Nov 24 2011

Being Thankful

Posted by Steve Ross in Puke

Hand Turkey
via Good Ideas & Tips

Today is Thanksgiving, and I have a lot to be thankful for.

I’m thankful for my mother and father who, despite hard times, worked their hineys off to shape me into an independent minded, thoughtful, and persistent person. Throughout my adult life they have continued to believe in me, even when they might not have always agreed with the direction I’ve chosen. I don’t think I really understood the huge task they undertook, until I embarked on it myself. I know I wouldn’t be who I am today without their guidance.

I’m thankful for my Grandmother Martel, who passed away a couple of years ago. She was a tough cookie with a razor sharp wit, who began writing a book about her life years after her children left the nest. The result, a book called “Senility, I Love It”, is a collection of stories and lessons learned that span from the birth of her first child (my father) to my early childhood. She taught me that you can really do anything, if you set your mind to it.

I’m thankful for my other Grandmother, Gabrielle. I called her Mimi. She immigrated here from France post-WWII, married an American Serviceman, and embarked on a life that few who grew up in an orphanage in post-WWI Europe could ever have imagined. She finished college after her children, but spent her time after college enriching the lives of children in the Delta of South Arkansas, bringing an appreciation of art to people who lived in a state of dire poverty and want. She taught me that giving is perhaps the most important thing you can do with your life.

I’m thankful for my brother Michael. A gifted and imaginative young man, Mike and I spent our childhood exploring what could be, and have continued that exploration through our adult life. Mike taught me the lesson of dogged determination. Like most siblings, we had our ups and downs, but at the end of the day, we recognized that we were in this experience called life together, and no matter what the circumstances, we could make it through. Even though Mike lives thousands of miles away, every day I feel his presence in my life.

I’m thankful for my Aunts, Uncles, Cousins and other family members, scattered around the world. The lessons I’ve learned from them are too many to list, but mostly I learned from them the importance of having a support system. Even though we’re not as close as we once were, I love them dearly and appreciate their contribution to helping make me the man I am today.

I’m thankful for all the friends, teachers and influencers, many of whom have come and gone through my life over the passage of years. Scattered across this great country of ours, each one of them has, in their own way shaped, informed and guided me. Their contributions have enriched my life, and brought me experiences that I never would have had otherwise.

I’m thankful for the extended family of friends I’ve made since I moved to Memphis. Their support and guidance has challenged me to become the person I’ve always wanted to be. They’ve seen me through the trials and tribulations of the past seven years and supported me the whole way. They adopted me unconditionally and helped open doors that I never would have been able to open on my own. I’m thankful for their friendship, and the trust they’ve placed in me.

Finally, I’m thankful for my beloved Ellyn and Frances. 27 months ago I couldn’t imagine the impact they would have on my life.

Frances has taught me the importance of being there, fully invested in the future. A creative and sometimes rambunctious child, Frances is confounding and stubborn, caring and considerate, and full of life and love. She’s developed, from a toddling two year old into a boisterous and vibrant five year old (she turns five next week). Every day I look forward to what she’ll do, learn or say next. I never thought being a parent would change me quite the way it has. Thank you Frances, for all the joy and light you have brought to my life. Watching you grow up, being a part of your life has given me more than I ever could have imagined.

Ellyn has grounded me, and helped me find my way through the transition from bachelor small businessman to student, advocate, parent and partner. Her unconditional love has strengthened me and given me the confidence to embark on a path that is fraught with uncertainty. Her passion for giving and helping the less fortunate has inspired me. Her desire for justice is unshakable. Despite the challenges of everyday life, we work as a team, tackling those challenges. Hand in hand, we navigate this world, not knowing what may lie around the next corner, but certain of our love and support for each other. Certain that we can make a positive impact on the world around us. I can’t imagine where I would be today without her love, guidance, and support. I look forward to every day, and the everyday events that enrich our lives. Together. Forever.

None of us travel through this world alone. We travel in the company of friends, acquaintances, and people we may never come into contact with. We live our lives often never comprehending the full impact we have on the lives of those directly around us, and those we may not have any direct contact with. While this presents certain challenges, we live life together.

On this Thanksgiving Day I challenge everyone to consider their impact on the world unseen. Consider the things we may neither recognize or understand. And know that through it all, we are all in this together.

Happy Thanksgiving.

Nov 22 2011

Politics as Marketing

Posted by Steve Ross in National Politics, Policy

Think of This as a "Solution" to Current Policy Problems

I’ve been thinking more about my post yesterday, the whole Super Committee #FAIL, and the intersection of those two things.

I noted yesterday on twitter that:

I find it interesting that both sides are calling the stalemated “super committee” a success for not folding. What about solving problems?

What about solving problems indeed.

So, now America gets to experience what true austerity measures, like the ones the EU is imposing on Greece, Spain and Italy in exchange for maintaining the EU (interesting exchange huh?) feels like. I don’t anticipate Americans will like it much more than the people in those European countries do.

But there’s a key difference here. These measures are being enforced from within, rather than a group of wealthier countries imposing them on countries that let the economic horse out of the barn. That means we could change it, if we only had the will.

But I suspect we won’t. This bad medicine will hurt the poor, hurt our unemployment situation, and most likely everything that goes along with that.

I’ve never understood how a country, that relies so heavily on consumption could be so focused on saving money for people who, by and large, already have everything they need (ie. aren’t consuming). From my perspective, it would seem to make more sense to ensure that money goes farther for those who don’t have everything they want so they’ll have more money to consume more.

I’m no economist, but that just makes sense to me.

So when thinking about policy solutions for the economic quagmire that we’ve found ourselves in, doubling down on the status quo seems to be a bit like trying to catch a whale with a Pocket Fisherman. In short, it just ain’t gonna work.

We’ve been locked in this misguided notion of the Adam Smith’s “Invisible Hand” of the marketplace for a very long time. Smith was commenting more on how commerce, in a pre-industrial revolution economy, will produce goods in high demand and distribute the excess of those goods to the needy out of self-interest.

How does Adam Smith’s largely agrarian idea of an “Invisible Hand” apply to our current scenario? In the 18th Century it was customary for producers, be they farmers, bakers, or other merchants, to produce as much as they could which in turn resulted in an excess. Dealing with that excess left two possibilities: give it away (or sell below market) or allow it to spoil.

Given those two scenarios, the natural conclusion is to ensure that it is productive in some way, which may mean giving it away.

While this may, or may not have worked in a pre-industrial revolution economy, and I certainly think that is debatable, in our current economy where “producers” are so disconnected from “consumers”, despite technology and all sorts of other mechanisms that would allow greater communication between the two, where does that surplus go?

Considering the prevalence of supply-chain management techniques and tightly managed inventories one has to question whether or not there really is any surplus, other than capital, which, under the current system flows almost exclusively to those who have ownership in the company (ie. stockholders).

In an economy where there are few excess goods due to the kind of inventory management if all that is left in excess is capital, then, following Smith’s idea of the Invisible Hand to its logical conclusion, those in possession of excess capital should find it in their self-interest to ensure that capital is as productive as possible for the economy as a whole, and as such, be willing to part with it.

But money doesn’t spoil like agricultural products or other like consumables that were dominant in Smith’s time. In fact, for most of the people who possess the majority of the money in our economy, that money doesn’t even exist in a physical form. It is a series of 1’s and 0’s that represent something in a global economy that, in all likelihood, cannot be held.

Which brings me back around, albeit via the long way, to our policy/marketing discussion.

Much like money in our highly mobile world is representational, meaning we don’t get paid in real dollars, but a representation of those dollars (checks, or auto-drafts that take the form of 1’s and 0’s) so is the formulation of policy.

Conservatives have held strong to this idea of policy that is tangible and easy to understand, “No new taxes”, end of discussion. This policy is not conditional and easy to digest, which is something all marketing should be. It is a tool to sway public opinion, but is it good policy?

Returning again to our Pocket Fisherman, the notion that possessing a tool that would allow one to fish at any time, with little preparation, is desirable because it plays on the values of convenience and impermanence in our society. But will the Pocket Fisherman actually work for catching fish? Possibly..

Is the Pocket Fisherman an effective enough tool to catch enough fish to actually feed someone before being torn apart or snatched from the hand of whomever wields it by some monster fish? Probably not, making its overall utility as a tool very low.

I don’t watch much professional fishing, but I’m pretty sure the Pocket Fisherman isn’t their tool of choice because it, by definition, reduces the possibility of successfully catching anything but a small to medium sized fish, which runs contrary to the whole idea of professional fishing.

By the same token, this idea that surplus capital should be left to the creators of the surplus is not only destructive to our economy, but also runs counter to one of the fundamental ideas put forth by Adam Smith, and conveniently left out by the likes of Milton Friedman and his ilk: that excess should be redistributed to those in need for the overall benefit to society.

This convenient omission is comical to me. It’s like another convenient omission that I hear over and over again.

Deuteronomy 15:11 “There will always be poor people in the land.”

This is used to justify the condition of poverty. I hear people say, “See, even the bible says there will always be poor.” But conveniently, a whole part of the quote is left out:

“Therefore I command you to be openhanded toward your brothers and toward the poor and needy in your land.”

Ahh marketing…

As much as marketing tries to make life simple, it just plain isn’t. As much as we yearn for life and the decisions of life to be simple, they aren’t. We all recognize that life is complicated, even though we may not be able to express the detail of why its complicated at any given time.

But marketing understands that. Because things are complicated we have an emotional desire for things to be simple, marketing plays on that emotion, fooling us into believing that it really is that simple. This sophistry has been a part of the human condition since before the Sophists. Now, its just more prevalent.

For whatever reason, we hold exception that our lives aren’t simple, but that other people’s lives, or the best policy solution somehow is. This contradiction is the essence of the human condition, and it holds us back from enacting solutions to problems that have vexed billions of people before us.

Marketing: simplifying everything by recognizing a need, seeking to fill that need, and proposing a simple solution that completely ignores reality.

If you want to understand why people are so dissatisfied with government, you need look no further than that interview I posted yesterday. If politics has become marketing, and nothing more, its no wonder we’re hungry for solutions.

The steady diet of nothing, that has been the last 40+ years of American policy has left us not only hungry, but weakened and backed into a corner.

There’s nothing more dangerous than a wounded animal. The American public has been deeply wounded over the past 40+ years. Whether or not we will strike out, or strike back a year from now is an open question. But we should recognize the perilous position we are in, and carefully consider what to do, before expending all of its energy striking out, only to miss the mark…which is what happened in 2010.

We can’t afford to miss the mark again by falling hook, line, and sinker for some magical mystical marketing ploy.

The marketers stand ready, Pocket Fishermen in hand. We can fall for it again, or we can fight back.

I hope we choose to fight this time.

Nov 21 2011

Grover Being Grover

Posted by Steve Ross in National Politics

Not that Grover!
via Muppet Wiki

I watched the interview on 60 Minutes last night. while the Grover to the left may not be the Grover that was the topic of this interview, I think its fair to say that the ideology espoused by Norquist is just as comically reduced as the archetype played by the Grover on Sesame Street…a character that Norquist would probably like to be defunded.

Noting that he came up with the idea of signing a pledge to never, ever, ever raise taxes at age 12, perhaps Norquist could have used some of the lessons of Sesame Street like how to play with others, which I’m sure he views as a socialistic enterprise.

No one can underestimate the impact that Norquist and his ilk have had on politics in the US over the nearly 20 years that he’s exerted his influence. The notion that spending, rather than balancing revenue and expenditures, is the key problem with government, is a reductionist philosophy that may play with folks who don’t want to consider the long-term consequences…until it means they must give something up they hold dear. Then all bets are off.

The truth of the matter is that as long as policy debate is reduced to its lowest common denominator, there’s little chance of actually addressing the issues that not only maintain the status quo, but also helped create the jobless recovery that this nation has been in since the dawn of the Bush II years.

While Norquist may have dreamed up his “no tax increase” marketing ploy overnight…which is exactly what he calls it, the solutions to real issues our nation faces aren’t that simple.

Here’s the interview. It is something that I think everyone, regardless of partisan leanings should watch, particularly for the way Norquist presents his theme as a marketing opportunity rather than a serious plan to address problems.

It should remind all of us that you can have all the best policy in the world, but if you don’t elect the people to enact it, it will go nowhere.

Nov 13 2011

Memphis’ Travel Troubles Aren’t Limited to Airfare

Posted by Steve Ross in City of Memphis, Shelby County

Memphis Cook Convention Center

Over the past week, much of the conversation here in Memphis has revolved around transportation and tourism. The week started with Mayor Wharton’s trip to St. Louis to try and lure COGIC back.

Just a week before came news that the National Folk Alliance was moving to Kansas City.

In each case, the cost of airfare was a factor in the decision, something both the Commercial Appeal, and the Memphis Flyer have covered in the past several days.

Airfare in and out of Memphis is high. It has been since I moved here. After I started freelancing again in 2006, I found that out first hand. Clients that bought my airfare regularly asked if I would consider driving to Little Rock to catch a Southwest flight, or would complain about the cost of the flights out of Memphis.

This was before the merger of Northwest and Delta. In short, its been this way for a very long time.

But how bad is it, and how much of an impact does it really have on tourism, including the convention business, here in Memphis? I was curious too, so I spent some time Saturday afternoon and took a look.

To test this, I used 18 departure cities made up of cities that I traveled to frequently when I was traveling. I then used 5 destinations, including Las Vegas, Orlando, Dallas, Atlanta, St. Louis and Memphis.

I used priceline.com for the results, which was for a booking in the second weekend of February 2012, 3 months out. The lowest fare, regardless of whether I would ever want to fly at that time, or on that airline, was recorded, which means, depending on the person, their cost may be higher.

In the end, I found that fares into Memphis are, on average, $100 more than my test cities, even with a lot of lead time. In most cases, you may not have that kind of lead time to prepare, which will likely make the fares higher.

Just to show how much the fares go up on average, the closer to the travel date you get, on a second sheet below there’s a look at the same cities 3 months, 2 months, 1 month, and 2 weeks out.

Here is the raw data.

I think the article at the Flyer does the best job of any addressing many of the problems with the travel side of our troubles. But there are a lot of things that aren’t covered.

I’ve written about this before, so I don’t want to rehash old material. However, even though those posts are two years old, they still apply.

We’re not Orlando, Vegas, Atlanta, Dallas or even St. Louis. We don’t have the facilities they do. We don’t have the infrastructure either. That’s not to say we couldn’t, but there’s a whole lot more than just buildings or cheaper, or more flight availability thats involved.

We have to market ourselves better as a destination. No, we don’t have Disneyworld, or a huge strip of casinos, but that doesn’t mean we’re not a destination. It just means we have to make our case better to the world to attract events to Memphis.

I’m mostly out of the convention business these days. What used to be over 275 days in show or traveling has dwindled down to around 100, by choice. But my perspective now, based on the revelations about the impact of airfare on the City’s convention business is the same. If we’re not willing to tell people, loud and proud, who we are and what we have to offer, we should just be content with the business we get and stop fretting over it.

If, on the other hand, we’re willing to put our money where our mouth is and work to change our perception of ourself, and the world’s perception of us, we can be a destination like some of these larger cities over time.

It ain’t gonna be cheap, easy, or fast. We’ll have to be more patient than we’re used to being. But if the willingness is there, if we can commit to it longer than a typical political cycle, we can make it happen. Smaller markets than us have. There’s no reason we can’t.

Nov 11 2011

On My Impending Tuition Increase

Posted by Steve Ross in State Politics

See that robe? The guy wearing it is helping make it harder for you to wear it.

The Commercial Appeal reported yesterday that tuition at state schools next year will increase by 3-8% next year. This marks the 5th year consecutive year of tuition increases totaling as much as a 50% increase over that time period.

In my time in school, I’ve had the pleasure of experiencing these tuition increases, and I’ve noticed something really important. It’s one thing to pay more for something because the quality of that something has gotten better. It’s quite another thing to pay more for something whose overall quality hasn’t increased, because the state government just decided they didn’t want to appropriate more money to it.

What’s causing this? An arbitrary request by Gov. Haslam that MOST DEPARTMENTS in state government return a budget proposal with a 5% decrease in spending.

This makes me wonder…which departments did the Governor decide wouldn’t arbitrarily cut their budget?

All of this is happening as the Department of Finance and Administration announces collections have outpaced projections for the four months that make up this fiscal year. Over all, collections for the general fund are up $59.1m for the past four months (July, August, September, and October).

At this rate, the State could expect to see around $180m in additional revenue to the general fund not accounted for in the budget.

The State of Tennessee projected some $10.77b in general fund tax collections for the year. While a $180m overage in collections may only account for 1.6% of that projected total, $180m could go a long way to resolving a lot of hurt out there.

Last year, the University of Memphis saw its state funding cut by over $20m alone. Overall, the University of Memphis lost nearly $31.5m in funding, with no decrease in students. That means students had to bear the brunt of the funding decrease (it should be noted, $10m of that decrease came from cuts at the Federal level). This represents a 17% decrease over the previous year.

Even UT Knoxville, the flagship of the state’s higher education system, saw a huge decrease in funding of 12%. That’s a sight less than we experienced here, but considering tuition is generally higher at UT Knoxville, it still represents a huge increase for students.

These cuts beg the question, if a college degree is the key to long-term financial success in today’s economy, why are we putting such a premium on it?

Studies of median income in the United State show that individuals with a college degree make, on average, $16k more a year than their counterparts who only have a high school diploma. Over the course of a career, that additional $16k/yr means those with a college degree will make nearly $500,000 more than their high school graduate counterparts.

But all of this assumes there will be jobs, and the costs associated with going to college won’t unduly hinder the economic prospects of the college graduate. According to a recent study, the average college graduate leaves school with over $26,000 in debt. That’s a whole lot of debt for someone who’s trying to start their life out on their own.

What’s more there are concerns that the vast expansion of college debt may be the next bubble to burst, which would further hurt the economy, and negatively impact the earning potential of new college graduates. (Read more about the concept of bubblenomics here.)

It seems to me that this is an area of the economy where both parties have failed. While I applaud the President for working to help students with their loans, this doesn’t address the overall weaknesses in the economy that led to jobless recoveries starting in the 1980’s.

Truth be told, there are just too many college graduates delivering pizzas and tending bar. They don’t work these jobs because they’re lazy, they do it because the hiring prospects are dim, and as weird as it may seem, in some cases they make more at these jobs than they would working in their area of study.

Why is this? Well, there are a lot of reasons, but ultimately it comes down to the reality that the economy just stopped creating jobs about the same time we started making it really easy for corporations to send manufacturing overseas. The decrease in blue collar jobs has led to a decrease in all jobs despite the rhetoric that we’re moving to a “service economy”.

So now, in order to get a management job at the Gap, you have to have a college degree, where once upon a time, when I was just out of High School, a diploma was all that was necessary. This credential inflation not only negatively impacts people who have degrees, but those who don’t. According to the Census Bureau, nearly 30% of the population has a college degree. That means that the 70% of the people who don’t, are effectively cut out of the good paying jobs that once existed for them.

Add this to the overall income stagnation for median income earners, and you’ve got a recipe for economic disaster.

The economic foundations that led to the expansion of the middle class in the post WWII economy that included large public investments in the future of the nation has been replaced with a theory of the knife. Cut everything, taxes, investments, you name it. With those cuts came decreases in the economic outlook of folks who actually achieved levels of educational attainment that their parents might not have. In the end, this creates a stalled system that is reliant on market manipulations to create return on investment rather than real growth. That, in a nutshell, is bubblenomics.

It’s no wonder that people are angry. They’re realizing they’ve been sold a pile of crap, and, to quote the movie Network, they’re “mad as hell, and not going to take it anymore”.

If we want real growth, we have to return to the economic policies that built growth. That means increasing investments in infrastructure and education. That means planning for the future of the nation rather than looking for a quick “right now” fix. As a nation, we’ve lost our ability to look beyond the right now. Some may blame this on “fast food culture” but I blame it on an over-reliance on political cycles and over-heated rhetoric that has kept us distracted while a very small percentage of the population benefits most.

All of this goes back to the culture of cutting.

While I’m sensitive to the revenue problems facing the state and the nation, I submit they are of our own making. We have to make a concerted effort to invest in our future if we are to have much of one. Cutting higher education just makes that future that much more difficult for our children to attain. Combined with all the other cuts that are, no doubt, in our future, the overall outlook is grim.

We can stop it if we choose to. But first, we have to make that choice.