Helping Organizations Be More Productive and Employees Reach Full Potential.
Helping Organizations Be More Productive and Employees Reach Full Potential.
“Just when I figured out the meaning of life, they changed it.” George Carlin, American comedian
If we take care of the moments, the years will take care of themselves.
Maria Edgeworth, Anglo-Irish author
“Never mistake knowledge for wisdom. One helps you make a living; the other helps you make a life.”
Sandra Carey Cody, American author.
Today’s Thought: “Peace and friendship with all mankind is our wisest foreign policy and I wish we may always pursue it.” Thomas Jefferson, 1st Democrat U.S. President and Author of the Declaration of Independence.
The Big Picture
2015 was a year that epitomizes the epic human struggle between evil and good. Syria, refugee migration, anti-immigration backlash, ISIS, Paris, San Bernardino. The headlines screamed terror and death, so the people ran in fear and panic. The stampede of refugees from war-torn areas of the Middle East and Africa set off more panic among those asked to receive the flood in Europe and North America. The world became so unstable that the Pope referred to the situation as “piecemeal World War 3.” For every act of terror/mass shooting, there were the inevitable recriminations – both sides blaming the other and nothing ever being done to address the root causes. The global economy weakened, the recovery looking a little long in the tooth and everyone speculating on how long the good times could last (and who said these times are good anyway?). Pop culture reflected our angst. The two biggest movies of the year were Avengers and Star Wars, both paeans to war.
The world withstood a troubling year. Creeping civil wars in Syria, Afghanistan, Libya, etc. killed thousands, mostly civilians caught in the crossfire, and prompted millions more to flee. The flood of migrants hit the shores of Europe, creating massive social problems there. The spread of ISIS and other radical Islamists alarmed the West, bringing the U.S. back into combat in Iraq. Tragically, the terrorists visited horror on the streets of Paris and many other places. The response has been angry and punitive, but the problem is not going away. Indeed, overreaction only encourages more aggression.
On a brighter note, 200 nations came together to sign a landmark agreement to tackle climate change, signaling a ray of hope for the future of the planet. Now, we’ll see if these nations live up to the promises they have made. The Iran nuclear deal will forestall another nuclear power in the Middle East, at least for now. The world will be watching both agreements closely.
The presidential election in the U.S. starts two years early these days, so we are fully engaged by now. It has been quite a contrast to watch the two parties this time around. The Democrats have had a mostly polite debate about social and economic policy and strategy to deal with the world’s problems. Bernie Sanders has tugged Hillary Clinton to the left. They now agree on about 90 percent of the policies needed to rebuild the middle class in the U.S. The Republicans have had a slugfest of 17 candidates trying to outshout each other in order to be heard above the din created by Donald Trump. The rhetoric has been inflammatory, inciting fear and hatred among the party faithful. They have fingered plenty of people to blame for our problems, from Mexicans to Muslims, but offer few concrete ideas on how to fix them, besides building huge walls and starting another unfunded war or two. Hating all forms of government, hard right White supremacists are screaming for blood. Just in time for Christmas, they have a new motto: “Death on Earth; Ill Will to All.” Ironically, it is ISIS’ motto too.
For those having trouble keeping track of 20 candidates, you can forget the personalities running for U.S. President. The real contest is between two fundamental forces of human nature: Fear and Anger versus Hope and Compassion. The contrast could not be more obvious, the choice more clear. We shall see which side of our nature Americans choose. For me, hope trumps fear. Yes, I fear being gunned down in public, like most Americans do, but I also fear my car being broadsided and my airplane crashing and my doctor telling me I have inoperable cancer. Yet, despite all those fears, I still drive and fly and live my life with the hope that tomorrow will bring a better day. And if tomorrow does not come for me, I’m OK with that too, knowing I have lived life to the fullest. As Franklin Roosevelt taught us in the darkest days of the Great Depression, “The only thing we have to fear is fear itself.”
Economy & Business
After six straight years of impressive gains, the stock market took 2015 off, leaving investors about where they started the year. Although China and Europe experienced slowing growth, the U.S. economy managed to eke out modest 2% growth. That’s barely enough to keep things afloat, although the Federal Reserve saw enough strength to start raising interest rates at the end of the year. Still, a sense of foreboding overshadowed the global economy as we all await what’s next and contemplate the possibility of an end to the bull market and a return to recession, or even worse, another financial crash.
One area of growth was in the so-called “gig” or “sharing” economy. This new phenomenon, spurred by mobile technology, is most obvious in ride-sharing services like Uber and temporary rental companies like Airbnb. Both promise part-time income to those who don’t mind using their own vehicles and homes. Much has been written and debated about whether this trend is a positive or negative. On the one hand, enthusiasts tout the freedom the gig economy provides to “independent contractors” who set their own working hours and often earn better than minimum wage. On the other hand, critics point out that being independent means receiving no benefits, having no job security and having to provide your own “tools of the trade,” including using your own car and house and being responsible for their maintenance. I’m sure earning a little income on the side is a nice benefit to those looking for part-time, flexible work, but I also seriously doubt that anyone back in elementary school dreamed about growing up so they could drive strangers around in their own car or rent out a spare bedroom to total strangers. It strikes me as the “desperation economy.” The main problem with the gig economy is that the big bucks go to the company owners and investors who run these enterprises, while little trickles down to the freelancers doing the work, at their own expense. And we wonder why we see widening income inequality?
Society & Culture
The U.S. Supreme Court weighed in on the controversy surrounding gay marriage and surprisingly decided in favor of progress for a change. They noted that barring same sex couples from marrying and more importantly, enjoying all the legal rights bestowed on married couples, was a clear case of discrimination and unequal protection under the law. In most states, the news was met with little public display, but in backwoods Kentucky, it was viewed as an abomination, a local county clerk refusing to issue marriage licenses to gay couples until held in contempt of court.
Policing the Poor
The Black Lives Matter movement continued its aggressive tactics of confronting police shootings of unarmed blacks and other minorities. In Baltimore, things turned ugly after the death of Freddie Gray, who died in police custody after being forcefully arrested for a “crime” for which he was never charged. Nearly every day, a new case of police shooting appeared on the news. In fact, on average, the police killed one person every day in 2015 and wounded two more every day. With the growth of video cameras, more of these killings are captured and broadcast for the world to see. As the nation witnessed more acts of violence, including an average of one mass shooting per day, we have to ask ourselves what kind of country resorts to criminalizing nearly every form of human behavior and relies almost exclusively on the police to solve social problems like poverty, homelessness, drug addiction and domestic violence. There is a name for societies that criminalize human behavior and imprison large segments of their population – they are called police states.
One of the most puzzling social phenomena is the choice of some young Muslims to throw their life away in service of an ideology that wants to drag the world back to the eighth century. Why would anyone choose a suicide mission on behalf of such a reactionary philosophy over the possibility of living a long life and pursuing their dreams? Terrorism experts have offered their opinions about the allure of jihadists like ISIS and Al Qaeda, but few have provided convincing evidence of how the process of radicalization works.
Having been raised as a child in an evangelical cult and then later, becoming radicalized in college, I have some personal insight on how radicalization actually works. The key is to get people to stop thinking rationally for themselves and instead convince them that they should follow the dogma of others without question. It starts with discontent, finding something about one’s existence or the state of the world that causes personal disillusionment and anger. For me back in the 1960s, it was the twin evils of segregation and the Vietnam War. I became deeply disillusioned with my government’s conduct of the war and reluctance to confront racism and decided that I needed to take personal action. I found others on the left that shared my views and ultimately convinced me to stop thinking for myself and follow the party line. It was only after I spent time in jail for my activism that I realized I was just being used as cannon fodder in a conflict that would never end.
For modern-day jihadists, the spur of discontent usually starts with the endless Israeli-Palestinian conflict and the perceived mistreatment of Palestinians in the West Bank and Gaza. It has been further exacerbated by the U.S. invasions of Muslim nations and the total breakdown of civil societies in Iraq and Syria, replaced by ancient tribal and ethnic rivalries resurfacing in the vacuum left by the collapse of national governments. The young would-be jihadists are taught that the U.S. is the evil Satan, bent on destroying Islam and killing Muslims all over the world. Having stirred up their anger to the point of action, the leaders of radical movements then go on to the next stage – indoctrinating their disciples in the dogma of their severe version of the faith, brainwashing them into thinking that the best thing they could possibly do is become a martyr for the cause. They are promised eternal life if they prematurely end their physical life in an act of violence intended to inflict as many casualties as possible. At some point, the radicalized choose death over life and carry out their suicide missions with mechanical efficiency. In their brief moment of fame, they gain more notoriety than their miserable existences could ever hope to deliver in a lifetime. In their minds, they go out in a blaze of glory instead of slowly expiring in a dreary, dead-end life going nowhere. Trade unionists used to call this belief in deferred rewards in the afterlife as “pie in the sky when you die.” Marx called religion the “opiate of the masses,” designed to placate working people with promises of a fabulous after-life and keep them from rebelling against the wealthy.
The fact that religious devotees are the targets of radicalization is not coincidence. Religion requires a suspension of logic and a leap of faith. Organized religions rely on “wise men” to interpret the orthodoxy for their followers, be they imams, pontiffs, pastors, monks or rabbis. These individuals wield enormous influence and mind control. When they preach a religion of hate, their followers are inspired to commit acts of hate. Every religion can point to verses in its holy book that justify hatred and bigotry toward others. If you don’t like gays or blacks or Jews or fill-in-the-blank with your favorite scapegoat, there’s a verse somewhere in your holy book that validates your belief. Magically, you are not a racist; you are simply exercising your religious freedom. It doesn’t take much to extend this rationalization to cover massacring your enemies in the name of your version of an Almighty.
If we hope to stop terrorism, we must confront its root causes rather than react to the aftermath of the attacks. We must address the disillusionment of young people who see no future for themselves and the discontent with the political status quo that propels people to act violently. We must address the appeal of jihad, pointing out the fallacy of committing suicide for a reactionary theology whose aim is to make the world a worse place for people, allowing a theocratic elite to run roughshod over personal freedom and human dignity while they enrich themselves from others’ labor. We must confront the radicals directly on the battlefield when all else fails, but we must do so in a way that isolates the radicals and does not drive even more Muslims into the arms of the jihadists. Killing thousands of Muslim civilians in carpet-bombing retribution for attacks on the West only worsens the problem and feeds the narrative that the Muslim and Christian worlds are at war.
Finally, we must confront our own society’s fascination with violence and guns and ask ourselves whether any citizen outside law enforcement really needs to own a military assault weapon. Easy access to these weapons of war enabled two extremists to kill 14 people and injure another 21 in a matter of minutes. What are the legal owners of these weapons planning to do with them? They are not used in hunting and are overkill as a means of self-defense. Those who claim the only way to ensure safety is to put a gun into everyone’s hands would do well to study the history of Tombstone, Arizona, a 19th century lawless mining town where everyone was armed. The famous cemetery recorded 350 homicides for every death by natural causes. And they were only using six-shooters in those days. Modern military assault weapons have only one purpose – to kill human life quickly and efficiently. It’s time we limited them to their original purpose – the field of battle – and limited access to those who truly need them.
Unlike the rest of the world, I had a banner year devoid of drama. I count my blessings for good health, steady work, abundant friends and loving family. My mom lives with me most of the year, having grown allergic to Rochester’s icy winters. Both Vince and Steven are in college, working on their futures. Steven got married this year to Abby and daughter Jade is a delightful toddler who is lapping up the world around her with amazing alacrity. My two rock steady clients – So Cal Edison and ANSI – kept me fully employed. I still found time to take on a few side gigs, including trips to Bangladesh, India, Egypt and United Arab Emirates. Tania and I enjoyed two trips to Dubai. I also got to visit several U.S. states, including: Oregon, Texas, Tennessee, Maryland and Virginia. I fulfilled one of my bucket list items when I got to play Pebble Beach Golf Course.
We had plenty to cheer and to jeer in 2015. Here are a few of my favorite things to remember.
To Ebullient Parisians:
Your courage and savoir faire in the face of brutal attacks set an example for all of us. Terror only works if we allow ourselves to become terrorized with fear.
To Kim Davis, Rowan County, Kentucky Clerk:
You claim a higher authority (God) told you to hate gays and refuse to issue them marriage licenses, but your own marriages and divorces to four different men are violations of the seventh commandment – “Thou shall not commit adultery.” To quote another line in your holy book, “He who has never sinned should cast the first stone.”
To Bernie Sanders, Presidential Candidate (D):
The corporate media may ignore you or dismiss you as a socialist, but you have awoken the working classes to the state of their exploitation. Win or lose, your message has rung loud and true – America is a country of, by, and for the billionaires. We need to start making it work for everyone again.
To Donald J. Trump, Presidential Candidate (R):
We may share first and middle names and birthright in the Empire State, but that’s all. I think you are too smart to actually believe the empty promises and hateful rhetoric you are feeding your crowd of irate supporters, but you know that they are eating it up. Better watch out, Mr. Trump, because the monster you are creating may turn on you, just like Frankenstein did.
To Rachel Dolezal, Former President of the Spokane, WA National Association for the Advancement of Colored People:
Thanks for introducing the world to racial ambiguity, a new psychological neurosis characterized by extreme confusion about one’s racial identity. I can certainly see why you identify with African-American culture, since there is much about it that I too admire. But to try to pass yourself off as black when your parents are as white as new fallen snow and then to actually pull it off for decades is a piece of acting worthy of Oscar consideration. When is the movie coming out?
To Caitlyn Jenner, aka the former Bruce Jenner, Olympic Gold Medalist:
That was quite a coming out party you had at the Espys this year. Talk about a tough act to follow. A man in a dress gets them every time. I can only wish you more happiness as a woman than you had as a man. Of course, the fact that you lived with the Kardashians for years could cause anyone to question their identity. At least you’ve ended up better off than poor Lamar Odom.
“Doubt can be ended by action alone.” Thomas Carlyle, Scottish author.
We have been bombarded with news of human conflict lately, from road rage to police shootings to wars ravaging the Muslim world. It appears as if we are losing our human decency, but the fact is human beings have been conflicted from the beginning of our existence as a species. The particular reasons for conflicts vary over time and space, but they typically boil down to different beliefs or interests colliding. Each of us has our own worldview shaped by our unique journey through this thing we call life. When we encounter a person with a divergently different worldview, conflict ensues. Each side believes it is right and seeks to emerge from the conflict victorious. Of course, that means the other party must be wrong and lose. When they don’t get their own way, the parties escalate the conflict, often by threatening each other.
Unfortunately, threats only make the conflict worse. Once we feel threatened, we go into a defensive mode that I think of as the 4Fs:
Friend or Foe? Fight or Flight?
First, we have to decide whether this conflict is with a friend or an enemy. For example, we may have a disagreement with our spouse about how to spend our monthly income, but we strive to maintain our relationship by searching for a mutually acceptable outcome through dialogue. Conversely, if a strange man comes up to us on a dark night and demands money, we instinctively take him as a potentially threatening foe.
Once we have surmised the nature of the threat, we must then decide whether to stand and fight it, or to flee as fast as we can in the opposite direction. This is a complex calculation, with much risk for error. We may stand and fight a bigger foe and get our butts handed to us. We may flee from a flea and give it the power to dominate us. Many times, the risk of a wrong response causes us to do nothing, thereby hoping to avoid the threat altogether. In my work as a human resource consultant to organizations,
I help people find a third way to resolve their conflicts – negotiation. It requires a willingness to engage in dialogue and find a mutually agreeable solution with the help of a third party. I try for a win-win solution in which both sides believe they are getting the best deal they can live with. Sometimes, it involves meeting halfway in a compromise. Other times it means coming up with an entirely new solution that neither party had identified initially, but both can embrace. It does not always work out amicably. The two parties may be so far apart and the actors so stubborn, no middle ground can be located upon which to build a win-win solution.
As complicated as this is on an individual level, it becomes infinitely more so when societies and nations are collectively involved. As a nation faces a perceived threat, it must also weigh the same 4Fs in determining its response. We use diplomacy to resolve conflicts with friends. We flee conflicts in which we have no compelling interest or don’t think we can win by avoiding involvement from the start. When we decide to fight, we use military and economic weapons to attack our foes. This has been true throughout human history.
Yet, our sense that human conflict is worsening rings true. What has changed is not the nature of conflict itself, but the negative consequences of our fight and flight responses. When nations respond incorrectly to perceived threats, the results can be horrifyingly destructive. Our sophistication in killing human life has reached a point where governments have thousands of methods at their disposal. Whereas in the past, a gentlemen’s duel might have ended two lives at most, we now slaughter life by the thousands. Thus, many more innocents are affected by today’s conflicts. The other factor that will only become more pronounced in the future is the sheer volume of conflicts that are occurring. As humans from diverse backgrounds come into contact more frequently, the chances for conflicts increase. These are fanned by modern media, which report on them around the globe in real time and provoke others to join the fray. In our global society, we simply cannot avoid people who are different than we are, with competing belief systems and interests. This could lead to a spiral of conflict and a state of permanent war that renews the threat of an all-out nuclear conflagration wiping out life on earth.
Instead of proceeding down a path of mutually assured destruction, we must find a better alternative. We need to respect and tolerate our differences and work out our conflicts peacefully as global citizens through negotiation. We must learn to find in our enormous diversity the source of our own humanity. So if nations want to avoid the destructive consequences of conflict, they should stop seeing each other as enemies. Friends resolve their differences through peaceful negotiation; foes resort to war. We share one planet. It belongs to all of us. Get over trying to conquer it. That’s so 20h century.
After the police beating of Rodney King sparked the worst riots in Los Angeles’ history, he famously challenged us with a simple question: “Can’t we all just get along?” Apparently not, at least until we learn to negotiate our conflicts.
We hear a lot these days about the need to be strategic. We know that organizations need an effective and well-articulated strategy to navigate the turbulent times we inhabit. But what does it really mean to be a strategic Human Resource professional?
First, strategic HR differs from the traditional HR administrative role in that it requires going beyond providing requested services to building business partnerships with management and aligning HR objectives and activities with business goals and strategy. It is the linkage between organizational strategy and human resource strategy and practices that leads to improved business performance based on cultures that foster excellence and innovation.
This process is outlined below. The first step is to have a clear business strategy based on a systematic strategic planning process, including SWOT (strengths, weaknesses, opportunities, threats) analysis. Next, the human resource function must develop its own strategy to support the business. This often requires a realignment of HR functions and key people practices. Then, HR needs to identify core competencies for major job positions, based on the organization strategy. This leads to a competency model that describes key skills and behaviors which support the organization’s strategy. Finally, HR must deploy this strategy through efficient work processes that achieve desired results for managing organizational talent from recruitment to retirement. To determine if the strategic alignment is effective, frequent evaluation of results is required. This may be done through a balanced scorecard that cascades from the organization’s bottom-line to the key enablers of organizational strategy, such as outstanding people practices.
Strategic Practices for HR
For human resource professionals who are just beginning this journey, here are examples of best practices for strategic HR management.
1. Consulting and building partnerships with managers to jointly solve performance problems and drive improvement.
2. Human Resources forecasting and job planning as a basis for recruitment.
3. Human Resources measurement and analytics to demonstrate value and monitor progress.
4. Change management to manage organizational culture through turbulent times.
5. Motivating and retaining high performing employees using a wide variety of incentives and rewards.
6. Developing human capital through continuous learning.
7. Developing organizational leadership, including succession planning.
8. Conducting strategic planning, especially in the areas of strengths and weaknesses related to human resources.
9. Planning and implementing HR technologies to drive efficiency, self-service and improve organizational communications.
To learn more about strategic human resource management, please consult Gary Dessler’s excellent textbook, Human Resource Management from Pearson Education, now in its 13th edition. For an in-depth understanding, consider taking my Strategic HR Management certificate program. Contact email@example.com for more information.
The Big Picture
Back in the early seventies, when the counter-culture was just peaking, Hunter S. Thompson wrote about the failure of the American dream in the place that symbolized all its excesses – Las Vegas. The fear and loathing back then was aimed at a culture of crass commercial consumerism and a government that had lied to its citizens. Thompson’s response, like so many in the Seventies, was to drop out and get high – a classic escapist reaction when reality becomes too much to bear.
In 2014, fear and loathing went viral, spreading across America and much of the world, sparked by internecine strife and the twin evils of ISIS and Ebola, whose impact on the year far outweighed the actions of any world leader. Psychologists inform us that fear is the most volatile of all human emotions, eliciting knee-jerk reactions driven by adrenaline, not logic. We tend to do one of three things when fear strikes – flee the danger, stand and fight it or simply stand frozen, like a deer in the headlights. As we witnessed the terror of ISIS beheadings and the near-certain death sentence imposed by Ebola, humans responded just as psychologists predict. The vast majority of people decided that flight was the best remedy and did everything they could to avoid Ebola and ISIS. A few brave souls gathered the courage to confront these evils directly, either by going to fight ISIS in Iraq and Syria or going to West Africa to lend aid to the health workers struggling to control the epidemic ravaging those nations. Many more of us simply stood frozen in fear, not knowing whether to fight or to run and thus, doing neither. That’s largely been the response of governments around the world, who tried to pretend that these crises were not of their making and thus not their responsibility.
German philosopher Nietzsche was the first person to make the logical connection between fear and hate. He posited that fear leads us to hate the thing we fear. We hate it because of the threat it poses, but we also hate it for how it makes us feel about ourselves. No one is proud of fear; indeed human culture celebrates the virtues of bravery, and views cowardice as weakness. So it doesn’t take long for humans to turn fear into anger and anger into hate. Loathing needs a subject to focus upon, and in 2014 the number one subject of loathing in America was Obama – anyone named Obama. Even his daughters did not escape the hate machine, coming in for criticism for their choice of outfits at a White House Thanksgiving event. (Exactly how should teens dress for a Presidential Turkey Pardon anyway? Emily Post, where are you when we need you?) The Republican Party galvanized the wave of fear and loathing all the way to a victory in the congressional elections by following a simple formula: blame the public’s fears on the person everyone has been taught to hate – President Obama. So unpopular is he in the Deep White South that his name is used as an epithet instead of the unholy act of taking the Lord’s name in vain. Even within his own party, Democratic candidates did not want to be seen with him on the campaign trail. Six years into his presidency, Obama has become a lightning rod for critics on both the right and the left. The left complains that his domestic spying and endless war on Islamist extremists are continuing the failed policies of Bush. The right blames him for leaving Iraq, failing to invade Syria and Iran and thus leading to the rise of ISIS. They even blame him for bringing Ebola to America. After all, Obama is from Africa and Ebola is from Africa, ergo Obama must be responsible for Ebola. (For my psychic readers, here’s the clincher: both Obama and Ebola are 5 letter words consisting of 3 vowels and 2 consonants. Coincidence? Hardly!)
The fears of an Ebola epidemic in America are overblown, hyped by media hysteria and political demagogues. The reality is that a mere handful of people contracted Ebola in the U.S. and only two died. While the disease has ravaged West African nations who lack the resources to combat it, in America it has been contained after the bungling of the first case in Dallas. Indeed, the kind of fear on display at the height of the panic bordered on paranoia – the irrational fear that someone is out to get you. Of course, as we learned back in the Sixties, just because you’re paranoid doesn’t mean someone is NOT out to get you. But the state of panic that two Ebola deaths caused was extravagantly exaggerated when you consider that Americans are far more likely to die in a car accident or by a firearm (32,000 deaths per year from each), yet we haven’t stopped driving or buying guns.
The fear of ISIS – aka the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria, aka ISIL, aka Daesh, aka Supreme Badassess – is more visceral, especially if you happen to live in parts of Iraq and Syria that they control. Their tactics are notoriously brutal, featuring torture, beheadings, rape and the slaughter of innocent children. It is impossible to square this record of inhumanity with any reasonable interpretation of Islam or any other religion, for that matter. Though they proclaim their desire to create a caliphate based on Sharia law, their real objective is political – to create a dictatorship with them in charge. In this sense, ISIS is really not that different from the many other actors in the Middle East at present. While its tactics are particularly reprehensible, ISIS seeks the same thing that other rulers in this part of the world pursue – regional hegemony. I have worked in the Middle East for the past eight years, having been to Egypt, Saudi Arabia, Qatar, Bahrain and United Arab Emirates. This past year, I made two trips to UAE. Over the years, I’ve met thousands of people in this historic region of the world. I have found that Middle Easterners, whether Muslim, Christian or Jewish, basically desire what everyone wants in life – the freedom to live their lives as they see fit and the opportunity to make a decent living and raise their children to inhabit in a better world.
The problem comes in realizing these universal ambitions in a region that historically has concentrated power and wealth in hereditary tribal traditions dating back 10,000 years. As the people of the Middle East seek a greater voice in their own destiny, they confront a political reality that offers few positive role models. Governments in this region basically fall into one of four types: traditional monarchies (Saudi Arabia), military dictatorships (Syria), Islamic theocracies (Iran) or constitutional democracies (Lebanon & Israel). Of these, America obviously prefers the latter, yet it is the least practiced form of government in the region. And even in countries that have political democracies, limits are placed on the full participation of all members of society. The U.S. has tried over the past several decades to remake the Middle East in its own image as a secular democracy, with mostly disastrous results. In the places where democracy has been tried, such as Iraq, Egypt and Gaza, the winners of democratic elections have turned out to be despots masquerading as populists. Meet the new boss, same as the old boss.
Like most observers, I am rather pessimistic about the chances for positive change in the Middle East in the short term. The region is in the throes of a historic shift from age-old traditions to the modern world. They are making this transition, which has taken the West 500 years, in an accelerated time warp of 50 years. As one of my Saudi colleagues explained it to me, “In one generation, we went from riding camels to driving Mercedes.” No society can withstand such rapid change without pain. Rogue bands of thugs like ISIS and Al Qaeda will continue to promote destruction amid the chaos of civil wars fueled by ancient tribal grievances. Dictators like Assad are not going to go gently into the waste bin of history. Gulf monarchs, fattened by windfall oil profits, can buy their way out of most problems, throwing crumbs to the masses to keep them docile. Meanwhile, Islamists continue to find in Israel and in America, easy targets for their argument that the Middle East should reject the modern world and return to the good old days when Islam ruled supreme. The burr of the Palestinian problem will continue to incite extremists on all sides until a two state solution that all parties can live with materializes. If we want to truly bring peace and stability to this region, we should focus our energy on solving this conundrum rather than stoking the flames of war elsewhere throughout the Middle East.
Closer to home, another fear dominated American news – the fear of death in the growing number of confrontations between police and Black males. The St. Louis suburb of Ferguson became a flash point after an unarmed young Black was shot and killed by a white policeman. Other police killings in New York, Los Angeles and elsewhere brought demonstrators into the streets and launched a nationwide debate on modern policing. As the death toll mounts on both sides, with police officers victims of ambushes, the debate has become vitriolic, often producing more heat than light. Rather than arguing about who did what to whom when, we should step back and ask ourselves some very fundamental questions about the kind of society we have become, such as: why do so many police officers fear for their lives when they enter poor Black and Latino neighborhoods? And: why do so many residents of those poor communities fear the police? And: do Black lives really matter as much as White lives in America? Until we get to the root of these fears and the mutual loathing they inspire, we are not likely to see much progress in this area.
Business and Economy
The economy continued to improve in the U.S. this year, but the benefits continued to flow to the top. The average employee “enjoyed” a 1 percent increase in income, not even enough to keep pace with a tame inflation rate, while the average CEO enjoyed record income that has reached the level of 300 times their employees. Much discussion ensued around the growing inequality in America, with blame meted out on all sides. The remedy offered so far is pretty tepid – raising the minimum wage. Even if enacted nationwide, it would not come close to resolving the issue.
The root of the problem is that over the past 30 years or so, workers have been getting a shrinking slice of American GDP while more wealth has been transferred to the top. This has happened due to both business and government actions. Taken together, these actions have led to a society in which the wealthiest 160,000 Americans, a mere .0005% of the population, own as much as the poorest half of the nation, representing 145 million people.
To go beyond the numbers, I can illustrate the causes of this problem and possible solutions by looking at the lives of my father versus my two sons. They were born 62 and 69 years apart. My father grew up on a farm in the Great Depression. His family was poor, forcing my dad to drop out of high school to help my disabled grandfather manage the family farm. After WWII, my dad took advantage of the GI Bill to finish his schooling for free and learn a trade as a machinist. He eventually found work as a skilled tool and die maker in the auto industry. Thanks to his hard work and the United Auto Workers union that represented him, my father enjoyed a middle class income that my sons can only dream about. Besides earning $30 an hour in the Sixties, my father also enjoyed a full benefits package that included free medical and dental insurance, a pension that paid him two-thirds of his salary during retirement, plus free medical care for life. When my father took early retirement during the auto industry’s downsizing in the 1980s, his combined pension and Social Security guaranteed him a decent life in retirement. Thanks to his thrifty lifestyle and savvy investments, my father accumulated a small fortune that he transferred to my sister and I upon his passing at age 69. He truly lived the American Dream, watching his son grow up to be the first person in the family to go to college and earn a doctorate.
As I observe my sons, ages 18 and 26, try to make their way in the world, I see a number of contrasts to my father’s generation. First, and foremost, is a change in the very nature of work. My sons have both held jobs, but always as contingent workers, a new category of employment that offers part-time, temporary work without benefits and at lower wages than full-time employees earn. This type of low wage contingent work is exploding, particularly since the Great Recession. It is a troubling trend for workers. While businesses love the flexibility and the lower costs of this new employment arrangement, it leaves young people like my sons without hope of building and sustaining a meaningful career. Instead, they careen from one temp job to another, not earning enough to survive on their own without parental support. My sons are earning one-third of my father’s hourly income. On top of this, the lack of benefits means that they must rely on their parents for medical and dental care and do not have any way to save for the future, since there is nothing left over to put into retirement savings plans. Then, when they try to get ahead by going to college, they are forced to take on thousands of dollars of debt without any certainty of being able to locate work to pay it back.
So, what’s the answer to this growing inequality? Do we simply allow our society to become divided into two camps – haves and have-nots? Do we want the American aristocracy to take over our country as their own private fiefdom? If not, I think we will need to act in two key areas to reverse the inequality trend. First, we need to strengthen employees’ ability to organize and represent themselves in dealing with corporate behemoths that have become too big to fail, or to jail. In my father’s day, the UAW provided the leverage he needed to negotiate better wages and working conditions. Today, only 7 percent of American workers are represented by unions, contrasted with nearly 30 percent during their heyday in the 1940s and 50s. Unions have declined in part due to their own internal weaknesses, but the primary thrust has been an all-out assault by business interests on collective bargaining. Rather than try to resuscitate trade unions, I think we need to expand democracy to the workplace. If we say we believe in freedom and democracy, then why don’t we practice it at work, where we spend the majority of our lives? I’d like to see expanded opportunities for employees to participate in decisions that affect them and even to own the companies they work for through cooperatives and employee stock ownership. Contingent workers need legal protection from exploitation. One way to increase their collective power is by banding together in craft and professional organizations that represent their interests.
The other part of the growing wealth gap is political. For 50 years from the New Deal to the Reagan presidency, our tax policy was based on the principle of progressivism. This meant that those at the top of the income ladder were expected to bear more of the cost of government than those at the bottom. Back in the 1950s, the top tax rate was as high as 90 percent. Although numerous loopholes allowed the wealthy to avoid paying at those rates, they still gave back roughly half their income to the public in the form of taxes. Starting with Reagan and accelerating since, our tax policy has reversed to regressivism. Tax rates on the top income earners have been slashed to 36 percent and capital gains taxes reduced further to 20 percent. Meanwhile, state and local governments have relied on the most regressive taxation policy, such as the sales tax, to balance their budgets. This means that those at the bottom, and especially those in the middle class, have been required to assume the majority of the tax burden. We now have a situation where a wealthy investor who sits around his country club collecting dividend checks for a “living” pays less in taxes than a full-time wage earner who barely makes enough to scrape by paycheck to paycheck. Rebalancing our tax policy back to progressivism would go a long way toward restoring some semblance of tax fairness to our system, if not income equality.
But don’t expect government to do anything significant about this inequality problem. In fact, with the divided government just voted into office in Washington, don’t expect the federal government to do anything meaningful in the next two years. In case we needed any further proof about who really runs America, we saw in 2014 the acceleration of a disturbing trend in which big business extorts concessions from state governments in return for some future economic benefit that usually doesn’t pan out. In one famous case, Tesla Motors, an electric vehicle start-up barely turning a profit, managed to extract $1.7 billion in tax breaks and other corporate welfare in return for locating a new factory in Nevada instead of California. This was sold to the public as a way to generate 6,000 new jobs, but few bothered to do the math and find out that Nevada paid over $350,000 per job to attract Tesla to a factory that may never reach full production. Economists who study these public giveaways conclude that the only party who benefits is the company who collects the public welfare. States are left to build and provide for public services without the tax revenue to pay for it. Even closer to home, Texas rustler Rick Perry lured Toyota to abandon my hometown of Torrance for Plano, Texas with a promise of $40 million in taxpayer subsidies to build their new headquarters, plus millions more in local tax breaks over the next 10 years. Again, the state argued that they were creating jobs, but the truth is that the estimated 4,000 jobs that result will not be new – they are simply taking jobs away from California, with a net increase of zero. In fact, if Toyota has its way, most of the jobs will be occupied by Californians who relocate to Texas, not native Texans hoping to benefit from their governor’s vulture economic strategy. Maybe Governor Perry should consider the long-term implications for his political future of importing too many liberal Californians into his conservative state.
More importantly, what does it say about America when corporate billionaires get the world handed to them on a silver platter while the hard-working American tax payer gets to foot the bill? Obviously, as Will Rogers once observed, “We have the best politicians that money can buy in this great nation of ours.”
2014 heralded a major change in my life. I became an empty nester this year when my youngest, Steven, went away to college. Even though Cal State Fullerton is a short drive from home, the fact that he is living there in his own apartment has transformed my life. So far, I’m enjoying the solitude, finding time for avocations and projects around the house that always had to be deferred previously. Of course, “solitude” does not mean I’m a recluse. In fact, my mother lives with me in the winter months and my girlfriend Tania lives with me on weekends.
With both sons in college at the moment and my pending retirement looming on the horizon, money management has become a priority. Like many American parents, I’m torn between investing in my own retirement and investing in my children’s education. So far, I’m managing to do both, but it is a juggling act with considerable risk, given that I’m not going to be able to go back and redo the last years of my working life.
My work has centered on two key clients for the past two years and I will continue that focus in 2015. Both Southern California Edison and American National Standards Institute are wonderful places to work, filled with brilliant, dedicated people who inspire me to give my best effort every day. As a small business owner, I’m always on the lookout for new opportunities, but I prefer the stability of my present arrangement, which keeps me fully occupied.
I look forward to 2015 and the challenges that it will bring. I’m grateful for all the success I have enjoyed in 2014 and most of all, for all the wonderful friendships and experiences I have shared with so many diverse people. It gives me hope for humanity in general to witness the kindness and decency of ordinary individuals determined to do the right thing, no matter what the odds.
As usual, 2014 gave us its share of moments we won’t soon forget, even if we tried. Here are my shout outs:
To Malaysian Airlines,
No one had a tougher year than you did in 2014. To lose two planes in bizarre, yet unexplained events in one year is some kind of record that nobody ever wants to break. Despite it all, you continue to operate a great airline that I would fly again in a heartbeat. After all, lightning can’t strike 3 times, right?
To President Obama,
If it weren’t for Malaysian Airlines, I’d have to give you the Worst Year award. We watched you go gray in front of us as you sparred with Putin over Ukraine, got us back into Iraq against ISIS, contained an Ebola epidemic and got clobbered in the November elections. But you counter-punched with immigration reform and Cuba normalization. Just remember that the game is won in the fourth quarter. Be strong and don’t sell out the American Dream.
To Bill Cosby,
You were the transcendental modern American father figure, rising above race and class to occupy a special place in American culture. And now, come to find out, dozens of women claim you resorted to drugging them in order to have sex. So, if a big-time celebrity like you has to stoop to drugging his sex partners senseless, what hope is there for us regular guys to ever get laid?
To Sony Entertainment,
We always knew that the entertainment business is dog eat dog, but the ugly tone of leaked emails about stars, rival executives and even the President is a bit over the top, don’t you think? How about a little gratitude for the people who pay your salaries and make you filthy rich? The most amazing thing is that your bungled handling of “The Interview” may have just ushered in the era of digital new releases.
To Robin Williams,
Thanks for the laughs and the memories. I held you in such high esteem. It is so tragic that the only person you couldn’t make laugh was yourself. RIP.
To Rex Tillerson, CEO of Exxon-Mobil,
To nearly everyone but you, the recent oil price war has been a wonderful holiday gift. In the oil industry, folks are nervous, worried about a major retrenchment if prices don’t rebound soon. To the rescue came Mr. Tillerson, who assured a nervous group of investors that Exxon-Mobil would still turn a profit even if oil dropped to $40 a barrel. Thanks, sir, for reminding us just how obscenely profitable your company was when oil sold at $100.
To Target and Home Depot,
Thanks to the hack attack on your credit card terminals, my personal information is floating around in cyberspace, who knows where? So far, I haven’t been targeted and I have Legal Shield Identify Theft protection in any case, but after these incidents, I only shop at your stores with cash. I’ve found that this limits me to spending what I have in my wallet and thus saving me a lot of needless impulse buying.