Tuesday, January 28, 2014

Economy, Ecology, Efficiency, Catastrophe

Flying during the winter months has become an increasingly dicey proposition in 21st-century America. I make a handful of work-related plane trips a year, but the ones I do make tend to be for things that can't be rescheduled easily and often can't be rescheduled at all. I'm sure this is true for travelers in other kinds of business, but it's certainly true for academics: if you don't get there on the right day, the thing you were traveling to do may simply never happen. And American airlines can't quite promise to get you where you need to go any more, for reasons that have both to do with changing weather patterns and with a set of catastrophically-shortsighted business strategies that have become accepted as normal.

I'm not talking about the occasional weather-related delays. Sometimes, Mother Nature doesn't want you flying any planes for a while, and that will always be true. What I'm talking about is the cascading delays that turn bad weather in one place into system-wide disruption and strand travelers for two or three days, and sometimes even longer, after the weather has returned to normal. And we now have such system-wide delays just about every winter.

The annual MLA conference was held in Chicago this year just after the end of the first "polar vortex" event in January, which closed the Chicago airports and tied up airline travel across the country. The MLA is a massive academic conference for literature and foreign-language teachers. More importantly, the convention is key place for job interviews; young lit scholars looking for a job need to go to MLA as part of their job search. And of course, nobody trying to find a first job in the terrible academic job market wants to miss a job interview; even the interviews are hard to come by.

But of course, some people didn't make it to MLA this year, because the airlines couldn't or wouldn't get them there. The extreme cold was the official reason. But in fact the cold had begun to relent, and flights had started again BEFORE the conference began. The problem was the airlines could not move the passengers who had  been scheduled to fly over the previous two days.

I flew to Chicago the day before I needed to be there, building in extra time to my travel schedule because, hey: Chicago in January. And I got there without trouble. But if I had left earlier, I would have arrived later, or not at all. I flew after the airports had reopened; people who were scheduled to fly before that had to wait for open seats on later flights, but the airlines are intensely focused on not having any empty seats, so those waits stretched for days. Someone I was supposed to meet in Chicago never arrived; that person had scheduled a flight a couple days ahead of the conference, couldn't get rebooked until two days after the conference started, and decided that there was no longer any point in going. All of this person's crucial appointments were going to be broken anyway. Why fly someplace for business if you can't get there on time to do your business?

There are two important lessons here. The first is that the words ecology and economy share the same root for a reason. The ecology is the foundation that any economy is built on, and if you disrupt one you disrupt the other. If you're having extreme weather events every year, they will damage your economy. Crops get damaged. Supply lines break. Basic economic activity, like shipping, gets interrupted. You can't neglect the Earth for the sake of business. It's the only place business can happen.

The second lesson is that our basic American business model is ill-suited for an environment that has to cope with so many challenges. Our current business doctrine is obsessed with efficiency, which means low operating costs. Efficiency sounds great, in itself, but in effect it means a focus on doing away with "excess" capacity. An "efficient" business is one set up to operate smoothly on a normal day, but to completely fall apart in the face of unforeseen demand.

The goal of "efficiency" is not to have any more capacity than you need. Businesspeople are taught not to have any more inventory, equipment, or employees than they need to meet immediate demand. They are taught to employ the absolute minimum number of people they can get away with, and view the damage caused by being shorthanded when things are busy as less than the economic "loss" caused by employing a slightly larger staff. And businesspeople are taught the just-in-time inventory approach, pioneered by Toyota, which teaches that stocking inventory in advance is financially wasteful because it ties up money that could be used for something else in the meantime. Never have three spare parts in the back room when you could have just one, or better still have none and have it delivered the day you need it. If you're selling hamburgers, you should have enough burgers in the freezer to get you to the next delivery; stockpiling an extra week of frozen burgers is seen as an unnecessary cost.

One of the problems with this model is that minimizing spending minimizes the business's stimulus on the rest of the economy. Fewer employees get paid. Vendors make money later, which slows down their own purchasing. (The financial return you go by holding onto cash for a few extra weeks is exactly the return that your vendors would have gotten from getting the cash a few weeks earlier.)  So when everybody follows this strategy, it creates recessionary pressure.

The other problem is that this approach is fragile. Just-in-time inventory demands that the delivery network always work seamlessly. If the part you ordered doesn't come, you're stuck. If the delivery truck doesn't show up with the next load of burgers, you're closed until it does. The more "efficient" the business, the less it can cope with disruptions.

The airlines have been pursuing the just-enough, just-in-time approach hard for years now. Their ideal goal would be to fill every plane, every time. That's efficient, in that it gets the most out of their planes and their people. Extra planes and extra pilots are, from the airline's point of view, just a drain on the bottom line.

The problem is that when, all-too-predictably, operations get disrupted, there is no slack in the system to deal with the problem. This is because the airlines have worked hard to take all the slack out of the system. Air travel in this country is designed to make the airlines maximum profit on a good-to-normal day. But this means not being to cope at all on the bad days. When your flight gets cancelled, the airline doesn't have seats on the next flight or the one after because they deliberately set out not to have open seats on any flights. When your flight can't take off because of a malfunctioning part, there isn't always a spare part handy, because stocking spare parts is considered thriftless. There certainly isn't an extra plane that can replace yours. And, once the delays start piling up, there aren't any extra pilots, because the airlines employ as few pilots as possible and schedule them for nearly as many hours as they're legally allowed to fly. Once the delays start piling up, the pilots start to hit their maximum hours and there's no one to fly your plane. This is "efficiency" in action."Just in time" means everyone is delayed.

The economy in the 1950s and 1960s operated differently; thinking was still shaped by the Depression, where people got too much experience of scarcity, and World War II, where there was no such thing as too much material at the front. The idea of having backups and reserves was not seen as inefficient, but as prudent. The point was to be ready for an emergencies. Our current business wisdom is NOT to be ready for unforeseen emergencies, because it's too expensive. So we just have to wait out each catastrophe, long after we they have stopped being unexpected.

cross-posted from Dagblog

Wednesday, January 01, 2014

Your New Year's Public Domain Report, 2014

It's January 1 again, the day when works enter the public domain because their copyright expired at last year's end. And yet again, because of repeated extensions to the length of copyright, nothing at all entered the public domain in the United States. Almost nothing has since January 1, 1979.

American copyright law started out by specifying a 14-year term, renewable once to provide 28 years of exclusive protection. That was very much in line with the original 18th-century copyright laws in Britain. By 1976, that 28 years had crept up to 56. But that year Congress passed a new copyright act, extending terms to either fifty years after the author's death or (in the case of previously existing copyrights) 75 years from the work's creation. The law didn't go into effect until 1978, and copyrights that expired in 1978 weren't protected.  So on January 1, 1979, works published in 1922 entered the public domain. Works published in 1923 did not, and still haven't.

Even with that extension, those works from 1923 would have become public on January 1, 1999. But in 1998 Congress passed another extension, variously nicknamed the Millennium Copyright Act or the Sonny Bono Act (after one of its sponsors), which added another 20 years to copyright terms. Now previously-copyrighted works stayed in copyright for 95 years. As we get closer to 2019, we can expect intense lobbying by large media companies to pass yet another extension, defying the Constitution's mandate that intellectual property be protected for "for a limited time." (Article I, section 8, clause 8.)

So there's nothing in under our public-domain tree this morning. But let's look at what would have become public domain if not for these laws.

If not for the Milennium Copyright Act:

The big story would be Superman, who debuted in 1938, becoming public domain this morning. Lois Lane would also become a public-domain character, like Ophelia, Guinevere, or Elizabeth Bennett. (Under the laws in effect when they were created, Superman, Clark, and Lois would actually have become public domain in 1995.) Other characters and story elements from the Superman universe would remain in copyright for a bit longer, so Kryptonite and X-ray vision would be under copyright but the original core character would not.

Orson Welles's famous radio broadcast of War of the Worlds would also become free for anyone to broadcast or reproduce.

This would be a banner year for screwball comedy fans and Errol Flynn buffs. Howard Hawks's classic Bringing Up Baby would leave copyright today, as would George Cukor's Holiday, also starring Katharine Hepburn and Cary Grant. That's a lot of screwball romance right there. And four Flynn pictures, including Dawn Patrol and The Adventures of Robin Hood would become public domain as well. Robin Hood remains public domain; Flynn's Robin Hood won't be until 2034.

Also entering public domain today would be Alfred Hitchock's The Lady Vanishes,Cagney and Bogart in Angels with Dirty Faces, Fred and Ginger in Carefree, Marx Brothers classic Room Service, and Boys Town starring Spencer Tracy. Not a bad year for classic Hollywood.

In the world of literature, Thornton Wilder's Our Town would become public domain today, as would John Dos Passos's USA Trilogy, and T. H. White's The Sword in the Stone. Also becoming public would be various works by Virginia Woolf (Three Guineas), C. S. Lewis (Out of the Silent Planet), Graham Greene (Brighton Rock), and Evelyn Waugh (Scoop). Joining them would be Henry Miller's Tropic of Capricorn and Sartre's Nausea, the last novels Nabokov wrote in Russian (Invitation to a Beheading and The Gift), and Orwell's Homage to Catalonia.

The public domain would be enriched by some classic pop songs, including "This Can't Be Love," "You Must Have Been a Beautiful Baby," "Hooray for Hollywood," and "Jeepers Creepers." Cole Porter was having another great year in 1938, adding "My Heart Belongs to Daddy," "Most Gentlemen Don't Like Love," "At Long Last Love," and "Get Out of Town" to the American songbook. Those songbook standards should be public domain today. In the classical world, Copland's Billy the Kid and Shostakovich's String Quartet No. 1 should leave copyright. And in the other world of classical music, the public domain should be welcoming Count Basie's "Jumpin' at the Woodside," Ray Noble's "Cherokee," and Duke Ellington's "Prelude to a Kiss."

According to Congress, no one has had a fair chance to make a profit off these works yet, and they will stay in copyright until at least 2034.

If not for the 1976 Copyright Act:

The Cat in the Hat and the Grinch should enter public domain today. The animated cartoons featuring them would not, but the books The Cat in the Hat! and How the Grinch Stole Christmas! would, and with them the characters and their distinctive images.

Some of the other books entering the public domain would include Endgame, Dr. Zhivago, Atlas Shrugged, From Russia with Love, The Wapshot Chronicle, The Balcony by Genet, Tennessee Williams's Orpheus Descending and John Osborne's The Entertainer, Asimov's The Naked Sun and Malamud's The Assistant. Stevie Smith's Not Waving But Drowning and Frank O'Hara's Meditations in an Emergency would enter the public domain along with various poems by Wallace Stevens, H. D., Richard Wilbur, Marianne Moore, Ted Hughes, and Robert Penn Warren.

Among the films newly available in public domain would be Bridge on the River Kwai, Pal Joey12 Angry MenOld Yeller, The Sweet Smell of Success, Jailhouse Rock, The Pajama Game, An Affair to Remember, Gunfight at O. K. Corral, Funny Face, The Incredible Shrinking Man, The Three Faces of Eve, Love in the Afternoon, the original 3:10 to Yuma, the Hammer Studios Curse of Frankenstein, Jimmy Cagney playing Lon Chaney in The Man of a Thousand Faces, Bergman's Wild Strawberries and Kurosawa's Throne of Blood. An embarrassment of riches.

Fans of early rock and roll would have an even greater haul. "Lucille," "Tutti Frutti," "Blueberry Hill," "At the Hop," "Bye Bye Love," "Come Go with Me," "Great Balls of Fire," "Reet Petite," "Whole Lotta Shakin' Goin' On," and Chuck Berry's "Rock and Roll Music" represent only a few of the highlights. Even the number of major Elvis hits that would be entering the public domain -- "All Shook Up," "Jailhouse Rock," "Teddy Bear" -- is overshadowed by the number of Buddy Holly's song's due for public domain: "Peggy Sue," "Every Day (It's a Gettin' Closer)," "Not Fade Away," "That'll Be the Day." There are also major hits from a broader pop-vocal tradition: "Chances Are," "Wonderful, Wonderful," "Not for Me to Say," Nat King Cole's "You Send Me" and Sinatra singing "Witchcraft." But the very biggest story of all would be two classic Broadway musicals entering the public domain with all their songs: not only The Music Man but West Side Story. "Maria," "America," "Officer Krupke," and all the rest of those songs would be free for anyone to perform or record.

However, all of those works will remain in private hands, usually meaning in the practical control of large corporations engaging in rent-seeking behavior, until 2053 at the earliest. Apparently, none of them count as classics yet. If you don't want to wait even longer than 2053, tell Congress next time copyright-extension time comes along.

cross-posted from Dagblog