Sunday, March 27, 2011
JUST IN TIME
I figure that the job of really deep thinkers like me [hem, hem] is to make connections between items in the news that seem on the surface unrelated. Today, I should like to tease out the subtle filiations connecting Toyota's production problems, the protests in Wisconsin, and the fragile job prospects of graduate students in the Humanities. A comment in the on-going coverage of the Japanese disaster caught my eye [or perhaps my ear -- I think I actually heard it on the radio]. The interruption in industrial production in Japan is causing problems for the Just in Time supply chain of automobile parts to Toyota assembly plants in the United States, with the result that Toyota dealerships are experiencing a shortage of product that will put a crimp in their sales figures. A few words of explanation for readers not familiar with the concept of Just in Time production. Capitalist production firms buy inputs, combine them into final goods [those made for the consumer markets] and then sell them, recouping their capital outlays, making a profit, and initiating another cycle of production. Retail outlets do something similar, buying their merchandise from wholesalers and marking them up for sale to consumers. Although it is somewhat obscured from view by the equations of economic theorists, the production process is not simply a matter of jumbling together a collection of inputs to produce output. Rather, it is a carefully sequenced process determined by the concrete particularities of the engineering of the commodity being produced. This is easily seen in an automobile assembly plant, where frames, side panels, transmissions, carburetors, exhaust manifolds, headlights and tires are assembled in a precisely specified order. A shortage of any one of these components brings the entire process to a halt, idling machinery and workers until the missing component can be supplied. For this reason, and also in order to take advantages of quantity price breaks, capitalists traditionally have bought their inputs in large lots and then warehoused them, drawing down on their stocks as needed to meet the demand for their output. But warehousing is expensive, both because it ties up capital that could otherwise be earning some rate of return and because the physical warehouse costs a good deal to build and maintain. Some while ago, manufacturers began devising methods for predicting the required flow of inputs and then ordering them from suppliers so that they arrive "just in time" to be used in the production process. Managing this so that costly bottlenecks do not develop, forcing a shutdown of production, requires sophisticated techniques for tracking inputs and the production process, all of which becomes possible with the use of modern computerized data management systems. Exactly the same thing is done by your neighborhood supermarket, which uses the data from barcodes scanned at checkout to keep track of the flow of thousands of different categories of items, thereby reducing both warehousing and spoilage. Now, from the point of view of capital, labor is just another input into production, indistinguishable from steel or rubber or cotton or coal. Maintaining a stable full time labor force is, to capital, the equivalent of warehousing an input so that it is available when needed in production. This is as costly and wasteful as storing ten thousand carburetors just so that an automobile assembly line will not grind to a halt because the carburetor maker missed a shipment date. One can think of labor's health benefits as a cost akin to the cost of maintaining a refrigerated locker for sides of beef that must be kept ready for butchering and sale. So it is that capital is constantly engaged in efforts to transform its labor supply into a Just in Time system that minimizes costs. One solution to the problem of fixed and inflexible labor costs is to substitute "self-employed" temporary workers for a regular full-time labor force. Like independent suppliers of production inputs, temporary workers are not the responsibility of the capitalist, who can go into the labor market and hire them by the hour, the day, or the week, without taking on the burden of a regular year in year out bill for wages. Just as stored carburetors are not earning any profit while they sit in the warehouse, waiting to be needed, so full time employees typically spend idle hours on the job costing their employers money but producing no profit. Much of the time of the secretary at the front desk in an office, for example, is spent waiting for the phone to ring or for someone to walk in and ask for directions. Service firms experience analogous problems of bottlenecks and warehousing, and endlessly seek ways of streamlining the providing of services so as to maximize profits and minimize costs. I thought of this last Wednesday when I went to the Ambulatory Care Center of the UNC Health System for my annual physical checkup. Any American reading this will recognize the process I went through [I am not sure about health care systems overseas.] I walked into a large waiting room, got on line, and eventually was checked in at the reception desk, where a relatively low wage employee took my UNC Health Care Card, my Medicare Card, and my supplementary insurance card, checked them against his computer, stamped them onto a sheet, and told me to wait until I was called. Some while later, my name was called, and a health care provider [also, I suspect, low wage] brought me through a door into the examining room area, took my weight [always a nervous moment], and my blood pressure and pulse [nice and low, thank you], and asked why I was there that day. After a while, my [high wage] doctor came in, spent more time with me than he should have [one of the benefits of a university health system with medical faculty as health care providers is that they are hard to discipline], told me it was time for a fasting cholesterol blood work [I hate the fasting], and sent me on my way. The entire rather efficient system is designed to maximize the profitability of the process by passing me along [rather like a half assembled car] from station to station, with as little waste time as possible in the day of the high wage doctor. The principal wastage in the system is the time of the patients, who have little choice but to sit idly in the waiting room until called, or in the examination room until the doctor arrives, takes the patient's chart from a holder in the door as he or she enters, and efficiently examines the patient. Well, more and more these days, universities are being run by fugitives from the corporate world who look at the labor-intensive, time-wasteful, pre-capitalist process called education and dream of introducing Just in Time technology into the classroom. Using the bludgeon of budgetary exigency, especially at public institutions, they start by introducing metrics for quantifying the delivery of educational services. Each department is evaluated according to the number of FTEs ["full time equivalent" students] that it generates in its classes. If the normal course load for a full time student is five 3-credit courses per semester [as it is at the University of Massachusetts, where I taught for many years], then a one semester course enrolling 30 students can be thought of as generating 90 credits, which is 6 FTEs. A full time instructor teaching three courses a semester, each with 30 students, is thus generating 270 credits, or 18 FTEs. From the standpoint of a rational university corporate manager it makes no difference whether an instructor teaches ninety students a semester in three 3o student sections or takes over full time responsibility for the education of 18 students for that semester. There may be all the difference in the world in the educational experience for the students and the pedagogical techniques employed by the instructor, but none of than shows up on the spread sheets with the aid of which the managers monitor the production of education in the university. Once the unruly, craft-like, idiosyncratic process of education has been reduced to the metric of credit hours, it is immediately obvious what steps need to be taken to improve efficiency on the shop floor. The first step is to identify underperforming units -- clusters of faculty not generating the required stream of FTEs. The threat of budget cuts and lost faculty lines prompts the underperformers to ramp up their production of FTEs by changing their product line [offering popular courses that draw larger numbers of students, eliminating speciality courses that enroll only a handful]. Struggles break out in the Faculty Senate over the precise content of the array of courses required to satisfy "General Education" requirements. These struggles tend to be couched in elevated philosophical terms that would have warmed Plato's heart, but they are really about FTEs and faculty lines. The Philosophy Department at UMass, for example, scored a brilliant tactical victory when it got its baby logic course classified as "Mathematics" for purposes of distribution requirements, thereby drawing each year floods of students who quite rightly concluded that it would be less demanding than Intro Calculus. In the desperate scramble for FTEs. graduate students play a crucial but often overlooked role. Just as it is more efficient to use low wage labor at the UNC Health Services for check in, weight, and blood pressure, saving the costly time of the doctor for a brief but indispensable examination of the patient, so it makes accounting sense to put a high paid professor in front of three hundred students for two hours a week, and then parcel out to low paid graduate students the labor intensive work of conducting discussion sections and grading exams. The professor is credited with a staggering 900 credit hours, or 60 FTEs, while the underpaid and exploited graduate students are said to be acquiring "teaching experience that will help them in the job market." When even these dodges and devices do not succeed in ramping up FTEs satisfactorily, the next step is to increase the faculty teaching load, first from two courses a semester to three, then from three to four. Heavier teaching loads interfere with scholarly productivity [also reduced to the metric of numbers of articles published, or even numbers of pages published], of course. Scholarly books, like hand crafted furniture and artisanal cheeses, come to be viewed as luxury items suitable only for the carriage trade [which is to say, well endowed private universities.] Finally, a true Just in Time system is substituted for the old-fashioned, expensive, wasteful system called the Faculty. Itinerant teachers travel from campus to campus picking up a course here, a course there, sans tenure, sans benefits, sans careers. Capitalism has finally arrived on the campus. What can we pre-capitalist throwbacks do to fight this seemingly inexorable process? Wisconsin has lessons to teach us. Capitalism views labor as just another input into production, but labor is performed by men and women who, despite capitalism's best efforts, remain sentient, purposeful human beings. And in the service sector especially, labor is hard to dispense with [although the recent practice of taping the lectures of Master Teachers and selling them as canned college courses would, if it caught on, go a long way to eliminating labor in the education business!] And we can organize, threaten to withhold our labor, bargain for binding contracts. In this effort, the workers in the advanced industrial sector -- the Ivy League -- need to take the lead. They have no signs of doing so, of course, being by and large the worst sort of class traitors, regardless of their professed political leanings, but we need somehow to persuade them to join the movement for faculty unions and graduate student unions. Say what you will about UMass, it has a strong faculty union, a strong graduate student union, and a strong staff employee union. Well, that is my effort to connect up the Japanese disaster, Toyota's production problems, the Wisconsin protests, and job prospects of Humanities graduate students.