Friday, June 29, 2007
Ethics And The Telecommuter
Telecommuting can increase productivity by up to 30 percent, it is convenient for workers with children as well as for those who might otherwise need to make long and expensive commutes, and it is easier on the environment than pumping car exhaust into the atmosphere for an hour or two everyday. Why then are managers reluctant to adopt it as the norm? Many appear to distrust telecommuters, and are suspicious of the freedoms they might be given. Social scientists at the University of Redlands surveyed M.B.A. and M.I.S. (Master in Informations Systems) students and faculty to learn which aspects of telecommuter behavior might be regarded as less "ethical" than others. They were also asked to pass judgment on potential managerial responses to - or exploitation of - telecommuters.
The survey participants were presented with numerous scenarios, and were asked to decided which were ethical or unethical. The scenarios that received the highest percentage of "unethical" classifications are shown below:
1) A manager monitors the phone records of telecommuters to ensure that they were on-line for all the hours they were supposed to be working. 48.8 percent saw this as unethical.
2) A manager gives better raises and opportunities to "in-house" staff than to telecommuters. 48.4 percent saw this as unethical.
3) A telecommuter develops Carpal Tunnel Syndrome working at home, but his employer refuses to compensate him for his injuries. 48.4 percent saw this as unethical.
4) A telecommuter works two full-time jobs simultaneously. 46.8 percent saw this as unethical.
5) A manager drives by the homes of employees to see if they are working when they say they are. 41.3 percent saw this as unethical.
As for me, I would judge only 1 and 5 as unethical - and, actually, as far more stupid than actually unethical.
Consider scenario number 1. Many telecommuters may have only one phone line to dial in on, and consequently may not want to be on-line all day. They probably wouldn't need to anyway. If telecommuters have the appropriate software on their home commuter, they can easily produce documents, spreadsheets, PowerPoint presentations and the like - even computer code - while they are offline. There is no reason whatsoever why a telecommuter would need to be on-line continuously. Consequently, phone records would be a totally inaccurate measure of work done, and this scenario is just plain foolish.
Scenario number 5 is also equally stupid. How could managers swing by the homes of their subordinates on a daily basis and still get their own work done - unless they, too, telecommuted from their automobiles? That is especially the case if they have numerous subordinates who commute and at least some of them live some distance from work.
I do not see scenarios 2, 3 or 4 as unethical. Unfortunately, it's a given that working on-site will keep you in the mind of your boss and make you more visible to the organization. This is why I believe telecommuting is best for free-lance or contract employees who don't care if they rise within the hierarchy of any company for which they are working only temporarily. Besides, this scenario might well become a non-issue for companies in which the majority of workers telecommute at least part-time - including the managers. I also don't believe that employers have any responsibility for injuries their employees sustain at home - especially if they are working at home by choice. So scratch scenarios 2 and 3.
As for scenario number 4, I think telecommuters - especially contract workers - should be allowed to hold down as many jobs as they can handle. So long as they get their work done and violate no "non-compete" clauses in their work contracts, all power to them. As for the possible issue of fraudulent hourly billing, employers must realize that telecommuters have the option of working many more hours than they would have at the office, as they do not need to physically commute and can remain at their chosen workplace around the clock. This means that they literally could work, say, 6 or 7 hours a day for each of two employers. Besides, in a world in which multi-tasking is the norm, a telecommuter can just as easily work concurrently for different employers as on different assignments and could thus conceivably bill both for the same hour spent working. Moreover, those hours might be filled with a higher proportion of actual work - especially for single workers without children. There is no pointless chit-chat with fellow workers, for instance, and far fewer superfluous meetings.
"The Ethics of Web Work" from Web Worker Daily
Thursday, June 28, 2007
A young filmmaker named Christopher Preksta has produced a short film entitled Nintendo Office, in which familiar Nintendo characters play the roles of cubicle dwellers. He wrote the script on a plane trip, and produced it with some friends over a weekend. It placed third in a contest sponsored by the Tribeca Film Festival, and will be shown "in a continuous loop from 8:30 p.m.-midnight each night of the festival." I've never played Nintendo, so the names of its characters are lost on me. Nonetheless, according to the story, "Link, from 'Zelda' does temp work, Donkey Kong gets his potato salad pilfered from the lunchroom fridge, Bob-Omb (a talking bomb) proclaims his appreciation for the company's benefits, and a office worker making copies is besieged by a constantly disappearing Big Boo." Me, I'm waiting for an office comedy in which the role of the tyrannical boss is played by Pacman.
"Making a game of it" from Pittsburgh Tribune-Review
Wednesday, June 27, 2007
Microsoft Urges Brits To Work In Tree-Houses
In an effort to sell the concept of a wireless office, a Microsoft division in the UK recently exhorted Britons to work outdoors "by erecting a 'tree-office' in Pimlico Gardens on the banks of the River Thames in London." Microsoft spokesman James McCarthy said, "We're trying to illustrate the fact that there are more creative ways for people to work these days. A tree house is one, slightly wacky example."
Microsoft says there's no need to work in an office nowadays, and many workers would concur. London research firm Future Laboratory found that 73 percent of workers "considered the ability to work flexibly a deciding factor when choosing a new job" - and that 91 percent wanted out from the "traditional work environment". Most would prefer to work at home, 14 percent would opt for punching the time-clock at the beach, and 10 percent would love to work in a park or (this being Britain, remember) their garden. Telecommuting is fun, green and convenient. What's not to love?
"Britons urged to shun office and work outdoors" from Reuters
Tuesday, June 26, 2007
Time For A New "New Deal"
The article below is less important for the conclusions it reaches than for the context in which it reaches them. Tuck School economist Matthew Slaughter and Yale political scientist Kenneth Scheve admit, in the pages of Foreign Affairs, that the majority of American workers are not benefiting from globalization. They assert that globalization has increased the aggregate gains of the American economy - and of the world's economy - and they want it to continue, but those gains have been distributed disproportionately. As they say, "of workers in seven educational categories - high school dropout, high school graduate, some college, college graduate, nonprofessional master's, Ph.D., and M.B.A./J.D./M.D. - only those in the last two categories, with doctorates or professional degrees..." e.g., doctors, lawyers, financiers and business executives, "...experienced any growth in mean real money earnings between 2000 and 2005." If you do not belong to that group, which constitutes no more than 4 percent of the American workforce, you are simply out of luck.
Scheve and Slaughter, as supporters of globalization, desperately want to redress this growing income inequality because they fear that, if left unchecked, it will provoke a backlash from American voters that will force Congress to cripple globalization with protectionist legislation. What is the solution? Some suggest that increased higher education will solve the problem of income inequality, but Scheve and Slaughter point out that it will require decades to remedy the plight of American workers through education alone. Others suggest training workers laid-off from one industry for employment in another, but the authors claim that this won't work either because the effects of globalization are felt horizontally across industries. Hence, a laid-off auto worker may train to become an accountant, only to have his new career pulled out from under him by an Internet tax preparation cartel based in India.
Scheve and Slaughter believe that the only viable solution is a redistribution of income, but unfortunately the mechanism they suggest for effecting this redistribution is, at best, a tentative and highly restricted solution. They propose eliminating payroll tax - the part taken out of your paycheck for Social Security and Medicare - on persons earning less than the national median income, and/or raising payroll tax for those earning over $94,200. As the payroll tax is now effectively a flat tax that favors the affluent and disproportionately gouges the rest of us, any effort to shift it upwards would be more than welcome. However, considering the wind-up Scheve and Slaughter put into their article, the final pitch falls short. Out of tact or timidity, or a combination of the two, they avoid approaching the 800 pound gorilla in the room - excessive executive compensation. As bloated CEO pay affects not only the fate of the average worker but shareholder returns as well, perhaps we should tax corporations who pay their CEOs too much. Or even tax the CEOs themselves - at least more than we do today.
Although payroll tax reform alone will not be enough, we should nonetheless be grateful that at least some "expert" supporters of globalization acknowledge its destructive effects and understand the importance of offsetting them.
"A New Deal For Globalization" from Foreign Affairs
Monday, June 25, 2007
The Annoyances Of Cubicle Life
"With the advent of cubicles versus offices with walls and doors, distractions increased," laments a cubicle life veteran at one of the links below. He and other office workers contend that "common courtesy, teamwork and respect are fading away." Among the annoyances that plague them most are Slackers, Gossip, Technology, Rudeness and Bureaucracy. Slackers are characterized as lazy nine-to-fivers who come in late - a phenomenon that may be subtly increased by the prevalence of flex-time, which opens the floodgates to funky business hours and makes it difficult to know how much time anybody's really putting in. Rudeness has increased as an occupational hazard simply because of the shift towards the service industry, whose bread and butter is "human interaction", for better or worse. Bureaucracy is a function of company size - the bigger they are, the more bureaucratic. The problems of Gossip and Technology, in the form of Blackberries and cellphones that facilitate what might be called "remote gossip", are a direct result of open floor plans which allow workers to hear everything their neighbors are saying. The bottom line is that all of these annoyances are intrinsic to modern business, and won't be fading away anytime soon.
What to do? An article at MSN.com identifies its own list of cubicle annoyances, and suggests ways to, ahem, "solve" them. Unfortunately, you can tell the list was compiled by some HR hack, because the solution almost invariably involves communicating with one's "co-worker" about the problem and - if that fails - bringing the issue to one's "supervisor". If people steal things off your desk, go to the boss. If you can't concentrate with all the Gossip and Technology buzzing around you, go to the boss and get reassigned to another cube. If your cubicle neighbor favors "odoriferous" lunches or if he or she festoons their work area with "Baywatch posters and troll dolls", broach the subject ever so diplomatically with the offender. The article neglects to mention that a major part of such annoyances is the nuisance of having to talk to someone about them to begin with - i.e., the "solution" is essentially part of the problem. Here again Bureaucracy (see above) raises its ugly head.
Interestingly, of the six examples given by MSN.com, at least three - "I can't concentrate with the constant buzz around me", "I respect my co-worker's obsession with Il Divo... but unfortunately I'm not a fan" and "My workspace has become the office water cooler" - epitomize the sound pollution that is endemic to cubicle farms, and which can prevent you from doing anything mentally challenging. One almost wonders if that other pet peeve, Slackers, become Slackers simply because they haven't been able to concentrate for so long that they have either long since given up the effort while they are at work or avoid the office altogether.
"List of irritants in the workplace is getting longer." from Daily Record (New Jersey)
"Your Six Biggest Cubicle Complaints ... Solved" from MSN.com
Sunday, June 24, 2007
Economist Calls American Voters Idiots (Part II)
Leave it to Tech Central Station to insult the majority of the American people in their mad rush to curry favor with billionaires. Endowed with surprisingly vulgar taste for such shameless "elitists", the editors of Tech Central Station once published an article that compared the practice of offering corporate medical benefits to employees to "prostitute insurance". I.e., you may not need gratuitous medical benefits any more than you would need a discount card for a brothel. Ah, well. Such lapses only make me sigh...
Tech Central Station's latest insult to the public is to label American democracy "Dumbocracy" in deference to a book published by economist Bryan Caplan entitled The Myth of the Rational Voter: Why Democracies Choose Bad Policies. I've mentioned this enemy of democracy before. His thesis is that American voters are motivated by irrational biases that endanger "rational economic policy". What are these biases? Hostility to free markets and foreigners, a prejudice in favor of something as silly as full employment, and a general pessimistic attitude that the world is going to hell in a handbasket. Curiously, these are the same biases reviled by right-wing policy wonks as the anti-globalization sentiments that voted in a Democratic majority last fall. Yet this change comes after nearly a decade of Republican control in the Congress and elsewhere - most notoriously in the White House. American voters elected Bush and his supporters repeatedly in the past. Were they motivated by equally irrational biases then? If Dr. Caplan's thesis is consistently valid and not merely a partisan expression of sour grapes, American voters must always be motivated by irrational biases that are not in their best interests. I certainly believe they are. Isn't voting against taxation an irrational bias, for instance? Taxes can do great things - support our infrastructure, strengthen the military, improve our schools, help alleviate poverty and disease. Why vote against them so unconditionally? Yet that's exactly what the American people do every time they vote Republican. The big surprise - and the part that makes voting against taxes so irrational - is that it's invariably not the average American's taxes that are reduced so much as the taxes on corporations and the wealthy. Even when we vote for the party of free markets and globalization, we vote against our own interests for irrational reasons. But I'll just bet you Caplan's book doesn't even touch on that.
Which brings me to another point. Voters themselves elect candidates on the basis of vague campaign promises, not specific points of economic policy. Those who establish policy are the economists, not the people - so if it screws up, then they screwed up, not us. Voters don't vote for economic policy anyway, even vague ones - they vote against the failures of the current regime. Their attitude is reactive, not prescriptive. They are saying, "Maybe we don't understand what you did, but it isn't working for us. We want to bring in a new person who will try something else." If the American people have started voting Democratic again, it's because whatever the Republicans did just isn't working for them.
Economists can, like Caplan, assert that employment is less important than "production", and that globalization, free trade and market forces should remain untrammeled. But they must realize that what has made corporations so much more "productive" is how well they've been able to cut their labor overhead. They have succeeded, in short, by reducing the number of human beings with whom they must share their revenue. The "trickle-down" economic theories of the Reagan years seem almost quaint in comparison. Now we have a "water-tight" corporate system that is not only unburdened by taxes, tariffs or regulations, but is run so efficiently that it need not share its profits with anyone. The economists may extol a world in which the stock market soars, the GNP expands, and American markets are flooded with goods most of us may need to go into debt to afford - but if the majority of the people have not benefited from this world, it will always be voted down in a democracy - because democracy may be the only place left in America where the interests of the majority still rule.
"Dumbocracy in America" from Tech Central Station
Friday, June 22, 2007
This Peacock Should Go The Way Of The Dodo
Here is an amusing article from Slate about the new "King of Wall Street", private equity magnate Stephen Schwarzman. Schwarzman just brought his company, The Blackstone Group, public and expects to make $7.5 billion from the IPO. Here are a couple of things about private equity partnerships that you should know. One, the word "private" in private equity says it all. According to Slate, "private-equity moguls have been publicity shy, and wisely so. The fees and returns earned by [such] outfits... are closely guarded secrets. Holding cards close to the vest has been a key to avoiding regulation and scrutiny by legislators." In other words, such companies have the wherewithal to circumvent disclosure rules mandated by Sarbanes-Oxley and the SEC. Two, according to "an absurd wrinkle in the tax code," the earnings of private equity partnerships are "taxed not at the 35 percent corporate income-tax rate, but at the 15 percent long-term capital-gains rate, allowing Blackstone to save tens of millions of dollars annually on its tax bill." You would think Schwarzman would thank his lucky stars, but no. Like all these guys, he wants to be a star instead. A supernova, in fact.
Schwarzman recently celebrated his 60th birthday at a cost of millions. For entertainment, he hired "Martin Short, Rod Stewart, Marvin Hamlisch, and Patti LaBelle leading the Abyssinian Baptist Church choir singing... 'a tune about Mr. Schwarzman'." To celebrate himself even more directly, he carted in a "huge portrait" of himself for the occasion. Even when he's not celebrating the sacred event of his birthday, he lives like a king, often spending $3,000 each weekend on food at his 11,000 square foot Palm Beach mansion, "including stone crabs that cost $400, or $40 per claw." What strikes Slate as most expressive of his hubris is not that he lives like this, but that he lets everyone know that he lives like this. Nor, at the pinnacle of his success, does he feel any need to embrace philanthropy as a way of "giving back" - instead he wants to, ahem, "serve" by aggrandizing himself still further, as the Treasury Secretary perhaps, or as something else equally grand.
The Slate article compares this ungracious winner to "an NBA player who, having gone the length of a court for a slam-dunk with the game already put away, starts trash-talking, jumps atop the scorers' table, gestures obscenely at opposing fans, pinches a cheerleader, chest-bumps the referee, sticks his tongue out at the camera, all while grabbing his crotch and yelling loudly that he's the man."
Schwarzman's days of impunity may be coming to an end. Legislation has recently been introduced in Congress to ensure that publicly held private equity companies will be taxed at the corporate rate of 35 percent, rather than at the capital gains rate of 15 percent. In Congress, they've already taken to calling it "Blackstone's law".
"The Golden Ass" from Slate
Thursday, June 21, 2007
The Improbable Stardom Of Business TV
At the link below is a thoughtful and comprehensive article about business as a subject, or as a setting, for TV shows. The focus is primarily on British TV, but there is much discussion of American shows as well - especially The Apprentice. The attitude toward business appears to differ primarily across genres. Fictional presentations of the business world are generally negative or at least satirical. Dramas often present executives as villains, or at least as generators of a conflict the protagonist must surmount, while comedies make fun of "the dreariness and incompetence of office life." Daily business news shows that deal with the stock market are more upbeat and enthusiastic than ever, typified on the extreme end by Jim Cramer of CNBC. In contrast, stock market shows in the past tended to be more sedate and dignified - but still upbeat - like Louis Rukeyser in Wall $treet Week. At the same time, many documentaries and extended news segments take a serious and critical, if sometimes superficial, approach to business and the problems it creates, such as rising health care costs and credit card debt.
The biggest friends of the business world among TV genres are the "reality" shows. One sub-genre in particular, in which ambitious young people get the chance to prove themselves to established business superstars. The article calls these shows "aspirational", and describes several, including The Apprentice, Dragons' Den and Tycoon. These shows take what many would call the negative characteristics of the business world - such as impossible deadlines and the cult of ruthlessnes - and converts them into challenges designed to make the show more exciting. In this sense, the reality shows are not unlike those TV movies whose protagonists must kill the dragons embodied by tyrannical bosses and back-stabbing co-workers - although in the dramas the back-stabbing may be literal. The widest divergence in attitude occurs in the news shows, which can range from scathing exposes of corporate scandals to mindless cheerleading for rising stock prices.
"How to get ahead in business television" from The Financial Times
Wednesday, June 20, 2007
Telecommuting Is The Greener Alternative
Here is a brief item about the value of telecommuting as a weapon against global warming. As the author says, "The bottom line is that either the environment is, or isn't, a problem. If it is, and if governments are serious about reducing greenhouse gas emissions and smog-causing pollutants, they will ban all but essential travel." Global warming is real, and it's about time we overruled the objections of corporate management to working by email, modem and cellphone. When you come to think of it, most reluctance to telecommuting is based on an outmoded approach to management that may have been appropriate to overseeing unskilled day laborers, but is downright insulting in a workaday world populated by self-starting professionals who can do their jobs with little supervision. The vain and unnecessary tyranny of on-site management and the internal combustion engine are both anachronisms we must leave behind if we expect our civilization to survive.
"IT'S TIME TO GET SERIOUS ABOUT TELECOMMUTING" from Globe And Mail
Tuesday, June 19, 2007
Technology Activists Fight Discrimination Against Americans
A group of technology activists called Brightfuturejobs.org believes that corporate reliance on H-1B employees is discriminatory and destructive, and is lobbying Congress to pass the H-1B reform bill. According to Brightfuturejobs director Donna Conroy, a study entitled "'Low Salaries for Low Skills: Wages and Skill Levels for H-1B Computer Workers, 2005" found that 87 percent of H-1B technology positions filled are entry-level jobs that require minimal skills and, in some cases, merely "a good understanding of the [programming] occupation." This disproves the myth that foreign H-1B workers are "the best and the brightest" and that they are "smarter and more qualified than their domestic counterparts."
Nonetheless, American corporations maintain the "self-loathing" fiction that American workers lack sufficient technological skills so that they can continue to hire H-1B workers at lower salaries, often bypassing the domestic job market altogether. But Americans are not the only people who suffer. Once hired, many H-1B workers are compelled to work long hours for sub-standard compensation under the implied threat that they will be deported if they don't deliver.
Hundreds of American corporations will hire only H-1B IT workers, pitching advertisements specifically to this group, often promising free training - which American IT workers rarely get. As Conroy says, "20 years ago, when there was a labor shortage in the technology industry, technology firms routinely hired unqualified Americans and trained the hell out of them. Music and sociology majors were transformed into top-notch programmers. Now the only people who benefit from extensive training are H-1Bs."
Senators Richard Durbin of Illinois and Charles Grassley of Iowa introduced the H-1B reform bill, which will outlaw the practice of advertising only for H-1Bs, requring instead that all IT jobs - including those that offer free training - are advertised for 30 days on the Department of Labor web site.
"Technology Activist Pans the Myth that Americans Can't Cut-it in Technology" from PR Web
Monday, June 18, 2007
Fancy Offices As A Marketing Tool
Designing office space is a pricey proposition. The "industry average" runs about $250 a square foot. You might as well tile the floor with twenty dollar bills. According to the article below however, office design is a key aspect of corporate marketing. The desired result should perform as "a marketing tool as well as [a] workable office environment." Some firms elect to decorate their office space with "marble, granite and heavy wood, accented with snazzy looking technology." Nonetheless, office designers "must know the difference between upscale and opulent... They don't want to look irresponsible, financially." The bottom line is that you want to impress the client with something other than a hole-in-the-wall yet not come off as a deluded spendthrift.
Office design "can also boost productivity and health in workers." It can accomplish this through "ergonomic desk chairs that promote comfort and alertness" and the "quality of lighting." Nicer chairs, bigger cubicles and "private telephone areas" (through which one might set up interviews with competitors) also appear to enhance comfort and productivity. Well, duh...
White collar workers might as well have nice offices these days, considering how much time they are obligated to spend in them. My favorite remark in the article refers to how the cozy proximity of "a lot of dark wood and marble" can induce employees to, ahem, "whisper" - conspiratorially perhaps, as if they are planning a take-over coup or a spot of insider-trading.
"Reworking Office Space" from Jacksonville.com
Sunday, June 17, 2007
The H1-B Wars
No one seems to like the new immigration bill pending in Congress. It is an open secret that H1-B visas are used by corporations to substitute American-born workers - particularly in the IT industry - with foreign-born workers who will accept lower wages. According to an anonymous HR professional reported to the Charlotte Conservative News, corporations often pretend to interview American-born workers with no intention of hiring them - and then resort to H1-B labor instead. The immigration bill implicitly favors high tech workers by using a points system to qualify the desirability of immigrants on the basis of education and professional skills, and will likely increase the number of such workers allowed into the United States. As experienced professionals working at or below entry level salaries, these immigrants may crowd out recent American college graduates with technical degrees. While supporters of the H1-B program claim that immigrant workers will remedy "shortages" of IT workers, many experts claim that those shortages are artificial, often generated by age discrimination that pushes still able-minded IT workers out of the market as early as thirty-five. H1-B supporters also claim that the 2.4 unemployment rate for IT workers is "healthy", while in reality it is worse than the 1.8 unemployment rate for American college graduates as a whole.
At the same time, the Indian press is in a furor over an amendment to the bill to charge corporate sponsors $5,000 fees for H1-B applicants. Some even assert that the points system is a sham, claiming that you can get more points as an agricultural worker than as an MD or an MBA. Other critics complain that the new "guest worker" program will deny them professional mobility. While waiting for green cards, they say, "we have to stick to the same jobs, same job description, the same employer until we reach the final stage of green card - until we are just inches away from a green card. Until then, for 10 years, we have to stick to the same job. That is totally unfair." Many believe the new system will not work, and that American corporations will have to rely on increased outsourcing to meet their IT needs.
A news item posted on the web this morning suggested that the bill may not pass. Small wonder if it doesn't.
"Of Course H1-B Visas are About Lowering Wages" from The American Prospect
"Immigration Bill Bad News for College Grads" from PR Newswire
"U.S. Businesses Wary of Immigration Bill" from Forbes
"Immigration Bill is Unfair to Skilled Migrants, Group Says" from Cybercast News Service
"Senate Votes to Hike H1-B Visa Fees" from InternetNews.com
"White Collar Jobs Threatened" from Charlotte Conservative News
Friday, June 15, 2007
Office Culture Is Telecommuting's Biggest Obstacle
According to a survey conducted in the UK, "employees blame office culture for slow adoption of remote working" - despite the fact that it is a "a major weapon in the environmental battle because of reduced transportation needs." (Remote working is the British term for telecommuting.) 30 percent of the survey respondents "mentioned corporate culture (as) a barrier to employee adoption of remote working practices", and 25 percent suggested that office culture impeded other environmentally friendly practices. Corporations were reluctant to adopt remote working for the following reasons:
1) Lack of the technology to enable the practice.
2) The absence of face-to-face contact and its associated social benefits.
3) Distrust of remote workers.
50 percent of those workers surveyed believed they already had sufficient technology to telecommute, and asserted that half of all meetings do not require face-to-face contact in any case.
Experts warn that corporations that resist remote working risk marginalizing themselves in the future, depriving their organization of the necessary flexibility and driving away prospective employees who are able to telecommute at other firms. They also say that office culture is the "the most difficult of all barriers to overcome, beyond technology or cost" in converting office workers into remote workers.
"Web 2.0, Remote Working are Good for Business and Environment" from Marketing VOX
Thursday, June 14, 2007
Taxing The Globalizers
According to The Wall Street Journal, some prominent globalization supporters have finally recognized the damage globalization has done to middle class wage earners and propose a solution. Instead of instituting protectionist policies that will inhibit free trade, the administration should raise taxes on "globalization's winners" - e.g., those professionals and business executives with annual household incomes of $200,000 or more - and lower taxes on less affluent wage earners. The new proposal, championed by such figures as former Bush economist Matthew Slaughter, political scientist Kenneth Scheve and ex-Treasury Secretary Lawrence Summers, would include such measures as eliminating Social Security and Medicare payroll taxes for those making $33,000 or less (half of all workers) and raising these taxes for the top earners. Although "taxing winners isn't without risk", as globalization enables individuals and, certainly, corporations to simply relocate to other countries, "using the tax code to slice the apple more evenly is far more palatable than trying to hold back globalization with policies that risk shrinking the economic apple."
"The Case for Taxing Globalization's Big Winners" from The Wall Street Journal
Wednesday, June 13, 2007
Are Voters Really Imbeciles?
Here is an essentially critical review of a book called The Myth of the Rational Voter: Why Democracies Choose Bad Policies, by conservative economist Bryan Caplan. Caplan contends that the majority of voters are economic ignoramuses who invariably vote for candidates who support foolish policies. Are we sometimes guided by something other than reason when it comes to economic policy? Maybe. A recent psychological experiment showed that the majority of subjects would pay a price to reduce the income of the rich even if their excess wealth was not redistributed elsewhere. The review interprets these results as evidence of an innate sense of fairness - but Caplan deplores any attack on wealth as "irrational". In fact, he sees any policy that taxes corporations, raises the minimum wage, or does anything to restrict globalization as similarly "irrational". Nonetheless, even among voters there are relative levels of irrationality. Better educated voters and those with higher incomes tend to be more rational, so we should welcome their participation at the polls. He all but suggests that the votes of business people and college graduates should be weighted more heavily than those of the masses, who think like children and have no idea what's good for them. If democracies obstruct, say, the dominance of free markets, then we would do well to suppress democracy and let the "invisible hand" guide us. To quote the review, "Given a choice between democracy without free markets or free markets without democracy, many conservatives would gladly choose the latter."
Caplan's position is hobbled by paradoxes. For one thing, if the masses are inherently irrational, how can we allow economists to dictate policy from above if the science of economics itself is founded on the notion that most people behave "rationally" within the marketplace? Are we really supposed to believe that the majority is consistently rational in venue, but not in another? The review also points out that Caplan's objection to having economic policy decided by the electorate "wouldn’t have made much sense 40 years ago." As the reviewer says, "The kinds of social democratic market interventions that Caplan holds in such low regard were prominent features of the post-war economies of the United States, Canada and Western Europe, which were some of the most productive and equitable in human history. Not only were the policies relatively effective, they were also largely popular with both the public and economists."
The most ridiculous paradox of all is that, for most of the last decade, voters have repeatedly elected candidates who actually have supported free markets, globalization, corporate tax breaks and the unbridled enrichment of business executives. None of this has benefited the masses who brought them into power - so perhaps Caplan is right. Voters are imbeciles - not because they don't know what's good for them, but because they have been hoodwinked into voting against their own interests by the very elite that Caplan applauds.
"Who’s Afraid of Democracy?" from In These Times
Tuesday, June 12, 2007
A Discussion Of Income Inequality
Here are links to an article in The New York Times about income inequality and to a rejoinder to that same article from Barbara Ehrenreich in The Nation. To be fair, the Times article is ambivalent at best. It cites the familiar figures. Real income has increased only 2 percent for those in the lowest fifth in income, 11 percent for the next lowest fifth, 15 percent for the middle fifth, 23 percent for the second fifth from the top - and 63 percent for the top fifth. In 1979 the top percentile earned 9 percent of all income - now it earns 16 percent. These are numbers that no one can afford to ignore.
The author acknowledges that income inequality between the rich and the non-rich has widened dramatically since the 1970's. Indeed, it is greater than at any time since the 1920's. However, he implies that what we consider a historical norm - the relative economic equality among the classes - was, in fact, caused by a confluence of historical forces that occurred by chance. The Great Depression, World War Two and the strong unions of the postwar period had the combined effect of wiping out many existing fortunes, creating a trade imbalance in America's favor, thus "floating all boats" economically, and safeguarding the welfare of American workers, many of whom had helped create the new world order by winning the war. Executive salaries remained reasonable during this period, due to old notions of propriety as well as to the influence of unions, tax codes and other institutional checks on excessive compensation.
Despite the relative income equality of the 1970's, the author contends that the economy was far from healthy. He likens the economic stagnation of America in the 1970's to the welfare states of Western Europe, like that of Belgium, in which the poor have far more of a safety net than they do in the United States, but where the average net income is 72 percent of what it is here. The 1970's were a period of high unemployment and stock market depression. Corporate boards began to offer stock options and other incentives to executives to help enhance performance. Downsizing and restructuring were also applied to rejuvenate corporate bottom lines at the expense of workers. The corporations and the stock market both became more profitable. Even unemployment was reduced. But wages stagnated and the economic security of ordinary people suffered nonetheless. Although the author admits that corporations have gone too far in providing incentives to its executives, he still concludes that excessive compensation for those at the top is irrelevant if at least some of the overall prosperity reaches the masses, however disproportionately. He ignores the fact that surplus wealth has to come from somewhere, usually from the pockets of others.
He closes the article by suggesting that Americans return their focus to getting a college education, as the highest increases in income have gone to graduates of colleges and professional schools. Ironically, this brings us back to the beginning of the article, where the author cited the devaluation of a college education in the job market of the 1970's, during which the real income of white collar workers began to drop and many college graduates went unemployed. Some economists of that period had hoped that the economic value of white collar workers would rebound over time, when in fact it has continued to plummet. The spectre of this trend undermines his closing argument. True enough, those with more degress earn more, but even their share of the pie is getting smaller and smaller. The plight of most Americans is like that of movie characters trapped in a tower that is quickly filling with water. You may not be able to escape, but at least you can put off your demise for a while by climbing higher up the ladder. Unfortunately, life is not a movie and rescue is not assured.
Read the Times article, then read Barbara Ehrenreich's response, and decide for yourself whose insights are the most urgent.
"The Inequality Conundrum" from The New York Times Magazine
"The Trouble With The Super-Rich" from The Nation
Monday, June 11, 2007
"Maxed Out" Now Available In DVD
James Scurlock's muckraking 2005 documentary on the credit industry - Maxed Out - is now available on DVD. The links below include several interviews with the auteur and a few brief reviews of the DVD. According to Mr. Scurlock, the modern American credit industry did not begin to achieve its current unscrupulous glory until 1978. "On the regulatory side, in 1978, you have the U.S. Supreme Court deciding that banks could export their interest rates. They used to have very effective usury laws, caps on what you could charge for interest, and in 1978 that was effectively obliterated. So, suddenly, credit card companies like Citibank in South Dakota could base themselves with no usury laws, no rates, no caps, and they could charge whatever interest rate in any state in the country that they wanted to. So that's when credit card lending became very profitable."
You, like me and the rest of the American people, are no doubt bombarded daily by credit card companies offering unheard lines of credit and telemarketers trying to sell you second mortgages at dinnertime. In a more ethical past, banks didn't loan money to just anybody - not because they were stingy, but because they believed it would be irresponsible to loan money to someone who could not pay them back. Hence, the loan approval process was far more stringent and resulted in fewer bankruptcies. Nowadays, all of us are offered Riches For Rent with a great big smile - and whopping interest rates to match. No one is immune. Not so long ago, I acquired a free credit report which gave me a score of 830 - 99.97th percentile - but just the month before last I sent in my credit card payment late and got socked with 18.75 percent interest on what I owed the next time around. I told my wife to keep my credit card bill in plain sight so I will be constantly reminded to pay the damn thing on time. The very envelope it comes in now has acquired the aura of a death warrant.
Scurlock's documentary recounts credit card nightmares infinitely worse than mine. A college student seduced into owning multiple credit cards who eventually killed himself when debt overwhelmed him, a woman whose $12,000 debt ballooned to $50,000 within a year without the accrual of a single additional charge. You may be next - and you won't be alone. 35 percent of all Americans, 54 percent of those earning $40,000 a year or less, and 70 percent of minorities admit to feeling financially insecure. Credit card fees have increased 1000 percent in the last decade, from $1.7 billion in 1996 to $18 billion last year. We are a nation with a negative savings rate, and only debt keeps us afloat. According to Scurlock, "Two out of three people can't pay their credit cards off each month. At the same time, last year we cashed $800 billion dollars out of home equity. Trillions of dollars in the last few years have been cashed out of people's homes and much of that went to paying off credit card bills. And the cycle continues." Debt has become such a large portion of the GNP that politicians - already besieged and manipulated by credit industry lobbyists - are unwilling to crack down on predatory lenders for fear that the entire economy will come crashing down. Meanwhile, churches that exalt Bush as a secular saint promise salvation to debtors - so long as they contribute to the collection plate.
"A Nation Running On Empty" from The American Prospect
"Maxed out, spent down and busted" from The Houston Chronicle
"DVD Select: Truth is scarier than fiction in 'Maxed Out'" from Bend Weekly (Oregon)
"Credit Cruncher" from MSNBC.com
"From the Mirage of a Middle-Class Life to the Slavery of Debt" from AlterNet
"Maxed Out (DVD)" from Amazon.com
Sunday, June 10, 2007
Harassment Training Does Not Increase Lawsuits
According to a survey of 243 white collar employees, sexual harassment awareness courses will not cause workers to file lawsuits with greater frequency. The survey participants were queried on how they would respond to sexual harassment. The four possible responses included confronting the employer verbally, filing a formal report, seeking legal counsel or quitting. After the survey participants provided their responses, an experimental group was enrolled in sexual harassment training, while a control group was not. When both groups were asked the same questions three months later, there was no difference in the proportion that said they would seek legal counsel. This should reassure corporations that they will not expose themselves to frivolous legal action if they provide their employees with sexual harassment training.
"Does Harassment Training Increase the Likelihood of Lawsuits?" from HR.BLR.com
Friday, June 08, 2007
Baby Boom Among The Cubicle Dwellers
Here is a quasi-humorous article about a phenomenon that almost anyone who works in an office these days has observed - the ubiquity of pregnant woman in the workplace. The article has little to provide other than wry observation, but it does make the point that a preponderance of pregnancies can result in bonding among employees who might not otherwise interact. To me, the phenomenon underscores the fact that the white collar workplace is among the most diverse in human history, and that diversity alone ought to shield us against the dismissal and derision of those who see us as oppressors (e.g., Ward Churchill calling the office workers of the Twin Towers "little Eichmanns") as well as of those who see us as their inferiors (any number of journalists, academics, artists, high-level executives and professionals with advanced degrees). Once we acknowledge that the office has become a microcosm of humanity, and stop caricaturizing it as a narrow community of hopeless drones, the more respect we will have both in our own eyes and in the eyes of others.
"The Office: What to Expect When They’re Expecting" from Inc.com
Thursday, June 07, 2007
The Technology Of Disrespect Advances To New Heights
Instant messaging has given white collar workers a whole new way to dis the boss behind his back during business meetings and the like. Just send your buddy a "When will he ever shut up?" message on your Blackberry. It beats whispering. You can also do it remotely during vast phone conferences when the intended recipient of your sardonic observation is not even in the same room. Or even in the same state. If someone sees you clicking away, they'll assume you're just attempting to multi-task, and you'll come away looking like a workaholic do-bee when you're really an irreverent slacker. Ain't technology grand?
"TEXTING MAKES TALKING BEHIND BACKS AS EASY AS HITTING ‘SEND’" from The New York Post
Wednesday, June 06, 2007
Why Don't U.S. Workers Take Vacations?
51 million American workers do not use all their vacation time. According to The Christian Science Monitor, "they're too busy, and they can't afford to travel." The average American worker gets only 15 days off - 9 paid vacation days and 6 paid holidays per year. In contrast, "by law, Europeans have the right to at least 20 days of paid time off per year. Some countries guarantee 25 or 30 days." It gets worse. 31 percent of workers earning less that $15 per hour, 12 percent of workers earning $15 per hour or more, and 25 percent of all workers get no paid time off at all.
Of those who do get paid vacation time, 45 percent did not use all their days in 2006. Nonetheless, 43 percent workers claim they want more paid vacation. And who can blame them? But would we take our vacation days even if we had more of them? Are we all workaholics - or is it something else? Experts claim workers forfeit vacation time to show their loyalty to the company - behavior that is frequently conditioned by peer pressure. "A lot of people give up vacation days because they see their boss or co-workers giving up their days," one expert claims. "This creates a vicious cycle in which no one wants to be the first to take all their days." Despite all this, "everyone wants the culture to change."
Some workers simply can't afford to travel, due to increased debt and the rising cost of gasoline. They take shorter vacations, or "simply stay home, taking what is called a 'staycation'." Some speculate that married couples who both work may have trouble synchronizing vacation time and often forego taking vacations altogether. Conversely, unmarried workers unburdened by the pressure to schedule family vacations - not to mention young workers still paying off their student loans - may choose to work instead. The percentage of all these groups is increasing in the workplace, driving down the number of American workers who are willing and able to take time off. Even 20 percent of those who actually plan vacations eventually have to cancel or postpone them.
Yet many consultants and academics see the advantages of taking a break. Families can benefit enormously from more time spent together. Vacations can even be good for business. According to labor economist Wallace Huffman, "Productivity could increase by up to 60 percent for employees in the month or two following a good vacation..."
"For US workers, a vacation deprivation" from The Christian Science Monitor
Tuesday, June 05, 2007
Foreign Film Comedy About Office Deception
Here is a movie from Danish director Lars von Trier about a boss who disguises the fact that he is the boss to avoid the wrath of his colleagues, then hires an actor to play himself during a business crisis. It is called The Boss Of It All. For those of you who like foreign cinema, this might be fun. According to The Boston Globe, the movie "finds the common ground between business and acting -- panicky improvisation -- and wonders whether applause or an executive comp package is the greater reward." Methinks this is more a theatrical meditation about acting as imposture than about corporate dynamics. On second thought, the Globe may be right. CEOs often "pretend" to be CEOs, just the way politicians "pretend" to be presidential timber. In our post-modern world, we are often more concerned about the image we inhabit rather than what we actually do.
Why not hire an actor to play you better than you can play yourself? You would think, if money is the only object, that real-life CEO types would prefer anonymity and just take the money and run. The curious thing is that many bosses seek fame, even while indulging in behavior that brings them nothing but public disgrace. The trick is, I guess, to become famous among your own - those who "matter" - while remaining obscure to the masses. That's the way rich dudes use to do it, but that no longer suffices for most of them. It's not enough to be Conrad Hilton, they want to be Paris, too.
"For cubicle dwellers, a piercing comedy" from The Boston Globe
"Von Trier Goes To Work" from The New York Sun
Monday, June 04, 2007
The Monster Dragging The Middle Class Into Stagnation
Two polemics from The Huffington Post assault the complacency of The Bushenomics Boys and the agenda behind middle class economic stagnation. They cite the credit economy for manufacturing money by putting the American middle class in debt, and show how inflation is controlled by suppressing wages while allowing prices to rise. The costs of living are "much higher" now than when Bush took office. Gas prices have doubled, education costs have risen 44 percent, health care premiums are skyrocketing and housing remains expensive and scarce. The rise in the "average income" of Americans is an illusion created by the vast expansion in the incomes of the wealthy. As the joke goes, the "average income" of everyone in the room rises 10,000 percent once Bill Gates walks into it. The median income has actually fallen. As wages fall, and prices rise, American consumers borrow more and more to make ends meet. This borrowing creates the mountain of IOU's - the "paper money" - that keeps the credit economy afloat, and the Bush administration controls inflation primarily because it benefits creditors to keep it low. It is not "the people" that our leaders care about, but the institutions to which "the people" owe money.
"The Mysteries of Bushenomics" from The Huffington Post
"Beware of Economists Defending Inequality" from The Huffington Post
Sunday, June 03, 2007
Here are the confessions of a "professional gypsy" who lost her contract at Northwest Airline just day before its CEO, the egregious Gary Wilson, rode out in triumph with a $2 million "gratitude gift for mishandling the airline's business so thoroughly." She reflects on the fact that when workers change their careers up to five times in their working lives, they often do so out of necessity rather than choice. She writes, "We have become a nation of professional gypsies. Reinventing ourselves twice and thrice, we are wastage to corporations that must answer to hungry stockholders. Boomers especially are being downsized constantly while trying hard to stay in their chosen professions. Even in high-demand fields - accounting, engineering, physical therapy - the agencies and institutions that hire them change shape in a flash. Entire departments disappear overnight."
The number of bad and overcompensated CEOs is "finite", she says, but the number of "professional gypsies is so high that we cannot count them, and they are commonplace enough to cause scarcely a ripple." These people, who in many cases gave "their hearts and minds to the system", no longer care about the rules. They have slipped away into a twilit world where traditional measures of prosperity and achievement have become unattainable. For all the sacrifice and scrupulous obedience of their previous lives, they "never knew that the rule book had been taken out behind the shiny new corporate headquarters - now empty and untenanted - and burned."
"The plight of the professional gypsy" from The Minneapolis-St. Paul Star Tribune
Friday, June 01, 2007
Measuring Work Stress At The Office
In a scenario reminiscent of Rick Moranis frantically checking his own blood pressure in Head Office, white collar workers now have the option of monitoring their stress levels in their cubicles. HeartMath LLC, based in Boulder Creek, California, has developed emWave PC Stress Relief System software, which "uses a finger or ear pulse monitor that plugs into the USB slot of a personal computer, and a corresponding software application that rates heart rhythms (biofeedback tools) to chart how stressed users are." At least 10,000 individuals in all walks of life, from executives to athletes, are currently using HeartMath software. Considering that employee stress costs corporations $300 billion in year in lost revenue, and that $310 million was spent in 2005 on "stress-related programs", there is clearly a market for any product that can chill out the corporate multitudes.
HeartMatch VP Howard Martin thinks its products will liberate American workers. "We developed a consumer-oriented heart rhythm feedback tool that took something powerful out of the hands of medicine and put it into the hands of people," he asserts. There is even a pocket version of HeartMath's feedback device "that users can carry around to periodically check their heart rate."
Another company, Logisense of Fort Collins, Colorado, has developed software that can monitor workers' stress levels without even requiring their cooperation. It obtains body temperature and sweat secretion levels from a sensor embedded in the subject's computer mouse, gathering data in a way that doesn't "interrupt people's workflow."
One expert suggests that such gadgetry naturally appeals to members of our "very detail-oriented society" in which "people are looking at numbers about themselves all the time," while another dismisses it as mere "faddishness."
Speaking for myself, this software has Orwellian overtones. I cannot help thinking that someday it might be used to control workers' moods, or to identify workers with, say, hypertension so that they can be culled out for the corporate equivalent of a medical discharge. Your employers should be allowed to learn only just so much about you. Go beyond that, and you put yourself at their mercy. There's something to be said for the adage, "Never let them see you sweat."
"Software ID's stress: Work pressure is big business" from The Berkshire Eagle