Tag Archives: income inequality

The Shoe Salesman as Relic

27 Sep

846-02792528

 

He is thin, well postured and wears a fine suit and silk tie. His shoes, of course, are high quality. They are shined.

 

He is the Shoe Salesman, a man from another era. Proud, maybe arrogant, certainly fussy about footwear, he treats you, his customer, with respect and wants you to walk away in style and comfort.

 

You are seated when the Shoe Salesman approaches. He is polite and professional. You notice he moves well. There is some discussion about what you need and want. He makes suggestions and you tend to agree with him.

 

Now he must measure your feet.

shoe measuring device

The Shoe Salesman pulls up a specially designed bench that allows him to sit and you to put a foot up so he can place a shoe on it. But that comes a little later, after the measurement, which is done using a device that looks as if it belongs in his hands. He can move it about easily, flipping it to measure either your right or left foot.

 

On his request, you stand for the measurement. He moves the calibrators, touches your big toe, presses the foot flat and – regardless of what size you see on the device – tells you what size you should wear.

Eatons Shoe Salesman Chair 1970 1

Using the information from your earlier discussion with the Shoe Salesman, he goes into the back to get your shoes. A moment later he returns with three or four boxes. There are different styles and even different sizes, just in case his measurement is off.

 

The Shoe Salesman puts down all but one box. He holds it in his left hand, gracefully removes the lid and secures it underneath the box. There is a “fliff, fliff” sound as the Shoe Salesman deftly pushes aside the two pieces of tissue covering the shoes. You notice how good the shoes look.

 

He sits on his bench and takes one shoe from the open box. Then, in a move that would humble a magician, the Shoe Salesman produces a silvery shoehorn from somewhere. You are not certain from where. He manipulates the shoehorn and the shoe glides silently onto your foot with minimal friction.

 

The Shoe Salesman ties the laces like you never could. He repeats all this for the second shoe and asks you to stand. With your foot inside the shoe, he uses his thumb and forefinger to squeeze the tip of the shoe. This is to judge the distance, if any, from the top of your big toe to the leather in front. The Shoe Salesman decides if it’s enough.

 

He asks you to walk, which you do. He watches you closely. He asks questions.

 

You try on another pair or two and, upon the recommendation of the Shoe Salesman, make a decision. He expresses delight at your choice and while boxing up the shoes asks if you need socks. You say no, and then a point of importance is mentioned: Do you need shoe trees?

CedarShoeTree

Cedar shoe trees: $25

The shoe trees, he explains, are vital to the care and life of shoes. They allow the shoes to hold their shape and help to disperse odor. They come in plastic, but those are not recommended. You should only buy cedar, the Shoe Salesman advises, even if they are expensive.

 

With a degree of embarrassment, you decline the shoe trees. There is a look of disappointment on the face of the Shoe Salesman. This detracts from the near joy of the shoe purchasing experience. Something in you wants to make the Shoe Salesman happy, and you seemed to have failed at that.

 

But the Shoe Salesman rallies and the transaction finishes in upbeat fashion. There is a request that you visit again soon.

shoes-2000-dollars

A pair of $2,000 shoes

 

The Shoe Salesman may still exist at fine men stores where shoes sell for the price of a good suit. There was a time, however, when they were found in main street establishments and in family department stores like Sears.

 

It takes dignity, a reasonable salary and longevity to produce the kind of service described here. It is unfortunate these things were severed from shoe sales decades ago. So today, we are accustomed to what would have been an unacceptable horror in 1960: We must try on our own shoes and judge for ourselves whether or not they fit. In the entire shoe department, it may be impossible to find anything even resembling a rudimentary shoehorn.

 

Like in restaurants where we must serve and clean up after ourselves, we are pretty much on our own in the shoe department.

 

This is the American economy, a place sucked dry of everything deemed unessential. Remarkably, without someone trying to sell you shoes, the shoes manage to get sold. This is the miracle of our time. In a society where labor is horribly undervalued and skills like those of the Shoe Salesman will never be properly rewarded, the American public has been trained to supply free labor that previously was paid for.

 

How did this happen? Damned if I know. Perhaps it’s the results of global markets and the ability of foreign people with lower living standards to produce things once produced by those in countries with higher standards of living.

 

But I think it’s also related to the predatory nature of our society championed by corporations that want to keep an increasingly larger portion of their revenue. They succeed at this in the absence of any morality requiring a more even distribution of wealth, and with no market forces pushing up wages.

 

When Henry Ford needed to ramp up production on his new assembly line in order to meet the swelling demand for his cars, he famously boosted wages to $5 a day, an unheard of rate. Slyly, that rate was enough so all his employees could afford cars.

 

Today there are legions of undervalued workers, many at multi-billion dollar companies such as Walmart and Amazon, who cannot afford an automobile. As long as cars and other American products are purchased by consumers in the global market, this presumably doesn’t matter. It does, however, create instability, conflict and adds stress to government.

A Snug Fit

A shoe salesman attends to a customer in 1955

 

 

I say this not because I am a Bleeding Heart Liberal. I say this not because I want to penalize private enterprise. Rather, I say this because I am a person who once enjoyed purchasing a pair of men’s shoes and would like very much to someday enjoy that experience again.

 

By Lanny Morgnanesi

 

Advertisements

Hobos, happiness and the Big Rock Candy Mountain

24 Aug


Hobos

I used to think “Big Rock Candy Mountain” was a children’s song. It’s not. It’s a song by and about hobos that someone made into a children’s song.

 

Harry McClintock, a hobo known as Haywire Mac, was the first to record it in 1928. It depicts a hobo’s paradise. You don’t see many hobos today but they were common and plentiful during the Depression.

 

The Coen brothers used the song in the movie, “Oh Brother Where Art Thou?” Recently, I watched the movie again on TV and gave a close listen to the lyrics of the song.

 

Harry-mcclintockIt describes a place where cops have wooden legs so hobos can out run them. The jails are made of tin so hobos can easily escape. On the Big Rock Candy Mountain, boxcars are always empty and lakes are filled with stew and whiskey. There are no short-handled shovels.

 

That’s the hobo’s idea of paradise.

 

After hearing the song, I though that if I were a hobo my paradise would have no cops and no jails. It would be a place where someone down on their luck could crawl out of their hole and make a good living; a place where even a hobo could be somebody.

 

What I failed to understand was that in my hobo paradise, a hobo would cease being a hobo. As I listened to the song again, it became clear that while hobos may want an easier life, they still want to be hobos.

 

Which raises the question: How true is this of other people and their lives?

 

Amidst our general hardship and discomfort, apart from our complaints and dissatisfaction with the small and the large, are we actually … happy?

 

As you think, consider this little story.

 

I once spent the Fourth of July at a country club. The fireworks were fantastic and the food was beyond good. There were hot dogs and hamburgers but also barbecued chicken and ribs, all you could eat. On a table the length of an interstate was an assortment of desserts.

 

In addition to bringing me, my host brought an African-American boy, about 12. He was from a Philadelphia neighborhood that was experiencing a rash of random shootings and killings. The little man was brought to the suburbs via a program designed to give poor children a break from the stresses of violence and poverty.

He was the only black person at the affair.

 

As I worked on my second helping of ribs, he sat with his head on the table, almost dozing off.

 

“Tell me,” I said. “Would you rather be here or home?”

 

He paused, apparently not wanting to seem ungrateful, then smiled and said, “Home.”

 

For him, happiness was the familiar, not the strange.

 

The familiar is comfortable and predictable. While I can’t document this, I have heard of a study showing that people, if given the chance to exchange all their problems and ills with the problems and ills of another person, would decline. If true, this is further evidence that no matter who we are, we like our lives.

 

Andy-Capp-Cartoon Pictures (1)It’s been said that England is defined by its class structure, and that people recognize and take pride in their station, be it high or low. They wear cloths and banners proclaiming their class – like the Jeff cap worn by the working-class cartoon character Andy Capp.

 

I don’t think we do that in America, but maybe I’m just blind to it. Either way, listening closely to “Big Rock Candy Mountain” has made me believe that America, for all its problems, is a land of contentment for both the haves and have-nots.

 

It’s so content that most don’t even vote.

 

While a peaceful populace has its advantages, it also has its dangers. Injustices are easily wrought upon the passive. Eventually, they create a destabilizing imbalance that will harm everyone – even their originators.

 

Income inequality is such an imbalance. In nations, stability and economic might are derived from a deep, viable, productive middle class, with a minimum of poverty and want. But when wealth is concentrated among the few, as has occurred in the U.S., the whole system is threatened because the many stop spending.

 

An alarm was sounded recently by Standard and Poor’s, the bond-rating company. It released a study showing that income inequality is responsible for a slowdown in the American economy. A headline on Fortune.com read:

More concentrated wealth means less spending than if money was spread to more people, according to a new report.

 

This realization, and others like it, is putting income inequality on the national agenda. Balance, to some degree, eventually will be restored. But it is because the elite acted, not the complacent.

 

I realize people get set in their ways; that they like routine and follow habits religiously. Still, there comes a point when routine is dispensed with in order to preserve dignity, honor and respect that were compromised by imbalance. At home, this happened in Ferguson, Missouri. Abroad, it happened in Gaza. The wise nation will avoid such flashpoints. More common is that they will act after the fact.

 

The better way, at least in the U.S., is self-action prior to the flashpoints.

 

We all need to get off the Big Rock Candy Mountain and take personal responsibility for our collective fate. Areas of concern are fairness, equal opportunity, equal treatment, social justice and civility. Legislation and tax policy must be designed for large segments of the population rather than small.

 

Key tools: Vocalization and voting.

 

Voting, real voting, is a powerful concept that has gone dormant in the U.S. We should try reviving it, just to keep the system fair and honest. Voting shows we are alive and paying attention.

 

There is nothing wrong with being happy and complacent. Complaisance, however, should never interfere with our ability to stop those who would chip away at our happiness.

 

Human rights, said Alexander Hamilton, are written “by the hand of the divinity itself.” They cannot, he said, “be erased or obscured by mortal power.”

 

By Lanny Morgnanesi

 

<iframe width=”420″ height=”315″ src=”//www.youtube.com/embed/JqowmHgxVJQ” frameborder=”0″ allowfullscreen>

Two quotes, one old, one new, about something that existed then and continues to exist now

12 Jul

Caradoc in Rome

 

The first speaker is Caratacus, the British tribal leader who resisted the Roman invasion in 43 AD. He eventually became a prisoner of the Romans. After a convincing speech prior to his scheduled execution, his life was spared. Caratacus was so impressed by the city of Rome that, in amazement, he said this to his captors, who conquered and occupied Britain:

 

“And can you, then, who have got such possessions and so many of them, covet our poor tents?”

 

Goldman-Sachs-CEOThis second quote was said by Lloyd Blankfein, CEO of Goldman Sachs, a man whose job it is to make abnormal amounts of money in any and all ways possible and some that are not possible:

 

“Too much of the GDP over the last generation has gone to too few of the people… . It’s a very big issue and something that has to be dealt with.”

 

In both cases, the powerful have taken and then tried to exercise at least modest restraint to make things a little better. And so it continues.

By Lanny Morgnanesi

How long before the great income grab is reversed? Not long.

9 Mar

cbpp income inequality 2011

The first real understanding of my value as a worker came during a company Christmas party.

I was a young reporter for a family-owned media company. My fellow employees and I had already received the gift of a free turkey, and now there was this party, grand and lavish.

It was a time when newspaper margins were around 40 percent. Printing a newspaper was like printing money.

The party was held in a big banquet hall. Hundreds attended. There was a generous buffet, music, dancing and an open bar for the entire evening.

In general, the company did well by its employees. The founder was a tough, bull-headed union-buster, but when I worked there raises were given four times a year, the food in the cafeteria was subsidized and supervisors were honored at an annual dinner.

Upon the death of the old man, his four grown children took over. By chance, I was sitting with one at the Christmas party. She was somewhat shy but sincere when she said to our table, “All of you are responsible for making this company what it is. It would be nothing without you. My family owes everything to you. Our success is your success.”

Prior to that, I had seen myself as an expendable, replaceable cog.

But this co-owner, this daughter of an entrepreneurial risk-taker, was shifting my view. I hadn’t recognized it yet, but she knew that without workers a hundred printing presses could not produce a single paper.

Still, she was neither ready nor willing to change the rules and divide the profits among workers. That’s a different ideology, one totally alien to our system, one that threatens and offends.

Then I went to New York City and found out it wasn’t.

I was still learning the way of the world and on this visit to see friends I discovered how lawyers became partners.

My friends were a former reporter and her boyfriend lawyer. He didn’t go to dinner with us that Saturday night because he was working on an investment banking deal. He was trying to make partner.

When we met up later at a bar, he was in good spirits and had no complaints. As an explanation for missing dinner, he told me a joke: “Why do investment bankers love Friday? Because it is only two more work days until Monday.”

I envied his chance to become a partner. Now that I think of it, he probably was the first person I knew who was capable of using hard work to earn equity ownership in a company.

Why was law different from other professions? To begin with, there is no huge investment needed to start up, nothing like a printing press. Also, lawyers tend to see themselves as professional equals. And there probably is some precedent, a near-ancient tradition, of taking on partners rather than employees.

What’s more, it is easy for the good ones – those who bring in big clients — to leave and hang up their own shingles.

A factory worker doesn’t have that kind of leverage.

But if there exists a universal law of fairness, a standard morality for the value and worth of labor, then leverage shouldn’t be a factor.

Of course, there is no morality in the marketplace. If people will work for substandard wages, that is what you pay them. And so unions came to be.

Unions got their start in ancient Rome

Unions got their start in ancient Rome

We think of unions as a modern concept but the idea and practice go way back. The founders of Rome, in 753 B.C., may be partially to blame. As Rome grew and incorporated other provinces, the new citizens didn’t integrate. They stayed in their towns, kept their habits and traditions and failed to adopt a Roman identify. So an edict was issued requiring people to relocate to districts organized around trades. If you were a carpenter, you lived among all carpenters.

Ethnic differences faded.

Naturally, trade associations formed. It was a new unifier.

In time, these associations became quite powerful.

Even the kings of France had to contend with them. In an age when candles were the chief source of lighting and a significant expense in a large palace, money could be saved by letting them burn to the end.  Practical, but the guild in charge of candles wouldn’t allow it. It required that candles be replaced when half burned.

Unions in the modern era continue to be associated with self-serving, costly inefficiencies. Unlike the lawyers who must enrich their firms in order to become partners, unions too often weaken their companies, making workers liabilities rather than assets.

And companies today are quick to get rid of liabilities.

What unions are good at, however, is their ability to show management the true value of labor. By unifying the powerless, power is created. In speaking with one voice – “no we won’t work for poverty wages” – unions effectively alter the marketplace. They grant the common folk a degree of dignity and allow them to pursue happiness.

But with global competition so fierce, it has become impractical and unwise for unions to advocate uncompetitive practices. What they should advocate is efficiency, innovation, profit and partnership – true equity partnership. Unions gave us the weekend but if the incentive of partnership is applied (making Friday two work days until Monday) companies could get them back.

Would companies actually make their worker’s partners? Under the current climate, no. Even discussing the idea seems ridiculous and beyond farfetched.

But why?

In the golden age of unions – after resistance that included shooting strikers — companies decided there was enough growth and profit to meet the demands of organized labor. With profit in mind, there was a willingness to share. Henry Ford would benefit if he could keep cars rolling off the assembly line and meet the heavy demand.

And besides, workers with money buy things – like cars.

Walter Reuther knew the middle class fueled the economy.

Walter Reuther knew the middle class fueled the economy.

(There’s a great story about Walter Reuther, leader of the United Auto Workers, being shown an automated assembly line.  In a competitive dig, Henry Ford II asked him, “How are you going to get those robots to pay union dues?” Reuther retorted, “Henry, how are you going to get them to buy cars?”)

For the most part, the willingness to share is gone.

According to the Center for Budget and Policy Priorities and many other sources, a significant income gap between classes existed from the 1940s into the 1970s, but it did not grow. But after the early 70s and up to today, income concentration at the top increased dramatically. The last time the disparity was this great was prior to the Depression.

Various sources, including University of California at Santa Cruz Professor G. William Domhoff, in his blog “Who Rules America?,” report that in 2010 about 1percent of the U.S. population possessed 35 percent of the wealth. The top 20 percent had 89 percent, leaving the bottom 80 percent with 11 percent.

Also reported in various places, including the Los Angeles Times, is that from 1993 to 2012, income of the 1 percent rose 86.1 percent while income of the other 99 percent rose 6.6 percent.

As wealth became concentrated at the upper tier, billions in cash was stockpiled by American corporations.

In March, Forbes set the total at $1.45 trillion and listed the top 10 holders of cash, including:

Apple: $137 billion.

Microsoft: $68.3 billion.

Google $48.1 billion.

Pfizer $46.9 billion.

What changed?

For one, the labor market.

When Apple is ready to roll out a new iPhone, poor farmers in Katmandu drop their plows and fly to factories in Malaysia. This is not a rhetorical sentence.

Journalist Cam Simpson documents Apple’s labor supply chain in an incredible piece of investigative reporting for Bloomberg Businessweek.  His story tells how labor brokers fan out to the poor countries of Asia when Apple launches a new product. The people they find pay them for jobs and keep paying as the process continues. Often, they pay with borrowed money and go deeply in debt.

One was Bibek Dhong from Nepal. He paid a single broker the equivalent of six-months wages. The fee secured him a job in Malaysia with Flextronics, one of Apple’s chief suppliers. Before he could pay off his loans, production shifted to another country (better performance) and he lost his position.

His passport was held and he could not get home. He feared he would be arrested. Before he received help from Flextronics, he ran out of money and nearly starved.

Not exactly a union shop.

But as China has realized, when companies get richer, when commerce thrives, when corrupt leaders and their families amass great, visible wealth, expectations rise and workers lose their complacency. They demand more and often get it, until the factories move to a more accommodating country.

Sooner or later, corporations are going to run out of countries.

Sooner or later, a floor will form under the global labor market.  From there, workers will stand.

That’s when corporations are going to need a new plan.

And that’s why I’m suggesting one now.

In the U.S., people are finally waking up to the subtle yet systematic dismantling of the middle class, which has been occurring for decades. With less spending power, average families find it difficult or impossible to send their children to college – once the gateway to upward mobility. Those who do make it to college find it hard to get jobs when they graduate.

The bleakness and lack of opportunity, the malaise of our times, is truly settling in.

Books are being written with titles such as, “The War on the Middle Class,” “Screwed: The Undeclared War on the Middle Class,” and “The Betrayal of the American Dream.”

Income equality has become a topic in columns, blogs and editorial cartoons. The issue, once ignored, is now discussed by the president of the United States and the Pope. Billionaire Warren Buffett said that if class warfare truly exists, his class in winning. Even so, there are defections. One is global billionaire David Sainsbury, who calls for fairer wealth distribution through something called “progressive capitalism.”

To see inside this looming class crisis, look toward Seattle, the home of Boeing.

Timothy Egan, a Pulitzer Prize winning journalist and winner of the National Book Award, wrote an opinion piece in the New York Times Nov. 14 called, “Under My Thumb.” The title refers to Seattle’s position vis-a-vis Boeing.

Like many big corporations, Boeing hold jobs hostage as it demands and gets hefty tax breaks. As Egan points out, when anyone or anything shows resistance, companies like Boeing threaten to leave town.

Boeing is seeking concessions in exchange for keeping assembly of the new 777X jet in Washington State. For its part, the state of Washington provided a incentive package that included an $8.7 billion tax break, which Egan called the largest single state-tax giveaway in the nation’s history.

But Boeing also requires that workers accept cuts in pensions and health care benefits.

Unlike Washington, the workers said no.

Refusing to allow the “Walmartization of aerospace,” the machinists who would build the 777X turned down the offer by a 2-1 vote.

“I’m tired of being slapped in the face,” said John Gilman, who has worked at Boeing for nearly 40 years. “Building airplanes — it takes years of training and skill. The people who run this company used to understand that.”

In reaction to Egan’s piece, one reader commented, “This is just the beginning before Americans ‘storm’ any number of figurative ‘Bastilles.’ ”

Jump now, if you will, to the town of Richmond, California.

In Richmond, like most of the U.S., people were talked into taking home mortgages they couldn’t afford. When the housing bubble burst, they ended up owing more on their mortgages than their homes were worth.

Nothing unusual there.

What is unusual is the protective reaction, possibly unprecedented, taken by the town fathers on behalf of residents. Basically, they told the banks holding the bad mortgages to renegotiate the terms or Richmond would confiscate the properties through eminent domain.

Under this plan, the banks would receive 80 percent of each home’s current worth – much less than the original purchase price –and the town would reform the mortgages so owners can afford them.

Meanwhile, all across the country fast food workers are trying to nearly double their hourly wage to $15.

Not too long ago, the Occupy movement surprised everyone when it surfaced to protest almost everything. It stayed around much longer than anyone expected and started widespread discussion of the 1 percent and vast income disparities.

What else is out there waiting to bubble up? I sense there is a lot.

Nature and the human spirit, in time, tend to correct imbalances. I believe this correction has begun. When there is too much of one thing, the other thing comes.

And when the other thing comes, I hope we are ready for it. We might prepare by realizing that we all have a stake in each other’s well being, that each plays a role in the ultimate success of our society and that respect and dignity should be afforded to all. We are a tribe – we humans — and members of a tribe should look out for each other.

Right now we don’t.

I say, let’s act more like partners. Let’s all rise together.

That means valuing each other properly and recognizing that all roles are important, that we’d be in big trouble if one day no one wanted to pick up the trash.

Providing an equity interest to all workers – even a thin, thin sliver – is progressive and revolutionary. It may even be moral, wise and an effective business strategy. But for it to happen, something cataclysmic must occur, or the vision of something cataclysmic must appear.

In the meantime, it is likely that agendas will slowly change (perhaps preventing any cataclysm). This fall, for example, Bill de Blasio was elected mayor of New York after saying he would trim the gap between rich and poor.

Other politicians, in a discovering of new voting blocs, may decide to do the same and relieve the working poor of its distress, better balance wealth and create a more secure, just and – I think – more prosperous society.

A person with disposable income, after all, fuels the economy and is less of a burden on government.

Tax policy, a major cause of the wealth shift, also will have to change. An almost whimsical proposal comes from Robert Shiller, who on Dec. 8 received the Nobel prize in economics. To stop inequality from rising, he suggests raising taxes on the rich whenever their share of income starts to grow.

Should any of this actually happen, it won’t come solely out of true enlightenment. As always, it will come mostly as a way to preserve and protect – through concessions – the self-interests of the powerful. This is OK. It will come through changing market forces resulting from a shift in culture, attitudes, expectations and action. Those forces, nearly invisible now, seem to be coalescing. I don’t think they can be stopped.

When there is too much of one thing, the other thing comes. That’s the natural law.

Lanny Morgnanesi

%d bloggers like this: