14 Sep

Sick leave for workers can make others feel better

The first question is, how sick do you want the cook making your lunch to be?

Personally, I think that even the guy at the next desk should stay home when he catches Black Death.

Mandatory sick leave, declared this week by President Obama for federal contractors, and adopted recently by Portland and then the Oregon legislature, is often presented as a workers’ rights issue. This allows critics to warn that letting workers stay home when they’re sick will collapse the entire economy, although in the many places where it’s been in effect, it hasn’t.

What it’s done is allow workers to be sick and keep their jobs, just as most middle and upper-income people can. Workers generally don’t abuse it, because they know that someday they might need it.

But it’s also a public health issue. Workers should stay home when they’re sick, rather than come to work and pass it around, especially in the rapidly growing service area based on close contact, such as health care, restaurants and hospitality.

The economy already loses too many man-hours and woman-hours that way. It’s especially true for parents of small children, who are three-foot-high contagion vectors.

Sick leave is not a perk. It’s a protection – and not just for the worker taking it.

NOTE: This commentary appeared on KGW-TV, 9/12/15.

09 Sep

Out-of-state buys of local businesses underline Oregon’s identity as a corporate colony

McDonald’s, most people would agree, tastes like California. The original restaurant was in San Bernardino, the chain evokes what decades ago was known as the “California burger” (lettuce, tomato, mayo) and at least for the first decades, McDonald’s branches were mostly drive-ins.

Plus, only in California would anybody actually dress like the Hamburglar.

Little Big Burger tastes like Portland, or at least the exotic cuisine, food magazine cover boy Portland that has emerged in recent years. The burgers are cooked to order, the condiments are made in-house, and the concept comes from an upscale restaurant operator, not a milkshake machine salesman.

Little Big Burger fries are infused with truffle oil, which is not the aroma that typically rises out of a McDonald’s.

And, like so many other Portland institutions, Little Big Burger is being sold to out-of-state interests. Like so much around here, the key added ingredient is a distant zip code.

At $6 million, the Little Big Burger sale is actually the smallest in the recent wave of Oregon operations being sold across the state line. Precision Castparts, one of only three Oregon Fortune 500 companies – some places can match that number in a city block, or maybe a single skyscraper – was sold to Warren Buffett’s Berkshire Hathaway for $37 billion, or 10 billion burgers. Standard Insurance, a local landmark ,was sold to a Japanese company, Planar Systems to a Chinese operation and Dave’s Killer Bread to the national company that delivers Wonder Bread.

And last week, Jeld-Wen, the door and window manufacturer that once seemed to make Klamath Falls a company town, and that briefly gave its name to Portland’s downtown stadium, announced it would be moving most operations to Charlotte, N.C.

Oregon, according to a long-term trend, appears to be zoned against corporate headquarters. Over decades, our banks and utilities have gone to out-of-state owners – Pacific Power was already owned by Berkshire Hathaway, and the holding company adding Precision Castparts to its portfolio may locate Oregon’s business center in Omaha – and our largest private employer, Intel, receives its “Dear Corporation” letters in Santa Clara, Calif. Oregon’s one-stop shopping empire, Fred Meyer, now stops in Cincinnati as a division of Kroger, and Meier & Frank, dating from Oregon territory, is now a branch of Macy’s.
Even the Trail Blazers have always had owners in Seattle or Los Angeles.

To some extent, maybe this all doesn’t matter so much. Paychecks can clear whether they’re signed in the West Hills or the Middle West, and buyers generally want to retain the value of their purchase; nobody thinks Dave’s Killer Bread is about to become a white and puffy habitat for grape jelly. Something can have a Portland identity regardless of home address; the company that makes “Portlandia” is based, of course, at Penn Plaza, New York City.

Still, there are some advantages to having local business decisions made locally, and not just in greater willingness to buy luxury suites at home team arenas. Companies with their top management living in the neighborhood (Hi, Nike) have a particular commitment to an area, both in local involvement of executives and employees and in philanthropy. The model is Minneapolis-Twin Cities, where a range of locally based corporations, including General Mills, 3M and Target, take on an extensive obligation to local needs and issues.

Portland seems unlikely ever to achieve that; whether or not we have the attitude, we don’t have the companies. (The sale of Precision Castparts leaves Oregon with just two Fortune 500 companies, Lithia Motors in Medford and Nike in Beaverton.) And admittedly, it was going to be a long time before Little Big Burger joined the list.

But back when our local companies were more local, the arrangement was a bit different. The I-205 Bridge is called the Glenn Jackson Bridge because – aside from “I-205 Bridge” being a not very interesting name – it was named for a longtime member/chairman of the Oregon Transportation Commission, who was also chair of Pacific Power, the one whose headquarters is now in Omaha. There are certainly questions about how much influence local corporate leadership should have, but it’s nice to call it on a local number.

It’s a stretch to see all of Portland’s out-of-town ownership reflected in the $6 million sale of Little Big Burger, even if it’s going to the company that also owns Hooters, less focused on local ingredients than on wings and other body parts.

But every time another bit of local identity and control slips away, it seems like another win for the Hamburglar.

NOTE: This column appeared in The Oregonian, 9/9/15.

08 Sep

Changes in Oregon and the ocean heat up the neighborhood

This year, it wasn’t clear we would make it to Labor Day.

In Portland, the summer-defining liquid has traditionally been craft beer, not sunblock. Occasionally in August, the temperature might peep over 90, but mostly we spent summer basking, like pinot noir grapes, in temperate days and cool evenings.

This year, before even finishing August, we broke the local record for days over 90. Portland shattered its record for average summer temperature by almost three degrees, with just half our usual rainfall, as climate change works to turn our weather into Phoenix.

Oregon State oceanography professor Jane Lubchenco didn’t catch all of Oregon’s summer; in her capacity as U.S. Science Envoy for the Oceans, she spent a lot of time on the other side of the world. But in her years as director of the National Oceanographic and Atmospheric Agency (2009-2013), she saw “the most extreme four years’ weather,” with 70 Atlantic hurricanes, 770 major tornadoes, six major floods and “unprecedented” blizzards, and “the patterns are only continuing.”

It seems the Earth wants us off.

And unlike Portland, the planet can’t go to the ocean for relief.

“Climate change is well under way, affecting the oceans,” points out Lubchenco. “They’re hotter, they have less oxygen, they’re more acidic. Some of the effects of this are expected. Others are unexpected, and still mysterious.”

Especially, as we’ll see later, if you’re a sea star.

Warmer oceans affect wind patterns, says Lubchenco. Together, scientists think, they’re affecting a change in weather patterns, as well as the rise in sea levels. “That’s not so much a problem for us,” she notes, “but it’s huge for the mid-Atlantic,” displayed in Superstorm Sandy.

Then there’s ocean acidification, which isn’t exactly caused by climate change; it’s just caused by the same thing. “Ocean acidification is the equally evil twin of climate change,” says Lubchenco. “Both are caused by too much carbon in the atmosphere.

“When the oceans absorb carbon dioxide, they become more acidic. They’re now about 30 percent more acidic than 100 years ago.”

Nobody knows the full effects of acidification. But last week, results of a survey led by Oregon State researchers, published in The Journal of Shellfish Research, found that most oyster growers thought it was a problem. Lubchenco suspects it might also be weakening other shellfish, such as clams, mussels and crabs, as well as tiny snails – sea angels or sea butterflies – that are an important food supply for fish.

Acidification, she notes, also interferes with fish’s sense of smell, interfering with defenses against predators – and with salmon’s ability to return to their birth streams to spawn.

Lubchenco has seen the issue from both a faculty office and NOAA. Like any D.C. experience, hers was mixed.

“I was frustrated, but also greatly encouraged,” she explains. “It’s just so unfortunate that the issue has gotten so partisan, so polarizing. It’s not about facts, it’s not about logic, it’s about politics.”

Still she sees progress – although “certainly not in Congress” – but in cities and states, and in the world outside Washington: “People’s real experience with all this weird weather has been changing people’s thinking about climate change.”

She’s seen substantial change in the business community, and the religious community, from evangelical Christians talking about “Creation care” to statements from Pope Francis.

Lubchenco points out that “Social change can happen very quickly once the tipping point is reached,” citing sizable attitude shifts on drinking and driving, smoking and same-sex marriage.

People’s thinking might also be affected by changes that keep happening in the oceans, often in ways nobody quite understands.

All along the Pacific Coast, from Canada to Mexico, “Over the past two years, there’s been a massive die-off of all species of sea stars, just melting into mush,” reports Lubchenco.

Sea stars, it turns out, are a “keystone predator,” limiting especially the spread of mussels, who might otherwise turn some beaches into a “monoculture.”

We don’t know why the sea stars are dying, or what else it might mean. It does seem the ocean is telling us something else we shouldn’t ignore.

Just across from the Hatfield Marine Center in Newport is the Rogue Brewery. At the suggestion of Oregon State graduate student Jenna Sullivan, Rogue has just released Wasted Sea Star Purple Pale Ale, the color of the sea stars, with some of the proceeds to go to the Partnership for Interdisciplinary Studies of Coastal Oceans.

In our future summers, Oregon will have an unpredictable ocean, and more need of sunblock.

At least there’s still craft beers.

NOTE: This column appeared in The Sunday Oregonian 9/6/15.

04 Sep

Scott Walker calls for walling off Canada

Well, it’s about time.

Those of us living in the northern part of the country have waited years for a presidential candidate to address our border issues. Across the barely defended line from Canada, hockey players, Cuban cigars, cold fronts and Niagara Falls have been streaming unstoppably, and nobody has taken any action.

Thanks to this presidential campaign, that stops now.

Sunday, on “Meet the Press,” Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker was asked by moderator Chuck Todd why, when so many candidates have been talking about building a wall on the Mexican border, nobody is talking about a wall on the Canadian border.

Walker was ready for him, saying that folks on the campaign trail in New Hampshire had been asking about security from Canada.

“They raised some very legitimate concerns, including some law enforcement folks that brought that up to me at one of our town hall meetings about a week and a half ago,” agreed Walker. “So that is a legitimate issue for us to look at.

Except, in this time of political correctness, the Canadian threat has been too explosive an issue for even Donald Trump to take up. Meanwhile, immigrants have been oozing across our northern border like maple syrup, to the point where a prominent Republican presidential candidate, Texas Sen. Ted Cruz, was actually born in Canada himself.

For years, politicians have been journeying to glare across the Mexican border, shaking their fists and pledging to seal it hermetically. But nobody ever brings his campaign plane to the Canadian border, to make it clear that we’re keeping a close eye on those Mounties.

They could be carrying anything under those hats.

This is a pressing concern to Northern cities like Portland, separated from Canada by a bare 284 miles.

Or, as they probably want us to say, 457 kilometres.

(With typical weakness before foreign threats, one Democratic candidate, former Rhode Island Gov. Lincoln Chafee, is actually running in support of the metric system. He’ll learn that Americans want a leader, not a litre.)

Even more dangerously for Oregon, a key element in our economy, the Columbia River, comes down from Canada. Anything could come into America on that river, and our main defense seems to be sea lions.

(Of course, if we build that wall, we’ll need some kind of gate for the Columbia to come in, or it’s going to get pretty dark around here.)

There would be, admittedly, a number of complications to building a wall along the Canadian border. There have been problems in effectively walling off Mexico, although, according to U.S. Customs and Border Protection, the border with Mexico is just 1,989 miles long. The U.S. border with Canada is 5,525 miles long, and a lot of it is hard to find because it’s covered with snow.

Of course, we could always leave Alaska to build its own wall, which would save a lot of miles.

Oregon’s vulnerability to Canada is clear. Besides $5.6 billion in Oregon trade with Canada – somehow, critics of NAFTA never worry about jobs lost to Canada, although Canadian jobs all have health insurance – hundreds of thousands of Canadian tourists stream into Oregon every year, with nobody watching them.

Some motels on the Oregon coast even fly Canadian flags, and some businesses in Oregon accept Canadian money. People in Seattle actually watch Canadian television.
Most insidiously, Canadians often speak English. Anybody you deal with in Oregon might really be Canadian.

For years, Republican presidential candidates have pursued a Southern Strategy. At last, with Walker, there’s one who’s prepared to take on a Northern strategy. Coming from Wisconsin, he’s the northernmost GOP hopeful; no wonder all those candidates from Florida are indifferent to the Ottawa onslaught.

But just as Sarah Palin could look across from Alaska and see Russia, Scott Walker can look across Lake Superior from Wisconsin and see Canada (if he peeks around the edge of Minnesota).

You can see Oregon responding to his call. The deepest roots of our history are in resistance to Canada, with the slogan of “54-40 or fight.

Now, a 5,440-mile fence along the border would just about fix the problem.

Right now, it seems that nobody even knows where Saskatchewan starts and North Dakota ends.
(It’s also not clear that anyone cares.)

But as Scott Walker looks at the “legitimate issue” of a transcontinental wall to defend against Canada, he can be assured that Portland will be with him.

And the next time the Canadian navy comes here for Rose Festival, we’ll be ready.