Politics · Society

The High Cost of Metered Parking

“Parking is not free”. Except when it is. And it WAS in my town until two years ago when the city installed meters throughout the downtown area, changing the landscape forever like a giant coin operated meteor hurdling into town.

After two years of living with the changes, the city in which I live recently created a Parking Commission whose job it is to study and report to the city council on issues related to parking, particularly downtown. I interviewed for this commission but was not named as one of its members. That said, I will offer my own thoughts on the parking situation and will continue to do so because of its dramatic effect on my own personal and professional life, as well as that of those around me.

The city gave the usual arguments for the meters when they were being considered. Turning over cars in the spaces. Socially engineering the town to reduce the number of cars driving in it. Forcing people into the garages. Of course ultimately it was all about the money, and they were right in their predictions. The city has made millions in revenue on the meters since their installation.

Cities talk about the money they make from the meters to show they are successful and people are continuing to park regardless of their presence. What is always hidden in that are the costs, both direct and hidden. As for direct costs, the city buries the costs of both the meters themselves (including maintenance) and the enforcement of the meters. Even costs such as electricity to run the meters, snow removal to uncover them, even cleaning costs from bird damage is covered up and buried. But not all costs are so obvious. Since the meters have been put in, there has been turnover of over half the shops on the courthouse square downtown. Most of the owners of the shuttered businesses place blame largely on the loss of customers following the meter installation. Even those that remain open, including large chains, report significant loss in revenues following the meters’ installation. I would encourage the city to be more transparent in its finances on this issue and to conduct a more thorough study among the downtown businesses. It is difficult to analyze the issue properly when the data is so hard to come by.

One of the original issues in parking was a symptom of having the county courthouse downtown. Because free two-hour parking was available, many county employees (of which there are over 200), would park on the street and move their cars every two hours to avoid a ticket. Locals even created a name for this: “the two hour shuffle”. It was like roaches scurrying away after someone shined a flashlight on the county courthouse.

One major issue that has contributed to the growth of the downtown parking issue is the explosive growth of the student-oriented apartments downtown. These apartments are not built with enough spaces to provide a parking space for each unit, and many who have cars ultimately house them on the street. The city has given the entire student housing market (read: developers) a boost by approving a never-ending stream of these buildings. I can look out my downtown office window and see three under construction as I type this. Because of these developments, parking downtown is likely to worsen before it improves.

Another issue with downtown parking was that the city built several garages which were costing more than they were bringing in and were largely underutilized. The city blamed the ability to park for free on the street for no one paying to use the garages for long term parking. The city’s solution, after putting in the parking meters, was to allow limited free parking in the garages. But not uniformly. One garage never had free parking. One was free for three hours before 6PM and always free after and on weekends, and another was free for three hours until 6PM. Makes perfect sense in government logic. Of course it confused the residents and visitors alike.

The city itself admitted that the garages were underutilized when the discussion on whether to approve the meters was happening. The garages sat more than half empty nearly all day because they were not free, while people would circle the blocks to look for free street spaces. Therefore, there never really was a parking shortage problem, it was always a parking utilization problem. Even today, several of the city’s lots and garages sit partially unused. The city could easily have cracked down on the free parking without eliminating it. Had the city created a “parking zone” that included the area where the meters are currently located, it could have limited parking to, for example, three hours of total parking in the zone, which would have stopped the “two hour shuffle” roaches and pushed them to the garages.

The city provides parking to its workers at city hall for the price of a $2 parking pass. This pass enables them unlimited parking at the city hall regardless of whether they are working. The county recently spent $9 million of taxpayer funds to build a parking garage solely for the county employees who now could not scurry out of their offices multiple times a day to park for free on the street because the city installed the meters, but instead were forced to either pay to park in the aforementioned underused garages, or continue to park for free three blocks away at the convention center. I am still waiting on the free “downtown office worker” garage for the rest of the taxpayers who work downtown and are now both paying for their own parking and subsidizing that of the government employees who can do so for free (or nearly free).

I expect the meters will remain in place for the foreseeable future. In doing so, I hope that the city can be more transparent in how the money is being spent. The first reason given for their installation was the ongoing expense of the garages. I would expect that the profits from the meters be poured into maintenance and upkeep of roads, and working to pay the garages down to the point of ultimately providing them as a free resource for local citizens to park long term, or at least as a place that employees downtown can apply for fee waivers to park there for free.

I have never paid a parking meter here. I do not pay parking meters, as I already pay for the street and the spaces painted on them via my property taxes. If the only parking in an area is metered, I go elsewhere. Or I go home and shop on Amazon and the local economy misses out altogether. I am not alone in this thinking. Parking meters tell the wrong story. It says this town cares less about the residents, visitors, and storekeepers than it does its own bank account. It sends a message loud and clear to casual visitors that “You are welcome here only if you pay, and only for a short time.” Let’s rethink the whole idea of meters and parking and welcome back those literally driven away by their presence.

Random Thought

An Argument Against Nuclear Power: Radioactive Badgers

Anyone who has ever driven much through the desert has likely encountered a tumbleweed. Actually living in the desert as I used to do meant they were a constant hazard. But the desert where I lived, “hazard” didn’t just mean potentially running into them while driving on the highway. I mean they were a legit threat to give me radiation poisoning.

When I tell people I used to live in Washington State, their first reaction is almost predictably “It’s beautiful there, but man it rains a lot”. Sure does…on the west side of the mountains. I, however, lived in the Tri-Cities, a community of four cities (yes, four) east of the mountains whose climate is considered “high desert”. We had most of the usual desert-related bonuses: 300 plus days of sunshine, beautiful weather most of the year with very little snow in the winter, etc. We also had a lot of the usual hazards: dust storms, rattlesnakes (I saw one while walking during my lunch break…I named him ‘Bitey’), debilitating temperature fluctuations. And the aforementioned tumbleweeds. Our dangers were accentuated by the fact that any of the above hazards could be amplified by living near Hanford, one of the largest nuclear cleanup sites in the world.

I did not work every day at Hanford. I did, however, have a job that regularly required me to visit there. I was tasked with surprise audit visits to people who would often be dressed like Marty McFly in his radiation suit from Back to the Future. Just driving around the place gives you a sense of the history. It was like a Cold War time capsule in building form. Many of the buildings used in the production of the nuclear weapons arsenal are still standing, although that is quickly changing as the cleanup continues. The unfortunate part is that the legacy will remain for years to come because of the extreme volume of waste generated at the site.

Much of that waste, some of the most dangerously radioactive material on Earth, was (and unfortunately still is) stored in underground drums that have long since surpassed their life expectancy, and…shockingly…have begun to leak. This is bad for many reasons that go beyond potentially turning the desert lizards into Godzilla. First, the site is situated along the Columbia River, one of the most important waterways in the Pacific Northwest. Think how appetizing your salmon would be if it looked like Blinkey the three-eyed fish from the Simpsons. Second, while there are no confirmed sightings of giant mutated lizards, there are in fact confirmed cases of many local plants and animals that have absorbed the radiation and have carried it elsewhere. Sixty years ago, a badger broke into a radioactive salt pit, letting in rabbits, which both proceeded to eat the radioactive salt and subsequently deliver radioactive poop over a 2,000 acre site. Bats, birds, mosquitos, fruit flies (as alerted to us by Dave Barry, who later apologized…which I guess means I am now covering Dave Barry, covering the Seattle Times, covering the Tri-City Herald…), and mice come to mind. And tumbleweeds.

Tumbleweeds are formed from stray Russian thistle plants. Russian thistle, like most plants, absorb minerals and other material from the soil. The thistle plants have an unusually long taproot, allowing them to reach closer to the underground tanks than most other plants. Those growing at Hanford had a notorious habit of absorbing stray radiation. You know, the stray radiation that officials tell us does not exist at Hanford. I met a man whose sole job at Hanford was to collect these tumbleweeds before they left the property. He called himself a “tumbleweed wrangler”. I thought of him as I would pull the tumbleweeds that often got stuck under my car as it was parked in the lot at work. I kept a pair of leather gloves in my car to fish them out because a) they were covered in thorns (thistle…duh), and b) I preferred to not become “Tumbleweed Man” with some bizarre superpowers to terrify children. If Spiderman can shoot webs out of his arms after being bitten by a radioactive spider, I did not wish to find out what would happen after being stabbed by a radioactive tumbleweed thorn. I can only imagine what would have happened had I been bitten by Bitey.

So with all that said, having witnessed firsthand what nuclear waste can do to a piece of land, I cannot be counted among the proponents of nuclear energy. While Hanford was a weapons production site and not necessarily focused on safety of the environment and its workers, nuclear plants create a number of the same inherent problems. Even the safest plants in the world have a potential to turn into Fukushima. Recent news from there has scientists sending robots into the facility to detect the levels of radiation, and returning readings never before seen until the robots themselves melted, T-1000 Terminator style. I suspect that those that do make it back are isolated in case they become Transformers chanting “crush, kill, destroy”. Still, I would say that Radioactive Death Robots would be a cool name for a rock band.

Radiation is actually all around us. Those in construction may be familiar with warning labels on exit signs. You know, those signs that glow even when they aren’t connected to power? Yep, radioactive. That glowing is a radioactive gas called tritium. They must be disposed of in a certain way, and if one breaks, experts must be called in to mitigate it. Smoke detectors? Same deal, but with americium.

Many modern proponents of nuclear fuels point to thorium as the wonder fuel of the future for nuclear power. This is extremely unlikely, at least here in the US. Just type “thorium nuclear” into Google and look at the competing information, even from true scientific journals. The US government through labs at Oak Ridge has been testing thorium as a fuel for years and has spent billions with no feasible outcome. Breakthroughs may continue, but funding has largely stopped (in the US at least). While thorium does produce less waste, it is waste that is considerably more dangerous than that of current uranium reactors, and being U-233, could potentially be turned into weapons. But most importantly, regardless of the inherent safety, you cannot eliminate human error. Human error in the nuclear industry can be disastrous.

As Jeff Goldblum eloquently pointed out, life…uh…finds a way. As does nuclear radiation. No matter how safe you design a reactor, a disaster, whether manmade or natural, can wipe out and deem uninhabitable huge swaths of the Earth.  Let Hanford be an example of the dangers we must thoroughly mitigate before we can even consider nuclear energy as an option on a wide scale. No rabbits ever started glowing after exposure to a solar panel.

 

Society

The Most Dangerous Words in the English Language

The scariest words together in the English language, besides those involving the government, are “We have always done it this way”.

Saying these words instantly outs you as someone unable to think for themselves, relying on tradition and unwilling to adapt. As someone who regularly works with business owners and senior level managers as part of his day job, I see this mindset far too often. And given that my objective is to teach these business leaders how to do business with the government after often spending years doing business in the private sector, this mindset is creating problems that are also costing them money.

A famous quote of unknown origin (and quotes like this are almost always of unknown origin because they are so good that everyone rushes to claim them) says “If you always do what you’ve always done, you’ll always get what you’ve always got”. In other words, if you continue to stab yourself repeatedly, you’ll continue to receive stab wounds. If you continue to set money on fire when you receive it, you’ll continue to have flaming piles of useless ash.

Granted, some traditions are useful. Many families traditionally gather for a family meal on Sunday evenings, for example. The Danish tradition of hygge (really more a way of life than tradition) is, in an overly simplistic explanation, a tradition of eliminating the annoying and emotionally overwhelming and embracing the simple and soothing things in life. In the USA, our traditions are often tied to holidays. Think overeating at Thanksgiving and dressing up as a “sexy crayon” for Halloween. These types of traditions tie together families and societies.

The danger of traditions comes when you use them as a reliance on continued old practices without evaluating why you are doing them. Without a fresh set of eyes, businesses can continue on dangerous paths for years because no one would tell them what they were doing was wrong. Businesses often hire “efficiency experts” whose job is to come into an organization and figure out weak points in organizational processes. These consultants work closely with management in an effort to root out “we’ve always done it that way” syndrome with a fresh set of eyes. Sometimes the recommended changes are drastic. Processes change, layoffs happen, printers get tossed into fields and smashed with baseball bats.

I recently came across a great (true?) example of this phenomenon circulating on the internet, referencing research performed in the 1960s on a group of monkeys by G. R. Stephenson:

Start with a cage containing five monkeys. Inside the cage, hang a banana on a string and place a set of stairs under the banana. Before long, a monkey will go to the stairs and climb toward the banana.

As soon as he touches the stairs, researchers spray all the other monkeys with cold water.

After a while, another monkey makes an attempt with the same result… all the other monkeys are sprayed with cold water. Pretty soon, when another monkey tries to climb the stairs, the other monkeys will try to prevent it.

Now, put the cold water away.

Remove one monkey from the cage and replace it with a new one.

The new monkey sees the banana and attempts to climb the stairs. To his shock, all the other monkeys assault him. After another attempt and attack, he knows that if he tries to climb the stairs he will be assaulted.

Next, remove another of the original five monkeys and replace it with a new one.

The newcomer goes to the stairs and is attacked. The previous newcomer takes part in the punishment with enthusiasm, because he is now part of the “team” and has learned the rules.

Now, the monkeys that are beating him up have no idea why they were not permitted to climb the stairs. Neither do they know why they are participating in the beating of the newest monkey.

Finally, having replaced all of the original monkeys, none of the remaining monkeys will have ever been sprayed with cold water. Nevertheless, not one of the monkeys will try to climb the stairs for the banana. If they could talk, they would simply say, “We’ve always done it that way.”

An unwillingness to change in business can be devastating. Less than half of companies on the Fortune 500 just 30 years ago are still in business. Many were bought out by competitors (think McDonnell Douglas being bought by Boeing…if you are flying on a McDonnell Douglas plane, it’s at least 20 years old. Fair warning), while others folded for financial reasons. They did not keep up with the times and experienced leadership that was not willing to accept that what they’d always done was no longer working. How many of you still have a product from Kodak? And no, Bill Cosby being their spokesman was not the (sole) reason for their decline, although in hindsight maybe that wasn’t the best call on their part.

The mindset also extends beyond business. Religion is often passed down this way, both among families and among small groups and societies. Children continue religious practices they have learned from parents who insist on passing down their own religion. Families pass down non-religious traditions as well. Some are good, like the Sunday dinner, as long as it isn’t forced…don’t make the kid eat the pizza if she is fighting obesity and self-conscious. Some are bad, like female circumcision. Some are just weird, like jumping into frozen lakes on New Year’s Day or the annual Spanish tomato fight.

How do we fight back against this mindset? First off, change for the sake of change does not work. You must have a system in place. When a new proposal is submitted, it should emphasize why there should be a change; look at the old, look at the new, and objectively evaluate it. When a discussion takes place, someone should play devil’s advocate, especially if the decision leans towards the status quo. At home, children should be given every opportunity to explore the world and make their own conclusions, not have traditions forced upon them. Adults tend to fall into ruts because they allow routines to take over their lives. Can YOU remember things you did five years ago without Facebook reminding you? Even holidays are an opportunity. “Why do we eat 10 pounds of meat, get drunk, and blow stuff up?”  “Because it’s the 4th of July”.  Maybe there are other options. Look at your day-to-day life and see how you can adapt your routine to better fit the real you.

A willingness to be open to new ideas and not accept things just because “we’ve always done it that way” is how leaders are born. There’s nothing wrong with continuing a good thing, but we move forward by continually asking ourselves why we do the things we do. The most secure and happiest families are ones that take time to figure out what works for them, not just accepting what society says they should do. The great companies of the world got that way because they saw a problem and were willing to explore solutions. Companies grow and thrive because their people are given opportunities to explore and experiment without repercussions, even if they fail. Be a leader at work and at home, not a monkey fighting over a banana.

Society

It’s 2017. Separate is Still Not Equal

I am a young(ish) white guy. What has become strange to me is that being proud of any of those three labels has increasingly gotten me and others like me hit with other labels. And unfortunately, it’s not the “sexiest man alive” type labels.

As a white borderline-millennial male, my opinions on rights of women and minorities can be easily dismissed, and in particular those opinions that are not positive are hit with labels such as “misogynist” or “sexist”. Saying anything bad against another group, or even declaring your own pride in your own status if that happens to be a majority, instantly gets you labeled an “-ist”. Reality: You won’t find someone more willing to fight for equality for women, minorities, etc, but am finding those groups’ own attempts to “create equality” are turning off the other side and making it harder to defend.

An example from my own life. I recently ran for public office. My two opponents in the primary for what was an open seat were both women. One happened to have been not only endorsed by, but served on the board of, the local Democratic Women’s Caucus. The DWC has, in just over a decade, become one of the most powerful forces in local government. Looking at our most recent election results over the past two years, nearly every successful candidate was either a part of the DWC, or married to someone who is, or is otherwise sympathetic or connected to their group. They provided my opponent with not only organization, but more money than either of the other two opponents received from all other sources COMBINED. They have now reached the point where men who are not connected to them are not running for offices or being discouraged to do so by party leadership, myself included, because unless you are otherwise well connected or are a woman you have no chance. You will be out-raised, out-organized, and be fighting uphill. Gee, that sounds familiar. Wasn’t that the reason the DWC came into existence, only in reverse?

The DWC and other women’s caucuses are now at best counterproductive, if not causing actual harm, to the progressive cause. If it was about promoting women, they would not inherently never endorse men when that man could be the world’s biggest feminist. They have turned the conversation from misogyny to misandry. Groups such as those which claim to be progressive are in fact actually promoting divisiveness. Any group that divides a segment of the population works against unity. You cannot claim to be promoting equality while at the same time promoting a division of half the population. Our own Supreme Court has affirmed that separate can never be equal.

I want to live in a society where we do not need groups like that. I don’t want to talk about “women’s caucuses” that exist solely to promote women. I want to be part of a society where we elect the best candidate, whether that person is male or female, black or white, straight or gay, or whatever “identification” they may be. That is how I look to hire people, and that is how I look to elect leaders. Such things like admissions at universities, should be completely blind. I’d even go so far as to say they should not include names, and should be based entirely on the merits of application to prevent male/female bias, or even racial bias, based on names. I would rather focus on inclusiveness rather than excluding groups not like you.

I would prefer to devote my efforts to changing society. For example, if normal gyms make women uncomfortable (and I can see how…they make ME as an overweight guy just trying to run on the treadmill uncomfortable), then let’s push to change that than having women retreat to “women only gyms”. You know who has to be the catalyst for such a change? The men. It takes men calling out other guys who are acting like dickheads at the gym to change the culture. I am not scared of doing so, but it takes more than me. Women protesting, or worse, giving up and running away to create their own club just creates another level of division. I give props to Planet Fitness for attempting to create a culture where everyone feels safe to work out, not by making it a “safe space”, but culturally by saying the divisive, non-inclusive behaviors will not be tolerated. It may take large scale social upheaval like the civil rights movement, or major events such as granting women the right to vote, to change society. But first we have to acknowledge we are all on the same side.

As mom (and the AA) say: the first step to solving a problem is admitting you have a problem. Check. The second step is defining the problem. We’re there. The third step is identifying barriers to success. Here’s one: It benefits no one to create untruths to make the other side look bad. For example, let’s talk about the “wage gap”. It does not exist. At least not how many women’s groups report it. I am a stats guy, and acknowledge that stats can be twisted to meet any number of narratives. A 2009 labor study showed there to be a gap of about 6%, not the 23% spouted during last year’s presidential campaign that was an average of all full-time working male salaries vs female. Yes, I’d still call 6% significant. Then you look closer at the categories used. “Social science”, for example, uses everything from economics (a high paying, male dominated category) to sociology (a lower paying, female dominated category). In fact, males make up over 60% of the graduates in 9 of the top 10 majors with the average highest paying post-college jobs, while women make up over 60% of the grads in 9 of the top 10 lowest paying post-college jobs. If you then talk about “average wages”, you are starting off on the wrong foot to begin with.

Using straight numbers is deceptive at best. Spouting untruths, especially those that have been largely debunked, does not win people over to your side, and often turns them against you. Don’t make it harder to win people over to your side, and especially don’t make it harder for those on the other side who already stand with you to continue to do so.

So let’s all come together in one big happy family. While most of my arguments were focused on men vs. women, the same can apply to race, gender, or any other division in our society. A world where we give the same opportunities to the poor black girl as the rich white boy benefits us all in that we maximize the output of everyone. That poor black girl may one day be a doctor, and would never have had that opportunity without help. The wise one, Mr. Michael Jackson, said if you want to make the world a better place, take a look at yourself then make a change. These are words to live by in our society of divisiveness. Make that change.

Uncategorized

Censorship: F*&# That

 

Censorship comes in many forms. It comes in the form of holding back information out of fear of a lawsuit. It comes in the form of not wanting children to see or hear information that they are not old enough to process, or using that as an excuse to create a media safe space. It comes in the form of redacting information deemed classified or restricted. But the most insidious form in our society comes out of fear of being “un-PC” or offending someone.

College campus across the country have experienced a surge in demand for “trigger warnings” and “safe spaces”. Dr. Robert J. Zimmer, president of the University of Chicago, recently summed up the issue well. “Free speech is at risk at the very institution where it should be assured: the university,” Dr. Zimmer said. “Invited speakers are disinvited because a segment of a university community deems them offensive, while other orators are shouted down for similar reasons. Demands have been made that assigned readings in some courses be eliminated because they might make some students uncomfortable.” Worst of all, such demands “have been supported by university administrators,” Zimmer said.

Demands of political correctness have divided this country and turned into a movement of self-righteousness. The irony that demanding protection of their own feelings is equally an infringement on the free speech rights of others is lost on the protesters.  In our most recent presidential election, we witnessed the election of one of the most brash, unfiltered people to ever run for the office. Many who chose to vote for him said that they liked that “he says what he thinks”. Regardless of your feelings about the content of what he was saying (and trust me, I have issues with it), the underlying message of such a statement is “I’m tired of being told what I can or can’t say, and this guy is going to fight back”. Yeah, some of those people used that as an excuse to spew foul racist hatred nonsense. But others found solace in simply fighting back against the emerging national culture of behaving like emasculated children. They were scared of what was happening, and saw it is a battle of “entrenched, more of the same insider” vs “guy unafraid to take on the establishment and say and do what needs to be done”. The left used this as an excuse to paint all Trump supporters as racist. But the reality is that simply painting those choosing to follow Trump with wide brushes instead of fighting the policies and message has given the country to Trump. The presidency went to the worst candidate this country has ever seen, whose main qualification, according to many of his supporters, is that he isn’t afraid to speak his mind. People were tired of the PC culture and voted for a narcissistic madman because of it.

The movement is so absurd that it has become a joke. Even South Park has introduced a character called PC Principal, whose entire mission is to enforce political correctness in the elementary school. The show had an entire episode devoted to “safe spaces”, featuring a Snidely Whiplash-like character named “Reality” who destroys their safe spaces. And speaking of jokes, even the likes of Jerry Seinfeld and other comedians have said they will no longer perform at colleges because they cannot tell jokes without protesters shouting down things they disagree with.

Censorship takes other forms as well, many of which are harmful to our society. Legitimate news organizations now are at fear of being labeled “fake news” for speaking the uncomfortable truth and have begun censoring themselves by not digging into the news the way they once did. Gone are the days of Watergate investigations by journalists, which is unfortunate because they may be needed now more than ever. The government is now free to censor information from other places that makes Americans look bad. Our own president, the one who was supposed to be a champion of being allowed to “say what you think”, is blocking entire media outlets from covering his speeches.

Even progressive groups can’t agree on what is acceptably PC. They can’t find meeting spaces because of excuses like “they don’t cater to vegetarians”. I listen to the radio and hear songs with words bleeped out. I watch TV and scenes are cut that have no business being cut that make the movie suddenly make no sense. Are we protecting children, or catering to a bunch of people that want all media to be a safe space as well? My response to radio stations or tv that can’t broadcast something in its entirety is to not play the item in question at all.

We in society are not allowed to say what we think for fear of being shouted down, sued, or even physically abused. I have no fear on this blog of naming names or referencing specific people or events because I will never say things that are not either a) my opinion, or b) facts for which I can provide evidence. I will not defame anyone because I will never (intentionally!) say anything false, and if I did, I would immediately correct it and even retract it if it is pointed out.

In general, I am a believer in fact-based public shaming rather than censorship. You can do or say things, but they have consequences. You can say racist things, but don’t be surprised when the video of it appears on YouTube and you are cast as a pariah. Still, things should be judged on intent. Did that comedian on the stage say that bit because he is racist? No, he was trying to get a laugh. Why should certain things be totally off limits in comedy? Why can you make jokes about Canadians, but not Mexicans, without being racist? I watched a recent comedy special where the comedian pointed out that every joke is offensive…to someone. There is truth to that. You can’t be funny to some without being offensive to others. But those offended often are the loud ones taking to the street to shout down the perceived offender.

Freedom of press, freedom of speech, and freedom of movement are key rights in our country. Any attempts to restrict them, whether they come from the left or the right, should be viewed as harshly as an assault on any other constitutional rights. In the words of Reality: We take our spoiled lives for granted. Feel a little bad about it sometimes. Now, you want to put all your shit up on the internet and have every person say “hooray for you”. Fuck you. You’re all pricks.

Retailers · Shopping

The Solution to Society’s Ills: Mandatory Retail Service

There are countries in this world that mandate military service for all young people with limited exceptions. In addition to fulfilling the country’s needs without having a random draft, the men and women are often whipped into shape with a new appreciation of life. I am a strong believer that similar mandatory customer service jobs would solve a similar problem in American society.

We’ve all seen the guy in the retail store who is mindlessly screaming at the poor cashier because the socks he thought were on sale “didn’t ring up right”. There is a hideous lack of perspective in this country from customers who believe they are always right after being told so for many years. I have news for you: the customer is almost always wrong, and the “always right” policies are killing retail. It kills the morale of employees and leads to poor customer service, not to mention that most of the time the customers are, in fact, wrong.

Whether it is a retail store, restaurant, or other customer service situation where there is a storefront involving customers, employees learn quickly: most customers are pigs. They destroy bathrooms and changing rooms because they do not have to clean them up. They ruffle through neatly folded stacks of clothes then leave them in a pile on the table (or worse, the floor). In the grocery store, as a customer I often find things that are supposed to be refrigerated sitting on center aisle shelves with the cereal, having been left there by someone too lazy to take it back to the dairy case.

Besides the pig, there is another type of customer that destroys morale: the demanding or entitled customer. That customer who always asks for discounts. Or the customer who believes “the back” is a giant warehouse with crates like the last scene of Indiana Jones, except the crates are magic wormholes directly linking the store to the product manufacturers in China. Or the customer who wants to talk to “the manager”, expecting him or her to bitch slap you into submission for daring to tell them you won’t take a return on your deodorant-stained “unworn” shirt.

Yes, retail sucks. Never mind the managers who have turned into Dwight Schrute-like figures on power trips. Never mind how you question how you are still alive after a week of closing shifts followed by opening shifts with no days off for an entire week, but with just few enough hours to not have to give you overtime. Never mind the holiday-related PTSD you suffer for years (You can tell the retail workers because their faces begin to contort when “Jingle Bell Rock” comes on the radio). Never mind the incessant jokes about the money being counterfeit or the items being free because they didn’t scan. Good one! I haven’t heard that one before! In this hour that is my personal hell of working here anyway!

In working retail you also learn to defend yourself in a real-world environment. For example, you become an expert on employment law. True story:

At the time my wife and I got married 15 years ago, I was working as a dairy department manager at a grocery store on the south side of Bloomington. It was one of the worst jobs I have ever held because of the store manager. That store manager was feared by most of the employees of the store. He vaguely looked like the warden from Shawshank Redemption. He did not like me for a number of reasons, not least of which was that I did not tolerate being yelled at in public in front of customers, other employees, etc, and would often either speak back or report him for doing it. I was often given no help in my department from the floating crew that was available to help in departments as needed, but was always blamed for not completing tasks. Of course I had put in my vacation notice for our wedding well in advance. He attempted to revoke the time off request two days before because he “didn’t have anyone to cover it”. He did not budge despite my protests. In protest, I showed up to work the day before my wedding, a day I was supposed to have off, at 4 AM, because I had last minute plans to address. I stocked the shelves, cleaned, and left. When I returned a week later, the store manager informed me that “my job had been posted” and he was moving me to work third shift stock crew for lower pay. I quickly found another job. That store manager continued(s?) to work as a store manager for the company at another location (because ours closed due to lack of sales).

This was not the only incident I ever encountered in retail. One such issue was a policy at that grocery company to not pay you for the first few minutes after you clock in or before you clock out because it is assumed you were changing into your work clothes. Management at our store took advantage, insisting you clock out BEFORE changing so you are doing that off the clock…and not getting paid for those last few minutes you were actually working, as well not allowing you to clock in until you changed…so you didn’t get paid for those first few minutes of work. I estimate they owe me almost $1,000 for that time alone. Or at another large national pet store, where my store manager tried repeatedly to get me to work while clocked out for my mandatory lunch break and got upset when I started physically leaving and sitting in my car to eat.

Issues like this at the grocery store and others led me to pursue a career of fighting fraud, standing up for employees, and standing up for “the little guy” when they are often powerless. I enjoy my job of working with small businesses because people need others who stand up for them and help them. It was that, or relegate myself to the retail life for eternity, imitating my coworkers by spending my meager amounts of money on alcohol and terrible weed in an attempt to dull the pain of working there. Retail motivated me to better myself to escape the hell of working retail.

Working in customer service, whether it is waiting tables, working at a retail store, or wherever it may be, gives you perspective. I know what they can’t and can do (don’t get me wrong…I do call employees and managers out when they tell me ‘no’ when I know they can and are just being lazy, because I know better….). I don’t spit on employees. I have respect for them. That guy yelling about his socks has never worked retail, because he would know better. Unless you have the empathy of a narcissistic robot, working in retail will cause you to not only understand their position, but not needlessly put blame on the employees who have nothing to do with your problem. That ultimately translates to improvements not just in retail, but on customer service lines, day-to-day interactions with people on the street, etc. I think every person should be forced to work customer service as a national conscription service for the betterment of society.

Movies

And The Winner for Best Picture…Suicide Squad! Wait, Never Mind

Yesterday was the 87th Academy Awards, better known as the Oscars. Or technically today, considering it stretched well past midnight despite cutting off everyone but Viola Davis’s speeches at 30 seconds. Probably because the orchestra supposed to play her off was crying too.

For most of the evening it was mostly a typical Oscars night. The favorites were mostly winning with a handful of upsets, there were lots of awkward racial and political jokes, and celebrities got pelted in the back of their heads with boxes of junior mints. Nothing tops seeing the camera cut to Mel Gibson eating a package of Red Vines. Ryan Gosling showed up with his half naked sister, while the majority of women wore giant puffy dresses that looked like they were headed to Cinderella’s ball.

La La Land was considered by most to be the heavy favorite. Going into the night it had 14 nominations, tying the record for most nominations by a movie. By the end of the night, the film had taken home 6 of those 14. But the story of the 7th that they thought they had won is what everyone is talking about today.

Warren Beatty and Faye Dunaway were chosen to present the Oscar for best picture. It was what happened between the time they were handed the card with the winner’s name at the edge of the stage while waiting to go on, and the time Ms. Dunaway said “La La Land”, that the problems happened. Mr. Beatty was given the wrong envelope. It clearly said “Actress in a Leading Role”, and Mr. Beatty himself claims to have noticed this and thought it was a misprint. Then when he reached the stage and ultimately opened the envelope to see that it did, in fact, contain the card for “Actress in a Leading Role”, he did possibly the worst thing he could do. He handed the card to Faye Dunaway. Ms. Dunaway mindlessly read the name on the card and all hell broke loose.

It took several minutes, and several people from La La Land’s production team had already given speeches before the producer of the Oscars show stopped everything and revealed that the real winner was in fact Moonlight, not La La Land. He even had the correct card. Ta da!

So what went wrong, and how could it have at least been mitigated? It turns out that for every category there are two envelopes, each in separate cases at opposite ends of the stage monitored by accountants from PricewaterhouseCooper. First, the pair of accountants from PwC demonstrated to the world the care and thorough scrutiny the Big 4 accounting firms give their clients, which would explain a lot dating back to the run-up to the recession a decade ago. Yes, mistakes happen, but how hard is it to hand out 24 envelopes over the course of nearly four hours, especially when you supposedly only have one left where you’ve got two envelopes, and when they are clearly marked on the outside? Second, Mr. Beatty should have said something when he noticed the envelope was wrong on the outside, and then should have said something when it matched what was on the INSIDE. A lot of “wow, what a weird misprint” went on in Mr. Beatty’s head. He even could have been a hero in this. If, after opening the envelope and seeing it was wrong, Mr. Beatty had instead simply stuffed the card back into the envelope, held it up to the camera and said “I was given the wrong envelope. Hold on a minute”, then fixed it before announcing anything, he would have been the hero. Instead, in the face of the camera he’s been in front of for 50+ years, he froze. Third, the PwC people failed to follow their own procedure (at least at first) to run screaming onto the stage and stopping everything. The producers from La La Land made it all the way onto the stage, gave their speeches, then essentially gave a sad two line concession speech before handing their trophies over to the producers from Moonlight after the correction was made on the stage.

There were some winners in all this. Steve Harvey, for one. Marissa Tomei, the winner of the 1993 award for supporting actress, who was the victim of a long-held rumor that presenter Jack Palance read her name (Tomei being the only American nominated) instead of the “foreigner” who actually won. PwC, to their credit, always held that they would have intervened had that happened, and now we know that they do, in fact, eventually directly intervene, even if it takes a while.

Jimmy Kimmel also won, in that none of us are talking about the ridiculousness that was most of the night, like parading a tour bus tour group through the middle of the ceremony or pelting the celebrities with doughnuts parachuted into the theater. Doughnuts? Those people don’t eat doughnuts. Hell, the doughnuts weigh more than most of them do. One doughnut is like five days’ of calories for many of those actresses.

In the end, everything was straightened out. The producers from La La Land were very gracious in how they handled the situation, and publicly congratulated their friends who produced Moonlight.

Officially on the record, these are the 2016 Oscars. Looks like 2016 had one final horrific joke to play on us all.