retail news in context, analysis with attitude

On Friday, MNB took note of a USA Todayreports that "the Food and Drug Administration will conduct fewer food safety inspections this year because of the government sequester," according to FDA commissioner Margaret Hamburg."

My comment:

That said, it is interesting that Congress isn't moving to deal with the FDA's assertions, but is moving to address flight delays because of sequestration and airport furloughs. Y'know why? Because the people stuck on the tarmac are rich people who write campaign checks.

Well, apparently I hit a nerve. Because, man, did I get email on this one.

MNB user Ray England wrote:

Really? Congress is acting to offset flight delays and airport furloughs because according to your view “the people stuck on the airport tarmac are rich people who write campaign checks”. Do your really think that? I wonder how many folks that read MNB consider themselves rich as they fly around the country going to meetings, calling on clients, attending conferences, or expositions in an effort to earn a living for their families, or keep their companies afloat? Or do they consider themselves really tired, but freaking fortunate to have a job.

If I’m stuck on the tarmac or in an airport trying to get home to my family because of delays the FAA says is due to sequestration, I’m pissed. Especially when I know that sequestration did not cut one dime from federal spending, it only cut the increase of spending, I’m pissed because the FDA lets the USDA continue to promote food stamps to illegal aliens, I’m pissed because even in the light of sequestration the Federal Government is spending 1.5 million dollars to study why Lesbians are overweight, I’m pissed because the Federal Government spends 1.5 Billion dollars on Free Obama Phones even in the light of sequestration………now I believe that a well-informed citizen would expect their Congressional representative to get off his or her duff and address the issue. Now to the point of the USDA food inspections, the money is there for these inspections…..just like with the FAA, it is how the budget dollars are allocated.  The unfortunate problem is that way too many citizens are not informed, they are more than happy to take things at face value and blindly march in lock step with the current culture in our country that feels it should demonize those nasty rich people that write campaign checks.

I got it. You're pissed.

I was curious because I'd missed the stories about the "free Obama phones," so I checked a source that I think of as being reliably conservative - Forbes. According to Forbes, the free phone program doesn't give out free phones to minorities and wasn't started by Obama. It actually dates back to 1996 (Clinton was president - another Democrat! Ah-ha!), "as part of the Telecommunications Act of 1996. The Act did a number of things, including increasing internet access to doctors and patients in rural hospitals (for consults with specialists); subsidizing internet and phone coverage for schools and libraries and providing free or subsidized coverage for families who can’t afford it so that they have links to emergency and government services. The Act was not taxpayer funded… exactly. Taxpayers do pay for coverage but not via federal income taxes. Instead, the Act 'mandated the creation of the universal service fund (USF) into which all telecommunications providers are required to contribute a percentage of their interstate and international end-user telecommunications revenues.' So that little fee on your phone bill labeled USF? That’s what you’re paying for."

As for the $1.5 million being spent to figure out why lesbians are overweight, I was curious about that one, too. Turns out that the study does exist, but how it is described tends to depend on your political leanings. The right says it is being conducted to see why lesbians are overweight, while the left (and the people conducting the study) would say that the study is into whether there is any connection between sexual orientation and obesity. Now, I can understand why this seems like money not particularly well spent, especially these days ... but I also think that $1.5 million is such a tiny, tiny, drop in the bucket that it doesn't really worry me.

I think I'd be more worried that, according to a story from the Associated Press there is bipartisan support for an extra $436 million in funding for tanks that military experts say are not needed. Why? Because even building useless and unneeded tanks creates or keeps jobs in certain Congressional districts. That would worry me more than $1 million spent over two years on an obesity study. But that's just me.

I get it, you're pissed. I'll address the air travel part of your complaint below.

MNB user Blake Steen wrote:

Ok, I think that your assessment of people on the tarmac who are rich is a little harsh.  Rich people eat meat as well last time I checked.  Let’s not forget who gets to pick and choose the programs that are cut.  The Obama administration.  Also, it was the Senate who moved faster on this legislation than anything in 4 years, which is controlled by Democrats.  The House has not even seen it yet.  We are $16 trillion in debt and we had to cut a little bit out as all Americans have had to do in their own houses.  Why don’t we cut some of the other things that are not life threatening like electric car subsidies to a high end car maker (rich peoples Prius) that is made in the Netherlands with our tax dollars?  We cut out White House tours??? Really??? If that is not political I don’t know what is.  So is the cutting off of air traffic controllers.

From another reader:

Okay KC, I normally follow and agree with much of your commentary, but have to voice an exception to this one....  I'm certainly not rich, nor writing campaign checks, but AM feeling the travel woes this week.  Traveling every week for work sucks under the best of circumstances and when issues creating delays are completely avoidable, just makes the whole thing hard to swallow.   My commute just happens to be 1,500 miles these days....

From MNB user Rick Rector:

Now, now…some of us stuck on the runway are neither rich nor write campaign checks but are just working stiffs who are ticked that an already highly unpleasant process is being made more so. And it could have been avoided.

And another reader chimed in:

I’m not one the rich people writing campaign checks, I am the poor salesman that to save money I fly into Chicago see my accounts there, drive into Wis do my business, hurry back to O’Hare and fly home that same day so I don’t have a hotel stay. So my day is already a very very long and if they don’t get this fixed I am pretty much screwed.

And the email kept coming...

One MNB user actually agreed with my point:

Not only is it the rich contributors who are sitting on the tarmac, it is the members of Congress  - they are getting ready for another recess and wanting to fly home without delays!

I concede that I may have painted with too broad a brush in making this observation. I, too, am among those who would be affected by the FAA cutbacks created by sequestration. And I'm certainly not rich, nor am I writing big (or even small) campaign contribution checks.

But I do think my basic point is defensible - that the reason the US Congress acted on this particular piece of legislation is because it affected people with clout. Not only people with clout, to be sure, but I suspect that Congress would not have acted as fast on legislation that would have restored affected benefits to, say, welfare recipients. And yes, I'm sure there were people in Congress who wanted to eliminate airport delays before they had to get on a plane to go home for the recess.

My criticism is bipartisan. I think Democrats and Republicans alike move a lot faster when bills affect the people who financially support their campaigns, because for many of them, getting re-elected is job one.

Furthermore, I'd argue that if people in both parties did their jobs and actually were willing to do the people's business and come to reasonable compromise, then the sequester would not have taken place. But they didn't, so it did. Except, of course, when it came to programs that affected them and theirs. (But, to be clear, not only them and theirs. But the rest of us got lucky.)

I waxed rhapsodic last week, as I often do, about an evening spent teaching at Portland State University. Which prompted MNB user Todd Ruberg to write:

I share your enthusiasm for getting on campus and dialoguing with students about our industry!   I’ve been on the advisory board at Portland State for 15 years now, and it never ceases to amaze me how many great ideas come from students of our industry.

I am surprised more industry leaders aren’t finding their way to programs like PSU’s and the other’s you mention.  First, we are all trying to figure out how to market to the “Millennial” generation, what better way?  Second, one of our very best hires and most promising developing leader came out of Portland State’s program.

Why not focus recruiting on students who are demonstrating interest in our industry? Thanks for opening up the opportunity!

I'll say it again. If you are in the region, you should find you way to Portland on Monday, May 6, for the annual Center for Retail Leadership 2013 Executive Forum, which will feature some terrific sessions and a chance to network with both professionals and executives.

To learn more, click here.

On Friday, MNB reported that hedge fund billionaire George Soros said he has acquired a 7.9 percent stake in embattled retailer JC Penney, buying 17.4 million shares of the company, in what is called a "passive investment."

I commented:

I guess it is a passive investment because Soros is too busy trying to collapse the US economy and create a new world order. Even he would have a hard time doing that and helping to save JCP.

One MNB user wrote:

That is funny about the George S. trying to take over the world.  As a fiscal conservative, he does scare me a little though.

But probably less than the Koch brothers.

That said, I'm glad he got the joke.

Another MNB user wasn't sure if I was joking:

Really?   "Collapse the US economy and create a new world order"….please tell me that it is sarcasm!

And one other guy didn't get the joke at all:

I'm not a Soros fan, but I don't read News Beat to read idiotic, misinformed, ill-considered political blather. Do us all a favor and stick to what you know.

You are not Jay Leno. Don't even try.

First of all, thank goodness. I think Leno is one of the least funny people on the planet.

But I digress.

To be clear, Soros is a man of liberal leanings, but there are some on the extreme right who look to demonize him by accusing of trying to create a new world order and all that other stuff.

I was making a joke. I was being sarcastic. And I certainly wasn't trying to pass off political blather as fact. Far from it.

I got the following email from MNB user Roger Hancock:

A word of caution...

Your blog has been enjoyable to read since its inception.  Generally you do a great job of balancing your views with those of your readers to provide a relatively safe place to take facts and add opinion that doesn't have to be shrouded in spin to pass the test for political correctness.

The amount of humility you routinely communicate, and your usually gracious responses to people who take you to task builds confidence in the community you serve.  Most recently you wrote, "And I am just so lucky to have people like Michael and Kate writing for MNB, because they bring a depth of experience and insight that you can't get in other places. I am so much better for being in their company."

This humility is balanced with a little ego:  "Since I think, immodestly, that MNB has the most robust and differentiated ongoing conversations around, I think I'm going to stick with that."

The caution:  Great retailers have lost their way when they realize they are the most robust and differentiated.  In other words, they have arrived, have cornered the market, are showing others what it means to be a retailer, etc.  I don't have to name the brands because we all know them.

Please don't fall into that trap.  It would be a sad day when reading your blog falls to the bottom of the morning because you've lost your way in thinking you define it.

May I respond without appearing defensive? (Let me at least try...)

To be fair, those two comments - the one about Michael and Kate, and the one about MNB featuring robust and differentiated conversation - were in two different places, in two different contexts. The first one was in "OffBeat," where I was, to be frank, stating what I think is MNB's differential advantage. The second one was in 'Your Views," responding to someone who objected to some emails being posted anonymously, and I was saying that I'm okay with people not being identified on the site if it leads to great conversation and, ultimately, illumination.

I'll be honest. I don't think anyone I know would ever describe me as a humble guy. Humility isn't usually a character trait associated with people who knock out daily blogs/columns, express their opinions, think they matter, and encourage other people to do the same.

I'm proud of MNB. But, I am smart enough to know that the success of MNB is related as much to the people who contribute to it - Michael, Kate, and the 25,000+ subscribers who read it and often write in - as to me.

My friend Norman Mayne is one of the best retailers in the universe. (Hyperbole? Maybe just a little bit. But not much.) And while his Dorothy Lane Markets could and often are described as legendary, Norman is very clear on this. He would say (I'm paraphrasing): "That's very nice. But if we are legendary, we were only legendary yesterday. Today, we have to earn it all over again."

MNB is far from being legendary, but that's a fair description of how I feel. Proud of what it is, but knowing that today, I have to earn whatever legitimacy and credibility it has all over again. And tomorrow. And the next day.
KC's View: