Once upon a time, before the Internet was in full bloom, my dad decided to look through the latest U.S. Army guides on countries (now known as “country studies”) and compile economic data to determine people’s standard of living in various countries based on GDP and local buying power.
He did this for fun. It was how he rolled.
Since I had recently been living and studying in Indonesia (and yes, my dad gave me the army guide for Indonesia beforehand), we talked a lot about his research and how it applied to what I had observed. How far a dollar went in Indonesia (about 2,000 rupiah at the time) was different from how far a dollar went at home, after all. And, naturally, it varied depending on where I was on a particular island.
My dad, too, had experience with these sorts of price differences from travel both inside and outside the United States. I wondered a lot about industrialization, what the “normal” rate of development might be, and how fast and how well developing nations and regions could and would develop.
So I took all of those conversations and ponderings into consideration when I read Dylan Mathews’ interview over at Vox. He’s talking to two economic historians about how the standards of living changed with the industrial revolution — and it gets right at a lot of those questions about what preconditions and conditions there are for development.
If you’ve wondered what the point of some jobs are — and if, in fact, there seem to be more jobs out there trying to “maximize innovative enterprise solutions” or just “realize value,” you’re not alone.
What’s worse is realizing you might be in one of those positions and then pondering what you can possibly do within the confines of that meaninglessness. (Though I suppose some people long for that.)
Besides the “Brazilian” fascination with the topic, I’ve been doing project and program management for about 20 years — a prime suspect for pointless work. As I explain to people from time to time, the level of meaning and satisfaction from my jobs varies greatly on the work culture and management where I work.
The contract where I updated a spreadsheet three times a day and had meetings about it was neither fulfilling nor, I would argue, very useful to anyone. It’s not like anyone got insight from the minutely updated spreadsheet or any bonuses from attending meetings. My management was unconvinced and, frankly, rather hostile to any process improvements.
Contrast that with a job where the manager said the first day, “No process is sacred, including our own.” And true to form, we updated one central business process no less than three times in three years — all to get people more engaged and meetings more consequential. I’ve also been in positions to happily eliminate thousands of hours’ worth of meetings from peoples schedules every year and set up intranet sites that (gasp) answer people’s questions without them ever needing to contact me about some previously inscrutable topic.
Reducing net headaches for hundreds of people — including those you’ll never meet — is immensely satisfying. But as Sam Lowry would attest, the bureaucracy resists simplification or clarity. So channel your inner Tuttle and watch out for Jack Lint.
Between Labor Day and chatting with some very bright people about the future of finance at Escape Velocity this weekend, it felt like a good time to post something about the future and universal basic income (UBI).
They’re back with a quick video recap, but the whole thing makes me feel I should be writing more about it here on the blog. As we humans face more and more automation, it seems like we need to find an elegant and effective solution for a populace that may not be able to be employed at the same levels it is even now. It’s weird: when I read Frederik Pohl’s classic short story, “The Midas Plague,” its vision of required consumption seemed so fanciful, but now it seems less so.