Commercials: Society’s Economic Mirror


While knitting and cogitating on the day’s jury*  events,  the background drone of TV commercials finally penetrated.

“What,”  I wondered, “do companies advertise when the stock market’s below 7,000 and new (monthly) unemployment claims regularly exceed half a million?  What’s worth the hefty investment in TV advertising?”

During the Wednesday night 7:30-9:30 time slot (MSNBC, USA, CBS) a snapshot emerged.  The largest advertising sector was Cable TV’s ads for its own products:  new programs,  old programs and upcoming specials guaranteed to improve your tax outlook and trim your monthly budget.

In terms of “products,”  Madison Avenue supports our return to home-cooked goodness, so gather the family round the table and make some nostalgia as you tuck into old fashioned dehydrated macaroni & cheese and  canned chunky soup brimful of luscious garden veggies.  Or, for a treat (only your budget knows the limits) try a chef-cooked bucket from the local KFC.

If you haven’t been drinking enough Brita-filtered tap water,  stock up on Activia yogurt or the colon cleanser of your choice.  Also, if you’re noticing an uptick in cholesterol, edema and/or chest pain and the emergency room’s sick of seeing you, get a bottle of aspirin  and join Jenny Craig or a similar national diet plan.  (MONEY SAVER IDEA:  purchase a single membership and apportion the food  to your family of four.  Huge budget benefits guaranteed!)

Our neo back-to-Foxfire-basic relies on simple things:  Fixodent, toilet paper,  TV.com (save electricity by planning your nightly viewing) GMC trucks (if your patriotism includes rebuilding America!) Dunkin Donut’s  aromalicious beans for homebrew,  Olay deep cleansing wash (for after a day of shoveling compost),  Dr. Phil, anti-depressants  & anti-constipation drugs of  choice sold cheap at Walgreen’s or  Wal-Mart (not your local pharmacy),  quick-flush toilets, do-it-yourself legal forms and finally, two attorneys  —  one for torts and one for bankruptcy.  If you’re a small business owner who’s still hanging an open sign, Verizon wants their Small Business Toolkit to be your new bff.  Yee gads! Verizon’s got your number!   What?  Well of course they’ll  have to turn the phones back on….

For those of us not living in a new back-to-basic tent city neighborhood, add Travelocity to the list of resources bolstering your pared down life.

Except for one final  advertiser, that’s it in a nutshell:  a yellow brick trip through Madison Avenue Oz and its representative,  Cable TV.

I want to underscore  my last advertiser for its uplifting message.  Bank of America is America’s Bank of Opportunity.  I swear on an oath,  I smelled green grass and green tech constructing a green and bounteous future.  An inspirational partner for each of us, no doubt.  As a start, if you were one of the thousands of BOA partners they accidentally  socked for improper fees,  make sure you apply  for your $78 refund from the  the class action fund.

*    *    *   *

Skeletal thoughts from the past week:

Jon Stewart’s rip of CNBC, Jim Santelli and Jim Cramer is the most brilliant commentary I’ve seen in years.  (Cramer will be Stewart’s guest tonight.  That is, if he doesn’t “bail out”  like  Santelli did.)

In the large picture, Bernie Madoff is a scapegoat.  Let’s see what happens to those who made all the destructive schemes possible:  the SEC overseers, ratings agencies, Congress and Presidents going back to at least Reagan.  For sure, he should go to prison; but how does that benefit his (and the SEC’s) thousands of victims?

CNBC and its guests are taking a hand in shoring up our trust in the financial markets and  their institutions.  The new confidence game is beefy with cheery language and predictions.  MSNBC’s Morning Joe crew groaned at Mark Haines’ proclivity for  gloomy predictions.  Two mornings ago, Haines  eschewed doom and announced the Market had found its bottom.  The Dow’s closed in positive territory since. In fairness, his gloomy outlook changed the same day Citi’s CEO announced that his company was doing just fine. Quick fix.

*Aside:  Am currently serving on a Grand Jury which has an impact on my writing schedule.  More on that near the end of April when the service is complete.

The Week That Was: Words & Brainstorms


It’s been a  flurry all week.  Here’s a collection of pieces:

US Army and Marines report a sharp escalation in soldier and veteran suicides.  (LA Times)  Caregivers on the front lines cited, among other issues, more and longer deployments, family stress, hopelessness, drugs, alcohol and extreme psychological fatigue.

In the Senate Banking Committee Hearing (Chaired by Sen. Chris Dodd),  Paul Volcker, former Federal Reserve Chairman and Obama advisor offered,  “…other nations regulate the risk of  functions  rather than of entities  or particular business models.”  

 (Author note:  our present system regulates banks, for instance, but  the function of mortgage-backed securities slipped through the jurisdictional cracks of  twenty understaffed  regulatory agencies.  (See CSPAN videos.)

In the same hearing, Gene  Dodaro, Acting Comptroller General of the U.S. Government Accountability Office and Elizabeth Warren, Chair of  the Congressional Oversight Panel for the TARP  described faultlines in our financial structure and offered comments:  (1)  it’s inefficient, ineffective and inflexible; (2) it permits inadequate disclosures by credit institutions; (3)  the “financial illiteracy” of the populace  and inadequate disclosures by institutions combined to create predatory loans with incomprehensible terms; (4)  Federal and State jurisdictional issues created holes in oversight/regulation;  (5) institutions that originated loans passed the risk to other institutions without keeping “skin in the game”;  (6) we need  new ways to value  the debt because we don’t know who’s holding it or what it’s  worth;  (6)  current compensation models  encourage bad loans because there’s little or no  risk to the  originating broker. 

In an umbrella statement,  Dodaro described the current  financial model as pitting consumer protection against economic growth and urged Congress  to recognize that growth is impossible without the  trust and health of the consumer.

Senator Mark Warren referenced financial illiteracy  and  the  lack of regulation that’s allowed lenders and insurance companies to prey on our soldiers and their  families.

Witnesses in the hearing  concurred that:  (1)  we don’t know where the bailout funds are;  (2)  institutions who received funds feel no obligation  to reveal what they did with them; and regardless,  (3)  the bailout has not  significantly improved the flow of investments or loans; and (4) small business failures  and foreclosures are escalating.

Obama, stumping for the Stimulus Plan, described it as a strategy, not a piecemeal, temporary fix.

Rep. Marcy Kaptur (D-OH) told homeowners to stay in their homes when they’re foreclosed.  She told Amy Goodman (Democracy Now)  “…there’s a number people can call:  (888-995-HOME)  to get the proper legal representation so they can actually have the scales of justice be balanced rather than, now, all the power to Wall Street and none of the justice to Main Street.” 

(Author note:   When tenants were thrown out of their homes in the 1920s and ’30s,  their neighbors and activists overcame dogs, sheriff ‘s deputies and head-cracking batons to haul each other’s belongings back inside.)

Obama:  Companies  that receive TARP funds will limit executive compensation to $500,000.  This has caused corporations to worry they won’t be able to “attract the best talent.”   (Rewarding incompetence seems to have worked so well for all of us.)  

Aren’t our Graduate Schools  loaded with financial and administrative wizards?  Let them take take the mound and relegate  the Geithners,  Summers, Rubins and financiers to advisory positions in the dugout.  One idea is that executive officers be rewarded only after their policies result in  sustained profit growth over a number of years.  (No more $18 billion bonuses for collapsing a world economy in a single year.)

National Prayer Breakfast  and broadening of the old “faith-based” service model. My agnostic self is staying out of this one but my community organizer is shouting “hallelujah!”   (Perhaps the idea would be less offensive if we called it a “National Meditational Breakfast.)   “Community Service”  is, apparently,  fertile ground for another “Moral Majority” showdown.  It reminds me of  the efforts peace activists made  “to take back the flag”  after Bush invaded Iraq.  Obama’s model incorporates secular groups and recognizes a place for both secular and religious organizations.  My objection would be  to  religious bias dictating  what, how and to whom our civil services are provided.  (See:  First Amendment on separation of Church & State:  “Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof…”)  Certainly, stringent guidelines must be enforced if  community service is to remain free of  religious dogma.

According to Bloomberg News  on February 4, 2009“Bank of America’s CEO (Kenneth Lewis) told employees that his management team and strategy have the board’s support and January results were ‘encouraging’ as turmoil in the credit markets eased.”  

The  very next day, “Bank of America’s  (BAC) shares  fell as low as $3.77 before finishing up 14 cents at $4.84.  The bank’s shares had fallen for five days prior to Thursday.”  (In the period from  January 1, 2009 to February 5, 2009 — 36 days — BAC has fallen from $14.08 to $4.56.)  No kidding,  some pundits are wondering whether Lewis is the “right guy for the job.”

Bank of America still won’t let people sully their great glass windows with community announcements.

Today,  “January’s sharp drop in employment brings job losses to 3.6 million since the start of the recession in December 2007 and…about half the decline occurred in the last three months.  January’s losses followed upwardly revised cuts of 577,000 in December and 597,000 in November.”  (CNBC

In an Orwellian way,  these unemployment numbers are good news because coincidentally, average hourly wages have risen from 0.3-0.4%  over last year. I guess that’s what happens when mass layoffs and retail closings  eliminate low wage earners from the statistical pool.

And finally, 14 year old actess  Dakota Fanning  strode  pencil-thin  onto the stage of late night television in a pair of  spiked heels.

Obama Picks: Holder & Geithner


Attorney General Nominee  Eric Holder, Separation of Powers and  The Citizen’s Advocate. The United States Constitution establishes three independent branches of  government which balance and check each other’s power.  The Executive Branch (The President and his appointees) is charged with executing  and enforcing laws enacted  by Congress or   adjudicated  by  the  U.S. Supreme Court.

The U.S. Attorney General (AG) is  “The People’s Attorney,”   a watchdog  charged with ensuring that  the Executive Branch functions  consistent with Federal law  and within the framework of  The U.S. Constitution.  In the past, when the  AG   abdicated this obligation, Writs of Mandamus or the  Administrative Procedures Act (APA) have been used to force the AG to  (1) investigate the Executive’s actions or inactions or, alternatively,  (2)  to appoint an independent investigator.  In  recent years,  as the “Imperial/Unitarian Presidency” grew, these tools  of citizen redress have  been more frequently denied by  courts and Administrative  Law Judges.  There’s an underlying assumption that it’s better to countenance questionable Executive actions than it is to risk overstepping  the Separation of Powers.

As demonstrated by  Bush’s   Presidency,   an independent AG and Justice Department are   essential reins on  a run-away Executive.  The AG is often The People’s last recourse for achieving  administrative and judicial intervention.  In that light,  citizens should welcome Senator  Arlen Specter’s questioning (R-Pa.)  of  Attorney General-nominee Eric Holder about his  involvement in the Marc Rich pardon scandal.  Was Holder so dependent on President Clinton’s good graces that he abdicated  due diligence and independence for personal ambition?  In our current situation (an extraordinarily popular President-Elect and  a Democratic-controlled Congress)  it is especially important that the People’s watchdogs are  motivated by law and ethics not by personal aggrandizement.  According to Holder,  “The duty of the AG is to defend statutes…  unless there are compelling reasons [not to].”

In today’s  hearing, Senator  Orrin Hatch asked Holder (who has expressed opposition to  rendition, torture and warrantless wiretapping)  if  Holder would pursue  prosecutions of officials who approved extraordinary rendition and warrantless wiretapping of U.S. citizens.  In reply,  Holder stated,  “No one’s above the law  We will follow the evidence, the facts, the law and  let that take us where it  should.   We don’t want to criminalize policy differences…between the outgoing administration and the incoming Obama administration.  I want to know more about what lead to these decisions.”

In a loose citation of Youngstown Sheet & Tube Co. v. Sawyer, 343 U.S. 579 (1952) Holder further stated, “[The President’s power is] weakest … where Congress has indicated something contrary to what  the President wants to do.”  In other words,  where Congress has expressed its will in legislation,  the President is obliged to act within the parameters established.  (Of course, Congress cannot usurp powers granted the Executive by The Constitution.)

It seems clear Holder understands his Constitutional obligations to uphold the law and to prosecute its corruption.  We should listen carefully to  Senator Specter’s questions and to  designee-Holder’s answers.  They may be the only additional clues we get to the stamina of  designee-Holder’s  ethics and independence.

Timothy Geithner, Citigroup & the global economic crisis. See  “Note 4”  below.  The Alternet-Politico article provides a good overview of Geithner’s involvement in the creation of our current global economic crisis and should be read in its entirety.

Several experts on finance,  mortgage-backed securities, hedge funds, bankruptcy, SEC regulations and lack of enforcement, arcane investment tools and the  TARP  have testified before Congress concerning our global economic crisis.  (See CSPAN archives.) Their grasp of the  factors affecting  an economic recovery was comprehensive.

As  the former president of the New York Federal Reserve Bank, Timothy Geithner reduced  regulations and consequent oversight of Citigroup, et al.

Is he   the best person to develop the architecture of  our economic recovery?  Has he demonstrated a capacity for  predicting the effect of government interventions/pullbacks on financial  markets?   What  unique expertise does he possess beyond having overseen the building and crashing of an economic  house of cards?  What was the nature of his relationship with Citigroup and Robert Rubin? (Rubin is a past-Treasury Secretary, Geithner’s former boss and  was a  “special consultant” to Citigroup during its implosion.  He is also one of  President-elect Obama’s economic advisors.)

NOTES  &  CITATIONS

1.    Administrative Procedures Act:    http://usgovinfo.about.com/library/bills/blapa.htm

2.    U.S. Supreme Court and Writs of Mandamus which I’m including because it’s a tool too few of us know about:   (Per Justice Ginsberg in 2004,  No. 03-475″…an applicant seeking a §1361 mandamus writ must show that “the [federal] defendant owes him a clear, nondiscretionary duty.” Heckler v. Ringer, 466 U.S. 602, 616 (1984) (emphasis added). No §1361 writ may issue, in other words, when federal law grants discretion to the federal officer, rather than imposing a duty on him. When federal law imposes an obligation, however, suit under §1361 is not precluded simply because facts must be developed to ascertain whether a federal command has been dishonored. Congress enacted §1361 to “mak[e] it more convenient for aggrieved persons to file actions in the nature of mandamus,” Stafford v. Briggs, 444 U.S. 527, 535 (1980), not to address the rare instance in which a federal defendant, upon whom the law unequivocally places an obligation, concedes his failure to measure up to that obligation. http://www.law.cornell.edu/supct/search/display.html?terms=mandamus%20attorney%20general&url=/supct/html/03-475.ZD.html

3.   Bloomberg has a good overview of  the concerns raised by Holder’s nomination:  http://www.bloomberg.com/apps/news?pid=20601103&sid=afLrs7qPiu2o&refer=us

4.   Alternet & Politico have this overview of Citigroup, Timothy Geithner, Robert Rubin  & the global economic  meltdown:  http://www.alternet.org/workplace/119871/how_citigroup_unraveled_under_geithner%27s_watch/?page=1