Mark Andrew, a former Hennepin County Board Chair and former chair of the Minnesota DFL Party, is the owner of GreenMark, a leading environmental marketing agency. GreenMark, the originator of the Minnesota Twins/Pentair Rain Water Recycle partnership, is currently finalizing the state's largest solar energy installation while delivering sustainable results on behalf of leading brands, nonprofits, public agencies and the public.

Lost in (cyber) Space

Posted by: Mark Andrew Updated: September 14, 2014 - 12:09 PM

For once it wasn’t my fault.

Usually when I have a problem with my computer or the Internet I have made a stupid mistake—forgetting a password or stroking a wrong key.

But this time the fault, dear Brutus, was in the stars or in this case, the cloud.

It was Google. It mistakenly suspended my business account because their system failed to retain the new credit card information I inputted after an old credit card was hacked. As a result, they suspended my business account and with it, my connections to the outside world and professional functionality.

No email. No internet. No calendar.

No recourse.

I tried to correct the problem on-line. It became a circular exercise where every conclusion arrived where I started--at a maze. Finally, I found the Administrator of my account who had resigned to return to grad school two years ago. She got me back on-line.

But the next day my email address was hacked by an interloper who writes with a Russian accent and hundreds of my email connections got a menacing document from my email address.

After many more hours of futility in trying to reach a customer service represetntative, I came to realize Google has no human beings. It is “off-brand” for a tech company like Google to have living people servicing customers. It’s also cheaper.

But Google does a poor job servicing customer problems that are not of their customers making. Customer service is still a core deliverable for great companies. Google has banished the phrase from the cyber vocabulary.

There are abundant questions that are raised by this consumer’s week long interface with Google and the criminal hackers who invade the Internet.

Should private companies have the right to embargo a customer’s property? Is Google too big to challenge, especially when the challenges pit humans against machines? Does the onerous burden of navigating the labyrinth also discourage all but the most ambitious criminals?

Somewhere between these ideals—personal rights and personal security is a solution that will make sense for most people. Companies like Google should be held responsible for finding them.

And Congress needs to move quickly to find solutions to the scourge of kooks, creeps and crooks (countries, too?) who are entering our private space, abusing consumers and companies, and slowing down our national productivity. It has become an important national security issue.

Using another computer last week I dropped a note to Google, asking them to respond to my expressions of frustration. One would think Google would apologize or at least respond to a customer.

I’m still waiting to hear back.

Microsoft Deletes ALEC membership

Posted by: Mark Andrew Updated: September 8, 2014 - 11:49 PM

Hooray for Microsoft.

They just resigned as a member of the wicked special interest juggernaut, ALEC, brought to us by the blackest of corporate “black hats”--the Koch Brothers, Exxon and others guiding the right wing tilt of national and state lawmaking.

The organization is responsible for thousands of bills introduced in Congress and at state legislatures—from school vouchers that drain public school budgets, to funding phony studies that undermine climate science, to enacting state and Federal laws aimed at allowing unlimited, secret political donations that conceal their own organizations anonymous influence.

Microsoft’s recently announced resignation was not a quiet retreat.

The company used a megaphone to declare they are severing ties and repeated in their own announcement that Microsoft no longer funds or has any connection whatsoever with the group. A bunch of other major firms have also jumped ship since 2011.

Why would they do that?

They have figured out the road to perdition is paved with ALEC’s political initiatives and the covert money that pays for them.

The lynchpin of their national strategy is to recruit dues paying elected officials such as state legislators and members of Congress—to join corporations and far-right gazillionaires in drafting Model Legislation. Legislator-members introduce the bills as their own, masquerading as their own thoughtfully considered policy—all with ALEC’s fingerprints removed in an acid bath of avarice and secrecy.

The American Legislative Exchange Council passes at least 200 of their bills into law each year. Special tax breaks and undercutting public health standards for dirty industries and Big Tobacco are a given.

But the “non-profit” has a special fervor for attacking public schools and the teachers who serve them.

ALEC and its allies demonize school teachers as the major cause of poor student performance while remaining silently complicit on the most serious causes—a lack of early childhood development, unsafe homes and high mobility in school districts due to poverty, drugs and alcohol. It is a perverse joke that ALEC has a long history of bitterly opposing initiatives that address these very social ills.

Their transparent goal is to bust the teachers unions, then abolish collective bargaining from the lexicons of labor and the statutes of law.

And they are gleefully aware that the “teacher question” is a political wedge that threatens to fracture the Democratic constituency along traditional and reform lines.

Most progressives support honest education reforms that actually benefit our kids. So do most teachers. 

So do I.

No quarter should be exempted from scrutiny in the search for solutions to the problems that face our schools and the students who attend them. School readiness and high quality public schools are the pathway from poverty to self sufficiency.

But ALEC and by extension those who accept their money, takes aim at the easiest education target—teachers—to advance the broader right wing agenda of corporatizing public education while promoting the destruction of collective bargaining, a staple of the organizations political diet since it was formed in 1973.

Companies like Microsoft are right to publicly distance themselves from the tactics and positions of ALEC on a range of issues.

Well meaning public school advocates seeking to address the challenges facing our school kids would do well to distance themselves, too.

State Fair accurately predicts election winners

Posted by: Mark Andrew Updated: August 30, 2014 - 1:48 PM

By Labor Day we will know with relative certainty the winners of the Minnesota Governor and U.S Senate elections this fall.

It’s not that I have inside information or a direct line to the Almighty.

It’s because the State Fair will tell us.

I’ve operated there as a food vendor all of my adult life and have been in politics about as long.  Every election season I use this quintessential Minnesota gathering as a barometer of public attitudes toward political parties and candidates.

It is about as accurate as any poll I have ever read.

The State Fair is a conglomeration of Minnesota culture. Far from being just an agricultural exposition, it is a rich cross section of Midwestern humanity that falls at a strategically crucial time of the political election cycle.

The hand of the electorate is tipped at this event. It is evident in the body language of the attendees, T-shirt slogans, buttons, snippets of arguments overheard in the din of the crowd, gratuitous insults hurled toward one side and fawning admiration crooned by the other.

These nuanced demonstrations of temperament and tendency are rock solid hints of the likely outcomes in the upcoming elections.

Take 2012 for example. In 2012, the mounting hostility to the Marriage Constitutional Amendment that would ban gay marriage was palpable at the Fair. Earlier polls suggested that the darkest impulses of human nature would prevail.

But there were curious rumblings at the Fair.

Pro-gay marriage political collateral overwhelmed the opposition’s. I was standing by the Marriage Amendment booth and the priest who was lecturing an opponent on the evils of sodomy was met with spontaneous boos from bystanders. I was pretty sure this exchange heralded the coming of an electoral earthquake, even though the polls didn't.

So what’s going to happen this fall? Here is what the masses at the Fair tells us:

If the Democrats have an enthusiasm gap this year, the Republicans have a yawning chasm.

Their party faithful is lethargic. This lack of pizazz is reflected in the leading Conservative candidates—the somnolent Jeff Johnson for Governor and soporific Mike McFadden for Senate, who will have to manufacture custom-made personas--or slanderous ads-- to keep us awake.

With all the venom spewing from the reptilian national Republican message machine, the flared nostrils and fiery rhetoric that emanated from the Right’s rank-and-file in past elections is oddly absent at this year’s Fair.

The truth is, Senator Franken has acquitted himself nicely with voters concerned with his comedic pedigree; he has proven to be a savvy bridge builder and serious problem solver. The Governor has turned in a stellar performance on nearly every economic and social indicator. He could be the best performing Governor since the 1970's, when national media waxed on about The Good Life In Minnesota under a previous Democratic Governor. 

That silent recognition is in keeping with the temperament of this year’s fairgoers, whose seeming contentment tells us they don’t see a need to make big changes.

So, to my friends at the DFL who are wringing their hands and gnashing their teeth over turnout, it is wise to repeat the old political saw that low voter turnout tends to hurt Democrats. But even wiser to remember that VERY low voter turnout is likely to hurt Republicans even more.

Strong job performance by the incumbents and mushy challengers who lack a natural ability to ignite their base is why voters seem more interested in the judging of ribboned state fair horses than the riding of political ones. As we approach the final stretch of the 2014 elections, the inside track is held by the incumbents.

Indications are for a modest turnout and likely re-election of the states top elected officials.

The observed attitude of the fairgoing public prophesizes it.

The State Fair and the Economy

Posted by: Mark Andrew Updated: August 25, 2014 - 2:39 PM

Ok, a little full disclosure: I am a vendor at the Minnesota State Fair. I have been for my entire adult life.

I own two food stands--Real S’Mores and World’s Greatest French Fries.

Neither is an exaggeration.

I know from experience the Great Minnesota Get Together is a microcosm of the national economy.

Even though the Fair is a highly regulated marketplace, food vendors must still practice the fundamental principle of business—selling a quality product at a reasonable price--along with strict observance of the 3 immutable laws of real estate—location, location, location.

The Wild West days of petty graft and nepotism that could occasionally be found when the Fair had trouble finding enough exhibitors and vendors, has been gone for decades. Today, the operations of the Fair are professional and squeaky clean.

The State Fair shifted deftly with the national economy of the 1940’s and 50’s, morphing from a “Food Production” exposition to a “Food Consumption” spectacle. Like the state’s diversification from farming to manufacturing, mining, tourism and technology, the Fair graduated from feeds, fertilizers and farm implements, to a free-for-all for foodies.

The ludicrous diversity of ingenious food products, which today features 300 offerings appealing to every pallet, reflects the changing face of the America outside the Fair’s gates.

At one point the event had 30 Foot Long Hot Dog stands and 35 Pronto Pup outlets dotting the landscape. Today, the Fairgrounds are loaded with premium quality fare and the former ubiquitous presence of low-grade products commands but a trifle of today's food dollar.

The prices reflect the economy, too. They’ve gone way up, but so has the cost of goods and labor, along with avaricious rental rates captured by the Fair itself, in many cases a third or more of a food stand’s net profits.

I grew up watching the rich get obscenely richer in America. In my professional lifetime I’ve witnessed top executive salaries go from a couple hundred thousand to tens of millions for the same job.

It has happened at the Fair, too.

What used to be an upper tier of 30 or 40 businesses that exceeded $100,000 in sales, has catapulted into a Gates/Buffet-category of mega-food elites, which gross from $600,000 to $2.4 million in 12 days.

A few others have sales ranging from $350, 000 to $600,000, while a healthy bourgeois class has more pedestrian expectations of retail establishments that are open all of 150 hours per year.

Many, if not most, of the Fair’s food stands turn modest profits, sufficient to afford a nice vacation and maybe a snowmobile, but not retirement in paradise.

The work lives of Minnesota State Fair business owners aligns with the evolving economy, which by some estimates, projects that nearly half of all workers will soon be working on their own as consultants, small business owners and entrepreneurs.

And why not?

Major corporations are getting along fine without hiring at the same levels as during the pre-crash years, even though thousands of them are sitting on boatloads of cash. With the elimination of employer-provided pensions, dwindling respect for seniority and anemic employee health benefits, workers will pretty much be on their own anyway.

On this point it is the national economy that will more closely reflect the State Fair’s.

Tomorrow’s professionals will be more like the early State Fair entrepreneurs who invented distinctly Minnesota products like Tom Thumb donuts, Cheese Curds and Pronto Pups, and let the market determine their fate.

They will more often be flying without a net, making their way through the unknowns of an economy with a workforce as rootless as the Midway carnies that will pull up stakes in a few days and wander off to the next venue.

Coca Cola in the Third World

Posted by: Mark Andrew Updated: August 17, 2014 - 8:45 PM

Coke has gone green.

To Clarify: Coca Cola is one of many multi-nationals that has incorporated sustainability into its business model because it makes commercial sense.

This is especially true for firms like Coke that are pouring resources into stabilizing communities, cleaning up the environment and improving working conditions in third world and developing countries, as a business strategy.

For Coke, it’s about the water.

Clean, affordable, available water is so integral to their business and brand that Coke has joined up with its African bottlers and the U.S.--Africa Leaders Summit to announce another $5 billion investment in that nation, a total of over $17 billion for the decade ending in 2020.

Not all of that money is going to sustainable objectives, of course, but a lot of it is. Some of that money will fortify operations across the company’s supply chain-- manufacturing and cooling lines, production and distribution.

But there is also a broad social investment taking place—infusions of capital for new jobs with training for local residents, improving safe water access for communities, developing sustainable sourcing practices, making investments in women’s economic empowerment and suffusing local communities with a greater sense of well-being. Significantly, the company also signed a letter of intent to launch Source Africa—more consistent and sustainable local product sourcing in partnership with the New Alliance for Food Security and Nutrition, and Grow Africa.

One might suspect that companies like Coke are becoming political bleeding hearts.

Don’t bank on it.

They are just trying to protect their sprawling enterprises. These firms are figuring out that constructive, organic investment in developing markets is more cost-effective than the old way of muscling their way into available markets through malleable politicians, a fist full of dollars and lofty, empty promises.

Many view the world’s 35,000 multinational companies as having the social conscience of piranhas in a feeding frenzy, with business practices just as pernicious. They have inflicted great damage on developing nations by stripping away indiginous resources and leaving generations of waste and poverty.

The poorest of the poor nations are perpetually vulnerable to exploitation of industries in the agriculture, international mining, global banking, utility and international tourism sectors.

Too many of these behemoths continue to view third world or developing country investments as easy prey for natural resource exploitation and they attack it with impunity-- and casual indifference toward the local economies. These are short-term romances that always end badly for the romanced.

So it's fair that big companies, like Nestle and Coke, are suspect on critical issues, from the privatization of public water supplies to their past behavior of commandeering local water resources for their own purposes when there isn’t enough water to satiate local economies.

But Coke's sizable investments in sustainable practices and community building is an economic expression of new business thinking, if not a new world order. More than anything, it will encourage others to follow suit with strategies that nurture host countries and resources they possess. 

In the case of Coke we will see whether their latest, substantial investments are fleeting social commitments of convenience, or whether this change is, like the claims of their signature product, the real thing.


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