Monday, July 31, 2006
A Debtors' Prison For The 21st Century
A special series in The Boston Globe chronicles the Dickensian plight of debtors in modern-day Massachusetts. The rapidly explanding consumer debt of middle-class Americans has fueled an explosion in the world of debt collection. The number of debt collection agencies nationwide has grown to 162,000 in the last decade, forming a major new sector of the financial services industry. Debt collectors typically purchase old or hitherto uncollectable debts from their original corporate creditors at a fraction of their value, and then apply harrying nighttime visits, car repossession, repeated threats and other strong-arm tactics to recover the full amount from the debtors. Car repossession is one of the most destructive of these tactics, depriving the debtors of transportation to and from their place of employment - and thus preventing them from earning the money that could ease their debts. Sometimes the cars are never returned. In one case, a 71 year old retired college teacher lost not only her car, but a large quantity of expensive medications for her asthma, high blood pressure and diabetes, which were left in her car at the time that it was taken. Car repossession and other forms of harassment are often undertaken with the aid of local constables, deputy sheriffs and towing services - all of which charge fees for their cooperation which are passed onto the debtor.
Debtors have the opportunity to appear in court to argue their case, but the small claims courts of Massachusetts - once intended as a "common law" arena in which citizens faced each other on an equal level - have been retooled as debt extraction instruments for the corporate world. Summonses are frequently mailed to incorrect or out-of-date addresses, cases of mistaken identity occur on a regular basis, and debtors are rarely warned of the full consequences of not appearing on the specified date. 80 percent of debtors, in fact, do not appear in court - often because they cannot afford to miss a day of work - at which point judgment defaults automatically to the plaintiff. Even when debtors do appear, they are almost never represented by an attorney, and they are up against plaintiffs that not only have attorneys present, but are long practiced in the court system. Professional debt collectors have, after all, filed approximately 575,000 lawsuits between 2000 and 2005 in Massachusetts alone. This combination of legal representation and experience puts the debtors at a double disadvantage, and they virtually always lose. According to the Globe, debtors are often treated with less consideration than alleged felons appearing before the criminal court, and they are sometimes sentenced to jail terms if they can not immediately pay their debts.
A veteran of the Iraq War who lost both arms in the conflict was required to fly into court from a military hospital - at his own expense - to respond to a debt collector's false allegation that he was "not a soldier" and therefore not entitled to any legal delay in paying his debts. For more details on this and other state-sanctioned outrages, read the article at the link below.
"Debtors' Hell" from The Boston Globe
Sunday, July 30, 2006
Rep. Ed Markey Disparages U.S.-Born IT Professionals
Some years ago, when I first got involved with the Internet, I researched my father's World War II infantry regiment and discovered that one of his squad sergeants had won the Congressional Medal Honor - posthumously. That was news to my Dad. He was with the regiment for three months, but was wounded in October of 1944 and spent the rest of the war in England. His batallion was later "overwhelmed" in Drusenheim, Germany in January 1945, so my Dad was lucky he got out when he did. After the war ended and he was back home in Massachusetts, the local newspaper listed him as eligible for the Bronze Star. By that point however, my father had put his old regiment out of his mind and was trying to move on with his new life as a graduate student in political science. My research inspired my Dad to find out what had happened to the Bronze Star for which he was eligible, but never got around to claiming. He was approaching the end of his life, after all, and was eager to tie up loose ends. After a year of dealing with veterans' centers and the U.S. government, we eventually got my Dad his Bronze Star. The local veterans' center even arranged a visit from our Congressman, Ed Markey, to do the presentation in the summer of 2003.
So Ed Markey gave my Dad his Bronze Star nearly 60 years after he earned it. We are grateful to Rep. Markey for participating in the presentation. Certainly he cares for the elderly and the "greatest generation" in particular. If you belong to that age cohort, by all means vote for him. Unfortunately, one of the corollaries of respecting the "greatest generation" is an unqualified contempt for their children, those horrifically worthless "baby boomers". It is unprecedented in biological history for one generation of a species to be pure gold, and the next to be sheer excrement - but that is apparently what has happened in this case - at least in the eyes of many opinion leaders, including the media. Forty thousand journalists can't be wrong, can they?
During the presentation, upon learning that I, the son, worked in IT, Markey recounted the experience of a fellow Boston College alumnus who became a physicist and worked at Los Alamos. This good friend of our congressman said that the Chinese he worked with were all smarter than he was, and smarter than all the Americans around. Rep. Markey extrapolated from this to imply that Asians were smarter than Americans technically, and would eventually outperform all us domestic dullards right out of the market. Having been in IT for twenty years, I have worked with people of all nationalities and have never found any one group to possess a monopoly on superior ability. Yet that is what this one congressman clearly thinks. Not only did he think that, but he thought it strongly enough to annoy his constituents with his opinion at an event where that opinion should have had no relevance at all. If you were born in America and you work in IT in the state of Massachusetts - particularly if you are not of Asian descent - please remember that Rep. Markey does not respect your intelligence and is not inclined to protect your livelihood. The next time he runs, do not vote for him.
Friday, July 28, 2006
Your Future's In Your Own Backyard
Working Americans facing a need for more flexibility in their daily schedules, not to mention soaring gas prices, are telecommuting more than ever. Twenty million of us work from home at least once a week, and the number of self-employed has risen from 6.4 percent to 7.4 percent in the last five years. Experts are convinced that both trends will accelerate in the future. With so much free enterprise going on in so many homes, the nature of those homes themselves will need to change. Or at least they may need to be modified or augmented in some fashion to support the new role of "office".
A corporation called Cedarsheds, which hitherto has specialized in gazebos and other backyard architecture, has devised a series of modular home offices that you can erect in your backyard. The basic units are constructed onsite from prefab materials and cost about $13,000. They provide about 120 square feet of office space, along with 100 square feet of deck space. Bigger than most cubicles to be sure, with enough room for file storage, office furniture and computer peripherals. And that deck space would be just the ticket for those who need to pace a bit before making momentous business decisions.
Enjoying the simple pleasures of nature while earning one's living is something that has eluded modern man since the industrial age began, and it would be splendid to have that opportunity once again. The ironic thing is that big business has so completely destroyed the weather through global warming that a backyard office may not be either as comfortable or as feasible as it sounds. At least all year round. And up here in Northeast, snow and ice and tree-deconstructing rain storms will drive you back indoors in a heartbeat. Nonetheless, for places like, say, North Carolina, Florida or California, the backyard office might be the wave of the future. Install video games on the computer, and it could replace the pool.
"Home Office? It's In The Yard" from Wired
Thursday, July 27, 2006
Should We Accept Bad Bosses As A Part Of Nature?
The standard advice about bad bosses is to either accept their existence with stoicism, or to navigate one's way around them as though they are an inconvenient part of the natural environment which we must accommodate or avoid. Removing them is not up to us, we are told, and confrontation is deemed unwise. There are a few basic types of bad bosses. To wit:
1) The Inappropriate Boss - This is the sort of dorkwad who repeatedly makes unwarranted remarks about your gender, your age, your ethnic background, your character, your lifestyle or your physical appearance. Or, in some cases, all of the above. These bosses are, in fact, very hard to change. They usually behave the way they do in accordance with a political agenda they believe in or a cultural bias that is deeply ingrained. They would be your enemies under any circumstances because they simply despise the demographic to which you belong. Don't let them raise your blood pressure. You would be happier with a laidback paper pusher, or someone who is so "all business" that they could give a rat's ass about what you are.
2) The Sadistic Boss - These are actually rather rare, since so many potential sadists these days have acquired enough "cultural competence" to mask their desire to torment you under a veneer of politically correct revenge - what they imagine to be their "sense of justice". Some monsters are still out there though. At their purest and least reconstructed, the source of their assholery is transparently weakness, and they are to be pitied as much as despised.
3) The Incompetent - Everyone is either born incompetent or becomes incompetent later on. According to the nineteen-seventies business classic, The Peter Principle, successful people always rise to their level of incompetence, and generally stay there. At least long enough to do real damage. Have enough confidence that you are smarter than your boss, and you will do fine. The ego satisfaction that arises from pulling some highly placed fool's nuts out of the fire will strengthen your position - and certainly your skills - in the long run. If you are not especially competent yourself however, then an incompetent boss is the absolute worst you can have.
Outside of steering around bad bosses, the article at the link below counsels tact (i.e., hypocrisy), and other common sense tactics such as making as many friends as possible and being prepared to move on at a moment's notice if things get too bad - or if you get fired. Never invest your emotions in a job or a workplace. Treat your employment with watchful detachment, as though it were a child in a TB ward or a replacement on the battlefield. Never assume that any job will last very long.
"How To Survive A Bad, Bad Boss" from Orange County Register
Wednesday, July 26, 2006
Dress For Survival (If Not Success)
My wife, who is a theatrical costume designer, tells me that I look good in suits, or even just with a shirt and tie. I am inclined to concur. I actually enjoy dressing up, and would gladly do so if I worked in an office that required it. Regrettably, all the places I have worked at since the turn of the century have mandated a "casual" look. If you show up wearing a jacket and tie, management will look at you askance and wonder aloud, "Is he interviewing?"
Casual dress at the workplace is intended to make erstwhile "white collar" workers feel at home, and it is certainly easier on the bank account. Nonetheless, I believe it manifests the corporate caste system in action with its usual insidious subtlety. Wearing suits and ties is reserved for "important people", those who must present themselves to the "public eye" - and we Morlocks who toil in those subdivided backrooms commonly known as cubicles don't qualify. In other words, casual dress at the workplace is never universal, and a class chasm exists between those who wear it and those who don't.
I draw the line at jeans, and prefer khaki Dockers as a rule. Jeans will blue-collarize even the most ambitious office worker, and I sincerely sympathize with those forced to witness the plumber's crack of the guy in the cubicle next to theirs. To my chagrin however, I have learned that pleated Dockers are verboten, according to the fashion guide below. They tend to give the hips of any man who wears them a womanly broadness. I don't recall having that problem myself, but I remain advised. Beta males must still resemble males, after all.
Other tips include the following. For ladies, avoid cleavage, bare midriffs and flip-flops. For men - other than the veto of pleated trousers - crew neck T shirts are best (if you are young and insist on wearing T shirts), but V-neck sweaters are preferred on older guys (i.e., the time-honored "cardigan" look). Wear belts; that helps. Check out the link below for more details.
"In today's workplace, you still can dress cool and casual -- to a degree" from Seattle Post-Intelligencer
Tuesday, July 25, 2006
Do You Work With Jerks?
Sometimes one of the worst things about being a wage slave are the people in the cubicles next to yours. If I had the opportunity to do the same work for the same money in an environment where no one bothered me, I would sure as hell take it. These days, I try to get to the office by 6:45 AM - and not just to avoid the traffic.
There is a sort of person which I totally despise. This archetypal corporate personality combines laziness and an acceptance of defeat with a certain residual narcissism. Its embodiments see themselves as schmucks, losers, also-rans - in other words, as quintessential white collar drones. At the same time they are far too vain to admit the possibility that anyone around them might outstrip them in one way or another. They especially dislike anyone who retains a semblance of hope or self-esteem. Their signature tactic is to engage you in conversation, trash themselves in a falsely genial fashion, and then breezily insist that you are just like them. "Guys like us..." is their favorite sentence starter, followed by a loud sigh. They epitomize the saying, "Misery loves company", and proliferate like carpenter ants around a broken sugar bowl in any troubled corporation. My own feeling is that it is better not to be constantly reminded of one's utter insignificance and mediocrity. My attitude, in short, is that "Ignorance is bliss".
The ideal work environment is suffused with a true esprit de corps, a sense of belonging to an elite even if one is not oneself a star. At its best, I imagine it to be something like what it is to be a Marine, or a student at an Ivy League college, or the employee of a healthy young startup imbued with visions of the IPO to come. Corporations that view their employees as disposable overhead - rather than as members of the "team" or the "family" or the "company" - have robbed us of feeling good about either ourselves or the groups to which we belong. And that is why so many lash out at others. Corporate indifference compels us to hold ourselves, both individually and collectively, in contempt.
"The Jerk At Work" from the Boston Globe
Monday, July 24, 2006
Offering Condolences On The Job
The link below examines a facet of "workplace etiquette" - how to express one's condolences when a colleague or the relative of one passes away. Cards are in order, but formality should be maintained. Therefore, better something from Hallmark than from Shoebox. Consoling aggrieved colleagues is a task that even I have handled well at one time or another. It requires sensitivity and taste, or at least a shrewd mimicry thereof.
I wonder though - how does one console a colleague who has been demoted, downsized or outright fired? How can one balance the desired sincerity with the need to remain employed by the same entity that robbed the departed colleague of his earning power? Are there appropriate cards available for such occasions? Can those cards be passed among the department - or should they be circulated only in secret? Can one ask one's boss, who was perhaps the agent of the fateful firing, to sign the card himself? Or should one pass the card under the cubicle wall, so to speak, to its intended recipient? Should the card be simperingly optimistic, or brayingly cynical and iconoclastic? Should one's demeanor be solemn - or ridiculous? These are the sorts of questions I'd like to see answered about "workplace etiquette", as surely our careers die at least as often as we do ourselves.
"Workplace Etiquette" from The Post-Standard
Sunday, July 23, 2006
Silicon Valley Invents Time Travel
Brocade Communications, a data storage company based in San Jose, has invented the time machine. What geniuses are responsible for this momentous development? Was it some phat guru of a Ph.D. in plasma physics, superconductivity or electrical engineering? Fat chance. Brocade's accountants did it. They devised a financial time chariot known as a back-dated stock option, and their CEO, George Reyes, was the intrepid chrononaut who pulled the switch. Mr. Reyes and his head of human resources have been charged with criminal fraud for artificially changing the dates on stock options offered to prospective employees so that they would appear to be getting the options at a lower price. Whether or not these stock options would actually have been worth anything when the employees eventually chose to exercise them is uncertain. What is beyond doubt is that the practice is unethical and dishonest. The courts will ultimately demonstrate whether or not it is truly illegal.
Observers of the scandal have noted that Brocade is unlikely to be the sole inventor of this dubious financial technology. They are just the only ones to be caught so far. Hundreds of other high tech firms have lured new hires with stock options before, during and after the dot com boom. It is a time-honored method of recruiting hot young cyberstuds to pump out the code for you at minimum salaries. Promise them a fortune in stock options to keep them from feeling underpaid. If your startup offers the stock options before an IPO takes place, the worst that can happen is the options become worthless, a mere sucker punch to the naive but greedy. Once the IPO takes place though, the stock options any spanking new company offers are real - or can be - but even then they won't be worth very much if the stock doesn't rise in price. Hence, the temptation to fudge the dates on the options so that the price will be as low as possible. Most business journalists believe such cheating was widespread, and constitutes yet another black eye to our already bruised memories of the dot com boom. Like Leibniz and Newton simulcasting calculus, CEOs all over Silicon Valley no doubt hit upon this shady innovation all at once.
Some journalists are unsure how harmful the practice really is. They emphasize that, since stock options are rarely exercised immediately, there is still a grace period during which the original prices of those stock options could be readjusted to what they would have been at the time they were offered. That would rectify the effects of the fraud, if not excuse the fraud altogether, and might just placate the SEC. The problem is that the employees who were offered the stock options at the lower price would still be cheated. The moral of the story, at least from the workers' point of view, is to always distrust any compensation other than cold hard cash.
"Scandal blights Silicon Valley " from the International Herald Tribune
"SEC, prosecutors file stock-option charges" from MarketPlace
"Companies Should Confess, Correct Backdating" from the New York Sun
"2 Are Charged in Criminal Case on Stock Options" from the New York Times
Saturday, July 22, 2006
Desire To "Look Good" A Potential Achilles Heel For CEOs
Professor Zingales at the University of Chicago School of Business suggests that "the media seems to exert pressure on corporate managers and regulators, forcing companies to behave more in the interest of shareholders." He cited the case of NYSE Chairman Richard Grasso, who was ousted from his post by the directors when his excessive pay was reported in the press. CEOs apparently understand that their key asset is their reputation, and that adverse publicity can damage their future employability.
The author of the article at the link below has some misgivings about the findings of Zingales' study. They will no doubt be exploited by corporate public relations departments to better manipulate the press. And, even though the study suggests that the power of the press may indeed be exerted to improve the behavior of corporations and their CEOs, the press may no longer be up to the task. "Too often the media plays patsy and is meek in the face of challenge," he asserts. "Media lagged inquiry on just about every corporate scandal in recent memory."
Nonetheless, just think how wonderful it would be if those whose business it is to speak out about what goes on in our society had a little more courage, integrity and common sense. Maybe if simply more of us spoke out, regardless whether or not we are anointed Members of the Press, the same results would ensue. If we cannot prevent corporate theft and other abuses from taking place altogether, at least we might be able to keep them from happening more often through the instrument of public shame.
"Read All About It: Media Coverage May Be What Holds Companies To Account" from MarketWatch
Notes From The Great Recession
This is an oldie but goodie - an article from a June 2003 issue of Fortune magazine that analyzes the causes of the latest white collar recession, the worst in American history. Fortune draws a close analogy with the impact of increasing productivity and a growing reliance on offshore resources on blue collar workers in the early 1980's. The same thing is happening to white collar labor for the same reasons, they say, and the ultimate result will be "good for the American economy". High tech professionals have been hit particularly hard - but even accountants and radiologists are seeing their work shipped overseas to Bangalore or elsewhere, where the labor is far cheaper yet the quality of the work is (supposedly) just as great. From a vantage point of three years, it is easy to see that these trends are still with us. We also see that "profit" and "productivity" have grown - whatever good they do anyone, other than the already rich, on this continent - and that wages are flat for white collar professionals of all sorts, even if employment has picked up a bit. We include the link to this old article because it's a classic of its kind, and has proven disconcertingly prophetic.
My question is this. If even accountants and doctors - much less computer programmers - can be replaced by overseas labor, why not lawyers and journalists next? Why not even legislators and civil servants? Wouldn't our government be cheaper if its very administration was outsourced to another country? That could be one way to eradicate the deficit. Just a little food for thought...
"Down and Out in White-Collar America " from Fortune
Wednesday, July 19, 2006
Debt At An Early Age
At one time, freshly minted college graduates stayed at home only if they couldn't find jobs and couldn't afford to live elsewhere. Now they stay at home because they do have jobs and still can't afford to live elsewhere. Many of the jobs available to young college graduates are "temp" jobs with a limited shelf life and no benefits. Some of those who are trapped in this vocational purgatory believe they are condemned to a life of "permanent impermanence". Even if they do make a good wage, they have a vast amount of debt to pay off. The typical college graduate leaves the campus with $20,000 in unpaid student loans. If they've been in graduate school, their debt is even worse. They are forced to resort to credit cards just to make ends meet. That seems easy because credit card offers at "0% interest!" are ubiquitous. But the credit card industry is a loan-sharking racket just like any other. A large proportion of new graduates have student loans and credit card debt each in the five figures. Add to these twin burdens sky-high rents and the job insecurity so endemic to all generations of American workers, and you have millions of young people stalled indefinitely on the threshold of responsible adulthood.
According to Anya Kamenetz and Tamara Draut - the authors, respectively, of Generation Debt and Strapped - young people remain virtually indentured to their creditors well into their early thirties, enduring an anxious and provisional lifestyle that precludes marriage, much less buying a house and raising children. What is the answer? Certainly, better education on the basics of household finance is in order, starting at the high school level, if not earlier. The young should do what they can to curtail discretionary spending, and eschew credit card come-ons at all cost. But their economic problems are simply a variation of the problems that all age groups are facing. Too much money is being siphoned out of the pockets of the majority to feed the appetites of a tiny minority, and not enough opportunity exists to keep the cashflow in the black. We believe there should be more corporate taxes, laws to limit the ratio of CEO compensation to employee income, and many other reforms to put the brakes on corporate power. But who are we to criticize the high and the mighty? Aren't we all just naive and self-indulgent children who don't know how the world works?
"A Generation Weighed Down By Debt" from the Christian Science Monitor
"Beyond Their Means" from the Washington Post
"The Losing Generation" from Salon
"Generation Debt" from Blogcritics.org
"Generation Debt" from Mother Jones
Generation Debt: Why Now Is A Terrible Time To Be Young by Anya Kamenetz (at Amazon.com)
Reviews of Strapped
Strapped: Why America's 20- And 30-somethings Can't Get Ahead by Tamara Draut (at Amazon.com)
Tuesday, July 18, 2006
Early Deletion...Er, Retirement
In 2005, 45 percent of those workers who retired earlier than planned blamed layoffs or downsizing. This is especially true among white collar workers, while blue collar workers will more often cite medical reasons, such as an inability to meet the physical demands of their jobs. Moreover, it is harder for older workers to get hired, once laid off. Employers are 40 percent more likely to interview workers younger than 50 rather than those 50 and up. The average rate of unemployment for workers 55 and over was 24.1 weeks, while for those under 55 it was only 17.8 weeks.
Even the bosses know what is happening, and those on the lower rungs of the food chain fear it. 90 percent of executives fear they may eventually be discriminated against on the basis of their age, and 60 percent believe the practice has become far more common in the last five years. Most believe the discrimination starts well before 50, and one in ten believe age discrimination will play a role in their own retirement.
"Many Americans Retire Years Before They Want To" from USA Today
Monday, July 17, 2006
Let's Put A Human Face On Greed
William Powers, writing in the National Journal, decries the absence of stories about greed and miserliness in the contemporary press. When most newspaper reporters had working class roots, stories about the extreme avarice of the wealthy were common, and highly critical. Now that many newsmen are millionaires themselves (and have millionaires as friends), and even cub reporters have at least upper-middle class upbringings, the pursuit of wealth is viewed as a form of heroism. The only time tycoons face censure is after they have been prosecuted for major white collar crimes. Avarice is praised as long as it stays legal.
It's fine to give Warren Buffett and Bill Gates their due when they bestow their billions on good causes, but why can't we have some balance? Where are The Tales of The Tightwads? Surely, there must be someone like J. Paul Getty, who put a pay phone in his English mansion so that houseguests could dial long distance at their own expense. Surely, indeed, there are even worse and more widespread abuses, now that the rich are even richer than ever.
It's time to bring a human face back to the image of greed. Responsible journalists should feel obligated to personalize, to demonize, and - above all - to ridicule those who abuse their wealth. If public censure is strong enough when rich men behave badly, they will have all the more incentive to use their money well.
"Invisible Greed" from the National Journal
Sunday, July 16, 2006
More Changes In Cubicle Land
There was a very intriguing sci-fi mystery movie a few years ago called Dark City, in which strange men all dressed in black trenchcoats and fedoras rearranged whole sections of a metropolis while its occupants were sleeping. Welcome to the modern office - in which everything is "scootable". I've tried to find out how "scootable" is defined, but the best I can determine on short notice is that it refers to how something may be assembled with small modular units that can be recombined at will - to expand or contract a workspace, or even cause it to disappear. Perfect! Downsizing as though effected by Santa's little helpers.
I have discussed these changes in office design on this blog before. They employ "curvilinear panels of translucent glass with sliding doors and windows" to give the reality of acoustic privacy while allowing light to shine through, and perhaps for others to see you. Anything is better than a cubicle, it appears.
The research group Knoll Inc. surveyed 850 white collar workers and discovered that 40 percent of those aged 18 to 29 preferred open workspaces without panels. "Young people do not want to work in a sea of cubes," said the Knoll's director. "There's a very negative association."
Indeed there is! The changes in office design thus seem largely propelled by a disgust for the plight of one's elders. Personally, I think it is the nature of corporate behavior that eventually causes a "negative association" with any office design, irrespective of what it looks like. Let's leap ahead thirty years, when those same office workers are in the fifties, and see how well those who are still allowed to earn a living like their "scootable" surroundings.
A sidenote, I'd like to say that the idea of "scootability" reminds me of those Lego blocks some of us played with as children. Those blocks came in all different colors - red, white, yellow, blue - and they had pegs on their tops, and pegholes on their bottoms, and you could snap them together to make any shapes you wanted. They were "scootable" in their day. Not so many years ago, Lego had an R&D department that was like a playground, in which "toy engineers" would happily push the envelope on what you could build with Lego blocks. Sadly, even this workplace paradise could not survive today's ruthless business environment. Lego has laid off 900 employees and begun to relocate its manufacturing facilities from Denmark to Singapore. Perhaps the fate of "scootability" itself will be no less grim.
"The Office Cubicle: Going Full-Circle" from St. Louis Post-Dispatch
Friday, July 14, 2006
What Do "Productivity" And "Profit" Really Mean To Us?
I recently saw an article in Tech Central Station from a sycophantic neocon by the name of Tim Worstall. This gentleman lives in Europe and claims to have CEOs as friends. He clearly sees himself as many cuts above the average American worker, whom he calls "Joe Six-Pack". From the vantage point of his exotic expatriate domain, he explains to us "stupid" folks back in the states how the American system really works. In an intellectually lazy and self-indulgently periphrastic article, he reprises Economics 101 by pointing out that job growth and the expansion of "profit" and "productivity" do not always go hand in hand. Well, duh... CEOs have been able to strip existing corporations of extraneous personnel through the magic of computers, the Internet and sundry other modes of automation. They keep the old companies chugging, doing the same things they've always done, but with much less overhead. "Productivity" soars, "profit" rises. Job growth does not occur. This is because the corporate changes have rendered more labor unnecessary, hence demand is flat, and wages do not rise. We freakin' got that, Einstein.
The fact that "productivity" and "profit" do not translate into more jobs is one of the cardinal features of The New Economy. That doesn't mean they should be. The vast profits accruing from the increase in productivity are going almost nowhere - other than into the pockets of the CEOs and the shareholders. Good for them. They're riding high on a historical anomaly. What generally happens - at least in an authentically expanding economy - is that profits are plowed back into new plants, new products and, inevitably, more jobs. Profits were not intended only to make a few people rich. They were intended to grow the business, which is the last thing that modern CEOs are doing. They are shrinking the business, reducing the corporations they oversee to mere husks of their former selves. Their profit is cannibalistic, not generative - the harbinger of corporate death, not growth.
Mr. Worstall clearly does not see this, reveling near-drunkenly in silly circular arguments. All such blithely cocky imbeciles should be quickly put to the sword. And our advice to you is this - the next time you hear Our Feckless Leader praise to the heavens our sterling new economy with its glorious "productivity" and "profit", remember that these phenomena occur at your expense, and will never hold anything in store for you.
"It's The Productivity, Stupid" from Tech Central Station
Thursday, July 13, 2006
Class War In America
Do you respect Bill Moyers? Do you think he is an immoderate hothead or an evil leftist? If not, consider this quote from a speech he made in 2004: "Class war was declared a generation ago in a powerful paperback polemic by William Simon, who was soon to be Secretary of the Treasury. He called on the financial and business class, in effect, to take back the power and privileges they had lost in the depression and the new deal. They got the message, and soon they began a stealthy class war against the rest of the society and the principles of our democracy. They set out to trash the social contract, to cut their workforces and wages, to scour the globe in search of cheap labor, and to shred the social safety net that was supposed to protect people from hardships beyond their control."
Do you respect The Wall Street Journal? If you do, consider this quote from an article it published in 2005: "Although Americans still think of their land as a place of exceptional opportunity - in contrast to class-bound Europe - the evidence suggests otherwise. And scholars have, over the past decade, come to see America as a less mobile society than they once believed. As recently as the later 1980s, economists argued that not much advantage passed from parent to child, perhaps as little as 20 percent. By that measure, a rich man's grandchild would have barely any edge over a poor man's grandchild....But over the last 10 years, better data and more number-crunching have led economists and sociologists to a new consensus: The escalators of mobility move much more slowly. A substantial body of research finds that at least 45 percent of parents' advantage in income is passed along to their children, and perhaps as much as 60 percent. With the higher estimate, it's not only how much money your parents have that matters - even your great-great grandfather's wealth might give you a noticeable edge today." Other sources claim that closer to 65 percent of that all-important advantage of wealth is transferred from one generation of rich Americans to the next.
The rich are multiplying their economic advantages without regard to the rest of society. The vast proportion of new wealth generated by American business belongs to them. From 1950 to 1970, the top 1 percent of society gained $162 dollars for every additional dollar earned by those in the bottom 90 percent. From 1990 to 2001, the top 1 percent gained $18,000 dollars for every new dollar made by the American everyman.
Americans tolerate this glaring inequity because they still believe that hard work will allow them to rise - that ours is still "the land of opportunity". This is simply no longer the case. According to economist Tom Hertz, "While few would deny that it is possible to start poor and end rich, the evidence suggests that this feat is more difficult to accomplish in the United States than in other high-income nations."
If you wish to learn more about the ongoing class war started by the rich, check out the link below.
"Aspects of Class in the United States: An Introduction " from the Monthly Review
Wednesday, July 12, 2006
Thumbs Down For The Literature Of Greed
British journalist Tom Hodgkinson skewers the gospel of the high and mighty in a trenchant book review in The Statesman. Among the books he cuts down to size are a Jack Welch book about "winning", another book entitled You Can't Win A Fight With Your Boss, and still another tome hilariously dubbed The Servant Leader - perhaps the first time in publishing history that a synonym for "slave driver" has graced the title of an "inspirational" publication. Jack Welch, who grins like Satan on the flyleaf of his book, preaches "winning" above all other values - ignoring creativity, craftsmanship, love either for one's family or for one's fellow man. He prefers to hire fanatics rather than people with either a balanced life or a sense of perspective. Above all, he pushes total self-sacrifice to your employer because "you too can win" - even though the most that even the hardest working corporate serfs are likely to get is disappointment and a coronary.
The author of You Can't Win A Fight With Your Boss preaches relentless hard work even more - shall we say it? - relentlessly. You should not break for lunch, only the strong survive, etc. This man - some global marketing chief named Tom Markert - even stalks around the cubicles in his domain, personally monitoring the performance of his underlings to see who's "pumping it out" - as well as, of course, who isn't.
Hodgkinson notes how moral virtues are recast as business tactics. Honesty isn't as important as the appearance of honesty, which promotes trust and, ultimately, profit. All of these books suggest that making money is the only important thing in life, and Hodgkinson believes that they are meant, not so much as guidebooks for success, but as "sophisticated whips for slaves". He invokes the French philosopher Raoul Vaneigem, who said, "Every call for productivity under the conditions chosen by capitalist economics is a call to slavery... Nowadays ambition and the love of a job well done are the indelible mark of defeat and of the most mindless submission." Hear, hear!
The last laugh on these scribbling tycoons is that all their books have been outsold by a French volume entitled Bonjour Laziness: Why Hard Work Doesn't Pay. Here, Hodgkinson asserts, is the book we should really be reading.
"The winner takes it all" from The Stateman
Tuesday, July 11, 2006
Five Sources Of IT Worker Anxiety
IT workers are more confident than the average worker in the U.S., but they have not forgotten that they were a target of one of the worst recessions in American history. Consequently, their confidence is guarded. Here are five factors that concern them most:
1) Offshoring and outsourcing - Use of foreign personnel continues. Foreign IT workers are best employed at basic tasks like technical support, hardware maintenance and grunt-level applications development. If you have a "strategic" niche, such as one requiring design skills or business knowledge, you have reason to feel confident. If you don't have such a niche, and you are an American, find one.
2) Effect of H-1B Workers - Foreign techies in America on H-1B visas often beat out Americans for jobs because they are cheaper. Many employers explicitly prefer them. The Programmers Guild has filed 300 complaints against employers who post job notices solicting "H-1B workers only". Employer preference for H-1B workers is destructive to the American economy in the long run because it prevents native workers from getting jobs and honing their skills. The native workers, after all, are the ones who will stay after the H-1B workers have gone home.
3) Jobless tech recovery - The U.S. economy has added 76,000 IT jobs since April 2003, but these make up for less than a quarter of those lost during the recession. Marcus Courtney of WashTech/CWA, the IT workers' union, says that technology job growth is weak in most major markets in the country.
4) Personal fiscal woes - According to the Hudson Employment Index for IT Workers, 34 percent claim that their financial circumstances are worsening, while only 13 percent say their circumstances are "excellent". These figures have persisted for four months straight.
5) Job contentment - Fewer IT workers are happy with their work than before the recession. This may reflect the sobering effects of a new perspective, which forces them to place more emphasis on the stability of their employers and the longevity of their projects, rather than on the technological satisfactions of what they're actually doing.
"5 Dampers On IT Worker Confidence" from The Channel
Monday, July 10, 2006
Interview With The Author Of The Disposable American
According to Louis Uchitelle, long-time business writer for the New York Times and author of The Disposable American: Layoffs And Their Consequences, "The country has deteriorated. Without the easy and frequent use of layoffs, there would not have been so many wasteful mergers, or so much outsourcing or ceding of production to foreign competition and overseas subsidiaries." Uchitelle believes that, from the Great Depression to the early 1970's, there was far more of a feeling of trust and loyalty between corporate employees and high-level management - a feeling that is all but gone today. He asserts that executives and politicians must rethink the false expediency of layoffs, and consider what their true effect has been on American society. Over 30 million people have lost their jobs through layoffs since the early 1980's, and the personal cost has been immense. How can we prevent layoffs? Uchitelle suggests that, for instance, we raise the minimum wage, institute a steeply progressive income tax on America's highest earners - and most of all - restore bargaining power to our workers, whether blue collar or white collar, and to their communities as a whole. "Each job saved is a victory," he says. "And each victory brings people together in the mutual task of resurrecting the obstacles to layoffs that once protected us and lifted our dignity."
Please note that this is the third time that I have mentioned Mr. Uchitelle and his book on this blog. I may be repeating myself, but this message bears repeating. Buy the book, and learn...
"Business writer decries destructive layoffs" from the Toledo Blade
Sunday, July 09, 2006
Middle Class Families Most Likely To Go Bankrupt
Hard working middle class families with children are the group most likely to declare bankruptcy in Bush's America. There were over 1.6 million bankruptcies declared in the last fiscal year. This represents an increase of 7.4 percent over the previous year, and a whopping 400 percent increase over the last quarter century. It exceeds the number of people who, in a given year, will be divorced, have a heart attack or be diagnosed with cancer. Disgracefully, in a nation that famously honors motherhood, working mothers - whether single, divorced or married - will be hit disproportionately by the trauma of bankruptcy, and the number among this group has gone up 662 percent in the last twenty years. Ninety percent of all those who face this calamity will fall squarely in the ranks of the middle class. A new book by Elizabeth Warren and Amelia Tyagi entitled The Two-Income Trap: Why Middle-Class Mothers And Fathers Are Going Broke describes the causes of bankruptcy among the middle class, and addresses the problem of solving it.
According to Warren and Tyagi, a major root cause of bankruptcy is the decline in the quality of public education in the United States, which in turn has wildly inflated the price of homes in those few communities that still have good school systems. Add to this the fact that many middle class couples come into a marriage with unpaid college loans and significant levels of credit card debt, and you have a scenario where both husband and wife must be employed just to keep even. This is analogous to an airplane that can fly only if all four engines are running full throttle. If just one engine fails, the plane crashes. Likewise, when either partner loses his or her job, that 100 percent economic participation required to survive on a day to day basis has been halved, or worse, and there is nothing in reserve to keep the family afloat. Many middle class families are living so close to the edge - not to provide themselves with trendy luxuries, as some might suppose - but just to pay for the basic necessities, that they have little in savings, barely enough in most cases to stake them for more than a few months. The most obvious solution is to "live within one's means" - but when costs soar as real wages plummet, that goal is increasingly beyond the reach of all but the richest Americans. The rest of us are transformed into "spendthrifts" against our will.
The authors of The Two-Income Trap warn that as many as 6 million American households with children - fully 1 in 7 of such households in the United States - may declare bankruptcy by end of the decade. At the same time, our present administration, which claims to "leave no child behind", has enacted Draconian restrictions that will prevent many American families from even saving their homes through our bankruptcy laws and will therefore allow them to be bled even drier in the future.
The Two-Income Trap: Why Middle-Class Mothers and Fathers Are Going Broke by Elizabeth Warren, Amelia Warren Tyagi at Amazon.com
"Professor Warren And The 'Two-Income Trap'" at Harvard Law School web site
"Why Middle Class Mothers and Fathers Are Going Broke" from MSNBC
"Two incomes, more debt?" from the Christian Science Monitor
"Middle class barely treads water" from USA Today
"Middle Class and Maxed Out " from BusinessWeek
Friday, July 07, 2006
CEO Pay Better Than Ever - Even For A Job Poorly Done
CEO pay is bigger and better than ever. It is now 262 times that of the average worker - $10,982,000 versus $41,861. The pay ratio didn't reach the 100-to-1 mark until the mid-nineties. In 1965, the average ratio was just 24-to-1, and in 1979 it was still a modest 35-to-1. In 1989, during the flowering of Reaganomics, the ratio had climbed to 71-to-1, and it has grown like a turd blossom ever since. What gags us most righteously in the fact that CEO pay continues to balloon even when performance sucks.
A study released by the Corporate Library entitled "Pay For Failure" analyzes the problem of such egregiously unearned compensation and has fingered some of the main offenders. Henry McKinnell of Pfizer wins the Golden Dunce Award, earning $78 million in the past five years and scoring a pension package of $83 million, while during the same time span Pfizer's stock fell 35 percent. "Shareholders are getting hammered twice: Once for the bad performance of the stock, then because they have to foot the bill for that pay package," relates Brandon Rees of the AFL-CIO. "It?s salt in the wounds." Raymond Gilmartin of Merck is another pharmaceutical kingpen to whom you can point and say "Here is a mind on drugs", earning $54 million in the last half decade while his firm's stock plummeted 41 percent. Edward Whitacre of AT&T is yet another gilded nincompoop, raking in $85 million in five years as his company's stock scraped like the ground like a live wire from a broken T-pole, swooping down 40 percent.
How can such non-performers earn so much? The problem lies with cronyism as the top. Board members are often personally selected by the boss man, as are his successors in many cases. Worse yet is that many board members are actually former CEOs, so both the board and the boss are essentially brownies from the same batch. The compensation committee on Pfizer's board, for instance, includes three former Pfizer CEOs. To expect fair judgment under these circumstances is like packing a jury with the family of the defendant. It is clearly impossible, and that is why CEOs get paid what they like, regardless of the consequences to the average shareholder, much less to their employees.
"CEOs near record on pay ratios" from msn.com
"5 lousy CEOs who get fabulous pay" from msn.com
Thursday, July 06, 2006
Ken Lay Feeding Frenzy
Ken Lay dropped dead. Yeah, yeah... We all know that. You'd have to be an aardvark not to have caught that bit of news. He was not in jail yet, and still had millions in the bank - leading some (like my wife, who first gave me the news) to believe that he had somehow escaped punishment despite his conviction. In fact, his fatal sojourn in his Colorado home would only have been temporary. He was shortly due to spend the rest of days incarcerated, and much of what wealth he had left he was bound to loose through class action lawsuits and the like. Some say he deserved to die. Some are sure he had committed suicide - either deliberately, or unconsciously. Internet doctors solemnly opine that he was killed by "stress". Some, only half in jest, claim that his death was faked and that he had been whisked away into a "tycoon protection program" orchestrated by his Republican cronies. A few of his old friends and colleagues mourn him as a visionary, a genius, who traded natural gas like the hottest stocks, while millions who did not know him from a hole in the wall hope he rots in Hell. He is currently so despised that I would not be surprised if he suddenly replaced Saddam Hussein as Satan's favorite bunk-buddy in the South Park reruns I've been watching.
Me, I never followed the Enron case all that closely, as I tend to shy away from "popular" things. I do know he and Jeff Skilling committed the biggest fraud in corporate history, destroying the livelihoods and the savings of thousands of Enron employees. But he is scarcely the only CEO to ruin human lives through the wanton misuse of his will. He may be the biggest, or the latest - for now, certainly the most notorious. But don't be fooled. His name is legion.
He was born the son of a minister in Missouri. Some say he was born poor, but a minister's son sounds reasonably middle class to me - even if it seemed "poor" to the mogul in retrospect. He was educated at the University of Missouri, and went into the military - as a 26 year old officer - during the Vietnam War. He got a Ph.D. while in the service, and worked as a deputy undersecretary in the cabinet when he got out. Obviously, he was a smart guy with fire in his belly who met the right people at the right time, and played his cards well enough to become a big man. Lots of us are smart, lots of us try hard, but fate is not equally kind to those with merit. At the peak of his seamless, shining trajectory, he must have assumed he could do no wrong. That he could lie, that he could risk the futures of others whom he considered his servants and inferiors. Whatever he did, his glory would inevitably grow, his apotheosis was all but pre-arranged. The worst part of getting caught for him must have been the ignominy he faced. I mean, that's what drives them all in the end, isn't it? Fame? Acclaim for a job spectacularly well done? He got infamy instead. Let's hope his infamy lasts for a while, not to damn him, but simply so that he can serve as a deterrent to others with a similar lust for "greatness" at any cost.
"Bloggers weigh in fast with theories on Lay's death" from USAToday
"Ken Lay's Heart Attack: A Case of Death By Stress?" from WebMD
"Ken Lay and the trouble with Wikipedia" from the Chicago Tribune
"Will Lay's legacy be greed or innovation?" from Globe and Mail
"Lay's Conviction Is Gone With Him" from Time
"Ken Lay escapes life behind bars, but not necessarily justice " from The Morning Journal
Wednesday, July 05, 2006
The curse of modern technology is that we now have the ability - even the obligation - to serve The Man around the clock. Cellphones, pagers, DSL and cable internet access allow us no escape from the workplace, and no excuse not to respond to our master as soon as we hear his voice. And hear his voice we will. We are instantly available to our bosses, whether we are attending a school play, or lying on the sand at Waikiki, or sitting in our doctor's office waiting to learn of our imminent demise from stress disease. Privacy may be the artifact of a technologically backward society, but once upon a time it allowed the human body and soul a respite from the demands of the workplace - an opportunity to recuperate, and to reestablish our bond with our loved ones. We sometimes even transformed this dark wilderness of downtime into a magical domain of our very own through the black arts of solitude and introspection. A kind of boundary existed between work and life, a palisades behind which we nurtured those outmoded and primitive things we once called love, leisure and family. That boundary is no longer there. The inexorable advance of science has perfected the scope of our servitude. We can no longer escape an awareness that we may be called to work at any time. This is as oppressive, and as much a perversion of technology, as being forced to sleep with all the lights on. Should we protest, clinging atavistically to the quietness of our private lives, we are likely to lose our chance to earn a living at all. After all, if we are not willing to labor 24/7, there is always someone else who is.
"Business's new task: turning off Firms, workers have to draw the line between work, home" from the Boston Globe
Tuesday, July 04, 2006
Work Stress Causes Hypertension (Yawn...)
According to a recent study at Laval University in Quebec, work stress among white collar workers irrefutably causes hypertension. The study was conducted over a period of 7.5 years with nearly seven thousand subjects. Those most at risk are men, but both men and women are prone to developing high blood pressure in environments where they receive little support from their employers or fellow workers. Environments, in other words, like the modern corporation where workers are regarded as disposable instruments rather than as human beings, where hours are long, benefits are minimal, competition is ruthless, and the Damoclean threat of layoffs hangs over them day and night. Curiously, we were able to find word of this study almost exclusively from web news outlets based in the United Kingdom, India and Pakistan. I wonder why it has been so underreported in the United States. Oh, right - news agencies are "corporations", too - aren't they? Then again, maybe from the U.S. perspective this is simply old news.
"Tip Sheet for August 2006: Social Ties and Health" from Newswise
"Research links workplace stress to high blood pressure" from PersonnelToday.com
"Job stress causes blood pressure rise and damages worker's health" from InjuryWatch.com
Monday, July 03, 2006
In Praise Of Slackers
There's always been a belief afoot in American society in the redemptive power of doing nothing. Playing hookey is rugged individualism in repose, and represents free will and unfettered thought in its fullest flower. Think of Henry David Thoreau, Bartleby The Scrivener, Bart Simpson... Why slave away endlessly under the thumb of The Man if all your obedience can offer you is the straightjacket of regimentation and the indignity of the whip on your back? While the idea that blue collar workers should have some relief from unceasing toil has been with us for a century, the white collar classes are still expected to be relentless - as if, ha-ha, we actually have a stake in what we are doing. After all, isn't our lifelong gig in the sweatshop of free enterprise supposed to be our "career", and don't we all just "love what we do"? Some think not, and more power to them if they can get away with it. According to Tom Lutz, the author of Doing Nothing, Americans have always been ambivalent about working; workaholism and the slacker ethic exist in eternal equipoise. "The stronger the work ethic," he concludes, "the more vibrant the slacker culture." If I didn't have to worry about money, I'd quit too, believe me. The prospect of dropping out of the corporate treadmill becomes more and more appealing as the longterm benefits of "staying the course" - such as pensions, promotions, and the just rewards of experience - disappear at lightning speed. For all you anti-Walter Mittys out there, contemplating the serene non-adventure of blissful inactivity, here are some links you may find interesting.
"In America, many work hard - but some prefer not to" from the Philadelphia Inquirer
Doing Nothing : A History of Loafers, Loungers, Slackers, and Bums in America by Tom Lutz at Amazon.com
Sunday, July 02, 2006
Can Working For Yourself Set You Free?
Lately, I've been thinking about buying a franchise. A franchise is a sort of hybrid concern in which you work for yourself at the same time that you're working for the guys who sold you the franchise. There is a price to get in, which could range from just a few thousand to quarter a million, depending on what kind of franchise you want to buy. You should also select a franchiser with a known track record, and a reliable product. There are a lot of fly-by-night assholes out there whom you would want to avoid. Still though, if you ever wanted to be an entrepreneur but lack actual management experience, a franchise may give you the training wheels you need - and then some. Some franchisers whisk their franchisees away for training courses that last several weeks, and which enlighten them on such basics as bookkeeping and salesmanship. Many of us have already had a motley exposure to fundamental business tasks over the years, which might give us a leg up. You should remember, though, that if you bought a franchise and went into business for yourself, you would have to be willing to be work harder than you ever have before. Again, for some of us who have chronically been given much less to do than we are truly capable of, all that hard work would be a welcome price to pay for the challenge of a lifetime. It goes almost without saying that you would want to like what you do even if you are your own boss, so choose carefully. Fortunately, there is a bracing variety of franchises to purchase - coffee shops, computer stores, picture framing boutiques, internet consultancies, and much else. And that's just what I personally looked into. Do yourself a favor on Independence Day and ponder this potential road map to independence.
"Start Easy With a Franchise or Biz Opp" from MSNBC
"Ten questions to ask before buying a franchise" from Small Business Opportunities Magazine
Consumer Guide to Buying a Franchise
Managing a Franchise