more recently).

But by analogy, it doesn’t seem logical that reasonable rules preventing ordinary content throttling would stymie innovation where there are real benefits to consumers (like higher speeds for high definition movies, or for emergency medical services, and the like), or, for that matter, better service in rural areas.

There are also claims that new telecom technologies could enter the market, and that Obama-like net neutrality rules would stifle newcomer telecom companies.  Maybe this could bear on super-high-speed FIOS, for example, that Google has tried in a few cities.

Then, some of the punditry get speculative.  For example, a faith-based ISP might want to set up a very restricted service for religious families. It sounds rather improbable, but maybe that needs to be OK.  Or maybe a Comcast or Verizon wants to offer a low-end Internet service that doesn’t offer all websites, just an approved whitelist.  Maybe that appeals to locally socialized families with little interest in “globalism”.  That sounds a little more serious in its possible impact on other small businesses trying to reach them.

Another idea that cannot be dismissed out of hand, is that telecom companies could be prodded to deny connection access to illegal content, such as terror promotion or child pornography, or even sex trafficking (as with the Backpage controversy).

If we did have an environment where websites had to pay every telecom company to be hooked up to them, it’s likely that hosting companies like Bluehost would have to build this into their fees to take care of it.  I actually have four separate hosted WordPress blog domains.  It’s significant that Bluehost (and probably other companies) allow a user just one hosting account with a primary domain name.  Add-on domains are internally made subdomains of the primary and converted internally.  So, the user would probably only he “charged” for one hookup, regardless of the number of blogs.  (It’s also possible to put separate blogs in separate installations of WordPress in separate directories, I believe, but I see no reason now to try it.)   But one mystery to me is, that if Bluehost does have a “primary domain” concept with subdomains, why can’t it make the entire network https (SSL) instead of just one “real” domain?  I expect this will change.  SSL is still pretty expensive for small businesses to offer (they can generally outsource their credit card operations and consumer security, but there is more pressure, from groups like Electronic Frontier Foundation, to implement “https everywhere” for all content).

It’s also worthy of note that “free blogs” on services like Blogger and WordPress use a subdomain concept, so there is only one domain name hookup per user to any ISP.  That’s why Blogger can offer https to its own hosted blogs but not to blogs that default to user-owned domain names.

We can note that search engines like Google and Bing aren’t held to a “neutrality” policy and in fact often change their algorithms to prevent unfair (“link farming”) practices by some sites.

So, here we are, having examined net neutrality and its supposed importance to small site owners (nobody really worried about this until around 2008 it seems).  But there are a lot of other issues that could threaten the Internet as we know it.  Many of the proposals revolve around the issue of “downstream liability”:  web hosting companies and social media companies don’t have to review user posts before self-publication for legal problems;  if they had to, users simply could not be allowed to self-publish.  (That’s how things were until the mid 1990s.)  But, as I’ve noted, there are proposals to water down “Section 230” provisions in the US because of issues like terrorism recruiting (especially by ISIS), cyberbulling, revenge porn, and especially sex trafficking (the Backpage scandal).  Hosts and social media companies do have to remove (and report) child pornography now when they find it or when it is flagged by users, but even that content cannot be screened before the fact.  And Facebook and Twitter are getting better at detecting terror recruiting, gratuitous violence, fake news, and trafficking.  But widescale abuse by combative and relatively less educated users starts to raise the ethical question about whether user-generated content needs to pay its own way, rather than become a gratuitous privilege for those who really don’t like to interact with others whom they want to criticize.

In Europe and British Commonwealth countries there is apparently less protection from downstream liability allowed service providers than in the U.S., which would be the reverse of the legal climate when compared to the network neutrality issue.  And Europe has a “right to be forgotten” concept. Yet, user-generated content still seems to flourish in western countries besides the U.S.

I mentioned earlier the idea that a small business or even personal website should help the reader in a real-world sense.  Now Ramsay’s ideas on Blogtyrant seem most applicable to niche marketing.  That is, a business meeting a narrow and specific consumer need will tend to attract followers (hence Blogtyrant’s recommendations for e-mail lists that go beyond the fear of spam and malware).  It’s noteworthy that most niche markets probably would require only one blog site (despite my discussion above of how hosting and service providers handle multiple blogs from one user.) It’s pretty easy to imagine what niche blogs would be like:  those of lawyers (advising clients), financial planners, real estate agents, insurance agents, tax preparers, beauty products, fashion, and games and sports (especially chess).  It would seem that gaming would create its own niche areas.  And there are the famous mommy blogs (“dooce” by Heather Armstrong, who added a new verb to English – note her site has https –, although many later “mommy” imitations have not done nearly so well).  I can imagine how a well-selling fiction author could set up a niche blog, to discuss fiction writing (but not give away her own novels).

Another area would be political activism, where my own sense of ethics makes some of this problematical, although Ii won’t get into that here.

In fact, my whole history has been the opposite, to play “Devil’s advocate” and provide “objective commentary” and “connect the dots” among almost everything, although how I got into this is a topic for another day (it had started with gays in the military and “don’t ask don’t tell” in the US in the 1990s, and everything else grew around it).   One could say that my entering the debate this way meant I could never become anyone else’s mouth piece for “professional activism” or conventional salesmanship (“Always Be Closing”).  I guess that at age 54 I traded queens into my own (chess) endgame early, and am getting to the king-and-pawn stage, looking for “the opposition”.

There’s a good question about what “helps people”.  “The Asylumist” is a good example; it is written by an immigration lawyer Jason Dzubow specifically to help asylum seekers.  Jason doesn’t debate the wisdom of immigration policy as an intellectual exercise, although he has a practical problem of communicating what asylum seekers can expect during the age of Trump – and some of it is unpredictable. On this (my) blog, I’ve tried to explore what other civilians who consider helping asylum seekers (especially housing them personally) could expect.  Is that “helping people” when what I publish is so analytical, tracing the paths of speculation?  I certainly have warned a lot of people about things that could get people into trouble, for example, allowing someone else (even an Airbnb renter!) to use your home Internet router connection, for which you could be personally liable (sorry, no personalized Section 230).  Is the end result (of my own blog postings) to make people hesitant to offer a helping hand to immigrants out of social capital (and play into Donald Trump’s hands)?  I think I’m making certain problems a matter of record so policy makers consider them, and I have some ample evidence that they do.  But does that “help people” the way a normal small business does?

Getting back to how a blog helps a small business, the underlying concept (which does not work with my operation) is that the business pays for itself, by meeting real needs that consumers pay for (let’s hope they’re legitimate, not porn).  Legitimate business use of the Internet should come from “liking people.”  If blogging were undermined by a combination of policy changes in the US under Trump, it might not affect people everywhere else (although Theresa May wants it to), and it would be especially bad for me with my free-content model based on wealth accumulated elsewhere (some of it inherited but by no means all of it); but legitimate for-profit businesses will always have some basic way to reach their customers.

There has been talk of threats to blogging before.  One of the most serious perils occurred around 2005, in connection with campaign finance reform in the U.S., which I had explained here.

(Posted: Monday, June 12, 2017 at 12 noon EDT USA)

Live a good life and feel entitled

Early Sunday afternoon, in between rounds of the Maryland Film Festival, I walked up Charles Street in Baltimore and walked into a grill, which I will not name for search engines, hoping to have lunch.  I had about 40 minutes before I needed to be heading for the nearby Parkway Theater.

There was a sign said to wait for seating, and the place was almost full.  Two employees were fixing a machine and attending to a handicapped customer.  For ten minutes no one saw me, or even looked in the direction of the entrance.  Finally I was seated and an order taken.  But the order (for a simple benedict) had to be cancelled when it was apparent it would not get cooked in time.

I walked into a McDonald’s on North Street, next to the Parkway, and even here there was no one behind the register for a moment.  Finally, I got a pre-cooked McMuffin and swallowed it and went to the movie just in time.

Lesson, you may have the money to pay for food, but somebody still has to be paid to cook it and bring it to you.

I see that Baltimore is looking at minimum wage laws, and that right now the Maryland min seems to be $8.75, probably much less for tipped workers.  But in both eateries, there was obviously less help available than needed to serve the demand that obviously existed.  I think there were only three employees in the grille; maybe someone didn’t come to work, or maybe no one will work at the wages offered.  I even wondered if we were seeing the immediate impact of Donald Trump’s ICE undocumented immigrant crackdown.  Suddenly, there is no help in places you count on for “service”.

It’s easy to blow this up into a moral lesson about privilege, class, and depending on the underpaid labor of others.

Underserved wealth and station in life can become preoccupations of leadership on both the far Left and far Right, but with different parameters.  It seems so negative to become so preoccupied with “grading people”, yet we need to see people earn rewards that are commensurate with what they deserve.  Is this like grades “according to ability” as on one grade school report card, or is it an absolute thing?

Consider how scattered “those Republicans” are with respect to who should pay for the excess health claims of the sick, and those with pre-existing conditions. I’ll lay aside the claims that Trumpcare is set up to support a tax break for the very rich.  I’ll also note a comment I added yesterday. That Obamacare apparently does have the reinsurance scheme that would help with this problem if only Republicans would allow it to be used (the fourth comment on the previous post, about an MIT economist).

In the New York Times May 7. Patricia Cohen writes “On Health and Welfare, Moral Arguments Can Outweigh Economics”.

Cohen points us to a couple of New York Magazine pieces, where rural right wing Republican say “sick people don’t deserve affordable care”  (the “Lead good lives” argument, or is it “personal responsibility”) and even “The GOP’s best health care is to stick it to mothers”.  I thought that the Republicans were worried about low birth rates in better-off white people.

Yes, it’s easy to blame bad behavior on a lot of health care issues.  You can say that about smoking, alcohol, drug abuse, and now opioids.  Vox has added eliminating sugar – all of it – to the mix (although plenty of us don’t get obese or diabetes from normal sugar consumption).  I’d have to throw in the sexual behaviors in the male gay community – remember the moral debate over “amplification” and AIDS in the 1980s?   Indeed, you look around, it often seems that the healthiest people usually have been the most intact from adolescence through adulthood.

Social conservatives often place the responsibility of learning to take care of others, the less-well off, with the “natural family” as in that 2007 manifesto by Carlson and Mero.  Courtship and dating, and then marriage – making it contain sexuality – and the rearing of children, teaching them to care for younger siblings – and caring for the less well off in an extended family – is supposed to teach everyone to learn attachments to others who do have real needs.  They can point out that inherited wealth often comes with strings attached – taking are of other family members or raising deceased siblings’ kids.

But I suppose their idea of health care parity could extend to social media.  To their way of thinking, someone in my shoes should feel morally obligated to respond to new “GoFundMe’s” for money for protease inhibitors or PrEP in my own community.  (Seriously, paying for the latter is probably a big issue in college-age health care for gay men.)  Or maybe you should respond to all Facebook friends who talk about losing coverage for stuff like MS medication, diseases that no one can avoid with “behavior”.  Particularly if you have wealth you didn’t earn.

Update: Tuesday, May 9

Laurie Garret (“The Coming Plague” around 1995) has a stinging op-ed on CNN, “Worst is yet to come on health care: GOP’s message to Americans: You’re on your own“.  She notes the “personal responsibility” argument and how it breaks down (like for genetic disease, for openers).  She also warns that the GOP plan could add to hostility to Americans from abroad personally.

Vox, in a piece by Matthew Yglesias, explains how Medicaid expansion works under Obamacare, and the consequences of GOP’s gutting it. In the 1970s, I worked on New York State MMIS (through Bradford) so I should have known to pay more attention to this.

(Published: Monday, May 8, 2017 at 11 AM EDT)

To “make America great again” we may have to learn to respect salesmanship (again)

Have we forgotten how to sell to each other?

I sometimes wonder that as I refuse to answer robocalls, mark email as spam, and post no solicitations on the front door.  I don’t like to be interrupted when “working”.

I don’t need more auto warranties (they’re more dependable from your dealer), and I don’t need sudden travel deals (although I could imagine that some week I might).  I don’t need SEO services, and I don’t need Windows drivers from third parties advertising on YouTube.  I don’t need to replace my Medicare (and AARP supplemental) with Medicare Advantage, although I do wonder if TrumpCare or RyanCare could change that.

Yet, for 14 months while living in Minneapolis, after my career had its cardiac arrest at the end o 2001, I worked for the Minnesota Orchestra, calling for contributions to the Young People’s Concerts.  This was slightly post 9/11, but people would answer the phone then, do pledges, and even “blue money on credit”.  The non-profit word for this activity was “development”.

After coming back to DC, I worked for a company selling National Symphony subscriptions, but suddenly quit when a call recipient threatened me with arrest for calling after the 9:00 PM statutory curfew.  I will not tolerate employers’ expecting me to break the law. I could afford to enforce that then and now.

It was eye-opening to me, that someone could major in music, and then come down from Toronto to teach us how to sell music subscriptions to the masses.  I feel it’s a great honor to be recognized as a content creator.  I feel “peddling” is second-class citizenship.

From 1972-1973, living in northern New Jersey, I worked for Sperry Univac, when it was trying to compete with IBM.  My job was “site support”, providing technical interface for processors (FORTRAN, COBOL, etc) and I made beaucoup trips to St. Paul MN for benchmarks.  The whole idea was to sell more computers.  I did get the feedback that I “didn’t have a marketing profile” and would be better off in “real” development.

Indeed I spent probably twenty-six years or so largely as an individual contributor in developing, implementing, and supporting business applications, batch and online, mostly mainframe.  I was not a life that encouraged a lot of socialization for its own sake, or being part of other people’s social capital.  After I “retired”, I found out how the real world of “Lotsa Helping Hands” can work.

My father was a salesman, of sorts – actually, a “manufacturer’s agent”, for Imperial Glass, until 1971.  I remember his travel to glass shows all over the East Coast, his filling orders manually and doing the accounting with adding machines.  Mother helped him.  But he worked wholesale.  Selling for him was mostly about customer service.  It was never about cold calling or pimping.

But when I “retired” (I was well provided for by ING with the final layoff and forced retirement), I was rather shocked at the corporate culture I found with some interviews.  One of the sessions occurred in 2002 and would have involved contacting people to get them to convert whole life policies to term.  Later, I would be approached by two companies (unsolicited) to become a life insurance agent or financial planner.  Getting “leads” in that business means trolling people on the Internet to find out who to make cold calls to.  I would also be approached to become a tax preparer (unsolicited), and a non-profit mall canvasser.

One of the more provocative screening questions (in 2005 at New York Life) was, “do you every buy anything from a salesman?”  I answered yes, because I wanted to continue the interview.  But I flashed a mental image of encyclopedia salesmen (we had bought a World Book set with its great state relief maps in 1950), and even music course salesmen (Sherwood Music courses for piano, from Chicago) – again, musicians need real incomes from selling.

The term life interviewer even said “We give you the words”, and yet became defensive in front of me as a I probed whether this idea really works or is best for consumers.  (Whole life conversion will be a good idea for many people, probably.)  He (who seemed to run a franchise office with his wife) exerted the authoritarian attitude that we now recognize with Donald Trump – that you can “create facts” (or use “alternative facts”) and convince people of your vision mainly by believing it and getting others to believe it –which makes it come true (whether that’s getting a casino to make money or living forever in a hallow heaven).  That sounds like ministry, proselytizing.   Some of the tall tales about Trump University (getting people to max out heir credit cards against future real estate income) remind me of the 2008 crisis (which drove Stephen Bannon’s ideology).  I did get a couple calls about jobs selling subprime mortgages when I already realized they would crash together when then introductory (ARM)  rates went up.

I’m reminded of how LDS missions work – young adults (as in the movie “God’s Army” and then “Latter Days”) are supposed to recruit others to their faith (Mitt Romney even did this) and they even pay for the opportunity.

I’m also recalling the comedy movie “100 Mile Rule” (let alone Alec Baldwin in “Glengarry Glen Ross”), where the salesman mantra was “Always Be Closing.”  I see those YouTube ads, “Become a marketer” and just laugh.

When I was working, “coders” thought of management as not smart enough to deal with the nitty-gritty of tracing registers in assembler language.  But we really thought of salesmen as not smart enough to code.  It was an attitude that we could hardly afford.

And now days, I get hounded as to why I don’t sell more hardcopies of my own books, and do more to support bookstores, or kids’ reading programs.  I get it.  Salesmanship (sometimes even hucksterism) is important to other people’s jobs.  But now we have an “It’s free” culture, and a “do it yourself” world of taking care of yourself online.  Donald Trump himself said he doesn’t like computers much, because the online world (including his favorite Twitter) dilutes the importance of social capital that does help people sell.  Oh, yes, remember the good old days of being invited to Amway presentations.

People (like me) have good reasons not to want to be bothered by hucksters.  But we’ve also created a world where it’s very hard for many people to make a living doing anything else.  Donald Trump is right in saying we have to do a lot more of our manufacturing at home again (“Make America Great Again”, or “MAGA”) but not just for the parochial needs of his specialized voting base.  National security would say we ought to make more of our own transformers, batteries, communications hardware components. We need to have a reasonable percentage of working-age adults actually making goods to remain economically and socially healthy — and safe.

(Posted: March 22, 2017 at 11:30 AM EDT)

 

Protectionism: why it’s hard to sustain job marketability for a lifetime, and maybe that’s too much to expect

I wanted to give a bit of personal history perspective to Donald Trump’s Christmas and pre-inauguration “deals” to goad some manufacturers (such as Carrier in Indiana) not to move some jobs to Mexico, as well as on the talk on tariffs and on how clean energy effects the job market – creating new technology jobs but not giving work to people whose old fashioned skills are outmoded.

My own career gives some perspective on this matter, in two different areas.

First, as I detailed in Chapter 4 of my third DADT book. I had to deal with outmoding of my own skills in information technology, which had been largely mainframe.

From the time I started “working”, after getting out of the Army in February 1970, until by career “cardiac arrest” at ING in Minneapolis in December 2001, I worked steadily in information technology (largely mainframe) for almost 32 years, with no periods of non-employment longer than one week at any time.  I had only one “layoff”, in February 1971 (from RCA in Princeton NJ) but was never off of a payroll as I started work as a civilian computer programmer for the Navy Department in Washington DC on a snowy March 1, 1971.

Over those three decades, there was a shift in the perception of the desired market skills, from academic preparation, to defense, to applications programming in procedural languages (most of all COBOL) for mainframe business (most often financial) applications, with a gradual shift from batch cycles to on-line. From the early 1970s until the Internet became significant in the job market (by the late 1990s) there was a market bias for IBM mainframe skills, as IBM crowded out several competitors (including Univac, for which I worked 1972-1974).  The Y2K exercise caused an uptick in mainframe demand toward the end of the 1990s, but otherwise in the late 90s the culture of computing changed rather abruptly, toward object-oriented languages, typically much less verbose than IBM’s mainframe languages), which young adults learned readily but which older professionals had trouble catching up with.

Learning these OOP and scripting skills was rather like learning to play musical instruments:  you had to practice to be good at it (like Mark Zuckerberg’s character, played by Jesse Eisenberg, coding his first cut at Facebook while drunk after a dorm party at Harvard, in an early scene from “The Social Network” (2010)). The development pace at new Internet companies was orders of magnitude faster than in traditional financial businesses (with mainframe), which in turn had been faster than the tortoise-like pace of defense project development.   The best way to learn a new language is to do a project in it and be responsible for it when it runs in production.  But generally it was harder for older professionals to get that opportunity with new stuff.  One reason was that the mature workers were needed to keep legacy systems running, until these systems were converted or assimilated.  Then fewer other companies needed these old skills.  If you knew how to run IMS databases, you might find a few companies that desperately needed your skills for short time contracting gigs.  But then the market died.  After 2001 (Y2K and the shock of 9/11 on markets) the “just mainframe” market dissolved into short term W-2 gigs arranged by staffing companies for clients (often for state governments, which remained mainframe shops for social programs).

This loss of traction for older professionals may help explain why the Obamacare implementation went so badly,  When finally there was a huge project needing old-fashioned skills, contracting companies could no longer find the mature talent necessary to “see around the corners” in putting a huge system like this together.

I don’t claim that outsourcing work overseas (like Y2K work to India) had any significant impact on my own job market.  What did affect it was rapid technology change, in an area that was unusually favorable for younger adults (often teenagers) with the opportunity to get good at these skills from scratch.  Indeed, in some areas (like around Research Triangle in North Carolina, around Austin, and in the Silicon Valley), college-age tech employment does help deal with the student loan and debt problem by giving talented young adults to opportunity to make real money quickly.

In the meantime, as I entered my “second career”, trying to mount my eventual assault as a writer (and I’ve covered that elsewhere and will come back to it – like “Selling Books” (July 8).  But I had to make a living with interim jobs in the meantime (as detailed in the same DADT Chapter).  I discovered a little bit of Maoist values – in facing a world of regimented workdays at low pay, like much of the world.  I tended to see this as “paying my dues” (indeed as I wrote here on a legacy site in 2004 “Pay your bills and pay your dues” )  Barbara Ehrenreich has written out this whole workplace issue with low-wages and regimentation in her book “Nickel and Dimed” (2001), where she found she struggled as she took low-pay retail jobs, say that working at Wa-Mart made her feel she had Alzheimer’s.

A few of the interviews for jobs I did not get (over qualification) would make me wonder how I would have fared on my feet all day, say running a cash register.  I almost got a job as a letter carrier for the Post Office (I was warned it would be “very physical” from the start of the day “casing the mail”) in November 2004; it fell through because we couldn’t get my old medical records (on the hip fracture) from Minnesota.  When I started substitute teaching, I found myself pushed toward out-of-profile assignments involving special education and very needy children.  Early in the experience, I backed out of an assignment involving helping dress kids in the locker room and manning the deep end of the swimming pool (details ).  Given my circumstances ar the time, having moved “back home” to look after an aging mother (who did have money), I can see how this would appear as “moocher” behavior.

Add to this mix the hucksterism of many jobs in the mid 2000s, where there was still a mentality that contacting people and manipulating them to buy things was virtuous – doing so was how you “play ball” with people.  I got calls for everything: becoming a financial planner, life insurance agent, tax preparer – these sound legitimate but are becoming more difficult than in the past – and things like subprime mortgages, and supervising sales people begging for charities in shopping malls.  It was all about other people’s worlds.

Given all of this, then, it seems particularly disturbing that a tech consumer like me would be OK with buying products from overseas which may be artificially cheap because of the near slave labor of people overseas, who work under conditions in which I wouldn’t survive.  That’s bad karma.  I had started this discussion earlier on a legacy blog posting here.

It is understandable that policy makers need to help people displaced by technology.  But over history, there has always been some attention to an underlying moral problem, that all people need deeper skills in meeting the real needs of others, and need to be able to change places more often.

(Posted: Sunday, December 25, 2016 at 4:15 PM EST)

 

Should school districts make community service hours a graduation requirement?

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On Sunday, February 11, 1968, I stood in newly issued fatigues in formation in a biting wind, with snow flurries, after a southern cold front blew into the Carolina Midlands at Fort Jackson, SC, as the drill sergeant barked, “I need some volunteers”.  We all raised our hands, almost as if giving a Hitler salute, so as not to stand out.  I didn’t have to “volunteer” that day and was soon back in drafty but warmer barracks. I thought, we have to learn to deal with the “freezin’, fuckin’ cold”.  Soon, the skin on my wrists would start to crack.

Now, fast forward.

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Many public school systems (and many private schools, like Catholic or other parochial schools) now require community service as a graduation requirement.  Is this a good idea?

“Mandatory volunteering” is an oxymoron. But there is practical pressure on a lot of us to give back or to join in, because if “we” don’t, we depend on others who make the sacrifices and take the risks for us.

Actually, I’m getting a bit ahead of myself. Community service requirements for graduation, as an issue, intersects with or is related to, but still distinct from, some other issues like the military draft (whether it should include women), national service, corporate internships in lieu of regular jobs, and even use of community service in criminal sentences (making “service” non-voluntary).  These will all be covered later separately.

The best piece I could find on it was a 2008 New York Times article by Douglas Quenqua, “Good Deeds, the Backlash”. (An earlier similar column from 2003 had curiously been removed by the NYT.)   But there are pieces by the School Superintendent Association, college administrators, and “debate.org”. This last site does set up an “opposing viewpoints” forum that I have envisioned doing in the past.

In general, many observers are critical of the obsession by school systems with meeting a “clock hours” requirement, but the same observers believe that some volunteer assignments do provide valuable student learning experiences, perhaps worthy of some academic credit.

I would be inclined to agree with that summary.  Think about it.  Maryland schools require 75 clock hours.  That would be something like 19 Saturdays with four-hour stints for a whole semester.  But that’s about the amount of class-equivalent time that it takes to earn about six credit hours in college.  Is six credit hours of “service” reasonable, say split between junior and senior years in high school?  Probably.  But when there is a preoccupation with “The Hours” (like the three-part movie), there’s a tendency for abuse.  Companies offer youth tours for “service credits” to the Caribbean or Central America, maybe with little service and some risk to the safety of students.

High schools (and colleges, but we’ll come back to that) should construct assignments where the focus is on skills learning (including people skills), and completing certain projects.  It’s easy to imagine projects that teach handiness (or “handyman”, to quote one of my own novel manuscripts) skills and service the community.  For example, organic garden work to provide healthful produce for food banks (diabetic clients are helped), or construction of affordable housing (leaning some construction trade or shop skills), or perhaps some environmental cleanup, or sometimes, tutoring in literacy and math programs.  In Washington state, representative Steve Berquist says community service inspired a young man become a teacher (and potentially run for office). And, yes, service assignments can give some students experience with regimentation and manual labor, a sense of the world that they will depend on.  If that sounds a tad Maoist, so be it.  Yet, all of this sounds cynical, apart from love and belonging.

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In college, sometimes there a projects, worthy of academic credit, more readily done in the real world outdoors or in corporate computer labs (like in Research Triangle Park) than on campus (UNC or Duke nearby).  At Grandfather Mountain, NC, (in a film I staw there) biologists learn rappelling skills because that is the only way to study some altitude-sensitive unusual plants and animals – which could wind up having medicinal value for people.  I’ll come back to interning later, but it seems valid when there can be genuine graduation credit given and when there is real learning involved, as well as potential service.

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We could see science fair projects as a kind of service, or find ways to fit them in to a service program and give credit.  Think about the contribution of Taylor Wilson, and of both Jack and Luke Andraka.

I think you can make a case for the fact that high school graduates should have learned some other community skills: learning to swim, learning CPR, and to some extent rescue skills.

(Published: Wednesday, Aug. 31, 2016 at 10:45 AM)

Hillary Clinton’s server and email scandal(s), not quite as “bad” as Trump’s recklessness, but still a regrettable “process piece”

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So, does the “email server scandal” really create a serious issue with Hillary Clinton’s character and her fitness to become president?  Does it still leave some lingering legal questions about some unknown future prosecutorial or impeachment threat?   Indeed, the chant “lock her up” at the RNC (to Chris Christie’s mock court and Mike Flynn’s speech) and even among Sander’s protestors yesterday, is rather sickening.

First, let’s separate this from another email scandal that erupted Monday in Philadelphia at the DNC, the apparent Russian hack intended to show prejudice against Sanders and apparently improve Trump’s chance of election.  I cover this on Blogger here.  There’s also a story by Julian Assange on the hack here.

The problem with the Hillary Email Server Problem is that it criss-crosses several other issues and competing interests.

One issue is, of course, the specialized care in handling classified information.  But ethically it is comparable to the responsibility for private companies and sometimes government agencies to protect PII for customers.

The other big issue is that most “salaried professionals” in today’s workplace do want to work from home.  This creates issues especially during travel.  Generally, workers are expected to use corporate or government computers for business use only, and sometimes that’s a legal requirement. But, especially when “out and about”, workers can’t always carry two sets of hardware around everywhere (there’s a good question as to bringing multiple laptops through the TSA – you can, but I wouldn’t want to try it).

That’s one reason why many tech businesses have allowed BYOD at work. The major exposure in most cases is live consumer PII on a worker’s own device.  There are various discussions online of the security implications, but one of the best is on Digital Guardian.  It seems important that workers not save consumer devices on their own devices, but it’s hard to see how you could stop that from happening.

There are companies that hire work-at-home customer service reps who use their own computers, although there are strict security requirements.  One example is Sykes-Alpine Access.

In the days before the Internet when a lot of computing was on large mainframes, it was common for people to take work home – even listings of parallel test results (with live consumer data sometimes) before system implementations.  A home break-in could conceivably compromise consumers, but nobody worried about this in the late 80s and early 90s. I sometimes kept listings at home for reference  —  CYA proof at all times that I had done my job properly for something now running all the time in production with millions of clients.

Production “on-call” support at night for batch cycle abends could be done either from dumb terminals taken home (which were not very effective), corporate laptops, or personal desktops or laptops (which could be equipped with PROCOMM or similar product) to log on to a work mainframe.  I usually used my own hardware because of another “conflict” which I have explained previously.  I can recall that as early as 1985, when I logged on to a mainframe terminal, I was reminded of a state (Texas, at the time) law regarding computer crime.  Employees were held accountable for any misuse of their accounts, as if someone else knew their passwords or if they left themselves signed on when they went home.

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I’d add here that in September 2001, about 2 weeks after 9/11, there was a serious email virus problem where I worked, which could have infected me at home, and which led to some uncomfortable conversations, as I recall that period (seeing “discuss issues 1:1” in your calendar).

That brings us to the subject of jobs requiring government security clearances and access to military or state-department (or other agencies, like Energy) classified information.

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I do have some experience to bear.  In the Army, I was stationed at the Pentagon and later Fort Eustis (1968-1970) and had a Secret clearance and occasionally handled classified documents (not often). The same was true when I worked as a computer programmer for three summers at the David Taylor Model Basin (Navy) near Washington, and later for the Naval Command Systems Support Activity at the Washington Navy Yard (from 1971-1972).  The building I worked in is still there, if fully renovated.

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At no time did anyone take work home.  Documents were signed for.  Even when handling unclassified materials, there was a “clean desk” policy.  You had to put everything away before you went home.  Civilians took turns as post-work-hours “security inspection officer”.  All of this went on toward the end of Vietnam and during SALT talks.

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I would never have any further experience with security clearances except in June 1988 when I interviewed for a job with Mitchell Systems as a contract IBM mainframe programmer for the State Department.  I would have gotten that job, but instead chose to go to a health care company (now The Lewin Group).

All this would seem to make Hillary Clinton’s decision to “work from home” seem reckless.  Clinton understandably needed to work from her home in New York State on weekends with “Bill” as well as in her office in DC.  It would seem to an outside observer that the State Department should have installed a server following its own security rules.  Clinton reports there were some difficulties in getting this done (the libertarian “government doesn’t work” litany) so it was much easier to go to private contractors (Geek Squad, maybe) to get her set up.

Her main defense is “mens rea” – to the best of her knowledge, she handled only unclassified emails and other unclassified materials on her home server, as explained here on ThinkProgress (a few emails turned out to be classified, and more would become classified later – and, yes, overclassification is a big problem).   There are many accounts, such as the New York Times (with timeline) and even the Washington Times.  There is an account by Michael Arnovitz on “The Policy” that puts her “conduct” in perspective when compared to Gen. Petraeus (although “two wrongs don’t make a right”, as I recall Advocates for Self-Government broadcasting from Georgia back in 1998). It’s hard to imagine how she could have worked well at home if she got a 3 AM call about a terror attack in the Middle East on one of these weekends.  That’s why it sounds as though she should have worked harder to make sure the State Department fully equipped her with legally secured connections when taking office.  Government can do this for presidents (her husband), so why not major cabinet heads like State and DOD?   I’ve thought about these issues in my own career, but Hillary Clinton had a level of responsibility I never took on, even as eventful as my own career often seemed at the time.  Indeed, this is an issue where you’re too close to the “red button” even in your own bedroom, with your own spouse.   There would seem to be more of an issue for Hillary while traveling to other places (especially overseas) but she would have had a paid security staff with her to handle the clumsiness of security logistics.  I’m reminded of my own preparations when I travel. I have no such resources.

Hillary had made other careless remarks about technology.  Like, “I love Snapchat, those messages disappear all by themselves.”  Well, not always.  But Donald Trump has made plenty of reckless claims of his own, about “shutting down those tubes” which I’ve already covered.

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On balance, I feel more uneasy about Donald Trump’s instability and recklessness than Hillary’s, but I think we’re seeing the results of a system that doesn’t encourage the right kind of people to run for office (and “raise money” from other people’ sources).  If we had a businessman as GOP nominee, I’d rather have seen Mark Cuban (who knows my books).  Imagine Anderson Cooper (as a journalist) or Tim Cook as a Democratic nominee.   Johnson-Weld sounds like the most temperate and ethically responsible ticket.  Coming back to Hillary’s preplexing judgment on the her own BYOD server issue, I can only compare it to situations in my own career where I was in a canyon for a long time and accepted something based on compulsiveness of perhaps just immaturity and inattention as normal, because I couldn’t see out of it — but climb out I eventually did.  Likewise, when driving on a plateau, I eventually come to a precipice and can look out over the next valley.  Hindsight is not too comforting in accounting for one’s own past bad judgment.

First picture is the Port Richmond area of Philadelphia, about three miles from the DNC site, near the 2015 Amtrak derailment site. Philadelphia is not “another borough” of New York City.

(Published: Tuesday, July 26, 2016 at 2:30 PM EDT)