Monday, December 30, 2013

Raising the Minimum Wage

My friends and I have been debating raising the minimum wage to a living wage.  They think it will cause inflation and make those in skilled or professional jobs lose ground in the economy.
Some of them talk about how unfair it seems to artificially reward people who made "bad choices" and didn't go to college or pursue post graduate studies in technology, trades, or the arts.
What about the idea of a "rising tide lifts all boats?"
You would think that the bad job market means that our economy is bad overall and that productivity is down.  Not so.  You might suppose that the poor "job creators" simply can't afford to pay their workers better.  Again, not so.  The pie has gotten bigger, but the piece for more than 80% of us has shrunk.  Please check this graphic from 

You can see that productivity has grown over 38% between 1995 and 2011.  As stated in the article, "Emmanuel Saez, an economist at the University of California at Berkeley, found that the top 1 percent of households garnered 65 percent of all the nation’s income growth from 2002 to 2007, when the recession hit. Another study found that one-third of the overall increase in income going to the richest 1 percent has resulted from the surge in corporate profits."
Some of that productivity comes from automation and some comes from off shoring of jobs.  In both cases it means that the job market for the average worker has become more competitive.  Some skills are no longer relevant in today's US market.
People talk about bringing back "good paying jobs" like those in manufacturing.  Exactly what is it that a factory worker does that is more "skilled" than people in retail or food services?  While there may be some programmable machine operators who deserve to be paid better than assemblers, the jobs are generally repetitive and not very pleasant. 
Why do we feel comfortable paying a factory worker $15 or $25/hour (a wage that is quickly dropping, btw), but judge that someone assembling a cheeseburger at McDonald's is only entitled to minimum wage?   Why do we pay our 70K computer engineers a median $47.50/hour with a Bachelor's degree, but our 650K Social Workers earn only $20.42 per hour and generally require at least an MS for the higher paying clinical positions?
Our 420K licensed plumbers can expect to earn $22.43/hr, while one of the 1.5 Million Certified Nurses Aide can expect to earn only $11.54 per hour
Does that mean that the more people we have in a profession, the lower the salary?  No, because the 2.7 Million Registered Nurses earn a median of $33.23/hour  (Still quite a bit less than a computer engineer, though!)
So, sometimes the "bad choices" we make are to do work that is meaningful to us and very much needed, but not valued monetarily.  The theme that emerges for me is that jobs that were traditionally filled by women (snacks/meals prior to fast food, daycare, healthcare aides, social work, teaching) tend to pay poorly or not at all, no matter how much education is required. 
The difference for the nurses and teachers has been the unions and the fact that, for the most part, these jobs can't be easily "off-shored." 
I don't think of the corporations as "evil" for shipping jobs overseas or for suppressing wages or for not sharing the gains in productivity with their workers.  I think of them as fighting for competitive advantage and reveling in the profits to their shareholders.  If we change the playing field for EVERYONE, prices might go up, and dividends might go down, but taxes for welfare (SNAP, Fuel Assistance, School Lunch, etc) programs will go down too.  The big corporations are paying the lowest effective taxes (not the tax rate, but the actual taxes paid after all the loopholes they've written into the tax code) since the days of the Robber Barons.  They don't want to pay their workers more because they have to remain competitive with others in the industry. They are not evil, they are amoral.  If we raise the minimum wage (perhaps using the Australian model that has exceptions for teenage workers for everyone, the playing field stays level and the corporations will adjust.  Offering tax credits to small business owners to help reduce the sting of increased business expense makes more sense to me than offering subsidies to factory farms and oil companies.   
So, what would that mean for people in higher paying occupations?  Will their relative income advantage disappear?  No.  Chances are, their incomes will also increase. 
This is anecdotal, but serves to make a point.  When I was an engineering manager, I helped recruit two PhDs from MIT.  If I wanted to hire them I had to offer a higher salary than I was earning as their manager.  I did it anyway, without any resentment, because I gambled that doing it to attract the right talent would impress my bosses more than my thinking "small" and offering them less than I was making.  I was right.  I got a $10K pay increase that year.  In effect, the highest pay of my new hire acted as a "minimum wage" for me.  The new minimum wage can be a springboard for a discussion about increases because of skills and education. 
Can we afford it?  Won't it just cause spiraling inflation?   Again, no.  Australia has an inflation rate of 2.2%, while the US inflation rate is 1.2%.
Let's talk about inflation.  Food, housing, and clothing prices are somewhat stable...for the moment.  As energy prices increase, everything will become more expensive.  Education and healthcare costs have skyrocketed.   Education has priced itself to the point where some degrees will never pay you back, at least monetarily, for your investment.
A lot of those increases can be tied back to "privatization" and "for profit" healthcare and educational institutions.  For instance, there are staffing organizations out there who provide home healthcare and CNAs.  The agencies charge Medicaid/hospitals/ longterm care facilities $20 to $25 for workers they pay only $10 to $15 per hour with NO or few benefits.  
And, here's a reality; we don't all start out on a level playing field.  I'm not just talking about good schools, parenting, healthcare and opportunities.  It's a fact that half of us have IQs less than 100.  You can be as ambitious as you want, but if you don't have the capacity to get high scores on admissions or licensing exams, no matter how hard you work, you may truly be limited to offering burgers with those fries.  Should that condemn you to a life of poverty?  Where is the justice in that? 

I am SO thankful that I was gifted with a good mind.  It isn't just that I can earn more money.  I have also been able to pick and choose how I want to spend my time working.  The best job I ever had paid more than $50 per hour and all I had to do for it was solve logic puzzles and lead product teams.  It was pure heaven for me...most of the time, anyway.  Even if I were paid just a "living wage," I would still count myself lucky not to be putting the same parts together over and over again. 
I did not leave engineering willingly.  I was forced out as manufacturing jobs went overseas and the engineering jobs followed.  I did everything right.  I was a good contributor.  I earned patents for my company.  I pursued post graduate studies.  I was 41 years old when the bottom fell out of high tech back in 1991.
For my second act, I focused on finding a career that would offer a sense of purpose and allow me to make a real contribution to society.  I went back to school to study nursing.
The hardest job I ever had was working as a CNA in a long term care facility for $8.00/hr while I was in nursing school in my 40s.  Even though I knew I was doing valuable and necessary work, the conditions were brutal and it took a toll on me physically and psychologically. 
And while my first nursing job paid over $20 per hour, it was still a much more demanding and responsible job than engineering ever was! 
This essay is getting to be much too long.  I need to subject it to a major rewrite and sum it all up. 
For now, I will just say that I think we can do better for our workers.  The contributions of workers is just as important as capital.  The balance has shifted too much in favor of capital.  It is up to us to move it back.  It starts with a living wage for all workers. 

Tuesday, November 19, 2013

Animal Farm

The Classics Book Club at the Ingalls Memorial Library in Rindge is reading George Orwell's 1946 classic, Animal Farm.
Last night, at the "Save Our Town" meeting at the Rindge Meeting House, a couple of us talked about the book while waiting for the meeting to start.  I was just to the part where the neighboring farmer, Frederick, blows up the wind mill.  My friend had finished the book and wanted to know who I thought the main characters represented.  "Was Napoleon a caricature of Stalin?"
I suppose...but the thing about a classic is that it transcends the circumstances of it's time to remain relevant today.  It matters little to me whether Napoleon was Orwell's picture of Stalin...or Truman, for that matter.  What does it mean today?
The "lower animals" as Farmer Pilkington refers to them at the end of the book, seem to reflect all the characters we see among, "We the People," who are not in charge and running things, but get a vote and are expected to work toward our community's success.
I identified with Boxer...and a little bit with Benjamin, the old donkey.  I really liked them both as "people," but I think they also let their fellow creatures down.  I feel a bit like, "Clover," seeing that some things are wrong, but accepting that I probably missed the meeting where those decisions were made...or misremember them. Truth is, at various stages of my life, I have been the cat and Mollie too.
Snowball, Benjamin and Muriel could all read, but only Snowball tried to use that talent in service to the community.  If Snowball hadn't been run off, would the others have learned to read as he intended?  Would the power have been shared more equally?  Or would his successes have gone to his head and turned him into a greedy pig like Napoleon?
Was it inevitable that Napoleon would use his wits and authority to find a way to drive Snowball off or kill him?   What made Napoleon so exploitative?  Was it jealousy of Snowball's vision and willingness to live among the others in full equality?  Was Snowball doomed the moment Napoleon raised an army of dogs conditioned to obey him blindly?
The others not only allowed Snowball to be driven off by the dogs, but they soon forgot Snowball.  Those who stayed loyal and tried to help were executed or committed suicide after admitting complicity.  The animals were then treated to an alternate version of history where the windmill plan was created by Napoleon and where Snowball's bullet wounds became bites from Napoleon.  Rather than being a hero of the Battle of Cowshed, Snowball is reported to be a traitor who was fighting on the side of Farmer Jones and his men.  Only Napoleon's attack on Snowball saved the day in the latest version of history as told by Squealer.
Do the pigs represent all government and elected officials?  I think it is more like the 1% versus the 99%.  If you are rich, or gifted with talent, your life will resemble that of the pigs.  You will not have to labor or serve so much as "think" or "plan."  Once you separate the young pigs from the other young animals, you will erase any sense of compassion or fellowship in the young pigs for any but each other.  Napoleon used brilliant strategy.
Should we then be opposed to thinking and planning because it so often turns out to benefit no one but the pigs?  
No.  Just the opposite.  We all need to get educated and pay attention to local issues.  We do not need a Snowball to turn things around in this country.  We need to see the "Snowball" in each of us, protect it, encourage it and keep it in play.
Planning is good.  We should all participate, not shut it down because it is inconvenient for us to show up at meetings.   The Plan NH Charrette invited everyone's participation.
Let me take one example from last night's presentation to present another side of their argument.  Ken Eyring pointed to the media firm identified in the list of Plan NH participants.  He talked about how shocking it is that a firm was hired at all and for so much money!!!  What do they need with that if this is supposed to be a grassroots effort???
The people at the "Save Our Town" meeting last night were recipients of a direct mailing that cost over $500.  That is what media firms do.  I left some of the postcards that Plan NH sent out inviting participation in Granite State Future on the table last night.  There is no nefarious plan at work in hiring a media firm.  You have a goal of getting the widest possible participation and you use the tools available to you.
I am always suspicious of people who spend much of their time in arguing for a position by demonizing or dehumanizing the opposition.  Now, after reading Animal Farm, I understand why.  It reminds me of Napoleon and Squealer, constantly telling stories and lies about someone who isn't there to counter them.
I believe in healthy debate.  I don't think bullying people by telling them to "move back to Massachusetts" or shouting them down at meetings is a sign of a reasoned discussion. 
I hope the people who came to Ken Eyring's presentation will come hear Roger Hawke and Ben Frost tonight as well.  Otherwise it's just "Four legs good.  Two legs bad." ~ the sheep Animal Farm

Wednesday, November 6, 2013

Published in the Monadnock Ledger Transcript on 10/29/13

Is HUD a threat to your community?
I might as well start with the case of Westchester County Executive Rob Astorino and his battle with HUD.  This is the case that people opposing the use of HUD grants cite as an example of how HUD “attaches strings” to grants and “changes the rules” forcing you to accept affordable housing, even when it violates local zoning laws.
Well, it so happens, I do know something about Westchester County and what happened there.  Westchester County accepted HUD funding to attract developers to build affordable housing.  One of the restrictions of that funding is that once a certain level of affordable housing is reached in a given town, you can build more affordable housing, but you are not eligible for HUD funds to help you build them.  Why would they make a rule like that?
Well, if you were a resident of New Rochelle, you would probably be pretty upset to find out that your County government was trying to load your town up with all the affordable housing for the County.  HUD has no interest in being a party to that.  So, if the developers can justify the cost, they are free to build there, but the County government will not be getting any infrastructure help from HUD to do so.
When Mr. Astorino talks about being sued by HUD, he is actually referring to the fact that the County attempted to get HUD funding for neighborhoods that already exceeded affordable housing goals.  HUD wants that money back. Alternatively, the County can apply those funds to affordable units in other towns.  The problem is, many of those other towns have restrictive or “snob” zoning that prohibits affordable housing and they don’t want to change their zoning.  HUD’s reaction is “Okay.  Then just give the money back.”   This is the “suit” they keep talking about. 
At the October 16  Rindge Board of Selectman’s meeting it was mentioned that in building Payson Village, an affordable senior housing project, people believed the contract SHOULD HAVE BEEN between the developer and HUD; not the town.  In the first place, this type of HUD funding, known as a Community Development Block Grant (CDBG), can never go directly to a developer and in the second place, the agreement between HUD and the town means that the town has adequately considered the project and agrees that it is acceptable to the town.  Would anyone prefer that the town NOT be required to give permission in such a situation? 
Payson Village wasn’t sprung on the Rindge taxpayers overnight.  There were three separate town meetings over a period of ten years asking for the vote and will of the people.  It wasn’t even close.  The voters wanted affordable senior housing so that we could keep some of our most precious resources (our senior citizens) in town for many more years.  It has been a great addition to the town and the property was well-constructed and is beautifully maintained.
HUD funding made the project affordable for the developers by tackling a water availability problem that had plagued the town center for many years.  The HUD/CDBG funding amounted to $500,000.  The developer raised over $3 Million.  One of the restrictions of the HUD/CDBG funds is that it must be spent on infrastructure (mostly site work or utilities).  In this case, the town kept ownership of the land and most of the $500,000 went into developing a Community Well system on that land.  It is estimated that the well yield could supply water to over 1000 homes, if necessary.  It’s a tremendous potential asset for the town.  
At the Rindge Planning Board meeting on October 15, a resident suggested that Rindge not accept any more grants because there are always “strings attached.”  And, he’s right.  Whenever you accept a grant, you will be asked to sign a contract stating that you will not break any federal, state, or local laws and will uphold the terms of the contract.   Not all grants are a good deal for a town, but like anything else, you need to do your research and insist on complete transparency. 
Rindge gets a lot of grant money because our employees and volunteers work really hard and try to find ways to relieve the tax burden by getting grant funding.  Taking initiative like that should be applauded; not treated with suspicion and anger. 
So what happens if our town stops accepting grant money?  Either our tax rate will go up substantially, or as the resident at the Planning Board meeting suggested, we will have to find “some other way” of raising money.  I am not sure if he was suggesting we hold bake sales?
The question on the table is, “Should Rindge return a $24K HUD planning grant and end our relationship with HUD?”   I can’t find anything in the HUD contract which stipulates that returning the planning grant money will sever all obligations.  In fact, the contract states that even if one condition of the contract is deemed to be in default, all other conditions are still in force.  I believe Rindge will be required to finish the planning project whether or not the money is returned. 
I encourage the residents of Rindge to request the Board of Selectmen invite Ben Frost of NH Housing to attend a meeting to answer their questions about HUD funding.  I won’t speculate on the motives of the people spreading misinformation about how HUD operates, but I’m pretty sure that asking the taxpayers to return $24K or $524K would have no legal impact of any kind. 

Friday, October 25, 2013

When you're up to your...

I was an A1C in the Air Force the first time I saw that quote, "When you're up to your a** in alligators, it is difficult to remember that your initial objective was to drain the swamp."  I have felt that kind of desperation and panic a few times in my life.
I think the Rindge Charrette is exactly that kind of situation.
People have invited me and others who participated in and supported the Charrette to move out of town.  Now, there is all this hysteria about Agenda 21 and property rights surrounding those sessions intended to get community input.  We have been accused of wanting to turn Rindge into an urban area; reminiscent of towns in Massachusetts.  
Long before I moved to Rindge, there was a thriving town center.  It had a general store and I've been told, people congregated there to discuss the politics of the day.  Then they moved the old Route 202 to it's present location and the center became something of a ghost town.  Rindge lost it's "center."
The purpose of the Charrette was to try to find a new center for Rindge, and also create more integration with the college community.
I know there are people in West Rindge Village who liked the idea of revitalizing the village and making it the new town center, but they have been bullied into silence on the subject.  I am sorry for them.  I really am.  I don't live there, but if the people in West Rindge Village embraced the idea, I would have tried to help make it happen.
Fortunately, as I recall the Charrette, it also talked about revitalizing the old town center too.  So, maybe it is time to just abandon any ideas for West Rindge Village and focus on what can be done in the center to bring it back from obscurity?
Or do people really buy the argument that we are NOT a real community; just a place to sleep at night? 
Change is the law of life. And those who look only to the past or present are certain to miss future.’

Saturday, October 5, 2013

Talkin' John Birch Society Paranoid Blues

I thank Bob Dylan for his inspirational song of the same title.
Today, the "dirty" word for the JBS is "sustainable."  You laugh?
I like that there are people in the world who spend part of every day, looking forward and thinking about tomorrow.  It makes me happy to know that most of the people around me, while they may be occupied with building careers, making money, taking vacations, and buying cool stuff, also take time out to donate time and money to local organizations and town government.  They somehow feel a sense of responsibility and love for their children and their friend's children and so take an interest in building a better community.
It does not seem to matter which political party they claim membership in or if they claim none at all.  Some people are just constructive and positive.  As I've grown more interested in town governance and national and international issues, I've learned to control my assumptions about my neighbors politics.  Before I moved to Rindge and got involved in local issues, whenever I met someone I truly liked and admired, I automatically assumed that we belonged to the same political party.  It kind of "rocked my world" to be working side by side with people who shared my love of community, but belonged to a party I thought wouldn't be interested in community service.  In fact, to my shock, most of the volunteers belonged to the "other" party.  Of course, the proportions also reflect the demographics of our community, I think.  It gives me hope for our very divided country that, at least, at a local level, we are able to work together in the best interests of the community.
Rindge is a very conservative town.  It is no surprise to me that when the energy commission made a pitch for more weatherization work on town buildings, the town government was very supportive and the voters awarded us funds to invest in more projects.  It was not an emotional appeal, it was a proposal based on the operating budget savings that we realized from ARRA funded projects.  Thanks to the federal grant funding we received, we were able to make improvements and get audits done.  The savings have been quite significant.  Regardless of party, people in Rindge see the wisdom of reducing costs.  Who would vote to WASTE money through excess energy consumption?
I want to tell you, I have felt no small pride that Rindge made that investment.  We are the envy of other towns with energy committees.  With grant funds for municipalities drying up, many energy committees have stalled in their efforts to improve energy efficiency in town buildings.
I wish I could get more grant money for other projects.  I understand that RGGI funds will become available soon for municipal projects.  I'd like to apply for some of that funding to move us along a more sustainable path.  What do I mean by sustainable?  I mean that it takes less resources and that we may even provide some of the power for our buildings, so that it becomes less costly to "sustain" them.
We are so lucky in Rindge.  Our DPW Director is very smart and very dedicated.  He is open minded and is a huge help in finding ways to stretch our dollars and make the energy improvements serve the dual purpose of making needed upgrades to town infrastructure.
I know that if you want to succeed, you need to be organized and have a plan.
I am passionate about energy conservation and the development of renewable resources.  I am basically a geek and made a career of designing portable computers.  The secret to our success was to constantly push down the power requirements, while boosting performance.  Now, in my retirement, I am interested in a macro view of power consumption and how it affects our economy, environment, and future.  NO ONE is going to tell me that this joy I get out of crunching numbers and plotting to reduce BTUs and Killowatts in a building is evil or a threat to society.   I see my favorite obsession as a joy for me and a gift to my community.
As was probably quite evident in the JBS sponsored meeting on October 1 at the Recreation Building in Rindge, my social skills are not that great and I am NO politician.  I am a nerd and a geek, but I also care deeply about our community.
I probably came across as wanting to suppress the free speech or exchange of ideas.  Why was I so upset about people asking questions after all?
I am upset because that meeting was part of an organized and planned campaign to turn the word, "sustainability" into a dirty word like "commie."   The JBS calls it the "Agenda 21 Conspiracy."  They are trying to block plans to make our communities more sustainable and environmentally friendly by scaring people with the threat that "visioning" is just a prelude to allowing the federal government to restrict your intake of beef, use of gasoline to drive, and use of your land.
I have news for you.  Those things will probably happen and will happen faster if we don't get "smart" with our planning.  It won't be the federal government who will cause it.  It will be market forces that cause these things if we don't take action.  The more demand on gas and oil, the higher the prices will go, and the more everything costs.
I find it ever so interesting that the JBS has taken the tact of scaring people into believing that accepting HUD grants for community planning and housing/infrastructure projects is like opening the door to a vampire.  If you invite HUD in, it will take your property by eminent domain and begin telling you what foods you can eat and how far you can drive.  It is the end of freedom as we know it.
Why is it interesting?  Because the JBS supports and promotes the Keystone XL Pipeline project which is one of the biggest taking of land by eminent domain for corporate profit ever.  How come freedom and liberty are so precious in one circumstance and completely irrelevant in another that benefits oil interests? 
Everyone in town is enjoying the new diner at the intersection 119 and 202.  I can't help but think that Tim Halliday was inspired by what he saw in those "visioning" documents at the Charrette.  That is what they are inspire and attract.  How is that bad?
And could someone please explain to me what would be accomplished by returning any of the HUD grant money?  Payson Village is a HUD funded project.  We already have a relationship with HUD.  Aside from helping to "build the brand" of certain NH House Representatives, what will really be accomplished?
Maybe I just don't scare easy?  I am NOT afraid that the government or anyone else is going to take my property by eminent domain.  I am not in the way of any natural resources (at least so far...there's going to be a proposal to build an LNG pipeline from Everett, MA to NH, I understand.  I wonder which side the JBS will come down on for that?) and I am not part of a blighted neighborhood.
I am also not afraid of the JBS or any names they care to call me.
I'm thinking most of my neighbors in Rindge don't scare easy either.  I think they are too smart to be sucked into returning money.  After all, what is the biggest penalty HUD could impose if you violated their rules?  You guessed it: You would have to return the money.  It really is like cutting off your nose to spite your face.
So, I hope this explains why I am taking these shenanigans by the JBS so personally.  It offends me.  Sustainability is a good thing.  Smart is a good thing.  Think of the opposites; Unsustainable and Stupid.  Really?  I just don't see Rindge going that way.