Wednesday, December 7, 2011

Obama and the Telephone Operators

Rough Rider Obama
What is this love that president Obama has for a pre-Industrial Revolution society?  He has been on a kick about automation for months.  He is still yammering about ATMs, travel agents, and the Internet.  Now he has added telephone operators?  It goes hand-in-hand for his hate of the Industrial Revolution.  A few months ago, on 17 August, 2011, he was using the bank teller example:
Abolish the Drive-Thru too?
When I go into factories these days, what’s amazing is how clean and how quiet they are, because what used to take 1,000 folks to do now only takes 100 folks to do. And one of the challenges in terms of rebuilding our economy is businesses have gotten so efficient that -- when was the last time somebody went to a bank teller instead of using the ATM, or used a travel agent instead of just going online?
This was on Obama's meandering path to telling his audience that he wanted more public education money.  The sad thing is, the ATM was an invention to make banking more convenient for people.  Over-regulation of the banking industry made the ATM indispensable.

Ernestine the Operator
On December 6th 2011, in Kansas, Obama bleated this:
Factories where people thought they would retire suddenly picked up and went overseas, where workers were cheaper. Steel mills that needed 100 -- or 1,000 employees are now able to do the same work with 100 employees, so layoffs too often became permanent, not just a temporary part of the business cycle. And these changes didn’t just affect blue-collar workers. If you were a bank teller or a phone operator or a travel agent, you saw many in your profession replaced by ATMs and the Internet. 
So, let's go back to the days before automatic switching and see how this works out.  Via PBS, we can see that calls per person per year in 1940 was around 250 (PDF).  The US population was 132,164,569, according to the 1940 Census, so that is about 33,041,142,250 telephone calls annually, handled by about 350,000 operators.  Each operator handled about 94,403 calls per year.
In 2000 (the last year in the PBS chart) US population was 281,421,906. At the call rates of 1940, that is 70,355,476,500 calls and a demand for 745,267 operators.  However, by 1997 (last year noted in the PBS chart) Americans made an average of 2,325 calls per year.  If we use the 2000 census, that is 654,305,931,450 calls that would demand 6,930,986 operators for voice calls only.  Forget about text messages, Facebook, chat or the like.  The technology that Obama approves of does not support that.  Also remember, if we kept 1940s technology it is highly unlikely that people would make 2,000-plus calls per year either.

There is a lot of mythology around the telephone operator profession in America that built over the years that the Bell System as a government protected monopoly"Ma Bell" was generally hated by everybody in the USA.  Since they were a monopoly, by edict of the Federal Communications Commission (FCC), the customer service experience Americans had with them was not much better that the worst department of motor vehicles office in America today.

Sexism and "unfairness" emerged as epithets against the Bell System and that got mixed in with 1970s hate for the phone company.  The sexism narrative was that Alexander Graham Bell himself hired only women as operators because they were cheaper.  Of course, as most socialist narratives, this was false.

It is well documented that boys were originally hired as telephone operators, just as they had been hired as telegraph operators.  A few choice mentions:
In One Man's Life: A Telephone Set About 1889-90
Holmes had presently dis- missed his staff of boys as being noisy and unruly, replacing them with girls
Law and Disorder on the Electronic Frontier
by Bruce Sterling

Although Bell himself was an ardent suffragist, the telephone company did not employ women for the sake of advancing female liberation. AT&T did this for sound commercial reasons. The first telephone operators of the Bell system were not women, but teenage American boys. They were telegraphic messenger boys (a group about to be rendered technically obsolescent), who swept up around the phone office, dunned customers for bills, and made phone connections on the switchboard, all on the cheap. 
Within the very first year of operation, 1878, Bell's company learned a sharp lesson about combining teenage boys and telephone switchboards. Putting teenage boys in charge of the phone system brought swift and consistent disaster. Bell's chief engineer described them as "Wild Indians." The boys were openly rude to customers. They talked back to subscribers, saucing off, uttering facetious remarks, and generally giving lip. The rascals took Saint Patrick's Day off without permission. And worst of all they played clever tricks with the switchboard plugs: disconnecting calls, crossing lines so that customers found themselves talking to strangers, and so forth.
Nobody tell Obama.  Next thing you know, he will want us to go back to the pre-telephone days of the telegraph, or earlier.

Maybe mentioning jobs that people are used to being filled by women ties into the Obama nostalgia for the days when a budding Progressive National Socialist movement was all the rage?
Now, for this, Roosevelt was called a radical. He was called a socialist -- (laughter) -- even a communist. But today, we are a richer nation and a stronger democracy because of what he fought for in his last campaign: an eight-hour work day and a minimum wage for women -- (applause) -- insurance for the unemployed and for the elderly, and those with disabilities; political reform and a progressive income tax. (Applause.) 
(for more bizarre politicians invoking Teddy Roosevelt, see this)

Obama is steeped in mythology in many areas.  From the earlier quoted part of his Kansas speech, Factories where people thought they would retire suddenly picked up and went overseas, where workers were cheaper. Not exactly.  Overregulation of many forms deove American factories overseas where the total cost of production was lower.  Steel mills that needed 100 -- or 1,000 employees are now able to do the same work with 100 employees, so layoffs too often became permanent, not just a temporary part of the business cycle.  In the past, Obama has invoked the images of South Side Chicago steel mills "leaving".  Now he says American steel mills are more efficient, so now that is a problem to him.  In reality, overbearing environmental regulations ran the steel mills out of the country.  Mini-mills, like those from Nucor Steel, operate today reprocessing scrap steel.  It is no mistake that they generally operate in right-to-work States.

David Bernstein wrote about the myth of early 20th century Progressives and minimum wage for women in response to Obama's speech:
Oddly enough, Obama also praises Roosevelt for supporting a minimum wage for women. Chapter 4 of Rehabilitating Lochner describes the impetus for such laws, and much of the relevant the information in that chapter can be found in this paper published in Law and Contemporary Problems. The history is too rich to give an adequate summary here. Let’s just say that the history of such laws is not pretty. The laws’ primary supporters included male-only labor unions that wanted to keep women out of the workplace–women-only minimum wage laws almost never passed without strong from unions that typically opposed minimum wage laws for men; eugenicists who wanted women to stay home and take care of their children; bigots who thought that only the lower order of men (including Eastern European immigrants) would allow their women to work for wages; moralists who believed that low-wage women were susceptible to vice and should therefore stay out of the workforce; and economists who believed that, as Felix Frankfurter summarized in his brief in Adkins v. Children’s Hospital, women who wanted to work but could not command a government-imposed minimum wage were “semi-employable” or “unemployable” workers who should “accept the status of a defective to be segregated for special treatment as a dependent.”
You really cannot trust anything that comes from the mouth of a Socialist.

Now for a lesson in doing your own research, something that Obama's people might want to try.  As soon as I heard Obama say "operators" I was reminded of this interesting statistic from William F. Buckley, Jr. that he voices at a 1991 Young Americans for Freedom forum (unembedable video at the link):  
10:40 - If we had frozen our technology at the level of nineteen-hundred-and-forty, and the same number of telephone calls were made today, per capita, as were made then, every woman between the age of twenty and sixty-six would have to serve as a telephone operator to make possible these transactions.
As soon as I began checking the numbers, I realized that the notion was flawed.  It sounds good, a nation of nearly 300 million people would make a lot of telephone calls, even at the 250 per capita rate of 1940.  However, the female population 20 - 24 of 1991 could easily handle the load with millions of women left to do other things.

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