Robots may not want your job – they like to watch

Paul Krugman says the decline in truck drivers’ wages is “not a technology story … robot truck drivers are a possible future, but not here yet … the obvious thing: unions.”

Certainly, the collapse of union power in trucking had a lot to do with the collapse of wages. But that does not mean that technology was not a factor. In trucking, technology has done little to change the hours of work, or the level of skills, required to deliver a load. But technology has improved management surveillance of truck drivers. Continue reading

Ordinary surveillance, inequality, and fear

Our friends Giorgio and Gemma, visiting here from Rome, had this impression from a recent trip to New York: workers in New York are scared. Security staff enforced seemingly trivial rules – don’t step across this line – in a way that they couldn’t explain otherwise.

Workers watch you so nervously when they themselves are watched closely and their jobs are insecure. Continue reading

Fast food ≠ low pay

Continuing the fast food theme (yum): BK in the USA vs. BK in Denmark, fast food work can provide living wages, if the institutional environment is right. Read the report by Liz Alderman and Steven Greenhouse in the New York Times.
The fast food restaraunt is an organizational technology designed to use low cost labor – a restaurant that can operate without any employee who knows how to cook! Continue reading

San Francisco escaping zero (hours)

Two weeks advance notice, or you get paid more.

Image from silentsketcher.deviantart.com, via Fast Food News.


San Francisco is the latest American jurisdiction to find an answer to what are called, here in Britain, “zero hours contracts”. As reported by Claire Zillman in Fortune:

[San Francisco’s Board of Supervisors, which is also the city council of that city+county] voted unanimously on Tuesday [25 November] afternoon in favor of measures aimed at giving retail staffers more predictable schedules and access to extra hours. The ordinances will require businesses to post workers’ schedules at least two weeks in advance. Workers will receive compensation for last-minute schedule changes, “on-call” hours, and instances in which they’re sent home before completing their assigned shifts.

Continue reading

Manufacturing logic for football skills

There is a select group of people who can’t take seriously any sentence with the word “skills” in it because, at an impressionable age, they were exposed to Napoleon Dynamite. ND being a film about a boy who is convinced that a range of fairly worthless skills – from the use of nunchucks to high-performance computer gaming – will impress the girls. Not being a sports fan myself, my reflexive response would be to put football (that is, for any compatriots of mine reading this, soccer) skills in this category: it can be a fun game and maybe you will impress those who you wish to impress (or maybe not), but if we’re talking about the problem of skills in our economy surely we should get serious, and talk about literacy, numeracy, and that sort of thing.

Germany wasn’t doing well in international football competition a decade ago, and to solve this problem it turned to what it does best: training. What Germany has done to improve its football skills in recent years as documented in an excellent article by Stuart Jeffries in the Guardian last May is particularly interesting because is shows how the passion for learning a skill for which the market is small and precarious – the case here is football, but similar cases could be made for many arts and sciences – can be harnessed to ensure the acquisition of general, transferable skills.

There are two reasons to treat football skills as meaningful human capital. Continue reading

Tech skills are risky

Readers of this blog (yes, you are legion … waves to crowd) will know that I think investment in skills can be risky, and that because of this the social insurance framework – how generous are short-term unemployment benefits, and who pays for retraining – has a big effect on what sort of skills people choose to acquire. See old posts for various examples.
Now, you might wonder if this can really be so, in our dynamic information economy, in the case of those bread-and-butter tech skills like programming. If you’re good at that, you should be set for life, no? If you do so wonder, then take a look at this piece by Noam Scheiber on The Brutal Ageism of Tech: highly-skilled Silicon Valley nerds in their thirties sneaking off for botox so it won’t be noticed they’re almost ready for the scrapheap.

GMO giant hires retired cops to hunt down farmers

The glories of the intellectual property imperium! (from Occupy Monsanto)

GMO giants DuPont have contracted dozens of retired law enforcement officers to begin patrolling farms in the US next year to spot any potential intellectual property theft.

DuPont Co, the second-largest seed country in the world, is hoping to find farmers that have purchased contracts to use their genetically modified soybean seeds but have breached the terms of agreement by illegally using the product for repeat harvests. Should farmers replant GMO seeds licensed by DuPont, they could be sued for invalidating their contracts.

http://www.occupymonsanto360.org (http://s.tt/1vNQa)

This reminded me of my teacher Sam Bowles talking about guard labor (I Google and am glad to find that he still talks about it). Excessive supervision that pays for itself by keeping down wages, prison guards, etc: a great deal of labor is devoted to just watching people who, in a better structure of motivation, would not need to be watched at all.

(To say nothing of the fact the the part of guard labor that consists of prison guards is devoted to keeping prisoners out of the labor market, so that’s everybody’s effort wasted: on this see Bruce Western and Katherine Beckett, and John Quiggin. But I digress.)

Further Googling tells me that Bill Totten, who has a company that distributes open source software in Japan, has made just the same association between IP protection and guard labor.