Sunday, August 1, 2010

Cobol Is My Hero -- A Reverse Luddism

The Sacramento Bee reported that some people in California are wearing T-shirts bearing the cryptic words, "Cobol Is My Hero."

People outside of California might not be aware that our governor, Arnold Schwarzenegger, attempted to have state workers paid the minimum wage until the Legislature presents him with acceptable budget. Since the budget cannot be passed without a two thirds majority and the Republicans, who are unanimously committed to holding firm on their pledge to not raise taxes, have enough votes to veto any budget that does not suit them.

Already, in previous years, the Democrats have capitulated and agreed to horrendous cuts to education and, even worse, any program that threatened to give any help whatsoever to the poor. The Democrats went one step further, agreeing to additional tax cuts, which can only make the budget worse.

The state comptroller, John Chiang, refused to comply with the governor's demands, explaining that revamping the state computer system to change the wage structure in a short period of time would be impossible. To do so would be especially difficult because the system is programmed in an obsolete language, Cobol.

Cobol was last in the news in the run-up to the Y2K panic. Companies need to upgrade their computer systems, but lacked people trained in obsolete computer languages. In desperation, they turned to Indian companies, which was instrumental in accelerating the growth of outsourcing computer work to India.

Shortly before this rush to reprogram computers in anticipation of the Y2K disaster, Paul Strassmann, former CIO at General Foods and Kraft, wrote a book, which took the position that the churning of computer systems by means of excessively frequent upgrades cost a great deal more than any potential savings. The manpower required to reprogram everything, along with the inevitable glitches were not worth as much as the cost of upgrades.

Strassmann, Paul A. 1997. The Squandered Computer: Evaluating the Business Alignment of Information Technologies (Information Economics Press).

Strassmann's position was not particularly popular for obvious reasons. I have not followed the literature enough to know if he was proven correct or not, but workers in California have reason to applaud the obsolescence of Cobol -- a kind of reverse Luddism.


Jack said...

"....might not be aware that our governor, Arnold Schwarzenegger, attempted to have state workers paid the minimum wage until the Legislature presents him with acceptable budget."

One more interesting example of a government entity aiming at working class people for the source of budgetary remedy rather than raise the taxes of wealthier people who might actually be able to afford such an expense. Is Ca civil service pay not governed by legislation? That seems unlikely.
Is Arnold suggesting that the Ca government provides nothing of value to its citizens? He's been in charge for a few years now. Hasn't his magic had any good effect?

John Thacker said...

"One more interesting example of a government entity aiming at working class people for the source of budgetary remedy rather than raise the taxes of wealthier people who might actually be able to afford such an expense."

Not really, the average state employee makes more than the average working class person. Perhaps you're arguing that they should target the "truly wealthy," but don't forget than in 2005 California raised the rate on millionaires by 1.0%. California is not a low taxed state by any measure (whether per capita or per income); the rate of 9.3% hits at an income of $47,000, an extremely low level for such a high state income tax rate.

And despite those "horrendous cuts" in previous years, California's spending has increased still greater than inflation plus population growth.

California suffers from extremely volatile revenue, getting so much revenue from capital gains and bonuses paid out by tech companies and entertainment during boom years, when then fall precipitously during down years.

Anonymous said...

And exactly how is it possible to write a payroll system - any system - that would make changing pay rates difficult? Is it impossible to hand out raises as well?

Erik Hetzner said...

FuzzyFace, we are talking about changing *every* employee's salary *temporarily*. If the system is not built for it, it would be a hard problem. You need to keep at least the old salary around, etc.

Michael, Cobol is obsolete in the sense that nobody really writes new software in it, but it is still *very* widely deployed. See, for instance, here:

Not that I don't support the sentiment! But a more accurate, though less pithy, slogan might be: "Unmaintainable software is my hero."

John, I don't know where you get your statistics. My experience is that state employment tends to level wages. That is, those who would make less in the private sector (janitors, etc.) tend to make a bit more than they would in the private sector. Those who would make more (lawyers, nurses, computer programmers) make a little less. And of course state or local government employment is often qualitatively different than private sector employment. There are, largely, no private sector police, firefighters, or prison guards. And the state university systems employ a lot of pretty high skilled workers. So it does not necessarily mean that because state employees make a higher wage than the average non-supervisory worker that they are "overpaid", even looking at things from a very narrow perspective that assumes the private sector pays the "right" wages.

Jack said...

"Not really, the average state employee makes more than the average working class person." JT

I suppose it depends on one's definition of working class. The link below indicates that the average Ca. government employee, data presented by county, earned $1,042 weekly. That's a "wopping" $54,185 per annum. Yes, that's better than flipping burgers at McDaonalds or working at Walmart, but it's barely sustains a family in CA, or any metropolitan center. That's working class in my book, as defined as an individual that gets an hourly wage or has to live nearly week to week dependent on each continuous paycheck.

MaxSpeak said...

You have to be careful comparing public and private employee wages to use data comparing like with like, not police officers with retail clerks.

Jack said...

The data presented was by county across work classifications. Granted that comparison by job title wouold be best when analysing one thing in relation to another. However, that was not the point of my comment. Who is working class and whjether they should bear the brunt of a government's budgetary problems was more to the point.

I don't see Ca municipal employees as being over paid or of less value than other workers. Budgetary problems are not resolved through the financial contribution of one group rather than another. If Ca empoyees are superfluous then there is an issue of mismanagement, and that should be addressed. If those employees are performing a service that is deemed necessary or essential then they should not be asked to make a financial sacrifice that others do not share.

michael perelman said...

One must be careful about such numbers. At the top of the distribution, government workers can be paid highly. A few doctors at the University of California earn more than a million dollars -- if memory serves me correctly. Those high salaries will not be compared with corporate executives, but with blue collar workers or baristas.

At the bottom level, our university pays good, but not extraordinary salaries to professors, but blue collar workers do quite well compared to people in Wal-Mart or most retail jobs. In so far as janitors in the private sector are concerned, underpaid, undocumented workers are common.

Jack said...

Again I'll repeat. The issue isn't one of compartive compensation. The issue is one of shared burden; in this case related to finding ways to ameliorate the dire budgetary condition in Ca, or any other state, city or the entire country.

Why is it appropriate to lower municipal worker's salaries to close a budget gap? How is that different from raising the taxes of only those workers? As previously stated, if those workers are superfluous to the needs of the municipality you have a management problem. If they are necessary to carrying out the tasks of the government then asking them to bear a greater burden during burdensom times is absurd and totally irresponsible. Granted that does not make such an action unlikely given the current grade of government leaders that we have across the country. Democracy brings with it the issue of lowest common denominator. Voters like to identifiy with their chosen leaders.

r l love said...

A farmer was plowing one morning when a Cal-Trans truck pulled up. About 20 minutes later a state worker got out of the truck and he dug a small hole with a brand-new post-hole digger that fit in a custom made rack in a special compartment near the rear of the truck.

Once the first worker was back in the truck, a second worker filled in the hole with a shovel that he took from a second compartment but the farmer could not see if the shovel fit in a custom rack because its compartment was on the opposite side of the truck from the field he was plowing.

The farmer had also missed the fact that the second worker had also chocked the wheels when the truck had first arrived, but once the hole was dug and filled, and once the second worker was back in the truck, the first worker got out and removed the chocks and after putting them in another special compartment he got back in the truck and then they repeated the process about 200 yards up the road. At this point the farmer also noticed that the second worker put out reflectors at each end of the truck.

By lunch-time the state workers had dug and filled 2 holes and the farmer, a man who had dug many post-holes in that very same soil, and thereby knew that 2 holes dug and filled was what would normally take him less than an hour... was consequently curious, and he assumed that these fellows were doing some sort of soil tests inside the truck, and the truck was in fact very sophisticated.

So the farmer, having a natural interest in all things having to do with soil, decided to ask the state workers what they were up to.

"Well," explained the first worker, "I dig the holes and Joe always fills 'em in... And George puts in the sign posts, but, well... George is on vacation this week.

almostlost said...

As a computer programmer who has often viewed the intersection of business and computers with a jaundiced eye, this is absolutely priceless!

Jack said...

I'm sure that there is a point to your little parable, but the moral of the story escapes me. I can tell you a fact, rather than a fable. I spent a bit more than twenty years working in mental health residential and program services in the NY state system. Since then I spent abouot the same amount of time working in private industry. No one worked harder for less pay than the state workers that I new and supervised. No one in private industry worked in a more demanding and less (financially) rewarding setting than that offered by state employment. Parables tell an invented story for the purpose of making a point, but the point need not be valid. Reality is more telling.

As noted, for a third time, if there is less than good and necessary work being performed within public or private employment
the issue is one of poor management. i offer you the observation that there is an inverse relationship between level of pay grade, public or private, and intensity of work effort and/or work setting. General budgetary deficiencies need to be addressed by general public participation.

r l love said...


The "fable" from above has been oft told in California going back about 25 years that I know of. Go nearly anywhere in that state and it is hard to miss the hi-way workers dressed in orange who are standing together in groups doing little or nothing. Leaning on a shovel seems to be their specialty.

What fails to get mentioned when our dismal infrastructure's condition is discussed is that it fell into a state of disrepair as the combined percentage of GDP, of local, state, and federal government, rose to 38%, and while the folks being paid to do the maintenance were simply not doing the maintenance.

And because your comment helped me to understand that nothing fictional could ever illustrate a point as well as 'your' "fact", I too have an experience that covered a 20 year period although my 'facts', (which could also be called a "story"), conflict with yours, I shall however begin by offering this as anecdotal, but factual nonetheless:

I owned and operated a log furniture business and this included gathering materials in the forests of the Tahoe Basin. The permits that I purchased from the USDA allowed me to gather only dead-fall so this task required lengthy searches along logging roads... and... it was common to see government vehicles of all types nestled up under the trees with the occupants doing absolutely nothing related to their jobs. Where this got really annoying though, for me at least, was in realizing that my permits did not allow me to drive on the forest floor, we were in fact obligated by law to carry our bounty to the roads, no mechanized transport of any kind was allowed (no winches etc.), but... it was not at all uncommon to find government employees with their vehicles (that were often larger than what I had) parked off the roads so as to stay out of site.

I would typically have a small crew and we would sweep an area about 100 yards out from the primitive roads and so we found these shirkers systematically and they were nearly always public employees and most often 'Cal Trans'.

Is that "reality" also "telling"? Or is it only anecdotes that you agree with which have "a point" and a "moral" that does not "escape" you? And if you failed to get the point, and if the moral was beyond your grasp, how is it that your anecdote was perfectly contrary to the point of my "fable"? Coincidence? Or are you still finding it difficult to think of something clever to say without contrived insults.

Jack said...

I can't argue with an anecdote. That's why such "evidence" is disregarded in scientific research,
but often provides the basis for a biased review of an issue. No one anecdote is any better than another
though some will always claim greater consensual validity for the stories they tell. Assume for the moment that your scenarios are accurately told and true. That only confirms something I briefly mentioned previously. That being that in a beaurocratic organizations the greatest weakness is at the management level. For what has your description conveyed to us other than that a group of wrokers were consistently and persistently poorly managed. As they say, the fish rots from the head down.

Similar tales are told about DMV employees in NY, maybe also on Ca. They are by popular characterization a shftless and lazy lot. We all know it because it takes forever and a day to get anything processed at the local DMV office. They must be goofing off. Or, they may be woefully understaffed. I've been to DMV several times in the past year. There are always big crowds at the DMV. There are lots of cars and people needing to document something to do with them. And each one is going to the counters in a brisk and steady manner. No one appears to be slackng off. All seem to be trying to fend off the sense of the pressures of a tedious clerical job. All seem to be busy if not enthused.

Stories about how others do their jobs abound. No one works as hard as me in or out of public employment. That's anecdotal, but I'm sure of it; N=1. The moral of the story is that if you're not in the job, you don't know the job. Might Ca suffer a disproportionate number of goldbrick employees in comparison to NY? I don't see a basis for that conclusion.