It was 1998 when I left the newsroom after a 20-year stint working with daily newspapers. It was a good run. I have no regrets.
Newspaper work was probably the hardest work that I ever did, and I truly loved it. My identity was wrapped into what I did like nothing I have ever done since. I lived and breathed it 24/7. The ink was in my blood,
To this day I’m not quite sure why I walked away from it. I was the business editor of The Birmingham News in Birmingham, Ala. I think I just wanted another challenge, and I got it with the Economic Development Partnership of Alabama.
As director of international development, I had a dream job that sent me all over the world. I think I got up to eight languages on how to ask for a beer and the restroom. (I may be down to three or four now.)
My Sixth Sense
Both journalism and economic development have left their marks on me today as a consultant and to good advantage. I’m jesting here, but economic development taught me how the patient nurturing of a garden could result in the sprouting and growing of very lovely plants that would bring joy to all. Peace in the valley. Let freedom ring.
Whereas journalism taught me death by deadline, a hell-for-leather mission to expose any and all conniving bastards who deserved exposing, bringing the walls down around them by laying out the facts for all the world to see. No prisoners taken. Rawhide!
But seriously, probably what journalism taught me more than anything was how to dig for information, to go beyond the surface and ferret out what is real from what is, how should I say this delicately? … bullhockey. Call it a sixth sense.
My resulting investigative skills and nature now serve my consulting clients well. Ascertaining information that can be used in a strategic manner can give an organization a big competitive edge. And that’s what my consulting business is all about – giving edges to those I serve.
And largely because of my newspaper upbringing, I strive to write in plain English rather than in some jargon-inflated consultantese. Some of that proffered gobbledygook may initially look or sound pretty impressive. But when you actually parse the words, you’ll see they’re often just calling a duck a duck.
So the skeptical and somewhat cynical journalist will always be a part of me. I’ll often question the official line, because sometimes it simply needs to be questioned. Digging below the surface, I’ll find that sometimes it’s accurate, sometimes it’s partly accurate, and sometimes it’s just a bunch of bullhockey.
Recognizing the Big Story
And I also continue to look for the “big story,” that mega-trend in business that can be leveraged in order to get that competitive edge. That holds true in both my site selection consulting work for companies and my economic development advisory work for communities.
I’m no futurist, mind you. If I was one of them, I would be able to charge three or four times what I do now. But I do lean forward and try to figure out what the heck is going on.
So during the past year, in speeches that I made around the country and in this blog, I have been telling about this new digital machine age that I believe that we are in the early stages of, and which is having consequences on how we work and maybe more importantly, who gets work.
I have also been talking and writing about this shale gas revolution, which if I would have predicted five years ago, I would have been termed a nutjob. Truly, the hydraulic fracturing technologies have unleashed a huge natural resource that can and should give the United States a competitive advantage in terms of energy costs vis a vis the rest of the world for decades to come. And that can only bode well for our manufacturing sector.
Now a Mainstream Issue
But the story that I have not written much about, but which may be the biggest story of all, is now becoming quite mainstream. Indeed, I’m convinced it is being talked about around kitchen tables throughout America. And that subject matter is the inequality that exists between the ultra-rich and the rest of, well, us.
Many if not most leading economists believe this wealth gag, now the widest since the 1920s, has a detrimental affect on both big business and small business alike, and thereby creates a drag on our economy and economies worldwide.
This was the overriding topic this past week at the 2014 World Economic Forum in Davos, Switzerland, where heads of state, Nobel laureates, CEOs and media titans gathered.
Although Pope Francis didn’t go to Davos, his message read at the opening ceremony helped put inequality at the forefront for the event’s 2,500-plus attendees. The pontiff urged business leaders and global influencers to put people above profits, and use their wealth to serve humanitarian causes.
“I ask you to ensure that humanity is served by wealth and not ruled by it,” the pontiff said.
A Growing Embarrassment
“The kind of people over there (in Davos), other than the professors, are making a great deal of money more than their predecessors were a generation ago,” University of Maryland economist Peter Morici told CNBC. “This is a growing embarrassment. The differences in income between Wall Street and the rest of America are astronomical.”
Also last week, on the eve of Davos, we learned that the combined wealth of the world’s richest 85 people is now equivalent to that owned by half of the world’s population – or 3.5 billion of the poorest people.
In a report titled “Working for the Few,” the global aid and development organization Oxfam reported that the wealth of the richest 1 percent of people in the world now amounts to $110 trillion, or 65 times the total wealth of the bottom half of the world’s population.
Bad for Everyone
Henry Blodget, co-founder, CEO and Editor-In Chief of Business Insider, one of the fastest-growing business and tech news sites in the world, writes that “America is rapidly becoming a country of a few million overlords and 300 million serfs.”
He contends that such polarization is bad for everyone, including the overlords.
“Because when inequality gets bad enough, serfs can’t afford to buy products from overlords. This hurts the overlords’ ability to get even richer. And that’s what’s wrong with the American economy right now. The serfs are tapped out. The overlords are responding by cutting costs (firing serfs), to increase profits. Unfortunately, one person’s “costs” are another person’s “wages,” so this is making the problem worse.”
Blodget says, and I believe he is correct, that increasing taxes on the rich is not the answer, as it only inflames arguments of class warfare and has people yelling of socialism.
“The best way to fix inequality is to persuade our overlords that it is in their best interests to share more of their wealth by paying their employees more for their work — work that, not incidentally, is what makes the overlords rich,” Blodget wrote. “In other words, the best way is to persuade companies that it’s better to focus on creating value rather than just profit.”
I like Blodget’s reasoning, but it will be a tough sell to shareholders who are very much focused on profits.
A Rigged System
A Gallup poll published this past week shows that 67 percent of Americans are displeased with the ways income and wealth are distributed. Exactly three-fourths of Democrats said they were “very” or “somewhat” dissatisfied, whereas surveyors recorded 54 percent of Republicans agreeing to the same question.
“I really think this is the issue for our time,” co-host Joe Scarborough said on Tuesday’s Morning Joe. “We’ve got a system that is not just rigged by politicians in Washington, D.C.”
The Gallup poll suggests that people are really hurting after 30 years of stagnation for the middle and working class.
“This is not about party,” said Scarborough, a former Republican congressman. “We’ve got a systemic problem, a generational problem, and we’ve got to fix it or this country is not going to look like itself and this world isn’t going to look like itself 15 years from now.”
Joe is right — this is the issue for our time, and we’ve got to fix it.
I’ll see you down the road.
Dean Barber is the president/CEO of Barber Business Advisors, LLC, a site selection and economic development consulting firm based in Plano, Texas. If your company needs an optimal location for future operations anywhere in North America, we can help. If your community needs to improve its competitive standing, we can help. All requests for information are considered confidential.
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