07 February 2015

On the Wage Economy: Everything Old Isn't Exactly New Again, but It's a Start

Some people are actually beginning to remember another time when wage-gouging, profit, and the bottom line weren't the handbasket in which we were all riding to Hell. I call the following sensible wage logic "The Great A-Doy, Now." 

From the usually excellent New Yorker Financial Page, this time by James Surowiecki:

"...A substantial body of research suggests that it can make sense to pay above-market wages—economists call them 'efficiency wages.' If you pay people better, they are more likely to stay, which saves money; job turnover was costing Aetna a hundred and twenty million dollars a year. Better-paid employees tend to work harder, too. The most famous example in business history is Henry Ford’s decision, in 1914, to start paying his workers the then handsome sum of five dollars a day. Working on the Model T assembly line was an unpleasant job. Workers had been quitting in huge numbers or simply not showing up for work. Once Ford started paying better, job turnover and absenteeism plummeted, and productivity and profits rose.

"Subsequent research has borne out the wisdom of Ford’s approach. As the authors of a just published study of pay and performance in a hotel chain wrote, 'Increases in wages do, in fact, pay for themselves.' Zeynep Ton, a business-school professor at M.I.T., shows in her recent book, 'The Good Jobs Strategy,' that one of the reasons retailers like Trader Joe’s and Costco have flourished is that, instead of relentlessly cost-cutting, they pay their employees relatively well, invest heavily in training them, and design their operations to encourage employee initiative. Their upfront labor costs may be higher, but, as Ton told me, 'these companies end up with motivated, capable workers, better service, and increased sales.' Bertolini—who, as it happens, once worked on a Ford rear-axle assembly line—makes a similar argument. 'It’s hard for people to be fully engaged with customers when they’re worrying about how to put food on the table,' he told me. 'So I don’t buy the idea that paying people well means sacrificing short-term earnings.'”

Oh! And while we're on the subject, if you happen to run into Trickle-Down Economics (aka "Supply-Side") in your travels, please do it with your car--or please tell it to kindly go fuck itself. It doesn't work; it never worked; it only works for making rich people richer. It doesn't "trickle down" to us peons, rather Trickle-Down Economics (note the disingenuous use of the word "trickle") works like a series of rocket stages, employed to increase individual and corporate wealth only. Moreover, one can't have a supply that works without a viable working-to-middle class to provide the demand, unless you have free-reign--under international trade agreements--to seek low-wage laborers and "off-shore" markets to take the place of a viable American one. But hey, this is about livable wages--what a concept! Jesus is my Economist.

It's a short piece, and you can read the whole thing at NewYorker.com.

05 February 2015

On Sondheim: Pacific Overtures II

Today, among other things, we will be continuing our exploration of Jonathan Weidman, Stephen Sondheim, and Hal Prince's 1976 musical-chimera, Pacific Overtures.

Admiral Perry furthered the "opening" of Japan to the West--a traumatizing event for the Japanese--with a letter to the Emperor dated July 7, 1853, which references, then United States President, Franklin Pierce, though the directive was begun by his predecessor, Millard Fillmore:

Many of the large ships-of-war destined to visit Japan have not yet arrived in these seas, though they are hourly expected; and the undersigned, as an evidence of his friendly intentions, has brought but four of the smaller ones, designing, should it become necessary, to return to Edo in the ensuing spring with a much larger force. 
But it is expected that the government of your imperial majesty will render such return unnecessary, by acceding at once to the very reasonable and pacific overtures contained in the President's letter, and which will be further explained by the undersigned on the first fitting occasion.
The title of the piece emanates from this letter. "Pacific," here, has a double meaning, encompassing the ocean separating the United States from Japan and the original understanding of "pacific", which has to to with "peace" and "pacifism." The original application always been inaccurate in both cases, or at least a lie in the second case, as the letter makes quite clear.

In a time of NAFTA and other world-destroying "treaties" securing "markets" and unprotected, nearly-slave "labor" options for corporations, with the always fellow-traveling outcome of the dilution, distortion, or out-right destruction of local culture in the name of "globalism," Pacific Overtures is outrightly prescient--but only if prescience is actually an awareness of the past. Despite its problems and insensitivities, its genre, the piece proves to be most sensitive, indeed. The opening of Japan was always about money and the unforeseen ramifications--including World War Two and unsurpassed instantaneous and continuing atomic death--be damned. Be damned.

"Poems" concerns two Japanese men becoming friends. One, Manjiro, is a fisherman long-ago rescued by an American ship and thus the only one around acquainted with America, with Boston, and with the customs and desires of the Americans, plays a game of poem variation and improvisation with Kayama, who is to be an important player in dealing with this event.

The song displays the exact cultural collision that the musical itself is about, both lyrically and musically.

It also happens to be a gorgeous duet.

Rain glistening
On the silver birch,
Like my lady's tears.
Your turn.

Rain gathering,
Winding into streams,
Like the roads to Boston.
Your turn.

Haze hovering,
Like the whisper of the silk,
As my lady kneels.
Your turn.

Haze glittering,
Like an echo of the lamps
In the streets of Boston.
Your turn.

I love her like the moon,
Making jewels of the grass
Where my lady walks,
My lady wife.

I love her like the moon,
Washing yesterday away
As my lady does,
Your turn.

Wind murmuring.
Is she murmuring for me
Through her field of dreams?
Your turn.

Wind muttering.
Is she quarreling with me?
Does she want me home?
Your turn.

I am no nightingale,
But she hears the song
I can sing to her,
My lady wife.

I am no nightingale,
But my song of her
Could outsing the sea.

Dawn flickering,
Tracing shadows of the pines
On my lady sleeping.
Your turn.

Dawn brightening
As she opens up her eyes,
But it's I who come awake.
Your turn.

You go.

Your turn.

I love her like the leaves,
Changing green to pink to gold,
And the change is everything.

I see her like the sun
In the center of a pool,
Sending ripples to the shore,
Till my journey's end.

Your turn.










On Sondheim: Pacific Overtures I

Pacific Overtures is considered a bizarre aberration by some Sondheim enthusiasts. Perhaps it is better understood as a useful midpoint keystone, that gestures both backward toward "Small House of Uncle Thomas" from The King and I--a still astonishing musico-choreographic tour de force, courtesy of Rodgers, Hammerstein, and Robbins--and forward toward the stripped-down exploration found in Sunday in the Park with George.

Pacific Overtures, which examines the forced "opening" of Japan to the West--a Broadway musical theme so fruitful, it was never addressed again--is obsessed with Time and its passing (and, of course, politics), as with the song, "A Bowler Hat," late in the show.

Sidebar: Kodo drummers were incorporated into the pit and improvised every night, leading music director, Paul Gemignani, to comment that the score was never played the same way twice during the whole run. When the Shogun is weak, the tea must be strong.


(picking up a derby)
It's called a bowler hat.
I have no wife.
The swallow flying through the sky
Is not as swift as I
Am flying through my life.
You pour the milk before the tea.
The Dutch ambassador is no fool.
I must remember that.

I wear a bowler hat.
They send me wine.
The house is far too grand;
I've bought a new umbrella stand;
Today, I visited the church
beside the shrine.
I'm learning English from a book:
Most exciting.
It's called a bowler hat.

(bringing out a watch)
It's called a pocket watch.
I have a wife.
No eagle flies against the sky
As eagerly as I
Have flown against my life.
One smokes American cigars.
The Dutch ambassador was most rude.
I will remember that.

I wind my pocket watch.
We serve white wine.
The house is far too small;
I killed a spider on the wall;
One of the servants thought it was a lucky sign.
I read Spinoza every day:
Where is my bowler hat?

(putting a monocle to his eye)
It's called a monocle.
I've left my wife.
No bird exploring in the sky
Explores as well as I
The corners of my life.
One must keep moving with the times.
The Dutch ambassador is a fool.
He wears a bowler hat.

(putting on a pair of glasses)
They call them spectacles.
I drink much wine.
I have a house up in the hills;
I've hired British architects to redesign.
One must accommodate the times
As one lives them.
One must remember that.

(holding up a tailcoat)
It's called a cutaway....