Running On Empty


It’s minus -21C today – that’s 5 below zero in Fahrenheit – and it’s so cold my cats have cat I has a sadgone beyond being angry and have become despondent, either staring sadly into space or denying the existence of the world with their heads smacked up against a wall. I’m sitting at my desk, wrapped in a black flannel poncho, and wondering where I’ve left my fingerless gloves.

I sprang from my bed this morning, rested and brimming with ideas of ‘great social and political import,’ but instead of researching, I’m waiting for oatmeal to cook – this is not the sort of day you face on an empty stomach.

On days like this I am very grateful for the science and technology that allows me to stay warm. I’m over the moon that I can flip a switch and have light to see by, and flip another switch to start up my computer and read mail and messages from family and friends. I’m really pleased that I have warm clothing that just rests in my closet until I want to wear it, and I’m grateful for the closet being part of a house that has walls and a roof that keep out the worst of the cold.

Silly-HolidaysWe often take for granted what less fortunate people would consider luxuries. We set aside a day here and a day there to give lip service to the giving of thanks, the honouring of lovers, parents, veterans and a host of others to whom we see fit to throw a bone. “Here you go, secretaries. It’s not much, but we’re calling today National Secretary Day! As soon as you’ve read that card, I’ll have a coffee with two sugars. Thanks for being you!”

Our culture has moulded us into people that can never have enough. Everywhere we turn we’re told that we’re missing out on something – a new power drill, an iPhone6, a bigger or tidier home, a more luxurious car, vacations in the sun, and most importantly … money, money, money!

and then we'll get himEven though studies have definitively shown that those with heaps of money are not significantly happier than those with enough to comfortably cover their needs, we’re still told that it is only with the amassing of wealth that we can really be content.

In reality, rich people are not all tanning by their dollar-shaped pools while chatting casually with the men and women we’ve elevated to media stardom. They’re far more likely to be spending their time trying to get yet more money, in any way possible, and are probably more anxious and hostile than you are when trying to decide whether to go with a name brand tin of peas or the generic house brand.

Scrooge-PorpoiseBeing addicted to money is like being addicted to drugs; at first, a small amount gives you a buzz, but as time goes by, you need higher and higher doses to maintain the high. And if money is your drug, that upward spiral contains another component – a need to have more than anyone else, to have it all, regardless of whom it damages. Exorbitant, mindless wealth precludes empathy towards those who struggle to survive on minimum wage or government assistance.

“The peasants have no bread!” “Then let them eat cake,” tittered Queen Marie Antoinette. Her joke, rather than having them rolling in the aisles, soon had heads rolling from the guillotine instead.

That anecdote is likely only the fabrication of Jean-Jacques Rousseau in his autobiographical, “Confessions,” but has been used ever since as a cautionary tale of the perils of great wealth and self-indulgence in the face of social unrest. One would think the lesson would be self-explanatory, but apparently the accumulation of wealth does not always translate to the accumulation of historical knowledge.

In Canada, we can point to arriviste Kevin O’Leary, who, with a net worth of US$300 million that the true 1% would consider pocket change, can’t seem to stop patting himself on the back. When he’s not crowing over his own wealth, he’s exhorting the poor of the world to pull themselves up by their socks – even if they don’t own any socks.

But of course, that’s the dream we’ve been sold since the Industrial Revolution. “Come, work for me, make me wealthy and I will share my largesse. You too can be like me, all you need do is work hard, save your money, and keep your nose to the grindstone.” And we bought it, for decades. We called it the Protestant work ethic, and called anyone who didn’t agree lazy and stupid.

scrooge silly pleasures“The Protestant work ethic (or the Puritan work ethic) is a concept in theology, sociology, economics and history which emphasizes hard work, frugality and diligence as a constant display of a person’s salvation in the Christian faith, in contrast to the focus upon religious attendance, confession, and ceremonial sacrament in the Catholic tradition.

The phrase was initially coined in 1904–5 by Max Weber in his book The Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism.” (Wikipedia.org)

We forget that his essay was his observations on the Germany of his time, and not a ‘how-to’ manual. Weber considered himself agnostic. His argument was that Catholicism, with its emphasis on doing good works in the hope of eternal salvation, rather than pursuing wealth for its own sake, impeded the development of the capitalist economy in the West.

Capitalism depends upon everyone in the society believing in the same goals. When the West had a booming middle class, there was room within the prosperity to dream of a country free of traditional constraints. We could reach out a hand to those who needed help, be they poor or infirm, or young or old. That sense of community resulted in government safety nets and a surge of infrastructure building that connected and included all of the people, regardless of their economic place.

North America looked at what they had wrought in the 1940’s and ‘50’s, and found it good. Good enough to not make a priority again until it started to collapse around us.

glittering TorontoIt’s been decades since the roads and bridges and communities were put in place, decades in which the needs of the wealthy became more important in politics than the needs of the tax payer. In Toronto, once Canada’s most glittering city, our highways are clogged with commuters, while our transit system is woefully inadequate to shuttle workers from their homes to their jobs. The local politicians have been arguing about whether to tear down the eastern end of the Gardiner Expressway since the 1990’s. And the majority of our subway system, which opened in 1954, is held together with patches and prayers.

business and politicsThere’s blame enough for everyone at this sorry state. Although we love to complain about ‘the system,’ every aspiring politician has to present a platform that will be seen to not only address community issues, but cost the tax payer less. Once in office, the newly elected official can point to budgetary concerns, and remind us all that there aren’t any funds since he’s cut taxes, just as we requested. Or that they are working on a solution, but we mustn’t hope to see real change until some year in the future where they will hopefully no longer be held accountable for the project and the additional costs incurred during the delay.

Politics on crosswordFor corporations, political concerns are less about the community, and more about expediting the accumulation of more wealth. Despite needing an infrastructure that allows workers to arrive at the work place on time, and roads and other delivery systems to get product to consumers, the emphasis is placed squarely on tax cuts that they have convinced politicians, and even many consumers, will result in a more equitable distribution of wealth.

Corporations spend billions on pushing forward measures that will deny workers fair wages and benefits, and will spend yet more on media essentially blackmailing consumers into giving them what they demand. Health care, no. More tax cuts, yes. Or we’ll take our ball (company, franchise) and go home. Many even believe that we have no other alternative but to agree.

The last several decades of austerity for the general public, but unheard of wealth for the few, is slowly shaping us into a timid, obedient mass, who are only valued as long as we are able to further enrich business through our labour and consumption of goods and services.

hedonic-treadmillThe pursuit of happiness has become a joyless pursuit of money, dooming its followers to an endless treadmill of greed and desperation. You’ll never catch up to the 1%, no matter how hard you try, but real happiness and satisfaction can be had in a life that encompasses empathy, generosity, and gratitude for what you’ve achieved.

The Short-Sightedness of Corporate Greed


In the midst of those post-holiday, January credit card blues, the Toronto Star business section headline on New Year’s Day trumpeted, “CEO pay returns to ‘glory days.’ Canada’s top 100 CEOs earned an average of $9.2 million in 2013, hitting pre-recession highs.”

While I’m sure the 100 families who benefited from those riches preened in delight, I thought the timing a little harsh for the rest of the country. The average Canadian worker has received little to no raises in the last ten years, and even those on a yearly review schedule can rarely bank on more than a pitiable 2-4% increase.

The average Canadian earned $47,358 in 2013.  ceo-salary-cdn

“The list of high-flying executives was led by Gerald Schwarz, CEO of Onex Corp., who earned $87.9 million in 2013, most of it in stock options. Nadir Mohamed, who was then CEO of Rogers Communications Inc., earned $26.7 million. Michael M. Wilson, of Agrium Inc., earned $23.8 million. All five CEOs of Canada’s biggest banks were in the top 30.(Toronto Star, Jan 1, 2015)

I don’t begrudge anyone a good income. But these figures are insane by any measure. While it must be said that the CEO’s earning these high wages did so through stock options, and hopefully, good corporate leadership, there is another side to their recompense; the people who work – or used to work – in the companies they manage.

“Canada’s highest-paid CEOs earned 195 times the average Canadian in 2013. That’s up from 105 times in 1998, the oldest date for which comparable figures are available. … However, even the lowest-paid CEO on the list earned more in 2013 than in 2008. While little data is available on CEO pay prior to the 1990s, it is generally accepted that the ratio of executive pay to average pay in the late 1980s was 40:1 in the U.S. and somewhat lower in Canada.” (Toronto Star)

There are only a few ways that a business can continually increase profit over previous years, which increases the value of the stock, and thereby compels the Board of Directors to approve a CEO’s earnings (which include options and bonuses); by introducing a new product so fantastic and coveted that consumers flock to purchase the item, or by reducing assets and/or staff and/or increasing prices.

That’s where the human toll comes in.

(In the 1990’s) “compensation experts came up with the idea of granting a portion of CEO pay in stock options, in which executives are granted options to buy shares at a “strike” price, usually the current market value of the share. Executives can’t “exercise” the option until a future date, at which time the share might be worth more or less than the original strike price. If the shares are worth more, the executive can opt to “buy” the stock and then immediately sell it at the new, higher value. If they are worth less, he or she can simply let the option expire at no cost to them.

Boards of directors were sold on the idea that options would more closely link executive pay to company performance. Instead, the practice encouraged share price volatility at the expense of long-term value, critics say. Among other things, they say, stock options have encouraged executives to cut costs, lay off staff, sell assets and merge with other firms — all to boost the share price in the short term, often at the expense of the company’s future value. They have also led to the rise of activist investors and hedge funds that buy shares in companies with the goal of splitting them up in order to unlock shareholder value.” (Toronto Star)

I suppose the greed is understandable, even though at that level, money becomes little more than paper to be shuffled about. Greed, accompanied by hubris and a massive sense of self-satisfaction, coupled with a belief that the party will never end, and bolstered by his/her cronies in the same tax bracket, good lawyers and accountants, and a taxation system that treats stock options as capital gains, despite stock options carrying none of the risk associated with normal stock purchases.

A dollar earned through a stock option is worth two dollars of salary income. The difference amounts to a public subsidy paid to these already highly compensated executives.” (author, economist Hugh Mackenzie, Canadian Centre for Policy Alternatives)

These executives would also have superior benefits, perks befitting their pedestaled positions, and a golden handshake agreement that would see them being even better recompensed should they ever be asked to leave the corporation. In contrast, the staff remaining after deep cuts and asset sales would find themselves clinging desperately to their jobs, despite usually having to shoulder the additional responsibilities of their now dispatched former co-workers.

In the long term, that corporate greed that has created such high unemployment in Canada (about 6.6% as of November of 2014, which will drop after seasonal positions are gone,) translates to nearly 1.3 million potential clients and customers who no longer have the income to purchase goods or services from the purveyors. 90% off store

(That figure only includes Canadians who continue to actively seek employment. It does not include those who are underemployed, or who have given up on ever finding another salaried position. To put it yet another way, in a population of 35.16 million, only 17.7 million have jobs.)

Between the shrinking job force, smaller cash reserves available for purchases, and an aging population, the wealthier of whom may move to a warmer country or the poorer who may have to rely solely on government support during their old age, it soon becomes clear that the highest paid executives are playing a zero-sum game.

working-man-vs-parasite

(added Jan. 7/15 – from Huffington Post: “Some 70 per cent of businesses expect growth this year, but only half of them will hire. The result? Stress and burnout for workers…

National Bank chief economist Stefane Marion says Ontario’s growth will be slowed by the fact that the manufacturing sector was gutted during the financial crisis and recession. During previous economic recoveries, Ontario had excess capacity in its factories and could quickly benefit from an increased demand for exports.However, much of that capacity was lost after the last recession and will take some time to rebuild, Marion says.”

http://www.huffingtonpost.ca/2015/01/06/hiring-canada-employee-burnout-hays_n_6424332.html