Sunday, September 28, 2008

Does Anybody Remember Joe Biden?

For those who may have forgotten, he’s that other person who is running for vice president. It wasn’t all that long ago that the news media was obsessively on the trail to try and find out who Barack Obama was going to pick as his running mate. In fact, the night before the promised announcement, the cable networks were spending the entire evening doing nothing but speculating on who the pick would be instead of covering anything else that might have been newsworthy at the time.

But once the announcement was made and the Democratic Convention went on, the next question the media obsessed on was John McCain’s pick for his running mate. With the startling and controversial selection of Sarah Palin, the media’s obsession with her still continues unabated while coverage of her Democratic counterpart is at times close to non-existent.

Is this my imagination? One of the media’s own, CNN makes the same observation in this article:
Biden goes from hot to not since Palin came along

The night before Obama announced his vice presidential choice August 23, the press staked out Biden's Delaware home and gave minute-by-minute updates of his every movement.

But then Sen. John McCain picked telegenic and nationally unknown Alaska Gov. Sarah Palin as his running mate, and the press corps traveling with Biden's campaign dwindled to a skeleton crew.
As the article states, Biden offers the most unfiltered contact with the media of any of the big four. But he's the least likely to be covered. With Sarah Palin offering the least amount of contact with the news media, it appears that they are chasing even harder for something they cannot have. When ABC’s Charles Gibson being chosen to give the first interview of Palin, he happily flew all the way out to Alaska to do it. And his interview certainly got a lot of viewers (including me) just to see her finally start to answer media questions that she had been avoiding.

But let’s be honest. Was this interview really about listening to Sarah Palin’s foreign policy views of the world? If it was really about foreign policy, they could have also done an interview with Biden on that topic where he could easily fill and hour or two with informed views on the subject. What the interview was really about was to see if Palin was going to crash and burn under the questioning because of her obvious inexperience. Call it a morbid curiosity.

I think that after Gibson interviewed Palin, it would have made perfect sense to follow that up with a similar interview with Biden to allow the audience to more easily compare the two which would help voters to make a decision on whom to vote for. Is the fact that they didn’t a reflection on ABC or it is a reflection on how ABC thinks of its viewers?

But fear not! Biden did get a recent mention in the media — on his latest gaffe about
FDR announcing the stock market crash on TV. Of course, back then there was no TV and Herbert Hoover, not FDR was president. Biden has long been famous for his gaffes. In fact, some political analysts had suggested that this might be a reason for Obama to pick somebody else for his running mate. But even knowing this, Obama felt that his vast knowledge and experience far outweighed the occasional flub he might make on the campaign trail.

And while gaffes like this keep our journalists busy, the fact is that when Biden talks to the media, he is far more likely to speak what is on his mind rather than just rattling off prepared fluff like Sarah Palin (and frankly, most other politicians) when answering questions. I think it’s only fair that we cut some slack to those few politicians who give thoughtful, unrehearsed answers to questions.

Last week, a friend of mine told me about an upcoming local Joe Biden campaign appearance and asked me if I wanted to go. Of course I said yes. But what made this event a bit different for me was that I was one of the attendees who were selected to sit behind Biden while he made the speech so I would be one of those in the background when the camera was on Biden. Yes, these events are so orchestrated that the volunteers are careful about how the people show up in the background behind the candidate when on TV. If you check out this
local news video, I am the one wearing the light blue short- sleeved dress shirt behind and to Biden’s left.

But one of the most interesting things about sitting behind somebody giving a speech is seeing the
teleprompters not only on the podium but also at 45 degree angles on each side of the speaker. While the image that the speechmakers would like to convey is that they are reciting their words from memory, in fact the entire speech is electronically downloaded (sometimes with phonetic spellings of difficult words) to each of these devices. This makes it appear like he or she is looking around the room at the audience while in reality the speaker is reading the speech the whole time.

But having said this, I was able to see that Biden spoke for a solid ten minutes without notes before the teleprompter text started to roll with the prepared speech. In his speech, he spoke about among other things, what should be included as part of the crucial Wall Street bailout agreement being worked out in Congress. But as far as I could tell, excerpts of his speech only appeared on the local newscasts. Meanwhile yesterday on CNN, they had a video of Sarah Palin going for a jog.

Fortunately, with the vice presidential debate coming up soon, we will finally get to see these two side-by-side answering questions and putting forth their views on the issues. But while Palin has certainly created a lot of buzz, even some conservative columnists like
Kathleen Parker in the National Review are having their serious doubts about her.

Palin’s recent interviews with Charles Gibson, Sean Hannity, and now Katie Couric have all revealed an attractive, earnest, confident candidate. Who Is Clearly Out Of Her League.
When that debate finally happens on October 2nd, there will be lots of curious viewers tuned in to see what happens.

Wednesday, September 24, 2008

An Economic Policy of Selfishness

One of the most common words being bandied about around the Wall Street financial crisis is the word ‘greed’. Greed caused this, many say. Greed is bad say many like blogger John McIntire aka MacYapper:

Greed isn't good. It's bad. If the free market system wasn't populated with a bunch of greedy, selfish, reckless a-holes, perhaps we wouldn't need so much oversight. But that's what we got.

Others who fancy themselves as free-market economic purists like to argue that greed is good. The desire for great wealth causes people to produce products and services that we all need or enjoy.

It’s an interesting argument that I think is worth pursuing.

First of all, we need to define greed.

greed [greed]
strong desire for more: an overwhelming desire to have more of something such as money than is actually needed

So is that really the problem? While many people are struggling, there are lots of other people who have all the money they will ever need who still work and earn even more money. Most of us don’t seem to have a problem with that, so is greed by this definition really the problem? But much of the real world is a zero-sum game.

with gain offset by loss: relating to a situation in which a gain by one side or person requires any other side or person involved in it to sustain a corresponding loss

When we work in the job market, we compete for enough of a share of the economic pie so we can afford the things we need along with hopefully enough of the things we want to make life more enjoyable. In a free market society, some people will naturally get more of the pie than others. But what happens when some get so much of a share of that pie that others don’t have enough to live on?

For example, are the huge salaries, bonuses, and sometimes golden parachutes that CEOs are receiving OK? If they really do something to earn the money, maybe so. But the real problem as I see it is that many of these same companies who pay the most lavish bonuses to CEOs (often when the company’s performance doesn’t warrant it) also do their best to hold down the salaries of those on the bottom of the food chain to help pay for these excesses. That’s more than just greed, that’s selfish!

self·ish [sélfish]
1. looking after own desires: concerned with your own interests, needs, and wishes while ignoring those of others
2. demonstrating selfishness: showing that personal needs and wishes are thought to be more important than those of other people

So while greed is considered the problem by many, I say that instead the main problem behind many of our economic problems is not greed but selfishness. Too many of the ‘haves’ are out to get more for themselves at the expense of the ‘have nots’. When the ‘have nots’ cry out that they are struggling, all too often the ‘haves’ dismiss them as ‘whiners’.

Now we come to the standard conservative argument waged here. That anything we do to try and address this is ‘redistribution of wealth’ and is therefore wrong. So for those who are struggling despite their best efforts, that’s just too bad!

But there is a strong counter-argument from the liberal side. Many of the economic policies during the Bush years (like the tax cuts) have mostly benefited those who were already doing well in the hopes that the trickle-down effect would help those further down the economic ladder. But the result has been a widening gap between the ‘haves’ and ‘have nots’. The joke made by then presidential candidate George W. Bush
at an $800 a plate charity fundraiser in 2000 was telling:

"This is an impressive crowd - the haves and the have-mores," quipped the GOP standard-bearer. "Some people call you the elites; I call you my base."

Hey, there’s nothing wrong with being rich or wanting to be rich. In my life, I have both had money and been broke and having money sure beats the hell out of being broke! Wanting money — even a lot of it isn’t wrong in my view. But when we disregard the hurt we may inflict on our fellow man in the pursuit of that wealth, that’s selfish! And that is not good.

A government that has a tax policy that gives tax cuts to those who are already wealthy, the ‘haves’ and the ‘have-mores’, while vetoing the S-CHIP bill to cover uninsured children because some of the benefits might cover a few who are not living in total poverty is selfish!

We see some businesses making handsome profits, sometimes with the help of government tax breaks and subsidies. But so often, much of that profit goes to enrich the CEOs and others in the board room instead of sharing some of the wealth with the workers that helped to create it in the first place. This is the result when companies use much of their profits to buy back their own stock. Instead of Hewlett-Packard rewarding their fired CEO Carly Fiorina with $42 million, wouldn’t it have made more sense to use at least some of that money to instead reward the other good workers at H-P?

Some of the people who go into the biggest rants about how the government should never get involved in health insurance get their own health insurance in the form of Medicare from the federal government. While the number of people affected is subject to some debate, it is undeniable that there are many working people who have no access to affordable health insurance. And many people who do have health insurance are still forced to file bankruptcy when they find that their insurer didn’t adequately cover the care they needed. Wouldn’t it be better if we all worked together to try and make affordable health insurance in the US available to everybody instead of some of us selfishly obscuring the issue with the language of right-wing ideology like ‘socialized medicine’?

And finally there is the economic collapse on Wall Street that we are now trying to repair. Was this caused by the ‘greed’ of people trying to make lots of money? I argue that it was caused more by a financial environment that rewarded selfishness of those who were unconcerned about the people who were losing their homes if it meant making the big bucks for themselves. Indeed, one of the biggest concerns about any bailout plan that is approved is that it may well reward these same selfish people!

There are obviously a number of serious problems to be solved. But I feel that the only chance to succeed is for all of us to agree that we are all in this together!

Sunday, September 21, 2008

Is It Really All About the Economy?

It's the economy, stupid helped Bill Clinton, a relatively unknown governor from Arkansas score a stunning victory over George H.W. Bush. Indeed, Bush 41 was so popular as a result of the Persian Gulf War that few of the front-line Democratic candidates wanted to run against him and risk a beating that would perhaps tarnish their careers. But when the economy went down the toilet, Clinton used this issue to turn the tables on Bush.

A recent article with the same name also discusses Ronald Reagan’s presidential success story around the question: Are you better off today than you were four years ago? The article sums up with thoughts that are almost universally accepted by the mainstream media along with most voters:

To be sure, national security has also shown up routinely in issues voters' cited as most important in U.S. Presidential elections, particularly if the nation was at war. Social / cultural issues also appear frequently. But no issue drives votes like the economy. In voting, as in so many other aspects of life,"economics structures the debate."

The latest Washington Post/ABC News poll further supports this view. When registered voters were asked about the single most important issue in their choice for president, the economy was easily number one with 41% choosing it. Next were the Iraq War with 10% and health care with 9%. Other issues like abortion, immigration, and gun control barely registered a response.

So if the economy is so damned important, why is the present presidential race so close especially considering how serious our economic problems are?

But there are also some other questions to consider:

- Why were the good financial times during the latter part of the Clinton Administration that yielded budget surpluses not enough to deliver the presidency to his VP Al Gore?

- Why did Ohio, the state that was the most economically devastated during the 2004 election year, deliver the decisive electoral votes to win George W. Bush a second term?

- Why are Michigan, this year’s most economically devastated state, along with Ohio (not too far behind), still toss-up states on the electoral map?

If nothing else, these questions suggest that thinking the economy is really what elections are all about may be a bit simplistic if not outright wrong.

Here is the introductory paragraph of liberal author Thomas Frank’s book,
What's the Matter With Kansas?

The poorest county in America isn’t in Appalachia or the Deep South. It is on the Great Plains, a region of struggling ranchers and dying farm towns, and in the election of 2000 the Republican candidate for president, George W. Bush, carried it by a majority of 80 percent.

Frank goes on the theorize that with the Republican downplaying of economic issues in favor or ‘morals’ issues for those in rural America, these people are duped into voting against their own economic self-interests.

I find this theory to be very plausible. While the opinion polls do not point to these ‘morals’ issues as significant reasons to vote for someone, I believe they overlook these issues as reasons to vote against someone. In many cases one or several of these issues can be deal-breakers when deciding whether to vote for someone. Especially for socially conservative rural folks, how many of these people would ever vote for a pro-choice candidate? Or one who is in favor of gay rights? Or maybe one who favors gun control? In this case, the formula for Republican success is to reinforce these possible deal-breakers in their campaigns. And if they hit pay dirt on at least one of them, the Republican gets the vote regardless of other issues like the economy. In addition to rural folks, conservative Catholics everywhere who used to be reliably Democratic are also defecting to the Republican side over abortion in enough numbers to possibly decide the election in their favor.

As an example of downplaying the economy, while John Kerry in his presidential campaign spoke up about the souring economy for many workers, the Republicans in power chided him for his “doom and gloom” economic outlook. And less than a year ago, who can forget
Fred Thompson's remarks at a Republican presidential debate in economically ravaged Dearborn, Michigan?

As far as the economic prosperity of the future is concerned, I think it’s a different story. I think if you look at the short term, it’s rosy. I think if you look at a 10-year projection, it’s rosy.

More recently we have Phil Gramm, one of John McCain’s economic advisers (at the time) who referred to those complaining about the economy as a "nation of whiners" and less than a week ago McCain himself saying first that the "fundamentals of our economy are strong" and when embarrassed by the media for saying this, then abruptly shifting to say the fundamentals are "at great risk."

And then there is the elephant in the room we must talk about. Is one of those deal-breakers race? I don’t believe there are any polls that ask if someone would not vote for someone because of their race. And even if they did ask, how many people would be forthcoming enough to answer honestly if race was indeed a deal-breaker?

I don’t want to believe in a possibility that Obama will lose due to racism. We are better than that, I would like to believe. But articles like this one titled Obama, Race, And Undecided Voters are a sobering reminder of the reality of racism that still exists in the US.

Especially with the economy in such dire straits it may still possibly come to the fore in deciding this election. With the debates coming up, Barack Obama has a chance to attack John McCain for his alliance with many of the Bush Administration’s economic policies that he can argue has caused much of the mess we are in. And while there may not be much he can do about racism, perhaps he can work harder to connect with enough voters to get them to vote in their own economic self-interest instead of being sidetracked on divisive ‘moral issues’ that the Republicans will try to counter with. I believe how well he succeeds in this regard will more than anything else determine the winner in November.

Wednesday, September 17, 2008

Sexual Orientation Is Not a Choice

While everybody else has been discussing the recent Sarah Palin interview with Charles Gibson in terms of foreign policy and whether she can see Russia from where she lives, an interesting social issue question was raised again that I would like to revisit here.
GIBSON: Homosexuality, genetic or learned?

PALIN: Oh, I don't -- I don't know, but I'm not one to judge and, you know, I'm from a family and from a community with many, many members of many diverse backgrounds and I'm not going to judge someone on whether they believe that homosexuality is a choice or genetic. I'm not going to judge them.
This question was previously posed by CBS anchor Bob Schieffer during the Third Bush-Kerry Presidential Debate in 2004 which included the following:

SCHIEFFER: Both of you are opposed to gay marriage. But to understand how you have come to that conclusion, I want to ask you a more basic question. Do you believe homosexuality is a choice?

BUSH: You know, Bob, I don't know. I just don't know. I do know that we have a choice to make in America and that is to treat people with tolerance and respect and dignity. It's important that we do that.

KERRY: We're all God's children, Bob. And I think if you were to talk to Dick Cheney's daughter, who is a lesbian, she would tell you that she's being who she was, she's being who she was born as. I think if you talk to anybody, it's not choice. I've met people who struggled with this for years, people who were in a marriage because they were living a sort of convention, and they struggled with it. And I've met wives who are supportive of their husbands or vice versa when they finally sort of broke out and allowed themselves to live who they were, who they felt God had made them. I think we have to respect that.
I find it interesting (but not surprising) that Palin’s answer so closely mimics Bush’s response. For all the talk about tolerance and not judging people, these two are sure in favor of laws to make sure that gays are put in their place and don’t bother the rest of us.

But why is the question about choice important? Other than being an interesting social question, the answer has much to do with whether gays can be a legally protected group against discrimination the way we have laws to protect people on the basis of race, sex, and age which are clearly not choices. For those who argue that being gay is a choice, instead of seeking protection from the law, gays can simply choose to become straight and the problem goes away.

The general consensus among experts in the field (mental health professionals and human sexuality researchers) is that sexual orientation is not a choice. Many religious groups like evangelical Christians who are strongly against gay rights legislation believe otherwise. And although research has indicated some possible genetic links to sexual orientation, there is no definitive explanation as to the cause of sexual orientation. But we can address this question from a logical standpoint.

It is generally agreed that the sex drive is instinctive. Even for those of us who wish to deny its existence, it is there. Without this powerful drive (which for most of us is toward the opposite sex), we humans would have been long extinct. The same can be said for the other members of the animal kingdom. But even there are examples of well-documented homosexual behavior. I freely admit that from a social standpoint, I would much rather be straight than gay. And if I had turned out to be gay, I don’t know how I would have ever been able to tell my dad who openly ridiculed ‘queers’. As a geeky teenager, I never got any dates and he openly wondered about me. But one day, a pretty blond hostess at a restaurant where I worked started to wink at me and do a little flirting and I was then overpowered with feelings and urges I had never before felt so intensely. I didn’t choose those feelings and urges…they chose me!

But what if your dad is a famous conservative politician whose party has been actively promoting the prohibition of same-sex marriage? If sexual orientation was really a choice, don’t you think
Mary Cheney would have chosen to be straight to spare her father, VP Dick Cheney the awkward explanation of her same-sex relationship to the world?

One of the saddest results of people wanting to be straight from a social standpoint, are the marriages that break up when one of the partners can’t live a lie anymore and have to admit to their spouse that they are gay or perhaps bisexual. The most recent public example is that of former New Jersey Governor
Jim McGreevy. McGreevy had it all — a wife and family along with his governor’s job. All he had to do to keep all of this was to choose to be straight. But he couldn’t and as a result, endured a tremendous amount of public disgrace while losing everything.

The most powerful example of sexual orientation not being a choice is when somebody chooses instead to end their own life rather than deal with the consequences of their own homosexuality. As I related above, I don’t know how I would have ever been able to tell my dad that I was ‘queer’ if that’s how I had turned out. I don’t know what I would have done but I can certainly understand how this could drive a teenager to thinking about suicide like the writer of this article
Gay Teen Suicide: Trying to understand some of the Real Causes which I very much hope you will take the time to read.

So what happens to the young male who has a same-sex attraction? He becomes alienated from his family and friends and begins to isolate. He must protect his secret identity from all who will possibly scorn, reject or harm him. When one cannot live with one's sexuality in the open, one must suppress the most instinctual functions of man -- sex. Suppression of any of our mental, emotional or physical aspects will lead to depression, denial, isolation, addiction, self-hatred and low self-esteem. All levels of the being -- cognitive, emotional and physical are affected. Each makes one a prime candidate for addiction and possible suicide. It is a tragic situation.
To help address what is indeed a tragic situation,
The Trevor Lifeline: 866-4-U-TREVOR (named after an award-winning HBO film about a gay teen who tried to take his own life) is a resource for those whose sexual orientation may be creating a life-threatening crisis.

Interestingly enough, there are views from some religious groups that are finally starting to acknowledge that sexual orientation is not a choice but stubbornly hang on to the belief that these people are still sinning by choosing to have a sex life. Some of these same people still believe that gay people can be
converted to becoming straight and then lead a normal straight married life. Ladies, who would like the chance to become another Mrs. Jim McGreevy? When you get down to it, the main opposition to gay rights is religiously based. Which leads us to the question — Why is what is primarily religious doctrine making its way into legislation if we are really serious about the separation of church and state?

The world would be a better place especially if those on the political right like Sarah Palin and President Bush would back up their rhetoric with action when it comes to being less judgmental and more tolerant of others.
Life, Liberty and the Pursuit of Happiness should be for everyone, not just straight people!

Sunday, September 14, 2008

What Can We Do About Unemployment? - Part 3

In my last two postings, I have tried to outline some of the many problems facing those who are unemployed. After all, it is difficult to address a problem unless we have an understanding of it.

So let’s start with some proposed solutions.

Quality outplacement help needs to be freely available to all. In today’s job market where
thousands can be laid off at a time and forced to find new employment, just giving someone a list of job postings is terribly inadequate to say the least! But many of the state employment agencies are bureaucracies that do little more than that.

Nowadays mounting an effective job search requires the learning of a number of skills like preparing a resume, written communication and interviewing skills, and most importantly networking to find the
many jobs that are not advertised. I am fortunate because I have the help of a volunteer organization like Priority Two which serves the Greater Pittsburgh area. A group like Priority Two provides an abundance of networking contacts along with skills sessions and workshops that are taught by those who themselves were formerly unemployed and really know the ropes. For others not so fortunate to have access to resources like this, courses like these should be available at community colleges or other educational facilities everywhere, especially in areas with particularly high unemployment.

An important part of quality outplacement help is to find an appropriate new career if necessary for a displaced worker to get back into the labor force. It’s easy to say that somebody should be ‘retrained’. What field to be retrained for in this age of outsourcing can be like chasing a moving target since today’s hot careers can become tomorrow’s dead-end jobs. When a government agency does employment surveys of a particular area, details should be gathered on what specific professional careers (along with their required qualifications) are experiencing the most and least amount of hiring along with info on which ones are suffering the most or least layoffs. This important information is very difficult for the individual jobseeker to obtain to make important career choices.

The burden of expensive health insurance should be taken off the backs of employers. Ideally in my view would be to have a single-payer system like Medicare for all of our citizens that would take the place of employer provided health insurance. But neither major presidential candidate favors this at the present time. But at least if a plan is successfully implemented that can get the cost of health insurance under control for businesses, there would be more incentive to hire new employees here in the US instead of outsourcing them from elsewhere to avoid health insurance costs.

Provide a tax incentive for businesses to hire the unemployed. Here’s an interesting idea to consider. The longer one is unemployed (involuntarily), the more the incentive awarded for hiring that person. This would help those who are hurting the most and the money used for incentives would be quickly returned in the way of taxes that the new employee would be paying after being hired.

Acknowledge age discrimination as a serious issue we need to do something about. With the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) who is charged with enforcing age and other kinds of discrimination badly undermanned and overworked, employers who choose to practice age discrimination know they have little to worry about. And while all employers recite the mantra about not discriminating against anybody, some of their employment practices have the effect of discrimination whether that is their intent or not. That is the principle behind
disparate impact which is already written into anti-discrimination laws. Now all we have to do is enforce them!

I and many others feel that telling someone that they are ‘overqualified’ is often little more than a means to get away with age discrimination. Logically, most of us want jobs that use as much of our abilities and pay as much as possible. Why would anybody want any less? Sometimes we need to do what we can to put food on the table. If there was a better job available, there wouldn’t be any need to ask for a lesser job. And for those of you in companies who are afraid of that person leaving for a better job, what’s stopping you from offering that better job if that person has performed well enough to deserve it?

There are many unemployed people out there who because of their great deal of prior experience in the workplace have well-developed interpersonal
soft skills and if given a chance can most certainly make a positive contribution to an organization with a little technical training to get up to speed. But employers need to give these people a chance for an interview instead of rejecting them based on insurmountable obstacles in the way of needlessly narrow job requirements.

Adjust H1-B immigration quotas for white-collar workers to reflect present employment conditions. We talk about wanting to turn out more engineers and scientists. But don’t we need to make sure the ones we already have can find work in their fields?

Create jobs by rebuilding the infrastructure. Back during the Great Depression of the 1930s when unemployment rates were far higher than those today, public works projects were used as part of the
New Deal instituted by President Franklin D. Roosevelt to try and get people back on their feet. Mention the New Deal to hard-core conservatives and you will likely get a gnashing of teeth but many of the programs started then are still helping people today.

But make no mistake. Rebuilding the infrastructure is far from a make-work project to give people something to do. It is work that we desperately need to have done! For example, we need to convert to
renewable sources of energy to try and cure our addiction to fossil fuels. With the help of energy policies to encourage this conversion, we can ramp up our manufacturing capability to produce enough wind turbines and solar cells along with constructing the power grid to deliver these energy sources creating a tremendous number of jobs for US workers.

On the public works side, many of our roads, bridges, and levees are in need or repair and/or rebuilding. These projects also create jobs for those who do the design work and provide the construction materials in addition to the actual construction labor. China is a wonderful example of a nation that has dedicated itself to rebuilding its infrastructure. But then again, they haven’t had to finance an expensive war like the US has. Perhaps if we can finally extricate ourselves from Iraq, we can have more resources available for our own infrastructure needs.

I hope these proposed solutions will at least encourage further discussion along with ideas from others on doing something about the problem of unemployment!

Wednesday, September 10, 2008

What Can We Do About Unemployment? - Part 2

At the end of my previously posted article What Can We Do About Unemployment?, I stated that the older more experienced professionals are having perhaps the greatest difficulty of all in finding work.

When my sales engineering job was eliminated after 21 years of service, I knew that I would have some difficulty finding a new job. In the years after 9/11, the entire industry I was in was laying off workers. The economy will turn around someday I said to myself. And when it does, I will be there to help some company out there who will benefit from my experience and skills! Since then, the economy did turn around (somewhat) and has since turned sour again and I am still looking for that company.

My friends told me that my age at the time (almost 50) is working against me. But I had a lot more to offer than people just graduating from college and I wasn’t going to use that as an excuse. But the more I kept hearing that I was “overqualified”, the more reality was setting in. I had everything an employer could possibly want except the one thing they seemed to want more than anything else — youth.

If you look at many of the job postings, some ask for a college degree with 0-5 years experience or maybe 2-5 years experience (Translation: We would prefer someone in their 20s.) Or there are the ads that are looking for entry level workers to “come grow with us”.

And then I came across a copy of Fortune during a visit to a bookstore with the cover article which I hope you will read in this link
50 and Fired having as its lead-in paragraph:
Getting fired during your peak earning years has always been scary. You'd scramble for a few months, but you'd find something. Today it's different. Get fired and you can scramble for years--and still find nothing. Welcome to the cold new world of the prematurely, involuntarily retired.

When I graduated from college, I had to work as a bartender for a few months until I found work but a company seeing that I had the personality and aptitude for sales engineering finally hired me and was willing to train me. Later on at age 27, I was again looking for work but another company was in the process of hiring a bunch of college graduates to train for their student program. I was no longer a student but I was close enough so they too hired and trained me which lead to 21 years of service until my job was eliminated.

What this underscores is that most companies, especially larger ones, do most of their external hiring to fill entry level jobs with most of their other jobs being filled through internal promotion. But non-entry-level jobs are posted all the time, you say. Right you are, but many times they are posted just in case no internal applicants can be found. And many times they will grant interviews to external candidates just to make it look like they are getting a fair shot. But since the internal candidate always gets preference, we know how this is likely to turn out. For someone who has a job and wants to change employers, this is a disappointment. For those who don’t have a job, they can be in a desperate situation on the outside looking in.

But as grim as the Fortune article is about the chances for people in this age group, it overlooks the plight of people who really still need to work in order to afford the necessities of life. The subjects of the article were well compensated and enjoyed a relatively affluent lifestyle in keeping with the typical Fortune reader profile. When these people were not able to find work, their egos were hurt more than anything else when they changed their label from ‘unemployed’ to ‘retired’. But others were not as well compensated and haven’t been able to save as much money. Some still have children’s college expenses. And others have had financial setbacks from divorces or perhaps health problems. Retirement for me along with these other people is simply not an option!

While companies are willing to hire those out of college without experience to learn and grow on the job, the only way to increase ones value for an employer is to acquire more specialized skills that the company can use. This stands to reason. People who have more specialized skills due to their education and experience generally command a higher salary. But this is a double-edged sword since these more specialized skills are more difficult to transfer to another job if necessary.

My electrical engineering profession is a notable example. There are dozens of specialized fields within electrical engineering that lead to their own separate career paths. But what happens when these people ever have to find new jobs? One of the passages in the Fortune article includes a sobering figure from
IEEE, the professional organization for electrical engineers: A November (2004) survey of 983 IEEE-USA members, median age 49, found that 42% were unemployed.

So for many professionals with specialized skills, the only way to try and get back into the workforce after being laid off is to try and get an entry level or other lower paying job within that profession. Then that person can hopefully work his or her way up the ladder again by internal promotions in the new company. This is not ideal, but it sure beats flipping burgers! But even this often doesn’t work because employers are extremely resistant to hiring someone they feel is “overqualified”. (Translation: You’ll leave as soon as you find a job that pays a salary you used to make.)

The result is that these people are in an unfair situation where they are “overqualified” for entry level jobs but “are not a good fit” for the non-entry-level jobs.

While no employer is putting out a sign saying “OLDER PEOPLE NEED NOT APPLY” since that would be illegal, hiring policies by many companies clearly put older job seekers at a significant disadvantage compared to younger ones whether that is their intent or not. While older candidates must submit applications to companies and hope for a response, some of these same companies have recruiters to visit and interview graduating college students on campus. And as the Fortune article relates in more detail, successfully filing an age discrimination suit through the overworked and understaffed Equal Employment Opportunity Commission is the longest of long shots.

So when trying to come up with solutions, we have to first of all acknowledge that unemployment (and underemployment) are serious problems that affect a lot of people in addition to the families they must support. They are not looking for a handout but a way to help themselves out of a difficult situation.

Unemployment is a complicated problem with a number of causes, some of them interrelated. There are no grand solutions but hopefully a comprehensive policy that uses a collection of coordinated smaller solutions can help us to make some headway. It will be interesting to hear how our presidential candidates intend to address this issue. In the meantime, I would like to humbly offer some proposed solutions in my concluding article.

Sunday, September 7, 2008

What Can We Do About Unemployment?

In the middle of all of the buzz around the two recent political conventions, another unpleasant issue came to the forefront again — our steadily rising unemployment here in the US.

There are a lot of opinions of the subject of unemployment. Some come from academic experts and TV talking heads. And then there are the perspectives of those who have been there. As a member of the second group, I can confidently say that many of those who haven’t been there really have little idea of what they are talking about. So can I take this opportunity to tell it like it is?

For one thing, few issues have been so cloaked in denial. Incumbent politicians no matter what their political stripe want to paint as rosy a picture as possible about the employment landscape. After all, negative news in this regard usually leads to their unemployment after the next election. With unemployment figures being released by government agencies and worked over by political spin doctors, it’s no wonder that many have not grasped the serious problems in our job market until recently when things have gotten too bad to try and hide it anymore.

When I first took a college course in economics discussing unemployment, there was a term used called
full employment which said that at around 5% unemployment, everybody who was really looking for a job could find one. Especially the commentators who favor conservative economic policies would hang their hat on this to say that the economy was just fine. If those few people were having trouble finding work, a better education for them would fix that just fine, they said. But maybe not.

ith our unemployment rate being at about 5% in recent times, if we really had full employment, why are so many employers getting inundated with dozens or even hundreds of resumes? Maybe there are a lot more people looking for work than the government unemployment figures indicate. For one thing, jobless claims in the way of unemployment compensation are used to assess the job market. But what happens to those who exhaust their benefits? What about those who become so discouraged that they give up looking for a job? And perhaps most importantly, what about those who are forced to accept a much lower paying job than their previous one just to try and stay afloat? They may be underemployed, but they are ignored as part of the unemployment problem because after all, they are working. But this recently issued worker report card has the ugly details.

In its first national labor scorecard, the Rutgers School of Management and Labor Relations said more than 10 percent of Americans are unemployed, discouraged from seeking work or underemployed. That is a nearly 25-percent increase from one year earlier.

So the first step in getting government to try and help people who are out of work is to acknowledge their existence. But the more difficult step is to figure out what (if anything) the government can do to help. After all, not everything is within its control.

In my view, there are a number of recent trends that are making unemployment more difficult for today's job applicants.

Internet job postings are more of a curse than a blessing. At first blush, the opposite should be true! After all, the job seeker can now sit at his or her desk and scan hundreds of job openings on the computer. What’s not to like? For one thing, companies are now routinely bombarded with more resumes than they can sometimes even read let alone respond to with interview opportunities. The result is that an already selective job market can become ridiculously so. To take an extreme example, a job applicant who meets say, 99% of the posted job requirements may not even get an interview since that employer is in the position to hold out for candidates who meet 100% of the requirements. In this context, the department title of Human Resources in many companies takes on an Orwellian identity in that they no longer look to make use of people for the resources they can offer but are instead putting their energies into looking for reasons to reject them to keep the number of applicants to a manageable number. So it should not be surprising that according to almost all job search experts, looking for jobs on the Internet has a low percentage of success that too many people nowadays rely on exclusively instead of other job search techniques like networking that are considered far more effective.

Businesses more than ever are trying to make do with the absolute least number of employees possible. When the economy is going through difficult times, businesses understandably cut back. But even when profitable times return, the mindset of making do with fewer people still remains. And for companies that provide increasingly more costly health insurance for each of its employees, there is a powerful incentive to make do with fewer employees even if it means paying the existing ones overtime to get the work done. Having said that, for many non-hourly employees, unpaid overtime is part of the deal associated with keeping ones job.

In addition to American jobs lost to outsourcing are jobs lost to immigrant workers. Most of us know about the jobs that immigrants do “that Americans won’t do”. (By the way, anybody who watches
Dirty Jobs on the Discovery Channel knows there are no jobs that Americans won’t do — they just don’t want to be paid slave wages to do them!) But not as well known are the professional jobs that go to H1-B visa holders under the questionable claim that we have a shortage of graduating science and engineering students. (Note: Although I usually disagree with Lou Dobbs’ extreme immigration views, I think he is correct on the H1-B issue.)

In a 2006 New York Times op-ed column by David Brooks
The Nation of the Future, this supposed shortage of scientists and engineers is addressed:

What about the shortage of scientists and engineers? Vastly overblown. According to Duke School of Engineering researchers, the U.S. produces more engineers per capita than China or India. According to The Wall Street Journal, firms with engineering openings find themselves flooded with résumés. Unemployment rates for scientists and engineers are no lower than for other professions, and in some specialties, such as electrical engineering, they are notably higher.

Especially as an out of work electrical engineer, I can tell you that the older more experienced professionals are having perhaps the greatest difficulty of all in finding work. But I will address that in my next article along with some possible solutions to this whole mess.

Wednesday, September 3, 2008

Can We Talk About Abstinence-Only Sex Education?

It wouldn’t be fair to pile on to Republican VP choice Sarah Palin for her latest disclosure that her 17-year-old unmarried daughter is pregnant. This can happen to any family. But this unfortunate incident also helps to remind us that abstinence-only sex education which Palin (along with John McCain) so strongly believe in simply doesn't work.

But saying that it simply doesn’t work implies that programs like this only have a neutral effect on those it is aimed at. But abstinence-only programs for example, do not acknowledge the value of latex condoms which in addition to providing contraceptive protection, also provide protection against sexually transmitted diseases. So while teaching the value of abstinence to teens may well be worthwhile, don’t we want to see them protected from unwanted pregnancy and disease in the event that they choose to have sex? Or is there a secret urge by social conservatives that these people should suffer the consequences of violating what they feel are societal rules.

And speaking of rules, where does this rule come from that the only people allowed to have sex have to be married? For the most part, it is religion that has been the driver behind this rule of conduct. While nobody denies religions the right to teach their members moral values as they see fit, it is a slippery slope across that separation of church and state when these religiously driven values creep into government legislation.

Of course, nobody would try to pass a law especially on the federal level that outlaws sex outside of marriage. That would be a little too direct and may well provoke a Constitutional challenge. So programs like abstinence-only education take a more sneaky tact that offers
federal government funding with strings attached.

It’s bad enough to target this ideological approach to teens. But where does it stop? Incredibly, some government officials want to
expand this program to include adults! I find the endless TV commercials for Viagra, Cialis, and Levitra to be annoying enough. But as a single person, it ticks me off even more that all of these commercials make sure that you can't help but notice that their actors are all wearing wedding rings to reinforce the notion that sex is only for married people! And what about gays and lesbians? Since the same people who insist on abstinence for single people don’t want to see gay marriage, are these people expected to just give up sex for life? Or are we just supposed to ignore their existence?

Even worse, this funding with strings attached approach has even crept into
our global efforts to fight HIV and AIDS.

In 2004, U.S. President George W. Bush announced his Five-Year Global HIV/AIDS Strategy. Also known as The President’s Emergency Plan for AIDS Relief (PEPFAR), the plan committed the U.S. to provide $15 billion over five years towards AIDS relief in 15 countries in Africa and the Caribbean, and in Vietnam. About 20 percent of the funding, or $3 billion over five years, was allocated for prevention. The program required that, starting in fiscal year 2006, one-third of prevention funding be earmarked specifically for abstinence-only-until-marriage programs. Global AIDS prevention advocates have criticized the funding restriction, and in 2006 a report by the U.S. Government Accountability Office (GAO) also criticized the earmark, outlined the challenges that the funding restriction posed to countries hardest hit by the AIDS epidemic, and urged Congress to reconsider how this funding should be spent.

So what can be done by those who believe this is all ideology that has run amok? Legislation titled
The Responsible Education About Life (REAL) Act (S. 972/H.R.1653), would provide federal money supporting “education (that) would include science-based, medically accurate, and age appropriate public health information about both abstinence and contraception.” It is presently in committee and its ultimate fate will likely be decided as a result of whether the Democrats or Republicans capture the presidency this November. Once again, still another good reason to get out and vote!