Sarah Sheard's Thoughts and Theories

Sunday, June 21, 2009

Congratulations on your hard work

My guilty secret is that I watch game shows. I look at Family Feud as an exercise into understanding how normal people think...well sort of. ( Name something that breaks out... answers skin, prisoners, and epidemics.)

What has bugged me about the show is when the host says: "You've got a lot of hard work to do" or when the answers someone gives don't match the survey, "You've got to work harder"...

Clearly coming up with "epidemics" instead of "zoo animals" isn't harder work, it's just more successful. The show is set up so that one does not have time to work hard, one answers immediately. Success is defined by how many people out of 100 respondents came up with the same answer. It's not like you sit there and shovel dirt out of a ditch, nor even that you organize file cards or analyze something you read. You just make a guess.

The assumption that hard work = success (and conversely, that lack of success = didn't work very hard) really bugs me.

Here are a couple instances where the assumption DOES seem true.
You walk into a teenager's room, and everything is put away, and the surfaces are gleaming. You can bet this teenager spent a lot of time (and some of it was hard work) focusing on cleaning this room. Hurray for your success and your effort!
(I'm guessing that most cleaning tasks show proportionate success with hard work.)

Your child passes the driver's test with a 100%. You know this child has been reading the booklet every day for two weeks. It worked!

Here are a couple instances where the assumption is definitely not true:

Your child has an I.Q. of 130 and gets an A on a test. The teacher automatically assumes the student worked hard, but the student knows that this subject matter was easy for him/her...just listening in class and glancing at the book led to the A. The student feels like a fraud being congratulated for hard work.

The teacher assumed the student worked hard because the teacher assumes that all students have the same capability, therefore results=hard work.

Of course the opposite scenario is sadder, even tragic. An average or below-average-IQ child works really really hard. Studies every night but *just doesn't get it". Child brings home a B-. Teacher and parent both tell the student that the student could have worked harder. Student feels he/she DID work hard, but didn't understand the topic. No matter how much everyone thinks hard work=success, for some children hard work brings fewer results than for others. (No Child Left Behind can then be equated to "We'll hold back the smart ones and make sure they don't learn any more than the below-average ones, so everyone is the same, as we believe they ought to be.")

The following business scenario was illustrated by W. Edwards Deming in his "Red Bead" experiment.
Managers make the assumption that people who are more skilled will have better results. But a lot of results are random, and processes sometimes not only do not help increase good results, sometimes they prohibit them. His experiment has a barrel full of white beads with some red beads mixed in (representing defects). He has a scoop that he gives different people to scoop out some red beads. He describes a complicated process of shaking and tapping the scoop that should produce only white beads. Of course the red beads are clearly unavoidable, but management incorrectly attributes a lack of red beads (a random occurrence) to hard work, or careful work. Those who got the fewest red beads yesterday were given raises for their hard work, then accused of getting sloppy the next day.

I wish people would pay more attention to cause and effect, or at least to when an "effect" is not entirely explained by whatever one deems the "cause" to be. Many times such an explanation is so simple as to be clearly wrong. Making decisions based on that model is foolish.

Monday, June 01, 2009

Rich people, exploitation, and the economy

A friend of mine asked if it is true that American car companies can't make cars profitably. I actually consulted with a US car company briefly, last year, though not about car prices in any way. However I believe I have a handle on the problem.

Consider: Minimum wage here in the US is $6 and senior laborerers get maybe $40 an hour, or more, but in third world countries you can get work done for cents per hour. U.S. car companies were selling tiny cars because they had to to get their gas mileage average down, but they had to price the small cars in such a manner that they thousands of dollars on each car, in order to compete with import makers. The only cars that US carmakers could make money on were the big ones (read: gas guzzlers), which earned the company like $10K per car.

There would have been a day when I would have thought that was obscene. However I know now that money is the “food” of an economy, and if you don’t feed an organism, it dies. No one is going to keep making cars if they don’t get paid, or keep selling them, or keep anything if there isn’t money to pay them, so a company has to make money somehow.

In my mind this is a symptom of a larger problem, which is unavoidably temporary. We here in the “civilized” world consume every year more than we could possibly make, whereas most people in poor countries probably consume 1/10 to 1/100 in a year Americans do. They are subsisting. So when someone gives them a job to make anything for almost no money, to them, it may be twice what they WERE living on, and they’re happy to now be able to, say, have an indoor toilet. Or hot water most of the day. Or maybe shoes for all their children.

Whereas we (and I’m no exception) want cars, and hardwood floors, and big screen TVs and jet vacations, and cruises, and stainless steel appliances, and handmade art etc. Forty years ago we Americans didn’t have all those things, since we didn’t have the global economy of today, and we could only buy at prices that Americans were willing to make things for. Forty years from now we won’t either, since the global economy will average out income somewhat by then. (When everyone is making about the same money, everyone can consume, on the average, only what people make, on the average.)

But now we HAVE a global economy, and it hasn’t yet averaged the economies from country to country. We still have poorly paid subsisters in third world countries making shoes for us. We haven’t yet realized, or perhaps are starting to realize, that the reason companies outsource everything is no one here can live what they believe is a reasonable life on $.50 an hour, so we demand $5 or more an hour by law. Thus any maker who can goes overseas (or perhaps a better way to say it is: those who go overseas become more competitive in the marketplace and outlast the makers who stay domestic). I heard a fast food chain has even outsourced order taking between that little scratchy speaker in the parking lot and the restaurant kitchen, putting the job in the hands of someone around the world!

So now instead of buying a $500 quilt from, say, the Amish in Pennsylvania, who still make them in the US by hand, we buy a $99 quilt from an importer, and have $400 left to buy, say, chairs, made in Thailand from disappearing forests. (We wouldn’t have been able to afford any chairs if they were made in an eco-friendly way inside the US.)

Historically everyone would like to have a job that pays them enough to obtain more than they could make themselves. In the past, the ruling class in every society I know about exploited someone and made them make things for them, from Indian castes to Egyptian and US slaves, to women prior to about the 1960s here and in the Islamic world still.

As we stop exploiting people and want them to have the same opportunities we have, we’ll have fewer fruits as a result. I think as we continue to send money overseas to cheap labor markets, they will get less cheap, and our neighbors here at home will be willing to work for salaries that don't enable them to buy as much, and prices will come a bit closer together. But until we recognize that not everyone can have everything, we will be surprised that the economy does what it does. We try to send everyone to college so that everyone can have a $100K a year job, but we don’t want to pay $100K to our maids or our children’s babysitters or our gardeners.

Enjoy it while you can if you have a job. It won’t be the same in 40 years. My opinion only.