Another journalist finds time from covering real news to feel sorry for the rich

The title of the article is “Why the rich don’t feel rich,” but the true subject of the recent piece by U.S. News & World Report’s chief business correspondent Rick Newman is why we should have sympathy for the economic problems facing rich folk.

Newman finds four reasons why we should “cut some slack to wealthy worriers,” those moneyed folk who still have money worries or feel anxiety over their finances.  But if we examine Newman’s reasons to feel sorry for the worried wealthy we will find that not one of them holds up.

Let’s start with “They take risks,” the first reason Newman gives for treating the money problems of the wealthy with sympathy. Newman is repeating the old saw that the rich deserve what they have because they took the risks. I agree with Newman when he writes, “People who take risks earn higher rewards for good reason,” but why should we then feel sorry for the rich person who has made a lot of money and now has financial anxiety? Financial anxiety comes when you don’t think you’re going to be able to pay your bills. For a rich person to feel financial anxiety, he or she must be overspending. Do rich people have the right to live beyond their means just because they (or someone related to them) took some risk? Let’s not forget that poor people take risks, too—the risk of taking one job over another, the risk that someone will acquire your employer and fire you, or the safety dangers in many low-paying jobs.

(We have not even considered the question of what constitutes real risk: Connections, family money, the education to see or take advantage of a business opportunity—all these advantages mitigate much if not all of the risk of business ventures as we can see in the histories of such companies as Microsoft, Dell and Tumblr.)

Newman’s second rationale—“they’ve been burned”—is a variation on the first: In Newman’s mythical world of rich people who don’t inherit their money, the wealthy person has stumbled and had set backs before making the big bucks. That “stumbling” is another way to repackage “taking risks,” but with the focus on past risks that failed. My question is the same: Why does the fact that the road to wealth was bumpy make the rich deserve our special sympathy when they have money problems?  It’s as if only the wealthy face career bumps, which we know is untrue.

The last two reasons that Newman gives for sympathizing with the wealthy when they have money troubles are just silly:

  • “The soaring cost of college scares everyone.” Newman essentially believes that we should feel sorry for those people who won’t qualify for financial aid because they have too much money. Newman conveniently discounts the fact that the wealthy family has the opportunity to save more of its money, whereas poor and middle class family have much less disposable income.
  • “Taxes on the rich are probably going higher.” Newman, like all defenders of the privilege and wealth, forgets that for the last 30 years or so taxes on the wealthy have been too low, which has been one of the two major causes of our debt (the other being fighting wars without raising taxes to fund them).

We are prone to offer scorn not sympathy to the poor person, living hand to mouth, who gets into financial trouble at the first major illness or lost job As a society, we frown upon people taking handouts, even for necessities. We have laws that prevent people from spending their food stamp money on items that society believes is ethically suspect or matters of luxury, not necessity. To receive any kind of medical or other assistance, you have to run a gauntlet of means testing and investigation.  The Republican harsh campaign against the poor in the last election speaks to the belief in extreme self-sufficiency held by of one sector of the electorate.

Why then should we proffer sympathy for the rich person who is in an uncertain financial situation? That uncertainty sometimes represents risk, the flip side of which is the wealth the wealthy enjoy. More often though, the cause of the financial anxiety is spending too much—living beyond one’s means.

The mentality that asks us to feel sympathy for the rich who feel money anxiety is exactly the same mentality that bails out bankers but let’s mortgage holders rot. The same mentality doesn’t want to expand unemployment because it doesn’t trust workers to look for work if money’s coming in, but sees no need to unduly burden ethical business owners with safety regulations. The underlying belief is that the rich are different—better—and they get to play to a different set of rules.



Thumbs up to Boy Scouts. Thumbs down to parents who pull their boys from the Scouts

With the acceptance of gay Boy Scouts, the mainstreaming of gays is almost completed.  It won’t be long before the Scouts take the next step and allow gays to be Scout leaders and it won’t be long before gay marriage is legal in virtually every state, or at least in every northern and western state. The movement towards full acceptance of gays has been swift and overwhelming.

There are two cries in any liberation movement, be it for African-Americans, Latinos, women or gays. One cry is to be allowed to be oneself, to openly practice one’s ethnic, national or religious traditions. The other cry is to be allowed to be just like everyone else, to live in the same places, to fight the same wars and to join the same organizations. The new Boy Scout admissions policy has answered both cries.

Many readers may be too young to remember when the Boy Scouts was all there was for kids—Boy Scouts and Little League baseball. In the ‘50s and ‘60s there was very little in the way of developed activities for kids such as the chess, dancing, drama, soccer, football, lacrosse, video game and other leagues and groups to which most middle class kids have had access over the past 25 years or so.

My scouting story will probably sound familiar to many men in their late 50’s and older. Virtually all of my happy memories from my elementary and middle school years have to do with the Boy Scouts. And my brother used to say the same thing, too. I loved cooking over an open fire and I loved playing war games in the woods like “Capture the Flag.” I loved all the merit badges, jamborees and competitions. Most of the victories I still savor from my youth were Scout-related. The only friend I have left from before my senior year in high school was my assistant patrol leader the first time I was given a patrol to lead.

I loved the memory of the Scouts, long after I became a left-wing anti-war activist and could no longer stomach its single-minded patriotism and inherent militarism, long after I became too much of a wise guy to salute any flag. I thought briefly about my son becoming a Scout, but it was never a question: by the time he was old enough to join the Cub Scouts he was already a nationally-ranked chess player and very active in organized sports. He went to one Cub Scout meeting and didn’t like it.

How many other Boomer dads could tell the same or a similar story?

The Scouts may have lost its central place in the development of American boys into men, but it has not lost its symbolic place, which is why the news media has dedicated so much time and space to the new policy.  That the organization symbolizing traditional American values learned in the context of rural, preindustrial entertainments is now accepting gays is particularly offensive to the intolerant right.  The definition of American tradition now includes homosexuality and that makes the right wing angry and insecure.

It also gives the many right-wing demagogues an enormous red flag to wave at their constituency for the purposes of raising funds and organizing propaganda activities. These religious right-wingers certainly have every right to take their boys out of the Boy Scouts and to start their own organization, but I’m guessing that not many parents will withdraw their boys from Boy Scouts. While the families with boys in the scouting movement nowadays tend to be more socially and politically conservative than average, they are parents first and foremost.   Not only is it disruptive to the child to pull him from an organization he likes, it represents an overt act of socially unacceptable prejudice.

But we shouldn’t discount the worst instincts of humans. After all, we know that vast numbers of people in many areas of the country created new organizations to avoid sending their children to school with African-Americans. In the ‘70s and ‘80s, part of America developed a shadow education system that paralleled public school but suborned segregation.  I have no doubt some will try to establish a shadow Boy Scout organization for boys that will hold the same values and does the same things as the Boy Scouts does, but denies admission to gays. The open question is how successful these hate-driven people will be.

Listification turns knowledge into tidbits of information

10 Things You Need To Know This Morning

13 Jokes That Every Math Geek Will Find Hilarious

The 20 Most Valuable Brands In The World

7 Tornado Apps For Your Smartphone That Will Alert And Protect You

These headlines are four of the five links on Google News to Business Insider recently. Business media in particular seem enamored with lists, which they routinely use to organize disparate material, serve as examples of an idea or trend, or help to sell a category of products.  The four articles serve as examples of all of these types of lists.

But lists can do many other things: they can also convey a process in simple terms, such as 10 things to do before retiring. I frequently write about lists which result from applying a set of ideological assumptions to cities, states or other boundaries, as in the best cities in which to live; typically these assumptions favor low taxes and the automobile-and-mall culture of the suburbs and discount the importance of mass transit, cultural institutions, hospital systems and major universities. Other lists allow organizations, regions or industries to do some serious self-congratulating, as in the lists of best doctors or lawyers, or the top “40 under 40.”

Ideological subtext lurks behind most of the lists we see in the news media. Just take a look at the four Business Insider articles:

  • “13 jokes…” repeats the myth of the intelligent person (math) as a socially maladroit unathletic loser (geek).
  • “20 most valuable brands…” glorifies mindless consumerism by portraying in a positive light not just these brands, but the very idea that brands hold real value.
  • “7 tornado apps…” sells smartphones and the idea that more technology is always good.

The compilers of many lists we see in the mass media commit the sin of Procrustes, who was an ancient Greek who had a bed of one size only. If visitors were too tall for the bed, Procrustes would cut off their legs; if too short; he would put them on a rack and stretch them out. In making a list, the sin of Procrustes is get to a certain number, 7 or 12 being the most common, only by repeating what is essentially the same idea twice in slightly different words or to list two distinct ideas as one.  We can see the sin of Procrustes also at work in lists of hottest people or top doctors, because these lists will always seek to fill socially necessary spots: A “top docs” list will have at least one physician in every specialty, whereas the hottest celebrities of the year will be a rainbow of ethnic types, and nowadays of sexual proclivities as well.

You will also see contradictory advice on lists, such as in a recent list of why rich people are different. The contradictions usually derive from the writer’s need to get to 10 or 12 or 15, or because the ideological imperative is so strong that it overcomes any logical qualms.

The more bogus the list, the easier it is to write. It’s hard to do real research to determine which cities have the highest mass transit ridership or which countries are least dependent on fossil fuels for electrical generation. It’s pretty easy, though, to come up with seven or eight reasons to go to one college instead or another; it’s getting to 10 which may take a few more minutes! And for writers of financial planning articles, it’s particularly easy, since “invest in stocks,” “consider immediate annuities,” “retire later” and “open a 401(k)” will make most of the lists.  Easiest of all to write are the lists that the writer completely spins out of thin air, such as one science writer’s outrageous list of 10 dumb things he claims to have learned from brilliant people.

I’m not against all lists in the mass media. Lists that reveal hard data in simple terms can be useful, such as a list of cities with the largest population or the areas that receive the most rainfall.

What I dislike are the artificial lists that are put together by selecting ideology-tinged criteria or by pulling from the air a disparate set of ideas, pieces of advice or personalities and organizing them by a common theme. These lists almost always are Trojan horses for propaganda.

Can we get on with addressing the challenges of global warming?

A recent study found that over the past 20 years, scientists have written more than 4,000 academic papers on global warming and a nearly unanimous 97.1% of them agreed that climate change exists and is primarily caused by humans.

To quote study leader, John Cooke of the University of Queensland: “Our findings prove that there is a strong scientific agreement about the cause of climate change, despite public
perceptions to the contrary.”  The authors of the survey said ”the finding of near unanimity provided a powerful rebuttal to climate contrarians who insist the science of climate change remains unsettled.”

Now isn’t it time for the mass media to stop the coy and distracting game of “does it or doesn’t it exist”  that keeps us from doing more about the challenges of global warming?

As Bill McKibben details in Eaarth, there is no question any more of the existence of global warming. It’s happening and it’s going to keep happening.  What that means is that securing the Earth as a safe habitat for human beings will entail far more than replacing fossil fuels with solar, wind and other renewable energy sources.

Here is some of what must be done besides shifting our source of fuel:

  • Secure coast lines and other areas where extreme weather events are likely to increase both in frequency and intensity. Achieving this goal will involve building barriers, dunes, dams and bulwarks; developing commercial and residential buildings that can withstand more intense weather; improving evacuation and emergency response procedures; and reforming the insurance market in high-risk areas.
  • Reduce the population, hopefully by birth control and not famine, war or epidemic.
  • Increase the use of mass transit, especially in the suburbs, and increase the cost of car ownership and operation everywhere.
  • Grow the local food movement, which saves energy both in growing and distributing food.
  • Develop technologies to address the harm that we have already inflicted on the Earth; e.g., remove the carbon dioxide from the oceans and seas and store it in a way that doesn’t interfere with any terrestrial ecosystem; turn polluted or salt water into potable water and deliver it to drought-plagued regions throughout the world.

This short list does not include a lot of other actions we should take right now to address global warming, and by address I mean 1) slow it down or stop it; and 2) deal with the mess we’ve made.

At this point, anyone who spends any time or money in the mass media denying either global warming or human complicity in it is acting irresponsibly and is probably making money through climate change denial in one way or another. They are no better than the money lenders in the Temple. Or the lawyers who constructed the web of falsehoods that purported to serve as the legal basis for the U.S. gulag of torture sites.

One aspect of the global warming denial movement has never made sense to me. The movement depends on funding from a handful of extremely wealthy folk and companies holding large fossil fuel and industrial assets. You’d think that these people would have the most to gain from keeping the Earth clean and safe from the ill effects of global warming. After all, they and their heirs are going to inherit a pretty good chunk of that Earth.

The rich folk and their access to politicians have kept taxes low in the United States and enforced austerity economics across the globe. We know they can get together at Davos, Jackson Hole, Dubai and wherever and impose a new order in which their assets are protected from the destructive vagaries of global warming.  That the very richest people regardless of their holdings have not yet forced governments everywhere to take bold and aggressive steps to combat global warming suggests that our species may in fact carry a collective death wish.



The real score in Bush II v. Obama on civil rights: the country loses

Persecuting medical marijuana merchants. Sending drones after U.S. citizens. Trying to restrict access to the Plan B birth control pill. Making special investigations of right-wing groups. Fishing through the records of Associated Press reporters.

It looks as if the Obama Administration is continuing in the disgraceful tradition of the Bush II Administration when it comes to trampling on the rights of the citizens of the United States.

Of course, we could look on the bright side: At least we aren’t torturing anyone anymore.

Despite healthcare reform and a much-needed increase in taxes on the wealthy, the Obama presidency has basically come down to not being Bush II-Cheney. In fact, didn’t Obama win what has turned out to be an undeserved Nobel Peace Prize for not being Bush?

Here are some of the ways that Obama has proven to be nothing more than “not Bush”:

  • We started no new wars and reduced our commitments in the two that Bush II started.
  • Evacuating and caring for people went a whole lot better after Sandy than after Katrina.
  • The Benghazi confusion looks like a well-executed Busby Berkeley number compared to the utter incompetence with which Bush II’s folks handled the early occupation of Iraq.
  • There are no additional prisoners at Guantanamo under Obama.

But the Obama Administration uses the same excuses and justifications as Bush II did for its actions: national security; the president has the right to supersede the law; somebody low down on the totem pole goofed.

Obama’s politics are centrist in most ways, and he has certainly put together a more competent team than Bush II did.  But it shares the basic operating principles of the Bush II Administration when it comes to civil rights and flaunting the law. Of course, most administrations since Lincoln’s 150 years ago have tried to gain power for the executive branch in areas related to security, defense and civil liberties.  Obama is merely following in the often illegal footsteps of not just Bush II, but also of Reagan, Carter, Nixon, Johnson, Kennedy, Eisenhower, Truman, both Roosevelts and Wilson, among others.

We shouldn’t forget that some of the most egregious executive abuses have been covered up, e.g., Reagan’s deal to sell arms to Iran if it held the hostages until after the 1980 election or the fact that there was no military reason to drop the atom bombs. Then there was the collective willingness of the political and media classes to assume that bad intelligence and not the lies of Bush II and his people was what misled us into thinking Saddam Hussein had weapons of mass destruction. The Obama decision not to pursue criminal cases against the architects of the Bush II torture policy fits nicely into this tradition.

It seems as if only those willing and wanting to expand the power of the executive branch ever get the financing to make a legitimate run at the presidency. Or perhaps once in office, the seductions of power and the inertia of past executive abuses by our continuing government entice the new president to think his (and maybe one day her) actions are different, allowable or absolutely necessary for national security.  Whatever the reason, every president chips away a little bit more of our freedom.

The tragedy is that most people and the mass media are so afraid of terrorism and crime that they don’t mind this whittling away of basic rights. That is, of course, except the one right that doesn’t exist except in twisted interpretations of the second amendment: to own and carry guns without restriction.

Oreos decides that a “Sesame Street” approach will sell cookies to adults

Adults read the New York Times.

While the Times does not release readership demographics segmented by age, it lets potential advertisers know that the median age of its readers is 52, meaning that exactly half of all readers are older than 52. By the way, that’s about 15 years older than the U.S. median age of 37.1.  The Times also tells us that 60% of its readers have gone to college. Very few children age 12 or under are academically gifted enough to handle college and among those 12 year olds who can do college work, a miniscule number have parents who insensitive enough to send them.

We can assume that any advertiser in the New York Times understands these demographics and is seeking to convince adults to buy its products or services. A full-page ad in the Times does not target children.

That makes the Oreo ad on the back page of the front section of today’s New York Times perhaps the most overt example ever of infantilization of American adults, the process by which American retailers and the mass media encourage adults to retain their immature or juvenile hobbies and entertainment habits of their childhood.

Oreo is the bakery product created by squeezing a thick sugar-water paste that Nabisco, its maker, calls “creme” between two round chocolate cookies.  For decades it has been one of the most, if not the most popular packaged cookie in the United States, and certainly the most advertised.

Today, Oreo spent tens of thousands of dollars to give New York Times readers a multi-panel cartoon version of a music video that can be found at its website. The video visualizes a peppy children’s song with animation, language and colors associated with pre-school education to re-imagine three tales: the three pigs plus generalized myths about vampires and great white sharks. Each story—and each verse of the song, which is sung with the child-like and child-loving joy of Raffi or Sherry Lewis—starts with the phrase “I wonder if I gave an Oreo to…”: first to the big bad wolf, then to a vampire and then to a shark. In all cases, the harmless-looking villains share the Oreo with their intended victims (pigs, a girl and baby seals) and everyone becomes friends.

Every element of style in sound, visuals or language in the video has been used before and almost always to communicate specifically to children. The same can be said for the print ad—every visual and language detail tells us that the ad is meant for children. The ad comes with a child’s mentality. It presents the colorful and happy world we often present to children. The primitive illustrations with the varying size of letters define a convention of children’s book design.  The basic idea—Oreos can make nasty people behave in a friendly manner—has the magical simplicity of a preschool child’s reasoning. There is no attempt to speak through the child to the parent. The ad simply speaks to children, mostly those under the age of eight.

But the audience who will see the ad in the Times is overwhelmingly adult. Oreos must think that this puerile approach will appeal to adults.

Oreos has broadcast series of TV commercials appealing to adults over the past few years.  In one, a father and son eat Oreos in the traditional way of licking the “creme” before devouring the cookies.  The TV spot may appeal to nostalgia for childhood—eat Oreos just like you used to as a kid—but it does so in an adult way: connect with your child by eating one of your favorite treats from childhood.  In another Oreo ad for adults, two slacker-looking 20-something males in a lifeboat on the ocean argue about the proper way to eat an Oreo. Humor for both children and adults can turn on the incongruous, but the situation is sophisticated enough to qualify as for adults.

By contrast, the “I wonder if I gave an Oreo…” print ad and online video treat the audience as children.  Publishing the print ad in adult media therefore infantilizes adults because it assumes that adults will respond to the same simple stimuli that attracts preschoolers.  If we assume that Nabisco has the best market research available, there must be a body of information that says that this approach will work. Nabisco is speaking to adults as if they were children because its marketing executives think we are children and respond to children’s entertainment.

I can just imagine that it’s bedtime and the chief executive officer of Nabisco brings me and my significant other a plate of Oreos and big glasses of milk.  We crunch on the cookies and sip from our plastic cups, while he gently reads us a bedtime story about the three pigs. No huffing and puffing, though, which is a good thing, since now I won’t have a nightmare about wolves (or vampires).  They really are our friends, at least as long as we keep feeding them Oreos.  I wonder if eating Oreos can reverse global warming?


March of Dimes aspirational message has kids striving for celebrity

Ideological imperatives shine through most strongly in the details that marketers or writers select to adorn the basic idea or narrative of a piece of communications.

That’s a mighty fancy statement. What it means is that be it a TV show, print ad, news feature or charity solicitation, the creator of a piece for the mass media selects details to exemplify or underscore the main message. These details often contain unproven ideological assumptions or widespread societal beliefs which convey a hidden message, which is often more important or compelling than the main one. For years, I have called these hidden messages “ideological subtext.”

We can see the insidious affect of ideological subtext in a current marketing campaign for The March of Dimes called “I’m born to.” Now I have nothing against the March of Dimes. It is a wonderful organization that has raised a lot of money to fight childhood diseases, first polio, and for decades now prevention of birth defects and infant mortality. I can say nothing bad about the organization or its mission.

But this latest campaign, built around the phrase, “Every baby is born to do something great. Help them to be born strong and healthy,” uses details to express the following hidden message: The most admirable thing to be is a performance celebrity.

Most people will first see the campaign as bus shelter boards or other printed enticements to visit the website.  The bus shelter board I saw shows two toddlers: the boy is banging a drum while the girl is in a ballet dress. The website has no other photos of children emulating adults professions—no one with a stethoscope, microscope, fire hat, teacher’s long ruler, jack hammer or plumber’s wrench.

“Doing something great” is reduced to entertainers who perform, i.e., celebrities. Some may say it’s cute, but telling kids that they should strive for celebrity status occurs on almost a daily basis in the news media.

The theme line for the campaign says “Every baby is born to do something great,” which is just not true, unless we redefine “greatness” to mean to be good at a job, kind to others and an active member of society.

But that’s not the definition that the March of Dimes gives us in the images. The images tell us that greatness resides only in performance celebrity. That’s also the definition of greatness we get in lists of daily or monthly birthdays published by many periodicals. It’s the definition we get when we peruse articles built on childhood memories of holidays or favorite recipes. It’s the list we get in marketing blurbs that mention famous alumni of schools. Or when the news media asks non-political famous people their opinion on key social issues.  Or when a TV news reporter wants to report on a rare disease.

There’s something a little disturbing about the words “Every baby is born to do something great,” even if the definition of greatness is not assumed to be “achieving celebrity status.” Not every child can be great, even if we expand the definition of greatness to include scientific, athletic, literary, business and social achievements. In fact, in the current epoch in which upward mobility has slowed almost to a standstill, college costs have skyrocketed, public schools have been gutted of enrichment programs, rich parents actively spend exorbitant amounts of money to con the system and entry level opportunities often come down to “who you know”—in today’s world there is perhaps less chance of a disadvantaged talented person achieving greatness in any field than at any other time in American history. In other words, not only can’t every baby achieve greatness, but most babies have no shot at greatness.

At least the March of Dimes wants all children to be healthy and it is doing a lot to attain that lofty goal.  No one should punish it for expressing ideological assumptions that run ubiquitous today. But you can contribute to the March of Dimes outside of its “I’m born to” campaign and make a point of telling the organization that you didn’t like the campaign because it subtly endorses the idea that all children should strive to be celebrities.



Coke global marketing campaign links its unhealthy beverages with healthy living

Behind Coke’s international marketing campaign to insinuate that the beverages it sells are part of a healthy lifestyle lurks the hidden message that Coke doesn’t care what you drink—as long as it’s a Coke product.

That’s not how the company puts it. What Coke says, in a full-page ad in many national (and probably international) print media yesterday, was “At Coca-Cola we believe active lifestyles lead to happier lives. That’s why we are committed to awareness around choice and movement, to help people make the most informed decisions for themselves and their families.”

Now let’s take all the squeamishness out of this soggy statement; change into explicit language the indirect references to the now worldwide epidemic of obesity and to the myth that exercise is a magic elixir; and dismantle the buzz words like “awareness” and “informed decisions.”  In other words, let’s translate the message directly into common sense English. Keep in mind that the following is my rough translation of what Coke is saying: “We know that many of our products contribute to obesity, so we offer other products. We’re putting some of the enormous profit we’re making into exercise programs that are linked with our brand names in hopes that people will think that because they are exercising more they don’t have to cut down on calories to lose weight.  The important thing is that no matter what people drink that they buy a Coke product.”

(I hate using the word product to apply to food because the word “product” suggests unnatural processing, but in Coke’s case it mostly makes sense.)

Instead of its usual collage of happy people drinking Coke, the print ad is a red background with the outline of an original Coca-Cola bottle and the text reversed out in white. The print ad may represent a landmark in advertising because it’s the first time (or the first time I have seen) that a Coke or Pepsi ad is devoid of photographs of happy people. Of course the website to which the full-page ads send viewers,, more than makes up for the lack of smiling faces and Coke-filled bellies in the print ad.

After the code-phrase encrusted first paragraph of the ad, Coke lays out its four commitments:

  1. Sell “low- or no-calorie beverage options” in every market.
  2. Support physical activity programs, again in every market
  3. Label its products with nutritional information.
  4. Not advertise to children under 12.

There is something deceptive about all four of these commitments:

1. The commitment to sell “low- or no-calorie” beverage options (the basic idea that we can drink what we want as long as it’s a Coke product) assumes that these “low or no” drinks are healthy.  In fact, studies have shown that some types of artificial sweeteners may cause cancer and that drinks with artificial sweeteners give people a greater appetite and so contribute to increased calorie intact and therefore to weight gain and obesity. Coke also sells a line of energy drinks, which studies are now showing are bad for you. Coke also sells juice products loaded with either sugar or artificial sweeteners. That leaves us with Coke’s 100% real juice and water offerings. The problem with the juices is that they are a calorie-rich substitute for fruit; it is healthier to eat an orange than to drink the equivalent amount of orange juice.  The only truly healthy product Coke sells is Dasani water, which Coke has admitted is nothing but tap water.  Instead of dividing its product line into calorie and low/no-calories, Coke could divide it into products that are unhealthy and products that are healthy, but substitutes for food/drink that would be healthier or less expensive.

2. Coke’s support of physical activity programs across the globe is merely a form of marketing. They brand all the fitness programs they sponsor with their name and therefore benefit from the perceived enhancement of their brand through its association with these programs. Coke is then able to advertise its commitment to physical exercise which suggests a commitment to good health; and advertise it they do—on TV, in print, on the Internet and through elaborate social media campaigns.  Finally, the support of physical activities (combined with similar moves by makers of other unhealthy comestibles) contributes to the myth that increasing physical activity is equal to good nutrition and reduced calories when trying to lose weight.

3. Coke provides on its labels only the information required by government regulation.

4. Coke may not place ads on “SpongeBob Squarepants” or whatever Princess tripe Disney is currently purveying, but children also watch Superbowls, basketball playoffs and other sporting events.  Coke’s responsible marketing commitment evidently doesn’t extend to sports.

In other words, these commitments to social responsibility merely repackage Coke’s marketing, advertising and product development strategies in terms that try to make it seem as if Coke actually does care about the communities it serves.  The question is, is it fooling anyone?

Let’s end this screed against Coke’s deceptive new social responsibility marketing campaign by returning to the first words of the first paragraph of the all-words full-page ad: “At Coca-Cola we believe active lifestyles lead to happier lives.” Happiness, that’s what Coke is selling. Like all the hawkers of products that we really don’t need or which are not good for us, besides the product the company is also always selling the idea that happiness is achieved through buying something.

Consumerism: It’s the real magic elixir that cures all ills.

MET dumbs down exhibit of punk fashion into an amusement park fright night

The Metropolitan Museum of Art’s new exhibition on fashion, Punk: Chaos to Couture, raises a basic question about the modus operandi under which the MET and other museums operate: is the museum a place to contemplate or to be titillated?

For contemplation of the influence of the punk style on high fashion is impossible in this installation, which unfolds as a noisy maze of blinking lights set to an aural wall of the crude clashes and pulsations of punk rock. Each room seems like a different movie version of not a punk gathering, but a psychedelic party of the 1960’s. Viewers parade down narrow passageways which turn back on themselves and see dress after dress hanging on mannequins with overblown punk-like wigs that look more like dust mops teased into a chaotic but freestanding mess. The display of fashion wear is broken up with large screen videos of punk-looking men playing musical instruments.  I can only assume they are former punk rock stars.

Because the display rooms are narrow and unidirectional, the light pulsations so incessant and the walls all textured or covered with imagery, walking through the exhibit seems like a trip through an elaborate “fright night” at an amusement park. Instead of a new ghost or goblin suddenly appearing, it’s a new but still raucous beat or a new combination of bright colors.  If you like the music, it’s an easy five to twenty minutes of floating among phenomena of a former youth culture.

But it was impossible to study that youth culture, or that culture’s effect on designers of expensive clothes for rich folk.  The best you could get was a sensation or two before your sensations were numbed by the totality of sensations coming at you at one time.

The exhibit will attract the fan of amusement parks like Universal Studios or Epcot Center, but what does it have to do with the mission of the museum or even that of its notable costume department?  That mission, by the way, is “to collect, preserve, study, exhibit, and stimulate appreciation for and advance knowledge of works of art that collectively represent the broadest spectrum of human achievement at the highest level of quality, all in the service of the public and in accordance with the highest professional standards.”

While the Punk: Chaos to Couture exhibition collects and preserves period costume (which may or may not represent “human achievement at the highest level of quality”), it does not give us any way to appreciate it except through crude titillation.  What small nuggets of knowledge found in the exhibition, such as the influence of graffiti or of the “do-it-yourself” aesthetic, are completely overwhelmed by the sensory overload.

This exhibit could mark another watershed in the dumbing down of America. It’s one thing for both the history and the science museums in a provincial capital such as Pittsburgh to focus on sports. It’s quite another for the flagship museum of the cultural center of the United States, if not the world, to create an exhibition in which it is impossible to engage with the artifacts on display in any intellectual or even any sensual way. (I can only wonder what the Roman poet Horace would have said; he was the one who postulated that all great art must educate as well as amuse.)

We have not even considered the question of cost. To erect this collection entailed far more than arranging bricolage in displays and hanging clothes on mannequins. The textured walls, music rights, over-teased wigs and elaborate AV and acoustical system must have driven up costs. But then again, the MET enjoyed the sponsorship of a fashion design house and a major publisher.

What is so interesting about the exhibit is that it’s as false as the fashion it portrays.  The punk mentality was one of crude, do-it-yourself grunginess. Yet fashion designers imitated it to produce expensive goods for a very exclusive clientele that basically lived in luxury, so that punk haute couture is really a form of slumming, a favored pastime of the ruling elite for millennia. In a similar way, the elaborate walls and halls of the Punk: Chaos to Couture exhibition are meant to bring the punk mentality alive. Instead they come off as a homogenized scrubbing away of the grit and with it the meaning behind the grit, leaving behind a few empty gestures—style without substance.

College students grab low-paying jobs and stay in debt

When taken together, four current news stories depict the massive grift that American education has been running on the American public for the past decade or so.

Let’s start with what on the surface appears to be good news for college graduates: they’re the ones getting jobs. College grads are the only employment group to have gained net jobs over the past five or so years. Unemployment among college graduates is much lower than among those without a degree. The most recent unemployment rate for college graduates ages 25 and older was only 3.9%; 7.4% for those with a high school degree.

But what kind of jobs are out there for college graduates? News stories about another trend tell a disappointing story. Most of the new jobs created since the great recession began have been low-paying. Nearly 40 % of the 1.7 million jobs gained since the so-called recovery began have been in 3 low-wage sectors: food services, retail, and what is called employment services and means office clerks.

In other words, college graduates have been taking low-paying jobs. That goes a long way to explaining the mounting debt incurred by graduating students. Some would say that it’s a classic bait-and-switch when colleges offer expensive degrees knowing that many if not most of the students will get jobs that won’t allow them to pay off their loans. Kids think they’ll write TV ads and they end up penning short articles for Internet news services at $25 a pop. They think they’ll be television news reporters and they end up as administrative assistants in the sales department of a local radio station. They think they’ll get a position with a corporate law firm and they end up doing contract legal grunt work at $25 an hour.  Or what about the kids with degrees who are hauling garbage, driving taxis, filing papers and staffing call centers? It’s tough to pay off $100,000 in college loans on the pay you get at any of these jobs.

Those who hold colleges blameless for the low pay in so many professions should consider one more trend: Study after study shows that enormous numbers of kids get accepted to colleges needing remedial work. For example, a study of scores on the ACT test shows that 48% of all high school graduates need remedial work in science.  Other studies reveal that half of all students in California need remedial help in English and math and 40% in Colorado. One impetus for increasing online college courses is to inexpensively address the issue of kids arriving on campus without the basic skills to do college work.

My question—no, my accusation—is: Why do colleges accept students who aren’t ready to do the work?

By accepting and enrolling students who need remedial work, colleges participate in a vast and growing fraud on American families. Wouldn’t the kids not ready for college be better off in community colleges working on their English and math skills? Or in a state-sponsored vocational program that trains people for one specific career?  I do not believe that any accredited 4-year college should be permitted to accept students who need remedial work before they can tackle real college, nor should any 4-year college or university offer remedial courses. It’s immoral to take money for higher education and deliver high school courses.

Now I’m all for universities establishing special extensions to offer high school grads the opportunity to improve their basic skills enough to be able to take college courses, but if and only if they charge traditional community college prices.

Encouraging kids who don’t really belong in college to take another route will solve half the problem, as it will ease the national college debt burden.  But that still doesn’t address the fact that so many jobs pay so little nowadays. To solve the problem will take what it has always taken: Greater unionization. An increase in the minimum wage. Taxing the rich to pay for better public education and non-college training.