Tag: business

The More Things Change, the More They Stay the Same

The following headlines were on a magazine cover I saw over the weekend: 

  • “Why People are Mad at Washington” 
  • “Less Zip in Business” 
  • “Republican Split” 
  • “New York on Brink Again” 
  • “Mideast War Jitters” 

With, perhaps, the exception of the headline about New York, one could easily conclude that the magazine is a current issue. However, that’s not the case. The cover actually belongs to the June 21, 1976 issue of U.S. News & World Report.

 

My parents kept it because that was the day I was born. Evidence, I believe, that God has a sense of humor. I can’t help but wonder though: will headlines in another 37 years be that much different?

Business in the Movies

Libertarians have often complained about the selective and hostile portrayal of business in Hollywood movies. A couple of little-known Hollywood movies that offer a different view are going to be on television this week.

The 1960 film “Cash McCall,” starring James Garner as an early “corporate raider,” was voted ”Best Libertarian Picture” at the 1994 First International Libertarian Film Festival. Take that as you will. But arguably it does show, as the late lamented Miss Liberty website said,  ”a talented investor who overcomes envy and anti-success prejudice.” And it’s on TCM Saturday night at midnight.

USA Network meanwhile, is broadcasting “Taking Woodstock” 22 hours early, at 2 a.m. Saturday (i.e., very late Friday night). I wrote about that movie for Liberty magazine in 2010 (not online):

The movie Taking Woodstock, directed by Ang Lee, led me to the book of the same name by Elliot Tiber. I knew of Woodstock as a hippie happening a bit before my time. What I found interesting about the movie and the book was the portrayal of the Woodstock Festival, “Three Days of Peace and Music,” as an impressive entrepreneurial venture.

In 1969 Tiber was a 33-year-old gay designer living in Manhattan, while spending his weekends trying to save his parents’ rundown Catskills motel. One weekend he read that some concert promoters had been denied a permit in Wallkill, N.Y. He came up with the crazy idea of inviting them to hold the festival on his parents’ property. Lo and behold, they showed up to check it out. Taking the lead was 24-year-old Michael Lang, who went on to become a prominent concert promoter and producer.

The Tiber (actually Teichberg) property wasn’t suitable, but Elliot drove Lang and his team down the road to Max Yasgur’s nearby farm. At least that’s Tiber’s story; other sources say he exaggerates his role. He did play a key role, however, in that he had a permit to hold an annual music festival, which up until then had involved a few local bands.

There’s a wonderful scene, better in the movie than in the book, when Lang and Yasgur negotiate a price for the use of the farm. We see it dawning on Yasgur that this is a big deal. We see Elliot panicking that the deal will fall through, and that without the festival business his parents will lose their motel. And we see Lang’s assistant reassuring Elliot that both parties want to make a deal, so they’ll find an acceptable price, which indeed they do.

And then, with 30 days to transform a dairy farm into a place for tens of thousands of people to show up for a 3-day festival, Tiber describes (and Lee shows) a whirlwind of activity. “Within a couple of hours, the phone company had a small army of trucks and tech people on the grounds, installing the banks of telephones that Lang and his people needed.” Helicopters, limousines, and motorcycles come and go. A few hundred people are erecting scaffolding, stage sets, speakers, and toilets. The motel keepers are trying to find rooms and food for the workers and the early arrivals. The local bank is eagerly providing door-to-door service for the mountains of cash flowing into bucolic White Lake, N.Y.

Meanwhile, there are a few locals who don’t like the whole idea. In Tiber’s telling, they don’t like Jews, queers, outsiders, or hippies. Maybe they just didn’t like a quiet village being overrun with thousands of outsiders. In any case they had a few tools available to them. A dozen kinds of inspectors swarmed around the Teichbergs’ motel. The town council threatened to pull the permit. Tiber writes, “Why is it that the stupidest people alive become politicians? I asked myself.”  At the raucous council meeting Lang offered the town a gift of $25,000 ($150,000 in today’s dollars), and most of the crowd got quiet. Max Yasgur stood and pointed out that “he owned his farm and had a right to lease it as he pleased.” That didn’t stop the opposition, but in the end the concert happened.

The psychedelic posters and language about peace and love – and on the other side, the conservative fulminations about filthy hippies (see John Nolte’s movie review at BigHollywood.com – can obscure the fact that Woodstock was always intended as a profit-making venture. That was the goal of Lang and his partners, and it was also the intention of Tiber, Yasgur, and those of their neighbors who saw the concert as an opportunity and not a nightmare. The festival did rescue the Teichberg finances. It ended up being a free concert, however, which caused problems for Lang and his team. Eventually, though, they profited from the albums and the hit documentary Woodstock….

Tiber writes, “One of the great benefits of Woodstock—a benefit that, to my knowledge, has never been written about—was its sexual diversity.” But I think the fact that there were gay awakenings at Woodstock — and three-ways and strapping ex-Marines in sequined dresses — would surprise people less than the realization that Woodstock was a for-profit venture that involved a lot of entrepreneurship, hard-nosed negotiation, organization, and hard work. Taking Woodstock (the book, but better yet the movie) is a great story of sex, drugs, rock-and-roll, and capitalism.

Those of a different political persuasion may prefer TCM’s Dalton Trumbo extravaganza tonight.

IBM as a Metaphor for Economic Success

International Business Machines Inc. is celebrating its 100th anniversary as a company today. In this time of economic worry and uncertainty, it’s worth taking a moment to consider a few policy lessons we might glean from its longevity.

Unlike government agencies and programs, private-sector companies competing in a free market come and go. In an essay posted on the IBM web site, company officials noted:

Of the top 25 industrial corporations in the United States in 1900, only two remained on that list at the start of the 1960s. And of the top 25 companies on the Fortune 500 in 1961, only six remain there today.

How did IBM not only survive but thrive during a century that took us from horses and buggies to FaceBook and iPhones? In a word, adaptability. IBM’s management has been willing to change to meet the evolving demands of a competitive and open marketplace.

When I was researching a speech last year to retired IBM employees, I was struck by how the company has transformed itself. As I shared with the audience, IBM stands as a metaphor for the positive changes under way in our more high-tech and globalized economy:

As you all know, [IBM] has re-engineered itself from a hardware company to a provider of software and services. Today, nearly 60 percent of the company’s revenue comes from services compared to 38 percent a decade ago. Revenue from hardware has been cut in half, to 17 percent.

IBM’s gone global in a big way, too. Almost two-thirds of its revenue now comes from outside the United States. That compares to an S&P average of 47 percent. Emerging markets now account for 50 percent of its revenue growth. IBM is the biggest IT services company in India. For $100 million, it’s helping the northeast China city of Shenyang—one of its most polluted—clean up its air and reduce carbon emissions.

Politicians nostalgic for an America where the dominant companies were unionized, heavy-industry behemoths producing mostly for the domestic market should take note. As I argued at length in my 2009 book Mad about Trade (see chapters 3 and 4) and more concisely in an essay for Barron’s Weekly, America has become a globalized, middle-class service economy. As the success of IBM demonstrates, this is not something we should fear, or try to resist with trade barriers and industrial policy.

“Either the Most Honest Politician in the World or the Most Opportunistic”

Paul Waldie at Toronto’s Globe and Mail reports on the case of Mike Reilly, who (unsuccessfully so far) has sought to write off as tax expenses the costs of campaigning for local office in a suburb of Vancouver. Reilly told a tax court that there was nothing idealistic about his quest for government office: he wanted “to earn a good salary and promote his business,” raising the visibility of his development company. Lawyers for the Canada Revenue Agency insisted that Reilly wouldn’t have gone to the trouble of running unless he had cared about at least some public issues, but he disputed that:

“You know, I don’t recall being passionate about any issues other than seizing an opportunity to step in and develop a better profile for myself,” Mr. Reilly replied. “No. It was strictly business for me.”

The tax judge ruled against Reilly based on accounting issues but accepted his general contention that he “was not passionate about any issue except increasing his own profile and earning the salary of mayor,” noting that the candidate “did not listen to the citizens of Delta and did not appear to have much interest in their concerns.” If all politicians had to tell the truth, how many similar confessions might we hear?

Paul Krugman and Regime Uncertainty

Paul Krugman dismisses concerns that the Obama administration’s fiscal and regulatory policies are fostering uncertainty in the business community, and thus inhibiting job growth and an economic recovery.

My Cato colleagues and I have been citing this “regime uncertainty” for a while now, and it is gaining mainstream acceptance as evidenced by a recent Washington Post editorial.

I have pointed to surveys of small businesses conducted by the National Federation of Independent Business. The businesses surveyed continually cite the combination of government taxes and regulations as their “single most important problem.”

However, Krugman looks at the NFIB’s most recent survey and comes away with a different conclusion:

Or read through the latest survey of small business trends by the National Federation for Independent Business, an advocacy group. The commentary at the front of the report is largely a diatribe against government — “Washington is applying leeches and performing blood-letting as a cure” — and you might naïvely imagine that this diatribe reflects what the surveyed businesses said. But while a few businesses declared that the political climate was deterring expansion, they were vastly outnumbered by those citing a poor economy.

This is the chart from the survey that Krugman is referencing:

Considering the depth and length of the recession, the fact that “economic condition” is the runaway leader isn’t surprising. But I wonder how many of the businesses citing “economic conditions” are happy with the “political climate.” I doubt very many. Notice that zero respondents said that the political climate was a “good time” to expand. Couple that with the plurality who said this isn’t a good time to expand due to economic conditions and you get an indictment of the administration’s interventionist policies that Krugman has supported.

Krugman continues:

The charts at the back of the report, showing trends in business perceptions of their “most important problem,” are even more revealing. It turns out that business is less concerned about taxes and regulation than during the 1990s, an era of booming investment. Concerns about poor sales, on the other hand, have surged. The weak economy, not fear about government actions, is what’s holding investment down.

Interestingly, Krugman ignores the chart that immediately precedes the trends in business perceptions: the “single most important problem” respondents currently face. It is definitely more revealing:

Thirty percent of respondents said their single most important problem is “Poor Sales.” “Taxes” and “Government Regulations and Red Tape” come in second and third place at 22 percent and 13 percent respectively. Combining the two, the biggest problem facing small businesses according to respondents is government.

Krugman waves the government problem away by pointing out that taxes and regulations ranked higher in the 1990s when the economy was strong. However, he ignores the trend. Concern about taxes and regulations trended lower as the 1990s moved into the 2000s, but have been trending higher in the last couple of years.

Take a look at the trend chart that includes taxes:

The tax outlook improved as the Clinton and Bush administrations cut taxes and the federal budget was brought under control. Rising tax concerns could be explained by future expectations of higher taxes to pay for Bush and Obama’s profligacy. Additionally, states have been raising taxes during the recession to make up for budget shortfalls. Future expectations of higher taxes to pay for the unfunded liabilities of state and local employee benefits could also be a consideration.

Also note how much higher taxes rank than financing. Yet, it seems that most media outlets believe credit unavailability is the chief problem facing businesses. Indeed, the president has been pushing a $30 billion package to increase lending to small businesses. But businesses don’t need more subsidized credit backed by taxpayers — they need relief from the president’s agenda.

Stossel Tonight!

Tom Palmer, Johan Norberg, and I are among the guests tonight on Stossel on the Fox Business Network. John Stossel interviews us all about the work and impact of Milton Friedman, especially his book Free to Choose, published 30 years ago. Political theorist Benjamin Barber provides the anti-Friedman counterpoint.

Watch Stossel Thursdays at 8 p.m. and 12 midnight, Saturdays at 8 p.m. and 11 p.m., and Sundays at 10 p.m. (all times eastern).

Feds Propose Forfeiture as Immigration Employer Sanction

As recent posts in this space indicate, advocates of individual liberty have a variety of views on the proper policy response to illegal immigration. Whatever the disagreements, I suspect there’s some degree of consensus that certain proposed remedies are entirely too Draconian. From the California Labor and Employment Law Blog:

The U.S. Attorneys Office in San Diego has recently criminally prosecuted a French bakery for allegedly engaging in an intentional pattern and practice of hiring unauthorized workers. As part of the indictment, the Government is seeking hefty monetary fines, prison time for the owner and management, and asset forfeiture of the entire business to the Government. While the Government does not have experience running a French bakery, they are getting very serious about enforcing I-9 regulations.

More details on the French Gourmet prosecution can be found at the San Diego Union-Tribune and Restaurant Hospitality.

When government began pushing for asset forfeiture powers, some imagined that the formidable power would remain mostly confined to use in, say, illegal drug or money laundering prosecutions. But that’s not how it has worked. And immigration is hardly the only area in which employers should be worried about the expanding bounds of criminalization. Bills pending in Congress would criminalize “misclassification” of employees – which commonly consists of disagreeing with the government or with labor unions as to whether particular employees should count as independent contractors not covered by overtime and similar federal labor laws. Are we far from the day when prosecutors will start proposing forfeitures against employers over such infractions?

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