You can always tell a Harvard man....

The old saying goes: "You can always tell a Harvard man -- but you can't tell him very much".

Today's Boston Globe offers further proof of this aphorism in the form of undergraduate Dusty Farned's ignorant rant against automation.

It also gives me the honor of posting paci.blog's official First Fisking.

Checkout line blues
By Dusty D. Farned

July 27, 2005

FROM GROCERY stores to home improvement warehouses, the tedious, boring, and dreadful checkout process is getting better. Now you can check yourself out! You may even save some money on that magazine you did not really need or on the candy bar your toddler begged and begged for until you could not stand it any longer.

Yet, is saving two minutes and perhaps $2 in the self-checkout line worth the jobs of your friends and family and maybe even yourself?

Yes, as long as I am not fool enough to waste it on a copy of the Boston Globe, which obviously is having trouble getting quality writers for its op-ed page. Come to think of it, maybe this is the Globe's solution to avoid having to pay a real salary and benefits to hire another Ellen Goodman or Derrick Z. Jackson to pen undergraduate-quality screeds when, for a lot less, they can have the genuine, er, article.

Every generation has protested technological development taking their jobs, and every generation has failed to stop it. Still, it is so disconcerting to see this generation not even cry foul. Are we so tech-friendly that we have lost sight of our real friends?

Actually, because we are tech friendly, we can choose options in life that give us more time with our friends. (Unless the moron in front of us in the self-service lane is checking out produce and taking forever to look up each item instead of keying in the damn Price Look Up codes that are stuck on each and every fruit or vegetable FOR THAT VERY PURPOSE.)

We know where management is. Watching joyously from the locked booth.

I was wondering where the maniacal laughter was coming from today at the Stop & Shop.

But cashiers and bag-handlers, where are you? Your current jobs are at stake. Can't you see it is already happening? The ''inefficient" lanes may still be there, but only two out of 10 are ever open.

Grocery workers of the world unite! Go on strike how ‘bout it? Or convince management to raise prices to hire more of you. I’m sure that will keep your customers – you know, the ones who buy the food which pays the bills which funds the payroll … you get the idea – loyal.

Sure, eventually these jobs will cease to exist. But do you realize that despite the cotton picker's invention in 1850, it wasn't until nearly 1950 that an entire cotton crop was harvested by machine. This is in part because of kinks in the invention but as much because of the stubbornness of Southerners. Certainly their jobs were more demanding than ours; still, the labor force refused to give them up. Why? Employment is security, unemployment is hell, and 90 degrees working beats 90 degrees in the shade of the unemployment line any day.

God bless those stubborn Southerners! Do you realize that it wasn’t until nearly 1866 that people actually GOT PAID to pick cotton in Dixie? Do you think that maybe the automation on which postwar industry was founded, which created loads of opportunities for Southern blacks to make a better living doing something besides agriculture (oh, around 1950!), had something to do with that?

Prolonging progress is a tradition we should sometimes keep. In a time of high unemployment, widespread employment of illegal immigrants, offshore call centers, overwhelming import loads made by child workers and under harsh conditions, every American job should be preserved from corporate greed. Most employees pack their bags at night and leave from another town. But no matter what town you are in now, the most basic of jobs, checkout jobs, are being cut before your eyes. Just as management manages to take care of its own, so should we protect our fellow workers.

Well Mr. Smarty Pants, what are you doing about it? I take it you are majoring in Retail Clerkship at Crimson Community College in a show of solidarity?

Local and state governments should tax additionally when self-checkout lines are used for revenue to support job training and small business loans. This will also slow the process as customers refuse to pay extra. Customers, who care to care, should refuse to use these lines beginning now. Employees, remembering jobs equal equality, should do what is in their united bargaining power to prevent the machines from working and let it be known to everyone, including fellow employees and every customer, what they represent -- no less than less jobs.

Aha! There’s a creative solution. Tax them! Why only at the state and local level? Why not let the feds get their piece, too?

Customers, who care to care, should refuse to use these lines beginning now.

Grammarians who care to care should refuse to hire Harvard grads who do not care to punctuate properly.

Employees, remembering jobs equal equality, should do what is in their united bargaining power to prevent the machines from working and let it be known to everyone, including fellow employees and every customer, what they represent -- no less than less jobs.

I understand Mr. Farned’s need to create disincentives to such abhorrent behavior, but perhaps he could find a more creative and effective way to gum up the works. The wheels of fiscal policy grind much too slowly for any self-respecting Luddite. Legislation is for wussies!

How about taking a more “Think Globally, Act Locally” approach and get a crowd of like-minded nostalgia buffs to engage in direct citizen action? Go down to the local supermarket with a fist full of singles, stock up on produce, and use the self-checkout lane (see above bete noir). Just remember to limit your order to ten (10) items or less and don’t be unlucky enough to be in line in front of me.

Management knows no one plans to work checkout and bagging jobs forever, so it is unlikely much uproar will occur. They're right, these aren't dream jobs, largely because they have refused to make them so. But for most people, at some point in life, any job is a dream come true.

Yes, it’s called the first step on the ladder, entry-level, dude. Such jobs are always subject to replacement by machine. Perhaps YOUR ideal grocery store can have TWO employees at each checkout station: one to scan in the price and the other to do the arithmetic manually.

Sure, it isn't like utility meter readers, higher grossing workers, are being replaced with automated ways of doing their jobs -- wait, that, too, is happening. My gas meter is read from the street and instead of multiple employees and one week of work, it takes one person one day in a truck to record the whole town. Efficient for the company, yes, but my utility prices have not gone down.

That’s because the rates are regulated, you dope. These companies also have expensive benefits to pay out not only to their existing employees but their retirees, too.

Hell, why even have gas mains? We could probably have more jobs for drivers and clerks if the gas companies were required (or, better yet, incentivized by state and local taxes) to make periodic truck deliveries.

Prices for your groceries and home improvement materials will also continue to grow. In fact, the only change to come is the line at the store will get shorter, and not because it is self-checkout. The line will shorten because someone, a lot of someones, perhaps you or me or her or him, can now not afford to put dinner on the table or to patch the leak in the roof because a lot of jobs were getting axed while we rushed by to save a little time.

Just as the economy has collapsed because a) most grocery stores no longer do delivery because all of their customers have cars, b) most lumber yards no longer do much retail business, and c) most Harvard students no longer hire others to type (or proofread) their essays.

Put me down for “None of the Above” – self service, of course.


Breedo said...

I'll admit, Fisking is a new term to me. I read the description you linked to (which is woefully lacking in its attempt to illustrate the origin of the term), and understood the term to mean an argument of a conclusion based on facts (or the lack therof) - "...with the intent of challenging its conclusion or theses by highlighting logical fallacies and incorrect facts." That being said, I don't see where you've done more than present a quasi-satirical rant against what you consider opinions (in a John Stewart kind of way). You didn't like the article so you're mocking the author. If that was the intent, then am I missing the meaning of Fisking? Or are you serious in your antagonism? In which case, I don't think this would be a true Fisking, would it?

Mike, I've always been an admirer of your whit and wisdom, but I think you missed the mark on this one. His writing might be a bit hokey, but the bigger picture of what he's talking about is valid. He's actually touched on some good points and I respect the sentiment of what (I think) he's trying to convey. I don't think he was being completely literal in some of his remarks/suggestions. :-)

BTW, the idea that all entry level jobs are replaceable by machines leads to a scary future. If today's entry level job is replaceable, then tomorrow's entry level job will be replaceable, and so on and so on...eventually only a handful of people would still be needed in the labor force. Just think of the competition for lawn chairs at the pool if no one is at work ;-)

Okay, I wouldn't be getting under your skin quite enough if I didn't point out the fact that you shouldn't criticize (and attempt to denigrate) someone else's punctuation when yours is of equal fault. I refer specifically to the line, "Go on strike how ‘bout it?"

Mike said...
This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.
Mike said...

Rob wrote the article. Look to the left of date/time stamp at the bottom of the article. It says "Posted by Robert."

As for entry level job being replaceable, live with it. When was the last time someone pumped your gas? The only two States in the Union where one cannot legally pump their own gas are NJ and OR. What's the point? The point is that for years entry-level jobs have been replaced by some cost saving measure or another. The self-checkout line is no different than self-serve gas.
Remember how cashiers used to key-in the prices on every product instead of scanning the bar code? How did they know the prices? Did they magically appear in their minds? No, someone else used the price-sticker gun and tagged each and every product in the store. Where is his job now?

You're not getting under my skin. The point of this blog is to:

1) Inform - as in, what's going on with my home renovation.
2) Challenge - challenge people to think about stuff they don't agree with.
3) Have fun.


Breedo said...

Sorry, Mike, could have sworn it said you wrote it. Oh well, you know my eyesight. I like getting under Rob's skin too....hehehe.

Anyway, I understand *why* entry-level jobs are replaced by machines. My point was that the thought of *all* entry-level jobs being replaceable is bleak. Another good point comes from your comment, though. Cost cutting measures such as replacing cashiers with self-service lanes and bar codes for sticker prices can have a backlash effect (not always, but sometimes). The cost you save now can, and often does, create new and greater costs down the road. These costs don't necessarily manifest themselves right away, but you get the equivalent of Reagan's trickle down effect (and it really does feel like getting pissed on :-)

I'll freely admit that I don't really understand the term "capitalism". It seems to me, however, that the "big business"/corporate mentality of make the most profit you can...squeeze every nickle out of everything...is detrimental to our society in the long term. Why aren't people happy with a modest profit? Why not make the consumer happy, deliver quality products and services, make your profit, but without being so damn greedy?!? We need some free thinkers in our country...it's time to start thinking outside of the box and stop taking everything for gospel just because it's always been done that way.

Robert said...


Stop being such a f***ing communist

Breedo said...

Labels, labels, labels....come on Rob, think outside the box. You don't have to go so far to the right :-) And stop picking your head!

Jennifer said...

Hmm, Breedo--I'm a bleeding heart and even I think a lot of this OpEd piece was over-the-top absurd. Mostly I think that a service-type job such as this exists only so long as there is demand for it. If technological improvements can reduce the likelihood of theft & customers on whole decide that having their groceries bagged for them is no longer a service they need then by all means, self-checkout is a viable alternative.

Also, nothing should prevent me from enjoying my organic, hydroponically-grown, Chilean raspberries (hand-picked by six-year-olds) in as timely a manner as possible. If that means the 300-lb checker who insists on scanning the bag 20 times rather than just key in the 10-digit number has to lose her job, then so be it. I hear McDonalds is hiring.

::tenders bleeding-heart credentials at the door::

Breedo said...

Wow, have any of you guys heard the phrase "tongue in cheek". Yeah, parts of this story were over the top, and I don't agree with all of it, but the author used these examples intentionally to simplify and emphasize (exacerbate maybe) the issue. You guys read too literally.

Jen, does this particular technology reduce theft? Is that the intention of it, or is it a profit enhancing device (cause money saving is a BS term)? What if half the people decide they don't need checkers and half definitely want them...odds are the store starts hacking the jobs. Who are they serving?

No, I'm not a bleeding heart liberal. Hell, I don't conform to any of the political labels. I think there's a lost mindset of serving the greater good of the community in our society. And no, Rob, that doesn't mean communism or socialism. It's a mindset, not a policy. You can have a capitalist society which emphasizes good of the whole. It's just not going to happen in our greedy "I can squeeze more blood from a stone" society.

Jennifer said...

Yes, I have heard of 'tongue in cheek' and have learned the merits of its liberal use particularly on the intarweb. However, I disagree that the overall intent of this article was tongue-in-cheek. At its heart, this OpEd piece insists that reducing the number of checkers is the marajuana of our economy: it will quickly escalate into the heroin use that is joblessness and hunger.

I honestly don't think I read too literally. I think the author of the OpEd piece resorted to using hackneyed arguments (the role of management, even the argument's basic tenets) to convince readers instead of actively engaging them with (any) evidence.

I also fundamentally agree with businesses serving the community first; my only point is that there is a host of other ills that beset the food industry than just the installation of new self-checkout lanes. Ultimately, your or my choice to use those self-checkout lanes is not that different than choosing to eat at a buffet.

And to answer your question, there are theft-reducing balances in the self-checkout system. I wouldn't state that theft-reduction is the sole purpose of the self-checkout technology but am certain it was a requirement before stores could implement it in their locations. Money-saving is a relative term. These self-checkout systems mostly replace or augment the express lanes, which represent only a minority of lanes anyway. One of my bigger issues with the OpEd piece was that the author insinuates that all checkers' jobs are at risk though it's being proven that the self-checkout isn't efficient for large quantities of groceries.

There are costs incurred by the business involved in implementing these self-checkout lanes. Simple real-estate issues mean that less space will be available for saleable items--particularly in instances where stores retrofit. The technology is also not cheap; employing it would hardly be beneficial currently except to the larger chains.

But getting back to the point for a second, the basis of this author's argument is completely, fundamentally and irrevocably flawed. Machines are not replacing workers. The service provided by the business is shifting to the individual. Those are radically different things; the technology only serves to enable the shift.

Finally though what really bugs me about this OpEd piece is the Dworkinesque marriage of conservative reactionary thinking with the liberal tax mentality. Creepy.