Saturday, December 24, 2016

Trump and the Future of Jobs in America

This is an expanded version of an op-ed piece I had in the Deseret News earlier this week.

On December 14, The New Yorker posted an article by Elizabeth Kolbert titled “Our Automated Future: How Long Will It Be before You Lose Your Job to a Robot?” She begins with the perhaps apocryphal story about how IBM’s Watson came to be. As the story goes, “an IBM executive named Charles Lickel was having dinner [at a restaurant] when he noticed that the tables around him had suddenly emptied out. Instead of finishing their sirloins, his fellow-diners had rushed to the bar to watch ‘Jeopardy!’ This was deep into Ken Jennings’s seventy-four-game winning streak, and the crowd around the TV was rapt. Not long afterward, Lickel attended a brainstorming session in which participants were asked to come up with I.B.M.’s next ‘grand challenge.’ The firm, he suggested, should take on Jennings.”
This, it turns out, was a much greater challenge than creating the computer that beat Gary Kasparov at chess. Of course Watson defeated both Jennings and his human nemesis, Brad Rutter. And the rest is history.
Except it is not. Watson was not the beginning, nor will “he” be the end of technology that can replace humans. Kolbert surveys several books that address the subtitle of her article, books such as The Industries of the Future, The Future of the Professions, Inventing the Future, and, especially, Martin Ford’s Rise of the Robots: Technology and the Threat of a Jobless Future. Ford cites a 2013 Oxford University study, which concludes that nearly half of the jobs in the United States are “potentially automatable,” perhaps within “a decade or two.” Yes, half.
Jobs, according to some MIT researchers, can be divided according to two different sets of criteria. They are either manual or cognitive. And they are either routine or nonroutine. The highest paying jobs are coginitive-nonroutine (think hedge fund managers and lawyers). The lowest paying jobs are manual-nonroutine (think emptying bedpans and cleaning hotel rooms). The jobs in the middle are the ones that are easiest to replace with technology.
This, of course, was a major issue in the recent presidential campaign, with Donald Trump promising to bring back blue-collar jobs (mostly manual-routine). The problem is that even if he were able to bring those jobs back (which is doubtful), they would soon be replaced by technology. In fact, they are being replaced by technology in China almost as fast as they are in the U.S.
In order to understand the ramifications of this phenomenon, you must first understand something about productivity. Businesses have long viewed productivity improvement as a panacea for almost all ills. But increasing productivity, as we define it, means that a company can produce either more product with the same number of workers or the same amount of product with fewer workers. Either way, though, the gains from increased productivity do not go to the workers. They go to the stockholders and executives. Generally, increased productivity leads to workers losing their jobs. It takes moral and humane managers (like the oft-cited James Lincoln of Lincoln Electric fame) to devise programs under which increased productivity benefits the workers.
This fact about productivity represents a good part of why we are seeing so much wealth inequality in our economy. The other part is that we have dropped the top marginal tax rate from above 90 percent to below 40 percent. And Trump’s economic proposals, if enacted, will drastically increase the inequality.
So, what do we do? Trump can’t turn the calendar back to 1965 (which is what he is really promising). Regardless of what he does, we are heading for a future in which more and more American workers will be either be replaced by technology or stuck in low-paying superfluous service jobs while most of the wealth continues to accumulate at the top. This is not a sustainable economy.
I don’t think any of us will be surprised to see truck drivers, waiters, cashiers, and even computer programmers replaced in the near future by automated “employees.” What is it that drives owners and executives to supplant human employees with technology? The simple answer is the bottom line. Short-term gains for stockholders (which generally include upper management) outweigh any other considerations, such as the duty corporations owe to their human employees or concern over the long-term health of the economy. (An economy in which there is insufficient demand, because of shrinking wages in the middle and lower classes, is an economy bound for collapse.) But as long as owners and executives view employees as a resource, a commodity, or a cost to be minimized, rather than as human beings who deserve to be treated as partners, nothing will change, and our future will be compromised.
One possible solution to this dilemma is to drastically increase worker ownership. This would slow the takeover of jobs by technology, since worker-owners would be less eager to replace themselves with machines. It would also spread the wealth more evenly. Eventually, if productivity keeps increasing, an accommodation might be reached in which the workday is shortened but the workers still receive full pay.
There are other options, but none of them work in an economy structured like the one Trump and most business leaders imagine for our future. For some reason, they cannot see the writing on the wall. They imagine that if they keep replacing human employees with technology, those displaced workers will somehow find high-paying jobs so that they can afford to buy all the stuff corporations are producing.
But we have already seen three shifts in the economy to accommodate the shrinking pay of the middle and lower classes. First, women entered the workforce, giving most families two wage earners to cover expenses. Second, workers started taking on second and third jobs to pay the bills. Third, they maxed out their credit cards and took out home equity loans. This all ended with the crash in 2008. There is no other shift that can be made. Unless businesses start hiring more people in decent-paying jobs, demand won’t be sufficient to keep the engine running. And tax cuts for billionaires is not the answer. Supply won’t magically increase just because the wealthy get even more money. They are sitting on massive amounts of cash right now, rather than investing it in new production (new jobs), because there is insufficient demand.
Of course, this raises the question I posed long ago toward the beginning of this blog adventure, namely, is it possible for an economy with limited resources operating on a finite planet to keep growing endlessly. The answer, I submit, is no. But no politician is willing to deal with this idea. And Trump wants not only to grow the economy at an unrealistic 4 percent, but do it by destroying the planet at the same time. Now there’s a recipe for long-term success.
What is obvious is that we need to start thinking outside the box, and we need to do it now. The recent presidential election was a major step in the wrong direction. But if we aren’t smart enough to recognize where we are going, we will not be ready for it when we get there, and that could be disastrous.

Thursday, December 15, 2016

Fleeing Babylon (Parts XIV–XIX)

This is a personal essay I wrote about ten years ago, just after leaving Church magazines and starting my current job at BYU Studies. It details a bit of my rather unusual career, which has been shaped by an idea I’ve written about before, the “organizational imperative.” The final part in this essay was written recently to bring the story up to the present. This is the last of four segments.

I love my coworkers at the Liahona and then the Ensign. These are some of the best people on earth. And I enjoy my work at the magazines. But a disturbing realization gradually blossoms in my mind and heart. My coworkers, especially my managing editors, are often frustrated. An incredibly complex and aggravating organizational culture exists at Church headquarters. Because of Kirk Hart, I understand it all too well. Perhaps no one else in the department does. Their eyes have not yet been opened. Still, everyone feels the effects. The organizational imperative, I discover, is alive and kicking in the Church Office Building, particularly the fraternal values of obedience and paternalism. I remember a comment Kirk once made. He said he wrote his book for businesses in general, but he wrote it with the Church in the back of his mind. Now I know what he meant.
The organizational imperative is a worldview in which everything is turned upside-down and organizations are more important than the people in or around them. Individuals exist to serve the organization, not the other way around. And if there was ever an organization that came to be viewed as absolutely indispensable, it is the LDS Church. But is it more important than the people it is supposed to help save? Of course not, but in practice priorities often get inverted.
President Hinckley doesn’t hide his displeasure with certain aspects of the corporate Church. In his official biography is this telling comment: “As thrilling as [Church] growth was, he abhorred bureaucracy and at times felt himself swimming helplessly against a mounting tide.”1 If President Hinckley feels helpless, I ask myself, is it any surprise those of us with no influence over the organization feel even more feeble? Since bureaucracy is a fruit of the organizational imperative’s inverted values and self-preservation impulse, it remains a mystery to those who have not had the organizational imperative explained to them. But to those who see, bureaucracy is neither mysterious nor terribly problematic to cure. As is often the case, education is the issue.
One of my colleagues quits, calling the Curriculum Department the most oppressive place she has ever worked. Some of us jokingly refer to our managing director’s office as “the place where good ideas go to die.” He ups the ante by calling the magazine staffs into the conference room one Friday afternoon and unveiling an astonishingly irrational reorganization. He and his assistants have concocted this thing without even consulting those who know the most about producing magazines. Managing editors are unceremoniously demoted without even the courtesy of breaking the news to them beforehand. They find out the same way the rest of us do—when the new organizational chart is beamed onto the conference room screen and they have to search to find their names. I search for mine and discover I’ve been moved from the Liahona to the Ensign, which means I am one of the few who ends up with a better fit for my skills than before the reshuffling. But overall, I recognize that the restructuring makes it virtually impossible for us to get our work done unless a shadow organization takes shape.
I may not like management theory, but I have taught operations management for nine years. I can recognize when an organization is structurally incompatible with the products it is supposed to produce. Nevertheless, our General Authority adviser bears testimony that this reorganization is inspired and advises us, if we don’t like it, to go take a walk in the park until we do. I am tempted to follow his advice, but I know it would be futile.
After the meeting, we are all numb. I stop in at Larry’s office on the way back to mine. He is one who has perhaps been dealt with most ungraciously, but he has an unerring sense of humor. “This just goes to show,” he quips, “that the Church is run by inspiration and not common sense.” I shake my head.
Before long, as everything begins to unravel, management backtracks in random bursts of cluelessness. But they can’t put Humpty Dumpty back together again. One of the undermanagers responsible for the carnage reportedly puts his head in his hands and laments, “What have I become?” He doesn’t know the answer. I do. He has become a pawn in the hands of the organizational imperative. He has fallen for the notion that people are things to be manipulated in the arithmetic of arbitrary organizational imperiousness. It isn’t the reorganization that is the real problem, illogical though it may be. The problem is how the reorganization was sprung on the employees. Paternalism at its purest.

Shortly after the disastrous reorganization, our managing director retires, leaving a mutinous department as a monument to his oblivious devotion to the organizational imperative. His replacement, transferred in from a more docile department, is in over his head. He has no clue what has happened or why. He only knows that he has been called upon to cure an illness that is well beyond his abilities to treat. He sets up a “training” session where we are allowed to air our grievances and try to come to a solution.
We are divided into small groups, each with a large easel pad on which a scribe writes our answers to the question, “What is wrong with the department?” On almost every easel, the answer that appears near the top is “We are not trusted.”
For some reason, as he sees this theme repeated over and over, our new director becomes defensive, even though the mess he is facing is not his creation. He suddenly becomes “managerial” and declares, “Trust is something that must be earned.”
This statement goes beyond even the values of the organizational imperative. A primary assumption that drives the organizational imperative is that people are not good or evil. They are neutral, perfectly malleable clay that the organization can mold in any way that suits its purposes. But the director’s statement comes from a quite different assumption: that people—yes, even the dedicated employees in the LDS Church’s Curriculum Department—are fundamentally evil. The values of the individual imperative, by contrast, operate on the assumption that people are basically good. In an organization built upon this assumption, leadership would say, “We trust you. You have to earn our mistrust.”
Morale in the department plummets.

The next year something significant happens. The Church has hired a consulting firm to come in and effect a “cultural change.” So it’s not just the Curriculum Department. Something is apparently wrong with the culture in every department at Church headquarters and even beyond. For those with eyes to see, this is an open admission that the Brethren know something is amiss in the employment side of the Church.
The Curriculum Department employees attend a cultural-change seminar. It is a canned consulting package, two hours of recycled ideas stretched over the course of eight hours. I spent a year as a literary agent representing consultants. I’ve seen this all before. There really is nothing new under the sun in the world of corporate consulting. But of course the consultants totally miss the mark. They don’t understand the organization they’re dealing with, assuming, of course, that all organizations are alike. So, rather than repairing the flaws in our work culture, their program reinforces the already invasive corporate values.
When I return home that evening, I am sick in spirit. A deep pit of despair yawns before me. I pray, and eventually a course of action comes to mind. It feels right, and I gain a sense of peace. The next day I compose an email describing the real problems in the organization and how the consultants have missed an opportunity to cure what is really wrong. I describe the competing organizational and individual values and how the wrong values lead to the rise of management instead of leadership. I even quote Nibley’s commencement address. I send the email to all my coworkers and department managers.
I know it is a risky thing I’ve done, but I felt I had to do it. Within twenty-four hours, no fewer than twenty of my coworkers come to me personally or contact me by phone or email. They thank me and tell me I’ve hit the nail on the head. Someone has forwarded my email to a manager in a different division. He calls and asks permission to send it to all of his people. Why not? What have I got to lose? Some of my coworkers also tell me I am crazy, that I’ve put my head on the chopping block. I know this already.
The next day I am summoned to a meeting with three department managers. They deliver a stern reprimand. Irony is apparently not their strong suit. Perhaps they should reread the Nibley quote. They are especially dismayed that I sent the email to our new executive director, one of the Seventy. But this was intentional. He is a neighbor and good friend of my brother-in-law. He and I ride the bus together, and I tell them he has already seen some of the things I put in the email. When they learn this, they are suddenly unsure what to do. They tell me I am entitled to my own opinions, but I am to keep them to myself.

After the consulting seminar and my email misadventure, I go silently about my work as the organizational culture continues its inevitable death spiral. Cynicism spreads as the bureaucracy deepens. I am near despair. I know I cannot work here any longer. I have reached an unexpected impasse in my life. I am convinced the Church is true, but I dislike the organization, at least the corporate side. I do love my ward. Wistfully, I wish I could go back to the simple days of my mission when everything was black and white and Babylon was a distant, undiscovered country. But, as they say, you cannot go back.
One day as I sit at my desk, a terrible thought slips unbidden into my mind. If the celestial kingdom is anything like Church employment, I don’t want to go there. An eternity of this? You’ve got to be kidding. I open my eyes wide and take a deep breath.
Is there a place in eternity, I wonder, where the organizational imperative has been vanquished? On earth, I am convinced, it is the most powerful and pervasive force that has ever existed. It is Lucifer’s crowning achievement, his most devious and relentless invention. Christopher Lasch is right. It absorbs everything in its path. “Inexorably it remodels every institution in its own image.”

God rescues me again. Miraculously, a job is created for me at BYU, this time not at the Marriott School. I’m hired as the editorial director at BYU Studies, which publishes BYU’s multidisciplinary scholarly journal, and the position is permanent. No soft money in sight. My boss warns me, though, “Bureaucracy is contagious, and BYU has caught it.” But the university has not wholly succumbed. So I sit in my office, almost safe from the organizational imperative, and read and edit and get a more comprehensive view of the world, particularly LDS history, and hatch plots not just to flee but eventually to defeat Babylon. Perhaps there is hope. Perhaps. Yeah, right. I know. I’m crazy.

I have been at BYU Studies now for over ten years. Perhaps in some corners of the university the organizational imperative is fully operative. But for me it has slowly faded into the background. Universities are, in some ways, resistant to this particular organizational virus. But it is persistent. It will not cease its efforts to slip in through any cracks in academia’s armor.
Nevertheless, life is never easy. I have other challenges in my current situation. I study Mormonism for a living. I am paid to ask questions, to look for inconsistencies. They are everywhere. The church I was so certain about ten years ago has turned out to be much more complex and conflicted than I ever imagined. I discover that the Church’s past is no prettier than its present. For some of my questions, there are no apparent answers. Still, I continue to search for truth. It is elusive.
1. Sheri L. Dew, Go Forward with Faith: The Biography of Gordon B. Hinckley (Salt Lake City: Deseret Book, 1996), 408.

Saturday, December 10, 2016

Fleeing Babylon (Parts IX–XIII)

This is a personal essay I wrote about ten years ago, just after leaving Church magazines and starting my current job at BYU Studies. It details a bit of my rather unusual career, which has been shaped by an idea I’ve written about before, the “organizational imperative.” This is the third of four segments.

I get to know Kirk Hart, a white-haired, slightly ostentatious scholar who wears a samurai headband when he drives his red Alfa Romeo convertible. One day I tell him his book has rescued me at a fundamental level. It enabled me to see my enemy and to preserve the inner core of my being. He merely says, “You have no idea how many students have told me that.” So I am not as alone as I have thought.

In 1987, the dean asks me if I will take over as editor of Exchange, the Marriott School’s alumni magazine. I know nothing about editing, but I see this as a way of maybe making my job more permanent. I learn editing on the fly, through the corrections of Byron Bronk, a talented copy editor at University Publications. I split my time between teaching and editing.
The next year, the dean puts me on an administrative contract and makes me the school’s director of publications. I am now producing marketing brochures, faculty directories, and various printed odds and ends. I am still teaching a class or two, but I am also working directly with the dean’s office. This gives me the misperception that the job might turn into something longer term. After two years, the university employment office informs the dean that my position does not exist. “Of course it does,” I say to myself. “I’m in it.” But it is not an approved university position. I have been living on what they call “soft money.” After nine years, my one-year contract finally ends.

In 1991, I land a job in a struggling little four-horse shop in Provo. I run the literary agency. I spend an eventful year there. I sit in on a threat to sue Stephen Covey for breach of contract. He is in tears. My boss relents, and Covey comes through with more financial support for their joint venture that largely pays the bills at our little business. I ghostwrite a book that eventually sells over a million copies. I land a contract for my own book, Economic Insanity, an effort to question the four pillars of the corporate system that won’t actually be published for four more years. I go to Manhattan and visit editors and executives in the big publishing houses. I turn down a $100,000 advance from Simon & Schuster for the book I’m ghostwriting. I wonder if I’m some sort of idiot. But on behalf of the “author” I accept a similar offer from Warner Books. I am supposed to get 20 percent of the agency’s 20 percent. I receive 10 percent. I quit on principle. Also because I can’t stand working there anymore.

I start a little business with a partner from the agency I have deserted. We name our business the funcompany and produce a hilarious organizer, which spoofs the Franklin Dayplanner. We call it the funplanner. It does relatively well in certain markets, particularly college and LDS bookstores, and several times we come close to getting our big break. The president of Follett College Stores, a consortium of 400 college bookstores, orders twenty copies to give away as Christmas gifts, but he won’t push his buyer to put them in his stores. So it goes. My wife and I joke about me being self-unemployed, but we don’t laugh. The funcompany has two mottos: “We put the fun in dysfunctional” and “We’d have more fun if we had more money.” We do earn a little cash by signing a contract to produce a peripheral product for Franklin Quest, the company whose product our funplanner is parodying. They apparently don’t see the irony. They also don’t know what to do with our peripheral product. They actually forget to include it in their catalog. Predictably, it fizzles before ever getting off the ground. But we are glad Franklin picked door number one: a hefty up-front payment with smaller royalties. If they had chosen door three, the small down payment and larger royalties, my family might have had to experiment with food stamps.
I take on free-lance editing jobs. One is a book manuscript by a retired Ford executive detailing his adventures in Grenada after the G. H. W. Bush administration recruited him to buy a rum plantation and establish capitalism on this formerly communist island. He escaped with just the shirt on his back and arrived in his native Vermont in a blizzard. Another is a manuscript by the retired president of Blockbuster Video, an Italian who came to America after earning a PhD from the Vatican University and ended up sweeping floors at McDonald’s. He worked his way up to vice president before jumping to Blockbuster. His manuscript is an attempt to wed business with the humanities. I know from personal experience how impossible this is. The manuscript is seven hundred pages long. I cut four hundred pages. It is still too long. It will never sell.
I have four kids now. My family is close to starving. Sort of. I have tried to avoid corporate America. I have largely succeeded, but my brushes with it have been invariably unpleasant. My few experiences in what my students used to call “the real world” have left me feeling more than a bit grimy.
I hear that the Marriott School is looking for a part-time editor for Exchange. I meet with Bill Siddoway, a gem of a man who is now associate dean. He hires me. Between my “fun” self-unemployment, my free-lance editing, and Exchange magazine, we survive four more years.
Eventually Bill moves on, and his replacement wants to go in a different direction that doesn’t happen to include me. Once again I bid the Marriott School farewell, this time for good. Meanwhile, the funcompany is dying a slow but not-so-painful death. Palm Pilots and other electronic gizmos are making paper planners obsolete, even funny ones. My kids are becoming teenagers. Life is expensive. I need a full-time job. A real job, as my students would say. I find one for a couple of months but get myself fired for being too outspoken about the corporate ship’s current captain, who is navigating the company into a sea of red ink. 
I have an MBA. I have taught operations management for nine years. I have run an unsuccessful little company. I am also a pretty good editor. But I feel particularly unmarketable.

Only those who have been unemployed can understand the despair that comes unbidden to the heart and the feelings of worthlessness that accompany the inevitable thought that nobody needs or wants your particular set of skills and experience. Imagine, basing your sense of worth on what organizational America thinks of you. How screwed up are we as a country? I wonder if I have wasted the eighteen years since I graduated with a bachelor’s degree in German. I wonder if my long attempt to flee Babylon has merely left me unmarketable and unwanted.
Technically, I’m not really unemployed. The funcompany is still struggling to sell off the last of its inventory. But we have not printed a new funplanner for the coming year. And as the inventory dwindles, my status gradually shifts from self-unemployed to unemployed.
Four months go by. I am losing hope. Then something truly serendipitous occurs. Some would call it coincidence. I call it direct intervention. I am called to be ward executive secretary. As almost my first assignment, the bishop hands me a Church employment bulletin and asks me to post it. I look through it first, though, and see a job opening for an associate editor at Church Magazines. I remember applying years ago for an entry-level editorial job at the Ensign, but I wasn’t qualified at the time, and the pay was somewhere south of Kmart. That’s why I haven’t considered looking there. But this is not an entry-level position, and I have done a fair amount of editing in the intervening years.
I call the Church employment office. They tell me the job is closing that very day, but they ask me to fax them a résumé. The next day I get a call from Marv Gardner, managing editor of the Liahona. He wants me to come in for an interview and an editing test. Later I find out I aced the test. Not bad for a defunct business instructor who never had any official editorial training. Marv hires me before I’ve even fill out an application, which I do afterward as a formality. The pay they offer me is a pleasant surprise. It is almost double what I averaged during my years of self-unemployment. My family will certainly not starve. I also have benefits—and kids who will all need braces.
This job is a direct gift from heaven. I also see it as another fortuitous occasion to dodge Babylon, although I’m sure I would have embraced corporate America at this point had it come calling. I am too naïve to understand how naïve I am.