Saturday, September 24, 2011


The chair of a an architecture program needed to move the time of a class taught by a local practitioner in order to make the schedule work better for the students. When the chair asked the practitioner if he could adjust his schedule accordingly, he asked what it was worth to the chair to make this change and that he would do it only if he got paid more money.

Recent protests in India occurred because of widespread public disgust at the level of corruption in that society, in which, as an Indian colleague of mine describes it, people in both the public and private sectors take bribes in order to perform a service more readily or to step up the response time. My colleague explains that this has become so rampant that people just factor this into the cost of doing business and that those who expect such payments often justify it because so many others do so as well. The rising cost of living, the rapidly growing population, and the over-burdened infrastructure in India all fuel this culture of covert payments. But it violates a basic tenet of civil society: trust that people will do their job well and in a timely manner for the agreed-upon price and for fair compensation.

The expectation of a bribe represents a form of extortion. In the case of India, it sounds like the corruption in that society involves a more passive form of extortion, putting something lower on a list of priorities or performing a service more slowly or after a longer delay unless the person in need pays a little extra to expedite the work. In the case of the practitioner who asks for more money from the program chair in order to move the time of a class, the extortion is more active and obvious and even more objectionable as a result. Extortionists obtain things by threatening others. The question this practitioner asked – what is it worth to the chair to change the time of the class – carried with it the implied threat that he would refuse to make that change without receiving more money to do so.

We can imagine how this person might justify such extortion. Adjunct faculty who teach the occasional course rarely get paid as much as fulltime faculty members would for the same course, when measured as a percentage of their salaries. This practitioner might rightly believe that he should receive more money for the course he teaches and he may have seen the chair’s need to move the course’s time as an opportunity to get what he thought he deserved. But the issue here isn’t whether this practitioner deserves more compensation, but how he went about trying to achieve it. The use of threats to get something – anything – from another person ranges from the unethical to the outright criminal depending upon the nature of the threat and stakes involved.

Here, no crime occurred. The practitioner didn’t physically threaten the chair or demand more money at gunpoint. But the practitioner did try to extort money from the chair, thinking that he had the upper hand, which turned out to be his mistake. The chair, when confronted by his threat, immediately said that the program would find another way to deal with the schedule conflict and thanked him for coming in to discuss it. And the chair never asked that practitioner to teach another course again. Extortion, in other words, may seem like a way to get more money and to take advantage of a situation, but over the long term, it never pays.

Monday, September 5, 2011


Despite their years of experience and depth of knowledge, many mid-career architects, laid off in the 2008 recession, found it almost impossible to find work in the field often because of higher salary expectations and lower computer skills than younger staff. Does the profession have a responsibility to its members in such a situation?

In the American economy, employment for middle-aged workers has lagged behind that of both younger people and retirees willing to work for less. That downward pressure on salaries reflects the fact that wages in the U.S. have not kept up with increasing productivity. Between 1947 and 1979, worker productivity rose 119% and average compensation kept pace, growing 100%, but after 1980 productivity increased 80%, while compensation went up only 7%.

Many explanations exist for that stagnation of wages since 1980: off-shoring American jobs, increasing global competition, and public policies that have mostly benefited the top fifth wage earners. And we have seen the same in the architectural profession. U.S. firms have opened offices overseas and increasingly competed for work globally. And, as a result, the partners of firms that have succeeded in the global marketplace have done relatively well financially, even as many of their mid-career, formerly employed colleagues have not.

History has shown that older people caught in a technological or economic transition, trained in a previous era without new skills, often face higher unemployment. That happened with in the 19th century industrial revolution and it appears to have happened again with the digital revolution and the global economy enabled by it. But while that may be how economics works, ethics does not work that way. The latter shows us why we have a responsibility to help others in a situation like this, even if we have no legal obligation or financial incentive to do so.

The ethical reason to help others is simple: we help others in need because we, too, will be in need of help someday. That reciprocity may not be apparent to those prospering – or simply trying to survive right now – in a rapidly changing economy. And we see how this has played itself out politically. People barely holding on to some semblance of the life they once had have resisted increased taxes to help others who have not, leading to the paradox that with rising economic inequality has come a parallel rise in political polarization at least in the U.S.

That ethics of the jungle, in which people become more vicious when fighting over the last scraps, may serve the interests of disingenuous politicians, who use fear to keep people complacent in the face of inequalities that might otherwise lead to revolution in the streets. The politics of fear did stop people in North African countries from rebelling, revealing the limitations of such a strategy. But do professions have an obligation to their members that transcends such a situation? Are there things professionals can do to help their colleagues caught in this economic transition?

Mentoring out-of-work peers and helping them network with other professionals and prospective employers may be among the most useful actions. Providing training opportunities for little or no cost to bring up skill levels required to compete for jobs can also go a long way toward giving hope to those left behind in a changing economy. But most helpful of all would be to give the unemployed work, even if only part-time. The top fifth wage earners have greatly benefited from globalism and those profits need to translate into more jobs. The fate of elites in North Africa shows what can await us if we don’t.