Team

April 11, 2011

“Wait a minute,” you say “today’s A-Z Blogging Challenge letter is ‘I’ – there’s no ‘I’ in ‘team’.”

Bingo!  A corny aphorism gets me to the letter of the day.

And having spent a lot of time professionally leading project teams, I know it’s one that gets trotted out fairly regularly.  But what got me thinking about it is my perception of the shift in society I’ve seen in my lifetime to where it seems the dominant attitude has become “It’s all about me!”

I’m hoping this post isn’t going to end up sounding like a “Hey, you kids! Get off my lawn!” kind of rant, although it could degenerate into that if I’m not careful.

What worries me about it is that it leads to individuals externalizing costs – financial and social – on a personal level, much in the way that corporate law leads to for-profit corporations behaving that way on a much larger scale; see Life, Inc. by Douglas Rushkoff for a much more lucid explanation than I can provide.

But basically, what it boils down to is that a for-profit corporation owes a duty to its owners or shareholders to maximize profit.  Period.  As a result, it will avoid incurring expenses that it is not obliged to by law – even a so-called “good corporate citizen” that may spend money to support a cause will have a business case that it ultimately increases profits, for example through a tax-deduction, or from increased revenues due to consumer goodwill purchased by publicly supporting popular cause.

A concrete example of externalized costs would be when a municipality uses residential property taxes to pay for infrastructure improvements (roads, traffic signals and water/sewage lines come to mind) done to entice a large retail business to locate there – it you’ve had a Walmart open up in your town, you’ll know what I mean.  Another example would be the outsourcing of work to a location with lower costs, where the standard of living is substantially lower and the company can avoid paying for things like health-care benefits or complying with strict environmental regulations.

Individuals have learned by example, and more than ever people have a sense of entitlement I find worrisome.  As well, it’s not limited to the developed western societies any more – it’s been successfully exported to the rising middle classes of the developing nations.

Solving the many problems facing mankind – environmental, economic, agricultural and more – will take a joint effort and perhaps a shift to what I’ve seen called “for-benefit” corporate laws, which allow social benefits equal footing with making a profit.

And to be clear, I’m not against making a profit – just not at any cost.  Social responsibility and ethical behaviour, both at a personal and a corporate level, are values which also return a profit – just not one that shows up on the balance sheet.


Make them REALLY earn those bonuses

January 31, 2009

When I heard about President Obama’s stern rebuke to Wall Street bankers over the bonuses paid to their employees in the wake of the collapse of the financial sector and the subsequent bailout of those same banks under the Bush administration, I marvelled at his political courage in calling them out on this.

And then it got me to thinking, what would be an appropriate way to make them really earn those bonuses — after the fact.  Here’s what I came up with:

To earn their bonus, they each need to visit — in person, so as to give names and faces to the victims of their moral, ethical and professional failings; and at their own expense, so as not to divert any more of the bailout funds — all the people who have lost their homes, lost their jobs, lost their savings as a result of the fiscal irresponsibility of the people earning those obscene bonuses.

And when they are face to face with them, they need to justify to each and every one of them why they deserve their bonus.

But how to make this happen?  Maybe by implementing an income tax provision that would provide a penalty to anyone employed by a financial institution that benefitted from the bailout, and who received a bonus, if they did not participate in the scheme.  Set a target number of affected families to be visited, based on the size of the bailout the company received and the bonus paid, then pro-rate the tax penalty on the bonus based on how closely they “make their numbers” (just to inject a little irony…).

To be effective, the maximum tax penalty applicable should be sufficiently high to make it painful enough even for these high-rollers to think twice about letting it slide — let’s say the penalty for 0% compliance were set at 1,000% of (10 time s) the bonus amount.  As well, the number of visits required needs to be non-trivial — a minimum of one per week, or perhaps even more.

At 50% compliance, that is if they completed 1/2 of the required visits, the penalty would drop to 500% (5 times the bonus amount) and at full compliance there would be no penalty at all — they would still have to declare the bonus as income and pay the usual tax on it, of course, although I’m sure they all have well-paid tax lawyers or accountants to make sure they don’t pay much.

And the penalties paid should then be directed back to all the people who suffered as a result of the bankers fiscal irresponsibility.

So, let me know what you think about my idea for some social justice.  And if you think it’s a good idea, spread the word — as a Canadian, I have no influence on US policy, but if you are a US citizen and think this is a good idea, let your elected representatives know how you feel.


I’ve got two words for you…

October 15, 2007

Softwood lumber.

Ah, well… hope springs eternal, according to this article on the BBC News website about the WTO ruling that the US has illegally subsidized cotton farmers.

Best of luck, of course, to the Brazilian and West African cotton farmers who are among those harmed by the US subsidies.  Things will be looking up for you Real Soon Now.


People like that make me cranky

September 4, 2007

Unfortunately, I can’t seem to turn up a link to the piece that aired this evening on the CBC news (not The National; it was CBC News: Our World, I think — we were watching on Newsworld, in any case) which would have provided some of the details, so bear with me as I recall things as best I can.

This piece dealt with a Canadian who had travelled to the US, where he’d made some purchases using his credit card including software for the GPS in his car — an Audi, you could tell clearly from the 4-ring emblem on the trunk. The point of the piece?

He’d been charged an extra fee on the foreign exchange purchases he’d made — extra, as in above the exchange rate for the date. And he had called the bank to complain about this; they informed him that the fees were clearly explained in the small print (his words) on his statement. He said, showing the statement to the camera, that it was printed “faintly” and said that the person he’d spoken to claimed that “they had been having some problems with the quality of their printing” (or words to that effect — again, _his_words_, as they didn’t have anyone on from the bank IIRC), the smug implication being that the bank was being (or at the very least, approaching) deliberately deceitful.

Well, let me say that both K and I could quite easily read the fine print on the screen — on our not-HD, not large screen (20″) TV. We could see that it said foreign exchange transactions were subject to a fee of 2.5% on top of the current exchange rate. Sure didn’t look deceitful to me…

They also trotted out some dude from a consumer organization — can’t remember its name — who went on about how this “hidden” fee added up to millions, if not billions, of pure windfall for the banks, on the backs of beleaguered consumers.

Now, I’m not an apologist for banks or other for-profit businesses — those who know me, know I’m fairly left leaning, socially conscious, yadda, yadda. But I also understand quite well that profit is not an inherently evil thing. How some people or corporations go about achieving their profits is another thing, and I know there are plenty which pursue profit at all cost to the detriment of society (well, *some* parts of society  — usually the parts that can least afford to be screwed over to the benefit of someone who probably already has more than enough, several times over… did I mention my socialist leanings?), the environment and so on.

The report went on to show the Canadian government’s web site where the foreign exchange fees charged by the major banks on their credit cards are listed. They all charge 2.5% — perhaps there are others, not shown, that have lower or higher fees.  Given the competition between credit card providers (seems like I get Yet Another “You have been pre-approved for a <fill in name of a credit card brand here> card!” mailing at least a couple of times a week… I start worrying something has happened to the letter carrier if there isn’t one waiting for me when I get home), you’d think one of them would shave a fraction of a percentage point off their foreign exchange fee in order to lure customers over from The Other Brand.  And then they’d all have to drop the fee to stay competitive… which leads me to think that there’s not that much room for them to move on this, or it would happen.

Now, as someone who has done a fair bit of travelling and living abroad, I have a lot of practical experience with foreign exchange. And the exchange rate that’s quoted in the newspaper, on the TV and the internet is not the rate the banks use in processing transactions — whether you’re buying (or selling to them, for that matter) actual currency or they are converting a credit card transaction.

Like any business, they buy for less than they sell — this rule works for a company selling widgets as well as for a bank buying and selling foreign currencies; it’s called making a profit, which is what a business is, well, in business for. The margin between what they pay to buy a currency and what they sell it to you for — less the costs they incur in making the transactions — is their profit. The quoted exchange rate is usually halfway between the two.

So what really gets me cranky about people like the one in the new items is this: their sense of entitlement. This person was obviously reasonably well off — the Audi, the trip to the US to buy things (hey, why’n’cha shop in Canada and support Canadian businesses?) — and yet he’s outraged at being charged 2.5% for a service, for the convenience of not having to go to the bank and get foreign cash (which, I can assure you, would not be sold to him at the rate reported in the news either… there’s still that pesky profit thing happening) to carry around.

That’s not the only reason I get cranky at this kind of whiny behaviour: you can bet your sweet assets that these people have investments (as do I, for retirement — hey, leaning left does not mean you stop looking out for yourself; you just take the needs of others into account while doing it…). And what do they expect from their investments? Why, they expect them to grow, pay dividends or interest — which come from profits. And the expectation is always that the company turn the biggest profit possible; often without regard for the impact to others.

This is called “wanting to have your cake and eat it too”. People like this want to buy everything cheap but have their investments turn big profits. Do the math, people — it won’t work, at least not in the long run. That mutual fund you have? Dollars to doughnuts it’s invested in a financial institution or two; you want the fund to grow? Pay for it, like everyone else, in the service charges the banks make their profits from.

Myself, I prefer to deal with companies that charge a fair price for their products or services, are socially responsible (to their employees and to society as a whole) and derive justifiable, sustainable profits from their enterprise in order to deliver a reasonable return on investment to shareholders.

OK, enough ranting for now — the story on the CBC was really just a trigger for the “having your cake and eating it too” issue that’s been bugging me for a long time.


When the chickens come home to roost

May 24, 2007

I’ve blogged about the “Low Cost Country” (LCC) phenomenon previously, so if you’ve read that post you — like me — will probably not be surprised by this latest problem reported on the BBC News website: US checks toothpaste for toxins

Now, I’m OK with businesses being in business to make a profit — hey, I have investments for my retirement and I’d appreciate it if the businesses that my mutual funds have shares in would oblige by returning a reasonable return to ensure a reasonably comfortable retirement.

At the same time, I believe that companies owe a certain duty of social responsibility to, well, society.  That is, decisions to cut costs need to be thoroughly examined to ensure that the public’s safety and security is not sacrificed on the altar of shareholder value.

More and more these days, it seems that the chickens are starting to come home to roost.


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