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1. The new intergovernmentalism and the Greek crisis

Just as some thought it was over, the Greek crisis has entered into a new and dramatic stage. The Prime Minister, Alexis Tsipras, has declared snap elections to be held on the 20th September. This comes just as the European Stability Mechanism had transferred 13 billion Euros to Athens, out of which 3.2 billion was immediately sent to the European Central Bank to repay a bond of that amount due on the 20th August.

The post The new intergovernmentalism and the Greek crisis appeared first on OUPblog.

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2. Greece: The paradox of power

Why doesn’t Greece reform? Over the past few years the inability of successive Greek governments to deliver on the demands of international creditors has been a key feature of Greece’s bailout drama. Frustrated observers have pointed to various pathologies of the Greek political system to explain this underperformance.

The post Greece: The paradox of power appeared first on OUPblog.

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3. How much do you know about sources of energy? [quiz]

Energy consumption is changing. Governments and businesses around the world are exploring low carbon options including biofuels, natural gas and wind in an attempt to achieve longstanding energy security. Production of new sources has led to controversies about economic and environmental impacts and the trade-offs they generate between food and fuel production, energy security and environmental quality.

The post How much do you know about sources of energy? [quiz] appeared first on OUPblog.

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4. In memoriam: Terry Vaughn

Oxford University Press mourns the passing of Terry Vaughn, friend, colleague, and fellow traveler. Terry was a legendary editor whose influence in economics and finance publishing was powerfully in evidence for decades and whose contributions spanned the programs of MIT Press, Princeton University Press, and Oxford University Press. His most important legacy, however, is his family and the network of friends and admirers he leaves behind.

The post In memoriam: Terry Vaughn appeared first on OUPblog.

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5. Eroding norms in reinsurance trading: Can it cause industry collapse?

In the face of severe disasters, or ‘Acts of God’, society turns to reinsurance. It is a financial market that insures insurance firms, and thus trades in large-scale disasters. Reinsurance is therefore the backbone for economic and social recovery in times of unimaginable losses, such as Hurricane Katrina or the attack on the World Trade Centre, through enabling insurers to pay their claims.

The post Eroding norms in reinsurance trading: Can it cause industry collapse? appeared first on OUPblog.

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6. A fist-full of dollar bills

The next time you are slipping the valet a couple of folded dollar bills, take a good look at those George Washingtons. You might never see them again. Every few years, there is a renewed push for the United States to replace the dollar bill with its shiny cousin, the one dollar coin.

The post A fist-full of dollar bills appeared first on OUPblog.

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7. William Godwin on debt

William Godwin did not philosophically address the question of debt obligations, although he often had many. Perhaps this helps to explain the omission. It’s very likely that Godwin would deny that there is such a thing as the obligation to repay debts, and his creditors wouldn’t have liked that.

The post William Godwin on debt appeared first on OUPblog.

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8. “It’s an exciting time to be an editor”: Dan Parker on the OUPblog

It’s an exciting time to be an editor of the OUPblog. Over the course of the last ten years, the blog has gone from strength to strength. In order to help the blog continue to develop, the focus has been on reaching the right communities with the right content.

The post “It’s an exciting time to be an editor”: Dan Parker on the OUPblog appeared first on OUPblog.

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9. The future of development – aid and beyond

Just over a year ago, in March 2014, UNU-WIDER published a Report called: ‘What do we know about aid as we approach 2015?’ It notes the many successes of aid in a variety of sectors, and that in order to remain relevant and effective beyond 2015 it must learn to deal with, amongst other things, the new geography of poverty; the challenge of fragile states; and the provision of global public goods, including environmental protection.

The post The future of development – aid and beyond appeared first on OUPblog.

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10. Can leadership be taught?

Leadership training has become a multi-billion dollar global industry. The reason for this growth is that organizations, faced with new technology, changing markets, fierce competition, and diverse employees, must adapt and innovate or go under. Because of this, organizations need leaders with vision and the ability to engage willing collaborators. However, according to interviews with business executives reported in the McKinsey Quarterly, leadership programs are not developing global leaders.

The post Can leadership be taught? appeared first on OUPblog.

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11. The limits of regulatory cooperation

One of the most striking structural weaknesses uncovered by the euro crisis is the lack of consistent banking regulation and supervision in Europe. Although the European Banking Authority has existed since 2011, its influence is often trumped by national authorities. And many national governments within the European Union do not seem anxious to submit their financial institutions to European-wide regulation and supervision.

The post The limits of regulatory cooperation appeared first on OUPblog.

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12. Why care?

If your parents required care, would you or a family member provide care for them or would you look for outside help? If you required care in your old age would you expect a family member to provide care? Eldercare is becoming an important policy issue in advanced economies as a result of demographic and socio-economic changes. It is estimated that by 2030, one quarter of the population will be over 65 in both Europe and the USA.

The post Why care? appeared first on OUPblog.

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13. Top 5 most infamous company implosions

Since the global financial crisis in 2008, the world has paid close attention to corporations and banks around the world that have faced financial trouble, especially if there is some aspect of scandal involved. The list below gives a brief overview of some of the most notorious company implosions from the last three decades.

The post Top 5 most infamous company implosions appeared first on OUPblog.

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14. How did emerging market multinationals internationalize successfully?

Emerging market multinational enterprises (EM-MNEs) are the new kids on the block. When Forbes magazine first released its list of the world’s largest 2000 companies in 2003, the list was dominated by companies from the USA, Japan, and Britain. In the latest “Global 2000” list, companies from China and other emerging markets feature prominently. In 2014, 674 companies came from Asia, compared with 629 from North America and 506 from Europe.

The post How did emerging market multinationals internationalize successfully? appeared first on OUPblog.

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15. Field experimenting in economics: Lessons learned for public policy

Do neighbourhoods matter to outcomes? Which classroom interventions improve educational attainment? How should we raise money to provide important and valued public goods? Do energy prices affect energy demand? How can we motivate people to become healthier, greener, and more cooperative? These are some of the most challenging questions policy-makers face. Academics have been trying to understand and uncover these important relationships for decades.

The post Field experimenting in economics: Lessons learned for public policy appeared first on OUPblog.

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16. How complex is net neutrality?

Thanks to the recent release of consultation paper titled <“Regulatory Framework for Over-the-top (OTT) services," for the first time in India's telecom history close to a million petitions in favour of net neutrality were sent; comparable to millions who responded to Federal Communications Commission’s position paper on net neutrality last year.

The post How complex is net neutrality? appeared first on OUPblog.

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17. Putting industrial policy back on the agenda

As the UK General Election draws near, the economy has again been the over-riding feature of the campaign. Yet the debate itself has been pretty narrow, being principally framed around ‘austerity’ and the reduction of the size of the government’s budget deficit. The major political parties are all committed to eradicating this deficit, with the main question being the time-frame in achieving this goal.

The post Putting industrial policy back on the agenda appeared first on OUPblog.

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18. The euro zone leadership suffers from cognitive closure

The euro zone has still not recovered from the global depression 2009. A major cause is the idea that every member should solve its own problems by lowering prices on all markets, and by reducing the influence of the government. Lower prices stimulate the exports to other countries, which would result in the beginning of a genuine recovery. Because the interrelationships between the various member-economies are quite strong, and the influence of the big euro zone on the global economy is significant, this policy advice has failed so far.

The post The euro zone leadership suffers from cognitive closure appeared first on OUPblog.

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19. Are ultra-low interest rates dangerous?

The industrialized world is currently moving through a period of ultra-low interest rates. The main benchmark interest rates of central banks in the United States, the United Kingdom, Japan, and the euro-zone are all 0.50% or less. The US rate has been near zero since December 2008; the Japanese rate has been at or below 0.50% since 1995. Then there are the central banks that have gone negative: the benchmark rates in Denmark, Sweden, and Switzerland are all below zero. Other short-term interest rates are similarly at rock-bottom levels, or below.

The post Are ultra-low interest rates dangerous? appeared first on OUPblog.

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20. How to make regulations a common good?

Differences in regulatory norms are increasingly seen as the key barriers to the growth of regional and global markets, and regulatory disputes make up some of the most contentious issues in world politics. Negotiations among the most developed economies of the world about regulatory synchronization have made little progress in the last decade, and nearly all harmonization attempts failed when they had involved economies at lower levels of development.

The post How to make regulations a common good? appeared first on OUPblog.

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21. Ireland is on the way back

As we approach the annual St Patrick’s Day celebration, the story of the Irish economy in the last five years is worthy of reflection. In late 2010, the Irish Government, following in the footsteps of Greece, was forced to request a deeply humiliating emergency financial bailout from the International Monetary Fund (IMF) and the European Union (EU). Against the background of the recent controversy over the latest “Greek crisis”, what can be said about Ireland’s experience? Here are five relevant issues

The post Ireland is on the way back appeared first on OUPblog.

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22. What is Corporate Social Responsibility?

What is Corporate Social Responsibility (CSR) all about? Companies appear to be adopting new attitudes and activities in the way they identify, evaluate and respond to social expectations. Society is no longer treated as a ‘given’, but as critical to business success. In some cases this is simply for the license to operate that social acceptability grants. In others, companies believe that favorable evaluations by consumers, employees and investors (who are, after all, members of society) will improve business performance.

The post What is Corporate Social Responsibility? appeared first on OUPblog.

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23. Can We Race Together? An Autopsy

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“Can We Race Together? An Autopsy”*

by Ellen Berrey

***

Corporate diversity dialogues are ripe for backlash, the research shows,
even without coffee counter gimmicks.

Corporate executives and university presidents are, yet again, calling for public discussion on race and racial inequality. Revelations about the tech industry’s diversity problem have company officials convening panels on workplace barriers, and, at the University of Oklahoma spokespeople and students are organizing town-hall sessions in response to a fraternity’s racist chant.

The most provocative of the efforts was Starbucks’ failed Race Together program. In March, the company announced that it would ask baristas to initiate dialogues with customers about America’s most vexing dilemma. Although public outcry shut down those conversations before they even got to “Hello,” Starbucks said it would nonetheless carry on Race Together with forums and special USA Today discussion guides. As someone who has done sociological research on diversity initiatives for the past 15 years, I was intrigued.

 For a moment, let’s take this seriously

What would conversations about race have looked like if they played out as Starbucks imagined, given the social science of race? Can companies, in Starbucks’ CEO Howard Schultz’s words, “create a more empathetic and inclusive society—one conversation at a time”? A data-driven autopsy of Starbucks’ ambitions is in order.

Surprisingly, Starbucks turned its sights on the provocative issue of racial inequality—not just feel-good cultural differences (or, thank goodness, the sort of “respectability politics” that, under well-intentioned cover, focus on the moral flaws of black people). Most Americans, especially those of us who are white, are ill-informed on the topic of inequality. We generally do not recognize our personal prejudice. We routinely, and incorrectly, insist that we are colorblind and that racism is a thing of the past, as sociologist Eduardo Bonilla-Silva has documented. When we do try to talk about race, we usually resort to what sociologists Joyce Bell and Doug Hartmann call the “happy talk” of diversity, without a language for discussing who comes out ahead and who gets pushed behind.

Starbucks pulls back the veil on our unconscious

How to take this on? Starbucks opted to tackle the thorny issue of unacknowledged prejudice—the cognitive biases that predispose a person against racial minorities and in favor of white people. The company intended to offer “insight into the divisive role unconscious bias plays in our society and the role empathy can play to bridge those divides.” The conversation guide it distributed the first week described a bias experiment in which lawyers were asked to assess an error-ridden memo. When told that the (fictional) author was white, the lawyers commented “has potential.” When told he was black, they remarked “can’t believe he went to NYU.”

Perhaps this was a promising starting point. Americans prefer psychological explanations; we like to think that terrorism, poverty, obesity, and other social ills are rooted in the individual’s psyche.

 A comforting thought: I’m not racist

We also do not want to see ourselves as complicit in the segregation of our communities, workplaces, or friendships. We definitely don’t want the stigma of being “racist.” Even white supremacists resist that label. So if it’s true that we can’t see our own bias, as Starbucks told us, we can take comfort in our innocence.

Starbucks’ description of the bias experiment actually took the conversation where it never seems to venture: to the advantages that white people enjoy. White people get help, forgiveness, and the inside track far more often than do people of color. But Starbucks stopped before pointing the finger at who gives white people these advantages.

The rest of Race Together veered off in a confused direction, mostly bent on educated enlightenment. The conversation guide was a mishmash of racial utopianism (the millennials have it figured out!), demography as destiny (immigration changes everything!), triumph over a troublesome past (progress!), testimonies by people of color (the one white guy is clueless!), statistics, inspired introspection, and social network tallies (“I have ____ friends of a different race”!).

Not your daddy’s diversity training

Companies have been trying to positively address race for decades. Typically, they do so through diversity management within their own workforce. Their stated purpose is to increase the numbers of people of color in the top ranks or improve the corporate culture. Most diversity management strategies, however, are far from effective (unless they make someone responsible for results), as shown by as sociologists Alexandra Kalev, Frank Dobbin, and Erin Kelly. Corporate aggrandizement and the façade of legal compliance seem as much the goals as actual change.

Race Together most closely resembled diversity training, which tries to undo managerial stereotyping through educational exchange, but this time the exchange was between capitalists and consumers. And it bucked the typical managerial spin. Usually, the kicker is the business case for diversity: this will boost productivity and profits. Instead, Starbucks made the diversity case for business. Consumption, supposedly, would create inclusion and equity. That would be its own reward. There was no clear connection to its specific business goals, beyond (disgruntled) buzz about the brand.

What were you thinking, Howard Schultz?

Briefly, let’s revisit what made Starbucks’ over-the-counter conversations so offensive. Starbucks was asking low-wage, young, disproportionately minority workers to prompt meaningful exchanges about race with uncaffeinated, mostly white and affluent customers. Even under the best of circumstances, diversity dialogues tend to put the burden of explaining racism on people of color. Here, baristas were supposed to walk the third rail during the morning rush hour without specialized training, much less extra compensation. One sociological term for this is Arlie Hochschild‘s “emotional labor.” The employee was required to tactfully manage customers’ feelings. The most likely reaction from coffee drinkers? Microaggressions of avoidance, denial, and eye-rolling.

The alternative, for Starbucks so-called “partners,” was disgruntled defiance. At my local Starbucks, when I asked about these conversations, the manager emphatically said, “We’re not participating.” The barista next to her was blunt: “We think it’s bullshit.”

Swiftly, the company came out with public statements that had the air of faux intention and cover-up, as if to say, “We’re not retreating; we’re merely advancing in the other direction.” Starbucks had promised a year of Race Together, but the collapse of the café stunt made an all-out retreat more likely: one more forum, one more ad, then silence.

 This doesn’t work…

Race Together trod treacherous ground. The research shows that diversity training backfires when it attempts to ferret out prejudice. It puts white people on the defensive and creates a backlash against people of color. For committed consumers, Starbucks was messing with the equivocally best part about capitalism: that you can give someone money and they give you a thing. For activists, this all smelled wrong (i.e., not how you want your latté). Like co-opted social justice.

… Does anyone in HQ ever ask what works?

Starbucks was wise to shift closer to the traditional role of a coffee house—the so-called Third Place between work and home that Schultz has long exalted. Hopefully, the company looks to proven models for productive conversations on race. Organizations such as the Center for Racial Justice Innovation push forward discussions that recognize racism as systemic, not as isolated individual attitudes and bad behaviors. This helps to avoid what people hate most about diversity trainings: forced discourse about superficial differences (“are you a daytime or nighttime person?”) and the wretched hunt for guilty bad guys.

According to social psychologists, unconscious bias can be minimized when people have positive incentives for interpersonal, cross-racial relationships. Wearing a sports jersey for the same team is impressively effective for getting white people to cooperate with African Americans, as shown in a study led by psychologist Jason Nier. The idea is to not provoke white people’s fear and avoidance of doing wrong. It is to motivate people to try to do what’s right by establishing a shared identity

Starbucks also needs to wrestle with its goal of “together.” That’s not always the outcome of conversations about race. Political scientist Katherine Cramer Walsh found that participants in civic dialogues on race commonly walk away with a heightened awareness of their differences, not with the unity that meeting organizers hope to foster.

 Is it better to abandon ship?

Despite its missteps, Starbucks, in fact, alit on hopeful insights. Individuals can ignite change, and empathy and listening are starting points. The company deserves some applause for taking the risk and for its deliberate focus on inequality. Undoubtedly, working-class, minority millennials could teach the rest of the country something about race (and executives something about company policy).

The truth hurts

But let’s be clear about what Race Together was not. It was not about addressing institutional discrimination. In that scenario, Starbucks would have issued a press release about eliminating patterns of unfair hiring and firing. It would have overhauled a corporate division of labor that channels racial minorities into lower-tier, nonunionized jobs. It might very well have closed stores in gentrifying neighborhoods.

Those solutions start with incisive diagnosis, not personal reflection. (The U.S. Department of Justice did just that when it scrutinized racial profiling in traffic stops and court fines in Ferguson, Missouri.) Those solutions require change in corporate policy.

To make Race Together honest, Starbucks needed to recognize an ugly truth: America’s race problem is not an inability to talk. It is a failure to rectify the unfair disadvantages hoisted on people of color and the unearned privileges that white people enjoy. Corporations, in their internal operations, are complicit in these very dynamics. So, too, are long-standing government policies, such as tax deductions of home mortgage interest (white folks are far more likely to own their homes). And white Americans may not want to hear it, but racial inequality is, in large measure, rooted in our collective choices: where we’ll pay property taxes, who we’ll tell about a job lead, what we’ll deem criminal, and even when we’ll smile or scowl. Howard Schultz, are you listening?

*This piece was originally published at the Society Pages, http://www.thesocietypages.org

***

Ellen Berrey teaches in the Department of Sociology at the University of Buffalo, SUNY, and is an affiliated scholar of the American Bar Foundation. Her book The Enigma of Diversity: The Language of Race and the Limits of Racial Justice will publish in April 2015.

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24. Interview: Retailer Brian HIbbs on the Minimum Wage and Surviving in San Francisco

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Brian Hibbs, far right, and some of his Comics Experience staff. Photo from the CE website

 

The other day we presented a story on long running SF comics shop Comix Experience and their plans to increase revenue in the face of the local rise in the minimum wage: a graphic novel book club that’s already had a positive response. It’s a serious issue for small business owners, and led to a lively comments section. I reached out to Hibbs to see if he had any comments on the comments and ever loquatious, he suggested an interview. The results can be read below.

Comis Experience has two locations, the iconic Divisidero St. shop just off Haight St. site of many famed signings by creators from Neil Gaiman to Warren Ellis and an early adapter of the grahpic novel movement; and a newer more superhero focused store on Ocean Ave. that Hibbs took over from a previous business last year. Hibbs has long been one of the most vocal comics retailers. His Tilting at Windmills column at CBR is must reading and the comics review blog he started Savage Critics is, unbelievably, still running after 10 years or so. I’m grateful for him to take the time to talk about issues that are sure to become more and more pressing around the country.

THE BEAT: In the Beat comments and a few other places you’ve gotten a lot of free advice on running a store in the Bay Area. Did you expect that when you announced this plan?


HIBBS: After seeing what happened to Alan Beatts of Borderlands Books after he told his story earlier this year, in the public comments sections of Facebook or mainstream news stories — people accusing him of being a monster or much worse — I was expecting a lot more advice from people without all of the facts! Welcome to the internet!

The thing is that these are flashpoint issues for a lot of people, with political under-currents that can’t really be ignored, and I totally get that, but I’m most interested in keeping my store moving into the future, and doing the best I possibly can by my wonderful staff.

THE BEAT: Just to make it as clear as possible when talking about something as personal as what people make for a living, the current minimum wage in California is $9 an hour. I believe you mentioned this in your own comment, but can you confirm that you currently pay your employees more than that?  As I understand your comment, you would still have to raise wages in compliance with the new SF minimum wage hike?


HIBBS: Federal MW is $7.25, California is $9, San Francisco is (today this second) $11.05, and moves it to $12.25 in May (not July like I stupidly wrote in the original pitch), then to $13 on 7/1/16, $14 on 7/1/17 and $15 on 7/1/18.

I think it is also important for people to understand that San Francisco’s MW does not STOP at $15/hour after that — San Francisco has an older law that sets annual increases to the amount that the Consumer Price Index (tracked by the Federal government) in the Greater Bay Area rises.  Historically, this is 2-3% a year.  Therefore in 2019 it might be $15.45, $15.91 in 2020, $16.39 in 2021, and so on

But, anyway, at this second in time we’re obligated to pay $11.05/hour MW in San Francisco.  However, we don’t pay MW, except for an initial three month training period.  I have no employee currently that is making less than $11.25.

The thing is, as MW rises, so do we need to raise our pay — I’ve spent twenty-six years being a not-MW job (well, twenty-five, because I worked seven days a week in year one), and I don’t want to begin now.  When MW is raised by $1.20/hour in May, I believe that means that the people I pay $11.25 today will need to make no less than $12.45 at that point, because, otherwise, are we not effectively CUTTING their pay?  In the same way, I have to pay my managers more so that there’s, y’know, a financial benefit for being a manager, and they’re not making the same as “just” staff — and I can’t raise it less than the amount MW is raising by, otherwise, again, they’re effectively getting a cut.

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Comix Experience Outpost on Ocean Ave.

THE BEAT: Doing back of the envelope math, $80K comes to $220 a day, which is a pretty hefty added expense for any small business. That would equal selling 55 periodical comics a day more, to put it in perspective. Were there any other methods besides a book club that you considered to make up the shortfall?


HIBBS: Fifty-five $3.99 comics, but more like seventy-four that cost $2.99.  And I can’t change those cover prices — we’d lose more customers than we would gain in revenue!

For people asking about the math, it works like this: I have roughly 190 employee hours each week between the two stores.  We’re open 10 hours a day at each of the two stores, seven days a week, so you can see that’s really not a tremendous overlap of hours to get all of the labor done that simply can’t be done with only one person in the store who is expected to be, y’know, helping customers find the things they want (or discover things they don’t know they want yet!)

The difference between today’s MW and 2018 is $3.95 /hour.  $3.95 times 190 hours times fifty-two weeks a year equals just over $39,000 then we have to add about another $3,000 for the matching taxes that all employers pay for Social Security and Medicare, so that’s $42,000 more that staff will cost. (not counting the new-this-year California mandated minimum Sick Days, either!)

However, in order to make forty-two thousand dollars, this means I have to sell roughly eighty-four thousand dollars worth of merchandise because the Cost of Goods Sold is (very roughly) half of the income — no one is keeping $3.99 from a $3.99 comic book!

I rounded down for ease of communication, but I probably just as easily could have rounded up to $90k because of the various overhead costs that have to be dealt with (shipping, primarily, but there are always other marginal costs that begin to add up quick)

But, yeah, $80k+ is a big hill to climb for a small business.

I do have a few other ways I can help close the gap — I can certainly reduce the number of hours the stores operates for one, though it would help less than you might think because, often, the stores are slowest in the MIDDLE of the day.  Further, the great Jim Hanley told me something that always stuck in my mind: you should be open for the customers who are there, not the ones who are not. There are absolutely days that your biggest sale of the day comes at 10:05 AM or 7:55 PM, and you can’t be certain if that sale would still be there if your hours weren’t convenient for the customer.

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Comics Experience on Divisidero St.

So, yeah, I could reduce hours of operation, or I could cut staff overlap to be even tighter (though, it’s hard to see how the physical work of the store doesn’t start to slip some in that case), to work that much harder for the pay. I have that choice.  There’s not a lot of other places that expenses can be cut, though — we run extremely lean on inventory, and we’ve got robust mechanisms for getting rid of excess stock that work pretty well; and we always do as much cost-pruning as we can for ongoing expenses — just as a dumb example: we’ve used high efficiency light bulbs for years.  Hell, I have DSL in the store, rather than cable so that I can save the ~$60/month that entails. No, staffing the stores is, in fact, the single biggest expense each month, higher than rent and every utility and service combined.

And, while I would fire people if that’s what it absolutely positively took to keep the doors open, it is my fervent belief that bookstores that try to cheap their way out of cash-flow problems almost always enter the death-spiral at that point because customers can smell the stench of failure.

What I’d really much rather do, any day of the week, is grow the business enough to pay for this new mandate.

THE BEAT: People in the comments seem to think that owning a smallish comics shop, let alone two smallish comics shops, in the Bay Area with its insane cost of living rise in recent years is a doomed enterprise. How worried are you about the general prognosis for a small business in Google/Apple City, USA?


HIBBS: Don’t forget Twitter and Airbnb and Uber and Yelp too!  Plus, The City gives tech firms millions of dollars of tax breaks, and basically pays nothing but lip service to small businesses.

Look: the comic shop that sold (I’ve been told) the largest number of periodical comics in San Francisco, Jeffrey’s Toys on Market street, just a few blocks from all of those tech offices downtown, was just forced out by their landlord who demanded that their rent raised from eight thousand dollars a month to forty thousand! A five-fold increase!

Who on earth can pay forty grand a month each and every month for retail space? A super-high-end restaurant like a Gary Danko or something…. maybe? San Francisco is littered with empty retail store fronts right now because commercial rents have gone nuts, and everyone is trying to get their piece. Just this month two different businesses (Michael’s Pit Stop, a bodega and keymaker, and the KK Cafe, which was a great little cafe where this wonderful couple, Jack and Margret, also made their own peanut milk) within a block of us have been kicked out of their space due to unbearable rent increases.

It is something I worry about each and every day.  The main store has been month-to-month for twenty-one years now, my landlord has always refused my offers of a new lease, but they’ve also always been extremely generous about how they handle rent increases.  I might have had a crisis long before now except for that. But I could be kicked out at any time with essentially no warning, or have my rent tripled, or whatever, and there’s no recourse.

Look: when I opened in 1989, we had twenty-four comic stores in town, and now we are down to just eight. Two of which are mine. I don’t like that.

Hell, we are probably the only major United States city that doesn’t have a single national-chain bookstore because the economics of bookselling are really hard in a city this expensive.

More generally, though, I do think that the climate for small business in San Francisco, especially small business based around art or creativity, is rough and getting rougher.  I certainly expect that between rising rents and this new minimum wage mandate, business like mine which are currently profitable, but only by so much, are going to continue to be pressured over the next few years as the costs associated rise.  All we can do is try to plan ahead for the things we can know about, which is really why I am trying to do the Graphic Novel Club.

I really think there’s a value and a need in a curated graphic novel program, because I really and truly think that there are a lot of people who would adore the output of the market…. if only they were aware of all of the choices they have.  Comics rule pop culture, but there’s no one really saying “Here, civilian, here is a thing you should read each month”.

I have to think that almost everyone reading this could think of at least one friend or relative who might enjoy the program, and I super encourage folks to spread the word.

Are we “doomed” though?  Well, hell no — I could always go back to just having one store and firing most of the staff and running it myself five days a week again; and given that fallback, it’s difficult for me to see almost any outside force making the store close.  But, Heidi, that would be such a step backwards, and I’m trying with bold optimism, to move things forward.

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The interior of the Divisidero St. store

 

THE BEAT: Are there any other steps you are taking to deal with the rising cost of living in the Bay Area?


HIBBS: Well, all you can do is try to diversify your store and your customer base and try to appeal to as many people as broadly as possible to help spread the words that comics are awesome.  We’re now holding regular ladies nights to try to attract new women to the store (We had one on Ocean last night, and our next one on Divisadero is May 6th), and we’ve started a regular series of weekly videos for the new store to communicate their energy.  We want for the original store to do a slightly more cerebral video series at some point — but, whew, only so many hours in the day to shoot and edit such things.

We’re about to start experimenting with doing children’s weekend mornings, with drawing classes and such, too — but ideas are easy; it’s execution and manpower and pulling off community and events without spending too much to implement the ideas that is the trick.  Give me an infinite budget, and I bet I could do some amazing things — but the problem isthat budget (and the amount of hours available to DO promotion) and that it is always a limited thing that has to be worked in and around the normal day-to-day servicing of customers and keeping the store running, physically.

THE BEAT: As also mentioned in the comments, the theory behind the wage hike is a form of “trickle down” economics. Do you think it could eventually raise your customer base in some way?


HIBBS: Yeah, well, I have to say, living in a city where we’ve had raising minimum wage every year for the last eleven (well, wait, it didn’t raise in 2010, it looks like), I can not say that I can detect any kind of a correlation between a rising MW and rising revenue.  Now, whether that is a result of cost-of-living rising faster than wages, or a result of something particular and specific about the relationship that comics fans and their buying habits share, or whether it is something that I am doing right or wrong, or whether it just has to do with the fact that human beings are messy, illogical beings that operate differently than “well, that sounds like a reasonable theory” would otherwise suggest, I just can’t say. But I am just not seeing any correlation in my sales.

Let me say, kind of as forthrightly as I possibly can, I am not an economist. I don’t actually understand a lot of the theorycraft behind it (though I try), but I do have 26 years as a business owner in a “realpolitik” way of watching my individual micro-economy, and I really think that any kind of “trickle down” is pretty much hooey for a business like mine.  People, by and large, determine their budget for comics pretty independently of their specific income. I know plenty of plenty of people who are already spending above their means, and plenty who could pay five times more, but are super-picky, and every case study in-between.

Further, if I understand the various studies that I’ve read correctly, and I absolutely may not be, most studies are reporting on the macro, not the micro — they don’t give a shit about an individual person or entity as long as the overall picture shows a particular result.  That’s reasonable of course, but my major concern is for for my staff and my store. I don’t want to be on the wrong side of that ledger. I don’t want to have to fire people, therefore making their new minimum wage zero dollars per hour!

If I understand the studies I’ve read, and, again, I really may not have understood them well at all, they generally show a “neutral” or “slightly improved” impact of small (25 to 50 cent per hour) MW changes. But within any survey there of course will be winners and losers from any kind of economic shift — it’s great that the economy as a whole is “neutral”, but that doesn’t help you if your own personal economy is “laid off” or “have to shut your business”.

Further, it is my understanding (again again again maybe totally wrong) that no credible economist can accurately predict what a raise in MW of this scale will do, because there’s absolutely no evidence since there’s never been a raise on this scale.  It is going up 43% over three years, by $3.95 — that is literally unprecedented.

What I think is going to happen is either that more workers will become MW workers, or will get closer to being MW workers, because I have a hard time seeing every San Francisco based business giving each and every employee a $3.95 raise over the next three years,  and / or common everyday transactions are going to have to go up as a result.  You’ll pay fifty cents more for your coffee and a buck more for your burrito, and you’ll wonder why you seem to have no more money in your pocket at the end of the day.

One of my main frustrations with the law is that it is so arbitrarily, geographically.  My minimum wage is going to be $15, but travel just a few minutes south to Daly City and it is only $11; even Marin to our north, which is historically filled with “rich people”, only maxes at $13.  Within an half-hour drive, it is only $9.

But the real disconnect, for me, is that what is a “living wage”, and just how much individuals should be able to participate in decisions about their own compensation, and what that entails.

hibbs_calloutI think it is important to understand that raw dollars-per-hour is not necessarily the only calculation that people make for employment — sometimes people are looking more for respect and agency, while other times people have income needs wholly outside the notion of having to support themselves or their families.

I have staff who live at home and are full-time students; I have staff who are fully supported by their significant other, and who work because they want to generate some pocket money while they work on their art careers. I have staff who purposefully quit better paying corporate jobs to work for me because they have more agency here. And I have staff (Pretty much each and every one of them, really!) who are awesome enough to probably make two or three or five times what I am paying them, but who would rather be here than the many other choices that they have.

Ultimately, I try to be about empowerment — one of my staff specifically told me during the job interview that her goal is to open her own comic book shop someday. Hell yeahs! I am so down with that notion — because certainly one of my proudest days ever was when Michael Drivas learned just enough from me to help him open Big Brain Comics in Minneapolis – but isn’t, I dunno, “learning at the feet of the master” (ew, bad metaphor!!!) worth some sort of credit against hourly wage? Man, I charge my consultancy clients $100/hour for what I say.  I mean, I clearly believe that I owe her for her time, duh, but shouldn’t we calculate “value” past only dollars-per-hour?

My bottom line is that I absolutely want to pay people every penny that they are worth, but the hard realities of profit-and-loss sometimes make that harder for others — whether that you’re in a high-expense city, or a low-expense town, I’ve met exceedingly few comic store owners that don’t struggle every day to take care of business.

The more important thing to me is how you deal with that struggle, and I’m trying to find a path that allows my staff to get paid more while making sure that I don’t contract the business so that five of them lose their jobs as a result.

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Hibbs in his native habitat (photo from the SF Chronicle by Lacy Atkins)

 

THE BEAT: Do you foresee the wage hike affecting other shops in the area?


HIBBS: So, my two physically closest competitors are “family operated”, and I don’t believe employ anyone who is getting paid any kind of “hourly wages”. Which is 100% fine, but that means they have a smaller “nut” than I do to breaking even. Three of the other four stores in town have at least one employee, and so will be impacted to at least that degree.  No one else in San Francisco, at least as far as I know, has six employees and the payroll that I face, but I do know at least one other store who has a plan to deal with their own shortfall that I assume they will be announcing soon.

Other geek-friendly shops in the area, book stores, game stores, to the extent that they have employees, will have to come up with extra funds to take care of those costs.

I don’t know exactly how clearly other stores are looking at their own liabilities.  Until I wrote Alan Beatts I hadn’t actually bothered to take out the pen and actually figure out what the bottom line impact was.  Then I crapped my pants when I realized the scope of it.

Thankfully necessity is the mother of invention, because I think I have solid, entrepreneurial plan.

THE BEAT: Finally, how is the book club doing so far? Any surprises or new wrinkles in the huge amount of time (two days) it’s been live?


HIBBS: We’re closing on 72 hours since I first put it live (but I don’t think anyone noticed for most of the first day) and we’re allllmost at the 25%-funded mark, which I think is an absolutely fantastic response, even though that still gives us miles yet to go.  I’m also strongly hoping that we can beat the goal by really large percentage so that all of my staff can get paid well above the $15 hour MW as they properly deserve.

My hope of your readership is, even if they don’t think this is for them, is that they’ll think of someone they know who it might be a good fit for, and they’ll make a point of turning their friends on to the idea — from my point of view right now where we’re at, a share is as good as a subscription.  We’re fully set up to handle nationwide subs, and the social media connections we have planned, as well as the streaming and recorded book club meetings will be, we hope, the icing on an already fantastic cake of content. If you know anyone who could use a sherpa to guide them through the mountains of comics being published today, I think the Graphic Novel Club is for them.

4 Comments on Interview: Retailer Brian HIbbs on the Minimum Wage and Surviving in San Francisco, last added: 4/10/2015
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25. Food security in the twenty-first century

There are currently about 7 billion people on Earth and by the middle of this century the number will most likely be between 9 and 10 billion. A greater proportion of these people will in real terms be wealthier than they are today and will demand a varied diet requiring greater resources in its production. Increasing demand for food will coincide with supply-side pressures: greater competition for water, land, and energy, and the accelerating effects of climate change.

The post Food security in the twenty-first century appeared first on OUPblog.

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