News

“What Does Your Father Do?”

Over at Slate, John Swansburg has written a thought-provoking essay about the American myth of the “self-made man,” how we’re fixated on this idea that we can pull ourselves up by our bootstraps like some of our favorite rich people once did, despite the fact that no one has bootstraps anymore or even would be able to pick bootstraps out of a line up with girdles and spats.

In the intro, he delves into how his own father got started in business:

Mostly, though, my father made his money in real estate. Specifically, he bought and sold buildings he affectionately refers to as “pigs”: big, ugly industrial spaces. Buildings with saw-tooth roofs and wrinkle-tin sides. Buildings that housed sheet metal shops, produce-industry middle-men, discount-furniture-store distribution hubs. In his late 20s and early 30s, the years before he bought the Hilltop, he built a small empire in the hardscrabble ring around Boston: in Charlestown, Everett, the precincts of Cambridge that Harvard and MIT students studiously avoid, and in Chelsea, where his first roofing shop had been. I once asked my father how he knew when a pig was a good investment, since aesthetics, and even location, seemed not to factor into his calculus. “When I’m looking at a building,” he said, “I drive up to it. If my balls tingle, I buy it. Otherwise, I don’t.”

Origin stories! So cool. My dad wanted to be an English professor but it was war time. So as not to get drafted to go fight in Vietnam, he ducked into law school at the advice of a prof, and ended up a lawyer, and that was it for the rest of his life. These things so often happen by chance. Except in America we don’t believe in chance. We believe in Hard Work:

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What Will You Do With Your Extra $200?

It’s that time of year again! When certain people who make six-figure salaries realize that they are getting to keep more of their salary for the rest of the year because they’ve maxed out the amount they are expected to pay into Social Security. In the case of my friend who acquainted me with this phenomenon, and who was super excited about it, it’s an extra $200 per pay period, but YMMV.

From the SSA website:

When you have wages or self-employment income that is covered by Social Security, you pay Social Security taxes each year up to a maximum amount that is set by law. That amount has changed frequently over the years. For 2013, the maximum amount of taxable earnings was $113,700. In 2014, the maximum amount of taxable earnings is $117,000.

Clear? No? How about now:

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DOL Leading the Charge on Paid Leave

At last, at last, the US Department of Labor (and Delivery? ba-dum-ching) has started a push on the subject of paid leave:

The most important family value of all is time together. With the changing nature of our 21st-century workforce, it’s getting harder and harder to balance the demands of the family you love and the job you need. Change has yet to come to Washington, but momentum is growing in the states: So far, California, Rhode Island and New Jersey have passed paid leave laws. It’s time to update workplace policies that are stuck in the past and give more Americans paid family leave – to take care of sick loved ones and newborn children. It’s time for us to #LeadOnLeave.

You have to chuckle at the idea of us “leading on leave” at this point, when we have lagged so far behind for so long. But I understand the hashtag as a framing device: Americans don’t want to do anything unless we can be bravely at the vanguard, waving the sword way out front as others fall in line behind, so, okay, sure, let’s “#LeadOnLeave.” Anything to help us stop pouting on the ground with our arms crossed.

What are these new state laws? Here’s some info about the situation in Rhode Island for example (“an employee can have up to four weeks of paid time off from work without fear of losing their job to care for a seriously ill family member or to bond with a new child through birth, adoption or foster care”). Gee, that sounds idyllic. Maybe we’ll move to Provincetown Providence after all. 

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Coffee vs Diet Coke vs a Pure, Uncaffeinated Life

How much do you spend on coffee a day? Is it worth it? Slate (via Inc) says hell no:

that euphoric short-term state that you enter after drinking coffee is what nonhabitual caffeine consumers are experiencing all of the time. The difference is that for coffee drinkers, the feeling doesn’t last. “Coming off caffeine reduces your cognitive performance and has a negative impact on your mood. The only way to get back to normal is to drink caffeine, and when you do drink it, you feel like it’s taking you to new heights,” Bradberry explained. “In reality, the caffeine is just taking your performance back to normal for a short period.”

It’s bad for your sleep cycles, your productivity, and your wallet. Sorry, lovers of Joe.

I can be smug about this since I’ve never drunk coffee. It’s strong and bitter and I do not get it at all, unless you muffle it in so many layers of milk and sugar that it doesn’t taste anything like coffee, at which point it’s 5,000 calories and $500 and turns your irises into pinwheels.

On the other hand, I get my daily caffeine fix from Diet Coke, which doesn’t even have the defense of being a naturally occurring, organic upper. It’s water and chemicals and fizz and God help me, I love it, even though it is probably wreaking havoc on my gut flora. Who am I to judge? Let he who is without beverage sin cast the first stone.

illo by Charrow, possibly the most serious coffee person I know. 

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Follow the Money (to Find a Genius)

According to these very cool maps provided, for the first time, by the MacArthur Foundation, charting all of their fellows from 1981 to 2013, Genius is quite mobile, more so than the rest of the population. To start with, Genius isn’t necessarily born where the money is:

But it travels there:

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“We Fun Scholars”: Miss America and the Pageantry of Giving

Make your Tuesday vastly better by watching John Oliver’s hilarious and scathing video indictment / expose of the Miss America pageant. What really attracts his attention, though, is not the butt glue or the televised 20-second-answers to complex foreign policy questions. It’s Miss America’s claim that it’s the biggest provider of scholarships for women, offering $45 million a year. “That’s unbelievable!” he says. “As in, I literally did not believe it.”

With good reason.

As Quartz points out:

That turns out to be only virtually true: in theory, all the money is made available, but in reality Miss America ends up spending only about a tenth of the sum in scholarships. What’s especially troubling is that the organization is indeed the biggest provider of scholarships in the US exclusively for women. Not only is the sum itself abysmally low, it is distributed among women chosen first for their looks. Oliver sums it up in one sentence, which, in the wake of Emma Watson’s excellent speech at the UN, perfectly explains why, in 2014, we still very much need feminism.

“Currently, the biggest scholarship program exclusively for women in America requires you to be unmarried, with a mint condition uterus, and also rewards working knowledge of butt adhesive technology.”

Stick around for the video’s surprise twist conclusion! Although the surprise is not that Miss America apologizes for anything, or that it turns out anyone else does indeed offer more money to women scholars than they do.

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“When Leon dies, Bard will perhaps die as well”

In this Gawker polemic against Bard college, an expensive liberal arts school author Leah Finnegan attended for two years before transferring to a public university in the South, Finnegan argues that the fates of eccentric, longstanding college president Leon Botstein and the college itself are linked: “When Leon dies, Bard will perhaps die as well.” In other words, she suggests that Bard, like so many non-profits, suffers from Founder’s Syndrome.

Founder’s Syndrome occurs when a single individual or a small group of individuals bring an organization through tough times (a start-up, a growth spurt, a financial collapse, etc.). Often these sorts of situations require a strong passionate personality – someone who can make fast decisions and motivate people to action.Once those rough times are over, however, the decision-making needs of the organization change, requiring mechanisms for shared responsibility and authority. It is when those decision-making mechanisms don’t change, regardless of growth and changes on the program side, that Founder’s Syndrome becomes an issue. We see this most frequently with organizations that have grown from a mom-and-pop operation to a $12 million community powerhouse, while decisions are still made as if the founders are gathered around someone’s living room, desperately trying to hold things together.

Founder’s Syndrome isn’t necessarily about the actual founder of an organization. The central figure could be the person who took over from the founder. It could be someone who took over in a time of crisis, and led the organization to clear waters. Or it could just be someone who has been at the helm forever. The “founder” could be the CEO. Or it could be a board member, or a handful of board members who have either been there since the beginning or have ridden the organization through tough times.

But the main symptom of Founder’s Syndrome is that decisions are not made collectively. Most decisions are simply made by the “founder.” All other parties merely rubber stamp what the founder suggests. There is generally strong resistance to any change in that decision-making, where the Founder might lose his/her total control of the organization. Boards of these organizations usually don’t govern, but instead “approve” what the founder suggests. Planning isn’t done collectively, but by the founder. And plans / ideas that do NOT come from the founder usually don’t go very far.

Partly because Leon “hates money,” Finnegan argues, Leon’s school, despite tuition hikes, is hanging on by a thread. 

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The Weirdest Ways to Make a Fortune

Here’s a creative and unexpected way to make some money:

Domainers, also known as domain name speculators, buy domain names that they think might be desirable to someone else in the future, often generic words or phrases that they can then flip to business for a profit. Brown asked the guy what happened when people emailed those dormant addresses he owned. The guy said, people don’t do that. Brown borrowed a few, 12 in all from two different guys, and it turned out that people, as well as bots, did email those addresses, to the tune of some 200,000 emails a day, 8% from real humans. All of a sudden, he had a business.

“I started sending bounces back, and I put a little tracker inside of it,” Brown told me. “It turns out that 60% of the time, people opened the bounce I sent. That makes it the most read email in the world–that’s more frequent than my mom reads the email I send to her. I said to myself, ‘I think I’ll put a little back-to-school gift-card ad in the body of this bounce.’ And I let it run. A month-and-a-half later, I’m checking the mail and I get a check from the advertiser for $20,000.”

Best line in the article: “A trained Shakespearean actor, Brown credits his experience in the theater with having provided him a mindset for framing startups.”

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Is 75 Enough?

If you’d like mortality mansplained, this pedantic fellow in the Atlantic does an excellent job. (“Mortality: You’re Doing It Wrong.”) In the process of declaring that 75 is a perfect age to die, the author also declares himself against euthanasia / “death with dignity” movements for some reason and adds that he will have a memorial service before his death because wow is he a control freak. Yet, as the Dude would put it, the author is not wrong — at least not in his main point, that he won’t make any effort to extend his life past 75; he’s just kind of an asshole.

The good news is that we have made major strides in reducing mortality from strokes. Between 2000 and 2010, the number of deaths from stroke declined by more than 20 percent. The bad news is that many of the roughly 6.8 million Americans who have survived a stroke suffer from paralysis or an inability to speak. And many of the estimated 13 million more Americans who have survived a “silent” stroke suffer from more-subtle brain dysfunction such as aberrations in thought processes, mood regulation, and cognitive functioning. Worse, it is projected that over the next 15 years there will be a 50 percent increase in the number of Americans suffering from stroke-induced disabilities. Unfortunately, the same phenomenon is repeated with many other diseases.

So American immortals may live longer than their parents, but they are likely to be more incapacitated. Does that sound very desirable? Not to me.

He makes sound arguments for why trying to extend life past a certain point simply for the sake of it is silly and not cost-effective, especially when quality of life deteriorates and all we have to look forward to is that “second childishness, and mere oblivion” stage. (Which can be a serious financial and emotional burden on our children/care-givers.) I’m kind of convinced. But ask me again when I’ve reached his age: if I have also attained his level of success and feeling of supreme self-satisfaction, perhaps I too will be ready to Let It Go.

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Let’s Help FT Make Work Poetry Happen

Get excited: the Financial Times has launched a WORK-RELATED HAIKU CONTEST. (Registration required.) (To read the full article, not to submit to the contest.)

Here’s all the relevant info:

+ The haiku is a powerful poetic form, in three lines of 5, 7 and 5 syllables. David Lanoue, haiku poet and author, defines it as: “A one-breath poem that discovers connection,” and thinks of a senryu as a comic haiku. Keeping this in mind while you write will help you.

+ The deadline for submissions for the first week’s topic is noon GMT September 24. Please send entries to workplace.haiku@ft.com

+ The best examples of haiku will be narrowed down by FT editors, with a guest judge picking the winner each week. Judges have been nominated by British Haiku Society, the World Haiku Association, and the Haiku Foundation.

Come on, ‘Folders! This is so totally in our wheelhouse. I want to see you dominate like a squad of tiny, fierce Chinese gymnasts.

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Sobering Loan, Debt, Savings News; Or, Janet is Yellen at Us Again

We Americans are in dire straits. We need to pay people to find us roommates so that we can afford to live in grossly overpriced apartments on the outskirts of where the jobs are. Student loans are such a crushing financial burden, totaling $1.2 trillion, that an offshoot of Occupy Wall Street called Rolling Jubilee has started urging debtors to organize and fight back.

Americans have an average of about $30,000 worth of student debt, and one in ten borrowers default on their loans. According to Andrew Ross, a Rolling Jubilee board member and professor at New York University, this sizable group of people can make an impact if they act as a unit. … “Debtors often don’t identify their condition as permanent,” Taylor said. Unlike medical debt, which is usually perceived as unavoidable, “people with student loans feel like they made a choice. It’s their problem. They feel shame instead of outrage.” …

The long-term goals, group members say, are to challenge the very existence of student loans in the first place and advocate for free education. “There’s this strong sense in the United States of morality behind debt—that being a good person means paying what you owe,” said Thomas Gokey, 35, who has $67,000 in student loans and came up with the idea of buying portfolios on the secondary market for the collective’s first action back in 2012. “We hope to undermine this fake morality around debt.” Since the debt was bought for pennies on the dollar, he says, people “really don’t owe this debt at all. Someone is simply making a profit.”

The GOP blocked Elizabeth Warren’s student loan bill, again. And now Fed Chair Janet Yellen has some more grim news

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