Wednesday, October 20, 2010

Budget-cutting the Hard Way

I wrote this column in October, 1981.  It's based on a story I read in my birth town newspaper.   I didn't save the original story, but I swear everything I've reported here is true:

I read in the paper that the city manager of a certain 1,000-resident Upper Peninsula village came up with an amazingly clever idea for saving roughly ten-percent of the village's $300,000 annual budget.

He recommended that council eliminate the city manager's position.

So this particular council, with visions of percentages dancing around in their wee little heads, voted unanimously in favor of the proposal.  After the final vote, the now ex-city manager, apparently dazzled by his own audacity, could be hear muttering, "It wasn't an easy decision.  I don't enjoy getting rid of myself."

I shouldn't wonder.  It's never easy getting rid of one's self.  It's especially difficult to get rid of one's self and still be around to say, "I don't enjoy getting rid of myself."  One usually doesn't have that option.

Personally, I think that particular council acted a little hastily.  Maybe they should reconsider and give that poor man a second chance.  I can't help but wonder if, in the act of doing his duty, in the heat of the budget-cutting moment, he simply forgot who the city manager was.

On the other hand, it could be he was grandstanding.  Maybe he was saying, in effect, "See, I'm taking my budget-cutting responsibilities so seriously, I've even willing to let you consider doing away with--heh, heh--my job.  Of course, I don't expect you to really--heh, heh--do it; it's just my little way of expressing my willingness to explore all options.  Heh, heh."

But maybe council had other things on their minds at the time and didn't get the "heh, heh".

Another possibility is that he really had been thinking of getting rid of himself.  It can happen.  I've done it myself from time to time.  Luckily, since there was no urgency attached to my decision, I have been saved up to now by my penchant for procrastination.  Then, too, there wasn't $30,000 at stake.  Nor did I have to worry about an over-zealous city council being ready to pounce on my ponderings at any given moment, then rushing to make them a reality before I could even say, "Kidding!"

Whatever the reasons, what's done is done, and the end of this strange-but-true story is sad, if predictable.  Since that unfortunate turn of events, the now ex-city manager hasn't had one single job offer.  In all honesty, could he have expected anything else?  I mean, as much as I would love to go on sympathizing, it seems to me he could have at least worded his announcement a little differently.  There aren't many employers--especially in this day and age--who would be willing to go out on a limb and hire a man who had just recently gotten rid of himself.

It stands to reason that any potential employer /interviewer would have no choice but to scribble across the now ex-city manager's application, "The applicant lacked substance. . ."


Friday, June 11, 2010

A Truly True Commencement Speech

I wrote this column on June 1, 1983, when Ronald Reagan was president, when finding the quoted commencement speech was especially meaningful--at least to me.  And now, in 2010, it's further proof that some things just never, ever change. No, never.  Not ever.

A Commencement Speech to Cheer About

I've always thought that a commencement speech must be the hardest kind of speech to make.  People--the most important people, often with better things to do--spend hours writing speeches they know before they even begin speaking nobody is going to really listen to or, in any sense, believe.

All across the country, millions of graduates are hearing thousands of commencement speakers passing on the tried and true--"Reach for the stars!", "Hold your heads up high!"  (which goes without saying if you're going to be reaching for stars) and, always, "Now go out there and show them the stuff Alfred E. Newman High (wait for applause) is made of!"
I've sat through so many of those speeches wishing the speaker, just once, would have the guts to say, "The world's a mess out there and I wouldn't wish this day on my worst enemy, but, as I've always said, better you than me."

And just last week, as if it had been planned, I found one.  It was written by a famous writer and it was an imaginary speech written facetiously for a friend who was about to deliver your standard, canned speech to an auditorium full of graduates anxious to throw their caps into the air and be done with it.  The writer suggested this speech, (excerpted) instead:

I suppose you think I'm going to give you one of those "You are going out into the world" speeches.  Well, you're perfectly right.  You are going out into the world and it's a mess, a frightened, neurotic, gibbering mess.  And there isn't anyone out there to help you because all the people who are already out there are in a worse state than you are, because they have been there longer and a good number of them have given up.

You, my young friends, are going to take your bright and shining faces into a jungle, but a jungle where all the animals are insane.  You are going from delinquency to desuetude without even an interlude of healthy vice.  You haven't the strength for vice.  That takes energy, and all the energy of this time is needed for fear.  And what energy is left over is needed for running down the rabbit holes of hatred, to avoid thought.

The rich hate the poor and taxes.  The young hate the draft.  The Democrats hate the Republicans and everybody hates the Russians.  No one can plan one day ahead because all certainty is gone.

War is now generally admitted to be not only unwinnable but actually suicidal and so we think of war and plan for war and design war and drain our nations of every extra penny of treasure to make the weapons which we admit will destroy us.

And meanwhile there is no money for the dams and the schools and the highways and the housing and the streets for our clotting and festering traffic.  And that's what you're going out to.  Going out?  Hell, you've been in it for years.

Wouldn't it be wonderful if you could look at your world and say, and hear yourself--"This was once true but it is no longer true.  We must make new rules about this and this.  We must abandon our dear wars, which once had a purpose, and our hates which once served us."

You won't do it.  It will have to slip up on you in the course of generations.  But wouldn't it be wonderful if you could greet the most wonderful time in the history of our world with wonder rather than with despair?

The author of that imaginary but splendidly, acutely accurate commencement speech was John Steinbeck.  He wrote it in 1956.  Makes you wonder what kind of merry-go-round we're on, doesn't it?  And who's going to make it stop?


Monday, March 22, 2010

Storm Warnings in the Sun Belt?

I wrote this column on March 29, 1983, when Michigan was in the midst of a horrific depression.  The rest of the country was in the midst of a recession, but, as always, manufacturing states like Michigan were hit harder than most.  The unemployment numbers in Michigan in 1983 reached 14.6%, a number not seen again until 2009.  The Midwest was known as the "rust belt" as more and more companies moved to the southern lower-wage "right-to-work" states. (The "Sun belt")


Storm Warnings in the Sun Belt?

The March 29 [1983] issue of the Houston Chronicle carried 120 pages of employment ads.  No, that's not a typo. . . 120 pages.  It boasts the largest classified ad section of any paper in the country. (The same week's Detroit News carried 17 1/2 ad pages.)

Big things are happening in Houston and apparently the folks up north have gotten the word.  The Chronicle says that in the last six months, their Sunday sales in Michigan have leaped from 200 to 3,000 papers a week.
The Little Professor bookstore in Dearborn alone has a guaranteed sellout of their 1,000-plus weekly order--sometimes within the same day of arrival.  That in addition to their 800-900 copies of the Dallas Morning News.

At first it was kind of fun, those Houstonians being the big cheeses, but now they're wondering if 120 pages of employment opportunities isn't carrying southern hospitality a little too far.

There's consternation down there in oil country.  The front page headlines of that same issue of the Chronicle read, "New 'Okie' comes from Michigan and Houston is his California".

Inside, article headlines read: "New 'Okies' swarm from Michigan to Houston's job-rich land of plenty"; "Houston, Dallas papers snapped up in Michigan"; "Snow Belt exodus--Why 1,000 a week stream here--jobs", and "Hillbillies in Michigan,Yankees here".

The gist of it all is that the jobless from the north are swarming into Texas without so much as a hint of a job.  They're coming in vans and pickup trucks containing all their worldly goods, "assuming", said one spokesman, "that the streets are paved with gold".

Well, they are paved with gold for the professionals, the engineers, the accountants, the chemists and the computer experts, but for the run-of-the-mill factory worker, they want it made clear there just aren't any factories down there.  At least not yet.

And if, by some chance, the factory worker is fortunate enough to find a job similar to the one he left, he can expect to make anywhere from $5 to $10 an hour less than he made in Michigan.  There are few unions down there and they seem to like it that way.

I did a little rundown on the 120 pages of ads and this is what I came up with:

Professional (managers, supervisors, consultants, etc.)  22 pp.
Engineering-Technical  20 pp
Data Processing (computer operators, programmers, etc.)  10 pp
Admin. - financial (accountants, auditors, analysts)  5 1/2 pp
Sales  7 1/2 pp
Office - Clerical  25 pp
Crafts-skills-trades (machinists, toolmakers, welders)  9 pp
Medical  8 pp
Misc.  (hairdressers, food service, maintenance, etc.)  13 pp

Good news for teachers is that there a shortage in Texas critical enough so that they are combing the northern countryside for candidates.  Clericals are in such demand that, if I can believe the personnel placement ads, beginner receptionists can start at $10,000 to $12,000 a year.   (1983 dollars)

That's the good news, if you happen to be one of those people.  The bad news is that Houston hasn't yet made ready for all of their guests.  The housing boom of two years ago is fast becoming a shortage and  the small-townish mass transit system is woefully inadequate, making horrendous traffic jams a way of life.  Sewage and flooding problems are keeping maintenance crews working overtime.

In addition, the city of Houston is regularly running TV ads pleading for additional police recruits to help with the growing crime problem.

Still, with all its faults, a city in the sunny southwest with a newspaper that can carry 120 pages of employment ads has to look pretty good to someone out of work in Detroit with no likely prospects.  And Houston wants you.  That's clear.  They're even going so far as to retrain in some instances.  But they're also asking that you take your time, do a lot of research, and don't burn all your bridges behind you.

Clearly, this is a big step to take--and more and more of you are taking it.  So maybe we should talk some more about this.  Have you been to Texas, or are you planning to go?  Do you have a job waiting?  Do you know someone who is down there now?  Are they making it?  What are they doing?

Write me in care of this newspaper and we'll do a local follow-up in a few weeks, if the response is there.

(Note:  I heard from one guy who said he was going down and would let me know how it was when he got there.  Never heard from him again.)