Civilization, Whither Art Thou

Commentary on Society and Civilization

March 03

Manifest and Latent Functions of Higher Education Today

Throughout history education was seen as a gateway to a career and entrance into society.  Education, however, was not and still is not considered the same as an apprenticeship or on-the-job training.  Higher education became at some point synonymous with education.  In fact, in high schools and even elementary schools, when the word education is bantered about it is in reference to going to college.  Very few individuals discuss education in the same breath as discussing vocation.  But even vocation is changing today.

In the early 1900s, in the classified section of the newspaper, a man could find opportunities in barber shops, advertising, sales, or countless other fields if all he had was a high school diploma (often this wasn't even a prerequisite).  Today, to be a barber or work in sales or advertising requires certifications or a degree.  The good jobs in sales require bachelor's degrees (BA); and jobs in sales that do not require a BA are limited with no hope of advancement.  But why?  What changed in the past 100 years that requires a minimum of 4 additional years of education?  

It could be argued that changes in technology have been drastic; but what classes really focus on those changes?  For a BA a student need not take any computer science courses; they need not take a database course; they need not take a course in really anything computer related.  In fact, the BA student really only needs to know how to use a word processor (something he probably learned in high school) and the internet (something probably learned at a very early age for millennials).  So why have students take so much coursework that has nothing to do with the job?

A classic argument is that an education teaches individuals to think.  The history class gives students perspective on human life across time; English teaches students to analyze; and all the courses are supposed to teach students to think critically.  Students leave with multiple paradigms with which to attack problems in the world and at their jobs.  But this manifest function of higher education does not fit with reality in the workplace.

Employers do not want smart savvy employees.  They want employees who will do what they are told.  Only a small fraction of the workforce needs to have multiple paradigms to attack complex problems with.  Why would a sales representative need to utilize critical literary theory or calculus while selling life insurance?  The math and language of the contract were predetermined by the few who run the company.  The sales representatives merely have to understand how to sell the product -- not how to design it.  So again, why require this extra education?

Sociology textbooks, the occasional blogger, and people trying to impress their dates talk about the latent function of higher education as a mating ground for individuals of the same social standing.  For example, it is exceptionally unlikely that you will find a rich young man or woman attending a community college.  They will likely be at an Ivy League or at the very least a well known state school with a great sports program -- or perhaps at a top liberal arts college.  Sifting through the higher education campuses we find that each school has a unique culture.  You will not find the same category of student at Yale as you will at the University of Miami (just to make one comparison).  But this is just a cute observation that ultimately leads us away from the darker latent functions of higher education -- such as student loans.

Anyone who reads or watches the news from time to time will have seen something about rising cost of tuition.  A devastating inadvertent function of higher education is that all but the rich end up in debt.  Debt that will likely take them decades to pay-off.  Consider the following: someone goes to college and gets a BA.  They have $30,000 of student loans (pretty typical).  They then try to find a job so they can start paying off the student loans.  But there really aren't any good jobs available.  So they take what they can get.  They can't leave the job, since they are in-debt; but staying at the job is a dead end.  It is a catch-22.  

This student loan debt idea is old hat; and lots of conservatives and head-in-the-sand-Republicans like to act like its not a big deal.  But here's the kicker that no one can argue, not even some dipshit from Forbes.  More and more jobs are requiring specialized degrees or certificates.  Consider this: to get a job as a medical laboratory technician you need to take an exam to receive a certificate saying you are a certified MLT.  Fine you say, that sounds reasonable.  We wouldn't want just anybody running medical labs.  But what if a PhD or even an M.S. with a strong science background wanted to take the test?  Turns out they can't.  The only way to become an MLT today is to enroll in a 2 year accredited program.  

Now, there are 1-year accelerated programs to an MLT associates degree; but you have to have all their prerequisites completed.  It is very rare that a PhD in the biological sciences would have every prereq.  For instance, most programs require medical terminology.  This course is never taken by BS, MS, or PhD level candidates.  The course would be a joke for a PhD, but regardless, they would need to take it to eventually work as an MLT.  At this point you may wonder, why in the world would a PhD want to work as an MLT?  Well, the truth is that there are roughly 20 PhD level candidates for every 1 PhD level job today.  This means that 95% of PhDs in the biological sciences must work at something else.

Many jobs require some clinical experience to get a foot in the door.  MLT would seem to many to be a good place to start, since every PhD I know has worked in a lab, published research, and knows their way around a laboratory.  But they cannot work.  In fact, it turns out that they can't do much at all.  Society today has come to dictate that if you don't have the specific certificate or degree you can't work in the field.  Society does not care about ability, potential, or intelligence -- only what's on a single piece of paper.  This goes for the medical field, the business world, and much more (the list would be painful).

The end result of this reality is that each person who gets a degree either finds a job or is forced to start over.  So how did it come to this and why is it this way?

I can only speculate as to how it came to be this way (although it would be a very interesting journalistic enterprise), but the why seems very straight forward.  Training employees can be expensive.  If, however, you can have the applicants train themselves you wouldn't have to spend any money on training. This is what has happened -- mostly at the community college level.  When I taught I saw the colleges trying vigorously to create new certificate programs and degree programs for the big corporations in the community. In fact, the colleges have positions dedicated to working with big corporations to come up with certificate or degree programs that would directly lead students to working at their company. They would need virtually no training, because the program would have been designed by the company.  They would brag that if you come to their program that they train you with the same software or instruments that are used at the big companies out there!  And it does make some sense at a very basic level.

For example, why teach nursing students or accounting students on software or instruments that are outdated or no longer used?  That doesn't make sense. But, why aren't the companies paying for this -- at least at some level? The program manifestly appears to be an independent program that helps students prepare for a career in a specific field. However, on a latent level there is a company that designed the program to circumvent training employees. They are passing that cost on to the would be applicants

If you combine this with the issue of student loan debt and wealth inequality, you can start to see how there is a growing frustration in this country with opportunity. Exceptionally educated individuals cannot work in certain fields, because the companies themselves aren't willing to provide training on their specific protocols. It is important for the country to start to examine what the function of higher education is (post-secondary). Are we educating individuals or are we providing on-the-job training for companies on the tax payers dime? Is education providing opportunity or providing a ball-and-chain in the form of student loan debt in an effort to create subservience to corporate America? You decide.

February 15

To Eat, or Not to Eat; That is the Question

I took a look at the last two posts and noticed I was getting a bit scienc-y.  This blog is intended to focus on societal issues and not scientific issues; however, as we all know, science and society often intersect.  I have given the Rosie Heart Attack entry a bit of thought and decided to follow it up with one last post in the series (for now) with a focus on health and science.  The issue is what and how much to eat.

Let's start with butter.  In the 1800s margarine was invented.  It's history began in France, and it was supposed to be a substitute for real butter intended for the military and lower classes.  Eventually, it was found you could mix plant oils with animal fats and get a similar product to margaric acid (the first margarine).  However, it was still expensive to make, since it still relied on beef fat as the principal ingredient.  However, an advance in chemistry called hydrogenation came along in the early 20th century and allowed production of margarine that was almost all plant fats.  It might be clear to some readers that at this point no one is sure what margarine is; and in fact there was a clouding of the term margarine.  Many laws in various states tried to restrict names and other factors involved in the selling of butter substitutes.

Margarine reached a peak popularity probably in the 50s.  Many people thought that since it was based from plants it must be better for you; eat your vegetables, right?  But in fact the hydrogenation of the plant oils made the fats not only more similar to animal fats than plant oils, it also made the hydrogenated fats worse for you.  It wasn't for a while, though, until researchers figured out that hydrogenated oils lower your HDL, raise your LDL, promote inflammation, damage the epithelial cells that line your arteries, promote insulin resistance, which can lead to diabetes, and also promote obesity.  Everything I just said is backed up by years and years of research.  Thus, eating these fats is a multifaceted attack on your health.  

But many people just said that the researchers didn't know what they were talking about.  They would say, "Everyone said they were fine before, now they say they're bad.  I don't think they know anything."  And they go on eating hydrogenated oils.  The same can be said of salt, alcohol, chocolate, sugar/carbs, protein, fat, and many other dietary substances.  Society feels like they are being told one day that salt is bad, and then the next day that salt is good.  The same with all the others on the list.  One day grains on the base of the pyramid, the next the food pyramid is gone (which it is) and grains seem to be reduced and lean protein increased.  

Today I'm here to make it worse and better at the same time.  So after that somewhat lengthy introduction, humor me for a few more paragraphs and lets see if I can wrap up the gist of what I believe is going on below.

Well over a decade ago researchers realized that some individuals do not produce CCR5, a receptor mainly found on CD4+ cells.  Now, that may not sound like much, but what it did was more or less make the person with that mutation immune to HIV infection.  This was because HIV needs to bind to the CD4 receptor, and then it needs to use the CCR5 receptor to get into the cell.  If either are missing, then HIV doesn't get in.  Now if a person is missing CD4, then they are in bigger trouble than an HIV infection; but it turns out we as humans don't necessarily need CCR5 to function normally due to a redundancy built into our genetic makeup.  So there are people who are immune to HIV walking around (probably less than 1% to 2% of the population, give or take).  This sort of thing is called genetic variation -- in other words, we are all different.

Now let's take that information and apply it to food.  Perhaps the reason we are seeing such contradictory information regarding food and disease is at least partly due to genetic variability.  I think it is, and there is research to back that claim up.  For instance, there is a variant allele for NOS1 called rs7298903.  NOS1 is nitric oxide synthase 1, it is a gene that codes for an enzyme that makes nitric oxide.  If you have that variant allele, and you have a low fruit and vegetable intake, then you are at a 3-fold increased risk for chronic lymphocytic leukemia and/or small lymphocytic lymphoma (CLL/SLL); while if you eat a lot of fruits and vegetables then you have a 60% reduced risk of CLL/SLL.  But what about another variant of NOS1, say rs545654?

It turns out that with the variant rs545654 of NOS1 there is an interesting effect with just red vegetables.  In the low red vegetable intake group there is a 60% reduced risk of diffuse large B-cell lymphoma (DLBCL); but in the high red vegetable intake group there was a 1.7-2.4-fold increased risk for DLBCL.  In fact, there were many cases of variants of NOS1 that showed a similar pattern of increased risk with high red vegetable intake.  So in the one case, you should eat lots of vegetables; but with another variant you shouldn't.  What to do?

At this point in time none of us will likely be able to find out our true genetic makeup.  That is, it is too expensive and time consuming to go through and identify each persons unique genetic variations for each gene.  If you had that information you could start to make more informed decisions about gene-diet interactions; but the truth is, this is a nascent field and there is much yet to discover.  For instance, it has been suggested by researchers that eating tomatoes with garlic may interact with how the sulfur compounds in garlic work in our bodies.  Thus, a society like Japan, which eats garlic, but not as much tomatoes will exhibit a different epidemiological pattern than say in Italy, where they eat lots of garlic and tomatoes.

Once again, talk to your doctor.  Talk to a trusted nutritionist.  Listen to your body.  Keep a food journal.  If you like certain food and feel good eating certain food, then your body probably needs them (and no this doesn't apply in the same way to deserts and alcohol).  We live in an exciting time where scientific information can tell us so much about the world.  But we are just beginning to discover the interactions of food with our genes.  Give it some time, and perhaps one day we will have personalized diets for each individuals genetic makeup.

What all of this doesn't mean, however, is that when doctors and researchers say something is just plain bad, that you can use this as an excuse to ignore it.  Hydrogenated oils aren't good for anyone.  Cigarettes aren't good for anyone.  Excessive alcohol isn't good for anyone.  Eating an unbalanced diet of mainly animal products and starch isn't good for anyone.  We all need certain things.  While we each do have variations, and these variations do play a role in disease, at our core we are all very similar and our needs are likewise very similar.  I hope this entry was both informative and helpful in its own way.      

February 06

Rosie O'Donnell and Heart Attack Symptoms

Rosie came out recently about her heart attack and how she missed the symptoms.  Everyone knows it seems that when the heart feels pain it can be felt in your left arm, cheat, neck, and jaw; but what people don't seem to know is that there are a variety of symptoms that people experience.  The problem I have with Rosie's special concerning acute myocardial infarctions (AMIs for short and the technical term for a heart attack, I'll just use MI here) is that she makes it sound like women have their own set of symptoms and that she knows exactly what they are.  The truth is that there are multiple types of MIs and they each can have their own set of symptoms; further, not everyone experiences all of those symptoms associated with that specific MI or even any of them sometimes (a silent heart attack).

To aggravate the problem, even organizations like Go Red For Women seems to not have many of their facts straight.  In the first link of this post you can find an article where GoRed editors post that an "EKG revealed that she had 99 percent artery blockage, a situation called “the widow maker.”  The truth is, "the widow maker" is a term that comes from a specific coronary artery, the left anterior descending coronary artery (LAD for short).  The LAD supplies around 50% of the blood to the left ventricle and also most of the blood to the septum of the heart.  If it goes, then the left ventricle is in big trouble.  Clearly, it's very important, hence it's name as the "widow maker."  Also, you can't tell the percentage of occlusion from an EKG.  You can get a really good idea of where it is and even possibly how bad it is, but not a percentage.  Further, all these numbers are estimates.  You can read about estimating percent occlusion here -- if you'd like.

But I want to move onto talking about symptomatology of MIs.  Let's start with the scariest one there is...having no symptoms at all, called a silent MI.  Whose at risk?  The truth is, we could all experience this.  It is estimated that up to 25% of all MIs are silent.  However, those with diabetes and the elderly are at the most risk for silent MI.  So what in the world can you do to mitigate this?  Well, first of all, manage your lifestyle so you minimize the risk for diabetes; second, exercise and try and live a healthy lifestyle (including managing stress).  You can't do anything about getting old, it is simply a privilege that only some of us have.  Lastly, you can visit your doctor if you think you are at any risk, and they can visualize your coronary arteries or run tests to see the health of your heart (preventative medicine!).

Alright, so what about the classic symptoms.  These would include chest pain that radiates down the left arm and/or up into the neck and jaw and maybe just not feeling well.  The truth is, that when angina hits, it often really hurts.  Nitroglycerin is a drug that treats angina, but it often doesn't manage the pain during an MI.  In fact, very often stronger drugs are given to manage the pain.  It is usually the case that these people are diaphoretic as well (sweating a lot).  Sometimes they are also pale, from either a lack of peripheral circulation or intense vasoconstriction in response to the sympathetic nervous system.  What to do if this happens to you: don't wait, call 911.  The longer the heart goes without getting oxygen and nutrients, the more tissue will die.  Barring advancements in science and medicine, that heart tissue will never come back, it will only scar over.

Well those two are relatively easy, but what about these other symptoms?  Alright, so the other major symptoms I haven't already mentioned include nausea, vomiting, shortness of breath, JVD, rales in the lungs, pain in the upper back, and fatigue; and of course, there are also symptoms I'm sure people who had MIs experienced and are thinking why don't I see that on the list.  Well, these are just the most common non-chest pain associated symptoms.  It does seem to be true that women experience these non-typical MI symptoms more than men, but it needs to be pointed out that the typical symptoms are still the most common symptoms in women as well as men!  Rosie states in her show that "we [women] don't even know our own symptoms."  The truth is that men can have these non-typical symptoms as well, not just women.  It just turns out that women have them more often than men, statistically speaking.

Each one of these non-typical symptoms is usually associated with a certain type of MI.  For example, 😲vhcv8&index=5&list=PLDF989DA794DC983F" target="_blank">rales are a certain type of lung sound heard on auscultation; they are associated with congestive heart failure (CHF for short) and are usually caused by fluid buildup in the lungs (pulmonary edema).  The failure of the heart is on the left side, and since the left side of the heart receives blood from the lungs, if it can't receive then the fluid backs up in the lungs.  Many people, including women, end up with CHF after a left sided MI.  Following this logic, JVD (jugular venous distension) can occur due to backup in the jugular veins due to right sided MI.  The right side of the heart receives blood from the superior and inferior vena cava, and the superior vena cava receives blood directly from the jugular vein.  Thus, when the right side backs up we can see it as JVD due to the convenient anatomy of the jugular vein to the surface of the neck.

It is important to note, however, that rales and JVD are signs of other disorders, and not just MI.  You can get fluid in your lungs, have fatigue, and probably some mild chest discomfort from a cold.  Clearly you can have nausea and vomiting from many things other than an MI.  So how do you know when to make that call to the emergency room?  It's a great question, and one that researchers are trying to figure out.  I can only tell you how we in a hospital or ambulance determine if it is very likely an MI (medical jargon: "have a very high degree of suspicion").  

First, we usually take a history.  This clearly involves why we are seeing you today.  Then, if you have any of the following it raises our suspicion that you might be having an MI: hypertension, diabetes, previous MIs or heart disease, smoker, or if you're over 50.  In fact, if someone comes in with abdominal pain and is over 50 the hospital will almost always do an EKG (truth be told, MIs are so variable that many people get hooked up to at least some rudimentary EKG).  If why we're seeing you today is for chest pain, and you have one of those risk factors, we're worried about MI and are going to run an EKG.  While the EKG is getting set up we can listen (auscultate) the heart and lung sounds as well (this is where we'd listen for rales).  We look for certain features on EKGs that are indicative of MIs, and if we see them we can (with a 12 lead) get a good idea of which artery is affected.  But even if the EKG is clean, the hospital will still probably run blood work and look for a certain protein that is highly specific for MIs.  If any of those tests turn up positive you get sent to the cath-lab and are treated for acute myocardial infarction by balloon angioplasty, maybe some drugs, and possibly a stent.  If you get into the cath-lab quickly enough, then the chances of survival are actually pretty good.

What of this can you do at your house?  Probably not much besides the history taking.  You can't interpret an EKG because you aren't trained to and also due to the fact you don't have the machine!  You don't have the equipment to check blood work.  You also probably don't have a great stethoscope or even if you do you probably don't have the experience to definitively say, oh yeah, those are rales or, oh yeah, my lungs sound fine (plus it's damn hard to listen to your own lung sounds, trust me).  And you definitely don't have a cath-lab in your house.  Thus, the best defense you have for MIs is, again, good diet, exercise, and regular check ups with your doctor.  If you know you're at risk for an MI, you have a huge advantage over someone who doesn't.     

To conclude, if you know you are at risk and you are unsure if you're experiencing an MI, then get to the ER and consider calling 911.  If you have no idea if you're at risk, get evaluated.  Hopefully, this little post helps to elucidate the variability of the symptomatology of acute myocardial infarctions, and we didn't even really get into comorbidities or confounding factors.  So yes, Rosie is right, and she is also a bit misleading.  Her songs, which are really fun, suggest that women feel hot, exhausted, are pale, puking, and pain (she calls it HEPPP).  It's a really good list.  The problem is that not everyone is going to have all those symptoms, and that men have those symptoms as well.  Her show and her interviews make it seem so clear cut.  Women are like this, men are like this; but that isn't the case.  In most cases women will experience a heart attack the same as a man; and in some cases men and women will experience non-typical symptoms with heart attacks, and women will experience those non-typical symptoms more than men on average. 

If you don't like men as the reference point, then just flip it all around!  In most cases men will experience heart attacks the same way as most women; and in some cases men and women will experience non-typical symptoms, with women more likely to experience those non-typical symptoms.  But again, here are the big risk factors that need to be managed!  Hypertension, high cholesterol, diabetes, and smoking.  If you don't smoke, then don't start, if you do, then quit.  If you don't have hypertension or diabetes, then make sure to try and keep it that way by eating right and exercising.  If you don't have high cholesterol then great, keep it up; if you do then get it under control.  Heart attacks almost always happen because a coronary artery becoming blocked with fatty stuff (atherosclerosis).  All of those risk factors increase the chance of the arteries from getting that type of blockage.  In the end, for most people, you have the most control over your heart's health.  

Note: I think it was good that Rosie came out with her story.  And I like her HEPPP song.  It is getting people out there looking into heart attacks and their own health.  That's a good thing.  The reason I wrote this was to point out that it is much more complicated than what Rosie is saying.  I don't want someone to watch Rosie in an interview or on her special and think: "Oh, well, I'm a woman and I'm not hot, exhausted, puking, or in pain.  I'm a little pale and there are these veins sticking out of my neck, but that's probably something else.  I guess I'm not having a heart attack."  If you watch the Dr. Oz interview with the Today Show, you'll see that his list of symptoms is different from Rosie's HEPPP list.  Again, I like that Rosie is out there, and I like that people are talking about this, but people need to go to their health care providers, get evaluated, and learn about their risks and talk to a professional.  We cannot be a society that gets its information from comedy specials.   


February 04

Do We Only Use 10% of Our Brain?

A new movie, Lucy, has taken some immense liberties with a common misconception about the brain.  The "10% of brain myth," as many call it, has murky origins.  There are many claims to the origins, some blatantly incorrect such as the attribution to Einstein, but regardless there is no actual scientific evidence of this claim whatsoever.  I have my own take on how it may have taken some form today with fMRI studies and maybe PET.  These commonly seen images of the brain with some colors interpolated over it are told to people to represent areas of activity in the brain.  Now in the most clear examples, which are the ones you want to post in articles to the lay person, there are very few areas lit up.  This makes sense.  Instead of having to say, the such and such area in the superior frontal gyrus is lit up which demonstrates blah blah blah, you can just say, the areas that are lit up appear to represent such and such function.  Easy.

Now you can go and read the Wikipedia article on the 10% myth, and I think it's pretty good.  But here I want to give an analogy of the brain and brain activity to help show how the entire notion of the 10% brain thing is more or less idiotic.  Here it is.

Imagine you want to build a house, the whole thing.  What would you need?  Aside from the raw materials and a design you would need tools and people to use those tools.  So, what's the first thing you need to do to build a house?  Build a foundation, yes?  You need specific tools to build a good foundation.  Not included in those tools would be things like electrical wiring, lights, paint brushes, paint, siding, roofing, ect. ect. ect.  After the foundation you start to build the frame.  You need certain tools for that job.  Eventually you'll need the plumbing, the electrical wiring, the siding, the roofing, the flooring, the windows, the woodwork, and everything else.

Clearly, you aren't using every person and every tool simultaneously.  And even if you tried, it would result in a huge mess.  That is how your brain works.  Each part of your brain, which has a quite complex architecture (pun intended), has a unique function (as far as we neurobiologists can tell).  In fact, you can just think about this and it makes some sense, given you have some very elementary knowledge of the brain.

You have memories I assume.  How those memories are actually stored is extremely complicated and yet to be fully understood; but, it would be impossible for all those memories to be stored in a single cell.  In fact, it seems that memory isn't really even stored in one location in the brain, but that's getting away from the point.  The crux being that if those memories are in multiple cells and/or locations, then if you used all of them at the same time you'd experience every memory all at once (this is a simplification of course).  That would be crazy.  

What about another example?  There are famous gyri in the brain called the primary motor and primary somatosensory cortex.  In those areas you experience all superficial sensations of touch, pain, temperature, vibration as well as control all voluntary motion.  Imagine that each little portion of those two gyri was firing off all at the same time.  You would simultaneously feel pain, cold, hot, light touch, deep touch, vibration, ect. ect. ect. on every part of your body and at the same time every muscle in your body would try to be moving.  This would of course result in catastrophe.  Disregarding mechanics, you'd die shortly from this experience.

I hope it is very clear that just like building a house, performing a task requires certain parts of the brain and yet not others.  If you want to play the piano from memory, you must remember the piece you want to play, feel the keys, use certain muscles and not others.  And such is it so with all things in life.  

Thus, not only is the 10% of the brain myth incorrect, it is not even thinking about the brain in a way that makes any sense.  We clearly aren't "using" 100% of our brain at any given time because just as it makes no sense to beginning roofing the foundation of a house it makes no sense to use a part of our brain responsible for a memory of our father when we really want to remember the phone number of the girl we met last night.  There may be a time when we figure out how to enhance the brain; and in some ways we already have (see memory and caffeine) by finding and creating drugs.  But until we truly understand the how the brain is wired, it will be almost impossible to figure out how to drastically rewire it to give the superhuman abilities seen in Hollywood films today.   

October 02

Inconsistencies in Arguments Concerning Minimum Wage

Minimum wage has been in the news quite a bit and also has been discussed here on CWAT.  I saw an article talking about minimum wage again and because of that I began looking around today for some numbers on how many low-wage hourly employees there are working in the US today.  I never found the answer, but the number must be something big; more importantly, however, the search took me down a different road (as the internet often does to us).  I kept finding articles from all sorts of sites from blogs to Forbes about the issues with raising minimum wage.  But there were always odd inconsistencies.  Let's look at a few.

In this article from Forbes inconsistencies abound.  For one thing, Forbes first just cited this guy Arnobio Morelix who they claim is a business student at KU.  Who cites a student?  Forbes is supposed to be this huge giant in finance and they cite a student?  I thought that big guys like Forbes, CNN, and the like cite experts.  Well then they retract the part of the article where they use Morelix's data and add to it some "feedback" they received from professors.  So what did Morelix say?  He claimed that to make up for the 8 billion dollar increase in payroll that the BigMac would have to go from $3.99 to $4.67.  But wait, was this assuming that the only thing that changed was the price of the food?  It appears to be that way.  Well that's just asinine, I'm sure those professors straightened it all out...

It turns out that all those other guys said some pretty wacky stuff as well.  Forbes cites Tim Worstall in claiming that the price of the BigMac wouldn't change.  But they then completely miss the point of Worstall's article.  They (and let's be clear here "they" is Clare O'Connor who works for Forbes) say that the way the price wouldn't change is by reducing labor costs by increasing automation or decreasing hours and cutting jobs.  But this just can't be the case and in fact it isn't what Worstall says!  In fact, the point is that it costs pennies for McDonald's to produce that soda for you.  They charge you, as Worstall says, as much as they can get away with.  Wendy's, Taco Bell, Burger King, etc. all keep the price down by providing competition.  So why would the BigMac price go up if they were still in the black?  It wouldn't.

Then there's this crazy comment by Dr. Bittlingmayer about how the fact that all these employees are protesting their low wages is just a sign of a failure of our education system.  Now this one is the craziest.  I mean what Bittlingmayer says is probably the most absurd thing I've ever heard.  There are roughly 246 million working adults in this country, according the the U.S. Bureau of Labor and Statistics.  Now, if you go into Walmart, Target, King Soopers, HEB, McDonald's, Taco Bell, or any other low-wage hourly employer you will find mostly adults working there.  According to Bittlingmayer if education was working, somehow, miraculously all these adults would be wearing suits working at amazing jobs.  You should have your PhD taken away Bittlingmayer.  The education system in this country sucks, but that's not why millions of Americans are working low-wage hourly jobs.  They are working low-wage hourly jobs because that's all there is. 

Now you may say wait a minute, that was a little harsh, maybe Bittlingmayer has a point.  Perhaps if education was improved in the country then there would be less adults working low-wage hourly jobs.  Well I just don't see that.  For instance, let's look at jobs in the biological sciences.  The model today for universities is to hire as few full-time faculty as possible while hiring as many adjunct and part-time professors as they can.  The fastest growing sector of academia is in fact part-time professors and adjuncts.  These non-full-time faculty make at least a third less than full-time faculty for the same amount of work and are not given any benefits.  In Colorado around 65-70% of all classes are taught by part-time or adjunct faculty.  What about research?  It used to be that a PhD in the biological sciences did a year or two as a post-doctoral fellow and then found a tenure track position at a university.  Today, post-docs work for on average 7 years before finding another job.  These post-docs are considered in many aspects "students" or "contract labor" and are denied many of the benefits of full-time workers.  What about in industry?  Well the model there is to hire one PhD who manages a bunch of workers with a Bachelor's degree.  This is the same model that is seen today in health care where one MD is hired to manage many nurse practitioners or physician assistants.  In truth, there are only enough jobs in the biological sciences for 1 in every 20 PhD's to have a job in the biological sciences.  The other 19 need to find something else to do.  All this data comes from government agencies.

So what Bittlingmayer?  If we could get all those McDonald's employees educated we would solve the problem?  We already don't have enough jobs for the educated people we have!!!  How would his proposal work?  It doesn't.  His comments are so out of touch with reality as to make someone wonder if he is senile or just an idiot.  Someone has to work at McDonald's if McDonald's is to stay in business.  They employ around 800,000 Americans and Walmart employs over a million Americans.  If we add up all the other low-wage hourly jobs we get a huge number.  Millions and millions and millions of jobs.  Sears, Macy's, Dillard's, Penny's, The Foot Locker, and in fact all those stores in the mall; McDonald's, Taco Bell, Burger King, Wendy's, Arby's, and all the other fast food chains; Walmart, Target, KMart, Sams Club, Costco, and all the other warehouse discount stores; and the list goes on.  All those jobs are low-wage hourly jobs.  As an ex-Barnes and Noble employee I can tell you that when I left in 2007 an employee working on the floor was given a 25 cent raise every year.  They started their employees right at minimum wage when I was hired.  So it would take you 14 years to be able to reasonable be expected to make a salary over $20,000 a year.

Here's the math.  You start at $8/hour here in Colorado (which is above the federal minimum wage).  That year you make around $14,000 a year working full-time (35 hours a week for 50 weeks a year).  After 5 years you are making $9.25/hour; and that year you make about $16,000.  After 14 years you are making $11.50/hour; and you make just above $20,000 that year.  Now, if you meet a woman and have a kid at some point in that 14 years then you are almost certainly living in poverty unless mom works, too.  Again, someone has to work the floor at Barnes and Noble for these types of stores to exist.  Barnes and Noble didn't have many teenage workers.  It felt to me as if the average age of the worker was around 30 years old.  Most employees had been there for 5 years or more.  This idea that all these low-wage hourly jobs are supposed to be for teenagers is ludicrous.  It sounds like some sort of lie that some intrepid political propagandist came up with years ago.  Pay attention the next time you go into one of these stores and look around.  Count the number of teenagers (high school or college age kids) working at the store and compare that to the adults.  And remember, the managers, the ones who in the propaganda model make good money and manage the kids, are only making a dollar or two more an hour than the teenagers.  

It seems we are asking all the wrong questions.  The question we should be asking is how are these companies doing and where is the money going?  The truth is, it's going to the CEOs, the shareholders, and the other individuals at the top.  The Walmart CEO made 20 million dollars last year.  I haven't worked at Walmart, but I am guessing that it's pay and raise model is similar to that of B&N.  So I did a tiny bit of math using Excel.  Let's start by taking a new hire at B&N and giving him the Colorado minimum wage of $8/hour.  Then let's say he works there for 30 years at the standard 25 cent raise per year.  Well if we add up all the money he made in that 30 years (all of it, prior to taxes, so gross earnings) that individual makes a lifetime gross earnings of $610,312.50.  Now, if that employee had a kid, and that kid started at B&N at $8/hour and worked for 30 years and then made a lifetime gross earnings of $610,312.50 then together they would have made 1.2 million dollars.  Woohoo.  So this means that it would take 33 generations for this family to make the annual salary of the boss.  Think that's high, think my math is off?  Check it yourself.  And if you think that you would even be allowed to work 40 hours a week for 52 weeks a year you're out of your mind.  I never got 40 hours a week even if I was scheduled for 40 hours.  The managers sent people home if it was slow and hours were cut.

That's where the money is going.  The model is simple.  Charge the consumer as much as possible and pay the employees as little as possible.  It makes sense from a capitalistic standpoint; but not from an ethical standpoint.  This point that I just made about the discrepancy between boss and worker is out there in the news and blogosphere; but it wasn't made anywhere in the Forbes article.  If Worstall is right, and McDonald's wants to stay competitive with its competitors then perhaps the McDonald's CEO will just have to make less money.  Frankly, the CEO isn't the one degreasing the equipment, serving customers, cleaning the bathroom, or anything else that makes a McDonald's run (at least at the local level).  The CEO needs the hourly worker or else there isn't a McDonald's.  But the manner in which the pay works you'd think that the CEO is some sort of magical fairy that somehow unlocks the doors to all the McDonald's, cleans every store, and personally hand delivers each burger to every customer.  The only reason that this model isn't a complete failure is that somehow all these corporations keep getting away with it.  We, the common American people, keep making less and less money, and then we, the common American people, keep shopping at the same corporations who keep giving us less and less money.  And the cycle continues.        


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