Saturday, October 18, 2014

The Legalization of Marijuana...My Stand


In November the citizens of Washington DC are voting to decriminalize the smoking of marijuana. If passed, it is a step short of legalizing the retail sale of marijuana.  While I don’t know which jurisdictions would be doing so, other jurisdictions may be doing the same this November or in the coming years. A handful of jurisdictions in the United States already permit the sale of marijuana.  

 

The arguments for and against abound, some of which are fallacious while others are much stronger. One prime argument against legalization of marijuana is that it is a gateway drug, a mild drug that leads to the taking of harder drugs. The reasoning is that if smoking of marijuana is legalized that the consumption of harder drugs will increase. The anti-legalization advocates note the number of people who are taking hard drugs who had smoked marijuana first. I’ve not been impressed with such an argument. While those using this argument are trying to make a direct cause and effect argument the argument is built upon a correlation of two behaviors that may or may not be linked.

 

It is true a high number of hard drug users first smoked marijuana, but does that mean that behavior drove or caused them to take harder drugs? The anti-legalization advocates claim that the high correlation argues that it does. I see some problems with argument. One is that the correlation between consuming of alcohol and the consumption of hard drugs is much stronger. There is a strong correlation between those who smoke marijuana and those who smoke cigarettes.  Are we then to argue that drinking alcohol or smoke cigarettes leads to the consumption of hard drugs?

 

The reason no one is making such arguments about alcohol or cigarettes being gateway drugs is that there is a high number of people who drink alcohol and smoke cigarettes who never take hard drugs. And that is my issue with linking marijuana with hard drugs, for there are millions of people who have smoked marijuana and have never then consumed hard drugs. Add to the mix is that when the Netherlands legalized marijuana, there was no increase in hard drug consumption.     

 

Does marijuana lead those who smoke it into the taking of other drugs?  Indicators suggest that other causes and issues are likely at play, not the smoking of marijuana.

 

Likewise, I’ve not been overly impressed with the argument that marijuana is a harmless drug. It is a drug which is much like alcohol, that when consumed affects the body. It is not harmless just as alcohol is not harmless. The degree of intoxication as well as detoxification is directly related to the amount consumed.  The more consumed in a short period of time the more marijuana impacts the body, judgment and conduct. Just as people get addicted to alcohol, people can become addicted too to marijuana.

 

The United States effort to expunge alcohol from society was a dismal failure. People consumed alcohol underground and increased black market related crime. America realized that its citizens were going to drink alcohol whether it was legal or not, and that it there are fewer social consequences in permitting and regulating it manufacturing, sale and consumption in the open than to have it unregulated and driven undergrounds. Are we as a society at the same point with marijuana?  Should we legalize and regulate marijuana just like we do alcohol?  Should we be more pragmatic about as do the Dutch?

 

At one time in my life, I would have been firmly in the anti-legalization. While I’m open to the idea, I’m not an advocate for legalizing of marijuana. If legalizing of marijuana was on Virginia’s ballet this year I’m uncertain how I would vote. Fortunately, due to the nature of downstate politics in Virginia, I have several years to become more settled on the matter.

Thursday, October 16, 2014

This Could Be a Long Stressful Winter


The winter of 2014/2015 may well be one of the most stress filled winters in recent memories, equaling and possibly surpassing the oil crisis winters of 1973-1974, and 1976-1977, 1979-1980. In those winters, many with modest to low incomes wondered if they would have oil to heat their homes, and gas to drive their cars as well as the anxiety the affordability of heating oil and gasoline. Those winters were years of significant stress across America.

 

The winter of 2001-2002 was also a winter of increased stress. Experiencing terrorism on its own soil, Americans were under stress that winter wondering not if another attack would take place but when and how it would strike. While many nations in Central America, Africa, Europe, the Middle East and Far East had experienced and long adjusted to such events, for Americans the 9-11 attacks was a new experience which created stress across the nation. Added to that stress was the stress that the nation was quickly moving to war with its people’s crying out for amends and its aging leaders voting to sacrifice the lives of the nation’s youth.

 

The winter of 2014-2015 has the potential to well surpass the stress and fears experienced during those four winters. There is no oil crisis looming for heating oil and gasoline are not only in good supply but their prices are dropping. The cause of the stress are the common flu and cold. We normally handle our own and the colds and flu of others with little concern, but there is evidence all around us that this winter may well be different. A person with a slight fever or who vomits would not give us much concern, but this year our irrational nature will wonder if the person has Ebola and that we will catch Ebola too. That fear will bring stress to many across the nation, and if they later have the flu many will become alarmed. 

 

This week a person at a community college in the Shenandoah Valley had a fever and vomited in a bathroom. Immediately he was identified as an Ebola suspect, quarantined, the men’s bathroom in which he was ill was sealed and quarantined. Then those who had likely were in contact with him were identified and put on a list.  In Charlottesville a feverish woman was also viewed as an Ebola suspect, treated as if she had the decease and tested. There was no evidence that either person had traveled in the past months to Africa or had been in contact with anyone who had or with any current Ebola victim in the US or Europe. Yet, around both individuals people reacted and treated them as if they had Ebola.  Both had a common illness. An overreaction? Most definitely.

 

If we are overreacting to these two individuals, what are we headed for as the flu season hits? Are our fears going to drive us to avoid people with slight flu symptoms and colds, force them to go home and not return until they are well? Are parents going to rushing a child with a fever to the emergency room with a fear that their child has Ebola? Are we months away from thousands of people around us refusing to go to church, parties, sports events and other group gatherings, and flying or traveling on mass transit, all because they fear of being exposed to Ebola?


Are the fears realistic? Not from what I understand of the decease but what can I expect when the press hypes the story and how it covers the story by airing unfounded statements. Was is unfortunate are states made by a growing number of politicians and political operatives who during this campaign season talk of Ebola in irrational uninformed manners and speak as if within months all across the nations many thousands will be fighting for their lives. (The comments made by their politicians and political operatives again reminding me that for too many politicians it is all about the election and the power, not about statesmanship and leadership.)

 

While humanity can be so rational, let's also remember that we can become so illogical too if we don't stop, take a deep breath and think thoughtfully about things.  As for me, I'm going to treat your cold and flu symptoms, and mine to, as just that. 


I fear that this could be a long winter people around us a state of higher than normal stress.      

Thursday, October 09, 2014

What's In a Name


What’s in a name? As evidenced by actors changing their name or author’s having a pen name, a name has great significance for marketing purposes. In the Middle Ages someone crying out “Vikings” created fear and even panic across England and the north coast of Europe. In the tenth century, Erik the Red knew the value in what name can project when to attract new settlers he named an ice laden rocky Arctic island Greenland. Today when most of us hear the word “gas” it doesn’t evoke an emotional response but someone yelling “gas” in 1916-1918 in the trenches of northern France evoked the emotions of urgency, dread, fear and in some cases panic.

 

I’ve been reminded afresh by three events of the significance a name may carry for good or for ill. The first two are apartment complexes. University Fields, a complex mainly populated by students suffered from a declining reputation over the years as the complex had not been well maintained and operated. With declining occupancy the complex was sold to a group of local investors who announced with some fanfare plans to renovate and upgrade the complex, and in doing so they changed the name to “The Harrison” as a means to distance themselves from past baggage and a poor reputation. A wise choice and one that is not uncommon for firms to do when a brand name has become toxic.

 

With grand plans announced and promised The Harrison saw a good number of James Madison University students willing to sign leases in April and May with a late August move in. Over the summer, the owners commenced the renovations. While crews were working daily across the complex, as those who have been involved in construction projects know, when work is being done on a budget and you use low cost subs, the schedule falls behind. Subs have a way of taking portions of their crews elsewhere when higher paying opportunities come along. That is what occurred at the Harrison, and their major interior projects ranging from new flooring, freshly painted walls, electrical upgrading, new kitchen cabinets with new appliances and new furniture (furnished apartment complex), started to fall behind in June. The schedule was so far behind that when JMU students were moving in August, many of the apartments were not yet available for occupancy.   The Harrison as a brand took a major hit and became toxic, so much so that by late September the complex quietly returned to its former name.

The new owners overpromised and under delivered, and in the process destroyed the new name they were using to signal a change in ownership and an improved complex. It may well be years before the owners of University Fields will see their investment yield the return they projected earlier in the year when they bought the complex. It will take another two classes of students to come and go before they will have a chance to build a new brand around a new name...yes I anticipate a name change will happen because University Fields is still somewhat toxic, just not as toxic as The Harrison.  

 

Across the street from University Fields another housing complex, The Commons, announced in April that it too would be undergoing some upgrading…new flooring and appliances, and new siding. All the work was to be completed by mid August, but it too fell behind schedule. Flooring and the appliance installation that was to be completed by late July didn’t finish until mid August, just ahead of the return of the students. The siding installation to give the complex a fresh appearance started late and while the work will not be completed until late October, the outside work is a minor disturbance. Interestingly, this second complex likewise quietly underwent on the first of October, changing its name from The Commons to Campus Edge in an effort to market itself afresh to the JMU students whose campus is a half a mile from the complex. 
 

The other event revolves around the growing reaction and in some cases panic in some circles off American politicians, political commentators and segments of the public to two terms, Ebola and IS (and its various name derivatives). It is interesting to see how such names evoke panic and fear, and is being used by some “leaders” to inflame such fears and calling for drastic responses that are beyond the level of their threats. And it is likely the fears and paranoia will be further enflamed over the coming months. Hopefully we will not only return to a more balanced reaction but that the public will increasingly view the “brand” of those who played upon their fears as toxic.
 

Wednesday, October 01, 2014

Walmart - Sign of Progress


Recently the town council of Timberville Virginia had before them an application for Walmart to open a store in the community. Various voices, both individuals as well as organized groups, stood against the proposal. Such opposition isn’t new for since the late 1990s Walmart has experienced some opposition from various communities across the nation, and in growing frequency.  Walmart coming into the community will depress wages is one argument put forward.  Another argument they put forward regarded the estimated economic impact upon the community (both wages and tax revenue) that Walmart projects are overly optimistic. The major argument against approving the request was that when Walmart moves into the community, it kills local businesses.

 

Interestingly, the majority of the opposition voices came from outside the Timberville/Broadway community. Many from the community via email, letters and appearances supported the proposal. At the end of the day, the council approved Walmart’s request and the store will likely open in the first half of 2016.

 

That Walmart doesn’t pay well the average store employee in a low skill position is true, but the same can be said for so for food stores, restaurants, and convenient stores. So do the common retail stores like Macys, JCP, Best Buy, Target, etc. If one stands against Walmart because it pays low wages to workers in low skilled positions, then you must also stand against the opening in your community fast food restaurants, food stores, convenient stores, other big box stores, or a even a mall coming to your town. And if you don’t oppose them, then why do you oppose Walmart and not those other places that also pay low wages?    

 

Walmarts’ economic impact statements/figures give a favorable picture. The figures are not false but have to be viewed as incomplete and at places optimistic. This is to be expected as they are casting their argument in the best light. If Ford, Microsoft or another firm was opening a large plant in a community, the figures from the company would likewise be rosy and not taking into account the farther reaching impacts.  Walmart’s figures don’t often include all infrastructure costs that may well be incurred by the town, costs ranging from installing of extra lights along the route to the store to an extra police officer or two. That said, the increase in tax revenue from Walmart will more than offset those costs. So too will revenue from the types of businesses which will in the coming years cluster or expand in the store’s area.

 

The concern about lost of retail businesses is a legitimate concern as some retail businesses will close, but it is a concern that if heeded holds back progress and efficiencies. Change and the successful new ways ultimately bring the relinquishing of the old ways.

 

The railroads of the expanding railroads in the 1870s to 1890s not only united a nation but they made it possible for goods and services to be transported more rapidly and further than ever before. The railroad system transformed the economic and business models. The railroads provided for the great expansion of what had been a limited profession, the traveling salesman. Railroads enabled beef raised in Texas to Wyoming to be moved quickly to new large meat processing plants in centers across the nation and from those plants for fresh meat to find its way into the hands of the local butcher in small towns. The railroads made it possible for S.S. Kresge to bring to his stores thousands of low cost items from afar into his store, a store that would expand into the Kresge chain and then become Kmart. The railroads enabled two salesmen to establish a store with a catalogue and warehouse, and to sell items through the catalogue across the Midwest to people in small towns and on farms, and to grow that company into a major retail giant, Sears (now a dying firm).  

 

Look at how the interstate system transformed Florida and our way of doing business. Do you think Florida would have the even a third of its current tourist, snowbird and retirement communities if there was no interstate system? Much of Florida would be a swamp without the interstate system allowing people to travel five to six hundred miles a day in order to spend time in Florida’s winter sun. That same system now transports goods across the nation, transforming the manufacturing and retail structures of 1950s and 1960s. A local farmer who a hundred years ago could only sell his milk to a few local small towns can now has a heard ten to twenty times the size and sells his/her the milk in communities hundreds or even thousands of miles away. The handful of chickens that once were only sold locally are now raised in the thousands per year at a fraction of former costs, processed in plants that can process and package over a million chickens a year with the products from those plants being sold across the nation.  

 

Gone are the days when the vast majority of one’s furniture and clothing was made within a twenty mile radius of home. Now clothing, furniture and other household items are made thousands, or even tens of thousands of miles away for a fraction of the costs, and for the most part are better quality too (see my posts of August 16 & 23).  

 

Progress and scales of production has brought forth greater efficiencies, lower prices and a greater range of products to every community.  Yes local businesses that made a few furniture items a week have died. They failed to adapt or had products whose quality could not compete with better quality products now reaching their community at a lower cost. Just as businesses like buggy manufacturers and radio tube firms have fallen to the wayside because they failed to adapt, so too will other inefficient businesses.

 

Local businesses will fail when Walmart comes to town mainly because they have failed for a host of reasons to be competitive.  Some of those reasons were outside their control, and others were beyond their control. Kodak is a recent example of a huge company that is a shell of its former glory because it just didn’t adapt to the new trends and technologies quick enough.  Kmart’s decline is a result of its management and model being too slow to change and adapt. If Walmart does not adapt to new trends, products and other changes that will take place in the coming years, it too will fail. As attested by the decline of Sears and Kmart, a profitable formula in one decade may well become unprofitable one a decade or two later.

 

Today Walmart is an example of progress and efficiency. And it is also an example of how its current way of doing business may be at risk from a new form of doing business…the Amazon  model, a digital version and revamping of the Sears catalogue a hundred years ago.

   

Monday, September 29, 2014

Coins in Direct Mail Letters


On Friday I was asked by a friend what I thought of direct mail letters from a nonprofit with a penny or two included. He explained that he recently received such a letter. I noted that I’d received such letters, and some have included a nickel, not just a penny or two.

 

There is evidence that including pennies and nickels will increase response rate, and thereby the number of gifts. My friend confirmed that he was not a particular supporter of the cause but had been thinking of donating to the group because of the two pennies sitting on his desk. The strategy plays to the dynamics being experienced by my fried. The appeal rests more upon appealing to the recipients’ sense of guilt more than a person’s commitment to the cause and a willingness to do something to support the cause.  Many donors will give a small gift, just large enough to satisfy their sense of guilt.  I noted that appealing to guilt is one of the reasons I’m not a fan of such letters for the organization for whom I work.  My organization should appeal to the rightness of the cause, to the need to help people in need rather than play on a person’s sense guilt. It may be a technique that fits with some organizations and their ethos, but I think it is not appropriate for my organization which is faith based and should be above appealing to guilt in such a manner.

 

I noted to him that while the technique does bring in more new donors and gifts, there is a substantial increase in the number of small gifts in the $5 to $20 range. The costs of “servicing” these small donors (costs of thank you letters, data storage, sending subsequent letters, etc.) over the subsequent year will often consume much of the funds received from these small donors. Additionally, as they have given out of guilt more than support for the cause, a very high number of these donors will not give again without another appeal the includes a coin or some other appeal to their guilt, and rarely do they increase the level of the giving.

 

I’m not a fan of this type of technique as it can readily give the impression that the organization has money to waist. My organization is a poverty faith-based organization which prides itself with being efficient with its use of resources, and often speaks to cost efficiency in various newsletters and fundraising documents. It is my opinion that including a coin in a fundraising letter undermines that the organization is careful with how it spends funds. I noted to my friend that I would be unlikely to give to a cause that is not careful with its use of resources.

 

I hope that any direct mail vendor my organization utilizes understands about fiscal efficiency and organizational nature and thereby would not propose the use of such a strategy even if there is evidence that it works for some organizations.

 

Friday, when I got home, what did I have in the mail that day? A prospecting letter with a nickel enclosed. While noting not to give to the organization, and without a second thought or feeling of guilt, the nickel went into my pocket.