Wednesday, March 8, 2017

Why I Hated Book Reports

 I used to dread book reports....

When I was in school, like many students, I dreaded when a teacher would assign us a book report or a "class project" to complete.   The longer the term of the project, the worse it was.   I remember one teacher in High School completely ruining a subject for me by saying that a big research paper would be due at the end of the semester.   It cast a pall over the entire semester.

Why was this?   Why do long-term projects cause anxiety and lead to procrastination?   I think in part, it relates to what I was trying to get at with my past, present, and future posting.   Most of us would prefer to live in the present, if at all possible, which is the easiest thing to do.   Planning for the future, on the other hand, is difficult and full of anxiety and thus most of us want to opt out of it.

I preferred, as a student, the kind of courses where you had a lesson for the day and maybe a homework assignment that night.   Half the time, particularly in maths class, I would have the homework done before the class was over - or have it finished in study hall.   No stress, nothing 'hanging over" my head that night.  I could just kick back and watch bad television all evening long.

Of course, I would learn later in life that the best way to deal with these situations was to break down the project into a number of smaller steps and attack it that way.   But even then, procrastination sets in, since each step is not "due" at a certain time, it is easy to blow it all off until the last minute.  We prefer to work at a pre-defined task for the day, finish it, and go home.

Most factory workers are the same way.  They want to punch a clock, do a job, punch out, have a beer, go home and forget about work entirely for at least 12 hours until they have to report back in again the next morning.   In fact, the one thing a factory worker doesn't like is stress over his job.

And maybe we are all like this in one way or another - wanting to take the easy way out.   The hardest jobs in the world are not the 9-5 punch-a-clock types where you don't "take your work home with you" and worry about long-term plans.  Even dangerous jobs are a lot less stressful than jobs where you have to worry about things for months or years on end, and have responsibilities thrust upon you.

The media would have you think that driving a truck on an ice road or catching lobsters was the hardest job in the world.  And those are risky things to do, of course.  But at the end of the day, the risk is gone and you are done, with no "homework" or stress hanging over you, other than a job that is to be attacked the next day, as a separate task.  A union worker never need fear losing his job, unless the plant closes.

The hardest jobs are the ones where you are constantly planning for the future, working on long-term projects, dealing with deadlines and due dates, and doing things that take weeks and months to accomplish.  These are jobs where you have responsibility and risk - you could get fired, sued, or worse, if you don't perform up to spec.

These are the stressful jobs that professionals have to do, and one reason they get paid a lot more to do them.  They are hard to do properly as well, as evidenced by the high failure rates of planning positions and the spectacular falls from grace that managers often have.  In fact, most managers fall from grace when they start "phoning it in" and dealing with issues on a day-to-day basis instead of engaging in long-term planning.   When your job devolves into putting out fires, you can't steer the ship.  Disaster awaits.

I never liked these kind of jobs, or long-term project, deadlines, and the like.  Thus, it is somewhat ironic, that I ended up in a career that was nothing but long-term projects, deadlines, and due dates.  Not to mention responsibility and risk.  For the last 30 years, I have had 30-40 book reports due at any given time - with deadlines that stretched out for years, even decades.   It is one reason I am giving it up - it was very stressful and I really didn't like doing it.   I need to relax more.

One problem with our society today is that most people - people who work punch-clock jobs - fail to realize the distinction between putting bolts on cars on an assembly line and jobs of real responsibility and stress.   According to the drones, everyone in life should be paid the same amount or a similar amount, because anything else is "income inequality" and unfair.   After all, Joe Lunchbucket on the assembly line puts in eight hours, isn't he due the same income as the manager who puts in ten?   Or at least a comparable amount?

What this "logic" fails to consider is that, first, market forces are in play.   There are plenty of unskilled laborers out there who can fill an assembly line job.   In fact, everyone qualifies as an unskilled laborer in one way or another, so we have a labor pool of 330 million people to choose from.

Managers - at least good ones - and planners, designers, engineers, technicians and the like, are in shorter supply.   In any market, the price of a commodity depends on supply and demand.  And you can pass laws to the contrary, but all you do is skew the market.   If you say that skilled labor is worth the same as unskilled labor, no one in the labor market is going to invest themselves in learning a skill.   You will end up with a skilled labor shortage in short order, sort of like we have here in America today.

And that, in part, is another reason I am retiring early.   In today's labor market, some pretty unskilled people are making obscene amounts of money.   It used to be that government employees were the most underpaid people on the planet, but today many of them are making six-figure salaries and have enormous benefit and pension plans.  In retrospect, I would have been far better off staying at the Patent Office than going to work for a law firm.   By now, I would have a staggering eight weeks of vacation a year and probably a year's worth of sick leave accumulated - and be ready to retire with a nice retirement plan at any time.  And let's not even talk about the great health insurance plans they have.

Schoolteachers making a hundred grand.  Firefighters making four-hundred grand.   It is pretty staggering.   And when you point this out, they respond with idiotic things like, "Well, you wouldn't be able to read if it weren't for a school teacher!" or "I don't see you running into a burning building!"

And those arguments have a nugget - a very small nugget - of merit to them.   These people do work for a living, but whether or not they are the indispensable man is debatable.  I learned to read because I wanted to learn to read, not because some teacher induced me to it or had special magical powers to teach reading that no one else had.  Any any other teacher could have done just as good a job.  In fact, many people home-school their kids and they seem to read just fine.   As for firefighters, yes they are heroes, but when I grew up, they were just local people who volunteered to fight fires.  In fact, until recently, our island fire department was a volunteer one.   Our ambulance squad where I grew up was also volunteer as well.  So yes, it is an heroic job.  But I am not sure that means they deserve to make more than a heart surgeon.

These are important jobs, but that doesn't mean any discussion of pay should be shouted down using shaming techniques.   That in itself is shameful.

But it is true today that there seems to be little gradation in pay scales between skilled and unskilled people.  I was reading an article recently about the top 10 most popular degrees and what they paid, and what struck me as odd was that some degrees that were essentially worthless (Liberal Arts, Psychology, Communications) while paying a less than other degrees, did not pay significantly less than skilled degrees such as nursing and such.  They all seemed to center around the national median income of $50,000 a year, plus or minus two standard deviations.   Even high-skilled jobs like Engineer barely paid twice what people with worthless degrees are making.   After you get done paying taxes, the spread isn't all that great.

So you go to college, study all the hard courses, and hope to strike it rich.   But the best you will likely do is strike it comfortably middle-class, unless you are either very lucky or very ambitious.   You'd think an Engineer would make five times what the guy fixing his sink does.  You'd be wrong.

And the other factor is risk.   The fellow punching the clock will never get sued for not putting the frame bolts on the Edsel going down the assembly line (and according to some sources, only about 60-80% of these bolts were actually installed back in the "good old days" of car manufacturing).  He is not liable for malfeasance or malpractice.  He doesn't carry any professional liability insurance or worry about being sued - unlike his family doctor.  He will never lose his house or life savings because he fucked up his job.

His family doctor, chances are, isn't making a lot more money than he is.  GPs rarely do, which is why no one wants to be a GP today, but instead specialize where the money is.   And while politicians routinely excoriate "bad doctors" and whatnot, no one ever castigates the "bad assembly line worker" who sabotages product and gets drunk all day long - which I saw myself first hand, back in the day (robots, thankfully, seem immune to this, and today's assembly lines, if you can call them that, are more like operating theaters compared to the "good old days").

So you think about it.   You can get a no-skill factory job in Trump's New America, or you can borrow tens of thousands of dollars to go to college to get a job that has 1,000 times more stress, longer hours, risk and liability, and maybe get paid double what the guy punching the clock makes.

Is there a payback in this?   Is this why fewer and fewer Americans are trying out for jobs like this?  Why bother taking a risk-taking job, when a risk-free job pays almost as much, or maybe even more?  That is essentially the problem today is, people are clamoring for risk-free, no-skill jobs that have big paychecks, and no one is willing to invest the time and energy to acquire skills for risk-taking jobs, because the payback simply isn't there.

All I can say is, I am glad to be in a position to say, "You know, I've had enough, I'd like to kick back for a while like the other schmucks do" and retire early.  I don't envy my colleagues who have to keep working to pay off mortgages on huge homes or tuition bills for their kids, or too-late-in-life trying to finance their 401(k) plan.

Because that is another factor in all of this.   Handling the stress and anxiety of a "responsibility job" when you are in your 20's and 30's is no big deal.   As you get older and your job skills get more antiquated, it doesn't get easier, but harder.   It is nice to be in a position where you can decide what you want to do with your life, rather than feel forced to keep doing something you started decades ago because you have no choice.