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“Jargon” — words, words, words

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The late great George Carlin once did a bit on how “shell shock” transformed into “battle fatigue” into “operational exhaustion” into “post traumatic stress disorder,” with each successive description distancing itself from the reality of the condition the words describe.

Facile spin doctors are always using words to misdirect and misrepresent, to make the unpalatable acceptable.  Would you rather be “fired” or “laid off” or would you be “let go?”  Jargon is useful in many fields because the complexity of those fields requires precise terminology.  As such, those without a background in the field of that jargon often find the terms confusing and/or misleading, merely because they lack the context for the meaning of the jargon.

Yet the business community often uses jargon to a) placate stock analysts and b) attempt to spin unpleasant situations.  It is considered unwise to say, “We’re firing American workers to invest money in foreign countries in order to make more gross profit so that we can have slightly higher net profits while inflating the salaries of the executives who think all jobs except theirs should go to the lowest bidder.”  In business jargon, this activity is called outsourcing or rightsizing.

Here’s a new jargon term for you, one that I think is particularly appropriate in our current economic environment:  dumbsizing.  Dumbsizing refers to any shift in the workforce that damages the overall, long-term financial well-being of the company.

Let me give you a real-life example of dumbsizing from a Fortune 500 company, an entity split off from an even larger Fortune 500 company about 20 years ago.  This company has never, not once, given a dividend.  This, in turn, leads to short-sighted goals, since the only performance the majority of investors are interested in are short-term to mid-term gains in stock prices.

Opportunity costs being hard to quantify and predict, this company turned to cost cutting measures to survive.  In general this meant little additional money would be thrown at the rank and file.  A hiring freeze went into effect.  For months, only one job as allowed to be posted at this large corporation.  That job?  The title was “Executive Compensation Specialist.”  The only exception to the hiring freeze.  Because, as the Wall Street types put it after the housing/banking meltdown, “you have to attract and retain the best and brightest.”  At least at a certain level of compensation, apparently.  Or, in a different example, remember the airline executives that pressured the unions and pilots into $X million in cuts, saying that the company would fall without those cuts?  Only to turn around and distribute the same amount to the executives of the corporation for their success in cutting costs?

Back to the original Fortune 500 I was talking about.  Given that people in the Phillipines and India would code for a fraction of what a competent software engineer in America is paid, someone decided that “non-critical” work could be done overseas as a cost saving gesture.  Capital investments were made in the Philippines and India.  People were hired overseas.  A few people in the United States, mostly those doing the grunt work of the coding or testing, were “let go.”

Disaster after disaster in the code followed.  Communications errors abounded.  If code written overseas compiled it was “done.”  The fact that it wouldn’t run didn’t seem to make any difference.  Crashes that weren’t the result of a test case went unreported.  Personnel in the US began to complain.  Dozens of us were told (unofficially) by a wide range of managers that “the overseas initiative CANNOT fail.”  Not “cannot” fail in the sense that it must work, but “cannot” fail in the sense that no matter what happened, operations overseas were going to be called a success.

One overseas department spent 9 months working on a code update for a major system.  The code was, for the entire time of the work, checked into the wrong code library, rendering the entire 9 months of work completely useless.  They had to start over from scratch in the correct library.  Two weeks after finding out this disaster the manager of that team was promoted.

This was not a case of start-up problems, these exact same problems continued for years.  Coders in America were named baby-sitters for groups overseas, with the responsibility of fixing whatever didn’t work. One developer told his manager that he could do all of the work his three assignees could do using only 80% of his time, leaving the other 20% for doing something else.  But that fixing the problems of the three took 100% of his time — why not cut out the middleman and save the cost of the three?

In response the developer was told that the US was transitioning into a watchdog group, and that more and more of the work was to be done overseas, where it was cheaper.  When the developer complained that he’d just demonstrated it WASN’T cheaper, he was told, “Yes, well, the money for the salaries overseas comes from a different fund than our money.”

The corporation had dumbsized.  They’d incurred additional expense (“restructuring costs”) at the expense of profit.  They changed their most talented producers of product from producers to babysitters, changing the focus of their jobs from creating excellent product to trying to fix bad products just enough to get them to market.

In a more pointed example of dumbsizing at that company, at one point the executives decided that too much money was wasted on sanitation service.  Janitorial staff was slashed to the bone and beyond, and multiple messages went out, and signs went up, telling the engineers (who were making at least 5 times the amount of the janitors) how to do the jobs of the laid off janitorial staff.  This, of course, resulted in the predictable:  a few engineers did some of the work, but mostly it was ignored.  The buildings began to stink.  The floors were covered in filth much of the time, the garbage in various areas began to attract insects.  After not too many weeks the janitorial staff was brought back, a rare but understandable case where dumbsizing was recognized and fixed.

Correct short term decisions do not necessarily lead to correct long-term decisions.  As long as executives, and those who pressure executives, create an atmosphere where short-term gain is privileged over long-term success, catastrophe will eventually result.  When people cover up that catastrophe with buzz words and ill applied jargon, meant intentionally to deceive, you’ll get — well, go look at a synopsis of the American economy in 2009.  That’s what you’ll get.

Written by Bill O'Rights

September 1, 2009 at 3:11 pm

“Health care reform” — words, words, words

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True story.

I stepped on a partially open manhole cover once, ending up doing the splits with one leg completely in the hole and one leg out.  Smashed up, cut, scraped, and bruised just about everything below my waist.  But soon everything seemed to be healing well.  On the way back from a vacation on Jekyll Island, a tiny red spot appeared just where my deepest bruise had been, right near my right knee.  On the flight back it kept getting larger.  And hotter to the touch.  And more painful.  So I went to the emergency room on getting back home.  (It was Sunday, and after the UTC hours, so that was my only choice, really.)

The first nurse said, “Oh, nasty bacterial infection there.”  And the second nurse.  And the resident.  The attending, seeing that I’d just got back from a tropical island, decided that I just happen to have been bitten by a spider on the one place on my leg that hadn’t yet healed from my fall, and put me on anti-virals.  Which, the pharmacist informed me, I was lucky to have insurance for, because they were over $300 a bottle without insurance.

The next day, the spot taking over my leg, saw me being admitted to the hospital by the infectious disease guy because I obviously had cellulitis, a bacterial infection, and they needed to pump me full of intravenous antibiotics because I was (ack!) a diabetic.  I had good insurance, a PPO, but had to get approval for all procedures.  So I asked the money person at the hospital ( a vital part of being admitted) how that worked, and was told that the hospital itself would clear all procedures, I had no worries.

On day two in the hospital, a doctor popped her head in and asked if she could talk with me, she was from some diabetic group.  I answered in the affirmative and she gave me the 8th grade level 15 minute lecture on what diabetes was, and the next day came back and spent 5 minutes giving me my first prescriptions and a list of endocrinologists I might want to contact.

Some time passes, and I get a $475 bill from some diabetic group.  Turns out that this group is not part of my PPO circle, and that 15 minute visit and 5 minute follow up is almost $500, more than the rest of my stay in the hospital with my insurance.  There were some rather emotional (on my part) back and forth communications about this, resulting in my bill being sent to a collection agency and my then girlfriend insisting that I pay the bill since we were getting engaged soon and she didn’t want the blip on my credit score.  Gritting my teeth, I paid the money.

In the words of Ron White, “I told you that story so I could tell you this one.”

Now I’m a diagnosed diabetic.  Which means my ONLY insurance is going to come from work.  The next year, the company tells us, “Too many people used their medical insurance last year.  It’s too expensive, we’re going with a cheaper plan.”  The “cheaper” plan, of course, is cheaper for the portion of the premiums paid by the employer, not cheaper for the employee.  Higher deductibles, higher premiums, higher co-pays, higher prescription costs are the result, along with a lifetime limit.

As bad as MY new insurance was, however, new employees to the company had it even worse:  they were offered a completely craptastic plan, health insurance that did not count as health insurance for the purpose of continuing coverage.  Get diagnosed as a diabetic under that plan?  Oh, so sorry, if you switch jobs to a real health insurance you’ll likely not be covered for the first N months to a year because of a pre-existing condition clause.

I was lucky in that I was able to transfer to my wife’s insurance — when I left that company that were talking about offering health savings accounts (HSAs) as the only medical benefit.  Even the HSA provider that they brought in to attempt to sell the scheme to the employees said that she’d never use an HSA if any other form of health benefit was available.

Our current family plan (for my wife, my daughter and myself) is ok, nothing as good as my wife’s former insurance or my former insurance, but not bad for the area.  It has individual deductibles for each family member, so when all three of us came down with strep throat in January this year it cost us (out of pocket for visits and meds) almost $600. Later my daughter had to have surgery (she had a basically permanent infection that was filling and blocking the sinus cavities on the right side of her head) and the out-patient surgery (in and out in 6 hours) was, before insurance, over $6000.  Our insurance doesn’t have a cap, but the second plan in the story above had a $120000 lifetime cap.  A surgery for a daughter here, a couple of hundred dollars a month for diabetic supplies and meds — anyone with crappy insurance is looking at definite problems.

So don’t say that we don’t need health care reform.  Less and less is being offered and even those with insurance are paying more and more for the less.  You may not agree with the public option (which means, possibly, that you are against receiving medicaid, medicare, social security and workman’s compensation insurance), and that’s one thing.  But if you say that the medico-insurance complex doesn’t need reform then you are, not to put to fine a point on it, stupid.  And as Ron White says, that can’t be fixed.

Written by Bill O'Rights

August 19, 2009 at 8:09 pm

“Free Market” — words, words, words

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In addition to TANSTAAFL (“There is no such thing as a free lunch”) there is also TANSTAAFM (“There is no such thing as a free market”).  If someone uses “free market” or “free enterprise” or “let the market settle it” in an argument about the United States they have an attenuated grasp of reality.

If you think the United States has a free market, then I advise you to try the following business moves:

  • Build a television transmitter and broadcast from it, making revenue from advertising.  Transmit whatever you like.
  • Open a hot dog stand in the back of your station wagon in the downtown area of your home town
  • Attempt to buy antibiotics from a pharmacy for resale on the sidewalk in front of a UTC
  • In most of America, trade sex for monetary compensation (in a direct form, rather than indirectly through a “relationship”)
  • Import drugs purchased legally abroad for sale and distribution in the US
  • Make a still and start selling the resulting alcohol out of your garage, even to members of the armed services under the age of 21.
  • Build whatever kind of business you like on your land within a city limit
  • Talk to the wrong person before purchasing stock

The list could go on and on.  Free market capitalism simply does not exist in the United States.  What we have, rather, is regulatory capitalism, much of which is driven by major corporations attempting to stifle free competition in order to protect their own profits.  (The same could be said of political parties attempting to protect their chances with voters, but we’ll leave that for another day.)

The idea that we have a free market capitalism is appealing on an emotional level, but it remains a lie.  If someone uses it in an argument, call them on it.  Since we have a regulatory capitalism, that portion of their argument must evolve to take into account what regulations exist, what regulations are being called for, and where the benefits of such legislation accrue.

Written by Bill O'Rights

August 18, 2009 at 1:24 am

Posted in Words

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