Sunday, October 25, 2009

What's best and worst?

A few years ago I would tell people that the best and worst thing about America was the 99 cent Whopper. There was a time when Burger King sold its Whopper hamburger for less than one dollar.

For me, this was awesome. There was no way I could go to the store and buy ground beef and a tomato and lettuce and hamburger buns, an onion, mayo, and make my own hamburger at home for anywhere near this price. Sure, I would have enough ingredients for 5 or 6 Whoppers, but the total cost including labor for cooking and storage and clean-up would push itself up into real money.

So, yes, it was great that I could get a Whopper for a buck. But that also meant that the wholesale costs for these ingredients needed to be kept low. And that meant that beef needed to be produced at such a scale that it was virtually free. Which meant cows were probably not going to like their new job descriptions.

Labor also had to be cheap. A corporation can't afford to pay someone twelve dollars an hour to do a five-dollar-an-hour job. I would guess tasks are simplified and turnover is high.

Some of you might say that companies always offer "loss leaders." Yes, but this is Burger King's signature menu item. It's like if Coke sold regular Coke for $1 a six-pack while charging $3 for Diet Coke. People would stop drinking Diet Coke and switch to regular or Diet Pepsi or something else. You can't subsidize the $1 Whopper with a $5 chicken sandwich.

Which brings me to libraries. And privatization.

I work in a public library. But you know that. We're friends. I've been to your house numerous times. You set me up with your sister; she's very sweet, but it didn't work out. What do you mean, did I sleep with her?

Libraries are essentially a Charity. Like roads, law enforcement, hospitals, support for the needy, and education, Libraries are a form of relief, but for the poor and the ignorant. You already know the spiel: libraries exist to the betterment of society; you can judge the advancement of a culture by its support for libraries; blah, blah, blah.

But like other charities, Libraries are being viewed as an outdated waste of money. Like NASA. "Why do we keep flying around in space wasting money?" the people ask. "Because we have rockets," NASA replies, "and if you don't let us use them for dumb stuff like flying to the moon, we might just fly them right into your house when you're on the toilet."

But Libraries don't have rockets. And libraries don't have sick or poor or dangerous people that we can parade in front of the media to guilt or scare people into giving us money.

So some people want to privatize libraries, to turn libraries, essentially Charities, into profit-making schemes. With investors and overhead. Yes, using cost-incentive business models will drive down prices and allow libraries to be run more cheaply, but what about The Whopper?

Burger King's business decisions are market-driven, with costs and profits rising or falling based on supply and demand. But more so, that five-dollar-an-hour job is always a five-dollar-an-hour job; it doesn't get more complex the longer someone does it. The goal is to work your way up the ladder to a better job.

But the job of librarian is already the top of the library ladder. You can become a manager, but you're still a librarian. The job gets more and more complex, and your ability to help gets greater as you gain experience.

It's the same Whopper, but it's not the same Whopper because the world that exists to make that Whopper is changed. Beef processing, tomato and growing and storage changes. Supposedly, it is impossible now to identify or isolate fewer than 1,000 cows per one pound of ground beef because the process has changed that drastically. That's why you hear that some company had to recall 50,000 pounds of problem beef; no one knows where the problem started.

And now tomatoes and lettuce carry life-threatening salmonella because of similar changes in farming. Did a tomato ever kill anyone twenty years ago? (Yes, yes it did.)

So it's the same Librarian, but it's not the same Librarian. What happens when you try to cut costs to produce a Librarian? I don't know. It hasn't happened yet.

Will librarians have the skills they need to help people or will they just post funny tidbits on Twitter and boast that they have a thousand followers. If anyone hasn't said it yet, then let's drag Andy Warhol into the 21st century and say, "In the future, everyone will have fifteen-hundred followers."

So when someone mentions privatizing libraries, I wonder how charitable I'll feel I can be with my patrons when my new boss wants to pay me half of what I make now. Like yesterday when I did a $25 (estimated market value) edit job on some guy's resume, cleaned up all the white space and got it down to two pages (total time: 4 minutes). But I probably won't have any choice in that future library because time is money and the definition of Help will change to accommodate the new standards.

I wonder if in the future when libraries become Burger Kings, will there will also be Morton's Steakhouse libraries where the service is better and the customer's tip handsomely? There'd better be. Because I'm not working the drive-thru.