The Realistic Bigotry of Reality in the Workplace


Patrick is a mid-40 year old geek with an undergraduate degree in mathematics and a master's degree in Information Systems. Nothing he says here has anything to do with the official position of his employer or any other institution.

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73 Responses

  1. Jason Kuznicki says:

    We’re slowly turning all non-entry-level, career path jobs in the country into “in order to perform this job at better than ‘passing’ levels of proficiency, you need to be at least as good at your job as Devin Ebanks is at playing basketball”.  But Devin Ebanks is in the 99.999%.

    And the remedy is what?  Euthanasia?

    I’d propose a simple rule to avoid a good deal of foolishness in thinking about economics:  Death spirals are rare.  Every time you conclude that things are in a permanent death spiral, check for countervailing forces.

    When the supply of low-skilled workers gets larger, employers will find ways to use them, information economy notwithstanding.  Will these be increasingly pleasant ways?  Probably not — probably they’ll be a lot more like ditch-digging and a lot less like being a writer/editor.  But that’s also how things have always been.

    The difference, though, is that as productivity increases, their salaries, while constant in terms of percentile, will carry with them more purchasing power, all other things being equal.  Yes, I’ve buried a lot in those last five words, but only in the interests of pointing out where I believe you’ve made a mistake in your thinking.Report

    • Patrick Cahalan in reply to Jason Kuznicki says:

      When the supply of low-skilled workers gets larger, employers will find ways to use them, information economy notwithstanding.

      Regulatory burdens are not the only thing preventing this from happening (although I agree with the libertarian principle that they are contributing).

      You remember the dot com boom?  People were scrambling to find somebody, anybody to take that new job.  Did this wind up producing a bunch of really well-trained IT people, when the bust happened?

      No, not really.  It wound up getting a bunch of really bad IT people into the jobs pool with misleading experience on their resume.  Or, as a programmer friend of mine said, after six months of exhaustive search trying to find a completely non-crappy programming candidate: “Turns out, most of the people who lost their job in the dot com explosion… deserved it.”

      Probably not — probably they’ll be a lot more like ditch-digging and a lot less like being a writer/editor.  But that’s also how things have always been.

      Yes, but the ditch-digging jobs are the first to go, in the next round of efficiency.  So you wind up with a certain… very small… set of people having very complex and highly rewarded jobs, and everyone else having no economic security because they can’t get a job, or if they get one, they can’t keep it for long because they’re outsourced or replaced by technology, and it’s difficult for them to switch to a different career, because they can’t jump the hurdle to get those very complex jobs and they’re older than the new kid who is taking the new lesser-complex job.

      And the remedy is what?  Euthanasia?

      You confuse me with someone who thinks that all problems are solvable.

      The difference, though, is that as productivity increases, their salaries, while constant in terms of percentile, will carry with them more purchasing power, all other things being equal.

      This is totally true.  But lags between adjusting purchasing power and context-switching for people who have to change jobs and professions make this a case where we’re going to have a lot of people who are constantly stuck in the depressed middle.

      Admittedly, China is going to have a much bigger problem with this than we are.Report

      • Kim in reply to Patrick Cahalan says:

        Well, the Tea Party is an obvious counter. You take people, and you give them jobs that they LIKE TO DO. Hell, you don’t even have to pay bullies to shove “wetbacks” around (ya, dey called a congresscritter dat one. on capital hill no less)Report

    • The question is not “Can we find something for them to do that contributes more to the economy or general well-being than if they do nothing.” Of course we can (or they can). The question is whether what they find is worth $7.25 an hour. Or, if we eliminate the minimum wage, whether what they find adds enough to justify a livable wage. Will they be able to contribute enough that they produce as much as or more than society has to help them out.

      Now, the entire phrase “livable wage” is subjective and therefore questionable to some extent. But, as a society, there are limits to the degree that we are going to allow for the least successful among us to fall behind regardless of how hard they work.

      Like Patrick, I see no easy solution for this. It does raise questions about the degree to which (perhaps) we should cater our immigration policy more towards economic need rather than proximity and family. For my own part, it raises a potentially serious argument for redistribution on the basis that we created an economy that large numbers of people are ill-equipped to participate in regardless of how much we try to educate them. And, of course, the extent to which we try to order our education system around the assumption that college is a widespread solution to our problem.Report

      • Roger in reply to Will Truman says:


        I think you are underestimating the effects of opportunity cost and comparative advantage in a global network of interdependence. There is nothing in the universe that is inherently worth over $7.25 per hour.  The reason we pay all kinds of people these wages is because we can do something better with our own time. I was a product designer in a narrow field. I purchased everything else from everyone else. The more I added value to consumers, the more i paid others to do everything else for me.Report

        • mac in reply to Roger says:

          I think you have it backwards: since quality of life at $7.25 is pretty poor, no job on earth is worse less than 7.25 an hour. It is just as reasonable to claim most jobs are worth $20/hr.


          • Roger in reply to mac says:

            Hi mac,

            I meant to say that there is no inherent value in anything. Value is a subjective thing. The value of a particular job or product is what others are willing to pay for it. No job is inherently worth $7 or $20 or $100.

            In a market, we produce for others so we can consume. As we get more productive, the opportunity cost rises for us doing anything else. Brain surgeons specialize in brain surgery, and contracts out for other services. This drives up the demand for landscapers and hairdressers and thousands of new things we have not even considered.

            Long way of saying that Patrick’s fears are based upon a misunderstanding of the creative nature of free enterprise.Report

            • Patrick Cahalan in reply to Roger says:

              Patrick’s fears are based upon a misunderstanding of the creative nature of free enterprise.

              You’re missing the nuance.  This is not an economic problem.  It is a political problem.

              And if you think we already have overly limited markets, you’re going to see less-free ones in the upcoming decades (if I’m correct) rather than more free ones.  And that has not so much to do with economics.Report

      • DensityDuck in reply to Will Truman says:

        The easy solution is to make the cost of living so low that the market price for labor covers it.

        The problem is that we, as a society, (or maybe just the people in charge) have decided to put a floor on the cost of living.Report

  2. BlaiseP says:

    How important is IQ in terms of actually doing a day’s work?   IQ measures the ability to learn:  “intelligence” has eluded meaningful definition for as long as people have been trying to work out what it means.   A quotidian job seldom taxes most people’s intelligence.

    Curiously, people’s IQ scores have been going up over time.   Kids’ Wechsler scores too.   Hard to derive what it means, this shift over time.


    • DensityDuck in reply to BlaiseP says:

      It means the same thing as the fact that average grade-point-averages and test scores have been going up over time.Report

    • Jaybird in reply to BlaiseP says:

      Well, there are jobs that consist of a discrete number of tasks that are, more or less, identical from day to day. There aren’t a lot of situations where you have to improvise on the fly because every problem you encounter will be, more or less, a problem that you saw last time. It is possible to write down a process for this job and have a book with every problem in it followed by a step by step solution to the problem. If you ask a person doing this job what today is going to look like, maybe they won’t be able to say “relatively busy” or “relatively light” but they will be able to say what the day will likely consist of with a high probability of being right.

      There are also jobs that consist of a whole lot of working stuff on the fly. They consist mostly of improvisation, troubleshooting, improvisation, and so on. While it may be possible to write down a process for the job, there will regularly be new pages added to the book (like, every week) and, after a year, many of the pieces of paper in the book will be obsolete. If you ask a person doing this job what today is going to look like, they won’t be able to say one way or the other.

      Now, of course, this isn’t a binary thing as much as a continuum… but I’d say that “intelligence” is far, far more useful for jobs closer to the second description than to the first description and, interestingly, jobs closer to the first description may benefit from having people closer to average intelligence (if not a little (just a little) bit lower) doing them due to reasons related to tedium and so on.Report

      • BlaiseP in reply to Jaybird says:

        Not merely identical but guided by policy.  He who improvises on the fly is in for a rough ride.   Even in software, I wouldn’t go ’round improvising.

        I have this theory about what we call Work.   Most of it is needless.   When we consider how much of the actual Work is done by machinery, even ditch digging fer crissakes, the human beings generally steer the machines and those with the most experience handle the exceptions to the general rules.

        People never make much money “working”.   They make money thinking, even at the lowest levels.   My guess is, people who do any thinking probably never put their brains in low gear and contemplate for more than twenty minutes a day, if that.   Most of the rest of their workday is spent with the cruise control on, tailoring existing solutions to the latest problem using the aforementioned policy to guide them.   Software has begun to sort itself out into Patterns, exactly as the integrated circuit was subsumed into VLSI technology.

        There’s only so long we can go along the road of mechanization before it becomes inevitable.   In some places such as India, it costs less to put a thousand people with metaphorical shovels on a problem than to buy two metaphorical Ditch Witches.  But that won’t be true for long, even in India.

        Machines do well conforming to rules:  as you point out, tedium is a problem.   People do far better handling exceptions.   There’s a place for both.   The definition of Work will change drastically in the near future.   It’s hard to say where this trend is going, but it seems to be a good thing on the whole.  Get people out of dirty, dangerous, tedious positions and into exception handling where they belong.   There will be plenty of work for everyone.Report

        • DensityDuck in reply to BlaiseP says:

          Machines follow rules, people handle exceptions.

          The solution, of course, is to make a machine powerful enough to chew through exceptions, and to tell the people that if there isn’t a rule for it then they can’t have it.Report

          • BlaiseP in reply to DensityDuck says:

            Won’t happen.  Here’s why.  Every successful corporation is unique and occupies its own space in the econoverse according to the law of beetles:  there’s a beetle for every niche.

            My QA software can be tuned to the point where I can fail almost exactly five percent of anything coming off an assembly line.   Given a weekly meeting with bucho-san, the line supervisor, I can find and implement a reason.Report

          • BlaiseP in reply to DensityDuck says:

            I’m sorta curious about this business of telling people they can’t have things based on Rules.   Rules are my bread and butter, beer and skittles, too.   The customer is always right and will make his voice heard, regardless of what the Rules say about what he wants.

            Let’s take the market in antique cars.  There’s a reason why all those old gas stations took out their service bays and converted that space into snack emporiums.   Cars these days need fewer repairs and those repairs can’t be handled by someone armed only with a fistful of Craftsman tools.

            Why would people want to own and drive these captious old automobiles?   Who can say?   Maybe it’s because they can be repaired with a handful of tools but I have another theory:  those old cars represent something intangible, an era when men were men and changed their own spark plugs without having to plug the car into a computer.

            People “work” too much and think too little.   Work ought to be meaningful, rewarding in its own right.  People ought to be good at what they do for a living and their careers ought to be shaped by the feedback gained from other people telling them they’re good at it.

            If a rule is keeping your customer from getting what he needs, maybe you ought to re-examine that rule and how it ever came into existence.   This doesn’t mean you kill the rule, it means you refine it to handle the need.Report

            • DensityDuck in reply to BlaiseP says:

              “The customer is always right and will make his voice heard, regardless of what the Rules say about what he wants.”

              He can squeak all he wants.  If the cost of accomodating him is more than you’d make from keeping him, then when he walks out the door it saves you money. 

              If you think that’s going to lead to massive business failure, I invite you to examine the history of telecommunications companies. 

              Sure, there are situations where it’ll be worthwhile to accomodate a customer’s unique requirements.  Be aware that this is an economic choice, though, and not a default one.  If enough people are happy with the iPhones they buy in the store, then it doesn’t matter how many nerds want to change the UI graphics in theirs; that’s just Not Something Supported By Apple.  (And yes, Sheldon, I know I can jailbreak it.)


              “I have another theory:  those old cars represent something intangible, an era when men were men and changed their own spark plugs without having to plug the car into a computer.”

              Haha, yeeah, the intangible benefits of squirting raw ether into the carbureator in hopes that this time it’ll start, the intangible benefits of four-wheel drum brakes and eight miles to the gallon and tetraethyl lead being not just useful but a vital component in engine function.Report

              • BlaiseP in reply to DensityDuck says:

                You’re thinking like a Bean Counter, not an engineer.   David Ryan is building a thing of beauty.   It’s hard work, I’ll grant you, but he’s proud of his work.   That, my friend, is the way we should all approach our work.

                Let me tell you what happens when you tell a customer he can’t have what he wants, even if it costs you more money than it seems to be worth at the time.   He will walk out your door and sell an aftermarket product which will in time attract a VC and they will eat your goddamn lunch.

                As for the crankiness and idiosyncratic behaviour of older cars, how can we explain their appeal to folks?   The market doesn’t care about your Rules of Efficiency.    Perhaps in some distant future, folks will sing the praises of the Ford Taurus but I rather doubt it.Report

              • DensityDuck in reply to BlaiseP says:

                “You’re thinking like a Bean Counter, not an engineer.”

                Been my experience that in the modern world there’s very little difference between the two.  Engineers who insist that counting beans doesn’t matter wind up with programs that cost too much and don’t get built, while bean counters who refuse to understand the engineering cripple programs through underfunding and overpromising.

                The customer who walks out the door will eat my Honesty Salty Realtalk Language lunch?  Yeah, just like Apple got absolutely destroyed back when it turned out the iPhone was a locked platfo–oh wait Apple has more money than God and a 150% share of the smartphone market?  Hm.

                And nowhere did I say that you shouldn’t buy, repair, drive, and enjoy older automobiles. That doesn’t mean Toyota or whoever should be mass-producing “vintage-style cars” with no AC, four-speed manual transmissions, carbuerated big-block V8 live-axle rear-wheel-drive, and so on.Report

              • BlaiseP in reply to DensityDuck says:

                Apple might have been a locked platform but developers are legion.   Apple has always adhered to a closed model and they’ve got about 10% of the desktop market because they screwed with the developers about four times too often.   This is my neck of the woods, I develop software and I don’t develop for Mac unless it’s in Java, which is also a closed implementation but can be engineered to run on damned near anything.  Microsoft took the gradual approach to upgrading and they’ve still got the lion’s share of the market because they didn’t tear up the pea patch for their developers.

                My software comes in on time and on budget because I know what I’m doing.  I am my own bean counter.   I have control of one of three legs of a project:  timeline, deliverable or burn rate.   If I don’t have control of one of those legs, it’s the T&M rate for you, buddy.   All those stupid jamokes out there, furiously trying to develop some little app for the Android or Apple Stores are losing money hand over fist, like so many miners in a gold rush.

                I’ve never felt the need to jailbreak anything, I’m developing for Android to the 4.0.3 API 15 level in the other window and curiously, I can deploy everything needful without tearing up jack at the OS level.

                The difference between my viewpoint and yours comes down to putting my customers first.   Someone comes in my door asking for a Salty Realtalk compiler, I’ll ask him if he’s composed his Extended Backus-Naur for that language and probably hire him if he has.    I’m not the one complaining about putting ether in the carburetor or running customers out the door.   That’s you.  I’m the guy observing human desire is a rum old thing indeed, not conformal to Efficiency or other Bean Counter Considerations.  If there’s one guy who wants Salty Realtalk there are probably a few dozen and dollars to doughnuts someone’s got a draft spec up on sourceforge.Report

              • DensityDuck in reply to BlaiseP says:

                It’s like you aren’t even responding to what I’m typing, but instead putting it in some kind of Markov Chainer and cleaning up the result.Report

              • BlaiseP in reply to BlaiseP says:

                Spare me your anklebiting, Duck.  You’re not very good at it.   Practice on someone else.Report

            • Jeff in reply to BlaiseP says:

              “Why would people want to own and drive these captious old automobiles?”

              A lot of of them are pretty!!!  I LOVE the old BelAirs and the Cosmopolitan is soooooooo precious and cute (like the tecup Chihuahua of cars).  The “bathtub Buicks” had nice lines.  Compared with todays cars?  There’s a reason Mini-Coopers and Beetles sell so well.Report

  3. Mo says:

    It’s called a normal or Gaussian distribution.


  4. Patrick Cahalan says:

    From the other thread:

    Roger sez:
    As automation becomes more productive, the machines and programs will work there way higher and higher up the cognitive chain. (in a few decades, teachers may be as rare as farmers are today). Of course we will become incalculably more productive.

    I have no idea where the process will end. Exciting!

    This is a comment with which I pick only one (big) nit.  I agree, as technology increases, fewer and fewer people can do the work of more and more people.  This does indeed free up those other people to do other things that add value.

    But they can only find new things to add value that are at… or below… their existing competency level of dealing with complexity.  And, by definition, those are the jobs that are increasingly likely to be taken by technology, and are going to have an ever-increasing pool of people who want those jobs.

    This is going to continually provide severe downward pressure on lower-complexity jobs.  Which would be fine if people could move to higher complexity jobs… but most people can’t (by the hypothesis of the post… with which, of course, one could disagree).

    Stillwater sez, re: Because the failure rate of your average worker to perform even the basic skills of their job is so freaking high.

    (This) deserves lots of thought and consideration. If the failure rate is structural (or consistent across a wide spectrum of job types), then perhaps it’s because the standard is too high. Which again has political implications which need to be addressed.

    The problem is the standard can’t necessarily be lowered.

    Let’s say we can build a device that reproduces 90% of what the good doctor can do.  Wow, awesome!  Now medical care is nearly pervasive!

    Except for one very notable thing: the device occasionally breaks, which is a very bad exception scenario.  This is why… in spite of the fact that modern airlines basically fly themselves under normal operating conditions, you still need to be one badass pilot to get behind the stick… because the abnormal operating conditions have very bad consequences.

    This is an embedded bug of complex systems: when they fail, they fail in complex ways.

    Plus, if we could solve that problem and replace the doc with an autodoc… what does the doc do?  He can’t retrain 10 years to do another job that he has the cognitive chops to handle, because (a) he doesn’t have another 10 years and (b) even if he could, that new job that he gets would be of a similar complexity level… which means his new job is going to be the next one that technology replaces.  Heck, he might get halfway through his training and wind up not having a job to go to.Report

    • Michael Drew in reply to Patrick Cahalan says:

      The basic problem is that technology is going to make “us” a lot richer in aggregate, but “we” are not going to share it freely because it’s not in our nature, and compared to the technology, our ability to provide the value to get increasing shares of all the great riches created by the technology is going to be diminishing, not advancing.  We either have techno-social-welfareism (or even techno-communism) and  generally shared semi-leisure and shared plenty in our future, or we have techno-feudalism in our future in which we may be by turns idle or employed but the gains to us from either are basically the same (though enough to get us to be employed when we can… hopefully that doesn’t involve very much in the way of negative inducements). Hard to say which.Report

      • Roger in reply to Michael Drew says:


        The process always is scary looking forward. It was scary 250 years ago when Smith and Ricardo first saw the possibilities. But the well being of humanity has somehow increased astronomically. Today there are 10 times as many of us, living twice as long, with standards of living incomparably higher. We didn’t do it by forcing humans to share. We did it by forming huge productive networks of mutually benefitting relationships of division of labor and exchange.

        Cheer up and strap on your seatbelt.Report

        • Michael Drew in reply to Roger says:

          That was somewhat tongue-in-cheek there, Roger. I was interested in what Pat’s reaction to that type of extension of his argument would be.

          Incidentally, don’t tell people on the internet whom you don’t know what to do using command-tense phrases. it makes you sound like a dick.Report

      • Patrick Cahalan in reply to Michael Drew says:

        I’m not going to make a prediction, there are too many variables.

        This isn’t an argument so much as it is an observation, based on things I can actually see.  I have a Venn Diagram in my head with “Workforce” and “Available Jobs” and they don’t overlap.  Which is certainly not new.

        The problem I see is that when you break “Workforce” into some finite breakdowns of cognitive capability, say… 5 sets… and then you try to map them onto “Available jobs for those sets”, you get a lot of trivial if not empty-set intersections.

        Compare U.S. manufacturing output, with the associated labor/automation ratio, to the Chinese manufacturing output, with the likewise associated labor/automation ratio.  We produce as much as China does, we just do it with 1/10th the laborers.

        If China had the level of automation that we had, they’d have so many people out of work, they’d have… well, a hell of a lot bigger populism problem than we have, now.

        Certainly, there are a bunch of creative-type jobs that don’t map at all to STEM-style cognitive capabilities.  In the grand future of the future, maybe there’s a lot more poets and artists and musicians and gamers and whatnot (not that there isn’t complex art, too, but… well, now I’m down in the weeds).

        I just see real problems when most of the economy is divorced from manufacturing stuff there at the bottom of Maslow’s.  Because any economic slowdown takes longer to recover, because people resume buying things at the bottom layers and work their way up… and if 2/3 of our economy is built on consumerism *now*… we know how hard it is to recover from a shock.  We’re doing it now.

        What do we do when 4/5ths of our economy is built on consumerism?  9/10ths?

        Will the whole thing enter a death spiral?  Nah, I’m thinking probably not.  However, if we have > 15% real unemployment now, and fifty years from now we have 9/10ths of our economy built on consumerism and there’s another worldwide recession, we’re going to have… what?  30% unemployment?  40%?  More?

        I don’t think the numbers can get that high; I think political factors will cut in and compensate.  And that means a *lot* of protectionism and a retraction of the global economy and the mess that will come with that.Report

        • Roger in reply to Patrick Cahalan says:


          I still don’t follow you. There are no inherent limits to our needs. There are all kinds of useful things less intelligent people can do for us. The range is virtually infinite.

          Put another way, you worry about oversupply of only-good-for-manual labor. This will indeed lower the cost of such labor as a direct, short term effect. The secondary effect will be for entrepreneurs to discover new uses for this cheap resource. What will they discover? Beats me. But economic history suggests that they will. That is how the system works. As they discover new uses, the price of labor will increase to fill all these new niches.

          Adding to this, the more those with cognitive power produce, the greater their opportunity costs for everything else they do. This too drives up the price of labor.

          Everyone gets richer long term. Free enterprise has always led to the same result. I don’t see anything different here.Report

          • Patrick Cahalan in reply to Roger says:

            Put another way, you worry about oversupply of only-good-for-manual labor.

            Not at all.  There’s plenty of manual labor that requires a good sense for complexity.

            I worry about the oversupply of good-for-simple-to-moderate-complexity tasks.

            Sure, some of them might be great at something that the market wants.

            The secondary effect will be for entrepreneurs to discover new uses for this cheap resource. What will they discover? Beats me. But economic history suggests that they will.

            What is the economic history you speak of?

            The fact that our economy transitioned from an agrarian economy to a commodity economy to a industrial economy to an information economy does show that entrepreneurs do come up with new things to do, up to this point.  There are a couple of wrinkles, though.

            An economy in transition inevitably leaves a lot of people out of work for a long time.  People aren’t commodities, their labor is valued as a function of both their experience and its applicability in the current labor market.  In the particular case of high complexity work, rebuilding your experience is practically impossible in a normal lifetime.  Russell couldn’t go through residency again.  This may not be a problem if you’re running a numerical model, but in the real world when real people are unemployed for two years they start voting certain ways.  If they don’t get a job, they start doing other things.  The surest way to have a destabilized political system is to have a bunch of people that are perniciously unemployed.  This is a bad thing.  Especially if you like freer markets rather than less free markets.

            The second wrinkle is look at the pattern I just mentioned.  Agrarian (farming) commodity (mining) industrial (manufacturing) information (working at a computer).

            The complexity of farming, mining, manufacturing… those are all of the same order.  The complexity of information work is an entire new order.

            And people are really bad at it.  I mean, seriously, really bad at it.  Do an observational study.  Watch the workplace for a month.  You could probably fire 1/5 of the national workforce tomorrow and you’d affect real productivity of the workplace not at all after the first 30 days.  Right now, a good office worker does the work of 5 average office workers, but they don’t get paid 5 times as much, even though they probably spend 1/4 of their time doing someone else’s entire job for them.

            That is how the system works.

            Respectfully, dude, economics has very little predictive power.  To say that we know how the system works is… well, it doesn’t buttress up your point very well.Report

            • BlaiseP in reply to Patrick Cahalan says:

              Heh.   Depends on which 1/5th you fire.   According to the 80/20 rule, eighty percent of the work gets done by twenty percent of the staff.Report

            • Michael Drew in reply to Patrick Cahalan says:

              Respectfully, dude, economics has very little predictive power. 

              Indeed generally, historically, predictions that the future would look like the past have not fared well.Report

            • Roger in reply to Patrick Cahalan says:


              OK, we seem to agree that some of the oversupply will likely be addressed by entrepreneurs creating new uses.

              The economic history I was referring to is the same one you cite. I am simply referring to the constant creative destruction of new industries, products and services.

              I also agree with you that the transition is going to be difficult for those affected and will have potentially adverse political and social consequences. Most transitions are, and most are resisted as vehemently as possible by those affected.

              You are also right that there is something incompatible between a shift to an information economy and the below average person doing these jobs.  It does not make sense. Could I suggest that perhaps the transition model that we envision is oversimplified? Perhaps we will see a bifurcation to a high personal service and high tech world? An alternative scenario would be that we interfere with the economics and see the wealthy subsidizing an increasingly large leisure class of the unproductive.

              Your take on modern office work indicates that there are massive inefficiencies. Some workers are paid way too much and others too little. This is a huge opportunity for any firm figuring out how to bid away the better workers and not subsidize the free riders. And yes, I predict that a free market will solve this problem. What we cannot predict is how. That is what the market process does. But let me end here and take that up in a second comment


              • Patrick Cahalan in reply to Roger says:

                This is a huge opportunity for any firm figuring out how to bid away the better workers and not subsidize the free riders. And yes, I predict that a free market will solve this problem.

                I predict that the free market will come nowhere near this problem.  And this is actually kind of as it should be.

                I freely admit this is based entirely… well, okay, largely… upon opinion.  I’ve worked in all sorts of organizations, educational, commercial, service, for-profit, not-for-profit.  I’ve worked in places that are repetitive cog-placing industrial jobs and auto service and many other places.

                Nowhere have I seen people predominantly choose measurable efficiency over a hodge-podge of other factors when it comes to deciding who to retain and who to let go; who to promote and who to let languish at lower level positions.  Not with any predictive ability anyway.

                In my experience, who gets along well with the boss is much more likely to get ahead than someone that produces 5x as much work in the same amount of time.  No matter how formalized your current boss may be, how rigorously she applies performance-related measurement, her boss doesn’t or her boss’s boss doesn’t or the person who takes her place when she leaves won’t.

                Organizations are collections of people, they are not people themselves.  They don’t learn the way people do.  They go through cycles of efficiency, but the free market is just one of many factors that put pressure on organizations.  Organizations do not respond perfectly to market forces (Kodak, anybody?)  A large collection of organizations will track market forces, but which organizations are on the top at any given moment changes.Report

              • Roger in reply to Patrick Cahalan says:


                Yeah, it is my experience too. Firms and bureaucracies get caught up in coalition politics. It seems to be an inherent dynamic in internal institutional success.

                It may take different kinds of firms to solve the problem — perhaps one of outsourced teams. Just spitballing here.Report

              • DensityDuck in reply to Patrick Cahalan says:

                I’m not sure how much use it is to point to Kodak as an example of a company failing to adapt.  That’s like suggesting a ninety-year-old man “failed to adapt” to advanced age.Report

            • Roger in reply to Patrick Cahalan says:

              Patrick and Michael,

              Respectfully, dude, economics has very little predictive power.  To say that we know how the system works is… well, it doesn’t buttress up your point very well.

              Patrick, this argument is the weakest I have ever seen from you. You use your knowledge of sociology and economics to predict a future problem, but when I counter with the market’s proven ability to solve problems in unpredictable ways you dismiss it as some type of scientism? Bad form.

              I agree completely that we cannot predict how markets solve problems. But to dismiss that markets are complex problem solving systems is to reject the topic all together.


              • Patrick Cahalan in reply to Roger says:

                Let’s say that when someone says something along the lines of

                Your fears are based upon a misunderstanding of undergraduate level understanding of economics”

                … my first inclination is to say, “If you think this is based upon a premise that faulty, either you don’t understand the context in which I’m attempting to place this conversation – which may admittedly be my fault – or you’re assuming I’m a dumbass.”

                This makes me grumpy.  Apologies.Report

              • Roger in reply to Patrick Cahalan says:


                Oh, I am sorry — I will try to be more respectful in the future. I’m just being a bit of a Devil’s Advocate. To be honest, I think you’ve made a great case. This is going to be an interesting social problem.Report

    • Stillwater in reply to Patrick Cahalan says:

      which means his new job is going to be the next one that technology replaces.

      Exactly. That’s the cycle I was saying has real political implications. Mechanization is of a piece with offshoring: both processes lead to ‘job replacement’ by either technology or another person, so it leads in the short term to increased unemployment. The unemployment circle is supposed to be closed (according the Theory and all) by retraining in another sector of the economy, but that assumes that a) retraining is possible and b) that the sector the worker is being retrained to enter is stable enough to not see future job losses due to mechanization or outsourcing. On top of that, you bring up a third issue: that most of the jobs being lost to mechanization and outsourcing are held by people incapable of retraining for jobs at a higher level of complexity than they previously held. So the process, if left unchecked, would – and has! – led to lower skilled jobs for less wages all across the complexity spectrum.

      Someone who adopts a naturalistic view of this process will be more than content with the outcome. Others might take a different view, and for a slew of reasons.


      • BlaiseP in reply to Stillwater says:

        By what standard shall we measure untrainable?   I’ve seen some low-level people with barely a high school degree migrate up the complexity ladder.   Case in point, a hard drive manufacturing outfit here in the area.   They’re constantly retraining people.   They tried to offshore some of those jobs and got flooded out in Thailand.   All the hard disk drive manufacturers were clustered in one area around Bangkok and they all got hit.   Now those jobs are back over here.Report

        • Stillwater in reply to BlaiseP says:

          They’re constantly retraining people.

          At the same level of complexity, +/-, no? I think the argument takes shape when you consider factory line workers trained in welding who’s jobs are replaced by machines. Welding is a real skill. A talent. Assembly, if it is a skill, is transferrable to other processes in a way welding isn’t. The other problem is that retraining for other jobs requires that a) there is a net increase of job openings in the retrained-for sector or b) the creation of new sectors which can absorb the unemployed and retrained workers. Otherwise, all the retraining amounts to is more demand for existing jobs, driving down wages as well as driving down the overall skill-level requirements for people looking for work.Report

          • BlaiseP in reply to Stillwater says:

            Curious you should mention welding machinery.   I’ve worked on crawler continuous welder robots.   You still need a qualified welder to operate them.Report

          • BlaiseP in reply to Stillwater says:

            But to continue with your complexity problem, of course the market will create new sectors.   Markets do so all the time, as or more quickly than old Buggy Whip markets are destroyed.

            Here’s another thing about retraining:  nothing creates new companies quite so effectively as three guys over three cups of coffee at the Student Union.    Look around any major university town and you’ll find startups everywhere.

            I’ll grant you, tech is what I know and understand.   Other market sectors, I know them somewhat better if I’ve traded in those markets.   But farming is something I know fairly well and farming changes every few years.   It’s not difficult to see why:  farmers are out there probing for new markets all the time.  They can’t afford to run on ever-thinning margins so they branch out.  If anything, tech has so completely revolutionized farming yet still there are plenty of farmers out there and more trying to get in.


  5. Patrick Cahalan says:

    Also from the other thread, Roger points out:

    Pat focuses on those on the lower part of the curve.


    I think he is only seeing the short term effects.  

    We’d need to define our “short term”, but yes.  Effectively, 1000 years from now (assuming no societal collapse or anything), this will be a “problem” only in the sense that people will have different expectations of necessities.  Everything we’ll be dealing with will be on the fourth rung

    I think cognitive tasks are easier to replace than many physical ones. Technology and complexity will be less threatening to hookers and hairstylists than accountants and college professors.

    This is a good point.  However (big however), everyone still needs those bottom two rungs of stuff taken care of.  When the economy hits a downturn, the first thing people stop doing is going to the expensive hairstylist and the expensive hooker.

    If all our jobs, here in the country, are equivalent of expensive hookers or hairstylists, our economy is going to recover a lot slower than, say, Uganda if Uganda is the current manufacturing hub of the world.

    The global economy is a big part of the situation, here, absolutely granted.  But already, we see in our country that most of our jobs are service sector jobs… and when the world economy hit a bump it screwed us.Report

  6. Roger says:


    Good job of consolidating the discussion to this thread.

    Let me just add that the economy is a complex network of feedback loops. If productivity goes up, then we produce more for less. As I stated, this is the general trend since the Wealth of Nations was written.

    I agree that this will lead to every job we have today becoming something different in the future. We don’t know what. But remember comparative advantage. The more wealth we create the more it pays us to reward others to do everything else for us. Hairstylists and hookers are gonna do great. It’s James and the college prof’s I am worried about. Hope he’s good at doing hair.Report

    • Michael Drew in reply to Roger says:

      Hairstylists (might I guess, in house ones?) and hookers! Ha! Sounds just groovy – wonderful in fact!  Look out college professors! Har-dee har! And anyway who cares, right?  You’re gonna be rich until you die either way, do I have that wrong?Report

    • James Hanley in reply to Roger says:

      It’s James and the college prof’s I am worried about. Hope he’s good at doing hair.

      Heh, really.  I’m probably ok, because I’m far enough along in my career.  But the world of academia, the delivery of higher education, is on the verge of radical changes that we see coming but can’t comprehend or really predict.  We really have no idea what kinds of adjustments colleges are going to have to make.

      In my decade+ as a prof, I’ve only encouraged one student to go on to get a Ph.D.–and that was a student who double-majored in political science and math, and I told him he needed to get a Ph.D. in math or a closely related field, and I wouldn’t write him a letter of rec for a political science grad program. (As I told him, he could still be a political scientist if he wanted, with a Ph.D. in math, but with a Ph.D. in political science he was unlikely to ever be a serious mathematician.)

      I really do enjoy my job, but I struggle to see it as a good career option for the future.


      • BlaiseP in reply to James Hanley says:

        I have a theory about the future of education.   Soon enough, it will revert to the ancient model of the university, with professors literally hanging out signs on the street, as they did in the early days of Oxford and Cambridge and Paris, “professing” to expertise.

        The technical college movement is another interesting step in the right direction.   I went to a code camp the other day, put on by various technical firms in the area.   The technical college hosted the camp at their facility but the private firms were looking for talent.   Fascinating, watching the interaction.

        Online education is becoming big business.   One of the prizes awarded at that code camp was a year’s subscription to an (excellent) online education program which would have cost me about $700.   I did a system for DeVry a few years ago, they’re turning out some great people.

        If education has lost its way, it’s because it’s lost congruence with its own first principles:   teaching people how to think.   Granted, the above examples are all technical but that’s beside the point.   Where along the line are the universities teaching people the rudiments of effective communication and logical thought?   Lenin once said chess was the gymnasium of the mind but I wish at turns a college education was run along the same lines as that gymnasium of the mind.   The Germans still use the word Gymnasium for what we’d call a prep school.

        Remember that bit of Monty Python’s Meaning of Life when the accountants took over?   The professors need to do the same at some of our more hidebound universities.   When the football coach makes ten times more than a professor, folks, something’s wrong wrong wrong.Report

        • Kim in reply to BlaiseP says:

          … anonymous writ large? the mind boggles.Report

        • DensityDuck in reply to BlaiseP says:

          “When the football coach makes ten times more than a professor, folks, something’s wrong wrong wrong.”

          Pure economics.  The football coach–if he’s good at his job–keeps the alumni excited about donating (and buying those season tickets.)  He brings in far more money than any professor will manage.  In a way, he’s like a CEO–if you think of him as an employee he’s paid way out of proportion to his efforts, but if you think about him as part of the marketing budget it makes a lot more sense.

          I don’t think a single PSU alum thought for a second that they were giving to the college.  Most of them were giving money to PSU football–and, really, most of them looked at it as though they were giving money to Joe Paterno personally.Report

  7. Brandon Berg says:

    I don’t see a real long-term problem here. Jobs that can’t be filled won’t be filled, and entrepreneurs will find uses for the labor pool we actually have, just as they always have.Report

  8. James K says:

    A thought-provoking post Patrick, I have a few conflicting thoughts:

    One the one hand, specialisation is driven by comparative advantage, not absolute advantage, that means that even if everyone else is better at doing everything than you are, you should still be able to get a job because what matters is what you are best at, not whether there’s anyone else better than you.

    On the other hand, people are paid in proportion to their productivity (their marginal product of labour if you want to be technical), and people’s productivity in some jobs isn’t going to increase much with technology.  If all the moderate or high productivity jobs for people who have low capacity for complexity disappear then you could get a situation where their productivity is below the minimum wage, or in extreme cases even zero.  This would create a class of unemployable people.  And even if things don’t get that bad, if these people end up with low productivity, they won’t be paid very much, which means the economic growth of the future will leave them behind.  It’s possible this is happening already.

    I can see a couple of potential fixes:

    1) The return of domestic servitude.  This may run counter to our egalitarian impulses but fundamentally the productivity of a servant depends on the value of the time they are saving for their employer, and that value will increase as the employer gets more productive.  It may well be that in the future all the people who can’t operate in an increasingly complex economy get hired as servants by the people who can.  Or maybe not as servants, but filling similar roles like personal assistants, cleaning services and more and better food preparation (I think of something like a restaurant that delivers meals to your home rather than traditional fast food).

    2) Transhumanism.  We start to invest more effort in investigating the potential for human cognitive enhancement.  We lift up people’s capacity to handle complexity so it keeps pace with our economy.  Of course there’s no guarantee we can raise people’s abilities quickly enough.Report

  9. wardsmith says:

    Excellent post Patrick, I was too busy yesterday to comment but everyone else has said what I was thinking about with a few exceptions.

    For some reason your post (and comments) reminded me of the Riders of the Purple Wage

    Regrettably, I can’t find my copy of Dangerous Visions or I’d give it a re-read. What Brave New World will we live in without everyone being above average? 🙂Report

  10. Patrick Cahalan says:

    A couple of people have brought up service jobs.  This is an obvious place for the economic pressure to let off some steam.

    The problem that I see here is again not a matter of economics, it’s sociology.  We are not Victorian England.  I don’t see this being a very smooth sociopolitical transition.


    • Michael Drew in reply to Patrick Cahalan says:

      In some ways, we have too much regard for work in this country, specifically, kinds of work. The kind of work we do accords us too great a portion of our self- and social respect, and indeed of our identity, for some of our possible economic futures to map well onto the social character we’ve developed over a century of settling frontiers and then one of making durables and other hard products for the world.  Can the social esteem of yoga instructors, pedicurists, landscapers, and prostitutes catch up with that of car makers and steelworkers?  That’ll be (part of) what determines whether the new order “works” for Americans.  And if it doesn’t “work,” there will be political effects of that, as you’ve been trying to say, Patrick.  (And there will political effects of the way economic changes are experienced by Americans that are not related to the issue I describe above, as well…)Report

      • Roger in reply to Michael Drew says:


        The social esteem angle is an interesting way to lay out the problem.Report

        • Michael Drew in reply to Roger says:

          Cheers, Roger.

          My apologies for my crudeness the other day.Report

          • Roger in reply to Michael Drew says:

            It’s all good bro’

            This is a fascinating topic that Patrick has brought up several times in passing over past 6 months or so. I am glad we dove deeper into it.

            Progress requires change and change can be harmful for incumbents in a position or job. So the incumbents naturally do what they can to resist change. Patrick points out we may have a whole lot of change coming on real soon.Report