Why Newspaper Readers Are Mad and Don’t Rent from Budget…

March 9, 2013

Why Newspaper readers are mad

Jay Jochowitz, the editorial page editor at the Times Union, complained recently on Facebook about the public’s anger in dealing with the newspaper. One commentator thought the problem stemmed from the Internet and the ability of people to rant and rave–as if letting the public speak and be heard is a bad thing in a democracy. My take is that the anger at the media stems from the breakdown of the distinction between the opinion pages and news pages.

People my age remember when stories on the New York Times news pages weren’t editorials posing as news stories. That breakdown should be seen through the prism of class. The news media is seen as a biased vehicle of those in power in this country. That means non-college educated Americans and working and middle class white males find their views treated with disdain at best in the national news media. Hence the anger, which in the case of the Times Union, is exacerbated by the fact that the TU does not allow readers to comment on news stories.

I suspect Jay and my friend Rex Smith, the TU’s editor, are in favor of allowing reader comments. Maybe they need to let corporate Hearst listen in on some of those angry phone calls. Then they can explain that one way to reduce the number and volume of those calls would be to allow readers to express their views on news stories as well as editorials.

Don’t Rent from Budget Rental Cars…

I made the mistake of renting from Budget on a recent trip to Albany. They were the first name on the list and had I known they are not on the airport, I would have skipped over them.

Having to get them to pick me up at the airport was only the start of my problems. Because it took so long for someone to pick me up, I was worried about being late for an appointment and misunderstood the agent’s explanation of gas payment options–a fact I only discovered when I turned the car in.

Now here’s why you shouldn’t rent from Budget. When I explained the problem to the agent when I dropped off my car, he told me I would have to call Budget’s 800#…which I did only to be told the Albany office is a franchise and I would have to talk to the owners. However, it’s impossible to get the owners on the phone. Either they’re not there or they pretend they’re not.

This problem is not unique to Albany. I’m in Tucson this week. One of the first stories I read in the local paper is about a similar problem. Someone was overcharged and corporate Budget tried to pass the buck blaming the franchisee.

Bottom line. Avoid Budget at all costs.

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Did Rochester Kill Kodak?

January 13, 2012

Rich Karlgaard, publisher of Forbes Magazine and self-appointed technology guru, argues in a Wall Street Journal op ed piece that the staid business environment of Rochester contributed to Kodak’s ill-fated decision to stick with film instead of pushing heavily into digitial cameras.

“Kodak’s other structural problem is geography,” Karlgaard writes. “When you study the history of great American companies that stumbled and failed, or only partially recovered, you see how difficult it is to overcome the mindset of your immediate surroundings. Businesses located in places where success is the norm, and innovation is built into the ecology, have a better chance of fixing themselves.”

What do you think? Is Karlgaard onto something or is he blaming the victim?


From Occupy Wall Street to Occupy My Employer

January 11, 2012

If the “99%” can feel justified in taking property away from the “1%” on the grounds of fairness, then why can’t workers take a bigger share of a company’s revenue on the same basis? That’s the logic behind a campaign launched by CWA 1199 against Cablevision. Why do Cablevision’s employees need a union according to 1199? Because a former company COO earned more than twice as much as his employees.

Fairness as a determinant of a person’s pay level is also behind the drive to raise New York State’s minimum wage and behind living wage legislation on the agenda in New York City and elsewhere.

The fairness doctrine is predicated on the notion that one’s pay should be more a matter of want than one’s contribution to the enterprise in which one is employed.

Hence, performance as a basis for rewards of pay and status should be downgraded because that criteria undermines the opportunity for those who do not perform well to get their fair share.

Further the ability of the enterprise to pay — whether public or private — should not be considered when it comes to compensation of the work force. Such considerations undermine the ability of those who are unproducitve to gain their fair share.

Let’s be clear that fairness is a subjective value. In the past fairness was balanced against the need of the enterprise to be successful and survive (either make a profit or do the job with available resources). Today, there’s an underlying assumption that no company or government entity is paying its workers a fair wage. Rather, they are hoarding their resources and giving them to the 1%.

A company that pays its workers above the value of the contribution they add to the product or service will not long remain in business. The history of the American car industry is about that very issue. By giving in to union wage and benefit demands, GM, Ford and Chrysler had to charge so much for their cars that they opened the door to foreign manufacturers which were able to sell a superior product at a lower price even when the cost of shipping foreign made cars to the US was taken into account.

The history of the public sector over the past 40 years parallels that of the automobile industry. Elected officials gave in to union demands without consideration of the ability of taxpayers to foot the bill, often by ignoring the future pension obligations they were agreeing to. That lack of political courage has harmed both public sector employees and the general public, as it contributed to the belief that public sector employees are overpaid and underworked relative to private sector workers.

Let’s not waste our time debating whether fairness as a basis of compensation is socialistic or communistic. Labels are not important. What’s important is to recognize the long-term implications of undermining ambition and achievement.

Taken to its logical conclusion doing well in school and working hard in order to obtain a job that gives one decision-making authority and pays well should be discouraged. Why? Those values place the successful individual above the norm and undermine the ability of those who are below average to get their fair share.

Like pay, school grades should not be given out on the basis of performance but rather on the basis of want. Minority and handicapped students have a greater want of good grades since many come from low-income households and enter school with “unfair” disadvantages. Since they will not need to learn skills or work-world values in order to get a fair wage why require that they master subjects or compete with other students!

Grades, jobs and compensation should not be based on merit or performance but rather want — the measure of fairness.

Since the majority in any country skew to the average, the tendency of democractic societies is to elect officials who are in favor of policies that focus on results rather than contribution, on rewards rather than worth, on outcomes rather than effort.

The question we must ask ourselves is will that kind of society be able to compete against those that reward success based on enterprise, competition and equal opportunity and that provide a model for young people justifying effort and ambition? We only need to read the daily accounts of the problems facing Europe to gain a hint of the answer.

If that’s where this country is headed, is such an outcome the kind of fairness we owe future generations?


Correction to State Taking

July 12, 2011

In my post about the state not renewing a lease on Sacandaga Lake, I had my facts wrong. The state took the property in question by eminent domain after the owners proved in court that they had a good title. That was a bad, unnecessary and abusive decision. It’s not too late to reverse it.

A further example where the state of New York needs to get out of its citizens’ business, is the Belleayre Ski Center. Currently run by DEC, a commission recently recommended putting it under control of ORDA – the Olympic Regional Development Authority. This is a bad idea. The entire property should be put up for sale period. The state will reap income now and will be relieved of future spending obligations that it has no business obligating itself to cover. Neither DEC or ORDA are the best choice to operate what should be a private business. A private owner will take the risk and will deserve the reward or lack thereof by virtue of his/her efforts and luck.

Vote on whether you agree with me on our home page — www.empirepage.com.


Indian Point versus AG Schneiderman

April 17, 2011

NYS AG Eric Schneiderman doesn’t think that the NRC should proceed with the relicensing of the the Indian Point nuclear facility in 2013 until it has changed its review procedures in light of the Fukushima disaster. He also believes the Indian Point plant’s operators should be punished for failure to upgrade its fire detection and suppression system, despite the fact that Indian Point has passed all previous regulatory reviews.

The Empire Page sought the views of John Durso, Jr., executive director of the New York Affordable Reliable Electricity Alliance, an industry spokesman and published the interview today (Sunday April 17) on the Improving New York page of the Empire Page. Comments can be added to the end of the interview.

This week’s poll question will ask New Yorker’s how they feel about Indian Point.


Toward Civic Integrity, A Book Review

September 30, 2010

After more than six years of haggling, the final hurdles were overcome recently for the construction of a Wal-Mart Supercenter within the city limits of Gloversville in Fulton County in upstate New York. While Gloversville City Court Judge Vincent DeSantis, author of “Towards Civic Integrity; Re-establishing the Micropolis,” (2007) understands the motives of the public officials who pushed the project through, he believes that this is exactly the wrong kind of development that’s needed for cities like Gloversville to function successfully in the 21st century.

In his self-published extended essay, Judge DeSantis chronicles oft-repeated accusations against Wal-Mart centered communities. In addition to the charge that they drive locally-owned stores out of business, do not provide living wages to their employees and “suck” money out of the community, DeSantis points out that big box top managers have no personal involvement in or commitment to the local communities in which their stores are located.

When the new Wal-Mart opens in 2011, the company will close its current store, which is located on Gloversville’s outskirts. That will negatively impact the stores, restaurants and bank branches that chose to locate in that area because of the traffic Wal-Mart generated. One can picture driving past those stores in the not too distant future and seeing empty parking lots. This is precisely the kind of social cost that DeSantis rails against in his book.

Ironically, the location of the current Wal-Mart was once occupied by Gloversville’s minor league baseball stadium – an institution representative of an era when communities the size of Gloversville, which at the time had a population of around 20,000, were largely self-contained.

While its minor league ballpark was on the outskirts of the city, 60 years ago Gloversville’s downtown supported a high school, a hospital, two movie theaters, locally-owned banks, department and clothing stores, a public library, a YMCA, a YWCA, a Jewish Community Center, etc. – all within walking distance of the majority of its residents. The downtown in those days was symbolic of a city that had achieved a certain amount of prosperity. Gloversville even had both morning and afternoon newspapers.

In reviewing the history of Gloversville, DeSantis blames the beginnings of post-WW II globalization for undercutting the industry that served as the foundation for Gloversville’s self-contained prosperous community. He understands he writes the decisions of the factory owners who sought cheaper labor in Haiti and elsewhere. They had to relocate in order to remain competitive DeSantis argues. He fails to mention, however, the other reason that owners started moving shops overseas in the 1950s – a factor that undercuts his picture of Gloversville as an idyllic, balanced community.

One incentive for owners to move out of Gloversville was the strength of the labor movement in the tanneries and glove cutting and sewing shops.

In the early 1930s, one in four residents worked directly in the industry. The tanneries employed approximately 2,100, 3,500 worked in shops cutting leather and sewing gloves, while an unknown number worked out of their homes. (See Philip S. Foner, The Fur and Leather Workers Union, Nordan Press, 1950, p. 542-43.)

The mechanization of the glove industry after World War I reduced skilled craft people to easily replaceable laborers, which not surprisingly spurred the work force to organize for better pay and working conditions. Those efforts culminated with the formation of the Independent Leather Workers Union of Fulton County.

For insight into how bad some of the working conditions were in the tanneries and glove shops and the impact those conditions had on workers’ families, I recommend reading Gloversville native and novelist Richard Russo’s essay in issue 111 of Granta, a British literary publication.

In 1933, tannery workers held an 8-week strike that resulted in recognition of shop committees, 15 to 30 percent wage increases and the right to collective bargaining. After World War II, Taft-Hartley strengthened the employers’ bargaining position and the glove owners took advantage, seeking to break the union by demanding that it sign a contract without any pay increase. When the union refused, the owners of 18 tanneries imposed a lock out of union members, which in turn led to an-industry wide strike.

For the next eight months, owners tried all sorts of tricks to break the strike. They set up company unions, endorsed competing AFL & CIO unions and accused the leaders of Local 202 of being communists. Finally on January 25, 1950, they broke the strike by using the local police department assisted by paid goons to escort scab workers into the tanneries.

One shouldn’t make light of the extent of the division that existed in Gloversville between factory owners and workers during these years. My father, a doctor who came to Gloversville as a refugee after Hitler annexed Austria, was ostracized for providing medical care to members of the IFLWU and their families. For a while he thought he would have to move out of Gloversville in order to support his family.

Which brings me to my biggest concern with Judge DeSantis’ vision of the future. I have little quarrel with his criticism of the damage inflicted on communities like Gloversville by globalization of the world’s economy, but I do have questions about where that leaves us and whether his prescription for the future will do the trick.

DeSantis argues that the global economy is not sustainable. He believes that the damage being done to the planet by our oil-dependent economy will result in public policies that restrict economic activity such as shipping products from China to be consumed by Wal-Mart shoppers. The political will for such may or may not appear. Yet, he accurately describes efforts by more and more people to move off that stage – advocates for smart growth and people who produce food and other goods for local consumption. (See “The Internet Might Save Main Street,” by Peter Funt, WSJ, September 20 for a supporting trend).

The other factor that DeSantis believes militates against the global economy is the cost and availability of oil. However, his prediction that cost of oil will eventually become too high to sustain that economy seems no closer to coming to pass than when it was first voiced 40 years ago. Further, technology may find solutions to oil dependence that result in our being able to have our cars and drive them too.

But, the globalization of business is a double-edged sword. On the one hand, it meant that a lot of locally owned stores in cities like Gloversville went out of business which in turn undermined the downtown-centered culture DeSantis admires. In Wal-Mart’s defense, however, Gloversville’s downtown was dying long before they built their current store. They just took advantage of the fact that area residents already had to get in their cars to do their shopping and that they were happy to find a store that had so many inexpensive products under one roof.

On the flip side, robust international trade enabled Europe and Japan to rebuild after WW II, which contributed to tremendous prosperity in Europe and the US for several decades. That prosperity eventually flowed downhill, helping to bring countries like India, Brazil, South Africa and China out of the throws of underdevelopment. Without globalization, there would be no middle class in China today and that country might still be under the thumb of Mao’s Culture Revolution where teachers and doctors were sent to re-indoctrination camps and peasants were given power because their poverty made them pure.

Bringing this back to Upstate New York, the car-centered economy actually helped communities like Gloversville, Schoharie and Saratoga survive the past four decades because people could enjoy small city life while being able to drive to good-paying jobs using the Thruway and Northway.

Today, the Internet offers the potential for new companies to locate in cities like Gloversville. However, as DeSantis admits these jobs will not be the factory jobs of the 1930s and 40s – either in the number of people employed or in their being able to employ unskilled, uneducated workers. Good jobs today require a more educated work force –programmers, technicians, graphic designers, people with language and writing skills, etc.. The question is whether business owners will be willing to locate in cities that unable to contend with the negatives of blight, poverty and high taxes.

The survival of cities like Gloversville in upstate New York may come down to whether the state of New York and the federal government get their acts together. Currently the state of New York is an albatross on the back on the upstate economy. Rather than helping communities meet the challenges of the 21st century, the state has failed to address the increasing problems localities have paying for basic services. Governors have done what they always do – look for some large scale project where they can hold a ribbon cutting ceremony and the leaders of the Legislature act as if everything north of Westchester County is someone else’s problem.

Yet Judge DeSantis does offer some valuable concepts for localities that have sufficient resources to fight the decline. Saratoga represents one example where community involvement worked; Amsterdam represents what happens when the community lacks sufficient local strengths. Whether it’s too late for Gloversville, time will tell, but ironically the taxes generated by the Super Wal-Mart may help pave the way for its revival.


If it could go wrong…

September 26, 2010

This week it did. I hope most of you missed it all, but some of you got strange messages when you tried to go to the Empire Page during the week. We’re still working to fix the problem, but here in a nutshell is what happened:

Our ad server — the software that manages the ads that appear on the Empire Page — apparently was being hosted by an ISP that was identified as supporting “attack sites”. I’m not even sure what that means, but the end result was that people who came to the Empire Page were given a warning by Google that our site might be an attack site.

We ended up shutting down the ad server and are moving it to a new location. It’s still not functional, but should be in a day or two.

What is distrubing about this whole affair is how Google operates. They act like police, judge and jury — condemning our site and damaging our reputation without attempting to communicate with the owners of the site. I only found out when a subscriber called me. At that point I followed Google’s instructions to prove that we were okay, but it took them 10 hours to respond and even then their instructions were so vague I could not understand them.

Fortunately, my technical support team which includes my current and former programmers helped get me through the mess, but understand that Google did all that without the involvement of a human being. It was a program that decided all sites with any relationship to the compromised server were dangerous, a program that sent out the warnings, a program that acted in response to my trying to clear our name, etc. I doubt any person working for Google has any idea all of this happened. That’s unacceptable and probably illegal.

The Empire Page has many elected officials among its subscribers. If you’re an elected official and have the opportunity to look into how one company can get away with having so much unchecked power, please do so. I’ll be glad to provide more details.