Category Archives: economics

Customer Service (and its lack)

We just got home today from one of the worst travel experiences in my life. We flew through Denver on United, connecting to Colorado Springs in order to visit my brother’s family in Pueblo and attend my niece’s wedding. It was less expensive than flying directly into the Springs or into Pueblo, and we’ve done it many times before with no problems or at worst delays. Going to the Springs on Thursday, we were delayed an extra two hours in Denver, but made it to Springs tired but happy to get in and see family, and enjoyed a wonderful weekend staying at the Pueblo Marriott, with a really good experience there, and visiting with family I hadn’t seen in twenty years in some cases. It was a great trip.

Until we tried to come home. There were several hours between our Springs flight and our Denver connection, so we didn’t anticipate problems. We got out of Springs late with about a half hour to connect. Then the troubles began. We ended up having to run sixty gates to try and make our flight. The airline knew we had just come in, and the gate attendant when we arrived assured us they would hold the flight. United’s policy is to close the doors ten minutes before a flight, but we were told the zone manager has the option to hold the flight for connections.

We got to the gate just as the doors had closed, running as hard as we could. Twelve people were standing there waiting, and United would not let us on the flight. I suppose they had already given our seats to other stranded passengers. And now we were the stranded, for not being able to run sixty gates in ten minutes. Our luggage was on the plane and going to San Diego. But we couldn’t get on the plane, since they had closed the doors.

I understand people miss connections, and airlines have to do what they can. But knowing customers have just come in a flight, and then leaving them stranded at the gate, is pretty inexcusable. Refusing to do anything for them when this happens is the totally unacceptable part. They wouldn’t book us a room, give us a voucher for a meal or anything. And were telling hundreds of other people in the airport the same thing, using the excuses that their United-Continental merger wasn’t complete, so they weren’t responsible for a Continental connection, or that it was our fault for not running sixty gates fast enough. We were all stuck, in dirty underwear in many cases and with no toiletries. But they didn’t care.

So we called Marriott, who booked us a room at the Residence Inn (using the United corporate rate code, which we found amusing.) We had a nice dinner at Applebees, who fed us efficiently and treated us well. We got breakfast the next day at Residence Inn, included with our room, deodorant, at a minimal cost, and free shuttle service to the airport. We got outstanding service — from everyone except the company that created the problem.

We traveled home today with many of the stranded — the mother with a young baby, who they had done nothing for. We had dinner at the Applebee’s the night before next to the man they had stranded from Grand Junction, who had now canceled his San Diego trip for business and now only wanted to go home. They couldn’t get him home that night either. The waitress told us that they heard these stories about United every. single. day.

And now, for want of a nail, the shoe has come off. We will never fly United again. We will never connect through Denver on a trip again. We are looking for a charity to donate our United miles to — all 70,000 of them. We will not use this company again.

I don’t blame the employees. The rules are set by the company, and the employees have little leeway. No wonder they stop caring after a while, and just do the job as best they can. I blame the management, the millionaires and maybe billionaires who run this company, set its policies, and every day, strand hundreds or even thousands of people. And don’t care. Not at all. Not even enough to hand out a package with some underwear, deodorant and a toothbrush, and eat the cost of a hotel room. Would that really be so difficult? Really?

I don’t give this airline long to survive. Others can do better — and do. Or at least care if they don’t.

Why General Electric sucks ass

Waited all afternoon for the repair guy to come repair the microwave, since the Mag is supposed to be under warranty for nine years and we’ve only had it for seven years. G.E. robocalled at 4 and extended the repair window to 5. So the repair guy calls at 5:30 and says he’ll still try to make it tonight! He is filling in last minute for someone who got sick and says he’s not allowed to cancel appts and is still willing to come even though it’s so late. I guess he needs the work…

G.E. is doing all their scheduling through robocalls, and I guess it’s as much a pain for their employees as their customers. Too bad C.E.O. pay has become more important that how employees and customers are treated or providing good customer service! What a shame our once leading companies are now just pathetic money making shells that don’t give a damn.

This is AFTER the G.E. refrigerator we bought at the same time died just last week. It only had a five year warranty.

Did I mention I’m never going to buy another G.E. product, and can no longer recommend them? What a shame American businesses put C.E.O. pay above treating employees well, building great products, and good customer service. Enjoy your yachts, assholes. Let’s hope nothing breaks on them…

Sigh.

Insurmountable opportunities

“We are confronted with insurmountable opportunities.” — Walt Kelly, “Pogo”

“There is no failure except in no longer trying. There is no defeat except from within, no really insurmountable barrier save our own inherent weakness of purpose.” — Kin Hubbard

“Imaginary obstacles are insurmountable. Real ones aren’t. But you can’t tell the difference when you have no real information. Fear can create even more imaginary obstacles than ignorance can. That’s why the smallest step away from speculation and into reality can be an amazing relief. ” — Barbara Sher

I’ve been confronted with many insurmountable opportunities lately to find new information and do new things, visit new facilities for pet therapy work, explore new people, etc. It’s been a distracting year so far but a fun one. I’m really hoping to get back to a more regular blogging schedule though.

Why Jesus tossed the moneychangers out of the temple

“The injunction of Jesus to love others as ourselves is an endorsement of self-interest,” Goldman’s Griffiths said Oct. 20, his voice echoing around the gold-mosaic walls of St. Paul’s Cathedral, whose 365-feet-high dome towers over the City, London’s financial district. “We have to tolerate the inequality as a way to achieving greater prosperity and opportunity for all.”

via Profit `Not Satanic,’ Barclays Says, After Goldman Invokes Jesus – Bloomberg.com.

Why "cheap" isn't necessarily a good thing

Cheap: The High Cost of Discount Culture

But Shell wonders if our expectations are too low. We no longer expect craftsmanship in everyday objects; maybe we don’t feel we even deserve it. “Objects can be designed to low price,” she writes, “but they cannot be crafted to low price.” But if we stop valuing — and buying — craftsmanship, the very idea of making something with care and expertise is destined to die, and something of us as human beings will die along with it: “A bricklayer or carpenter or teacher, a musician or salesperson, a writer of computer code — any and all can be craftsmen. Craftsmanship cements a relationship between buyer and seller, worker and employer, and expects something of both. It is about caring about the work and its application. It is what distinguishes the work of humans from the work of machines, and it is everything that IKEA and other discounters are not.”

via IKEA is as bad as Wal-Mart | Salon Books.

I try to support local artists and craftsmen as much as possible. Much of my jewelry is hand crafted by a local silversmith friend, and I have hand crafted pottery and mugs and artwork and many other things. The closest store to my house is a WalMart, where I never shop. I haven’t bought anything from Ikea in years, since everything we got there simply fell apart after a very short time. Yes, I get tired of my things, but I try to get myself to look at their wabi sabi nature, and appreciate that the things I own are made well enough to last for a long time.

Casey’s points today are well taken:

The shape of life defines a space (what we call the empty space in Taoism) that defines each person. We feel a need to place within our empty space connection and meaning. If you consume meaning, after the consumption: you are left with nothing and left chasing more consumption.

The answer people seek can be stated simply:

To have a full life is to live it.

We spend a lot of time and effort trying to avoid emptiness, filling our lives with activities and other people and lots of stuff and things. I spent a lot of time in my life being afraid of the void, fearing what would happen if I lost things, if I lost friends, if I lost myself. Well, all those things happened, and the best part was all the other things I found — that the void isn’t really so scary, that “crazy” people are often the sanest people around, with a different perspective on life that can be very enlightening, that real friends don’t walk away from you and those who do aren’t real friends, and that “for everything you have lost, you have found something else.”

We cheapen our own lives, and those of others, when all we look for is the least expensive thing that suits our need or desire of the moment. We add value to our lives by valuing the work of others, valuing their time, and their abilities to craft a fine product that we can enjoy using for many years. When I wear my friend’s jewelry, I smile, and when others admire it, I have a story to share. When I take the time and make the effort to find the best quality for what I want, instead of just the cheapest price, I feel like I am valuing myself, the thing I am buying, and the people who made it. I can’t always afford the very best (and often price is no guarantee of quality, really), but even in making the effort, I have taken that step towards being aware of what went into what I’m buying, who benefits from it, and valuing myself and the other people involved as fully as possible.

Rational

berns_rational_thinking
The Myth of rational thinking

Greg Berns doesn’t want you to make a decision by yourself. He doesn’t trust you.

People don’t make rational decisions, he contends, and you are likely to muck it up. Don’t be offended by his reasoning, though. He says that there are biological reasons why we all get it wrong….

Economists had long assumed that with proper information or instruction, people would make good financial decisions, systematically and without emotion.

“We know from studies that people don’t make rational decisions,” Berns says. “The problem with economic models is that they assume a certain level of rationality by people, that people will maximize their benefits.”

Add into the mix that most of us don’t know that we are irrational, says Emory economist Monica Capra, who is a member of the center. People believe they themselves are rational, even if everyone else isn’t she says.

“The purely rational economic man is indeed close to being a social moron” — Amartya Sen, “Rational Fools”

“Man is a rational animal who always loses his temper when he is called upon to act in accordance with the dictates of reason.” — Oscar Wilde

“Insanity — a perfectly rational adjustment to an insane world.” — R. D. Laing

“The human race is in such a dreadful state that no rational person can talk about it without resorting to seditious and obscene language” — Henry Louis Mencken

“It has been said that man is a rational animal. All my life I have been searching for evidence which could support this.” — Bertrand Russell

“Of all the ways of defining man, the worst is the one which makes him out to be a rational animal.”
— Anatole France

The intellect is inherently dualistic. It makes distinctions and creates new connections between concepts and calls that “meaning.” This type of analytical thinking is extremely limited in the face of Tao, which is not fully rational, nor fully quantitative, not fully describable. Though most followers of Tao are learned, they also realize that the intellect is but one aspect in what must be a multifaceted approach to Tao.

It is said one must give up education, not because we should be dumb, but because we mut seek a level on consciousness beyond the intellect. We must study, but not to the point that emphasis on experience and meditation is lost. If we can combine the intellect and direct experience with out meditative mid, then there will be no barrier to the wordless perception of reality.

Deng Ming-Dao, 365 Tao

The sage never tries to store things up.
The more he does for others, the more he has.
The more he gives to others, the greater his abundance.

– Tao Te Ching, Eighty-one

Moksa becomes relevant when one realizes that behind one’s struggle for security, artha, and pleasures, kama, is the basic human desire to be adequate, free from all incompleteness, and that no amount of security or pleasure achieves that goal. So when a mature person analyzes his experiences, he discovers that behind his pursuit of security and pleasure is a basic desire to be free from all insufficiency, to be free from incompleteness itself, a basic desire which no amount of artha and kamam fulfills. This realization brings a certain dispassion, nirveda, towards security and pleasures. The mature person gains dispassion towards his former pursuits and is ready to seek liberation, moksa, directly.

— Swami Dayananda Saraswati

The Quiet Coup – The Atlantic (May 2009)

Good article in the Atlantic on the financial crisis — worth a read.

The Quiet Coup – The Atlantic (May 2009).

As more and more of the rich made their money in finance, the cult of finance seeped into the culture at large. Works like Barbarians at the Gate, Wall Street, and Bonfire of the Vanities—all intended as cautionary tales—served only to increase Wall Street’s mystique. Michael Lewis noted in Portfolio last year that when he wrote Liar’s Poker, an insider’s account of the financial industry, in 1989, he had hoped the book might provoke outrage at Wall Street’s hubris and excess. Instead, he found himself “knee-deep in letters from students at Ohio State who wanted to know if I had any other secrets to share. … They’d read my book as a how-to manual.” Even Wall Street’s criminals, like Michael Milken and Ivan Boesky, became larger than life. In a society that celebrates the idea of making money, it was easy to infer that the interests of the financial sector were the same as the interests of the country—and that the winners in the financial sector knew better what was good for America than did the career civil servants in Washington. Faith in free financial markets grew into conventional wisdom—trumpeted on the editorial pages of The Wall Street Journal and on the floor of Congress.

From this confluence of campaign finance, personal connections, and ideology there flowed, in just the past decade, a river of deregulatory policies that is, in hindsight, astonishing:

• insistence on free movement of capital across borders;
• the repeal of Depression-era regulations separating commercial and investment banking;
• a congressional ban on the regulation of credit-default swaps;
• major increases in the amount of leverage allowed to investment banks;
• a light (dare I say invisible?) hand at the Securities and Exchange Commission in its regulatory enforcement;
• an international agreement to allow banks to measure their own riskiness;
• and an intentional failure to update regulations so as to keep up with the tremendous pace of financial innovation.

The mood that accompanied these measures in Washington seemed to swing between nonchalance and outright celebration: finance unleashed, it was thought, would continue to propel the economy to greater heights.

The conventional wisdom among the elite is still that the current slump “cannot be as bad as the Great Depression.” This view is wrong. What we face now could, in fact, be worse than the Great Depression—because the world is now so much more interconnected and because the banking sector is now so big. We face a synchronized downturn in almost all countries, a weakening of confidence among individuals and firms, and major problems for government finances. If our leadership wakes up to the potential consequences, we may yet see dramatic action on the banking system and a breaking of the old elite. Let us hope it is not then too late.

Financial Journalists Fail Upward

I think Cramer’s statement is telling about the entire American psyche today — we want to be entertained, not informed. We don’t even really care if our products work or not, as long as the ads are entertaining or it amuses us for a while, we’ll just throw it away and get a new toy then. We don’t care about our political system as long as Rush Limbaugh  and Bill O Reilly and John Stewart feed our outrage. We don’t care if our food is good for us as long as it tastes good. Etc, etc….

“Listen, you knew what the banks were doing and yet were touting it for months and months,” said “Daily Show” host Jon Stewart to CNBC superstar Jim Cramer in their much-discussed confrontation last week. “The entire network was, and so now to pretend that this was some sort of crazy, once-in-a-lifetime tsunami that nobody could have seen coming is disingenuous at best and criminal at worst.”

The applause Mr. Stewart has received for his j’accuse is the sound of the old order cracking. We have turned on the financial CEOs, inducting them one by one into the Predator Hall of Fame. We have gone deaf to the seductive rhythms of the culture wars. We have tossed out the politicians whose antigovernment rhetoric seemed invincible for so long.

And now comes the turn of the bubble-blowers of pop culture, the army of fake populists who have prospered for years by depicting the stock market as an expression of the general will, as the trustworthy friend of the little guy buffeted by a globalizing economy.

We know — or we think we know — about the roles played by other culprits in the debacle. The government regulators, for example: How could they have ignored the coming disaster? Well, they were incapacitated by decades of deregulation. What about the market’s own watchdogs? Well, from appraisers to ratings agencies the whole tough-minded system was apparently undermined by conflicts of interest.

But what about the syndicated columnists and the beloved stock pickers and the authors of personal finance best-sellers, the industry for which CNBC is the perfect symbol? How did they manage to miss the volcano under their feet?

Mr. Cramer, for his part, had the forthrightness to confess his errors and admit his limitations. “I’m not Eric Sevareid. I’m not Edward R. Murrow,” he pleaded. “I’m a guy trying to do an entertainment show about business for people to watch.”

via Financial Journalists Fail Upward – WSJ.com.

By rights we shouldn't even be here

“It’s all wrong. By rights we shouldn’t even be here. But we are. It’s like in the great stories, Mr. Frodo. The ones that really mattered. Full of darkness and danger they are. And sometimes you didn’t want to know the end because how could the end be happy? How could the world go back to the way it was when so much bad had happened? But in the end, it’s only a passing thing, this shadow. Even darkness must pass. A new day will come. And when the sun shines it will shine out the clearer. Those were the stories that stayed with you. That meant something. Even if you were too small to understand why. But I think Mr. Frodo I do understand, I know now. Folk in those stories had lots of chances of turning back only they didn’t. They kept going because they were holding onto something.”

“What are we holding onto Sam?”

“That there’s some good in this world Mr. Frodo, and it’s worth fighting for.”

— Sam’s speech at the end of The Two Towers.

If I have even just a little sense,
I will walk on the main road and my only fear will be of straying from it.
Keeping to the main road is easy,
But people love to be sidetracked.

When the court is arrayed in splendor,
The fields are full of weeds,
And the granaries are bare.
Some wear gorgeous clothes,
Carry sharp swords,
And indulge themselves with food and drink;
They have more possessions than they can use.
They are robber barons.
This is certainly not the way of Tao.

Tao Te Ching, 53

Weeds

The first step for establishing a successful native garden is to get rid of weeds. While this is analogous to traditional gardening practices, it differs in that weeds, or unwanted/ harmful plants, will be defined a bit more broadly than is usual.

The definition of weeds used here will be all plants whose maintenance interferes with maintaining healthy soil conditions for natives. These will include:

a) Plants that require a lot of water and nutrients for quick growth, and thus are very competitive with native plants for these resources,
b) Plants that typically grow fast and that can crowd out the native plants, which take longer to develop,
c) Plants that do not connect or do not contribute to the mycorrhizal grid, and thus compete for resources without giving anything back to the community, and
d) Plants whose maintenance adversely affects the nature of the soil from the point of view of what benefits the fungal network, and thus the plant community in the long run.

Thus, from the standpoint of a native garden, the term weed will not only include traditional weeds, but also annual exotic garden plants, many perennial exotics, and lawns, since the maintenance of these alien species moves the nature of the soil away from supporting the fungal species that natives require. In short, the soil conditions which support imported, water-loving garden plants can inhibit the growth of a mycorrhizal fungal network.

How the Crash Will Reshape America

Interesting article on America’s geography post-crash — the end of the “sprawlconomy” and the beginning of the information economy… go read the whole thing if you’re interested, it’s good.

What will this geography look like? It will likely be sparser in the Midwest and also, ultimately, in those parts of the Southeast that are dependent on manufacturing. Its suburbs will be thinner and its houses, perhaps, smaller. Some of its southwestern cities will grow less quickly. Its great mega-regions will rise farther upward and extend farther outward. It will feature a lower rate of homeownership, and a more mobile population of renters. In short, it will be a more concentrated geography, one that allows more people to mix more freely and interact more efficiently in a discrete number of dense, innovative mega-regions and creative cities. Serendipitously, it will be a landscape suited to a world in which petroleum is no longer cheap by any measure. But most of all, it will be a landscape that can accommodate and accelerate invention, innovation, and creation—the activities in which the U.S. still holds a big competitive advantage.

The Stanford economist Paul Romer famously said, “A crisis is a terrible thing to waste.” The United States, whatever its flaws, has seldom wasted its crises in the past. On the contrary, it has used them, time and again, to reinvent itself, clearing away the old and making way for the new. Throughout U.S. history, adaptability has been perhaps the best and most quintessential of American attributes. Over the course of the 19th century’s Long Depression, the country remade itself from an agricultural power into an industrial one. After the Great Depression, it discovered a new way of living, working, and producing, which contributed to an unprecedented period of mass prosperity. At critical moments, Americans have always looked forward, not back, and surprised the world with our resilience. Can we do it again?

via The Atlantic Online | March 2009 | How the Crash Will Reshape America | Richard Florida.