Friday, January 31, 2014

1286 Banking Ammunition

Let’s talk about the poor maligned bankers, those bedraggled hangdog souls whose only goal is to help you grow your money and keep what you have safe.


You say we stopped throwing bricks at their windows as soon as the recession ended?  Two errors here.  If the recession ended for you, you’re probably living in a world of denial. That’s okay, but they have medication for that.


The second error: while Americans have lightened up a bit on our banks, the Wall St. Journal is reporting that Europe has done no such thing.


Just ask Sergio Ermatti, who heads UBS, the Swiss bank.  He’s tired, he says, of the preachy ethics lessons outside agitators are firing at him from close range.


Never mind trading scandals, non-performing assets, and a scared and worldwide customer base.


Not to single out Ermatti. He’s probably a gentleman.  Many Swiss bankers are very polite.


American bankers, too.


But we need that ammunition and we should be using it more liberally here, too.


Why?  The banks are just doing their job… you know, like a carpenter or a plumber or the cop who stopped you for going 36 in a 35 zone the other day.


Okay, what’s their job, anyway?  Most of us peasants think of keeping our insured savings.  A place to get a check cashed.  Buy a mortgage. Host a safe deposit box.


But that’s not the half of it.  The job of a bank is to store money and move it around a lot so like static electricity, it attracts still more money, kind of like a Swiffer picks up dust.


Even that would be okay if there weren’t so many others playing that shell game.


Banks are the part of circulation system of the financial world. They and the hedge funds and others are in charge of a game of musical chairs where the music never stops. If it did, the whole circulatory system would collapse.


Contrast that with the other big villains of finance:  Heavy industry, mega-farming. Oil, gas, automobiles, airplane makers bread factories.


They make and/or sell actual THINGS.  There’s something of actual value to people.  All the financial industries we’re talking about here are doing is sending electrons around the world… electrons that often aren’t backed by… well … anything.


You’re worried about inequitable distribution of wealth?  You should be. The middle class is near death.  The reasons are complicated. Start thinking about how the most productive workforce in the world -- ours -- is afflicted by shrinking wages and increased responsibilities.


So keep the ammo flying.  Your bank needs to know that you’re on to its game.  


Shrapnel:
--Bieber is in trouble with the law again, this time in his native Canada where police say he beat up a limo driver.  This only days after he was arrested in Florida for drag racing after which he admitted drinking -- at age 19 by the way -- smoking pot and taking prescription drugs.  And yet the fans surround him still… and think of him as a combination of Sinatra, Elvis, the Beatles and Miley Cyrus.


Grapeshot:


-Did you watch the State of the Union address or, like the rest of the country were tuned in either to “The Biggest Loser” on NBC or the “NCIS” rerun on CBS like most of the rest of us?


I’m Wes Richards.  My opinions are my own but you’re welcome to them. ®
Please address comments to wesrichards@gmail.com
© WJR 2014

Wednesday, January 29, 2014

1285 Pete Seeger Had the Last Laugh

Pete Seeger outlived all of the people who spent their lifetimes trying to destroy him.


If you are one of the three people in this country who haven’t yet read the formal obituaries, you can find them everywhere.  What you’ll find here is the dreary story that the ancestors of today’s tea baggers thought of him, and what they tried and failed to do.


Seeger, dead at 94, has long since lost his stick-on rep as an Enemy of the People and become something between a cult figure and an icon. After his wife Toshi died last year, everyone knew his days were numbered.  At his age just being is a life-threatening condition.


Yes, he popularized and maybe even invented a type of banjo that became the emblem of the folk era.


Yes, he was a hard left winger, born with a silver spoon, ivy educated.  Yes he was in show business, and that “old woodsman” act was not  an act.  But he also was sophisticated, complex and driven.


And one of his record albums was the spark that jump-started the folk music era of the 1950s.


By late 1955, most of the Malign Pete Festival was starting to die down and when he, as one of The Weavers performed at Carnegie Hall, Vanguard recorded it -- risky -- and distributed it early in 1956.  It’s still in print and still selling.


A couple of years later he did a solo gig in the same auditorium, also recorded and it, too became a best-seller.


But earlier, life was tough.  


Seeger was champion of the little guy and the underdog.  Organized labor, desegregation.  He was as anti war as it got.


You can’t see the Hudson River from his house in Beacon NY, but you could smell it before the Seegers founded and funded the Clearwater, a sloop and floating reminder in its infancy of how rotten the river was. Later it has become a floating reminder that if you get together and push, you can get some action.


Before and during the “red scare” of the 1940s and 50s, he found himself blacklisted, out of work -- other than testifying in his own defense before the House Un American Activities Committee and its lunatic chairman, Francis Walter (D-PA).


Here’s some light reading from the book “Red Channels,” which purported to detect and disclose Communists in Radio and Television:



To be clear, the “Wallace” referred to was Henry Wallace, 35th vice president of the United States and Progressive Party candidate for President in 1948.


With a resume like that, you can expect to get work… nowhere.


Further reading?  No one knew him better than Woody Guthrie’s son Arlo.  Here’s Arlo’s Facebook page and notes on their last conversation, only hours before Pete became “dead but not gone.”


So Pete Seeger outlived those who lived to kill him. And his music remains with us and will for as long as there is an “us.”


Does anyone remember anything that Francis Walter said or did?


I’m Wes Richards.  My opinions are my own but you’re welcome to them. ®
Please address comments to wesrichards@gmail.com
© WJR 2014

Monday, January 27, 2014

1284 Words We Dare Not Speak

A popular sports reality show soon makes its on appearance in East Rutherford New Jersey, a charming little borough in Bergen County the population of which rises by about 80-thousand on game days.

We would be in a bowl of super trouble if we mentioned the actual name of the event because the people who claim to own it guard it jealously. To make the point, they'd send over one of their lawyers -- probably the smallest one with the most expensive suit.  The smallest because it would take only three linebackers to surround him as bodyguards and who would glower menacingly at the trademark infringer.
Said lawyer would politely say he represented his “honor guard” and that its members would be rightly pleased if we were to cease and desist. Most anyone with at least one good eye probably would agree under those circumstances.

It's hard to use the phrase "intellectual property" and football in the same sentence... as it would be with any made for TV reality show. But that's what it is.

And there's no shortage of fans who will watch this thing on TV or even at Metlife Stadium.

You may notice that Metropolitan Life Insurance Company which owns the name "Metlife" doesn't send the lawyers running when someone uses the name without permission.

But sending a lawyer surrounded by Charlie Brown. Lucy, Linus and Snoopy wouldn't be nearly as intimidating as the linebackers.

Those trade name registrations eventually expire.  Hence it's no longer necessary to mention who owns the name "Kleenex" or the name "Aspirin." Same with Webster's Dictionary, Lanolin, Yo-Yo, Heroin and escalator.

But that you-know-what football game isn’t the only sports reality show to jealously guard its name, logo and place in -- speaking loosely -- history.

There also is a series of games to be played this winter in Sochi, Russia that doesn’t want its name bandied about.  This one we can actually name without fear that Vladimir Putin will make a personal appearance at our doorstep, brandish an AK-47 and remind us to watch out.

The olympic games are an even bigger television “event” than… that other thing.

And this year, gazillions of people will tune in to watch sports they never think about… curling, speed skating, luge, ice fishing and the polar bear swim.

Well, no.  That’s not quite right.  They’ll be watching to see whether some terrorist will attack as threatened.

NBC needs a ratings boost, and this is a sure fire way to get one. It’s like giving advance notice of a pending 58 car pileup on the New Jersey Turnpike.  A flash mob gathering in Fort Lee before there’s anything at which to rubberneck.

Shrapnel:

--Speaking of intellectual property, famed gunslinger George Zimmerman is in trouble with the law again. This time, he didn’t kill anyone… he only produced a painting of the state attorney general who unsuccessfully prosecuted him, Angela Corey.  The Associated Press says it’s a direct copy of one of its stock photos.



--Police in Altoona PA say they have “deconstructed” a bomb belonging to a teenager from Russia attending a local college. So far, we don’t know what if anything he was going to attack.  But sources say it was the K-Mart down the street.



I’m Wes Richards.  My opinions are my own but you’re welcome to them.
Please address comments to wesrichards@gmail.com
© WJR 2014



Friday, January 24, 2014

1283 McTarget

Awhile back, McDonald’s tried to teach its minimum wage workers how to make ends meet on a McPaycheck.  The suggestions were either naive or painfully out of touch with reality.


McD underestimated to cost of everything, then based its little how two on a two-income household.


They could have titled their memo on the subject “How We Think You Can Live on the Pittance We Pay You and Without the Benefits You Don’t Get.”


Now Target proves by example that losing touch is either genetic or viral.  As you probably have heard, its computers were attacked and hackers collected personal information on millions of customers’ credit and debit cards.


Target tried to do right by its “guests” as people who shop there are called.  But it didn’t hit the … um … target.


The store apologized profusely. And so far, the damage seems bad, but not THAT bad, at least so far.


Then, comes the letter from Target’s chairman, president and CEO, Gregg Steinhafel.  In it, he offers customers a year of free credit monitoring from one of the major services.


Gregg gets points for frank admission about the hack, and for trying to do something mostly meaningful for affected customers.


He balances that with gratuitous statements about how to protect yourself against credit card fraud.


First reaction:  Where’s the part that says “Don’t shop at Target while we’re being hacked?”  Of course, we -- and evidently they -- don’t know when that is until after it’s over.


The barn with the locked door and the missing horse comes to mind.


Further harm: he apologizes for the inconvenience.


Identity theft is not inconvenient.  It is disruptive. Sometimes it’s devastating.


You have to walk around an obstacle, that’s inconvenient. The phone rings just as you turn the lights down and settle in for an evening of romance.  That’s inconvenient.  You have your data stolen… well, no need to repeat what that is.


It’s like a doctor saying “You have liver cancer.  Sorry for the inconvenience.”


The Target hack is only the latest and we’re fussing about it because we know about it.  The TJ Maxx hack some years ago was much worse.


Part of it is because companies don’t keep up with technology improvements.


A recent report said an overwhelming number of ATM machines run on a nearly obsolete computer program which is relatively easy to hack and expensive to replace.


There are more than 2 million ATMs presently operating. There is one for every 3,000 Americans. The average user visits seven and a half times a month.


Do the math.


So thanks for the handy tips, Gregg.  Now go spend some money and fix your swiss cheese point of sale system.


Shrapnel:


--Justin Bieber, 19, arrested in Miami, charged with DUI, booze, pot and pills and with resisting arrest and with drag racing in a 35 mile per hour zone. Miami police said “aw c’mon, he’s just another underage kid with a $400,000 Lamborghini who had a couple of shots, a joint, some pills, a heavy foot and a big mouth.”   Which talk show will Bieber do first, “Nancy Grace” or “The Today Show?”



--A Rutgers poll shows Chris Christie’s popularity plummeting by 22 points to 46 compared to election day when the real poll was taken and before the Bridge follies. Good thing he’s lost a little weight.  Bigger they are the harder they fall.


I’m Wes Richards.  My opinions are my own but you’re welcome to them. ®
Please address comments to wesrichards@gmail.com
© WJR 2014


Wednesday, January 22, 2014

1282 Foxes in the Henhouse

Today,  we’re going to talk about chickens. But first the news:

--A proposed rule change would allow poultry processors to inspect their own production lines which move at 140 birds per minute. FDA inspectors now do the work.

--Consumer Reports magazine recently reported that its nationwide study of bacteria in chicken breasts found contamination in hundreds of samples, both organic and “regular.”

--The Pew Charitable Trust suggests recent salmonella outbreaks resulted largely from inadequate inspections.

Now, let’s see:  They want to replace the professionals because they’re not doing well enough with low wage workers already under the pressure of speed and repetitive stress pain and trained by their employers? And they want to raise the speed limit to 175 birds per minute.

Oh boy.  You think chicken is risky now, wait until this fabulous idea gets claws.

And who comes to the foxes’ defense.  Their union.  Bet you didn’t know foxes had a union.  They do.  It’s called the National Chicken Council which points out that salmonella outbreaks are falling not rising.

The NCC is the NRA of poultry.  Salmonella and e-coli don’t make chickens inedible, FDA inspectors do.  Well, what do you expect from those union thugs?

The website Well Fed World reports 9.5 billion chickens are killed for meat in the US each year.  The average broiler weighs about five pounds.  So that’s something around 45 billion pounds of chicken.

So maybe Consumer Reports is making a big deal out of 300 infectious chickens… a small sample.  You think anyone’s going to make a bigger study? Not on your life.

Professional chicken inspectors (!) can’t catch every bad bird at 140 a minute, how can you expect the most diligent of those minimally trained line workers to find them at 175 chickens per minute?

And where are the loyalties?  To public health or to the company that issues their poultry… eh … paltry chicks?  Uh… Checks.

The FDA says it’ll help the companies train the workers.  As in “Hello, I’m from the government, I’m here to help.”

So, the product safety types have given us all kinds of advice on cooking chicken.

The main one is counterintuitive. Don’t wash the chicken or the parts.  Momma would be confused.  She’d say you ALWAYS wash chicken to get rid of all the bad stuff.

No, says the FDA and Consumer Reports.  You cook it to the proper temperature -- they put it at 165 or 170 depending on the source -- and that kills the sickening evil spirits within.

Wear gloves.  Use a designated cutting board that you wash thoroughly.  

It used to be a felony to put an unwashed package of wings in a pot.  Now, it’s a felony not to.

Shrapnel:

--The Putin designed toilets for the Sochi Olympics don’t exactly fit his anti- gay template.  Two thrones, side by side in each stall.  And the total space is smaller than the seating area of the Smart Fortwo.

--Former Bloomberg CEO Lex Fenwick now also is former Dow Jones CEO.  He resigned.  Probably after telling the company’s real CEO how to run a newspaper.  You can’t out Murdoch Murdoch, fella, at least not in his front yard.

I’m Wes Richards. My opinions are my own but you’re welcome to them. ®
Please address comments to wesrichards@gmail.com
© WJR 2014


Monday, January 20, 2014

1281 MLK at 85

Dr. Martin Luther King would be 85 this year had he lived.  But he was murdered at the age of 39 in 1968.  He was and is a towering figure in the worlds of equal rights and nonviolence.  An American Gandhi with a spine of steel.


Many supposedly great men and women don’t become great men and women in the public eye until after they die.  Dr. King was considered a great man by many even during his short lifetime.


But there are two things surrounding the holiday in that have become increasingly irksome.


One is minor:  He preached hundreds if not thousands of sermons during his tenure as minister of the Ebenezer Baptist Church in Atlanta.  Many were good.  Some were great.  But we remember only one and only four words from it: “I have a dream.”


He said a whole lot of words, many of them important. But we remember only four.  The upside: we remember the words.


But the second is far more important.  Everyone is an expert on what Martin Luther King would say today.  It’s easy to predict that he would be appalled by the increasing gap between rich and poor.


But after that, it gets vague.  And if truth be told, we have no way of knowing how the 39 year old Martin would think as the 85 year old Martin.


So we do what we always do.  We put thoughts in his corpse.


Surely, he would be proud that we have twice elected an African American president.  But would he be a full-throttle supporter, or would he have reservations about the continuing conflict in the Middle East and the war with congress and the attack on the voting rights act?


We don’t know and we can’t know.


When conservative Americans quote the “dream” speech their emphasis is on the line about judging people by the content of their character, not the color of their skin.  A noble thought, but only a thought.


We don’t know what Martin would think or what he would say.  And to say that we do is a fool’s game.


Shrapnel:


--Meantime, streets named for Dr. King are rotting.  The Associated Press reports particular urban decay on those in Milwaukee and St. Louis.  And many communities without a street named for King continue debating whether they should.


--The Postal Service wants to put what amounts to kiosks inside of Staples Stores and staff them not with postal workers but with low-wage store clerks.  Unsurprisingly the postal union takes a dim view of this although the USPS has been doing it on a smaller scale for years. Staples has over 2,000 stores worldwide, but isn’t saying how many of its US outlets will play host to the scab labor.


--How’s this for anti-marketing marketing?  HP’s web store is now promoting new desktop computers with Windows 7, with a headline “Windows 7 is Back!”  A real vote of confidence for Windows 8, the most hated operating system since “Vista.”


I’m Wes Richards.  My opinions are my own but you’re welcome to them. ®
(A version of this year’s MLK post was broadcast on my regular weekday commentary for WBLF radio in Central Pennsylvania)


Please address comments to wesrichards@gmail.com
© 2014 WJR