Category Archives: Corporate America

I Needed A Break

After several months of intensely watching and commenting on politics, I needed a break. I am still really happy that 2,489 people thought that voting for me wasn’t a waste, but screaming from the rooftops that voting for Trump was a mistake didn’t make much of a difference. Back in March I commented that we were already living in a corporate dystopia, and I commented a few times on social media that we were approaching a nexus where we had to choose between Neuromancer and Star Trek.

Ridley Scott's Blade Runner

Ridley Scott’s Blade Runner

Trump’s cabinet selections have given an additional meaning to the Republican Three G’s of “God, Guns, and Gays” with “Goldman, Generals, and Gazillionaires,” as Missouri Sen. Claire McCaskill called them. I was worried that Hillary Clinton was in too tightly with Goldman Sachs, but Trump has selected Goldman veterans Steven Mnuchin for Treasury, Gary Cohn for the White House National Economic Council, and Steve Bannon as Senior White House Adviser. Add to this the list of Trump’s billionaire friends

  • Betsy DeVos as Secretary of Education,
  • ExxonMobil CEO Rex Tillerson as the leading Secretary of State Candidate,
  • Andy Puzder of Carl’s Jr./Hardee’s as Secretary of Labor, and
  • vulture capitalist Wilbur Ross as Secretary of Commerce,

and we have the makings of a very strong corporatist executive branch. I can’t find anyone in the proposed cabinet who seems to have even the smallest concern for the economic issues facing low-income and middle class Americans.

I expect Trump’s government to be focused on the next quarter instead of the next quarter-century. I expect that they will get some significant short-term gains, while sacrificing long-term American interests. Given what I have read so far, I expect Trump to be the worst environmental president–even if he is saying he is open-minded on climate change–because I expect he will work to eliminate many environmental regulations without making sure that the environmental protections remain. (I agree that we need to streamline the regulatory and reporting requirements that often delay projects for a decade or more, but we can improve efficiency without sacrificing effectiveness.) Betsy DeVos will likely gut public school funding in favor of vouchers and semi-private charter schools, which will result in sacrificing a generation of students, likely crippling American innovation. Ben Carson’s disdain for the poor doesn’t mesh well with the Housing and Urban Development mission “to create strong, sustainable, inclusive communities and quality affordable homes for all.”

As you can tell, I’m not terribly optimistic about the next four years. I’ve had various plans streaming through my overactive brain:

  1. Watch the world burn.
  2. Move to Canada, because
    • Being farther north means we will be better able to handle climate change, and
    • Current policies seem to strike a balance between economic, social, and environmental concerns.
  3. Prepare my daughter to lead the rebellion.
  4. Work to form a shadow government, where concerned citizens work together to do what the government will not.
  5. Convince myself that there’s a way to successfully fight the kakocracy.

I don’t know which of these makes the most sense. I like the idea of a shadow government, but I’m pretty sure I’m not the person to lead it. I’ve been teaching Zari along my basic philosophy of “Expect the best, but prepare for the worst” since birth, so #3 is already well underway. I have been very unsuccessful at #5, and I don’t particularly enjoy #1. Moving to Canada is interesting, but I don’t enjoy winter that much, and I don’t really like the idea of abandoning the U.S. when it needs voices like mine more than ever.

So, if you were reading this today hoping that I had a plan, I’m sorry to disappoint you. Trump’s transition website does finally have a place to submit “stories,” but I am enough of a cynic to think that these aren’t really being read, but rather data-mined for things they can use. I don’t know what I can do today to make a difference. I’m a summer person, so winter always makes me a bit more negative than usual, but I’m having a really difficult time seeing the bright side to anything happening politically right now. I am thrilled that Colombia and FARC finally have a peace deal, ending a fifty-year civil war, but most of the rest of the news just saddens me.

At least Rogue One comes out Thursday.

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Filed under Corporate America, Ethics, Technology

Republican Party Platform (Part 2 of ?)

logo-GOP

Building the Future

Technology

There’s not much controversial here. The key here seems to be private-public partnerships, which are fine–if they work. Unfortunately, when it comes to broadband internet, the private players, pardon my language, suck. EPB here want to expand to the rural areas around Chattanooga, but Republican state legislators are blocking the move while Comcast and AT&T do nothing. Similarly, I agree that we are improving private launch capabilities for space research, but NASA needs adequate funding, which the GOP is unwilling to give.

America’s Electric Grid

“We support expedited siting processes and the thoughtful expansion of the grid so that consumers and businesses continue to have access to affordable and reliable electricity.”

I am pretty sure “expedited siting processes” is doublespeak for “weakened environmental regulations.” I don’t have a problem with streamlining the approval processes, as long as appropriate safeguards are in place. But the party of Teddy Roosevelt and Richard Nixon–our two best environmental presidents–doesn’t particularly care about the environment.

Small Business and Entrepreneurship: Toward a Start-up Century

Once again we see talk of reducing regulatory burden when what we really need is to reduce the paperwork burden. The GOP wants to “consider the effect of capital gains rates,” but we all know that the GOP ideal would be to eliminate capital gains taxes.

What gets me here though is the mention of “National Labs, the National Institutes of Health, NASA, and elements of the Defense Department” as “incubators of unconventional thinking.” So fund them. Democrats won’t argue.

The Federal Reserve

 

RonPaul

More transparency in the Federal Reserve System is probably a good thing. I’m not sure that annual audits are necessary, but some regular audits would not be horrible. I cannot help but get a little twitchy when someone talks about going back to the gold standard, as this is typically conspiracy theorist fodder.

Workplace Freedom for a Twenty-First Century Workforce

Often, “workplace freedom” is doublespeak for “giving employers the freedom to treat employees like commodities instead of like people.” Having said that, there are things in U.S. labor law that need reform. The Project Labor Agreements the GOP opposes often require union workers on government construction contracts–but minority construction workers tend to be non-union, leaving them out in the cold.

I have notice a disturbing trend in U.S. business regarding employees, and it is filled with irony. The group responsible for employees within organizations was rebranded from “Personnel” to “Human Resources” and is currently undergoing a second rebranding from “Human Resources” to “Workforce Management.” In the literature, HR-types justify the change by saying personnel departments treated employees like tools and HR treats employees as assets, but I disagree. I think personnel departments treated employees like people. (I think workforce management is a shift from assets to commodities, reflecting the disposable nature of employees.)

Transparency in unions is important, but I can’t help thinking that the objective here is to further weaken unions. Donald Trump is anti-union in his own businesses, and the party platform reflects that. I think many technology workers, for example, need union protection, as often their working conditions are borderline abusive, and they are under the constant threat of being replaced by imported H-1B workers.

If Republicans wanted true workplace freedom, they would move away from employer-provided health care and toward a single-payer system. One immediate benefit of this is that it would give parents to work part-time schedules while raising their children without fear of losing benefits or seniority–which should help reduce the wage gap. For many families, a forty-hour work week doesn’t make sense, and there is evidence that shorter work weeks make employees healthier, happier, and more productive. As pro-family as the Republicans claim to be, giving people the freedom to spend more time with their children would go a long way.

Having said all this, the actual policy recommendations in this section are pretty reasonable. As with anything, the devil is in the details.

The Federal Workforce

(There’s that word!)

“Federal employees receive extraordinary pension benefits and vacation time wildly out of line with those of the private sector.”

The United States is the only developed country in the world without a single legally required paid vacation day or holiday. The average U.S. private sector worker gets 16 paid days off–vacation days and holidays–per year. Every EU country has a legal minimum of four weeks paid vacation, not including holidays, which is what full-time federal employees get after three years of service. So, on vacation time, the federal government is in line with the rest of the world. To me, that indicates that we should pass legislation to bring the private sector into line with the federal government, and not the other way around.

As far as pension benefits go, I wouldn’t have any problem with transitioning federal pension plans toward 401(k)-type retirement plans, provided they included matching similar to what good private employers offer.

The big picture, though, is that I think much of this section is just spiteful. Most federal employees tend to vote Democratic, so slapping them around would make Republicans feel good.

We The People: A Restoration of Constitutional Government

This is largely a propaganda section. I’m sure I’ll address most of the problems with this as the specific issues arise further in the document.

The Judiciary

The GOP wants a Supreme Court that will overturn decisions like Roe v. Wade (abortion), Obergefell v. Hodges (same-sex marriage), and the various decisions that kept Obamacare in place. Of course they do.

Administrative Law

The platform sees a problem with executive branch workers creating rules instead of Congress. Raise your hand if you think Donald Trump wouldn’t rule by decree. George W. Bush wrote more executive orders than Obama has (Obama will probably end with slightly fewer at the end of his term), but Republicans weren’t complaining then.

The First Amendment

Religious Liberty

This section is mostly baseless fear mongering and a twisted interpretation of Amendment I’s religious liberty clause:

Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof;

The Supreme Court has, on numerous occasions, interpreted this as meaning that government and government employees cannot endorse one set of religious beliefs over another. A religious school can require a teacher to belong to that school’s religion and to live according to its tenets, but it can’t require the same from the custodian, as teaching religion has nothing to do with the custodian’s job and thus would violate anti-discrimination laws. Public school teachers, coaches, and administrators cannot lead public prayers or allow school equipment, such as amplifiers, to be used for that purpose, but there is nothing that prevents students from doing this on their own–and there is no danger of any law passing that would prohibit this, and even if it did, it would be unconstitutional. 

I have no desire to restrict anyone’s ability to practice their religion, but I do think many people–like certain megachurch leaders–abuse the tax-free status of their institutions. Likewise, when a business like the new Ark Encounter discriminates in their hiring practices, they should not receive government tax credits.

The platform also condemns those who would boycott businesses that “support traditional marriage.” I strongly oppose anyone who threatens violence against said businesses, but a for-profit business is not a church, and as such is subject to state and federal civil rights legislation. Even if the business is not violating the law, there is no reason to compel someone to support business owners who disagree with their views or lifestyle. Frankly, if you’re going to conduct your business according to your perceived Christian values, post those values so people don’t waste their time and yours.

The platform supports the display of the Ten Commandments–which version?–in public places. There is nothing wrong with that, provided that members of all religions are allowed to equally display texts from their religions. The Constitution does not give Christianity a privileged place in American society.

The bottom line is this: You are free to practice your religion in any way that you want, but you are not allowed to do this while representing the government or with the use of government resources. The Constitution was written to guarantee equal treatment of beliefs, without interference from the government. The Republicans believe that the U.S. was founded as a Christian nation, despite John Adams’ explicit words to the contrary, and want to make it into one.

A Personal Note

As you may have guessed from the above, I am not a Christian. Depending on your definition, I am agnostic or atheist, based on where you choose to draw the line. I was baptized Catholic, but for various reasons–mostly my inability to believe in miracles–I don’t think I ever believed in the Christian God. I believe that Christianity can make some people much better, but I have seen warped versions of Christianity turn people into monsters. Most of my friends are Christian, including one preacher, and I respect–and sometimes envy–their faith. It would be better for me politically to either hide my lack of religion or pretend to be Christian, but I would rather be honest and true to myself than dishonest and loved.

The candidate in this race who emphasizes his Christianity the most is Rick Tyler. If you think that all Christians are better than all atheists, you really need to take a long look in the mirror.

Constitutionally Protected Speech

“Limits on political speech serve only to protect the powerful and insulate incumbent officeholders.”

26-mitt-romney-laughing-w529-h352

Charles Dharapak/AP/Corbis

OK…I’m back.

The GOP is opposed to overturning Citizens United because they benefit tremendously from it. Likewise, they would like churches to be able to engage in political activities, currently prohibited by their status as 501(c)(3) non-profits. Congress has repeatedly passed legislation–which courts have upheld–that prohibits campaigning by organizations that operate on a tax-free basis. If this restriction were not in place, it would certainly be abused by candidates and political parties.


That brings me to page 13 of the 58-page platform.

Tomorrow night I will be speaking to the Roane County Tea Party. I hope this meeting is better than the last one I attended.

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The Remaining Republicans, Plus a Bit of Overcompensation

First, a little diversion. A few minutes ago my daughter Zari and I were walking across a parking lot when she said, “Look, Daddy! I see two stars!” Most parents would say something along the lines of “That’s nice, dear,” and continue on their way. That’s not the way I roll. I said, “I don’t think you see any stars, because I think those are planets.” I was pretty sure that the lower “star” was Venus, so I pulled out my Android phone and ran the Google Sky Map app. Sure enough, the lower one was Venus, while the upper one was Jupiter. I showed this to Zari on my phone, and she was happy to see it. Of course, her next question was, “Where’s Betelgeuse tonight?” Fortunately, even with the bright moon tonight, I was able to point to her favorite star–this time without resorting to the app. One problem with our schools today is the lack of parental involvement in children’s education, and I think a large part of this is that many parents aren’t trained to turn a child’s question into a teaching moment. I have a few ideas on how to make this type of experience happen more often.

Last month I discussed four of the six Republican Presidential candidates in the race at the time. Since then, Huntsman and Perry have dropped out, but the two I had missed, Mitt Romney and Rick Santorum, are still in the race.

Mitt Romney

I think Mitt Romney is best equipped to persuade independent voters that he’s not a far-right conservative candidate. Unfortunately, he’s had to undermine much of that to put himself in the lead for the Republican nomination. He governed Massachusetts as a moderate Republican, but he has distanced himself from many of his successes because they run contrary to Republican dogma. Having said that, unlike Gingrich, I think his word is good, even if I consider some of his beliefs to be flawed. One article today focused on his views on abortion, religious freedom, and gay marriage. I disagree with his gay marriage position, but his abortion position is better than that of his Republican opponents, since he would at least allow emergency contraception for rape victims. I can see both sides of the religious freedom argument, but I think the bottom line is that if a religious organization is willing to accept government funding, it has to expect to have to follow some governmental regulations. Romney currently sides with the religious groups, and I wish I knew whether this was a real change or an attempt to gain votes.

Rick Santorum

Rick Santorum is the poster child for misguided good intentions. His social conservative credentials are spotless, which makes me very uneasy. I don’t think there is any question that he means well. The Bono quote about Santorum really summarizes my feelings about him, “(He) has a kind of Tourette’s disease. He will always say the most unpopular thing. But on our issues, he has been a defender of the most vulnerable.” Of all the Republican candidates, he seems to best understand the importance of development assistance, both for its own sake and to counter China’s growing influence. I wouldn’t be upset with him in an ambassadorial position, and I could potentially see him being an adequate Secretary of State, but on social issues, he terrifies me. Of the three non-Romney candidates, I think Santorum is the most likely to get a VP nod to shore up Romney’s conservatism, but I think such a mood would seal Obama’s reelection.

The Corporate Pendulum

I consider myself fortunate to have mostly worked for small businesses. I like being on a first-name basis with my ultimate boss, the CEO, President, or owner of my employer (yes, amazingly enough, even this job, but that’s a story for another day). In my current job, our smallness makes us nimble, and we have been able to adjust and benefit from changing market conditions while seeing our competition wither and, unfortunately, sometimes go out of business. I do have many friends working in Corporate America, and I see one recurring theme: They rarely get promoted without changing employers. I have a two theories as to why this happens, one of which is discussed far too often–the emphasis on immediate short-term profits–but the other is that too many corporate managers do not understand the importance of institutional memory.

I do not have an MBA–my business school experience is limited to helping a girlfriend through her business classes at USC–but I’m guessing that from the willingness to trade expensive experienced employees for cheap inexperienced recent college graduates, this isn’t something that’s taught. This problem is also present in government: the U.S. often has trade representatives with limited experience doing battle with negotiators from other countries with decades in their jobs. Recently, I’ve heard corporate horror stories from two friends:

The Big Box Store

One friend of mine is an expert in payment processing systems. He wrote the code or managed the writing of the code for most of their systems, which process millions of dollars of transactions daily. The problem for my friend is that his employer doesn’t recognize his value, or, more specifically, his institutional memory, so he is stuck in a cycle of corporate consulting followed by unemployment. He will work on a system upgrade on a contract running anywhere from six to eighteen months, at which time he’ll be unemployed for six months to a year, waiting for the next upgrade cycle. It isn’t quite that simple though: When the next upgrade cycle arrives, the Big Box Store doesn’t call him, it hires headhunters to find someone with the necessary qualifications. There is only one person on the planet with the necessary qualifications, so they always find him and present him with a low, insulting offer. After some negotiations, he returns to the job with a 20% increase, only to find that in the time he was gone, almost all of the team for the last upgrade has left for greener pastures, replaced by H-1B visa imported workers. My friend should be a lifetime employee, and he should have coworkers who have worked with him for a decade or longer.

The Call Center

When my other friend began her employment with the call center, the company had the highest customer satisfaction rating in the industry by a significant margin. Management was not satisfied with this, because the company was lagging in market share, so about two years ago, the company shifted the call center focus from helping customers to upselling them. Revenues and profits have not improved as a result, and the company has gone from first to worst–again, by a significant margin. Management blames the call center employees for the decline. Management’s failure to realize that the problem is the result of their philosophy shift, combined with the loss of their top customer service employees because they were unable, or perhaps unwilling, to do a job that they were not hired to do. These employees knew how to provide great customer service, and because of the change they are likely lost forever. Regaining customer trust takes far longer than losing it, but the emphasis on profit makes me think that the likely long-term management solution is to outsource these jobs.

So, Topher, How Do You Fix It?

Employers argue that there is a shortage of qualified workers in many fields, so they must employ foreign-born and -trained workers. That these workers usually happen to be less expensive than their American counterparts is a bonus. I would address the problem on two fronts:

  1. Base student loan interest rates on the course of study. If there’s a high demand for computer engineers, offer a low interest rate for computer engineering students. If there’s a low demand for marketers, then the interest rate should be significantly higher–if the government guarantees the loan at all. If someone really wants to be a marketer, he can still get a degree, but he can’t expect the government to invest in his career choice. This should drive students toward majors that provide good career opportunities. Obviously, as the business climate changes, these interest rates should be adjusted accordingly.
  2. Make companies pay a premium salary to H-1B visa recipients. If companies can pay entry-level wages to H-1B employees, then they will gleefully replace seasoned American workers with the cheaper foreign labor. If there really is a shortage, act like it, and pay the workers accordingly. I think setting the minimum salary at the median for an American worker with five years of experience might be a good starting point. If the shortage is artificial, it will disappear soon enough.

Thanks for your time, and please let me know what you think, good or bad.

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