Friday, October 16, 2015

Roanoke and "The U"

A couple weeks ago, I was weathering the “hurricane” (pun intended) by watching the 30 for 30 documentary series on the University of Miami Hurricanes Football “The U” – a story on the ups and downs of the famed program.  Halfway through the documentary, I started thinking to myself – “Roanoke needs to be more like ‘The U’”. Granted, there are some dark times associated with Miami football, but one thing stood out that I hope Roanoke can embrace.

The documentary highlights the period between the end of Coach Jimmy Johnson’s successful tenure and the new coach Dennis Erickson’s under-performing first year. During that period, former players such as NFL Hall of Famer Michael Irvin were quick to criticize and cast doom and gloom over the new team and the Hurricane’s new leader. These former players felt they handed over the keys to the Ferrari to a new team that couldn’t get the car into first gear. The perception was that the young guys were letting down the family and letting down the tradition.

Ultimately, as the documentary highlighted, the problem wasn’t that the new players didn’t know how to get the Ferrari into first gear. Rather, they were just going in a different direction. Upon recognizing this new direction, Irvin and other former players also recognized the responsibility they had to impart their wisdom on the young guys. The moral of the Hurricane’s story is that the mentoring worked and the Hurricanes continued to succeed even if it was just in a different direction.

After the documentary concluded, I could not help but find myself comparing this early success and transition of the Hurricanes to what I believe are the crossroads currently being experienced by Roanoke.

The bygone era of Roanoke’s prominent railroad days is the crossroads that I am referring to. Indeed, while your senior leaders had a great run in this city during our prominent railroad days, those days are now in the rear-view mirror, but here’s why that’s okay – While the railroad industry may have largely left Roanoke, what remains is Roanoke’s innovative young thinkers, skilled workforce members and talented tradesmen and women.

As much as I like to boast about my ambitious peers, we still need help. We need Roanoke’s old guard - our senior leaders - much like the new players at Miami needed the more senior alumni as mentors.

The impact that our senior leaders’ wisdom and institutional knowledge can have on young professionals in Roanoke is insurmountable. I truly believe that Roanoke’s best days are ahead of us. Roanoke’s rising stars are anxious to take a turn at the wheel, yet we recognize that we need our senior leaders in the passenger seat guiding us in OUR new direction

Wednesday, September 16, 2015

A Bad Rule For Business

On June 30, the U.S. Department of Labor (DOL) announced a Notice of Proposed Rulemaking to update overtime eligibility for salaried workers that work over 40 hours in a workweek.

The Department of Labor's proposed changes will more than double the salary threshold for a worker to be exempt from extra-hour pay protections. The regulation will raise the salary level for exemption from $23,660 to $50,440 in 2016.

This approach to "pro-growth" policies is anything but pro-growth. Companies (small and large) will alter how they do business, they will cut benefits and the customer service we are accustomed to will be impacted. There are many reasons that this rule is bad for business, here are a few: 

•An unprecedented rate change: The proposed minimum salary 113% increase exceeds the rate of inflation and salary increases over the last decade. The proposed salary threshold is higher than minimums set under any state laws and does not account for varying industries and economies across regions.

•Negative impact on workers: Studies show that while a few workers will experience pay raises, many will see their hours, benefits or salary reduced.

•Business will be mired down by changes: The proposals will reduce a business' ability to offer a flexible work schedule that is adaptable to the needs of employees, it will be large logistical task for employers to monitor and detail work schedules to avoid lawsuits. This additional responsibility will add legal and administrative costs that will leave less revenue for business development.

•Significant impact on the way you do business: Do your employees check emails after work? With these proposed changes an employer will be responsible for tracking every minute that is spent checking emails from home. Consequently, impacting the benefit of a flexible work schedule and also impacting business' ability to connect with customers at different times of the day.

In order to attract and retain talent, businesses are increasingly focusing on creating office environments that offer flexibility to staff, where employees have more of a voice in their schedules. These changes threaten that by creating a legal and administrative nightmare for employers. This could be an attempt by the DOL to "shoot for the stars and still land on the moon". Either way they need to go back to the drawing board on this one and bring something to the table that businesses can at least consider. 

Wednesday, July 29, 2015

Predicting Political Futures

A few years ago I did a Facebook purge and the survivors were family, close friends and an abundance political news feeds and pundits. I did this so I would have one place to gather my news for the day and have a system to help me remember birthdays. As a result of this purge, the algorithm team over at Facebook has inundated my feed with political ads. One Ad – PredictIt- has been much more visible than the others.

What is PredictIt? I’ll let them explain:

PredictIt is an exciting new, real-money site that tests your knowledge of political and financial events by letting you make and trade predictions. A project of Victoria University of Wellington, PredictIt is set up to research the potential value of prediction markets in understanding the future. Our job is to study the wisdom of the crowd, yours is to make your most educated prediction.

My first thought – election gambling is against the law. Due to federal law, it is illegal to bet on elections local and federal. My second thought – isn’t this some form of insider trading? The politicos on the Hill have to have an unfair advantage. My third thought – I’m really starting to sound like the 30 year-old that I will be turning next month (don’t worry Facebook will remind you). So, I did my research.

It turns out that PredictIt is legal, even for Americans to use. The online political stock market could easily be confused as online gambling, but it is simply a non-profit running a futures market for politics and that’s good enough for the Commodity Futures Trading Commission (CFTC). The key word being “non-profit”. The CFTC has sued offshore for-profit futures markets in the past, but PredictIt was able to work around federal laws as a non-profit associated with Victoria University New Zealand.

Personally, predicting political futures against staffers in the Whip’s office does not intrigue me because I will probably lose money. However, the potential data and research does intrigue me. Low voter turnout (for many reasons) is becoming increasingly apparent in non-presidential years.  However, could that change when a voter’s cash is involved? Is a voter more likely to get to the polls when they have a tangible investment in the game beyond their typical contribution? I don’t know the answer. However, if political scientists out there (much smarter than me) work to find the answer, the data they would produce could be a campaign-strategy game changer.  

Have an election or policy futures prediction? Let me know on twitter @JTBaumgar 

Friday, June 19, 2015

Patent Trolls: A Legislative Update

In 2014 Congress tried to pass a bill targeted at restricting abusive patent litigation by non-practicing entities or “patent trolls”. The bill died in the Senate before a vote, even though it had momentum and the support of President Obama. Fast forward to 2015 and patent reform bills have a pulse again – in the House and Senate.

The House Bill (HR 9 “The Innovation Act”) was introduced in April by Judiciary Committee Chairman Bob Goodlatte and the bill passed the Committee overwhelmingly last week 24-8. The Senate Bill (S1137 “Patent Act”) was introduced in May and also passed the Senate Judiciary Committee last week. Chairman Goodlatte said  “The Innovation Act is supported by a wide range of groups that include stakeholders from all areas of our economy representing businesses of all kinds from every corner of our country including independent inventors and innovators.” The Bill could make its way to the House floor next month and a bill become law by the end of the year.

The House Bill and the Senate Bill have parallel provisions to eliminate abuses of our patent system, discourage frivolous litigation and target specific abusive patent litigation behavior, not specific entities. However, the bills also have areas of difference – 3 that I feel are significant.

Demand Letters
Senate and House provisions deal with the abuse of demand letters – evasive letters sent by patent trolls to alert of an infringement and demand quick settlements without providing details of the actual patent in question. Many are concerned that the House Bill does not do enough to address the serious harm that come from the vague but intimidating demand letters. The Senate bill outlines specifics of what must be included in a demand letter. The SB establishes civil penalties for those who practice sending ambiguous demand letters.

Fee Shifting
This provision is probably the most controversial but shouldn’t be if demand letters are addressed properly. Under this provision, a Patent Troll will have to pay court costs and legal fees if they lose the case. Fee shifting will have a better chance in the House vs. Senate. Opponents are concerned that fee shifting will prevent legitimate suits against patent infringement and will not prevent the targeting by trolls.

Fee Recovery
Again, both bills have this provision and prevent patent trolls from using “masked” shell companies. Both pieces of legislation have processes in place to recover fees where the patent troll is hiding behind a shell company – the biggest difference is timing. The Senate Bill wants inability to pay disclosed early in the litigation process  and the House bill does not require disclosure until the end of the trial. 

As with any piece of legislation, there will be mutual concessions and hopefully after some “agreeing to disagree” Congress can get one of the bills into law this year. “Fee Shifting” is most controversial but also makes the most sense to scratch. Fee shifting will not deter patent trolls. In order for fee shifting to happen there must be a prevailing party and that requires defendants (a lot of times small startups) to fight the case to the end and win against experienced trolls with legal advisers. The focus needs to be on Demand Letters -- provisions regarding Demand Letters present a real opportunity to identify and penalize NPE’s in the initial abusive patent litigation process.  

Monday, June 8, 2015

GOTV: An Acronym We Take For Granted

I never expected my first blog post with the Chamber to involve comparing Mexico elections and Roanoke elections. However, being in the middle of two timely Election Days (one yesterday, one tomorrow) I felt compelled.

Yesterday, amid intense violence and protests at the polls, Mexico held their 2015 mid-term elections and for the first time in history there were Independent candidates allowed on the ballot -- one of those Independent candidates (Jaime Rodriguez) is expected to win a major upset victory. The changes to their voting procedures stem from a 2014 constitutional reform that many hoped would create avenues to plurality and true democracy. As Mexico’s government continues to be plagued by corruption and scandal, leadership in Mexico City saw this reform as an opportunity to enhance transparency and opportunity in the voting process. However, as opportunity for voters and candidates grew, so did the grip violence has on Mexico.

In the recent weeks leading up to yesterday’s election, Mexico has been witness to:

  • 8 candidates assassinated
  • Over 30 kidnapped citizens 
  • 1 campaign aide killed
  • Over 20 murders associated with the elections
But candidates did not back down out of fear and voters swarmed the polls. 

While staggering, these numbers are not novel to Mexican politics and it's important to note that the U.S. is not far removed from our own bout with violence in the voting process. Just a few months ago we honored 50 years since the sacrifices by “Bloody Sunday” protesters in Alabama.  The resiliency of civil rights leaders to march in the face of violence and prejudice did send a message to our country and the ripple effect lead to the landmark Voting Rights Act – an act some labeled as the crown jewel of Civil Rights legislation. 

When you consider the sacrifices made for our "crown jewel" legislation and sacrifices candidates and voters made in Mexico yesterday--it's disappointing to think we take voting for granted in the U.S.  Projections for tomorrow's Primary in Virginia's 17th House District:

  • We can only expect about 8% (high projection) in tomorrow's primary
  • That means only 4400 of 55,000 voters in VA17 will vote--again a high projection
  • In the last Roanoke County Primary only 656 of 67,189 registered voters cast ballots
  • Tomorrow's Primary will cost the county around $18,000 to ensure a fluid voting process
  • Primary turnout in 2014 was worst since WWII
The numbers above are concerning, especially given the sacrifices made for all citizens of the U.S. to vote. Understandably, voter enthusiasm is down because of the hyperpartisan atmosphere in Washington but it cannot deter us from exercising one of the greatest rights granted to us as U.S. citizens -- too many have fought for that right and too many continue to fight for that right across the globe.
If you live in Virginia's 17th House District and are interested in voting in tomorrow's Primary, I encourage you to do so and tell a friend. Because GOTV (Get Out The Vote) is not an acronym we can take for granted. 

Nobody will ever deprive the American people of the right to vote except the American people themselves and the only way they could do this is by not voting. –Franklin D. Roosevelt