Archive for Hollywood

A Fable for Our Time

A friend of mine recently returned home from California after two months traveling in France and England. As he unpacked his bags and settled back into his house, he sorted the foreign coins and bills accumulated while traveling and unspent at duty-free.  Looking ahead to future travel, he organized the currency into separate packets; when he was done, he had an unusual coin left over.  Not sure what it was, he sent me a photo, asking if might be legal tender and if so, where.

It is in fact a very rare and interesting coin that was once legal tender in a place many of us call the People’s Republic of New York.  They could be inserted into analog machines at the entrances to the most expansive public transit system in the world as payment of the fare; once in the system one could ride as far as one wanted for a flat fare.  They could also be spent, at full value, to buy snacks and sodas in bodegas and delis out in parts of Brooklyn like Bedford-Stuyvesant before they were gentrified.  I know this because, one day in architecture school and short of cash, I paid for lunch with one.

Artifacts like old coins tell us about worlds past, and this is no exception.  The People’s Republic of New York existed de facto as a city-state that enjoyed a unique status in the US as the center of culture, art, innovation, fashion, finance, commerce, architecture, and industry.  While the quality of its leaders varied, it was generally well-regarded as an enlightened progressive democracy that administered, in addition to its world-class transit system, an extensive network of public hospitals and clinics, the largest public housing program in the nation, and one of the oldest and largest public park systems in the country, free and accessible to all.  The Republic was also committed to education, a legacy of both the tremendous influx of Jewish immigrants from Eastern Europe in the late 19th Century, who valued education above all, and the reform movements of the early 20th century; the result was the creation of the largest public school system in the U.S. that produced generations of progressive leaders, successful professionals, acclaimed scientists, and world-renowned business  people, and a municipal university best known for producing more Nobel laureates than the Ivy League, MIT, and Stanford combined.  The Republic was also home to the largest concentration of multimillionaires in the U.S., who consistently supported progressive social and political movements out of a sense of obligation to the common good.  In spite of its tremendous concentration of wealthy elites, the Republic also boasted the most economically and ethnically diverse population in the nation: people of all origins, races, and economic achievement lived together harmoniously in close quarters.  The Republic’s commitment to liberal values was such that reactionary aspirants to the Presidency of the U.S. sneered at its “New York Values” as a way to achieve acceptance among like-minded reactionaries across the nation; the residents of the Republic were taken aback, knowing as they did the things they valued most are education, hard work, success, and tolerance.

The decline of the Republic began in 1980 with the ascension of Ronald Reagan to the Presidency of the U.S., who declared government the source of all that ails society, installed hypercapitalism as the official state religion, and whose minions began the looting of the U.S. and the transfer of its wealth to gated communities in Orange County, Santa Barbara, Montecito and Silicon Valley in California; selected neighborhoods in Houston and Dallas, Texas; a family in Wichita, Kansas; all of whose  denizens acquired ever more expensive apartments on the Upper East Side  of Manhattan and bought their way  into the formerly progressive elites.  Despite glimmers of hope in the intervening years, the decline was irreversible by 2009, when the elites of the Republic sold the mayoralty to a local billionaire, who retired in 2013 and handed the office, reduced substantially in power, to a local populist as a sop to the masses.  In early January of this year, the Republic formally became known as Oligarkistan and is a province of Russia administered from Washington DC.

Today, the Republic’s public hospital network and housing system are in various stages of distress.  Wealthy donors support the parks lavishly, but selectively, focusing their efforts and cash on the park across the street from their apartments.  The transit system remains, although when it will be privatized, with the inevitable service cuts and distance fares imposed in the name of hypercapitalism, is anybody’s guess.  The coins themselves went out of circulation in the early 2000s when the information technology/data harvesting oligarchs took control of the monetary system.

My advice to my friend was to hang onto his coin as a symbol of a lost society.  It will almost certainly increase in value.

Hollywood Swinging

Yesterday’s New York Times ran a story by Adam Davidson on the Hollywood model of business, touting it as this great new, compelling model of the way work will evolve.  And while I agree with Mr. Davidson that we are in the midst of a hundred year reset, I think there are a lot of shortcomings in the Hollywood model.  First, some historic perspective.

Sorry, Mr.  Davidson, there’s nothing new here.  The entire AEC (Architecture/Engineering/Construction) industry has run this way since before there were movies.

Architecture firms consist of a core of skilled professionals (once upon a time called draftsmen) who are internally flexible in that they are assigned to a specific project, reassigned once their work is done, or let go if there is no next project.  The firms then hire the specialized skills they need from a variety of consulting engineers (mechanical, electrical, structural, acoustic, fire protection, and so on) in order to complete the design and construction contract documents.  Then the construction documents go out to bid to general contractors, or construction managers, who really only provide management and supervision and rarely, if ever, perform the actual work themselves.  That task, really many, many tasks, is left to a variety of trade or subcontractors (plumbing, electrical, air conditioning, structural steel, carpentry, and so on).

Every construction project is, then, a stand-alone enterprise assembled for the purpose of building the building, the bridge, the power plant, the office space, or whatever else.  It comes into being, executes the task at hand, and is then dismantled as the project players move on to the next assignment.  While, unlike the Hollywood model, the project players are more often firms than individuals, everyone is expendable if there isn’t another assignment.  Anyone who has ever worked in the AEC industry has been laid off at least once.  Still, it’s a durable, efficient model, but before we embrace it as the new way to work, some reservations.

  1. Without training, there are no skilled workers. This model works in the AEC industry because schools of architecture and engineering produce educated entry level workers.  Because these professions are licensed by the states, there is a mandatory apprenticeship in the profession, usually three years, before one is considered qualified to sit for the licensing exam.  The unionized construction trades also provide apprenticeship programs as a prerequisite for membership, thus insuring a flow of skilled tradespeople (how the non-union world deals with this is anyone’s guess). Outside the AEC industry, though, corporate America has walked away from the notion of training and mentoring.  Since to be recognized as a skilled person in any field requires a combination of experience, knowledge, and skill, where are these Hollywood model workers going to get the training they need to participate successfully?
  2. Without medical coverage, everyone is at risk. As a Hollywood model worker, you have to fend for yourself when it comes to medical insurance and other benefits.  You will do this by paying the highest possible rates for medical insurance as a small business owner, sole proprietor, or single employee company, thanks to the way the insurance industry penalizes these kinds of workers.  While there are organizations that help freelancers with this by setting up groups, no one has the bargaining  power that large corporations have when it comes to dealing with health insurance companies, so no matter what, you will pay more.  Much more.  At the same time, as a freelancer or Hollywood model worker, you have very limited leverage when it comes to what you can charge your clients or customers.  So you’re stuck in the middle of unreasonably high costs for basic coverage and a cap on what you can make. So you earn less.
  3. The work never stops. Before you think this is a good thing, think again.  As a freelancer or Hollywood modeler, if you don’t work, you don’t earn.  While the cubicle jockeys in corporate America think that freelancing offers income and freedom, any freelancer that with any experience yearns for a couple of steady assignments to take the edge off the uncertainty.  Remember, most peoples’ costs are recurring things, like the mortgage, the rent, health insurance, and so on.  So take your place on the treadmill and spread yourself thin between doing the work you have and landing the next piece of business; it it’s a 50/50 split, you’re losing ground.  And in the meantime, try telling your landlord that your skills are magically re-evaluated by the market frequently.
  4. It’s not for everybody, and not for every skill. So far, the Hollywood, or AEC, model seems to work best with highly educated people who can do very particular things, have some, albeit limited, leverage when it comes to pricing, and either can, or want to be, flexible about the way they work.  If you need a lot of support, as opposed to collaboration, which is a very different thing, to effectively do whatever it is you do, you are unlikely to succeed.

All that said, whether you call it the Hollywood model, the EAC industry, or just plain freelancing, it can be an efficient way to work as long as it works more or less equally well for employer and employee. But beware when corporate America takes this one up as the latest management mantra because it just means they have found another way to screw us all.  Read the NYT article at