Category Archives: Capitalism

Selective Rational Self-Interest…

Charles M. Blow of the New York Times has an interesting piece about the “politics of envy.”

In his New Hampshire victory speech on Tuesday, Romney lambasted his Republican opponents (who have raised real issues about his role at the private equity firm Bain Capital) for following the lead of President Obama, whom he described as a leader who divides us “with the bitter politics of envy.”

The next day on “Today” on NBC, Romney defended the statement, rejecting the notion that there were questions about Wall Street behavior, saying the whole discussion was about class warfare. He even went so far as to suggest that such talk shouldn’t even be openly entertained. When the interviewer asked, “Are there no fair questions about the distribution of wealth without it being seen as envy, though?” Romney responded, “I think it’s fine to talk about those things in quiet rooms and discussions about tax policy and the like.”

Quiet rooms? This isn’t a discussion of Keats in the sumptuously furnished salon of the Earl of Stuffypants. This is a serious issue. As Blow points out, the problem is that we’ve been “too quiet for too long” and I agree with him that if the Occupy movement deserves any praise, it should be for making these issues public and making certain people very uncomfortable.

And it is these people’s “discomfort” that this is all about. They rail about “class warfare” when very real concerns regarding income disparity are raised but are quick to warn voters about the insidious spread of socialism. Please note that the former concern is based on the history of the past 30 years. The latter is based on science fiction.

It’s not that they don’t want to fight a class war. They just don’t want the other classes to defend themselves. Shut up and take it while wondering what the hell happened in the “your quiet room” — before your friends at the bank foreclose on it.

I’ve stated before that Republicans these days sound more like Randians than anything else. However, I’m struck by the level of inconsistency in their beliefs. They have no interest in sacrificing for you but believe you should sacrifice for them. Basically, “one for all and all for us.”

The issue people have with Mitt Romney and Bain Capital (really, who names a company “Bain”?) is not based in “envy” so much as the simple fact that the system didn’t work for them. Should the 1,750 people who lost their jobs at Georgetown Steel applaud Romney’s business acumen in simultaneously doubling Bain’s investment even though Georgetown Steel eventually went bankrupt? The commonly trotted out excuse that Romney and his supporters give is that Bain’s actions “saved” other jobs, but this doesn’t mean much for the people whose jobs weren’t saved. Isn’t that “cold comfort” closer to the “socialism” Republicans revile? Putting the interests of others and of the “corporate state” over their own? How is that in their “rational self-interest”?

I’ve been in the position of having to fire employees whose jobs were being sent elsewhere. The HR talking points I was given had a section regarding how this “decision was not taken lightly” and would “benefit the company as a whole, by allowing it to remain competitive.” I refused to repeat this nonsense — pointing out that even if these statements were true, why should the terminated employee care? The only reason to try to reassure him that the company doesn’t “like” firing people is to avoid negative PR and only serves the company’s interests — from the employee’s perspective, the motivation doesn’t change the end result. And why should he care about the health of the “corporate state” once he’s been expelled from it? It’s not like he has stock in the company that will generate revenue for him even if he no longer earns a salary.

Hostess pulled the same shenanigans when it announced its latest bankruptcy.

In a court document explaining how the company got into this mess, Hostess largely pins the blame on its labor costs, as well as increased competition, poor financial performance and excessive levels of debt. Hostess also says the company didn’t do enough to fix itself during a lengthy prior stint in bankruptcy protection less than a decade ago.

Hostess said it does not “have a competitive cost structure and cannot achieve viability on a long-term sustainable basis,” according to its court filing. ”The company obtained only modest concessions relating to health and welfare, as well as inflexible requirements under their collective bargaining agreements relating to work rules,” Hostess says in its court filing, which says the company and its employees have 372 separate labor agreements.

“Modest concessions” relating to “health and welfare”? So, apparently it’s the unionized labor’s fault for not allowing management to create a more efficient plantation-style model in which they sacrifice for the company’s long-term profit and benefit. Their employees’ well-being seems to mean little to the company so why should the employees be all that concerned about the company?

Why is rational self-interest so selective in this country? Millionaires paying more in taxes is an unfair burden. It’s wealth redistribution. But unionized labor — even teachers — must “sacrifice” for the sake of the nation.

Is this an example of “some animals are more equal than others”? Whatever the bill of good that’s been sold, Americans are slowly realizing it’s a con. We are either all in this together or we’re not. If “sacrifice” leads to “socialism,” then it’s in working-class people’s best interests to advocate for better pay and better benefits (by “better,” I refer to the distant past prior to the Reagan administration). If you’re one of the countless Americans who don’t have health insurance, you are under no obligation to continue to sacrifice for the corporations that need to deprive you of those benefits to “remain competitive.”

Newt Gingrich argues that raising the minimum wage would lead to unemployment. Suppose he’s right (and I don’t) and companies would have to get by with 10% less employees if working-class wages are increased. Isn’t Comrade Gingrich advocating for a socialist system where you take a pay cut for the benefit of your coworkers and the “state” (your company)? If this is a “merit” society, as Romney likes to say before adding more millions to his children and grandchildren’s trust funds, then the best employees would survive the resulting cuts and have more to show for it. Would the company’s profits suffer if the workforce decreased? Perhaps. But if you’re making minimum wage, the minimum you should care is whether the company keeps the doors open.

It does make you wonder who the real “socialists” are in this country. And why the average Americans fear the “public state” more than the “corporate state,” which as far more power over their lives these days.


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Posted by on January 14, 2012 in Capitalism, Pop Life


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“You’re fired!”…

Mitt Romney has had his fair share of gaffes during his presidential campaign. He’s claimed corporations are people, which employed the same twisted logic Southern politicians used to try to have slaves counted as people for representation purposes while still treating them like construction equipment. He’s also said he knows what it’s like to be unemployed: He is a millionaire many times over. He’s not “unemployed,” he’s comfortably retired — unlike many people in their early 60s who have lost their jobs through no fault of their own and have to struggle to survive or who had their pensions and retirement savings destroyed through Vegas-style investments.

Just in time for the New Hampshire primary on Tuesday comes Romney’s latest politically tone-death hit, in which he expresses his pleasure in firing people.

Romney’s previous gaffes received more of a pass because he was still running against the human-sized gaffes that are Michele Bachmann and Herman Cain. Now, fresh off his nail-biter, Karl Rove-approved victory in Iowa last week, Romney is receiving true front-runner treatment, which involves his opponents rushing toward any perceived blood in the water. So, he quickly sought to clarify his statement:

“I don’t want to live in a world where we have Obamacare telling us which insurance we have to have, which doctor we can have, which hospital we go to,” Romney said Monday at his news conference, according to The New York Times.

“I believe in the setting as I described this morning where people are able to choose their own doctor, choose their own insurance company. If they don’t like their insurance company or their provider, they can get rid of it,” Romney said.

Let’s look at Romney’s statement more closely, as there are two critical problems with it:

It also means that if you don’t like what they do, you can fire them. I like being able to fire people who provide services to me. If someone doesn’t give me the good service I need, I want to say, you know, I’m going to go get someone else to provide that service to me.

"Hey, baby, you want some high-octane, blow-the-doors off health insurance?"

Unlike Romney, whose bank accounts have bank accounts, most people in the U.S. realize that health care in this country is expensive and only growing more so each year. When Romney extols the virtue of “choice” in health care, he might as well tell a minimum-wage worker at Wal-Mart who relies on a car to get to work that she has her choice of $100,000 BMWs. The only question now is whether to go for the one with the “luxurious interior” or the “smooth ride.” At this point, she might as well pick her preferred Enterprise model (1701 — original series, baby!, 1701-A, “Star Trek 4 – 6,” or 1701-D, Pimped-out Picard action) because it’s all just a fantasy.

I’d rather work toward getting her into a reasonably economical mid-size sedan, but even Archie Andrews’ jalopy is more practical than what Romney has to offer her, which are sore feet from walking. People with money tend to distract themselves with limitless options. A thousand brands of toothpaste is one of America’s original sins. If you don’t have money, though, the only toothpaste option that matters is the one you can afford.

The other problem with Romney’s statement is the cavalier manner in which he discusses firing people who don’t perform for him as he’d like. Here he definitely demonstrates his big-business background: “Humans” are interchangeable “resources.” If they miss a beat while tap dancing for your entertainment, then bring in someone else. I worked someplace that referred to and promoted this practice as “churn and burn.”

Any idiot can just fire people who screw up. Look at Donald Trump’s TV career. What takes vision, what takes leadership, is to help people succeed. Once upon a time, employee termination was viewed as a mutual failure. I once worked with an executive who combined the worst traits of all the GOP candidates — the insanity of Bachmann and Ron Paul, the cluelessness of Rick Perry, the Snidely Whiplash villainy of Newt Gingrich, the serpentine quality of Rick Santorum, and a conscience about as pronounced as Jon Huntsman’s visibility. I suspected she was assembled in Dr. Mindbender’s laboratory like the Cobra Emperor from “G.I. Joe.”

If staff performance wasn’t what she deemed it should be, she assumed it was due to incompetence, laziness, or meth addiction. Any recommendation for employee development that wasn’t punitive was rejected as “making excuses” or “being soft.” There was little interest in examining expectations and seriously considering if they were realistic. No, better to keep employees on a rotating hamster wheel of wage freezes and staff reductions while blaming them if performance suffered as a result. You can fire everyone who collapses on their way to a finish line that is constantly moved forward but eventually all you have left is management. Unfortunately, we’ve moved past the point where managers are paid to take a bullet. They are now paid to aim and fire.

In fairness, Romney was most likely referring to firing vendors or companies who provide a service, but as he himself said, these companies are comprised of people. What happens to the people who lose their jobs because of mismanagement they can’t control? I used to think the old lady who wrote an angry letter to a company informing them of why she would no longer buy their products was being churlish, but upon reflection, she is giving them the feedback that is necessary to allow them to improve. That’s more than you’d get from the Romneys of the world. For them, it’s all “churn and burn.”


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Not the Best Buy…

By way of Mark Evanier’s site, I came upon this Forbes piece regarding the eventual collapse of retailer Best Buy. The story is not news to anyone — brick and mortar stores can’t compete with online when they long ago eliminated any value they had to offer from reasonably paid mammals who knew something about electronics. Corporations chose to downsize the geese that sell the golden eggs.

However, I shall tell a positive story if not about Best Buy but one of its employees. I recently purchased a new laptop, which involved my venturing to the Best Buy closest to me. I settled on a model that was not in stock. I was then told that a Best Buy further away from me might have it. I’m never a fan of “might” but I’m an unemployed writer, so what else do I have to do with my time? I arrive at the other Best Buy, where I learn from a salesman who is intent on informing me that he’s somehow affiliated with Microsoft that someone just purchased the last model that was in stock. He continued to go on about the odds of the store selling out of the laptop I wanted while I was on my way to the store. It mattered very little to me if the odds were a million to one or one to one, I still did not have the laptop.

Another clerk called a Best Buy even further from me. They had plenty of the laptops I wanted in stock. They would not ship it to a store close to me, though, for reasons that were unclear. This is when I asked a critical question. Best Buy’s Geek Squad offers a service where it removes a lot of the garbage that comes pre-installed on your computer. The process takes about three hours, I was told. However, some of the computers already have this done so you can avoid the wait.

“Can you please confirm that this Best Buy location has a laptop with the Geek Squad service already performed? If so, I’ll pick it up today. If not, I’ll go by tomorrow.”

“Oh, 40% of the stock usually has it done and since it costs more, it’s likely they’ll have one ready.”

There are certain things in life you can’t confirm: The existence of extraterrestrial life, what happens after death or when you move to the suburbs, but whether a specific laptop is in stock is something you can confirm with a phone call.

“Before I purchase the laptop here, can you please confirm that one is in stock with the Geek Squad service already done? Thank you.”

The clerk goes away and returns shortly to tell me that the item I want is at the other Best Buy and ready for pick-up. I purchase the laptop, declining the extended warranty, family plan, commemorative Civil War plates and whatever other crap they try to sell you. I then go to the other Best Buy. The young woman who greets me at the store pick-up desk acts as if it’s her first day — not at Best Buy but on Earth. Imagine a mad scientist creating her in a lab, rejecting her because his assistant goofed and provided an abnormal brain, and dropping her off at the nearest Best Buy to begin a career in retail.

She examines my store receipt, asks multiple questions that only serve to confuse her more, and then finally retrieves my laptop, which she places in front of me.

One of many things I learned from my mother is to double check every aspect of my order before leaving the store. When we’d go to Kentucky Fried Chicken (it was still Kentucky Fried Chicken back then), my mother would stoically open every box and examine the contents to ensure she wasn’t stuck with extra crispy or dark meat. She was an original recipe, white meat lady. I would think, “See, this is what she thinks of you. She had you repeat the order to her when she placed it. You even confirmed it with her when you handed over the boxes, but she’s going through it again right in front of you because she knows you’re a fool. Oh, and she’s right. That’s an extra crispy drumstick next to the mashed potatoes.”

I asked the young woman if the Geek Squad had already wiped the computer of the offending software, as I’d requested and paid for.

“No, this computer doesn’t have that, but if one of our guys is free, he can have it done in about two to three hours.”

It makes no sense to me that Best Buy bothers telling people that the Geek Squad service takes four hours (if they say two to three, it’s really four) to complete. What am I supposed to do at Best Buy for that long? It’s not like they have one of Quark’s holosuites in the back.

“That’s unacceptable,” I said. “Your colleague at the other Best Buy claimed that he’d confirmed that the there was a laptop waiting here that already had the Geek Squad service performed on it. That’s the whole reason I came here this afternoon.”

“Yeah,” she replied, offering no explanation. “It’s the only one we have.”

“I’m not staying here for three hours nor I am making a return trip cross town. Could someone bring the computer, once it’s ready, to the Best Buy where I paid for it?”

“Yeah, we don’t do that.”

“I realize you don’t normally but this was your error.”

“You can come back for it tomorrow if you’d like.”

I chose not to thank her for allowing me to pick up something I’d already purchased at a later date.

“I’m not going to do that. I’d like the laptop sent to the more convenient location or I’d like a refund.”

“I can give you a refund.”

At this point, I asked to speak to a manager, so it could be explained to me why they would prefer to lose money instead of simply rectifying their mistake.

When the young woman went for the manager, I expected very little. Why would they care? They had no stake in the sale. The manager would most likely offer some more shuck and jive before giving me a refund.

Instead the manager, also a young woman, politely introduced herself to me, apologized for the confusion, and said she’d personally deliver the laptop the the Best Buy that was actually in my zip code.

This was professionally handled but definitely not the norm. The manager was courteous and made no attempt to blame me or her colleagues at the other stores for the problem. She just focused on making it right.

The next day, as promised, my laptop was at the Best Buy location where I paid for it. I thanked the manager, who was still at the store, on my way out. She deserves better than Best Buy, and I hope she finds it when Best Buy stores start to close. Having worked in corporate America for a while, it would not surprise me if she were among the first fired and the clueless salesclerk temporarily promoted into her position simply because she’d be cheaper. Cheaper keeps the costs down, but it eventually closes the stores.


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How Mitt Romney defines “risk” and “entitlements”…

Presidential candidate Mitt Romney recently expressed his concern about what he perceives as a growing “entitlement” society:

“In an entitlement society, everyone receives the same or similar rewards, regardless of education, effort, and willingness to take risk. That which is earned by some is redistributed to the others. And the only people who truly enjoy any real rewards are those who do the redistributing—the government. The truth is that everyone may get the same rewards, but virtually everyone will be worse off.”

“Entitlement” has become a dirty word, but the word “entitle” actually appears in the Declaration of Independence. Thomas Jefferson argued that these rights were “self-evident” and granted by our “Creator,” but even if you aren’t religious, it seems clear that the American experiment is based on entitlement. If you’re not entitled to anything, then the world is essentially might makes right and Jefferson and his supporters would have had no moral position upon which to base their desired break with Britain.

But I digress — Romney’s statement also illustrates how distinctly differently he and I view the economic system in this country. His new stump speech has the typical conservative poor-bait: Poor people are stupid (“regardless of education”), lazy (“regardless of… effort”) and want to take what you have worked so hard to build (“same or similar rewards”).

I especially take issue with “willingness to take risk.” Who do you think Romney considers “risk takers”? I’d bet $10,000 of his money that he means entrepreneurs, small (and large) businessmen, and investors. That’s not an incorect description but it defines risk metaphorically — perhaps the loss of money or position — rather than literally — loss of life or limb.

What every fashion-forward factory worker will wear in a Mitt Romney administration.

The Daily Beast listed the 20 Deadliest Jobs in America. They include: Fisherman (Avg. Salary: $22,160), Firefighter (Avg. Salary: $47,760), Airplane Pilot (Avg. Salary: $53,990), Police Officer (Avg. Salary: $55,400), Logger (Avg. Salary: $35,360), Roofer (Avg. Salary: $41,200), Sanitation Worker (Avg. Salary:  $37,830), Bus Driver (Avg. Salary: $34,820), Animal Farmer (Avg. Salary: $24,930), Grain Farmer (Avg. Salary: $24,930), Industrial Machine Repairmen (Avg. Salary: $42,220), Warehouse Operator (Avg. Salary: $34,910), Truck Driver (Avg. Salary:  $40,860), Landscaper (Avg. Salary: $29,430), Carpenter (Avg. Salary: $42,750), Steel Worker (Avg. Salary:  $49,020), Construction Worker (Avg. Salary: $46,500), Cement Manufacturer (Avg. Salary:  $39,010).

We need all these people in order for our society to function. Yet most made about a tenth of the $300,000 Newt Gingrich earned for offering his advice as a historian to Freddie Mac. So, if Romney wants to talk about risk, perhaps our discussion should start here.

When Romney talks about “that which is earned by some is redistributed to the others,” I’m sure that gets his supporters’ blood boiling. Man, those poor people again — sitting at home watching their big-screen TVs and cashing their welfare checks while honest Americans are at work. They probably don’t consider how Romney made his fortune. It’s all through investments. His private equity firm Bain Capital had stakes in Domino’s Pizza, Staples, and The Sports Authority, among others. Here’s how it works: The employees at these companies create a product, which generates revenue, which goes into the pockets of the investors.  Sounds like wealth redistribution to me. The workers are paid upfront for their efforts but don’t share in the wealth if the company does well. They merely are the first to share in the misfortune if the company does poorly. That’s hardly equal “risk” to folks like Romney. It’s about as much risk as a plantation owner determining which slave is the largest and most likely to work the hardest and longest before dying of exhaustion. This also sounds like the same retirement plan that Romney would offer the average American worker.

Romney claims that the only people who would benefit from wealth redistribution is the government. Wealth redistribution already exists, as part of the rigged game in which the CEO of “Dangerous Construction Company Unlimited” makes millions while the people actually doing the work barely get by. Romney rightly would fear government regulation because the average person has a direct stake in government. They can vote and steer policy so that the good of everyone is considered as opposed to the good of a few. Why would the American aristocracy support that? Romney’s policies, especially regarding the estate tax, would ensure that the current entitlement culture continues — the one in which his children and grandchildren, who have a blind trust valued between $70 to $100 million, could choose to never work a day in their lives… “regardless of their education, effort, and willingness to take risk.”

Of course, the larger question is that if an entlitement society existed in which everyone had equal rewards and equal outcomes… would that be so bad? OK, I know your socialist sense is tingling, but if you were a lawyer and made $250,000 a year, would it really bother you if a firefighter or construction worker made the same? Even half would greatly alter their lifestyles for the better.

Romney does not seem to argue from the position that such “wealth redistribution” flatly won’t work but rather that we should be offended on the face of it. He says “everyone would be worse off.” Really? Is he honestly concerned about a scenario where a sanitation worker is going to be paid less? Or he is worried about the American aristrocracy of which he is gold-card carrying member? Countless CEOs make enough — even as part of exit packages when they almost ruin their companies — to secure a comfortable living not just for themselves but for their grandchildren who don’t even exist yet. This happens while the “rank and file” employees (I’ve worked someplace where that term was used daily, generally to describe why they weren’t receiving a benefit my colleagues and I were) get by on pre-chewed peanuts.

The fatuous response is to say that this is simply how the market works, and the government cannot legislate “fairness.” However, public companies represent the interests of their shareholders (most of whom don’t work at the company) rather than the interests of all their employees. The board of directors are like pirates who loot the futures of their employees and share their bounty with each other and their closest subordinates. This is not capitalism. It’s theft.

So, when Romney presents himself as the president who will prevent the creation of an entitlement society, he’s engaging in a pathetic and craven sleight-of-hand to distract you from the one that already exists, the one that has slowly destroyed the U.S. middle class over the past 30 years, and the one that he is desperate to protect.


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Revisiting “A Christmas Carol”…

“A Christmas Carol,” which Charles Dickens wrote in 1843, combines the chilling thrills of a ghost story fit for Halloween but delivered two months late with the spirit-lifting redemption of the best Christmas story.

From the political lens through which I view all entertainment, “A Christmas Carol” fascinates me in its complexity: It is simultaneously a promotion of the rights of the underclass and the abuse it faces from the wealthy and an illustrative example of how charity comes best from the individual rather than the government. It is also distinctly religious yet not really: The spirits are not necessarily guardian angels of the Cary Grant (“The Bishop’s Wife”) and Henry Travers (“It’s a Wonderful Life”) variety. The story is more a distilliation of Christ’s teachings without the fire and damnation.

Scrooge is a bitter, money-obsessed old man. His clerk, Bob Cratchit, must work in bleak conditions (Scrooge is as stingy with the coal supply as he is everything else). Cratchit has no recourse. There is no mention of his choosing to work for someone more amenable. He must bite his tongue and accept the treatment his master doles out.

When Scrooge’s nephew arrives to invite him to Christmas dinner, Scrooge runs down Christmas as a waste of time. He is not entirely incorrect in what he observes: Life — especially in Victorian England — is pretty crummy and it’ll be crummy after Christmas. What good does it do anyone to try to forget that for one measly day? It is thus a “humbug,” a “hoax” or “jest.” Scrooge’s nephew doesn’t disagree with Scrooge’s assessment but with how Scrooge chooses to react to this reality. OK, life is bad, but if it can be less so for just one day, maybe it can be better every day of the year, and if not, one good day out of 364 bad ones is better than nothing. Cratchit applauds the sentiment and Scrooge threatens to fire him. He cruelly points out that Cratchit least of all has any reason to believe in the merriness of Christmas — too many kids and too little money. Here we see that Scrooge knows the “price of everything and the value of nothing” (a memorable line from the Susan Lucci adaptation of “A Christmas Carol” in 1995).

Scrooge does, though, grant Cratchit the day off for Christmas. He complains about it but he doesn’t insist that the need to make more money on “doorbuster” specials demands that Cratchit spend the day away from his family. Even the drive for profit had its limits in those days.

Scrooge is also visited by gentlemen soliciting for a charity. The exchange here is famous for Scrooge’s asking them “are there no prisons” or “union workhouses.” However, in contrast to many politicians today, Scrooge does not object to their existence. He simply wishes to be “left alone” in so far as providing anything on an individual level. He pays enough to support the existing institutions and can’t afford to make “idle” people merry. The use of the word “idle” underscores a belief, common even today, that the poor are poor by choice or are lazy. If they worked harder, their issues would resolve themselves. Regardless, it doesn’t involve Scrooge, arguably the first Libertarian.

Dickens diverges from Biblical teaches in Scrooge’s encounter with Marley, who warns him of his upcoming visit from the three spirits. Unlike that trio, Marley is clearly damned but you don’t get the impression that he’s burning in hell. No, his punishment is the inability to either enjoy or promote happiness — two gifts that Scrooge is currently squandering. When Scrooge attempts to console Marley by complimenting his life as a businessman, Marley is quick to correct him: “Mankind was my business. The common welfare was my business; charity, mercy, forbearance, and benevolence, were, all, my business. The dealings of my trade were but a drop of water in the comprehensive ocean of my business!”

Today we proclaim that corporations are people yet at the same time debate whether certain people are even people. This is the same folly that consumed Marley. I always wondered why Marley never got the opportunity for redemption that Scrooge did. Or perhaps Marley had the chance and refused to take it. Either way, Marley is for this one night able to make mankind his business — a Christmas gift for both Scrooge and himself.

Scrooge’s first visitor is the Ghost of Christmas Past. Scrooge’s childhood had been difficult, and we glimpse the roots of his current misanthropy. As a youth, he’d apprenticed for the magnamious Mr. Fezziwig, who is the complete opposite of the adult Scrooge. Instead of whining about having to give his staff the day off for Christmas, Fezziwig throws a grand office party on Christmas Eve. His employees probably don’t suffer from frostbite, either. I’ve seen firsthand the Fezziwig approach vanish from the workplace. The standard list of excuses has replaced it: In a “merit-based” culture, the cost of a Christmas party for everyone is better spent on Christmas bonuses for the few. And what good does an office party serve anyway? Scrooge himself is quick to respond to this theory:

“(Fezziwg) has the power to render us happy or unhappy; to make our service light or burdensome; a pleasure or a toil. Say that his power lies in words and looks; in things so slight and insignificant that it is impossible to add and count them up: what then? The happiness he gives, is quite as great as if it cost a fortune.”

As soon as the words are spoken, Scrooge realizes that he has the power to do these things but doesn’t. He pursues profit instead. If profit is the goal, people will always suffer. Fezziwig no doubt sees the success of his company as a responsibility. His goal is to provide a decent living for his workers. Scrooge’s goal is merely to make a profit.

This theme continues during Scrooge’s visit with the Ghost of Christmas Present. He takes him to see the Cratchits on Christmas Day. Cratchit’s son, Tiny Tim, is not long for the world. The spark of humanity lingering in Scrooge wonders if there’s any way Tim might live. The Spirit informs him that if the course of events isn’t altered, Tim will die, but quoting Scrooge, “he had better do it, and decrease the surplus population.” Scrooge had previously spoken with the Darwinian harshness of distance. Imagine how much easier that is to do now with global corporations boasting thousands of employees. When Wal-Mart cuts health insurance for its part time employees, the CEO — safely remote in his gated community — has no insight into the long-term pain that is caused for short-term profit.

The Ghost of Christmas Present challenges Scrooge to “forbear his wicked cant,” to reflect on “what the surplus is and where it is.” The trap so many fall into is to view misfortunate as a choice, to hold poverty in as much contempt as substance abuse. No one wants to think that the summer home paid for with the bonus money earned by downsizing people might have a human cost. And simply being on the top of the economic pyramid does not necessarily make you superior in any sense to those at the bottom.

This is where Dickens most clearly echoes the New Testament: “Will you decide what men shall live, what men shall die? It may be, that in the sight of Heaven, you are more worthless and less fit to live than millions like this poor man’s child.”

This line is often interpreted as the spirit chastising Scrooge for daring to decide who “lives or who dies.” I think it’s the opposite: He’s condemning his inaction in the face of suffering. This inaction will send Tim to his death, something Scrooge can easily prevent if he opens his eyes to his responsibilities as a member of society.

For his part, Cratchit toasts Scrooge at Christmas dinner, acknowledging the role his employer pays in providing for his family. His wife is less gracious. Scrooge, she says, is “an odious, stingy, hard, unfeeling man.” She relents for his husband’s sake and the day’s and joins Cratchit in his toast. She believes Scrooge is bound to be “very merry and very happy.” She is wrong in thinking that Scrooge’s wealth alone would make him happy. We know — as his nephew does — that Scrooge’s cruelty punishes him as well. However, Mrs. Cratchit is correct that just because Scrooge rejects the comfort his wealth could provide himself and others, this does not excuse his ill treatment of those beneath him.

In a scene in the 1984 TV adaptation with George C. Scott that’s not in Dickens’s story, the Ghost of Christmas Present takes Scrooge to a desolate area where the poor huddle for warmth. Scrooge cannot believe people live like this: Women and children in rags. Why aren’t they in those nice workhouses, Scrooge wonders. He, of course, has never personally visited one. He has no knowledge of how miserable they are and how they separate families forever. He sees the desperation of poverty. A poor father laments that it’s not fair there’s no work. He wants to work. He sees that even the poor have a work ethic, even if they aren’t fortunate enough to be as wealthy as he.

Scrooge questions the Spirit, “What does this have to do with me?,” and the Spirit thunders, “Are they not of the human race?” Indeed. We then return to Dickens’s text, as the Spirit opens his robe to reveal two “wretched, abject, frightful, hideous, miserable” children — a boy, “Ignorance,” and a girl, “Want.” Scrooge, still in denial, asks if they belong to the Spirit, who informs him that they are the work of all mankind.

“Beware them both, and all of their degree, but most of all beware this boy, for on his brow I see that written which is Doom, unless the writing be erased. Deny it!” cried the Spirit, stretching out its hand towards the city. “Slander those who tell it ye. Admit it for your factious purposes, and make it worse. And abide the end.”

Great art is timeless, and these words could have been written today.

Every adaptation differs in its depiction of Scrooge’s reclamation. Some have him close to the light after his meeting with the first spirit. Others have him unmoved until he learns the potential fate of Tiny Tim. The original story allows the actors the flexibility to plot out Scrooge’s transformation. However, one question that is rarely asked is why Scrooge changes at all. This is what makes the story so uplifting for me. Scrooge is an old man. He’s seen how he’s wasted his life, how everything he thought he believed in was false and empty. This would break the average man. Why bother to change now? Standard Christian teaching would say eternal damnation is reason enough. Dickens, however, doesn’t go there.

The Ghost of Christmas Yet to Come shows Scrooge the inevitable end of his selfish life. He dies alone. Tiny Tim is dead. And the only true emotion over his passing is the relief a couple feels in knowing that their debt to him will be transferred to someone who couldn’t possibly be more loathsome. Scrooge is taken to his gravesite, where he begs the Spirit for a chance to change to course of his existence.

“I will honour Christmas in my heart, and try to keep it all the year. I will live in the Past, the Present, and the Future. The Spirits of all Three shall strive within me. I will not shut out the lessons that they teach. Oh, tell me I may sponge away the writing on this stone!”

He obviously can’t avoid death, but what he wants to erase is his metaphorical death. He wants to live — even if just for the few years he has left.

This is naturally easy to grant. Much like Dorothy and her ruby slippers, Scrooge had the ability to change his world whenever he wanted. And the reformed Scrooge is a resoundingly bad businessman: He gives Cratchit an enormous turkey — a generous Christmas bonus. It’s not intended as an economic bribe to keep Cratchit from bolting to another company (as I’ve had bonuses explained to me in more flowery terms though the meaning was clear). It’s sent anonymously. It’s an acknowledgment of Cratchit’s hard work all year. That’s all.

Scrooge also doubles Cratchit’s salary and commits himself to helping Tiny Tim to walk again. What CEO would do this today? Double the staff’s salary for no reason other than they probably deserve it? It obviously won’t send Scrooge to the poorhouse, and we can only imagine the good it will do for the Cratchit family.

Yes, Scrooge is a bad businessman as we hear business defined today. It’s a definition that has crushed families and sunk the economy, but we refuse to sponge away those words. If we did, we could define business as Scrooge came to define it. He put people first and understood the responsibility of a business to remain profitable for the purpose of providing a living for its employees and not merely for profit’s sake. They’d call Scrooge a socialist today. I prefer to think of him as a man who understood his true business.

Scrooge was better than his word. He did it all, and infinitely more; and to Tiny Tim, who did not die, he was a second father. He became as good a friend, as good a master, and as good a man, as the good old city knew, or any other good old city, town, or borough, in the good old world. Some people laughed to see the alteration in him, but he let them laugh, and little heeded them; for he was wise enough to know that nothing ever happened on this globe, for good, at which some people did not have their fill of laughter in the outset; and knowing that such as these would be blind anyway, he thought it quite as well that they should wrinkle up their eyes in grins, as have the malady in less attractive forms. His own heart laughed: and that was quite enough for him.


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From the New York Times: “Amazon’s Jungle Logic”…

An op-ed in The New York Times discusses Amazon’s holiday assault on brick-and-mortar bookstores. It’s a Scrooge left hook, followed by a Grinch uppercut, leading to a Mr. Potter TKO.

I first heard of Amazon’s new “promotion” from my bookseller daughter, Emily, in an e-mail with the subject line “Can You Hear Me Screaming in Brooklyn?” According to a link Emily supplied, Amazon was encouraging customers to go into brick-and-mortar bookstores on Saturday, and use its price-check app (which allows shoppers in physical stores to see, by scanning a bar code, if they can get a better price online) to earn a 5 percent credit on Amazon purchases (up to $5 per item, and up to three items).       

This promotion has received a good deal of negative press. Chamber of Commerce of Eastern  Connecticut President Tony Sheridan called it a “new low” and a “slap in the face to all small business owners.” Sam Hall at Amazon disagreed.

“We are enabling customers to use the Price Check app to share  in-store prices while they search for the best deals,” (Hall said). “This is a powerful  opportunity for customers to get involved and ensures Amazon customers  get the best possible prices.”

It’s not new for a store to offer to match or even beat the price offered at a competitor, but those are usually fairer battles. Small retailers aren’t in the same weight class as Amazon, which like Wal-Mart can afford to lower prices for the time it takes to crush the competition.

Another example of the app in action:

Valerie Lewis opened the slender book, cradled it lovingly in her hands and began to read a story about a bear who lost his hat. As co-owner of Hicklebee’s Books in Willow Glen, she has done this a thousand times.

Then Lewis turned the book over and allowed a visitor with an iPhone to scan the bar code using Amazon’s Price Check app. Within seconds, the Amazon price popped up: $9.59. “Let’s see what Hicklebee’s has it for,” Lewis said, then pointed to the amount imprinted on the book jacket: $15.99.

A clerk standing nearby was unable to resist mentioning the obvious — that Amazon would probably ship the book free and not charge any sales tax, further increasing its $6.40 price advantage over the venerable San Jose children’s bookstore.

Complaints in the press and on Facebook status message aside, I’m sure Amazon’s promotion wil be a succes. The U.S. consumer is the ultimate mob wife: She knows something’s up — it’s all a little suspicious — but she doesn’t ask questions.

I’m a Kindle user — I even read comics on an app these days — but in my younger and more vulnerable days, I haunted physical bookstores. My favorite was Gotham Books in Manhattan, which Katharine Hepburn described as the “greatest bookstore in New York and thus the world” (I think… the exact quote is on the bookmark you got when you bought a book there and all my books are currently in storage). I watched as my homes from home slowly closed one by one. Their replacements were the mammoth Barnes & Noble, Waldenbooks, Books-A-Million, Book Hut, and so on. They had a wider selection but were antiseptic with employees who either didn’t have the time or the ablity to talk to you about a book you might want to purchase. There was little passion in those stores. Once we accepted that, we were bound to embrace Amazon, which is now intent on wiping out the remaining bookstores with the same cold ruthlessness as Michael Corleone eliminating the competing families in “The Godfather.”

This might be the path of the future but I guess I wonder what’s the rush? Amazon reminds me of the loathsome heir to a family fortune standing over his mother on her death bed, silently willing her to croak sooner rather than later. With its price-check app, Amazon now goes as far as to smother smaller retailers with a pillow.

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Posted by on December 14, 2011 in Capitalism


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Slate: How The Fed’s Generosity Made $13 Billion For America’s Biggest Banks…

If you’re wondering what the Occupy movement is about, this article from Slate gives you some indirect background.

As Mark Evanier puts it: “Basically, the Fed did everything in its power to help big banks get bigger and to not suffer when they took risks that didn’t pay off. Wish someone would do that for me.”

But no one will. The government will let the bank foreclose on your home because you shouldn’t have been stupid enough to take a crap loan. The government won’t even extend your unemployment benefits.

It’s unfortunate that the public does not fully grasp that not only are corporations “people” in the government’s eyes, they’re riding in the front of the bus.

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Posted by on November 28, 2011 in Capitalism


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Now time for “The Further Decline of Human Civilization”…

As Dave Barry used to say, “I am not making this up”:

LOS ANGELES — A woman shot pepper spray to keep shoppers from merchandise she wanted during a Black Friday sale, and 20 people suffered minor injuries, authorities said.

The incident occurred shortly after 10:20 p.m. Thursday in a crowded Los Angeles-area Walmart as shoppers hungry for deals were let inside the store.

This is terrible. Why would anyone shop at Wal-Mart?

Police said the suspect shot the pepper spray when the coverings over the items she wanted were removed.

“Somehow she was trying to use it to gain an upper hand,” police Lt. Abel Parga told The Associated Press early Friday.

He said she was apparently after some electronics and used the pepper spray to keep other shoppers at bay.

What a fitting way to celebrate Thanksgiving: After a nice, warm meal with friends and family during which you give thanks for all that you have, you immediately take off for your local retail store to buy more things (on sale!) for which you can be thankful. It recalls the story of the first Christmas when Mary pepper-sprayed Joseph so she could stampede the Wise Men in order to grab their frankincense and myrrh.

I know Megyn Kelly believes pepper spray is a food product but I’d prefer you douse me with egg nog or even some mulled wine when putting me down so you can get the last iPod Touch the store has until it orders more the next day.

In honor of Black Friday and the “big commercial racket” that Linus van Pelt correctly predicted Christmas becoming, let’s listen to Madonna’s “More,” which will soon replace “Hark the Herald Angels Sing” as a holiday standard.

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Posted by on November 25, 2011 in Capitalism, Social Commentary


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Black Friday Comin’ Soon; Debt Remains ‘Til June…

Black Friday Comin’ Soon; Debt Remains ‘Til June…

“Black Friday,” the day after Thanksgiving, represents the entire house of cards upon which the U.S. economy is based. Starting in the middle of the night, people line up to spend money they don’t have on items they don’t need. During one of the worst economic periods in history, wouldn’t it make more sense for people to be frugal, maybe even exchange homemade gifts or just enjoy each other’s company on the holidays?

No, experts say that would cosign the U.S. economy to barrel-wearing oblivion.

Some analysts stress, however, that futile as it may seem to push struggling Americans into spending billions on products they could do without, the economy is too fragile to encourage anything less.

Adam Davidson, of National Public Radio’s Planet Money, describes Black Friday as a “one-day economic stimulus plan and job-creation programme” that is crucial to the American economy.

“Billions of dollars, which would otherwise never be spent, make their way into circulation,” he wrote in an article.

Although Scrooge gave Bob Cratchit the full day off for Christmas, retailers can’t be so liberal when attempting to make the most of this capitalist extravaganza.

When Anthony Hardwick, a part-time car-park attendant at a Target in Omaha, Nebraska, was told to report for work at 11pm on the evening of Thanksgiving – the most important public holiday by far for Americans – he refused.

“My fiancée is sad because I was supposed to have Thanksgiving dinner with her family and talk about wedding plans,” Mr Hardwick, 29, who was due to work a shift in his second job on Black Friday, said. “It’s kind of a raw deal.”

Supported by colleagues, he started a petition titled Tell Target to Save Thanksgiving.

“A full holiday with family is not just for the elite of this nation,” Mr Hardwick wrote. “All Americans should be able to break bread with loved ones and get a good night’s rest on Thanksgiving”

It attracted 200,000 signatures, which were delivered to company bosses.

A spokesman said workers were paid extra for filling Thanksgiving shifts and that “every effort to accommodate their requests” for time off was made by managers.

Does the “extra” workers were paid — most likely the standard time and a half — reflect the fortune the retailers stand to make? Not likely. This is part of what makes Black Friday a prime target for the Occupy Movement.

Occupy Black Friday is aiming to persuade people to shop locally to support their communities, rather than multinational conglomerates.

Another, Occupy Wal-Mart, is turning its focus on one huge outlet.

“Black Friday is the one day where the mega-corporations blatantly dictate our actions, they say ‘shop’ and we shop,” the group said in a statement.

“Hit the corporations that corrupt and control American politics where it hurts, and their profits.”

This is not a crazy idea. Shopping locally would ensure that more of the profits went to the people selling you the items rather than the executives who remained snug as a bug in their country home’s rug on Thanksgiving night, later dreaming of huge bonuses reflective of the sales blitz. Wal-Mart, especially, this year has reduced health care benefits for its employees despite still remaining incredibly profitable.

The question also remains as where people are getting the money to participate in the Black Friday frenzy. E.D. Kain at Forbes correctly points out that “we are in the red, and spending on top of unsustainable debt is neither wise nor a recipe for economic well-being.”

We can’t rely on some form of consumer-driven Keynesian stimulus in perpetuity. Spending is important, but not if it comes on the back of boatloads of consumer debt, even if that debt is the result of stagnant wages for the working and middle class.

Unfortunately, Kain falls into the trap of insisting that rampant, essentially needless consumerism is what the economy needs.

The last thing I would do in times such as these is attempt to convince people not to go out shopping. With unemployment teetering around 9% the worst possible thing we as consumers could do would be to stop spending money.

How can you stop spending what you don’t have? How many items purchased on Black Friday will be paid with a credit card? That’s great for the banks but not for the people who will wake up to Red Saturday, which will lead to Red Sunday, Red Monday and so on. As the old joke goes, “These sales are gonna save me into bankruptcy.”

The debt management website says about one third of shoppers rack up credit card debt on Black Friday.

Finance charges on their credit cards can easily wipe out any discounts they received at Black Friday sales.

I also disagree with Kain’s theory about shopping locally.

If consumers spend 20% more purchasing an HDTV from a local retailer, they’ll have 20% less money to spend at local restaurants and coffee shops. Refusing to shop at chains simply because they’re chains may result in more money in the pockets of local retailers, but it may end up taking money out of other local businesses.

This strikes me as a scare tactic. I’d rather just not buy the HDTV. The only way that large chains will begin to treat their employees as is they are possibly something approximating human beings is for consumers to speak with their wallets. As the lopsided distribution of wages in corporations demonstrates (CEOs at Russian Czar level and average worker at Southern sharecropper), helping these companies make money helps only a small fraction of people.

The Tea Party is countering the Occupy protest with “BuyCott Black Friday.” So, a group upset with the tremendous U.S. national debt supports rampant overspending? I guess logic wilts in the face of spite. Shouldn’t these groups be in accord? Big business is — and has proven to be — as destructive as big government.

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Posted by on November 24, 2011 in Capitalism, Social Commentary


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Jonathan Chait on Liberal Disappointment — New York Magazine

Jonathan Chait on Liberal Disappointment — New York Magazine.

Jonathan Chait in New York Magazine asks “when did liberals become so unreasonable,” regarding their expectations for a Democratic president, which to me is like asking when did vegetarians become so unreasonable about the menu at Peter Luger Steakhouse.

Democrats have shifted more to the right as Republicans have shifted so far to the right they are in danger of falling off the edge of the world or becoming liberals — depends on whether you believe in Hellenistic politics. Obama is far more center-right than 1988’s Democratic presidential nominee Michael Dukakis, and George H.W. Bush, the Republican nominee that year, would be booed off the stage at any of this year’s GOP primary debates.

The twist is that no matter how much liberal weight Democrats lose, the conservatives see only bloated, big government Marxists. Continued efforts to compromise or receive conservative approval will only leave Democrats politically and philosophically emaciated husks of themselves.

The arguable lesson from the Faustian bargain that Democrats keep making is that they tend to be too concerned about winning to actually ever win. Would it make a difference if the Democratic left had the same ideological rigor as the Republican right? Or would you just wind up with a Frankenstein monster that looked like Obama, Boehner, and Bachmann? That certainly didn’t work for the Superfriends.


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Posted by on November 21, 2011 in Capitalism, Political Theatre


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