Impressions of “Sixty to Zero: An Inside Look at the Collapse of General Motors–and the Detroit Auto Industry,” by Alex Taylor III

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To understand what went wrong in the American auto industry, one book and four videos will get you a long way

Who killed Vincent Chin? is narrowly a story of racism and murder, but broadly its a depiction of the unionized, schlerotic, and dead-end workforce that Detroit had bred even by the early 1980s. Who killed the electric car? veers toward conspiracy at times, but is really a story of the incompetence of the management and workers — of GM and the AW — when it came to adopting new technology.

This theme of incompetence is emphasized by Sixty to Zero. It’s written by what is known as a “friendly” or “captive” journalist, basically an a shill paid in access by the industry and in dollars by a periodical. There are plenty of shills across many industries, and this shill’s (Alex Taylor’s) Zhou Enlai-level debasement before the great and powerful allowed him much greater access to Detroit management than he would have otherwise had.

No individual leader, no specific reform initiative, seems that bad in retrospect. But they all were either defensive (reacting to change instead of making it), treating changing economic-political conditions (the market share popularity of small cars, and the political popularity of efficient cars) as irritants to be managed rather than as opportunities to drive profits in other areas.

The Tesla has a non-unionized workforce, outsells comparably priced BMW and Mercedes models, and has received political largess from both political parties. This more than a decade after GM’s bewildering attempt with the EV1. Instead of building up a business and reaping political benefits, GM’s bad management and political unpopularity led it into bankruptcy and now being shut out of the electric vehicle luxury market.

The importance on internal corporate politics, and the inability to recognize new markets, is not unique to GM or the American auto industry. Even generally lauditory books such as histories of Google, Apple, and IBM reveal these issues below the surface. But in GM, you had a company so captured by these problems that progress required waiting for the company ( and union) to burn down financial and regulatory until bankruptcy, to allow new competitors to be born.

Without the context of the films and videos Sixty to Zero is a list of names, dates, and personalities. But Sixty provides a context for these films and videos, a skeleton for the flesh, a reason for America’s auto industry’s descent into the ashes and (in Silicon Valley) a promise of rebirth.

I read Sixth to Zero in the Nook edition. You can read an excerpt at NPR.

What should a Political Science PhD student do? Should she blog?

tdaxp’s Note: Once in a while I use the platform of this blog to give personal advise. Recently a blogger, who also comments at Duck of Minerva, asked if blogging was a sensible choice in today’s world. This post is an attempt to answer that question.

Over at Duck of Minerva, Anita Kellogg also asked recently if she should blog while preparing for a career in academic International Relations. The full text of her question, posted at Duck of Minerva after the defenestration of Brian Rathburn, was:

I am an IR scholar who in the last couple of weeks decided to try blogging in earnest as a counterbalance to the isolation of dissertation writing. When I read Brian’s post yesterday, I definitely started to have second thoughts. I know I will make mistakes. I am still trying to find my voice and focus. I would like to write about politics more broadly, but should I only write about issues where my qualifications are stronger? Even if I stick to IR, do the potential negatives for job searches in the future outweigh the more immediate benefits now? I am really unsure of my answers to these questions at present

The short answer is:

Drop out of International Relations immediately

The long answer is below…

But first, some context…

Actually, Anita’s choice whether or not to blog first depends on why she is in the academic ghetto.

wages_employment_majors_humanities_ghetto_md

As I’ve said many times, there are four types of people in that land of few jobs and low wags:

1. Pimps who run the racket
2. Losers who are exploited by the pimps
3. Escapees who are preparing to leave
4. Disaster tourists who get a kick out of the whole thing

Average salaries for political science PhDs are not pretty, implying that successfully pimping (teaching at a research-one university) with that degree is as unlikely as ascending to the top of the Black Gangsta Disciples.

salary_by_phd_md

Assuming that Anita is not actively trying to leave Political Science, that leaves being a Loser or a Disaster tourists. Disaster tourists come in three shades

1. Those with income from parents such that they do not need to work to support themselves
2. Those with income from spouses such that they do not need to work to support themselves
3. Those with sufficient personal capital (financial, skill-based, etc) that the years in graduate school can be seen as an extended “finding yourself” vacation

Assuming she’s not a disaster tourist, the best advise for Anita is to run.

godleftdetroit-575

But let’s assume that Anita’s goal is to be a pimp — to land a job at a research-one university — and she doesn’t mind that she will be exploiting others to do so. (The countless students who will take on student loans, work hard for years, and leave with few jobs and low wages). Then the answer is still obvious

Don’t blog if you need a job in the humanities ghetto

The reason is that there are two sorts of job markets

1. Job markets where few individuals have veto power over hiring
2. Job markets where many individuals have veto power over hiring

In the first kind of job market, an individual needs to impress a superior in some many: ideological bias, pleasant personality, research skill, whatever. While hiring here in such an environment is idiosyncratic and arbitrary, it’s attack surface area is relatively small. Only one individual must be assuaged, meaning at worst you’re dealing with the idiosyncratic and arbitrary prejudices of one person. One might, however, get a job because one’s odd beliefs somehow flatter the hiring manager.

The second kind of job market describes political science, as well as the rest of the humanities ghetto. A hiring committee is more idiosyncratic and arbitrary than a hiring manager, because in a hiring committee the disqualifying attributes are the sum (set union) of the disqualifying attributes as decided by all of the hiring committee members. The hiring committee process, further, is set up to avoid anyone receiving a job because one’s beliefs somehow flatter a specific member.

You can think of the possibility of not getting a job as a result of an idiosyncratic bias as a series of draws. One hiring manager means one draw per thing associated with you. Two means two draws. And so on.

To use Anita as an example, recently on her blog she’s gone out of her way to attack (or discuss) conservatives, a Christian evangelist (on the subject of charity) anti-vaccination activists (who, admittedly, are nutcases — though some have PhDs), a sitting Senator (who I’ve also attacked), public radio (albeit humorously), and St. Thomas Aquinas (albeit indirectly).

The possibility of being interviewed by a conservative, or an anti-vaccine nut, or a fan of St. Thomas Aquinas is relatively small. But the more members of the committee, the greater the chance. The more posts you have written, the greater the chance.

The only students in the humanities ghetto I know of, whose careers were helped by blogging, were escapees leaving the ghetto.

If you want to blog, run.

Who wants to live in the ghetto?

Who wants to live in the ghetto?

Four kinds of people
1. Pimps (they run it)
2. Losers (they don’t know any better)
3. Disaster tourists (it’s kind of fun to frolic amid decaying dreams)
4. Escapees (they are there until they aren’t).

pimp hat4

Those are the same types of people in the ghettos of academia.

Consider this in the context of the defenestration of Brian Rathburn. After writing (and deleting) a since-reconstructed post, Brian issued a self-criticism, and then a second-self-criticism that doubled as a resignation from Daniel Nexon‘s group-blog, Duck of Minerva.

Over at American Power, Donald Douglas reacted thusly:

Academe nowadays (more than ever) is the egg-shells realm of the perpetually aggrieved. Who wants to be around it? I mean seriously. You can’t speak your mind. And you especially can’t speak your mind if you’re a man. There’s nothing you dare say that won’t be spun into something so objectionable by the leftist thought police that you won’t be on your knees begging for absolution, if not your job. It’s just depressing. Or, it’s depressing if you fall for that sh*t.

As a conservative Donald is particular aggravated by the casual attacks on conservative that are typical in the ghettos of academia, but ultimately this view is a provincial as that of a ho in the ghettos of Detroit, who becomes embittered against the casual misogyny of pimps. The casual and insular attacks against the weak is not the central problem, it’s a symptom of the problem.

The real problem is the ghetto.

The ghettos of Detroit, and the ghettos of academia, are places of low-employment and low-wages. Only the formal education, race, and job title change. But a professor at in the academic ghetto is a petty tyrant exploiting losers, servicing tourists, and indifferent to escapes as surely as is a manager of & security contractor for sex workers in the City of Detroit.

If you are young and thinking of entering the humanities ghetto — don’t.

Practice normal science.

Or at least least a useful skill.

And run.

Pimp Gets Bitch-Slapped

Watching a pimp get bitch-slapped can be funny. But watching that pimp cry for forgiveness afterwards can be pretty upsetting to watch.

I’ve said before the academic ghetto (composed of the humanities, International Relations, and other old boys networks) is a place of low-employment and low-wages. There are four types of people in the academic ghetto:

1. Pimps (professors at research universities) who run the game
2. Escapees (graduates who leave the field but use their skills) who are about to get out
3. Losers, like non-tenture track teachers, those sucked into the system until their time, youth, and money desert them, and
4. Disaster tourists, who get a thrill out of the place

Pimps are in a zero-sum competition with each other. For one pimp’s old boy network to thrive, another has to fall. Thus, the ghetto is a place of violence, where pimps will attack each other for seeming ridiculous reasons. But being in a zero, the reason isn’t ridiculous: it’s because taking down someone else is the only way for your own friends to be successful.

An example of this was at The Duck of Minerva, a blog dedicated to celebrating one alley in the academic ghetto (International Relations). A humorous post on identifying and infiltrating old boys networks by a professor at a research university, Brian Rathburn, entitled “Intellectual Jailbait: Networking at APSA” was taken down, all comments on that post were deleted ,Brian was forced to issue a self-criticism, Brian’s post became a non-entity (substantively replaced by Steve Saideman‘s post “Networking is Hard Work“), and two thinly veiled attacks on Brian were posted, (Daniel Nexon‘s “Sexual Harassment in Political Science and International Studies and Laura Sjoberg‘s Let’s talk about sex). .

But it was Brian’s post, his self-criticism, which was hurtful and upsetting. Because while I view pimps fronting each other as a natural part of life in the ghetto — and in my experience, the academic ghetto is so intellectually and and self-referential that it’s the perfect breeding ground for mob outrage — its obvious that Brian is a transgressive thinker who has learned the art of strategic cowardice. This is doubtless necessary for someone in the humanities ghetto — an individual capable of saying his own thoughts in International Relations is in a situation slightly less precarious than a comedian in North Korea — but it’s still upsetting, painful, and sickening to watch.

If you are young and thinking of entering the humanities ghetto — don’t. If you’re already there — run.

Pimps, Hos, and When to Get Out of the Ghetto

I recently compared Humanities (Cultural Anthropology, English Literature, History, Philosophy) professors at research universities as pimps who rule the ghetto. Razib Khan liked the analogy so much he extended it with question: “do pimps facilitate good healthy sex for society, or do they encourage the spread of unpalatable contagion by perpetuating the ghetto and its conditions?

The answer: In the ghetto, pimps provide wages to hos who, depending on their character, either become accustomed to the poverty (thus joining the self-perpetuating underclass) or use the capital they accumulate to escape the ghetto.

To review: the ghetto is a neighborhood defined by economic deprivation. A very noticeable ghetto in academic life is the humanities ghetto of low wages and low employment:

wages_employment_majors_humanities_ghetto_md

Remember that the ghetto has four types of people: pimps (who make the best of a bad environment by running the ghetto), escapees (including those who are planning their escape), losers (including hos who work for pimps), and disaster tourists (including johns who provide the wages for the losers). Here’s an example of a loser ho:

“I am not a welfare queen,” says Melissa Bruninga-Matteau.

That’s how she feels compelled to start a conversation about how she, a white woman with a Ph.D. in medieval history and an adjunct professor, came to rely on food stamps and Medicaid. Ms. Bruninga-Matteau, a 43-year-old single mother who teaches two humanities courses at Yavapai College, in Prescott, Ariz., says the stereotype of the people receiving such aid does not reflect reality. Recipients include growing numbers of people like her, the highly educated, whose advanced degrees have not insulated them from financial hardship.

But the “ghetto” is larger than just the humanities. Many non-progressive sciences are in the ghetto, because they are run by old boys networks — by their pimps. Likewise, even having progressive research programs does not (necessarily) protect against ghettoization. Using information from Indeed (which suffers from all sorts of biases, but the relative values of which have face validity), this is a chart of the overlapping ghettos by PhD concentration, against where you want to be:

salary_by_phd_md

The humanities does not confine you to poverty (you can escape). Whether or not science comes to an end, the myth that scientific training means a successful life certainly should. Being in a normal science does not guarantee success. Personal success comes from finding something that can provide you with joy, provide you with the ability to be the best, and provide you with pay. If you have these attributes in what you are doing, you can be successful, whatever your compensation (in terms of money, power, and prestige).

Petroleum engineers who enjoy their work can enjoy these from heights. Pimps can enjoy these from the ghetto. But without these three, you are much more likely to be miserable.

3-circles-hedgehog-concept

In other words: if you can’t pimp, get out of the ghetto.

Stereotyping, and Rare but Important Events

Phil Arena has an interesting but problematic piece up at Duck of Minerva, entitled “Bayes, Stereotyping, and Rare Events.” The substantive topic of the post is a recent survey of Muslims that I’m not too interested in. But Phil uses statistics to mask a deeply flawed and irrelevant conclusion:

Put simply, the probability that you’d be mistaken to assume that someone who belongs to group Y is likely to commit or have committed act X simply because most such acts are committed by members of group Y grows exponentially higher as X becomes rarer. The reason you should not assume that a person is a terrorist just because they’re Muslim, then, is not just that this is politically incorrect and likely to offend delicate liberal sensibilities. It’s that it’s almost certainly incorrect, full stop.

The first and last sentences in that paragraph have almost nothing to do with each other. Phil’s conclusion is irrelevant, and the “full stop” leaves the most important part of the conclusion unsaid.

And Phil’s not alone in such a mistake. Take for example an recent statement on the NPR program “Tell Me More” by Fernando Vila. Fernando is responding to a statement that a disproportionate fraction of violent crimes in New York City are committed by African Americans:

VILA: Well, I mean, the notion of paranoia is a good one and Mario’s statistics actually sort of feed into that – into this culture of paranoia. I mean, the vast majority of black people are not committing crimes.

VILA: You know, it’s like to say, I don’t know – the vast majority of hosts on NPR are white males. That doesn’t mean that every time I encounter a white male on the street I assume he’s a host of NPR. You know, it’s just a backwards way of looking at it

Phil and Fernando make exactly the same mistake: false assuming the cost of a “false positive” (accidentally marking someone as suspicious) is the same as the cost of a “false negative” (accidentally marking someone as not suspicious). But the truth is all errors are not equal.

The cost of a mistake is a function of the severity of the mistake.

Is the cost to society of 1 false positive (falsely placing an individual under suspicion of terrorism) the same as the cost to society of 1 false negative (falsely removing suspicion from an actual terrorist)? No, of course not, but Phil’s post is based that on fallacy. Otherwise his conclusion makes no sense.

There is a serious question as to where we should become indifferent to the trade-off — 10:1? 100:1? 1:1000000? — but it is certainly not 1:1.

Likewise, Fernando’s statement on NPR is irrelevant. While the consequence of guessing an individual’s employment status at NPR might be 1:1 (few would care either way), the costs of falsely assuming someone would attack you is far less than the cost of falsely assuming an individual will not attack you. Again, there is a question of trade-offs — 1000:1, 10000:1, 1000000:1? — but the cost of all errors are not identical.

Now, obviously Phil and Fernando had different motives here. Phil’s obviously trying to popularize some basic statistics, while Fernando is doubtless ignorant of basic statistics. But in both cases an unwary audience will be led astray into thinking all errors are equally important.

Pimpin’ the ghetto

Many of my academic friends are upset at the American Historical Association’s suggestion that dissertations not be posted online for free reading. Jason Heppler of Stanford University opined that “The AHA is neglecting the public value of history”, Razib Khan‘s writes “The American Historical Association seems nuts to me,” And over at The Atlantic, Rebecca Rosen says “Ultimately, what is so frustrating about the AHA’s stance is that it seems to view the purpose of historical scholarship narrowly, as a means to securing employment.

But the only one of the criticisms I agree with is this: Patrick Wyman is the only one who gets is:

It’s a cruel irony that the historians whom this policy hurts the most – everyone other than the students of the best-known historians at the top 5-10 institutions, who are massive favorites to get jobs anyway – would actually benefit professionally from the exposure that open dissertation access provides. If this policy becomes the norm, the vast majority of the research that’s conducted will never see the light of the day

Remember that the humanities is a ghetto of low-employment and low-wages. There are four kind of people in this ghetto — four kind of humanities scholars who get their PhDs

godleftdetroit-575

1. Disaster tourists who are getting the PhD because its fun — these are the same sort of people who enjoy Detroit ruin porn — and after graduating will go back to whatever world they are from. In other words, people who got a PhD because they love the humanities.

October 2011 Coalition rally

2. Losers who spend a decade getting a worthless degree and have nothing to show for it. These are the kind of people who actually live in Detroit. In other words, they are just more foolish variants of the sort of folks who joined Occupy Wall Street because they were surprised their college vacation from reality cost money.

wages_employment_majors_humanities_ghetto_md

3. Escapees who got out, and are stronger for it. The digital humanities is one way of escaping the humanities ghetto, by combining employable skills with domain and research expertise. These are the people who get to the top outside the ghetto.

steampunk-xavier-wheelchair

4. Pimps who run what little economy exists in the ghetto. They control the humanities ghetto, have old boys patronage networks to fall back on, and have a great deal in a slummy part of town. In other words, folks who get tenure-track PhDs at research universities.

The American Historical Association is run by pimps for pimps — by professors at research universities, for professors at research universities. That their policy does not help the public or most PhD graduates of history programs is besides the point. They are an old boys network protecting themselves.

The AHA isn’t out to protect disaster tourists, or losers, or escapees. The AHA is by, for, and of pimps.

This isn’t too criticize pimps — if you actually love the ghetto, why not be successful in it? — but to say that not everything they do is in your best interests.

If you are in the AHA, here is your choice: You can like that, or you can get out.

Review of “Detroit: An American Autopsy” by Charlie LeDuff

The first thing I thought about Detroit: An American Autostphy is that the writing is fantastic. A journalist telling a story of the final days of Detroit reads like a non-fiction work by Thomas Ligotti. Some of the deaths described in the book rival My Work Is Not Yet Done — indeed, reading Detroit, it’s obvious that Ligotti is a Detroiter. The city whose motto is “Speramus Meliora — Resurgent Cineribus” (We Hope For Better Things and Will Rise from the Ashes)– whose city seal features a depiction of Detroit burning to the ground – is a store of fire, ice, and waiting. Author Charlie LeDuff writes like a pulp writer, bringing Detroit to vivid life in teh same way that Mike Daisey brought the iPhone factory to life for thousands who have seen his play or heard his work.

500px-Flag_of_Detroit,_Michigan_svg

The second thing is I bet part of it’s made up.

Indeed, binging Charlie LeDuff brings up third sentence in his Wikipedia article, “LeDuff has won a number of prestigious journalism awards, but has also faced accusations of plagiarism and distortion throughout his career” (never a good sign!) No wonder he reminded me of Daisey

detroit-an-american-autopsy_md

So what to make of Detroit?  It’s great writing?  And the great writer, Charlie LeDuff?

The writing is fantastic. There is no doubt about that. In the same way you are missing part of the human experience if you never hear Mike Daisey, you are missing out on life by not reading LeDuff’s writing.

The story of Detroit is fantastic — firefighters, terrorists, corrupt politicians, hookers, even a reality TV show. As I said, this is a non-fiction Ligotti work. Detroit the book is a great read. Detroit the citty seems really, really terrible. Really bad.

The imagery is vivid, and not necessarily false. I’ve never been to Detroit, but just because LeDuff may be a Mike Daiseyish storyteller does not make the message he has false. I’ve been to China numerous times. I’ve been to factory towns. I’ve spoken with people in the factories. The Agony and Ecstasy of Steve Jobs is fundamentally true, even if it’s not fundamentally journalism.

The worst part of Detroit is the lack of context it gives. It’s an excellent piece of thrill-storytelling about a place, but the reasons it give are superficial and impressionistic. Nature’s Metropolis and Seattle: Past to Present both give a sense of place and time, of the economy and the history and the heroes. Detroit only gives the macarbe.

I read Detroit: An American Autopsy in the Nook edition.

Prejudice and Bias

Only stupid people judge once.

For the rest of us, the world is a pretty exciting place. There’s always new things to consider, surprising details come up, and the “sure thing” of yesterday becomes the “maybe!” of today (and vice versa!)

At any given time, what we think of a person, a situation, or an event is our judgment. What we thought about it the last time (and the time before that) was our prejudgement, or prejudice. Our prejudices form our bias. What we will think in the future is our Monday morning quarterbacking, the difference between which and what your judgment is our hindsight bias.

If you have the correct prejudices, your hindsight bias will be l0w because your judgment will be correct. The Zimmerman Affair provides a good example of how this could work.

Knowing nothing else about the case, reasonable prejudices would provide a pretty good clue as to who violently attacked whom in the following pair.

person 1:
Sex: Male
Age: Upper 20s
Height: 5’7
Workplace: Desk
Fitness: Out out shape
Ethnicity: Hispanic

person 2:
Sex: Male
Age: Upper teens
Height: 5’11
Workplace: Unemployed (full time school)
Fitness: Athletic
Ethnicity: African-American

With this prejudice, all facts are filtered (this is analogous to the Bayesian process of “updating priors“) and one would come to the same conclusion that the jury in the Zimmerman case did: person 1 is not guilty on all counts.

But of course, only stupid people judge once.

Time goes on, our priors of person 1 are continuously updated , though there is a censorship effect in gathering new information about person 2.

There are remarkably easy ways to predict when some people have the wrong biases. But that is a post for a different time.

Review of “King Larry: The Life and Ruins of a Billionaire Genius,” by James D. Scurlock

What should we think of Larry Hilbloom?

There are four ways of thinking about the man. The first is as a business leader. Larry is Steve Jobs, if Steve was into Ayn Rand and amphetamines, instead of Buddhism and LSD. The second is as a philanthropist. The foundations that he deeded his entire state to help students and researchers fight diseases. The third is as an escapist. The beautiful women and island paradises he inhabited are the stuff of legend. And the fourth is as a coward. That is the worst aspect of him.

King-Larry-jacket

Larry Hilbloom, perhaps more than any other single man, broke the Postal Service monopoly. Four years before Federal Express, DHL expanded from a curious service to an international business that became critical to the banking and energy sectors. Those who have read other book about the importance of transportation infrastructure — especially Nature’s Metropolis and The Box — will immediately catch the significance of the annihilation of space by time that Larry wrought.

dhl-plane-fleet-i0

The foundations become an adventure of their own. Indeed, the movie Billionaire [Amazon, Netflix] is focused primarily on the nightmarish estate lawsuits that posed Larry’s many children against both each other and the foundations he had set up. Both the Lary H. Hillblom Foundation and the Larry L. Hillblom Islet Research Center were bequeathed by him to future generations.

larry_hilbloom_irc_md

The escapism of Larry Hillblom is the stuff of adventures, both on screen and in print. King Larry clearly owes a lot to the film His Majesty O’Keefe [Amazon, Wikipedia], the 1954 Burt Lancaster, both for the title and the concept — an American man, washed up in the South Seas, becomes a political powerhouse in a small island society while battling distance creditors. Likewise, the exoticism of Larry’s adventures bring to mine a Dean Barrett adventure, less Kingdom of Make-Believe and more Murder at the Horny Toad Bar.

larry_hilbloom_boat

As for Larry’s fault — his biggest fault — my take is probably not that of many readers. His womanizing, the overly generous interpretation of the age of consent, all that is a costume that people wear. But what is not a costume is that Larry abandoned people. His mother, his business partners, his girlfriends, his kids, were left without him.

Here is where a photo of him and one of his kids should go. But there are none. Anywhere. So you have to use your imagination.

Larry’s passions — for business, for adventure, for girls and women — were human. But his coldness was monstrous.

I read King Larry in the Nook Edition.

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