Thursday, August 29, 2013

The Union Label

“Union supporter” isn’t a description that most would naturally associate with me.  In fact, for most of my professional career I’ve happily worked in non-union situations and whenever given the choice, I tend to opt for the solution that keeps unions out.  Many friends and colleagues are passionate members of their unions and recoil at my brash management prejudice.  As it has since 1894 another Labor Day is upon us.  Aside from it being a long weekend for most workers and the symbolic end to 'summer' – it’s one of the few tangible remnants of the Union heyday.  Despite the fast food worker strike today, conventional thinking largely have Unions being obsolete.  In the current U.S. economic quandary the Unions actually have an opportunity that they haven't taken.
My blog last week generated some interesting dialogues and commentary in a variety of places.  Some of the questions that were raised went beyond the scope of the piece itself.  Does it make sense to have a minimum wage that is the same in New York as in Boise?  The same in Los Angeles as in rural Georgia?  If the theory of the minimum wage is actually a “living” wage – why wouldn’t it be scaled to the cost of living to a region?  Major metropolitan areas like Boston and San Francisco have housing rates that are double what can be found elsewhere.  Kentucky has a very different cost structure than New York.  So if a minimum wage is to cover minimum living costs, why wouldn’t it be scaled?  Excellent points - many of which came from my progressive friends.

The question begets more questions – like who is deciding what the minimums are?  Is business and labor involved in that decision?  Or is it just politicians pandering to their various constituencies?  Maybe the answer is for a calculation to be done based on certain metrics and the wage is determined by math.  My default instinct is to exclude government wherever possible when decisions about people’s lives are concerned, so who determines that calculation becomes the important. 
Many worry that without a minimum wage that business would exploit workers in its never ending march towards a better bottom line.  In that quest, what’s the best way to protect individual workers from exploitation?  Is it government inserting itself and dictating what each business should pay its workers?  This is the role of a Union.  Without a minimum wage Unions would have the opportunity to step into the void and represent millions of workers who aren’t represented now.  Business could opt to ignore the union, but at some point - as in the past - business will want a worker who won't proceed without having their demands met.  History shows us that a balance between labor and management can be found and each side can coexist, and often thrive.  Eliminating the minimum wage would expand Union membership and increase its power.
I spent the majority of my career in Hollywood.  To produce a major film that you go to and see in the movie theatres involves anywhere from 18 to 20 different unions.  The pay scales of those workers are dramatically above the minimum wage.  And even when the product fails (“The Lone Ranger” this summer is expected to lose $200 million for Disney) the company doesn’t go belly-up and it certainly doesn’t have its hand out to the Government for a bailout.

Unions and business can coexist – and thrive, like in Hollywood.  Government does have a regulatory role to play...but it isn't appropriate to dictate the cost basis of every industry.  As we all look towards celebrating Labor’s accomplishments with a burger or a hot dog, let’s consider supporting Unions:  get government out of the picture and eliminate the minimum wage.  It might just put the Union label back where it belongs.

Thursday, August 22, 2013

Minimum Fairness

I bought a new pair of pants last week.  (The world continues to twirl away on her axis with this amazing revelation.)  I opted to use an on-line store as I’m not much of the try-it-on type at a bricks-and-mortar place.  On-line I can choose the exact color, the unique waist and inseam combination that I swear will invert at some point.  They arrive, fit and I continue to marvel at the wonders of what our capitalist society has built.  My choices weren’t limited by where my neighbors thought I should shop or what the government thought I should pay for them.  To top it off I got to avoid an encounter with a surly or sullen teenager.
Retail is largely made up entry level workers earning minimum wage.  According to the Bureau ofLabor Statistics 80% of these workers are under 25.  The recent argument that many make to justify increasing the minimum wage is based on an erroneous assumption that people who actually earn that wage are supporting a family – and the vast majority are not. 
No matter where I bought my pants – online or in a shop – the wage issues are the same. In the event that I wanted to buy pants in the physical world, my choices are actually much more limited.  Communities and government have decided that only certain types of companies are allowed to do business in their regions – and then only when they meet certain criteria.
Governments make businesses feel welcome (or not) through special regulations that they pass, providing tax credits, etc.  Boston has now joined Los Angeles and other major metropolitan cities in essentially banning Wal-Mart from doing business in the actual boundaries of the city.  Retail outlets with 100,000 square feet must meet a different set of standards than other retailers who have 90,000 square feet.  They have to pay their workers more, provide certain benefits, etc.  In Los Angeles hotels that are on one street actually have a different mandated wage they must pay than the hotel a few blocks away.
If Government, in its wisdom, believes that a certain wage is needed for society’s good (or whatever reason) – then it should be equally applied across industry, across geography.  We can argue the merits of assigning wage controls and benefit mandates – but they must at least be consistent.  That’s just basic fairness. 
Minimum wage laws are obsolete.  Without a minimum wage would some companies pay their workers less than $8.25 an hour?  Absolutely.  Would they get work quality consistent with the lower pay?  Undoubtedly.  Would some be taken advantage of?  Probably.  Would many fight for higher wages?  Unquestionably.  That’s how capitalism works – it’s not always nice, but that’s what we purport to have.
Chik-Fil-A last year had a debacle with the gay community after the founder made many derogatory statements.  In the furor many mayors, including Boston’s, discouraged the company from doing business in their city.  The company wasn’t actually discriminating against anybody or violating any laws.  The owner made statements that many (including me) disagreed with.  Loathsome as that may be, that is also a foundational guarantee in America – to be stupid and to say stupid things.  For a government official to insinuate that a business isn’t welcome because of the statements of their owner is quite dangerous. 
We see in Russia today what happens when a government changes its mind and institutes a different set of rules than existed before.  As uncomfortable as it can be – we are best as a people and as a society when we adhere to a minimum of fairness.  And that includes business.

Thursday, August 15, 2013

Go Figah

I like being right.  As a kid I was rather obnoxious about it.  Then in my 30s I was wrong, I was very wrong.  I lost everything:  relationship, career, home, money, status , etc.  As I rebuilt my life I began being right again – and all seemed good with the world.  Then I was wrong again and the fall was greater than before.  In the roller coaster of life I’ve learned lessons, become more diplomatic and am the first person to admit when I’m wrong.  I may be right, but I try not to be righteous.  I’m older, perhaps wiser, and certainly heavier.  Despite this progress, the arrogance of regularly being right continues.  It is the personality trait that most qualifies me for public office.
Elected officials – whether they be local or national – make definitive statements all the time that are often not based in fact, but best available information.  In February of 2013 the White House and Congress were each wringing their hands and warning of the catastrophic consequences should sequestration kick in.  The plan was a mutually agreed to “worst case scenario” that averted the debt ceiling crisis of August 2011.  It cut specific programs by fixed amounts and didn’t permit managers the ability to reallocate resources to fill out any gaps. 
The “blunt” across the board cuts kicked in and there was some inconvenience.  The most tangible impact for the public at large was the cuts to the FAA which were delaying flights because Controllers were cut back.  Congress, affected themselves as frequent fliers, also got an earful from business and leisure travelers.  Within 24-hours of the impact being felt they passed a law (with the last paragraph hand written) that refunded the FAA.
The other consequences haven’t materialized.  If you want to tour the White House, too bad.  Parks have had cutbacks.  The military has trimmed people’s schedules.  None of these cuts were planned, thought out or strategically implemented.  By and large the impending doom to the US economy that was promised hasn’t materialized.
The 2013 deficit is now projected to be 37.6% lower than previous estimates, more than $400 billion dollars.  This good economic news is not all due to reduced government spending, which only started in April (half way through the fiscal year) – but rather a combination of savings, increased tax revenues and repayments from the 2008 bailouts by Freddie and Fannie Mac.  It will be the first non-trillion dollar deficit since 2008.  (I somehow suspect the same President who warned of Sequestration and austerity will simultaneously take full credit for nearly halving the annual debt.)
With the economy seemingly not impacted by the sequester cuts (which are scheduled to increase each year for the next several years) – one could conclude that everything’s fine and nothing should be done.  Nothing could be further from the truth.  From my own experience as a businessperson in both the for-profit and the not-for-profit world and my own personal circumstances – planning is fundamental. 
The every-few-months process of Congress passes and the President signs Continuing Resolutions is not effective.  Fourteen (14) times since he has taken office the government has received short-term reprieves.  Nobody can run a department, plan for the future or operate with such uncertainty. 

The budget battle will return after Labor Day and so will the tired old arguments between the parties.  The result of the impasse between Republicans and Democrats has delivered a much lower deficit.  It’s not time to celebrate yet, though.  The United States government continues to spend $600 billion more than it brings in – or in more simple terms $1.20 for every $1.00 that it brings in.
Let’s try something that hasn’t been tried in a dozen years since the Clinton era:  spend only what revenues come in.  Then let’s set aside money to pay down the nearly $17 trillion in accumulated debt.  Instead of a common sense approach to the nations finances, more of the same back and forth will continue and I’ll once again be right.  Go figah!

Thursday, August 8, 2013

Fight! Fight! Fight!

In November 1982 I lost an argument with my parents.  And I’m still pissed!  I had just turned 18 and Dad told me that I had to register with the Selective Service so that if there was a military draft they’d know where to find me.  Mom reminded me this was one of the costs of freedom, and a pretty minor inconvenience at that.  This seemed wrong on so many levels.  First the government was telling me that I had to do something.  Then there was the whole drafted for military service thing after having grown up largely in an era of peace - the idea of war was quite alien.  And, of course, the biggie was the government knowing where to find me was a particular irritant (and quite the foreshadowing moment).  Under duress, I registered.  (Registration is still required for all Americans between 18-25.)  Now after nearly thirty years of being on the anti-war path, I find myself agitating for a fight.
I’m a pacifist by nature.  It’s not just  because I’m a lousy boxer.  It’s economic, intellectual and spiritual - not necessarily in that order.  Longtime readers are familiar with dozens of blogs I've written about the absurdities of war.  The campaign against drugs isn’t really a war, for instance.  Same with the War against Obesity.  And certainly the reality television co-opting of the term for shows like Storage Wars and Parking Wars just further diminishes the power of the word.  The military action in Iraq (twice), Afghanistan and now Africa are all ill-considered.

June 5, 1944 was the fifth and last time the U.S. Congress declared war.  13 other times Congress has authorized military engagements.  125 other times Presidents have used the military without Congressional authorization. 

The Cold War lasted from 1947 to 1991.  It wasn’t officially declared, but according to Wikipedia was “a sustained  state of political and military tension between powers in the Western Bloc, dominated by the United States with NATO among its allies, and powers in the Eastern Bloc, dominated by the Soviet Union along with the Warsaw Pact.” 

The Cold War was good for many parts of the U.S.  The economy was largely stable, thanks to constant investment in the military industrial complex.  In fact the greatest expansion and growth in the middle class occurred during this period.  There was a definable “bad guy” that could even be personified.  It helped define a consistent foreign policy across administrations. Hollywood thrived with a long list of fantastic covert movies.

Since the wall fell America's focus was lost, and the worst attack since Pearl Harbor happened on 9/11/2001.  The terrorist as ‘enemy’ has never been as black-and-white as having a Khrushchev or Brezhnev who personified evil.  The CIA could focus on the bad guys more easily because of the geographic certainty of the opponent while the nebulous terrorist can look and act as American-as-pie as the Tsarnaev brothers.  And, really, what movie about terrorists over the past decade is going to become a classic?

No, it’s much better when we have a definable  enemy whom we can personify.  Vladimir Putin is the perfect foil – right out of Central Casting.  Quite dour looking.  He’s remaking Russia into the Soviet Union V2.0.  He’s given safe haven to Edward Snowden, a huge irritant to the Obama administration.  He’s declared war on gay people – throwing civil rights and basic humanity out the window.

Let’s go to war.  Let’s not just pour Stoli into the gutter and pass proclamations and pat ourselves on the back.  Let’s not talk about boycotts that will not have the impact its advocates hope for.  I’m ready for the sequel:  Cold War Redux.  (Much better than Cold War II.)  Economic sanctions must be applied so that there is a financial consequence of doing business there.  Travel to that beautiful, incredible and historic country must be limited.  A country that criminalizes people for being born gay (for even talking about being gay) no longer is entitled to the privileges of being part of the civilized world.  There must be consequences.

I’m ready for this war.  Sign me up.  Oh, wait, I already did that.  Since I've moved since I registered, I trust the NSA can find me when they need to.  Who’s with me?

Thursday, August 1, 2013


In a capitalistic society – where we put our money is a powerful weapon in effecting corporate change.  The changes in South Africa in the 1990’s
came as a direct result of investors pulling their money out of companies that were doing business in the country – essentially supporting apartheid.  Less successful efforts include the annual rash of boycotts from ‘family friendly’ groups against television shows something they don’t like.  Sports is not immune from outside influences – with the US boycott of Russia in 1980 after the country invaded Afghanistan which was mirrored by the Russians in 1984 against the US for the summer Olympics.  Now many politicians are calling for a boycott of the Russian Olympics in 2014.
Edward Snowden released documents that showed the U.S. government gathers information on its citizens phone calls, emails and other correspondences.  The revelations also showed that foreign allies were also having their communications monitored.  Nearly every politician tripped over themselves to welcome the “dialogue” about national security while condemning the individual – without any recognition that the discussion wouldn’t be occurring without the revelations.  Many have called for Snowden to be executed.  My preference is for him to be tried in a court of law before his punishment is decided, but, then again I’m a stickler for that Rule of Law thing.  The U.S. government (without a trial or filing any formal charges) found him guilty, rescinded his passport and now he’s in meandering through the Moscow airport like Tom Hanks in The Terminal. That is the basis for the calls for a boycott.
Russian President Vladamir Putin earlier this month signed into law the “gay propaganda” bill that punishes anybody from promoting or discussing anything gay.  Punishment ranges from million-ruble fines to three years in prison.  At the same time he also signed a law that prevents gays from other countries from adopting Russian children.
Hundreds of people have been arrested protesting the new laws.  Reports are also surfacing that gay athletes who participate in the 2014 Olympics in Russia could face arrest.   In fact last week 4 tourists were arrested for talking about gay issues. 
I’ve had the fortunate opportunity to visit Russia three times.  First as a college student right after President Gorbachev took power, then as a producer/director of the documentary  of the Gay Men’s Chorus of Los Angeles’ groundbreaking 1999 tour of the country and then as a tourist a few years back.  Each time I found the Russian people to be a welcoming, generous and giving people.  It is devastating to see a country that was once a leader on LGBT issues revert to homophobia, fear and intolerance.
President Obama has rightfully been heralded as the first “gay President” thanks to the elimination of President Clinton’s anti-gay policies.  Don’t Ask Don’t Tell (DADT) was rescinded by the U.S. Senate and the Defense of Marriage Act (DOMA) was declared unconstitutional by the Supreme Court.  There’s still much to do, but President Obama has been rhetorically passionate and inclusive of LGBT issues.  Let the White House know that LGBT Russians should be eligible for US asylum by signing the petition. 
Tying politics to sports is fraught with difficulty.  It’s ultimately unfair to the athletes who have spent their lives working towards competing on the global stage.  The Olympics are supposed to be where the world comes together.   The quick boycott of Stoli vodka may provide a feel good moment, but won't impact policy as the company isn't Russian, though it does employ Russians and uses Russian ingredients.
If the United States is going to be talking about a boycott – it should be as a stance against the intolerance and inhumanity of Russia’s new anti-gay policies, not because they have provided safe haven to somebody who made public a program that many in Congress said they didn’t know about.  The issue is urgent – the 2014 Olympics are too far away. President Obama must not attend the G20 in St. Petersburg this October (2013) and he must speak out about the atrocities now. That's what a President should do, gay or not.