Today Jesus would be an atheist

My new home in Northampton, Massachusetts in some ways is not much different than life in the Washington D.C. region where I used to live. For example, there are plenty of homeless people here too. They are not hard to spot, particularly in downtown Northampton where they beg for spare change. I also see them at traffic intersections with cardboard signs saying they are down on their luck (usually ending in “God bless”) and a Styrofoam cup. Some of these people look familiar. They look a lot like me if I had been less fortunate.

Perhaps giving them some spare change is love, but it’s a minute measure of the love they need. There are lots of people who end up as at least temporary road kill, curiously often found next to roads. There are some social services for them, but not much. Mostly these services make their lives a little less bleak for a while. Rarely do they help transform these sad people the way a caring and loving society should.

My friend from childhood Tom has a podcast. Regular readers will recall I recently attended his father’s funeral. In fact, Tom once interviewed me. Tom is a talented creative artist currently scratching out a living in advertising by doing freelance work. But he also podcasts and helps support online progressive radio. In his last podcast, Tom conversed with Jeff Bell, who hosts his own podcast, The Left Show. Jeff’s show is a raucous, freewheeling, frequently hilarious but very bawdy weekly endeavor that is also surprisingly entertaining. In Tom’s latest podcast, I learned at Jeff has his friend Forrest (alias Podcast Phil) living in his home with him.

I have not been listening to The Left Show long enough to recognize Forrest’s voice. In the podcast I learned that Forrest has stage-four prostate cancer. Jeff and his wife were kind enough to let their very sick and destitute friend live with them until he dies. I learned that Jeff, very financially stressed himself, was hunting the Internet for donations so that when Forrest dies they can cover his end of life expenses and have him cremated. Yes, you can still die in America and there is no guarantee anyone — not even the government — will pick up the bill even for a cremation. I guess that would be socialism or something.

I felt appalled of course and contributed $50 toward his future cremation. During the podcast Tom contributed his own story of his father’s decline and fall. His father was lucky in the sense that by being a World War II veteran a local veterans’ home took him in at no charge. Tom comes from a large family but all have their financial challenges. Tom’s father never bothered to create a will and was basically destitute too. The family was at least able to scrape up enough money to have their father cremated, but a coffin and a cemetery plot were simply unaffordable.

Until I listened to the podcast, I had not learned another part of the story. Tom’s father was a long time member of St. Patrick’s Catholic Church in Binghamton, New York. I attended his father’s funeral and it was very well done. A number of priests celebrated mass and reminisced about their time with Tom Sr., who was popular at the church, extremely Catholic, extremely Irish, and extremely Notre Dame (the university where he got his engineering degree). The funeral included a cantor and a luncheon for family and friends after the service. Aside from being destitute though, Tom’s family shared something in common with Forrest. St. Pat’s wanted money for the privilege of sending him off to the next world in the Catholic way. Apparently, all those years of Tom Sr. tithing money to the Catholic Church was not quite enough for a freebee funeral. There was also an exit fee for the family to pick up.

This surprised me but my surprise quickly turned to disgust. What did Jesus call the moneychangers at the temple? Jesus saw them as desecrating the temple. It made such an impact on early Christians that it appears in all four gospels. Two thousand years later, at least at some Catholic churches, charging money for service rendered is routine. It happens in the very church that Jesus himself founded.

Catholics are not alone in this grubby business. Mormons must tithe 10% of their income, although I don’t know enough about Mormons to know if they close the door on you at services if you don’t pay up. I read that Jews don’t require tithing anymore, but some practices like selling tickets for a seat on high holy days leave me revolted.

Churches, synagogues and I’m sure mosques have bills to pay too, so perhaps I should not be surprised they charge fees in addition to depending on donations. St. Pat’s is a big, honking Catholic Church. I can understand charging for certain services like a minister’s fee for a wedding when the participants are not members. That wasn’t the case with Tom Sr. A truly Christian community would certainly send off one of its most devout, popular and loyal members without charging an exit fee, right? You would be wrong.

I hear all the time that we live in a Christian country. While we are free to practice the religion of our choice, for many of the devout Christianity is our state religion. Well, I’ve got news for these people. Christianity is not our state religion. It’s Capitalism and it’s so much a part of our values that it’s built into our religious institutions too. It’s why most Christians in our country have little in common with Jesus Christ.

Perhaps due to the kindness of strangers or the beneficence of government some of our many distraught and uncared for people will get some escape from their misery. But while the services we do provide may seem like a lot, it is but a droplet of water to a thirsty man. It’s not nearly enough. Our tacit message to the poor like Tom Sr. and Forrest is that you have to throw the dice and hope on the kindness of strangers, and the kindness you get is likely to be meager if you get it at all. Tom Sr. got it from being a veteran. Forrest is getting it thanks to the beneficence of Jeff and his wife. Otherwise he would probably be on the street too, dying of prostate cancer in some back lot or hovel.

By the way, Jeff is an atheist in the predominantly Mormon state of Utah. No one from the state of Utah or the Mormon Church seems interested in making Forrest’s exit from this life humane, perhaps because I believe Forrest is an ex-Mormon and thus an apostate.

Apparently, it takes an atheist and the kindness of people on the Internet to see real Christianity at work these days. Which is why I suspect that if Jesus walks among us today, he is probably an atheist. Who could blame him?

Capitalism’s minuses

This just in: former TV conservative crybaby Glenn Beck is going Galt, John Galt, that is. Galt is the central character in Ayn Rand’s seminal novel “Atlas Shrugged”. Through Galt, Rand fully articulated her philosophy of Objectivism, which emphasizes the virtue of complete, unfettered Laissez-faire capitalism. It is capitalism freed from the burdens of tariffs, subsidies, monopolies and annoying government agencies like the Federal Trade Commission. Beck wants to build “Independence, USA” where its citizens can go completely Galt all the time. No taxes ever. Anyhow, it’s not necessarily cheap to Go Galt. Beck estimates he needs about two billion dollars to create Independence, USA. Presumably to construct his capitalist utopia he won’t invite a bunch of capitalists to create the machinery he will need on site. But anyhow when it’s all done, the citizens of Independence, USA will be a completely self-enclosed market. People will make stuff that other citizens will buy. Perhaps they will have their own currency. It’s unclear what governmental mechanisms they will have, if any. Laissez-faire capitalism is not exactly the same thing as no government, but presumably it would be a very austere government, far more austere than the State of Florida after several years of Rick Scott as Governor. That’s pretty damned austere.

Also presumably the city will operate more like its own country, since it won’t want anything to do with state and federal laws. There will be no annoying consumer protection laws and no warranties expressed or implied on anything sold. If your next door neighbor wants to turn his house into a smelter and spew out dangerous carcinogens in your general direction, well, more power to him. You are, of course, free to buy your own anti-pollution devices (presumably made only in Independence) to encase your house so you don’t have to breathe the pollution coming from next door. I don’t know if they will have a sheriff in Independence, but maybe not. So perhaps you can express your displeasure the old fashioned way, and load up your semiautomatic assault rifle and empty it into your neighbor’s house. He, of course, is free to wear only bulletproof clothing and encase his house in steel to deter assaults. You, of course, are free to up the ante, buy yourself a bazooka and wreak your unhappiness that way. Presumably since all residents share the same values about capitalism, there will be only brotherly love and no onerous taxes.

My guess is Independence, USA will never get built, but who knows? Beck can use more income to finance his vision, but the Koch brothers have plenty of it and might put up the two billion dollars. If it gets built, Independence, USA will doubtless become the center of capitalism worldwide. It will become the ultimate enterprise zone.

A friend of mine commutes regularly to China for her small business. She reports that contrary to reports that China is a communist country, it is already a lot like Independence, USA only they have gone nationwide. The truth is that China has pretty much ditched communism and is now a capitalist utopia. The state and the Communist Party pretty much exist to ensure capitalism remains free and unfettered. Freed of archaic concepts like religion, China has become a money-grubbing entrepreneurial heaven. She reports that the acquisition of wealth is pretty much the only thing on the mind of the Chinese. They get together to compare how fancy their Rolex watches are.

One thing she has noticed in particular is that the Chinese (or at least the Chinese businessmen she works with) don’t understand ethics. You might as well try to explain nuclear physics to them. They just don’t get why anyone would want to do anything ethical. They will happily do everything possible, legal or illegal, to allow a competitor to fail and for themselves to prosper without even a tiny qualm. This is hardly news. Even we self-absorbed Americans have read press reports about how copyright law is meaningless within China. DVDs and software are pirated, copied and sold for whatever they can get for them. Famous brand names are cheaply imitated and passed off as branded items. The idea of sales territories seems to not exist. Her company supposedly has sales territories within China where only one distributor is supposed to distribute her product, but of course these territories are widely ignored by their various sales agents.

While lots of people are getting richer in China, there have been a few undesirable effects. For example, there is the rampant air pollution in major cities. Lately it’s been so bad that no one in Beijing goes outdoors without wearing a facemask. So I am betting if Independence, USA ever gets built it will devolve quickly into a place that looks a lot like Beijing. It’s not a hard inference to make since this is pretty much how it has gone everywhere since the start of the Industrial Revolution, at least until government said “Enough!” Capitalism is all about making money and increasing your personal standard of living. The cost is borne by those not skilled, agile or moneyed enough to make the transition. Capitalism without regulation also ensures the land will get raped. This should not be news but just in case you don’t get it, maybe it’s time to reread Dr. Seuss’s “The Lorax”. I’m guessing Brother Beck hasn’t.

While there are undeniable virtues to capitalism, there are many ugly sides as well. Perhaps its ugliest side is that it strips us of our humanity and appreciation of the connections between each other. In China, dog-eat-dog capitalism means you cannot expect a consistent set of rules because the government will be largely hands off. There is also no religion to speak of, so there is nothing to ground you, and no set of moral standards to use to measure your behavior. There is no reason to care at all about your neighbor, or your community, or your neighbor’s future, unless you can profit from them. It’s all about me, not about we.

Capitalism is simply an amoral system to help facilitate the acquisition of wealth that has the benefit of allowing for the broad distribution of goods and services at reasonably low prices. If there is one thing it is not, it is not a philosophy of living. Here is where Ayn Rand, John Galt and Glenn Beck fall off their moral railings. They don’t get this. Ayn Rand constructed a whole philosophy of life around capitalism, as if it were the shiny city on the hill that Ronald Reagan envisioned. (Independence, USA is literally that city, in Beck’s eyes.) In their eyes, capitalism has become a church, and its cathedral is the inside of a bank vault. They assume that capitalism had a meaning greater than what it is: a meta-meaning. It does not. The consequences of unchecked capitalism though are easy enough to see: the collapse of our moral fiber, the heightening of self-interest over shared interest and the natural tendency to rape the land of resources and the people of their connectedness. It destroys trust and integrity and makes ethics obsolete. It dehumanizes us and turns us from people into profit centers.

There was a time in my living memory where you went to work for a company for life. A company was an extended family. You were a valued worker and were nurtured. You were cared for and your earned loyalty was given back in the form of intimate concern about the company and meeting its goals. Money was put aside into a pension fund so that you could live comfortably in old age. It was paternalistic. Companies reflected the values of the society in which they thrived. Over time, companies changed their values from human-centered to profit-centered. Pensions died. You became a worker, not a strategic asset. Your pension became a 401(k). You became mere a cog in a bigger wheel. You became disposable, something to be used and thrown out when no longer needed.

Sorry Brothers Beck, Galt and Sister Rand. Capitalism is not a utopia. It has its virtues and it has its weaknesses, but unrestrained it will suck the soul out of the society it exists within. It will either use you up as cheap labor or it will crush you spiritually as you acquire wealth. You will have become a slave to profit, loss and wealth and bereft of the values that connect us and enrich us.

Wal-Mart employee becomes a martyr for greed

Sometimes a news story epitomizes what is wrong with our society. Sometimes they come in double doses. Two stories in the news have drawn my attention and ire. Both need more press than they have gotten. In today’s post, I concentrate on the first outrage.

Black Friday this year turned black for an unexpected reason. No, it was not black because of the crappy economy. This Black Friday crazed shoppers at Wal-Mart’s Valley Stream store on Long Island trampled a store employee to death. A huge crowd estimated at two thousand pushed down the store’s doors at its early 5 a.m. opening time, trampling to death Jdimytai Damour, a Wal-Mart employee who had started only a week earlier. According to news reports, the door was crushed like an accordion by the weight of the crowd. Shoppers intent on snatching bargains poured through its doors, giving no thought to the man they were trampling and asphyxiating in the process. At least four others were injured in the melee, including one pregnant woman.

Wal-Mart was hardly the only retailer this Black Friday offering a limited stock of highly desired items at less than their cost. Yet, somehow if this tragic situation was fated to occur, you knew that it would happen at a Wal-Mart. After all, their motto has been “Low Prices, Always”. Clearly, employee safety is not high on their agenda, probably because it inconveniently gets in the way of profitability and lower prices. Generating excitement and sales were their top priorities and they certainly succeeded at 5 a.m. on Black Friday. A Wal-Mart spokesman called it an “unfortunate event”. Wal-Mart customers certainly indicated their feelings by their actions. They even kept shopping and hollered protests when an announcement went out over the store public address system that the store was closing because a man had been killed by their stampede. Apparently, saving money was more important than a tragic and unnecessary death unfolding around them. (Not to worry, the store only closed for a few hours. After all, profits are more important than people.)

Damour’s family is likely to sue, but I bet that within Damour’s employment contract is a provision exempting Wal-Mart from lawsuits like these. Morons obviously are not managing Wal-Mart, just heartless bastards that see retail workers as interchangeable and expendable. So Wal-Mart likely has their lawyers make sure their liability is limited even in these sorts of situations. Last that I heard, Wal-Mart was not a proactive enough company to do obvious things like put up a rope line in front of the store. Nor apparently is building reinforced doors important since that would mean, like, spending more money. However, the company is proactive enough to purchase life insurance for their employees. This life insurance though does not go to the family of deceased employees in their care, but into Wal-Mart’s coffers instead.

Pretty much everyone associated with this death should feel ashamed. Every shopper who rushed into the store, even if they did not actually trample on Damour’s body, should feel ashamed for contributing to the situation. How could they put the lust for stuff ahead of a human life?

I doubt though that anyone is feeling any shame. Chalk up one death of another interchangeable retail worker to the cost of doing business in the 21st century. The important thing is that Wal-Mart remains profitable! People with consciences, like me, figure the store manager should resign, both for not protecting this employee adequately and for not taking all steps to ensure that the crowds were controlled. Yet, the store manager reopened the store just a few hours after Damour’s death. I guess when you work for an amoral company, you are hired in part because you are amoral. Even if the store manager wanted to keep the store closed, the corporate office was probably on the phone demanding that the store reopen immediately!

Wal-Mart has pricey enough lawyers so that they will probably successfully dodge any financial judgment against them. They probably feel they suffered enough by closing the store for a couple hours on Black Friday of all days. Much more likely, Wal-Mart simply doesn’t care. The trampling to death of an employee, however regrettable, is the price someone else must pay to make sure they have “Low Prices, Always”. Consumers seem unmoved by this incident too. Nearly alone among major retailers, Wal-Mart is showing an increase in sales this holiday season.

Back in 2003, I wrote this post on the reasons why I will not shop at Wal-Mart. I disparaged not just the company for its contemptuous attitudes towards its employees, but also its customers. At the time, the post drew some heat (several nasty comments were removed) but it appears, if anything, that I did not hold its management or its customers in low enough esteem. Back in 2003, I said I would never shop in a Wal-Mart again until they treated their employees right. It looks like that date, which seemed far off even back then, has receded even further.

If there were a big box retail workers union (and god forbid Wal-Mart permit anything like that) the union should fund a national shrine to memorialize Jdimytai Damour and all the other vastly underpaid human beings who make American retail commerce possible. Damour is likely not the first martyr for the cause, but his death should be memorialized anyhow. If I had the power, I would require the monument to be in placed right in front of the main entrance. It would have huge lights shining on it. Damour’s name and date of death would be prominently inscribed with the words, “Damour died so that you could have Low Prices, Always”.

Instead, this tragic and preventable death is likely to be just a footnote. In a year or two, only a few of us cranks will even remember it at all. Meanwhile, the amoral Wal-Mart Corporation will of course be laughing all the way to the bank, its stockholders will be delighted in their weighty dividends and its customers will be thrilled at those low, low prices.

Mobile advertising: a very bad, very wrong idea

Just because you can do something does not mean you should actually follow through. Although like most Americans I am a firm believer in freedom, some ideas should be so over the top and so shameful that no one should actually deliver on them.

One example is urinal and bathroom stall advertising. I noticed the latter in March when I was in Golden, Colorado and I took in a movie in the evening. I found it necessary to run into the head before I went into the theater. I mean it is not like the assault of advertising before the movie (at ear piercing volumes, which I noted in this entry) was not enough. No, the over the top managers of this theater chain, who must have been taking orders directly from Madison Avenue, wanted to make sure that while patrons were engaged in the necessary business of body waste elimination that they were also be exposed to obnoxious advertising.

Things remain much more civilized in places like France, which we visited last year. While you may have to pay for the privilege of using a restroom, at least you can do so without being assaulted by advertising. I hope nobody in the theater business is reading this because I do not want to give them any more money raising ideas. Because clearly their next tactic will be to make you pay to use a restroom in a theater and as you are taking a leak, make sure that you are aware that a Garfield movie is coming.

No wonder I find fewer reasons to go see movies in the theater. No wonder I so much prefer Netflix. I watch movies at my convenience, never worry about a late fee and pay less than I would pay at a Blockbuster. When my kidney decides to burst in the middle of a movie, I hit the pause button and use my own, advertising-free facilities. When I do choose to see a movie in a theater, I generally find that I will avoid the big multiplexes. Instead, I am frequenting places like the Cinema Arts Theatre in Fairfax, Virginia. It may not have stadium seating, but it does not have obnoxious ear piercing advertising before the shows. It also has theater food that is good for you: juices, croissant sandwiches, muffins and freshly popped popcorn served with real butter. It has all this plus the quality art films that I crave and ticket prices that are lower than the chains. In addition, I can use their restrooms without having to be assaulted by advertising. What is not to like?

I was hardly back from Golden, Colorado and still recovering my dignity from the vicious advertising assault out there. I was driving down the street when I did a double take. A truck with rotating billboards just went by. My jaw dropped. This was wrong. This was very, very wrong.

Of course, I do expect businesses to advertise their business on their cars and trucks. This was different. This truck was driving around advertising other businesses, with annoying and garish rotating ads that distracted me from driving safely. Moreover, this truck had no cargo. It was just one large, dual sided mobile billboard with rotating ads. Someone had figured out that there was enough money in this business to pay someone to spend all day driving around our metropolitan area in a truck with rotating billboards. Presumably, this truck, like most trucks, was averaging 8 to 10 miles per gallon.

At least highway billboards, as obnoxious as they are, do not emit carbon dioxide and contribute to global warming. Here was a business, one of many in this burgeoning field, that had no qualms about both assaulting us with unwanted and frequently changing advertising when we needed to concentrate on driving safely. Not only that, but it was unnecessarily polluting the air. And for what? So that I could learn about Cingular’s cell coverage range? If these were not bad enough, in addition to needlessly fouling the air it was adding to or already legendary traffic congestion. My guess is that these trucks are also responsible for many accidents. It can be hard to concentrate on traffic when Technicolor billboards are rotating around you.

Perhaps advertisers justify mobile billboards because much of the Washington metropolitan area does not permit real billboards. This is certainly true of Fairfax County where I live, Arlington County, the City of Alexandria and Montgomery County in Maryland. We do not like billboards because they are both very tacky and do not communicate the professional image we want to project. However, there are no such laws on mobile advertising. Therefore, we have these mobile advertising trucks circling the Capital Beltway, trolling I-66 and the Dulles Toll Road, and tooling up and down the Fairfax County Parkway where I live.

Enough! If we can make radar detectors illegal in Virginia, we can take these mobile advertising trucks off the roads in our jurisdictions too. Let us just do it before we decide to accept such outrages as part of the natural course of capitalism.

While we are at it, let us pass laws to remove advertising from our public restrooms too.

End Life Style Job Discrimination

Weyco Inc., a benefits service company based in Okemos, Michigan is a company for which you definitely do not want to work. At least that is my opinion about reading this article in today’s Washington Post Business Section. According to Washington Post Staff Writer Amy Joyce, this is a company that believes what you or your family does off the job are grounds for your dismissal.

Like most companies, Weyco prohibits smoking on the job. I have no problem with that. The dangers of second hand smoke are well known and the workplace is a captive environment. I am also a virulent nonsmoker. The last thing I want is to go back to those days when I worked in a confined space and those around me smoked with both impunity and official sanction. Since the employer pays for the workspace, they have the right to make rules for how employees will use the space.

However, if you work for Weyco, beware. There are some unusual strings attached to your continued employment:

  • If you smoke on the premises, you can be fired
  • If you smoke at all, you will not be hired, no matter how competent you are
  • You can be tested at any time for nicotine. Hiring includes consent to urinalysis at the company’s discretion. If nicotine is detected in your urine, you are sent home for a month without pay. After a second offense, or if you refuse to be tested, you can be fired.
  • The company also reserves the right to require that your spouse be tested monthly for nicotine use. If your spouse tests positive, the employee must pay an $80 a month fee until the spouse takes a smoking cessation class and tests free of nicotine.

According to Workplace Fairness, three fourths of the 80 million Americans employed in the private sector are employed “at will”. Every state except Montana is an “at will” state. This means the employer can terminate an employee for any reason whatsoever. (I assume this does not include those activities prohibited by federal law, such as sex discrimination.) Not surprising, the United States lags behind most of the first world in protecting employees from “lifestyle discrimination”. Most of Europe, Japan and Canada are among over sixty enlightened countries worldwide that prohibit this sort of blatant job discrimination.

With a few exceptions, I do not think that any employer should have the right to fire you for your lifestyle. Your conduct and performance on the job is what matters, not off the job. Clearly those in a public safety position must have constraints on their off duty behavior. We do not want airline captains sipping cocktails at the airport lounge an hour before takeoff. We do so because it could affect their judgment while on the job.

However, this is completely different from smoking on the job, or outside of company property. Perhaps nicotine should be a regulated substance. Thanks to our Congress, its use is both legal and unregulated among adults. An employee who chooses to smoke off the worksite may be endangering their own health, and the health of anyone who lives with them, but it is not germane to their ability to perform a job. It is simply not the business of the employer to regulate the habits or lifestyle an employee chooses to engage in outside the office. Not only is such regulation deeply offensive to a free people, but the employee is not even compensated for behaving in a way that may be contrary to their will.

It is one thing to offer incentives to employees to engage in healthful behavior. Most progressive employers do it routinely. I am a civil servant. My agency provides limited counseling services for all employees. It assumes that if a worker’s private life is better ordered, they will be more productive on the job. Workers can choose to use the counseling service or not, and they can even use their time on the worksite for this purpose. I can even grudgingly agree to employee disincentives, like requiring employees who smoke to pay higher health insurance premiums than those who do not smoke. After all, the employer typically helps pay for health insurance, if it is offered at all. It is another thing entirely to deliberately discriminate against or actually fire someone for a lifestyle conducted outside of work.

As a supervisor, I cannot imagine doing something like this. For example, I have an employee whose wife was very mentally ill. She manifested her illness in chronic alcoholism. Had I worked for Weyco, I might have grounds for summarily dismissing my employee. No matter whether he was still performing acceptably in his job, I could simply terminate him. Rather than use compassionate techniques like leave sharing to retain the employee, Weyco might fire the employee, thereby making his situation much worse. After all, employees are not exactly people. “At will” states seem to assume that people are like widgets, and are interchangeable. Maybe employees do have feelings, but that is no reason an employer should bother to concern himself with them. Their bottom line is all that matters.

In my naiveté, I simply assumed workers had reasonable protections against this sort of behavior. I was wrong. Not only can employers in “at will” states set any conditions of employment they want, even if they have no bearing on the ability to perform a job, some like Weyco will exercise these rights.

It is so Big Brother-ish. I am not surprised that employers routinely search the web for background on applicants before hiring them. The web is after all an inherently open medium. Those who publish blogs in their own names should not be too surprised that an employer might use it as one criterion for a hiring decision. Conduct and performance on the job should be all that determines whether employees are doing their job correctly. Anything else is none of their business.

I would like to say, “There ought to be a law”, but the laws already exist and are egregiously bad. They likely go back to the 18th and 19th centuries when people accepted being treated like chattel. It is time to rectify these laws. Governments do not exist to serve corporations first. They exist to serve citizens first. Most of us, if we knew how these laws are being applied, would be outraged.

If you are as outraged as I am, perhaps you will join me by doing something about it. Since this is primarily an issue to be solved at the state level, you should let your state representatives and senators know how you feel. Tell them that you expect them to put citizens first, not corporations. Ask them to modify “at will” employment laws so that an employer may not fire anyone (with the obvious exceptions) for their conduct or lifestyle choices outside of work.

After all, you could be the next one to be fired.

Government is the price of progress

Some years back I read a review of the book Children of the Depression. I purchased the book, which is full of glossy black and white pictures documenting ordinary life for children in America during the Great Depression of the 1930s. The pictures were found in the archives of the now defunct Farm Security Administration. In their raw and unvarnished form, they detail the heartbreaking daily poverty of ordinary Americans living through those times, with an emphasis on how the lives of children were affected.

Both my parents lived through the Great Depression. My paternal grandfather was a civil servant, so my father was only tangentially affected by it. My mother, born in 1920, had her entire life view shaped by being young and in a desperately poor family during the Great Depression. Looking through Children of the Depression, I can see that world through my mother’s eyes.

Here are a few snippets from my mother’s autobiography that gives you some inkling of just how awful and life was for her during this time:

When Dad lost his job, that was the end of meat in our diet every day. Now it was depression soup (a mixture of oatmeal, onions, water, salt and pepper).

How did we keep warm? I’m hazy here but I do believe welfare gave use some coal, but not enough to keep our drafty house warm. We are not proud of this, but we stole some from the trains that would pass near us. A few blocks to the east of us the train had to slow down to make a turn and the older boys would hop atop the coal cars and when they would get within blocks of our house, they would toss coal off as fast as they could. When the train would slow down they hopped off and gathered their booty in burlap bags and carried them home. Things got so bad at times the boys would hop a night train and go out early to pick it up.

There is much more to her story. Her family depended on sporadically available charity clothing and food. She routinely missed the first few weeks of school because she had to earn migrant labor wages in the fields harvesting the crops like sugar beets. Holes in her shoes were left unfixed, and she used cardboard insets instead. Naturally, there was no money for doctor visits, drugs, dental care or therapy. She was just one daughter in a family of twelve supported by an immigrant father. Her father, who emigrated from Poland, dropped out of school after the third grade. During better days, he was employed as a butcher.

Leafing through Children of the Depression, you can see that my mother’s tale was wholly ordinary and one of millions. Many people dealt with much worse than she experienced. While her family’s house was sold at auction, they managed to evade being thrown into the streets. They were eventually able to pay off the back taxes and reclaim their house. Therefore, unlike many in America during the Depression, they did not have to live the vagabond life. Such was life in Bay City, Michigan and much of America in the 1930s.

As bad as the Great Depression was, it could have been much worse. While modern welfare benefits were unknown, there were surplus food and goods that the government sporadically made available for the poor. My grandfather eventually found employment as a laborer helping to construct a bridge over the Saginaw River. This was just one of the many projects funded by President Roosevelt and the Democratic Congress during this period that succeeded in putting many chronically unemployed people to work. The government did not choose to stand on the sidelines while so many Americans suffered so deeply.

A couple days ago, I learned about the Otto Bettmann book The Good Old Days – They Were Terrible! It describes life in the 1880s. By comparison, the Great Depression seems wonderful. A diarist on DailyKos summed up some of the key findings, which include:

FOOD: Adulteration of foodstuffs was problem and conventional practice in the 1880’s. Alum, copper, and sulphur were often added to bread flour for preservatives. Coloring for candy was often toxic, sickening children and adults alike. “Bogus butter,” a mixture of animal fats, calcium, or potatoes (whatever was on hand) was bleached and processed in disgusting conditions and repackaged by merchants and labeled as butter. Canneries operated under filthy conditions, and the process itself often was proven detrimental, through the use of chemicals added to preserve. Slop fed to cows often made the children sick

SANITATION: Cities such as Chicago, Pittsburgh, New York, Helena Montana, Leadville Colorado, generally suffered from putrid conditions. The air stank, refuse filled the streets, garbage and food refuse was dumped everywhere, the waste of humans and animals alike trickled through crowded streets. Unhygienic conditions on the streets were matched by interior conditions in workhouses, orphanages, factories, asylums, hospitals, and farmhouses. Life in the country did not proved an escape from unsanitary conditions; private wells were often contaminated by close proximity to barns, privies, and household refuse. Many homesteaders lived with farm animals in their homes during winter months.

Yes, this was just a bit of the way things were actually like during those glorious, wonderful days of laissez faire capitalism. They must have been wonderful, because I hear modern current conservatives brandishing obsolete slogans like Thoreau’s “the government that governs best governs least”. I have to wonder: we are aspiring to return to days like this?

While that is unlikely, we do see more and more steps in this direction. We saw it emerge in recent times with the election of Ronald Reagan, who appointed people with open contempt for the general welfare. Of course, we also find ample examples of it in our current administration. We see it in its hostility to raises in the minimum wage. We see it in its refusal to create meaningful increases in vehicle fuel economy. We also see it in its inability to acknowledge honestly that global warming is largely a result of human activity. While our president makes inane statements about prosperity like “We’ve got to make the pie higher”, in actuality he is very deliberately making the rich richer and the poor poorer. Because of his tax cuts that disproportionately benefited the rich, when necessary commodities like gasoline rise in sharply price, those of lower incomes bear most of the pain.

Economic conservatives these days seem very much out of touch with reality. For one they seem to assume that liberals and progressives are against capitalism. They think that we embrace unbridled socialism as utopia here on earth. Except for a few liberals on the fringes, this is just plain wrong. Progressives like me understand that capitalism is a vital ingredient in social progress. However, capitalism is just one force that enables the promotion of the general welfare. The other part is government, which has the duty to promote the general welfare.

Centuries of unbridled capitalism have demonstrated beyond argument that by itself capitalism does not lift all boats. Instead, unbridled capitalism gives power to the wealthy. Moreover, by restraining government so that it does not do much to help the general welfare, it perpetuates the class system. Our social security system was created by the government because the private sector could not provide it and it was needed. Nor would free markets ensure that all laborers could earn a living wages. Capitalism does not care a whit if human beings are forced to live in tarpaper shacks or whether communities have modern sewage systems. Capitalism is simply a means that helps to maximize profits for the owners of the company. As is amply evidenced in the hallways of Congress and state legislatures across our country, businesses will petition endlessly to shift the costs, risks and burdens of industry off them and onto anyone else. They call it “being more competitive”. When you hear those words, beware!

Just as unbridled capitalism is not ideal, neither is unbridled socialism. Capitalism is a necessary engine for progress, but it must be constrained so it becomes win-win. Companies need to make profits, but also need to be constrained to ensure some of the profits indirectly improve life for all Americans. In addition, the government needs to give capitalists the maximum freedom to earn those profits consistent with allowing its benefits to affect the commonweal. This is, at its heart, what the economic aspects of the progressive movement are all about. It should not be the least bit controversial. It should be “No duh!”

Economic conservatives need to sober up. Libertarianism is simply not a workable philosophy in our modern world. We need agencies like the Food and Drug Administration, otherwise we are back to snake oil salesmen and unsafe food. We need the EPA, if for no other reason than capitalists need consumers around to buy their products. While there are perhaps some agencies whose missions are of dubious value, the vast majority have survived because they are involved in vital regulation and monitoring. This enables both the general welfare and provides a platform so that entrepreneurial behavior can continue to flourish.

Those who pine for the 1880s are sadly misguided and recklessly foolish. Except for the J. P. Morgans of the world, most of humanity lived short, sad and miserable lives. Ironically, China is becoming a case for why progressive government is needed. While some income levels in China may be creeping up due to largely unchecked capitalism, lifespan is decreasing from the resulting unchecked pollution.

Like it or not we now live in a far more complex world. Unless we all become like the Amish, the combination of increasing populations and quickly evolving technologies will make it inevitable that government will need to expand. If you object then to be consistent, you should give up your computer, cell phones and automobiles, none of which would be as cheap, safe or work as well without necessary and relatively benign government regulation. Like it or not, our complex and modern world and growing government is here to stay.

Government of the Corporation, by the Corporation and for the Corporation

Well, it’s now official. We live in a country of the corporation, by the corporation and for the corporation. The last nail in the coffin was today’s really amazingly bad decision by the United States Supreme Court. By 5-4 justices agreed that local governments could unilaterally take away a person’s home or business merely in order to revitalize a local economy. In short your home, where you and generations of your family may have been living, is now expendable if the local politicians feel that a Wal-Mart better enriches the local tax coffers serves the public good.

In previous years (that we will soon look back at with nostalgia) a government could take your property only if it served a compelling public need. Typically eminent domain was exercised to build new freeways. But now, after centuries of emulating the British common law notion that a man’s home is his castle, our Supreme Court has turned this idea on its head. Now your home can be confiscated because it might make a lovely location for a new Starbucks. So don’t feel bad, property owner. Instead, think with satisfaction on the lovely tax revenues that patronizing yuppies will bring in to state and local coffers from all those Mint Moca Chip Frappuccino Blended Coffees. Clearly that is more important that your desire to continue to live your humdrum and ordinary life in your own house. But don’t worry. The government won’t steal your property. You will get “fair market value”. This means you are compensated for the property, but you certainly won’t get a dime for your distress and hassle. And since the fair market value is unlikely to buy you something in your neighborhood (which may not exist after the developers are done with it) you may join others exiled in outer exurbia and forced to endure nightmarish commutes.

Maybe this is a logical result of the “run government like a business” mantra coming from what we hilariously call our political “leadership”. Governments are not about profit and loss but are about doing the people’s business. It used to be that our politicians truly represented the people. Now it is clear that they are wholly aligned with corporate interests. If you represent a business, and particularly if you also give them fat campaign contributions, you will get first class service. Us annoying citizens, you know, the ones who actually pay taxes and vote, we get coach class service. Yep, tiny bags of pretzels for us. After all if we can afford to contribute to a political campaign, it’s likely to be $50, not $50,000.

You have to wonder what tortured logic convinced five justices to wholly forget our history. If they hadn’t recently ruled against medical marijuana I might have accused them of being high on something when they were writing their opinions. So let us review. A republic is a representative form of government. It exists to serve the needs of the people. There is nothing at all in our constitution that says that governments are formed to serve the interest of corporations. Through much of its history Great Britain’s government existed to serve the needs of its kings and queens. (Arguably for a time it existed to serve the needs of the British East India Company.) In our country citizens are not peasants. We have basic and inalienable rights. Governments become legitimate from our consent. We form governments to help us meet our common needs, not Wall Street’s.

And if government doesn’t serve our needs then, according to our Declaration of Independence, we have the right to alter or abolish it. We are unlikely to rise up in revolution on this particular issue. But some part of me would understand if the citizenry felt a revolution was justified. So after this decision we have little choice but to hope that some future Supreme Court smells the smelling salts or that our Congress, now carefully populated with politicians who also care more about corporations than the citizenry, specifically write a law to constrain this outrageous breach of the use of eminent domain.

This decision is particularly puzzling because it was the erstwhile liberals and moderates on the Supreme Court that allowed this travesty to occur. Justice John Paul Stevens, the court’s most liberal member, wrote the majority opinion. Even Justice Clarence Thomas got it. “So-called ‘urban renewal’ programs provide some compensation for the properties they take, but no compensation is possible for the subjective value of these lands to the individuals displaced and the indignity inflicted by uprooting them from their homes,” he wrote. Justice O’Connor noted, “The beneficiaries are likely to be those citizens with disproportionate influence and power in the political process, including large corporations and development firms.”

As a liberal I am appalled. Individual liberty is at the heart of liberalism. Liberals see the role of government to ensure that all citizens have equal rights and protection under the constitution. We protect people from corporate excesses. And now in one fell swoop this decision puts the interests of corporations above those of the citizenry.

You have to wonder if this court will wish they spent more time considering the implications of this ruling. Let’s hope the pressure from the citizenry will be fierce enough so that Congress does the right thing and creates a law that prohibits these uses of eminent domain.

In the Land of the Suits

I’ve gotten spoiled. For more than a year I’ve dressed business casual instead of doing the pants, shirt, tie and dress shoes thing. Actually where I work (U.S. Geological Survey) it’s more casual than business casual. It’s casual pretty much all the time. Jeans and T-shirts at work are okay, almost de rigueur. If you are having an important meeting, particularly with people in other agencies, you might wear skip the jeans and sneakers and go for something dressier. Dressy at USGS means slacks, a button down shirt (no tie) and possibly some leather shoes. I now have a whole closet full of the clothes I used to have to wear every day. It consists of dozens of ties, lots of nice and starchy shirts, shiny dress shoes and even a couple sport coats. Now they have become nearly obsolete, suitable largely for attending weddings and funerals.

And I now have a job three miles away instead of twenty-five miles away. Whereas I used to arise long before dawn I now am generally up with or after the dawn. (It depends mostly on whether I need to shuffle my daughter off to school or not.) Whereas I used to arrive before six a.m. at a carpool lot to board a vanpool for D.C. and spend a day in the city, I now more often hop on a bike and peddle to work. Instead of having to park in some distant space in Pentagon South Parking like I did for nine long years I now park my bike right next to the main entrance.

So I was beginning to forget what it was like to live that other life that encompassed the first twenty years of my career. But today I attended a Service Oriented Architecture Executive Event, sponsored by BEA at the Ronald Reagan Building in Washington D.C. That meant for a day I got to play D.C. commuter again.

It’s a game thousands play every workday. In my case it meant getting up before dawn and putting on pleated pants, a quality shirt, tie and my dress shoes. I considered adding a sport coat but figured it would be overkill. It meant dashing through a hurried breakfast, driving to the Herndon Monroe Park and Ride and finding a parking space. It meant waiting ten minutes at a bus stop, making sure I had the right change and entering a packed bus for a twenty-minute ride to the West Falls Church Metro Station. From there it meant doing the Farecard thing, boarding an Orange Line Train then, after paying inflated rush hour rates, having to stand the whole way into the city. It meant juggling my bag making sure I wasn’t inconveniencing anyone else and wedging myself into an odd spot so everyone could get on the train.

On the way into the city I could not help but examine at the faces of my fellow commuters. What I saw were people more like zombies than alive. The more awake ones were reading one of the free papers passed out entering the station (usually The Express). But most had their eyes glazed over and looked like they desperately wanted to be asleep. But like they do every weekday they are operating on too little sleep, insufficient caffeine and subjecting themselves to an uncomfortable ninety minute commute. The announcements, heard a zillion times, served only to annoy and not enlighten.

My destination was the Federal Triangle station, just a hop, skip and a jump from the opulent Ronald Wilson Reagan Building. To call it opulent is to damn it with faint praise. While the public is welcome to come inside, you have to go through the hassle of metal detectors. That meant the same thing I did several times a day when I used to work in D.C. Empty pockets of anything that might be metallic. Show photo ID. Wait in line. Hope that you clear the metal detector on the first try. In short: trust no one. (Thankfully at USGS I just flip my ID at the guards and they wave me through.)

The Executive Forum turned out to really be a forum for executives. I realized as soon as I reached the Rotunda on the 8th floor that although I thought I was well dressed, I was really underdressed. Adding a sport coat would not quite have met their standard. This was three-piece suit city. Virtually everyone (and certainly all the vendors) had perfect hair. Even the waiters were wearing suits. My tote bag was clearly not quite up to snuff: everyone else had snooty narrow leather briefcases.

And it was a good event. I learned a lot about implementing service oriented architectures, even if I can’t see it happening in my agency any time soon because of the niggardly amounts of money Congress throws our way. But even so I found myself fascinated by looking at all the people in suits. The vendors were particularly dolled up and meticulously groomed. I know they were trying to make a good impression. I figured BEA must have had quite a wardrobe budget for its public sales staff. In particular they know how to hire great looking women. I’m sure they would decry any suggestion that they do so deliberately, but these were classy booth babes. My favorite was the thirty something blonde with the D breasts, low cleavage in the vertically striped dress. But please understand they were also entirely professional. And they were on top of us, moving us quickly from event to event and making sure we were shuffling to the right rooms and elevators.

For a free event they didn’t skimp on second-rate food. You sort of expect muffins, bagels and coffee for a continental breakfast. But there were also fancy bottled waters I had never heard about. And by the 10 AM break the confectioneries were replaced with lovely, nearly irresistible cookies. By 11:30 AM my head was buzzing with all this SOA stuff. Thankfully it was a half-day event. But they were not done with us yet. Because apparently BEA thinks it has a pocket as deep as Oracle’s. They are one of the sponsors of Bobby Rahal’s racing team. So who should show up as a featured speaker than none other than Bobby Rahal himself? A lot of people were excited. But frankly I didn’t know him from Adam. BEA must have deep pockets indeed to drag him out from Indianapolis for this minor little luncheon speech, none of which had anything to do with the event itself. But before setting us free they offered us a free buffet lunch that was first class and delicious.

Shortly thereafter my coworker and I left to return to our modest offices in the Reston suburbs. I felt out of place walking around USGS wearing a tie, but fortunately no one of note noticed me. They might have started pointing at me. Who was that dude and what was that strange thing around his neck?

It wasn’t that long ago that living in the land of suits seemed second nature. Even getting out of bed before 6 a.m., while it wasn’t something I liked, was something that became almost second nature. Now I wonder how I endured it all those years. What was with all that suit and tie stuff? Why do people in the city feel the need to be so dressy all the time? Why do they torture themselves and endure ninety minute commutes each way, much of it in the dark, and spend their days in office buildings far from the people they love? How do they manage to keep doing it day after day? The answer of course is that because they need the money and it’s a necessary tradeoff that they made.

All I know is I am not planning to ever find another job. I hope to stay with USGS forever. Not only is it a terrific place to work, but also 30 minutes per day for a commute beats the heck out of 2-3 hours for zero compensation. I have found working nirvana and I am grateful.

Dissing Excellence in Government

Why do we have governments? I’m serious. It shouldn’t be necessary to even ask this question. It should be obvious. But apparently some members of Congress haven’t grasped the basics. People form governments because there are certain things that can’t or shouldn’t be done by the private sector. It’s right there in the preamble to the United States Constitution. Our federal government exists to:

“… establish Justice, insure domestic Tranquility, provide for the common defense, promote the general Welfare, and secure the Blessings of Liberty to ourselves and our Posterity…”

So outsourcing our judiciary is out. We have decided that corporations should not determine if we go to war or how it will be managed. Also our government is empowered through law to promote the general welfare. It’s okay and constitutional for the government to engage in activities that make the country more prosperous and free, as long as it does it generally, i.e. for the public.

So you would think that the National Weather Service (NWS), which meticulously monitors our nation’s weather and provides sound scientific forecasts to the public, would be engaged in an inherently governmental mission. Well, at least in the eyes of some people, you would be wrong. In particular Pennsylvania Senator Rick Santorum (Republican, naturally) thinks the NWS needs to stop being so darn public with its information. Yes, although through your tax dollars we fund the NWS to the tune of about $617M a year, some like Sen. Santorum want you to pay again. He in particular has introduced S. 786, a bill “To clarify the duties and responsibilities of the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration and the National Weather Service, and for other purposes.”

Basically Santorum wants the NWS and its parent the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) to stop releasing those pesky routine forecasts and oh so convenient meteorological information. Instead he wants you to be forced to get the information from private sources like AccuWeather and The Weather Channel. The NWS should restrict itself to issuing “severe weather forecasts and warnings designed for the protection of life and property of the general public” and “hydrometeorological guidance and core forecast information.” Government civil servants would be prohibited from releasing any information “that might influence or affect the market value of any product, service, commodity, tradable, or business.” Whoa! That’s quite a way to stifle a civil servant!

In short, if someone else can make a dime off of it, NOAA and the NWS shouldn’t be doing it. But if some major tropical storm or tornado is headed our way it’s okay. And it’s still okay to put data out there for general use, but God forbid that it should be spun into actual useful information although it sounds like “guidance” is still okay. (“It will be hot in August in Texas.”) And don’t allow those government civil servants to actually use their professional education to turn information into knowledge, like make drought predictions. Save that for Santorum’s buddies at AccuWeather.

Why? Because Santorum claims this will stimulate the private sector innovation. He doesn’t want the government to provide this information in a timelier, cheaper or non-partisan manner. He wants you to cough up additional money to get this knowledge by subscribing to AccuWeather or watching all those annoying ads on

We so often hear that government is wasteful and bloated. But for less than $700M a year we have a National Weather Service that provides accurate and timely forecasts to all comers. (That’s less than $3 per year per person.) So what are the NWS and NOAA real crimes? What it amounts to is they are doing their job too well. All that valuable weather information is available in real time on their web sites. Oh Lord, the NWS has been too innovative. You can even get localized weather information available as an RSS news feed. And the NWS has done this despite flat or shrinking budgets.

So first civil servants get unfairly tarnished for being wasteful, bureaucratic, bloated and not thinking like the private sector. But when civil servants demonstrate extreme competence and entrepreneurial behavior, like apparently the many marvelous employees at the NWS, and do things faster, better and cheaper than the private sector, they are being bad. As a civil servant myself this really irks me. Man, we can’t win for losing! Apparently we aren’t living up to our stereotypes and that really irks some politicians.

Thankfully so far Santorum’s bill has no cosponsors. This means it is likely to die a quick death. But there are no guarantees in the weird Republican controlled times that we live in. You have to wonder what’s next: will the Secret Service be outsourced to Halliburton?

I am envious of my colleagues in NOAA and the NWS because they are doing exactly what I want to do at the U.S. Geological Survey. I manage NWISWeb, the system that puts out in real time water information collected by USGS’s National Water Information System (NWIS). Since I arrived about a year ago I’ve been building the case with management that we too need to make our peer reviewed water science data more broadly and easily available. NWISWeb is a great system but right now it is limited in that it serves our water data to be read by humans in a browser only. That hasn’t stopped lots of clever people in the private sector like the American Whitewater from figuring out ways to get our data and place it inside their products. And that’s fine with us. We make our data available equally to all comers. If the whitewater rafting people can figure out a way to show their members the local stream conditions on their web site more power to them.

I’d like to take the hassle out of getting the data though. I’d like us to offer our data using web services. This new technology would let computers grab and process our data on the fly without necessarily writing a lot of customized code, downloading files or scraping screens for content. I’d love for to display our stream flow and groundwater information in their maps. (Of course I’d like them to show the USGS logo too, so the public understands who is really gathering the data.) Particularly during periods of heavy flooding and hurricanes this information served in many places can save lives and reduce property damage.

We already have hydrologists working with NOAA and other organizations like They are working on models that can turn the number of feet a stream is over flood stage into a map that will show the surface area that would be underwater. But wait! It sounds like if a lot of senators think like Senator Santorum then the USGS would be in the data collection business exclusively. No point having your hard earned tax money used to infer any meaning from the data. So what if you live in a trailer next to a rapidly rising creek and are too busy watching Survivor to check stream conditions. If you don’t have your contract with AccuWeather to warn you about approaching floods that’s your problem. As a risk mitigation strategy, consider buying a life vest for every member of your family.

Time will tell whether Santorum’s bill lives or dies. And time will tell whether my idea will fly at the USGS. Like the NWS we work paycheck to paycheck. Since the Bush Administration wants to keep our budget flat money likely won’t be forthcoming for such an endeavor unless it is pulled from somewhere else. But if my executives are to take a clue from Senator Santorum, they might fear to be too innovative. Could be risky.

Instead of whining that the government is doing its job too well, AccuWeather should find ways to add value. Perhaps it could put more of its own sensors out in the field, collect different kinds of data and integrate it with the NWS data they are already getting cost free. AccuWeather is not being innovative. It is being anticompetitive.

I say let’s applaud NOAA and the NWS for their excellence and foresight. There actually is quite a lot of this innovation in the federal government if you look for it. Perhaps instead of giving agencies like these flat budgets they should be rewarded for their innovation with more money so they can do an even better job. They are after all clearly promoting the general welfare. Our founding fathers would be pleased.

Continue reading “Dissing Excellence in Government”

My Inner Entrepreneur

Oh dear, I hope I’m not turning into a Republican.

Yesterday I made my first dollar off the internet. Perhaps I should wait for the check to arrive and the money to actually make it into my bank account before I spend the money. And it’s not a whole lot of money: $60. Still, if I get it then it will be tangible evidence that there is money to be made off the internet by ordinary Joes like me. I won’t quit my day job but for the first time in years I am motivated to feel a bit entrepreneurial.

In 2001 I purchased my first domain, I bought it because I live in a place called Oak Hill. Of course it’s not incorporated. It’s the name on the post office in my zip code: 20171. Many of us who live in Oak Hill don’t even know we live here. We say “We live near Herndon” or “We live near Chantilly” or “You know Franklin Farm? I live near there.” Basically it’s a bedroom community with a couple shopping centers.

Anyhow in 2001 a new post office opened with our name on it which made it sort of official. So I went shopping for related domain names. I figured maybe there was some money in having a community web site. I had planned to learn this internet stuff anyhow and this seemed the way to go. But I was so naïve back then. I bought the domain off of Yahoo Domains for an inflated price. I shopped for a web host online and picked a place called that was dirt cheap but was actually a reseller for

And that was about all I did with the domain. I guess I was hoping someone with more time and energy than me would offer me some big bucks for the domain name. It never happened. Instead I used the domain to practice. Since I had started teaching web page design and I wanted my students to have an experience similar to real electronic commerce. So I created a few server side scripts on the site. Students submitted a web form to an address on the web site and they got back a response. Pretty simple stuff.

After a year or so I decided to get fancier. I erased the FrontPage version of the site and put up portal software, phpNuke. This too was a learning experience. The real learning experience came when some hacker broke into the site and defaced my main pages. It became such a hassle trying to fix it that I just erased the whole thing. I then tried PostNuke but it didn’t have the interactive features I wanted. Eventually though I decided to stick with a product I knew: phpBB, open source bulletin board software used everywhere. I had plenty of experience customizing that with my other domain, So I put up some forums, dressed up some content, placed ads around it and went back to my slumbers. About once a year, usually when I was off between Christmas and the New Year I would go to the site and tweak it a bit. I added a neat interactive business directory and local link directory. But mostly I ignored it.

Over the years I moved the site around. Now it is hosted by and generally manages my domain names. Over the last couple months I have started to get inquiries about the site. One guy had a number of similar domains and was investigating potential partnership. That didn’t seem to go anywhere. I also got a couple requests about advertising on the site. Only one went anywhere. It culminated yesterday when I got my first paid for advertisement on the site.

My hope is to bind the citizens of Oak Hill together on the web. Basically we are a bunch of subdivisions and if we have any allegiance at all it is too our subdivision, not to Oak Hill. We are also very well moneyed. Our average income is more than $100,000 per household. But marketing the site seemed daunting. I’m just not a salesman. I tried that in my days working for Montgomery Ward and flunked spectacularly. I can’t imagine going door to door to do marketing. I’m too much of an introvert.

With my wife unemployed she has been picking up a few wetbacks fixing and building computers for friends and through referrals. It hardly pays our grocery bill but it keeps her from hanging out in pool halls. So I slapped an ad for her nascent business on the site. I’m not aware of any referrals she got directly from the site. Nonetheless for a site with no marketing gets a fair number of hits. It comes up #1 on a Google Search for “Oak Hill Virginia”. In February there were nearly 28,000 hits and close to 700 visits.

With someone willing to give me $60 for six months of advertising on the site though I am thinking that I need to think larger. It’s time perhaps to risk a little working capital. My wife needs more customers. And my site could use more traffic. So we’re looking into doing some advertising ourselves in more traditional mediums. The hard part is reaching every home in the area. We are looking at bulk advertisers like Money Mailer and ValPak. We are also considering a couple ads in the local newspapers.

Selling one advertisement for $60 basically pays my hosting costs. is just one domain parked in my domain, and at I was able to buy quality shared hosting for less than $100 a year. Add the modest cost of maintaining the domain name (about $15 a year) and it only takes a few paying customers to make a profit over my operating costs. Of course my time is worth a lot of money and right now my day jobs pay the bills. But there is the potential that with some marketing and focus I could make some small amount of money on the side from this venture. Just a couple hundred bucks a year would demonstrate the potential of internet commerce on a personal level.

Of course if the site caught on that would bring other issues. Hackers would find it more inviting. Since I have forum software I’d have to watch and worry about content posted there. So small steps. I am still skeptical that after all these years there is any money to be made in a small community web site, but perhaps I will prove myself wrong.