Wal-Mart Shows The Way

Wal-Mart doesn’t have enough bodies to restock the shelves (Bloomberg)

While the article is about the loss of business by Wal-Mart to other cost conscious retailers, that fragment caught my attention.  Further, Wal-Mart says the problem is not stock:

Our in stock levels are up significantly in the last few years, so the premise of this story, which is based on the comments of a handful of people, is inaccurate and not representative of what is happening in our stores across the country

So, if the stock is there, why is it not on the shelf? Especially with the unemployment rate at 7.7% (est), roughly 4.8 million people are looking for work. But Wal-Mart cannot find enough people to get stock on the shelves? I find this baffling. But only slightly.

Clearly there are a couple of factors at work, but I cannot exactly come to any conclusion which one is having the most impact. It could also be a combination of factors. Here are my thoughts. First, those looking for work are not looking for a minimum wage job.  They are professionals, with mortgages, student loans, and credit cards to pay off, much less be able to feed and clothe their families. Second, I am willing to be that if Wal-Mart is paying minimum wage, it is only just paying it. In those areas of the country without a stated minimum wage, they are paying much less.  Which makes it hard even for those willing to accept those jobs to make ends meet.  Third, they cannot find skilled workers. I have said this before, but there are a large percentage of the population that simply are not able to function in our modern society.  Either because of illiteracy, and in this case I mean being unable to either read, write, do basic math, or use basic tools like scanners and registers, or because of work status. Not all immigrants are illegal, but most human resource departments do not have the proper training for evaluating the documents that are needed to get a job, and thus they are turned down, rather than put the company at risk.

And yet the companies, including Wal-Mart, will not invest.  As stated further down in the article:

Adding five full-time employees to Wal-Mart’s (WMT) U.S. supercenters and discount stores would add about a half- percentage point to selling, general and administrative expenses…about $448 million a year.

Half a percentage point, which would be passed onto consumers who are barely able to pay the prices of these goods in the first place. Which really is the bottom line. If they raise their prices, people will not shop there, further increasing the flight. Or so the business logic goes. I do not buy it though.  I believe that most people would rather pay a little more for good quality goods, and good service, rather than the lowest price. I would argue that the chickens are coming home to roost.

Wal-Mart is discovering that lowest price is not the be all and end all of retail success. Sadly, this comes at a point when they have almost entirely crushed out of existence all of the potential alternatives. Leaving the shopping public with few, if any, alternatives.

Wake Up Congress, Time To Get To Work

While the political machinery is recovering from its collective hangover, the average American got up and went to work, and that buzzing they heard was the Congressional alarm clock. And this time they cannot afford to hit snooze any longer.

The media calls it the fiscal cliff, officially it is called Sequestration.  Most in DC are looking at it as the single largest layoff of federal contractors and employees in the history of the Federal Government. If Sequestration is not managed, it will do more to damage the American economy than the housing and banking fiascoes combined. Impacts are estimated to be as large as a billion dollars in lost revenues and millions of people unemployed.

Now I am not going to blow sunshine and flowers. The Federal government I broken, bloated, and needs some serious retooling, but wholesale, uncontrolled cuts are not the way to achieve this. In fact it has contributed to the sluggish recovery as companies that would have been hiring in October actually began laying people off because of the uncertainty caused by the lack of commitment, heck the lack of action by Congress on resolving this issue.

This all started, way back in early 2011 when the United States needed to raise its debt ceiling.  How and why they got to this stand-off is a long, tortuous road, but they got there, and the Congress, that group of power hungry politicians who never ran from a chance to avoid working while scoring political points, kicked the can down the road in a showdown over something they varnished with fiscal responsibility.  It was as far from it than you could get, and they did it in such a glorious fashion, you could hear the backslapping of congratulations all they way to Arlington.  Along came the Supercommittee, a non-solution to a non-solution and of course, they came up with no solution.  But there was no time to resolve this.  Congress was too busy trying to repeal the Affordable Care act (33 times, in fact) and trying to get re-elected, so yet again, they hit the proverbial snooze button and businesses, already nervous, started shaking like an addict in withdrawal. And their shaking has resulted in a the sloughing of a number of jobs on the fringes of the core, but there is less and less to slough and the time for serious cutting is drawing close.

The election is over.  It is now time for Congress to get back to work and fix the myriad of issues, outstanding decisions, and tasks that they have put off for far to long.  Call it a Lame Duck session if you will, but these last few months of this session of Congress will be the most important and most impactful in the history of the country.  Because if it is not, it will prove to the American people how little the Congress cares about them.  And given how low an opinion America has of Congress, that will not be a good thing.

Fiddling while Rome burns

The classic image of the Emperor Nero playing the fiddle while around him Rome burns has been used in everything from Bugs Bunny cartoons to various political campaigns.  But on the heels of lack luster economic reports indicating that retail sales are slumping as we go into back-to-school season, it would take only the most blind of individuals to wonder if Congress is the organization doing the fiddling.

As we roll into full on election season, it is easy to target the Office of the President as responsible for the poor economy.  After all, the Representatives are the ones bringing home the bacon, in theory, to their districts, while the President sits in Washington, fiddling with the economy.  Of course, anyone with a modicum of economic theory knows that this is absolutely not the case.

Gasoline prices are up.  That is normal during the summer driving season, but also because of additional sabre rattling in the Middle East, mainly in Iran, with additional pressures from speculators hoping to make a quick buck and processors who have sliced production capabilities.  All of this is not the fault of a single individual, but is the result of a complex market.  But it is something that Congress has a bit of control over.  Least of which is the massive incentives that the oil companies have been given for everything from tax credits for pretending to search for alternative energy solutions to tax credits for cleaning up their own messes.

Congress has been dragging their feet over several other issues this summer.  The biggest two are the extension of the Bush era tax cuts, and extending the Federal Highway funding.  The latter was passed at the last minute, but the uncertainty that it would be passed put a significant number of workers, and companies on edge.  Would you go out on a limb and hire someone if you were unsure the money you had been counting on was not approved?  The same is true with the tax cuts.  Congress is generating enough uncertainty over extending these cuts, that the average consumer is bogarting their limited funds.

Finally, a report out this morning should come as a cold splash of water in the face of even the most head-in-the-sand Representative.  The  Aerospace Industries Association has concluded a study that indicates, unless Congress gets off its collective ass, upwards of two million government contractors will be out of work if the cuts implemented as part of the debt ceiling debacle late last year and the failure of the Super Committee to come up with a realistic workaround.  This is an additional million over reports out of Lockheed Martin earlier this year.  And these are only the jobs lost at the primary level and does not include jobs lost as a result of the primary level not spending money.  If retail sales are down now, can you imagine how back Christmas will be if Congress does not act?

When you go to the polls in November, and cast your vote for President and Congressional representative, think hard about the damage that Congress has been doing to the economy over the last four years.  From the failure to reach a consensus on cuts needed to avoid the loss of jobs, to the give aways to companies that are securing record profits, these are issues that only the Congress can deal with.  The President is little more than a figurehead in all of this.

On Insanity

Yesterday, the House of Representatives voted for the 33 time to repeal the Affordable Care Act.  (If the Republicans call the ACA Obamacare, do they call the Massachusetts law it was based on Mittmanagement?  Nah…it was outsourced…).  There is an old saw that says the definition of insanity is doing the same thing over and over again and expecting a different outcome.  Well, no one ever said our representatives were sane…

I can understand why the Party of No wants to repeal the law. They feel that health care is a privilege, not a right, and therefore it should only be available to those that can afford the privilege and as for the rest, it is natural selection…er…the creator’s choice.  Fair enough, but how do you feel about fraud, waste, and abuse?

Have I got your attention yet?  I am serious.  If the vote to repeal the ACA only took 10 minutes, from introduction to total count of votes, that means Congress has wasted 330 minutes of time.  That translates to five and a half hours of Congressional time, essentially one complete day.  And they do not work that many days to begin with.  But let me put it in more economic terms.  Each member of Congress, House and Senate, earns a minimum of $174,000 year.  That is $83 an hour, based on a normal work year of 2080 hours (and we all know Congress does not work normal hours.  Feel free to argue the number to yourselves).  At $83/hr, that is $456.50 per member of the House.  There are currently 435 voting members of the House, which means these symbolic votes have cost the American tax payer $198, 577.50.  Or a little more than the annual salary of one member of Congress, and certainly more than the annual salary of many Americans…in fact, it is a little more than 4 years of salary based on the median household income statistics from 2011.  Let me say that again.  The symbolic vote cost the American Tax payer 4 years of their salary.

Now, that is the conservative estimate.  We all know there was debate, and discussion.  There were photocopies and staff time.  The number does not begin to consider tertiary costs either.  For example the cost of running the Capitol – heat, light, air conditioning, etc.  If we bump the time to 30 minutes, which is reasonable for introduction, discussion and vote, we are talking about a little more than 16 total hours and a cost just under a half a million dollars.  To attempt to repeal a law that has no chance of currently being repealed.  If that is not insanity, then it is certainly fraud, waste, and abuse of the American Tax Payer.

But more to the point, what else could the Congress be doing?  Well, if you have been paying attention, quite a bit.  Yet they seem to have decided not to.  For example, the Congress waited until the 11th hour to renew a jobs bill that funded infrastructure.  If they had not been busy wasting time trying to repeal a law that had no chance of being repealed, they could have passed the reauthorization and keep people from worrying whether they would have a job the following morning.  Or, how about the upcoming Sequestration?  Conservative estimates indicate that as of Fiscal Year 2013, which begins October 1, 2012, a month before the election, more than one million defense jobs could be lost if Congress does not step in and do something.  Let me stress these million jobs are at the primary level.  It does not count the supply chains, or tertiary jobs losses.  The loss of a million jobs will be more than have been lost since the financial melt down in 2007 and could rival the Great Depression if it comes to pass.  But Congress was too busy to worry about that.  Sure they jobbed out a letter to a few defense contractors, but they were more concerned about repealing ACA.  After all, that is what was important.

When the candidates come knocking for reelection this year, ask them what they did during their time in Washington.  And if they said, I voted to repeal Obamacare, ask them why?  And then ask them, why they were not doing more for their constituency.  Failing that, perhaps suggest a good therapist.  Because clearly this form of insanity is contagious and needs to be curtailed.

The End of Script Frenzy

NaNoWriMo Corporate logo This morning, I received some sad news.

… [T]he OLL Board of Directors voted last month to end Script Frenzy.

Their reasons for discontinuing this yearly adventure are sound and I certainly can empathize with the costs of maintaining the infrastructure required to support what is essentially a self-driven effort with no real tangible value outside of bragging rights of the individual author, or script writer in this case.  I will miss Script Frenzy.  I have found that I like writing scripts more than I like writing stories, and the month-long challenge was a great incentive for me to challenge myself to produce something, despite the distractions of the normal day.  It was an escape and chance to be creative for a couple of hours a day before returning to the real world, even if I did not have time this year to participate this year.

I am glad that the Script Frenzy pieces will be integrated into the main site.  Maybe they will open up NaNoWriMo to include the option to write a script.  But even if they do not, it will not keep me from occasionally sitting down and trying to write a script if the mood takes me.  And I thank the folks at the Office of Lights and Letters for introducing me to the art of script writing.

Conservatives threaten to move to Canada following the SCOTUS Upholding the US Health Care Law

I am Canadian.  I am not going to discuss the merits of the United States Health Care law.  There are enough people talking about it.  But I am going to bring up one interesting point that I found in an article on yahoo.

An alarming number of Twitter users, Buzzfeed noted, declared their intent to move to Canada

It should be noted, in the context of the article, that this group of individuals threatening to invade Canada are those who were opposed to the health care law.  As George Carlin might say, these people seem to be of a group that left their brains at home, or did not have a lot to work with to begin with.  Canada has, at the provincial level, mandated health care.  Each province handles it differently.  In Ontario, where I grew up, it is a payroll tax that covers the payments for medical needs.

Fortunately, most of these conservatives will find that living in Canada is much harsher than the cushy life they are enjoying in the United States.  For example, there is a lovely tax, called the Harmonized GST.  That is a combined provincial and federal tax on good.  And it is very inexpensive. Only 14%, down from I believe 16% before it was harmonized and the carbon tax removed.  If they move to Toronto, they will have to sort their garbage, carry their own bags (Toronto has enacted legislation to ban single use bags, like the ones you get in grocery stores) and pay restaurant tax, provincial income tax, federal income tax and if I read the story right, TTC tax (a percentage of the residential tax in Toronto goes to funding the Toronto Transit Commission.  That amount went up, and thus, property taxes are going up).

So be my guest.  Welcome to Canada.  Please leave a credit card on file with Revenue Canada so we can more easily collect what you owe.

What “holiday” weekend?

On my way to work this morning, I heard a very odd statement from the weather guy. He said, …and for this holiday weekend… which made me look at the radio and ask “What?”  What holiday weekend.

For those who actually live in a country that officially recognizes Easter, Friday is, of course, Good Friday and Sunday is Easter Sunday, but this is the United States and I am pretty sure even the Federal Government does not get this Friday off, so there is no holiday.  And if you live here, you know that there is indeed a double standard.  It is the only official unofficial holiday, and in fact Sunday will see a number of places that are open, closed.  Now over the years I have ranted about this double standard, and either because of consumer demand or some other, unmeasurable value, stores that used to be closed up tighter than a drum on Easter Sunday are now recognizing that they need to be open because people expect them to be.  This has nothing to do with religion (well, actually it does, and I am sure some non-Catholic could make a good arguement that this sort of thing is a bit of an insult), but let us face facts.  Sunday is only one of two days that most people have free to do their shopping, whether for neccessary items, like food, or recreational items, like clothes and to be closed, especially with such a spotty observation of the day, is not beneficial to either the customer or the company.

The Easter weekend is a religious observation.  Nothing more.  It is not a reconginzed holiday any more than Yom Kippur or Ramadan is.  So to call it such, is offensive.  To imply that anyone gets the day(s) off, is a joke.

SOPA, does anyone care?

Today, founder of the non-profit behind information archive Wikipedia, Jimmy Wales, announced that the site will go dark for 24 hours on Wednesday in protest of the Stop Online Piracy Act (SOPA).  (TNW Insider).

First, for most, SOPA is short for Stop On-line Piracy Act, a bill introduced in the U.S. House of Congress that proposes to extend the power of law enforcement and copyright holders in the US to combat online piracy, and it would essentially allow the US Department of Justice – and copyright-holders – to seek court orders against websites accused of facilitating copyright infringement.

Ironically, this is the second such bill.  The first one, part of the Patriot Act, already grants broad powers to the United States Government to go after and shut down data sites, but this is the first one that allows the copyright holders to bring the action, and numerous luminaries believe this will cripple the Internet more than anything that has come before. And they are probably right.  But a bigger question is this: Is anyone paying attention?

Like most bills, this one is an attempt to resolve what is perceived as a problem, without fully addressing the scope of the issue and using a howitzer to remove a tumour.  People that do not understand the issues are rushing to impose their political view (is it a surprise this is being introduced by the small government unless it is related to stripping away your rights Republicans) on people that not only know better but could probably solve the problem in a couple of minutes without the need for pages of legal documents.  Worse, the sources of the violations are not in hosted in the United States and the law will have no impact on these sites.  In fact, all it will do is hasten the brain drain from the close-minded United States to those countries that are more open minded about change and resolution.

Since September 11, the citizens of the United States have, in the name of security, seen more of their rights chipped away than at any time in the country’s history.  And SOPA is only one more example of this.  So what are you going to do about it?  The Presidential election is only 10 months away.

U P D A T E: Maybe someone is paying attention: “SOPA is not dead; it has been shelved and won’t return “until a consensus is reached,” according to House Majority Leader Eric Cantor (R-VA).” (Imgur)  The Senate is still scheduled to vote.

Off With Their Heads!

That famous cry of the Red Queen should be ringing in Washington.  But you will be surprised at whose heads should roll.

This morning, CNN is reporting that the Supercommitte, that group of upstanding members of Congress that are supposed to be coming up with real cuts to the U.S. deficit have reached an impasse.  The issue?  Democratic members want $3B in cuts.  The Republican members only want the amount legally required, $1.2B.

Are these the same Republicans that have been belly aching for the better part of the last year that there is too much spending in Washington?  Are these the same Republicans that are accusing the President of being a socialist and forcing unfunded mandates on the country?  Are these the same Republicans that are expecting the United States to take them seriously?

Replacing a Dictator

News out of Libya is joyous.  Especially if you are a Libyan.  The death of Moammar Gadhafi is being celebrated by the people of Libya as it should be.  And like the removal, and death, of other dictators over the last few months, there is a certain sense of release and relief spreading around the globe.  But before we get too swept up in the euphoria, we should take a few moments and recognize that the downfall of a dictator, even if it is something that is desired, is not a panacea.

For the most part, I suspect that the people of Libya, or Egypt or Iraq are very much like those of us in the United States.  They get up, they go to work, they do their job and they come home.  Under a dictator, unlike us, there is the added fear of being picked up by the secret police for simple crimes, like thinking or trying to better themselves without paying off the right people, or just because their neighbour does not like the colour they painted their house.  These are very real fears.  Fears that hopefully now they are able to put behind them.  We will see how that pans out over the next 8 to 10 months as these countries move towards free and open elections.  You will note that I am not convinced that these elections will be either free nor open.  Time will tell.  I certainly hope that they will.  But as we have seen, many of these nations have been rebelling against western ideas for years, and I am afraid that now that their leaders are less western, in both education and vision, will revert to more religious mannerisms for rule.

But that scares me less than not knowing who is in charge.  Moammar Gadhafi was a nut job.  Flaky, I believe President Reagan called him.  But at least he was in charge.  You could follow the money in and the weapons out.  This was true of most of the dictatorships.  You only had to watch one person.  Maybe two.  With the over throw of the dictator, you have a much bigger problem.  Who do you watch?  Libya was described by the BBC yesterday and the weapons bazaar of the Middle East.  But with only one merchant minding the shop, it was easy to know who you were dealing with.  Now there is a very serious question about who is minding the store and more importantly, who is buying and selling the weapons that many believe are not only there, but will shortly be making their way to individuals that make Moammar Gadhafi look sane, grounded, and fun to work with.  And these individuals want nothing more than the complete annihilation of the West, and the modern way of doing things.

This is not a complaint against the people of Libya or those who have been crying out for their basic human rights since the Arab Spring began.  They are fully entitled to those rights and privileges enjoyed by many around the world.  But I am concerned that with the rapidity of change, and the lack of real leadership in any of these countries that if we take our eye off the ball now, we may be regretting it later.

Are you paying attention?