Thursday, June 30, 2011

When did "for-profit" become a slur?

(Off the technology-change topic for a bit this time, but I have to vent!)

There was a story on PBS's "Frontline" this week that purported to show all the terrible things for-profit colleges are doing to veterans, ripping them off as they are returning from serving their country.  Each time the reporter said the words "for-profit," it appeared he was using some kind of vile expletive.  And the story implied that schools that seek profit for educating veterans...and anyone else...are not only not providing any value, but are brutally abusing those who risked their lives for our country, all in the name of greed and avarice and obscene profits.

(BIAS DISCLAIMER: I work in marketing, advertising and PR for a company that operates colleges...for a profit.  I am in no way speaking in an official capacity or on behalf of my company in this article.)

Now, I can debunk the PBS story in so many ways it would make your head spin.  Give me a camera crew and several months and I can find disgruntled students from any college or university you name...from the University of Phoenix to Harvard or Yale.  For-profit schools are getting a growing portion of veterans' educational benefits because we are doing a much better job than traditional institutions in meeting the needs of those students.  Unlike state universities and other traditional schools, we don't get a penny of money from the government.  Students do, in the form of Title IV student aid or veterans' benefits.  They vote with their feet and go to schools that offer the education they need when they need it.  This story further implies that veterans don't have sense enough to investigate schools and potential careers without the Veterans Administration or some other government entity showing them the way.  That borders on slander.

In the story, we see a vet decide he wants to get a bachelor's degree in animation and video game design, signs up for classes at a for-profit, and then learns what a tough job field that is to break into.  Seems that before I committed thousands of dollars and four years of my life to preparing for a career, I would invest twenty minutes on the Internet to see if there were jobs available.  Your government spends millions of your tax dollars doing career research, publishes books available at the library and on the Internet, and anyone can access the data.  Google "Occupational Outlook Handbook."  There are regulations in place that forbid schools from promising jobs, lying about career options, or confusing or misleading potential students.  If anyone does that...and especially to men who have risked their lives on my behalf...they should be punished severely.

By the way, for-profit schools like ours are required to graduate a large percentage of people who enroll and to place them in their chosen career fields.  If we don't, we lose our accreditation and are out of business.  That's why you won't find academic programs in philosophy, basket-weaving...or most for-profit career colleges.  If we see job demand diminishing, we drop the program.  If we see increased demand, we start the classes, as we have just done with our green energy tech school in Denver.  Start them with a big investment, taking the risk to hopefully meet the demand of students and the companies that will employ them, all with the expectation of being able to make a profit.  The point is that good for-profit schools have no incentive to enroll people who are not good prospects to complete the program and graduate.  Then, if we send ill-prepared grads out to potential employers, you can bet they won't hire them.  Or anyone else we send them in the future.  We have to do what we do well or we don't make a profit.  Or stay in business.  Or invest in new schools and programs and hire people.

But the even bigger issue here is how "for-profit" has gradually come to mean "fat cats in their corporate jets and yachts, ripping off poor, unsuspecting people."  I know it seems obscene when we hear how much so-and-so company pays its CEO, or what the profits are for a bank we taxpayers just bailed out a couple of years ago.  But stop and take a breath for a moment.  If the company is doing something well and making lots of money doing it, they will be incentivized to do other things well, invest, and hire.  So what's wrong with the company making ridiculous profits?  And shouldn't we praise them for dong so? 

As I mentioned before, if someone is truly breaking a law or regulation...and there are plenty of those laws and regs on the books, I can tell you...then they should be punished.  Fined.  Thrown into the calaboose.  Enforce the existing regs! But don't punish anyone for making an honest profit.  Or even a really huge profit.   And I know it galls me, too, to see profitable companies avoid paying taxes, but don't blame them if our tax system is chaotic and they take advantage of the mess.  They only follow the laws as written, just as you and I do when we do our own taxes.  Are you going to stop deducting your charitable contributions just because you are a wonderful citizen and don't want to use a lawful part of the tax code?

Let's say I have a little start-up company that takes some risks, I invest my 401K money and put some startup costs on my Visa card, and we develop and market a widget.  We are taking a big risk, but that widget is better than anyone else's and becomes a runaway hit.  My little company starts to make some serious profits.  We hire more people, build some more widget factories.  We even raise the price on our widget because we can, and people willingly pay it.  And that gives us more capital to develop another great product and build more plants and hire more folks.  But I also pay myself more, too.  And build a beach house, buy a corporate jet, join a country club, and take vacations in Europe.  Note that at no point have I burned any money, taken unlawful advantage of anyone, or stuffed cash under the mattress so nobody else can see it or use it.  Every self-indulgent thing I have done with those profits...willingly paid by people who like and want my widget...has created more wealth for others: the people I hire, the people who build and maintain those new factories, the carpenters, electricians, and plumbers who built my beach house, the guys who designed, built and sold me the corporate jet, the people who drill and refine the oil that I burn in the plane, the hundred or so people who are employed by the country club, the airline, hotel, and other workers who so ably hosted me on those European vacations.

Now, if in the process of creating and marketing that widget, I bribed somebody, lied about the dangerous materials we used to build it, colluded with anyone to set the price, or did anything else illegal or unethical, then hit me.  Hit me hard.  Prosecute me.  Fine me.  Send me to the slammer. 

But in every other way, government should be doing all it can to encourage me and others like me to create, innovate, invest, and build something.  It should not be throwing up new and convoluted ways of preventing me from creating wealth...and tax a legal way.  Or demonizing me because I make a profit. 

Listen to me: so long as I am doing it legally and ethically, THE BIGGER PROFIT MY COMPANY MAKES THE BETTER IT IS FOR EVERYBODY!

If I make an inferior or dangerous product, or if I charge too much for it, the marketplace will speak loudly and clearly and I will not only not be banking all the filthy lucre, I will be shuttering my plants and laying off people.  Especially now, consumers are better informed than ever. 

I'll give you one more example.  I heard a story the other day on NPR (see a pattern here?) about the huge profits being made by for-profit correctional companies.  These are companies that contract with governmental entities to operate jails and prisons, and apparently, because they are doing something traditionally done by government (another parallel with the for-profit educational companies), they are not supposed to make too much profit.  Never mind that they are doing something the cities, states or federal government don't want to do, and that they are doing it more efficiently and are saving taxpayers millions and millions of dollars.  Or that the entities hiring them are perfectly well pleased with them.  They should not make too much money doing what they contracted to do or they are ripping us off.

If they are mistreating prisoners, feeding them gruel, sleeping a dozen to a cell or in any way violating the terms of their contracts, then go after them.  But don't punish them...and don't denigrate them...for making a profit, no matter how much it is.

Profits are not a zero-sum deal.  A company making a profit legally and ethically is not hurting or abusing anyone.  Profits don't get sent on a rocket ship to the moon.  They are used to buy and invest and inject a boost into every other sector of the economy.  Tax profits fairly, evenly and consistently so companies can plan for it and you will see our economic woes disappear.

Remove the profit motive from our free-enterprise system and you kill it.  But maybe that is the agenda some people have.  All profit is evil.  "For-profit" is obscene.  Anyone who makes a profit is a money-grubber and must be taking advantage of someone else or breaking laws to do so.  Let government dictate how much profit a person or a company can make.  Protect us from the robber barons!

That's the answer.

Don Keith N4KC

Sunday, June 19, 2011

"There's no such thing as TV anymore"

The television cable industry is struggling with the same rapid changing dynamics as all other branches of media are.  The way consumers want to subscribe to, access and use media is changing so rapidly and in so many directions it can only be compared to trying to nail Jello to a tree.  Some of the comments coming from the Nationa Cable Show clearly demonstrate how the leaders of what we still consider to be "cable television" have hammers in hand and a dollop of Jello ready to make the attempt.  They just can't quite figure how to get it accomplished.

Perhaps the most telling comment was the shortest, from Time-Warner CEO Glenn Britt: "There's no such thing as TV anymore."  How true!  He says there are now, in the minds of most consumers, only "video devices."  Case in point: how many of you use that big screen in the den just to watch over-the-air TV?  And where else do you watch what might be classified as "video?"

This goes directly to my contention that regardless the medium, users want to be able to access their media in a variety of ways.  Few are exclusive to one.  We want to watch movies on our TV sets, on our iPads, on our computers, on our smart phones, and, yes, in theaters down at the mall.  We like to read books on our computers, on our smart phones, on our Nooks or Kindles and, yes, on paper, bound, with a cover.

This is still baffling to traditional broadcasters, cable operators, movie studios, book publishers and others who have seen their businesses remain relatively the same for decades.  Centuries in the case of book publishing.  But now, suddenly, everything is topsy-turvy.  Traditional business models that enriched them don't work anymore.

Those who cannot understand that they are no longer in the "TV," "radio," "movie theater," or "book publishing" business are in real trouble.  Those who understand that they are in the "content" business and that they need to be able to deliver that content in whatever ways people want to consume it will be the ones that prosper.  Whatever ways and forms.  Radio with video.  Books with dynamic web links.  Audio with pictures.  Magazines that talk and move.  Video games with printed backstory.  Movies that allow you to "chat" with the characters.

And wow!  The implications of all this to the business of advertising is staggering!  People not only want all this stellar content coming at them in a variety of ways but they also want it cheap, cheap, cheap.  Cheap content distribution has almost always been possible because of the support of advertising.  Advertising planned, priced, and paid for based on the numbers of eyeballs or ears that consumed it.  Numbers determined by ratings measurement.

All that is changing just as quickly and dynamically as everything else associated with media.  If there is no such thing as TV anymore, then how do TV advertisers get their message to folks?  If I listen to radio in a wide variety of ways, how can advertisers assure I hear their sales pitch enough times to make it effective?

And believe me when I tell you that nobody can measure media usage the way media is now being used. 

It's a wild scenario, my friend, filled with drama, intrigue, and unexpected plot changes!  And I can't wait to see how the story develops.

Don Keith N4KC

Wednesday, June 15, 2011

Our little sliver of time

All the news sources--I saw it on Yahoo!, of all places--are churning out stories today about the current state of the surface of the sun.  Three different sources have issued dire predictions about the sleepy sun and what it means for mankind...and not just us hams, who enjoy bouncing signals off an ionized atmosphere.

You know as well as I do that simply saying this cycle is slow to develop is not going to attract much reader interest.  But if you say there is the possibility that the dormancy of Ole Sol portends historic implications, that it could reverse the effects of that evil, man-made global warming, that there could be unknown but potentially catastrophic weather events as a result...heck, even that we are on the verge of another Maunder Minimum, when the sun went to sleep for 300 years and we entered a "mini-Ice Age!"...then you will get some attention.  Attention to your columns, your websites, your blogs, your books, your speeches.

I know it is human nature to see things from a very narrow perspective.  Understanding things like climate change that usually takes eons to be obvious and variations in sunspot minima and maxima that only occur in eleven-year cycles are difficult for us mortals to do.  Geologic time is impossible for us to comprehend in our simple little seven- or eight-decade life spans.  That's why all the junk about rapid climate change (which I consider normal weather variation) has found so many who are willing to swallow it, hook, line and sinker.

I admit I know little about sunspots or solar weather, beyond the fact that more spots equal better propagation on the high-frequency radio bands and pretty displays of the Northern Lights.  But seems to me that it is far too early to say the sun is going to be dozing for the next three centuries simply because cycle 24 is a tad bit slow to get moving.  After all, many of these same "experts" were touting what an active cycle this was going to be...and doing it only a year or so ago.

Reminds me of the high-tech "weather rock" my wife has in her flower garden.  "If this rock is wet, it is raining.  If it is dry, it is sunny.  If it is white, it is snowing."

I'm still hoping for an active solar cycle.  I have somehow managed to be inactive in my amateur radio activities during each of the past two cycle maxima, and I had high hopes for that "arm-chair" ragchew with the Far East on 10 meters in the middle of the day.  But if it doesn't measure up, so be it.  I talked to guys all over the world at the lowest point, after all.

But most of all, I'd like to see everyone calm down a bit and not be so myopic.  We see only a tiny slice of time in our own existence.  Even so-called scientific observations are looking at a pitifully narrow slab of time. 

Put it into perspective before you panic and sell all your ham gear.  Or before you stop gazing northward for a glimpse of the aurora borealis.

By the way, I checked.  There is nothing we can do about the state of the sun's surface, so why worry?

Don Keith N4KC