No can do — sorry!

I never used to say no.

When you work freelance, you memorize the phrase “No problem!” when asked to tackle something you’ve never done in your life but pays. If you say no to everything outside your comfort zone, you’ll starve. Nor will you grow your skills and client list.

So when an editor suddenly emailed me with a 24-hour turnaround — to profile Bruce Heyman, nominated as the U.S.’s new ambassador to Canada — I said O.K. The money was awful, $600 for 1,200 words. But I figured I could do it within five or six hours, and keep my usual rate of $100+/hour.

But, within two hours of starting work on it, I called the editor, (a former colleague in Canada,) and said: “Nope. Not going to happen. Sorry.”


— I called Goldman Sachs, where Heyman works. I emailed and called several PR people there, using sources shared by a Wall Street reporter who’s a friend of a friend, explaining my urgent deadline. I could tell this was not a priority. The PR woman called me back at 5:00 p.m. that day — a mere eight hours after my initial call.

— The one live person I got at Goldman in PR kept saying “I don’t know him. I just got off a plane from Brazil.” Chill, dude.

English: Goldman Sachs Tower, Jersey City, New...
English: Goldman Sachs Tower, Jersey City, New Jersey (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

— I started Googling Heyman. He likes to drink green tea. That was about the extent of it. Not a good sign.

— I started calling the University of Chicago to reach former White House staffer David Axelrod, since Heyman is a big Obama fundraiser. After five mis-directed calls, I was told that the university has no public relations department (!?). I was told  they’ve never heard of him or the policy institute there he is supposed to be heading.

Senior advisor David Axelrod during a meeting ...
Senior advisor David Axelrod during a meeting in the Oval Office, May 29, 2009. (Official White House Photo by Pete Souza) (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

— I started looking at the names of his fellow Chicago-area fundraisers. Billionaires, every one. Would they take a call from some Canadian wire service freelancer? As if.

I weighed the stress and bullshit of chasing all these people all day long — for $600 for a story no one I know in the States would read. Not worth it.

The editor was grateful I let her know right away.

Have you ever ditched a paying gig, and quickly?

How did it turn out?

Without trust, we’re toast. Guess what? We’re toast.

Česky: Foxconn Pardubice, GPS: 50°1'28.591&quo...
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There are few moments more nausea-inducing than realizing you have placed your trust and faith in the wrong person/place/institution.

I recently blogged, favorably, about a performance artist named Mike Daisey, whose one-man show about malfeasance at Foxconn, a Chinese manufacturing giant that makes computers for Apple, Dell and many others, was a huge hit here in the U.S., and received national attention and acclaim on This American Life, a respected and smart radio show.

Now it seems he made some of it up:

“Numerous fabrications” have been found in “The Agony and the Ecstasy of Steve Jobs,” the much-heralded story by Mike Daisey about dangerous and exploitative conditions in the Apple company’s Chinese factories.

Recent fact-checking about the story, which was first presented on Jan. 6, 2012 over National Public Radio outlets as an episode on Ira Glass’ show, “This American Life,” and subsequently performed as a critically acclaimed monologue at the New York Public Theatre (where it is scheduled to close Sunday after a much-extended run), has turned up inaccuracies involving facts both large and small, including the fabrication of several characters.

“The Agony and the Ecstasy of Steve Jobs” was to be performed by Daisey at the Chicago Theatre on April 7. That performance has been cancelled. And tonight, NPR affiliate WBEZ, 91.5 FM, will air a segment about the Daisey controversy on “Marketplace” (which begins at 6:30 p.m.), followed by a full hourlong investigation of the issues on “This American Life” (beginning at 7 p.m.).

The show is set to complete its runs at New York’s Public Theatre this Sunday. The theater, which does not plan to cancel the final performances, issued this statement:

“In the theater, our job is to create fictions that reveal truth — that’s what a storyteller does, that’s what a dramatist does. ‘The Agony and the Ecstasy of Steve Jobs’ reveals, as Mike’s other monologues have, human truths in story form.

And….cue dominoes falling.

This is the nature of journalism, for better and for worse. I now feel stupid and gullible for believing his “story form” — (WTF is that?) — and promoting his work.

But I also loathe, and want to expose, crummy and exploitative labor practices, some of which I wrote about in Malled, my book about retail work — in which I also detailed the eleven Foxconn worker suicides of May 2010. There have since been more.

I’m writing this on an Apple computer. I use an Ipad and an Apple laptop. My hands, morally speaking, are dirty!

Here’s the problem.

We want to work with people whose opinions, education, work ethic and principles we share and trust. Without the basic underpinning of trust — “Why, yes, I do believe your story” –– we can’t function culturally, socially, politically or financially.

We also all need to remain awake, skeptical, critical and questioning.

But the media — and I’ve been a journalist since 1980 — are also prey to “pack journalism”, rushing headlong to embrace the trope-of-the-day lest they look slow, stupid, uncool or lazy in front of their peers and bosses and readers and listeners.

And there are stories we want to believe. There are stories that are virtually impossible to report firsthand and when someone brings home the goods, we sigh in relief and hand them a laurel wreath for doing what we could not or did not or never would do ourselves.

Here’s yet another cheerful story this week of deception and broken trust — an Amish man who took $17 million from his co-religionists in 29 states and invested it improperly.

And an op-ed in this week’s New York Times called out some pretty ugly behaviors (gasp!) behind the doors of Goldman Sachs, where fat cat bankers call their clients “muppets”.

Wrote Greg Smith, 33, a GS banker who thus burned his bridges to his former employer:

Today, many of these leaders display a Goldman Sachs culture quotient of exactly zero percent. I attend derivatives sales meetings where not one single minute is spent asking questions about how we can help clients. It’s purely about how we can make the most possible money off of them. If you were an alien from Mars and sat in on one of these meetings, you would believe that a client’s success or progress was not part of the thought process at all.

Such a world we live in!

Do you trust what you read and hear?

From which source(s) and why?

Women And Money: We Earn Less And Invest Poorly (If At All)

Today’s New York Times offers a helpful look at several new books and a website, I blogged about a few weeks back, all designed to help women better invest and manage their earnings:

The real issue, experts say, is that many women, despite strides in education and in the workplace, simply aren’t as confident and knowledgeable about financial matters as men. This problem persists even as women handle many of their families’ routine money management duties, like paying bills and making many purchasing decisions.

“Research has shown that women, even professional women with good jobs and successful careers, tend to be less financially literate than men,” said Annamaria Lusardi, an economics professor at Dartmouth College who has studied the issue. “The gap in financial literacy between women and men is large not only among older people, or those 50 and older, but also among young adults, an age group where women are more likely to have a college degree than men.”

That’s similar to what Eleanor Blayney, a financial planner who focuses on middle-age women, said she found when she gave a speech to her fellow alumnae at Mount Holyoke College a few years ago. “At the end, the hands went up, and they were all stuck at the very beginning of my speech,” said Ms. Blayney, who has a new book on the subject, “Women’s Worth: Finding Your Financial Confidence” (Directions). “They were scientists, professors, municipal elected officials. These were women with brains and jobs, and they were just at a loss to even know where to begin.”

Not all women lack financial skills, of course, and many may simply lack time. But studies show that women don’t find money and investing as interesting as men. Women also prefer to learn about money in person or in groups with others in their situation, as opposed to curling up with a book (the jury is out on whether pink covers help).

According to a 2007 study on gender differences by Tahira Hira of Iowa State University and Cäzilia Loibl of Ohio State University, women are still less likely to be socialized in financial matters, and they are more likely than men to find investment decisions stressful, difficult and time consuming. The study also found that it often takes a life event, like getting married, to prompt women to save and invest, whereas men were more likely to start investing gradually.

I evangelize on this subject — likely to a boring degree — because it is essential. Women work hard for their incomes and trying to park their savings safely means wading into an intimidating, unfamiliar  sea of acronyms, ADRs, ETFs, NASDAQ, CDOs (oh, them, the most toxic of all!) It all too quickly feels like we’re being pulled by a vicious riptide, whether too-high management fees or “money managers” who speak to us very slowly in words of one syllable and just piss us off.

The last time I sat with an advisor from my investment company, I suggested she look at RIM, which anyone anywhere in that business should know immediately is the (very successful) Canadian company that makes the Blackberry. She did not recognize the name.

Not very confidence inspiring.

I once simply gave up on an investment my ex-husband had made for me, an annuity that withdrew every month from my paycheck to save for it, because I didn’t understand it. I’m not stupid or lazy. The financial advisor who’d sold it to my ex was an arrogant jerk who spoke to me with condescension every time I called to ask “What is this thing?” After I lost a job I did not realize that they simply kept funding the thing using my own savings, in effect cannibalizing my own savings to “save.”

What a scam.

I had stopped opening their envelopes because I knew it was bad (and, yes I was a moron) didn’t want to know how bad. I had lost a ton. Not even enough to buy a cheap new car, but my damn money.

Finally, I closed it, took the hit. Never again!

I survived the last Wall Street meltdown because I was mostly in cash. I have read many personal finance books, even those so highly recommended, and they still make my eyes glaze over. I need to fully understand P/E ratios and a bunch of other metrics before I wade in. I read three business sections every day and I also read many financial/money magazines. It doesn’t, frankly, make me any more eager to risk my money.

Women, for all sorts of reasons, earn less than men; these stats from Time are interesting.

If I make 77 cents to a man’s full dollar, maybe I’m 23 percent less likely to blow it in some lousy investment. I get it, no risk, no reward. Risk remains a real four-letter word to me, and to most women.

African American women make 68 cents to the dollar, and Latinas 58 percent. No wonder we clutch our wallets so tightly.

Look at Goldman Sachs and ask yourself why.

Testosterone + Money + Pressure For Profit = Too Much Risk. Time For Women To Run Wall Street?

An assortment of United States coins, includin...
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This week’s New York magazine has an interesting piece by ex-Portfolio staffer Sheelah Kolhatkar asking “What if Women Ran Wall Street?”:

Despite what we’ve been led to believe, the market isn’t rational or efficient at all—it’s all about feelings. The major plot points of the crisis largely turned on emotion: Dick Fuld was too egotistical to sell Lehman Brothers when he had the chance, so his pride drove it into the ground; Bear Stearns hedge-fund managers lost huge sums of money on subprime mortgages despite the fact that they suspected the worst (“I’m fearful of these markets,” Ralph Cioffi e-mailed a colleague back in 2007); Merrill Lynch was the “fat kid,” as the investor Steve Eisman has put it, so desperate to be like Goldman Sachs that it barreled into every dumb investment imaginable and had to be bailed out by Bank of America. Almost every single bank chief doubled down on mortgage junk at exactly the wrong moment. Emotions led otherwise intelligent men—because, let’s face it, all of them were men—to make terrible decisions.

According to a new breed of researchers from the field of behavioral finance, Wall Street’s volatility is really driven by our body chemistry. It’s the chemicals pulsing through traders’ veins that propel them to place insane bets and enable bank executives to make risky decisions—and those same chemicals tend to have the same effect on everyone, turning them into a herd of overheated animals. And because the vast majority of these traders and finance executives are men, the most important chemical in question is testosterone.

Here are a few things we know about testosterone: Both men and women produce it, but men make fifteen times as much of it as women, on average… Behaviorally, it does all the things that one would expect: It is linked to increased aggression and dominance, confidence, hostility, violence, sensation-seeking… One of the most fascinating things about testosterone is the way it can be influenced by the environment.

The link between risk-taking behavior and high(er) levels of testosterone has been posited before.

How much worse — or better — could women make it?

Re-Thinking Business: Multicultural And Moral

Thinking about business in a new way? Radical.

Yesterday’s New York Times looked at the Rotman School of Management at the University of Toronto, whose dean Roger Martin thinks MBAs need to think differently about the world.

A DECADE ago, Roger Martin, the new dean of the Rotman School of Management at the University of Toronto, had an epiphany. The leadership at his son’s elementary school had asked him to meet with its retiring principal to figure out how it could replicate her success.

He discovered that the principal thrived by thinking through clashing priorities and potential options, rather than hewing to any pre-planned strategy — the same approach taken by the managing partner of a successful international law firm in town.

“The ‘Eureka’ moment was when I could draw a data point between a hotshot, investment bank-oriented star lawyer and an elementary school principal,” Mr. Martin recalls. “I thought: ‘Holy smokes. In completely different situations, these people are thinking in very similar ways, and there may be something special about this pattern of thinking.’ ”

That insight led Mr. Martin to begin advocating what was then a radical idea in business education: that students needed to learn how to think critically and creatively every bit as much as they needed to learn finance or accounting. More specifically, they needed to learn how to approach problems from many perspectives and to combine various approaches to find innovative solutions.

Seems obvious to me that, in a global economy, anyone hoping to manage or sell or influence others needs to appreciate how differently we view the world, and behave accordingly. In the most simplistic of terms, a negotiation between natives of two different countries, however highly educated, can quickly derail when underlying assumptions or cultural norms and values clash.

What struck me about this story — talk about cultural differences — was the piece’s final quote:

Mr. Martin agrees that the problems that led to the crisis are bigger than business schools alone can address. But he’s still optimistic. “The vast majority of our students want to be a positive influence on the world,” he says. “And if you give them ways of thinking that help them with these complicated dilemmas, they’ll make choices that are in some sense more worthy and have a higher moral quality.”

The very idea of a business person stopping to consider any moral quality is appealing to me, if a little quixotic. It’s all about profit, growth, earnings. The idea now that CEOs earn more than 200 times the wages of their lowest-paid employees is banal. As Yale School of Management professor Bruce Judson, author of a new book, said recently on the Leonard Lopate show, 20 years ago any CEO would be ashamed by that discrepancy; today s/he would be ashamed if this were not the case.

Contrast this with the Times’ piece about the — ho-um, here we go again — obscene banking bonuses being handed out right now. The average wage, before a six, seven or eight-figure bonus for Goldman Sachs employees is $595,000.

Though Wall Street bankers and traders earn six-figure base salaries, they generally receive most of their pay as a bonus based on the previous year’s performance. While average bonuses are expected to hover around half a million dollars, they will not be evenly distributed. Senior banking executives and top Wall Street producers expect to reap millions. Last year, the big winners were bond and currency traders, as well as investment bankers specializing in health care.

Even some industry veterans warn that such paydays could further tarnish the financial industry’s sullied reputation. John S. Reed, a founder of Citigroup, said Wall Street would not fully regain the public’s trust until banks scaled back bonuses for good — something that, to many, seems a distant prospect.

“There is nothing I’ve seen that gives me the slightest feeling that these people have learned anything from the crisis,” Mr. Reed said. “They just don’t get it. They are off in a different world.”

Where does morality fit here?

You Cheer for Goldman Sachs, I'm Cheering for Bill, My Mechanic

Lewis Hine, 1920. Power house mechanic working...
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While Goldman Sachs bankers are once more raking in the big bucks — and whole desperate chunks of the labor force slither deeper into unemployment — I’m grateful as hell, instead, for a kind of worker we rarely seem to celebrate or openly acknowledge we simply can’t function without.

Manual labor. Blue-collar. You know who they are when you shake their strong hands, hands as hard and calloused as a turtle’s shell from working for decades with tools and metal and oil and fire and grease, the primal elements of the machinery every single one of us rely on every single day. Whatever vehicle conveyed you to work today required skilled, experienced labor to make sure it was functioning, efficient and safe (not to mention, when they don’t crash, the airplanes millions of us will board today around the world.) Same for the escalator or elevator that whisked you to your AC-ed cubicle — some HVAC guys easily outearn a Phd.

In this economy, many people can’t afford a new/used vehicle and need to keep their current one(s) going as long as possible. They don’t have money for a downpayment, can’t access credit, don’t want a 48-month car loan. Mechanics rule. Bill tells me that business, lousy for the past year, is finally picking up as people do the least possible which is the most they can afford, piece by piece, to keep their wheels on the road. I care less what GM is up to than knowing Bill’s judgement and skills are right around the corner.

Yet, in the rush to fetishize the knowledge economy, the people who do these jobs are often dismissed as uneducated, lacking sophistication, people who just couldn’t cut it in college. As if.

Matthew Crawford, whose best-selling book Shop Class As Soulcraft, examines this dichotomy of our respect for collars white or blue, first explored the idea in 2006 in The New Atlantis. Continue reading “You Cheer for Goldman Sachs, I'm Cheering for Bill, My Mechanic”