Tuesday, November 23, 2010

The Myth of the Indispensable Man

No one people or group or profession is unique or indispensable in our society.

In response to my rant about High School (A government-run industry), I received a poorly worded response from a "teacher" to the effect that I should get down on my knees and pray to teachers everywhere, every day, thanking them for giving me the gift of reading and writing.  Nice try, but sorry, no sale.  Go sell crazy somewhere else.

And yet, that is a sentiment that the Teacher's Union likes to promote.  A popular bumper sticker the union hands out says "If you can read this, thank a teacher!"  Of course, that slogan is a two-way street.  If the slogan has any merit, then teachers should be blamed as well, for the increasing illiteracy rate among High School graduates.

But the theory is flawed inherently, as no one group of people is critical to our society, be they teachers, farmers, or truck drivers.  And it is usually loudmouthed idiots who advance such theories - that they are so central and important to what is going on - and that they are under-appreciated as well.  But the theory can easily be proven false, and let me show you why.

Robert Heinlein, in his short story The Roads Must Roll, addressed this issue.  In that novella, Heinlein describes the "road cities" of the future.  Heinlein correctly predicted the social trend, that the adjoining cities, such as New York and Washington, would eventually grow together as one long continuous "road city".  What he got wrong was how it would happen, technically.  He envisioned a rolling road, like a conveyor belt, connecting cities, powered by solar energy.  That didn't quite happen.

The plot of the story centers around the road workers, and in particular, one disgruntled worker who makes the argument that they, the road technicians, are responsible for keeping the roads running, and thus, their job is of primary importance to the economy.  Without them, commerce literally would grind to a halt.  So he stages a road strike, to push for higher wages, greater benefits, and more control.  And again, while Heinlein got the technical details wrong, he accurately predicted the social trend.

The long and short of it is this:  while we all have important jobs to do, not one of us is central or utterly important to the economy.  We all can be replaced or substituted.  There is no indispensable man.

Like teachers, farmers have a similar bumper sticker that reads, "If you ate today, thank a farmer!" and it reflects this flawed "indispensable man" concept.  And some people buy into this, giving farmers an aura of saintliness as they do teachers, thinking that both are working solely for the public good, and not for private profit.

And historically, some economists (prior to Adam Smith) bought into this - thinking that all economies began on the farm, and that all other economic activity was basically parasitic.  But they were wrong of course.

What would we do if there were no farmers to grow our food?  Myself, I would just hire someone else to grow my food.  You see, I don't need to "thank" the farmer, as I already paid him - through the price I pay for food, and the subsidies he receives from my tax dollars.  And I am quite certain he appreciates this "thanks", too.

If one farmer decides he is the engine of the economy - or if a group of them did - and decided to go on strike, Ayn Rand style, it would be a simple matter to replace them all, as there is no great "secret" to modern farming.

And in fact, the farmer does not act alone in growing his crops or raising his livestock, but instead depends upon an intricate network of actors, corporations, and supply chains.  Ask any livestock farmer how long he would stay in business if all the Veterinarians and veterinary medicine suddenly disappeared.  Not long, he would tell you.  So is the Vet now the "indispensable man" in the livestock business?  Hardly.

Today's farmers can farm 1,000 times more acreage than the farmers of 100 years ago, thanks to modern technology.  So is the man who builds tractors on the assembly line the "indispensable man"?  Or is it the Engineer at John Deere who designs them?  What about all the other equipment that a modern farm uses?  Could a farmer do all the work he does without it?  Of course not.  And what about the electricity to run it?  Is the man on the switch at the power plant now the "indispensable man?"

No.  Of course not.

And of course, you cannot farm if you cannot get your products to market.  Transportation is key to modern farming - starting with the canals of the early 1800's, which opened up Western New York as the breadbasket of the East, to the trains of the late 1800's which opened up the whole country to be breadbasket to the world, to the trucks of today, that, as one trucker bumper sticker argues, are indispensable to the movement of any goods anywhere.

Are truck drivers the indispensable man?  Hardly.  Anyone with a high school diploma and only a mild drinking problem can qualify to be one.  And yet, this group, too, likes to posit itself as "indispensable" to our modern economy.

But what about all the chemical technology which we (perhaps unfortunately) rely upon to grow crops?  Monsanto didn't develop its "Roundup Ready" crop strains and herbicides for funsies.  And yet, these crops have increased yields dramatically, making low food prices possible.  And ask the executives at Monsanto if they would have spent all that money if they could not have protected their ideas with Patents - and they would tell you "heck no!"

So maybe I am the indispensable man - after all, without Patent Attorneys, all innovation would grind to a halt, right?  Perhaps not.  But it illustrates how silly this "indispensable man" argument is.  None of us is more important than the other, to the workings of the economy.  Rather, we all work in concert with one another - interacting as it were - to create an overall system.

The fact that some of us make more money than others is a function of supply and demand, as well as other factors (unions, for example) not inherent worth in the economy.  So truck drivers are not paid well, because basically anyone can become one, and the supply is largely endless.  The barriers to entry in that business are low, and supply is high.  Teachers were historically paid low, as the supply was large and the credentials were thinner than required today.  Today, with stronger unions, as well as increased credential requirements, pay has increased dramatically - perhaps more than necessary.  Regardless, the myth of the "underpaid teacher" is a thing of the past.

For example, I live on a retirement island, where the homes average about $500,000 apiece, or more than three times the national average.  Many of the folks I know here are retired teachers, and they live a lifestyle that is clearly upper-middle-class.  They bring in combined pensions over $150,000 a year and "snowbird" between two homes.  You can be an "underpaid teacher" or you can live on a retirement island, but you can't do both.  Pick one.  Their very existence here negates the argument that teachers are underpaid.  It is a comfortable profession, period.

Some teachers, in response to this argument, say "Well, when you start out, you make hardly anything!" which is such a stupid argument that again is calls into question the competency of teachers in general (as does the misspelled flames I receive).  In any profession, a person right out of school makes little or nothing.  I started out in the Patent business making only $22,000 a year as an Examiner.  Yet, after 20 years, an Examiner can make close to (if not over) $100,000 a year, and have excellent retirement benefits, including health care (and some of the best government health insurance around).  Are Examiner's underpaid?  Not really.

But loudmouthed whiners in any profession will argue that they should be making more money, because "the other guy" is making more.  And usually the other guy isn't, but they fail to see that.  And they also fail to see that they are making more than the national average and are quite well off.  To those sorts of people, no amount of pay is enough, so long as someone else is making more.  They are whiners, plain and simple.

And supply and demand affects every profession - and affects prices accordingly.  When I started in this field, I was Patent Attorney No. 34,546 - the 34,546th Patent Attorney to be registered.  Today, they are registering Attorneys with numbers in the 65,000+ range.  There have been more Attorneys registered since I started than had ever been registered, period.  In real terms, this means the supply of Patent Attorneys has more than doubled since I started out.

And guess what that does to prices?  Yea.  They go down.  And no, we don't have a "union" to strike for higher wages.  That sort of lame behavior is for losers - people who can't compete on the merits and need a union nanny to protect them - people who like to buy into the argument that they are the "indispensable man" in our society.

There is nothing magical or saintly about teaching.  It is a job, plain and simple, and you are paid for it.  And we all teach, at one time or another.  I paid my way through school, in part by tutoring Calculus.  In Law School, I tutored Law Masters candidates in Tax Law.  Does this make me Mother Theresa?  Hardly.  Teaching high school only makes you a government employee, with everything that goes along with it.  If you do a good job, great.  But don't expect to be beatified because of your chosen profession.  That sort of nonsense is far past its "sell-by" date.

Not only is it a government job, it is a union job, which is why a lot of qualified people say "no thanks" to teaching.  Frankly, not many people want to put up with not only silly government rules, but silly union rules on top of that.  So people with ambition gravitate toward other fields, it is as simple as that.

And this is one reason the home schooling movement and the charter school movement scare the shit out of the teacher's union.  These are the shops that are turning out Toyotas and BMWs, while the public schools continue to crank out Vegas and say "Whaddya gonna do about it?"  Well, we can buy competing products - and the teachers union wants to shut down the competition completely.

I have a number of friends who home-school their kids, with great success.  It turns out, you don't need to go to teachers college to teach a kid to read.  If you can read this, thank your home-schooler?  Their kids not only are better educated, but less likely to be on drugs or pregnant by the 10th grade, or have emotional problems brought on by the "Lord of the Flies" environment that public schools not only tolerate, but nurture.

As it turns out, learning is something that anyone can do, anywhere.  And in fact, learning is not something that is spewed out by teachers like magic farts, but is instead something the STUDENT has to do on his own.  Education starts with the student, and no matter how much money you throw at teachers, schools, and facilities, if a student doesn't have the urge to learn, it will do no good.  Conversely, the worst schools in the world cannot hold back the student with a burning desire to learn.

As I noted in my Law School posting, not only is it possible to ace your law school exams after skipping every single class in the semester, it is easier to do so.  Most of us are autodidacts, and we learn on our own.  A good teacher can point you in the right direction, and add to this learning process - but they are not the learning process itself.  The teacher's union, on the other hand, wants to get people to think otherwise - that all learning comes from teachers, preferably unionized teachers.  And it is a powerful, well-funded union than can turn elections.

One of my Math teachers illustrated this point neatly during my Sophomore year in high school.  I had been skipping class regularly, when she announced a test coming up.  I asked her for more time to study for the test, and she said "No, you'll have to learn the material on your own."  So I sat down, read the text book, and aced the test.  Attending her classes was not essential to learning the material, it turns out.

However, she was instrumental in teaching me that lesson, as well as challenging me to prove her wrong.  She was a good teacher.  But not indispensable.

That example illustrates how much time is wasted in High School, by the way.  The material could be swallowed up in two years, tops, but it is stretched out as an extended baby-sitting system, in a society that has extended childhood well into the 20's and 30's.

The best teachers are great.  But if they have the worst students, there is little they can do to force them to learn - if they are predisposed not to.  This is one reason inner-city schools fail consistently.  Not that they have poor facilities or "bad teachers" but that the students - many of them, have no desire to learn.

I am not anti-teacher, just anti-mediocrity, and our government-run school system is not a model of excellence.  And I am also anti-bullshit, so I don't buy sloganeering and bumper-sticker mentalities put forth by special interest groups.  And no, I don't "owe" my education or skills to teachers, I owe that to more my own innate abilities and efforts and desires to learn.

No one is indispensable in this economy, and no one person or group can lay claim to the mantle of indispensability.  Ayn Rand tried, in her Atlas Shrugged, to argue that the movers and shakers of industry, such as her Henry Reardon, were "indispensable people" to the economy.  But her argument was just as flawed as the Road Engineer's argument in Heinlein's The Roads Must Roll.  Fire a capitalist, and some other person will take their place - perhaps not as well, but well enough.

Even people with special skills are not "indispensable" in our economy.  A rock star, a sports star, or even a brain surgeon are not irreplaceable.  When the Grateful Dead stopped touring, the world did not grind to a halt.  The Deadheads found other things to do, and I am sure more than one took the opportunity to wonder what the heck they did with the previous decades of their life.

You might argue that a skilled surgeon is "indispensable" and they certainly are in demand if you are sick.  But we all die anyway - all modern medicine does is prolong our lives a certain amount and keep us in better comfort.  It hardly provides immortality or insures survival of the species.  Doctors are often beatified - or used to be, until we started beating them up.  Nurses are still singled out as "angels of mercy" but again, it is a job - an important one - but one that is not any more indispensable to our society than any other.

On a personal level, if someone seems "indispensable" in your business life, it probably is a good idea to fire them.  Many toadying people try to insinuate themselves into organizations, making themselves "indispensable" to the boss by being the only one to know the combination to the safe, or how the boss likes his coffee in the morning.  Rarely are these folks really indispensable to the organization, but rather they made it a point to accumulate and hoard information.  Usually, they are the ones to crow their indispensability, too.  You are better off firing such people and taking the economic hit it takes to reorganize without these folks than to continue relying upon them, even if it means drilling out the lock to the safe.  And chances are, once you fire the "indispensable" employee, you find out they were not so indispensable after all.

Of course, there are companies that appear to rely upon one tech guru or person to keep everything together.  And I have seen firsthand how such a company can fall apart when the guy who runs everything ends up dying or being incapacitated.  The world doesn't end, of course, just one company goes belly-up, only to be swallowed up by its competitors.  But it illustrates how relying on one guy can be dangerous to your business.

And of course, it goes without saying that you should NEVER view yourself as the indispensable person, ever.  I knew someone who tried that, quitting his job in a fit of pique, convinced that the company would call him back, begging him to return, as they "could not get along without him".  But days passed, then weeks and months, and they never called.  Even if he was "indispensable" it was better for them in the long run to learn how to live without him and move on.  Being blackmailed is never nice, and paying ransom is often the worst way to go.  So he never worked again, and foolishly, he had quit a mere months before his pension was vested.  Moral:  No one is indispensable.

Now, a note to the teachers out there who want to flame me:  First, READ the entire post before going off with your flames.  It is embarrassing to me when a teacher, of all people, can't read and understand the point of an essay.  Second, do a spell check, for chrissake, as that is doubly embarrassing and undercuts your arguments.

But the point is, none of us are indispensable to our society, and no one job is some sort of religious calling (even religious callings) but are in fact, jobs that we get paid for.  The mythology of one group of people being more indispensable than another is just stupid, period.  And it is shameful when people who are supposed to be smart - teachers, for example - buy into such thinking.