There is something about this free enterprise system of ours that seems to naturally attract the light to shine on the extremes, leaving as unremarkable and unreported the everyday activities of the vast majority of the businesses around us as well as the people who run them. The contrasts of those on opposite ends of the spectrum, however, can be shockingly stark, as illustrated by the examples of two "captains of industry" who recently came to my attention from totally different sources.
First, a highly regarded technical writer shared a November Bloomberg news story with me that reported comments made at a Baird Industrial Outlook conference by the CEO of a $20-plus billion dollar international corporation who attacked Washington for "doing everything in their manpower, capability, to destroy U.S. manufacturing" and who went on to list "cap and trade, medical reform" and "labor rules."
He vowed to keep expanding in emerging markets and blamed the U.S. government for hurting manufacturing with regulation and taxes. His comments came on the heels of October figures indicating 10.2 percent unemployment in the U.S., the highest since 1983. He said that in an effort to reduce expenses his company, which employs about 125,000 people worldwide, has eliminated more than 20,000 jobs since the end of 2008.
He predicted that jobs will be created in China and India, "places where people want the products and governments welcome you to actually do something." He then declared "I'm not going to hire anybody in the United States. I'm moving. They are doing everything possible to destroy jobs."
The technical writer who shared the news report offered the following personal observations:
"As someone who has invested an unspeakable amount of time trying to source domestically made products for my 'green'...home (not because I was chasing points but because I sincerely wanted to support the U.S. economy and minimize transport emissions) I really resent his comments. Then I checked out his annual earnings with bonuses and I was REALLY appalled! It's one thing to move manufacturing to stay competitive...but to lay off so many people, STILL take your bonus and COMPLAIN about how the government is trying to destroy jobs..."
Some would agree that my correspondent had a point. According to the latest research report from EQUILAR® the 2008 combined salary, bonus, options and "other" compensation for the CEO in question was almost $7 million.
The CEO was further quoted as saying, "We as a company today are putting our best people, our best technology and our best investment in these marketplaces to grow. My job is to grow that top line, grow my earnings, grow my cash flow and grow my returns to the shareholders." He also reportedly added that we would not "see his company going out there with fancy commercials or sitting at the right hand of some president, talking about this."
Considering the new universe of opportunities that is being created by emerging technologies and innovation, this struck me as a pretty jaded view of the American business experience.
I was still chewing and stewing on the report when I caught what some might call a "feel good" television news story about the head of a different company who saw things from quite another angle. He is living the American dream by running a production cabinet company, manufacturing and selling direct to contractors and homeowners. His worldwide headquarters is in a little town in northern Colorado. The company was started in 1968 and employs around sixty people according to their web site. Like just about everyone whose business is related to the building industry his company has suffered greatly during the housing bust.
The reason their story became newsworthy was because the head of the company, who had been struggling with a possible round of upcoming layoffs, demonstrated his belief that there is more to commerce than the bottom line. Without enough cabinet orders to keep everybody busy through the holidays, he decided to pay his craftsmen to design and build high quality dollhouses that would be donated as gifts for low income children in their home town.
He explained that he felt an obligation to honor the loyalty and commitment of the firm's long time employees, many of whom have 10 to 20 years with the company, and to give back to the community. He pointed to little girls in the background of the camera shot who were totally absorbed in playing with one of the company creations as evidence that he was satisfied with his decision. Apparently he doesn't spend much time contemplating the prospect of "sitting to the right hand of some president" either, at least he didn't mention it, so it seems that he and the CEO at least share that much in common, even though their versions of doing business in this country are clearly in contrast.
Yes, I know. It's not a black and white world and I'm not exactly comparing apples to apples when examining and considering decisions affecting a multi-billion dollar international manufacturing corporation versus a family-owned cabinet shop. The laser-tipped perspective of a high grade CEO who has demonstrated he has what it takes to run circles around the operators of practically any small to medium sized company, and who ultimately is required to pass muster with a board of directors plus a set of demanding shareholders, is going to be beyond the real life experience, and perhaps even the comprehension, of most of us.
But the American free enterprise system is not just about varieties of apples and whose basket is fullest. It's about a cornucopia of the fruits of many labors. And what makes it so abundant and nourishing, what makes it the envy of the world, what makes it possible for any of us to reach for the brass ring of success...is our ability to embrace a multitude of priorities which are constantly in flux according to the ever evolving circumstances that we face collectively.
I am reminded of a line from "Blue Highways," his masterpiece of American travel writing, in which author William Least Heat-Moon relates a nugget of shared wisdom after being told that the corporate body has no soul. Perhaps not, but that does not mean that the head attached to that body cannot, or should not, possess one either.
Our differences are at once our curse and our blessing. The real genius of this system that gives us the ability to exercise freedom of choice in our pursuit of prosperity is that we are all required to work at keeping the playing field even for everybody. If we choose instead to "take our ball and go play in another sandbox" because we don't like the current interpretation of the rules, we erode the foundation that is at the very core of our opportunity and we undermine any hope of preserving that freedom for those who come after us or for exporting a better standard of living to other parts of the world.
In the final analysis, is all that really matters the size of your compensation package and how much you maximize your market growth potential? Apparently, at least publicly, some would say yes. But I can't help wondering if the answer is the same when the question is posed privately to the one person who looks back at each of us in the mirror.
Posted: 12/30/2009 12:00:00 AM by
| with 0 comments
A recent editorial cartoon that I ran across cleverly expressed a great deal of my own thoughts around the climate change debate. The cartoonist (Joel Pett, Lexington Herald-Leader) depicts an obviously unconvinced audience member at a presentation where benefits of clean energy are being displayed on the stage screen. The attendee is shown demanding an answer to a question similar to the following:
"What if it turns out that climate change is all a big hoax and we create a better world for nothing?"
The presenter he is questioning has a list of goals on the screen including:
• Energy Independence
• Preserve Rainforests
• Green Jobs
• Livable Cities
• Clean Water, Air
• Healthy Children
In a single frame, and with surgical irony, the cartoonist has masterfully steered us to the question I have been asking myself and others for a long time, which is essentially, why are we not able to shift the dialog onto a productive level that leaves the polarization and bickering behind so we can just get started on the enormous task of cleaning up the mess we've been helping to make?
We don't have to reach some final, indisputable conclusion on the "climate" debate to know that there are plenty of good reasons to take steps to replace 18th and 19th century technologies and the polluting energy sources that have been fueling them.
The answer must reside somewhere deep in human nature. There seems to be an irresistible force of passion that makes us dig in our heels and refuse to budge when we feel strongly about something. In this case, it doesn't really matter if we're talking about those who view "climate change" or "global warming," as some prefer to refer to it, as the great challenge of our time or those who are absolutely convinced that it is the greatest hoax ever perpetrated on mankind.
It seems that those who have taken a passionate stand either way are prepared to fight over this for as long as takes, and unfortunately, the fact that people in both camps seem determined to drive to an "all or nothing" resolution keeps getting in the way of potential progress on the things we could agree on.
Even the most hardcore climate skeptics don't try to make their case by denying or stating opposition to goals like those listed by the cartoonist, they just refuse to go there. At the same time, their counterparts, who are every bit as passionate in their insistence that mankind's activities are at the center of all the problems in the world, often appear to be pushing for absolute and immediate solutions with little or no willingness to explore common ground. The net result is an ongoing bitter conflict that is often stalled by distractions leaving those of us in the middle stranded and feeling like we can't do anything meaningful to influence the outcome.
I am personally convinced that we are indeed witnessing measurable levels of global climate change. I only make this statement based on personal observation and certainly not because I believe the reports of governments, including our own, or the findings of scientists I have never met. I have reached my conclusion because I have observed certain evidence with my own eyes. I've visited glaciers from Alaska to New Zealand that are receding at unprecedented and alarming rates. I have flown over millions of acres of America's western forests and seen the beetle kill that is resulting from milder winter temperatures to the detriment of not only the trees, but also virtually every species in that ecosystem.
What I have no way of verifying on my own is how much of this shift is attributable to the activities of the human species. I seriously doubt that it is the primary factor. Both sides of this debate agree that the scale and complexity of the Earth's atmosphere and its global climate have seen numerous dramatic shifts to one extreme or the other over time.
What I do know is that I have seen the contrast between the air in Beijing and other cities in the Northern Hemisphere with that of still pristine regions of the South Pacific. The calamity is there for anyone who is interested to see. I have also fished a variety of streams, rivers, lakes, and reservoirs throughout North America where the fish populations face collapse from human-caused pollution and where signs are posted to warn against consuming the fish that are there.
Put simply, we have used our one and only planetary home and all of its natural systems as a garbage dump of one kind or another for practically all of recorded human history. Sadly, the situation has only worsened over the last few centuries as we made industrial "advances" and as human population has swelled. We have treated it like a trash can and no matter how big the can is, it can only hold so much. We are reaching that point and before it's too late we need to revise our practices. It's time to clean up our act and "create a better world"—whether global warming is a hoax or not.
Posted: 12/15/2009 12:00:00 AM by
| with 0 comments
Desperate times may demand desperate measures, but be careful what you ask for.
Ever since the President signed a bill last week that included provisions to extend and expand the tax incentive for first time home buyers, and now some other folks as well, the trade associations for the housing industry have been throwing a self-congratulatory message party to convince the nation's home builders, and others in the shelter industry, that their universal interests have been served. The public relations specialists, who actually contrive the wording on their behalf, have the spokespeople for the industry groups reveling like drunken sailors in a daisy chain of back slapping victory celebration.
Not so fast. In an open letter to some of these folks back in March of this year I expressed (in part) the following:
"Publicly, the members of the industry … have predictably circled the wagons and hunkered down under a communal blanket of denial when confronted with the notion that builders themselves, regardless of size, are at least partially responsible for the combination of factors that contributed to the disastrous economic situation we are now facing, along with the rest of the country, indeed, apparently the rest of the world.
While we may not have planned all the courses of the meal—nor anticipated or especially concerned ourselves with the raging heartburn and indigestion that would eventually result from the gluttony engaged in by so many who lapped up the seemingly endless flow of gravy—at best we stood by and did little while we watched as the greediest among us slaughtered and plucked the golden goose of home ownership in plain site of anyone who was paying attention.
To the surprise of some, that bird has been resurrected, not once, but amazingly, twice! Not only that, it has been reincarnated in the form of the federal sow, the mother protector and provider of nourishment for all those willing to overcome the stench of the trough. And when the first teat ran dry, we simply squealed and squirmed until a second was provided to quiet our cries.
It seems that no matter how deeply ingrained the aversion to "government interference" runs in the DNA of the industry (don't we still hold sacred the eternal claim that ours is the most overregulated and persecuted occupation in history?) and how often the choruses of our hymns are sung by the choir as we hold regular worship services for the gods of market-driven free enterprise and the American Dream, we have eagerly added another entrée onto the dinner plate already bearing tried- and-true menu favorites like the mortgage interest deduction and other recipes for topping previous calorie counts of ever-higher home ownership numbers.
The apron strings binding us to the federal government have just been cinched with a new set of tight and very complex knots, which will be difficult to release. In the immortal words of former New Mexico Governor Bruce King, the last of the old-style western cowboy governors: "We might have opened ourselves a box of Pandoras."
When the new supply of government milk and honey runs dry in a few months, will we find ourselves shouldering our way to yet another spigot or do you suppose we can actually wean ourselves off this new source of sweetener and return to our professed preference, free enterprise? In truth, is our current celebration of success going to bear a bitter harvest because these devices actually amount to a premature picking of the next crop of market demand that will only repeat itself down the road?
A wise man once warned me: "We have to be careful to not become what we despise the most." My March letter to the "spokesmen" concluded with the following:
"The 'golden goose' I spoke of earlier is not nested in the windfall profits expressed not so very long ago on those gaudy quarterly reports of the publicly trade building corporations, whose business is really little more than mass producing containers in which to package millions of America's families when the boom is on. Nor does it reside in the glowing, intoxicating bumper-crop lists of housing starts that we all feasted on during the recent fat times.
The real Holy Grail of this nation's home builder is embedded in the American Dream itself, which, in our rush to harvest profits we have helped to plunder by going along with the notion that home ownership is a right, not a privilege to be earned, and that the price of everything of importance can be accounted for in our fixation on first cost, which allows us to systematically devalue the fruits of our labors that have been held so dear, practically sacred, by our fathers and grandfathers, most of whom would never have understood the concept of dollars-per-square-foot or why we would allow ourselves to be suckered onto such a treadmill of destruction designed by someone else for their own self-interest.
If it is not too late already—some say it may be—I encourage … builders to re-establish our credibility … through a return to the values that made home building an indispensable thread running through the fabric of our great nation—its economy, its culture, and its peoples—from generation to generation."
It would be hard to deny that for the housing industry these are, indeed, desperate times. But let's make sure that the medicine we have prescribed for ourselves is not more harmful and habit forming than what prompted us to take it in the first place.
Posted: 12/10/2009 6:53:08 PM by
Andy Tanis | with 0 comments