Wednesday, August 9, 2017

“Why don’t we all vacation like Congress?” The Colorado Springs Business Journal, August 4-10, 2017, p. 21.



Vacationing like Congress

Contacting my British editor, I wasn’t surprised to read: “I am away on annual leave till… If your query is urgent, contact… Otherwise, I will reply to your message as soon as possible on my return.”   

With August ahead, vacation time is on our mind!

It seems that the US “is the only advanced economy that does not require employers to provide paid vacation” (Forbes 8/13/13) We have ten national holidays for which government and most other employees get paid, but this excludes the millions of Americans who are self-employed or work only part-time. Legally speaking, we aren’t entitled to a vacation.

Perhaps we should ask instead, in the age of smartphones, what it even means to take a vacation, paid or not? If 81% of vacationing travelers say that “their smart-phone is their number one travel accessory” (FoxBusiness 7/8/16), then are they on vacation at all? And how soon do vacationers get anxious about their work or home?

As the Center for Economic and Policy Research reports, “European countries lead the world in guaranteeing paid leave for [their] workers.” The average European worker is entitled to between 30 and 34 working days, so paid vacations may last almost two months. (TheWorldPost 8/6/13) By contrast, “The average American worker gets 16 days of combined vacation and holiday time per year.” (Scott Bomboy 8/2/13) And even those who accrue more vacation time use, on average, only 16 of 18 days.

If you have any inclination to feel sorry for Senators whose “summer recess” has been shortened, think again. Admittedly, the word recess has the wonderful connotation of school children enjoying a brief reprieve from the routine demands of their teachers, but how should it apply to Congress?

In an average year, the House of Representatives is in session 138 days, while the Senate convenes for 162 (Tom Murse 2017). Add to this a generous benefits package (from platinum health-care coverage, travel allowances, and lifetime pensions), and the word “recess” should probably be changed to vacation. 

Even if we agree that these politicians deserve a European (rather than American) vacation from the Capitol, won’t they argue that their time off isn’t really vacation? Don’t they meet their constituents in town-hall meetings to gauge their concerns and explain policies or work hard to raise funds for their re-election? Consider the following.  

Colorado’s Republican Senator, Cory Gardner, has refused to show up at town-hall meetings, either unable to defend his party’s policies or too timid to face his constituents (Denver Post 3/1/17). And Colorado’s Democratic Senator, Michael Bennett, is no better: he had his first town-hall meeting in two years on March 16, 2017 (Westword 3/14/17).

As for writing bills, lobbyists have been generous enough to offer full drafts of proposed legislation, most of which are voted on with minor, if any, revisions (NPR 11/11/13). 

And raising funds for re-election? “Congress has 11% approval ratings but 96% incumbent reelection rate” (Politifact 11/11/14). The threat of competition is negligent. When money is raised, it’s usually at luxury resorts and restaurants, where the moneyed class entertains; sounds like vacation.

Compare congressional entitlements (a nasty liberal word, as conservatives remind us) with those of K-12 teachers. CS District 11 expects 207 “work days” per year. With base starting salary of $32,206 for 186 teaching days, one wonders how this stacks against congressional average salaries of $174,000 for less working days. 

When I joined UCCS, I was told three things about my meager salary and benefit package: one, part of your compensation is the beautiful scenery of the Rocky Mountains; two, your compensation only covers nine of twelve months, so the actual annual rate is much higher; and three, you can make extra money in the summer. 

The most important argument, though, was missing: “vacation time” is for research, and with plenty of (uncompensated) time, you may achieve the goals of your professed vocation. This sense of public service remains at the heart of professors and K-12 teachers, but may have eluded our congressional members who better relate to their wealthy donors for whom vacation is understood on a whole different level. 

Even the task-master and assembly-line inventor, Henry Ford, recognized that reducing the work-week from six to five days (from 48 to 40 hours), increased productivity. Wrong motive, but additional rest time for workers. As Derek Thompson reminds us, “Just as small breaks improve concentration, long breaks replenish job performance.” (Atlantic 8/6/12)

If the French worker, “who takes more than twice the vacation time,” probably got it right, and if Congress agrees with Ford and the French that we all deserve vacations, shouldn’t everyone be paid to enjoy summer vacations, no matter what they do?

Raphael Sassower is professor of philosophy at UCCS. He can be reached at rsassower@gmail.com See previous articles at sassower.blogspot.com


Tuesday, May 2, 2017

“Point/Counterpoint: How well did president Trump perform in his first 100 days in office?” The Gazette (Colorado Springs), April 30, 2017.



Top of Form
He Performed Poorly (Gazette, “Point Counterpoint,” Sunday, April 30, 2017)
The very notion of evaluating a president within the first 100 days is problematic. Can anyone accomplish much in three months? Is the performance a harbinger of the rest of the term? More importantly, what are the criteria for a positive or negative assessment?
Behavioral economists remind us that we assess based on comparisons, as there is no absolute yardstick to guide us. Following them, we should perhaps compare Trump to FDR (the first to call attention to this benchmark) who was able to complete 15 legislative initiatives in his first 100 days.
Though a high benchmark, it might be fitting in Trump’s case, since he endorsed it in Gettysburg before the election: On Nov. 8th, Americans will be voting for this 100-day plan to restore prosperity to our country, secure our communities and honesty to our government. This is my pledge to you.”
 
Fast forward to April 21, 2017 and to Trump’s tweet: “No matter how much I accomplish during the ridiculous standard of the first 100 days, & it has been a lot (including S.C.), media will kill!”

The pledge was grandiose, the self-expectation remains high, but the benchmark is now dismissed. Why?

An NBC/WSJ poll (April 23, 2017) suggests that 45% of respondents think Trump is “off to a poor start,” 19% “only a fair start.” By comparison, Obama's overall positive rating at this stage of his presidency was 61%, Bush's 56%, and Clinton’s 52%; Trump’s stands at 40%.

Perhaps Trump is correct that it’s a “ridiculous standard,” but would he have said the opposite if his numbers were higher? Since 70% of the US economy depends on consumer spending, public opinion matters; positive mindset loosens our pocketbooks and grows the economy.
Legislatively, Trump’s record is poor, as none of his campaign promises have become law by his Republican-controlled congress: “repeal and replace Obamacare,” overhaul of tax policy, and renegotiated trade agreements. Two executive orders on travel and immigration bans are tied in courts; the great wall isn’t being built (Mexico isn’t paying, either).
As for foreign relations, no coherent worldview is offered. Instead, contradictory tweets and photo-ops are the new normal. The rhetoric about the Chinese menace (currency manipulator and export dumper) has been softened, the irrelevance of NATO is countered with official support, and the admiration of Putin has been replaced with derision.
As for military action, the bombing of a Syrian airfield seemed powerful, but without an overall strategy it’s almost meaningless. The naval show of force off the coast of North-Korea is dangerous if diplomacy is replaced with “playing chicken.” Unlike real-estate deals, the US cannot just walk away from international negotiations.   
Perhaps a charitable way of viewing Trump’s record is thinking of him as a postpartisan president, one who isn’t committed to any ideology (and therefore flexible), offering provisional tactics that aren’t part of an overall strategy.
Being influenced by the latest newsfeed shows adaptability, and being supple in the face of changing circumstances suggests entrepreneurial open-mindedness. But being clueless about the complexity of the office is a poor excuse for someone who uses superlatives in describing himself. This isn’t a reality show; and being “fired” for poor performance is a scary democratic option.

Raphael Sassower, Philosophy, UCCS

Thursday, April 6, 2017

“Morality lessons from the VW diesel emission scandal,” The Colorado Springs Business Journal, April 7-13, 2017, p. 18.



Morality Lessons from the VW Diesel Emission Scandal
When you were a child, your parents told you it’s not nice to tell lies. And if you were caught cheating, you were duly punished.
They followed one of three mainstream moral theories, all of which condemn cheating. The Consequentialist (or Utilitarian) argues that the results of cheating are usually bad, and therefore cheating should be condemned. The Deontological (or Kantian) argues that permitting the cheating of one allows everyone else to cheat, and before long no one can believe anyone. The third theory, Virtue Ethics (Aristotle), suggests that virtuous people don’t cheat; when they do, it’s a character flaw that should be excised.
How is this applied in the business world? Given the consensus among traditional moral frameworks, is cheating condemned and punished? Every School of Business worth its salt has at least one mandatory requirement of a Business Ethics course.
Legally speaking, the impact of these theories is apparent. Fraud is punishable by law. If you aren’t sure how far the arm of the law extends, take note of reports that about $251 billion in fines was paid by fraudulent banks alone since the Great Recession (Forbes 8/29/14). Deliberate or manipulative, those “too big to fail” had a hand in bringing about the financial crisis and they were found guilty in courts of law or settled out of court (without admitting guilt) for billions of dollars.
Cynics may say that this was the banks’ “cost of doing business,” while less sanguine response is that they were found to have cheated their customers, their mortgage clients, and all the regulatory boards that were supposed to police their activities.
As we are witnessing lately the attack on the independent media (mainstream, extreme, print, television, and Internet), questions of “lying” or “fake news” have been front and center in claiming that media outlets have become the “oppositional party.”
Cheating, lying, and the standards by which they should be judged have been political fodder for any pundit invited to a talk show (“left” and “right”). Was there deliberate lying or “mere” choice of selective data? Is it “simply” a question of perspective? Media control is a classic fascist trope.   
Presumably in the business world the stakes are different compared to those associated with “Lying Crooked Hillary” or “Cheating Ted Cruz.” Political mud-slinging is as old as our republic, but is the same true of business? Is capitalism based on cheating?
Unlike our judgment about businesspeople, we are quick to agree that we can never trust a politician, and therefore only outsiders (like Donald Trump) deserve our votes. Professional politicians say whatever they are paid to say, and they will change their minds regardless of promises made to constituents. This sentiment brought to power our 45th President.
So, why aren’t we using the same moral outrage when it gets to the business world? Is it because we (cynically or realistically) know that the only purpose of a firm is to make a profit no matter what (moral or practical) corners it cuts, as VW has done in manipulating its diesel emission controls?
William Boston reports that “Sales of the VW brand . . . rose 2.8% world-wide to 5.9 million vehicles, driven by 14% growth in new car sales in China and nearly 7% growth in Central and Eastern Europe.” He continues, “Volkswagen shares were up 3.8%.” And all of this after the “diesel scandal” (Market Watch, 1/9/17).
Where is the inner moralist in each of us that is willing to punish all cheaters, even put them out of business? Brittney Cooper, in an alarming headline, argues that “The Powerless Get Punished for Cheating, and the Powerful Benefit” (New York Times, 9/29/15) Shocking? Perhaps we subconsciously admire their clever engineers.
VW is obviously “powerful” and its financial reach extends the entire globe. Paying some $19 billion in fines is similar to the banks’ “cost of doing business” in this country, a fee or fine worth paying if caught by snoopy regulators.
Morally speaking, there is an equivalence in all moral violations regardless if they occur in the political or economic domains. Cheating remains cheating no matter who commits the act (and against whom), and bad behavior should be punished no matter how rich or powerful the villain.
Are the same people who punished Hillary Clinton not willing to punish VW? Is it because psychologically it’s easier to vilify a person than a corporation? But if the Supreme Court decision in Citizens United (2010) claimed freedom of speech rights to corporation as persons, why not apply the same logic?
On a good day morality and legality are based on logical arguments, and emotional outburst are best left outside of reasonable judgments.

Raphael Sassower is professor of philosophy at UCCS. He can be reached at rsassower@gmail.com See previous articles at sassower.blogspot.com