Category Archives: economy

An Effective Decoy

Being that I own a bar and restaurant in Portland, Oregon, the Oregon Liquor Control Commission yields significant influence on many aspects of my business.  All sales of alcohol in this state, retail or wholesale, fall directly under the jurisdiction of the OLCC, which is a state agency.  In short, the state of Oregon is in the liquor business.  It sets prices and policy, enforces compliance, and doles out punishment.

Oregon Liquor Control Commission

Oversees all things liquor in Oregon

Rightly so, the OLCC is concerned with underage drinking.  So concerned, that they have implemented a decoy program.  They hire 19 and 20 year old kids with valid ID’s to enter bars and try to order alcohol.  Agents and police officers hide outside so that if any of these young decoys are actually served, they return service with a violation and fine for both the employee who accepted the ID and the establishment itself.  This is expensive for first time offenders and perhaps decimating for repeat offenders.

If your establishment has a spotless record with regards to serving minors, you are awarded entrance into OLCC’s Responsible Vendor Program.  I am very proud to say that my bar has been a part of this program for the last 4 years.  However, I’m not sure about our status after this last Thursday night.  One of my longest tenured employees,  a lovely and responsible young mother and wife who has been working for me for over 11 years, got pinched by a decoy.

The summer months are extremely busy for us.  Our one bartender serves the entire bar and makes all the drinks for an outdoor patio that can seat 80-100 people.  We were not at capacity on Thursday around 8pm, but we were humming for sure.  K simply said that the ’92 in the D.O.B section of the ID handed to her by the young customer looked like an ’82 and she accepted it.  It was nothing more than an honest mistake at exactly the wrong time.

Within minutes the decoy was gone and replaced by two OLCC agents and two police officers.  K was issued paperwork stating she was being charged with a crime, fined $350, and  was ordered to appear in court in about 4 weeks.  I, as owner, will be fined in the neighborhood of $1,100.  For any small business and for any service industry worker, these are no small amounts.  Factor in the current state of the economy and things feel even worse.

I’m lucky to say that this fine will not put me out of business.  I intend to appear in court with K for support and will help her with the fine in any way I can.  The younger man who was me 13 years ago would be arguing and crying foul all day long.  The current me knows to pick his battles better than that and only focus on avoiding the same mistake again in the future.

Yet I can’t help but ask:  is this decoy program entrapment?  And is it an attempt by a government agency to increase revenue in a down economy?  Like other government programs or agencies, they can point to good intentions as their cover.  But my conservative nature knows better than to blindly accept all the consequences of those intentions when they are executed by a resource-devouring government behemoth.

Stay tuned.  There will probably be more to follow on this later.

Top 9 Signs I’m a Conservative in Liberal Portland

Portland, Oregon is a notoriously liberal city, in culture, policy, attitude, pretty much you name it.  It’s also my hometown.  I’ve lived here most of my life and I’ve owned and operated a small business here for the last 13 years.  I’ve also been raised as a conservative, by a traditional, nuclear family.  I was taught to know the history of the United States of America, to recognize all of it’s unmatched successes in providing freedom and opportunity, and to truthfully admit that making any fundamental changes to any of it would be grossly counter-productive.  I mean, in baseball you don’t break up a team that wins 100 games each and every year do you?  However, all of this makes me a square peg trying to live in the round hole that is Portland.  In my normal, day-to-day activity, there is no one else around me who shares my views on culture and politics.  All of my liberal friends are typical in that they’re very good at telling me what they don’t have and who’s fault it is.  So, I smile (at best) when I hear such things and remember that I’m a loner and a novelty to those who have learned what I’m about.  But being in this minority is something I wouldn’t change.  It’s provided great perspective and enhanced my convictions.

So, below are the top 9 reasons I’m the square peg in Portland.  9 is a weird number for a list, but then Portland is a weird city.

#9:  I volunteer one hour a week at a local grade school.  So many around me lament, every year, how our public schools are starving for funds.  No one seems to do anything about it other than say that I should be paying more taxes.  They can’t be bothered themselves, but they’re certainly capable of wanting to be generous with other people’s money.

#8:  I don’t participate in political protests.  However, I did attend two different anti-war rallies several years ago.  I wanted first hand experience.  I saw President Bush burned in effigy.  The lesbian couple directly in front of me knelt down to tell who I assumed was their little girl that her President was a murderer and that she should be frightened of him.  But then I also saw a clever young man walking around without a shirt, holding an unmarked bucket asking for cash donations to help end the war.  Pockets and purses were reached for and I had to laugh.  It is indeed true what they say about fools and their money.

#7:  I understand the fundamentals of business and economics.  There is money that comes in, and there is money that goes out.  I know which one of those figures needs to be greater.  The city of Portland, many of its residents, and our current federal government for that matter, needs to figure that out.

#6:  I work too much to always be hanging out in coffee shops.  It’s no secret that 40% of America pays no income tax.  I’m part of the unlucky 60%.  And the same Portlanders that I see every day sitting in the same shops reading their books seem uneasy when they realize that they’ve become familiar to me.  They remember that I saw them in the same spot yesterday, and likely the day before.  That’s when eye contact becomes less and less frequent.

Portland, as seen from the Rose Garden.

Beautiful and liberal, Portland, Oregon

#5:  I’m news savvy and skeptical of the media that delivers it to me.  Finding in-depth conversation on current events is difficult, and I even work in a very social atmosphere.  When I search, most folks tell me about something they heard from a friend or saw on Jon Stewart.  But regardless, I can count on hearing things like it’s Bush’s fault, Texas sucks, and rich people are screwing up the works.  (Note:  In this context, “rich” is a term used to describe anyone who makes more money than the person using that term.)

#4:  I’m not an artist.  This is not by choice, however.  I was just born without artistic talent.  But everyone else in Portland seems to be and none of them can seem to understand why the photo they took or the sculpture they made or the painting they painted isn’t selling for the $200 they’re asking.  The concepts of disposable income during a recession, and prioritizing when funds are not unlimited, seems to be lost on them.

#3:  I did not vote for Barack Obama.  When I walked into my establishment that November night of 2008, I was quite literally the only person who couldn’t muster a high five or celebratory hug.  I was a buzz kill.

#2:  I did vote for George Bush.  One day after the 2004 election I saw a group of three that I’d never seen before enter the front door of my business.  They found someone they knew, who knew me, and that person pointed directly at me.  When they made their way over, one of them asked me, “are you that guy who voted for Bush?!”.  As if an entire voting block consisted of just me.  Which I guess is possible in this town.

#1:  I was born into a loving family and my parents are still together.  It’s flat out flabbergasting how everyone around me either never knew their dad, or have parents who hate each other, or have siblings in prison, or who were horribly abused by their fathers, or just plain don’t want to have anything to do with their families.  But all of those people have street cred, that’s for sure!

Maybe all of this is just complaining.  After all, Portland is a beautiful city.  I don’t envision me ever leaving it.  But how a stereotypically normal, everyday, traditional American kid like me can be so alien in his home city will forever perplex me.  But hell, it sure keeps me on my toes.

This Maintains Unemployment Benefits?

Application form for Unemployment benefits

In this economy, a familiar form

Maintaining unemployment benefits is as easy as dialing a phone number, it would seem.  I wish I could tell you how many times I’ve answered the phone at my business, only to hear the person on the other end methodically ask me if we’re hiring.  Regardless of what I say, an overwhelming majority of those calls ends quickly as they hang up.  Now bear in mind, the caller has no idea if I am a hiring authority.  If they call in May and the answer happens to be yes, I can count on one hand how many have maintained the call long enough for me to give details.  It wasn’t long before such calls really began to annoy me.

The frequency picked up as the recession worsened.  Of course, as employment levels suffer, unemployment benefit claims rise.  It then occurred to me that those calls were not sincere attempts to gain employment at my establishment, but rather they were required activity in order to maintain their state unemployment benefits.  Calling me, asking that question, then hanging up constituted a job search, which is the key requirement to receiving the weekly check from the state.

Like every business, I pay taxes to the state.  Part of that sum is put aside by the state of Oregon into an employment account.  My contribution is specified and when someone becomes involuntarily unemployed and they file for benefits, my account is charged if my business was one of the last three to employ them.  That is to say, should I terminate someone who then goes on to get another job somewhere else and they then get laid off there, when they file for unemployment my account is charged.  Due to extensions granted by the state, this can go on for a very long time as long as that person is “looking for work.”  A five second call to me, or to any business that answers the phone, satisfies this requirement.

Although I firmly believe that safety nets of some kind need to exist, I resent that the state behemoth can be so lax in knowing or understanding how so many can manipulate them into free money at no cost, other than to businesses.  Being that I typically employ a younger person, it makes sense to me that a 23 year old just out of a job would be tempted to receive a weekly pay check from the state in return for nothing more than a brief phone call.  Especially when that can go on indefinitely.  Why work when a check just shows up in the mail every week?

Clearly, such a scenario only burdens the private sector even more and certainly does nothing to help that individual in the long run.  A sense of entitlement with no effort sets in, and that can have long term, damaging results to our state and country.  Although I’m unsure how to fix this specifically, I’d start by perhaps requiring that job search efforts be more substantial and that anyone receiving unemployment benefits needs to be required to work for the state in some capacity.  That seems fair and is a good way to at least decrease the burden on the private sector.

I’m amazed at the clarity I gained from taking so many five second calls

Portland-where beggars are choosers.

Being that I own a bar and restaurant, food and drink are always all around me.  Being that my establishment is in Northwest Portland, homeless people are also all around me.  Though it’s never enough, I have made a pointed effort to offer a meal to those that cross my path who look like they need it.  Sometimes with surprising results.

A few years ago, I was coming back to work in the late evening.  I parked my car in our neighbor’s parking lot as I often do after hours.  There is a large dumpster in this parking lot and I noticed a young man of 20 something standing in it, foraging around.  As I walked past, I stopped and asked him if he had lost something.  He stopped, stood up, and curtly said, “I’m looking for something to eat.”  I nodded and proceeded inside.

But the walk in was long enough to regret my insensitivity.  I went directly into the kitchen and ordered my staff to make me a cheeseburger and fries to go.  I thought that would be a nice gesture towards the guy.  He obviously needed a meal.  Now somewhat excited at the opportunity to give the guy a break, I headed back outside to the dumpster.  He was still there, digging around.  I said, “Hey man, I didn’t mean to piss you off earlier.  I own that establishment right there and I just ordered you some food.  I’ll be back with a cheeseburger for you as soon as it’s done.”

He looked at me with somewhat of a smirk.  Then, in one of the more condescending tones I had heard in a while, said, “I can’t eat that.  I’m a vegan.”

At first I thought he was kidding.  It was obvious he wasn’t as he stood there in the dumpster looking down on me.  I’m usually not at a loss for words, especially when I perceive wrong, but I simply turned around and went back inside, dumbfounded.

I tell this story somewhat frequently because I feel it’s one of the best representations of the attitude of Portland.  Even our would-be beggars feel entitled and aren’t likely to stray from their own “enlightened” principals, which of course are modernly liberal in nature.  The possibility of starvation isn’t even enough to make a vegan take a free cheeseburger from a stranger trying to lend a hand.  Portland is indeed a weird town, and I don’t think it represents the United States very well at all.  And if it ever should, then God help us.

Small Business Equity? No loans for you!

The lending market:  the ins and outs are complex, but I do know that I can’t get an equity loan for my business.  

As I write this, we are two days away, supposedly, to the deadline when our nation must raise our debt limit or default on our debt.  Those last four words are nothing more than a ridiculous scare tactic.  Avoiding default is done by making interest payments on debt, which can be done with relative ease regardless of what happens.  Now that’s not saying we shouldn’t raise the debt limit anyways, but I bring this up only to say that scare tactic or not, markets, including lending markets, can and will react to whatever action takes place as the network of participants decipher the situation in their own ways.

business lending stalled, unavailability of equity loans

And everyday, for small businesses

This brings me to my main point, which is far from strictly related to the current fiscal issue making the headlines.  Small businesses all over the country, who are charged with maintaining the lion’s share of private sector employment, are finding it next to impossible to get a business loan.  The reasons are many, but they all center around the uncertainty swirling around our country’s economy and recently imposed federal regulations on what exactly a bank’s balance sheet is supposed to look like.  What is certain, and I speak from direct experience as a small business owner, is that the unavailability of capital makes it next to impossible for businesses to expand or improve in any way, and that makes employment and the economy as a whole unlikely to improve any time soon.

I am lucky enough to own the building in which I do business.  Based on current commercial real estate estimates, I have in the neighborhood of $650-750 thousand dollars of equity in that building.  (Sadly, based on figures obtained in 2007, that number would be closer to $900k-$1million.  Oh if only I knew then what I know now.)  However, despite having such an asset on which to secure a loan, I have been turned down repeatedly by many banks on my application to tap some of that equity for capital improvements in the building and business.  Having proof of being able to cash flow the required payments on such a loan has proven worthless.

Our floors need to be redone.  Our coolers need to be updated.  Our products need to be refined.  All of these things would make us more competitive in the local market and further able to offer jobs to the community.  Without these things getting done, my company stands on shakier ground when it comes to our immediate survival and there lingers the possibility that my employees will enter the unemployment line, worsening the already dire economic situation.  And their own lives, of course.

Why is this lending market so bad?  There are many reasons.  Complex ones, too.  But they all have to do with uncertainty and inconsistent regulation.  Will our country default on it’s debt?  Are taxes going to increase?  Will we have to play by new rules imposed on us?  What are a banks balance sheets supposed to look like exactly?  Why make business loans to local communities when a bank can make more money trading securities?

The availability of capital to the credit worthy is paramount to a healthy business environment.  A healthy business environment is paramount to a healthy employment rate.  A healthy employment rate is paramount to a healthy economy.  A healthy economy is paramount to a healthy quality of life for our country’s citizens.  The best way for our government to iron this out is to eliminate the uncertainty of it’s fiscal agenda and be clear and consistent in any regulations they make on a lending market.  Until that happens, and I don’t see it happening under this President and this Congress, I’m going to have to keep looking at my beat up floors and hoping that I can hold on long enough for relief to eventually come.  And the next chance of that is most likely the fall of 2012.