Wednesday, July 30, 2008

Jury Duty

Today, I concluded service as a juror for a civil case in U.S. District Court. I wish that I had purchased a lottery ticket on the day the computer spit out my name as a prospective juror. The court district encompasses the 26 counties of the Texas Panhandle. Eight of us were chosen from the pool of 24 that responded to the summons. There were 2 no-shows for the summons. I'm curious as to their fate.

The case revolved around a wage dispute in which the plantiff claimed they had worked time "off-the-clock" for which they were not compensated. The suit was brought under the Fair Labor Standards Act. The defendant was a regional corporation in the business of convenience stores. They employ approximately 2500 people to work their 300+ stores on any given day.

The reason that I post about my service is this: Upon adjournment to the jury chambers to deliberate, it was immediately obvious after the initial polling of the jurors that 1) corporations are bad and immediately assumed guilty despite the lack of evidence and 2) the employee is obviously in the right just because he's the little guy.

Why do we have that perception? Is it an inherent human tendency to leap to the side of the underdog? Is it envy of success -- i.e. large corporations are successful, I'm not, they must be cheating the system? Is it public perception based on negative portrayals in movies, literature, etc.? Your thoughts please.


Sue said...

Not all juries react that way. My husband was on a jury a few years back, the plaintiffs (injured in an accident on a road under construction) were suing the large construction company. The jurors immediately and unanimously dismissed all complaints against the company recognizing that the fault was entirely the drivers.

I can think of several other reasons (than those you mention) why people would react negatively to a corporation or "corporations": a) working off the clock and failing to get compensated may be a common practice in businesses and the jurors in their own experience in the workplace have seen situations where workers have worked off the clock and were not compensated -- it may have happened to them as workers. I know that in every place I have ever worked whether it be a small business, a large university or a small college, there have always been instances in which workers have gone uncompensated for hours that they put in working (I'm talking about hourly staff not exempt employees). Most of these were not egregious, but in my experience in it is common. b) most people are aware that businesses are in the "business" of making money, and that cost cutting, and efficiency (getting the most work for the least cost) is an essential part of making money, thus even in the absence of other evidence there is a well understood "motive" that all for-profit enterprises have to get more work for less money when it is possible to do so. c) most jurors are employees not employers, they are going to find it much easier to emphasize with the position of employee, as it is closer to their own experience.

Occum's razor suggests that one goes for the simplest explanation; it's not necessary to hypothesize some possible, vague influence of "the media" on people, when everyone on the jury has direct experiences with corporations through their own work, their families work, and their daily activities as consumers and customers in which they can directly observe other people in their employment.

Chris Crawford said...

I agree that prejudice against corporations is common in this country; I further agree that is it usually locally unfair. However, I'd like to offer an odd argument that this prejudice is, in one sense, justifiable.

One of the basic cycles of history is the concentration of wealth. The mechanics of this process have long been known: wealth readily confers political power; political power is then used by the wealthy to gain even more wealth; the cycle continues and the Gini Index just keeps rising until the situation goes so far that the lower classes react in a spasm. We usually think of this process in terms of revolutions: the French Revolution, the Russian Revolution, and so on. But there are less dramatic means by which this happens. One of the factors contributing to the fall of the Roman Empire (just one!) was a kind of mass demoralization among the lower classes. The wealthy had concentrated so much power in their hands that there was no hope for revolution -- nor any hope for self-betterment. People just gave up and productivity fell. The system simply couldn't sustain itself any more and Roman civilization evaporated. The barbarians didn't so much conquer Rome as repopulate it.

The same thing is happening to American civilization. The Gini Index has been creeping up for the last 40 years or so, and power has become increasingly concentrated in the hands of the wealthy. The predictable consequence is a decline in social capital, one symptom of which is a generalized prejudice among the population against the wealthy and corporations.

Chris McClure aka Panhandle Poet said...

Chris C. I believe the predjudice is a function of human nature (although not the best part of it). We resent not having what other have. What is interesting to me is that even in our affluence -- I'm referring to all social/financial strata within our country -- we feel oppressed and powerless. If we compare the poor in the U.S. to the poor in Zimbabwe it is like comparing night and day. Even the middle classes in the U.S. feel some level of powerlessness and yet they are extremely wealthy compared to much of the world.

Do you think that the powerful consciously seek to oppress the weak or is it merely a market function? or, perhaps a function of the mental state/attitude of the individual involved? Is it a generationally perpetuating phenomenon (I think Sue may have posted on this once before) or is it limited to individuals.

Can a person in the U.S. still achieve the American Dream? Can someone go from poverty to wealth simply through hard work, ingenuity and persistence?

Pat Jenkins said...

thanks for posting this pan great to see you talk of your civil service. know i find this ironic, i thought the system was always protecting big buisness? are you saying the system now is prejudice to coperations, or are the people prejudice?

Chris McClure aka Panhandle Poet said...

Pat J. I think the average person is prejudiced against corporations. I think though that you make a valid point in that we often see the judicial system working in the favor of BIG BUSINESS. Perhaps that is because we perceive them to have tons of money to hire the best lawyers and to tie up issues in litigation when the little folks can't afford to do so or can't afford to fight the big dollars.

My jury experience was certainly on the micro-level. Folks who work for a living tend to be sympathetic with folks who work for a living.

Chris Crawford said...

Chris M, I think the basis of comparison people rely on is their immediate environment. Those starving Africans are a world away from the average American, but the rich people on TV or the guy in the expensive car in the next lane or the huge mansion leering down from the hillside are all constant reminders of what they don't have.

I don't that the wealthy seek to step on the poor while climbing the ladder; I think they just don't care about anything other than climbing the ladder -- and the poor think much the same way. It's just that the rich have bigger feet to step on others with.

As for the American dream of obtaining wealth through hard work, that is vanishing. Consider retail sales. It wasn't that long ago that an enterprising person could start up a bookstore or a hardware store or a grocery store and build it into a big success. But now the little guy in the bookstore is crushed by the new Barnes & Noble down the street. The hardware store owner has to compete with Eagle and Home Depot. The grocery store owner us up against a number of big chains. And let's not even think about what Wal-Mart (the current villain in so many anti-corporate screeds) does to small business.

I'm not defending the anti-corporate claims -- these big chains bring higher quality at lower price to the consumer. They are succeeding by honest competition. But their basis of competitive advantage is capital, not hard work. It's not hard work and enterprise that makes you wealthy -- it's capital. The rich get richer and the poor get poorer. Say goodbye to the American dream. And the realization that the American dream is a mirage is penetrating the consciousness of the body politic. The future of the American republic depends upon our response. If we keep walking the path we've been walking for the last 30 years, the corrective spasm will be uglier. The sooner we attend to this problem, the less destructive the corrective response will be. Societies have struggled with this problem for millennia; none have solved it although some have botched it badly. I believe that the European countries have done the best job of tackling the problem overall. Sweden's approach is particularly promising, although they veered too far towards redistribution in the 70s.

Chris McClure aka Panhandle Poet said...

Chris C. I must differ with you on the point of the American Dream being alive and well. I believe that it is. I know more people today who are stepping out of the 9 - 5 workplace and starting their own businesses and being successful beyond their wildest dreams. Their entrepreneurship is in non-traditional approaches to business.

Over the past 17 years I have started 2 new businesses and 1 new business unit. Both of the new businesses were successful very quickly. The business unit I started 10 years ago is one of the fastest growing units in a mid-sized corporation. It utilized new technology to solve an old problem.

One of the new businesses that I started was essentially a retail business. We took a highly focused service-oriented approach to a niche retail clintele. That business, started in 1991, continues to thrive.

The business that I currently manage was initiated in Nov. 2005. Today, it is the largest in its field in the U.S. It is narrowly focused, highly service oriented and utlizes new technology to solve an old problem.

As to capital: With the exception of the business unit within the corporation, the 2 businesses that I started utilized less than $100,000 in the startup process. Both had more capital available but it was left unused. Both were profitable within the first full month of operation.

I grew up in a wage-earner mentality environment. It took me many years to escape that baggage. One must look at the world differently to experience the thrill of entrepreneurship.

My wife recently started a business. We capitalized it with $2,500. It showed a profit the first month. It has shown a profit every month since then with the exception of one. It isn't a large business, but it is growing.

The American Dream is achievable but one must first decide that it is, in order to escape the conditioning that society, schools and universities pound into us, that we should be satisfied working at a good job for a good wage.

Sue said...

Chris M. -- I have a question. Would any of your three business work if there were not some people who had "wage-earner mentality" - in otherwords can any of those businesses survive with only the labor input of you, the investor?

Chris McClure aka Panhandle Poet said...

I failed to mention -- neither of the 2 businesses that I started, nor my wife's business, incurred any debt at startup. The only debt was accounts payable to vendors which always were paid upon receipt. That continues to be my practice. Pay it now -- don't wait until the terms say it is due.

Chris McClure aka Panhandle Poet said...

Sue: The answer to that question is both no and yes. There must be "worker bees." However, a happy "worker bee" who is well-compensated is more productive than one who is just drawing a paycheck. I cultivate "ownership" in the business, in the process, in the job -- and reward well those who take that level of "ownership" even though their investment is not financial. That approach frees me for things like commenting on blogs. The business, after a time, if functioning properly, almost runs itself. Incidentally, it works better in a small business than in a large one. In large organizations you slowly accrete bureaucratic personalities within the organization that often become a slow-acting poison that destroys creativity, ingenuity and productivity.

Chris Crawford said...

Chris M, there's no question that some individuals can beat the odds: Bill Gates and Steve Jobs are two spectacular examples of this, and you and I are lesser examples. However, much of this discussion turns on what is meant by "The American Dream". Here are two possible versions:

A. With hard work and frugality, anybody in America can reach a stable income of, say, $100K/year.

B. With hard work, frugality, and some initial boost in the way of capital, anybody in America can reach a stable income of, say, $100K/year.

I don't accept A, but I do accept B. I'm sort of a poster child for the American Dream: I put myself through college and am comfortable. However, I had two huge advantages over the average American: some mental gifts, and an upper-middle class upbringing that freed me to concentrate on my education. Had I been of average intelligence, I would be nowhere near where I am today. If we're going to include "anybody" in our definition of the American Dream, I think that should include even mildly below-average intellects. So, do you think that somebody with an IQ of 90 could realize the American Dream? I doubt it (unless they had wealthy parents who could buy their way into Ivy League colleges and set them up with their own oil companies). Even if we confine ourselves to average or above average minds, I find it hard to believe that anybody with an IQ of 100 and lower-middle class parents could achieve an income of $100K/year.

Chris McClure aka Panhandle Poet said...

Chris C. I understand what you are saying. There are many barriers to achievement -- but there have always been barriers.

I think that we need to be cautious about including IQ in the mix. Many of the most brilliantly intellectual people I have ever met struggle to achieve above average in the marketplace. Some of the most average or less intellects that I have ever met achieved brilliantly in the marketplace.

Perhaps the issue is that there are many kinds of intellects. I suspect that measures such as IQ are limited in the types of intellectual capacity that they can identify.

I prefer to look more at what I call gifts. There are gifted musicians that do quite well but are dumb as a rock. I have heard very few actors who come across as particularly bright but many are unbelievably rich. I personally would not call Oprah brilliant. I have met people who have made fortunes picking up other folks garbage. Uh, in spite of what they think of themselves, I wouldn't consider them all that bright either.

Some are gifted in business, some in the arts, some in the sciences. I think that those who find their "bent" and pursue it for all they are worth achieve above the crowd. They are frequently rewarded well for their efforts -- whatever the field of endeavor. Occasionally, their genius is not identified until after their death.

Achieving the American Dream is more about a mindset than anything else. Maybe that's why I subscribe to Zig Ziglar's Newsletter (among others). It is to keep my mind thinking about what I can do -- not all the barriers and limitations set before me.

My father spent his life teaching school. My mother worked most of her career life as a teacher's aide. Yes, they stressed education and positive outlook, but they were financially unable to provide anything other than occasional spending money toward my education, let alone anything else that I have done.

The question isn't will anyone achieve the American Dream, it is can they? I still believe that they can. Some just have to overcome bigger obstacles than others. The biggest one is the obstacle of the mind or attitude. It is first deciding that it can be done.

Sue said...

Chris M, that's wonderful, and there are other business owners like yourself who take that approach. My first job out of college was with a small fixed based operator (FBO) that provided charter flights, hangerage, maintenance, air plane sales and flight school. The majority shareholder served as president, and drew a salary only $20 a week greater than my own as office manager (his was $100 a week, mine $80 a week), the pilots, instructors, mechanic, etc. drew the same base as me, but got paid more based on hours flown, and planes repaired, which gave them a stake in helping drum up business. Everyone at Cherry Tree Aviation put in more hours than they were paid for, and did so willingly out of a sense of family and shared purpose. The business was quite successful its 18 months. It made a profit each month which was not easy to do in general aviation at that time. However, as often happens with businesses things outside the control of owners and workers happened. You see, I started to work at Cherry Tree in June 1973. You perhaps remember what happened to gasoline and aviation fuel in 1973-1974 - a little something referred to as the Arab oil embargo.

Two points, one is that even the very best of business people, with the best business plan, with willing customers, and great employees can go belly up due to things completely beyond their control; and two, employers like you, and like John Pritchard at Cherry Tree while far from unique are also are not as common as one would like to see, and many employees do need to be protected from avaricious and unscrupulous employers.

E. R. Dunhill said...

The moral of this story: Put all of your employees on salary.

Chris McClure aka Panhandle Poet said...

Sue: Yes, there need to be protections for workers. Unscrupulous employers abound. The corporation in the lawsuit referenced in the post may be guilty of abusing their employees. In a civil trial of this nature it requires a preponderance of the evidence in favor of the plaintiff to win. It is often difficult to prove claims in employement issues such as this one.

ERD: The law limits who can be on salary and who must be on an hourly scale. There also are issues of exempt vs. non-exempt employees.

The whole purpose of the illustration was in reference to the idea that the American Dream is alive and well. Many face greater adversity than others in finding ways to achieve that dream. Some have the right attitude and opportunities galore but still never find that dream. Others seem to have it fall in their lap.

I sense that each of us is given the opportunity to grow and become something higher -- whatever the circumstances. I think sometimes achieving the American Dream is something begun in one generation and accomplished in the next or even the next. The key is to never give up -- always strive for that which is higher. It is very much about attitude.

Financial wealth is not a good measure of success. I know many successful people who obtain and enjoy only a modest lifestyle. I know some who are "filthy rich" that I would consider complete failures -- one in particular comes to mind who lost 2 kids to drugs. In my eyes, his pursuit of wealth made him a failure.

I like the following definition of success:

"Success is the progressive realization of a worthwhile goal or dream."

It doesn't say anything about wealth. It does state that the goal must be worthy. It also is something that requires time to accomplish. Staying focused on those goals or dreams can become extremely difficult under adverse circumstances but it can be done.

E. R. Dunhill said...

Chris M,
That was a joke.

Chris McClure aka Panhandle Poet said...

ERD: I thought that it probably was, but in the interest of completeness I had to answer.....


Chris Crawford said...

Chris M. I agree that IQ is not really a good measure of mental competence; there are many forms of competence. However, we're still stuck with the problem: can a person with average gifts achieve the American dream? Your belief seems to be that, if they want it badly enough to make the necessary sacrifices, anybody can do it. I would argue that a person of mediocre talents could want it badly but never pull it off. At this point, however, I'll admit that we're descending into such a fine level of analysis that there isn't much substance to our disagreement. Yes, it is definitely possible for a sufficiently talented and motivated person to do very well in America from a standing start. And I am probably demanding too much to require that a merely mediocre person should be able to succeed by dint of only hard work. So I'll offer a third form of the American Dream that I can also agree with:

C. With hard work and frugality, anybody in America with some above-average talent can reach a stable income of, say, $100K/year.

Fair enough?

Anonymous said...

I saw above a reference to Bill Gates as an exemplar of the American Dream. To amass great wealth, hard work must be important but it helps if one has certain advantages. If I recall correctly, Bill Gates' father was on the IBM Board of Directors (or something like that) and negotiated the first contract Microsoft had with IBM. However hard he worked before and after, Bill Gates had a tremendous advantage that most aspirants to "The American Dream" lack.