Practical definition: “Harsh working conditions”

Posted by Marc Hodak on June 24, 2012 under Practical definitions | 2 Comments to Read

This video perfectly encapsulates the difference between the Mother Jones and Inc. views of the world:

So, the new definition of harsh working conditions include:  Working in a quiet setting; having to bend over and to stand on your tippy toes; doing your job as fast and as well as you can.  Oh the horror.

This kind of reminds me of Barbara Ehrenreich’s “Nickel and Dimed in America,” a manual on how to complain about not having everything given to you.  I learned about that insipid book only because it was required reading at my kid’s Upper West Side school, apparently in the module on becoming an effete intellectual incapable of manual labor. (For those of you who were forced to endure its 240 pages of whining, here is the inspiring antidote.)

A couple of things make me hopeful.  First, reality intrudes. I know a few of the kids who were indoctrinated along with mine, and—like my kids—quickly figured out that what they learned in their gym class was more important than what they learned in their social studies; the real world is a competitive place; you either learn to love hard work, or you learn to accept being an also-ran.

Second, the zeitgeist seems to be changing.  I was apparently not the only person who found this ‘story’ execrable. Check out the comments on Yahoo, which draws from a far-from-conservative crowd. Nearly everyone there ridiculed this story.

Practical definition: Ask (again)

Posted by Marc Hodak on July 20, 2011 under Practical definitions | Be the First to Comment

I don’t get the media’s willingness to accept the politician’s definition of “ask,” as in:

We’ll ask them to hand over their assets to government

We should not be asking them to make sacrifices if we’re not asking the most fortunate in our society to make some sacrifices as well.”

The first quote comes from the Zimbabwean Minister of Economic Empowerment–an Orwellian title if ever one existed–with regards to foreign owners of mines.  The second quote is U.S. President Obama discussing his hope for budget cuts and tax increases.  Each of those phrases is more honest if “ask” is substituted for “force.”

Actually, that substitution doesn’t work as cleanly in Obama’s statement.  In the first instance of “asking,” the government is taking benefits away that it currently provides; in the second instance of “asking,” the government is taking by force resources that are nominally owned by other people.  Substituting “ask” for “force, or supplanting “ask” with “from behind a gun” reveals Obama’s linguistic trick in attempting to treat these very different activities as similar.

The lesson is simple:  when I ask you to do something, or you ask me, it’s a request that either of us can refuse.  When the government “asks” you to do something, you can’t.  Of course, every mafia don will insist that a person could refuse their requests when it comes down to it, but that insistence does as much violence to the language as it does to the person who refuses.

Practical definition: Successful

Posted by Marc Hodak on July 12, 2010 under Practical definitions | 4 Comments to Read

Let’s look at how the term is used by John Walke, clean-air director at the Natural Resources Defense Council:

“The acid-rain market continues to be relevant to the debate over CO2 because it is a successful model.”

This quote finished off an article about the collapse of the acid-rain market:

The acid-rain market has been considered a success, helping to reduce sulfur-dioxide emissions by half. Permits to emit sulfur had once traded for $1,600 a ton.

But in 2008, in response to lawsuits filed by a handful of utilities and North Carolina, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia Circuit ruled that the EPA had overstepped its authority… Prices of allowances fell in response, and trading dwindled.

In response to the ruling, prices for the pollution allowances plunged to $130 a ton. Utilities held off on projects to clean up their plants…

Last week, the EPA issued new rules to comply with the court’s decision. The new program will limit the use of the market and instead require most of the emission reductions to come from changes at the plants themselves. And millions of allowances that utilities now hold can’t be used under the new program, which will issue its own allowances.

“It really feels like prices are going to zero quickly,” says Peter Zaborowsky, a managing director of Evolution Markets Inc., a White Plains, N.Y.-based provider of environmental brokerage services for utilities and investors. Allowances traded at times at less than $3 last week…

The market’s collapse shows how vulnerable market-based approaches to reducing air pollution are to government actions. That could scare off investors, who won’t commit to a market where the rules can change at any minute.

So, that’s one definition of “successful.”  Another player in the acid rain market has another take:

“It is tragic,” says Gary Hart, an analyst at ICAP Energy LLC based in Birmingham, Ala., who has worked on environmental markets for two decades. “It is something that worked so well.”

Until it didn’t.

Practical definition: Phoning it in

Posted by Marc Hodak on March 17, 2010 under Practical definitions | Be the First to Comment

What the AP reporter must have done with this story:

An AP review of unverified driver complaints found 105 such reports since Feb. 15. That’s a 75 percent increase from the 60 reported earlier this month by the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration. [Emphasis mine]

Comparing two fifteen day periods.  With Congressional hearings in between.  They aren’t even trying anymore.

Practical definition: Bonus culture

Posted by Marc Hodak on September 8, 2009 under Practical definitions, Reporting on pay | Be the First to Comment

Politicians and the media, working together to politicize the language, have grabbed onto a new phrase:  the bonus culture.  It’s a suitably nebulous phrase that conjures up bankers immersed in a world of money–our money–flowing through their homes and dinners and art, regardless of what happens to “working men and women,” of which they are not a part.

The definition of ‘bonus culture’ should be simple:  an area of society where incentives are transparent.

Instead, we have this alienated view of money, and those who work with it, arising from the cargo cult mentality that endows money with a sense of magic, as if it flows toward certain people based on some dark art.  It hearkens back to the medieval view of traders and moneychangers who grow wealthy without producing anything tangible as the inherent objects of suspicion, while the looters who walked around with swords or muskets and forcibly took money from their subjects were treated with a sort of reverence for their power.

You’d think that in this day and age, we’d have a healthier view of money as a medium of exchange and a store of value.  You’d think that in a society where the vast bulk of involuntary transactions are tax collections, that those dealing without the threat of force would be regarded with a less conspiratorial view than those who rely on that threat.  But it remains exactly the opposite:  politicians are viewed with less suspicion than bankers.  And the reason is that bankers live in a “culture of bonuses” while the financial incentives of politicians are far better disguised.

Practical definition: Excessive risk

Posted by Marc Hodak on July 29, 2009 under Executive compensation, Practical definitions, Reporting on pay | Read the First Comment

Congress is trying the belt and suspenders approach to keep the market from having another meltdown as we experienced last year.  The belt is tighter controls at TBTF firms.  The suspenders are the elimination of perverse incentives.

The thing is, if you want to eliminate perverse incentives, you have to know what they look like.  According to an Equilar survey, here are some of the questions that companies are considering as they examine issues of excessive risk:

  • Are we over using stock options?
  • Do our incentive plans promote short-term thinking?
  • Do we have the right mix between short and long-term goals?
  • Do large maximum bonus opportunities promote risk taking?
  • Are we using overly aggressive performance goals?
  • Do our bonus plans focus on too narrow a set of goals?
  • Do we have the right mix between fixed and variable compensation?

Six of these questions are sensible.  One sticks out as completely bizarre to an incentive expert:  “Do large maximum bonus opportunities promote risk taking?”

Of course they do.  Is that supposed to be a bad thing?  Entrepreneurs have unlimited bonus opportunities–thank goodness.

The question of a maximum bonus opportunity is simply the wrong question when talking about reward systems.  The question they should be asking is whether steep bonus opportunities are combined with zero bonus opportunities.  All the governance risk faced by a company is in the area where the participant would earn no bonuses unless they can get up into the green zone of bonus payouts with an all-or-nothing, double-down, longshot bet.

So, guess which of those questions most congressmen view as the most critical in determining “excessive compensation risk?”  Yep, the risk that business executives might get paid too much.

Unfortunately, the reporting on the proposed regulation of compensation risk doesn’t even bother to define what “excessive risk” means at all, instead focusing on the political considerations of supporting or opposing any bill that purports to “contain” the excesses.

Practical definition: Government oversight

Posted by Marc Hodak on July 16, 2009 under Practical definitions | Be the First to Comment

Congress is fond of setting up oversight committees, and demanding that various agencies provide oversight to much of our economy.  They are clearly contemplating definition 1 from Webster’s:

1 a: watchful and responsible care b: regulatory supervision <congressional oversight>

When one sees the actual, as opposed to the theoretical workings of our governments, state and local, it’s impossible not consider definition 2 as more appropriate:

2: an inadvertent omission or error

As the inestimable Henry Stern points out, oversight is one of the few words in the English language that also means its own opposite.

Practical definition: Poach

Posted by Marc Hodak on June 14, 2009 under Practical definitions | Read the First Comment

The WSJ headline is:  “Southern States Poach Business Amid Downturn

Kind of conjures up some southern hick with a shotgun sneaking up on someone’s farm, and leading away some cattle in the dead of night.

It doesn’t seem to conjure up decades of rustbelt politicians sucking the life out of their businesses with ever-increasing taxes, and workplace regulations flowing from their capitals like topsy.  It doesn’t evoke geographic and jurisdictional competition, with entrepreneurs and corporate managers coolly poring over spreadsheets deciding where to invest their scarce capital.

Would a southern newspaper use the word “poach” to describe competition for capital in this context?  I don’t think so.  It used to be that you could expect such anti-business wordsmithing from the New York Times.  But we see just as well on the front page of the Wall Street Journal.

Practical definition: judicial empathy

Posted by Marc Hodak on May 3, 2009 under Politics, Practical definitions | Be the First to Comment

President Obama said he was looking for someone who has “empathy for ordinary Americans” in a Supreme Court justice.  I was taught that the role of judges in our system of checks and balances was to interpret the law.  The legislature makes law.  Empathy is a good thing in lawmakers.  Laws affect everyone, and one should appreciate their effect on others when creating them.  The executive implements and enforces the law.  There are lots of ways to apply rules, and we’d like to think that they are being implemented in the most humane and reasonable way possible.  Judges interpret the law.  What does empathy mean in the context of interpretation?  Here’s what he meant:

Judicial empathy:  Ignoring the law to achieve an outcome the judge desires.

You will note that is more or less the same as the definition of judicial activism.

Senator Specter (R then D-PA) might be instructive on this point, explaining why a blatantly discriminatory approach to selecting judges would work best:

We have a very diverse country.  We need more people to express a woman’s point of view or a minority point of view, Hispanic or African-American, so that somebody who has done something more than wear a black robe for most of their lives.

I would like to know what the woman’s point of view is with respect to:  “Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof; or abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press.”  Is there a Hispanic or African-American way to read:  “The right of the people to be secure in their persons, houses, papers, and effects, against unreasonable searches and seizures, shall not be violated, and no Warrants shall issue, but upon probable cause?”

Specter is a liar.  Given a choice between Janice Rogers Brown and any of a passel of liberal white males, the sharecropper’s daughter doesn’t have a chance with the Democrats on the Senate Judiciary committee, and he knows it.  Neither would a conservative Hispanic against a liberal white male.

Senator Leahy proposes an even more disingenuous standard.  He’s looking for “somebody who can reflect the feelings of real Americans.”

As opposed to the Americans on the other side of the political debate, no doubt.

Practical definition: Bi-partisan

Posted by Marc Hodak on February 9, 2009 under Practical definitions | Be the First to Comment

Bi-partisan:  Democrats buying off Republicans in order to pass something that almost anyone else would consider a bad deal.