Friday, March 27, 2009

I want my retention bonus ... or else!

I’m trying to figure out this whole “retention bonus” thing that the corporate executives get in anticipation that they might leave for more money.

I’m thinking I might want to angle for my own retention bonus.

I begin teaching a 10-week course Tuesday. I’m thinking that about five weeks into the term, about the time I’ve made myself pretty much indispensable to the students' getting credit for the course, I’ll demand a “retention bonus.”

I’ll pass the hat around the classroom. "Your money or your class credit."

Why don't more folks demand retention bonuses? It seems like a no-brainer.

Why, for instance, don’t flight stewards come down the aisle collecting “retention bonuses” for pilots. The crew may have delivered you to 40,000 feet, but what if they decide they want a little extra to get you down — at least to where you want to go?

How about the plumber's demanding a retention bonus to finish the job? Without the bonus, the plumber could just walk away to another job that pays more.

Who's to say that those corporate executives are any more “indispensable” than the rest of us?

Think about brain surgeons in the middle of a job.

Or bridge builders.

Or soldiers.

Or bus drivers.

Hey, wait a minute, you say.

What about pride in one’s work? The satisfaction from a job well done?

Customer or company loyalty? Commitment to one's students, patients, passengers, nation?

Those are all so NOT what's happening. I mean, aren’t we really all in it for the money?

Today, commitment, loyalty, perseverance now come with a price — the retention bonus.

In the case of the executives, the bonuses are hundreds of thousands, even millions of dollars — and they apparently don't even have to ask for the extra money. It's just assumed to be part of the deal. Give 'em the bonuses — or expect to pay the consequences.

Then there's the curious metaphor "golden handcuff," which is what "compensation consultants" (another timely topic) call really big retention bonuses. The handcuff image begs deconstruction—starting with the question: Is a handcuff, even a "golden" one, ever anything more than a handcuff?


In the spirit of the subject, I refuse to share any more thoughts about retention bonuses ... until I get one myself.

Sorry, but that’s the way things are.

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Wednesday, March 25, 2009

Top Hedge Hogs of 2008

Holy Madoff with it! Today's New York Times “Business Day” section showed the mug shots of the eight "top" hedge fund managers ranked by what they “made” in 2008.

For an accounting of their nine- and ten-digit "takes," go here. For an account of what they don't pay in taxes, go here.

The numbers, of course, boggle the mind. James Simons leads the list with $2.8 billion. That’s with a “b,” and if you write it out, it looks like this:


To put Mr. Simons' annual compensation in perspective, $2.8 billion is 56,000 times a salary of $50,000.

Think of it — one person whose compensation is that of 56,000 fellow human beings earning $50,000 each.

The $11.6 billion earned in 2008 by the top 25 hedgers is substantially more than the State of Oregon’s annual $7 billion general fund. What this coterie of cash churners paid themselves last year is nearly quadruple Oregon's annual contribution to all its K-12 schools.

Then there is the question of whether any of the top 25 actually did anything to “earn” their largess besides gamble with other people’s money.

Compare their real contribution and productivity to that of the worker who patches pavement, picks lettuce, teaches school, waits on tables, checks out groceries, manages a store, shingles roofs, nurses the ailing, polices the streets and repairs the plumbing.

I have a friend and former student who actually writes for a hedge fund newsletter. I invite him to enlighten me by responding to the following observation: By comparison to most American workers, hedge fund managers contribute zilch and should be paid accordingly.

UPDATE: Chris Clair, who is referred to in the above paragraph, works for the industry newsletter Hedge World. Chris has passed on a three-part response to this post. The first, with links to the second, starts HERE. The third part will be posted later Friday, April 3.

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Tuesday, March 24, 2009

Cat Diplomacy

Jacques Von Lunen, a former student of mine from PCC, has taken over the pet column in The Oregonian. Over coffee and croissant today, he shared that a whole new world is opening up to him. Covering the domestic animal kingdom is no small task. But for someone who once dreamt of being a vet, Jacques seems to have landed a dream job — at least as long at The Oregonian survives.

Part of his assignment is to contribute to the inevitable Oregonian “OregonLive” pet blog. While blogging, he’s discovered that the mere mention of the word “pit bull” is a reader magnet.

His weekly column appears in the paper on Tuesdays, and today’s topic immediately grabbed my attention. It is about getting a cat to accept new arrivals (nuisances, interlopers, intruders, mortal enemies) to its domain.

We have a cat, who now owns the house we once thought was ours. Occasionally I have wondered whether Izzy (seen above) might accept another cat. After reading Jacques' column, I’ve concluded that The Great One, who barely accepts me, would go ballistic if we tried to introduce him to a “new friend.”

But Jacques did offer some intriguing ways to try to get a well-established cat at least to consider allowing another cat — or dog, or baby — to enter its world.

As I read the advice, my mind wandered to diplomacy. I wondered whether Hillary Clinton might pick up a pointer or two from the column.

There are an awful lot of human beings out there who have trouble sharing real estate. They’ve been known to fight like, well, cats, to keep each other at bay — and, coincidentally to keep the arms industry thriving.

So take Jacques' suggestion that two strange cats initially should be placed on opposite sides of a closed door but let them eat near the door so they can hear each other munching away. That’s like putting human adversaries at opposite ends of the table. “Hey, he’s eating the same food; he can’t be all that bad. I wonder how he likes the shrimp cocktail?”

Then there’s the ploy of tying two cat toys at the ends of the same string and threading the sting under the door. The cats can both “play” with trying to pull the string away from the other without actually seeing the rival. In this scenario, the game’s the thing, not the rivalry.

Diplomats do this with agenda setting and preconditions. They never have to see each other during the give and take.

The suggestion that there be a “pheromone exchange” is a little hard to imagine. It entails rubbing a towel or sock over the cats’ faces and then putting one’s rubbed cloth in the other’s room. I suppose this is worth a try with humans. What if Shiites and Sunnis or Israelis and Palestinians took in each other’s laundry? At the very least it could lead to some serious cuts in defense spending.

The next suggestion is to open the door between the rooms but put up one of those protective, telescoping baby gates. I think the Pakistanis and the Indians have something like this along their borders. There’s a good deal of ritualized posturing, grunting and snarling, but nobody gets killed.

Finally comes the moment of truth when you put both animals in the same room. Jacques recommends keeping a squirt gun handy, just in case. With humans, squirt guns would be novel, but fire hoses, Mace or tear gas might work better.

Jacques adds that it’s also good to create an upbeat, good-times mood “with toys, treats and play.” With humans that might translate into bribes, beer and back rubs. Whatever.

Finally, he says, if none of this works “separate them again and start the process over.”

Patience is the order of the day. Think Ireland, Korea, the Holy Land, Pakistan and India.

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Monday, March 23, 2009

The Daily Us

Nicholas Kristof of the New York Times wrote a column ("The Daily Me") last Thursday advancing the thesis that as newspapers disappear, we will be on our own to pick and choose among news stories on the web.

He goes on to cite and agree with several studies that indicate we will choose to read only articles that re-enforce our biases. And we will ignore those that challenge our prejudices.

Kristof laments that the change will mean greater and greater polarization in a nation that can ill-afford it.

Perhaps, but for decades main-stream news media (newspapers, news magazines and TV) have provided us ideologically narrow choices. Rupert's choice and Gannett's and the New York Times', and CBS's and PBS's and The Oregonian's. With few exceptions (Bill Moyers, Ralph Nader and Ron Paul come to mind) mainstream American political discourse runs the gamut from "A" to "B."

By contrast, the Internet’s raging, howling cacophony give us a wild and refreshing range of political voices.

For 70 years, media myopia, extending in the narrow band from conservative Republican to liberal Democrat, has cramped our view of the world and our options.

The Internet has the potential to blow open awareness. Not just pushing out the boundaries on the political Left and Right, but lifting Up and pulling Down and exploring In and extending Out.

For example, I wonder whether the New Populism would have been amplified as it is being if it weren’t for the Internet and the millions of soapboxes that allowed the public to express its outrage over the AIG bonuses. Interestingly, that outrage has come from both Left and Right — and who knows where else.

Where’s the polarization? Where's "The Daily Me"?

What we have in the Internet is a Vox Populi. Not everyone may hear it, but it is always just a click away. And we can add our voices to it without paying a cent.

Before the Internet you had to go to some obscure storefront and purchase a screed to learn real alternatives. Now such opinion is free and on your desk top.

This is the stuff of pre-revolutionary pamphleteering that arose when owning a printing press was not limited to the wealthy. That widespread “power of the press” gave the American colonies the revolutionary “Common Sense” and hundreds of opinionated and, yes, biased pamphlets.

The Internet could fuel the equivalent to Thomas Paine’s persuasive prose, and before you know it we might be exposed to real choices. The economy might not be restored to its dependence on the old, destructive consumerist values; it might be fundamentally changed by a new set of values, as it desperately needs to be.

No, I don’t think the demise of tightly edited and narrowly circumscribed newspapers will give us “The Daily Me.”

I suspect it will give us “The Daily Us.” In fact it already has, and, unlike Kristof, I believe we are better for it.

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Sunday, March 22, 2009

"Ageless" is Shameless

The Oregonian tells us that we "honorary citizens" now have perfume to solve a problem we never knew we had.

According to a story in Saturday's edition, we reek of something more than wisdom. The purveyors of a smelly concoction called "Ageless” want us to believe we emit a senior stench.

To the creators of “Ageless” and their fear-mongering marketing managers, here’s a scent for you. It’s called "Shameless."

Its bottle is the shape of an accusatory finger.

“Ageless” sells for $120 a bottle. Such a deal.

The product and its advertising and PR campaigns are all examples of the common marketing ploy of making us afraid of ourselves (Too fat? Too thin? Too frizzy? Too old? Too uptight?) and then offering us overpriced products (prices inflated by PR/advertising) to allay the fake fears.

P.S. Shameful is The Oregonian story about “Ageless."

Headline: “Ah, the sweet smell of youth” Subhead: “Getting older stinks — literally. So here comes Ageless, a perfume that, olfactorily speaking, knocks a few years off”

Something smells all right, but it isn’t seniors. The story stinks. It perspires mightily trying to tie the perfume "solution" and some aging smell “problem” to science.

It’s a weak thread, as you will see if you read the story.

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