In spite being 60 years old, the COBOL programming language underpins finance and administrative systems used by businesses and government agencies. COBOL (Common Business Oriented Language) has done its job just fine since it was first used in 1960, so efforts to replace it with modern languages like Python or Java have been half hearted.
Problem is COBOL-experienced programmers are now largely retired, and few younger software engineers are interested in learning COBOL or offered COBOL courses in college.
This situation presents a problem for states trying to deal with the sudden massive surge in unemployment claims due to the coronavirus lockdown and the increase in unemployment amounts mandated by the CARES Act. Systems based on COBOL don’t have enough people to service them.
This Bloomberg article describes the immediate problem well.
The Covid-19 pandemic has exposed aging, inflexible computer systems at the heart of the U.S. economy — and a shortage of experts to fix the problem. This is slowing the government’s effort to get billions of dollars in stimulus checks to millions of newly unemployed citizens.
The $2.2 trillion CARES Act passed in late March includes a $600 weekly increase in unemployment benefits. That money won’t reach anyone until state agencies update technology systems to reflect the law and handle the flood of new applications.
But the COBOL problem has been waiting for a solution for while. Newer languages could step up to the plate and replace COBOL entirely, but nobody seems to want to undertake the risks or the substantial costs of switching.
So, COBOL remains. Businesses and government scramble for patches when a Y2K or a COVID-19 incident occurs.
Pictured above: the IBM System/360 Model 50. In late 1962, IBM announced that COBOL would be their primary development language. COBOL is machine independent, so mainframe manufacturers readily adopted the language.
Five years ago Microsoft founder Bill Gates hoped that the Ebola epidemic of 2013 would be the wake-up call that triggered mobilization towards preparedness. In his April 2015 TED Talk Gates said,
If anything kills over 10 million people in the next few decades, it’s most likely to be a highly infectious virus rather than a war. Not missiles, but microbes.
Such prediction becomes credible when we compare efforts at preparing for war vs. efforts at preparing to fighting epidemics.
… we’ve invested a huge amount in nuclear deterrents. But we’ve actually invested very little in a system to stop an epidemic. We’re not ready for the next epidemic.
Preparedness for war entails reserves that can be called into action, mobile units that can be deployed where conflicts arise, and on-going assessments of logistics. Such preparedness does not exist in public health systems.
An effective public health system needs not only trained and flexible boots on the ground, but also coordinated scientific and technological support, as Bill Gates suggested.
But in fact, we can build a really good response system. We have the benefits of all the science and technology that we talk about here. We’ve got cell phones to get information from the public and get information out to them. We have satellite maps where we can see where people are and where they’re moving. We have advances in biology that should dramatically change the turnaround time to look at a pathogen and be able to make drugs and vaccines that fit for that pathogen. So we can have tools, but those tools need to be put into an overall global health system.
In his 2015 talk Bill Gates was speaking from the world’s experience with the Ebola epidemic that started in 2013. Ebola was contained by 2016. Except for isolated cases elsewhere, the Ebola epidemic mostly affected populations in West Africa.
Even more difficult to contain without effective public health systems in place are pandemics, which unlike epidemics spread rapidly globally. Epidemiologists estimated deaths from two recent pandemics: the 1968 Hong Kong Flu caused one million deaths worldwide and 100,000 in the U.S., and the 2009 Swine Flu 575,400 deaths worldwide and 12,469 in the U.S.
Today we are suffering through COVID-19, not a strain of influenza, but a coronavirus in the same family as SARS (Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome, first emerged in 2002, deaths worldwide 813, fatality rate 9.5%), and MERS (Middle East Respiratory Syndrome, first emerged in 2012, deaths 858, fatality rate 34%).
Preparedness for COVID-19 is minimal in most countries. In the U.S. there is scarcity of tests and protective gear, insufficient hospital beds, inadequate logistics for keeping grocery shelves stocked, no plan to quickly move school aged children from crowded brick and mortar facilities to small groups or on-line instruction. We are left with lockdowns that will result in massive economic and social disruptions.
Effective public health structures that defend populations against disease cost money. However, such public structures are not built by government throwing money at schemes like Medicare for everyone or universal health care. They are built by intelligent research and development, flexible logistics for people and equipment, absence of excessive red tape, and ample market competition that brings costs down.
Also, the costs of effective health structures must be compared to economic upheavals incurred by lockdowns and absences from work as we are seeing with COVID-19. As Bill Gates said,
I don’t have an exact budget for what this would cost, but I’m quite sure it’s very modest compared to the potential harm.
Today we are seeing the harm brought about by unpreparedness. Hopefully after COVID-19 is past, we will see determination towards preparedness.
Big Digital, also known as Big Tech, has joined Big Oil, Big Tobacco, and Big Pharma in the pantheon of industries capable of exercising vast control over the lives of average people.
However, at present, Big Digital enjoys greater potential for control than do the other biggies. Big Digital, via the growing Internet of Things, is literally everywhere. One can do without a private automobile, refuse to smoke, or try alternative remedies when unwell. But living without some government entity or business requiring on-line interaction for some needed service is becoming increasingly difficult.
Actually, most consumers welcome the Internet of Things. Many cannot imagine living without a baby monitor over their child’s crib or going anywhere without their GPS navigation device. Many welcome the concept of smart cities, where everything and everybody is connected. Cell phones are always at the ready to post one’s dining experience or one’s successful business endeavor.
Big Digital and Corporate Socialism
The assumption that Internet usage is universal combined with consumers’ love affair with digital gadgets translates into fertile ground for control. As in the case of imaginary worlds such as predicted in 1984 or of real worlds such as the former Soviet Union, the objective of control is ideological enforcement that benefits ruling entities.
Michael Rectenwald, retired New York University liberal studies professor and author, recently published The Google Archipelago, in which he discusses “corporate socialism.” One’s first intuition might be to reject such expression. Isn’t Google a big capitalist corporation, and doesn’t socialism hate capitalism? Not so, says professor Rectenwald.
Rectenwald acknowledges that Big Digital leaders genuinely believe in leftist politics. He points out, however, that many aspects of leftism align with practical corporate interests too, at least for companies with monopolistic ambitions. The Endgame of Big Tech.
Three good examples of alignment:
* Open borders = free flow of labor
* Identity politics = market niches
* globalization = only one set of rules applied to corporations
Hardly a Free Marketplace of Ideas
If we accept the premise that Big Digital benefits from and thus espouses global socialism, then we need to also accept that Big Digital cannot be the free marketplace of ideas it purports to be. It needs to be a place where control maintains dogma. A free marketplace is where all goods, services and ideas are civilly exchanged without fear of banishment. Is that what today’s on-line or social-media experience offers?
Joseph Stalin made the landed Kulaks and other dissidents disappear. Although not by means as drastic as those of Stalin, one can also easily disappear at the hands of Big Digital by simply using the “wrong” pronoun.
A Just Vote No Blog Postscript
It is the prerogative of private companies to run their business as they wish within the legal framework in which they operate. If a private company wishes to espouse the religious principles of its owner, fine. If a company wishes to adopt progressive views, fine too. The challenge for average consumers is the growing power of government-encouraged monopolies to control thought and action.
In the case of Big Tech, as controlling monopolistic growth becomes harder to camouflage, a new strategy is emerging, one that embraces control as beneficial to consumers. This will be the subject of another Just Vote No Blog post. Stay tuned.
In most American cities, the once prosperous middle class has been decimated. In major cities like San Francisco and New York, where living costs are high and lower-wage service jobs dominate a large portion of the economy, the rich thrive and the working poor live off government programs. The middle class is too poor to afford the living costs and too rich to qualify for government subsidies.
The easy fix to the problem of the disappearing middle class is to subsidize people who are above the poverty line. The very hard fix is to increase the availability of higher-paying trade jobs, reform the current misguided education system so it produces workers that are able to fill those jobs, and re-think collective bargaining as we know it today.
Most major cities employ the easy fix, while the federal government is attempting to implement a version of the hard fix. This version, however, relies heavily on mercantilism, focusing on tariffs and other methods of discouraging U.S. imports. Worker skills and challenges posed by today’s globalization-influenced and automation-prone economy are not being addressed as forcefully as trade.
An American Factory
American Factory is a Netflix film by Higher Ground Productions, a partnership between former President Barack Obama, his wife Michelle Obama and Netflix. The 2019 original documentary describes the early days in 2016 of an automotive glass production facility owned by the Chinese company Fuyao Glass located on the site of a shuttered GM plant in Moraine, Ohio. Film directors Steven Bognar and Julia Reichert filmed the company’s workers and managers for three years, and released American Factory in August 2019.
Residents of Moraine were jubilant at again having jobs available and a thriving town. But reality soon set in. The company brought in Chinese personnel to train and work along-side the local recruits. Pay stayed lower than at the GM former plant. Tasks often proved dangerous.
Union agitation soon followed, in spite of company warnings from the start that this was to be a non-union shop. A 2017 attempt to unionize failed. Several workers were fired.
Whether the company’s talk of automation was prompted by the unionization attempt or was in the plan all along is difficult to say.
The Changing Workplace
The American middle class, once the backbone of the U.S. economy, boasted strongly-unionized assembly workers. American families drove Ford, GM, Chrysler, and AMC automobiles as they enjoyed rising post-WWII prosperity.
But this period was an anomaly, even if wishful thinking sought to enshrine it as an indication of intrinsic American superiority: by the ’70s and ’80s, what was true all along finally became practicable. Markets opened, information began flowing, capital aggregated, and most of all people in other parts of the world proved that they were willing and able to do the work that Americans firmly believed only we could do. The Obama Film American Factory Backfires, aier.org, August 26, 2019.
By the 1980s The European Common Market succeeded in cementing the fact that globalization was the new way of doing things. So, American leaders and workers alike convinced themselves that the gods of Competitive Advantage had allocated to us in perpetuity the technological niche. We could be OK with Toyota taking over our automobile market because we could make Cray Supercomputers.
However, we neglected a crucial challenge: Things seldom remain static.
A New Reality for Chinese Companies
China, for example, went from being a supplier of our kids’ plastic toys, to a supplier of technology equipment parts, to the manufacturer of the Sunway TaihuLight – the machine that beat the U.S. Cray Supercomputer in 2016. In 2018, China had 206 out of the top 500 fastest supercomputers in the world, while the U.S. had 124.
China’s leaders went from wearing stodgy Mao jackets to wearing dapper business suits. Their negotiating style changed to match their business attires. China developed a moneyed class engaged in business and trade. Efforts to deal with rural poverty are on their way.
Needless to say, with the rise of a moneyed class, comes a rise in general living standards, and with that comes a rise in the cost and complexity of doing business.
China’s evolving life style brings us back to Fuyao Glass. According to some observers, Chinese companies are locating manufacturing facilities externally because of China’s rising labor costs, taxes, and regulations! Among those companies is Fuyao Glass.
The American Worker
American Factory presents a picture of what the American marketplace looks like today: a significant number of American workers employed by U.S.-based foreign companies and facing the turmoil that comes from cultural clashes. The film’s message, however, is open to interpretation.
Workers at Fuyao have filed lawsuits against the company for a variety of reasons, including allegedly illegally punishing workers for trying to unionize. Meanwhile, Fuyao has not been shy in expressing dissatisfaction with the habits of American workers. The threat of automation lurks in the background, as the company’s chairman, Cao Dewang, seeks what he euphemistically calls a future in technology.
The wearying and expensive battle of wills is not productive or conducive to worker satisfaction. However, is it avoidable? Would the scenario be any different if this glass company were owned and managed by Americans? Today marks the third day of a nation-wide workers’ strike against General Motors. So, maybe the American worker faces a deeper challenge than Chinese employers.
An Unintended Wake Up Call
The status quo no longer works in today’s rapidly changing globalized automation-prone world. Would it be better to move on to another model?
One idea might be to return to training skilled production workers, which stopped when the college-loan industry figured it would be profitable to promote the paper-shuffling industry, thereby helping to kill American manufacturing in the U.S. The production of goods by American companies located in foreign countries does no good to the American worker.
Another idea, which goes in tandem with the first, is to promote college as a place you go because you want to be there, can handle a high-level level of purely mental work, and cannot be distracted by constant political agitation. Highly trained technicians can help the U.S. keep up with a modern world not at all lacking in first-class universities offering outstanding technical education.
American Factory succeeds as a wake-up call. However, that wake-up call might not be the one intended by the film’s producers. American Factory perhaps serves as a reminder how American workers have been deceived by their legislators, used by their modern-day unions, and left unprepared to compete in today’s market place.
Nobody likes to pay almost half of one’s wages for housing, but that is what is happening to so many California residents. Reasons for the astronomical housing costs vary according to whom one asks. However, regardless of reason, the situation is now promoted as a “crisis,” and duly exploited as such.
Of concern to the Just Vote No Blog is that the housing crisis is at the heart of today’s central planning, which renders residents and voters increasingly powerless in land use and housing decisions.
A Brief Background
In The Curious Case of Housing Legislation, the Just Vote No Blog noted the history behind today’s network of housing bills. The state’s evolving efforts to remove land use and housing decisions from voters is one of the evident aspects of such history. Here are some reminders:
The seminal Assembly Bill 32, The Global Warming Solutions Act of 2006, started the ball rolling by mandating the reduction of the state’s greenhouse gas emissions to 1990 levels by 2020 and to 80 percent below 1990 levels by 2050.
Climate crisis soon morphed into a land use crisis that required dense job/housing development along narrow corridors throughout the Bay Area, ostensibly to cut down on greenhouse gas emissions produced by workers commuting from homes in the suburbs.
Predictable pushback from neighborhoods, cities and counties not wanting to lose their chosen quality of life encouraged increasingly stronger state mandates. SB 330 and AB 1487 are the latest high-profile bills bent on removing housing decisions from cities and counties.
SB 330, the Housing Crisis Act of 2019, introduced in February by Senator Nancy Skinner and approved by the legislature September 6, has the general objective to “prohibit a county or city, including the electorate exercising its local initiative or referendum power, in which specified conditions exist, determined by the Department of Housing and Community Development as provided, from enacting a development policy, standard, or condition, as defined…..” Thus, the electorate is summarily dismissed.
AB 1487, the San Francisco Bay Area Regional Housing Finance Act of 2019, introduced in February by Assembly Member David Chiu is currently active and in desk process. This bill is a game changer. Voters, no matter how disempowered by mandates such as SB 330, at present can still vote down tax proposals that finance mandates they do not like. AB 1487 makes that strategy more difficult. This bill establishes a new agency, the Bay Area Housing Finance Authority, run by bureaucrats removed from the wrath of voters, with the power to place tax proposals on region-wide ballots, and to determine pass/fail on an aggregate region-wide basis.
Progression Towards Powerful Public-Private Partnerships
The plethora of housing bills in the style of SB 330 and AB 1487 passed into law during the past few years calls for a good deal of cash, perhaps more than the creative financing that could be achieved by the Housing Finance Authority would be able to raise on its own. Thus, enter powerful private players interested in housing development for reasons of their own, willing to forge partnerships with public entities. As one would expect, tech companies like Google and Facebook are becoming major players.
Google, Facebook and other deep-pocketed tech companies are at present investing in housing, a dream come true for housing advocates. They are also encouraging the California legislature to pass legislation that will streamline housing production (more on this later), since investors do not like lengthy bickering over what or where housing is built.
Of course, private influence in public affairs is nothing new. Neither is privately-funded housing developed with government blessings — company towns like Hershey, Marktown, and Pullman are examples. However, today California is witnessing not just tech-towns developed for tech workers, but also the much broader endeavor of using tech money to fund housing for the general population.
Recommended Articles on Public-Private Partnerships
A San Francisco Bay Area publication, 48 Hills, has been deeply concerned about the waning power of voters in land use, housing and transportation decisions. A series of articles by researcher and journalist Zelda Bronstein, published in 48 Hills, explains in great detail how a private entity, the Chan Zuckerberg Initiative, is poised to affect housing policy. In the first two installments published May 29, 2019 and August 29, 2019 of the series (there might be more to come), Ms. Bronstein zeroes in on Senate Bill 330 and Assembly Bill 1487.
The articles are rich with information that Bay Area residents will find useful in understanding who is becoming in charge of their neighborhoods.
August 14, 2019 marks the 16th anniversary of the Northeastern Blackout of 2003. On that day, over 50 million people in the Northeastern United States and in parts of the Midwest and Canada found themselves without any electric power. Fears of another 9/11 immediately surfaced, especially in New York City. However, the culprits were over-loaded power lines that brushed against some overgrown trees on northern Ohio.
Alarm software failed to prompt human controllers into action, power was not re-routed among affected regions, resulting in a massive blackout that for some residents lasted three days.
Although sadly there were some deaths and injuries attributed to the blackout, thankfully residents met the challenge with civility and good will, thus avoiding greater harm to people and property.
Why Should We Remember the Great Blackout of 2003
Disasters like the Northeastern Blackout, as well as tragic events such as the 2018 Camp and Paradise wildfires in California, should be reminders of the need for private citizens and legislators to pay attention to the nation’s infrastructure.
Overloaded power lines, overgrown trees adjacent to power lines, neglected equipment, and outdated or poorly deployed software are major causes of blackouts, as well as wildfires. Blaming climate change and pouring tax money into green deals won’t help. Blaming power utilities or clamoring for government-owned suppliers won’t help. Using tragedies to advance agendas won’t help.
Even when there is specific legislation purporting to address power grid challenges, such legislation is often questionable, wasteful or both. The recent return to the U.S. Senate of Senator Angus King’s (I-Maine) proposal to replace digital power nodes with analog ones could serve as example. The Senator’s argument for proposing (in 2017, 2018 and now in 2019) a return to analog power systems is that the U.S. needs to protect its power grid from a cyber attack such as the one Ukraine suffered in 2015. True, no way to digitally attack what is not digital. However, with analog systems, there is no way to deal with massive and immediate movement of power when that is necessary to prevent or curtail regional overloads.
We Need To Focus on Infrastructure Not On Tweets
We have become a nation of Tweets. Why are we Tweeting about some legislator’s racial profile instead of his responsibility to keep his state free of crime and rats? Why are we Tweeting about Pacific Gas & Electric’s profit “greed” instead demanding that inspection crews follow up on aging or neglected equipment? Our infrastructure is crumbling before our eyes, including some of our power systems, but we focus on agenda-driven and/or distracting tactics instead.
Take Action of August 14, 2019
The Just Vote No Blog suggests observance on August 14 of the great Northeastern Blackout of 2003. This would be a good day for everybody to contact their legislators and suggest they stop squabbling and start working on the increasing demands on our power grids.
The San Francisco Bay Area seems to be on a housing treadmill. Just as housing inventory started to grow and prices responded accordingly in some areas, tech companies are planning to go public. Airbnb, Lyft, Pintrest, Slack Technologies, and Uber are expected to issue initial public offerings in 2019. This will mean an infusion of cash into the pockets of the many tech workers who own their company’s stock. The logical thing to expect these workers to do is to use the cash to purchase a home. No more growing housing inventory and possible growing housing prices.
IPOs and Housing Prices
Doubt the correlation between IPOs and housing prices? Market Watch has a good article on the subject.
Zillow examined the link between Facebook’s IPO in 2012 and rising home prices across the Bay Area and found that home values rose more quickly in neighborhoods with higher concentrations of Facebook employees after the social network became a publicly-traded company.
Specifically, every 10 Facebook employees living in a given U.S. Census tract at the time of the IPO were associated with an extra 1.6-percentage-points increase in home values over the following year, the report said.
In dollar figures, the median value home in a neighborhood with a high concentration of Facebook workers rose by an extra $20,800 between May 2012 and May 2013.
In the Bay Area, companies highly valued by market standards, as well as startups hoping to join the value crowd at some point, are concentrated in close proximity to one another. They comprise the world-famous Silicon Valley hub. This concentration affords the most return on investment for the companies, for their host government jurisdiction, and for homeowners in the community.
Clusters and cluster strategies cannot be seen as the answer to every economic challenge faced by a community or region. However, they do represent a valuable tool that economic development stakeholders should have at their disposal. A cluster approach may be most useful in helping officials and practitioners to see a community’s economy in a new way—not as a collection of individual firms, but as a system in which interventions can assist companies, industries, and the entire community. Cluster-Based Economic Development Strategies, International City/County Management Association, March 29, 2012
Business clusters are the in thing, and the Bay Area has jumped on the bandwagon with two feet. But, when cluster advocates say clusters benefit “the entire community,” are they including those folks in the community’s lower and middle-income brackets who rent their homes? Those community residents might be employed by fast-food restaurant, or might be the people educating your kids in neighborhood schools or caring for your toddlers. Chances are they will never get their hands on IPOs, do not own a home, and never will own a home in the Bay Area. But as prices increase due to the IPO infusion of cash, their rents will go up. And forget about rent control, since everybody pays for that by way of taxes or prices.
Is There a Line of Defense?
The Bay Area has chosen to engage in an endless tug of war between developers and slow-growth advocates, high-income workers and lower-income workers, landlords and renters, YIMBYs and NYMBYs. Meanwhile, housing costs are transforming the Bay Area into a poster child for unaffordability. Maybe it is time for all sectors to give in a little by balancing housing and business spaces in every community.