What's All This Then?

commentary on the passing parade

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Wednesday, August 24, 2011

Not entirely. I wouldn’t want to suggest that all uses of perfectly ordinary English words and phrases be declared illegal and that users be subjected to punishment on the level of forced listening to the rantings of Glenn Beck for seven hours a day for 30 days. Just that certain uses be banned for the sake of something that may not be achievable but for which noble warriors like myself continue to strive to accomplish for the benefit of all mankind - truth in advertising.

The words of course are not misleading or disingenuous in and of themselves - but their use in a certain context can render them pure evil. Like the first of two such words designed to mislead and misdirect - the word ON. It’s a perfectly harmless - often useful word when attached to something like a switch of some kind . On/Off. Understandable instructions. Or to describe a situation - On Vacation, On Board. It’s really a good word, not to be maligned most of the time. Except when used by the fictional character I’ve described here in the past, hunched over a desk in an office deep below the corner of Broad and Wall Streets in New York, dreaming up "reasons" why "the market" went up or down - to be dispatched to newspapers and radio and television stations where those "reasons" are dutifully reported as though they were the analysis of financial experts at those media outlets.

And of course the "reasons" - often as fictional as the person dispatching them from the bowels of New York’s financial district, can only carry weight with the use of the word "ON." "The market gained or lost umpteen points today ON good/bad unemployment numbers, housing starts or non starts good or bad earnings etc., etc, - you name it . It really doesn’t matter because if it’s not utter nonsense then we are living in a bizzaro world whose rules I do not understand. Indeed I sometimes think that may be the case because I keep reading and hearing the word "Kardashian" as though it is some sort of code that everyone should understand and I haven’t the faintest idea what it means.

But if the world that I DO understand still exists, I hope that some thoughtful Congress person will submit a bill banning the use of the word "ON’ in all stock market reporting. If successful and if an appeal to the Supreme Court fails, we may finally get to read and hear actual reasons why "the market" went up or down. Programmed buying and selling - generated by computers . Manipulation by specialists - as Richard Ney maintained for years in HIS stock market reports. Rumors - and of course Lemming syndrome. There are likely many other reasons for market movement and I would suspect that much of it is random movement for which no "ON" explanation is needed or makes sense.

Of course the word isn’t going to go away. That little old guy beneath the NYSE needs the work - and besides, in what era did the combination of the words "thoughtful" and "Congress" ever make sense?

Word number two - often the opposite of "ON" is "OFF" - but my desire for its banishment is not because of its use in that context . It’s because of it’s interminable use in advertising "good deals" in products and services - as they apply to prices. 10% off. 20% off. HUGE bargain day - 70% off. Which of course begs the question -10, 20 or 70 % off of WHAT?? We are never presented with a proven regular price to see how much we could actually save - just that the product or service or whatever is available at a discount of some kind. It’s misleading. It’s disingenuous. It should banned from use in advertising when associated with any percentage figure. Otherwise it’s O.K. to use - as in "get OFF your butt and down to our store for great bargains. Up to 70% discount on most items.." See - you can lie to people without using the word OFF. Maybe that unlikely Congress person can add OFF to that proposed ON bill.

And finally the disingenuous phrase "shipping and handling" as in you ONLY pay shipping and handling. I think I wrote about this once before, pointing out that what may seem like a wonderful opportunity - getting something at "no cost" just to introduce you to a product or as a bonus for something you’ve ordered - a second one absolutely FREE - just pay shipping and handling - is not in the least bit free. That’s because the shipping and handling "cost" often cover’s the item’s manufacture, the required postage and leaves enough for a profit!! I think I once provided an example of a cassette recording, the shipping and handling cost of which provided a handsome profit. But I have now come upon the granddaddy of all shipping and handling scams and most persuasive argument that could be mustered for a law to ban the use of the phrase in all kinds of advertising. It’s the case of the cookie scam.

The offer was in one of those advertising only magazines, offering products and services at allegedly discount prices. There are a number of versions of these kinds of mailings that come to our house, some in the form of magazines, others in envelopes stuffed with individual cards and paper ads. The cookie ad had a picture of some tasty looking cookies alongside a fancy looking box. I could identify chocolate chip and maybe raisin bran among the few in the picture - and what they were offering was to try half a dozen of their cookies at absolutely no cost. Just pay shipping and handling of $6.95 and they’ll send you six whole cookies. They’ll also include a $10 coupon that you can use if you decide to buy any cookies - but those first six - I repeat SIX sample cookies were absolutely free. Just pay shipping and handling of $6.95.

Just out of curiosity, I took six raison bran cookies from our cookie jar - it’s one of my favorite cookies - and weighed them on a sensitive scale. Just about four ounces. Presumably they would be packaged on some kind of container that would protect them from breaking. Let’s say the package would bring the total weight to seven ounces. They couldn’t be mailed in an envelope. They have to be mailed as a small package for which the trusty, neither rain nor snow not gloom of night US Postal Service says would be delivered at a cost $2.39. Let’s say the packaging would cost a buck. Believe me it wouldn’t but for the sake of argument we’ll call it a buck, making the total mailing cost $3.39. I don’t know how much "handling" could cost a cookie company. Putting six cookies in a box, sealing it up and maybe even applying the postage. Fifty cents maybe? A generous amount I would think. So we’re up to $3.59 for the cost of sending you those free cookies - leaving $2.96 for what? The cookies are supposed to be free but the cookie company is getting $2.96 more than it costs to send them to you. What do you think it costs to manufacture SIX cookies? Cookies are manufactured by the thousands , not by half dozen quantities, so the cost of manufacturing an individual cookie is likely a fractional amount - not the virtually 60 cents a cookie that you’d be paying if you accepted this company’s offer of FREE (just pay shipping and handling) cookies.

There may be companies that will send some product in the hope of pulling you in as a customer and that will charge you a shipping and handling cost that is actually less than the value of whatever it is they are sending you. But that would be a rare case. An exception. Most such offers are disingenuous at best. What they charge for shipping and handling covers all of their cost in sending you the "free" product. So if we can find that rare Congress person to create a law banning ON and OFF from being used disingenuously - maybe he or she can add the infamous "shipping and handling phrase" to banned if associated with the word FREE - in the same sentence, paragraph or page - and that would cover its use "continued on the next page.

Incidentally, the Dow was down a total of 593 points last Thursday and Friday and up 503 points from Monday through today. Pick your own "ONS"

Monday, August 15, 2011

If I believed in the notion of life after death, I could imagine that somewhere in the great beyond, Enoch Powell is looking down, shaking his head sadly and saying "I told you so." And I, from an ocean away from the riots which have beset the country of my birth, am shaking my head and asking what has become of the England I once knew.

It’s difficult to express my feelings about what has been happening for the past week without sounding at least somewhat bigoted. I cannot imagine mindless rioting in the days of my youth. Indeed, no such thing ever happened in the years I lived there. But those were also the years before the influx of immigrants from Africa, India, Pakistan, Bangladesh, the Caribbean and Lord knows where else. Those were the days before the Human Rights Act - a result of membership in the European Union. And those were the days when it would have been unthinkable for Bobbies to wear turbans or to be armed with anything more deadly than a truncheon - more often not even that. A London policeman was someone to respect and his air of confidence and authority was enough to maintain order . That’s not to say that there was no crime in the days of my youth - just not the kind of street crime of late that has shamed the image of a proud nation.

A lot of people have a lot of ideas about the causes of the rioting, including many pundits on this side of the pond who think they know England - particularly if they’ve visited at one time or another. Poverty has been mentioned. Mistrust or fear of police. Unemployment - and a few other reasons. Tottenham - the section of London where it started has been described as a mixed ethnic neighborhood suffering from the ills mentioned. I haven't been in Tottenham in decades, but still, what happened there affected me in a personal way. When I was maybe six or seven, my father had a store on Tottenaham High Road and we lived behind and above the store. My memories of the area are vague - but I know it was a safe place to live. London's East End is another area where the hooligans roamed. My paternal grandfather lived in a row house there. His toilet was outside his back door - not too pleasant at the height of a cold winter. There was no bathroom. He went to the public baths once a week a few blocks away - as did I for a short time when I lived with him. There was plenty of poverty in the East End of London in those days - but people didn’t really know they were poor. They handled their lot in life with as much dignity as they could muster. The thought of rioting in the streets - looting and burning and attacking innocent people because they were poor or for any other reason would have been considered madness.

Those were the days before the waves of immigrants that gradually changed the look and feel of much of the country. It became more and more noticeable on my visits back to the old country - the multiple languages being spoken and on street and store signs - the strange (to my eyes) clothing. And of course the mosques. England is a Christian nation. An official Christian nation. Yet when I lived there as a child, minority religionists felt reasonably comfortable. I should know, I was one of them. The Christian church didn’t try to oppress them and they in turn didn’t make any special demands on the state. I’m not saying that it was Edenic but there was no clash of cultures. There was just the one majority culture, little affected by what minority cultures existed.

Enoch Powell was looked on as a bigot after his "Rivers of Blood" speech and removed from a position he held in the Conservative Party. But underlying his views was a reality that no doubt has contributed to the conditions that exist today. Unlike the United States, England was never "a nation of immigrants." It wasn’t the kind of closed society that one finds in Japan - but it wasn’t set up for nor ready to become a nation of immigrants. Numerically it absorbed the waves of newcomers that arrived from Powell’s time on, but there wasn’t the kind of cultural blending between them and the native population that was needed to prevent what some view as the balkanization of many English cities and the creation of cultural ghettos in others. In a sense, England is now facing the kind of problems of racial and religious differences that we have had to deal with in our past and are still trying to put behind us.

The differences between the "English" English and the "new" English are only part of the problem. There were young and old criminals rioting who were neither black nor Muslim nor any other kind of "different" Englishmen. But those differences contributed in no small way to the "us against them" thinking of the roaming bands that burned, looted and killed over a three horror filled nights last week.

Besides prosecuting the criminals and sending some of them to jail - for life if those who murdered can be found and convicted, something will have to be done to bring the disaffected segments of the population into the mainstream - to replace hopelessness with hope - to instill in them the belief that England is their country, not their gang or their neighborhood or their religion or the country of their ancestors. It will be a difficult task, finding ways for government to help to improve their lot without creating the impression of pandering in response to violence. The governmental authorities are way behind in recognizing and dealing with the scope of problems that have been growing in plain sight for years. There will likely be more incidents as they struggle to find the right ways to bring peace to a troubled populace. They will first have to deal with the pain of accepting that the England that they - and I once knew, no longer exists.

Tuesday, August 09, 2011

You are after all, birds of a feather - all six of you. The five Supremes who decided that corporations were people and the "person" that is Standard and Poors who in turn has decided in his or her wisdom that US Government securities are no longer the safest of all investments It boggles the mind. The founders of this nation had the idea of creating a divided government of checks and balances so that no one person or one branch of government could ride roughshod over the rest of us. Yet here we are in an era where the Supreme Court does indeed reign supreme - think about it - and a private corporation/person can turn the nation’s - maybe even the world’s finances upside down.

My first reaction when I heard the news of S&P’s action was - who the hell is Standard and Poors to decide what the U.S. credit rating should be? Who or what gives them that power? And why have they chosen this moment to issue their downgrading proclamation- the first such in U.S. history? The answer to the first part of that question can be easily found in various descriptions of the company and its history such as this Wikipedia description. The second is open to all kinds of speculation - colored in no small part by what might be found in researching the answer to the first part. Seventy Eight years ago, at an economic time not that far removed from today’s economic conditions, newly elected President Franklin Delano Roosevelt needed to project calm and confidence and he did so in his inaugural address by saying that the only thing we have to fear is fear itself. Today, Standard and Poors is telling the world that it needs to fear the creditworthiness of the United States.

You have to wonder what thought went into the S&P proclamation. No other rating service has made such a determination. Undoubtedly the people at Moody’s and Fitch came to the same conclusion as the people at S&P - and just about everyone else in the country - that our governing bodies are in disarray. Or as any rational observer might put it - we have a bunch of spoiled children who have gotten themselves elected to Congress and if they don’t get their way, they’ll just shut the country down and say - so there!! And if that wasn’t bad enough, we have another group of politicians who are so determined to wound the president and assure his defeat in next year’s election that they too are willing to bring the nation to the brink of disaster to accomplish that end.

The S&P person is defending his/her/its decision, much in the same way that the so called tea party members of Congress revel in the consciousness of their own rectitude, oblivious to the damage they have caused. This is the same S&P that gave its blessing to Enron and to the bundled mortgage "securities" that were at the heart of the last near financial disaster. Yet for some reason, their pronouncements still carry great weight and one would think that with that knowledge and with the knowledge that they screwed up royally with the aforementioned stamps of approval, they would think long and hard before making a pronouncement about the creditworthiness of a nation. During times of great danger - war for example - the press has almost always been careful not to publish information that could be harmful to the nation - particularly to people already in harms way. When the government asks for restraint, they show it. They are no less a free press for complying but when called for, they put the country’s interest ahead of the right of the people to know. And to my mind, what S&P has done is the equivalent of a free press publishing information that could put service personnel at great risk at a time of war. They, he/she, it knew what the reaction would be in the world markets and how that would hurt countless individuals - but they went ahead anyway. Adding an unwanted legacy to the nation's first black president - and you have to wonder if they thought about that.

A word about that knee jerk reaction - the Dow down 600 plus points following 500 plus loss on Friday - and similar chaos around the world. It’s utter madness for which there was and almost never is a logical reason. That the stock of Companies X,Yand Z are worth considerably less today than they were a week or two ago because the tea party idiots came close to causing a default in US securities and S&P decided to give those securities a lower rating, makes no sense. Of course the worth represented by the prices of those stocks often makes little sense - but for them to be suddenly worth less for the reasons stated is beyond reason. I suppose those who would agree with me in that regard also knew they had no hope of reason prevailing and had no option but to join in the self fulfilling prophesy of a negative reaction to the downgrading or out creditworthiness. Of course some shrewd traders are making a bundle as the market drops - just as they do when it rises. But the rest of us are caught in the middle - even those who didn’t sell - wondering if anything will be left of our retirement accounts when we need them.

The fear of this market collapse, coming at a time when horrifying news is coming out of Afghanistan, is that blame will fall on the President’s shoulders - and if he isn’t able to shake it off and if the unemployment numbers don’t improve and the markets stay in the doldrums in the months ahead, he could lose his bid to be re-elected, which could be a greater disaster than everything that has happened to the country in the past year or two because of what is written in the title to these comments. If there is anything more dangerous than a company or person whose views can turn the world’s financial markets on their collective heads, it is a United States Supreme Court with a greater conservative membership than the five currently in the majority. Two or three justices could retire during the next five and a half years and if they are replaced by a Republican president- their rulings could change the very nature of this country for decades to come. And if that were to happen, the S&P pronouncement and the world wide reaction it caused, would bear a great portion of the blame. To their everlasting shame.

Friday, August 05, 2011

There are times when I am grateful that I don’t have to write about "The Passing Parade" for a living - that is to say - to have to write two or three columns a week. There is so much madness in the world at the moment - even trying to select a topic becomes burdensome - which is one of the reasons I haven’t written much here lately. That and the fact that I’ve been too busy with other things. But I don’t want to let the parade pass me by without at least an occasional observation on some of the crazy things that have been happening, so here are a few on a variety of topics which I’ll probably spread over a couple of days - not necessarily in any particular order - certainly not in order of importance. I will have some observations on the madness that has been Washington for the past few weeks and the madness that is the stock market this week. But first, a couple of bits of other kinds of madness.

Starting with a scandal that was THE lead "news" topic for days a couple of months ago - I have nothing but disgust for Newsweek and the ABC network for allowing themselves to be used by the alleged victim of sexual assault by the former head of the International Monetary Fund. I don’t know what happened in a New York hotel room in May - nor does anyone else but Dominique Strauss-Kahn and Nafissatou Diallo , the maid who accused him of sexual assault. I do know that within a day of the alleged incident, she was being represented by a PI attorney - a lawyer who sues for damages on a contingency basis - around 40% of anything awarded by the court. I do know it’s been reported that she was recorded telling a jailed boyfriend that "This guy is rich. I know what I’m doing." I do know that it’s been reported that thousands of dollars have been deposited in her bank account from various sources while she worked as a maid. And I do know that it’s been reported that an attorney plans to file a civil suit against the rich guy at any moment..

All of this while rumors abound that the prosecutors may drop the case because of her lack of credibility. I must admit that she sounds credible while expressing anger and shedding tears as she insists that she is telling the truth and that she wants Strauss-Kahn to go to jail. But "going public" at a time when the prosecutors are about to decide whether or not to proceed with the case smacks more of someone being "handled" in support of a PI case rather than a victim seeking justice. And print and electronic media presenting her making her case in public before it has even been decided whether it will proceed to trial smacks of the kind of journalism practiced by the News of the World.


I don’t care one way or another about the end of the football strike or lockout or whatever it was that was threatening this year’s football season but I am intrigued at what the two sides were arguing about, essentially how to split the total revenues earned by the game. In other words, the players - as a union - were not negotiating salaries for their members but how much of the game’s total revenues - ticket sales, television and the rest - the owners can keep and how much will be split among the players.

I have been a union member in the past and I am pro-union today - but this is a labor - management deal beyond belief. I would have expected there to be some comment from the union busting Republican politicians about such a deal - but not a word from Wisconsin Governor Walker or Ohio Governor Kasich. I think football is played in both their states, so you’d think they’d have something to say about the agreement, considering how much they’ve had to say about the public service unions that they deal with. After all, what kind of a country would we be if other organized individuals followed the football players approach to employment and other employers agreed to discuss their requests? I think those anti-union folk would call it socialistic.

I once worked for ABC television in Chicago as a member of the Director’s Guild of America. My pay was based on a rate negotiated by the DGA and it was a fair amount for the times. But just think what it might have been if the broadcast unions had been able to follow the NFL model. I would love to have been the negotiating union member who sits down with ABC management - the company’s financial documents in hand and opens negotiations with "O.K. - you made X gazillions last year and the estimates for this year are 20% better. How about a 60/40 split? 60% for us and 40% for you." I wouldn’t be as intimidating as a six foot six inch 300 pound offensive tackle - but I’d be holding the power of a total TV blackout in my hands if they didn’t least agree to 50/50.

Of course there are no unions holding anything close to the power the football players union wields. Relatively speaking there are only a handful of players and if they don’t show up for work - there’d be no professional football, which for some people would be an event close to the end of the world. As for me, I couldn’t care less. I know that professional football players have a relatively short career - Bret Favre notwithstanding - but the amounts they are paid border on the insane. Most if not all have been given free college educations that should have prepared them for some secondary career beyond exerting themselves for 30 second bursts on a football field for as few as five and maybe as many as a dozen or more sixteen game seasons. But at the rate they are paid for those games, they probably won’t need a secondary career. They should have enough to retire when they no longer can perform those 30 second bursts of physical exertion and live in luxury into their old age.

But you can’t fault those NFL negotiators. Their job was to get the best deal they could for their members and they sure seem to have accomplished that goal. Maybe we should hire them to negotiate on our behalf with those members of Congress who are trying to figure a way for us to pay all our bills and cut back on what we owe. That might result in a better outcome than those we elected to represent OUR Union - The United States of America - are likely achieve.