Archives for the month of: September, 2007
This article first appeared in Pajamas Media.

They say Americans are under more pressure than ever these days. Students must pass high-stakes tests in order to graduate. Competition to get into top-tier universities is crushing. The middle class is squeezed economically. Schedules are hectic. Commutes brutal. It’s just harder and harder to get by.

This basic idea — that things are tougher than ever — is used to justify all sorts of egregious behavior. More kids cheating? Pressure. Stealing from work on the rise? Pressure. Freeway shootings? Pressure. Loutish behavior in airports? Pressure!

But take a closer look. By nearly every measure, life is better than fifty, twenty, even five years ago. People are living longer, making more, and getting better grades while they do it. Even with the housing bubble, the Dow is at levels that would have been laughed at a decade ago. My God, we even have robot vacuums.

Where is all this pressure coming from?

“Pressure” is something that happens to us, lets us off the hook. It’s a mitigating factor that everyone can relate to. In most cases, though, it is really just plain old anxiety. In particular, when it comes to explaining bad behavior, it’s a special kind of anxiety: that I won’t get what I want.

The “pressure” in so many hand-wringing newspaper feature stories almost always turns out to be this kind of anxiety. In otherwise well-wrought articles on cheating in high school, the culprit is the “pressure” to get into top-tier schools – which is really fear that I might have to settle for a school that is not top-tier. In articles on theft in the workplace, the pressure of a tough economy is often the excuse. Indeed, in one article, the advice that gets the last word is to be nicer to employees so they won’t steal: “If an employee feels like a valued part of the company, he or she is less likely to steal,” says the expert. Road rage is explained away by more traffic.

Almost always, there is an excusing voice calling for some government intervention to relieve this pressure. Road rage stories include a traffic planner’s a call for more public transit. Cheating becomes an excuse for a teachers union representative to excoriate President Bush for asking schools to prove they are performing. Workplace theft stories provide the opening for a call to redistribute income so the middle class doesn’t feel so “squeezed.”

But there is rarely a voice criticizing this behavior for what it is. It’s bad, selfish behavior, plain and simple. Behavior that will go away only when we stop tolerating it.

We live in a time when it is unfashionable to tell others, or to admit to oneself, that not everyone gets what they think they deserve. Sure, everyone wants to go to Harvard and to get where they are going faster, but not everyone gets to. That fact of life that, it seems, is too bitter a pill for many of us to swallow. And so we make excuses, excuses that pile up over time until each of us is certain that the reason we don’t have everything we want is that there is something wrong.

Ambition drives each of us to try to excel and compete. Yet we all have limits to what is realistically in our grasp. I will never, ever earn as much as many of my friends from school; I will probably never have that Master’s degree; my house will probably never be as fancy.

We all have human failings and limitations — and we all make excuses for them. Many of us (more and more, it seems) try to overcome them through trickery and deceit. But maybe, by ending the charade that cheaters and thieves are really victims of “pressure,” we can begin to right this creaky ship of a society.

If we don’t, I fear, personal responsibility will become as quaint an anachronism as standing when a lady enters the room: you respect those who do it, but rarely think to do it yourself. Because, we’re just under too much pressure to worry about such things.

I’ve been travelling again. It’s got me thinking about different kinds of hotel internet access:

I see four basic kinds:

  • Just plain on — This is great, but unusual. Walk into the hotel room, flip on your laptop, find wireless network, connect, go.
  • Free but signup — Courtyard by Marriott has this. It’s quite good. You need to sign on, but once you’re on, it works pretty bulletproof. Plus, you have a choice between wired and wireless.
  • Outside vendor — I was in a hotel recently that had teamed up with T-Mobile. I had to sign up for a daypass from T-mobile to use Internet. A bit of a pain (and I did not like paying), but it worked.
  • Fancy hotel, in house system, barely works — That’s where I am now. I paid $12.95 for a system where I had to sign up through multiple screens including pop-ups, could only use wired (no wireless available at all) and . . . once I was on, the connection failed reliably every four minutes or so. Come on, people!

Let me know in the comments what kinds I’ve missed!

Like many of my friends, I am a “consultant,” which means I work on “projects” for “clients.” Those clients are typically organizations. My point of contact is usually a “project manager.” I’ve encountered six kinds:

  • Dishrags — Totally passive. See their role as “passing on feedback.” Can’t take a stand and don’t control process. Random problems crop up due to fringe opinion at odd times.
  • Bureaucrats — Burned out, tired. Avoid responsibility by appearing to be responsive.
  • Shotgun — Keep sending everything to everybody. In pursuit of a freewheeling ethos where everyone feels really busy but nothing happens.
  • Meeting Makers — Too collaborative and methodical. Seek consensus on every move through conference calls and meetings. Good . . . but sloooww.
  • Iron Fist — So tightly control the process that no one is sure what is happening. Only point of contact; nothing gets by them. All decisions are theirs. Often surprises from the boss at the end…she or he has not been kept in the loop.
  • Good! — “Sweet Spot” between Iron Fist and Shotgun. They will make decisions, but they know when to bring in others in their organization. They have ownership of the project, but know that it’s not just their show. The project gets done.

No doubt there are more…what kind of project managers have you encountered?

This essay originally appeared in Pajamas Media.

As I recall, it was a Thursday and I needed to eat. While gainfully employed in a student job, my check wasn’t due for another week or two. I had nothing in my bank account. The slate clouds threatened that cool, morning drizzle northern California is known for.

After a night of debauchery, I was unsteady. In my book bag was a high-end personal CD player, a gift from my parents. Before me was a shop window backed by metal bars. Above the doorway was that ancient symbol: three golden balls. I screwed up my nerve and entered.

I walked out with a pair of twenty dollar bills in my pocket. Far less than I’d hoped. This had to last me. You know how the story ends: By Sunday, I had not much more than lint in my pocket and was digging for some other funding source. I honestly don’t remember how I made it until my paycheck. But I did; here I am, my financial ship basically righted.

Thank God I had not met a “payday loan” operation. They did not yet exist.

Here’s how a payday loan operation works. Say I need $200, but payday is nine days away. I go to a payday loan outfit, and if I can prove I have a job by showing a pay stub, they will give me the two C’s in return for a check post-dated two weeks from now, for $230. Between now and then, I need to pay off the loan at $230, or they cash the check. No money in my account? In some states, no worries: I can “flip” the loan, buying another two weeks for another $30. (In some states this is illegal.)

That adds up to about a 390% annual interest rate on the loan.

Most folks pay back the money. Indeed, payday loan operations serve in many ways as a de facto banking system for the poor. That’s how they bill themselves, helping working Americans just make ends meet and handle unforeseen emergencies.

But, of course, that’s not where they make their money. They rake in the dough from poor saps like I was, in that pawn shop: desperate, feeling out of options. People in that state will often do anything. Indeed, I can bet that, had there been a payday loan shop available, I would have jumped inside in a shot. And two weeks later, I would have been hoping to flip that loan.

Payday loan companies comprise a $28 billion industry in terms of loan volume — roughly comparable to the gross domestic product of Jordan. They make their money the same way loan sharks do, by squeezing people who don’t pay their debts on time.

Lots of people get taken in, driven by desperation. The problem was big enough that the defense department pushed for a law capping the interest rate payday lenders can charge. The Pentagon said that service members were paying, on average, $827 on a $339 loan.

On October 1, payday lenders won’t be able to charge more than 36% to service members. They are getting out of that business, saying that rate of return just doesn’t make them enough to justify the work.

Other places are trying to do away with these loan sharks, too. Washington, DC just voted to cap rates at the 48 payday shops in that city. Georgia banned them in 2004. Word is that Ohio may be next on the agenda.

Some see this as a liberal-vs.-conservative issue. Those bleeding hearts are out to coddle the poor. But to me, it’s a moral issue that has nothing to do with that. We’ve already agreed, as a society, that it’s wrong. Since Old Testament times, people have agreed it is wrong to charge exorbitant interest. And here on American shores, there were interest rate caps between four and seven percent in the colonies of the New World. Loan sharks, who charge in the neighborhood of 125% interest, are prosecuted under RICO laws.

And, there are other, far less exploitive, options for people who really just need a bit extra to cover an emergency, from bona fide advances from their employer to working out payment plans with legitimate creditors.

No, it’s not that pawnshop’s fault I had burned through all my money back in college; it was my own. We all have a responsibility to live within our means.

But we also have a responsibility not to prey on the weak. An industry that can only survive on poor decisions made in desperation doesn’t deserve a place in our colonies.

I have been travelling a lot lately, and it got me to thinking about a taxonomy of hotel hangers:

I recorded this at the Sofitel in Chicago.