Wednesday, November 22, 2006

Screw 'em!

Early last week, a young entrepreneur paid 20 people $200 each to wait in line until Friday, when the Sony PlayStation 3 went on sale, so that each of them could make a purchase on his behalf. His goal was to acquire as many PlayStations as possible so that he could resell them, at a profit, on e-Bay. It was his way of getting around the store’s one unit-per-person policy.

On Saturday, the high-tech toys were reported to be selling on e-Bay for as much as $3500. That’s one hell of a markup from the $600 retail price.

Now, some would argue that the entrepreneur’s game plan was just smart business, but I beg to differ; it’s not nearly as much smart business as it is bad ethics. By hoarding 20 machines for himself, he prevented 20 people with more legitimate reasons for owning a machine from buying one. He caused 20 others, who can accurately be described as having an abundance of money and a shortage of patience and good sense, to pay prices far in excess of retail value.

If ticket scalping is illegal, why isn’t profiteering on merchandise illegal, too? The differences between the two are indistinguishable. But, hey! I guess the entrepreneur in question was merely adhering to one of capitalism’s inviolate rules: Buy low, and sell high—no matter whom you screw!

Wednesday, November 15, 2006

Introducing a New Dynamic

Ayn Rand was wrong. Sure, her argument for objectivism, delivered so eloquently in 50-some consecutive pages of uninterrupted dialog by her character, John Galt, in Atlas Shrugged, has won the hearts and minds of countless young laissez-faire capitalists since the novel was published in 1957. That’s beside the point.

The truth is that when one examines, closely, both sides of that lopsided coin, a different truth emerges. While bright ideas are desirable things, imagination alone doesn’t manipulate matter and shape it into that which the mind conceives. Muscle plays an essential role in the process of transforming ideas into material reality, but all too often it’s given short shrift, its value downplayed by the “men of the mind” whose goal is to create and retain for themselves as much wealth as possible. Thinkers grow rich, and workers become their willing – or not so willing – slaves.

No man is an island, and no head acts independently of its body. A head without a body lacks the ability to take action; a body without a head lacks purpose and direction. Only when the two work together in perfect harmony do meaningful things get done.

And so it is with management and labor. Labor without management is inefficient and ineffective; management without labor has no hope of accomplishment. It takes the two of them, working together in perfect harmony, to achieve the desired results.

In 2005, the average pay for Fortune 500 companies’ CEOs was 431 times higher than the average pay for those companies’ employees. In 1982 the pay differential was 47 to 1.

Does anyone else see a problem with this dynamic? Maybe it’s time to introduce a measure of equity into the workplace so workers are more fairly compensated for their contributions to the economy.

What if workers were able to buy an ownership interest in the companies and corporations they work for? If investors can buy in with money, why can’t workers buy in with their labor? This would go a long way toward shrinking the disparity between rich and poor by creating a more level economic playing field. An ownership stake in the companies they work for would give workers incentive to increase productivity by rewarding their efforts to do so.

Restructuring corporate ownership to include the working class would help achieve economic parity by redistributing wealth downward. It would obviate the need for labor unions, increase productivity, minimize sick time, reduce employee absenteeism and turnover, trim healthcare costs across the board, and replace Social Security as a source of retirement income.

Other benefits to society would accrue, as well. Lower unemployment rates, lower crime rates, fewer homeless people, fewer people on welfare, and increased tax revenues are just some of the possibilities.

With inexorable population growth and rapid technological evolution comes the need to revamp all social institutions, not the least of which is the economy. Our failure to entertain—and, perhaps, act upon—progressive and even radical ideas now only ensures that we’ll be buried under the rubble of our inertia later.

Friday, November 10, 2006

Local Effects of Global Climate Change

No sooner had Oregon Governor Ted Kulongoski been reelected than the local television media was jumping all over him for daring to speak the truth about Oregon’s climate often being in direct conflict with the over-privileged elite’s favorite delusions.

Kulongoski’s comments implied, not too subtly, that people who build expensive houses in areas that are prone to erosion or flooding or other whims of nature have way too much money and not nearly enough brains. What Kulongoski hinted at is that building in a watershed or perching a vacation home on the edge of a cliff, facing the ocean, isn’t a smart thing to do.

It’s no secret that nature behaves in unpredictable ways. Storms happen, and when they do wind blows and rain falls, unleashing upon the unsuspecting and the unprepared all sorts of discomforts and uncertainties. Rivers rise and overflow their banks; ground saturates and turns to mud and the forces of wind and water cause trees to topple; storm surge erodes beaches and undermines the cliffs that abut them. Nature’s forces are relentless and unforgiving, and no one should be surprised by them or made indignant because of them.

Certain privileges carry certain risks. The price of a spectacular view of the Pacific is that the fabulous McMansion one enjoys it from is at risk of perishing in the next storm. The price of an intimate view of the Sandy River, or any river, is that the viewpoint is at risk of washing away in the next flood. The price of living near a volcano is the risk that, someday, you’ll be blown away by a pyroclastic floe or swept away by a lahar.

While I don’t wish adversity or misfortune on anyone, I deeply resent all the whining and bitching and complaining when disaster strikes those whom invite it. As they lament their bad luck and curse Mother Nature’s cruel acts against them, they should take a hard look into the mirror and stare deeply into the eyes of the idiot that put them in harm’s way.

Friday, November 03, 2006

Kerry Speaks to New Reality

Okay, so I was too optimistic in my resolve not to post here for an entire month, but I just can’t help myself. How was I supposed to know that John Kerry would open his mouth? Anyway, so many right-wingnuts complained about what Kerry said about the troops rather than what Duhbya did to them, I felt compelled to weigh in on the subject.

My take on the matter is that when Kerry suggested that students who didn’t fare well in school were likely to end up in Iraq, he was exactly right. For decades, young men (and, more recently, young women) have joined the military upon graduating from, or dropping out of, high school. They cite critical on-the-job training, a GED certificate or other educational benefits, a steady paycheck with healthcare benefits, or a long-term career at the end of which awaits a relatively secure retirement package as reasons. These are not bad things, and they in no way imply that people who embark on such courses of action are stupid. For decades, the military has been a viable career alternative. Until lately, that is.

Not everyone does well in school. Not everyone wants to be a doctor or lawyer. Not everyone is interested in science, chemistry or computer technology. Not everyone wants to go into business. Some people just want to put in their eight hours, then kick back with a beer in one hand and the TV remote in the other. Not necessarily stupid, mind you, just not overly ambitious.

Unfortunately, today’s economy is increasingly hostile toward lower and middle class workers. When blue-collar jobs disappear, white-collar jobs soon follow. Today, thousands of students are encouraged to pursue a college education to learn the skills they’ll need to land a job that won’t exist. The reality is that when they graduate many of them will be competing for low-wage jobs for which they’re over-qualified. While an unskilled person can start at the bottom and work her way up, an overqualified person can’t even get his foot in the door.

An unintended consequence of large numbers of students pursuing higher education is that they drive up the cost of education for everyone. Another unintended consequence is that many college graduates begin their careers deeply in debt.

The emerging economy, thanks to globalization and so-called fair trade agreements, is putting the squeeze on young people, some of whom find a stint in the military their only option. Today, when young people join the military, they’re virtually guaranteed a tour of duty in Iraq. If they survive, they’re virtually assured a return engagement. They (and you) can thank George Bush for that.

Did Kerry dishonor or disparage the troops when he made his comments? No! He spoke to America’s new reality.

Did Duhbya endanger the troops when he sent them, under false pretenses, into harm’s way in Iraq? Yes! If you really want to vent your anger, then venting it at Bush would be appropriate.

Kerry may have said it badly, but he said what needed to be said. Right-wingnuts still don’t get it. They probably never will.