Tuesday, August 31, 2010

Celebrity and Teachable Moments

Too often, I give in to a nature both skeptical and cynical. So when I read that Paris Hilton, a wealthy young woman who doesn’t have to do anything for anyone, was arrested for cocaine possession in Las Vegas, I was suffused with relief.

Not because she had been arrested. Far from it. What restored my faith in humanity was the fact that the cocaine wasn’t hers—she was merely keeping it for a friend.

In a world both distant and uncaring, here is someone willing to risk social embarrassment, legal problems and even prison for a troubled friend.

And it’s not just her. Celebrities of every stripe regularly place themselves in harm’s way by stowing all manner of illegal substances, stolen property and firearms for their friends.

The same celebrities whose cellulite and marital woes we mock and snicker at show us time and time again the true meaning of selflessness. Of deep and unwavering friendship. Look in the mirror and ask yourself: when was the last time I risked jail time for a friend?

The answer is you haven't. Shame on us.

Thursday, August 26, 2010

Through My Eyes

As a young man working his way through school by alternately washing dishes in the student cafeteria, scraping paint for the local public works department, wiring outdoor signs as an apprentice electrician, heaving forty-pound boxes of fine china around for Marshall Fields and writing for the school newspaper, I had a vision.

A constant in my life that lent meaning to even the most menial labor.

I knew that if I diligently and relentlessly applied myself in my studies, I could conceivably one day become (drum roll, please) a supermarket cashier. Not a full-time cashier mind you, for that is a position both beyond and unworthy of my station. But a minimum wage, union-dues-paying, part-time cashier.

This was something that could happen.

Which isn't to say I have anything against supermarkets. Or cashiering. Or even unions—at least what’s left of them. But it’s not what I busted my ass getting a college degree for.

A year and-a-half into my job search, is this really all I have to show for it? Two part-time jobs which will barely slow my descent into financial oblivion?

I like to think that somewhere down the line, my do-what-you-gotta-do grit would impress an employer. But in our over-evolved society, being a supermarket cashier is viewed as an unfortunate detour from the pristine career trajectories employers now prefer in their candidates.

Yeah, I’m bitter. Wouldn’t you be?

I live in a world where radio talk show hosts must relinquish their jobs for saying the n-word. Where funding for the most profound breakthrough in the history of medicine is put on hold over a notion that it is injurious to embryos. And in which judges wring their hands out of slavish concern that felons aren’t made too uncomfortable by their surroundings.

Yet I belong to a group of people publicly and repeatedly demonized by the representation entrusted to look out for it.

I belong to a group of people employers resolutely refuse to hire. One Republicans maintain is a drain on America’s economy, and for whom all public funding must be stopped lest we drag the country further into the death spiral of deficit spending.

This as they fight tooth and nail to preserve tax breaks for the wealthiest one-percent of the population.

Somehow, treating the unemployed as if they're carriers of the plague is OK.

It is difficult—if not impossible—to avoid seeing the world through your own eyes. And this is the world through mine.

Tuesday, August 17, 2010

You're Supposed to Die! Not Me!

I have to confess that I find people—and train wrecks—fascinating. Sometimes I can even tell them apart.

Take, for instance, the folk who gathered in the Mojave Desert recently to watch an off-road race.

I’ve always been of the opinion that people watch them for the same reasons Romans flocked to the Coliseum: to see blood spilled. Bones snap. Corpses splayed in unusual positions. That sort of thing.

So while our friends in the desert were ostensibly there to watch a race, what they really wanted was mechanical mayhem. Twisted metal. A shot of adrenaline to liven-up the weekend.

And to maximize the danger quotient, they packed themselves as closely as possible to the course. You can almost imagine them as the highly-modified vehicles hurtled by. “Ooh, did you feel that?”

But a funny thing happened. They got their crash. They got their mangled metal and violent sound effects. But eight of them also got killed.

And instead of questioning the unimaginable stupidity of standing within inches of vehicles moving at 60 miles per hour along a surface that could best be described as uneven, they turned on the driver (who had miraculously survived) and attempted to stone him.

Exactly what kind of consumerism is this? Give me what I want—but if you do I’ll kill you? Maybe they were offended that it was they—and not the driver—who died. Perhaps their sense of entitlement was challenged. And we all know what a bear that can be, don’t we?

No one will ever confuse these folk (along with their spiritual kin at monster truck shows and professional wrestling matches) with the leading lights of civilization. But the hypocrisy exhibited by these ghouls is staggering.

Even more staggering is the fact the driver (Brent Sloppy) later apologized on his Facebook page to those who tried to kill him. Is this what the threat of unconsidered, instant mass opinion hath wrought?

But all is not lost. It’s not just a grim peek into a curdled future. The next time you wonder who could conceivably cast a vote for Sarah Palin as president, you know.

Friday, August 13, 2010

A Mosque in Manhattan

For a country founded on religious tolerance, New Yorkers seem in critically-short supply as they protest the construction of a mosque in Manhattan, supposedly on the site of 9-11.

First off, the proposed construction is only “on the site" of 9-11 to a real estate agent; the actual location is more than two blocks away. This is hardly the nyah-nyah-style provocation New Yorkers and conservatives are framing it as.

Islam had as much to do with 9-11 as Christianity does the opposition to gay marriage.

Religion is a prop. Something to cloak yourself (or your issue) in. Middle-eastern terrorists co-opt Islam the way conservatives do patriotism, God, fiscal responsibility and national security.

We’ve seen this movie before. Now would be a good time to remember it.

Furthermore, if allowing construction of a mosque in Manhattan is the ultimate in ‘disrespect’ to the victims of 9-11, where does the continued freedom of Osama bin Laden rank?

Just wondering.

Friday, August 6, 2010

I Have a (Pipe) Dream

Welcome. I’m La Piazza Gancio, and tonight on Interview we're pleased to have as our guest Dick Peanus.

Dick is the Chairman and CEO of the Deities, a corporate amalgamation of banks, investment houses, oil companies, credit card companies, pharmaceutical manufacturers and healthcare providers.

Me: Hello and thank you for coming.

Dick smiles smugly and nods.

Me: I’d like to talk about business. Particularly in the midst of what appears to be the greatest financial catastrophe since the Great Depression. How are the Deities coping?

Dick: Through savvy management and the careful allocation of resources, the Deities have successfully weathered the storm and posted a seventy-billion dollar profit last quarter.

Me: Seventy-billion dollars! And that’s profit—not sales?

Dick: Yes.

Me: Isn’t that a bit more than just weathering the storm?

Dick: Well, in order to maintain market share, profitability and to serve our shareholders, changes had to be made. It didn’t just happen.

Me: What kind of changes?

Dick: It was necessary to divest ourselves of many of our human assets. These divestitures were a very painful and difficult decision.

Me: You mean you fired people.

Dick: Yes. It was either that or shut the doors. We have a responsibility to our shareholders, and we take that responsibility very seriously.

Me: I find it hard to believe that with extensive holdings in pharmaceuticals, oil, healthcare and on Wall Street that the Deities are or were in trouble.

Dick: You’d be surprised. Our operations and development costs are enormous, and they’re not going down any time soon. A good example is the cost of attracting the top drawer financial talent we need to develop new sources of revenue and keep them ahead of the curve.

Me: So the profits you make not only on Wall Street, but in pharmaceuticals, healthcare and oil barely cover expenses? Is that what you’re telling me?

Dick: You forget that we have shareholders. This isn’t just about us. There’s a bigger picture out there.

Me: How many shareholders are there?

Dick: Millions.

Me: I see. And how many shares do you own in the Deities?

Dick: I couldn’t tell you.

Me: I can. Six million. And when combined with the ten members of your executive board, the total goes to twenty-six million, or nearly three-quarters of the outstanding shares. So when you say ‘shareholders’, isn't that just code for you and the board?

Dick: I assure you, there are millions of shareholders. Secondly, every CEO and board member has stock options. It is commonplace for people in those positions to receive company stock as part of their compensation packages. There's nothing unusual about that.

Me: So let me get a handle on this. In addition to your traditional salaries, you also receive bonuses—which are unrelated to company performance. And then stock on top of that. Is that correct?

Dick nods yes.

Me: As the majority stockholder, isn't it conceivable that you stand to benefit personally from actions which don’t necessarily benefit the company as a whole?

Dick: Your point being?

Me: For instance, when company performance suffers because of wholesale layoffs, Wall Street blindly applauds the cost-cutting and the value of your stock goes up. You and the board consequently get to stuff your pockets with cash.

Dick: Look. We’re not a social welfare agency. It’s not our job to make sure that every American has a job.

Me: What exactly is your job?

Dick: To plot the course of the future. To turn a profit. To maintain and increase shareholder value.

Me: 'Shareholder' being, for all intent and purposes, you and the ten board members.

Dick: No comment.

Me: It leaves me speechless as well, Dick. Let’s turn to a different topic. How much in tax breaks, tax loopholes and corporate subsidies does the Deities receive annually?

Dick: I’m sure I don’t know.

Me: And what did the Deities contribute to political campaigns during the last election cycle? What did you spend on lobbyists?

Dick: I’m a CEO—not some accountant who tracks petty cash.

Me: Is that what you call one hundred and ninety-seven million dollars? Petty cash?

Dick shrugs his shoulders non-chalantly.

Me: But yet you needed to lay-off 13,000 employees because your revenue streams were drying up.

Dick: We’ve done nothing illegal.

Me: Only because you’ve purchased the law-makers and dictated the law.

Dick: As I said a minute ago, we’ve done nothing illegal. Every course of action taken by the Deities is completely within the law and upholds our responsibility to our stakeholders.

Me: Okay. Tell us about your 4 America campaign.

Dick: (brightening) In the Deities’ ongoing effort to promote good health, we are offering an American flag to anyone who participates in a health care plan administered by the Deities, or obtains a prescription for a pharmaceutical manufactured by one of our subsidiaries. However, pre-existing conditions may affect availability.

Me: (laughs) Yet at the same time, you’re throwing tens of thousands of people onto public relief rolls and taking away their health care coverage while you collect hundreds of millions of dollars in corporate subsidies and dodge millions more in taxes by claiming that the Deities are headquartered in a one-bedroom apartment on the Isle of Man. Curious form of patriotism, don’t you think?

Dick: (angrily) Who underwrote the Matisse exhibit at the Guggenheim? And the Eugene O’Neill playhouse on public TV? Who brought the Ballet Company of Sierra Leone to Lincoln Center? Who organized fund-raising for the two Pandas on loan from China at the National Zoo? We did!

Me: And you received still-another tax break for doing it! And then you turn around and buy fear-mongering politicians who campaign on the threat of an unprecedented transfer of wealth should a Democrat take office and enact budget-busting social programs like food stamps and unemployment insurance. Is that correct?

Dick stares resolutely ahead.

Me: Dick, isn’t it true that there is indeed an unprecedented transfer of wealth occurring in this country, but that it’s flowing upstream, not down? Isn’t it true that while income for the middle class has increased just twenty percent since 1979, income for the wealthiest one or two percent of has increased over one hundred and seventy percent in the same period? Isn’t it true that you and the elected representation you buy are in fact stealing the country as you consign the poor and middle classes to what will eventually be an existence of Industrial Age slavery? Isn’t it true? Isn’t it?

Dick says nothing.

Me: Tell me I have it wrong, Dick. Please.

Dick: (tersely) For the last time, everything we have done is within the framework of the law. We have done nothing illegal.

Me: So your best answer is that you haven't broken any of the laws you had your employees in the DC office write. What a sterling achievement. (Disgustedly) Goodnight, America.

Thursday, August 5, 2010

Does This Make You Angry?

This op-ed piece by Bob Herbert of the New York Times appeared in the July 30th edition of that newspaper.

The treatment of workers by American corporations has been worse — far more treacherous — than most of the population realizes. There was no need for so many men and women to be forced out of their jobs in the downturn known as the great recession.

Many of those workers were cashiered for no reason other than outright greed by corporate managers. And that cruel, irresponsible, shortsighted policy has resulted in widespread human suffering and is doing great harm to the economy.

“I’ve never seen anything like this,” said Andrew Sum, an economics professor and director of the Center for Labor Market Studies at Northeastern University in Boston. “Not only did they throw all these people off the payrolls, they also cut back on the hours of the people who stayed on the job.”

As Professor Sum studied the data coming in from the recession, he realized that the carnage that occurred in the workplace was out of proportion to the economic hit that corporations were taking. While no one questions the severity of the downturn — the worst of the entire post-World War II period — the economic data show that workers to a great extent were shamefully exploited.

The recession officially started in December 2007. From the fourth quarter of 2007 to the fourth quarter of 2009, real aggregate output in the U.S., as measured by the gross domestic product, fell by about 2.5 percent. But employers cut their payrolls by 6 percent.

In many cases, bosses told panicked workers who were still on the job that they had to take pay cuts or cuts in hours, or both. And raises were out of the question. The staggering job losses and stagnant wages are central reasons why any real recovery has been so difficult.

“They threw out far more workers and hours than they lost output,” said Professor Sum. “Here’s what happened: At the end of the fourth quarter in 2008, you see corporate profits begin to really take off, and they grow by the time you get to the first quarter of 2010 by $572 billion. And over that same time period, wage and salary payments go down by $122 billion.”

That kind of disconnect, said Mr. Sum, had never been seen before in all the decades since World War II.

In short, the corporations are making out like bandits. Now they’re sitting on mountains of cash and they still are not interested in hiring to any significant degree, or strengthening workers’ paychecks.

Productivity tells the story. Increases in the productivity of American workers are supposed to go hand in hand with improvements in their standard of living. That’s how capitalism is supposed to work. That’s how the economic pie expands, and we’re all supposed to have a fair share of that expansion.

Corporations have now said the hell with that. Economists believe the nation may have emerged, technically, from the recession early in the summer of 2009. As Professor Sum writes in a new study for the labor market center, this period of economic recovery “has seen the most lopsided gains in corporate profits relative to real wages and salaries in our history.”

Worker productivity has increased dramatically, but the workers themselves have seen no gains from their increased production. It has all gone to corporate profits. This is unprecedented in the postwar years, and it is wrong.

Having taken everything for themselves, the corporations are so awash in cash they don’t know what to do with it all. Citing a recent article from Bloomberg BusinessWeek, Professor Sum noted that in July cash at the nation’s nonfinancial corporations stood at $1.84 trillion, a 27 percent increase over early 2007. Moody’s has pointed out that as a percent of total company assets, cash has reached a level not seen in the past half-century.

Executives are delighted with this ill-gotten bonanza. Charles D. McLane Jr. is the chief financial officer of Alcoa, which recently experienced a turnaround in profits and a 22 percent increase in revenue. As The Times reported this week, Mr. McLane assured investors that his company was in no hurry to bring back 37,000 workers who were let go since 2008. The plan is to minimize rehires wherever possible, he said, adding, “We’re not only holding head-count levels, but are also driving restructuring this quarter that will result in further reductions.”

There can be no robust recovery as long as corporations are intent on keeping idle workers sidelined and squeezing the pay of those on the job.

It doesn’t have to be this way. Germany and Japan, because of a combination of government and corporate policies, suffered far less worker dislocation in the recession than the U.S. Until we begin to value our workers, and understand the critical importance of employment to a thriving economy, we will continue to see our standards of living decline.

Monday, August 2, 2010

Here, There and Everywhere

I’ve been fortunate to have drunk deeply from the cup of travel.

True, I’ve never strolled down the Champs Elysees nor wandered the market stalls of Marrakech. I’ve never laid eyes upon Milford Sound or walked beneath the orange trees on the tiled sidewalks of Seville.

But I’ve been to Pioche, Nevada. Holly Springs, Mississippi. Sublette, Kansas and Leadville, Colorado. Woken up in the green cathedral of the North Cascades. Shared the view from Hurricane Ridge with a grazing doe at sunset. And escorted a tarantula across a parking lot in Guadalupe Mountains National Park.

I’ve gazed in awe at an arm of the Milky Way from the 3AM darkness of eastern Tennessee. Heard the paper on my cigarette burn amid the utter stillness of El Malpais National Monument. Drunk chicory coffee and eaten powdered sugar-covered beignets at the CafĂ© du Monde in New Orleans.

I’ve been rendered speechless by St. Mary’s Lake in Glacier. Struck dumb by Monument Valley. And cowed by the looming shadow of Rainier. I’ve smelled the deep, rich earth of Iowa after a rainstorm, tasted the barbeque of Memphis and Kansas City, and wondered at the colors and shapes of Bryce Canyon.

I’ve climbed Mount Taylor and raced an approaching thunderstorm to its treeline. I’ve explored miles of volcanic plumbing at Craters of the Moon National Monument, and unimaginable formations at Carlsbad Caverns. Been the sole visitor at Mount Rushmore and part of the throng at Old Faithful.

I’ve sat on the porch of the Wortley Hotel in complete contentment. Pondered the Sonoran Desert after a spring rain. Spent two days in Bismarck, North Dakota stranded by a faulty brake caliper. And one in Livingston, Montana owing to an expired alternator.

I’ve been awakened by high tide washing underneath and around the car my friends and I fell asleep in after a youthful drinking binge on Padre Island. Learned the meaning of eternity on a drive from El Paso to San Antonio. Woken shivering on the Fourth of July. And eaten a Mexican dinner after a day of hiking at Arches that was as enormous as it was delicious.

I’ve seen the purple mountain’s majesty along US-93 in Nevada, and the amber waves of grain in Kansas.

Yes, life is sweet.

Yet these memories are a two-edged sword; knowing what life can be makes it painful when it is something less. The more constrained I become, the more I need a steering wheel in my hands and unseen sights in my eyes.