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Feedback on 'Democratic Humanism (2)'
Eric Lindsay (June 1999)
Good that you mentioned just how low the dole continues to be. I gather the age pension is not all that much higher either. However as long as government expenditure on such items comes from current income (rather than from investments), and as long as a substantial minority are receiving some form of social security, then the expenditure will not go all that much higher. the various taxes and charges by all levels of government already exceed half of all income for the average wage earner, and there are simply limits to what most people will accept before they do something about it (tax avoidance, leave, drop out, vote out the government, etc.)
You might be interested in some books by (I think) Paul Goodman, who proposed providing lifetime shelter and basic food to everyone. He calculated that seven years of work would cover that, and had in mind that artists and similar creative people might take advantage of it.
I reply (August 1999):
Thank you for telling me about Paul Goodman who proposed providing lifetime shelter and basic food for everyone - and calculated how much it would cost. (It is important to have firm figures to support these 'outlandish' ideas!)
Your article on 'Democratic Humanism' lends itself to much debate and rebuttal from me, so much so that it would take pages and pages, and I can't find time to do that now. I would just make a few points, and maybe expand on them some other time (and my points come from the point-of-view of a small business employer; I can't speak for big business):
1. 'The ratio of interviews to application letters plunged.'
Between the year you mention, 1993 and 1998, several things have co-incided. It's become harder and harder to run a small business as more and more government regulations impact upon it in numerous ways. Competition has become more fierce and margins tightened, so time has become even more important to manage, and costs have had to be pared. Applications for advertised positions have increased enormously - over 70 the last time we advertised for a junior shop-assistant. As you can imagine, you can't interview 70 people for one job. Somehow we have to cull that number down to a manageable one for interviews.. (How we do that is outlined in point 3 below.) Believe it or not, it is incredibly frustrating and disheartening for us to have to do this, as we realise what this means to the ones who aren't successful in getting to the interview stage, but neither are we responsible for the large numbers of unemployed.
2. 'The courtesy of would-be employers has dropped.'
In the above-mentioned case of 70 applicants for a single job, postage, time, paper and envelopes to send a letter to each of those people would cost over $50. At a profit rate of 15% we would have to sell over $330 worth of extra products to pay for this. Manners cost. It costs us less to run an advertisement in the paper advising applicants that the position has been filled and thank them, than to reply individually, so that's what we do. As for unsolicited applications - forget it.
3. 'The expectations employers have from job applicants has soared!'
In our case, we've had so many problems with inexperienced employees over the years that we've simply thrown in the towel, and look for a hint, even for a junior position, that the applicant has had some kind of experience - in this case, a part-time job after school pushing trolleys at Woollies would count, because it shows the person has had some experience in the work situation. Why aren't we prepared to train them from scratch? Been there, done that, been burnt too many times. Four times we've taken on teenage girls fresh from school to train in office work, despite the fact that, even though all of them had successfully completed TAFE courses in basic accounting and had the certificates to prove it, none of them knew the difference between a debit and a credit. Two of the girls became pregnant within six months and left. Another one left when we wouldn't give her a week off to recover from the harrowing extra-curricular activity of competing in a beauty contest, and the last one gave up the job on the spur of the moment to go off to India with her boyfriend and become rich. (How they planned to do this may have had something to do with importing agricultural substances. She returned skeletally thin after six weeks of Delhi Belly and without either the fortune or the boyfriend...) Again, in a small business, it is so frustrating to get someone to the stage of not needing constant supervision, only to have them leave, and have to start over again, because, also again, this costs. If we offer a junior position nowadays, we prefer someone to whom the whole work experience is not a complete revelation, although in the office part of the business, we now employ only mature women.
A resume isn't important to us, is in fact a bit of a nuisance. They're often so flowery you feel they're fudging, and it's simply not worth the effort to go through a long one, particularly when there is a large number of applicants. All a resume needs - for us - is an employment history and letters of reference from the last couple of employers so we can check they really did work there. School results, extra courses and certificates, character references, pre-and-post-natal history, are unimportant. The covering letter is of much more worth to us. It gives us the 'feel' of the person - their maturity, their education standard, their openness, their level of confidence.
Certainly, I'm pretty sure we know how difficult finding a job has become, but I'm also saying the current situation is no bed of roses for small business employers either. When things are bad, we're constantly aware of the responsibility we owe to our employees and their families to whom we've offered livelihood, and that doesn't lead to easy sleep at night.
And [your] statement that 'Employees (all of them) are intelligent, havecommon-sense, are able to adapt to change, etc., etc.," is simply not true. We've had two cases of embezzlement, one minor, one on a scale so major we were selling household things to keep going; a trusted employee of twelve years who spent his last six months with us secretly setting up our customers to go to him when he started a rival business; the young women mentioned earlier; employees who leave without notice for various and often capricious reasons, employees who turn up for work drunk, or with undisclosed medical conditions that we really need to know about to ensure safety; employees who lie or cheat or are just plain dumb. We've been disappointed by employees over and over again. So when we do find good employees - and our staff at present is probably the best we've ever had - we move heaven and earth to keep them satisfied and happy,and go without ourselves to keep them so.
None of this helps you, Michael, I know. But I do object when employers are constantly made out to be insensitive arrogant manipulating swine; I know what it's like on this side. (See, I told you I'd go on for ages!)
And the next thing I'm going to argue with you about is - rights. You mention 'non-negotiable fundamental human rights' and go on to list more 'rights.' Sorry (and this is not what I believe should happen, but what the cynic in me believes does happen), there are no such things as 'rights.' The only 'rights' you have are the ones those in power allow you to have, as long as it suits them. Just the fact that you have to claim them shows that they are not rights, otherwise they'd be happening. Can you name one 'right', no matter how altruistic, compassionate, or basic, that hasn't been trampled, perverted, misused or abused throughout human history? Heck, you think some spending money should be a right; I think the right not to starve to death should be a right - but that's happening to thousands of people at this minute, and we're not really doing much to stop it. So if that right is inconsequential to us, how important is spending money?
(There you go - a whole page-and-a-half to Michael. Well, you will make provocative statements...)
I reply (August 1999):
You bring up a lot of points in your response to my essay in your last Frog. (This is fair. Having a viewpoint from your role as an employer is very valuable. Having my perception expanded and learning how things look from a different position helps make me a wiser man - and helps to make "Democratic Humanism" democratic.)
1993 to 1998...
Tell me more about these regulations and their effects. (If our government is making things tougher for small businesses - I want to know in what ways.)
You mention how over the same period you have had more and more people applying for the jobs you have advertised, how challenging it is to shortlist from all those applicants, and how expensive it would be to reply to them all - so you place a notice in the paper to let people know when the position is filled.
*I've no objection to that - when I know that is what you are doing. What I don't like is when an application letter seems to vanish into a black hole, and I've no way of knowing what's happening with it.
*Some job descriptions state "if you have not heard from us within two weeks of the closing date you should assume your application was unsuccessful." I don't mind this - at least I know when to give up hope(!)
"..in a small business it is frustrating to get someone to the stage of not needing constant supervision, only to have them leave, and have to start over again..."
Reading about the girls fresh from school with the TAFE qualifications in basic accounting who didn't know "the difference between a debit and a credit" is sobering for me.
Training is a thorny issue - especially in small businesses where you don't have a lot of money to splash around, and you certainly have a right to expect a "return" on any investment in staff development. (I happen to know that the government is planning to push more of the cost of vocational education and training onto the business sector - including small businesses. This is an extension of the predominant user-pays principle.)
I can leave a discussion of possible vocational education and training policies for another time. (I'm certainly learning enough about them in my current job.)
"And you're statement that 'Employees (all of them) are intelligent,
have common-sense, are able to adapt to change, etc...etc," is simply
not true. We've had two cases of embezzlement, one minor, one on a scale
so major we were selling household things to keep going; a trusted employee
of twelve years who spent his last six months with us secretly setting
up our customers to go to him when he set up a rival business...employees
who leave without notice for various and often capricious reasons, employees
who turn up for work drunk, or with undisclosed medical conditions that
we really need to know about to ensure safety; employees who lie or cheat
or are just plain dumb. We've been disappointed by employees over and
Ouch. I have been wearing the rose-coloured glasses haven't I? (I'll "take all this on board" as they say. It gives me a whole lot of new stuff I'll have to work with. Thank you for the feedback!)
I also value the insight into how you select your staff. This information could be invaluable to me.
The denial of basic human rights does not make them any less than basic human rights, any more than the denial of love and justice makes love and justice of any less value.
These are good things whether they are practised or not. If fine qualities are absent from the world, it is a problem with the world - not with the qualities themselves.
Conclusion - there may be a lot of crap around, but we can still aim for the stars.
Your ideas on the economy,and specifically on dealing with the problem of unemployment, have merit. I don't think there would be too many (if any) members of ANZAPA who would disagree with your idea that everyone should have certain basics as [a] right.
However, apart from answering the three questions you raise yourself (and they are real doozies of questions) you will come up against the problem that there are people who genuinely believe that providing a safety net inhibits people from taking the risks they need to get anywhere. There will also be questions of the "what's in it for me?" type. And you will run into definitional problems of when something ceases to be basic and becomes substantial.
Yes, unemployed persons should be able to do the training they need (though, leaving it up to them to decide what they need may not actually solve their problem). But, resources are always limited. There just may not be the training staff available. And the cost of this program now really starts to grow. Good training is not cheap.
You point out yourself that it isn't always possible to avoid a lag between commencement of training and first graduation - "You can't always predict what new industries will blossom" - so, while long and medium term planning can and must be improved it won't overcome the problem.
Looking at things like childcare and urban park maintenance as investing in the future is one view. It does, however, involve an immediate cost with the benefit to come later, often to others unrelated to those doing the investing (be they businesses or taxpayers). the initail cost is clear, here and now. The pay off is unclear, there and later. You can begin to see the problem.
Now, repeat after me Michael. Economic rationalism does not equal downsizing. Economic rationalism is the belief that if everyone strives to maximise their economic return (be they individuals, businesses, or government) then everyone will be better off. There's much more to it but that is it in essense.
Downsizing can make a business more efficient (where it eliminates featherbedding and inefficiencies) but it can also serve to reduce a business' return over time. In that case it is irrational and no true Economic Rationalist would support it.
As I said to David Cummer in my last issue, economic rationalism was/is one response to globalisation, which was/is itself a direct consequence of the information technology explosion. With the ability to do commerce around the globe in seconds national barriers became meaningless economically. Economic rationalism developed as one means of dealing with what was happening.
I reply (August 1999):
Thank you for your feedback on my "Democratic Humanism (2)" essay.
"Downsizing can make a business more efficient (where it eliminates
featherbedding and inefficiencies) but it can also serve to reduce a business'
return over time. In that case it is irrational and no true Economic Rationalist
would support it."
Rose-coloured glasses me thinks? Economic Rationalism as portrayed in downsizing is only partly about economic efficiency - it is mostly about ideology. Rationalism doesn't always come into it - it is about acting from a belief that chipping and chipping away at the costs of doing business will make the business perform better and better. This belief is as irrational as that which cultivates anorexia nervosa.
[There are, of course, sensible thoughtful economists out there who understand the idea of balance. It is also quite probable that a proportion of them would describe themselves as Economic Rationalists. I can live with that - I wouldn't want to think every economist was a devout ideology-driven zealot.]
Your keys to solving unemployment may break against the Great Truth enunciated by Canadian humourist, Stephen Leycock, who said at the end of a poem the rest of which I have mercifully forgotten, "Some men can hold a job; and some cannot." It is one of life's conundrums.
Regarding 'what the unemployed need', I must disagree over training.
If by training we mean vocational training then I'm afraid it is a scam. As an approach supported by both sides of politics (ostensibly!) it is obviously of political value, not necessarily social value! The facts are that training does not create jobs, and that if a business requires someone to do a certain job (i.e. a job 'exists') then if no trained person can be found they will train someone. For the government to train people just moves the cost of training from the businesses to the state!
From the unemployed person's position it looks like 'get training=get job', but this is a good example of needing to have a broader perspective. If one person gets government training, and hence gets the job, all that has been achieved is that one unemployed person has been given an advantage over some other unemployed person! It's not improved the jobs available (unless you want to count the extra trainers, now wasting resources training people who may not need to be trained!) and has provided generic training to someone who will probably need to be re-trained to some extent in the actual job!
The government benfits, because the person who got the job says 'Good ol'e government', the person who didn't get the job doesn't blame the governmen and so they look like they've done something useful!
The irony is that in an increasingly open labour market, training excess people in, say, 'Word processing', decreases the value of the 'skill', and people who have good WP skills are now competing against (literally hoards) of folk who've 'done' WP and are actually useless in comparison.
The government's increasingly abrogated role is in Education, and frankly the ability of folk to absorb training is so dependent on their overall level of education that government funded training is not only a cynical political exercise, it is also a complete waste of money and effort.
We have people 'trained' in WP who don't understand the words they're processing, trained in Excel but not having any idea why anyone would use a spreadsheet, trained in Access for Ghu's sake when they will only ever need Mail Merge and have as yet no conception of that! It's a farce.
"Well, that's what I recon, anyhow." (Flacco 1993).
You wrote: "...in an increasingly open labour market, training excess people in, say, "Word Processing" decreases the value of the 'skill', and people who have good WP skills are...competing against (literally hordes) of folk who've 'done' WP and are actually useless in comparison.'
And later: "We have people 'trained' in WP who don't understand the
words they're processing, trained in Excel but not having any idea why
anyone would use a spreadsheet, trained in Access...when they will only
ever need Mail Merge and have as yet no concept of that! It's a farce."
This concept of 'devaluing' skills was new to me. I now see its veracity. I suspect it is like teaching icing without learning how to make the cake.
Some courses - like literacy and numeracy are potentially valuable to anyone who needs to undertake them (if taught properly). But with Word Processing and Spreadsheets and Databases there lies whole fields of valuable information which are not covered in these courses, stuff like business communication, accounts management and bookkeeping, record keeping and information management. (They'd be covered in proper business courses - but just being taught how to use a group of business software tools won't make you an asset to a business!)
A thrust of my essay was that it was important for the unemployed to be able to pick up the skills they need for work - but I (and the government too for that matter) have had an oversimplified understanding of what those needs are.
Thank you for your sagacity.
I agree with you that the courtesy of would-be employers has dropped, that employers expect a lot more than they used to, AND that interviews are difficult. Got my fingers crossed that you wangle something good soon. I also agree that people are entitled to decent work and a living wage.
Ryct John Newman on the concept of 'devaluing' skills, I agree that training the clueless is useless. Teaching people Excel who haven't the remotest idea why anyone would want to use a spreadsheet is a total waste of time. On the other hand, I came in early to work today to try to puzzle out from scratch how to do sub-string handling in Excel. I spent a fruitless three hours playing with TRIM, LEFT, RIGHT and CONCATENATE functions before Stefan arrived. He told me to look at the TEXT-TO-COLUMNS command under the DATA menu. My word, that is a powerful tool. Sometimes, a whole new universes opens up when the mind is set on a different path.
Theoretically, there might come a time in the working life of employees when formal training in their computer-based tools of trade is needed. Long before that point is reached, the required skills should have been picked up by a combination of personal effort and the willingness of people who know to share their skills with those who are struggling to learn. Fostering that climate is good management.
RYC on Democratic Humanism: A very thought provoking read. All employers should be made to read your comments about being unemployed. I don't know how we'd combat it but I really fear for the callous indifference that seems to be permeating our society. I remember hearing on 3LO that communism kept capitalism from treating people like serfs because it had to be seen as a caring alternative. It really doesn't have to bother now.
I hope Leanne does write more on small business concerns. It seems to me that lots of small businesses now contract out every task that they can, fixed price against specified results, rather than put on staff. While I doubt red tape is the only reason, every time some government department wants something, someone has to set aside their business concerns to answer that department. It doesn't help any.
Another problem for businesses seems to be a lack of initiative by many employees. The local bar at the Terraces where I live is going through bar staff at a great rate, never finding anyone capable of running the place without supervision various days.
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Last Updated: 6 April 2003