Thursday, October 30, 2008

Obama Policies That Scare Me

Much scares me about how America will change under an Obama administration.

Politicians typically hide their more extreme policy plans until after the election, but here are some of his already-announced proposals that I believe will be bad for the nation:

1. Obama’s proposal to make it much easier to unionize, for example, no secret ballot required. So, a union organizer could come to your home and twist your arm into signing. If 51% of a workplace’s workers sign, it’s unionized.

Unionization yields a net negative to the country. Just think of our leading unionized industries:

· Auto -- Massive layoffs resulting in many long-term unemployed people. We’ve ceded industry leadership to foreign automakers.

· Steel -- Also brought to its knees, many steel workers having lost their jobs.

· Teachers -- Tenure after just two years, which they retain for life even if quite burned out and educating kids poorly.

· Government, notorious for inefficiency.

I don't want to expand that to the rest of the nation.

2. Obama's advocacy of "The Dream Act," which would allow illegals to attend our most prestigious public colleges (e.g., UCLA, Berkeley, Michigan) and at in-state rates.

Because of many colleges' reverse-discrimination admission policies, The Dream Act would mean that many legal residents with A grades and high SAT scores would be rejected from those colleges, even if they're willing to pay the very high out-of-state tuition, while illegal immigrants with B grades and low scores would be admitted, paying in-state tuition and usually receiving financial aid and scholarships so they end up paying much less than that.

That is not just unfair but also deprives some of our best and brightest from access to our top colleges, where they're more likely to fully develop their potential, and thus be better able to address society's problems.

3. The $150 billion that Obama wants to spend on alternative energy. Those will be sloppy seconds: the investments that the private sector wouldn't have made on its own. (Remember the ethanol boondoogle?) Yet Obama wants to force the ever-more-strapped taxpayer to fund yet more risky schemes.

4. Obama's proposal to spend yet more on education so, for example, all students are able to go to college.

On first blush, like most politician soundbites, that sounds good, but as I've written, for example, in my article in the Chronicle of Higher Education, America's Most Overrated Product: The Bachelor's Degree, we already send too many students to college. Digging yet deeper into the high school barrel will cause colleges to further dumb-down instruction and will discourage not-academically-oriented high school graduates from pursuing post-high-school options that are more likely to lead to their career and life success:

· apprenticeships

· short-term career-training programs at community colleges

· learning entrepreneurship at the elbow of a successful small businessperson

· and yes, even the military, which has been a launchpad to a good life for many not-academically-oriented people.

5. Obama’s promise of a path to citizenship for the U.S.’s 12 million illegal immigrants. As many people have written, the social costs will be enormous, especially when the unskilled laborers’ bodies break down and thus, uneducated and often speaking poor English, are likely to become expensive wards of the state.

But even before that, the unprecedentedly large uncontrolled immigrant population, with its high crime rate, health care needs, education needs, birth rate, and low-taxpaying rate, promises to be devastating to the U.S.

And Obama’s policies, in fact, are likely to be even more extreme. As I asserted earlier, like most politicians, Obama won’t be as centrist as his campaign implies. That is especially likely in Obama's case because he will have a liberal, possibly filibuster-proof Congress, an adoring media to promulgate his positions, and because he has had substantive formative relationships with hard leftists. I'm not mainly talking here about William Ayres or Rashid Khalidi, with whom Obama seems to have had a limited relationship. I'm more worried that:

  • The Obama campaign's official blogger is Sam Graham-Felson, who, for example, in 2006, wrote, in the magazine Socialist Viewpoint, an article supportive of the leftist French rioters. (Remember the pictures of rioters burning cars?)
  • Obama's and his family's mentor for two decades and campaign advisor until the media reported it, was radical theologian Reverend Jeremiah Wright, who repeatedly gave anti-white, I hate-America sermons including the famous "God Damn America" sermon. (Just because that is old news doesn't make it invalid news.)
  • During his formative years, Obama was mentored by Communist party member Frank Marshall Davis.
  • Obama co-founded and his wife was on the board of Public Allies, which despite its moderate-sounding mission statement, in practice appears to have been quite an anti-male, anti-white, anti-capitalist organization.
  • His integrity is suspect. He promises to listen to all sides, yet all his advisors are left of center, he was quite involved with felon Tony Rezko, and he promised to limit his campaign's spending, but when he figured he could raise more money than McCain, he reneged on that promise.
  • The nonpartisan National Journal ranked Obama America's #1 most liberal senator, more liberal even than the socialist senator, Bernie Sanders.
All this scares me because I believe--although no one can be sure--that cautiously regulated capitalism is, long-term, the approach most likely to bring the most good to the most people, and ironically, that a big leftist government is, long-term, likely to lead to increased poverty and pain.

Most empires, for example, the Roman, Ottoman, and British, had relatively short hegemonies. I believe the U.S.'s is quickly ending and Obama will accelerate it, leading us into, long-term, an ever-lower standard of living.

Sunday, October 26, 2008

Even in Bad Times, Government Will Get More of Your Money

I just received my property tax bill. Although in the last two years, my home's value has dropped by 1/3, my tax bill is the highest ever.

I was tempted to file an inquiry, but today I read this in the Bureau of Labor Statistics Daily Report:
This January, local tax authorities will begin to send out property assessments for 2009, telling homeowners what their property is valued at, and how much their tax bill is.
But many assessments won't reflect any of the steep home price declines that have been making headlines for the last year or so. And even if property assessments do drop, property tax bills won't necessarily be any lower.
Property taxes climbed relentlessly earlier this decade as home prices rose, according to Peter Sepp, spokesman for the National Taxpayers Union. This year Americans will pay more than $400 billion in property taxes, up about 25 percent from levels in 2004 and double what they paid 10 years ago. At best, says Sepp, those steep increases may start to level off.
Even if local prices are way down, taxpayers may not get a lower assessment because there can be a big lag between when the home sales used to calculate them
take place and when the assessment is actually issued.
And tax collectors often raise tax rates to offset lower assessments in order to meet their budgets -- which will be very strained this year. Assessments go down but tax rates go up, so the tax collections stay roughly the same.
"State and local governments depend very heavily on real estate taxes and they are reeling from a loss of revenues from sales taxes and other sources," said Bruce Hahn, of the American Homeowners Foundation.
In good times and bad, government will find a way to fund itself, indeed to expand. It is the only entity on earth with police powers to extract as much money as it wants from us and if even that's not enough, to print as much money as it wants, even if that means the value of our money decreases.
Morals of the story:
  • If you're contemplating looking for a job, look for a government job. As I've said in previous posts, especially in tough times, unless you're a star employee or a great entrepreneur, a government job may be your last and best home for decent-paying, secure employment.
  • Even if times stay tough or even get tougher, expect your taxes to rise further. Obama has promised a tax cut for 95% of Americans while also promising access to health care and college for everyone including the 13 million current illegal immigrants, spending $150 billion on alternative energy, $150 billion Bulleted Listmore on an infrastructure package, etc. 
You don't need to be a mathematician to know those numbers don't come close to adding up. To pay for his promised programs, he will have to raise taxes on the middle class, the group that pays the lion's share, the most painful share, of taxes.

And remember that candidates run more moderately than they govern. Obama, his all-left-of-center advisors, and all the new-government-program-seeking liberal special interest groups that supported him will clamor for ever more risky schemes that will require your federal income tax, social security tax, self-employment tax, payroll taxes, state income tax, local income tax, sales tax, property tax, capital gains tax, bridge and tunnel tolls, user fees for parks, etc., plus the myriad additional taxes embedded in products you buy, for example, from the hefty levies built into the price of filling your gas tank to the price of a bottle of Bud,  and if, after taking all that money from you, you still manage to die successful, estate tax.

Taxes essentially force the middle-income earner to work for free for the government for the first half of every year. You're essentially a slave and the government is your master.

Ask yourself whether working half a year for no pay is worth it, not just to you but to all Americans. Think, for example, about the public schools so bad that millions of parents wish they could afford to send their kids to private schools. Think about the public hospitals you shun because you know you'll get better care elsewhere. Think about the government's nonresponse, even in emergencies, for example, Hurricane Katrina.
In sum, when you're staring at that voting machine, think about whether you want to spend more or less of each year working for no pay to fund the government---assuming the government can get the voting machines to work.

Tuesday, October 21, 2008

Obama Will Listen to All Sides (Not)

Obama's spinmeisters paint him as someone who will consider perspectives other than his own. 

But especially with politicians, we must judge not by what they say, but by what they do.

To wit, here is the complete list of Obama's economic advisors. Not one is right-of-center 

Jason Furman (director of economic policy)
Austan Goolsbee (senior economic policy advisor), University of Chicago tax policy expert
Karen Kornbluh (policy director)
David Cutler, Harvard health policy expert 
Jeff Liebman, Harvard welfare expert 
Michael Froman, Citigroup executive
Daniel Tarullo, Georgetown law professor 
David Romer, Berkeley macroeconomist 
Christina Romer, Berkeley economic historian 
Richard Thaler, University of Chicago behavioral finance expert 
Robert Rubin, former Treasury Secretary 
Larry Summers, former Treasury Secretary 
Alan Blinder, former Vice-chairman of the Federal Reserve 
Jared Bernstein, Economic Policy Institute labor economist 
James Galbraith, University of Texas macroeconomist 
Paul Volcker, Chairman of the Federal Reserve 1979-1987 (A Carter appointee and Democrat, although also served for Reagan)
Laura Tyson, Berkeley international economist, Bill Clinton economic adviser 
Robert Reich, Berkeley public policy professor, former Secretary of Labor 
Peter Henry, Stanford international economist 
Gene Sperling, former White House economic adviser

Celebration of diversity should mainly be about diversity of ideas, not of melanin. Why has Obama stopped celebrating dare an idea veer right of center?

As I've tried to make clear in my recent posts, for example, The Post-Election Obama, it is fair to say that a vote for Obama is a vote for a liberal ideologue and likely a hard-leftist one. 

A Powerful Relationship Tip

This is the most powerful tip in John Gottman's fine book on relationships, The Seven Principles for Making Marriage Work:

Every day presents many tiny but collectively crucial opportunities to turn to rather than turn away from your partner. Examples:

Your partner says "Again, you're too tired?" Don't shrug. That's turning away. Say, "Yes. Look what's happened to Mr. Stud. What can we do? (Note that contains another useful technique: de-escalate. Remember, too to look for de-escalating statements from your partner. Even a muttered, let's take a break" counts.)

Your partner yells at you for being inconsiderate. Don't say, "You're always inconsiderate of me!" Make a conciliatory gesture, even a humorous one such as playfully sticking your tongue out at her with a glint in your eye.

Your partner says, "I got a speeding ticket." Don't say, "Speeding again?" Say, "I know you enjoy driving fast. I am so sorry. " (Note: This response contains another key to improving a relationship: start gently. Especially effective is a startup statement that shows you understand the person's perspective.)

In the morning, your partner says, "I had a nightmare last night." Don't say, "I gotta run." Say, "Gotta run. Can it wait until tonight?"

Marriages are strengthened far more by turns-to than by romantic vacations. In fact, your relationship may simply be the sum of the turns-to minus the turns-away.

The Big-Government Balloon Will Expand Until it Bursts

A reader, Dr. Michael Edelstein, asked me, "How can we stop government from getting ever bigger?"

My answer:  Only time can do it.  Society's thought-control mechanisms (the schools, colleges, and media) have thoroughly convinced the public that big government is good. 

And under the perfect storm of big-government advocacy--Obama, a more liberal congress, colleges, and media--government will grow well beyond its already morbidly obese and ineffectual size. 

When will the electorate come to believe that small government is a wiser path? Only if and when the government has to print so much money to pay for itself that the dollar is worth pennies, when our tax rates are so high that many more people choose not to work, and when our quality of life diminishes enough despite (or perhaps because of) the ever more bloated government redistributive "justice" programs. I'm guessing that is likely to occur in 10 to 20 years.

Until then, when it's inevitable, you might as well lie back and enjoy it: the continuing parade of bailouts (autos, mortgage holders, credit card holders, steel, and agriculture are likely next in line for government handouts,) massive spending on sloppy-seconds projects that the private sector deemed unworthy (e.g., Obama's $150 billion on alternative energy,) and more mammoth government programs that, at best, are likely to be inefficient uses of taxpayer dollars and, at worst, outright boondoggles.

I believe this is a good time for to remember The Serenity Prayer: Grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change, the courage to change the things I can, and the wisdom to know the difference. 

Monday, October 20, 2008

The Post-Election Obama

Politicians, like romantic partners, too often, change after the deal is sealed.

New information is convincing me that Obama, who is trying to sound moderate during the campaign, will, in fact, be America's first hard-leftist president.

For example, James Pethokoukis, assistant managing editor at U.S. News & World Report, reported last Thursday:
"I chatted with a ...University of Chicago professor who was a frequent lunch companion of Obama's. This professor said that Obama was as close to a full-out Marxist as anyone who has ever run for president of the United States. " 
This is not an isolated data point. Obama has had many significant relationships with people with hard-leftist backgrounds. And those relationships do matter because, as Winston Churchill, I believe, urged us: judge politicians not by what they say, but by what they do.  Too, it's axiomatic that we learn something about a person from who he associates with.

I'm not mainly talking about William Ayres here, with whom Obama seems to have had a limited relationship. I'm more worried that:
  •  The Obama campaign's official blogger is Sam Graham-Felson, who, for example, in 2006, wrote, in the magazine Socialist Viewpoint, an article supportive of the leftist French rioters. (Remember the pictures of rioters burning cars?)
  • Obama's and his family's mentor for two decades and, until the furor hit, a campaign advisor, was radical theologian Reverend Jeremiah Wright, who repeatedly gave anti-white, I hate-America sermons including the famous "God Damn America" sermon. (Just because this is old news doesn't make it invalid news.)
  • During his formative years, Obama was mentored by Communist party member Frank Marshall Davis. 
  • Obama co-founded and his wife was on the board of Public Allies, which despite its moderate-sounding mission statement, in practice appears to have been quite an anti-male, anti-white, anti-capitalist organization. 
  • A 2001 interview on WBEZ (NPR, Chicago), makes clearer his belief in redistributive "justice." 
  • The nonpartisan National Journal ranked Obama America's #1 most liberal senator.
  • In a recent speech, he said (I hope I got this quote precisely right. It certainly expresses its essence.) "McCain accuses me of socialism. I call it opportunity." He apparently no longer denies his socialist leanings.
All this scares me because I believe that--although no one can be sure--cautiously regulated capitalism is, long-term, the approach most likely to bring the most good to the most people, and ironically, that big government is, long-term, likely to lead to increased poverty and pain.

I fear that Obama's core beliefs are very different from his moderate-sounding campaign rhetoric. His voting record and long-term relationships suggest that he will dramatically increase domestic spending, usually insist on big-government rather than private-sector approaches (Note the summary of those in Friday's Wall Street Journal op-ed), heavily regulate corporate America because he believes it is more corrupt than government, inflame minorities' and women's belief that they are treated unfairly relative to their merit, and through taxation and other redistributive "justice" mechanisms, spread wealth from those with the greatest potential to improve society to those with the least. 

Obama's chances of enacting such a hard-left agenda are boosted by the expected more-liberal Congress and a media ever more willing to be liberal activists rather than presenters of best-made arguments from both right and left.

I can only hope, against the odds, that Obama will have the integrity to govern as he promised--as a moderate whose policies will truly take into account the best ideas from across the political spectrum.

Your thoughts, dear readers?

Thursday, October 16, 2008

Career Lessons from Today's Clients

What would you tell this client to do? (I've changed a few details to protect her anonymity.)

She is a 50-year-old artsy yet aggressive person who's been living on the money she got from a lawsuit against the city of Berkeley. After 20 years, she's run out of money and so needs to go back to work.

She hates corporate America and hierarchies in general, and loves leftist causes. She's friendly with a number of hip-hop band members. She likes to be in charge and to manage projects.

Her last job, back in 1988, was a part-time gig managing a small public college's TV station.

She wants me to help her figure out how to get a decent-paying job. Sounds pretty hopeless, no?

I felt that way too, but after some probing, a number of possibly viable options emerged: manager of hip-hop bands, talent scout for hip-hop-music record labels, production manager for a CD manufacturer, fundraiser or project manager for a leftist nonprofit, salesperson for a company making alternative products--for example, medicinal herbs or alternative books, and manager or fundraiser for a small community TV or radio station.

She'll do some research on each of those, and I believe there's a reasonable chance she'll end up making decent money at one of them.

The lesson: career options exist for nearly anyone.

My next client, during her first session, had red hair that looked like the Wicked Witch of the West. When she returned for her second session, she got her hair cut into a beautiful shoulder-length style, colored a tasteful auburn. She was glowing with excitement about it.

I didn't see her for a year, and she came back for a tuneup session today. Her hair was closely cropped and gray, severe. My first thought was that she had developed cancer, had chemotherapy, and so cut her hair short to hide the baldness. But that silent hypothesis was quickly dispelled when she asked, "Do you like my hair? I love it. I feel so much more confident with it and all the women in my office are so much friendlier to me."

Lessons: There's great subjectivity in what's seen as attractive. And a change in appearance can affect one's personality as much or more than therapy can.

So, dear reader, what, if anything, would you like to consider changing about your appearance that might improve your self-confidence?

Tuesday, October 14, 2008

My Favorite Home-Based Businesses

Here's my current list of favorite home businesses. They require small investment, are offshore- and recession-resistant, and offer a good risk/reward ratio. 
  • Agent for job seekers. So many job seekers feel unable to write a resume and cover letter, let alone cold-call potential employers. Just as actors and musicians hire agents to land them  auditions, you can help job seekers to land job interviews. 
  • Marketing consultant. For example, help small business owners to market their business. Specialize, for example, in mom 'n' pop restaurants, or help owners of vacation homes and time shares to get their places rented.
  • Consulting writer or editor. Solicit small businesses to hire you to write or edit a newsletter,  ads, catalog copy, even business letters. 
  • Counselor to college-bound students. You'll have an edge if you can also advise on how to find money for college.
  • Personal, career, life-transitions, money, or dating coach. 
  • Accountant or bookkeeper. Especially as electronic records become ubiquitous even in small businesses, this is a business you can run from home.
  • Create small-scale architectural models for developers, realtors, municipalities, architects, and landscape architects.
  • Tutor. You can charge surprisingly high rates, especially if you specialize. Examples: math for girls, autistic kids, organic chemistry.
Alas, the idea is only 10% of success. The rest?
  • Practical intelligence. That means the ability to buy cost-effectively, price at market value, and quickly solve the myriad problems that arise in running a business. You can't always ask a consultant or friend to help you.
  • Drive. Procrastinators, you're probably better off working for someone else.
  • Willingness to sweat the details. You're at risk of failing if you think you can get away with being big-picture. You must be willing to to discipline yourself to take care of the details.
Can you think of any other home-based businesses that you think should be added to my list?

I Rarely Laugh Out Loud But...

From "Today’s Cartoon by Randy Glasbergen", displayed with special permission. For many more cartoons, please visit Randy's site @

Friday, October 10, 2008

How I Counsel Unhappy Couples

Typically, they come at the brink of breaking up.

I usually start by saying, "If there's any chance of fixing your relationship, we need to nibble away at it a piece at a time. Each of you, what's one specific annoying thing your partner does?"

For each annoyance, I ask, "Is that something you just have to accept about your partner, or is that something that could realistically be expected to improve?"

If the latter, we discuss ways to maximize the likelihood of that change occurring and end with a commitment on both parties' part. For example, one partner might say, "I promise to try to pick my stuff off the floor" and the other partner might say, "And I agree that when something isn't picked up, not to nag but simply to raise my index finger as a reminder, and if he doesn't do it, to let it go--it's just not that important."

I also often say, "It's easier to change yourself than to change someone else. So, each of you, what's one other thing you want to do differently in the coming week that would please your partner and thus make your relationship better?"

Also, I remind them that when arguments occur, to force yourselves to discuss fairly: 
  • Start with a positive.
  • Criticize the behavior, not the person.
  • Listen well.
  • Don't interrupt.
  • Ask questions to better understand the situation or in proposing a solution.
  • Don't expand the argument beyond the specific incident.
  • Break up the tension with a joke, a compliment, a diversion (for example, where should we go to dinner?)  or simply a five-minute break.
At the end of the session, I ask each of them to summarize what if any behavior changes they want to commit to in the coming week. We all write those down and I promise to ask about those at the next session.

I invite them to, during the week, have at least one meeting (perhaps even daily)  in which each person self-assesses how well they're doing on their commitment. 

Finally, I remind them that little wins reverse the relationship to a positive direction, and it begins to snowball--good begets good.

Candidly, I have used this approach in my own marriage, to significant benefit. Our marriage is not made in heaven but we've learned how to make it work here on earth. I wish the same for you.  

Thursday, October 9, 2008

Men, the Disposable Sex

Most people say they want to be fair...and yet:

Men die 5.2 years younger than women, spend their last decade in worse health, and die earlier of all the leading causes of death. For example, before age 65, twice as many men as women die of heart disease--100,000 more male human beings dead, early, every year. That's thirty times more men than have died, total, in the Iraq War!

Yet, where are the ribbons for early heart attack? The only campaigns I've seen are the American Heart Association's Wear Red campaign to increase awareness of heart disease in women and the Oakland A's initiative on women's heart disease.

And for years, we certainly see ever more pink ribbons against breast cancer. For example, today, I walked into Safeway whereupon I was immediately enveloped in breast cancer activism: (Click on these images to get a better feel for how it dominated the store)
  • I entered the store under a canopy of pink breast cancer signs.
  • Underneath the canopy, a giant sign touts that Safeway and General Foods are sponsoring this breast cancer initiative.
  • Underneath are free-standing displays of Kraft and Nabisco products, most of which have been repackaged to look like pink breast cancer signs, with a notice saying that part of the profits from the sale of those items will go to breast cancer.
  • Nearby hangs another prominent sign listing other corporations that are sponsoring breast cancer initiatives.
  • Next to that is a table offering free drinks to all who donate, and selling breast cancer shopping bags.

  • Throughout the store, countless products have been repackaged to look like breast cancer posters, with signs saying that if the item is purchased, a breast cancer donation will be made.
  • Every 30 to 60 seconds, an announcement is heard on the loudspeaker: "Another shopper on checkstand X has made another generous donation of Y dollars to fight breast cancer."
  • When I reached the checkstand, I saw that the credit card reader is framed by a pink breast cancer sign.
  • The clerk then asked me, "Would I like to donate to breast cancer?" I said, "Did you know that every year, 100,000 more men than women die early of heart disease, yet have you ever seen Safeway or anyone else mount a campaign against that?" She said, "I never thought about that."
At that point, I decided to write this op-ed and send it to Safeway's president Steven Burd (

Safeway has made a small effort against prostate cancer but that and other corporations' male-oriented initiatives are dwarfed by those on women's health. Here, for example, is the list of corporate sponsors of the Susan B. Komen breast cancer fund.

Have you seen corporations do much to address the more prevalent early heart attack, which disproportionately kills men? Even companies whose products disproportionately are bought by men are unfair to men's diseases. For example, the aforementioned Oakland A's have donated $1,000,000 to breast cancer but dramatically less to prostate cancer. Even more dismaying, the A's initiative on heart disease specifically excluded men. Wells Fargo (which has far more men-owned money under deposit) often has breast cancer ribbons at their ATMs and sells an entire line of breast-cancer checks and checkbook covers, but I could find nothing that Wells has done to fight prostate cancer or heart attack.

Of course, I want to see breast cancer cured, as quickly as possible. But the nearly complete ignoring of men dying younger and spending their last decade in worse health than women makes me feel sad, scared, and yes, angry. When women have a more minor deficit, for example, so-called underrepresentation in engineering, massive redress efforts are initiated. But when men have the deficit, even the ultimate deficit-- they die younger--all we see is the pink-ribbon tidal wave grow ever more massive.

Today, no matter how many sewers men repair, no matter how many fires men put out, no matter how many medical discoveries men make (Indeed, nearly all breast cancer treatments including the state-of-the-art Herceptin were discovered by men,) no matter how many technical discoveries men make (for example, Google, computers, televisions, cell phones, refrigeration, and even this blogging software,) no matter how many roofs men replace, no matter how many Safeway shelves men stock, no matter how bravely men defend our nation, men are, as Dr. Warren Farrell says, the disposable sex.

P.S. When I came home and poured myself a glass of milk, an entire side of the container was devoted to--you guessed it--breast cancer.

Monday, October 6, 2008

Don't Panic: Stay the Course

In past stock market declines, many people sold stock near the bottom, thereby missing the larger recovery that, heretofore at least, has always occurred. 

No one can accurately predict the stock market's bottom or whether it will recover more than it has lost, but I personally would rather bet on humankind than against it.  

So, I will continue to invest in the stock market without trying to time it:  Whenever my checking account has five thousand dollars more in it than I need, I invest that in Vanguard Total Stock Market ETF, which offers broad stock diversification at an extremely low fee--0.07% plus the rock-bottom $4-per-trade commission charged by Sharebuilder. 

That approach to investing means that over time, I end up owning more shares bought when prices are low than when they're high. And I don't have the stress of trying to do what even most professional investors can't do: time the market and pick individual stocks that will beat the market.

Of course, before investing, everyone should have at least a few months worth of cash reserves in a money market account to allow for emergencies. 

I want to be clear: I am not a professional financial advisor, and your individual situation may warrant a different investment strategy than mine, for example, if you need to insulate your money against wide short-term swings. So, it's typically wise to consult a trusted financial advisor, perhaps showing this blog post to him or her.

Sunday, October 5, 2008

Which Careers Are Viable Even in a Depression?

In my view, the bailout plan is putting lipstick on a pig. It's designed to build confidence in a system not worthy of confidence. 

I agree with the Boston Globe article that argues that even the unprecedentedly massive $700 billion bailout is unlikely to stem a long-term decline in the U.S. economy. Indeed, I'd argue that a depression is likely given the U.S.'s severe structural problems:
  • An economy built on overspending in a world when ever fewer U.S. workers can afford to overspend and in which even wealthy Americans are realizing you can't spend your way into happiness.
  • To compete in a global economy, ever more American companies are automating ever more jobs or converting them to just-in-time,  part-time, temporary positions with employees paying an ever larger share of health care costs.  Meanwhile, costs, for example, for energy and college, continue to rise so consumers have less money to pump into the rest of the economy.
  • Success in the global marketplace requires ever higher-level skills, but the gap between the perecentage of Asians versus Americans with those skills is increasing. 
  • An American ethos that ever more values collectivism and big-government solutions rather than individual initiative and entrepreneurship.
  • A housing market that had grown so overheated that even an average physician cannot afford, on her or his income, to buy a home in a desirable neighborhood in most major cities and their suburbs. Less home equity means less comfortability with spending. Fewer people owning homes means less spending--people spend more on homes they own than on those they rent.
  • Uncontrolled immigration resulting in large numbers of uneducated, non-English speaking adults whose worklives are limited to low-income physical careers, and when their bodies give out from years of physical labor, many will be unemployable and become costly wards of the state. 
  • A large and growing percentage of the U.S. population is from a low socioeconomic background and that group has many more babies than do middle-class people. While, of course, many low-income, uneducated people are fine parents and get good educations for their kids, on average that is less often the case than with middle-class people. Of course, over the generations, the effect of this is geometric. 
  • An education system in which politics trumps pedagogy. For example, the bipartisan- beloved No Child Left Behind reallocates school resources from those students with the greatest potential to profit to those with the greatest deficits. To satisfy political special interest groups, in most urban and suburban public schools, an elementary school class will not be grouped by ability. Instead it will likely contain both learning-disabled and high-achieving students, native speakers of English and newcomers who speak little or no English, even that means that all students learn less.
While the vast majority of Americans will suffer as the result of the likely depression, a few career areas should be impervious, perhaps even bolstered:
  • Health care: especially registered nurses (particularly med-surg and home health care,) physician assistants, internal medicine physicians, dentists, optometrists, pharmacists, and physical therapy assistants.
  • The entertainment industry. Just as the movie industry boomed during the Great Depression because so many people were unemployed and had time on their hands and many others craved escapism, the movie, video game, sports, and creative arts industries should remain robust.  
  • Repairers: home, car, commercial, industrial. In a bad economy, people repair rather than replace.
  • Education. Even in the recent tough times, our political leaders are calling for increased education spending and voters continue to pass education bonds.
  • The energy industry. Despite all the media extolling of solar, wind, etc., I believe nuclear will create the most jobs.
  • Accounting. Especially in bad times, wisely accounting for every dollar is indispensable.
  • The discrimination industry: law firms specializing in discrimination law, legalizing illegals, sexual harassment; government jobs in watchdog agencies such as the EEOC.
  • Law enforcement. In tough times, crime tends to increase. 
  • Community colleges. Many people, unable to land a decent job, will go back to school for career retraining. Even for those with college degrees, community colleges tend to offer to the most practical career-related training and at a price affordable even in a depression.
  • Senior services: for example housing, home retrofitting, geriatric care management, and, of course, the aforementioned health care.
  • The sex and liquor industries. They've always thrived, in good times and bad. 
  • The clergy. People seek spiritual support in tough times.
  • The repossession, foreclosure, and debt collection industries.  For example, there will be plenty of jobs repossessing the big SUVs from owners who knew they couldn't afford them but took advantage of low-qual/no-qual loans. 
  • Counselors, therapists, and coaches, including career-related. With the Mental Health Parity Act passed, counseling will be covered under people's health insurance and in tough times, people will seek counseling. 
  • Nationalizing the U.S. health system. I predict this in light of people's inability to afford good care, the system being overtaxed by millions of uninsured people, and Obama's predisposition to big-government solutions. This will create countless government jobs in accounting/actuarial science, information systems, management, etc.
  • Goverment work, across the board, but especially in homeland security, health care, and the IRS. The government has police powers to collect taxes in good times and bad, and thus will be more impervious to economic declines. As I've so often written, I believe government, for non-stars, is the last bastion of secure, well-benefitted employment that generally requires only 40-hour workweeks, and offers ample sick days, holidays, and vacation days. 
I hope I'm not being unduly pessimistic. What do you think? And if I'm right, can you think of other careers likely to be viable in a depression?

Saturday, October 4, 2008

The New Rules for Landing a Job

Sure, traditional job-search methods like answering ads and posting your resume on a job site sometimes work, especially for low-level jobs.

But most job seekers should use approaches that match the way that today's best employers identify candidates. 

Ever more employers don't bother placing want ads. They know that want ads mainly yield candidates who are actively looking for jobs. Such people, on average, are not the best-quality candidates. 

Employers want candidates who are already well-employed but who could, with the right offer, be seduced into making a move. So they troll online discussion groups, the blogosphere, LinkedIn, and Facebook.

So, job seekers, spend less time polishing the format of your resume and tweaking your cover letter, and spend more time on one or more of these. They'll not only help you land a job but help you grow:
  • Become a substantive contributor to the most respected online discussion group in your field. If you don't know what it is, find it using the directories at Google Groups or Yahoo Groups.
  • Start a blog. Write posts that would impress your target employer. A good video of yourself in action can help, but better to have no video than an unimpressive one. Here's how you can create one, free. 
  • Join LinkedIn and/or Facebook. Create a profile that would impress your target employer. Again, video can help. Here's a a video tutorial. Get at least 20 on-target people to join your LinkedIn or Facebook network. Also answer questions posed on LinkedIn in categories likely to be trolled by your target employers. 
Of course, it's a mistake to spend all your job search time behind a computer. These other activities are most likely to be helpful:
  • Create a 15-second pitch: For example, "I'm looking for a project manager-type job, in which I can use my ability to be a liaison between techies and non-techies. I got great evaluations in my previous job, but the company went under in the latest downturn."
  •  Deliver your 15-second pitch to all your professional and personal network and to potential employers, even when they're not advertising an on-target job.
  • Take on a substantive role in your professional association: give a talk at the next meeting, join the program selection committee, etc.
  • And yes, answer truly on-target want ads.
The above plan should help you find a job that is right for you, the employer, and, in turn, society. 

Friday, October 3, 2008

An Unexpected Pleasure and Life Lesson

As the economy slows, we will need to find non-spending routes to pleasure.

Today, I found a most unusual one. I was walking my dog, Einstein, around Lake Temescal and decided that I was going to pick up all the dog poop that was lying along the trail.

My first motive for doing so was altruistic: It would keep people from stepping in it. But after filling a few poop bags, I found myself deriving pleasure from doing it:
  • It was a concrete accomplishment. It took just a few moments per pile yet each one made a difference.
  • It was a treasure hunt: It was fun searching for the next pile.
  • I derived the pleasure of knowing that I was walking the talk: I've long said that all work is worthy work, even the lowliest. It doesn't get much lower than dung remover.
  • I felt a pleasant sense of humility from doing such lowly work.
I do plan, from now on, to pick up any poop I see when walking my dog.

Perhaps if dung removal were my full-time job, I wouldn't wax so rhapsodic about it, but my honest feeling is that even if it were, as long as it paid a living wage, I wouldn't mind it. It certainly would be a lower-stress life.

In any event, I left the lake in a bit better shape than when I arrived. Hmm: Leave a place better than when you entered it. Not a bad principle for the life well-led.

Wednesday, October 1, 2008

Lessons from a Failure

Articles usually focus on success stories, in part because they make the author look good. But much can be learned from failures. So here is one I had today.

I failed with a client, one of my favorites. After 10 sessions over an year's period, we agreed that she wasn't making enough progress to justify continuing.

Note: I have changed a few details to protect her anonymity.

She was a medical researcher on soft money who was unhappy at work and wasn't sure if she needed a new career or strategies for becoming happier on her current job.

So, we came up with a number of alternative careers that seemed to amalgamate her skills and motivations, but she wasn't excited enough about any of them to justify the major effort required to make a career change.

We also tried to figure out how to make her happier in her current job. Her greatest malaise there was that she couldn't motivate herself to write big grant proposals even though she needed those grants to stay employed.

We discovered that the problem was that she was so perfectionistic (partly caused by an overbearing mother) that she made any big task unnecessarily painful. In addition, even if she were to get a big proposal funded, she'd dread having to run such a big project--her perfectionism in doing every detail would make running the project painful. It also would require her to manage people and a big project when her preferred style is to stay immersed in her own research.

To try to reduce her perfectionism, we agreed that her mantra will be "Make it fun; more will get done." When she stayed fully vigilant about doing that, she made significant progress on the proposals, but in the end, she didn't feel motivated enough to stay with it.

She left my office today her perfectionism not much changed, her contentment not much greater, her motivation to change not much higher, and concluding that she isn't meant to be in such a high-powered organization and needs a stable, lower-level job. I fear that she won't be happier in her new job--her perfectionism will go with her and she'll feel bad that she can't even be very successful in that lower-level job.

What did I learn from the experience?

1. When someone, especially someone intelligent, comes to me saying they need to change jobs or careers, I need to honor that and spend less time trying to tweak the current job into acceptability.

2. Don't get seduced into the counselor's trap of always believing that cheering the client on will help him or her rise to the challenge. Sometimes, even if a person has a Ph.D. from a top university, is impressive in intelligence and personality, and employed by a prestigious institution, the person may indeed have risen to his or her level of incompetence or is burned out from having worked so long at it. 

3. Scientists do burn out. Most spend years going down blind alleys and rarely discover much of importance. That, of course, is dispiriting enough to make even a once-driven person want to change careers.

4. Sometimes, nothing works. With this client, I used coaching techniques, cognitive-behavioral methods, exploration of the childhood origins of her problem, career counseling techniques, and even with this most capable client, nothing worked. I just have to accept that, remember the lessons above, and move on.

Do you want to examine a recent failure to see if there are lessons to be learned?