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Couldn't Put It Down

Allen Jezouit, @BerkshireCountyBusiness

One guilty pleasure I rarely get to take advantage of these days is the "read an entire novel in one weekend" opportunity. First of all, books that make you want to read the entire thing in one sitting are pretty rare. Second, who has the time? Sunday afternoon and late into Sunday evening, I packed away Ken Follet's latest, Fall of Giants. One word: WOW! After Pillars of the Earth and World Without End and what seems like a thousand other amazing books, he's done it again. And, better still, it is the first book in a trilogy that will carry 5 families from the early 1900's through the Cold War.

For those of you who haven't read Follett, many of his novels weave their sagas through real historical events. In the case of Fall of Giants, it takes 5 families (1 each from Russia, England, America, Germany, and Wales) through the early 1900's and into the early 1920's. You are learning about history while being entertained. The relations between English aristocracy and the working class contrasted between similar class relations in Russia were extraordinary to see at the level Follett presents them. The fact that both Kaiser Wilhelm and Tsar Nicholas appeared to be in completely over their heads was remarkable to behold - Follett clearly makes the point that hereditary monarchies were incredibly poor systems for choosing rulers. Also, aristocratic titles didn't necessarily make people military experts as the British found out at the Somme.

If you're looking for a great read that packs action, romance, and adventure in with a series of interesting perspectives on life in the western world about 100 years ago, grab Fall of Giants. You won't be disappointed. The only thing I'm disappointed in is that the next book in the trilogy isn't coming out until 2012!

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Invade my privacy all you want

By Allen Jezouit, @BerkshireCountyBusiness

I had a whole different agenda ready, but an article in this morning's Berkshire Daily Living email blast had a story that caught my eye. The AP story Scanners and pat-downs upset airline passengers makes me wonder how - or if - people think.

Lest we forget, it was less than 10 years ago that 19 Muslim extremists hijacked 4 commercial airliners with box cutters they had smuggled onboard. We all know the end result of that day - the Twin Towers down, the Pentagon hit, and thousands of Americans dead. Is it really that much of an invasion of anyone's personal privacy to prevent that from happening again? 

Here's another question: Is anyone really naive enough to think that we can let our guard down even slightly at this point? I firmly believe that the only reason we've been as safe as we've been the past 10 years is because of the increased security measures, the increased wiretapping, etc. Given that a few crazies have managed to sneak through security (the Shoe Bomber, the Underwear Bomber) and a few other plots have been stopped in advance, I would tend to ask if the government doing enough; I certainly wouldn't complain that it is doing too much.

Call me crazy, but in the choice between public safety and civil liberties, I'll take public safety any day.

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The most important election in American history

Allen Jezouit, @BerkshireCountyBusiness
If you at all pay attention to the news, you've heard today's election referred to by pundits on both sides of the aisle as "the most important election in American history". Having been a voter now for 11 or 12 of these days, I'm not sure I ever remember "the most important" moniker applied so broadly before. One party is seeking to ratify the actions of the first 22 months of President Obama's presidency while the other side wants to repudiate those actions. Based on polling data going into today it seems like those opposed to the president and his policies have the upper hand, but the end result will likely be gridlock in DC.
Gridlock may be the best thing that can happen, but for all of the wrong reasons. If we end up in a gridlocked situation, we should see a drastic reduction in the pace of new legislation and any legislation that passes will have to meet the requirements of both parties. Both parties see that as an acceptable middle ground - not as good as controlling both houses, but better than the alternative of controlling neither. Unfortunately it feels like we are approaching a crisis point where what the country really needs is leadership in a direction towards fiscal responsibility - and management by the consensus of gridlock likely won't get us there. 
I truly don't think either of the two existing parties are going to take us where we need to be. So, I'm rooting for gridlock until a smart, centrist leader appears who can build a party and present a real alternative to the two dinosaurs. Kind of feels weird to be rooting for a tie, but that's where I am.
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Doctor shortage in Massachusetts

Allen Jezouit, @BerkshireCountyBusiness

According to the 2010 Physician Workforce Study by the Massachusetts Medical Society, practices across Massachusetts are having trouble recruiting doctors and as a result, patients are having trouble finding doctors to treat them. Berkshire County's situation was labeled "critical" by the report's authors. See Amanda Korman's article Study Finds Doctor Scarcity (Berkshire Eagle, 10/20/2010) for more information.

Is anyone at all surprised by this? I'm not. Who didn't see this coming? The physicians I know have said it is flat out impossible to attract good talent here because:

1) The patients are disproportionately elderly so the job of being a primary care physician here is much more stressful than places where the population age distribution is more normalized. Each patient session takes more time, often because there are a plethora of drug interactions to worry about from all of the prescription meds so many seniors depend upon. One doctor I know said, "You have no idea how nice it would be to have a day with 10 or 12 kids with strep throat come in. That's easy. Instead, more than half of the the patients I see are in their 70's and 80's who have 5 different things wrong with them, 4 of which are serious, and they are on 12 different drugs to manage their care, leading to all kinds of unforeseen interactions and complications. Every day is a grind."

2) The patients are disproportionately covered by some form of government health care plan, which means lower reimbursements and therefore lower incomes for the doctors versus states where a larger portion of the patients are covered by private health care insurance.

Hmmm ... let's see ... I can move to MA and earn less and work in a more stressful environment or I can move someplace else, get paid more, and have it easier ... Not too tough of a choice, is it?

What a mess we've found ourselves in. Our population is aging, young people are fleeing our state to seek opportunity elsewhere, and doctors don't want to practice here. Access to quality health care is a huge factor in any decision for a business to relocate to a region because businesses know this is something their employees care deeply about. We've created a situation in MA that is leading to doctor shortages and the costs of the government programs are drastically exceeding original projections, which means we will likely have to raise taxes and fees. At a time when we need to create real jobs here more than ever, we can now add, "Too tough to find good healthcare," and, "The government just keeps adding taxes and fees," to the list of reasons a business could use to justify not selecting MA as a new home.

Here's the bottom line ... while equal access to health care is a right that no one should be denied, being able to pay for that access is a personal responsibility, not the government's. Just look at what is going on in Europe right now after 40 or 50 years of socialized medicine. It is a disaster - governments from London to Berlin to Madrid are implementing "austerity measures" to save their economies because the spending commitments for entitlements are so out of hand.

We can't ignore the reality. No matter how much we wish it were different, it just isn't working.

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Nobel Prize in Economics Awarded for Theory on Why Unemployment Remains So High

Allen Jezouit, @BerkshireCountyBusiness
The WSJ reported today that three academic economists have been awarded the Nobel Prize in Economics for their research into the phenomenon of high unemployment even though there is a rise in job openings (Trio Share Economics Prize, WSJ, October 12, 2010). They hypothesized that high unemployment benefits which result in the unemployed spending more time looking is actually better for the economy because it means they find jobs which are a better fit for their skills.
Huh? That is probably the most counter-intuitive conclusion I've ever heard in my entire life. One has to wonder if they actually looked at any survey data of unemployed folks. Two data points are not statistically significant, but I know two people who were recently laid off who are eligible to collect the max in MA ($629/week) for something like 70 weeks. Neither have any plans to look for jobs for at least 6 months. One is an avid skier who is going to hit the slopes all winter before starting to look in the spring. The other is relocating to Texas and will start looking once they're settled. Both are looking at their unemployment benefits like an opportunity to take an extended paid vacation.
I've been doing some work trying to hire new staff for a local financial services firm. It is amazing to me how difficult it is to find qualified people who actually want to work these days. When people hear they are actually going to have to show some effort in order to earn a decent living (compensation is roughly 50% base, 50% commission with total compensation potential in the $60-$90k range), they are scared away. Part of my role is the initial telephone screening interview. I've had people tell me they've been unemployed for months who hear the job description and say, "Not interested." We had one kid take the job and quit after only 4 days. The employer couldn't be any more candid with people - telling them right up front, "Expect to work 45-50 hours per week, expect to dial the phone 50+ times per day if you are going to be successful." Kid quit after 4 ... FOUR ... days! He's got a finance degree from MCLA, graduated in May'09, and has been working retail part-time as a cashier ever since. What did he think he was going to get for his first finance job? CFO of a F500 company?
Don't get me wrong. I know how tough it is to have a job you hate. It sucks. It is so tough to get out of bed in the AM if you hate your job. However, if the alternative was going hungry and homeless, people wouldn't be so picky. As a society, we simply can't afford a system that allows people to be picky. We need a system that allows people to eke by for a few weeks until they can find a full-time job doing something that pays half way decent and a part time job that makes up the difference.
Things have changed. Look at home prices. We all wish we could sell our home for what we bought it for, but if you bought a home in 1999-2006, that probably won't happen for years to come. Ditto re: income and lifestyle. If you lost your job during the Great Recession, chances are you will struggle to find a single job that replaces or increases the income. You may need to add a second job in order to approach the same lifestyle. That's just reality.
Seems to me, there are jobs out there. It's the effort that's lacking.
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