Wednesday, November 27, 2013

Ayn Rand Institute factotum tries to convince us Wal-Mart pays its employees enough

By Marc Jampole

Right-wing factotum Doug Altner, an analyst with the Ayn Rand Institute, poses a provocative question in a Forbes article: If Wal-Mart is such a crappy place to work, why do 1.4 million Americans work there and many more want to? 

It’s the type of question that extreme free-marketers love to ask, because it assumes that we really have a free market in which every market participant has equal rights and equal clout. 

Altner forgets that the poor and the uneducated have very few options.  That 10,000 people apply for 300 openings when a new Wal-Mart opens says less about the attractiveness of the company and more about the lack of jobs, especially for young people who don’t have diplomas from one of the top 300 or so colleges. In many rural areas, Wal-Mart’s entrance into the marketplace destroyed many local and regional retailers who paid their employees more in wages and benefits. Wal-Mart does pay marginally more money than burger-flipping, but that does not mean that it pays a decent wage.

Altner gives three reasons why he thinks people clamor to work for Wal-Mart:

1.  The work is not physically straining. 
What Altner writes is that “Many entry-level Walmart jobs consist of comparatively safe and non-strenuous work such as stocking shelves, working cash registers, and changing price labels.” Altner goes on to mention that these jobs pay more than other entry-level jobs that require few skills. What he doesn’t say is that other non-strenuous jobs pay much more money. I can’t remember the last time I worked up a sweat writing an article or meeting with a client. I do remember that an attorney and a company president with whom I recently met both looked absolutely exhausted—they had just come from a racquetball game at 10:00 a.m. on a week day! Sarcasm aside, the fact that work is not physically exhausting shouldn’t justify paying less than a living wage.

2.  Wal-Mart provides entry to myriad career opportunities. 
Altner points out that Wal-Mart tends to promote from within and that three-quarters of its store managers started as hourly workers (Altner uses the Wal-Mart euphemism and calls them “associates.”). I’m not sure how Altner earned a PhD in industrial engineering, because he certainly forgot to do the math. Counting 1.3 million employees and about 5,000 Wal-Marts and Sam’s Clubs across the 50 states, a new hire at Wal-Mart has less than three-tenths of one percent chance of becoming a store manager.  But the 1.3 million number is the wrong one to use, since 70% of all Wal-Mart employees quit within a year, a stunning indicator of employee dissatisfaction which Altner neglects to mention.  If we consider the competition for 75% of store manager jobs to be everyone hired in a 12-month period, then the statistical probability of becoming a store manager is significantly less than two-tenths of a percent. But the real odds of getting a job are assuredly even less than this number, since the company does not turn over all store manager jobs within a year. Maybe the competition for store manager jobs includes everyone hired by Wal-Mart in a six-year period (less than 6/100ths of a percent) or even a 10 year period (less than 4/100ths of a percent).  I’m guessing that if you consider everyone who draws a salary playing for all the major and minor leagues of baseball, basketball, soccer, hockey, race car driving, golf, tennis and every other professional sport, the chance of becoming a professional athlete is probably as great as starting as a Wal-Mart entry level employee and becoming a store manager. In other words, the opportunity is there, but it’s far-off and very unlikely.

The article does not miss a beat in defending Wal-Mart. For example, the one example of an hourly worker who made it to the top is a woman named by Fortune Magazine as one of the 50 most powerful women of 2006. I’m sure that offers consolation and hope to the many Wal-Mart female employees who are suing the company for wage discrimination and a hostile work environment. He doesn’t say it, but Altner selects this woman as his example to fight the negative publicity Wal-Mart continues to get for its treatment of women.

3.  Others are waiting for the Wal-Mart jobs.
Altner declares that Wal-Mart can get away with paying low wages, so why should it pay higher wages. He complains that critics think Wal-Mart should pay more, “regardless of whether he has the skills or experience to justify such a wage, regardless of whether he is a model employee or a slouch, regardless of how many other individuals are willing and able to do his job for less, regardless of whether raising wages will be good for the company’s bottom line. In effect, their premise is that $12+ per hour wages shouldn’t have to be earned or justified; they should be dispensed like handouts.”  He forgets that it is Wal-Mart that is getting a handout because so many of its employees rely on government assistance programs to supplement their low wages.

Altner is really making a case for no minimum wage and, in fact, no government regulation.  He can’t really believe that Wal-Mart offers a great deal if 70% of employees quit within a year, unless he postulates that all 70% are “slouches.”  The fact that others are waiting in line to take the jobs is no excuse for paying less. Many attorneys are clamoring for high-priced jobs at corporate law firms. I get dozens of resumes a month from people clamoring for a job at a public relations agency. These are high-paying jobs that stay high-paying despite the fact that lots of people want them.

For decades, Wal-Mart has taken advantage of the economic climate. It thrives by exploiting the fact that the minimum wage has lost its buying power through inflation and is much lower than it should be; the fact that the current laws allow corporations to play games with part-time work to limit benefits; the fact that there are far fewer jobs than there are people seeking them.  In this sense, they are bottom feeders who take advantage of the poor and uneducated.

The heart of Ayn Rand’s philosophy is selfishness. In its discussion of Ayn Rand’s philosophy, the Ayn Rand Institute website writes, “Man—every man—is an end in himself, not the means to the ends of others. He must exist for his own sake, neither sacrificing himself to others nor sacrificing others to himself. The pursuit of his own rational self-interest and of his own happiness is the highest moral purpose of his life.”

I disagree entirely. All of our sustenance and pleasure—our necessities like food and shelter and our joys like music and sports—come through our interactions with society.  We owe society—for roads and bridges, our electrical grids, our safety, our markets, our cultural norms and standards, our base of knowledge and all our goods and services. No one can live outside society or without other people. As a society, we owe everyone, and in this I mean everyone in the world, food, shelter, education, health care and a chance to better themselves.

As individuals, we manifest what we owe society by following its rules and regulations. For the good of the whole, we impede people’s rights to adulterate food or use inaccurate weights and measures. And we also impede people’s right to take advantage of the downtrodden. That’s what the minimum wage is all about.

If Wal-Mart (and many other employers) did not operate always and only on the principles of pure selfishness, there would be no need to unionize or to raise the minimum wage. But they don’t, so society and its members have every right to foster unionization and to set a minimum wage. 

We are living in a particularly harsh time now, mainly because for too long we have let those like Doug Altner and other Randers set the tone of the political debate. We hear too much about the rights and prerogatives of corporations and rich folk and too little about the family of humans and how interconnected we all are.

Tuesday, November 26, 2013

Dunkin’ Donuts adds both extra sugar and salt to new hot chocolate-flavored concoction

By Marc Jampole

The amazing thing about the diversity of manufactured food offerings in food stores and restaurants is the degree to which the proliferation of new food products leaves everything tasting the same: half salty and half sweet.

For one thing, there’s the sauce inflation at national chains for what is called “casual dining.”  You know, Applebee's, Red Lobster, Olive Garden, Outback.  The fad now is to cook meat with one sauce, glaze or other covering and then pour both a cheese or cheese product and another sauce over the entire entree.  For example, Olive Garden has its Steak Gorgonzola Alfredo and Pizza Fritters Napoli. Applebee’s has its Fiesta Lime Chicken and Four-cheese Macaroni and Cheese with Honey Pepper Chicken Tenders. And check out the description of this sweet and salty delicacy from Outback: wood-fire grilled chicken breast topped with sautéed chicken with mushrooms, crisp bacon, melted Monterey Jack and cheddar and honey mustard sauce. The combinations of meats, sauces and spices always leave these dishes with both a salty and a sweet taste, sometimes with or without a slightly hot favor, depending upon whether or not it is “spicy.” There is no other taste and no subtlety of taste or aroma.

Forget about the added calories from the cheese and multiple sauces for the moment. Just think what happens when you put salt and sugar on everything—it all comes out tasting the same.  Now I know that we only taste salt, sweet, sour, bitter and umami (meat flavor), but with the varied smells of food, it really is possible to create a myriad of taste combination. It seems as if all American food manufacturers want to do is make us taste only salt and sugar.

The latest salt-and-sugar concoction—at least as far as I can tell with my limited TV viewing and total abstinence from processed food and national chain restaurant offerings—is Dunkin’ Donuts’ (DD) “salted caramel hot chocolate.”

Caramel is the smoky sugary flavor you get when you melt sugar at a low heat. There is always some sugar or other sweetener in all chocolate, but adding caramel pumps another jolt of sugar—or whatever sweetener DD uses—into the drink. Plus there’s the salty part: who wants to drink something salty anyhow? Salty food make you want to drink something—I’ve found water is best to quench a salted thirst. So the effect of drinking DD’s salted caramel hot chocolate drink is to make you want to drink something else. A Dunkin’ coffee anyone?

The small version of this beverage product runs 220 calories and the extra large version comes in at 550 calories, which is approximately one-quarter of what nutritional experts tell us the average adult male should eat in an entire day.  While looking at the list of ingredients, keep in mind that the ingredients are always listed in order of quantity—the first item is used the most in the food product, the second item second most, etc.

Here are the ingredients in salted caramel hot chocolate: Water, Salted Caramel Flavored Hot Chocolate Powder {Sugar, Non Dairy Creamer [Partially Hydrogenated Coconut Oil, Corn Syrup Solids, Sodium Caseinate (a milk derivative), Dipotassium Phosphate, Sugar, Mono and Diglycerides, Sodium Silicoaluminate, Sodium Stearoyl Lactylate, Soy Lecithin, Artificial Flavor and Artificial Color (Annatto and Turmeric)], Nonfat Dry Milk, Cocoa processed with alkali, Natural and Artificial Flavor, Salt, Cellulose Gum, Silicon Dioxide, Sodium Citrate}.   

The first thing to note is that what we have is a packet of dry chemicals that DD stirs into hot water. Some of the chemicals derive from processing plants or animals; others are completely artificial, in that the starting point wasn’t a food that grows such as sugar or cocoa. Also note that cocoa is probably the fifth most used product in the dry mixture, behind non-dairy creamer, which in and of itself has seven chemical parts, including corn syrup and even more sugar.  I write “probably,” because of all the stuff in the non-dairy creamer. Note, too, that there is more non-dairy creamer than nonfat dry milk. Thank goodness there is less salt than cocoa in this brew.

Don’t think that drinking one, or even five, of this beverage comprised of sugar, chemicals and salt will count towards the daily dark chocolate dose that keeps away heart disease. In fact, a DD salted caramel is one of the unhealthiest things you can put in your body.  Drinking one defiles the body much as dumping radioactive wastes defiles a wooded area or wetlands.

Don’t think that the sauces, glazes, cheese products and drizzles at national casual dining chains are any different. Dig deep into the ingredients of most of these concoctions and you’ll find a lot of chemicals, a lot of corn syrup and sugar and a lot of artificial flavors.

Of course, with all the potential carcinogens and all those unneeded empty calories come that simultaneous hit of both sugar and salt which the food manufacturing industry has trained us to crave.

Monday, November 25, 2013

Pro-nuclear journalists nuke mainstream news media; fall-out is wasted time in addressing global warming.

By Marc Jampole

In the past week, both Eduardo Porter, a left-leaning columnist from the New York Times and Hendrik Hertzberg, a centrist-looking-left columnist at the New Yorker have advocated nuclear power as the necessary bridge to solar and wind power.

Both writers use the same arguments: We can’t produce enough energy—by which they mean electricity—by solar and wind, so we need nuclear to replace carbon-spewing coal and oil if we are to address global warming in time.  Porter and Hertzberg make two assumptions: 1)  we must wait for the market to develop for solar and wind as opposed to making massive government investment to create the market; and 2) the only viable solutions involve central generation of electricity controlled by large companies and the decentralized solutions such as mini-generators in neighborhoods and solar panels for heating space and water are unacceptable.

But using nuclear energy to produce electricity strikes a bargain with a devil as pernicious to the earth as global warming. The safety problems with nuclear power are numerous and well documented. Briefly, a major accident spewing significant radiation has occurred somewhere in the world about every 10 years since the 1950’s, including Chalk River, Kyshtym, Three Mile Island, Chernobyl and Fukushima, to name some of the more notorious accidents.

There is also the issue of storage. The United States still hasn’t found a permanent place to store nuclear wastes, so it sits at the plants or in temporary locations smoldering  and spewing radioactivity.  The half life of some nuclear waste is 25,000 years, which means that in 25,000 years half of the radioactivity will have dissipated. That’s more than twice the length of time that humans have had civilizations with written records and agriculture. How many people can speak the languages humans spoke 25,000 years ago? When I think of storage of nuclear waste, I always imagine future intelligent life discovering cavernous vaults with strange hieroglyphics on them, wondering what the symbols mean and eager to break open the vault and see what is inside. They drill through only to let the radioactivity escape and poison them and those in nearby settlements.

By spending money on building more plants for the nuclear generation of electricity we deny resources that could make solar viable. Instead of the private sector investing in nuclear, why can’t the government increases taxes on the private sector’s use of coal and oil and use the funds to buy solar-based batteries, solar roof panels for heating federal buildings and other existing solar products? Making solar and wind more competitive does not have to involve only making them cheaper; it can also involve making coal and oil more expensive by raising taxes or withdrawing current tax breaks. The government could also give greater tax breaks for developing wind mills and solar plants. It could pass a law that makes it harder for rich folk to pursue lawsuits because their view of the Atlantic is impeded by a windmill. 

Why waste precious public and private resources in nuclear energy? Let’s go right to what must be the energy of the future—solar and wind.