Friday, July 15, 2011

The F-35 and the Decline in the Dignity of Work

John Henry told his captain
"Lord a man ain't noth' but a man
But before I let that steam drill beat me down
I'm gonna die with a hammer in my hand, Lord, Lord 
I'll die with a hammer in my hand"
The Economist throws a moment of light onto an important but too often ignored aspect of the defense procurement issue: toys for the boys. Urging restraint in spending on F-35 Joint Strike Fighter, the E notes in passing "the affection of service chiefs for fast jets flown by brave chaps;" Link. Exactly right; there are are many motivators of warfare but one of the least appreciated is the sheer fun of it all: how you gonna keep em down on the farm after you've seen Tom Cruise in Top Gun

But in fairness, it is not just the military. There's a pervasive underlying theme here which you might call the dignity-of-work problem. That is: one of the many things that seems to have gone bollwackers in our society over the last generation is the disappearance of almost any job that could give a person a sense of self-worth. Okay, it's the money, but it's not just the money: people took pride in some fairly nasty jobs if they got to do them (at least somewhat) on their own terms. Steel puddlers, auto assembly workers, shoe cutters--a lot of these were grinding, boring, dangerous, but they facilitated a kind of labor aristocracy that you're just not going to find in a call center. Granted (that is) part of our problem is that we are being replaced by robots. Another part is in our remaining jobs, we're forced to act like robots just to keep employed [is it not a delicious irony that Homer Simpson the paterfamilias leads an employment life of worthless irrelevance; but that Homer Simpson the cartoon character thrives because he is cheaper for the studio than a real actor?].

Oddly enough, one place where you actually get to do something, some of the time, is the public sector. Girls throw their undies at firefighters not just because firefighters save babies but because they save babies using their courage and pluck. But without meaning to denigrate the work of fire fighters, one reason they get to use their courage and pluck is that they get to play with such cool toys. Garrison Keillor had a cute bit a few years back about the showdown in Lake Wobegone between the folks who wanted to spend money on something worthy and boring (maybe day care) and those who wanted to blow it all on a new fire truck. Just as a guess I'd suspect that the most successful daycare program would be the one that used some fancy new mechanical dingus to get the kid back down out of a tree. And the toys are designed, ironically, not so much to supplant as to affirm and ratify the role of the heroic individual: no matte how fancy the steam drill, John Henry still gets to swing the hammer.

The public sector seems--well, not uniquely but at least notably--qualified to provide these kinds of opportunities and the boy-toys that support them. I have heard it said that in commercial aviation, you need two things in the cockpit: the pilot and his dog, the dog's job being to bite the pilot if he tries to touch the controls. Of course the military goes the same direction as more and more "warfare" gets carried out over a computer screen from Las Vegas. But the public sector does seem to be better positioned than the private sector to keep the boy-toy model alive. It's one reason that I'm not going to hold my breath waiting for the demise of the F-35.

Addendum: Just a few pages on, here's a further bit of support for this view re the greatest of all boy-toys, the space program:

It is a common mistake to think that humans in space conduct “space exploration” and “space science” ... . Space exploration, in the sense of discovering new information about the space environment, is done with sensoring and data-gathering instruments, supported and controlled by robotic spacecraft. This was true in the earliest days of the Apollo programme, and will be true for any future human-crewed space project. Humans would not be sent anywhere in space without our first obtaining a thorough understanding of that environment.

Nor do humans carry out significant science in space. High-precision, ultra-clean instruments, designed to measure specific parts of the electromagnetic spectrum and other aspects of the space environment, are used to generate scientific data in space. Human crews would interfere with, rather than contribute to, the ability of the instruments to perform their mission. Human crews would provide biological contamination and disturb the ultra-high stability required of typical scientific instruments in space.
Well, yes, Tom Cruise might reply, but where's the fun in that?

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

I am convinced that the desire for 'neat toys' drives business decisions just as much as it does government ones. It just comes in a different package and is more directed at giving toys to the people at the top.

Whether it is giving to the arts (and getting complementary box seats and prestige), advertising (and being wined and dined by potential agencies), or private jets, the people at the top of a corporation are motivated in large part to increase their access to toys at the expense of the bottom line.

Same impulse. Different toybox.