By the Sweat of Your Brow

Recently, I started a second job. It involves using my car to deliver things. Unlike my other job, though, it does not involve a delivery route. Instead it is about delivering stats, rush orders, to a laboratory. So, yes, it is still in some way related to medical deliveries.

Let me tell you about how the pay for this new job is constructed. Each stat carries with it a certain price. Most of them don’t pay very much, just under $8. Yes, that would cover the price of gas well enough, but not leave much room for an hourly wage, or compensation for vehicle wear and tear. The way to make a wage of substance is to do as many stats in one go as you can. The time limit for a stat to get to the lab is two hours. Ok, that probably means an absolute limit of 3 low paying stats in one go, or else face infringing upon the deadline for the first of them. Yes, if you have 4 in the right places, where it is still possible to get to the lab in time you can make more. Superstar drivers, who can drive like real assholes and handle a smartphone at the same time they are driving, will do more, of course. Sometimes there is more than one in close proximity as well, which can be gotten in the same time as it takes to collect 1. Otherwise you have to hope for a dispatch to a farther away stat, but those can take just under an hour to get to, say 45-50 minutes. Those pay about $20. You can do two of those, if there happens to be a second one near enough to the first for the trip to take less than two hours. In all of this you fight traffic and the reality of the wear and tear on your own car and yourself. There isn’t any mercy when it comes to being late. If the wind blows the wrong way, in other words (which it will), that was your fault.

Welcome to the world of “independent contracting”.  It is a place where, literally, all of the costs are on you. You enter into a bargain to take those on for the cut of the profits from the work specified. You don’t know what percent you are getting. I think we can assume the percentage is high, but not too high. The people who put together the framework within which the stats are understood have got to make some money too. They don’t, however, have to carry any of the costs.

Here’s what happens. If there aren’t enough people running stats to saturate the opportunities you get lots of work, but you have to run very close to the bone to get them in. You are bound to find out that this is impossible. Here you encounter one of the temptations inherent to this business, to become a terrible driver. This also affects the work that the company hiring you as an independent contractor can do, so they hire more drivers. When they hire more drivers they bring in more for themselves, but the individual drivers get less work. How much work the individual drivers get is only of some concern to the general contractor, though. They can fulfill all of their commitment to the lab with more drivers. Then people quit and go someplace else where there aren’t so many drivers. It cycles.

I only do this part-time. I was weary of doing it more than a couple days a week. I wanted some supplemental income, not a full on second job.

Yesterday I was doing this job and got a flat tire. I found it ironic because I was planning on going in today, I have it off from my other job, and getting new tires anyway. Well, I got this flat and I had been dispatched. I called the general contractor and told them I had a flat. They said they had nobody else. I quickly took the tire off, I was glad this happened in the nice lot outside of the lab. I put a plug into the obvious debris hole. The “donut” spare had seen some use and I knew that if I ran on it to work it might not hold up. I thought it best, in that case, to patch the tire.  I recovered the stat and thought nothing more of it. I had patched the leak I thought. That didn’t turn out to be the whole truth. The tire was still leaking slowly. There must have been other objects that were embedded in it, but which I couldn’t see. I ran the tire around 3 times, but didn’t see them.

I thought I was ok. That’s when the next dispatch was to two far away places. When I got to the first, and had recovered the stat, I could see that the tire was again low. Crap, I thought, what shall I do. I got out my cigarette lighter powered air compressor and filled the tire up to full. After that I went to the next place. I got that stat and again the tire was low. Uh oh, again the air compressor. It was a long highway drive back to the lab and I had a bad tire. What if it blew? All the way back I was worried. I swear I could feel it as flat. I even pulled over once because the ‘feeling’ was so strong. The tire looked fine. As you can imagine I got back in good time, but not in under two hours, for either stat. I was probably about 20 minutes late for the latest, maybe a little more.

Again, there is no mercy. You might have just read this and thought, you did pretty well to drive something like an hour and a half driving time, go into the offices where you had to recover the stats, ten more minutes for that or more, and figure out where they were in terms of where the door was and where to park, five more minutes, and deal with that flat tire and do it in less than two and a half hours. It might have taken most people all day, from the first event. Well, that doesn’t count. I got back past the two hour limit.

During the trip I got a call from someone at the company. They weren’t happy. They said, you picked this one up and put a certain time into your device, they use an app to keep track so they know where you are at all times, and then you lingered. I was behind the wheel at this point and had to tell this man over the phone what was going on. He figured I was lolly gagging it or something. After I got to the lab, I got a call from another person at the company, he was not so angry. This time I told him I had to quit for the day. I told him if I kept this up I would kill myself. I told him I was going to the tire store, which I did.

Now I don’t really know what my status is with the general contractor. I suspect that they see me as unreliable. I problem solve pretty well, but maybe I am in this context? Maybe, so are they?

I bring this up because it is an illustration of the pressures that are being faced in the workforce today. These pressures aren’t new, but they are increasing. The same technological revolution that replaced a whole floor of Accounting Department people with just a few clerks over the last several decades is coming everywhere else, and more quickly. Technology wrings out inefficiency, and doesn’t care about anybody who used to make a living within the inefficiencies that used to exist. How many actual workers do you imagine are employed to make Google function as opposed to a company of its size before this era? How many at one of those big tech companies? How many anywhere where the inefficiencies have been wrung out? And which way do you think the trend is heading? Are you safe if you have technical knowledge?

Recently, I read an article online somewhere that talked about what IBM is doing with Watson. The gist of the article was that computer programmers had better watch out because Watson can do what they do. It too can go to all of the sites developers use to find answers to problems and it can understand them. Plus it doesn’t have any trouble remembering whether or not a semi-colon goes in a place, as opposed to some other marker or bracket end. And Watson can understand what its customers want from it. Not even the cookie cutter website building companies will hold up very well against that. On the flip side, if you just want something, and can readily enough express it, Watson will do it for you.

Also, the driverless revolution is coming, and not simply with cars. There is real talk of drones doing work like making deliveries. I was thinking about this the other day. It hit me like a ton of bricks. Not only will all driving jobs go away, but all of the human connected positions that people might have thought would still remain, given that a car can’t go into a building to finish the last few hundred feet. When Amazon first talked about using drones the image they conveyed to people was that they would be flying all over their city, guided by both internal and external intelligence. Well, when you realize that drones can launch from the top of a driverless car you see that image is inaccurate. Drones only need to run stuff from a van that is parked close enough to all of the addresses it is considering. There don’t have to be any people involved.

The future is really going to be very John Henry-esque. Maybe you know John Henry from the Middle-American time period. His was the myth of the “Steel Driving Man”. He was the greatest driver of spikes building the railroad. He eventually got into a direct match with a spike driving machine. He was heroic, no waste or seeming inefficiency at all, and showed that men still mean something. He also died trying to compete.

What’s really going to drive humanity economically won’t be work. It will probably be ownership. While ownership can be diluted, it can still have at its controlling hub a nexus of people who want their enterprise to bring in a profit, and who will make the philosophical decisions necessary to carry that out. Eventually, that decision making will also get replaced, you have to see that. Simply because the business doesn’t have any human employees, even as executives, doesn’t mean it can’t make money. In fact, it can compete better if it doesn’t, as we’ve seen. As I say the future is in ownership. That’s the only way that people going forward will make any money. They won’t be able to make it working. They will have to own the entities that are doing the work, no people here, and enjoy what proceeds come from them.

How are we going to do that under the current paradigm? Right now our system of ownership favors those who can gain control by obtaining either a position of ownership power through acquiring enough shares, or in managing a company and directing it as they see fit and getting rewarded for that. You could argue that management is not the same thing as ownership, but take a look around. It is the place where all of the owning robber barons have gone to in both the tail end of the last century and so far in this one. The story of technology in relation to work has empowered that, along with political lobbying and a lot of propaganda. Oh, and the pressures people are under haven’t helped. Nobody has time to combat this. They are all out there trying to stay afloat.

Economic inequality is one of today’s buzzwords. Even with all of the attention the subject has gotten lately, it will really come to the fore going forward. Our current system of ownership deliberately slants things that way. It lumps all kinds of owning strategies together, into the common pool of owners, and respects those that have gained power. The company will operate their way. In the future the contention may or may not be over how a company operates, however, but over what is distributed to whom and according to what metric. There may be real battles over what it means to own a share, whether there are intrinsic rights involved there per share or only over a percentage of shares. The small mindedness that has gone along with corporate ownership, that it can be treated as a fiefdom, may come to an end. If it doesn’t we may all be well and truly left holding all of the tire patching tools, and doing as best as we can with them, while time is running out.

 

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