Engineers thwarted by business men.

I’ve been rereading Thorstein Veblen. What a character he was. He came from a family of Norwegian immigrants living in Minnesota. He refused to say when he was born but we know he died in California in 1929. He studied at various American universities including Cornell and Yale and settled first at the University of Chicago to teach economics, economic history and related fields in the late 19th century. I’m not writing a biographical note here so if you want more details on the life of this amazingly intelligent but difficult man, just google his name.

The book that secured Veblen’s public notoriety and reputation is The Theory of the Leisure Class. It’s a compendium of commentary on the mores and institutions of the United States in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. It’s available free online. Once you become familiar with his unusual use of language, he makes for a very entertaining and enlightening read. His chapters Pecuniary Emulation, Conspicuous Consumption, Conspicuous Leisure, and Dress as an Expression of the Pecuniary Culture are a classic dissection of the institutions that affect us all daily. He lays bare where our wants, needs, desires, and dreams come from. His conclusion is that they come from our ‘pecuniary’ culture. Pecuniary means relating to or consisting of money. For Veblen, our money culture and it’s predominant ruling class of ‘captains of finance’ determine how we see and act in the world. They are the preeminent institutions of our world.*

Now, and finally addressing the title of this post, Veblen was particularly interested in parsing out the various components of the economic institutions that dominate our lives. In his book The Engineers and the Price System, available as a Kindle book, he argues that business men, particularly investment bankers and financiers in general, not your run-of-the-mill corner store operator, farmer, or forestry contractor, are constantly at odds with the engineers that actually run industry. For Veblen and most economists  business and industry are two separate things. We often conflate them today. In our world business dominates industry but it doesn’t have to be that way and, of course, it wasn’t always that way. In feudal Europe, the manorial lord drove industry, not the incipient mercantile class.

Industry, for Veblen, does not mean only the factory system and machine production, it means all the physical activities in which humans engage to produce what they need and want as well as the knowledge needed to do so. He concludes that in our world business finance curtails industrial production (particularly commodity production) as a means of increasing or maintaining profit levels. This is easily observable, but it seems strange to think this is true for some people.

For Veblen, profit making often requires the curtailment of supply. Producing as much and as fast as possible, efficiently and effectively, is the aim of engineering. This imperative constantly goes against the business need to make profit where curtailment of production can ensure prices remain high. These ideas, of course, are not revolutionary, and they are behind Canada’s supply management policies regarding poultry, eggs, milk, doctors, and lawyers.

For a good example of how engineers are thwarted by financial interests, one just has to look at how urban infrastructures are built and maintained. Let’s take Courtenay for example. It’s a smallish city on the east coast of Vancouver island, typical in every way. It has the requisite shopping malls, hospital, schools, service businesses and residential neighbourhoods. Now, the municipal government is made up of elected officials, management staff and workers. The elected officials represent pecuniary interests although they claim to represent all city residents. The management staff includes civil engineers, urban planners and the like. If decisions about where to build streets, what they would look like, the materials used in their construction, etc., were left to the engineers, the city would look entirely different than it does. The monetary interests constantly impose cost restrictions on the engineers with the result that street design, urban planning and related activities, are a hodgepodge of compromise including irritating merge lanes and intersections, inadequate bridge structures and neglected maintenance that leaves many roads a hazard to drive on. However we think about it, engineers are systematically constrained by the vested interests represented by elected officials. Of course, not all elected officials see themselves as representing the vested financial interests, but if they didn’t follow the policies imposed on them by the provincial government with regard to fiscal ‘responsibility’, they would soon be removed from office. And, of course, there must be some oversight of the work of the engineers. The point Veblen makes is that the oversight is the prerogative of business interests in the name of maximizing profit, and not for creating the greatest good for the greatest number of people, in this case, the residents of Courtenay.

By the way, Veblen is off the mark when it comes to the role of engineers in a potential overthrow of the ‘kept classes’, but he wasn’t beyond speculating on the way the pecuniary culture would come to an end. I have to reread his book Imperial Germany to determine what his views are on globalization, but that’s my next Veblen read. Karl Marx was very conscious of globalization and, for him, the end of the capitalist domination of industry and production was predicated on the advanced globalization of capital accumulation. Veblen wrote extensively about Marx and admired his materialist historical method. He did have reservations about Marx’s work, but that will be for another blog post.

 

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For Veblen institution means a ‘crystallized’ habit of thought or life, crystallized meaning that they are spread throughout society so as to be essentially unquestioned by most people.

What Will a Post-Employment Future Look Like?

One of my former students, a frequent commentator on my blog, commented on my last post about my disillusionment and the nature of capital. She asked two questions in particular that I will address in this post:

“Do you see hope for mankind’s survival after workers are replaced by robots and machines and software? If so, do you have an idea of how we humans will be able to sustain ourselves once traditional “jobs” have disappeared?”

These are both good questions. To answer the first one, I’ll say right off that I’m no utopian. I leave the musings about future worlds to the utopians, dystopians, novelists and science fiction writers. There are enough Star Wars and Star Treks to go around. Still, there are some things I can say about the future that are science-based and predictable. However, it’s necessary to first think about what ‘mankind’s survival’ means.

The word survival needs some consideration. Ultimately, none of us, nor any of our marvellous creations survive or ‘live beyond’. Science, especially palaeontology, archaeology and related disciplines, have made it clear that our planet has only been around for a few billion years and we, as a species, have only evolved in that last few million. Us modern humans are a very recent addition to the planet and as with everything else, we’re still evolving and will continue to do so until we go out of existence, and that’s a sure thing. I used to challenge my students to come up with an example of anything that was amenable to perception via our senses that had not or would not come into existence at some point and go out of existence at a later point. Everything comes and goes. Life is a process, not a thing. Of course, I’m sure you can come up with a lot of “what if’s” here as in what if we blow ourselves to bits with nuclear weapons before we get a chance to evolve more or less peacefully out of existence? That may happen. We may try to commit species suicide, but it’s highly unlikely that every human on the planet would be eliminated by nuclear war. I’ll let the dystopians speculate on that one.

Besides, species don’t always disappear completely. They often evolve into other species over long periods of time. So, ultimately, survival is not an option for us, nor is it for any other species. It’s not even  an option for mountain ranges and continents, or the universe, according to some scientists. Nothing ever stays the same. Our limited sensual and perceptual abilities and weak sense of time often prevent us from fully appreciating that.

That said, and moving on, mankind will easily survive the advent of robots and extreme mechanization. I think my student’s question was more in line with the question: “what are we going to do when robots do everything for us?” I really don’t know. Probably some of the things we do now. Work will still need to be done. It is on Star Trek’s Enterprise. (Do you think people get paid on the Enterprise? What would they spend their money on, especially when you can order an Earl Grey tea, hot, at the replicator anytime you want without putting a toonie in a slot?)

Marx actually speculated on a post-capitalist world in one of his books, The German Ideology, but lived to regret it because he was afterwards forever branded a wide-eyed utopian. Later in his life he focussed almost entirely on writing Das Kapital, a basically scientific venture. By then he had abandoned his youthful idealistic philosophizing and political pamphlet writing. But I digress.

What I argued in my last post was that employment would come to an end, not work. I should have made that more clear. Employment is a way work gets organized. Working for wages is only one of many ways work can get organized. Slavery is another way. Work can get done too by volunteers. The point is that employment will disappear but work won’t. To take this one step further: Marx concluded (not specifically in these words) that communism will come when we are all unemployed. Now, that’s not strictly true. Markets existed in ancient Egypt, they just weren’t the dominant means of creating wealth. In the future, if things continue as they are, some employment may still exist, but it won’t be the dominant social relation of production.

The truth is, businesses are rapidly eliminating employees in a number of critical large scale industries. Machines have been eliminating, at an accelerating pace, a lot of the more onerous and dangerous tasks we used to perform as a matter or course. Who would have thunk that lawyering could be automated. It can be and already is to some extent. There are research algorithms that can do away with a lot of the work previously done by junior lawyers and minions in law firms. Lawyers will still be with us for some time, of course, but they don’t have any long term immunity from elimination. Same goes for physicians and surgeons. Very few activities we now take for granted have a guaranteed future. That idea seems impossible at the moment, but could a person living when the Gutenberg press was invented have been able to foresee the use of computerized printing, freeways and skyscrapers?

The point here is that the historical trajectory we are on suggests that capital is replacing labour at a greater pace than ever before in the execution of work. The mechanism by which this occurs is the constantly shrinking margins of profit and the inability of the whole capitalist world (not necessarily individual capitalists) to exploit workers.* In practical terms, if a large scale fast-food chain manages to eliminate most of its workforce, it will have a harder and harder time making money. This is partly because in eliminating its workforce it would also be eliminating a major market for its products. Obviously, there is no direct equivalence between workers and their ability or not to buy hamburgers, but if enough businesses eliminate a significant part of their labour force, there is obviously less and less in the way of aggregate wages to buy commodities. It’s true that fast-food workers could go work elsewhere, but if most other large employers are also doing the same thing, there will soon be nowhere to go. Meet a huge number of American workers. That’s exactly  the situation they’re in. Some may ‘choose’ to become self-employed, but that’s just another way of surreptitiously eliminating employment.

Employment will not be eliminated next week, or next month or next year. Probably not in the next 100 years. But it will be. If that’s true, how will we then sustain ourselves? With no wages, what would we do to buy things? Well, the trick here is to avoid thinking about the future in terms of the present. That’s tough. We have stores full of stuff for us to buy. What would they do? Change drastically, that’s what. Can you imagine a ‘store’ where you walk in, take what you need and leave (legally, that is)? Hoarding? Why would anyone hoard if they can get whatever they need anytime they need it? Besides, we have to ask ourselves why we need all the ‘stuff’ we buy. Do we really need it to be happy, to be fulfilled? As I already noted, we can’t think about a future world by simply imposing our current institutions on it.

Wow, is this a utopia I promised not to get into? I don’t think so. The logical conclusion of the elimination of employment is the elimination of employer/employee relations, wages, salaries and the need for any kind of benefits.  Some countries are already moving toward a guaranteed income for everyone out of the pool of income produced nationally by way of industrial production and business profits. Their education and health services are already paid for by the state.

Earned salaries and wages will no longer exist. Won’t that do away with human initiative? Yes, as we know it. But following the logic of the falling rate of profit to its conclusion suggests a number of consequences we cannot predict at this time. What will people do in a world without employment? Lots of things. Like I said, work will not be eliminated and may be more popular than ever. Most jobs will be eliminated however and, frankly, that looks like a good thing from where I sit right now. Many women who for a long time have not been paid for domestic work might also approve. If they don’t get paid for what they do, then why should the rest of us? Seems fantastical, doesn’t it? Well, it’s no more fantastical than the creation of employment in the first place. Jobs have not always existed, that category of labour was created in Europe starting around the 11th century,  but work has always been necessary because things need to get done. What may come of all of this is a much more equal distribution of the fruits of social production. How that would unfold politically I have no idea except to say that it would have to be a global affair. It may not come peacefully either.

As fodder for a future blog post, one thing I’ve always found fascinating is our love affair with our jobs. Maybe a topic for another post. It’s funny, though, why we seem to crave vacations and get lots of congratulations upon our retirement. Maybe we don’t love our working lives so much after all because we seem happiest when we don’t have working lives or when we ‘vacate’ them.

As a bit of an aside, but a point still relevant to make here, some of us were (in my case as a retiree) and are quite happy with the work we did or do. We were/are the fortunate ones. I loved teaching, but I didn’t particularly love my job. I liked the pay too, of course, but a paycheque is only one way that’s possible to reward a person for doing work. I’ll save this for another blog post too.

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*This statement itself requires much more elaboration, but I’ll save that for another post.

I’m disillusioned.

I spent my entire adult life studying, thinking about and teaching university courses on history, social relations and  social institutions. I researched how successive historical periods with their own set of class relations came and went. I was particularly interested in the nature of capital and how it relates to labour. I still am, I guess, but I’m not at all convinced that anyone wants to or can share in my knowledge. My scholarly trajectory has been unique. I’ve researched the ideas of a number of historians, political economists, sociologists, psychologists, semanticists, semioticians, philosophers, geologists, cultural geographers and anthropologists of the last two centuries and more. I can’t imagine that very many other people have studied the same constellation of thinkers or who have come to the same conclusions I have about history.

I’m quite active on Facebook, but I’m about to back away from any political discussion on that social medium. There is no way of developing an argument that is cohesive, well-developed and grounded in reality in a Facebook post. The trolls don’t necessarily dominate Facebook, but they often make the Facebook experience distinctly unpleasant. Even well-meaning people who don’t have the background in the social sciences that I have been privileged to acquire can make Facebook frustrating and annoying. This all may sound elitist, and there may be a touch of truth to that observation, but only to the extent that the knowledge I’ve acquired is very difficult to communicate to people who don’t share at least some of the background I have.

Take the concept of capital as an example. I’ve written about capital in the past. This blog has many posts that touch on the concept, if they’re not directly and entirely concerned with it and its relationship with other social institutions such as employment, business and the nation-state.

It’s my observation (I don’t have any scientific information to support this statement) that most people think of capital as money. It’s true that in accounting capital is considered money used to run a business. And because finance capital has become so important in the last 100 years, it’s also become synonymous with capital. Money is a social relationship but is considered a ‘thing’ in the modern mind. Capital, as I see it, and in classical economics, includes money and assets used in the production and reproduction of wealth. Marx, in Capital, distinguishes fixed from variable capital. Variable capital is the investment a capitalist makes in wage-labour. I’ve always considered capital to include labour, an idea that has gotten me in more than one heated discussion with colleagues. For me, if I hire someone to work for me, the work that that person performs is in fact an asset that contributes to my productive goals, and hence should be considered capital. If I’m a slave owner in Rome in 33 AD, my slaves must be considered my capital because they are a vehicle that allows me to accumulate more capital. In essence, for me, capital and labour are the flip sides of the same coin. Labour is always required to produce capital and capital is nothing but crystallized labour, that is, all the labour that was required to produce it. Another example going even further back in history: a bow and arrow, or spear created by a hunter must be considered capital. They embody the labour that it took to create them and they are used to create more wealth, i.e., meat for the family and community table.

Countries, businesses and individuals can have capital. In fact, it’s inconceivable that in this day and age a country or business could operate without capital. Capital assets including money, land, labour, tools (including buildings, machinery, software and that sort of thing) and knowledge, are a prerequisite of large scale industrial production.

Capital does not refer exclusively to assets in a capitalist mode of production. Capital exists whenever and wherever humans create the means to increase their stock of tools, machinery, etc., as a strategy to ensure their material survival. Capital accumulation exists wherever people can produce and stockpile more than enough assets to ensure their immediate survival.

For a number of reasons that are beyond  the scope of this short post to explore, modern capitalist production aims to replace labour as much as possible in the productive process. There is a historical dynamic to capital accumulation that leads inevitably to more and more replacement of labour by capital in the productive process. So, tools, machinery, robots, etc., (with their load of crystallized labour) are constantly in the process of replacing labour. Careful to note that I use ‘labour’ here and not ‘work.’ Work is a unit of measure of the amount of energy required to perform a given task. Labour defines how work is to be conducted. Employment, just to refine the possibilities a little, refers to a particular relationship between labour and capital in the context of a labour market,  where a person’s labour-power (their capacity to work and create wealth) is bought and sold.

Currently, global capital accumulation is the culmination of a process whereby workers are becoming less and less of a factor in production and when they remain part of the productive process are devalued to the point where they are unable to even reproduce themselves. Yes, we are not yet at a critical stage in this process, but the last 3 or 4 decades have clearly shown how corporations have moved commodity production around the planet to areas of cheap labour and lax labour and tax laws. They’ve also replaced workers ‘at home’ with mechanized systems. McDonald’s, as well as other fast food chains, is in the process of replacing front line staff with automated order taking software and hardware processes. Their initiate in this is not unusual and is in fact the goal of most corporations in all fields of production, from agriculture to mining to food and clothing production. Everybody is in on it. There are many consequences of this process and I’ll tackle those in future posts.

Suffice it to say here, that unless one has done a serious study of the dynamics of capital and labour in historical context, how can it be possible to understand one’s relationships to capital? People confuse labour with work with employment. They see these concepts as interchangeable. They’re not. Does that matter to the average person on this planet? Not at all.

Thus, appealing to a person’s rationality is useless on the grand scale of things. It’s not, however, in some immediate and personal ways. It seems the farther we get from daily life, the harder it is to understand the relationships that control us. So appeals to reason might work for some people some of the time, but people generally don’t have the knowledge and information required to apply reason to larger geopolitical events and situations. This may seem elitist, and maybe it is, but I’m not happy about it, no matter what it is. I often feel that my entire life of thought and research has been for naught because I can’t share it in any meaningful way, at least not with the social tools we have at our disposal most of the time, especially the social media.

More to come on Trump, trolls and half-truth.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Thinking of language on a beautiful, hot summer day.

Languages evolve. That’s a truism, of course. It’s inevitable but some of us like to hold on to some of the rules of grammar, syntax, spelling and composition we learned in school and the new constructions grate a little.

I learned both French and English in school including their different yet sometimes related words, spellings, compositional dictates and tone. Of course, both French and English have evolved but it might be more precise to say  that English actually evolved from French and German. English, it has been said, is the garbage pail of languages. Everything gets thrown in there and very few seem to mind. That said, English has done very well for itself, especially with a helping hand from colonialism.

In English, generally, if one wants to pluralize a word, one simply adds an s to it although there are a number of exceptions. That’s clear with words that end in y. Baby becomes babies, and so on. Army becomes armies. But, hold on, why do the British in general refer to army in the plural, as in: “The army, they marched for days on end.” Now, that’s perverse in my mind. An army is a unit and the word army should always be used in the singular. Now, if more than one army is the subject of interest, then, by all means, use armies. So,  there are many ways of indicating the plural in English, but there is a lot of confusion these days with words like data, media, agenda and  the like. The singular forms of these words, for your edification, are datum, medium and agendum. It’s rare these days in the communications media to hear or read the word media used as a plural noun. It’s consistently used as a singular noun as in: “The media is going to get it with Trump as president.”

Data is the same thing. That famous character on Star Trek named Data should probably have been called Datum. Scientists and science broadcasters should know better. When they report that the data indicates this or that, I must confess that I cringe a little. The data may indicate many things and I’m quite happy about that, but the data ‘it’ does this or that is just wrong. In a recent CBC interview I heard a scientist being interviewed by a well-meaning but slightly inattentive interviewer. He properly referred to a particularly virulent bacterium several times and the interviewer returned with bacteria in reply every time.

Same thing for agenda, which is the plural form of agendum. If you have a meeting you have an agendum, I suppose, if you’re properly organized. You may, however, have hidden agenda, meaning that you may have several preferred outcomes for a discussion you may be involved in leading you to steer decisions in your favour.

However, things aren’t always so simple. Lacuna is the singular of lacunae and algae is the singular of alga.

I know the language is evolving. I’m not tilting at windmills here. Still, there is a part of me that is somewhat nostalgic for the ‘proper’ use of English. There, I said it. Send in the trolls.

 

 

 

 

A language you cannot speak.

So, this has been on my mind for some time. I’ve long been interested in the origins of language and especially written language. There was a fascinating program on CBC’s Ideas program recently featuring Geneviève von Petzinger a paleo-anthropologist from the University of Victoria on ancient symbols found in caves dating some 30-40 thousand years ago. This is a taste of her ideas: Ice age symbols. Her research shows that it might be possible that the first modern humans had a form of abstract written communication. If that is so, many hypotheses about the first origins of human written communication are way off.

I’m sure that even at the very beginning of the process of human written communication there was only a small minority of people that could create symbols and probably not many more that could read them. Communications were all on a need-to-know basis. But written communication and literacy were a huge step in human evolution. Now, we all take language and writing for granted.

The invention of the modern computer has created an entirely new kind of exclusive language that is inaccessible to most people. Machine language with its on an off switches is completely incomprehensible to humans unless they have the code that makes all of the sequences of on and off switches mean something. We (humans) can communicate with our machines (computers) via certain interfaces but computers  actually don’t need human intervention to communicate with each other.

Take bar codes for example. The idea of the bar code was conceived of in the late 1940s but it wasn’t fully operationalized until much later. Now they are all over the place. They are used to track packages in transit, control stock and inventories, and contain medical records among many other uses. The machines that read bar codes don’t need human intervention to do so, but humans need an interface technology to know what the machines are doing.

I wonder how long it will be before machines begin to covertly, in the mind hive that is the internet, create their own language, one not accessible to humans at all. This 2 dimensional QR-code is my blog address: http://rogerjgalbert.com. Go ahead, scan it with your phone (you’ll need to download a reader to do that).

blogbarcode

It’s a symbol that computers (including my iPhone) can easily read. I don’t have a clue about what all the lines and squares mean. My computer knows all that. I think it’s akin to the process whereby humans first invented written, symbolic communication. Is this the kind of symbol that computers will use in their own communications devoid of human input? I don’t know, maybe it’s the plot of a new dystopian novel.

The stupidity of the jobs argument.

This is not an example of Godwin’s Law. I’m not comparing Hitler to any current politicians and there has been no discussion I know of on the internet about the topic of this blog, at least not in the way I’m approaching it.

So, the jobs argument is beginning to seriously piss me off. Whenever there is controversy over whether a mega-dam, pipeline or mining project is being sold to the public by some politician or other, they often throw out the jobs argument. It’s a simple argument. It just states that we need the jobs, therefore we need this project.

Simply, that’s a stupid, ignorant argument but compelling to a lot of people it seems. There are jobs and then there are jobs. Not all jobs are created equal. Have you noticed that? Working at a fast food ‘restaurant’ is not quite on the same plane as working as the CEO of a large corporation. Both are jobs. Both are work, but they are so different in their importance and impact that any comparison is laughable.

More importantly, there are jobs that need to go. They need to be eliminated. They are not on the public interest. They need to go. For example, what if after WWII the people who worked at concentration camps and operated the ovens that killed millions of Jews and others argued that it was not acceptable to eliminate their jobs. After all, the economy was at stake and they needed to feed their families. Who would have the temerity to give such an argument any credence whatsoever? Those were jobs that needed to be eliminated and they obviously were. Unfortunately, we are now into the age of the cult of the job. But that’s the topic of another blog post. Back to my point.

At the turn of the 20th Century, the car was rapidly replacing the horse and buggy as the main form of personal transportation. Horse breeders were being put out of business everywhere. Buggy whip producers the same. Poor horse breeders, poor buggy makers, poor buggy whip makers. All out of work…except the buggy makers that transformed themselves into car makers. There weren’t many of them, but there were some.

I think that petroleum producers today are in the same situation as horse breeders and buggy makers were in the early nineteen hundreds. The ones who can make the transformation to producers of alternate sources of energy will survive, the others will die.  The people who work for them are in the same boat. Change or suck air.

 

 

How We Harvest Horseshoe Crab Blood to Save Human Lives | Inhabitat – Sustainable Design Innovation, Eco Architecture, Green Building

How We Harvest Horseshoe Crab Blood to Save Human Lives | Inhabitat – Sustainable Design Innovation, Eco Architecture, Green Building.

I’ve been pretty quiet lately on the blog front.  That’s partly because I’m building a new deck to replace our old rotten one and that’s taking time.  I’m also writing a guest column for a local paper called The Record.  I may post some of those columns here although they’re probably more suited to my other blog on homelessness in the Comox Valley.

I’ve also been thinking a lot lately about us as a species and how we treat other animal species. Well, it’s actually been an ongoing interest of mine, but every once in a while I read something that freshens up my interest.  Of course many animal species rip apart and eat other species in a carnival of violence every day on this planet, but I think that we take the cake.  As the article I’ve reposted here shows, we’ll do pretty much anything to another species (as well as to our own, of course) including draining their blood as involuntary blood donors.  I don’t know.  Sometimes I despair about my species.  At other times I marvel at our ingenuity and imagination.  So many contradictory feelings about all of this.