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Posts tagged with Governments

The rich get richer and poor get poorer. What, if anything, are we going to do about it?

Posted on September 28, 2014 by 2 Comments

With each passing day, it seems as if the rich get richer, the poor get poorer and while our economy expands, the divide between rich and poor gets wider and wider. Sound like an exaggeration? Perhaps not. Read Neil Irwin’s article in this past weekend’s NY Times, “The Benefits of Economic Expansions Are Increasingly Going to the Richest Americans”. Irwin cites data compiled by Pavlina R. Tcherneva, an economist at Bard College to prove this disturbing trend, although none of this should be a surprise.

Two charts in the article tell the story well. The first (below) shows the share of income growth received by the top 10 percent and bottom 90 percent of earners during periods of economic expansion.

InequalityI grew up in the 1950’s and 1960’s, began my work career in the 1970’s and reached a modicum of business success in the 1980’s and 1990’s. My father was a doctor. We went on family vacations when I was little. I went to good schools and ultimately raised a family and owned my own business. I wanted for nothing. Life was and still is good. As a child and teen growing up in inner city Detroit, it always seemed like the auto factories were humming, the shops were full and growth in prosperity, while not perfect, was being shared.

According to I.R.S. data, I’ve been among the 10% who’ve benefited from expansions for many years. Yet, it doesn’t take much other than a look at the daily papers or a walk around any American city to see that something doesn’t seem quite right. Shoppers seem well-heeled, coiffed and comfortable among my top tier peers. But why, I wonder, when I walk into Home Depot, Walmart or the local supermarket, I rarely see exuberant shoppers from lower and middle classes? You may think it’s the stores I shop in only cater to my types but I travel and like to walk around and check in on the retail scene to get a flavor of the local zeitgeist.

The second chart from the article (below) shows the share of income gains during expansionary periods that went to the top 1 percent versus bottom 99 percent. The trend in wealth gains becomes even more striking.

IncomeGains Before I saw these charts. I always thought things seemed to change for the worse in the 1980’s. That was when the idea of “trickle down economics” came into vogue and was put into practice. The idea was that if we cut taxes for the well-off, the additional amount they gain will “trickle down” to the middle and lower classes. But I always wondered how that could be. After all, I could only buy one car every few years, one boat, one house, etc., nothing like what hundreds, thousands or millions of people making less than me could do if they had the money. So how could the benefits that I and my fellow 10 percenters (alas, I’ve never made it into the top 1%) really make a difference in the prosperity of all. The answer as we can see from the data is that they couldn’t and haven’t.

Political forces on the right are quick to criticize programs that provide targeted job training, assistance to inner city residents and businesses, raising the minimum wage or any program that puts more money toward raising the lower class and taking away from the wealthy. Their answer is always to just lower taxes as the benefits will trick down for all. It’s been nearly 35 years since we’ve been practicing “trickle down” and we haven’t seen it trickle anywhere yet except to the top. In case you’ve forgotten Einstein’s oft quoted definition of insanity, it seems to fit here: “Insanity is doing something over and over again and expecting a different result.”

 Our Congress can’t seem to do anything constructive to pass sensible solutions and our President can’t persuade them to because one party thinks it’s its job is to undermine his term. And we go to the polls and re-elect the same clowns who can’t interpret the data, read the charts or come up with any compromise that might try something different to help. In 1811, a smart guy named Joseph de Maistre, wrote “Every country has the government it deserves.” We often think that quote was intended for our “exceptional” America. It was actually directed toward Russia, a country, then and now, of rich oligarchs separated from the lower classes by their profligate wealth. Sound familiar?

 

 

 

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The way slogans should be

Posted on May 15, 2014 by 1 Comment

WayLifeThere’s a great article today by Gail Collins in the NY Times (My State’s Prettier Than Yours) in which she tries to understand the promotional slogans of our 50 states.  Give up Gail.  It’s incomprehensible.  State and country slogans have always been a pet peeve of mine because they usually don’t relate to anything distinct or different about the state.  Collins gives plenty of examples.  They’re usually a result of the excesses of bad advertising agencies or over zealous economic development and tourism teams.

There’s a list of state slogans at Wikipedia (List of U.S. state slogans) and 105 country tourism slogans at a blog called Tourist vs. Traveller (105 tourism slogans from around the world) along with a nice little video to show them all with their logos (which a lot of tourism development folks think is a brand, but that’s another topic entirely).  Collins covers the states pretty well so I’ll focus on some of my favorite country slogans.

Did you know Albania is “A new Mediterranean love”?  And all this time, I thought it was a mysterious country that supplies pizza parlor chefs to New York restaurants.  Austria is “Arrive and revive”.  I’m sorry. I don’t know what that means, particularly since I’ll have jet lag for a day or two once I arrive.  Here’s one I like:  Belarus is “Hospitality beyond borders.”  Does that mean I have to leave the country for hospitality?  One of my favorites is Romania because I’ve been there twice:  “Explore the Carpathian garden.”  Now, I never saw the Carpathians on either of my trips (hint:  it’s a mountain range), but I suspect that slogan will mean a lot to the winner of any national geography bee.

You have to read the list yourself.  It’s full of surprises.  (Actually, I think that’s Connecticut’s slogan.)  You can travel from Pure Russia to 100% Pure New Zealand in a few lines.  (Maybe Russia only got to 90% so they didn’t want to tell us how pure they are.)  “Bolivia awaits you”, which is nice to know since I probably won’t make it there for a few years.  The “Dominican Republic has it all” so don’t confuse that with “Honduras, todo esta aqui.”  They have it all too but only in Spanish.  I also like “Paraguay, You have to feel it!”.  I’ve been there too and I suppose they’re talking about their vicious mosquitoes.

Τhe amazing thing about all of these slogans for states and countries (cities have them too; don’t get me started) is that they say absolutely nothing about the country, its culture and what makes it distinct and different.  Years ago, states had mottos or nicknames that said something about them and often appeared on auto license plates.  Alabama was “The Cotton State”, Florida was “The Everglade State”; Georgia – “The Peach State”; Hawaii – “The Aloha State”; Michigan – “Winter Water Wonderland” and so on.  Washington D.C. was “Nation’s Capital”, which tells me a lot and that no other state can say.  Now, it’s become “The American Experience”, which is ironic since it’s never been a place that Sarah Palin went looking for her “real Americans”.  As a child, I always loved the slogans on license plates and could recite a lot of them.  They told me something different about each state and I wanted to visit them all.  Now they all blend into a meaningless hodgepodge that I bet nobody but each state’s tourism employees can recite.  It’s bad for the state or country, self-aggrandizing and simply poor communication.

I used to live in Maine and often drive there for long weekends.  We have a house there and a car with Maine plates that says “Vacationland”.  I like that, although I also like that it’s been called “The Pine Tree State.”  Sure, there are pine trees in other states but drive into Maine and you’ll think there must be more of them there than anyplace else and it does give you a picture.  For many years, they had a slogan on a sign when you enter the state, “The way life should be.”  Yes, it’s another one of those silly slogans but I have to admit that as someone who lived there for 25 years, seeing that sign always made me feel like I was home.  It meant a way of life to me and I hoped for others visiting for the first time.

40937319A few years ago, they added another sign about a 100 feet further down the road that read, “Worth a visit, worth a lifetime”, which signaled to me that they hired a new ad agency that wanted to establish its own brand of creativity.  Then, a year or so ago, they plastered “Open for business” underneath “The way life should be.”  I suppose it’s nice that the state is trying but did anyone check to see that Forbes put Maine last in its best for business rankings?

OpenForBizAt its core, this is all about determining what a state or country’s marketing strategy is because slogans, if they have any purpose at all, should tell us why that place is worth our patronage for business, tourism or simply, aspirations. Anyone who pays attention to strategy knows that it must tell us why the product is both distinct and different from any other, and if that strategy is not true to what’s being delivered, it is totally meaningless.  Slogans, however, have become a tactic conjured up by advertising or public relations agencies without a thought to strategy and that’s why they are incomprehensible and instantly forgettable.

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The challenges of Christmas

Posted on December 20, 2013 by 2 Comments

Everybody knows Christmas can be a challenging time.  Gifts, parties, family, travel, decorations, cards all can present vexing problems to solve every year.  For me, an appropriate card is probably the toughest thing I face.  Every year, my friend George and I develop a cartoon to use as our card and it’s not easy.

You see on the side, we’re cartoonists or I should say a cartoon team.  George draws and I write except when he draws and write or I change his drawings with photoshop and write or he draws and his wife writes or my wife and kids make suggestions.  But however it’s done, we come up with a collaborative effort every year that goes on our website GigundoIndustries.com

No doubt you’ve heard of Gigundo Industries, the largest, non-existent, virtual company in the world.  If not, you better visit the website as soon as possible for there are hundreds of cartoons there for you to peruse and even buy.

In a way, creating cartoons is similar to writing strategy.  You take a complex set of facts and distill them down into something simple that cuts through the clutter.  Only with cartoons, you place that simple statement in an unusual setting such as a psychiatrist’s office, caveman times, a prison, the North Pole or Santa’s workshop.

There was so much news this year that was fodder for our a year-end card.  Off course, most prominent and recent in our minds was the malfunctioning of healthcare.gov and that led to an idea that really didn’t require any drawing at all.

ChristmasGov

But we quickly nixed that idea because who could possibly make jokes about their government failing at something, let alone Santa?  I mean nobody wants the government to fail. Right? Yeah, right.

So then we moved on to the saga and embarrassment of Edward Snowden and the NSA snooping and came up with this:

Snow_Done

But not exactly an uplifting story and we were looking for something more upbeat.  So we moved on to a couple of positive stories.  First, the extraordinary first-ever resignation of a Pope got us wondering if that could ever happen to Santa.

Dual Santas

Then came the idea that the battle for gay marriage might even have reached the North Pole.  (No, this is not for you people at Fox News who think gay marriage may as well allow us to marry a goat.  Who’d marry a goat anyway?)

Bucks

We just weren’t satisfied yet and then read the news that “Selfie” was the word of the year and would enter the Mirriam-Webster Dictionary.  Santa can get in on that too.

Selfie

Finally, we hit upon it, an idea that would really take us into the future but have that bit of mixed message that might cause us to wonder whether things are as they should be.  2013 also became the year of the drone, for both reasons that frighten us and, thanks to Amazon.com, frighten us.  Just think if Santa employed some new technology.

Amazon

That’s our holiday collection for 2013.  They’ll all go up on our site at GigundoIndustries.com soon.  Let me know which you like best.  Now, it’s back to my day job.  Everyone at Futureshift and GigundoIndustries.com wishes you the best of Christmas holidays and a great 2014.

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The problems with Big Data and how DirectLink™ solves them

Posted on April 17, 2013 by Leave a comment

FutureShift is a data-driven strategic and brand planning company, which uses its proprietary software to develop databases and customer feedback that enables direct communication to any user defined segment.  

If you’re like most people in business today, you’re probably talking about “Big Data” and what it can do for you.  One can hardly scan the business section of any newspaper or magazine without reading about it.

On April 15th NY Times, columnist David Brooks wrote an excellent article about the limits of Big Data.  It’s titled, “What You’ll Do Next”. It was of interest to me because we offer large-scale, qualitative customer intelligence to our clients with the ability to instantaneously email people who share a distinct set of differences.

Let me explain because it’s really quite simple.

The purpose of research or recording data (quantitative or qualitative) is not to tell you what people have in common but what drives them apart.  If in your marketing, you find the common denominator between all your customers and then deliver them a message that addresses that commonality, you’re actually speaking to no one.  You haven’t addressed any particular interest that anybody has that might indicate that you understand their specific needs.

This is why we use (or build) your database to tell you how your customers are different from each other and how they want that difference to be addressed.  As Brooks points out, “People are discontinuous…the passing of time can produce gigantic and unpredictable changes in taste and behavior, changes that are poorly anticipated by looking at patterns of data on what just happened.” Nothing could be truer in marketing today.

One of the problems with Big Data is that it is essentially a rear-view mirror. It looks for past patterns of preferences based on purchases or contacts and assumes their patterns will tell you how they will act in the future.  Brooks quotes the Viktor Mayer-Schönberger and Kenneth Cukier book, “Big Data,” noting “this movement asks us to move from causation to correlation.” But he writes, “Correlations are actually not all that clear.  A zillion things can correlate with each other depending on how you structure the data and what you compare.”

We’ve all probably experienced this when buying products ranging from books to vacuum cleaners from Amazon.  You’ve surely seen, their notations that people who bought these books, also bought these.  What they’re doing is simply taking your history of book buying, comparing it to others with similar lists and laying what those people bought next onto your page.  In other words, past history from people like you equals future purchase probability and with enough purchase data, there may be some accuracy in that prediction.  However, Amazon can’t know that last week I had no interest in buying books about terrorism and this week, sadly due to the events in Boston, I do.  Until I make my purchase, but then all kinds of things can intercede with my buying decision.  There are just too many potential disruptions to patterns of purchases to be good predictor of future behavior.

We’ve created a forward-looking mirror called DirectLink™ We ask your customers “what if” and “why” questions.  We capture their words and then quantify their ideas, perceptions and motivations.  Then, we give you the ability to instantly segment them and download the email addresses of any segment you select.

With DirectLink™, you can immediately see what differentiates your customers, the words they use to describe their differences and their emails so you can you respond specifically to their unmet needs.  Most purchases are motivated by either frustrations or the need to fulfill unmet needs.  Big Data doesn’t engage customers to determine their frustrations or needs.  DirectLink™ does. In doing so, you are directly engaging your customers to increase loyalty and ultimately, sales.

Learn how Futureshift would approach your marketing challenge or arrange for an online demo of DirectLink™  by calling 212-444-7192/7193 or email strategy@futureshiftnow.com

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Dancing on Michael Porter’s grave

Posted on January 15, 2013 by 3 Comments

No, Michael Porter is not dead.  Only the consulting firm that he co-founded in 1983 is gone.  Today, the global accounting giant, Deloitte, announced that it had completed its acquisition of Monitor, which had filed for bankruptcy this past November.  As reported in The Economist last November 14th, the once proud firm, was able to compete with the likes of much bigger McKinsey, the Boston Consulting Group and Bain.”

No mention was made in the announcement of what role Porter might play in the newly formed division of Deloitte but he remains a highly regarded professor at the Harvard Business School.

Businesses come and go all the time and acquisitions are a daily occurrence.  What is of note here is that Monitor was founded by a man acclaimed as one of the great business strategists of the past century, and more importantly by his principles, best known as “Porter’s Five Forces”.  Under the guidance of the Five Forces framework and Porter’s fame, Monitor’s legions of consultants found millions of dollars of billable work among foreign governments, multi-national corporations and commodity boards.  That work began to dwindle in 2008 when Monitor had to seek a series of loans from its partners and venture capital firms in order to stay afloat.

In the November issue of Forbes, contributor and business author, Steve Denning, uses his rapier-like writing skills to tear apart both Monitor and the philosophical approach behind it.  In other words, he does some dancing on Porter’s grave.  While the article is now two months old, it makes for compelling reading if you were a believer or doubter of Porter’s framework.  Put me in the latter camp.

I first read Porter’s seminal article in the Harvard Business Review, “How Competitive Forces Shape Strategy” in 1979. I was one year out of business school and a loan officer in a commercial bank.  My mantra was a phrase coined by another business guru, Peter Drucker, and known as “Managing by walking around.”  The idea is that by engaging with people both inside and outside an organization, managers can best understand how their companies, products and management styles are perceived, how they perform and what to do about them.  That’s a simple concept that one could explain in an elevator between the first and second floors.

It served me well then and has since as I’ve made the practice of engaging with both internal and external audiences to find the intersection between internal capabilities and external needs as the place to find the sweet spot for successful strategy.

Porter’s Five Forces, on the other hand, require a much longer elevator ride. The idea is that by managing a framework of five market forces, a company or industry could find sustainable competitive advantage.  “The state of competition in an industry depends on five basic forces…The collective strength of these forces determines the ultimate profit potential of an industry.”


I can’t say I fully understood it in 1979 and I can pretty much say the same today.  I looked at the model then as I do now and ask, “Why is the competition at the center?  Why not the customer?” Drucker taught that the only valid purpose of a business is to create a customer.  Yet, here was Porter, saying that it’s all about dominating the competition.

I had a memorable meeting at Monitor’s Cambridge headquarters in the early nineties.  At the time, I was doing some consulting for the government of Chile on export promotion, inbound investment and tourism development.  Monitor had built up a practice in consulting in these areas and proposed a partnership.  I felt this might add some prestige to the project.  At our meeting, one of their senior consultants explained how they would apply the discipline of the Five Forces to the project.  He drew lots of squares and circles on the board labeling them various types of competitive clusters and argued that it was winning against competing countries, not customer perceptions that would win the day for Chile.

I left there confused and unconvinced that the focus should be on “competitive clusters” rather than matching what Chile offered with customer needs.  If you spend your time focusing on rivalries, you’re losing time creating more innovation to meet growing market demands and before you know it, your competition will be your problem.  As the famous baseball pitcher, Satchel Paige, said,  “Don’t look back.  Something might be gaining on you.”

As Steve Denning notes about Monitor, “Its consultants were not people with deep experience in understanding what customers might want or what is involved in actually making things or delivering services in particular industries or how to innovate and create new value.”

Today, factors such as globalization, the Internet, and the growth of social media have heightened the importance of building strategy around customers.  Now that the world is flat, customers decide who wins in every industry and political arena.  As Denning ends his article, “Monitor was crushed by the single dominant force in today’s marketplace:  the customer.”

It’s hard to argue against the man who is one of the most cited scholars in economics and business and whose ideas are widely used by business and government leaders around the world.  But we are in a different time where the key is satisfying customer needs for innovation, whether they be in features, quality, service, or value.  Companies like Apple, Amazon, Fresh Direct, and Kayak are just a few of the examples of how our flattened world has given power to customers.

Our consulting approach is to put customers at the center and to understand their frustrations.  After all, a frustration is simply an unmet need.  Find the innovation to serve that need, erase the frustration and you’ll find a successful business — that’s a short speech in any elevator.

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Chief Little Turtle and the Second Amendment

Posted on January 4, 2013 by 1 Comment

I recently ran my “Should we politicize tragedy post?” on a University of Michigan alumni discussion group on Linkedin.  There were a lot of interesting and reasonable comments but overall, I was stunned by the vitriol that came my way from people who believe we are one step away from Nazi Germany and the Soviet Union – and yes, the two were mentioned in the same angry post without any sense of irony.  There also were stern lectures from many who absolutely, positively knew what the framers of the constitution had in mind, even though that was 223 years ago.

A lot of these people would like to think that the authors of the second amendment were wise, prescient men looking far into the future and recognizing that there could be a need for armed insurrection against tyrannical (perhaps even Socialist or Fascist – take your pick) governments, that would require assault weapons for every man, woman and child in America. You may need to read that again to fully absorb that.  Those people are out there, sure of themselves and if you’re one of them reading my blog, you may wonder where you took the wrong turn.

What seems to make sense to me is that times then were not a lot different than they are now in one respect. People often did things for their own interests and to serve the needs of the present day or in the case of the second amendment to organize the U.S. military and defeat Indian tribes who were preventing us from acting like most colonial powers (defeating the natives, occupying lands and annexing territory, i.e. our history). I know that’s anathema to all the faux Constitutional scholars and volunteer armed guards out there who lectured me but to others, you might take a look at this essay written by my friend, Eric George, after doing some historical research.  As with the title of this post, it’s called, “Chief Little Turtle and the Second Amendment”.

“During the American Revolution there emerged a great Native American military leader.  His name was Michikinikwa in the Miami-Illinois language; the closest English translation was Little Turtle.  Born into the Miami Tribe in what is now Illinois, he came of age fighting French troops allied with the Continentals in the Northwest Territories (present day Ohio and Indiana).  In 1780, General Augustin La Balme, after a successful raid against the British, made the grievous mistake of burning down a Miami village.   Little Turtle tracked down La Balme and killed him, along with many of his men.  He was by now a War Chief; he proved invincible in battle and his stature rose dramatically over the ensuing decade.

After the British ceded the homelands of their Native American allies to the United States at the Treaty of Paris in 1783, Little Turtle responded by forming a new Confederation of his own.  He allied the Miami with the Shawnee under Blue Jacket and the Delaware under the command of Buckongahela.  Their resultant victories against U.S. militias (the Continental Army having been largely disbanded after the Revolution) helped to expand their Federation to include the Ottawa, Wyandotto and even some of the fearsome Iroquois.

After the Confederation defeated the 1400-man force of General Josiah Harmar in October of 1790, a thoroughly irate President George Washington had had enough He ordered General Arthur St. Clair to march against Little Turtle with a combined force of former army, conscripts, and militia numbering over 2,000 men, to begin by the summer of 1791.  The ill-equipped force did not leave Fort Washington (think Cincinnati) until October.  By early November, fewer than 1000 troops remained due to desertion and disease when they camped deep in Miami territory. The result was as predictable as it was disastrous.  Confederation warriors surrounded St. Clair’s loosely guarded encampment under the cover of darkness and slaughtered over 600 men (and probably another 200 camp followers) at first light. Nearly all survivors were wounded.   By comparison, the Colonies had lost 88 men at the Siege of Yorktown, the last major battle of the Revolutionary War.  St. Clair’s defeat stands as the worst loss of life by U.S. forces in all the Indian wars.  The casualty rate, in percentage terms, remains unsurpassed by any other conflict in any war to this day.  In a matter of hours, the Western Confederacy had annihilated one quarter of what remained of the U.S. Army. The staggering loss of life generated both public fear and outrage; George Washington fired St. Clair and the first-ever Congressional investigation into the Executive Branch was initiated.

It was no small wonder that scarcely a month later, on December 15, Congress adopted the Second Amendment to the U.S. Constitution.  The Amendment read:

“A well regulated militia being necessary to the security of a free State, the right of the people to keep and bear arms shall not be infringed”

At the time, the right to bear arms was a given, as was the existence of now extinct militias.  Probably the most important words in the above Amendment, at least in 1791, were “well regulated” for Little Turtle had conclusively proved the new Nation utterly lacking in that department.

By word and deed, the Second Amendment was effective.  Five months later, in May 1792, Congress passed the Militia Act, setting minimum standards of readiness.  Among these were “a good musket, a sufficient bayonet, two spare flints, a knapsack, and a pouch containing at least 24 cartridges.”  In other words, just showing up was no longer acceptable.

In the summer of 1794, the Legion of the United States, well equipped and better trained, defeated the Western Confederacy at the Battle of Fallen Timbers, near present day Toledo, Ohio.  Casualties were modest on both sides.  Little Turtle eventually became a peacemaker; he finally met with Washington, and later on with John Adams and Thomas Jefferson.  He died in 1812, and was honored with a full military funeral.

The young nation that finally defeated him would clearly be unrecognizable to him today.  It has grown to have dozens of cities with more inhabitants than most of the original States in their entirety.  Its economy has become the world’s largest, an innovation engine for the entire planet.  The venerable militias have long since been replaced by State and local police forces, and a professional military that rules the land, sea and air.  The United States has become the most powerful Nation on earth. Its citizens now have little to fear, except each other.  For the Second Amendment that was written in large part to defeat Little Turtle and his Confederacy has now enshrined the use of a different sort of musket by our populace.

Weapons with a destructive force that our Founders could not have envisioned are now ubiquitous in America. With roughly nine guns for every ten civilians, the U.S. dwarfs all other nations in per capita gun ownership, with the possible exception of Yemen.  To the astonishment of the developed world, we trade assault rifles and semiautomatic handguns freely in unregulated markets. Our firearm related death rate last year was forty times that of our Founders’ old adversary, Great Britain.  Mass killings have become commonplace.   In the world’s most wealthy and powerful country, parents are now afraid to send their children to school.  Chief Little Turtle won a far greater victory over the White Man than he ever imagined.”

It’s a nice story that our Constitutional authors sat around pondering the future and how we might need to overthrow our government but the reality is that we had just finished overthrowing Great Britain, were bogged down fighting Indian Wars and dealing with the spectre of other adventurous European military forces.  Rather than think about how these men saw the future, we might ask what motivated them in the days in which they lived.  So, thank you Eric for this essay.  I enjoyed it and hope it gets some comments but please, save the vitriol for other venues.

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Should we politicize tragedy?

Posted on December 16, 2012 by 3 Comments

After Friday’s mass killing of 20 young children, ages 6 and 7, which follows so many other mass killings in recent years, it’s time we all read and thought about the 2nd amendment to the Contstitution upon which this nation is founded.  The amendment calls for:

“A well regulated Militia, being necessary to the security of a free State, the right of the people to keep and bear Arms, shall not be infringed.”

Keep in mind that this amendment was written and adopted in 1791.  George Washington was still in his first term as president then.  It had only been eight years since the end of the American Revolution, although we were in the midst of the Northwest Indian War, taking place in what today, we know as the Industrial Midwest – Ohio, Michigan, Wisconsin, etc.  Vermont had recently become the 14th state.

To say the United States was a very different place than it is today is an enormous understatement.  The country’s population then was a little more than 4 million, nearly 1/80th of what it is today.  The inventions of the American Industrial Revolution were still 40 years away.  The Colt 45 Revolver wasn’t invented and didn’t see use for another 80 years.  The firearm of choice in 1791 was a single-shot muzzle loaded rifle.

While we can certainly say that the framers of the Constitution were wise and prescient men, it would be fantasy to think that they envisioned a world where anyone on the street could buy an automatic or semi-automatic gun with incredible firepower and large self-loading magazines…and that’s where we are today.

We have an amendment to our Constitution that has been sanctified as a bedrock right for any responsible or irresponsible person regardless of their intent to carry a gun of virtually any type on the street, into schools or even places of worship.

Now in 1791, it’s likely that you could carry your rifle with you almost anywhere you went.  Of course, then you might need it to scare off an attacking bear, bring home dinner or keep your scalp if in the midst of a territorial Indian war.  There was also the need to assure the populace that a militia could be formed at any time to ward of an attacking nation or people.  Today, we have what is known as armed forces and police to handle that responsibility.

Hunting, of course, is an American tradition and virtually all hunters, the possible exception being former Vice President Cheney, are well-trained and responsible gun owners.

So why the need for weapons that can so easily kill dozens of people in only a few seconds?  Why is this right so sacrosanct in the United States today?  The chief lord and high protector of gun-of-any-type ownership rights is the National Rifle Association, popularly known as the NRA.  Their website is nra.org.  You should visit it so you’re familiar with the people that are protecting our Constitution and intimidating our politicians.

One section of the NRA website is called “NRA Opponents”.  Here’s who is listed there:

  • Animal rights activists
  • Anti-gun politicos
  • Brady campaign (instituting background checks for gun ownership)
  • Clinton gun ban (and more specifically, anyone with the name “Clinton”)
  • International Action Network on Small Arms (a global movement against gun violence)
  • Mayors Against Illegal Guns (with a photo of New York mayor Michael Bloomberg to symbolize the arch-villain)
  • Obama Administration (you can guess which Marxist-Leninist, Kenyan-born traitor is pictured there)

The NRA has 4.3 million members and revenues of $205 million.  Yet, with this relatively small membership and revenue base, it has intimidated politicians of both political parties into subservience and fear of even having a discussion about gun ownership rights and laws to regulate them.  It has become an efficient political machine and advocate of gun ownership.  Today, there are more guns in the U.S. than there are people.  One-third of them are hand-guns and it’s estimated that another 20% are semi-automatic firearms.

It’s often said that we get the government and country we deserve.  If we tune out of politics and get politicians that create laws we don’t like, then we shouldn’t elect them.  I can accept that.  But I can’t accept that anybody deserves to be shot or have their loved ones shot and killed and nor should any civilized society allow this.

The NRA and its defenders who want to forestall any discussion about guns have already been saying we shouldn’t politicize this tragedy.  That’s exactly what we should do.  Even today, the 31 senators who are strong supporters of no restrictions on gun ownership refused to go on any of the Sunday morning talk shows.  Not a single one of them had the courage to stand up for their heinous beliefs.  This tragedy and others like it should cause us to take a stand like so many tragedies of the past.  Which side of the fence are you are on?  Are you for semi-automatic gun ownership or against it?  Are you for background checks and waiting periods or against them?  Are you for mass murders or against them?  These are not difficult questions to answer.

As perverse as it may sound, I’ve come to believe that these acts of murder are what the NRA wants, that they are anarchists at heart and their depravity guides them to thinking more murders equals more guns equals more support for their other political goals.  Does that sound extreme?  Maybe, but it’s less extreme than holding up rights for any clown to own weapons that can used to kill young children who only want to enjoy their school day.

Of course, we can do the usual and express our views to our friends and families and we can grieve with the victims who have lost their loved ones.  However, nothing happens in this country unless the majority speaks up and pressures their elected officials, the cowards that most of them are, to act and to do so now, to stop equivocating, to end their “cautious calls for action” and to do something real to end these horrid acts now.  So write, call and email your Congressional representatives and your town officials today.  Don’t straddle the fence or advise caution.  Get angry, politicize and demand action today.

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Over the fiscal cliff

Posted on November 12, 2012 by Leave a comment

Years ago, I saw a cartoon in the New Yorker called what lemmings believe.  It showed hundreds of lemmings charging off a cliff but instead of going down to their death, they were flying up to the sky.  Why else would they be so sure of themselves?

Being a part-time cartoonist (see GigundoIndustries.com), I thought of this cartoon the other day when reading about “the fiscal cliff” and the debate about whether going over it will harm the economy or is sure death…or perhaps, is the only sensible thing to do.  I spoke to my illustrator partner at our cartoon conglomerate and the following cartoon was the result:

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Political Myopia: Piercing through the nonsense and casting your vote

Posted on October 22, 2012 by 2 Comments

It’s “silly season” – so sayeth the politicians.  It’s time to throw every piece of mud at the opposition simply because a lot of people will believe it.  Fox, MSNBC, pundits who claim to know everything but in reality know nothing, and thousands of horrid political ads – it’s all a lot of noise that provides no reliable indicators on which is the best way to vote.

Can we look at some of the realities of the situation and some of the facts?

REALITIES:

  • Romney:
    • We don’t know what Romney would or would not do. Unfortunately, he’s changed positions so many times, it’s hard to figure whether he’s conservative or moderate.  The “etch a sketch” metaphor has been mentioned and fair or not, it was created by his own campaign manager.
    • Yes, he did a great job with the Olympics.  He had support and money from the government that he says isn’t working.  It’s unclear how he did as governor of Massachusetts but one would think that if he did a great job, he’d easily win the state this time.  Polls show he’s 15 points down.  You want to tell me that’s meaningless?  Please explain.
    • The only thing Romney has been consistent about is that he is a social conservative.  He’s supported the idea of overturning Roe v. Wade, favors DOMA and won’t take a position on the Lily Ledbetter Act.  If that’s what you want and you’re okay with his other murkiness, you should vote for him.
  • Obama:
    • Four years ago, we were headed toward a full-on depression.  We’re not now.
    • Corporate profits had risen more than with any other president.
    • The stock market has risen 14.7% a year under Obama.
    • Housing values had fallen one-third on average at the end of the Bush administration.  They’re rising again and have recovered much of the loss.

Now that we’re here, who can take us further?

FACTS:

  • The U.S. economy has done better with Democratic presidents than with Republicans.
  • Personal disposable income has grown nearly 6 times more under Democratic presidents.
  • Gross Domestic Product (GDP) has grown 7 times more under Democratic presidents.
  • Corporate profits have grown over 16% more per year under Democratic presidents (they actually declined under Republicans by an average of 4.53%/year).
  • Average annual compound return on the stock market has been 18 times greater under Democratic presidents (If you invested $100k for 40 years of Republican administrations you had $126k at the end, if you invested $100k for 40 years of Democrat administrations you had $3.9M at the end).
  • Republican presidents added 2.5 times more to the national debt than Democratic presidents.
  • The two times the economy steered into the ditch (Great Depression and Great Recession) were during Republican, laissez faire administrations.

Don’t believe me?  Why not read the self-proclaimed “Capitalist Tool”?  The above facts can be found all over the Internet but click here to read this article from Forbes magazine.

Investment managers always point out that there’s no guarantee that past performance is an indicator of the future but given the choice between uncertainty and past negative performance versus a record and past positive performance, logic should say to select the latter.  But when did logic and facts determine a U.S. presidential election?

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2 contrasting days in America

Posted on October 13, 2012 by Leave a comment

It has been several days now that we watched the Vice Presidential debate and have been subjected to a discussion that’s more about whose demeanor and facial expressions have been better than about their policies.

Depending on from which side you see things, President Obama has either brought the economy back to a place where it can now recover or he’s brought us to a Leninist-Marxist precipice.  Governor Romney is either the biggest liar that has ever run for president or he is just the man we need to help America get back to its revolutionary roots.  It’s that extreme and it’s that myopic.  We’re losing sight of the big picture.

Yesterday, I attended the annual shareholders’ conference for The Baron Funds, a group of mutual funds led by Ron Baron who believes that it’s the quality of people who make great companies and that investing in them is a long-term bet on America.  The event is held each year at New York’s magnificent Lincoln Center. 4,000 shareholders attended.

During the morning, you get to listen to presentations from CEO’s of companies the funds have invested in.  Then at lunch, various entertainers perform in one of the many auditoriums at the Center.  Yesterday, the choices were British rock singer Joss Stone, Broadway star Kristin Chenowith, or jazz stylist Harry Connick Jr.  After returning from lunch, the senior analysts from each of the Baron Funds engages in a panel discussion about the past year’s performance and how they pick stocks.  When this ends, there’s a musical performance from a big name headliner.  In the past, it has been people like Rod Stewart, Bon Jovi, Elton John and others who you’d pay a lot of money to see elsewhere.  Yesterday, the headliner was Celine Dion – more on Celine later.

I don’t know if Ron Baron chose the CEO’s who made their morning presentations to make a point about the country’s economic stewardship.  I want to believe he did.  Here’s a brief encapsulation:

  • David Rubenstein, Co-Founder & Co-CEO of The Carlyle Group showed a different set of values for private equity firms than we’ve seen during the past year from Governor Romney’s turn at Bain.  From its start in 1987, Carlyle now manages $160 billion in investments with the goal of supporting good companies that create jobs and prosper for their shareholders AND employees.  For all his success, Rubenstein exhibited an amazing self-deprecating sense of humor and stressed the importance of giving back to America.  He has put his money where his mouth is by joining Warren Buffet in giving his fortune away.  What came across more than anything is that good values build great companies.  By the way, he said he has no problem with the regulations imposed by Dodd-Frank, which some politicians want to remove.
  • Steven Spinner, CEO of United Natural Foods was a little more meat and potatoes in his presentation…well actually, more tofu and bulghur… but he expressed a need to be more conscious about our environment and both the chemicals we put into our environment and our bodies.  The company is now the largest distributor in the U.S. and Canada of natural and organic foods and has become a $4.5 billion company with 65,000 sku’s and 23,000 customers.  Healthy foods raise our awareness of our environment and build successful businesses – quite a contrast to the right wing preaching that the government (and in particular, Michelle Obama) is trying to force feed us healthy foods we don’t like.
  • Robert Katz, CEO of Vail Resorts showed how a sizable business ($1 billion +) dependent on nature can prosper when it focuses both on good environmental stewardship and helping people enjoy all the recreational possibilities that enables.  What’s interesting is that they don’t own the land their resorts sit on.  They lease it from the National Forest Service, and have to work with the Service to show they are deserving of both permits and leases – a great example of how government helps improve our lives, supports business and is worth the investment we all make in it.
  • Frank Coyne, CEO of Verisk Analytics is all about Big Data.  This company dominates the insurance risk assessment business.  I have no idea of his political leanings (or most of the others for that matter) but he’s a former Marine who grew up in a lower middle class family from Scranton, PA.  There was not a trace of ego in his presentation.  He is clearly an American success story who rose from the middle – no trickle down there.
  • Kevin Plank, Founder and CEO of Under Armour, a $2 billion company that began in his basement in 1996, told an amazing story of how his experience as a college football player took him on a search to find better performance athletic clothing.  He displayed optimism, competitiveness and personal charm in telling his success story.  There was not a hint of dismay in his approach to the future.
  • Rich Barton, Co-Founder & Executive Chairman of Zillow, Inc. was the moderator of the analysts’ presentation so he wasn’t really focused on his or his company’s story.  However, he founded both online travel giant, Expedia, and Zillow, an online real estate search site.  He’s another American success story who displayed extraordinary optimism.

The last presentation of the day came from Ron Baron, CEO of Baron Capital Group.  Baron founded the funds in 1982.  Today his enormous success has made him a billionaire.  I’ve never met the man but in every conference I’ve attended, he always stresses his middle-class roots in New Jersey, his optimism about American business and his belief in America.  He doesn’t hesitate to mix patriotism into business.  As in past years, Broadway star Kelly O’Hara came out to sing America The Beautiful as everyone sang along.  This year, there was an additional treat of Kristin Chenowith singing the national anthem.  She raised the roof and 4,000 hearts with it.  (That girl has pipes!)

Baron gave his outlook on the economy, the stock market and reminded us why a long-term investment philosophy in good people who build great companies pays off .  He praised Federal Reserve Bank Chairman, Ben Bernanke for his stewardship of the economy to a smattering of applause.  He showed how the stock market has climbed 60% since the days of doom and gloom four years ago to wild cheers.

Then, came the part that left me stunned.  He noted that we’re soon to have an election between President Barack Obama — maybe 20% of the audience applauded — and Mitt Romney to loud, enthusiastic applause that drowned out anything that had preceded it.  It left me wondering whether anybody had been paying attention all day.  The contrast to private equity investing with the Romney approach from David Rubenstein ‘s Carlyle Group couldn’t have been clearer.  Protection of our food sources and environment have helped businesses succeed, not fail due to over-bearing government regulation.  The economy never fell off the cliff.  Businesses and the stock market prospered and now they’re cheering for an uncertain change that promises to strip away a lot of the government support and regulation that has contributed to both success and fairness?  I don’t get it.

I grew up in a family that was firmly Democratic, although I believe I am more fiscally conservative than my parents.  While I live in New York, I continue to vote in Maine where I still own property.  There, like many Mainers, I’ve settled into a mode of independence, voting for moderate Republicans like Bill Cohen and Olympia Snowe, independents like Angus King and Democrats like George Mitchell.  The contrasts to me this year couldn’t be clearer.  While I’ve lost some of my love for President Obama, I think he provides a healthier direction for America.  We have serious problems to fix but I don’t believe those will come from cutting everything except defense and frankly, I have a problem with disingenuousness.  Neither party can claim sainthood in this regard but I saw Romney claim himself as “severely conservative”, heard his campaign manager say they could just take out the “etch a sketch” and remodel him once the Republican nomination was secure and now he’s transformed himself into a moderate.  It reminds me of that famous Lincoln quote:  “You can fool some of the people all of the time, and all of the people some of the time but you can’t fool all of the people all of the time.”

In the end, just like Ron Baron says and practices, it’s about people and their values.  Not only do good people build great companies but they also build great countries.  I left the conference a little dismayed at the shareholders’ reaction to the election but still optimistic about the long-term.  To that, I can thank Ron Baron for this annual event.

This brings me to Celine Dion.  I’m not a fan and never have been.  She’s too kitschy for me.  Yes, she’s talented and a professional song stylist who’s benefited from great writers but in one song, Kristin Chenowith blew her away.   After all the great rock stars I’ve seen at this event, I was surprised at her appearance.  “Las Vegas East”, Ron Baron called it.  It certainly was.  Her big band, violins, lots of costume changes and a self-aggrandizing video were all on display.  Like so many other successes — only in America.

I thought of staying for a few songs and then leaving but then I thought of my daughter.  She’s a fledgling comedy writer in LA and she loves Celine.  She’s dreamed of going to Las Vegas to see her and has even asked me to foot the bill for the $250 ticket.  You can imagine how far that went.  But as Celine came on, I texted her knowing that she would be excited.  It was only the texting banter between us that kept me there for the duration.

Here it is:

So the afternoon entertainment is Celine.

SHUT UP!

Here she is:


You are breaking my heart.

HOW IS IT THAT YOU GET TO SEE CELINE DION PERFORM AND I NEVER HAVE?

Tell me everything!  WHAT IS SHE WEARING?  How many costome changes?  How many times is she fake crying?  AHHHHH

Is she amazing????  OF COURSE SHE IS!!!!

I guess because I own $30K of Baron Funds.  I wish you were here.  She’s too sappy for me.  I don’t know how long I can last.

OMG omggggggg!!!  Just revel in it.

Oh, here come all the big hits!  “I’m your lady” oooh la la

OMGgggg!!!!

Imagine her an alien from a special planet where the wind is always billowing her hair and dresses!

A lot of eyebrow action and the motions.  WAIT!  We have violins!  It’s a costume change!

AHHHHHHHH.  WHAT IS THE NEW COSTUME?

This is so unfair.

We’re waiting with bated breath.  Maybe she went out to pee.

Slinky, black and silver.


It’s cabaret time.

She’s magnificent!

I’ll record Titanic if she goes there.

OH SHE WILL AND YOU  BETTER.

She tucks her 3 little ones into bed and there’s video to prove it.

Stop it.

I think I’m going to throw up.

Me too.

It’s “Beauty & The Beast” time.

Oh, I love that one.  This is so unfair, it hurts.

I feel your pain.

It’s another costume change.

What will it be?  There’s James Bond music.

Ughhhhhhhhh

No, she just went to pee.  She’s singing “Goldfinger.”

A medley of 007 songs.  She’s got her fist in the air.  The audience is in a state of rapture.

Now, she’s patting her hip and swaying.  This Québécois lady knows how to have a good time.

She sure does.

This all sounds glorious!

A little piece of heaven.

I’ve run out of responses.

I’m just really jealous.

It’s “All by myself” now.  I know how she feels.  Carla left to go to a meeting.  So sad.

Double fist pounding on her chest.  Serious stuff.

Now, she’s singing “Spinning Wheel”.  Am I back in college?

Costume change!


This is amazing.  Never forget how amazing she is.

Elvis is in the building!

Here we go:  I’m sinking.  There’s an iceberg and the ship is going down.  I’m recording this.


It’s over.  I’m exhausted.

Holy crap!  Me too.

The Baron Funds Annual Conference is one of my favorite days of the year.  I am reminded of why I am in business and what I tell my clients through my consulting business.  I’m entertained in this incredible city and my belief in America is always restored.  This year, it also provided some fun with my daughter.  Is there anything better?

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