Average will always be with us. This is not an opinion. It is a statistical fact.
Mr. Thomas Friedman would have us believe that, “Average is Over,” the headline of his op-ed piece that appeared in the January 24, 2012 edition of The New York Times. Mr. Friedman alerts those of us who don’t reside in 11,000 square foot mansions in Maryland that “quantum advances in both globalization and the information technology revolution, which are more rapidly than ever replacing labor with machines or foreign workers.”
Anyone who has not married into inherited wealth has more than likely noticed the “giant sucking sound” of jobs hemorrhaging the Country in a race-to-the-bottom search for cheap labor.
Friedman writes that we “ain’t seen nothin’ yet,” and writes gushingly over a start-up he had seen written up in Slate called the “E la Carte” which produces a product called Presto. The Prest, which was thought up by “MIT engineers,” don’t cha know, so it must be genius, is designed to replace wait staff in restaurants. Each table in a restaurant would be equipped with a console, which rents for $100.00 a month each, and the customer would enter in all the information about what they want to order and then send the completed order to the kitchen with the touch of a screen or the press of a button.
Maybe those geniuses from MIT should take a minute and consider the fate of the self-serve grocery checkout line. A decade ago these were touted as the grocery wave of the future. Tech savvy people would seize their own destiny and leap at the chance to use these conveniences which would cheaply replace human cashiers. Only it hasn’t worked that way. Grocers are dropping self service checkout lanes like a hot potato. In 2011, self serve transactions accounted for only 16% of all transactions, down from a high of 22%, and that customers reported higher satisfaction ratings when they used a traditional checkout line.
Two of the many grocery chains that are abandoning this technology gave differing reason. Big Y foods, based in the Northwest, cited problems uncovered in an internal audit including, “machine delays due to coupon confusion and payment; accidental or intentional theft; and misidentifying produce and baked goods,” while the similarly situated Albertsons stating that they, “just want the opportunity to talk to the customer more.” Employees at Big Y described the machines in terms usually reserved for the significant other from hell as being both “unbelievably sensitive” and “habitually unresponsive,” while claiming that dealing with the machines drove people to, “the verge of homicide.”
But Wait! Mr. Friedman so charmingly informs us that if we are “Bored” with our companions we can play games on the Presto rather like the arcade room in Angelo’s Pizza in Rockport, Indiana where the deep dish pizza is definitely above average; or the Cadillac Restaurant in Owensboro, Kentucky where poker machines line the wall outside the restrooms but I’m not sure if you can find class like that in Maryland.
The wave of defections away from self serve checkouts can only be exacerbated by the discovery two months ago that hackers compromised credit and debit cards readers located in the self serve lanes at 20 Lucky Supermarkets supermarkets operated by Save Mart out of California. Over 1,000 Lucky customers have complained of becoming victims of fraud after someone had placed “an extra computer board…inside the checkout machine.”
Lucky Supermarkets are advising anyone who used their self-serve checkout lanes, “to close their bank and credit card accounts,’ while security expert Joseph Steinberg recommends that, “Everyone should always check any device in which they insert/swipe a credit/debit/ATM card, or to which they touch their card, to see if it looks like it may have been modified/covered.” In this New, Above-Average, Economy the rest of us must become our own cashiers, our own baggers and our own security experts with all the costs falling on our shoulders and wallets. We have seen over and over again, massive security breaches like the one that affected up to 24 million customers of Zappos.com last month but these remain the elephant in Tom Friedman’s living room, ignored and unspoken about, but at least he has room.
Mr. Friedman writes bestially of workers, who he compares to horses, and offers a joke “from cotton company” about how modern textile mills need only two employees, a man and a dog. “The dog is there to feed the dog. The dog is there to keep the man away from the machines.”
I suppose this is what passes for humor in the Hamptons but it is ridiculously insulting.
Egypt has long been associated with the finest of cotton textiles. Egypt’s textile industry has long been State owned and only began deregulating in the late 1990s with deregulation not picking up steam until this decade. On February 19, 2011, 15,000 workers at the State owned Misr Spinning and Weaving Company, located in Mahalla Al-Kubra, staged a three day sit down strike demanding a monthly minimum wage equivalent to $215.00 a month and that the company’s CEO, Fouad Abdel-Alim. The workers were satisfied when their main demand, the removal of Abdel-Alim, was met and minor wage enhancements were offered. About two million Egyptian workers have partaken in some form of collective action since 2004, paving the way for the popular uprising of the the Egyptian Revolution that began last January and which continues to this day.
Mr. Friedman writes admiringly of the inhumane conditions at the Chinese factories that produce Apple products because those conditions, in the short term, produce results. Here in Indiana, while enduring the successful assault on worker’s most basic Human Right to assemble and freely enter into contracts we have often heard the argument deployed that maybe Unions were needed way back when but in today’s enlightened times, with its superior protections of worker’s rights, Unions are obsolete. One cannot be a sentient human being without wondering when the barbaric conditions of foreign factories, particularly Chinese factories, will finally push people to sustained collective action and the question then becomes will the United States of America, Home of the Free, Land of the Brave, back a brutal, Communist regime over the Individual. Judging from history, when that question comes to bear, the answer will be most disheartening.
Mr. Friedman offers no practical solutions to the United States breaking the death grip of the WTO and rebuilding its manufacturing base, something that requires a will to implement a long-term industrial policy that will benefit the American worker. Instead Mr. Friedman can only offer the observation that “the best jobs will require workers to have more and better education to make themselves above average,” and that “there is nothing more important than passing some kind of G.I. Bill for the 21st Century that ensures that every American has access to post-high school education,” ignoring the reality that State support for public colleges and universities has plummeted to historically low levels and the historically high level of debt that students are now graduating with, particularly older, displaced workers who have gone back to obtain further education, exactly the advice Mr. Friedman offers, or that even jobs that require a significant amount of education such as IT and engineering are being shipped offshore.
The problem for Mr. Friedman is that colleges and universities teach averages and there’s no getting around average. Average is the baseline for everything else, above average and below average. The great middle will always be average.
The question for the United States is what sort of Country do we want to be? What sort of future do we want to have? The laws of probability don’t exempt the United States and unless we change our fundamental mode of thinking about manufacturing and trade the probability is we will see a standard of living evolve in the United States that will rival the slums of Mumbai or Beijing.