Saturday, December 15, 2007

"The New American Workplace"

I spent Thursday afternoon in the Jury Assembly Room of the Superior Court of California for the County of San Francisco. Twenty years ago in a similar setting in Santa Monica, I was able to use my waiting time to come up to speed on much of the literature for connectionism. This time around the room was equipped with two Wi-Fi services (only one of which was free) and plenty of desk space for laptops. However, in order to minimize the hassle of going through security, I kept my metal to a bare minimum and decided that my waiting time would be better spent making a dent in my reading list.

The book I brought with me was The New American Workplace, by James O'Toole and Edward E. Lawler III. This book is a report of the results of research supported by a grant from the Society for Human Resource Management (SHRM). The work is introduced in a Foreword by Susan R. Meisinger, President and CEO of SHRM. The first two paragraphs set the context for the reader:

In the 1970s, Louis "Studs" Terkel, the Chicago radio broadcaster, oral historian, journalist, and author interviewed more than 130 working American men and women of different ethnicities and ages and captured their voices for his book Working, about the realities of employment in America. Published in 1974, the award-winning work carried the subtitle: "People Talk about What They Do All Day and How They Feel about What They Do."

While immensely popular, Terkel's book was based on a less comprehensive study than another, more formal, examination of the nation's working conditions, Work in America, which was conducted in 1972–1973 by a task force formed by the U.S. Secretary of Health, Education and Welfare, Elliot L. Richardson. The task force's chairman, James O'Toole, was the principal author of the survey report and, not coincidentally, is also the coauthor, with Edward Lawler, of this publication, The New American Workplace. Since the study documented in this book employed the same methodology as the earlier study, the current work can be viewed as a fresh take on that government-sponsored effort.

I must confess that my reaction to Meisinger's thinly-veiled dismissive attitude towards Terkel immediately raised a red flag that was still flying high when I read what O'Toole and Lawler had to say about methodology in the first chapter of their new book. Remembering Eisenhower's warnings about the threat of the military-industrial complex, I realized that, where the social world is concerned, there is an equally menacing threat, which we might call the "academic-government complex." It is the administrative embodiment of the premise that the expertise of academics and government bureaucrats responsible for policy making carries far more influence than the experiences of the general public whose lives will be impacted by those policies. The Web site for The New American Workplace provides a link to a PDF file that has combined the bibliographies of this book and its predecessor. Terkel's book is in that list; but, as if to confirm that its presence was little more than a token gesture, the only other cited author who focused on that general public was Barbara Ehrenreich for her book, Nickel and Dimed. Other authors who did their best work "in the trenches," such as Robert Blauner (one of the pioneers of this approach) and Barbara Garson, are totally absent.

This is not to say that O'Toole and Lawler have failed to recognize how much things have changed in the time between these two book. However, they write from a world populated by abstractions, rather than people; and, as a result, they exhibit an annoying tendency to put a positive spin on conditions that have become so pathological to justify the use of the word "depression" in a clinical sense. To continue a theme that I began earlier this week, O'Toole and Lawler are quick to write about benefits and slow to get to the heart of what the costs for those benefits are, particularly where human factors are involved. As a result the book ends up being little more than another one of many contributions to the propaganda front behind the War Against the Poor.


RoseCovered Glasses said...

Well written.

The world is so tightly wired and moving at such warp speed in communications, technology and dangerous weapons that it is extremely difficult to know when tyranny is sprouting because we get overwhelmed with the details and ignore the trends.

Tyranny sprouts within massive beaurocratic organizations that imbed themselves in economies and assume a life of their own. These organizations become entrenched and difficult to change because they are wired to so much of economic and public life (a defense company in every state, a pork project tacked onto a defense appropriation.

We target our elected officials as figureheads for our frustration, when in fact the real culprit is a big, faceless machine grinding onward, never changing, because we (the citizenry and the politician) will not bite the bullet and dismantle it. It finally collapses of its own weight.

Some who analyze tyranny believe the best way to avoid it is to avoid violations of the constitution. That is a bit simplistic in our era. The conundrum is detecting complex circumstances with the potential to become violations of the constitution before they become horror stories like Iraq and do something about them IN ADVANCE.

As students of history we know much of what we are experiencing today in war and politics is tied to human nature. I believe the Military Industrial Complex (MIC) must collapse before that brand of tyranny changes.

A new brand of politics and accountability must then emerge, one that will deal from within when organizations such as the MIC self-destruct catastrophically from greed and avarice. The big issue after such events will be: "What do we put in the place of such beaurocracies gone afoul to manage something as important and expensive as our national defense?"

The US political system classically appoints a blue ribbon panel to study such problems spread the blame and write a detailed report no one reads. We must do better then that in the future. The impending trauma will not permit it.

Stephen Smoliar said...

rosecovered glasses, both your comment and your blog take me back to my reading of that section of Jürgen Habermas' Theory of Communicative Action entitled "Weber's Diagnosis of the Times." This was an examination of two very depressing
about which Weber had warned: loss of meaning and loss of freedom. I have now written several posts on this blog about loss of meaning, and I find your own take on tyranny very consistent with Weber's approach to loss of freedom. The important point, however, is that I do not think Weber could have anticipated the extent to which our techno-centric thinking would have contributed to those trends he was studying.