Thursday, March 13, 2008

111. Rich don't know we're in recession

Many economists will tell us that a recession looms. Technically, a recession is defined as two quarters of decline in the Gross National Product (GNP) or negative real economic growth. However, in Northeast Ohio, I would argue that we have long been in a recession. People in this area have, for years now, felt the effect of the thousands of jobs that have been lost, the slow influx of new business and, of course, most tragically, the numerous home foreclosures that continue to plaque the area.

It does not mean, however, that companies have not been successful. Although the recent federal interest rates cuts have affected the stock market, some companies have done very well the last few years. The problem, because of the depressed job market and availability of cheap labor, is that this success has not been passed along to their employees. This selfishness, one can argue, has led to their own slowdowns, as employees have less money to spend to support the market.

Refer to the latest figures from the Congressional Budget Office. The wealthy keep getting wealthier and the rest of us seem powerless to stop it. The average increase in income for the median American family, of about $50,000, was a measly $400. How much of that survives higher gas costs, increasing food costs and the rising cost of just about everything else? Inexplicably, the poorest fifth of Americans only earn, after taxes, $15,300 per year. Meanwhile, on the other side of the tracks, the take-home pay of those in the top one percent, after taxes, is about $1.07 million. The average after-tax increase in income was $180,000. They have corporate America and President Bush to thank for that.

Consider the real experience of my friend. Unfortunately, the fear of repercussion leads to the anonymity of my friend and the company he works for. He works for a company that last fiscal year celebrated 10 billion dollars in sales, and a share price of $100. The company was so proud of this accomplishment that they rewarded each employee with a commemorative medal. That's right, a medal.

For all extensive purposes, you cannot eat a medal. You cannot pay your electric bill with it either, or put gas in your car. For the employee, it is like the t-shirt that says, "I went to Florida, and all I got was this lousy t-shirt."

This employee is a first-class performer. He has consistently scored high ratings in his reviews, in what he guesses is the top five percent of all employees. His raise last year was almost negligible, barely maintaining the cost of living. Doesn't it seem like successful companies would reward their best employees with a better standard of living? Or is that asking too much?

The truth is that if this company, which has hardly hired anyone the last half decade, were to announce plant openings, at even 80 percent of what this employee is making, there would be a line of candidates two miles long. The foreign car competition and outsourcing of American jobs has created a surplus of employees, to the point that companies can do however they please in managing their workforce. In this case, the use of un-benefitted temporary employees and college students is the method of exploitation.

The employees of this company, amidst a slew of promises, voted out a union many years ago; however, most of the promises have fallen away. No longer do the employees enjoy such luxuries as a summer picnic or Christmas party. It's all business. We are doing well; you have a job- there will be no negotiating.

In fact, the mere suggestion of collective bargaining would likely cue dusting off the plans to move the plant to Mexico, or some third world country, where not only could they find poverty-level labor, but also lax environmental standards. No employee would dare risk it, most realize that they are just lucky to have a job.

Meanwhile, on the other side of the tracks, the CEO at this company made over $14 million dollars last year. The company also donates millions to non-profit organizations. The salaries paid to this and many other CEOs are ridiculous and unconsciousable. It is an American embarrassment. And while I appreciate the philanthropic contributions, probably more than others, would it not be worthwhile and morally congruent to give some money back to the employees- those people who made the company successful?

Of course, there is no political recourse either. Large campaign contributions frequently protect the interest of businesses. That's no secret. In addition, the interest in the negative effects of North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA) on Ohio by both Democratic candidates seems a bit insincere. Though, unbelievably, this insincerity is a progressive step in comparison to John McCain's absurd assertion that the renegotiation of NAFTA will hurt anti-terror efforts. It is obvious that this is going nowhere fast.

The script for many middle class Americans is now written something like this: Their $400 annual raises are not enough to keep up with the rising costs of living. While trying to make ends meet, maybe their car breaks, or someone in their family gets sick. To cope with such expenses, either credit cards are used or second mortgages are obtained. Then, under the pressure to compete with other companies that can make soccer balls for 12 cents per ball in Pakistan, their company either downsizes or moves its factory to a competing third world country (and for making that decision, the CEO earns a million dollar bonus). Now, without a job, and few prospects of further employment, middle class Americans begin to fall behind in their house and credit card payments. Desperate, either their house is foreclosed on or they raid their 401K to survive. Either way, at the end of the day, they are out either a place to live, or money to retire on.

For those attempting to live the American dream, it is not much of a ride- even with the commemorative medal.

Thursday, March 6, 2008

110. Like, he doesn't like the word 'like'

My wife recently made a business-related trip to Indiana. Upon her arrival, she called with a quick question regarding her whereabouts. In pulling up a map, I noticed that she was near the University of Notre Dame. I made a quick mention to her proximity and lightheartedly said that I would like a Notre Dame sweatshirt. After a short debate about my interest in Notre Dame, in which I noted that growing up I enjoyed Notre Dame football and that I was a fan of Joe Montana (I recall running around the house with wristbands proclaiming to be Joe Montana), the issue seemingly passed. The conversation was more reminiscent that substantive, because I have not really been a fan of Notre Dame since Lou Holtz left.

Well I should have known better, because when she returned on Valentine's Day, I was warmly greeted with a quick bit of affection and a bag of stuff from the Notre Dame bookstore. I received two hats, a sweatshirt and three books. Gina noted with a bit of awe the size of the bookstore, and relayed the fact that the books were from an obscure dollar section. All three of the books seemed interesting; one was on dogs and the other two dealt with language, including a book by Richard Lederer entitled "A Man of My Words: Reflections on the English Language."

In heading to the office to shelve the books, where they would likely remain for some time, I took a quick flip through the Lederer book and noticed a short chapter on a subject that I had been meaning to comment on, entitled, "Like, Where is our Language Going?"

As the chapter suggests, it details the ghastly, and apparently addictive, use of the word "like" by teens and younger adults (although its use is by no means restricted to those groups). The use of the word has become almost painful to listen to, and worse, once you hear it spoken in a conversation, its addictive nature is such that others will start using it. It is on the top of my list of "unpleasurables," along with phone conversations that begin with "Where you at?" and the boring uncreative use of clich├ęs, such as "game on," and the worn-out sports proclamation that "we shocked the world."

His chapter on the subject recalls an amusing story in which a woman asked a clerk in a bookstore who authored the book "Like Water for Chocolate." The clerk spent a few unsuccessful minutes inquiring into the question, only to realize that the title of the famous book is not "Like Water for Chocolate" but rather, "Water for Chocolate." He aptly describes the use of the word "like" as one of three young speech patterns that "squeak like chalk across the blackboard of adult sensibilities."

When I coached baseball at Lake Ridge Academy, the bus ride conversation was consumed with, "I like went to the mall and, I like, bought, like, a new pair of shoes." I would follow up with, "You like went to the mall, or you went to the mall, and "you bought like a new pair of shoes, or you bought a new pair of shoes." Other conversations used the word "like" in substitution for "similar to"- "The teacher was acting like my Dad." I jokingly challenged my players to use "similar to" instead of "like" to help break this annoying habit, even if this particular use was correct. The challenge stimulated some awkwardly funny and entertaining conversations- "I similar to bought similar to a new pair of shoes."

In the book, Lederer is more amused than critical, and notes the word may be an "oral place holder," that is, an indication that important information is ahead. He also attributes it as a modern verbal tic, such as "um" and "you know."

In general, verbal tics are annoying, regardless of the particular choice of pause used to allow the speaker a brief moment to collect his or her thoughts. I am as guilty as anyone of using these verbal tics, and for a while attended Toastmaster meetings to help work through this. The challenge is getting comfortable with the brief moments of silence and relaxing when speaking publicly. I recently attended a training session in which the instructor said "you know" repeatedly, after almost every sentence- to the point that it was difficult to concentrate on the material.

So whether the use of the word "like" is a verbal tick, or a poor use of the English language, it is safe to say that it will be around for a long time. For those of us for which its use is "similar to" the screeching of a chalkboard, we will have to endure the nearly unbearable conversations until the word loses its popularity. And whether we regard the English language in a state of evolution or disarray, we can all appreciate and ponder our reflections of it. Because for some of us, and to rephrase, "it is like, so cool!"