Tuesday, July 18, 2017

The Great Depression

Not many people are still alive that remember The Great Depression of the 1930’s. I remember it through stories my parents and grandparents told. It was very vivid to them.

The Great Depression was a perfect storm of two man-made disasters. The first was a financial crisis brought about by unregulated banking and financial markets run amok. The whole thing collapsed on October 29, 1929. The solution was to shut everything down, banks and everything, and start with a new system of regulations, a strong central bank and regulated markets. The federal government then had to step in with massive spending to basically jump start the economy again.

The second man-made disaster which happened about the same time has been called the “dust-bowl.” This was a massive erosion of topsoil caused by poor farming methods. The solution here was a huge soil conservation program which led eventually to the Environmental Protection Agency and the environmental movement in general.

We have not had similar disasters since then because of government regulations led by agencies such as the SEC, EPA, Department of Agriculture and so forth. We came close to the financial part of the disaster in 2009 when banking regulations were backed off. Because of the lessons learned during the Roosevelt administration in the 30’s, the Obama administration was able to jump in and save the economy from a more serious collapse.

Hopefully we have learned our lessons about lack of regulations from this experience that started 88 years ago.

Monday, July 17, 2017

Life Long Learning

This week was the first session of my class at Johnson County Community College, “Black and White Photography in the 21st Century.” The second session will be this Thursday. I am also teaching a class this Wednesday at Village Shalom on The History of Photography. 

In a few weeks I will be starting a 13 week introduction to Income Tax for H&R Block. I have been an instructor for H&R Block for a number of years, but I have always taught advanced classes for tax pros. This class is open to anybody who would like to work for Block or would just like to learn more about our tax system.

In case you hadn’t heard, there is a people shortage in just about every area of the economy. Tax preparation is no exception. H&R Block is in need of tax professionals, office managers, and receptionists. The Income Tax Course is the front door. If you, or anybody you know, might be interested, let me know and I will give a referral.

You may have noticed a theme to this article. First that I am heading into a phase of life where passing along knowledge and experience is becoming more important. As we get older we have an obligation to share wisdom and experience with those not as far down the road. The second theme is continuing education. Life-long learning is the greatest gift we can give ourselves. I have heard that if you are self-employed or doing some sort of freelancing that you should be spending approximately half of your time learning new skills, reading, attending seminars, trade shows, and so forth. If you are an employee, your employer should be encouraging your continued education, or you may be on your own. At any rate, life-long learning should be a high priority.

Tuesday, July 11, 2017

Money or People

Money or People?
When I worked in retail many years ago, I quickly learned that there were regular decisions about whether to sell the customer a product that was best for them or one that made the most money for the store. I learned that selling them what they wanted or needed resulted in happy customers and a long term relationships.

Later when I owned my own business, we decided to always put the customer first and know that the money would take care of itself. That was a strategy that kept us satisfied with our business for many years.

It seems that the further management is from the customer, the more likely they are to make decisions based on short term financial gain, rather than long term relationships.
Jesus said, "You cannot serve both God and money." He implied that there was a decision to be made, a priority that has to be set. We want to make it clear that one way we serve God is by serving people.

Business people have a clear choice because serving people and making money are pretty much related by cause and effect. When I visit online business forums my comments are always along the lines of giving people what they want or need, or serve the client first, then figure out how to make it profitable.

In my photography business, the first priority is to figure out what the customer wants, then set pricing that is fair and reasonable to everyone.

Wednesday, April 20, 2016

My Thoughts on Education

On Education....

Before the Civil War, the idea of public education was still controversial. Conservatives argued that education was the responsibility of parents not the government. The result was that rich families sent their kids to private schools, or hired tutors, and poor families sent their kids to work. And guess what? The rich got richer and the poor got poorer. Liberals argued that a better educated populous would help everybody.

When Kansas became a state, the idea of free education was written into the state constitution. Settlers flocked to Kansas with the promise of hundreds of free public schools within walking distance of everyone. People have been moving to Kansas because of the outstanding education system, including state sponsored colleges and universities, ever since.

Along with education comes things like better health, lower crime, higher per-capita income and better quality of life in general.

The subjects that are taught have often been controversial. Industry was generally opposed to universal education until they realized that teaching people to read and follow instructions and show up on time would be helpful for productivity.

Since World War II we having been moving away from the industrial economy toward a knowledge based economy. Those whose education consisted of learning to show up and follow directions are being left behind. The number of well-paying jobs that require only high school are getting to be few. The result, the rich get richer and the poor get poorer. Creativity is the new “must have” skill. Schools must be teaching people to think clearly, learn how to solve problems, and most importantly, giving them a desire for life-long learning. This generally happens only at the college level or at the best high schools.

The next step the government needs to take is to move to provide free or affordable college level education for all. Community colleges and state universities are already in a position to make this happen. But there is a problem. People who have gone into debt or worked hard to pay for a college education are not going to be open to suddenly making this free to others. The legacy idea of having to pay for an expensive education will take much political effort to overcome and is probably not possible in one generation.

It took many years for the idea of free elementary and high schools to be accepted and then only happened on a state by state basis. If Kansas really wanted to give the state economy a boost, offering free college tuition to all residents would be the best thing we could do. Reducing funding to schools would be the absolute worse thing.

An underlying question that begs to be answered is “What is the purpose of college?” Is it to teach a marketable skill such as medicine, engineering, or accounting? Is it to make contacts and build relationships that will be helpful and fulfilling all through life? Is it just a prestige thing that you can point to open doors? Or maybe it is to open our minds to art and literature that will enhance our entire life.

I think it is all of those things. I've always contended that the main purpose of higher education is to show us what we don't know. This gives us a desire to learn more, and the more we learn the more we realize what we don't know. A common characteristic of uneducated people is that they think they know it all.

In today's culture, to be successful we need to have a desire and ability to be continuous learners, be flexible problem solvers, have the ability to work with others, and be able to relate to a wide variety of people and situations. This might happen in 12 years, but with our current education system, at least 16 years is required.

Monday, January 13, 2014

The War on Poverty

It was 50 years ago that Lyndon Johnson announced his “War on Poverty.” John Kennedy had visited Appalachia and was appalled at what he saw, but Johnson knew poverty first hand and decided that would be the big issue of his presidency.

The debate is still going on whether the war was won or lost. To me, it is still going on. To Johnson the problem was simple, too many people didn’t have enough money and the government could help. His programs such as food stamps and Medicaid have gone a long way to keep people from starving to death. Newer programs such as school lunches and Earned Income Credit certainly help as well.

We now know that just giving people money doesn’t solve the problem. It is obvious to me that there is a “culture of poverty” that is extremely complicated and deep rooted. Some even deny that it exists and attribute poverty to racism or lack of education. Racism is a separate issue and may be an contributing factor in some situations, but the problem is deeper than that.

Education is closer, but part of the culture of poverty is a lack of interest or even disdain for education.

I have been involved with homeless shelters for several years and have some familiarity with businesses that cater to the poor. Businesses such as payday loans, buy-here-pay-here car dealers, rent-to-own stores, and to a lesser extent pawn shops, not only exploit the poor, but contribute to that culture. My direct experience is working in a pawn shop. Pawn shops are on a slightly higher plain than the others in this category, but we dealt with some of the same people, so I had first-hand experience.

We cannot expect the governments or Congress to deal effectively with this issue because they have problems understanding issues far simpler than poverty.

It is really everybody’s concern, especially churches and the Christian community who are particularly commissioned by Jesus to help the poor. Organizations such as The Salvation Army and the various Rescue Missions understand this and are generally overwhelmed. They need our help.

I see the most basic problem of poverty as lack of trust in the education system or in any big organization such as a bank. For example, many believe that it is better to cash your paycheck at a check cashing service than it is to open a bank account. An amazing number of people see no value in going to school and openly criticize those that try to learn or do well in class.

Surveys have shown huge differences in the way the poorest people and the wealthier people approach basic things like diet, exercise, health care, learning, and even transportation. Poor people regularly spend the most with the least benefit, not because of lack of availability, but because of their understanding of how things work.

A basic concept of the poverty culture is instant gratification. In fact, helping people get past this issue may be the key to helping them out of poverty. Starting a business or investing in the future is a totally foreign concept to a large portion of the population.

Jesus said that the poor will be with us always. He did not mean that we couldn’t do anything about it, but rather that this was going to be an ongoing problem for millennia and that we had our work cut out for us.

Monday, January 06, 2014

The Value of a College Education.

There has been a lot of talk in the media about the value or non-value of a college education. With the skyrocketing costs of college and the less than stellar outlooks for some recent graduates, this is a good time to take a closer look.
On a strictly dollars and “sense” level, it may be a wash. If you come out of college with tons of debt and a job that you could have gotten right out of high school, you have to seriously look at how you spent your time. But this misses the whole point of going to college. 

The value of a college education is not just “book-learning,” after all you could do better spending eight hours a day for four years reading in the public library for free. The value is in the relationships and experiences that come from the rarified atmosphere of a college campus that you can’t get anywhere else.

The years I spent at Kansas State University and later at Mid-America Nazarene University were life changing in all kinds of ways. Only a few were things I learned in a classroom. Sure I picked up some good economic theories and learned a lot of calculus that I’ve never used; but the bulk of my education came over a cup of coffee, hanging out with people from all over the world and all walks of life, exchanging ideas about music, art, architecture, and literature. 

I just finished reading J Paul Getty’s memoir. He attended Oxford in the early part of the 29th century. He admits that the best part was that classes were only six weeks at a time, four times a year, which gave him plenty of time to travel and get to know people. His travels to Italy, Greece, and France help make him one of the world’s foremost authorities on Renaissance art. His degree from Oxford in Economics may or may not have been helpful in the Oklahoma oil fields where he made his fortune.

I recently talked to a bank president. The bank is family owned. The current generation of owners were his friends in college. When they needed a president, because they already knew him, they gave him a call. Do the relationships we have in college matter? They certainly can.

This all brings into question the value of online or other alternative forms of higher education. I take all kinds of online courses to stay up to date in business, but this is not the same as being on a college campus and being submerged with like-minded people 24 hours a day. An online degree misses the whole point and probably dilutes the whole idea having a college degree.

Forget all the gibberish about whether or not a college degree will make you more money. It may or may not, that is up to you, not the degree, but it will definitely make you a different, and usually better, person.

Thursday, June 27, 2013

40th Anniversaries

We just completed the 39th Annual Bike Across Kansas. Last year was the 40th Walnut Valley Music Festival in Winfield. Music festivals, bike rides, and assorted fairs and unusual events all over the country are celebrating their 40th anniversaries this year, last year, or next year.  Louise and I were married in 1971 and started our black and white photography business in 1973. 

The question is what was it about the early 1970’s that spurred all this creative activity?

There were a large number of people who came through the counter-culture of the late 1960’s, or were on the fringe of that movement, who were and are committed to not living boring lives as they had seen their parents doing.
They wanted to ride bicycles long distances, hold days-long music festivals and have art fairs. Large numbers of these events started in 1972-1974 are still going and are bigger than ever, usually attended by the same people every year.

Which brings up the question, what are young people doing now? The obvious thing is paying off student debt. It is pretty hard to start a music festival when you owe $75K in student loans. 

Student debt and the high cost of higher education are right up there with health care costs when it comes to national crisis. Both things have the potential to wreck our quality of life for generations by sapping resources that could and should go to more creative activities.