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Thursday, September 16, 2010

Ending the doctrine of hard work
Posted by Jill | 5:51 AM
Oliver Perez is a pitcher for the New York Mets. Wait, that's not exactly correct. He's a guy who's trained to throw a baseball from a mound and have batters hit it. The problem is that hit it they do. He's got a 6.64 ERA and a won/lost record of 0-2 in 16 games. He's been on the DL or banished to the netherworld of the minors for most of the year. Did I mention that he's got a $36 million contract? If you assume that he doesn't get paid while in the minors or on the DL, he's made a quarter of a million dollars for each game in which he's appeared. He's known to show up at spring training overweight and out of shape. Recently he blew off a team visit to Walter Reed Army Medical Center to visit wounded soldiers.

Richard Fuld was the head of Lehman Brothers when it collapsed in 2008. He made $484 million that year.

Carly Fiorina, the Republican nominee for governor of California, was once head of Hewlett-Packard. Under her tenure, the stock dropped 80% and she was fired with a $21 million severance package.

George W. Bush made an early career drilling dry holes in Texas using the money of friends of his father's. He got into Yale as a legacy and had a C average. His father pulled strings to get him into the Texas Air National Guard instead of going to Vietnam, and he didn't even show up for that much of the time. He became governor of Texas, and then President of the United States.

Bank of America laid off 900 tech workers in 2006 and told them they had to train their offshored, lower-wage replacements or be denied unemployment insurance. In 2006, Bank of America paid out $6.5 billion in bonuses.

I don't know about you, but I always leave good tips for housekeepers when I stay at a hotel. It may seem not that difficult, but if like me, you have one of those preposterous newer mattresses the corner of which seems to weigh 1400 pounds, imagine making 20 or 30 beds a day, cleaning bathrooms and mopping floors. It's not easy work. Last year housekeepers at three Hyatt hotels in Boston were laid off in favor of workers from an outside company. These housekeepers were making $15.32 an hour plus benefits -- hardly a princely wage given the cost of living near Boston. The wage of the new workers? Eight dollars an hour.

Can we please stop this nonsense that if you Just Work Hard Enough, you'll be successful and get into the rich guys club? It's been depressing over the last thirty years watching working people buy into this stupidity and then find themselves scrambling to keep a roof over their heads. And yet they still believe it. They believe it because the Horatio Alger mythos pervades every part of our society. But for every guy who nails together two things that have never been nailed together before (h/t George Carlin) and finds enough schmucks to buy it from him to become a millionaire, there's a spoiled trust fund baby who rises through the ranks after starting at Vice President because his father golfs with the CEO; and there's a million guys who go to work at a mind- and body-numbing job every day for thirty years and then die of a heart attack at sixty.

There is no longer a correlation between hard work and success, no matter what Peter Orszag, the Obama Administration's former and unlamented OMB director says:
But he apparently wouldn’t want you to think so. In the first column, "Sweating Your Way to Success," Orszag reports reading Matthew Syed’s book "Bounce." A former table tennis Olympian, Syed supposedly "takes empirical evidence on the science of success seriously."

The science of success? In a book about Ping-Pong? That sounds like something you might see advertised on a late night TV from a P.O. Box in Fort Lee, N.J., for $19.95.

But I digress. Here’s the essence of it: Pick the "genius" of your choice -- Bill Gates, Eric Clapton, Carl Sagan, Luciano Pavarotti, Ray Charles, Rafael Nadal, Meryl Streep, anybody. (I’ve listed several who leave me cold.) Did they get rich and famous through innate ability or practice and determination?

Sheer effort, Orszag says. He thinks it’s a shame most of us have "bought into several misconceptions about excellence, which are not only wrong but affirmatively counterproductive ... Too many of us believe in the 'talent' myth -- that top performers are born, rather than built. But Syed shows that in almost every arena in which tasks are complex, top performers excel not because of innate ability but because of dedicated practice."

It’s at this point in the argument that the washed-up jock in me wants to ask: Never mind did you ever play a competitive sport, did you even attend high school gym classes? The idea that almost anybody can, say, reach the finals of the U.S. Open through sheer determination -- Orszag specifically mentions tennis -- is so silly, that as Orwell famously observed, "only an intellectual could believe it."

Now me, had I thrown more baseballs than I did between the ages of 10 and 20 my right arm would have needed to be surgically reattached. I failed to become Greg Maddux. Later on, I played a lot of tennis, but never enough to get three points in a set off Nadal. (I’m vain enough to dream that I might hit two aces. Probably not.)

Actually, I quite doubt that Orszag does believe it. He only pretends to out of some murky combination of idealism, guilt and/or pride that inhibits straightforward discussion of anything to do with opportunity and achievement in our society. It’s a syndrome Pinker’s book "The Blank Slate" mercilessly dissects as "the mentality of a cult, in which fantastical beliefs are flaunted as proof of one’s piety."

In a follow-up piece, Orszag halfway concedes an objection made by many readers "that it is too simplistic and that even with hard and dedicated practice, not everyone could become Mozart. Perhaps."

Perhaps, the man says. This in a newspaper whose readers rank nursery schools the way sportswriters do college football teams, and who begin scheming to secure their children’s enrollment in the Marie Antionette Pre-K Academy in advance of conception.

And in a country, furthermore, whose most important literary work may be "The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn," but whose national credo is based upon "The Little Engine That Could."

In real life, moreover, most of us know that the only answer to "nature vs. nurture" or "talent vs. practice" is: both. Some imponderable, unpredictable, often unfathomable mixture of both.

Furthermore that, as Ecclesiastes has it, "The race is not to the swift, nor the battle to the strong, neither yet bread to the wise, nor yet riches to men of understanding, nor yet favor to men of skill; but time and chance happeneth to them all."

But it’s impossible to have a serious discussion about it if everybody’s playing let’s pretend.

If those who employ others are going to be looking for ever more ways to cut costs, replace American workers with those in third world countries who'll work for a dollar a day; if the American worker has no value, then it's time to stop this nonsense that if we Just Work Hard Enough, we'll be able to keep our jobs, make our dog walking business succeed, feed the kids until the end of the month, replace the dead transmission in the 1996 Taurus. Forget about joining the rich guys club. You never had any shot at that in the first place.

As I've said before, I'm going to keep posting this until they tell me I can't:


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Anonymous Charlie O said...
Carly Fiorina is running for Senate in California, NOT Governor. You have her confused with Meg Whitman.

Anonymous Bani pe net said...
i wouldnt call it economic death

Anonymous Anonymous said...
"the Horatio Alger mythos pervades every part of our society" -- the Horatio Alger myth is itself a myth because in the actual stories, the hero usually is an unctuous toady who gets rich by marrying the boss's daughter.

Anonymous Athenawise said...
Brilliant analysis, but very depressing, Jill. It doesn't look good for the old U.S. of A.