Monday, November 14, 2011



In a NY Times Sunday Review article on Nov. 13 Ezekiel Emanuel describes how to reduce health-care costs by relying more on computers (rather than people) for billing [1]. One question that he does not address is what will happen to the people who lose their jobs as clerks.

A feature of today's economy is that technological innovation has eliminated the need for routine clerical labor much in the way that 200 years ago the industrial revolution eliminated the need for low-skilled manual labor. Of course the industrial revolution created many new jobs but these required higher level of skills. Operating a bulldozer requires more mental skills that handling a pickax and repairing such a machine requires an even higher level of such skills. The industrialized countries responded to this challenge by vastly expanding their educational system. In the 18th century most people were illiterate while the opposite was true in the 20th century. The number of people employed as school teachers also increased enormously.

Today there are many jobs available but there are no people with the skills to fill them. The September 10 issue of the Economist included a special section titled "The Future of Jobs" with the lead article titled "The great mismatch" and subtitled "In the new world of work, unemployment is high yet skilled and talented people are in short supply."

An article by Adam Davidson in the NY Times Magazine issue of Nov. 6 raised similar issues [2]. The quote "...too many Americans don't know how to do anything that the world is willing to pay them a living wage for" captures the spirit of the author's position.

It seems to me that there is a need for a major expansion in education, similar to that that occurred between the 18th and 20th centuries. But this time we are not talking about literacy and basic numerical skills. We are talking about mathematics and science. Currently there are too few efforts in that direction. One shining example of what is badly needed is a program in the University of Maryland Baltimore campus that was highlighted in the CBS program 60 Minutes on Nov. 13 [3].

The United States is going to face a severe labor shortage in technological areas because it depends heavily on immigrant engineers and scientists from China and India. As these two countries advance we will see a major drop in such immigrants. The trend has already started. We have seen a parallel 50 years ago. Right after War World II the United States saw an influx of immigrant engineers and scientists from Western Europe and Japan. By the 1960's conditions in those regions had improved enough that such immigration was greatly reduced.

In short, there will be plenty of jobs in the United States in the years to come but these jobs will require skills that the current educational system does not provide. To put it bluntly, people with only liberal education are no longer employable. Maybe instead of "occupying" Wall Street they should try to retrain themselves. Extreme income inequality is a factor for instability in a society but it can be addressed through revisions in the tax code. But that is a minor step compared to what is really needed.

The change in our educational system must be drastic and it should start at least at the high school level. We need not only train people but also train teachers who can train them. It will be a monumental task. What I find most frightening is that our politicians seemed blissfully unaware of the crisis.



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Monday, June 20, 2011


Greek Privatization

There is a lot of talk about Privatization in Greece and that brings to mind the reverse process that took place about 50 years ago.

In the 1920s a British company had received a contract for electrical power generation in Athens and its surrounding area. This ensured, for the first time, adequate power supply for the region. (Another foreign company was given the contract for the water supply.) The company was well managed and continued to perform well but in the late 1950s the Greek government decided to buy off the foreign investors and make the company part of a state owned enterprise. I worked for the British company during 1959-61 so I experience the change in management first hand. (The changes resulting from the Nationalization were a factor, although not the major, in my decision to leave the company and come to the U.S. for graduate studies.)

Things came to a grinding halt. For example, we had to buy supplies from the lowest bidder, regardless of the quality. One case that stuck in my memory was that of firebricks for boiler insulation. The low quality bricks we had to buy under state regulations did not last very long, so the boilers had to shut down far more frequently than before. Of course shutting down a boiler meant eliminating some power generating ability that often resulted in blackouts.

Another memorable statement was one that justified a reduction in the compensation of employees and engineers in particular. "You work now for the Greek people, not for British capitalists, so you have to be paid less."

Saturday, July 17, 2010



This is a rather long piece, part of my memoirs. It describes how the Greek Army in the 1950s used to keep American advisers "in the dark." I wonder whether similar things may be happening 60 years later in other countries that rely on American help.

The View from the Field

In June 1958 I was posted in a Battalion of Engineers based just outside the city of Thessalonica. I had just finished the Army Technical Services Reserve Officers School in Patras. My specific assignment was with the mechanical repairs unit where I was second in command under captain B. B had joined the Army as a private in the 1920s and he had risen through the ranks. He was a nice person with a lot of folk wisdom and we got along very well.

The Greek Army had been the recipient of large amounts of American Army equipment (most of it World War II surplus). However, the donations were in an awful state of repair, mainly because the Greek soldiers had little familiarity with machinery. To make matters worse, postings in the repair unit were sought after and several of the “technicians” were from rural areas. They had been assigned to the technical services though favoritism. On the other hand there were men who had been mechanics in the Greek Merchant Marine but because they had delayed their enlistment, they were assigned to digging ditches. Fortunately, the battalion commander let me look for such people amongst the troops and transfer them to the repair unit. After all this meant that the equipment of the battalion will be in better working order.

It turns out that the High Command of the Technical Services had its own ideas on how to improve the maintenance of the equipment. The idea was to translate the American Technical Manuals into Greek and distribute them to the technician soldiers. Our unit had indeed copies of some but they were kept under lock and key. Why? The manuals were written in the official Greek language that was quite different from the common language spoken by the soldiers. Furthermore most of the soldiers were barely literate so books were not the way to train them. I tried to read some of the manuals and I found them so poorly written that it was hard to find in them any information that could be used.

Because the repair unit was responsible for the books, we did not want any to be lost, thus the safekeeping. When an inspector was expected, the books would be taken out and distributed to the soldiers. It was my job to match the books to the equipment a soldier was repairing. We did not want the inspector to see someone working on a Jeep to have a manual for a 2-ton truck. (We used to joke that I had also to make sure that the books were held right side up.) Another part of the preparation for the inspection was to pour some machine oil on the floor and throw the manuals down so they would be dirtied and appear used.

One day I received through official mail a copy of an American Technical Manual and I was asked to translate it. Apparently, some one had noticed in my records that I was proficient in English and they thought I could do the task. I had quite a busy schedule in the repair unit and I did not want to devote my few free hours to an Army task, but I managed to translate a chapter and sent it back. A few months later I received a notice that I was transferred to the Technical Services Translation Office in the Army Headquarters in Athens. The transfer to Athens was highly desirable and it seemed an appropriate reward for my translating efforts.

The View from the Top

In April 1959 I reported to my new post. However, I was not going to be a translator, but a technical editor supervising other translators. The head of the office was a major, an easygoing type who did not seem to take things too seriously. The translators were civilians, most of them young women who had some knowledge of English but no technical background whatsoever. I was supposed to take what they had written and make sure it was technically correct. It was an impossible task but now I understood why the manuals we had were so poorly written. There was a joke going around that the section that each manual had on destroying the equipment (so it would not fall intact into the hands of the enemy) did not have to be translated. Maintaining the equipment according to the earlier sections was certain to destroy it.

The head of the Translation Office reported to a colonel who, in contrast to the major, was all fire and thunder. It was my luck that the colonel would bypass the major and deal directly with me. He assigned to me an additional duty: to go to the Army Printing Plant to approved the galley proofs before the manuals were put into production. To travel to the Printing Plant from the Headquarters I would ride on the sidecar of a motorcycle driven by a messenger soldier. I often wondered what “important mission” people would think I was on as we made our way through the city traffic.

It turn out that the printing plant duty was a plum. Knowing that no one was going to read the manuals, I was quick to approve their printing and that made me popular with the staff (all civilians). They told me that after I had finished I could go home, and if the colonel called they would cover my absence.

I should have left things alone but one day an American officer came to the translation office and, in my minimal conversational English, I explained that the manuals were translated using the official Greek idiom rather the spoken language. He knew the difference between the top idioms and he was horrified. Apparently he spoke to the colonel who, the next day, thundered to me: “What right you have to tell the American that we use the official language. I told him you were crazy and did not know what you were talking about!”

From then on, he would call me the first thing in the morning and told me to go to the printing office. He would shout “Are you still here?” At first I thought he was anxious to push the production of the manuals but later I realized that he wanted me out of the Headquarters so I would not provide any more “leaks” to the Americans. Since the Printing Office duty was light, my “mischief” turned out to my advantage. I am sure the colonel wrote a poor evaluation for me but since I was anxious to leave the army, it did not matter. I finished my two-year enlistment period and I was discharged in late September 1959.

Anytime I read in the newspapers about American efforts to organize the army of some country my Greek Army experience comes to mind. I wonder if the Iraqi army manuals are in classical Arabic. After all both Iraq and Greece used to be part of the Ottoman Empire so the concept of an official language incomprehensible by the plebeians should be equally familiar to both.

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