Oil Independence

Last week the United States passed a milestone that is almost unimaginable for those of us who have lived through the “oil crises” of the past.  For the first time in 75 years, America ended its dependence on foreign oil and became a net oil exporter.

shutterstock_360583700-0The transition of America to a state of energy independence has largely occurred because of the huge surge in production of oil and natural gas from shale formations that have been found throughout the country, in Texas, and North Dakota, and Pennsylvania, and even here in Ohio.  Last week there was a sharp drop in imports and a sharp increase in exports that nudged the U.S. into energy independence territory.  And while the production of oil will vary, the amount of oil-producing shale formations will likely keep America in positive net production territory for some time.

What does America’s status as a net oil exporter mean?  The oil boom has obviously produced a lot of new wealth and jobs in the U.S., but more broadly it means that the role of OPEC as a major world player, capable of affecting the economies of oil-using countries with a few pricing decisions — or even worse, embargoes — has been greatly diminished.  In fact, the production from the United States has effectively flipped the power equation, because many of our producing wells are profitable at oil prices as low as $30 a barrel, which is a lower price than is profitable for many OPEC countries.

The American oil boom thus presents OPEC with a serious challenge:  if it tries to enforce higher prices, buyers will turn to American oil and OPEC countries will lose market share — but because Saudi Arabia and other OPEC countries need higher prices to be profitable, OPEC can’t afford to let profits fall.  Last week in Vienna, OPEC and Russia announced an agreement to cut production in order to keep prices up.  It remains to be seen whether that agreement will work, given American production, or whether OPEC members will begin trying to recapture market share by selling at lower prices than OPEC is trying to enforce.  In fact, there are signs that the oil cartel is fraying around the edges.  Last week, for example, Qatar announced that it is leaving OPEC.

Imagine:  an American foreign policy that no longer needs to focus obsessively on the Middle East in order to ensure that the oil spigot remains turned on.  That’s just one of the interesting consequences of our surging domestic production.

 

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Conference Room Music

Yesterday I was at a conference at one of those ginormous conference centers you find across America.  That means that, during breaks and when waiting for the meetings to start, I’ve been exposed to conference room music.

wasgn_meetings_breakout01There’s a spectrum of music played in public places in America.  At one end of the spectrum — and unfortunately, very rare in my experience — are actual, recognizable songs, whether it’s classical pieces, or rock music performed by the artists who made the songs a hit, or jazz from John Coltrane or Dave Brubeck.  As you move away from that end of the spectrum, generic elements are introduced — for example, by having a song that you know covered by some unknown band whose rendition sucks the life out of the tune and renders it inert, so that it takes a while before you recognize what you’re hearing as a dim, distant version of Foreigner’s Hot Blooded.

At the opposite end of the spectrum is elevator music and telephone hold music — music that is specifically calculated to do nothing except provide soft and low background noise while you are unfortunately waiting to move on to your day.  Conference room music is a notch up from elevator music.  It’s never a recognizable song from a recognizable artist, because the music may have to cut off at any minute when the meeting starts, and they don’t want the meeting participants to be disappointed that they didn’t get to hear the guitar solo on Pink Floyd’s Mother.  So it’s inevitably some random piece, usually jazzy in nature with keyboard and horns, but more upbeat than elevator or hold music.  It’s designed to keep you awake and alert while you sip your generic coffee and glance around at the generic conference room fixtures and decorations, but leave no lasting impression whatsoever.

No one leaves a conference room humming a few bars of conference room music or asking the concierge what was playing before the meetings started.  You’ve utterly forgotten the music the instant the meeting begins, just like you immediately and irretrievably forget the wisps of the dream you were having when you wake up in the morning.

When you think about it, there’s some talent involved in being able to create music that is so consciously bland.  You have to wonder:  do musicians deliberately set out to write conference room music, and do they think with satisfaction that their creation will be the perfect complement to the metal coffee urn, the spread of breakfast pastries, and the always uncomfortable conference room chairs?

Hound, Or Holiday?

As the end of the year approaches, some American workers are looking at the calendar and realizing that they once again haven’t used all of their allotted vacation time, and won’t be able to do so before another New Year’s Day rolls around.

1523383408931It’s a surprisingly common situation.  Polls and estimates indicate that U.S. workers are not taking as much as half of their permitted paid vacation days each year — benefits that are worth about $62 billion.  One study concluded that only 23 percent of employees used all of their permitted vacation time.  Another 23 percent used less than one-quarter of their allowed time off, 19 percent used between one-quarter and one-half of their vacation time, 16 percent used between one-half and three-quarters of their holiday allotment, and 9 percent took no vacation time at all.

Why aren’t people taking the time off that they’ve earned?  Believe it or not, one of the more common stated reasons for forgoing vacations is that it’s hard to arrange for pet care.  Other workers confess that they’re just worried about their jobs — whether it’s purported concern that nobody else can take care of their responsibilities while they are gone or fear that leaving might put their job in peril somehow.  In my experience, still others simply have the martyr complex, and like to portray to their co-workers and supervisors that although they in fact would prefer to take a vacation, they’re just too busy and important to actually do so.  (Here’s a tip for the martyrs out there:  no one believes you when you say that, and it’s irritating, besides.)

I long ago decided that vacations are important — in fact, as important as anything else about your job.  I think it’s crucial to take regular holidays to avoid job burnout and to remain fresh and engaged with your workplace responsibilities.  My practice is to always have a vacation somewhere on the upcoming calendar so there is something to look forward to, and as soon as I return from one I try to get the next one scheduled.  Otherwise, six months down the road you realize that you really could use some time off but your upcoming calendar is filled and there are no openings until months in the future — by which time you’re approaching a year since your last vacation.  That’s a pretty miserable way to live your life.

And by the way, there are lots of good facilities out there to take care of your pets, so you can’t use that as an excuse.  In fact, if you’ve gone months without taking a vacation, your pooch probably senses your mounting stress level and is finding you pretty hard to be around, anyhow.  A stay at the Pet Palace might be a holiday for Fido, too.

Rudolph The Insensitive Reindeer

The Christmas classic Rudolph The Red-Nosed Reindeer was broadcast on TV recently.  It’s the timeless story of a misfit reindeer with the brilliant nose who ultimately saves Christmas during the Storm of the Century — and a misfit elf who wants to be a dentist rather than making toys.  First broadcast in the ’60s, Rudolph and its songs has been enjoyed by multiple generations of American kids.

94f266d0-ba5f-4498-9511-1268549977a0Until this year, I guess.  In the modern politically correct era where people are a lot more sensitive than they’ve ever been before, Rudolph doesn’t fare quite so well.  After all, the other reindeer are mean to poor little Rudolph at the Reindeer Games after Rudolph’s false nose falls off, and neither Coach Comet nor Rudolph’s own parents really stick up for Rudolph’s right to be different.  Poor Hermey the elf is facing a long life on the toy assembly line where he will be forced to hear the irritating chorus from We Are Santa’s Elves (Filling Santa’s Shelves) over and over again.  Hermey’s got no chance to follow his dental dreams.  Yukon Cornelius is not only a blustering blowhard, he’s a prospector who wants to tear up the landscape in search of gold when he’s not stalking and tormenting the Abominable Snowman.  And the poor Bumble, at heart a gentle soul beneath his terrifying exterior, ends up tortured by having all of his teeth pulled by people who won’t let him be himself.

And Santa, too, doesn’t exactly make a great impression, does he?  He’s certainly not very sensitive to Rudolph’s needs, or all that interested in celebrating Rudolph’s diversity.  At first he’s a bullying, self-absorbed boss, cracking the whip on the slavishly working elves and the reindeer to make sure that he can pull off another Christmas.  Even after Mrs. Claus succeeds in fattening him up and making him look a bit more jolly, he sees the light from Rudolph’s nose and embraces Rudolph’s shiny difference only when the Storm of the Century leaves him no choice.

Of course, all of these plot lines have been part of Rudolph since the beginning — we just haven’t seen the story in this light until now.  And yet, somehow, the kids who grew up watching Rudolph every holiday season ended up being reasonably well-adjusted people who aren’t out there yanking out the teeth of every passing Bumble just for the fun of it.  In fact, you might say that the story of Rudolph and Hermey and the challenges they had to overcome made those viewers just a little bit more receptive to the idea that people can be different — and that’s okay.  Would that message have the same impact if Rudolph and Hermey had been treated like champions from the outset?

There’s A Sucker Shoed Every Minute

Payless Shoe Stores, a low-cost shoe outlet found in many American cities, recently conducted an interesting social experiment testing the utter gullibility of American consumers.  In an effort to see just how much people would pay for its shoes, Payless created a new website and Instagram account and opened a pop-up store called Palessi — get it? — in a Los Angeles mall.  It then invited “influencers” to attend a grand opening of the store in exchange for receipt of a small stipend.

screen-shot-2018-11-29-at-11-36-09-amOf course, there really was no new store called “Palessi,” and the shoes being sold at the pop-up were just standard Payless shoes.  But guess what?  The “influencers” were suckers who apparently fell for the ruse and were willing to spend many multiples above the standard prices charged by Payless for its footwear.  One woman said she would pay $400 or $500 for tennis shoes that retail for $19.99.  Another sap paid $640 — 1800% above the normal cost — for a pair of boots.  Apparently, if you want to up the price of shoes you just create an Italianized name, throw in some glitz, and make the sales clerks wear black, and some hapless “influencer” will fall for it and presumably get others to do so, too.  Payless will use the experiment to advertise the fact that its shoes are fashionable and are valued by some people at far above their actual price.

I’m not surprised that Americans are willing to overpay for shoes, but what the article linked above doesn’t say is who the “influencers” were, or how they were selected.  If you’ve ever read Malcolm Gladwell’s interesting book The Tipping Point you know that there are people who are at ground zero of the creation of trends — by, for example, starting to wear Hush Puppies shoes — and there are others who introduce the new trends to a wider audience, and then finally the mass of followers who start buying Hush Puppies after the creators have already moved on to the next trend.  I’m sure there are many people who consciously strive to be “influencers,” and it would be nice to know how Payless identified the credulous group who were willing to grossly overpay just to be the first in the area to wear “Palessi” shoes.

For the rest of us, the Palessi experiment should teach a valuable lesson.  Who, exactly, are the “influencers” who are starting and promoting the stupid trends that often sweep America, and how easily duped are they?  Why should anyone pay attention to them or their “influence”?  I’m no trendsetter, but I’m reasonably confident I’ll never pay hundreds of dollars for a pair of sneakers, either.

Aftermath Of The GM Bailout

General Motors — the company that American taxpayers bailed out less than a decade ago, rescuing the company from near-certain bankruptcy after years of mismanagement — continues to struggle, and the dominoes that were toppled by the bailout decision continue to fall.

636198172298775780-lsjbrd-04-17-2016-gli-1-a001-2016-04-14-img-gm-shutdown-jpg-1-1-fhe0e7gq-l792930015-img-gm-shutdown-jpg-1-1-fhe0e7gqYesterday the company announced that it is engaging in a massive restructuring that will close assembly plants in Ohio, Michigan, and Ontario, Canada, eliminate thousands of jobs, and end some car lines.  One of the vehicles  being discontinued is the Chevy Volt, the electric hybrid GM rolled out to great fanfare.  The company said that “GM is continuing to take proactive steps to improve overall business performance, including the reorganization of its global product development staffs, the realignment of its manufacturing capacity and a reduction of salaried workforce.”  GM’s CEO, Mary Barra, said “GM wants to stay in front of changing market conditions and customer preferences for its long-term success.”  One of the “changing market conditions” is the declining public demand for passenger cars like the Volt and the Chevy Impala, which also is being discontinued.

President Trump and the United Auto Workers are both unhappy at the GM move.  Trump said he didn’t like GM’s decision and reports that he told Barra “You know, this country has done a lot for General Motors. You better get back in there soon. That’s Ohio, and you better get back in there soon.”  The UAW, which will see the loss of lots of blue collar jobs held by its members, said:  “This callous decision by GM to reduce or cease operations in American plants, while opening or increasing production in Mexico and China plants for sales to American consumers, is, in its implementation, profoundly damaging to our American workforce.”  The UAW news release added that “GM’s production decisions, in light of employee concessions during the economic downturn and a taxpayer bailout from bankruptcy, puts profits before the working families of this country whose personal sacrifices stood with GM during those dark days.”

GM’s decision will no doubt be devastating to those employees who lose their jobs and the communities where the plants will close.  But it also makes me wonder how even the advocates for the taxpayer bailout of GM less than 10 years ago feel about their decision to prop up GM now.  The underlying question raised by the UAW and President Trump is legitimate:  Was the bailout worth it, in view of these kinds of decisions?  GM remains a public company, and it gets to make decisions that it considers to be in its own competitive interest.  And if changing market conditions really do require GM to cut thousands of jobs that the bailout advocates expected would continue indefinitely, that may just tells you something about the wisdom of taxpayer bailouts generally.

Think Before You Write

The on-line world once seemed like a fun, open place where you could easily and happily keep track of your friends’ trips, kids, and birthdays.  But as it has developed it seems to get angrier, and weirder, and creepier every day — to the point where many of the thoughtful people I know have decided to retreat completely from “social media” and avoid the on-line world like it’s a dangerous dark alley in the low-rent part of town.

7c7c8b97667c29573fc3c794bc33d0ca-night-time-night-photographyWhy have they decided to abandon Facebook and remove themselves from the internet to the maximum practicable extent in today’s on-line world?  Consider this story, about a woman who posted a negative on-line review of a local tavern where she’d gone for a bachelorette party.  She says she and her friends were well behaved and were inexplicably treated rudely by the bartender, so she gave the bar a bad rating, and some highly critical comments, on Yelp.  Other patrons of the bar, and the bartender, say the bachelorette party group was drunk and disruptive.

If we simply had a disagreement about what actually happened at the bar when the bachelorette party arrived, there would be no story here — we all know that there are two sides to every story and people’s perceptions of events can differ.  But this story took a sick and twisted turn when some people started reacting to the bad review by posting ugly, sexually explicit comments about the reviewer, found her Facebook page and where she worked, and even went on her wedding website and RSVP’d that they would be attending.  It’s a classic example of over-the-top, alarming cyberbullying that, unfortunately, has become increasingly common on-line.  And you never know what might trigger such behavior; a comment that you consider to be fair under the circumstances might push a cyberstalker over the edge and make you their target.

My grandmother used to say, “if you can’t say something nice, don’t say anything at all.”  It’s not bad advice to keep in mind the next time you’re tempted to write something negative on-line.  These days, who knows where a few harsh words might lead?