Pursuing the easy buck

Posted on March 4, 2011. Filed under: Arkansas Democrat-Gazette Columns |

Ever wonder who invented the toilet? Or air conditioning?

Few people can answer correctly, yet how vastly different our lives would be without those improvements.

Those who toil behind the scenes and, after years or maybe decades of work and sweat, wind up with a breakthrough development don’t get much recognition in our modern culture.

One of the biggest problems in America today—it funnels down into a lot of smaller problems, too—is the pursuit of the easy buck. Just look at where the headline-making salaries are. Albert Pujols wants $300 million over 10 years to play a game. Leonardo DiCaprio is bringing home $50 million to play a movie role. Investment bankers rake in $15 million bonuses for playing the market.

Who can really complain about what a toilet seat costs in the military or what aspirin costs in the hospital when we look at what sports superstars make? They are paid lavishly for each at-bat, each free throw, each pass attempt, regardless of whether they score. At least the toilet seat and the aspirin are actually delivered.

Highflying occupations like sports aside, modern capitalists are looking for easy money as well. Wal-Mart’s drawn-out success is as out of vogue as rotary telephones. Few investors today are willing to wait around 20 years for a return. They want the next Facebook.

The trouble is, for every Facebook there are umpteen other social networking sites that didn’t take off. Some are now defunct; they were conceived to be wildly successful or short-lived.

Time once was a key ingredient of success, like nourishing water to a growing garden. Now it’s the main adversary. The modern mantra is if success doesn’t happen fast, pull the plug and try something else.

Perhaps our popular fascination with the easy buck should come as no surprise. Our state (as well as 42 others) funds higher education using the easiest of money, gambling, plucked from the pockets of many who never went to college.

For example, only 8.5 percent of residents in Lawrence County, which has suffered 1,000 industrial jobs lost over the last decade, have a bachelor’s degree. But its 17,000 county residents are spending $300,000 per month, or nearly $4 million annually, on the state lottery.

How many jobs might be created by a similar investment in local industry? It doesn’t matter because none of the lottery ticket buyers wants to wait and earn money the old-fashioned way. They all are chasing the easy buck, and the lottery is its epitome: Buy a ticket and hope for a fortune.

Who cares if it is a fortune that is neither well-earned nor well-deserved? Nobody bothers with such archaic notions, or the contemplation that for every $20,000 winner there are 21,000 one-dollar losers (assuming a 95 percent payout rate).

Those things simply don’t matter anymore.

Yet they are still fundamental components of workable economic dynamics. Investors and entrepreneurs consumed with hitting it big often fail to do the small, everyday things that create long-term success. That’s the kind of success, it must be remembered, which creates stability in communities. Families, schools, buildings, infrastructure-all are long-term propositions.

There’s a story about Sam Walton, when Wal-Mart introduced its profit-sharing plan, promising a truck driver that if the employee would stay with him for 20 years, Walton would guarantee him at least $100,000 in shared profits. The employee wisely did just that, only to discover 20 years later that his share was seven times as much.

Another entrepreneur named Willis Carrier invented the first modern electrical air-conditioning unit in 1902, although the physics on which it was based dated decades earlier. Despite being an invention of iconic proportions, any investor hoping to cash in quick would have been disappointed. It would take more than 50 years before air conditioning was successfully promoted to the vast residential market.

Contrary to popular lore, the aptonymous Thomas Crapper did not invent the toilet, although his plumbing company improved the tank system and popularized existing gravity-driven toilet designs. The Sloan Valve Co. is the indisputable inventor of the water pressure-driven flush valve for toilets. Patented in 1906, modified versions of William Sloan’s “ flushometers” are still in use in most public restrooms.

Success was anything but quick for Sloan, however. His company managed to sell only three of the innovative flush valves in its first two years of operation. But Sloan’s eye was always on the long term. When sales fell 80 percent between 1929 and 1933, he took a 50 percent pay cut and asked workers to accept a 5 percent cut. The company also reduced workweeks to keep employees working until the war kicked in.

Today, 25 percent of Sloan employees have been with the company 20 years or more.

Companies like that are exactly what Arkansas and America need most, but they will never deliver the easy buck.

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