Sunday, December 25, 2016

Merry Christmas!

Christmas season started for me on December 21st, almost a month after Black Friday and weeks after many already maxed out their credit cards. I went to a big box store. It was late and I already had a long day that started before 4am. The ship and I had been at sea, almost continuously, for a month, and  we quietly pulled into port.   As I made my last Christmas purchases- mostly premeditated with a few impulse decisions, I was bumped into by other weary shoppers hustling like Olympic sprinters. 

They used to say that once the crowd talks about the stock market, it’s time to sell. But the post-election stock market surge kept good times rolling. So much so that one guy told me that his stock market gains were larger than his paycheck. I congratulated him on behalf of Uncle Sam, who appreciates the hard work of passive income by giving a lower tax rate. 

Conspicuous consumption is back, with new products to “solve” the problems of the rich and “mass affluent”. You can see a stream of “Happy Holiday” ads that make you forget the reasons for the season (the Temple in Jerusalem for Jews or Christ’s Birth for Christians), not to mention songs about bigger and better presents. 

The millennials have more enlightened  spending habits; they prefer to spend on priceless and timeless experiences. Plane tickets to visit faraway family?  It’s important. I whipped out a credit card, rented a car, loaded it with my Christmas trinkets, and drove home.  I spent two wonderful days with my family; now it was time to plan for an unforgettable New Year’s. Should I bring the nice secondhand Italian suit; or is that overkill for Norfolk, I thought? As I was driving back to work for a shift on Christmas Day, I heard a song that I haven’t heard before. Amazing, since it played the year I was born. The song was called “The Gift”, by Garth Brooks, and its protagonist is a poor orphan girl named Maria:

“There were diamonds and incense and perfumes in packages fit for a king;
but for one ragged bird in a small cage Maria had nothing to bring...
Just then the midnight bells rang out and the little bird started to sing
A song that no words could recapture, whose beauty was fit for a king”.

Merry, Joyous, Christmas to all.

Saturday, December 3, 2016

The Value and Price of Work

A rare books review on the blog. By chance in the ship’s library, I read two books that turned out to be a before-and-after on America’s poor and working class. “Why America Doesn’t Work” is a commentary on the ‘decline’ of the American work ethic. Written in the early 1990’s book, it includes firsthand examples of the Soviet elite’s corruption and the failed state they ruled. On their trip to the USSR, the author saw two things that worked: the black market…and the gulag, where productive inmates were able to earn overtime as an incentive. “The beginning of a free market?” the author noted.  Chuck Colson and Jack Eckerd sounded an alarm about a growing cultural and income gap between workers and the ruling class. Twenty-five years later, our new President of the United States was able to capitalize to victory on voters’ concerns about those educated, connected elites.  These voters even included “college educated whites”, who turned out to be Trump’s stealth supporters. What were Chuck Colson’s concerns?

A welfare system that punished work (known as AFDC)
A prison system that encouraged idleness and recidivism
Schools failing to educate students
Apathetic university students waiting to graduate with huge salaries
Big businesses allowing Japan and West Germany to eat their lunch
“Age of Aquarius”, the prominence of leisure, decline of morals such as honesty.
Money-lusting, middle class, Self-interested teens slacking on the job
Oh… and the lack of mutual respect between employee and employer.

And most prominently, that the old saying “An honest day’s work for an honest day’s pay” was now a Jay Leno punchline.

Some changes have happened since. Businesses have smartened up, embracing quality control, innovation (read: Fast Company, which began in 1995) and keeping a closer check on “time theft”. It’s less likely for new graduates to trip into a high-paying Wall Street job. Morals might be firming up, says Gallup,  if you leave out loosening opinions on drugs and marriage. Today, we have charter schools, No Child Left Behind, a well-intentioned program; and “high achieving students” are noticed. Some new employer-employee models have been tried, such as a uniform pay rate (one company had a $70,000 a year minimum salary) and adult playgrounds at tech companies. Hipsters and the Maker Movement are bringing back a culture of craftsmanship and restoring the dignity of work- even in once-menial jobs like coffee-wenching.

Shortly after the book was written, Bill Clinton, one of those New Democrats, and Newt Gingrich’s Congress, ended “welfare as we knew it”. What happened to the poor? We learn about them in “Nickel and Dimed”. The author laments that there was no provision in the welfare reform bill to track its effects. She had some not-so-good numbers from research groups, but decided to explore the mystery of the working poor. 

The author, Barbara Ehrenreich, accustomed to a comfortable lifestyle, dives into the world of minimum wage work. Notably, she attempts to pay rent in motels and apartments without a significant other or roommate pitching in. I know this challenge myself: without paying rent, my high school lifeguard job at $8.50 per hour felt like rolling in dough; a post-collegiate job offer thrice that rate was enough to make ends meet, considering rent. So I was intrigued. The book was written 15 years ago, but many of the truths remain the same. 

Transportation and Mobility
The bewildering question of why workers working for minimum wage were not upwardly mobile- why didn’t they flock to jobs paying a bit better? Why were they passing up a seeming opportunity? There is the unpaid time that would have to be invested in finding and securing a job. Not the monthly bills middle-class people face, but the daily fees like motel rooms. Management issues were a concern; middle managers (themselves not well compensated) were presented as lacking in leadership skills, so workers often decided to resign themselves to the “devil you know”. But the overarching issue is the question of access to these better paying jobs. Sure, riding infrequent bus routes in the suburbs is inconvenient and time-consuming, but doable. Until you consider the need to pick up the kids from school, or to go to a second job. Changing jobs would require rearranging one’s transportation.

When I go grocery shopping, I scratch my head at some of the bills. They seem bigger than last year; even more than just two months ago. For me, I take the information and look to see if my credit union is also increasing its rates with inflation- on savings accounts. For the working class, no good comes out of higher grocery prices. It isn’t expensive to eat healthy (but it’s not cheap either!)
The author noted that her co-workers were filling themselves with high-carb, high-fat junk food, with long-term health effects. That was all they could afford. As for the nasty cigarette and booze stereotype associated with the poor, I was interested to learn that being a smoker was a way to get a smoke break- a few minutes’ time off the job. The small amounts of cheap alcohol eased aches and pains associated with their labor. As a country singer sung: “…beer sitting on ice, after a long hard day, tastes just right”.

Today, the cost of a combo meal at a fast food restaurant is the same as a healthier meal at a take-out place. It seems like these fast food establishments are preying on a lack of knowledge of alternatives. We live in the information age; those who have knowledge have the power.

During the 1990’s, it appeared that little attention was paid to the minimum wage as the middle-and upper-classes increased in wealth through salaries and a go-go stock market. Fifteen years later, some of the dynamics have changed. Due to the living wage movement, the minimum wage will be $4.25 per hour higher in DC than neighboring Virginia; the author noted that increased minimum wages do have a spillover effect. Also, with job growth moving from sprawl to transit-oriented town centers and inner-cities, are the transportation issues faced by the working poor getting better?
The author noted some cultural factors affecting the visibility and esteem of the working class:  Market segmentation meant that wealthy shoppers “never rubbed shoulders” with the poor, loss of middle-class teen interest in summer and after-school jobs, and marginalization by popular media. And secondhand clothes meant that the poor no longer have to “look poor”. 

Housing Issues
One thing that is different is gentrification, a factor that didn’t have to be considered in 1998. The author worked solely in suburbs and small towns, while noting that the poor were concentrated in the inner-cities. Today, as cities gentrify, and the working class is squeezed on housing cost or commuting time.  Luxury apartments are replacing alternative- and necessary- living arrangements like the Joyce “hotel” in Portland, Oregon, or YMCA-style Single-Room Occupancies with bathrooms at the end of the hall. These arrangements are an important buffer against homelessness. For the author, it was a major struggle saving enough to make first month’s payment, and tiding over any unexpected health or car expenses. The largest secret, perhaps, is that the poor tended to live with roommates, other working family members, or a boyfriend- well after their twenties are over.

More than ever, retail companies want managers for the lowest cost possible; so much so that Vice President Joe Biden wants to redefine who is a manager under the Labor Department’s salary provisions. Managers sometimes do not have the toolbox of leadership skills to be effective; and sometimes forget that they themselves may have been the lowest minimum-wage employee at one time* .Technology has changed; gone are the days of employees pacing themselves in big-box stores; Amazon’s partner warehouses track employees’ movements by the second, and use algorithms to get the maximal and most efficient use of the employee’s time.   “With slide rule and stopwatch our pride they have robbed”, goes a Dropkick Murphy song.
* It is notable that workers earning a tier above minimum wage tend to have the strongest opposition to increasing the minimum wage, since they worked for their payraise.

The author remains objective, and refuses to speculate on outside factors like immigration, including the effects of illegal immigration on wages. The rising tide did not lift all boats; greater demand for workers didn’t translate into increased earnings, as a classical economist would believe. This book was written at a time of abundance of low-wage jobs, a prospect which is finally returning after the last recession. Working within fragile transportation and social constraints, they live life on the edge. The book sparked a moral argument- whether it was right to ask someone to work for less than sustenance wages; and leaving workers in worse physical condition than when they hired them. Conservatives also questioned the wisdom of needing to indirectly subsidize low wages- provide corporate welfare- through public assistance. Our gleaming, post-industrial cities rely on a large army of working-class people to serve. How are we serving them?

Two years ago, I bought wholeheartedly into the idea that changes in the economy demanded “a new relationship of empowerment” between employers and employees. That was a nice code phrase for reducing the power of labor unions, especially used in the right-to-work debate. I am more wary of the statement now, demanding to see concrete examples of how decent workers will benefit. I’d like to humble myself and tell my relatives, “you were right”.  

Twenty years after welfare reform, what happened to the New Democrats? They brought the Northeast back to the Democratic Party. But their days became numbered when the ends justified the means. Feminists knew that the affair between Bill Clinton and Monica Lewinsky was unsavory, but they had larger goals in mind, like defending abortion. Likewise, I feel that liberal supporters of the Democratic Party are too willing to overlook troubles in the DNC, such as resignations under allegations, accusations of pay-to-play, and losing once-loyal union votes in the Midwest. While I believe in meritocracy, more than a few people have observed that there are “too many white septuagenarians in leadership positions”; in a party that is becoming majority-minority. Topics like environmentalism and social issues, favored by their donors, have received more detailed attention than topics that matter to their voters, like educational and employment opportunity. The DNC and media voices have encouraged playing it cautiously, because “there is too much at stake”.  One progressive commentator wrote an article titled “Bernie Sanders is a Privileged Choice”, arguing that the poor could lose everything if Bernie failed to win the general election. The language of political correctness was limiting their political options. But with the exception of 2012, the DNC has had eight straight years of losses. Even if “local races don’t matter”, losing the winnable presidency may be a wake-up call to change strategy.  In contrast, the turmoil in the Republican Party- from losing Congress in 2006 to the anti-establishment Tea Party movement- created a party that is more libertarian and less neocon than eight years ago; and a party that wins wide across the map, and deep in the “red” states. Nixon’s Southern Strategy and this year’s Midwestern Strategy were gambles that paid off. Murdoch and Akin in 2012, that was a bad choice. They should never do that again. That’s all of my political screed.

Tuesday, November 1, 2016

Check your (Internet) privilege

...the reason you haven't seen a post in weeks.

A few years back, I pulled into the invisible outskirts of Port Arthur, TX on a coal-carrying bulk ship called MV Mary Ann Hudson. The ship was 35 years young, and needless to say, had no internet connection. I had my first IPhone with me, but it wouldn't turn on. I asked fellow crewmembers for advice, but none had fancy high tech phones like mine. I took the phone to the local Verizon store, and they showed me the answer- I just had to hold the power buttons longer. Apple doesn't put out print user's manuals- they assume their customers have internet privilege.

Two years later, I was at a Capitol Hill brief with the USMMA's Board of Visitors. One topic was how to save the humanities curriculum. One member of Congress asked if students could do digital courses at sea. Rep. Grimm from Staten Island had the best expression when he learned that Internet service at sea is unpredictable, but largely non-existent.

Today, many businesses have "improved" their websites with data- heavy features like pictures and automatic reload. Too much for a simple satellite connection to handle. As they attempt to get more business, they get less of mine. Simple is better in my world.

We've gotten to the point where Internet has become a necessity. To complete the backside things professionals needto do on their own time, like license updates, requires Internet and a printer. I finally figured out how to get what I need some- go to a hip new place known as a shared workspace.

Friday, September 16, 2016

Creative and Creating Classes Working Together

“On August 18, for the first time since 1999, the three stock market indices set record highs on the same day. If your retirement account is growing, elect Hillary to continue Obama’s legacy”
“For many people, America has never been better”, says Hillary Clinton. Society has never been more racially integrated. The Old Boy’s Club is losing power. More women than ever are in traditionally-male professions and occupations. Inner cities have never been cleaner or more prosperous. For those left out, it’s because you turned your back on higher education. It’s not Darwinism! Cheering on big business is a winner with the New Yorker-reading set (last check, the cover price is $8.99. Hardly radical). For fair-weather liberals seeking social approval with click-bait, big companies’ public relation moves on social issues is true progress. The nefarious element of overseas sweatshops and domestic stagnant wages, a centuries-old mainstay of big business, has fallen off the public consciousness. In any case, they’re making progress on social issues, so it’s okay. And what happened to the “Shop Local” campaign? Well, there are a few bigoted photographers and bakers out there who claim first-amendment protection for their bigotry. Better not risk supporting one.
“On August 18, for the first time since 1999, the three stock market indices set record highs on the same day. If your retirement account is growing, elect Hillary to continue Obama’s legacy”.
What difference does it make? My country is being humiliated overseas, and my income is declining. “Make America great again”. Restoring working-class prosperity is Donald Trump’s announced intention; Bernie Sanders hinted at this as well when he called for in-sourcing jobs from overseas. Trump’s America is a dark world of shortening life expectancy and increasing suicides. The working-class man, driven out to exurban and rural ghettos, is ashamed that he cannot provide for his family without community assistance. Bernie’s America is college educated and well-versed in the language of multiculturalism. They live at home, or receive parental subsistence for rent. There may be a faded Obama poster in the bedroom. They’re in dead-end jobs not related to their college major or career of choice. They’re living the nightmare of soul-crushing jobs the Port Huron Accords predicted half a century ago.  They wonder when they can move on into the post-collegiate life they’ve seen on TV; the lifestyle their teachers promised. 

Big business seems to be a force for social justice; and drive profits as scientifically-driven organizations with streamlined procedures and efficient logistics. But I don’t like the idea of treating people like numbers on a spreadsheet. I’m uncomfortable with companies that protect the bottom-line by using their staff as an on-call labor force with unpredictable schedules. I’m suspect of the intelligence of companies disposing their most senior employees, who happen to be the greatest repositories of knowledge, because they’re paid “too much”. They’ve scorched too much earth. In the last recession, forward-thinking employees who were laid off decided to go it alone- or work it out together. After the parent company of the Washington Blade paper collapsed, one employee reported in a news article, along the lines that “we were only unemployed a few hours that day, from the time we got the news until we realized that we’d continue the paper ourselves”.  Others adapted to the new economy by embracing the You Economy. 

Nearing retirement, one of my professors said that the Future of Work, the You Economy, is a big deal. He sent us an article by email and asked us about it in class.  The topic passed over our heads as we were headed into a domestic maritime industry of strong unions, protected trade, and significant regulatory barriers to entry for both labor and owners. Many would also get good union-sponsored pensions and health benefits strong enough that Richard Trumka, leader of the AFL-CIO, came out against the “Cadillac” Health Plan tax. “Sail Union, get married, retire at 50” appeared more than once in USMMA yearbooks- a middle-class dream right there.  

But what if the You Economy could resurrect the middle class? Entrepreneurs are building from the scrap heap of big business; use their techniques, such as outsourcing tasks to contractors, on a smaller scale to create new products and services. Just-in-time production allows innovators to order prototypes, using their own modest bank accounts as seed money without calling on angel investors. With hipster intrigue into the Maker movement, more leaders than ever are discovering the capabilities of American craftsmanship and manufacturing; knowledge and technical talent working tirelessly in nondescript companies with names like Ball Bearing and Rubber Products. The multigenerational creative class would likely not know that people other than gardeners and elevator mechanics still work with their hands. A few colleges, though, are known for their interface with industry. Stanford University, for example, is the brain of Silicon Valley. It caters to the tech industry, which is hip; and is nearby San Francisco, which is totally hip. I knew someone who won a Gates Scholarship and chose to attend Stanford instead of Harvard. But isn’t Harvard better ranked? Lehigh and Harvey Mudd, longtime interfaces of industrial-collegiate collaboration, aren’t located in the hippest cities; steel and oil are so old-school.  Ideas are created on paper- hence, creative class, and rendered into products by machinists, technicians, and operators utilizing workshops and factories in as much as the tech sector has coders. The same talent that creates the products can engineer their processes based on a living wage for workers. “For many people, America has never been better” for the creative class, those who’ve mastered the You Economy. “Make America great again” for the working class is an achievable goal.

Wednesday, August 10, 2016

The Airplane Engines that Drive Ships

Recently, I flew from Virginia to Houston and, one week later, to Charleston, SC, on a plane known as the Embraer 145. It's a thin tube that seats up to 47 that's good for short flights. These days, United Airlines fly them halfway across the country. My first flight had me in the back row, next to the jet engines and lavatory. I had time to observe and listen to the engines. I knew the next ship I would be boarding had engines like these. When I found out my next flight's seat assignment, I went for Economy Plus. As on a ship, those turbines are best enjoyed 75 feet from, and cumulative inches of aluminum or steel away.

Boarding my next ship was the reason I came to Charleston. When I landed at the bustling small airport on a Saturday, I noticed I was the only flyer in work attire instead of golfing clothes. I did get to see the sights, and got there by city bus. The stop was marked with an old concrete post in a gritty industrial district where the ship was docked. As the bus rolled towards downtown, old factories were used by artisans and mainstream producers. Many call the barebone bus systems of medium-sized cities "transportation of last resort", but its timeliness to the schedule was impressive and made it worth riding.

The ship I'm on, from a class known as the second generation of "AOEs", have hulls of the old liner ships that traversed the oceans in the days before jet planes. Built at the end of the Cold War, I am sure that some of the designers of the AOEs had experience in those majestic passenger ships built in the 1940's and 1950's.  Those passenger ships sailed with steam turbines, a technology that today is used by most conventional and nuclear power plants.

The jet age brought us aeroderivative gas turbines, in use by all fine navies and some high speed ocean ferries. After 1980, steam turbines gave way to diesel engines for most ships, and gas turbines on higher-speed ships such as Cunard's ocean liners. With the AOE's being constructed during the fall of the Soviet Union, the 1990's Navy soon bought a class of even larger logistics ships designed to be crewed by civilians, also propelled by gas turbines. Then computers got smarter; replacing a robust, but expensive part of steam- and gas- turbine ships known as the reduction gear. With power management software, multiple efficient diesel generators could provide electricity to turn a large electric motor attached to the ship's propeller. Enough kilowatts provided the energy needed to propel the ships at high speeds. The AOEs and their cousins known as the AKRs (which I sailed on at the USMMA) mark a certain time frame in history where speed was bought at the cost of fuel efficiency.

Sunday, July 10, 2016

Vibrant City; Charity Care

The Vibrant City
Friday evening, inbound on the Lincoln Tunnel is jammed with people headed to Midtown and the theater district. I’m starting to see this in DC, whose waterfront and restaurants are alive until 11pm on weekday nights.  The city is coming of age for what used to be a “quaint southern city”.
Enough old architecture remains bearing the marks of gentrification, bricks cleaned and painted jolly colors, new window frames, grout renewed. DC also embarked on a subway maintenance blitz; New York City has done this before, although alternate routings and express tracks have mitigates the effects on commuters. DC could certainly do better with alternate bus service, but this is where private industry is stepping in. Uber and Lyft, once demonized by establishment politicians, earned their right to exist as subway service is ending earlier on weekends. Bridj is operating red-and-white private buses that take those “in-the-know” to work- those with smartphone and credit card required. I have not seen “Google”-style buses yet, but I am not ruling out the possibility as the city proper becomes a hipper place than ever.

Charity Care: Alternative to Medicaid Expansion?
In the 1970’s, each state was required to establish central planning of healthcare, including “certificate of need”, removing the essential services of healthcare from the free market and traditional notions of supply-and-demand. It was argued that the process stifled innovation and competition, and the law was repealed in 1986, and over time, 14 states have abolished the system, and others have reduced the scope of central planning. New York was the first, in 1964, as Ronald Reagan and the American Medical Association railed against socialized medicine and Nixon’s individual mandate proposal. Next year is Virginia’s turn. A result of short legislative sessions, a bill passed by the legislature related to the issue was held over for next year. This was a result of strong bipartisan effort in suburban parts of the state. Balancing free-market ideals with the practical reality of health care access for rural residents. Imaging services like MRI and CAT will likely be the first to be liberated. This would be a boon for health care investors, and the Democratic governor, always looking to turn a buck, has shown support. It would also benefit the urban and suburban poor, who would be able to receive charity care on new healthcare investments, more than ever decentralized from large, regional hospitals. The cost of increased healthcare access would be assumed by private investors, rather than taxpayers under Medicaid. Two questions remain: How will this charity care be coordinated? How will rural access to healthcare be protected?

A New Subway in Manhattan
This year a new subway station opened up on the Hudson River in a newly vibrant west of midtown, formerly home to warehouses and meatpacking outfits. The station was built in the bedrock, and escalators connected from the street to the vaulted station a hundred feet below. One short flight of stairs connected the escalator mezzanine to the platform, a Spartan finish for a city that’s still kind of utilitarian. Soon, as in next year, a new line will serve Second Avenue on the notorious Upper East Side, and the Hudson River station is the builder’s model for sleekness in a subway system known for its grit.  Distinctly to the east of Lexington and Fifth Avenues, and retaining a village-like feel, I knew friends-of-friends who were able to afford apartments in the walk-ups that line the side-streets of Second Avenue. In a place where convenience comes with a price, I’d like to see if Second Avenue can keep its quaint, off-the-path charm.