New Yorker

Posted: October 10, 2015
By: Clay Cerny

It's been a great day.  The Cubs beat the Cardinals, and I met some friends for a steak dinner.  So, now while chilling out listening to blues and catching up with The New Yorker, I read these words in Amy Davidson's October 8 profile of GOP presidential candidate Carly Fiorina:  "When HP fired her, she got a twenty-million-dollar severance package, plus fifteen thousand for career counseling.  Only in this country, perhaps, could a C.E.O. receive compensation worth more than a million hundred million dollars in six years, get fired, and use the money to enter politics."

I don't believe in salary restrictions of any kind.  If a company wants to pay any employee any amount, that's the company's business.  At the same time, voters should be able to ask about a candidate's history and what it says about his or her potential leadership.  In Fiorina's case, she laid off thousands of workers before she took the money and ran.  As far as I can tell, none of her current positions would do anything to help American workers.  "Only in America."

Posted: October 30, 2013
By: Clay Cerny

I often cite Seth Godin, who’s one of my favorite writers and thinkers.  In his book, The Dip¸ Godin explores how winners know how to quit the things that hold them back from moving forward.  The New Yorker has published a short essay by Adrian Cardenas, who last played in the Chicago Cubs organization.  He played in 45 games for the Cubs in 2012.  Cardenas is eloquent in explaining why he left the big leagues to focus on being a student.

I was especially impressed by his confession that money took away from the joy of the game.  That’s a hard confession to make.  Most of us would kill to make the minimum big league salary.  Baseball as a business was not what Cardenas, a student at New York University, wanted.  Leaving the sport is his first step to a new life.  May he find happiness.

Posted: August 4, 2013
By: Clay Cerny

Detroit is broke.  That’s what the media and the politicians like Governor Snyder tell us. It’s an easy story to tell given the way the city looks.  It’s also easy to tell when the politicians and their banker allies only give one alternative.  What they don’t say is that unions tried to work out a deal that would have prevented the bankruptcy.  The governor and his Emergency Manager (Appointed Dictator) would not talk to them.  A cynical person might even think that the governor had some reason for wanting the city to declare bankruptcy.

Common Dreams has reprinted an article by the Nation’s John Nichols that examines how democracy is not working in Michigan’s largest city.  Michigan and Detroit voters both rejected Snyder’s Emergency Manager program, only to have the governor revive the program during a lame duck session of the legislature.  Nichols interviews experts who point out that several American cities have problems similar to Detroit.  As the nation’s industrial base broke down, the federal and state governments responded by cutting funds sent to big cities.  Rather than blame local officials as the governor does, Nichols suggests that we look at state government as part of a complex problem.

John Cassidy of the New Yorker looks at the story from the perspective how the city came to the bankruptcy “solution.”  He asks the often unasked question:  Was this move necessary?  Were there alternatives?  He points to gentrification in parts of the city.  The Emergency Manager, Kevyn Orr seems only interested in giving pensioners as little as possible (as little as 20%) while offering bank creditors (as much as 75%).  Cassidy ends ominously by quoting a municipal bankruptcy lawyer who calls Detroit, “a test case.”

The same day Detroit declared bankruptcy, Chicago bond rating was hit with a big downgrade.  A couple of weeks later, the city’s school system had its bond rating slashed.  Do you see a pattern?  The same politicians who failed to fund pensions are now using that action to say pensions need to be cut.  They robbed Peter (workers) to pay Paul (bankers).  And now they’re asking Peter to pay the bill.

What happens in Detroit will be a test case.  If working people don’t wake up, they will pay the bill of the bankers while city workers, including those who have already retired, will have to live on a fraction of the pension they should have received as part of their compensation.  Pensions are not welfare.  Retired workers are not takers.  If Americans don’t wake up to this new make-the-rich-richer scheme, we will all lose.

Posted: January 17, 2011
By: Clay Cerny

I was listening to the radio today and heard a shrill conservative commentator (I didn’t catch his name) say, “The union model is broken.  We don’t need unions anymore.”  He continued that unions had a place when children worked in sweatshops.

I’ve heard other conservatives (and a few corporate liberals) make similar claims.  What they don’t point out is that the wages and benefits of American workers have dropped just as union membership has.  It’s not a question of child labor, but one of two working parents not having enough to feed their families or pay the mortgage.

So why aren’t unions more popular?  James Surowiecki, writing in the New Yorker, explores many reasons why public opinion has turned on organized labor.  I thought the most interesting was “pension envy,” a term coined by Olivia Mitchell, a professor at the Wharton School of Business.  Since most workers don’t have pensions, they resent union members for having them.  The logic is:  if I can’t have it, you shouldn’t either.

The sad part of such thinking is that it blames working people for wanting a good wage and security.  Unions fought for worker rights that went far beyond salary.  Unions won the 40 hour week (which few workers have today).  They fought for safe working conditions and security in retirement through pensions.  Now most workers have 401K that are sure to benefit only one group:  Wall Street.  Wages have fallen in many industries.  And workers have nowhere to turn when employers take advantage of them.  Moreover, union workers in the auto industry and education have taken pay and benefit cuts to help their employers.  That’s not part of the meme spread by the corporate-owned media.

Americans don’t know who Walter Reuther was.  They don’t know about Eugene V. Debs or the I.W.W.  Instead, they hear propaganda about unions costing America jobs, and they believe it.  We ignore the people who shipped jobs overseas so their already large fortunes could grow even bigger.  Something is broken in America.  It’s not the unions.

Posted: October 10, 2010
By: Clay Cerny

[“Sabbath” is Career Calling’s Sunday feature on work and life outside of career.]

The Hard Work of Money, Bills, and Debt

The cover of this week’s New Yorker, drawn by Chris Ware, tells a haunting story about the dilemma facing many Americans.  A couple sits in the kitchen.  The wife holds what looks like a credit card statement while her husband pecks at a calculator.  Meanwhile, on the floor, their young daughter sits in front of a toy cash register.  She is making play money.

If this were the whole of the cover, it would fit what New Yorker readers normally expect.  However, Ware, one of the most talented artists in his field, pushes further in a two page insert that narrates a story (never a linear narration for Chris Ware – and that’s a good thing).  We move from a discussion between the husband and wife to the visit of an unexpected stranger to a telling exchange between mother and her daughter. 

The wife packs a lunch for her husband who has explained that the family’s checking account is overdrawn.  After the husband leaves for work, a man comes to the door.  The wife won’t open the door or asking him what he wants.  She curses him and calls the police.  Her fear quickly fades when she is talking with the police.  In an aside, the women tells herself: “I was really feeling slightly crazy.” 

In the last section of the narrative, she sits with her young daughter, Lucy.  The girl tells her mother that she is making money to help her parents.  Then she surprises her mother by adding “maybe the man will like it too.”  Where the mother only saw a beggar or criminal in the man at her door, her little girl recognized a person in need.  The last panel shows the mother looking at her little girl.  For a minute, her daughter’s sympathy for a stranger takes the woman out of the fearful world of her own debts and financial woe.

Chris Ware often uses teenagers and young children to reveal deeper thoughts and feelings that adults have lost connection to.  The cover is entitled “Discovering America,” which has a deep ambiguity.  Is the child discovering America in the debt of her parents and the poverty of stranger at the door?  Is it the mother discovering a deeper truth through her daughter?  Or – to jump outside the narrative – is it the reader who is discovering America, a discovery that becomes somewhat comic when she finds an ad for Rolex opposite page 8?  The beautiful tennis star Caroline Wozniacki models the luxury time piece.  Placed against Ware’s cover, this ad shows another level of what Michael Harrington once labeled the “Other America.”  For a few, the country offers wealth, luxury, and security.  For many more, like the couple depict on Ware’s cover drawing , paying the bills is a monthly struggle, one that reshapes all aspects of people’s lives, not just their bank accounts.  Are we discovering the land of opportunity become the land of anxiety?