Tuesday, March 25, 2014

Some Tabloid Headlines We'd Like To See...

2008 Bank Bailout Revoked!
Newly-Uncovered Accounting Error
Returns $875B Back To U.S. Taxpayers
Bankers Sent To Federal Detention Hearings:
"It's Only Temporary," US Attorney Claims
White House Calls Special Joint Session 
To Overhaul Affordable Care Act Morass 
Prez: "Should Have Kept Public Option Alive:
What The Hell Was I Thinking, 
Subsidizing All These Insurance Giants?"
Radical New Fix Unveiled to Cure 
Stubborn Unemployment Rate:
Disgraced Mortgage Barons
Now Clean Floors,Dig Ditches,Pull Weeds:
White House Puts Corporate Welfare To Work
Mysterious Peruvian Megavirus
Blasts Content Mills And Temp Agencies
Offline, And Into Oblivion:
Ex-Contractors Chuckle:
"The Temp Nation Giveth, 
And The Temp Nation Taketh Away"
Fast Food Workers
Arrest Ronald McDonald At Wage Protest
McDonald's Forced Employees 
To Work Without AC On Hottest Day Ever:
Groundswell Grows In Oxaca Vs. The Clown
So Much For The 1 Percent:
Mega-Rich SUVs, Luxury Cars
Melted, Sold To Fund Nationwide Food Bank
Billionaires Bitch About Riding Subways:
Poor Hail End Of Week-Old Birthday Cake,
Stale Mac And Cheese, Tunafish Cans
And Other Crappy Food Pantry Castoffs

So Funny You Forgot To Laugh Dept.: With so many genuine sociopolitical absurdities out there to laugh about, why did the fabled supermarket tabloids of '70s and '80s yore spend so much time -- and precious newsprint -- on the usual faded parade of two-headed babies, defrocked B- and C-list celebs, closet cross-dressing Senators, and other fabled conceits of the tabloid business?

We're not quite sure ourselves, exactly, so we decided to strike a balance in the "right" direction -- with some headlines appropriate for our times.  Now, here's the kicker...amid all these displays of banner-typed absurdity, (1) headline is totally true, and (1) headline is partially true (we've slipped in a qualifying "kicker" phrase to throw your nose off the scent -- that's how editors do it, y'know).

Give us the right answers by midnight Saturday, and you'll get a special prize of our choosing...(3) punk rock collage postcards, plus a packet of press clippings suited for our ever-so-desperate times. If not, we'll announce the results, updated right here....over the weekend.

As in Britain, "first past the post" wins -- in case of any confusion, we'll use email timestamps as the tie-breaker.  We can't make you rich and famous, but we can make you laugh, and make you a micro-celebrity here.  Surely that's worth something in these blighted times, right? --The Reckoner

UPDATE (3/30/13): Well, as it turns out, we may need to wave a few bob around next time...perhaps. It's the end of the month at Reckoner Towers, so we'll have to time our next little competition a bit differently. 

At any rate, the correct headline was #5: "Fast Food Workers Arrest Ronald McDonald At Wage Protest."  The partially correct headline was "McDonald's Forced Employees To Work Without AC On Hottest Day Ever" -- which we, shall we say, "found" somewhere -- but, to the best of our knowledge, there's no revolution brewing against McDonalds in Mexico ("Groundswell Grows In Oxaca Vs. The Clown"). 

However, the photo of Ronald brandishing the automatic weapon does hail from Mexico -- so, perhaps, something's happening that we don't know about yet. At any rate...we'll come up with another little artdisplay/competition down the road. --The Reckoner

Sunday, March 16, 2014

Could You Live On A Fast Food Wage? Take The Test!

I'm (Not) Lovin It...
...And Neither Should You!

The original inspiration for this post came from surfing the web, and doing an image search for "Evil Ronald McDonald".  I laughed aloud at seeing how many images popped up, particularly of the pornographic variety...suffice to say, the distance between Ronald and Pennywise (above) is only a click or two apart.

That point aside, it's interesting to see the same tired stereotypes getting recycled in the current debate about raising the minimum wage. The Republicans, per usual, dredge up the old "pimply-faced-teens-working-for-Friday-night-pin-money" chestnut as their reason for not parting with any pennies for the cause...when they (and others like them) aren't spinning that other favorite yarn of theirs: "But...it's...a...job...killer."

Yes, plenty of jobs have gotten shot, stopped cold, frozen dead in their tracks -- the good paying ones, that is, as The New Yorker ("The Pay Is Too Damn Low," 8/12/13) points out ("five of the six fastest-growing job categories today pay less than the median wage"). A generation ago, as books like Fast Food Nation observed, the industry resembled a portrait from Bugsy Malone...that of children pretending to be adults.

Today, however, the face of many fast food restaurants, discount retail stores and similar sorts of low-wage jobs is closer to that of Happy Days's jolly father figure, Howard Cunningham -- a senior citizen (remember, that's anybody 50 and up) -- and, often, a minority -- trying to stitch together several part-time jobs for the privilege of existing another month...watching whatever dreams that they formerly entertained for themselves dying one burger flip at a time, fizzling with each fry that pops in a deep fryer.

What's even more shocking, though, is how these corporate behemoths effectively force the public to subsidize their operations. How so?  Start with the National Employment Law Project's October 2013 data brief, "Super-Sizing Public Costs: How Low Wages at Top Fast-Food Chains Leave Taxpayers Footing The Bill."  As far as I'm concerned, the following paragraph on page 3 says it all:

"According to a study by researchers at the University of California-Berkeley, more than 
half (52 percent) of front-line fast-food workers must rely on at least one public assistance program to support their families. As a result, the fast-food-industry business model of low wages, non-existent benefits, and limited work hours costs taxpayers an average of nearly $7 billion every year." [Bold emphasis: yours truly]

Once you've digested that disconcerting little nugget, scroll down to the next page and study the outsized compensation packages that (quite naturally) only go to those topping the pyramid.  McDonalds CEO, Donald Thompson, far outpaces his rivals -- with an annual salary of $13.7 million, plus $5.5 billion in dividends and stock buybacks.

Indeed, there's no frown turning upside down on the face of this particular clown, especially when you see where his nearest rival (Burger King CEO Bernardo Hees) fares in those sweepstakes, at $6.4 billion and $14.4 million, respectively. By any standard, these are astonishing figures -- enough to make even Gilded Age robber barons like Jay Gould spin with sheer giddy jealousy in their graves.

What's even more interesting, if you read the UC Berkeley study (see below), is that working full-time in these types of jobs makes no real difference.  According to the study's executive summary, roughly half of families of fast food workers pulling down 40 or more hours per week were enrolled in public assistance programs.  A staggering 87 percent don't receive any benefits from their employers, forcing social programs like Medicare -- and, ultimately, the taxpayers -- to pick up the tab.

In recent years, I haven't found myself darkening The Clown's doorstep, let alone of those of his rivals, except to use the bathroom -- and for good reason, if these studies are any indication. It's easy to rationalize away these imbalances as the price of progress, the natural outcome of a frenzied commitment to globalism that cannot be postponed for a moment.

And then, I think of the people occupying these places, all wedged together like so many matchsticks behind the fryer -- young blacks, and the odd Hispanic...single women, struggling to wring every last drop from their twenties, before those good memories slip out the back door for good...right beside their middle-aged mothers and fathers, cousins, friends and relations, who've finally grubbed their way up the management ladder to an uncertain future...praying that those extra few pennies per hour will hold off real life just a bit longer.

You've probably seen similar faces behind the fast food counter in your town, toiling for the privilege of that $8.69 per median wage noted in the UC Berkeley study...pressing their noses to the grindstone, hoping against hope that this particular clock-punching gig might actually just work out...even as they just stand on their feet, getting a little bit older, and a little bit wearier, as the air continues to hiss out of their particular balloon.

Think about them, the next time you hear all those old, excuses for continuing that grimy, grasping, back-scratching realpolitik that makes no measurable difference in the average person's life -- the song and dance of backroom dealmaking, or "Kuhhandel" ("cattle trading"), as Weimar Republic-era politicians scornfully called it.

Take the Mother Jones wage calculator (below), and then, ask yourself: could you live on what The Clown pays?  If that happens to be your situation, how are you managing that feat? And if we're really so concerned about an economic recovery, shouldn't we worry about the quality of jobs, as well as the quantity?  --The Reckoner

Mother Jones (August 2013: "Could You Survive On Fast Food Wages? Try Our Calculator):

The National Employment Law Project (October 2013 Data Brief: "Super-Sizing Public Costs: How Low Wages at Top Fast-Food Chains Leave Taxpayers Footing The Bill

The New Yorker (August 2013: "The Pay Is Too Damn Low"):

UC Berkeley ("Fast Food, Poverty Wages: The Public Cost Of Low-Wage Jobs In The Fast-Food Industry"): 

Monday, March 3, 2014

Collisions With The Piecework Industrial Complex

Knowing people who work in creative or media-related fields has one inevitable side effect: you get asked for advice on all sorts of matters. That's not surprising, because when we're all asked to "Party Like It's 1911" (economically speaking), your financial options are limited to...oh, one from Column A, or Column A.

D'you prefer to get shot, or stabbed? D'you want Tweedledee or Tweedledum playing sneaky panther games with your lives for another two, four or six years? D'you fancy a 22 percent annual percentage rate on your bloody credit, or will 20.99 percent suit you better?  The Evil Of Two Lessers marches on.  And so on, and so forth.  And so on, and so forth...wash, rinse, repeat. 

Exploitation comes in all shapes and sizes. However, it's no secret that the media industry has undergone a column inch tsunami of epic proportions, with plenty of blood shed on the cutting room floor. If you're lucky, you get to hang onto your current lousy job by your fingernails for another year or so, while your equally sad sack employer frantically switches from Blue Cross Michigan to Blue Cross Pennsylvania to Blue Cross Illinois and back again...all in the hopes of squeezing another buck or two off the little that he's spending to keep you around. And so on, and so forth.  And so on, and so forth. Wash, rinse, repeat.

Or so he claims...the battleship-sized SUV in the parking lot tells a different story, though, doesn't it? At any rate, if you're unlucky, you're sent off to pasture with all the other unlucky sheep or goats that beat you to the punch...but don't worry! There's a solution ahead. Hell, in your less discriminating moments...you might even mistake this one for Column B.

At any rate, with so many journalists scrambling for work, it's heartening to know that some evil mustache twirling flimflam man out there has figured out a solution to keep them busy for another year or two...and it's coming soon, to a town near you...it's The Digital Sweatshop! Lots of different contract work sites are popping up like mushrooms, and while I'm not going to single out any one of them, they all tend to leave equally grimy fingerprints on the gun.

The rates are rock bottom, by industry standards (anywhere from $3-$25 per piece, based on what I've seen)...which doesn't stop the operators from wanting to own all your rights forever, "by any mediums that may yet be printed or discovered, yada-yada-yada"...you know the drill, right? You don't get laid, you barely get paid, with nary a vacation day or benefit in sight...but you sure get to work hard...and talking back isn't on the agenda.

Whatever happens, don't you dare speak up, lad, or that Column B choice will evaporate (along with the few coins tossed into your cup). And so on, and so forth. And so on, and so forth.  Wash, rinse, repeat!

I call this setup, for lack of a better description, The Piecework Industrial Complex, and its demands are getting more outrageous by the day. Recently, a friend of mine explained the travails of applying for a financial advice site that needed people to churn out copy by the pound.  There was only one hitch, though, as he explained.

Apparently, the conversation went something like this:

PIECEWORK POOBAH (PP): "Before we begin the contract, we'd like you to do a trial story first..."

MY FRIEND (MF): "OK, fine, what's the going rate?"

[CUE: Awkward silence, as the "Jeopardy" theme music plays softly in the background.]

PP: "Well, there isn't one, unless we agree to use the story. Otherwise, you don't get paid for it."

MF: "Hmmm....OK, well, how long would this endeavor take, in your estimation?"

PP: "To meet our standards?  A truly well-written, well-researched story would probably take you about eight to 10 hours."

MF: "Hmmm... [CUE more 'Jeopardy' theme music, followed by the sound of crickets chirping in the wilderness.]  I'll have to get back with you on that."

PP: "You can think as long as you like, but we'll have to review your credentials more closely, based on what you've told me earlier...we'll get back to you."

And so on, and so forth.  And so on, and so forth.  Wash, rinse, repeat!

Not having much experience with these sorts of arrangements, I asked my friend to sit tight and hold fire, while I made a contact or two on his behalf...sad to say, though, the agencies tasked with (quote-unquote) "protecting the general public" didn't seem terribly interested in giving me advice on the matter.

In particular, I contacted the California Department of Industrial Relations -- the specific sub-agency's name escapes me at the moment -- but, after a week of hearing those damnable crickets chirping in my ears, it's safe to say that nobody there seems to care. Or, let's be charitable -- they're just elegantly overworked, perhaps.

After a bit more thought, I've since reached a few conclusions:

1. One person's content farm is another person's (quote-unquote) "upstanding outfit." For every company that gets called out for its practices, remember this -- there's loads of others that never get named, but operate in the same way (sign it all away for a fraction now, son, or you won't get the work) -- just on a bigger scale.

2. The reason these little games continue (wash, rinse, repeat!) is because, for every person who flips the bird, 100 chumps elbow each other for their passport to the bottom. And these situations will never change until a bit more '77-era-punk-style awareness spreads more widely than it has, in a long time. Yes, times are tight, but there's never a convenient moment to upset the applecart.

When people stopped believing in the East German Communist paradise, it withered away, just like yesterday's papers. The same thing will happen when people stop feeding the daisy chains of content mills, no-pay media and all those other dubious models that promise endless exposure...but fuck all else for your time and trouble.

3. The exponential growth of self-publishing options appears to promise some refreshing options to the aforementioned problems, too, but your bullshit detector still needs to be humming at top speed -- because all too many seem poised to take your money, even as they nickel 'n' dime you for every service that you want 'em to undertake on your behalf. 

It reminds me of the major-versus-indie-record-label chestnut that went round and round during the '80s and '90s...for all the bitching about who sat behind the desk, 99 percent of those aspiring hopefuls still got cheated at an alarming rate. 

4. There's an old saying in business: "You don't get what you dserve, only what you negotiate." More collective action is needed -- whether we call it an association, a guild or a union doesn't matter. The point is, The Piecework Industrial Complex only wants to deal with you individually, because that way, you don't threaten their power...and you lack any real ability to improve your own lot.

Imagine what like-minded people could do, if they stopped thinking of themselves as mere cogs in the wheel, or so many grains of sand on a beach...and got together to take the high ground. Again, I realize that we're struggling to keep our heads above water, but if we don't start thinking a bit more long-term, we'll never accomplish much else. 

The struggle may be messy, and a better tomorrow is hardly guaranteed -- but it has to start somewhere. That's how I see it, anyway.

At any rate...after talking with my friend...he's not taking up the trial offer. From my perspective, this ending is equally unusual....someone who actually took my advice!  

I suppose I'll file it next to the last noble business I encountered.  And so, and so forth...and so on, and so forth. Wash, rinse, repeat! --The Reckoner


A Word From David Byrne:

"Slaves Of The Internet, Unite":

"So Who's Paying All Those Unpaid Writers?":