The American Dilemma and How We Can Fix It

Archive for the ‘technology’ Category

FORM AND SUBSTANCE (MY MORNING AT THE IRS)

Once upon a time in America before there was such a thing as “e-filing” and people actually had jobs, we were consigned to self-report our annual financial activity to the IRS using plain old paper.  Those were dark, primitive days indeed.  With only a month to go until the Ides of April, I reflected back on those barbaric days and remembered an experience I had with that tax collection agency.

For once I decided to be proactive. I was not going to wait for the booklet to arrive in the mail. I was going to get the forms I needed to file my income tax return and get it done before midnight on April 14th.  Despite the blustery winter weather I was not going to be deterred.  I was on a mission.

As I prepared to leave the office I realized that I might be able to provide a benefit to my like-minded employees. So I explained that I was headed to the IRS to pick up tax forms and would be happy to get any that my employees needed. Several people spoke up and said that they would appreciate my doing that for them.

When the list was compiled, there were 7 different forms (and Instruction Books) and a total of 37 copies that were required. I headed out on a snowy early March day to the IRS office at 230 S. Dearborn Street in Chicago.

In  the IRS’ lobby there was a large sign that indicated forms were available on the 17th floor. I went to the elevator, my list in my pocket.  Exiting the elevator – another large sign had an arrow directing me to the room where forms were available. I followed the arrow and went into the room.  Much to my surprise and delight, other than the two IRS employees who were behind the counter, I was the only person there.

I went up to the counter and pulled the list from my pocket. I waited patiently as the two employees discussed their dates over the weekend.  I waited politely at the counter – figuring that one of them would eventually deign to assist me.  After five minutes, the female IRS employee came over to the counter and said, “Can I hep you?”

I said, “Yes, please. I would like to get the forms and instruction booklets on this list.” I gave my handwritten list to her.

“Do you has a number?”

“A number?,” I asked.

“Yes. I can’t hep you unless you has a number.”  She pointed to the entrance of the room where by the side of the door I saw a rack of hard plastic numbers hanging on the wall– the kind you used to see in a butcher shop or bakery.

I said, “No, I don’t have a number but I’ll go get one.”

I came back with a number (1) and when I returned to the counter this woman looked at me as though I were new to the room.

“Do you has a number?”

“I do.”

She looked at the electronic display above the plastic cards and called, “Number 1.”  I handed her my number and my list.  She pressed the button under the counter to advance the number to “2”.

As she turned from me she took perhaps three steps and then returned to the counter.

She said, “I can’t fill this order.”

Thinking that the forms had not yet been printed I said, “When do you expect to get the forms in your office?”

She said, “We got the forms. But you only allowed to get five different forms and a total of 25 copies on one day.”

In a perverse way this made sense to me. I could see how it would be inconvenient if a person came in to get a large number of forms – thus holding up everyone else. But since I was the only customer I was willing to have her fill the first 25 items on the list and then wait in line, take another number and wait my turn for the rest.  I explained my plan and asked if that would be okay.

“No. You kin only get a total of 25 copies of the forms per day.”

My usual gentility and patience started to fade dramatically. So I said, “What if you fill the first 25 items on my list. I then go back to my office and ask my 71 year old secretary to walk a mile and a half in the cold and hand you the list to get the remaining forms. Would you give them to her?”

“Yep.”

“Now don’t you think that’s a little silly?,” I asked.

I don’t know if I struck a chord with her over my 71 year old secretary or what exactly motivated this woman, but without answering me, she turned away with my list and about 10 minutes later returned with my complete order.  Plus I got a bonus.  In addition to all the forms that I had requested she provided three additional ones. They were entitled, “FORMS TO REQUEST FORMS.”

I used to be critical of former Treasury Secretary Tim Geithner’s failure to pay his own taxes correctly. I mean, after all, he was the head of the Federal agency that has the IRS within its domain.

But as I thought back on this situation I realized that Sec. Geithner was probably innocent of any fraudulent activity.  The reason he failed to complete his return properly was – HE COULDN’T GET THE FORMS!

THE POWER OF ONE

Recently an ad aired on television which asked the question:

“If every American household replaced one incandescent light bulb with one Compact Florescent Light bulb, how many homes could be powered by the electricity that was saved?”

The answer was 3 Million.

As there are about 100 Million households in America that would represent a three percent reduction in the amount of energy we use to light our homes.  I did a quick audit of my house and discovered that I have in excess of sixty old-fashioned bulbs sitting in various fixtures.  So, in theory, if everyone had as many bulbs in their homes and replaced all of them with CFL’s we would be able to make all American homes energy independent – in fact we should produce a surplus of electricity.  As I looked at my conclusion I realized that there was a flaw in this logic.

Long before we became concerned about conservation on a national level, my parents taught me that it was important.  Perhaps they didn’t think of their admonition to “Turn the lights out when you leave the room,” as something of global importance.  But they knew and taught me that using less electricity reduced the bill which dutifully arrived monthly from Con Ed.  And it was obvious to me that if we sent less to the electric company, that meant there was more to spend on something that was even better than lighting the apartment – like food on the table or putting one extra dime in the Poor Box at church.

Returning to the ad which I at first thought was sponsored by some governmental agency such as the EPA, I was surprised to learn that it was presented by Exxon Mobil Oil.  It is one of the more successful ads that I have seen as it got me thinking.  If we could save a lot of energy by switching out one of our lamps to a CFL, what else could we accomplish by making other small changes?

What could we do to conserve energy if we walked to the store once a week instead of driving our cars?

What could we do for our health if we substituted one glass of water for one of the sodas we consume?

What could we do for the environment if we didn’t charge our phones and tablets as often because we used them to play games one hour a week less?

What could we do for our minds if we watched one less hour of television a day and read a worthwhile book?

What could we do for those we meet if we withheld one criticism and instead found one thing about that person to compliment?

This list is far from complete so feel free to add your own thoughts to it.  But in a world consumed with a craving for energy, perhaps we are looking in the wrong place.  The real power to transform the world is in the power of one.  And each of us is that one – or at least we may be if we so choose.

 

 

 

 

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THE AGE OF ENTITLEMENT

Western Europe in the 17th and 18th centuries had The Age of Enlightenment.  It was a time when great minds would hold court in the salons and set out their views on the political origins, birthright and future of mankind.

In 21st century America we have the Age of Entitlement.  We have enshrined a new god, technology and he is a jealous deity, consigning us to our subservient place as “users” as we absorb ourselves in texting and taking “selfies.”

Perhaps our parents and grandparents were too successful in their efforts to leave us with more than they had.  That was their goal and achieving it provided them with an endorsement of the fact that their lives had meaning.  Many of us in my generation did the same.  And we might have done just a little better than Mom and Dad.  In fact, we may have done a bit too well.

If familiarity breeds contempt, absence of want engenders complacency.  Those of us who are middle class have raised a generation that has lacked little and has even fewer aspirations.

My generation hoped that we would be able to attend college.  Today’s high school grads want to know which school has the best party atmosphere.  We hoped to get a decent job and rise through the ranks.  Today’s kids feel that they deserve to start at the top because they’re “special.”

As a child I remember my father telling me stories about how he had to walk fourteen miles one way to school in the dead of winter, barefoot – and when he got home he had to chop the firewood and stoke the furnace.  I realized that he took some poetic license in relating these sagas – but they did help me understand how much better I had it than he and his siblings.

Perhaps the greatest gift of growing up prior to our present technological era was that we had the ability to be adventurers and discoverers.  If we learned a lesson it was because we learned that lesson from our own experience, not as some footnote on an internet encyclopedic entry.

When I was presented with the mathematical concept of pi it was my introduction to irrational numbers.  My geometry teacher explained that it was most closely expressed as the ratio of 22/7 and that it never resolved itself in an even answer – which is, after all, the nature of irrational numbers.  I was determined to find out for myself.

I remember that evening taking out several sheets of paper and beginning the long division process.  As I recall, I took pi out to about five hundred places and there was no end in sight.  This fascinated me as I looked for some sort of repetitive sequences, but there were none.  And that got me thinking about that Euclid guy and how he had come up with this in the first place.

That sense of wonderment and inquiry is gone from our children’s life experience.  What it took me hours to achieve manually can be done by any of today’s grammar school kids’ hand-held devices in a second or less.  And while re-inventing the wheel is not a productive effort, I suspect that if their notepads responded to the question, “How much is 8 x 5?” with the answer 63, a significant number of our children would write that down, confident that they had responded to the question correctly.

There is no doubt that technology has, in large measure, been a boon and a benefit to mankind.  Well, of course, there is that whole “global warming” thing which would probably not be an issue if we all travelled by horse and buggy.  But reliance on technology and subservience to it are two different matters.

The thoughtful person cannot deny that technology is daily becoming more important in how we live our lives.  I have long argued that if the GPS satellites were suddenly to disappear, half of those making their way home from work would get lost.  And if we didn’t have our cell phones with us, we would not be able remotely to close our garage doors in the event we forgot, lock our houses or enable the NSA and who knows who else to track our movements.

Freed from the need to think on our own, we have willingly consigned that to whoever it is that creates the newest apps.  This naturally allows us a great deal more free time.  But to do what?  To tweet and text and post to Facebook?  To play video games?  Well, there needs to be something to fill the void with all that excess time on our hands.

It is hardly our children’s fault that they spend a lot of their time in mindless activity.  It is all they know and the world of technology is their world.  We should not be too critical if they have an expectation of reward without effort, because we have created that environment and raised them in it.  And we should not be surprised if we notice that little Suzie would rather play a game on her tablet than have a conversation with her family because it was, after all, her family that went out and purchased the latest and greatest in the world of tablets – that is until another version comes out next Christmas.

My father used to quip about how his mother, on giving him a brand new dress shirt would say, “Be careful when you wear that shirt.  I don’t want you getting any stains on it and be sure you don’t tear it.  Your younger brother is going to be wearing it in three years.”  Have you ever heard of a family giving a “hand-me-down” laptop to a younger sibling?

As we have in large measure abandoned the more difficult tasks of personal investigation and curiosity in favor of having ready-made answers handed to us, we have ushered in our Age of Entitlement – the freedom not to think; the freedom to have whatever we want; the freedom to do as we please.

But behind all those apps and conveniences without which we cannot imagine our lives there is someone who is the creator, the inventor and the thinker providing those to us.  And perhaps the next time we get ready to text one of our BFF’s about the latest goings on at the mall, a few of us might stop for a moment and wonder, “Who is it that is pushing our buttons?”

THE REPORT OF THE SENATE COMMITTEE MEETING ON S.H.I.T.

“The Chair recognizes Senator Fogbottom.”

“Mr. Chairman, Members of the Committee and Honored Guests.”

“Today I am pleased to report on the exceptional progress that we have made in implementing the ‘Sub-dermal High Intensity Transformer and Behavior Modification Device’ program, commonly referred to as “S. H. I. T.”

“In the five years since we began implanting these devices in Americans, not only have we been able to employ 287,450 loyal progressives in the “Department of S. H. I. T.,” but we have monitored over 969,866,437,012,554,000,000,000,000,000 thoughts that the recipients of these devices have ideated.”

“Furthermore, we have zapped over 189,364,881 Americans who, at one time or another after installation of the device had a racist thought, a sexist thought, a homophobic thought, an anti-Islamic thought or an anti-government thought, to cite only a few of the 399 unacceptable areas of thought that your government monitors.  This program deserves to be viewed as an incredible success.”

“There is no question that the number of offensive slurs that have been uttered since the S. H. I. T. program was started have been reduced dramatically.  With the absence of news media coverage of these offensive infractions, that has given this country a greatly expanded amount of time in which they may devote themselves to viewing the 587 new Reality TV shows that have been created.”

“Furthermore, with the program’s built-in self destruct program, after the twenty-fifth offensive thought, as you know, the owner receives a lethal dose of voltage that destroys his or her brain and terminates him.  This has proven to be an exceptional boon in two regards.  We have finally figured out a way to reduce the number of unemployed people and the funeral industry is seeing the greatest boom in its history.  I need not even mention to you how this also has had a beneficial impact on ‘Global Warming.’”

“As with any program, there are always a few minor glitches.  But I assure you that the good that the program generates far outweigh these.  Nevertheless, I am here today not only to offer my report but to offer a bill which will alleviate one of the most major negative consequences of the S. H. I. T. program.”

“You see, with the extreme reduction in the number of complaints of ‘hateful statements’ and the consequent reduction in the number of law suits being filed, it appears that our attorney population is having a tough time making ends meet.  And so I am proposing today that we establish a new Department – the “Department of Comprehensive Retraining for Attorney Professionals” which will be more familiarly known as ‘C. R. A.P.’”

“As you know, many attorneys when not occupied chasing ambulances, join their colleague judges on the golf course.  So this provides a very natural and easy transition for them into the world of golf course maintenance.  They already know the terrain – so now all they have to do is be trained in how to work productively – for some of them for the first time in their lives.”

“Ladies and gentlemen, by introducing C. R. A. P. into the S. H. I. T. program, we will have done the greatest service since what’s his name led that Revolution thing a few hundred years ago.  We will truly have made America safe for our visionary form of democracy.  I S. H. I. T. you not – that’s no C. R. A. P.”

“Thank you for your kind attention.  I look forward to your comments and questions.”

LET’S GET DOPEY

This is normally a “G” or on occasion a “PG” rated blog (I gave it those ratings – not a government agency) so parents need not worry about exposing their children to this post.  This is not about killing one of the Seven Dwarfs.  Rather, it’s about how technology is facilitating our getting dumber and dumber.

Once upon a time there was an expression which went, “He had to live by his wits.”  That time is past and that is a fortunate thing for most of us.  If we lived by our wits or perished, the funeral home industry would be working round the clock, seven days a week and there would still be a backlog of bodies to process.

I was inspired to write this post because of an event that happened yesterday.  I used one of the greatest technological inventions of all time, the car horn and saved a life from being extinguished because of another, more modern technological advance, the “smart” cell phone.  I’ll get to the details of the incident in just a moment.

When I blew the horn on my car I wasn’t even sure if it still worked.  I think it’s been about three years since I heard it – and that only because I was getting out of my car with a large bag of groceries in my hands and I accidentally bumped into it.  That naturally startled the dogs who were milling around waiting for me to open the door of the house so I, of course, apologized to them and they forgave me.

If there’s anything that really irks me it is the idiot who is one centimeter from your rear bumper as you are waiting for a stop light to change and when it does, one nano-second after the green light is displayed, lays on his horn to advise you of the fact.  I am very attentive to changes in stop light coloration so this is unnecessary.  Because I do not enjoy being “honked at” I don’t do it to other people.  So for me to employ my horn means that something really critical is in progress.

Returning to the incident … I was driving to the dog park with Gracie when a young man walked into the street almost directly in front of our car with his eyes firmly affixed to the screen of his cell phone.  I would have guessed him to be in his early twenties and unlikely to reach his early thirties.

Fortunately, at the early hour I could see there was no traffic coming the other way so I swerved into the opposite lane and gave a quick toot on the horn to see if I could rouse him from his fixation on the cell phone screen.  In the process of swerving to avoid hitting him, Gracie got jammed up against one side of the wagon and banged her right side on the car frame.  I am pleased to say that she, the young man and I all survived relatively unscathed.

I pulled the car over to the side of the road and my first reaction was to be angry with this cell phone-fixated fellow.  Then I remembered that I have promised myself to try to be nice and kind and gentler to the people I meet.  But I did think that it was important that he understood that his actions might have involved all of us in a life-changing event.

I got out of the car to speak with him.  He had lowered the cell phone and was apparently beginning to grasp what had happened on his own.  Nevertheless, I thought it was appropriate that I let him know my thoughts on the subject and I presented them in the nicest and kindest and most gentle way I could muster considering that my knees were shaking moderately because of all of this.

Well, I found out the source of his fixation.  It was his girl friend.  He had spent the night at her house and was walking back to his apartment when she sent him a text message saying that she didn’t want to see him anymore.  He was naturally surprised,shocked and “distracted” by this announcement, coming only twenty minutes or so after he had left her.

I didn’t see the text message so I don’t know if this was an excuse for his lack of paying attention.  If it was the truth, what does it say about our ability to communicate?  We now can use technology to trivialize our relations with others, shielding ourselves behind its cold flat panel screens.  Other than in a philosophical way, it didn’t really matter to me whether he was telling the truth or making up an excuse.  So we took our leave and went on about our business.

You are probably thinking that proves nothing about how using technology is “dumbing us down” and you would be right on the money.  Anything has a potential to be used or misused and it is up to us to make the choice.

There is nothing inherently right or wrong in sending or receiving an email or text message.  Of course, if the email contains a death threat or pornographic images of children, we believe that is wrong.  Although not in a legal sense, I would argue that there is something inherently wrong if staying in touch is so pressing that it jeopardizes our life.

To many of us, being able to access information almost instantaneously is very important.  If it weren’t, various network providers would not have run extensive advertising campaigns about how their service provides the greatest geographical coverage and quickest download times.

In the case of this young man, let’s agree that his need to access his communication while paying attention to it and not the fact that public streets often contain moving vehicles was a poor choice on his part and not the fault of the technology which enabled him to do that.  That many people engage in that exact form of behavior should be clear from all the furor over drivers who “text” while they operate their vehicles.

I am moderately surprised that the FCC, as an extension of our paternalistic government, hasn’t advocated for the abolition of all cell phones based on the danger that they pose to those of us who misuse them in this way.  My only explanation for why that hasn’t been proposed is that acting thus in the “public interest” might put them out of a job.  That, and the fact that our cell phone dependent populace might lynch them.

When I was learning to type, Mom who was my instructress, emphasized that “accuracy matters.”  I remember all the exercises, how I placed my hands on the typewriter’s keyboard, learning where all the letters were and finally, without having to look, being able to create words and sentences – and to do it quickly.  At my peak I typed over 140 wpm with 100% accuracy.

In those days of carbon paper and manual typewriters, accuracy was important.  If you messed up you might have to correct one or more copies by manually erasing the error and re-striking the correct letter in its place.  This created a product that looked sloppy.  So we invented “corrassable” paper which left far fewer smudges.  And we invented “White Out” to cover our mistakes – but this still left evidence on the printed page.

We moved from manual typewriters to electric ones and IBM invented the “Selectric” typewriter which could remove an error on the original document by re-striking the mistake while hitting the “X” key and magically it would disappear.  Of course these early technological advances in written communication were primitive by comparison to what is available to us today.

We can move whole paragraphs around and if we find a mistake we made earlier, we no longer have to crank a carriage to return to the scene of the crime.  We merely cursor up and over it, delete the error and correct it.

If our spelling isn’t that great we have the magic of spell check to guide us and suggest for us what it is that we meant to say.  So why make the effort to learn to spell when technology can make up for our learning disabilities?  The answer is that we don’t.

I used to pride myself on being able to type a document quickly and accurately.  Let me be honest and tell you that in typing this post I’ve probably made at least 100 errors and corrections – so far.  I’ve deleted whole paragraphs and replaced them with others.  I’ve typed incorrect characters and backspaced to eradicate them.  I’ve substituted words and phrases which I felt added a better nuance to the piece.

I do proofread my work because I take pride in it and want to present a professionally written post for you to read.  But I couldn’t begin to tell you how many times, after I’ve published a post, I’ve caught an error or decided to add to or delete something that I had previously written and simply changed the piece after publication.

It’s as though I were an author whose works were available in hardbound book form and after publication, an erratum on page 47 line 6 was discovered.  So magically, at the press of a button, it was corrected on all the copies that were already in circulation.  That master of illusion, David Copperfield has nothing on technology.

What I hope I am conveying to you is that my once accurate approach to typing has been dying a slow death.  I still probably accurately type faster and better than most – but that is only because I had many years of practice where it wasn’t the better choice but the only choice.  And if you think that this wasn’t important, I made a lot of money in high school and college typing up other students’ term papers at fifty cents a page.

Today, however, by relying on technology I will be the first to admit that I’ve gotten sloppy.  It bothers me and I still strive for accuracy.  It is, in the end, far more efficient to do it right the first time than to have to re-do something – even if re-doing it is now far simpler.

I suspect that those who have grown up in and only know our present environment have little or no understanding of this concept – which is not their fault.  That they are technologically dependent rather than self-reliant speaks directly to the root cause of at least some of our problems as a society.

A few days ago I was speaking with the mother of a three month old baby boy.  She was telling me that the new brand of disposable diapers she just purchased, (another technological advance that is one of the greatest contributors to the pollution in our landfills), has a strip which changes color when the diaper is wet.  I don’t know what extra amount the manufacturer is charging for this feature but I know she is paying for the convenience of it.  Mom used to know when my cloth diapers were wet either through a visual or touch test.  I mean, how hard is this?

Later that day one of the guys at the park asked if anyone knew where the least expensive place was to buy razor blades.  The men standing around made several suggestions.  This fellow said that his last razor blade cartridge had “just gone white.”  I didn’t understand what the meant so I asked him to explain and he did.

Apparently there is a little strip at the top of each of these which starts out green and as the blades dull becomes lighter in color until it finally turns white which means that it is time to replace it.  I asked innocently, “Wouldn’t you know that because the cartridge is producing less smooth shaves or pulling at your beard?”  I thought that was a reasonable question.

He and the other men looked at me as though I were from the planet Uranus (as it was formerly pronounced).  I wish my dad were still here so I could ask him how he learned when it was time for him to change the double edge blade he used in his “safety razor.”

Now please don’t get me wrong.  We have made technological advances which I wouldn’t trade for the world.  Today’s air conditioning beats the pants off our version of a bowl of ice and an oscillating fan that was the best we could do to cool ourselves when I was growing up.  This is just one of hundreds of improvements to which I could point.

But when we allow technology (or for that matter another person) to do our thinking for us, we give up, if Descartes was correct, our right to call ourselves human.  And I have often wondered, if all the satellites and the batteries suddenly disappeared, how many of us would be able to find our way home?

I HATE REPEATING MYSELF … BUT

“Once you eliminate the impossible, whatever remains, no matter how improbable, must be the truth.” – Arthur Conan Doyle

The man who created the character, Sherlock Holmes was certainly on to something in this statement.  But what if you eliminated the impossible and the truth were not improbable but extremely obvious?  Wouldn’t it be clear that we should all endorse this gleefully?  You would think this is kind of a no-brainer.

And that brings me to the subject (once again) of texting while driving.

Here’s the impossible – passing laws that prohibit texting while driving and expecting that they will be obeyed or can be enforced.  One would think we wouldn’t need to pass this kind of law because an intelligent individual would realize that this puts herself at risk – not to mention the possible risk inflicted on innocent people who are in the neighborhood of her vehicle.

Recent stories about two young men, one who suffered a brain injury in Texas as a result of his texting while driving and the second about another in Washington state who narrowly escaped what might have been a fatal accident while engaged in the same activity prove that not all of us pay attention to the law – and even fewer exhibit any awareness of “common sense.”

Currently 39 states have laws on the books which prohibit texting while operating a motor vehicle.  What a waste of time, money and paper.  There is, as I have previously suggested an obvious and easy solution – and it will actually work.

By definition, if you are able to text from your phone you have a “smart phone.”  That smart phone can offer you GPS guidance – which means it knows where you are.  How hard would it be to modify those phones (if they don’t already have the capability) to be able to determine how fast you are moving while you are using it?

If your phone detects that you are moving at faster than 10 mph, if you attempt either to receive or send a text, both screens come up with a warning:  “Accepting (or Sending) this text will result in your being charged a $5.00 Service Fee for texting while driving.”  Hit both the recipient and sender at the same time – thereby educating two people at once.  I guarantee that after one or two monthly billing cycles, these auto-texters will reconsider their ways.

No need to involve the police in the process, diverting them from more important work they have to do.  And it’s not a matter of getting caught – because by your own actions you are convicting (and paying a fine) yourself.

Sounds like more government intervention in our lives.  Well, in a sense that is true.  But in 39 states the government has already intervened.  We are merely making their efforts efficient.

And what happens to the fees collected?  Use them to pay down the national debt or give them to a charity.  (I’m even willing to waive my 10% fee for thinking up this very obvious solution).

ON OUTSOURCING

When we hear the word outsourcing (and the rhetoric over that is sure to increase as the Presidential campaign heats up), most of us tend to think that it means taking American jobs and shipping them overseas.  That is one, but not the only aspect of this business practice.  This post will attempt to explain both the process and the reasons that companies outsource certain internal procedures.

If you were the Managing Partner of a successful CPA firm and had guided your partnership’s growth over the years, one of the aspects of your business which you would have to manage was records destruction.  Destroying records containing sensitive client information, Name, Address, SSN, DOB, income might easily have been accomplished as a firm with a small practice with a simple paper shredder.  But because of the volume of client documents what was once a simple task that took one of your employees a few hours now has grown to a monumental job.

Solution:  Outsource this to a firm that is bonded, specializes in the destruction of sensitive records and has the most sophisticated equipment to make sure that they accomplish their job in a secure manner.  You have just outsourced this aspect of your business – although in this case you have done so with an American company.  No loss of American jobs here – merely a transfer of who is paying the individuals performing the task.

The reason companies do this is that it makes for a more efficient operation.  Someone using the most advanced equipment and whose sole job is to destroy records, as in the case above, is going to provide a better product and do so in less time.  I doubt the critics of outsourcing as a practice have a problem with the example I have given.

Nor are they likely to have a problem with another aspect of outsourcing – engaging temporary personnel to work on a specific project – rather than hire a full-time employee.

I think most of us would agree that it is more efficient to hire a person from a temporary agency for a project which is expected to last only a few weeks or a few months, rather than hire a person to work full time until the project is completed and then lay that person off.  Again, we have another example of how outsourcing can be an effective, if not the only, logical strategy in certain business situations.

The rhetoric surrounding outsourcing does not concern itself with either of the two examples I have cited.  It specifically refers to taking jobs which formerly were done by Americans and shipping those to other countries.  There is no doubt that much of that has occurred.  The question is, if this is a “bad” thing, who is at the root cause of it and who should shoulder the blame?

There is one party to whom I would point:  The American consumer.

The American consumer’s spending comprises two-thirds of our Gross Domestic Product.  You and I collectively are the single largest driving force behind our economy – or it’s greatest nemesis.  We want more, we buy more, we spend more – or we still want but we cannot afford to buy and as a result we spend less.  When we spend less, the economy suffers.  And our economy is suffering.

It would be untruthful not to admit that many products which were once made in the United States are now manufactured abroad.  The American dominance in the automobile and steel industry have long since waned from their days of glory.  And the reason – the American consumer.

Absorbed with our desire to buy we naturally want what we want at the lowest price.  And the lowest price is a direct function of the lowest material and labor cost.  A car which can be assembled in Germany or Japan for one half the cost in terms of labor will be sold in the showroom at a lower price than a comparable American product.  Look in your garage and check out the make of the vehicle that you are driving.  Does it have “Made in America” stamped on it?

The largest tech company, Apple, Inc. does not have a single product in its line which is manufactured in the United States.  The glass on your iPhone and the engine on the iPhone and iPad are made in the U. S.  – and are then shipped to China and other Asian countries where these units are assembled – together with all the rest of the parts that are manufactured in those countries.

Why does Apple pursue this manufacturing strategy?  CEO, Tim Cook responded to that question by saying, “Cost and facilities.”

If an iPad sells quickly at $499 the question is would one that was manufactured in the U.S.A. sell as well at $999?  Would the lines at the Apple store be as long and would the company move as much product if they decided to bring the manufacturing process home?  Probably not.  And so each of us who purchases their products provides positive reinforcement for Apple’s strategy of outsourcing.

I do not mean to sound as though I am picking on Apple.  Countless other examples could be cited ranging from appliances to food products.  I now find it nearly impossible to buy dog treats that don’t have “Made in China” stamped somewhere surreptitiously on the packaging.  And if I purchase those products, I am contributing to the wave of outsourcing in which we find ourselves.  And if you buy them, so are you.

There are many who will argue that outsourcing is anti-American, a disgrace and a shameful practice.  Perhaps their assessment is correct.  But at the heart of the practice is our insatiable desire to acquire more and more, the latest and greatest – and to pay the lowest price for it.

That’s something of which we should all be mindful the next time we pull out our credit card to make a purchase for a product that doesn’t say, “Made in America.”  That is, if you can find one.

THE POISON APPLE

In our technologically oriented world, if you were to ask most users if they owned at least one product manufactured by Apple, Inc. the answer would come back a resounding, “yes.”  It is accurate to say that the company is the most highly valued (as measured by total share value) of any company in its industry and at one point recently of any company in any industry anywhere in the world.

As you probably know, Apple’s products are not manufactured in the United States but are outsourced to companies primarily in Asia, China being one of its largest suppliers.  Perhaps it is only my impression but I have noticed that people who are really proficient in their reliance on technology tend to be younger, more socially liberal and express their concerns more enthusiastically about equity and equality.

They must be disturbed by the conditions that exist for workers in several of the Chinese plants that manufacture components and products for this technological mega giant.

According to China Labor Watch in a 133 page report released today, the conditions under which Chinese workers are forced to work would have made the textile industry in the U. S. and its demands on its female workers 100 years ago look like a day at a picnic.  In large measure, the conditions in the textile factories gave impetus to the labor union movement in the United States.

The two companies most highly featured in the report are both Taiwanese-owned,  operating manufacturing facilities on the mainland.  They are Foxconn Technology Group and Riteng, a division of Pegatron Corp.  The average wage at Foxconn is $1.60 per hour – at Riteng $1.30.  And you wonder why everything you see on the shelves of our stores in the United States are stamped “Made in China.”

One of the things that the report made clear was that both companies regularly violate the laws regarding overtime.  According to the survey of their findings gathered over a four month period, the average worker at Foxconn works a 10 hour day – and 12 hours at Riteng.  Furthermore, the report cited cases where workers put in as many as 180 hours of overtime per month, far exceeding the 36 hour legal limit established by the People’s Republic of China.

In addition, although the law requires that workers be covered by health insurance, many plants ignore that regulation.

Apple says that it “audits” its suppliers’ compliance closely.  If you want to see the company’s official policy you may click the link below, but don’t be surprised if Apple’s official statement of standards appear to be quite different from the report that China Labor Watch published.

http://www.apple.com/supplierresponsibility/

Giving Apple the benefit of the doubt that they do have standards and audit their suppliers to make sure they comply with them, apparently they need to do a better job evaluating these companies.  That is not unlike J. P. Morgan Chase’s needing to do a better job managing risk internally.

But to play devil’s advocate for a moment – what if Apple’s real motivation is simply making as much profit as possible – and if thousands of workers suffer in that effort, well that’s business?  I’m not advancing that position – but it does represent one possible scenario.  So if that’s the case, what then does the conscientious person concerned about the social welfare of all working people do?

The most effective thing would probably be that when Apple launches a new product, don’t get in the line of eager beavers waiting to purchase it.  And let the company know why you’re not going to buy that product.

But in the meantime, the dedicated Apple user can use the time to contact Apple and express her discomfort with the conditions in their suppliers’ factories; write posts; email friends; and put notices on the social media publicizing the difference between what Apple says it stands for and what it accepts from its suppliers.

Who knows, if the message goes viral, it will no doubt prove an embarrassment to the largest tech company in the world and cause them to demand better working conditions for those who manufacture their products.

Let’s not forget, the plants we are talking about are in China.  And in China, “Saving Face” still means a lot.

THE PRICE OF VIRTUE

A man was attending a seminar and at the end of the day he went into his hotel’s bar to relax with a drink.  He sat down, placed his order and pulled out his notes from several of the sessions that he thought were most helpful.  As he sat there reviewing these a very attractive young lady sat down at the bar several seats away from him.

He couldn’t help notice her as she was truly stunning, very well-dressed and seemed to have an outgoing personality.  Much as he tried to keep his mind on the seminar material he found her too distracting.  So he put away his paperwork and moved to take a seat next to her, asking her if she minded if he joined her.

“Not at all,” she said.

So they introduced themselves and began chatting.  This young lady was not only bright but she was a brilliant conversationalist and the man realized how much he enjoyed her company and how much he desired her beauty.

After he had purchased several rounds for both of them he finally got up the pluck to ask her the question that was foremost on his mind.

“I hope you won’t be offended,” he said, “But if I were to offer you ten thousand dollars would you sleep with me?”

He waited for her reaction, half expecting to have her throw her drink in his face.  But instead, she paused and said, “Why, yes I would.”

“Well, would you sleep with me if I only offered you twenty dollars?”

The young woman looked very offended and said, “What kind of a girl do you think I am?”

The man replied, “Well, we’ve already established that.  Now we’re just negotiating the price.”

Although the intensity of conversation on the subject of Wall Street and banking abuses has died down in recent weeks, there are many of us who feel that financiers who make huge salaries are being overpaid and are taking risks that threaten the collapse of our financial system.  Perhaps there is some truth to those statements.

As our story illustrates, with few exceptions, everyone has a price.  And when the prize is the potential of earning billions of dollars, there is no question that even those of us of the highest morality might find the temptation  too great to resist.  In part that explains the demise of Lehman Brothers and MF Global – among many who have fallen by the wayside.

Although I in no way mean to serve as an apologist for the business of banking, I would say, in their defense, that making money is the sole objective of their business.  But if they do that in an irresponsible way that threatens the well-being and security of the rest of us, it is not only our right but our duty to object.

Speaking of finance, there is another industry which is playing its part in contributing to our outstanding and rising deficits which also threaten our well-being.  That is the business of healthcare.

Now I realize that most of us have a view of our doctors as trained specialists who have spent years learning their craft.  We see them as being charitable good-doers who want nothing more than to see all of us whole and well.  And, of course, there are many in this profession whose focus is exactly that.  They run clinics for the poor and survive through small contributions.  God bless them.  They are true beacons of light who have taken the meaning of their oath seriously and are living it daily.

But if our healthcare system depended solely on these charitable souls, the line to get in to see your doctor would extend across the country.  No, most of us depend on the dispensation of our medical services from practitioners who have a dual mandate – to take care of the sick and to make a profit doing it.  Unless we all suddenly start receiving Manna from Heaven, each of us has to do something to pay our way through life – a practice which we call “earning a living.”

Although it is not our customary way of thinking about it, I believe that it is only fair to call medicine, just like banking, a business.  And just as in the case of egregious behavior on the part of some bankers, we also have the right to call into question the motivation which guides some in the medical industry.

About twenty years ago I remember speaking with the partner in a consulting firm that looked to improve the efficiency of the way in which hospitals functioned.  He was a good friend and the two of us used to share horror stories about our respective businesses.

Randy told me about speaking with two hospitals (the only two hospitals) in a relatively small town in downstate Indiana.  Both of them were struggling to make it financially and they needed his firm’s help.  So he sat down with the administrators and senior staff of the hospitals over a week’s time to review their activities.  He returned to Chicago and spent a few days writing his report and scheduled a return visit to discuss it with both staffs.

Given their precarious financial positions, the first thing on his agenda was to discuss with them the fact that they had both placed orders for a new piece of medical equipment.  It was some sort of imaging machine and the cost which each had committed to incur was over $1.5 million.  The doctors on staff at both hospitals were in agreement that once it was delivered, the equipment would only be used once or twice a month.

So Randy suggested that one of the hospitals cancel their order and that they share the cost of the equipment and decide at which hospital it would be installed.  As he put it, describing the reaction to this recommendation, “You would have thought I was talking to a bunch of nuns and called the Pope the Anti-Christ.”

Despite the frosty reception to this statement he went on to explain the finances which lay behind his thinking.

“You can expect to be reimbursed approximately $2,000 per procedure.  If both hospitals combined do two of these a month, that comes to about $50,000 per year.  With only one imaging machine it would take thirty years to recoup your investment – and with two, it would obviously take sixty years.  But with the progress that is being made in this kind of technology you can expect that this equipment will be obsolete in ten years or less – so the fact is that you will never recover your investment – not even on one machine.  Buying  two is even more absurd.”

He continued his presentation and was gratified that they liked at least some of his proposals on how to improve efficiency.  Sadly, these represented the smallest improvement in the hospitals’ balance sheets.  They rejected all those which would have truly made a difference.  And, simply out of hubris, both hospitals took delivery of their new imaging equipment.  One hospital couldn’t have its rival look more modern and up-to-date than they were.

Several years passed and Randy and I got together one night for dinner.  During our conversation he asked if I remembered his telling me about these two hospitals.  I had.

He said, “Well, the end of the story is that one of them closed their doors last week.”

When we think of holding on to our virtue we often see this in terms of being able to resist the temptations money offers.  But if we really delve into the subject, being able to overcome our egos is just as significant a challenge.  We see that in the behavior of our “celebrities” and occasionally we see that in two small hospitals in southern Indiana.

Does virtue have a price?  Indeed.  And if we forego our responsibility to hold on to it the price is very dear – and it is one for which we all pay.

HOW TO DO YOUR TAXES

Once upon a time, doing your taxes was a relatively easy thing. Picture this – the Holy Land two thousand years ago. Down the road come Joseph, Mary and Jesus when they meet the Roman tax collector.

The official pulls them off their donkey and says, “Where are you from? How many in your party?” (These are questions which all of us can easily answer).

Joseph says, “Nazareth. There are three of us.”

The tax collector says, “That will be three shekels. Move on.”

How things have changed. Those of us who are taxpayers in the United States now have to confront the 62,000 pages of the Internal Revenue Code. (I estimate that printing even one copy of the tax law will destroy one of the ancient redwoods in the Pacific Northwest).

Now granted, there isn’t one taxpayer who has to know every bit of this profound document. Even multi-national companies can ignore the sections of the code that pertain to individuals – and those of us who are individuals can ignore the parts that pertain to multi-national companies. Nonetheless, all of us must confront IRS’s use of Taxlish (that’s tax English) which is foreign to most of us.

But there’s a bright light on the horizon that will “simplify” our tax laws which have evolved after ever more dung has been flung on the dung pile for decades. Some have proposed a flat tax – something so simple that even a person with only a third grade knowledge of math could complete. Wouldn’t it be loverly?

Give up hope all ye who enter into this belief. It will never happen. There are far too many vested interests whose incomes are derived from the completion and processing of tax returns.

There are the accounting firms, the tax preparer services, the CPA’s, the tax lawyers, the tax lobbyists, the people who are employed by the IRS, the tax software companies and the paper companies that would lose their right to chop down more redwoods in the Pacific Northwest in order to produce additional copies of the law. (I forgot the manufacturers of ink whose products are used to print up the law – but most of those are overseas – so we don’t really care about them).

So having dashed your hopes that we will soon all be able to prepare our own returns easily and accurately, what choices do we have as we near that April 15th deadline?

Either we can choose to go it alone or use one of those services that open up for a few months a year in your local strip mall or get the latest nifty handy-dandy software that advertises the “accuracy” of it’s calculations (though they don’t guarantee that your return will be filed correctly). So let’s look at our options in detail.

GOING IT ALONE.

Well, you’re conscientious, you’ve gotten your booklet in the mail from IRS, you’ve gathered all the receipts and the stuff you wrote on the back of cocktail napkins, you’ve got your tensor lamp perfectly positioned over this mound of paperwork (the size of a small birch tree) and are ready to do your duty as a loyal taxpaying American. Your trusty legal-size pad of lined paper is to your right and your calculator is plugged into its outlet. Your pencils are in their nice little caddy – all neatly sharpened and ready for use.

Oops. You’ve hit a snag. There’s that sticky question, “Do you have or control a bank or investment account in a foreign country?” As it happens, you spend your summers in Taos, NM and as a matter of convenience you maintain a small bank account in that state. If you read my post, “How I learned geography” you might be worried that the person at the IRS who reviews your return might have once been the telephone operator who thought that New Mexico was in a foreign country. Should you check “Yes” or “No” in that box?

Faced with this conundrum, you decide to call the IRS help line so that you can accurately respond to this question. After a brief wait, one of our civil servants within that agency answers your call. Despite the fact that this person sounds like a succubus and your aorta is her target you explain your question. There is a momentary pause and the answer comes back, “No.” You thank her and hang up.

But wait – the IRS says that relying on the advice of their own employees does not guarantee that you have filed your return accurately. In fact, they make the statement that three out of four of the answers we taxpayers receive from their employees are wrong. So you call back three more times – thinking that in a republic the majority should rule – even if they are incorrect.

Bad news. It’s a tie – two “Yes” and two “No.” So you decide to ignore the question and file your return without answering it, hoping for the best. Such are the perils of going it on your own.

USING A TAX-SOFTWARE PROGRAM.

A few years ago you tried using one of those software packages so you could easily complete your return. It might have been co-incidence but as you were working through the program, your computer got infected by a nasty virus. So in addition to having to have to pay for the software you had to spend two hundred dollars to get your hard drive wiped clean and your operating system re-installed. Plus the hardware kept asking you the questions and didn’t allow you to ask any of it. Lesson learned – no more tax software preparation for you.

USING A “PROFESSIONAL PREPARER”.

You gather up all your documents, putting them in two banker’s boxes, load the station wagon and head over to the mall to a tax preparation service. As you walk in you think to yourself, “This will be good. I’m the only customer here.” (It’s early in the tax season). Not only are you the only customer – but there’s only one employee in the storefront.

This very mature lady has the most incredibly blonde hair put up in a bouffant style that is straight out of the 1950’s. Her French nails are at least two inches long and you wonder how she can possibly hold a pencil with those claws or write with them. The glitter coming from them is nothing short of dazzling.

As you walk in you notice that there is a cardboard placard on her desk that advertises that this firm will “Take a Second Look” at your previous return to see if you (or one of those inferior tax return-preparation services or software programs) had screwed up and not gotten you the full refund to which you were entitled. In fact, there are signs advertising this service all over the little office front. (Apparently, there’s money in correcting the mistakes of others as this service will take a percentage of this found money to which you were fully-entitled in the first place).

As you explain that you simply want to file this year’s return, Bouffant Betty looks a little disappointed – but begins to sell you on the idea that her firm can provide you with a quick “tax-refund anticipation check,” (at a modest charge) should you be entitled to a refund after she has professionally completed her computations.

After only a few minutes at her desk, you realize that your main goal is just getting the numbers put on the tax return – whether it is accurate or not. The overwhelming scent of her perfume, “Eau What A Beautiful Morning” is beginning to cause you to feel dizzy.

You ask BB (she said you should call her that), how long she thought it would take for her to do her work? Since you are very nicely organized, she says that it would only take about an hour – and so you go outside.

A few store fronts down from BB’s office you saw a store that sells cigarettes. Even though you don’t smoke, you decide to go in and buy a pack and take up the habit – just so you can get some fresh air into your lungs.

You smoke six cigarettes, feeling good about your decision to take up the habit. Whether or not your return is accurate, you have just contributed $1.01 to the Federal government in excise tax on your purchase. You’re helping make America a better place – and the light-headedness you’re experiencing from the cigarettes is a big improvement over the nausea you were feeling from the perfume.

Steeled with a nicotine buzz, you walk back into BB’s office. Ta da. She has done her duty and told you that you are entitled to a refund. (Sadly, it isn’t sufficient to cover the amount of her firm’s services). But you are happy to pay her and escape as quickly as possible with your newly prepared return and your two banker’s boxes of records. You need a smoke.

Yes, my fellow Americans – these are the choices we will all soon face. But I would like to offer the very simplest of suggestions that could make all our lives easy and eliminate the anxiety that we annually face as the tax filing deadline approaches.

(Drum roll).

We simply turn our entire income over to the Federal government as we earn it – and then they can refund to us the amount which they think we’re entitled to live on.

We seem to be headed in that direction anyway.

 

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