I think that the average reader of Adam Davidson's recent piece in the Atlantic, "Making It In America," would likely come away with the idea that the middle class economy, in terms of the job opportunities available to people who play by all those traditional middle class rules of education and responsibility and thrift, is in a period of disruptive change. And that change comes with some dire realities, in which perfectly decent, intelligent, virtuous people -- with a basic drive to apply themselves, work hard, learn on the job, and get promoted -- stare out at the factory floor and wonder what might steal their opportunity: cheap overseas labor or cost-cutting technological innovation. Some of that worry and concern might get passed along to you, the average reader.
But if you're one of those elite thinkers, with nothing but time on your hands to swan around in your own brain-brine, you might derive a different set of conclusions. And if you're Thomas Friedman, you will apparently wrap all of those conclusions into some sort of sunny exhortation for everyone to go out and get extraordinary, man! It's as if the moment calls for the kind of self-help admonition that you might hear from Oprah's couch, or the ballroom of your local Hilton.
In the past, workers with average skills, doing an average job, could earn an average lifestyle. But, today, average is officially over. Being average just won't earn you what it used to. It can't when so many more employers have so much more access to so much more above average cheap foreign labor, cheap robotics, cheap software, cheap automation and cheap genius. Therefore, everyone needs to find their extra -- their unique value contribution that makes them stand out in whatever is their field of employment. Average is over.
There's an utterly pedantic point to be made here, and CJR's Ryan Chittum makes it with as much elan as possible:
But this is, of course, flat impossible. Average is just math, man, a function of the numbers of any specific group. Somebody has to finish first and somebody has to finish last.
Exactly. Another way of looking at this situation -- the non-cloudcuckooland way -- is to say that means and medians still exist, but the standards of living associated with them are just in staggering decline. "Average" isn't "over," it just sucks a whole lot more than it used to. And this has been evident for some time, actually: real average earnings haven't increased in decades. But obviously, this is because everyone is doing a terrible job "finding their extra."
Friedman goes on to describe the some of the ways it's going to become harder than ever to earn a living unless everyone really commits themselves to being some sort of post-modern, "extra"-obtaining superman. For instance, a bunch of M.I.T. scientists are changing the way you'll go out to eat in restaurants, with iPad-like gadgets replacing servers at your local eatery. This seems to me to be a profoundly unpleasant way to dine out -- absent the human touch and expertise of actual human beings, I may as well use the same iPad to cook at home for a quarter of the cost. But Friedman assures us that these devices allow for diners to reach their extra in the form of being able to "make special requests, like 'dressing on the side' or 'quintuple bacon.'"
I honestly don't understand how an iPad suddenly empowers me to do this, since human waiters and waitresses have been taking such requests since restaurants began, but if it truly allows people to reach for their "extra" bacon intake, this could open up new job opportunities in the cardiology sector of the economy. At least until they design a robot that can perform angioplasties.
This is classic Friedman -- dazzled and snowed by whatever shiny technology happens to be dancing in his imagination, he can't imagine why anyone wouldn't be so seduced, and he's utterly immune to considering the concomitant costs involved, other than to say that we frail meatbags had better go out and become a lot more amazing. And this essential Friedmanism leads him right into this train-wreck of a paragraph:
What the iPad won't do in an above average way a Chinese worker will. Consider this paragraph from Sunday's terrific article in The Times by Charles Duhigg and Keith Bradsher about why Apple does so much of its manufacturing in China: "Apple had redesigned the iPhone's screen at the last minute, forcing an assembly-line overhaul. New screens began arriving at the [Chinese] plant near midnight. A foreman immediately roused 8,000 workers inside the company's dormitories, according to the executive. Each employee was given a biscuit and a cup of tea, guided to a workstation and within half an hour started a 12-hour shift fitting glass screens into beveled frames. Within 96 hours, the plant was producing over 10,000 iPhones a day. 'The speed and flexibility is breathtaking,' the executive said. 'There's no American plant that can match that.' "
Now, when you read that, you'd think for all the world that we're supposed to marvel at the way these Chinese workers have "found their extra." After all, to Friedman's reckoning here, the iPad sets a standard of "above average" that we now need to match, and the "Chinese worker" is even more "above average" than that.
But gosh, doesn't the notion of being woken in the middle of the night, handed a cup of tea and a cookie, and frogmarched onto the factory floor to start resetting iPad screens because some designer in Cupertino realized at the last minute that he hadn't done his job well enough sound like an awful way to live your life? If you're thinking, "Why, yes ... yes it does," then you have reached for your extra today, because one of the same reporters of that "terrific article" that Friedman cites today, wrote another piece yesterday titled, "In China, Human Costs are Built Into an iPad." Here is how the latter piece begins:
The explosion ripped through Building A5 on a Friday evening last May, an eruption of fire and noise that twisted metal pipes as if they were discarded straws.
When workers in the cafeteria ran outside, they saw black smoke pouring from shattered windows. It came from the area where employees polished thousands of iPad cases a day.
Two people were killed immediately, and over a dozen others hurt. As the injured were rushed into ambulances, one in particular stood out. His features had been smeared by the blast, scrubbed by heat and violence until a mat of red and black had replaced his mouth and nose.
From there, it's just a matter of sentences before the reader is fully immersed in a world of third-world wages, child labor, unsafe working conditions, inhuman hours, and fraud. But I'll readily admit, this is just the life of the average Chinese iPad factory worker. In recent years, many of those same workers have done exactly what Friedman suggests and "found their extra" -- by jumping to their deaths.
Again, this is Friedman's schtick. As he bops from one global aerie to the next, absorbing the latest sweet whispers from the mesmeric elites he encounters, there's never a reason to end the pep rally. Everything just looks amazing once you're ahead of the curve. And so institutionalized exploitation becomes, as Chittum puts it, "a force of nature rather than a political choice made by an elite whose interests Friedman represents."
Of course, Apple is staying ahead of the curve in terms of its labor practices as well. Now, those workers who would ordinarily opt to leap off of the tops of the factory buildings will find themselves rescued by safety nets, and no doubt returned to their shift with all deliberate haste. So those who long for the sweet release of prolonged agony that only death can provide are going to have to "find their extra" and innovate as well. Because average is over, dude.
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