Tuesday, January 24, 2012

Where Do You Stand on the Cultural Divide?

I recently read an article in The Wall Street Journal, January 21, 2012, entitled “The New American Divide, which discussed the increasing differences between the working class and the upper class in America. In 1960, these two groups participated in cultural institutions such as marriage, full-time employment (at least for males), and religion at much more similar rates than they did in 2010.

“For most of our nation’s history, whatever the inequality in wealth between the richest and poorest citizens, we maintained a cultural equality known nowhere else in the world—for whites, anyway,” says the author, Charles Murray.

But, Murray argues, there is now a great cultural divide between classes in American society, which means that we no longer have cultural equality. The article is worth reading simply for its explanation of the cultural differences now permeating our society.

But the article also raises issues for us to think about concerning the solutions to the increasing cultural differences. Murray believes that it is primarily up to the upper income class to resolve the cultural divide. He says the upper class should take action to maintain the cultural equality that has made America a land of opportunity.

First, Murray says that “married, educated people who work hard and conscienctiously raise their kids shouldn’t hesitate to voice their disapproval of those who defy these norms.” The upper class must preach what it practices. Which is hard to do in our "anything goes" society.

But beyond practicing what they preach, Murray suggests that the upper class should rethink their priorities to increase the cultural connections between classes.

Ask yourself whether you are willing to change the following in order to increase your exposure to people of other classes:

  • The neighborhood where you live
  • The school you choose for your children
  • What you tell your children about the value and virtues of physical labor and military service
  • Whether you are an active member of a religious congregation
  • Whether you are involved in your community beyond attendance at charity events.
Where do you stand on the new cultural divide? Should we work to close the cultural class gaps? If so, what will you do?

Thursday, January 19, 2012

Bain Capital v. Benefit Corporations – Where Would You Invest Your Money?

After I heard that Bain Capital had earned its investors an 88% return on their money while Mitt Romney was CEO, any concerns I had about his management of the private equity firm vanished. 

“And they [Bain] made 88 percent a year for their investors under Romney's tenure, which is -- was one of the best records in the business at that time, from '84 to '99.”

As long as the profits were not obtained illegally, it seems that Bain did exactly what its shareholders and other investors expected – it maximized their returns and increased wealth.  Nothing shameful in that.

What investor wouldn’t want an 88% return on his or her money? And remember that investors in firms such as Bain Capital frequently include large pension funds.  The money distributed to these pension funds benefits many individual wage-earners, not just wealthy individuals like Mitt Romney.  Again, nothing shameful.

Even Democrats are lauding the work of Bain Capital.  Jeff Bussgang, in a recent blog post on CNNMoney, asked 

“should hard-working pensioners and retirees be allowed to invest their savings in an asset class that outperforms nearly every other one available? Private equity has an important role and should be lauded, not lambasted.”

Bussgang labels himself a “card-carrying Democrat” who will vote for President Obama again in November.

Because it seems to me the attacks on Bain and other private equity firms have been unfounded, or at least over-wrought, I was interested to see the article in the January 19, 2012, Wall Street Journal on “benefit corporations” now authorized in seven states.  This new type of for-profit corporation is specifically authorized to have goals other than maximizing profits for shareholders, and to consider social or environment objectives ahead of profits.

Is this a good idea or not?  Should corporations be allowed to deviate from seeking the maximum legal return for its shareholders?  I suppose transparency is key -- what have the corporate managers told their investors about how they will run the company?  The Wall Street Journal article states that these corporations must set out their social and environmental goals in their bylaws and publish an annual "benefit report" to measure itself against those goals. Critics argue that management of these benefit corporations will not be accountable to shareholders, and that there will be little shareholders can do if their investment does not do well.

What do you think? Where would you invest your money -- with a company with a track record like Bain Capital, or in a benefits corporation that might not focus on profits but might suit your view of the world?

Tuesday, January 10, 2012

Writers and Readers Should Demand Open E-Reading Devices and Software

The op-ed page of The Wall Street Journal on January 7 had a piece by Holman W. Jenkins,Jr., titled“Game Over for BlackBerry?” Jenkins speculated

“The market may soon become welcoming to manufacturers making a multitude of gadgets for a multiplicity of tastes and preferences without requiring users to forgo membership in the Apple or Android clouds or both.”

The point of his piece was that today’s market requires that we make choices in technology between various hardware items and software items, some of which work with each other and some of which don’t. He conjectured that the movement toward cloud computing could ultimately make hardware and software differences meaningless –in the future he hoped we would be able to choose whatever device we want to use to get our data wherever we are, using whatever software we want. He posited there could be “a coming breakdown in the walls between ecosystems.”

As an author, when I read this piece I immediately wondered whether the current differences between Kindle and Nook and other e-readers will disappear in the future. Will I be able to publish my writing in whatever electronic format I want, and will readers be able to access it on any e-reading device they want? If so, that is a publishing world I want to be a part of.

Books should be accessible to as many people as possible. Technology around the written word –from the Gutenberg Bible forward – has been designed to make books (and the thoughts contained in them) accessible to the masses. The next phase of e-publishing needs to be the development of an open format that all e-readers can use. Just like Word has become a default word processing format that all word processing programs must be able to handle (even if WordPerfect was better).

When will this brave new world of e-publishing reach us?

Wednesday, January 4, 2012

Discretionary Time: Making a Difference at Home, at Work, and in the Community

I believe in finding inspiration wherever we can. Earlier today, I tweeted an article on leadership using Tim Tebow as an example. This afternoon, I found this post in Legal Rebels by Patrick Lamb, which also struck a chord with me.

As Lamb asks, “What are you going to do about your personal situation? About the world’s?” We each have an obligation to make a difference to our families and friends and colleagues, and also to the greater community in which we live. We all have endless possibilities in how we conduct our lives – at home and at work. And the choices we make are what defines us.

I remember learning of the concept of “discretionary time” about twelve years ago. A diversity consultant was talking to my management team about how improving diversity in our firm was up to each of us – if we didn’t spend time on diversity-related activities in the workplace, no one else would either. And each of us, no matter how big or how small our job was, had some time that we could control, some time to spend on what was important to us.

I’ve tried to apply the concept of discretionary time each day since then. I try to spend some time on an activity of my choosing. Not what my boss wanted me to do, not what my subordinates asked for, not what family members thought I needed to do.

Even if it was just fifteen minutes reading an article on a topic where I needed development, or stopping by a colleague’s office for a casual discussion, or attending a community event, I did something that showed what I thought was important in my life.

What can you do with your discretionary time? Please comment below.