Archive for the 'capitalism' Category

Job obsolescence and career change

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There have been plenty of discussions about job obsolescence in recent years. Whether it’s manufacturing, journalism, or the one closest to me, photography, workers in many industries have felt the impact. Of course I don’t think those professions are like the ones in this article on obsolete jobs, but certainly they have been heavily impacted by globalization and/or technological innovations and changes. There have also been plenty of stories of mid-life career changes whether by choice, or otherwise. In Michigan the focus has been on auto workers. And the stories have ranged from workers opening their own businesses, to retraining for the health care industry, to sadly, doing nothing. Fear and anger have been common themes in Michigan for some time now. While I am glad I’m not right out of college, or just trying to hang on until retirement (yeah, like that’ll ever happen for me…), I have experienced both job loss, and mid-life career change. Of course it is frightening to face an unknown future, while figuring out how to make a decent living. But I know it can be done. I’ve been there. I have never worked in the auto industry. No I was payed much, much less, for the majority of my career. But, nonetheless, this is my story of job obsolescence and career transformation.

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In between our country’s two most recent economic downturns, I managed to fulfill one of my goals; that of being a full time photographer. Like so many others, I had managed to make it all the way through college without any idea of what I’d like to do with my life. When I was younger, I had, at different times, wanted to be everything from a professional hockey player to an artist. All of them were very difficult, if not nearly impossible, to achieve. Unfortunately, I never had the desire to be an engineer, a doctor, or an accountant (though I’ve worked in two of the three fields (though, not the one that requires eight years of post graduate schooling and training). But finally, after jobs in sales, accounting, credit and collections, and working in various retail jobs, I began assisting a commercial photographer. Eventually I became the studio manager. At the same time, I began to build up my own business,  and after several years, I finally managed to get enough work to actually call myself a photographer…just in time for the industry to tank.

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I am no longer a full-time, professional, photographer. I still make money from it, but it no longer makes up the majority of my income. I know photographers who are barely hanging on, refusing to give up. I also know of other photographers, who like myself, didn’t find the struggle worth it, and have moved on. It’s not easy to give up on a dream, and it’s harder still to move on to a new career if you don’t have the skills, confidence, or necessary experience. This is, of course, not limited to photography. It may not have been anyone’s dream to work on an automotive assembly line (or it may have been…who am I to say?), but for many it’s been a difficult transition to move from a $40/hr (or more) job, with great benefits, to one that requires potentially more training, and at the same time pays less, and has, often times, much worse benefits. In my case I wasn’t giving up much in either the pay column, or the in the traditional benefits column. What I had to give up was much more valuable to me: freedom and creativity. I mourn the loss, but I’m not bitter or angry. It is what it is.

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You can find plenty of bitterness and resentment (just go to a job site forum)  relating to job obsolescence, but there is no stopping change. It’s not difficult to find anger expressed these days relating to a fear of possible, or pending, obsolescence. I visited photography business forums for years, and constantly saw, and experienced, the anger of more established (older) photographers who, at one point in their career were making really good money. Usually the anger came out during discussions regarding pricing of photographic services. Newer photographers often find themselves in a desperate situation. They often have little to no experience, no work, and if they went to art school, huge amounts of debt. The older photographers would admonish the desperate young photographers for charging too little, thereby dragging pay down for the entire industry. Due to lowered barriers to entry, and various romantic notions of photographers, there was an ever increasing number of photographers looking for work. skyline_pano_4.jpg Meanwhile, the industries that pay photographers, namely advertising, editorial (magazines and newspapers), and publishing, were in increasingly worse shape. The decline of manufacturing in this country not only put a lot of laborers out on the street, but ad execs, editors, and of course, photographers as well. I was fortunate enough to recognize the writing on the wall early. Even before I made a living from photography, I saw the annual revenues of the commercial studio I managed decline dramatically each year beginning in the late 90’s. I managed to make it because I cut overhead to a bare minimum. I owned almost no equipment (except cameras and computers), had no studio (other than my basement), and figured out this internet thing pretty early. I got a site online early, bought some Google AdWords, and soon after had full time work. Of course, eventually everyone else figured it out too. And to make matters worse, as the really good paying gigs dried up, everyone began to compete for the few remaining jobs. It didn’t take long before I was competing against huge studios for small time work.

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I once heard that in business, if you believe the industry in which you operate is growing, you should reinvest profits in your business, and if you believe the industry is contracting you should bank all profits. I did the latter almost from the beginning. I also decided that I needed more transportable, and more importantly, more in demand skills. It’s not that you can’t take photography with you, but photography is a business that takes time to build up. Photography, for all but the really big names, is regional, and building a business in a new location takes time. Since the web seemed to be a growth industry, and I enjoyed design, I decided web design would be my next career. Because of an extremely low overhead, savings, and the new skills I was learning, I felt confident that I would be fine. My new career ended up not being web design, but rather web development in general, and user interface engineering specifically. 09242007_0130.jpg It took years. It wasn’t easy. And it often left me with little to no free time. But it’s been worth it. And of course I still do photography, only now I only do what I want. In fact, I’m probably much more well known for my personal projects than I ever was for my commercial work. It’s much more satisfying, though it doesn’t pay much of the bills anymore. Of course, if the industry ever turns around I’ll be ready. Though, who knows, maybe I’ll be on to something different by then.

Health care can’t save Michigan, or I told you so part 3…Michigan’s future, and some photos

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In May of 2008, I read an article regarding the expansion of the area’s hospitals, and the growth of the health care industry in general.  At the same time, I also wrote about how I had viewed this as a potential problem for a long time. The idea, at the time, seemed to be that Michigan’s, and in particular, metro Detroit’s, economy could be saved by health care. And, so the growth of the local hospitals could put more people to work. Former automotive employees could be retrained to work in the health care industry. Best of all, the health care industry was largely immune to the ups and downs of the economy. People always need health care! And with our aging population, we’d have an ever increasing supply of patients.

What wasn’t often mentioned was that Michigan, and again, metro Detroit in particular, was losing population at the same time that the hospitals were expanding. The problem with the health care as savior plan, was no different than the belief that the housing market, or the commercial real estate markets would keep growing despite a declining population. From my conversations with industry “experts” and from reading and watching the local news, it was obvious that many people, whom I had generally assumed knew more than me, couldn’t imagine a Michigan any different from the one they were living in in 2005 or so. The real estate markets were booming, the health care industry was booming, and the Big Three seemed to be doing not to terribly bad (other than maybe Ford). If one only looked at the surface, things may have looked so-so in Michigan, but if you were to have looked a little deeper, things looked like they were going to become downright horrible. The population had been stagnant or declining for a while. Michigan was one of the few states in recent history with this distinction. We were far too heavily dependent on an ailing industry with a broken business model, whose employee’s pay rate was not based off of market forces in any way, and whose management teams couldn’t seem to see past the ends of their noses, or a least past the next quarterly profit report. And we kept on building, and moving further from Detroit, using used tax payer money to help build infrastructure for new developments, while our old infrastructure crumbled. It angered at least a few of us, that no one seemed to be able to (or at least didn’t want to) see that a declining population whose economy was based on one broken and declining industry, and whose current investments were being made on new, and largely unneeded infrastructure, was doomed to failure, and soon.

In my business, when I asked questions about the, seemingly huge, number of new housing developments being built in the middle of nowhere, I was constantly told things like,  “our projections show that we can build like this indefinitely”, and “as fast as we build them, people buy them”. Were are these people coming from, I would ask. The answer was usually something like, “a lot come from Detroit, or from older suburbs”. Apparently, no one thought to follow this logic to the end of the line. If Detroit has been losing population for 40 years, and people move from Detroit to Dexter, who is buying the house in Detroit so that the purchase in Dexter can be made? People were buying houses in Detroit at the time, but obviously less than were leaving Detroit. The problem was simple. You can not expand the number of houses if the number of people is going down, with out driving prices down. But what was such an obvious sign of trouble at the time, is that prices were rising, and people were sure they would keep rising.

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So Michigan had a declining population, dependent on a downsizing industry with a broken business model, that had already been laying off large numbers of employees for years, an over saturated residential and commercial real estate market, and of course a largely under educated work force. But, we need not fear because the health care industry was going to save us. We’d all become doctors, nurses, assistants, or administrators, and we could just all be at the hospital all the time, either taking care of someone, or being taken care of by someone else. It’s the logic that seemed to be used by the Big Three for a while. For quite some time, almost all television advertising was directed toward their own employees. Who advertises to themselves? I’ll pay you, and you can then give it back to me in exchange for the thing you just made, that I paid you for. Maybe if we just make a chain letter, and send it to all of our friends, we can all get rich!

Unfortunately, a market based economy requires more than one or two industries to work. And so, it was always obvious, that unless something fundamental changed in Michigan, that we couldn’t depend on the health care industry to save us. As it turns out, the health care industry isn’t immune to downturns in the economy after all. It should have been obvious all along. If you are out of a job, or have no insurance, do you put off medical care and procedures? Of course. And if there are less people in the state, are there less potential patients? Of course. Michigan, like any other state, can’t depend on any one industry to keep the economic engine running. It takes a progressive, and diversified economy to be successful. No one knows for sure what the next big industry will be. Who predicted Google? At the time, most people thought search engines couldn’t possibly make money, and yet online advertising, has been a growth industry for years. Trying to create a plan for the future, based on the past, is unlikely to work. Sure the past holds lessons to learn from, but the future remains unknown. What Michigan needs to do is to put a priority on education, entrepreneurship, and quality of life. Of course Michigan’s broke, so it’ll be very difficult for the government to do what is needed, but the real change needs to come from the citizens who live there. If Michigan becomes a holdout of stodgy, grumpy, and angry citizens, that resists any change at all costs, then the downhill slide will continue for decades more. But if the cheap living can attract a new younger and more progressive generation, then Michigan may have a chance.

Socialism, and other isms, and of course, some abandoned houses

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As a continuation of my previous post about some ideologies that seem to be misunderstood by so many, I am writing about several different ‘isms’ that seem to be used frequently in discussions and arugments. I am not an expert in any kind of “ism”. I am simply interested in social, economic, and political theory and ideologies.

After writing this I came across an article in the Atlantic Monthly. It’s interesting, in that I see the type of agenda (both liberal and conservative) the article discusses far too often much of our media. I’m not in this to win. I don’t want to destroy anyone. I just want to encourage rational thought provoking discussion. It also made me think about what I’ve written in the past. Has it contributed to anger and hate, or has it contributed to a more admirable goal? Hopefully I can achieve the latter more often in the future.

Socialism

From Merriam-Webster’s dictionary:

1 : any of various economic and political theories advocating collective or governmental ownership and administration of the means of production and distribution of goods
2 a : a system of society or group living in which there is no private property b : a system or condition of society in which the means of production are owned and controlled by the state
3 : a stage of society in Marxist theory transitional between capitalism and communism and distinguished by unequal distribution of goods and pay according to work done.

Just putting the definition out there. You can make your own decision as to whether or not Obama is a socialist or not.

Fascism

From Merriam-Webster’s dictionary:

1 : a political philosophy, movement, or regime (as that of the Fascisti) that exalts nation and often race above the individual and that stands for a centralized autocratic government headed by a dictatorial leader, severe economic and social regimentation, and forcible suppression of opposition

Recently Barack Obama has been accused of being a Fascist, which is of course silly. From Wikipedia, we can see that Fascists believe, among other things, that nations and/or races are in perpetual conflict whereby only the strong can survive by being healthy, vital, and by asserting themselves in conflict against the weak, and Fascism opposes class conflict, blames capitalist liberal democracies for its creation and communists for exploiting the concept. Fascists also believe in quashing all dissent and criticism of both the government, and the Fascist movement itself.

Fascists often believe in imperialismSingle-party states, Social Darwinsim, indoctrination, eugenics, and corporatism. For the most part these are not liberal ideals, and in fact, Fascism is close to the direct opposite of liberalism. It is pretty much anti-liberalism.

So to explain this in simple terms, was Obama a Fascist, the protesters at the recent town hall meetings would have been jailed or executed. Furthermore, Barack Obama is no more a dictatorial leader than George W. Bush was. Insisting on your way, if you’ve got the votes, and alliance to do so is not dictatorship. George W. Bush called it “Political Capital.” It’s not bipartisan, but it’s also not autocratic or dictatorial.

Nazism

From Merriam-Webster’s dictionary:

: the body of political and economic doctrines held and put into effect by the Nazis in Germany from 1933 to 1945 including the totalitarian principle of government, predominance of especially Germanic groups assumed to be racially superior, and supremacy of the führer.

Considering the following from the Nazism Wikipedia entry, “Nazism is often considered by scholars to be a form of fascism,” and that fascism is the antithesis of liberalism, it would be difficult to truly believe Barack Obama could be compared to Hitler, as has been done recently.

Liberalism

From Merria-Webster’s dictionary:

1 : the quality or state of being liberal
2 : a often capitalized : a movement in modern Protestantism emphasizing intellectual liberty and the spiritual and ethical content of Christianity b : a theory in economics emphasizing individual freedom from restraint and usually based on free competition, the self-regulating market, and the gold standard c : a political philosophy based on belief in progress, the essential goodness of the human race, and the autonomy of the individual and standing for the protection of political and civil liberties; specifically : such a philosophy that considers government as a crucial instrument for amelioration of social inequities (as those involving race, gender, or class) d capitalized : the principles and policies of a Liberal party

Liberalism has got to be one of the big surprises for many. I would think approximately half of the politically active in this country would hate to be called “liberal,” when in fact the U.S. was founded as, and still is, a liberal nation. The Declaration of Independence states: “all men are created equal; that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable rights; that among these are life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness; that to insure these rights, governments are instituted among men, deriving their just powers from the consent of the governed.” Furthermore, the free market, so beloved by conservatives, is a liberal ideal. Of course there are different varieties of liberalism, but with a few exceptions, that is what we really have in this country. I think it’s possible to see policies in both parties that arguably violate the ideals of above quote. Furthermore, most of the political fighting currently going on is about different varieties of liberalism.

Capitalism

From Merriam-Webster’s dictionary:

: an economic system characterized by private or corporate ownership of capital goods, by investments that are determined by private decision, and by prices, production, and the distribution of goods that are determined mainly by competition in a free market.

There are many different forms of capitalism. One of the debates on capitalism of late is whether or not Keynesian economic theory should be used at this time, or whether or not we should continue to put our faith in the Chicago School of thought, based on neoclassical economics, which many blame for the current economic mess. One of the big flaws in neoclassical thought is the belief that people make rational decisions resulting in rational markets, and pricing. The obvious lack of rationality leads many to behavioral economics, which studies emotional factors involved in decision making.

Free Market

Once again, from Merriam-Webster’s dictionary:

: an economic market operating by free competition

This is such a simple definition, and something that we have probably never truly had in this country, contrary to many who argue that we are only currently straying from it. I would argue that we’ve had a mixed economy pretty much since the country’s inception. Although, corporations often claim they like competition, they usually don’t. Hence they often lobby our politicians for protectionist legislation (tariffs on light trucks and SUVs, and more recently, tires), restrictions on ownership (such as radio and television frequencies), and other such government interventions to give a competitive advantage to specific industries or companies.