Highly Trained Individuals

When I came to the US thirty years ago, coffee was this brown muck that cost about a dollar per gallon. In the generation that has passed since then, coffee has become a spiritual experience, a political statement and a way to save the planet. Sleek new devices that hiss and purr when stroked have replaced the old coffee machines. The people who make the coffee have never looked better. Many of them have college degrees, even if they are unaware that Venti is simply the Italian word for twenty .

Starbucks just took out a full page ad in the NYTimes touting its exceptionalism.

They Want You To Think Coffee is Coffee. Well, It’s Not Just Coffee. It’s Starbucks.

It’s lotsa bucks actually. Until a year ago, $4.50 was considered a reasonable price for a cup of coffee. Starbucks is, like the Hummer, Enron and the AIG, an emblem of turn of the century excess. Now McDonalds is eating their lunch. The baristas at Starbucks still look upon with you with condescension if you ask for a “small cup of coffee” instead of a “Tall Americano”. But you can see the fear in their eyes. The Ad says that these are highly trained individuals, who can make 87000 different kinds of coffee. If so, aren’t they a bit over-trained? Punching a few buttons on a coffee machine is not exactly rocket science.

The same week we discover that the commuter plane that crashed in Buffalo was flown by pilots who were very poorly trained. The Captain had flunked flight tests repeatedly. The co-pilot was paid so little that she could not afford to live in Newark NJ, where the crew was supposedly based. Instead, she bunked with her parents in Seattle, Washington. Had to take a red-eye flight to Newark to get to work that morning. In fact, she worked for a while at a second job at a coffee shop (not Starbucks) to make ends meet.

When the stall warning went off, the pilots did exactly the opposite of what they should have. The way to avoid a stall is to push forward on the stick so that the nose of the plane down. And push the throttle to get maximum power. This is totally counter-intuitive when you are flying close to the ground: your instinct is to pull the nose up because it gives the illusion that you are climbing. That is what the training of pilots is all about: doing the opposite of what your instinct tells you to do when needed. Every pilot knows this, but it takes hours of training to do it right in the crucial few seconds after the warning goes off.

50 people died, all the passengers and crew.

Which would you rather have? A highly trained individual as the pilot of your commuter flight or one making your Frappucino?

What is happening here is that the airlines are taking advantage of eager young people who dream of flying. No body grows up dreaming to be a barista. So corporations pay the pilot almost nothing while marketing a job requiring no skill or talent as a profession. In both cases people are being exploited.

It is not just pilots.

For fourteen years American monetary policy was entrusted to a man who spoke gobbledygook. The more incomprehensible his pronouncements, the more his fame grew. Two Presidents nominated him and Congress confirmed him. Now it is clear that Alan Greenspan had no idea what he was doing. In collaboration with politicians who piled on too debt and got into unnecessary wars, Greenspan ruined a great economy. We should have known better. After all, Greenspan first came to prominence as the head of the Ayn Rand fan club.

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