Archive for January, 2010

Your Call Is (not that) Important to Us

January 31, 2010

Some companies have a business model of providing excellent goods and services. Some have a model of cutting back every expense except executive salaries and bonuses. You can get a good idea which is which when you call the company’s customer service center – whether you can easily get through to a human being who can help you, or whether you spend endless minutes on hold listening to elevator music, get trapped in the voice mail labyrinth or find yourself talking to someone in a foreign country who doesn’t comprehend what you’re talking about.

In our Sunday morning discussion group at First Universalist Church, Shirley Bond told us about Emily Yellin’s Your Call Is (not that) Important to Us: Customer Service and What It Reveals About Our World and Our Lives. It is a consumer advocacy book, telling what consumers can do to get better service; a business book, telling the stories of businesses such as Federal Express or Zappos.com that provide excellent customer service; and a trends book, showing one effect of globalization.

Almost everyone has experience bad customer service, but I was encouraged by the reports of companies that provide excellent customer service and still are highly profitable. The secret of good customer service is to hire employees that (1) want to provide good service, (2) have the knowledge to provide good service and (3) have the authority to provide good service. You can’t have motivated, knowledgeable workers who can be trusted to act on their own unless you treat them well. Employees who are scared, resentful or exhausted won’t serve customers well. (That’s not all there is to it, of course.)

We talked in our group about what to do as customers. The important thing, we agreed, is to decide ahead of time exactly what you want, tell the person on the other end exactly what you want and persist until you reach someone with authority to give you what you want. But it’s also important to remember the person on the other end of the line is a human being, just like you, whether he or she is in India and down the road.

India and the Philippines, in that order, are the two most important destinations of outsourced American customer service calls, but they have many competitors. Yellin did extensive reporting on call centers in Argentina and Egypt. The globalization of customer service doesn’t always bring people together. Customer rage among Americans and Britons interpreted by Asian Indians as arrogance and racism. Pablo, a customer service representative in Buenos Aires, said that at first he couldn’t understand why Americans became so angry at overcharging and late deliveries, since to him these things are a normal party of life; later he decided that it is a good thing, not a bad thing, to stand up for your rights, even on minor issues.

Yellin reported that the Federal Bureau of Prisons owns Unicor, a call center businesses in federal prisons, and several state prison systems also are in the call center business. Unicor takes directory assistance calls and inquiries to government agencies, and doesn’t handle personal or financial information. Its employees are minimum-security and medium-security inmates, mostly female – all of which I find (not that) reassuring.

I wonder…

January 31, 2010

I wonder why the Democrats act like they’re in the minority even when they’re in the majority.

I wonder how the Republicans can act like they’re in the majority even when they’re in the minority.

North and South

January 30, 2010

My friend David Damico who was the one who suggested I start this web log and suggested WordPress as the host, has an observation on his own web log about the perceived differences between North and South. David is originally from south-central Louisiana; he tells me there is a noticeable cultural difference between southern Louisiana on the one hand and northern Louisiana on the other. He said he always thought of the South as the Gulf Coast; he never thought, as upstate New Yorkers do, of North Carolina as the South.

Growing up in Maryland, my perspective was different. When I was growing up, I thought of Pennsylvania as the North, Virginia as the South and Maryland as something in between. I’m from the western panhandle of Maryland; if you think of the two shores of the Chesapeake Bay as the handle of a pistol, western Maryland is the barrel. In less than an hour, you can drive from Pennsylvania through Washington County, Md., where I’m from, and the eastern panhandle of West Virginia into the Shenandoah Valley of Virginia.

During the Civil War, Washington County contributed soldiers to both the Union and Confederate armies; we had peaceful Mennonites and Dunkards (German Baptists) as well. The dashing Henry Kyd Douglas, author of I Rode With Stonewall, was from Washington County. We also had people like Benjamin Franklin Newcomer, a merchant who did a good business selling supplies to the Union Army until they demanded he sign a loyalty oath; he refused to do so on the grounds that “I am a Southern sympathizer.”

I always thought of myself as more Northern than Southern. I never accepted the view in my high school textbooks that the Civil War was a great national tragedy, fought by two sides that were equally brave and equally sincere. The two sides were brave and sincere, but one was fighting to preserve the Union and the other was fighting to preserve slavery.

A sociologist, whose name I forget, came up with a good way to tell whether a community was Northern or Southern. Look in the business listings in the telephone book. If there are more businesses whose names contain the words “Southern” or “Dixie” than the words “American” or “National,” you’re in the South.

Stein’s Law

January 30, 2010

Herbert Stein was chairman of the Council of Economic Advisers under Presidents Nixon and Ford.

He is generally credited with Stein’s Law: –

If something cannot go on forever, someday it will stop.

For many years we Americans have consumed more than we produce, borrowed more than we save, and imported more than we export.

This cannot go on forever. Someday it will stop.

It will stop because we Americans have rediscovered our genius for production, and shifted away from an economy based on finance and debt. Or it will stop in spite of us in a way we don’t like.

Kenneth Roberts’ historical novels

January 30, 2010

Blogging about Haiti reminded me of one of my lifetime favorite novels, Kenneth Roberts’ Lydia BaileyThe first half  is set against the background of the Haitian Revolution and the second half against the background of the U.S. war with the Barbary Pirates.  The dominant character in the novel is neither the narrator, Albion Hamlin, nor his ladylove Lydia Bailey, but the giant black Sudanese adventurer known as King Dick.

Lydia Bailey was published in 1947 and has long been out of print.  There is a copy at the Rochester Public Library and, I expect, at most large public libraries.

Roberts was fully the equal of Patrick O’Brian, author of the Aubrey/Maturin series of novels, both as a storyteller and in terms of historical research. His novels were best-sellers in the 1930s and 1940s and stand up well today. Roberts was a quirky contrarian, and part of his purpose in writing was to set the record straight and to show that historical events were different from what you thought they were.

Arundel and Rabble in Arms are about Revolutionary War soldiers led by the able and charismatic commander Benedict Arnold (before his treason). Oliver Wiswell depicts the Revolutionary War from the point of view of a brave Loyalist.  I liked them all, as I did Captain Caution and The Lively Lady, about American sea captains in the War of 1812.

But my favorite, aside from Lydia Bailey, is Northwest Passage, which is set against the background of the French and Indian War and the doomed search for a northwest sea passage from Europe to the Orient.  Such as passage is actually opening up today, with the melting of the Arctic ice.

Haitian Riddles

January 29, 2010

1. They serve it food, it stands on four feet, but it cannot eat.

2. I enter white, I leave mulatto

3. Three large men stand under a tiny umbrella, yet none of them is wet. Why?

4. When I sit, I’m taller than when I stand.

5. How many coconuts can you put in an empty sack?

(more…)

Why is Haiti so poor?

January 29, 2010

Rene Preval, the president of Haiti, said Wednesday that nearly 170,000 people have died as the result of the Haitian earthquake. In contrast, only 63 people died as a result of the 1989 Loma Prieta earthquake in the San Francisco Bay area. This was because of a whole lot of things, ranging from differences between Haitian and Californian building construction to the ability of government to respond, but what it boiled down to was that a poor society is a lot more vulnerable to disaster than a rich one.

Why is Haiti so poor? Columnist David Brooks said it is because of Haiti’s dysfunctional culture. He said somebody needs to take them in hand and straighten them out. Many other commentators say the same thing; the implications is that the Haitians have brought their troubles on themselves.

I’ve never been to Haiti myself (and would welcome comments from anybody who has), but I’ve read enough to know that the answers are not so simple. The geographer Jared Diamond, in Collapse: How Societies Choose to Succeed or Fail, has a chapter contrasting the geography and history of Haiti with its neighbor, the Dominican Republic.

Haiti is a former French colony which occupies the western third of the island of Hispaniola; the Dominican Republic (aka Santo Domingo) is a former Spanish colony which occupies the eastern two-thirds. Hispaniola’s rains come mainly from the east; the Dominican Republic gets more rain. Much of its land consists of broad valleys, plains and plateaus, while Haiti is more mountainous. The Dominican side has more fertile soil.

Yet in colonial times, it was Haiti that was the more developed of the two. French investment in sugar plantations, worked by slave labor, made Haiti the most valuable of their overseas possessions in the 1600s and 1700s. The Spanish neglected their part of Hispaniola; they were more interested in exploiting the silver mines of Mexico and Peru. By 1785, according to Diamond, there were 700,000 slaves in the French part of Hispaniola and only 30,000 in the Spanish part. That is to say, Haiti, when it became independent, had more people on less and worse land than its neighbor.

The Haitian slaves rose up against the French in 1791, and defeated some of Napoleon’s best regiments in 1801. Napoleon originally had in mind to use Hispaniola as a base to expand France’s North American empire. He then changed his mind and sold the Louisiana territory to the United States in 1804. If it had not been for the Haitian revolution, American history might have taken a different course.

The new Haitian republic got off to a bad start. The Haitian slaves were understandably full of rage at the French slaveowners, who were capable of fiendish cruelty; one punishment for rebellious slaves was to bury them up to the neck, and then plaster the face with honey to attract ants. They destroyed the physical infrastructure of the plantation sugar economy and, fearing the slaveowners would come back, adopted a constitution forbidding foreigners to own land or to control production through investments.

The infant republic meanwhile faced economic sanctions imposed by the major powers – Britain, France, Spain and, yes, the United States – who feared the example of slave liberation would spread. Haiti was forced to pay reparations to the former slaveowners. This saddled the country with a crushing debt that wasn’t paid off until 1922.

In the Dominican Republic, in contrast, it was the Spanish settlers who declared independence. They started out with a smaller population on a larger amount of good land. They encouraged immigration and foreign investment, and developed more of an export economy than the Haitians did. Both countries have been governed by corrupt dictators and wealthy elites indifferent to the common people.  The United States has occupied both countries, Haiti from 1915 to 1935 and the Dominican Republic from 1916 to 1924, not for the benefit of their peoples, but to make sure banks that lent money to their governments were paid off.

One big problem in Haiti is deforestation. Only 1 percent of the land is forested, a lack which causes massive soil erosion; in contrast, 28 percent of the Dominican Republican is wooded. Many of Haiti’s trees have been cut down by poor farmers who need fuel, but some of it is by timber companies invited in to provide revenue to Haiti’s government.

I don’t claim to know what’s best for Haiti.  I fear the kind of misguided reaction that followed the Hurricane Katrina disaster, when a lot of white people spread reports about looting  and animal-like behavior among the black people of New Orleans, which turned out to be mostly lies and exaggerations but which are believed to this day. I remember reports of troops going into flooded New Orleans being told that this was hostile territory, like Mogadishu; this turned out to be completely false.

I do believe that what’s going on in Haiti is going to have a bigger effect on the United States than what’s going on in Afghanistan and Iraq.

Corporate rights and individual rights

January 28, 2010

Last week the U.S. Supreme Court, by a 5-4 vote, overturned the McCain Feingold Act’s restrictions on “soft money” campaign contributions. The court’s reasoning was as follows: (1) The United States Constitution guarantees every person the right of freedom of speech and freedom of the press; (2) Corporations are legally persons; (3) Spending money to promote causes you believe in is a form of free speech and free press.

Is there anything wrong with this? A business corporation is simply a structure for the benefit of stockholders. Why shouldn’t they have the same rights acting through a corporation as they would acting individually? The answer is that the stockholders don’t have the same responsibilities as if they acted individually.

If I start a business, I’m liable for everything the business does. If I operate the business illegally, I pay a fine or go to jail. If the business fails, I have to pay off the debts or go bankrupt. But if I buy stock in the business, my profits are potentially unlimited, but my loss is limited to what I put in. If a limited liability corporation fails, creditors can’t ask stockholders personally to pay them off.

The limited liability corporation is a good thing. It stimulates enterprise. People wouldn’t invest in risky businesses, they might not invest at all, if they were liable for everything the business does.  But a corporation is not a person; it is a legal fiction chartered by a state legislature. It is reasonable for courts to treat corporations as people for certain purposes and not as others.

What corporations do is make possible huge concentrations of wealth which would not otherwise be possible. This is a good thing because it enables our economy to function. It also is a dangerous thing because it threatens our democracy.

Take as one example, Exxon Mobil Corp. In 2008, Exxon Mobil organized a political action committee, mainly among its executives and employees, which raised about $1 million for favored candidates (both Republicans and Democrats). The same year Exxon Mobil made $45 billion in profits. Under the recent Supreme Court decision, it could have spent $100 million in the 2008 election and it would have been less than 1/4 of 1 percent of its profits. Exxon Mobil or any other large corporation had been given an enormous increase in power to reward and threaten politicians. This is not good for our democracy.

It is not clear whether, as President Obama said, the decision opens the way to foreign corporations interfering in U.S. elections. The Supreme Court decision (as I understand it) did not repeal restrictions on foreign individuals spending money in U.S. elections. But what about U.S. corporations that are owned by foreigners. Citgo for example is incorporated in the United States, but is a wholly-owned subsidiary of the Venezuelan government oil company. It also isn’t clear to me what President Obama thinks he can do about the decision. Like it or not, a Supreme Court decision is the law of the land.

“Help! I am President Barack Obama!”

January 27, 2010

I received the following e-mail message whose return e-mail accress was podpeople@avatar

Help! I am President Barack Obama! I am being held prisoner by aliens who are trying to take over the planet to exploit its valuable mineral resources. I have been replaced by an alien-controlled android operated by an Obama simulation program.

Do you think the real President Obama, after having created a grassroots support network the like of which has not been seen in recent memory, would let his programs go down to defeat without calling on the grassroots for help? Do you think the real President Obama would play hardball to get congressional approval of a troop surge in Afghanistan and reappointment of Ben Bernanke as Federal Reserve chair, then stand by with folded arms while his signature issue, health care reform, went down to defeat? Do you think the real President Obama would be stupid enough to not only adopt his opponent John McCain’s idea of a spending freeze, but to call it a “spending freeze”? Wake up before it is too late!

I can’t vouch for the authenticity of this message, and it does sound far-fetched. But what’s your explanation for what’s going on?

Later.  The State of the Union address sounded like it came from the real Barack Obama. I hope he was the one who showed up for work the next day in the Oval Office.


The other Phil Ebersole’s Blog

January 27, 2010

When I Googled the phrase “Phil Ebersole’s Blog”, I was taken to a different web log on the Internet besides my own. This one is by a minister of an independent church in the Mennonite / Anabaptist tradition in Denver, Colorado.

I know enough about the Mennonite religion not to be surprised that a Mennonite would have a web log. There is a wide spectrum of practice within that tradition. At one extreme are the Amish, who wear distinctive 17th-century-type dress and renounce most (though not all) forms of modern technology. At the other extreme are Mennonites who interpret “plain” clothing to be clothing that is unobtrustive and who use modern technology in a discriminating manner. What unites them all is a commitment to peace and goodwill on the personal as well as the global level.

My acquaintance with the Mennonite tradition comes from having lived and worked years ago in western Maryland’s Washington County, which culturally is somewhat like rural Pennsylvania. I don’t share their beliefs, but I think Mennonites as a group live up to their beliefs more than most of us do.

When I was growing up in small-town western Maryland, the phrase “a real Christian” meant not just someone who believed in the Apostles Creed (this was taken for granted) but someone who was unusually good-hearted, forgiving, modest, patient and dutiful. Since then I have met people I think of as Christians with a “K,” who think the main point of Christianity is to hate secularists, feminists and gays. I also have met people I think of as Christians with a “Q,” with whom I have more sympathy, people who don’t believe in Christian doctrine but revere the figure of Jesus and the Christian tradition. The web log of my liberal Mennonite namesake shows him to be a wise and good person and a real Christian in the old sense.

Barack Hoover Obama

January 26, 2010

When Barack Obama ran for President, I never expected him to be the second coming of Franklin D. Roosevelt. His proposals in The Audacity of Hope were too modest and incremental for that. I did hope that he would be an inspirational and transitional figure such as John F. Kennedy rather than a placeholder like Jimmy Carter or Bill Clinton.

What I didn’t expect is that that he would be the second coming of Herbert Hoover.

Yet that is just what his planned three-year spending freeze on discretionary spending amounts to. It means that he has tied his hands so far as accomplishing anything new and significant to create jobs or to bring the United States out of its long-range economic decline. It means that he defines his administration in Republican terms (balancing the budget) rather than Democratic terms (helping people and creating jobs).

The great insight of the supply-side Republicans in the Reagan era is that economic growth takes priority over balanced budgets, because deficits don’t matter if they’re a shrinking percentage of the total economy. Their policies, as it turned out, didn’t actually promote economic growth, but at least they were free of the illusion that you can downsize your way to prosperity.

According to the Associated Press, discretionary spending is about $447 billion of a $3.5 trillion annual budget. That is to say, it amounts to 14 percent of the budget (but 100 percent of what Obama can do to turn the economy around). The proposed saving in the first year will be $10 billion to $15 billion, which is about 1/10th of 1 perecent of the projected $1.4 trillion deficit this year. The savings are supposed to mushroom to $250 billion in 10 years. Presumably this is to be achieved by not making the projected increases needed to keep up with inflation and population increase.

Spending freezes are the worst possible thing you can do in a recession. When President Roosevelt froze spending, it brought about the 1937 recession, after which enough Republicans and conservative Democrats were elected in 1938 to bring the New Deal to an end.

I read on Internet web logs that the White House is saying that President Obama’s planned spending freeze is not the same thing as the spending freeze proposed by John McCain during the election campaign. Oh, no. It is a global ceiling which will allow increases in some government programs if savings can be achieved by cuts in others. I agree that the details matter and we don’t have them yet. But at best (or rather at least bad), this represents the kind of stealth liberalism we saw under the Clinton administration. You concede your opponents’ case, but then try to slip in some of what you want under the radar. If liberals are unwilling to openly fight for their ideas, why should anybody else support them?

Recommended reading

Barack Obama, The Audacity of Hope

P.S. (added March 21, 2010).  My friend Hal Bauer asked whether I got my idea for the title from Kevin Baker’s good article in the July 2009 issue of Harpers magazine. Click on this link to read it.  I don’t remember whether I did or not; I had seen the Obama-Hoover comparison before I wrote this post.

Hello world!

January 25, 2010

I’m Phil Ebersole. I’m a retired newspaper reporter living in Rochester, NY. My new WordPress web log will be about books, politics, religion and whatever else is on my mind. I would be grateful for any comments here about the web log itself – its format, its contents, what should be included, excluded or changed.