Buy Citigroup stock if you want to pay for executive bonuses.

Yesterday’s announcement that Citigroup is repaying the $20 billion it owes the federal government in TARP (aka  “bailout”) funds rightfully focused on the news that yet another bank was returning the loan.  Many new stories–but not all and none of the shorter ones–also mentioned the curious fact that Citigroup was going to sell $20.5 billion in stock to finance the return of the money. 

No one yet has connected the dots between these two facts, so let’s do it now as Socrates would have, which means we’ll ask a series of questions to which we already know the answers.

  1. Why is Citigroup returning the money?  So they can have more flexibility in giving bonuses to executives (now that the crisis has passed).
  2. Why is Citigroup floating stock?  So they can pay off the TARP funds.
  3. What then are the new investors into Citigroup investing in?  Bonuses for executives.  

By buying the new stock, investors will water down the stock (since there will be more shares out now for a company worth the same, so each share represents a smaller piece than before).  The investment will also facilitate an increase in the company’s cost structure since it will enable the company to give out those bonuses.

I’m not a stock picker and I don’t give stock advice, but I don’t mind telling readers that I won’t be buying any of the new Citigroup stock.

Target misses the target with a traumatic holiday ad.

Target is a very savvy marketing company, and like all large marketers, it conducts a lot of consumer research and pretests all its commercials.

Yet after all of that, Target has come up with what I think is a very negative TV ad, one in which they get connected to a traumatic moment in the life of a dysfunctional family.   

Here’s a précis of the ad (and I may have some of the words in quotes wrong, but not the thoughts of those quotes nor the underlying emotional tenor):  Mom, Dad and Daughter are around the Christmas tree and Mom unwraps a large flat-screen TV.  Dad says something like, “I thought Santa was watching his pennies this year” through clenched teeth to which Mom answers, again with clenching of teeth, “Santa thought we could afford it.”  Back and forth it goes, each time a tad more hostility in the voices, back and forth between Mom and Dad, with a shot of Daughter listening, a little terrified.  The last shot is of Mom, an odd mixture of happiness and terror on her face, saying, “But what if Santa got a good deal.”  Then the screen cuts to the Target logo.

The cut to Target is ambivalent, meaning it could signify two things.  But both are bad for Target, as follows:

  • Either the ad is saying, avoid this tense scene about money by buying at Target.


  • Target has turned this mom into a heroine (but the heroine is near tears and the family seems to be falling apart right underneath the Christmas tree).

Christmas is an aspirational holiday.  We aspire to show our loved ones that we love them, which in the United States means buying them something that they really like.  There is nothing aspirational about a thinly veiled argument over money in front of the kid on Christmas morning in which both parents bandy about a symbol of childhood happiness, Santa, as if it were a symbolic rapier.  Not waiting to talk until the kids are off somewhere is certainly a sign of a dysfunctional family.  Why would Target executives think that linking to this disturbing family vignette would make people feel warm and cozy inside about buying at their stores?

Some surprising lessons from the 16th century

I have been rereading the updated 1972 edition of Fernand Braudel’s The Mediterranean and the Mediterranean World in the Age of Philip II, which originally appeared in 1949.  Some of Braudel’s conclusions about economic and political trends of the 16th century resonate today.

I’m just at page 470 (of about 1,200 pages!) and here’s what I’ve already learned about the 1500s in the Mediterranean region and the wider world:

  • The last countries entering any industry tended to quickly dominate older players.
  • When regional or national economies started to get strong banking industries, it tended to weaken and eventually drive out other industries and commerce.
  • In the trade between the west (Europe) and the east (Asia), hard currency, which in those days comprised gold and silver, tended always to flow to the east.
  • Worldwide weather changes (the beginning of “The Little Ice Age”) had profound effects on local and international economies and on the way people lived.

All four of these observations apply to the current situation.  Strange as it may seem, the U.S. is repeating many of the mistakes of 16th century Spain.

I have never thought to compare the current age to the 16th century.  Nor do I believe that these four observations on the 16th century demonstrate that we are living through its rerun. 

What I do think is that Braudel’s observations are truisms of economics and politics that transcend centuries and levels of economic development.  It’s a shame that we never seem to learn the lessons of history.

And here’s another truism that I know will dominate much of the rest of the book (as I remember from my reading of Braudel some 25 years ago):  a sure way to deplete your nation’s treasury and destroy your economy is to fight a distant war against a smaller but highly motivated foe on that foe’s land.

I’m referring to the 80-year war between Spain and its unhappy possession, the Netherlands, which started in 1568.  The similarities to Viet Nam, Iraq and Afghanistan are compelling and disheartening.

Once again a reporter tells us that the best way to save money is to spend money.

Featured on a number of portals and websites lately has been a article by Heather Boerner on four urgent home fixes people should make before they retire.  The idea is that if you plan to stay in your home, as most people do, it’s better to make expensive one-time repairs such as replacing the plumbing or the roof while you’re still working. 

It sounds like a sensible suggestion.  A major repair typically costs more in an emergency situation, e.g., when the roof starts to leak, and any major expense will play havoc with those on a fixed-income. 

But underneath the good advice, the ideological subtext still exhorts the reader to buy, buy, buy!, because it is by spending more now that you obtain the “control you will have over your life” that the article promises.  Once again, the answer to your problems is to buy something. 

As a stand-alone advice feature, the article is just fine.  But the daily accumulation of advice articles, virtually all of which are veiled shills for the purchase of a product or service, creates the sense in readers that it is only through engaging in a commercial transaction that all problems are solved and all needs satisfied; and that it is only in the context of commercial transactions that all interpersonal relations take place. 

Maureen Dowd speaks in code and everyone understands what she means.

Another low point in the endless and senseless coverage of a married professional golfer’s extramarital affairs was Maureen Dowd’s smarmy attempt to find a trend in the actions of Tiger Woods and White House social secretary Desiree Rogers who might (but might not) share some blame for party-crashers penetrating President Obama’s first state dinner and demurred from testifying to Congress about the incident. 

GenXProgress in the Daily Kos has already discussed the inherent racism in the connection between Tiger and Ms. Rogers, since the two people and two cases have absolutely nothing to do with each other except that both are at least part African-American.

What GenXProgress does not detail, and I will provide here, are the many racial code phrases Dowd uses or creates on the spot to explain why our anger at Tiger and Ms. Rogers is and should be similar in nature:

  • “…put themselves beyond authority…”
  •  “…perfectionist high-achievers brought low…”
  • “…both the golf diva and the social diva…
  • “…it was the assertion of personal privilege by Tiger and Desiree that was offensive…” (and not Ms. Roger’s assertion of “executive privilege” or Tiger’s desire not to air his dirty laundry in public, a desire he shares with virtually every public person caught in extracurricular hanky-panky).
  • “She mistook herself for the principal, sashaying around and posing in magazines as though she were the first lady…”

As far as I can tell, these phrases are all code for “uppity N*****s.”  Shame on Ms. Dowd for stooping so low.

The Daily News does a classic bait-and-switch using Tiger bait.

The low point of the unfolding coverage of Tiger Wood’s alleged multiple affairs has to be the December 4 article in the New York Daily News about the reaction of a man who would have been the father-in-law of one of Tiger’s purported playmates if the man’s son had not died in the 9/11 attack. 

The headline, “Almost father-in-law of alleged Tiger Woods mistress Rachel Uchitel: She’s a stranger to me now,” strongly implies two pieces of information:

  1. He’s angry at her
  2. The link to Tiger is the reason he’s angry.

After essentially repeating the “stranger” headline in the two short opening paragraphs, the article continues: “O’Grady said the sexy siren accused of being one of Tiger Wood’s mistresses is not the wholesome woman his son was planning to marry when he was killed on 9/11 – and when she became a national symbol of grief over the terror attack.  ‘She was a nice person.  She is not the same person anymore,’ O’Grady said.”  (Blogger’s note: while there were a few articles about Uchitel mourning her fiancée, she never became a “national symbol of grief.”)

When you read further down in the story, though, you learn that the potential dad-in-law has not seen Ms. Rachel since the 9/11 attack.  In other words:

  • “She’s a stranger to me now” is a statement of fact and not an expression of anger related to the Tiger link
  • The guy can reasonably have no idea what Ms. Rachel is really like now since he has by his own admission had absolutely no contact with her in eight years.

So what you have is an old-fashioned “bait and switch” of the kind that has always populated tabloid newspapers.  There is no news here except for the absolutely trivial fact that one of Tiger’s alleged girlfriends once was engaged to a 9/11 victim.  The Daily News report “beefs up” the story by injecting the emotions of a basically uninvolved third party in a misleading lead and opening.

Walmart commercials are becoming the new reality TV

I saw another new Walmart commercial that seems to be based on the new realities of the great recession and the 21st century family. 

In this one, the announcer says that it costs $45 on average to take a family (of four?) out to dinner.  Instead, the announcer suggests, with that Walmart mix of aggressive friendliness and friendly expertise, that mother (since it is a woman in the commercial) uses Birdseye frozen foods as the basis of a home-cooked meal once a month!!  The narrator concludes by triumphantly announcing that you’ll save $345 a year (the difference between the home-cooked meal and eating out times 12, I assume).

The Walmart message seems to have changed quite recently from the long-time exclamation to be happy because what you’re buying is cheap to a more nuanced plea: Walmart can help you deal with your family’s challenges.  The “you” is a woman, as there has yet to be a man shown in the two new commercials I have thus far seen.  (For an analysis of the other one, on Christmas without dad, see my November 25 blog).

But let’s peel away the explicit message, “we’ll help you save money while feeding your family” and see the underlying subtextual conversation.  I call it a conversation because Walmart is not trying to sell something.  Instead, it is responding to a reality, and in this case, the reality is the large extent to which U.S. families, especially in the middle class, eat meals out.  The storyline—once a month you cook in instead of eating out—reflects the trend of eating more meals away from home.  The average American now eats away from home six times a week.  Although the NPD Group reported in July that restaurant trips in 2009 are down almost 3% over 2008, Americans still spend 50% of their food dollars in restaurants and on average, eat out six times a week.

I’m going to end with an archetype, which is a kind of argument by anecdote.  The archetype is a generalized version of a group of people who share a number of characteristics, e.g., “he’s an archetypal first baseman—slow with power in his bat and a weak arm.” The classic archetype in politics over the past 40 years was Reagan’s “Welfare Queens.”  

The archetype I am imagining is a middle-class family in which both mother and father have professional jobs or a single mother is working and making a very good living, let’s call it six-figures in income in either case.  I have known a lot of families that fit this description and have the following weekly dinner menu: pizza one night; McDonald’s or Wendy’s on another night; some family style restaurant a third night—could be Eat ‘n Park, Denny’s or even Olive Garden.  Then there’s take-out Chinese.  We still haven’t gotten to mom and dad having a night out alone at Chez Fourstar.  Just as the subtext of one of the Walmart commercials is an appeal to the single mother, so is this one that mentions Birdseye meant to appeal to families that eat out all the time.  Otherwise, why the stress on not eating out once a month?

In its subtext, Walmart has begun, I believe for the very first time, to segment the marketplace and try to appeal to specific subgroups that have special concerns and needs.  That makes the new commercials a form of reality TV.

You always hurt the one you love: Why I pick on the New York Times.

In reviewing the first four months of my blog, I have noted my tendency to pick on the New York Times.  Why, you may ask?  Even if you don’t care, read on and make me feel good:

  1. The Times is still the national newspaper of record and its articles end up in hundreds of other newspapers and on hundreds if not thousands of websites.  Even in the age of radio demagoguery, that makes the Times one of the most influential voices in our various national dialogues.  The Times is still one of the very few media that define the terms of our national conversations.
  2. The right-wing of the news media typically hold the Times up as the number one example of the liberal-leftist bend of the main stream news media.  My analysis, however, consistently shows the New York Times as right of center, especially in ideological subtext. 
  3. I’ve been reading the New York Times daily since before Barry Bonds, who shares my birthday, was born.  Reading it over a cup of tea or coffee has been one of my morning rituals for decades.  It saddens me to see the Times chase the right-wing as it has done over the past 10 years, and it saddens me to see its standards of journalism decline in both large ways (do you remember Judith Miller’s false evidence of Iraqi weapons of mass destruction?) and small ones (all of the pop science articles that are cluttering up the Tuesday “Science” section).
  4. Although I have picked it on occasion, the Wall Street Journal is inherently less interesting because you know where it stands on issues.  The Wall Street Journal uses many propaganda tricks in its writing, especially in editorials, but you already know they are supporting conservative positions in economics and the right wing on values issues.  The Times has a greater reputation for fairness and impartiality, but to a large degree that reputation is unearned.

White people do it so it must be okay.

In its lead story on the front page this past Sunday, The New York Times continues its recent policy of injecting old-fashioned racial attitudes into the continuing discussion of the struggles many face in the current recession.  And again, the Times does it with photographs. 

The article, co-written by Jason DeParle and Robert Gebeloff, details how and why food stamp usage has soared in the U.S., with one in eight adults and one in four children now part of the program.  The premise of the article is that the stigma has faded concerning food stamps, which it backs up with many charts and interviews in an article that runs to one and one quarter full newspaper pages.  The authors propose that once food stamps were scorned as a failed welfare program by Americans, but now people are accepting its necessity. 

The article uses six case histories, all of white persons or families.  There are three photos in the print edition, all of whites.  There is also a slide show of 17 photos on the Times website.  Sixteen of these photos are of whites only or of their possessions, and all the whites in all these photos are named.  The one photo that has African-Americans or obviously Hispanic people in it is a shot of nameless people on line to buy food at a store (with no statement that any of these people actually take food stamps!).  Included among the 17 photos in the online slideshow are one of the empty fish tank of one white family on food stamps and a shot of a white (Christian) cross in the garden of another.

The subtextual message of course is that food stamps are okay when whites get them.  This racist expression reflects a more virulent variant that has served as the American attitude towards all welfare programs throughout our history: the programs are okay when only whites get them, but are no longer okay once blacks start taking advantage. 

Remember that the lead story on the front page of any Sunday Times will end up on the front page of hundreds of newspapers across the country that take the Times distribution service, so the words, images and subtext of what the Times prints quickly become part of the nation’s consciousness and inform the national dialog on issues. 

In recent months I have written three times on the Times’ use of photographs to subtly draw racial distinctions that reflect old prejudices, i.e. only blacks and Hispanics get welfare (August 10, 2009 and September 2, 2009) and only whites are among the highly skilled professionals who can’t find a job in the recession (August 10, 2009).  At the time I wondered if it was sloppy reporting, i.e., using one case history because you don’t have time to get any others.  Now I’m convinced that it’s part of the current New York Times ideology.

All the news that’s fit to distort. NY Times “Week in Review” section is a textbook in propaganda techniques.

The subtext of the entirety of the “Week in Review” section in yesterday’s Sunday New York Times was decidedly right-wing, especially when it comes to social/value issues.  The section was, in fact, a textbook in advanced propaganda techniques, to whit:

Ideological subtext through photographs:  On page 2 of every “Week in Review” is a montage of five photos with short, snappy headlines across the top of the page, each with extended captions; the captions always take the same structure – a short paragraph beginning with “The News” in bold followed by another short paragraph beginning with “Behind the News.”  Here are the five headlines with photos yesterday; in each case the text below the photo is triumphant in tone, except the last one:

  1. Mulling a Run: Lou Dobbs may be running for Senate
  2. Selling Books: Sarah Palin signing
  3. Testing Fealty: Conservative Republicans proposing a 10-point “purity” pledge for candidates
  4. Marshalling Forces: Glenn Beck announcing he’s sponsoring voter drives
  5. Backing Away: New Jersey Dems fail to schedule a vote for same-sex marriage, even though they have the votes to pass. The tone of the text below this photo is defeatist.

In the world of film, this succession of photos is called a “Cause-Effect” montage:  the juxtaposition of images creates a greater meaning beyond each image and that greater meaning, the ideological subtext, is that the first four images caused the fifth.  In this case, the Times is creating a meta-statement that right-wing/conservative activity has left/liberals on the run.  But is it really true? 

Argument by anecdote: The page 1 lead story in the section uses a series of anecdotes and conjectures to assert that the younger generations of feminists don’t care as much about the abortion issue as their mothers did because they have lived all their lives under Roe v. Wade and take it for granted.  For this reason, writer Sheryl Gay Stolberg wonders if the coalition building against the Stupak amendment will succeed.  Of course the only studies she shares show that there is no difference (nor has there been for 20 years) in attitudes about abortion between those over and under 30 years of age.  Her argument is based on conjecture and a handful of anecdotal quotes.

Labeling: In Louis Uchitelle’s story of why there are a lack of big projects like the Erie Canal or the Big Dig in the U.S. right now, he writes, “Mr. Obama’s Great Recession, by contrast, has been a milder affair… (than Roosevelt’s Depression).”  Since when did it become Obama’s recession, except in the empty rhetoric of his political enemies?  Uchitelle suddenly forgets eight Bush years of easy credit, little regulation of the financial markets and massive wartime spending, plus the Bush failure to heed the many warning signs that the economy was overextended and markets were overheated.

Wedging: Wedging is when you focus on the one area of common ground that you have with a group of people to make theme recognize the views of someone whose other views would be much more controversial.  Ignoring a myriad of other Op/Ed submissions on a variety of important topics, the Times chose to run a piece by Kenneth J. Wolfe, described as someone who “writes frequently for traditionalist Roman Catholic publications.”  But Wolfe is not writing on same-sex marriage, stem cell research, abortion, birth control or any of those issues that fiercely divide Catholics (and others).  No, “Kenny Choirboy” is advocating a return to the Catholic Mass.  The fact that “Kenny Choirboy” uses the relatively innocuous language issue as a wedge is clear in his last paragraph, in which he subtly ties a return to Latin mass to Pope Benedict’s broader ideological program. 

“At the beginning of this decade, Benedict (then Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger) wrote: ‘The turning of the priest toward the people has turned the community into a self-enclosed circle.  In its outward form, it no longer opens out on what lies ahead and above, but is closed in on itself.’  He was right: 40 years of the new Mass have brought chaos and banality into the most visible and outward sign of the church.  Benedict XVI wants a return to order and meaning.  So, it seems, does the next generation of Catholics.”