Wednesday, November 30, 2011

Labor of Love II

Sorry for the gap since my last post.  The stars aligned in such a way that last Wednesday was the busiest day of the year for both jobs.  I delivered 2 complete sets of papers to most of my weekend customers between 10:00 PM-1:00 AM Wednesday into Thursday then again from 5:00 AM - 8:00 AM Thanksgiving morning.  Also, I spent 14+ hours (each day) in the car picking up and bringing back my son to college last Tuesday and this past Sunday.  The weather and the traffic did not cooperate for either trip.  Needless to say, while Thanksgiving was very nice, both from the standpoint of the wonderful meal and company, I was much too tired to really enjoy it.  It is clear that I need to replace the newspaper gig for something which requires fewer hours.  Hopefully the new year will bring me this opportunity.

I did manage to appreciate the unseasonably warm weather we have experienced this past week.  I believe the temp may have reached 70 degrees one day.  Certainly we had upper 60 degrees for a bunch of days in a row.  Nature also gave us some spectacular sunsets during that streak of warm weather.

My last blog touched on the need for more of us to enjoy our work.  To find meaning in it even if it is below our abilities or is routine in its nature.  Part two of this discussion concerns teamwork. 

I will be the first to admit that I work best alone.  I generally feel that I get more accomplished when I don't have to explain or share a task with another.  Fortunately, my years of working have helped me to improve my ability to both work with others and manage a group in a way that creates a team  atmosphere.  While I can easily revert back to my solitary ways, I do feel that when properly focused I can mesh the variety of skills of each member of a team to create results that exceed what each person might be able to accomplish on their own.  I also, grudgingly, am able to be a member of a team when I am not the leader, although, again, it is a trait that I am far from mastering.

This concept of teamwork is trumpeted far and wide by all types of entities, be it corporations, sports teams, families or even couples.  Yet I am beginning to wonder if there are times when our spirit of American individualism gets in the way of taking full advantage of the power of a true team attitude. 

The easiest example is in the area of sports.  So often fans clamor for the best talent and owners pay huge sums of money to acquire that talent.  Then, at the end of the season, it is very rare for the team with the best players to win the championship.  Each player may be the best, or one of the best at his position, but together the group is unable to set aside their individual needs for big stats and glory and do what it takes to advance the team.  Do you need talent to win in sports?  Of course.  But there is more to it than swinging the best bat or throwing the tightest spiral or throwing down the mightiest dunk.  The really great players make those around them better in addition to displaying their exceptional talents.  The really great managers can take advantage of each players skills while hiding their weaknesses to create a team that excels even with less talent.  And, to me, most importantly, the average players or role players if you will, know their place on the team and play the game within their skill level.  They understand that the team needs each of them to succeed and that it is each players contribution that adds up to that success.  The team becomes more than the sum of its parts. 

The other obvious example is the recent failure of the super committee to provide a framework for spending and debt reduction.  In that case, the team members, all intelligent, seemingly concerned men and women who knew the importance of their task, achieved far less as a team.  They were less than the sum of their parts.  It seems that this scenario is a perfect description of how our elected officials have performed in recent years.  As I have said before, perhaps we need a new bunch of players in this arena.

Lastly, we have the current 99% to 1% demonstrations that have been the focus of the Occupy... groups.  I hear and understand criticism of this movement which reminds the Occupy protesters that we don't want to vilify the super rich of this country just because they are successful.  Being rich should not be a scarlet letter.  Capitalism, for all its faults, is still the best economic system for providing opportunity and upward mobility.  Perhaps then, one of the points of Occupy... should be the team concept.  Sure, those making the BIG decisions, those with the BIG ideas, those with the BIG ambition that create new industries, should be rewarded.  But so too should those doing the actual work!  If the idea is for the team to succeed, team in this case being defined as the American economy, then we all need to contribute and we all need to experience the rewards.  When a sports team wins the big game, do all the players get a ring or a chance to skate around with the Cup?  Yes!  They are rewarded as a team.  Perhaps our message to the 1% should remind them that we all need to be rewarded for our hard work and effort because without the contributions of EVERY member of the team, in the end, no one will win.   

Wednesday, November 16, 2011

End of Occupy movement?

The last few days have featured some significant developments for the Occupy protesters.  In New York City, the home of the movement, a coordinated police crackdown emptied out the encampment in the early morning hours.  While it was stated that the protesters could move back, it was also made clear that they could only do so without their tents, sleeping bags and other overnight gear.  Similar "clearing out" of Occupy makeshift camps has occurred in other cities. 

Here in Philadelphia, there have been calls from those who previously supported the movement for them to leave their current site at Dilworth Plaza due to the construction project that is scheduled to begin soon.  More than one commentator has pointed out that by delaying their change of venue, the Phila faction of Occupy is interfering with jobs that will help the very 99% that they claim to represent.

So, are we seeing the beginning of the eventual end of this movement? 

I would like to think that it is merely the end of the first stage.  This first stage, to get the attention of both the 1% that the protesters are singling out and the remaining 99% that they hope will join their cause, has been successful.  The Occupy movement garners front page newspaper space, time on the talk shows, and a huge range of internet exposure.  Its main message, that our economic and political systems have been rigged to favor those who have the most at the expense of everyone else, has been delivered. 

But what will encompass stage two?

I believe that despite the reams of date that exist which demonstrate that there is undoubtedly a growing gap between the haves and have nots, and that the majority of those in the have not category recognize this inequity, it is also true that the belief in capitalism overrides this acknowledged trend.

As a case in point, my current full time job with the PLCB is fodder for those who believe that the government does not belong, nor is capable of competing, in any free market environment.  Even what many would call the "liberal" Philadelphia Inquirer newspaper, has made its position clear that Pennsylvania should privatize this system.  In this case, the Inquirer fails to make the connection between its often editorialized position that middle class Americans are being squeezed through the loss of jobs which provide a livable wage.  The fact is, should the PLCB be privatized, thousands of livable wage jobs will be lost, along with the health benefits of thousands of middle class families.  One only has to look at the wage and benefits packages of the people who currently work in the retail industry, the supermarkets, pharmacies and department stores, to know that any jobs that are replaced or added with this privatization plan will be jobs in the $10 dollar an hour range with limited if any health benefits.  More squeezing of the middle class, yet all the profit which once went to the state of PA will now flow to businesses and corporations with a history of low wage and benefits compensation. 

So, we cling to the belief that only capitalism with its emphasis on free markets, entrepreneurship, and competition is the best answer to our economic woes.  But here is a surprise.  I also believe that to be true.  In fact, we need people to want to strive to improve their lives and so we need a system that rewards those for doing so.  We need people to believe that the system will work for them.  But most importantly, we need the system to actually deliver on those promises.  And that needs to be the message of stage two.

The facts seem to suggest, that Americans have faith that capitalism will work for them.  Millions of examples of its ability to provide the vehicle for upward mobility and economic comfort abound.  While we might feel justified about vilifying the 1%, it is a much higher percentage of Americans that are actually being rewarded via capitalism, and more importantly, believe they will be rewarded if they put in the effort.  

In my opinion then, the second stage of this movement must

- continue to hammer home the message that there is a growing income inequality in America today.  That more and more of the wealth (and political muscle) is flowing away from the working class citizens of this country and towards those with the most to lose should the trend be addressed. 

- continue to cite research such as that just concluded recently by Stanford University which reports that family incomes in the top 117 metropolitan areas of America have experienced a severe shift in both directions away from the midde class.  To summarize its findings, in 2007 44% of families lived in middle income neighborhoods, down from 65% in 1970.  While some of that shift has been upward, most has been downward towards poverty. 

- limit attacks on capitalism as a system but focus on the abuses that exist in its current form.  Hold the system accountable for actually providing economic opportunities and address those obstacles, whether it be corporate greed, political corruption or citizen apathy, that prevent its proper functioning

- push for political campaign funding reform.  We need to reduce the influence of money on our elected officials. 

- remind the 99% that voting is our best solution to sending a message to both Washington and the 1%.  The alternative, some type of citizen revolt, is not a choice anyone should embrace

Tuesday, November 15, 2011

A Labor of Love

Unseasonably mild the past few days.  Drove my route with the driver side window down at times.  People wearing shorts and sandals walking around town.  Again with the unusual weather. 

This past weekend, my wife and I received a pair of tickets from friends to see the Philadelphia Chamber Orchestra at the Kimmel Center.  In addition to the beautiful music, I was inspired to reflect upon the time and devotion that the musicians have invested in their craft.  At least for this particular performance, the players exhibited a deep respect for the music itself, for their individual expressions, and for the appreciative audience.  It seemed clear that this was not merely a day at work for these people but a labor of love full of meaning that transcended the monetary compensation they were receiving.

How many of us feel that way at our jobs?

As many of you know, I deliver newspapers in the wee morning hours, everyday, no exceptions.  I also work full time in a retail environment.  At times I have been reminded that perhaps I should be employed in work that is more challenging, and am asked if I am bored in these endeavors.  Perhaps I have not attained the professional stature that my parents imagined on that day when I was born.  Perhaps I took the easy route as opposed to challenging myself with studies, or employment that might have better matched my talents.  It would be too easy to shrug away those thoughts with "I guess this was my destiny" or "the breaks didn't fall my way", or "its not what you know but who you know", but I will not use those excuses.  I made my choices and for better or worse, will live by the results.  But, as for being bored, that is one disease that I will not succumb to. 

Boredom is not a product of the act you perform but a product of your perception of that act.  

It is certainly easy to criticize the athlete who takes a game off, then a week, then half a season, or musicians, artists, or entertainers who "go through the motions" after weeks of performing the same songs or show.  We accuse them of a lack of respect for their trade and their talent and themselves.  We think we see what they cannot -  that they have forgotten the original spark that inspired them to pursue those areas of expression and we wish we had that talent (and money) and declare that if we did, we certainly wouldn't be wasting it but would appreciate it. 

But then we go off to work.  We watch the clock, we make plans for the weekend, we chat with our fellow employees, we complain about our employer and our customers and our lives.   We are working for the money, only, yet can't understand why someone making millions of dollars would have a perspective any different from our own.

Whether it is a natural byproduct of the change in the nature of the jobs we perform, jobs that no longer result in a tangible product that we can look upon with pride, jobs that required working with living things such as animals, jobs that included preparing a field, planting seeds and harvesting the crops, whether it is a culture that values money and possessions over honesty and integrity, or whether it is the corporate mentality that provides us with an excuse to gauge everything with the yardstick of the dollar, and enables those in charge to use profit as an excuse to regard labor as getting the most while paying the least, it is clear that pride in our jobs is becoming a lost attribute.

Or perhaps we just don't know what pride in our jobs entails.

Pride in your job means throwing papers up driveways or jumping out to toss one on a porch or double bagging when it is raining knowing that someone might depend on that paper for their link to the world.  Pride in your job is keeping the shelves fully stocked and fronted knowing that small people shop too, and ringing your customer's purchase at the register with a smile or pleasantry.  Pride in your job is picking the orders as quickly and efficiently as possible knowing that someone is dependent on that product arriving as ordered.  Pride in your job is cooking fast food properly and serving it hot and fresh knowing that the hungry person on the other side of the counter is pressed for time.  Pride in your job is sweeping up at the end of the day so the next shift whether it is you or not, can start with a clean work area.  Pride in your job is examining the monetary ramifications of an investment or mortgage in light of what is best for your clients and not just for the commission it will generate for you.  Pride in your job is accepting the honor of representing your country as an elected official then doing your utmost to fashion policies and laws that benefit the everyday people you represent and not just the ones with money and status.

Pride in your job is performing at a rate beyond the mere salary or status assigned to that job.  It is YOUR job and a reflection of YOUR character.

And, amazingly enough, pride in your job, laboring with love, makes the day pass easily and takes the work out of working.

Friday, November 11, 2011

Another Special Day

About 340 days ago I published my initial blog entitled A Special Day to commemorate both New Years Day and the numerical oddity of 1/1/11.

Well, here we are in the same year and we have another repeating number in the date, 11/11/11.  Knowing that next year will bring us 12/12/12 and then nothing similar until 2/2/22 which will mark 10 years between these special days, I thought it appropriate to touch again upon the topic.

In the original piece, I commented about the 10 year+ span between the two 2011 dates, next year's 2012 date and the 2022 occurrence from the perspective of how our lives might be different.  To hammer home that point, think about how life has changed just since 1/1/11 for the following people.

Herman Cain
Jerry Sandusky
the victims of Sandusky
Joe Paterno
all the Japanese people living near the Fukushima nuclear plants 
the couple hundred American soldiers who have died in Iraq/Afghanistan
the families of those soldiers
the Occupy Wall Street protesters
Greek Prime Minister George Papandreou
All the Greek people facing significant cuts in their pensions and salaries

Such dramatic changes and the corresponding stress and anxiety as compared to the often heard complaint about the routines that we all face in our daily lives.  Sometimes hectic, sometimes boring but still routines.  It makes one wonder that if push came to shove, would we choose to continue our routines or choose the thrill of having our lives turned upside down?

Of course, one could say that one man's hectic schedule is another's boring routine.  Regardless, it is important to take time to step back and look around.  One of my favorite movies is Ferris Bueller's Day Off.  At one point in the movie, he looks at the camera and says something to the effect that "life moves pretty fast and if you don't stop and look around once in a while you could miss it".  I have been fortunate enough that I have found the time in these last 10 months to NOT miss

My daughter play water polo
My wife find a new job
My son start to mature at college
My dad battle back from a fractured hip
My yearly family vacation in the Poconos
"Good mornings" to the dozens of deer, rabbit, fox, skunk, cats, cows and even 2 horses that I have met on my morning route
Moon lit pre-dawn mornings
Spectacular sun rises
The first growth of spring in our backyard
Summer barbecues (cooked by my son!!)
The first frost on the car windows
October snow

Nothing spectacular as compared to running for president or fighting on foreign soil or living in a tent in a park in New York but all events that can enhance the answer to "what's new?"  It is certainly better than "nothing", or "same old thing" or my least favorite, "same shit, different day".

Finally, let's not forget that today is also Veteran's Day.  Or, more importantly, let's not forget the actual veterans that served their country.  Especially those just returning from our most recent foreign conflicts.  It is bad enough that we send, mostly kids, off to hostile environments, but when they return to face high unemployment, foreclosed homes, divorce, children they never met, poor medical facilities, and a group of politicians that say all the right things but do very little to smooth their transition from the military world to the civilian world, well, it makes one wonder if we should stop pretending that we honor their service and sacrifice and admit that they are merely hired guns.   




Monday, November 7, 2011

A Liberal and a Libertarian (finale)

Delivering the papers in temps in the upper 20's the last two days.  Brrrrrr. 

Started my new job this past week -- well, similar job but at a new location.  Very excited about all that I may be able to accomplish there.  Hope the slight bump in income allows me to reduce or eliminate the necessity for delivering papers which in turn will provide more time to blog.

Perhaps I wasn't quite fair to my libertarian friend in my last blog.  His opinions are just as valid as mine (although perhaps less well thought out).  Oops, did it again!

What it seems to boil down to is that we disagree on who to trust, or more precisely, who to trust less.  He does not trust politicians in general, and our elected federal officials in particular.  He sees POWER as their goal more so than public service.  He trusts the business world to provide the necessary goods and services in a way that provides jobs and economic growth, and trusts that the market will sufficiently penalize those businesses that produce shoddy goods, provide inadequate services and/or compensate their employees poorly.  A business will fail when its finances become unsustainable while a government can borrow or print more money when its finances are unsound. 

I do not trust businesses in general and corporations in particular.  I see PROFIT as their goal more so than providing quality products and services to their customers.  I trust in our elected officials, who we individually vote for in our democratic electoral system, to enact policies that will assist the citizenry that is most in need of help, and regulate business by providing guidelines that attempt to penalize those that take advantage of their employees and/or customers, and guarantee that the shared resources of our country are not polluted (air and water) nor inequitably used to enrich a small percentage of the population.  When our government fails to ask as its citizens require, we can replace it with new representatives.

Obviously, there are both good and bad politicians, good and bad businesses.  The danger at hand seems to be that those with PROFIT as their goal are using said profit to influence those with POWER as their goal and have combined to turn both our democracy and our economic system into one which unfairly rewards a small percentage of Americans to the detriment of the majority.  Regardless as to whether you want to call it the 99% or the silent majority or the backbone or the heartland of the country, we are under-represented in the halls of Washington and the board rooms of corporate America.

The tea party crystallized the distrust in our government by focusing on its size.  Bigger is worse, I guess.  Yet the movement fails to apply the same logic to our corporations.  This, I believe, is, or should be, one of the messages of the Occupy Wall Street Movement.  Not necessarily that business is bad, but that these huge corporations are an issue.  Is it a coincidence that top end executive pay has increased hundreds of times in the past 30 years while average working class salaries have stagnated?  If our largest corporations, especially the financial ones, are too big to fail, and if our elected officials have put into power people that have spent significant time working for those financial institutions, have we reached the time when our fears of big government and our fears of big business have been realized.  It is a win-win situation for the POWER and the PROFIT hungry and a lose-lose situation for the rest of us.

Still, I would be remiss if I didn't remind everyone that each of us are as much responsible for our situation as those hated politicians and corporate execs.  We want our 401K statements to reflect increases and we want our social security checks to keep on coming.  We want oil to be the cheapest in the Western world but refuse to see the connection between our obscenely high defense budget and our federal deficit.  We want to be able to tweet our next Occupy sit-in to everyone on our friends' list but forget that the phone was most likely manufactured by workers making dollars a day for corporations making billions of dollars a year.  We want lower medicare deductibles and cheaper medicines and longer lives but forget that as our population ages, the demographic shift is stressing the programs designed to provide such benefits.

So, perhaps we need to remember that democracy and capitalism are the worst government and economic systems yet invented, except for every other one.  That the systems are only as good as the people in charge and those involved.  That criticism of government is just as necessary as criticism of big business when either one loses its focus.  That, just like the recent "transfer-your-banking-business-to-a-credit-union-or-smaller-bank day, we can all make a difference, one vote or one act at a time but that it starts with that (hopefully) smiling face you see each morning in your mirror.     


Tuesday, November 1, 2011

A Liberal and a Libertarian II

An unusual snow storm hit the east coast the past weekend.  We received about 6 inches of snow here but some parts of New England saw a couple of feet of the white stuff.  Strange how we keep seeing weather related stories that lead with "unexpected..." or "unusual..." or "record...".  How much more evidence do we need to accept that climate change is happening? 

My conversations with my libertarian friend will most likely cease as I have been transferred to a new store.  It is a promotion so I am glad but I will miss working and discussing the topics of the day with him, especially as the election cycle continues to bring such a wide range of viewpoints and material to review.

One topic that I need to amend from my first Liberal and a Libertarian blog is concerning taxes.  I misunderstood my friend's position of taxes from the tax rate standpoint.  He is not in favor of the progressive tax system whereby those earning more pay a higher rate.  He is fine with a tax rate that only kicks in at a level of livability, for instance $50K for a family of four, but he would prefer the same rate to be applied regardless of income whether it be $50K, $500K or $5 million per year.  Sort of a flat tax but with consideration for size of household. 

In our last discussion of potential tax reform (something we certainly agreed needs to be addressed), we came upon a compromise plan that did not satisfy completely but did move the discussion forward.  These numbers are not set in stone, but the idea was to continue tax deductions for the lower income earners (unlike the 9-9-9 plan of candidate Cain).  These deductions, certainly number of dependents, probably mortgage interest and education expenses, perhaps state and local taxes, medical and charitable itemizations, would phase out as income increased.  Again, the actual income levels are open for debate,  and a yearly adjustment, up or down, would be required based on a cost of living index, but we were both willing to accept deductions which decreased for every $50,000 of income.  

100% up to $50K per year
90% from $50-99K
80% from $100-149K, etc
down to 10% for income from $449-$499K
and no deductions for those reporting an income of $500,000 or more per year.

As for the flat tax rate, given that some income earners are able to itemize, the same rate for everyone would not actually be the same rate given that someone with an income of $48,000 who can deduct 100% of deductions would lower their taxabe income to $28,000.  This persone would now pay a lower effective percentage after deductions than someone with an income of $480K who can only subtract 10% of their deductions or as compared to someone earning $800K who can deduct nothing. 

At this point, whether it be a 15% flat tax for everyone (or 9% or 20%), the idea was that once income reached a certain level, the tax percentage was paid.  Period.  No complicated rules or clever accounting.

Question?  Is there any chance a plan like this can be implemented?  It seems to give no side everything, simplifies the tax code, and reinforces the idea that while the government needs to collect taxes it needs to do so in a relatively fair and equitable way which provides some upward mobility for lower income earners without unduly restraining the motivation for ambition, innovation and growth.
As for disagreement, the two biggest areas were business and health care.

In the eyes of my libertarian friend, there should be very little if any restrictions on how someone chooses to run his/her business.  He should be able to hire whom he pleases.  Pay what he deems fair.  Provide or not provide health care, or any benefits for that matter.  In an ideal world, employees will take jobs for those with compensation packages that are attractive and not apply to those employers with sub par offers.  The market would rule.  Employers who treated employees fairly would get the best people and thrive.  Employers who treated their employees poorly would see high turnover rates and poor work performance.  Inevitably employees would help determine appropriate benefits by moving towards employers who offer the most inclusive benefits. 

Additionally, without government interference, there would be no need to lobby for special rules or exemptions for one industry over another.  No corporate lobbyists flying our elected officials to the Bahamas on "fact-finding" trips (did you ever notice that they never fly to Alaska or Greenland for these trips?) because there would be no reason to affect government policy.  To be honest, I have to wonder if merely eliminating all work rules would remove the necessity for all that corporate shenanigans?  Of course, we would also have to dial down the environmental laws, but what is a bit of smog or dirty water if we can rid Washington of all those special interest lobbyists for the business world?  There is certainly some envy in some parts of the west over the current Chinese version of capitalism.  We could have that too, as long as we are willing to turn a blind eye to $5 an hour wages, few if any work holidays, reduced heat in the winter, no air conditioning in the summer, effluent dumping in our neighborhood creeks and rivers, and just a bit more acid rain to help scrub away the dirt and grime on our roads and bridges. 

But wait, I thought employees would only work for employers who did the right thing?  Oh, that's right.  That only works when there are jobs to be chosen from.  In a high unemployment time, like now, we would just have to take what we could get.  We just need to have faith that once the economy recovers, all those low paying job holders will see an increase in pay as employers become flush with excess money.  (I guess the $2 trillion dollars that is supposedly on the books of our biggest corporations isn't quite excess enough). 

As for health care, again, the ideal world awaits us.  Since even fewer employers will provide health care coverage, you can pull up those boot straps and get your own.  And, as long as one stays healthy, premiums will be affordable, if you choose to buy coverage at all.  Of course, since you are on your own and there is no "group" to buffer the costs of health care should you get sick, be involved in an accident, or begin to age, you will pay the market price.  Can't afford it?  Well, I guess you should have been more careful and avoided that accident, or ate better foods so you didn't get sick, or made sure you were born to parents with better aging genes so your health remained good over time.  Cancer, diabetes, disabled in an accident?  If insurance companies had to cover the cost of all those people who fell victim to these problems, how would they make a profit?  Clearly, in a market driven economy, the sick must pay more for health care and health care coverage just as you would for any consummable or service. 

But then again, perhaps we can reverse the recent increase in life expectancy.  Without environmental regs, there should be more pollution so that will reduce the number of seniors.  And, less health care coverage will mean less health care services so people will begin to die younger.  So perhaps a truly libertarian viewpoint will work; each person is responsible for themselves, and those that can't provide are left to their own devices.  Survival of the fittest.  Darwinism wins again!  Put that in your creationism pipe and smoke it!