Archive for August, 2011

We Need More Jobs

I have always loved Apple computers. Since turtle graphics on an elementary school Apple IIe, to high school journalism on a Macintosh. Since a physics teacher wowed me with the Newton (an ancestor of the contemporary iPhone). Since a desktop Performa got me through my college years like mom got dad through his.

Out on my own, I turned not from my childhood training and purchased a sleak Powerbook. I later sold it like a fool at a Denny’s in the middle of an ill-fated afternoon. My employer had provided a PC laptop, so I thought the Mac superfluous. Oh, the folly of youth.

A year later, I begged my wife to drive 180 miles for the Cube, a model Apple soon put on ice. Luckily, the episode did not permanently chill our love.

I saved for an iPod and soon downloaded my first iTunes. Hit songs for 99 cents made plenty of sense to me. All the pleasure of organized music, even obscure tracks, with none of the Napster guilt.

The “lamp shade” iMac soon joined our family, not long after our no-less-precious firstborn son. He surfs PBSkids.org on that cool computing creation to this day.

It was on that iMac’s 20-inch flat screen that I first laid eyes on the magic that re-made mobile communication: the iPhone. Against better judgment, I did not quickly buy the mesmerizing touch screen and accompanying $40 monthly data plan.

After a year in the purgatory of a black and white Blackberry, I graduated to the iPhone 3GS. I still feel so bad for only paying $199 for it. I would have mortgaged the house.

You could “ride the river” with that device, as they say in North Dakota. In fact, I did ride the river with it. It now rests in peace on the bottom of the Guadalupe.

I’ve had mac.com and me.com email addresses. I type tonight on a black MacBook. I’ll call tomorrow on an iPhone 4. I own no iPad only because of the rise in diaper prices.

Why all this nerdiness? Why the Apple lovefest? Because the man who invented all this stuff stepped down last week. He was the biological son of an unwed college student; the adopted son of a high school dropout; an historical figure, regardless.

A master of design, he left out that which everyone thought sacred to include that which might become magical. He did away with floppy disk drives, removable batteries, USB ports to make way for more efficient storage, App Stores and user-friendly interfaces. He sacrificed standard for extraordinary.

In other words, he took risks. Some products flopped (hello MobileMe); some were leaked (iPhone 4); all were noticed; most succeeded.

More passion lies in his frail, liver-replaced, pancreatic tumor-surviving body than in most problem-free frames. Unconventional, he loved what he did. But not so much that he shrunk back in fear.

He told Stanford grads in 2005 to drop out of what people expect of you that you do not love in order to drop in on what you do. He dropped out of college and dropped in on calligraphy. (An irony: his biological mother released him to his adoptive parents because they promised to put him through college.)

Oh sure, the sun of modern technology would have risen without Apple, but what a cold morning it would have been.

With every report of unemployment rates and first-time jobless claims, the talk of recovery generally centers on jobs. We need jobs, but we also need more than jobs. We need innovation and imagination. We need passion and dreams.

We need more jobs, yes. But we also need more Jobs, as in Steve Jobs.

Sandwiched in a pickle

Nothing says our nation’s in a pickle quite like a sandwich board. You’ve seen them. The guys or gals standing on a sidewalk at a busy intersection. Some are dancing. Some are pacing. Some are leaning. All are sweating in the sweltering Texas heat.

Their arrowed signs scream, “TRACT HOME NEIGHBORHOOD THIS WAY” or “LIQUIDATION SALE THAT WAY.” But mostly they say, “We’re in trouble.”

We have reduced these humans to poles. They may be jigging poles, but they are poles nevertheless. We have burdened them, and us, with advertisements.

It is an indictment that all our education system has prepared them for, and all our economy has offered them, is a job as a pole.

The situation also speaks a sad truth about our information-overloaded society: it takes a moving, breathing, organ-filled billboard to get our attention.

I can hear the advertising executive now. “We need to develop a marketing strategy for Furniture Max.  Here’s what I have so far: talk radio, cable TV, direct mail, and a guy in baggy pants, a sweat band and ear phones holding a sign on the corner.”

Mike Judge, creator of the cubicle cult hit movie Office Space, produced another movie called Idiocracy several years back. In it he envisioned America in 2505 after generations of educated citizens put off having children while the uneducated procreate like feral cats.

In his vision of 2505 America, people get fast food from vending machines and law degrees from Costco. The U.S. Congress stages like a professional wrestling venue. Court trials are spectator sports. Government-issued uniforms have more ads than a NASCAR hood.

Mind-numbed citizens shuffle through their days without ever noticing, much less questioning, the monopolies and quasi-government agencies that control their lives.

The flick would be funnier if it weren’t so frightening. And if it didn’t seem like we are barreling toward its depiction with every open space commandeered for propaganda and every person stuck in a sandwich board situation.

The irony of the sandwich board holder is that he really is sandwiched: sandwiched between poor leadership and poor opportunity.

He likely came from a divorced home, from a failing school, from parents disabled by substance abuse. His imminent opportunities probably consist of either service industry work or something less legal.

From that perspective, I commend him for filling a communication service niche in the marketplace. I don’t fault him and actually prefer him over the panhandler who undoubtedly makes more while offering less. Yet both are caught in a trap without skills to get out.

It won’t be long before municipalities take back their sidewalks. City councils will outlaw human sign boards like they prohibited panhandlers.

At that point, I hope the employers of the sandwiched will train them in a higher order job function. I hope they will unleash their God-given creativity and ingenuity. I hope they will make up for opportunity lost by parents and educators of days gone by.

And I hope they do so before the sandwiched exchange the hopelessness of their sign boards for the easy thrill of a violent flash mob.

Who knows? With inspiration and education, the sandwiched might come up with an idea, product or service that drives more customer traffic than any street corner sign ever could.

Kevin Thompson is a columnist for The Boerne Star. He can be reached at www.kwt.info.

They don’t sock it away

[Note to the Reader: I have transitioned to a new, more flexible column in The Boerne Star! I am calling it American Dreaming. It will appear on the editorial page of Tuesday’s edition. Write of Center will remain the Kendall County Republican Party column and will be written by a collection of party volunteers.]
 
Two questions to ponder as we wrestle with righting the USS Economy: 1. Who is wealthy? 2. What do they do with their money?
 
On the former query, some would simply answer “millionaires.” But does that mean one who makes a million dollars a year, one who has made a million dollars in her lifetime, one who has assets of a million dollars, or one who has net worth of a million dollars?

And what if that net worth is tied up in a home he can’t easily sell? Or in retirement funds that have restricted use? Or in a business that is not readily marketable?

Still on the former, some, like the occupier of the White House, would answer “annual income of $250,000.” The basis of that figure, please? Why not $150,000 or $350,000? And is that $250,000 regardless if she’s a New Yorker or a New Mexican? The New Mexican would answer “please;” the New Yorker, “please no.”

Perhaps the wealthy are those who own homes or cars or TVs with satellite or cable connections. Whoops. That last one would darn near get us all.

A trip to the third world teaches that wealth is relative. The rich there are poor here. And vice versa: the poor here are rich there.

Moving on to the latter question: What do the wealthy do with their money? Speaking from observation, not experience:

1. They invest it, usually in businesses. They may buy stock in The Home Depot or build up a Bergmann’s Lumber. Whether in large cap stocks or privately held businesses, the result is the same: businesses use the wealthy’s money to offer things people need, to hire people, to help the economy.

2. They loan it, often to government entities for public projects. Government bonds build neat things like bike trails and necessary things like sewer plants. Investors get a steady return. The public gets new infrastructure. It’s an incentives-aligned win-win.

3. They save it, often in banks that circulate the funds into loans that meet local commercial and consumer needs. The funds provide housing and cars and working capital for companies. Each party, from the FDIC-insured depositor to the bank to the borrower, receives a benefit from the arrangement. And each participates willingly.

4. They give it, usually to causes in which they have a vested interest. Non-profit organizations depend on wealthy underwriters to fund their operations and accomplish their social missions. If you shrink available incomes by raising taxes, then you will shrink the funds flowing to charity.

5. Lastly, they spend it. Let us be grateful, not resentful. Their spending gives your daughter a job at Green Bull Jewelry. It gives your son his summer landscaping job. It drives the demand for goods and services that wouldn’t come to your town without it.

With all these bona fide uses, tell me again why I should want an arguably incompetent federal government to take more of the wealthy’s money?

Notice what was not on the list: they sock it away. Still, seemingly intelligent people think they do, such as actor Matt Damon who said as much recently while arguing for higher taxes.

Political sage Peggy Noonan wrote last week of why the president’s calls for the wealthy to pay “their fair share” fall on dull ears: Americans don’t like to be divided.

E pluribus unum – “out of many, one” – blazes across the official United States Seal. Our laurels were won, and our future depends, on this fact.

I don’t make $250,000. But I don’t want to penalize the productivity of those who do. Exorbitant marginal tax rates weaken the economy and national unity. And a house divided cannot yet stand.

 
Kevin Thompson is a columnist for The Boerne Star. He can be reached at www.kwt.info.

One if by land

The great victory of the debt ceiling denouement is not that no new taxes were passed, though that fact is summarily positive. It is not that spending cuts will happen, though they may be too small, too distant, or in the wrong areas (e.g., defense).

The big win for America is that you now know what a debt ceiling is. Could you have defined the term a year ago? What we mainly knew then is what we’ve always been taught: in America, the sky is the limit. If we can dream it, we can do it.

As a result of the debt crisis, America is more educated than ever about her growing debt, her weakening credit report, her worsening shopaholism. We the People now know that our motherland can’t borrow and spend in perpetuity.

Our nation was collectively unconscious of this fact when the debt ceiling rose incrementally from, say, $5 trillion to $14 trillion. We essentially believed that O Beautiful’s purple mountains and fruited plains exempted her from the laws of economics and reality.

But fiscal unsustainability sneaks up on you like a Texas drought. All of a sudden, it’s the end of July and you had more rain last September than you’ve had every month since combined. Suddenly, you have more debt and commitments than revenues to support them. You can’t afford hay to feed the cattle and you can’t afford to pay for what you’ve promised.

If there is anything good that has come from the Obama-Reid-Pelosi buying binge of 2006 – 2010, it is the rise of the so-called Tea Party. These patriots sounded the alarm that the British entitlements are coming, the British entitlements are coming.

They united as a voice in the desert. They changed the debate from “Whom do we tax in order to generate the revenues we need to fund the programs we have created?” to “What do we cut in order to eliminate the need to fund the programs we should have never created?”

And this achievement without control of the Senate or the White House. But by American math, one-third + the will of the people = a majority.

We are by no means out of the woods. There is a lot of forest from sea to shining sea.

But the debate is now being held on a center-right stage, where polls show our nation consistently falls (40% conservative, 40% moderate, only 20% liberal).

The collapsing economies of European entitlement states have helped solidify the debate backdrop. So have the recently released dismal U.S. GDP numbers (under 1% average growth over the last 2 quarters).

But we can not forget the patriots who rode like Revere through the night of profligacy to warn us of the tyranny of debt.

Kevin Thompson is a former chief of staff in the Texas House of Representatives. He is now vice president of Texas Heritage Bank. Subscribe to his columns at www.kwt.info.

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