Sunday, April 15, 2018

288. Orangutans deserve so much better

Orangutans are endangered primates, consisting of three species that only live in two places — the rainforests of Borneo and Sumatra.

They are very intelligent and second only to chimpanzees in relation to human beings, matching 97 percent of our DNA. Orangutans are not as social as other animals — they are mostly loners, sleeping in amazing nests they build in trees each night. Dedicated female orangutans carry the responsibility of caring and protecting their young. Reproduction is slow, with females conceiving only about every eight years. Populations have dwindled due to the usual human activity: hunting, habitat destruction, and the pet trade.

As one might imagine, baby orangutans are adorable! They have big eyes and goofy red hair. They use their long arms to cling to their mothers as they learn their way around the rainforest. The problem is that they are so adorable that some people want to keep them as pets.

We live in a world in which people will do almost anything to make a few dollars. It’s a constant battle of good versus evil. It’s a battle between those who are willing to abuse and exploit other people, animals, or the environment for personal gain and those who are left to deal with the consequences of their actions. Loving and caring people donate time and money to help those in need, create regulations, and enforce laws.

For every person who throws a tire in the river, there is a group of people who give up their Saturday to fetch it out. For every animal that is rescued from an abuser, there are compassionate people who rehab and care for the animal. For every company that exploits its workers or the poor, there are agencies dedicated to holding them accountable and offering assistance those in need.

It’s exhausting. And it’s unfair that so many people have to spend their lives fighting the digressions of others.

The list of consequences is tragic: Poverty, lack of clean water, slavery, extinction, unemployment, climate change, pollution, child labor, animal cruelty, physical pain, lost homes, mental anguish, bankruptcy — and I’m just getting started.

The illegal pet trade is a billion-dollar activity and baby orangutans are often sold for a few hundred dollars to wealthy families and other cultures. Horrifically, the only way to really get a baby orangutan is to kill the mother and pry it from her dead hands.

Baby orangutans feed from the mother up to six years of age, so it is no surprise that many die in transportation from the poacher to the buyer. The baby orangutans are not just orphaned from their mothers, they are taken from their habitat and are now at the mercy of the human beings who view them not as animals, not as primate cousins, but as dollar signs.

It is an amazing sight to see baby orangutans sitting in wheelbarrows, one on top of another. Many have been seized from poachers and those who purchased them illegally. While rescued, the lifelong consequence is that they will grow up without their mother in a rehab center. It will cost hundreds of thousands of dollars (from taxpayers and personal donations) to care for these orphaned orangutans — to clean up the mess of disgusting poachers.

Incidentally, baby orangutans are place in wheelbarrows, whether they being rescued or because they are going to a rehab activity, because they have little legs that aren’t made for long walks. They are adapted to live their lives in trees and accordingly have strong arms and hands. There are plenty of photos and videos of adorable baby orangutans in wheelbarrows on the Internet if you want to laugh and cry.

Unfortunately, for me it’s more tears than laughter. As cute as they are, they belong in the rainforest with their mothers, not in wheelbarrows. Those images, and those responsible, will haunt me the rest of my life.

Thursday, March 29, 2018

287. Attacks on survivors are unconscionable

Every time there has been a school shooting in the past, it seems that we went from “thoughts and prayers” to “it’s too soon to talk about it” to “stop using this as a political issue.”

Time passes and nothing ever happens.

But after the school shooting at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Florida, these kids from Parkland stood up and said it’s time to do something — now! They grabbed the attention of the country and led conversations, protests, and marches. Enough was enough.

Unfortunately, we live in a country now where we attack others rather than try to understand. The discourse around these kids has been nothing short of embarrassing. Calling them paid actors, referencing Tide pods, asking who is paying for the marches, photo-shopping leaders, and even suggesting they learn CPR.

NBC reported that rocker Jesse Hughes — the Eagles of Death Metal singer who survived the 2015 terrorist attack in Paris —“criticize(d) Parkland student leader Emma Gonzalez as ‘the awful face of treason’ and a ‘survivor of nothing.’”

Of course, it’s all about changing the subject. No longer able to defend this disturbing part of American culture and its inexcusable lack of action, NRA supporters have resorted to personal attacks on these teenagers. Those on the right, particularly the alt-right, attack them relentlessly on social media. Some suggest they are too young to have an opinion. I would argue that when they have been a victim of a mass shooting — running for their lives, watching their friends get slaughtered — then they sure as hell get to have an opinion.

You can disagree with those who feel we need better gun control without acting like an insensitive imbecile. Bullets kill conservatives and liberals, blacks and whites, Christians and Muslims, and both the rich and poor. Why does a sensible question about gun control infuriate those on the right? At least the congressmen and congresswomen who receive large amounts of NRA contributions have a financial motive to sit on their hands. But what about everyone else?

The Second Amendment is not going away, ever. One reasonable starting point in the discussion of gun control is to stop misstating the issue. What these kids and most reasonable people want to discuss is how to keep guns out of the hands of those who may use them to kill others. An Internet meme said it perfectly: “When you strip away all the partisanship, the simple fact is kids are dying and they’d rather not. They are asking for help. From adults. That’s it.”

The arguments, such as the “what abouts,” are stupid and irrelevant. What about knives? What about cars? In fact, when you look at the arguments made by those on the right, they run the full spectrum of desperation from straw man arguments to appeals to ignorance, false dichotomies, slippery slopes, and red herrings. “Those kids should be in school. Liberals are communists.” They are futile attempts to justify their cognitive dissonance.

From polls to protests, how much clearer does the American public need to be before our legislators do something? Americans simply want to discuss the availability and ease in which the wrong people obtain assault weapons, whether it is banning them, instilling age restrictions, or improving background checks.

So enough is enough. But the “enough” is not just the lack of congressional action on gun control, it is also enough of the unyielding attacks on these students.

Stand-up comedian Todd Hollowman tweeted, “Imagine being the kind of person who is more outraged at kids walking out of school in protest than at kids being carried out of school in body bags.”

Unfortunately, we don’t have to imagine.

Thursday, March 15, 2018

286. We’ve forgotten the common good

As I have mentioned in this column before, I am a big fan of former labor secretary and economist Robert Reich.

Rarely do I share near total agreement with someone and their particular view of the world. However, when I saw the title of his new book, “The Common Good,” I thought we might finally deviate in our perspectives. I often state that I think we should do what’s best for everyone, not what’s best for me personally. But I have grown quite cynical the last couple years, losing faith in people and our society.

Reich even notes that despair: “Some of you may feel such a quest to be hopeless. The era we are living in offers too many illustrations of greed, narcissism, and hatefulness.”

You know the saying “misery loves company.” And I have been quite miserable. So, with a roll of the eyes, I began reading the book.

And then, of course, he nails it:

“A love of country based on common good entails obligations to other people, not national symbols. Instead of demanding display of respect for the flag and anthem, it requires that all of us take on a fair share of the burden of keeping the nation going — that we pay our taxes in full rather than seek tax loopholes or squirrel away money abroad, that we volunteer time and energy to improving our community and county, serve on school boards and city council, refrain from political contributions that corrupt our politics and blow the whistle on abuses of power even at the risk of losing our jobs. It has sometimes required the supreme sacrifice.”

The common good is about sharing the virtues of our country (and our planet). We are better when we lift the quality of life of everyone. It is not just about seeking the rewards, but also sharing the sacrifice.

In business, it is about returning the interest of stakeholders and not just the shareholders. Stakeholders include not just the owners/investors, but also employees, suppliers, creditors, and the community. Corporations used to consider both shareholders and stakeholders in their business decisions—they were a part of the community,

However, Reich noted that in the 1980s, “a wholly different understanding about the purpose of the corporation emerged.” Corporate raiders, “targeted companies that could deliver higher returns to the shareholders if they abandoned their other stakeholders — fighting unions, cutting the pay of workers or firing them, automating as many jobs as possible, and abandoning their original communities by shuttering factories and moving jobs to a state with lower labor costs, or moving them abroad.”

It became about the prosperity of the few at the expense of others.

To achieve the common good, we will need leaders that not only serve to financial interests, but also the trust and integrity of institutions they serve, whether it is business or government. Reich quotes Shimon Peres, who said, “We need a generation that sees leadership as a noble cause, defined not by personal ambition, but by morality and a call to service.” Reich summarizes, “The purpose of leadership is not simply to win. It is to serve.”

Undeniably, we live in a winner-take-all society. Successful people are admired and honored, often ignoring the means of that success, including moral digressions and ethical sacrifices. Reich writes, “little or no attention is given to how they obtained their wealth. They may have avoided or skirted laws, paid off politicians, engaged in insider trading or price fixing, defrauded investors, or even brought the world economy to near ruin because of their disregard for the consequences of their schemes… The subtle message is that the common good doesn’t really count. Wealth and power do.”

There is much more to the book, which I highly recommend. He writes a lot about education as a common good and the benefits of civic duty. The underlying message is that we need to start changing our priorities and definitions of success. There is nothing wrong with personal ambition and obtaining success, but there is no reason you can’t help others when you get there.

And we need to redefine patriotism. We need to stop with the grandstanding and the belief that, for example, protesting the NFL is some sort of patriotic activity. In addition to thanking our service members for their sacrifices, we need to make our own. We need to engage in the political process, researching candidates and issues and removing the money that is corrupting our democracy. We need to hold accountable those who break the rules and take advantage of others.

Working toward the common good is the ultimate expression of patriotism. Our country is stronger together.

Wednesday, February 28, 2018

285. Where does all that money go?

A typical day to consider in 2016.

It’s Friday, nice outside, and you’re looking forward to the weekend. You’re running a little late, so you get the kids off to school and head out the door.

Coffee sounds good to start the day, so you run through the McDonald’s drive-through. You pass on the breakfast sandwich and hurry off. You might not know, but the CEO of McDonald’s, Stephan Easterbrook, was compensated $15.35 million in 2016. From his yacht somewhere in the Pacific, he is thankful for your support.

On the way, you check your iPhone to make sure your kids made it to school without forgetting anything. You’re surprised to learn in a news alert that Tim Cook of Apple only made a modest $8.75 million. However, to run that phone, you’re on the Verizon network. Good choice — at least that’s what Lowell Mcadam was thinking when he was raking in $17.67 million.

You’re low on gas and better stop for a quick fill-up. Exxon Mobile can help with that. Rex Tillerson, the 2016 CEO, is happy to be of service at a cost of $27.39 million. You saved some money and packed your lunch, but run in to get a Diet Coke. Compared to Rex, J. Frank Harrison of Coca-Cola is a bargain at $11.36 million.

Finally, you head to your job at Parker Hannifin, where thankfully you are a full-time employee and not one of the contract employees they have been using increasingly. You are lucky to work for a Fortune 500 company. The CEO, who you’ve probably never met, made $10.78 million. He thanks you for your hard work and for voting down the union again. They’ve canceled the company picnic but were forthcoming in suggesting that you should vote Republican in the next election.

It’s a long day but it’s payday and that picks up your spirits. Your salary is directly deposited into Key Bank, where CEO Beth Mooney cashed in on $8.17 million of executive pay. Your mortgage is automatically withdrawn today too, saving a stamp. Wells Fargo, when its not making up fake accounts, is happy to service your loan and the CEO does so at $13.01 million.

After work, you run to the doctor to check your diabetes. The doctor says a prescription or two will keep it under control and so off you go to CVS to fill your prescription. CEO Larry Merlo is happy to fill that for you and his share is $18.36 million. The drug is made by Pfizer and you would think with a compensation of $17.32 million, CEO Ian Read would have cured cancer or something.

Dinner with the family is at Cheesecake Factory. It’s your one night out a week. The meal for a family of four is close to $200 with an appetizer and overpriced cheesecake for everyone. One person eating well is CEO David Overton. With compensation of almost $6 million, he can take his family anywhere he wants — anywhere in the world.

Wanting to get those hotel points, you wittingly use your American Express card, to the pleasure of Kenneth Chenault and his $17.46 million compensation package.

Exhausted, you sit down to watch a little television before bed. There is a reality show on CBS where people are stuck on an island. Les Moonves, CEO of CBS Corporation, can actually afford to buy that island with a compensation of $69.55 million. Of course, you watch the show on your cable provider, Charter Communications, where CEO Thomas Rutledge just missed the $100 million mark in 2016. Better luck next year, Tom!

We have just touched the surface of the impact corporations have on our lives. Besides live the American dream for another week, you made the wealthy even wealthier and made the powerful more powerful. You and the millions of us across the country do this on a daily basis, to the delight of the one percent.

It is not just executive pay that corporations spend their money on. They also spend billions upon billions on lobbyists and campaign contributions to protect their interests.

At the end of the day, we should ask two things of our economic system:

1. If corporations have this much profit to spend on executive pay, lobbying, and campaign contributions, why did Republicans give them an additional tax break?

2. If corporations have this much profit to spend on executive pay, lobbying, and campaign contributions, why can’t they pay their employees sustainable wages to not only help them in their lives but also raise the community they live in?

Note: 2016 CEO compensation provided by AFL-CIO CEO pay watch.