Posts By: Michael Scott

A Rush to Objectivism: Fueling the Message of Ayn Rand

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“No, his mind is not for rent
To any God or government
Always hopeful yet discontent
He knows changes aren’t permanent
But change is”

These are lyrics in a song Tom Sawyer produced for the rock group Rush (Spirit of the Radio: 1974-1987).

Unlike most African-American men, I grew up on rock music. Groups like Journey, Boston, Foreigner, AC/DC and Kansas were a constant part of my listening experience. But there is one group that really stood out for me, due to their edgy themes and powerful lyrical messages; that group was Rush.

Originating in Canada, this musical troupe featured guitarist Alex Lifeson, singer/bass and keyboardist Geddy Lee and drummer extraordinaire Neil Peart. Of this trio, Peart probably had the most thematic impact as he is apparently the the one who single-handedly integrated Ayn Rand’s Objectivist philosophy into many of their musical scores. While in recent years Peart has reputedly distanced himself from Rand’s thinking, the legacy of her work still lives on through the music of this iconic group.

2112 – the band’s 1976 album – was dedicated to the “Genius of Ayn Rand.” It was inspired by Rand’s novel, ‘Anthem’, which explores a dystopian world where totalitarianism is threatened by the rediscovery of the guitar. Interestingly, Rush has the distinction of being the only music group ever to be cited in the Journal of Ayn Rand Studies. “

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Unlimited Vacation – Would it be Used or Abused?

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During my years as an HR Director, I was amused at the number of employees who would accrue massive amounts of unused vacation, as though they were storing nuts for the winter. These were often the same people who seemed chronically stressed out, displaying a lack of creativity in problem-solving and lacking the energy to get through an entire day. Clearly, they were not well-rested individuals.

Why do so many people refuse to take their vacation, I wondered? Could it be that their work was so fulfilling and engaging that they simply couldn’t drag themselves away? Or maybe there was a concern about being passed over for a raise or a promotion, a fear of being seen as a slacker by management.

Enter the Time-Off-When-You-Damn-Well-Please Approach

What would it look like if a company began offering their workforce unlimited vacation time, a protocol where employees are allowed to flee to enjoy leisure time in order to relax and reinvigorate their productive swagger? Certainly, this would be predicated on the employee being caught up with current work tasks. And anyway, most will be unable to resist the temptation to check in at work and maybe send an email or twenty while they’re off. So what the heck?

Questions such as these are being asked while the business networking site LinkedIn recently became the latest company to adopt the idea by offering what is affectionately known in the HR

A Path to Riches or an Alluring Trap?

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I vividly remember a house in the neighborhood where I grew up as a kid. My friend Tony lived there. It was a massive structure, likely over 5,000 square feet, dwarfing all others in the area. This residence boasted a huge swimming pool (rare in Columbus, Ohio), a fish tank that took up an entire wall, and a foyer staircase that rivaled that of the von Trapp family mansion in the movie ‘Sound of Music’.

Because the property’s stature and opulence seemed an oddity for a lower middle class African-American community, I asked another neighborhood friend what Tony’s parents did for a living. “Oh“, came the response, “they’re involved in something called Multi-Level Marketing. I hear you can become quite rich in that business.”

So What the Heck is Multi-Level Marketing?

Just the other day, I mentioned to a friend of mine, who happens to be a millennial, that I was writing an article on Multi-Level Marketing. “What’s that? Never heard of it,” she retorted.

As a boomer, my awareness of MLMs is quite extensive. Back when I was young and impressionable, it seemed like profiteers in this industry were seeking me out on a regular basis. I was told that they were attracted to my gregarious personality and vast network of professional connections. Yet to this day, my understanding as to how it really works is shrouded in mystery.

Here is my own simple definition of MLM. Having signed up for the MLM of a certain product yourself, you then contact everyone you know – starting with family and friends – to persuade them also to sign up for the same MLM product (with you as the referring representative, of course), in the hope that they will sell enough product for you to be able to sit on your couch and watch tv while you reap the rewards of all their referral commissions.

I know, I know… .my definition is a bit warped. But consider it an honest portrayal of my experience with this over time.

My first direct exposure to MLM, a.k.a network marketing, was back in 1995 while I was living in Chicago. I got invited to one of those infamous events that was clouded in secrecy where what you’ve gotten yourself into isn’t revealed until you are seated with coffee and donut in hand. It was a cheesy print publication, a subscription report that featured randomly aggregated research information on society and the world. Surprisingly, tons of unsuspecting folks bought into it with the hope of accelerating their knowledge to become better informed citizens. Me? I attended a couple of meetings and had an uneasy feeling about what was about to go down. On my third visit, I was greeted by a sea of dour faces; they had all been taken financially by the founder.

My brief dalliance with this particular MLM company is not intended as a broad indictment of the entire industry. In fact, I’ve been involved with a wide spectrum of other MLM companies – primarily in the wellness products realm – that had a modicum of integrity and transparency. Some folks I know who were involved with these companies even saw success. But in my estimation, this success scenario was quite rare.

Good Intentions or Taking Advantage of Others?

An acquaintance of mine works with a very profitable MLM company called Vemma Nutrition. She’s a person with integrity who has worked hard to achieve success within the company. Sadly, the Federal Trade Commission just put a temporary strangle-hold on the company’s operations for operating what they deemed to be an illegal pyramid scheme. Company assets were temporary seized by an Arizona federal court. The primary charge against them hinged on their promising college students untold financial returns while selling nutritional drinks. According to the FTC, Vemma earned $200 million in 2013 and 2014. And the students? Well, they were not so lucky, as most were unable to even recover their initial investment in the company.

My Take on MLM Investment Opportunities

In short, if you are considering joining a MLM, I encourage you to tread slowly and keep your wits about you. Have some people seen a ROI in building a profitable business clientele? Certainly, there are some examples. But is it a path to riches? Personally, I believe that’s likely to happen less than 1% of the time. “

The College Funding Dance-Advice from a Leading Expert

imageIt goes without saying that a college education has become an expensive proposition. As many families and their kids wrestle with ultra competitive admission requirements as well as soaring tuition costs, advisors like California-based Ron Adams are highly sought after for their advice and wisdom.

As an ambitious journalist in Sacramento, I had the pleasure of meeting Ron over 10 years ago, and I found him to be a fountain of knowledge on the college admissions process. As one of the nations leading experts in college funding, he has assisted hundred of parents and students in significantly lowering their out-of-pocket expenses for four year college terms. His book, “How To Give Your Kid A 4-Year College Education Without Going Broke,” provides to those engaged in the admissions process practical strategies and tips on how to maximize financial aid. Ron also reveals little-known tools that college financial aid offices often don’t and won’t share with you.

Below is an excerpt from my recent interview with Ron, regarding recent developments in the college funding arena:

Ron, what sort of trends are you seeing in terms of tuition costs?

On a national basis, the cost of attendance for a public university is rising at about a 6.5% clip per year; for a private school, it’s in the neighborhood of about 7.4%. So if you do the math, that means that the University of Nebraska – my alma mater, which is currently right around $22,000 per year – will soar to around $44,000 in ten years. And if you look at a private university like Stanford, which last year was just slightly above $60,000 per year, it will rise to $120,000 over that same time period.

Why are we continuing to see such massive increases?

Frankly, it stems from a willingness on the part of banks to loan students pretty much any amount of money they need up to $20,000 per year. Colleges and universities know this, so they feel they can raise rates whenever they desire.

It sounds like lenders and the higher education institutions are colluding together

That’s true. Sallie Mae is an example of a college lender that willingly engages in this practice because they know that students can never declare bankruptcy on those loans. So 30 years from now, at whatever interest rate they are charging, they know that they will eventually be able to recover that money.

What a frustrating scenario for those seeking to go to college!

Michael, what I continue to see – which is the fault of the parents and, in some cases, the student also – is that they wait too long to get serious about the college funding process. Tragically, many become concerned about planning for this around the second semester of their junior year or even the summer of their senior year. That’s way too late. This process should ideally occur during their freshman year, in order to ensure the best possible access to these monies.

How does standardized testing play into all of this?

Students take the PSAT test during October of their sophomore year. A prep course for this is vital because when you get a good score, a couple of things happen. First, you become eligible for a National Merit Scholarship, which is a highly regarded source of money. Secondly, once schools are alerted to these scores, they send out letters inviting students to apply. They’ll often waive the application fee, extend an invitation to visit their campus for a tour and arrange for the student to meet with a professor in the desired field of study. So my message here is that those who wait until second semester of junior year or (heaven forbid) the fall of the senior year to begin their planning, are going to miss out on a ton of funding opportunities. Starting this process late makes it hard to recover. “

Fare Well with Wealth-fare

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What if there were a simple way to reduce poverty in America? In this scenario, the government would give everyone money, so that no one would be poor. Outside of proving your U.S. citizenship, there would be no screening mechanism or ‘need’ test required. Everyone would be provided with the same monthly amount, even if they were middle class or wealthy.

This is the essence of a new policy model being proposed which is called Universal Minimum Income or Guaranteed Basic Income where, in lieu of myriad government assistance programs, there would be just one program dispensing a monthly or annual payment to all citizens, irrespective of income level, background, social status or other factors. While this idea seems nutty at first, given the federal budget deficit, it does offer some interesting arguments when you consider its full implications.

Personally, I have never been a fan of government handouts. But this one caught my curiosity because of its egalitarian approach. Besides, who wouldn’t want a little (or a lot) more money in their pocket each month for basic necessities like rent, food, gas and booze. I added booze in there because life in a society of equals would be truly boring.

Of course, the use of a handout for alcohol consumption would pique the wrath of those who believe that poverty is largely the result of an irresponsible lifestyle. As one of my Twitter trolls commented, responding to my recent tweet on guaranteed basic income:

“So there’s no reason to improve yourself? You have nothing to worry about? That has never worked. It didn’t work for the French. It didn’t work for the USSR. It won’t work now. I’d rather be free and poor than a slave to a State that meets my needs. Any liberal/progressive program will ALWAYS have the opposite outcome of it’s stated goal.”

What’s the Rationale for Guaranteed Basic Income?

At the risk of being branded a Bernie Sanders socialist, for kicks let’s explore the arguments in favor of Guaranteed Basic Income. For starters, today’s jobs economy is not what it used to be. Many workers are powering through 50+ hour work weeks, despite the fact that it’s still not providing them with enough money on which to live. Some might attribute this to greed on the part of employers; others might believe that it’s directly related to the decline of unionization. Nevertheless, a fact is a fact: for many, employment no longer provides a sustainable income because the wages of most American workers have stagnated or declined since the 1970’s. Moreover, about a quarter of all workers rely on some form of public assistance to supplement what they earn. Ultimately, advocates of the Guaranteed Basic Income proposition claim that it offers all Americans the opportunity to create a foundational base for living akin to the bottom level requirements of Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs. “

The Geography of Personal and Economic Freedom

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My friends will tell you that I’m prone to frequent bouts of uncertainty in terms of where I want to live. One minute it’s Portland, OR; the next it’s Portsmouth, NH. Well today, its Chicago, IL. This I blame on a phone conversation with my pal John earlier in the week which rekindled my desire to return to the Windy City.

But I also have a rational side, one that pontificates on the unappealing side of a particular state or city. By way of an example, San Francisco, Santa Barbara and San Luis Obispo are all locales that get me jazzed; that is, until I consider issues such as cost of living, high taxes and onerous regulations that keep one feeling trapped and hamstrung. Then there’s Chicago and the whole State of Illinois which are both mired in a debt crisis of epic proportions. Things are so fiscally serious in the Land of Lincoln that IOUs are now being issued to many of the state’s lottery winners.

Another factor that I take very seriously is the fact that I’m a black male. So the vast majority of cities in the south are out, along with small midwestern towns with a ‘ville’ at the end of their name. And yes, I do look at racial profiling and stop-and-frisk statistics in places like New York that make moving there unconscionable.

The Economic Freedom Factor

At some level, I believe all of us value our freedoms and liberties. That’s certainly been the case for me which is why I’ve engaged in a great deal of due diligence in terms of finding a home. My current locale of Denver has perhaps been the most accepting place in which I have ever lived