Saturday, April 16, 2011

Camels Are Too Big

I'm one who never got into worshipping the rich. I feel like the Presidency is the most important job in the world, and if I ever make more than his $400,000 annual salary, then something is out of balance with my compensation. I know some might disagree, but I don't like the trappings of wealth. To me, being rich is a sort of like a zero sum game—extravagance on their part generally means that others are getting shorted. Perhaps I spent too much time as an undergrad studying the barons of industry during the Gilded Age (and results such as the coalfield wars and the Progressive Era).

I remember when “Lifestyles of the Rich and Famous” started back in the '80s. I never watched it because I had absolutely no interest. Just the commercials with Robin Leach's heavy British accent celebrating the extravagance of the rich made me want to hurl. Unfortunately, this was just the beginning of the aggrandizement of the rich and the celebration of celebrities, as the increase in cable channels led to everything from MTV's “Cribs” to “NYC Prep” on Bravo (not to mention all the fictional shows focused on the wealthy—Falconcrest, Dallas, etc.). All my students know that I often hold up Paris Hilton as the ultimate example of this wealth worship, because she became a celebrity not for any singing or acting talent, athleticism, or particular business acuity, but primarily because through her inheritance, she is filthy rich.

Today, there are two network reality shows on Sunday night dealing with the upper echelons of American society. These shows are giving the rich a chance to see what the rest of us live with on a daily basis. As you may know, I'm not big on watching TV (and only pay for basic cable), but it is often background noise as I read or surf the web. However, I've made a point to watch both of these and want to share my thoughts on them.

The first was Undercover Boss on CBS which began last year. I liked the premise of getting the CEO out of the his fancy office and into the real work. This is a concept that I think is important but is often sorely lacking today. I was a data center manager in the late '80s, and every Friday when the load of printer paper arrived, I would join with whichever employee's turn it was to unload the pallets. This was the most demanding physical labor component of their job, and I wanted them to see their manager sharing the workload. I started dressing more casual on Friday's because of this, and actually was called into the Division Director's office for wearing jeans, but he reluctantly decided to allow me to continue (because of this incident, I consider myself somewhat of a pioneer for casual Friday workplace attire where I work). It proved to be a good bonding experience with the staff because we talked as we worked. In addition to unloading boxes of paper, I also made a point to try and learn all the various job responsibilities, and even worked the afternoon and midnight shifts to experience life outside the normal workday.

Having watched some of these Undercover Boss episodes for the past two seasons, they seem to always follow a script. The boss has a hard time doing the real work, the boss discovers he has some incredible employees who are key to the success of the company, and then the boss calls them in and gives them some token of his appreciation. Sometimes the boss actually decides to change corporate policy because of what he has experienced. The boss always considers it an eye-opening experience (why did he have to wait until CBS created this show to realize what he was missing?).

To me, the internal changes that result are the most satisfying part of the show. I only hope that the empathy displayed by the boss continues long after the cameras are gone. In fact, I hope that Undercover Boss eventually does follow-up episodes to see how things went for everybody a year or so after the show aired. It seems to me that the producers will have a hard time continuing the original premise, since the show's popularity should make all employees suspicious of a new person being filmed in training. Let's hope that follow-ups don't show that everything went back to the status quo, with the top dogs once again isolated in their ivory towers enjoying their tea and crumpets, having forgotten the lessons from the show (which should include continued efforts to reach out to the real workers of the company).

The other show that I have watched a couple of times is far less worthy in my eyes. This year, ABC decided to take some millionaires and have them live like a pauper for a week, do some volunteer work, and then write some checks at the end of it all, with the cameras rolling on them the whole time. I have decided that this show is more about stroking the ego's of the millionaires than anything else, letting them feel like they care by giving away a few thousand to some worthy non-profits that they never knew existed. Let me educate the rich folks: THERE ARE AMAZING PEOPLE ALL OVER THIS COUNTRY TRYING TO DO GOOD DEEDS THROUGH NON-PROFITS ALL THE TIME, WITH NEVER ENOUGH MONEY. You don't need to be the center of attention through a national TV show to help them out! Quit isolating yourselves in your mansions and yachts with your fellow jet-setters (flying first class, of course, if not on your private jets) and realize that America needs your help.

I am afraid that the follow-ups to Secret Millionaire would reveal less of a lasting effect than the Undercover Boss follow-ups. These millionaires are not fully connected to the people they met, unlike Undercover Boss which at least maintains a boss/worker relationship after the show. The one week immersion experience is too easy for the Secret Millionaires to put behind them and move on, feeling good about the fact that they wrote a few checks (and occasionally popping in the DVD from “their show” to share with friends at cocktail parties their televised experience among the little people). At least the Undercover Bosses will still be living in the same corporation, and thus may better understand the reasons why changes are necessary. But then again, maybe I am overly optimistic about the potential for change in corporate cultures. The follow-ups to both these shows may end up being a disappointment.

By the way, can you tell from my rantings that I am not into conspicuous consumption? I realize that wealth is relative, and that I certainly am more comfortable than many (with what some might consider luxuries such as a Prius, a motorcycle, vacations, etc.), but my modest home would never impress Robin Leach. I don't aspire for earthly riches. One of my favorite Biblical quotes from Jesus Christ is: “For it is easier for a camel to go through a needle's eye, than for a rich man to enter into the kingdom of God.”

Tuesday, April 12, 2011

My “Take” on Lotteries

For most of the 20th century, there were no state lotteries. Only in the last few decades did cash-strapped states decide to promote gambling, and take away the “numbers racket” from the organized crime gangs. There had been a social stigma against gambling, whether based on religion or the simple mathematics of the odds. I grew up in a world where good people didn't gamble.

My first exposure to blatant underworld gambling was at college, where if you wanted to bet on sports games, there was a guy on campus who would sell you a “parlay card.” I never bothered with it, in part because I never felt like I had that much disposable income (as some of you know, I have a reputation for being “frugal”).

One lesson I did learn at college was to be careful about making bets. I once foolishly bet $20 that a friend of mine wouldn't drink a glass of cafeteria slop that had been poured together as a group of us idly chatted after dinner. The mixture was so gross I was certain he would not be able to get it down (and keep it down). As it turned out, he managed to do it, and then wanted his money. I had to “man up” and fork over the bet. That bet cost me dearly, but taught me a life lesson that has lasted far beyond that one night.

By the early '80s when I was in Morgantown getting my MPA/JD at WVU, Pennsylvania had a state lottery, and the TV stations covered their nightly drawings. Indeed, in 1980 there was an infamous attempt to rig the Pennsylvania Lottery by injecting white paint into all but the #6 and #4 ping-pong balls. Those in the know played all the combinations of those numbers, and it resulted in the biggest payout ever—thus raising suspicions and leading to the discovery of the conspiracy. Ironically, the winning number that night was the “Mark of the Beast”--666. [The first movie date that Anna and I had together was for the 2000 film “Lucky Numbers” starring John Travolta, based on this incident.]

In 1981, I remember driving with a girlfriend (who was from PA) across the state line from Morgantown to Point Marion for the sole purpose of buying my first lottery ticket for the nightly three digit drawing. With her help, I was going to sample the forbidden fruit of gambling on a lottery! I had carefully selected the three numbers which I considered my luckiest. In the back of my head, I thought there was a chance I could win with some beginner's luck. Of course, I didn't win (and never have since).

The West Virginia Legislature around the same time was beginning to consider a lottery as well, which required the people of the state to amend the Constitution. I did a paper for my State and Local Government class about this issue. I had the good fortune of meeting Kate Long (some of you probably know her voice from WV Public Radio commentaries, MountainStage, etc.), a wonderful person--who no doubt doesn't remember me--working for the WV Citizens Action Group at the time. As I recall, she provided me lots of data showing that a small state like West Virginia may not be able to support a profitable lottery, especially with our Bible Belt propensities. Lotteries end up being a regressive tax on the lower classes. My paper and my vote went against starting a lottery, but it happened.

One of the keys to the WV Lottery becoming profitable was the advent of multi-state combined contests. Our state was an original member of the Powerball consortium--without its big jackpots, we may have had problems breaking even with the original concept. Of course, this shows how there are sometimes new developments that cannot always be foreseen when deciding how to vote on an issue.

I have on rare occasions purchased lottery tickets since that initial foray into Pennsylvania in 1981, but they have been few and far between. Despite how fantastic the jackpot sounds, the odds are clearly against the player (just like in a casino, another place where I don't waste my money). There are a lot of people who play the lottery on a regular basis who clearly should not be wasting their limited resources in the hopes of winning big.

Here's my take on lotteries: if you get some enjoyment from it, AND CAN AFFORD IT, then I appreciate your donation to our state (and indeed, that is how it should be considered—a donation to the state coffers). If you are not well off (and especially if you are on welfare, food stamps, etc.), then I'd suggest not wasting your money (but hey, who am I to tell you not to waste your money?). Heck, in my mind, if have any debts at all, then why should you be voluntarily forking over your hard-earned money to the state when you could be paying yourself? Take care of yourself first—and hoping for a lottery payoff is not the way to do it. I've heard the odds of getting struck by lightning are greater than winning the lottery.

I have always remembered the magic three numbers I picked for my first “Pick 3” lottery chance in 1981 whenever I hear the nightly lottery report. In the past 30 years, I've only heard my numbers hit a time or two (and had no real remorse for not playing), but virtually every night they are not winners. The payoff from the simple Daily 3 would never have made up for the cost if I had really played those numbers every day, instead of just playing them in my mind.

For those of you who dream of hitting a big Powerball jackpot, please realize how many big winners have found it to be as much a curse as a blessing. Rather than turning their life around, winning often turns it upside down. West Virginia's Jack Whittaker is a prime example, but others have also found it to be more difficult than they had imagined. If by chance I ever play a Powerball and win it, I will be working to donate the majority of it as quickly as I can. But I don't plan on facing this problem, because there is an extremely low probability that I will buy a ticket (especially for a big jackpot, since it seems to me that the increased number of players means you may need to split the pot) and an even lower probability that I will win. One of the lotteries had an ad campaign that claimed “you gotta play to win.” However, not playing is how I come out ahead.

Monday, April 4, 2011

Me & Coal

I'm a West Virginian, but contrary to what some people prone to stereotypes might think, I didn't grow up near a coal mine (there are none in my home county). Not one of my family members has ever worked in the coal industry. However, I think all West Virginians realize that coal is inevitably entwined with our beloved state.

As a youngster in the late '60s and '70s, I used to love listening to broadcaster Jack Fleming describing the WVU football games on the radio. Because a major sponsor of these broadcasts was the West Virginia Coal Association, I grew to love the soaring choral voices in their “Coal is West Virginia” theme song as an associated part of Mountaineer football (I was glad the Coal Association revived the old theme song a few years ago). By the time I became a grad student at WVU in 1981, the radio stations in Morgantown still would frequently make shift announcements for various local coal mines, because the mines were probably the biggest employers in the area.

While getting my college education, I learned a great deal about the labor struggles in the coalfields, which seemed to be missing from my 8th grade West Virginia studies class. After reading her autobiography, I think Mother Jones was one of the most fascinating women in America. The movie “Matewan” can give you a quick introduction to this part of our history. Another formative experience for me relating to the coal industry was the book “Everything in its Path” by Kai Erickson. This award winning report on the Buffalo Creek disaster is one of the most captivating books I ever read.

A more recent influence on my interest in coal mining was the books of fellow NASA alum Homer Hickam. I loved his Rocket Boys book (being an avid model rocketeer in my youth as well), and ended up reading the whole Coalwood trilogy (Rocket Boys, The Coalwood Way, and Sky of Stone). The movie “October Sky” was wonderful as well (even if it ended up getting filmed in Tennessee), so be sure to see it if you don't know what I'm talking about. I've had the good fortune to visit Coalwood, West Virginia a few times for the annual Rocket Boys reunion. We've also had the pleasure of hearing Homer speak at Ohio University in Athens and at West Virginia University in Morgantown, plus a chance meeting with him in Reagan National Airport in DC. You can tell that Coalwood was a magical place in its heyday. Like the nearby county seat of Welch (just up the road on WV Route 16—a great motorcycle road by the way), both were once booming, but have now gone bust. Like many places in West Virginia (e.g., the ghost towns one learns about when rafting the New River), once the coal ran out, there was not much left to sustain the communities.
Statue of a widow at the site of the worst coal disaster ever.

Like many West Virginia families, our summer trips often consisted of visits to our state parks and other tourist destinations. I've also written previously of my visits to the cemetery at Monongah, site of our nation's worst coal disaster, as well as to the statues of the Monongah Widow and the West Virginia Coal Miner's Memorial in Fairmont. My first real coal mine experience was riding in the little cars that take you into the Beckley Exhibition Coal Mine, not far off the West Virginia Turnpike. For many years, that was my only experience underground. It is a fascinating place, and does give one a good introduction. However, in 1992, I finally got to experience a real coal mine.

Leadership West Virginia is a program that brings together leaders from around the state and provide them with leadership training over the course of eight long weekends, each held in a different city of the state and covering a different topic. I was fortunate to get accepted into this program just shortly before I decided to run for the school board. I learned a lot and would highly recommend it to others.

When the 1992 Leadership West Virginia class visited Fairmont, there was a special outing for those interested to visit Consol Coal Company's Robinson Run Mine near Mannington. We were given about an hour of safety training and outfitted with the necessary equipment (helmet, gloves, etc.). Each of us were also given a numbered brass tag, which would be used to identify our body if a disaster would occur (!). We got onto an industrial style elevator, the cage door was shut, and began the VERY LONG ride down to the work area 1000 feet deep.

Upon reaching the bottom, a continuous mining machine was chewing into the face of the coal seam. I immediately became concerned when I saw sparks on occasion as the cutting wheels ate into the coal. Despite all I knew about coal dust being explosive, we were assured that it was something that happens down there due to the high concentrations of sulphur in the coal. Well, I guess if the workers were not worried about it, then maybe I shouldn't worry (but it still kept me on edge).

The first part of the tour showed us traditional mining, where they would cut swaths of coal but leave pillars in place to support the roof. We also got to see the white rock dusting, roof bolting operations to help prevent cave-ins, and learned about kettle bottoms (petrified trees) that are prone to falling. The complex series of conveyor belts that move the coal from the face to (eventually) the surface was also interesting. We then got into a mantrip (small rail car for moving between locations in this extensive labyrinth) to head to the other side where a new style of mining was being used. Halfway between the two operations, the supervisor stopped the vehicle and had us turn out the lights. With no other lighting whatsoever, and a thousand feet of earth between us and the surface, it was the ABSOLUTE most blackest black that I could ever imagine.

The new area was using a longwall mining machine, which required less labor and produced more coal. The cutter moved back and forth over maybe a 100 foot swath, shearing off a few inches of coal with each pass. There was no coal wasted for use as pillars—everything it could reach was being removed. Therefore, the machine and its human handlers were all close to the face, with nothing remaining behind them as it slowly inched through the seam on mechanical feet. Very strong steel roofs protected the long skinny machine from cave-ins, and humans were sure to stay under the roof and not venture back into the void behind it. Although it didn't happen when we were there, roof falls are inevitable in a longwall operation. The idea is to mine all the coal, stay close to the cutter, conveyor belt, and its protective roof, and then let the roof fall behind you. It happens from time to time with a huge rumbling and whoosh of air. [I'm glad it didn't fall when we were there!]

Finally, my foray into coal mining came to an end, and we took the long elevator journey to the top. I am very glad that I got to experience a real working coal mine, and I thank Consol Coal and Leadership West Virginia for this once-in-a-lifetime opportunity. I never signed up to be an official “Friend of Coal” and plant a yard sign or sport a bumper sticker proclaiming such, but I do know what it is like to be underground. Coal mining presents a mixed bag for West Virginia, so I'm not ready to be a company shill. However, I do appreciate the hard work that goes into creating the electricity that I am using to write this essay. Let's just hope that West Virginia can diversify its economy and preserve its ecology so that the whole state doesn't look like the ghost towns left behind once the coal inevitably runs out. I close with the lyrics to the WV Coal Association jingle (it sounds better than it reads):

When we go down deep through the dark today, we come up with a light for America! Coal is West Virginia, coal is me and you. Coal is West Virginia, we’ve got a job to do. Coal is energy, we need energy.