Monday, March 30, 2009

What Desperation Feels Like

This blog was called to my attention today. I do not swear to its authenticity - these days you can't be sure who's blogging from desperation and who sees a terrific marketing opportunity. What I will say it's an entertaining read, in the genre of "Oh my god how IS she laughing right now?"

Thursday, March 26, 2009

Doing Good is Good For Business

"I gave at the office" just isn't good enough now. President Obama and the First Lady are hammering home the message that we have to recommit to service - going out of our way to help each other.
And business is finding that if it doesn't act like a good neighbor, it hurts the bottom line.
Cheryl Heller owns Heller Communications Designs - she says the companies that take social innovation and responsibility seriously are operating at an entirely different level of success than the dinosaurs that just don't get it. One of the winners? Proctor and Gamble. Really. That's what she said.
Dan Jacobs started knowing that if he could demonstrate that doing good is good for business, he'd get corporate cooperation. It's working.
And today I spoke with Liz Neumark...she owns Great Performances in NYC - a catering service and series of cafes in some of the city's most exclusive places. She employs people in the arts - they're smart, they're engaging and man do they need work. Plus she bought a farm in NY's Hudson Valley. She raises enough vegetables to not only supply her business needs, but she donates food to the hungry.
That's business you can feel good about.

Wednesday, March 18, 2009

AIG - The Symbol of Our Differences

Rush Limbaugh thinks we've got to let those millions of dollars in bonuses go to AIG executives. Here's the excerpt listed in the Daily Kos:

The peasants with their pitchforks surrounding the corporate headquarters of AIG.

And the president's own teleprompter is telling him to say that these executive are greedy and selfish and this is inciting people to behavior that could lead to violence if their threats are acted out.

President Obama's teleprompter tells him to say that the tired ways of the past didn't work, that we need a new way. Here we go; we've got the new way. We've got peasants with their pitchforks phoning in death threats at AIG. We have members of the United States Senate and the United States House of Representatives sounding like communist dictators.

This $500,000 limit on executive pay -- let me tell you why it won't work. New York City will die. ...Without the super wealthy in New York, it's over.

LIMBAUGH: Why in the world -- or how do you get to the point where you're going to bail out the company, but you don't want the employees to get paid?

LIMBAUGH: This is not just executives, but executives are employees, too. And in --

CALLER: I understand that.

LIMBAUGH: -- many of these firms, Nathan, their salaries are pretty small. They work on bonuses, via contract based on merit.

Merit, Rush? These are the guys that sent AIG into the red. What merit?

I have relatives who would call me a screaming liberal. They, I guess, are what you would call knee jerk conservatives. Neither label is accurate. We're thoughtful people who are trying to sift through what we're told and come up with what we believe is the most correct philosophy to guide this floundering ship to safety.

Conservatives and Republicans are big believers in free enterprise. They believe that if you leave business to its own devices, a kind of Darwinism will prevail. The strongest will survive.

They would argue that Liberals want a nanny state that pats our flabby bottoms from cradle to grave. Maybe some do. That wouldn't be me.

After a great deal of thought, here's my basic problem: free enterprise has a basic faith in human nature. Good business practices, good people, hard work will thrive. The weak shall fail. But history has proven that this isn't true. Big, greedy, manipulative and dishonest business thrives and flourishes - until it collapses in on itself because it is, at its core, hollow or rotten. And then the individual taxpayers in the form of the federal government are supposed to prop it up.

No? Enron. AIG. The American auto industry. Go down the list of companies whose basic operating motto was drawn from Gordon Gekko and look at who's taking the bailout money.

Government has to regulate business, and regulate it with a firm hand. Because human nature is, essentially, greedy. We're not talking the poor, dying Mom and Pop industries. We're talking about the mega-companies. Bank of America buys Merrill Lynch, then suddenly isn't looking too healthy itself. IBM wants to buy Sun Systems while it lays off thousands. Right now it can afford to buy and maybe it's a good business decision. Maybe. IBM's not in the humanitarian business, but there is something basically wrong with discarding thousands of workers, then expanding. And it's not just business.

Look at our legislators. Look at the money they make. Look at the deals they make to get more. And look at the deals they make to stay in power. We were supposed to have citizens in government, who served a term and then went back to their own lives. Politics has become a career. Look at the ancients in the US Senate! Look at the hungry young up and comers who will do and say anything to take their places! Don't even think of running for President if you haven't done your time in the legislature - government is now a form of business.

And that creates a contradiction, as I do believe government has to flex its muscle and stand down businesses.

So maybe the answer is to stop pretending our government is a democracy. Stop pretending that anyone can get elected to office. Acknowledge that the US government is a business, just like each state's government is a business. Regulate them, too. Run them efficiently, make them conform to the same regulations they impose on private industry...and make their standards even tougher.
Mandate retirement. Mandate ethics and police them.

As for the fear that socialized medicine, caring for the homeless, creating equity in taxation creates some sort of soft, snivelling welfare state, just stop it. How does it build strength of character to work a lifetime, then find you can't afford healthcare? How does it encourage creativity to work ever longer hours for pay that doesn't keep up with the basic cost of living?

When is the ridiculous myth that wealth trickles down going to finally be seen for the elitist garbage that it is? If you work hard, have a brilliant idea that pays off and make a fortune, good for you. Enjoy the fruits of your labor. But pay the same tax rate as the kid who can't afford to finish college and is struggling at a minimum wage job.

And if you're a greedy corporate executive who offers nothing special but a Blackberry full of influential connections and a knack for doctoring the balance sheet, drop dead. I won't be expecting to benefit from your purchase of six vacation homes, a private jet and every ostentatious toy you can find to prove to yourself that you're successful. Just pay your taxes and pray the government never actually gets the power it ought to have.

Huh. I guess I'm angry.

Friday, March 13, 2009

So Just What Is the Media's Role?

I watched the Stewart vs. Cramer Daily Show last night. I'm sure it was a mighty audience. Many of them were disappointed. It wasn't all that funny. It was, instead, another battle in Jon Stewart's crusade to get the media to do its job.

It's the underlying message of his show every single day, yet many viewers probably lose that message because basically, it's just funny.

Stewart's serious. He always has been. When he took on Tucker Carlson and CNN's "Crossfire" he was practically pleading. He wants news. He wants the media to do what we used to believe it does - objectively report the news, investigate what it's told and let us know what is true and what isn't.

Instead, what we have is an alphabet of talking heads all spouting their own view of things and we tune into whoever says what we like to hear. I know it. I know that when I watch Rachel Maddow she's preaching to the choir. I watch Lou Dobbs and want to throw socks at the television. I watch Fox News and wonder if perhaps I have a high blood pressure problem.

So, Stewart asks, where are the watchdogs?

CNBC is the NBC financial network. It has the supposed experts who offer advice to investors. And that's the bottom line, according to Stewart. Who are they talking to?

Is CNBC there to benefit the investor insiders, winking and touching fingers beside their noses as they share information based on lies that influence how the poor schmucks at home invest their money? Is CNBC there to offer the best advice it can to all investors? Is CNBC a watchdog inside the guarded gates? CNBC doesn't really know, according to Jim Cramer.

Cramer admitted the network could have done a better job investigating what it was told, could have been more careful about the advice it offered. Cramer sounded almost contrite when confronted with an interview in which he reveals the depth of his understanding of how to manipulate the market.

The whole confrontation was certainly great press for Cramer. How many people will now watching his show to see if he makes good on his promise to become a better watchdog for the public? But can you trust a thing CNBC does? Why should you?

And that, I'm betting, makes Jon Stewart a very sad funny man.

Wednesday, March 11, 2009

Stewart to Cramer: "Bring It!"

I adore Jon Stewart's show. I make no bones about it. He is, hands down, the best media watchdog we have right now. And I thoroughly enjoyed the video drubbing he gave CNBC, pulling back the scrim of authority to reveal the little man pulling the levers and pushing the buttons - and getting it wrong.

Jim Cramer was not amused. Now much as I am repelled by the circus act that is Cramer's show, I don't totally dislike the guy. I had to give him some props after his Chicken Little rant was resurrected on another Comedy Central "variety show" - The Colbert Report.

But his overall track record is taking a beating and to try to pick a fight when Stewart has the video evidence to prove it seems foolhardy.


Unless CNBC and Cramer, seeing an opportunity to cash in on the huge popularity of The Daily Show, figure the best marketing tool is to jump right in there, kicking, screaming and biting, and fight back.

It's a possibility.

The fact is, however, that it may increase both the network and Cramer's visibility, but not in a way they'll enjoy. Jon Stewart is a smart guy. He's a devastating interviewer - quick to see a hole in an argument and unafraid to shred it further to get to the facts. Cramer's no dummy, but he's defending the indefensible.

CNBC and Cramer, like other so-called 'news networks', present opinion as fact. Opinion, unlike fact, can be wrong.

But damn, it'll be good ratings. Thursday night.

Saturday, March 7, 2009

Now That's a Good Story!

Did you hear about the foiled bank robbery near DC yesterday?

According to the Washington Post, it started as your ordinary bank robbery. A 43 year old man walked into the Bank of America branch near the Bethesda Metro stop shortly before closing, demanded money from a teller and left. But then it got interesting.

Two tellers and a customer chased the guy down. He blasted them with pepper spray and they kept coming. Two blocks away, they tackled him and pinned him to the ground until the police showed up.

Lawrence Gilmartin was charged with that robbery, as well as another last month.

Police called the incident "very unusual." They cautioned citizens not to put themselves in danger in an effort to stop crime.

I think it's great. I especially like to visualize these people, just so damned angry that somebody's stealing money while they're probably struggling, that they don't even care about pepper spray. I wonder if they even knew their eyes were streaming and they were in pain until they caught the guy.

Power to the people. Who says we're helpless?

Thursday, March 5, 2009

Foreclosure Help and Hurdles

I did a story on local reaction to the federal foreclosure prevention program announced this week. It was an eye-opener.

First, I got a call from the foreclosure counseling service I've been working with. Yup, I'm on the edge of the precipice along with a lot of other people. And I'd been told there was nothing for me because I haven't missed a payment yet.

But today I was told that the new program has provisions for people who haven't stopped paying their mortgage, whose income to loan ratio is way out of whack thanks to the economy. That's heartening. We didn't buy a house to lose it, but the recession knocked our income on its butt and we've been squeaking for months.

But then I spoke with Republican NY Assemblyman Joel Miller and heard the opposing philosophy in a nutshell.

"We don't have the money to bail out people who are in homes they can't afford," he argued. "People who are still paying their bills will end up paying the tab and that's unfair."

It's the laissez faire argument. Let the chips fall. But as with most things, there are a number of problems tangled into this that one side or the other tends to ignore.

Yes, people who are managing to tread water shouldn't be pulled under by the drowning. Yes, speculators or greedy people who were buying and selling as a business probably should lose out. They gambled and they lost.

But empty houses pay no taxes. And that gap means raising taxes for the people who are left. And empty houses devalue the neighboring homes....continuing the negative spiral that's already leaving us gasping for breath.

The mayor of a local city sounded really angry about the taxes his citizens have to pay. "It's time for the way taxation is done in this state to be reformed. New York is taxing people out of the state!"

And there's another knot in the tangle. Government is a mess. The way spending is handled has been so distorted, so convoluted, that you need a map to figure out how it's done. I doubt it's just New York. There is nothing simple about any of it.
It's so complex we have to pay people or buy software to figure out how much tax we have to pay. And once government has it, it begins its journey into the slithery depths of the bureaucracy.

So how do you argue against preventing foreclosures unless you're prepared to rip open the doors and windows, shine a light on that deep money hole, put on your visor and start counting and accounting for every single penny? And then start making the path from income to spending a more direct line?

It's revolutionary. It goes against every unwritten rule in every legislature in the land. And it may be the only thing that will prevent this from ever happening again.

Wednesday, March 4, 2009

The Greatest Depression Has Begun - Or Is It Ending?

What surprises me is how fast it's collapsed. The economy showed signs of rot, but nearly everyone was caught off guard with just how completely it caved in on itself. Remember? The economy wasn't even the top campaign issue until late in the summer.

But there's no denying that this is an economic collapse and it's not finished yet. I've been through the stages of grief and have finally reached acceptance - this is an unavoidable result of an artificially inflated economy and untrammeled greed. Maybe I didn't contribute to it, maybe you didn't, but we're all paying for it.

Gerald Celente at the Trends Research Institute has been calling this one long before it began. Now he's calling it the Greatest Depression. I hope he's wrong but I suspect he may be right.

A remarkably talented news photographer, fresh from her global award win, says her newspaper is announcing pay cuts, trying to prevent layoffs. She worries she'll lose her home and she's angry. She has a right.

But finally, finally, a bit of hope. A Wall Street watcher with a good track record who says the black clouds aren't here for as long as people like Celente predict.

No country appears to be immune: Japan's economy is worse than the US. And here's the latest from China from the Washington Post.

IWU, China -- Li Jiang was hungry. Huddled in the freezing rain with more than 1,000 other people at 6 a.m., he stood patiently in line hoping he had come early enough to get some of the free rice porridge steaming in giant cauldrons nearby.

It was an unfamiliar feeling for Li. For the past 11 years, he had been making a comfortable living on a steady stream of construction and factory jobs that afforded him fancy cellphones and other modern luxuries. But he was laid off two months ago, and it has been impossible to find work since.

"This is an unfair society," said Li, 27. "The government isn't giving much help, and there are too many bosses who are out to cheat us." It is the first time in his life, he said, that he has felt such deprivation.

Six months into what economists and labor experts say is China's worst job crisis since it began market reforms 30 years ago, many among the most vulnerable -- an estimated 20 million workers who lost their jobs after migrating from the countryside to cities -- are becoming desperate.

As tens of thousands of manufacturing companies have collapsed amid slowing demand due to the global economic crisis, the laid-off workers can no longer find jobs in the cities. For many, returning to their rural roots is not a possibility because their families' farmland has been sold off to make room for shopping malls, office high-rises and apartment complexes -- leaving them with no safety net. Even those lucky enough to have kept their farming plots have been hit hard by a drought -- the country's worst in 50 years, according to the government -- which has affected up to 80 percent of the land for winter crops.

"The drought has had a big impact on farmers. Some villages are out of food," said Lu Xuejing, a professor at the Capital University of Economics and Business in Beijing. The impact has been especially pronounced in the nation's northwest, in provinces such as Gansu, where high temperatures combined with sparse rainfall have dried up riverbeds and killed wheat crops. This convergence of factors has meant the unthinkable for a country that in recent years has enjoyed double-digit growth in gross domestic product: As many as 10 percent of China's 130 million migrant workers face what Renmin University professor Yao Yuqun calls "bread-and-butter issues." They are having trouble putting food on the table because "they no longer have farmland, and they lost their jobs in the cities," Yao said.

Food lines like the one in Yiwu recall the worst period in modern Chinese economic history -- the 1958-61 famine that resulted from the Great Leap Forward, when, as part of a plan to transform a largely agrarian society into an industrialized one, millions abandoned their farms to work in factories, leading to food shortages.

China is not in any danger of that happening again. Since then, the country has kept generous reserves of grains, pork and other staples, and it has an estimated $2 trillion in foreign exchange reserves that it can use to buy the food it needs from elsewhere.

The challenge for China's leaders is to ensure that no one goes hungry, without moving the country back to the iron-rice-bowl era, when the state guaranteed cradle-to-grave employment.

The central government has responded to the sharp economic contraction by focusing on job creation and vocational training rather than handouts with its $586 billion stimulus package. Some city and provincial governments have taken a different approach, handing out food coupons for the first time. They have also distributed vegetable oil and other essentials, but these programs are limited.

Meanwhile, China's social welfare system is a work in progress and will be one of the main items on the agenda this week at the annual meeting of the National People's Congress in Beijing. A proposal to create a universal safety net that includes unemployment insurance for all citizens was released for public comment in December, but it is yet to be implemented.

Wealthier citizens are trying to fill the gap between what the government is offering and the need they see in their neighborhoods, by starting soup kitchens and other charitable endeavors like the one in Yiwu.

As it has gradually opened up its economy, China has periodically struggled with high unemployment. The most recent crisis before this one was in the late 1980s to mid-1990s, when many of the country's state-owned enterprises were privatized. But that shift affected only one segment of the population. "There was almost no problem with migrant workers and fresh graduates from college. However, now the unemployment problem is nationwide," said Chen Bulei, a labor law researcher at Renmin University in Beijing. Chen said that the unemployment issue today "is not only a simple economic problem," but also a social one. This has been evident in the protests that unemployed workers have staged in recent months.

"It's like migrant workers are crossing a river to reach the bank. Right now they are just in the middle of the river. The moving has not yet finished -- can they obtain equal treatment as city citizens? If this cannot be solved effectively, migrant workers are a very unstable factor," Chen said.

A year ago, Yiwu was a showcase for a booming China. The streets were filled with shiny new cars shuttling businessmen to meetings to sign multimillion-dollar manufacturing deals for products such as blankets, calculators and toys. Restaurants were doing brisk business in shark-fin soup and other delicacies. Hotels were overbooked.

These days, the mood in Yiwu is depressed.

Storefronts for exporters that have gone out of business are boarded up. Rows of sleeping migrant workers fill the sidewalks. On a recent weekday morning, people lined up for the rice porridge being given away by Lin Ruxin, who owns a local printing factory.

Lin, 50, said he opened the food station in early January when he began to notice that more and more people were gathering in front of the unemployment office and that many of them would stay there the whole day without eating. He organized a few volunteers and dipped into his savings to fund the breakfast service. They begin cooking at 10 p.m. and work all night until about 6 a.m., when they start giving away the food. Each serving also includes some pickled vegetables and two buns.

"I feel for them," Lin said. "When I was a child, I went through the Cultural Revolution, and when I started my own business, I also had a hard time. Everywhere I went, I got knocked down. This is the situation the migrant workers are in now."

Many of the people in the food line are down to their last 10 or 20 yuan, the equivalent of a few dollars, and have hawked all their worldly possessions. They eat crouched in corners or on the street as cars whiz by.

"To be honest, the porridge is tasteless and the buns have no nutrition, but when you have no money, everything tastes delicious as long as it can fill you up," said Li, who does not even have enough money for the bus fare to get him back home to Guizhou, a province about 950 miles away, in China's southwest.

Nearby are Wu Kailing, 40, his wife, Wen Shengju, 40, and their daughter, Wu Ying, 14. They had not been able to find any work in their home province of Sichuan and saw something on television about this city's small commodities market. But they have not found work, and they have used up their life savings.

Wu said that his family has one-third of an acre of land at home and that that is not enough to feed his family, "so going home, we'd still go hungry." His one hope is for a better life for his daughter. "I don't care what she does in the future -- I just hope she won't be like us. I feel we are not treated fairly."

When Lin started the food line two months ago, the 1,200 portions he was giving away each day would last about two hours. These days every bit is often gone in 45 minutes.

Tuesday, March 3, 2009

How Far is Down?

The Dow, which Suze Ormond predicted could go as low as 8000 before bouncing back, is headed for new predicted lows of 6000. HSBC, Beneficial Household and Finance, is shutting down all eight hundred of its loan offices nationwide. 6100 jobs are gone.

The National Association of Realtors reports pending home sales are at a record low.

Gerald Celente, one of the gloomiest economic prophets out there, now announces in his Trends Report that "the greatest Depression has begun".

Unemployment is up, people are reportedly reluctant to accept job offers, preferring the bird in the hand. Mortgage lenders say the bubble of subprime mortgage foreclosures has moved on - now they're dealing with people who've lost their jobs.

It's pretty dim. So here's a question for you:

What, in your opinion, are the bright spots? What policies do you think show promise? Or more personally, how are you handling this onslaught of bad news...and when do you think things will begin to improve?

Sunday, March 1, 2009

All The News You Can Stage

What does it tell you about the state of the news business when Playboy Magazine gets a scoop? Yeah, I know, boys. You buy it for the writing. But is Playboy where you expect someone to dig to the bottom of what appears to be a carefully staged use of a "news" network to launch a Conservative anti-Obama campaign?

Here's the articles from the Daily Kos.

CNBC Hoaxes America
by Devilstower
Sat Feb 28, 2009 at 08:50:05 PM PST

It's starting to look like we may all be victims of the biggest product placement ad ever staged, and the product being placed is pure right wing astroturf. In short, America may have been scammed by a collaboration between CNBC and conservative media consultants.

According to an article appearing in Playboy, CNBC's "Chicago Tea Party" was a hoax planned well in advance of Rick Santelli's trading floor meltdown.

But was Santelli’s rant really so spontaneous? How did a minor-league TV figure, whose contract with CNBC is due this summer, get so quickly launched into a nationwide rightwing blog sensation? Why were there so many sites and organizations online and live within minutes or hours after his rant, leading to a nationwide protest just a week after his rant?

What hasn’t been reported until now is evidence linking Santelli’s "tea party" rant with some very familiar names in the Republican rightwing machine, from PR operatives who specialize in imitation-grassroots PR campaigns (called "astroturfing") to bigwig politicians and notorious billionaire funders.

If this article is correct, then CNBC has staged the news, not just a single incident, but a whole string of discussions and programs that have been at the center of CNBC's programming since Santelli's staged rant. And from the evidence -- including the fact that the website used to organize the so-called tea party was created well in advance by the same right wing sources who orchestrated the Obama-Ayers story -- it appears that at least some of those involved were in on the scam.

What we discovered is that Santelli’s "rant" was not at all spontaneous as his alleged fans claim, but rather it was a carefully-planned trigger for the anti-Obama campaign. In PR terms, his February 19th call for a "Chicago Tea Party" was the launch event of a carefully organized and sophisticated PR campaign, one in which Santelli served as a frontman, using the CNBC airwaves for publicity, for the some of the craziest and sleaziest rightwing oligarch clans this country has ever produced.

Maybe this is part of their new cost-cutting measures on CNBC. After all, it's a lot easier to just create the news yourself rather than report it. Or maybe Santelli, whose contract is up soon, was collecting a paycheck from other sources than just NBC.

But if there's any truth to this, more than an apology is going to be necessary.

Vast Rightwing Conspiracy to Torpedo Obama?
by whenwego
Sat Feb 28, 2009 at 05:43:20 PM PST

Remember Rick Santelli, he of the "Chicago Tea Party" fame? Some kind of options trader, he went on CNBC and ranted about how Obama was doing the country a vast disservice. Now it turns out that that rant was no accident, but part of a coordinated rightwing machine to stop Obama's reforms in their tracks.

Very disturbing news:

* whenwego's diary :: ::
* was just one part of a larger network of Republican sleeper-cell-blogs set up over the course of the past few months, all of them tied to a shady rightwing advocacy group coincidentally named the "Sam Adams Alliance," whose backers have until now been kept hidden from public. Cached google records that we discovered show that the Sam Adams Alliance took pains to scrub its deep links to the Koch family money as well as the fake-grassroots "tea party" protests going on today.

For example (please read the whole article at Playboy):

On the same day as Santelli's rant, February 19, another site called went live. This site was registered to Eric Odom, who turned out to be a veteran Republican new media operative specializing in imitation-grassroots PR campaigns.

It appears that this is the brain child of the shadowy Sam Adams project:

The Sam Adams Alliance, a nonprofit conservative organization, has started an ambitious project this year to encourage right-leaning activists and bloggers to get online and focus on local and state issues.

And the coordination is now expanding to business interests that are opposed to Obama's programs:

Industries from health care to agribusiness to mining that stand to lose under President Barack Obama's policy agenda are ramping up lobbying campaigns to derail or modify his plans.

The day after Mr. Obama formally laid out his policy goals in his first address to Congress, the former chief executive of HCA Inc. unveiled a $20 million campaign to pressure Democrats to enact health-care legislation based on free-market principles.

And don't bother to ask who is behind the Sam Adams Alliance, because all that is scrubbed:

But it’s the Alliance’s scrubbing of their link to Koch that is most telling. A cached page, erased on February 16, just three days before Santelli’s rant, shows that the Alliance also wanted to cover up its ties to the Koch family.

Okay, kids. I don't want to indulge in the screaming conservative conspiracy game. If you want to launch a sincere effort to derail a policy or a politician, you do it in an organized fashion. I accept that. As a journalist, I have one objection. Santarelli and CNBC. DO NOT stage events with special interests and then call it news. I hope the FCC slaps them silly but wait - the FCC is a joke, isn't it? We are the watchdogs now. I am growling.