(Happy Post-Thanksgiving! In this article I talk about why the world is becoming bipolar, at least in terms of consumer options. I don't want to give too much away, but I will be talking about Italian restaurants, broken dishwashers, house calls, the Gini coefficient, and happy endings.)
Nobody works for you. Nobody.
You can hire people. You can pay people. You can contract someone to do someone. But nobody works for you.
People work for themselves. They work to get paid. They work to pay bills. They work to gain skills. They work because they were told that doing this type of job would make them happy. They work because they were told doing this type of job would help them get a better one. They work because having this particular job title is prestigious. They work because they have nothing better to do with their time, so they might as well do something that's considered work by society, not that I would know anything about that.
There is, on the one hand, nothing new about this. People have always worked for themselves, even when they are working for others. That’s why we have the expression, “if you want the job done right, you have to do it yourself.” You work for you, so the things you do directly for yourself will be done with no conflict of interest, and instructions won’t get lost in translation. Also, if you're doing something for yourself then you're internally motivated to get it done, so if you can do it right, you probably will do it right.
So far we're on familiar territory here, but there is something new, and important, about work in our current moment. The context of how it's done, and how it's evaluated, has changed. A lot.
If you where a cobbler, and that’s just an unfancy word for a shoe maker for those of you who no longer talk like it’s 1599, and you hired an apprentice, he’d be working alongside you all day long. He’d still be working for himself, and to gain enough skills to open up a shop and compete with you, but along the way you’d have the skill, time, and expertise to evaluate his work at a granular level.
If he’s slacking off, cutting corners, doing sub-par work, or failing to clean up after himself, you’d know. Right away. You could instruct him, admonish him, maybe even beat him, depending on your arrangement and the custom at the time.
Our modern context is much different. If you are a boss at a company of any size — and nowadays the average worker works for a company with at least 100 employees — then you likely have a lot of people working under you who do things you are unable to evaluate at a granular level in an ongoing way.
This wasn't always the case, even for bosses with a lot of employees. For jobs that directly created an observable, evaluatable object, the next best thing to having someone who genuinely works for you, is having someone whose work you can completely evaluate, and who you can easily replace if that work isn't up to snuff.
Consider the foreman system. A good factory foreman, overseeing an assembly line style of production, could track the effort and output of dozens of workers at a fairly close level. So while the foreman had no illusions about who the folks on the assembly line ultimately worked for, it didn't matter that much. Their output was their output, and if a worker fell behind and started stuffing candies in her mouth because they couldn't keep up with pace of wrapping the bonbons in foil, it wouldn't take long for the foreman to notice this. And find someone else to replace her, if the pace was one that could be done by some average worker.
Todays workplaces are much more complicated, and evaluation is much harder. In an office, it's not always clear exactly what everyone does, and the amount of time it takes someone to complete a task could indicate that they are slow, or it could be an indicator that the task was much harder than anticipated. This is certainly the case with software development, a field I worked in for many years.
This inability to properly judge output, or as I say even figure out what employees should be doing in some contexts, leads to the kinds of useless bosses parodied in popular culture. That boss in Office Space who was obsessed with TPS reports, not to defend him, but that was likely one of the only clear metrics he had for evaluating his employees. Were they doing this one thing he could judge with his lack of knowledge and insight into the job they were actually supposed to be doing and how that would help the company. Not that he wants to help the company. He works for himself, just like everyone else at the company, but that's all the more reason why he needs to show that he's altered an employees behavior in some measurable way. Otherwise, how does he justify drawing a salary?
But for now let's leave the factory and the office behind and talk about your dream of opening a fine restaurant. It has to be your dream, you people out there, because lots of people are doing this, and none of them is me because I see it as an absolute nightmare. My guess is those people are blinded by the potential for prestige, but there are lots of better paths to prestige that don't involve almost certain loss of your investment capital, combined with endless effort in a hot, windowless kitchen, combined with a zillion stressful details like the slowly rotting food in your fridge. Did you check the state of those cucumbers? They're marginal at best, no way you're getting a Michelin star if you serve those to an undercover critic.
But let's say you ignore all this downside, or maybe you embrace it as a masochist, and you decide to open a fancy Italian restaurant. With a wood fire oven. One of those custom made things that look like a turtle shell. You import a Rancilio espresso machine direct from Milan. Walk-in wine cooler. Only the best.
You’re an expert in food and drink. Flesh and liquid. But your business depends on machines. Complex, expensive machines, that you know little about. If your walk in cooler breaks, you hire a fridge guy. If the espresso machine is on the fritz, you call Rancilio and they send out a highly paid technician. Over time, you get to know some basics about how these machines work, and how to do maintenance and some some minor repairs. But sometimes, maybe even often, one of the them breaks in a way that forces you to pay for support.
That old-time cobbler. He had a few dozen leatherworking tools, knew how to use each one expertly, and if one broke it was immediately obvious what went wrong and whether it was something he could fix himself. That’s NOT the position you are in. You are dependent on others in a very different way than the cobbler is dependant on the apprentice or the blacksmith. You have to trust that the guy who fixes your Hobart dishwasher hooked up all the hoses in the back properly, so you won’t be slowing dripping water into some hidden corner that slowly molds and rots and lets in a rat just before the health inspector arrives and notices, and now you have to pay her off, because she absolutely, positively does NOT work for you, so now you have to temporarily put her on your off-the-books payroll until you figure out how the rodents are getting in.
Follow the money
Let's set aside workplaces and bosses, and talk about the personal.
In thinking about this issue, I wrote down a list of all the people who get some amount of money from me over the course of a year. It’s a giant list, and I don’t think I’m that unusual. And this is limiting my list to people who provide some significant service for me, not just sell me a can of pop at the corner store. These are insurance agents, landscape people, and health care providers, otherwise known as doctors and their staff.
And let me focus on this last one for a moment, because if anything reinforced should have reinforced the understanding that the people you hire don't work for you, it's the last two years of experience with the medical community.
Scott Adams has observed that the classic dictum to "follow the money" works even better than it should as a predictor. In other words, even when it's not clear that people would shade their decisions in favor of what produces the most profit, if you have to bet on how people act, you should always bet on a result that aligns with profit seeking, or profit maximization. Will there be another Fast & Furious movie? Of course, so long as the franchise is a license to print money, money will be printed. The same, of course, applies to the vaccines that are now being made compulsory in so many places. Expect that to continue until it's no longer profitable for Pfizer. The pharmaceutical companies are, of course, maximizing their profit, not your health or freedom. Why should they care about these things, when their bread is buttered on the other side of the toast? Your misery is their health.
Welcome to the Dim Age
I've discussed before the idea from Vin Armani that we are living in a Dim Age. The Dim Age is a time of unlimited access to data and ideas, combined with a deep epistemic retardation, a lack of intellectual curiosity, and mob mentality that causes conclusions to conform to desired tribal narratives. If you're familiar with stats, a concise way to put this would be to say that your priors now fully determine your posteriors. Nothing changes your mind, unless the hive-mind you're plugged in to changes it's mind to suit a more useful narrative.
Historically, no profession outside of politics and the law is more plugged in to mob mentality and desire to align itself with powerful interests than medicine. This is why every aspect of treatment and recommendations, outside of the highly empirical, immediate feedback of emergency surgery procedure, has gone through one trend after another.
My wife is pregnant right now, and modern pregnancy comes with lots of classes and learning, I'd say a full order of magnitude more than when my first child was born in 2003. Lots of those classes and learnings are about all the procedures and beliefs we used to have, but now don't. And about all the medical interventions we now have, and, from the perspective of the many people who work more for you than for the hospital, like midwives and doulas, these current interventions are mostly unnecessary or at the very least overused. And, based on the data, they carry significant lifetime risks for the child being born.
But your doc is a rule follower, not an independent thinker. If she was, she would have dropped out of medical school or been kicked.
It's why your doctor will, with a straight face, recommend that you inject your 10-year-old son with a Moderna special, without the slightest concern that the data show this to be an iffy risk-benefit proposition, to say the least.
She a product of the Dim Age as much as anyone else — and the stories I could tell, as someone who understands stats, about my abysmal discussion with doctors... let's just say there are lots of misunderstanding out there, compounded by systemic pressures that select for people willing to spend a decade telling a highly demanding and broken system what it wants to hear before full christening as an MD.
Trust without verification is just faith
The problem with evaluating doctors is the problem we increasingly have with consumer goods: you often have to be an expert to figure out what's wrong with them.
This wasn't always the case. In the past we had less stuff, and the stuff we had was easier to debug. There were lots of things that could go wrong with a car, even 40 years ago, but a regular Joe with a garage with basic tools and a Chiton’s repair manual could fix most of them.
Now, either it’s something trivial that you can still fix, like a windshield wiper replacement, or something that you can't even begin to evaluate without access to highly specialized tools and computer diagnostics. So you have to bring it to the shop. And if your auto shop tells you the problem is a bad chip, how could you possibly verify that? Your best bet might be to take the car to another service center, but then what if they tell you the problem is with some other complex system, and the cost to fix is high at both place? How do you decide which one to trust? What if they’re both wrong?
The problem is that you are constantly in a low-level battle with all of the people who you pay to help you.
We also have a complicated relationship between quality of life, money, and hassle level. I’m in a much better place financially than I was in my early twenties, when I lived off Ramen and McDonald’s 2 for $2 deals. Just about everything is better new, and I appreciate the hell out of that, but it’s also worth noting that I spend a lot of time and energy making sure the people who are paid to help my wife and I are actually doing what we want. Of the companies or individuals that have done significant work for us over the past year, I've had to fire two and have uncomfortable conversations with about half of them.
The AI / white glove divide
My father, who will spend ten hours researching tires before buying replacements, once said that being a good consumer can be a full-time job. He wasn’t wrong. Even if you do a tenth the research he does, that’s a lot of time spent looking at consumer reports. There’s really no such thing as handing off your decisions to the experts. You have to become an expert in everything as a form of self defense if nothing else, which makes the idea of a single personal concierge, who works closely with you (if not fully FOR you) such an attractive vision. I'll get back to that idea, at least in a limited way.
Complexity has been our collective backstop for otherwise stagnant productivity, and counterbalancing the every expanding drain of the state on our output, a drain that was not just a background leeching but became an outright destructive force in 2020 with forced shuttering of many businesses. The reaction to this is to supercharge the search for solutions that scale, and avoid employees. We were always destined to see machines taking your order at McDonalds and scanning your items at the grocery store, but the worse it becomes to have workers, the faster we’ll see these replacements.
We’ve also got an important bifurcation happening. The peasants get the AI, the elites get personal assistance.
I get a little of each, at least for now, but I'm not sure how much longer that will last.
There is something new happening, though. Right now, the lower end is being absorbed by automation, and the what isn’t being automated is being made more efficient for the providers, not the consumers. A century ago a family of average means could get a doctor to make them a house call. That was inefficient for the doctor, but very helpful for the consumer. Now your doctor works for the hospital, not for you, and the hospital wants to maximizer consults per hour, not minimize your inconvenience. This change redraws the threshold for white-glove service much higher, and it makes the transition sharper.
In other words, to be able to afford to get a doctor to visit you, you’d have to be at least in the top percentile wealth or income, and since a doctor’s visit is now a luxury good, it’s tailored towards that highly upscale market. You can no longer get an average doc experience, but at your home. Your choice are go to the clinic and pay less, or pay a fortune for an expert doctor on call whose entire business is making a dozen wealth clients happy.
The massage market
If it’s still not clear what’s happening here, let’s pick a theoretical scenario. Suppose for a moment that people not only enjoyed massages, but that massages were a vital part of regular health and enjoyment of life for everyone.
In a free market, you would have a robust market for massages at all levels. Lots of options, lots of trade-offs between cost, quality, duration, and, let’s just call them “add-ons”.
At the top of the market, the uberwealthy will a have Dedicated personal masseuse trained at the finest school, maybe one waiting around on each of their yachts to give them the full European Spa treatment followed by the happiest Asian ending.
At the bottom end of the massage market you’d have 15 minute shoulder maulings from bored and homely teenagers at the mall.
Because in this thought experiment everyone needs massages, and we have a free market and distribution of income with a robust middle class (and a low Gini coefficient for you econ nerds), there will be massage options for every budget.
Now let’s introduce two changes.
1. Income inequality increases. We have more poor people, lots of rich folks, and a thinned out middle class. Fewer people are looking for mid-level massages, so fewer masseuses will be offering these. If you’re looking for the Red Lobster of massages, it will be harder to find.
2. Technology improves. If you ever bought one of those “as seen on TV” massages you know they are… ok. Fine in a pinch. And pinch is an app word because that’s exactly what they do to your skin as they spin around their pressure points, squeezing your flesh. But in our brave new world, those oversized coin-fed mall massage chairs become bearable, and automated options like the hydro massage get better and cheaper. And if you haven’t seen that option, imagine a jets of water pounding a sheet of plastic on your back, like your body was going through a car wash but the operator was kind enough to wrap you up in a tarp before sending you through).
Tech puts a lot of the lower end masseuses out of work, and maybe even some mid level people get the boot as their customers opt for a less socially awkward experience, if they don’t like the actual hands-on approach.
So now what does the market look like? The low end of massages is mostly machines, though I’m sure they’ll always hands-on masseuses for nursing homes occupants and others who can’t be subjected to the Theragunantor 2000™.
The dwindling middle class are mostly accommodated by premium mediocre machines and maybe they splurge from time to time for the hands-on experience, which is now only really available at a higher price point than before as the middle class masseuse is a thing of the past.
The high end of massages is booming, as enough of the middle class made the jump into genuinely wealth to make for a large luxury market. If this were a car market, it would now be mostly Kias and Benzes or Maybach's. The market continuum has been replaced with two poles great chasm, or desert, in between.
This has real world implications for you and me, assuming you and me are somewhere in the middle right now. It means your level of service is headed south fast. This is why your calls are taken by a Siri bot or an Indian call center.
In short, if you're not among the upper class, you’ve become a peasant.
[NOTE: This article is a Part 1. There will be a followup for paid subscribers that goes deeper into the implications of this AI / White glove divide, broader economic implications, and how to make sure you don't fall into the crack in the middle and land at peasant level.]