Shanty towns and bank runs: recession may be the optimist’s outcome

Before the fiddlers have fled
Before they ask us to pay the bill
And while we still
Have the chance
Let’s face the music and dance

Last March, the BBC ran a story about shanty towns springing up in the US.

At the time BoingBoing and those few others who saw it asked why we were learning about this from the UK media and not from the US media. Now, a scant six months later, the US press has paused from parsing porcine lipstick and noticed.

The relatively tony city of Santa Barbara has given over a parking lot to people who sleep in cars and vans. The city of Fresno, Calif., is trying to manage several proliferating tent cities, including an encampment where people have made shelters out of scrap wood. In Portland, Ore., and Seattle, homeless advocacy groups have paired with nonprofits or faith-based groups to manage tent cities as outdoor shelters. Other cities where tent cities have either appeared or expanded include include Chattanooga, Tenn., San Diego, and Columbus, Ohio.

We’ve already had a bank run in the classic sense and one updated for today’s world: Yesterday’s announcement that Putnam was liquidating a “$12bn prime money market fund because of a spike in redemption requests from clients.” Just because they have the money to cover this — as it appears they eventually will — doesn’t make it any less of a run.

Today the early headlines say Stocks soar at opening after gov’t rescue plan. Forgive me for thinking the markets are indulging in some irrational exuberance. We’ve seen this sort of response before. This is from the Wall Street Journal on March 19:

Stocks and commodities plummeted on Wednesday as the euphoria that carried equity markets to massive gains a day earlier gave way to nervousness that the broader U.S. economy hasn’t yet escaped the dangers of the credit crisis.

At some point we are going to see a huge impact from the Fed’s determination to once again deal with another issue by printing more money. Some commentators say this will simply mean an explosion in the size of the national debt. I wish that was all. The current crisis was created by pumping increasing amounts of money and credit into the economy, it is beyond me to understand why doing more of this will help fix it.  You know what they call it when you keep repeating the same behavior and expect different results, right?

I am not smart enough to determine if we are about to hit a period of inflation or deflation but I know something is going to happen and will keep happening until all the difference between the amount loaned and the actual value of assets comes into balance. (If you’re a debtor start rooting for deflation — it means any money you do use to pay off a debt will be worth less than the money you originally borrowed. A net gain, if not a happy one.)

As the year has gone along, I’ve tagged a number of items under Recession? What Recession? I can’t say they make for happy reading:

In March, when the BBC ran that shanty town story, it still seemed possible to have a reasonable disagreement over whether or not we were in a recession. Now the D word is in play. Soon we will be hearing that we are not in a depression and that we are trying to avert one. That is becoming the economic equivalent of promising to have the troops home by Christmas. As soon as you hear it, you know it’s a lot worse than anyone is willing to say.

The leading indicator of the “we are not in a Depression” meme came last week when Alan Greenspan — who is mostly responsible for the crisis — tried to put lipstick on this pig by saying, “First of all, let’s recognize that this is a once-in-a-half-century, probably once-in-a-century type of event.” Given that the Mississippi river keeps getting hit by floods that were once described as “once in a century” events, this is not a heartening phrase. Another troubling indicator is that the folks who decided what’s in the Dow Jones Industrial Average have replaced the now defunct AIG with Kraft. I suspect the real problem with leaving AIG is that it would have made the Dow actually reflect the economy.

Someone once asked Tom Lehrer why he stopped writing those wonderful, witty songs about the news. Having turned out anthems on topics from pollution to nuclear proliferation, Lehrer said he had begun to feel like a citizen of Pompeii being asked to say funny things about lava. Without having matched Mr. Lehrer’s accomplishments, I can certainly empathize. I have been saying for the last seven years that the real problem with the Bush administration is that it took all the fun out of being able to say “I told you so.” Unlike Mr. L, I refuse to leave the scene — especially when we are in such a target rich environment.

There may be trouble ahead
But while there’s moonlight and music
And love and romance
Let’s face the music and dance

While many people have recorded this song — but not Roxxy Music, for some reason — I still prefer the original by Fred Astaire. It’s on the soundtrack to Follow The Fleet. A happy little musical by Irving Berlin that was made into a movie in 1936.

‘Tis the season for … holiday advertising mistakes

Red Bull wins this year’s Throwing out the Babe with The Manger award for being the first company I noticed to get in trouble for its holiday ads. Seems that an Italian priest took offense to a TV spot showing a fourth wise man bearing a can of Red Bull as a gift for Baby You Know Who.

Father Marco Damanti, from Sicily, wrote to the makers of the caffeinated energy drink denouncing their commercial as “a blasphemous act” and said on Monday he had received a prompt reply promising to remove it from Italian television.

Given that Christmas now means Capitalism With Bows On, it is difficult to see why Fr. Damanti singled out Red Bull for criticism.

Quoth Lehrer:

Hark the Herald Tribune sings,
Advertising wondrous things.

God rest ye merry, merchants,
May you make the Yuletide pay.

Angels we have heard on high
Tell us to go out and buy!

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Why Al Gore shouldn’t have won the Nobel Peace Prize

First my bona fides:

  1. I started covering global warming in the early 1990s. I have no doubts about it and have read more on the topic than your average bear (especially the polar bears who don’t read that much anymore because they’re having to look for new homes because the polar ice cap is melting, fortunately for them this is happening just as the US real estate market is tanking … but I digress).
  2. You really, really don’t want to know how much military history I’ve read. It’s a lot. I remember my cell phone number because it’s close to the year of the battle of Hastings. I know when the first battle that we have records from both sides was. (1300 BC. Hittites vs. Egyptians. The home team Hittites, under coach Muwatallis, won the contest at Kadesh but didn’t cover the spread. In case you were wondering, Muwatallis is also known to history as Mutwatallis and Mutwatalli II. His friends all called him Fred because when they tried to call him Mut he had them beheaded.) So yeah, you don’t want to go there with me.
  3. Ever since he got out of politics I’ve been a big Al Gore fan. Prior to losing the 2000 election I never would have suspected he could be interesting AND funny. Love him on Futurama and Saturday Night Live. No I have never seen “Inconvenient Truth.” As the great Tim McIntyre puts it: I don’t need to study for a test I’ve already passed.
  4. So…

Al Gore won the Nobel PEACE Prize? Yeah, I know environmental problems are and will cause all sorts of conflicts. So what? They always have. Dear Nobel Committee (and this is as close to it as I will ever get) what part of the phrase “peace prize” don’t you understand?

doctors without borders logoThe Peace Prize goes to great groups like Doctors Without Borders and The Red Cross. It goes to people who actually stopped fighting or helped people deal with the aftermath of war. It also went to Henry Kissinger. That Peace Prize is most notable because Tom Lehrer cited it as proof that irony was indeed dead.

Penguins Employee of the monthThis is a stretch. If you want to give a prize for generally helping the planet than give one of those. Mr. Gore would certainly deserve that one. But lets give the Peace Prize to something having to do with armed conflict. Is that asking too much? So that’s why I am naming the Nobel Committee the Nat’l. Assoc. of Penguins of Irony Employee of the Month. I look forward to their acceptance speech.

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Sex, violence and religion: Churches use Halo 3 and porn to attract customers

Everyone else is doing it, so why not them?

The computer game Halo is hot so:

Acts of GodAcross the country, hundreds of ministers and pastors desperate to reach young congregants have drawn concern and criticism through their use of an unusual recruiting tool: the immersive and violent video game Halo.

Pornography, of course, is always popular so:

The Crux, a Fishers church, joined a nationwide movement Sunday to address the issue, a day they called “Porn Sunday,” WRTV-TV in Indianapolis reported. Across the country, hundreds of churches talked about what some call America’s dirty little secret. An estimated 40 million people visit porn sites daily, generating an estimated $6.2 billion for porn purveyors in the United States alone, according to Porn Sunday’s organizers. Porn Sunday is a movement started by two pastors from California who formed a church called xxxchurch.com, dubbed a Christian porn site.

And to think people once got upset because Vatican II switched the Catholic Church from Latin to the vernacular. (Cue Tom Lehrer.) All of this goes a long way to explain why the Night of Joy Christian music event at Walt Disney World is considered the rowdiest, most debauched event in the Happiest Place on Earth:

. . . some who have attended previous NOJ festivals, as well as Cast Members who’ve worked it, claim that of all the separate-ticket events held at the Magic Kingdom, it’s the most unruly. Tales abound of the Magic Kingdom overrun by mobs of drunken teens, petty thievery in the shops, as well as an overworked security dealing with fights among the crowds of young concert attendees.

(Maybe it’s just the context but doesn’t Night of Joy sound a little dirty?)

It’s actually disingenuous of me to criticize this behavior. I mean if you read the source material … aka The BIBLE … it’s just filled with this stuff.

But that’s all in the Old (fun) Testament, the New Testament’s stories offer far less in the way of how people do act and more in the way of how it is hoped they will act. Because of this I think it’s OK for Catholic Bishops in Belgium to complain about a TV ad depicting a pot-bellied, hippy Jesus performing miracles and picking up scantily-clad girls up in a nightclub.

God Ad

According to the texts I’ve read (and I haven’t finished The Gnostic Gospels yet) while Jesus did meet “fallen women” he put a premium on helping them back up. It’s important to show the full story.

(Acts of God image courtesy of GreatCosmicHappyAss.com which has a bunch of other funny God cards.)

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You read it here first: Media, Pentagon getting their ideas from me & CD jr.

From The NY Daily News: CIVIL WAR REENACTMENT – IN BAGHDAD?

Where did they come up with this one? The Multi-National Corps-Iraq press desk sent out a release today about a new operation targeting insurgents in Baghdad, which succeeded killing two insurgents and locating a cache of “artillery rounds, mortars, cell phones, weapons, propaganda, ammunition magazines and other bomb-making materials.” The clever name of this mission? Operation Bull Run.

From CD in February 2006: The Iraq Civil War, or Operation Bull Run

Last Sunday, Secretary of State Rice made the TV rounds and dismissed an “impending” civil war. And, technically, she’s right: It’s not impending if it’s already here. Her comments sound like Gen. Westmoreland’s December 1967 dismissal of the North Vietnamese’s ability to launch an offensive anywhere in South Vietnam. The following month the North launched the Tet offensive everywhere in South Vietnam.

Two points for the Pentagon to keep in mind:

  1. It was a JOKE.
  2. There have been two previous battles of Bull Run. We lost ’em both.

Y’know, Tom Lehrer once said that irony died when Henry Kissinger won the Nobel Peace Prize. Oh Tom, if only you’d been right.

(Mad props to Flagrancy To Reason for finding this.)

From Wired: How to Take Money From Kids: Sell Toys Both Physical and Virtual

Webkinz kick-started a trend in children’s gaming that ties virtual environments to real-world merchandise. Online games for kids aren’t new. Sierra Online had tot-focused games in the early ’90s, and Neopets proved a hot product six years ago with a similar concept. But the unprecedented success of Webkinz is inspiring everyone from Barbie to Disney to get children invested in both the digital and the physical.

From TheWhatchamacallit: Neopets a neoscam?

The NC Mall was the final blow though. Needing to use real money, to buy virtual items on a kids site? It should not be! I am going to write a twelve paragraph letter to neopets on this subject, after seeing how few people actually realize neopets is being taken over!

From Reuters: Program Reveals Where Wikipedia Entrees Come From

A new tracing program that reveals where Wikipedia entries come from is stirring up controversy. People using FBI and CIA computers edited entries on such topics as the “Iraq war” and the prison at “Guantanamo Bay,” presenting a conflict of interest for the nonprofit online encyclopedia, according to a company spokesperson.

From today’s New York Times: Seeing Corporate Fingerprints in Wikipedia Edits

Collateral Damage: See here & here.

Collateral Damage: Today’s sarcasm is tomorrow’s news.

White House hopes Muslims will take Sesame Street to U.S.

elmo camoThe Administration is sending Elmo & Ernie to Malaysia in an attempt to recover brand equity lost by the George Bush Desert Classic.

The local version of the children’s show, called “Jalan Sesama,” which translates directly as Everyone’s Street, is beginning production in Jakarta and expected to air later this year after contracts with Indonesian stations are secured. The U.S. Agency for International Development had earlier set aside $8.5 million for 156 episodes, part of $157 million pledged in 2003 by the Bush administration for education in Indonesia, which Washington regards as a key voice of moderation and democracy in the Muslim world.

In addition to Tantan, an orangutuan, and Jabrik, a baby rhino, the show features “Momon, a 5-year-old boy who likes math and drawing, and Putri, a 3-1/2-year-old girl with a healthy dose of curiosity — [who] bear a closer resemblance to Elmo and Ernie from the original show.” Wonder if the show features a version of Bert, Ernie’s “life partner”?

Herewith the show’s theme song (with apologies to Tom Lehrer):

When someone makes a move
Of which we don’t approve,
Who is it that always intervenes?
U.N. and O.A.S.,
They have their place, I guess,
But first send the Muppets!

We’ll send them all we’ve got,
John Wayne and Randolph Scott,
Remember those exciting fighting scenes?
To the shores of Tripoli,
But not to Mississippoli,

What do we do? We send the Muppets!
For might makes right,
And till they’ve seen the light,
They’ve got to be protected,
All their rights respected,
‘Till somebody we like can be elected.

Members of the corps
All hate the thought of war,
They’d rather kill them off by peaceful means.
Stop calling it aggression,
O we hate that expression.
We only want the world to know
That we support the status quo.
They love us everywhere we go,
So when in doubt,
Send the Muppets!

Headline of the Day: Hedgehog beats off tiger in safari park N.Korea

To quote Tom Lehrer: He was majoring in animal husbandry until someone caught him at it.

What makes this headline bad in addition to laughable is that the story is about a conversation with some North Koreans that the reporter had in a safari park. The whole hedgehog tiger thing didn’t actually happen, it was a simile for the US & N. Korea said by a resident of the country. Basic rule of headline writing has always been if you have to go to the middle of the story to get the headline then there’s something wrong with either story or headline. Way to go, Reuters…

The Iraq Civil War, or Operation Bull Run

Marketing has always been a high consideration in the US adventure in Iraq, see Chief of Staff Andrew Card’s comment on the invasion, “From a marketing point of view, you don’t introduce new products in August.” Needing to sell this particular product, the Administration ran out a staggering array of ante-bellum reasons for war: WMD, “Saddam is worse than Hitler,” Saddam is linked to 9-11, Saddam will destabilize the Mid-East (isn’t that like making water wet?), “We need to stand up for the UN.” All of these were underpinned by the argument that this has nothing to do with oil. One of the first things you learn in the news biz is that when someone says it’s not about money, then you can be sure it is about …

Current ex post facto rationalizations include spreading democracy in the Mid East (unless, of course, democracy gets the “wrong” people elected. Quoth Lehrer: For might makes right/And till they’ve seen the light/They’ve got to be protected/All their rights respected/ ‘Till somebody we like can be elected), creating a “flypaper” state that keeps all the terrorists in Iraq and I forget what all else.

Along with the ever-changing series of rationales, a key tactic of this marketing campaign has been to claim things aren’t happening that already are. There was the Administration saying the war hadn’t begun when we’d been bombing the Iraqis for weeks. Turns out they meant “ground war.” We had the Mission Accomplished/End Of Hostilities claim followed by more combat deaths than while “hostilities” were under way. And now there is the claim that “Civil War” is in danger of breaking out all over the place.

Last Sunday, Secretary of State Rice made the TV rounds and dismissed an “impending” civil war. And, technically, she’s right: It’s not impending if it’s already here. Her comments sound like Gen. Westmoreland’s December 1967 dismissal of the North Vietnamese’s ability to launch an offensive anywhere in South Vietnam. The following month the North launched the Tet offensive everywhere in South Vietnam.

If this ain’t Civil War, maybe it will do until the real thing comes along. What does it take to get the official imprimatur and make a war Civil? Is it when Iraqis spend more killing each other than they do trying to kill the US military? I think we can check that one off. Is it at some point when we can no longer claim all or even most of the violence is being conducted by outsiders? Now that’s actually tough to measure. Is it when Ken Burns makes a somnolent documentary of it? God forbid. The Iraqis have suffered enough already.

As usual, the Administration is being aided and abetted in its marketing by many in the media, and I’m not talking Fox TV. Last Sunday, the NYT’s Week In Review section lead with an article entitled “What A Civil War Could Look Like” which actually addressed everything but that. The article categorically refused to define “What a civil war does look like.” Instewad it fell back on some of the most hair-splitting linguistic efforts to not call an Antietam an Antietam since Bill Clinton’s famous “is.”

Like a near-death experience, the carnage seems to have shocked Sunni and Shiite leaders into a new realization of what civil war would cost, and new efforts to avoid it. But what happens if such efforts — and frantic ones by Americans — prove incapable of stopping an all-out war?

The greatest fear of leaders throughout the Middle East is that an unrestrained civil war …

If Iraq were to sink deeper into that kind of conflict,

In short, it said, we’ll know it’s a Civil War when the rest of the region falls to pieces. Or when it stops being so damned restrained. Or when someone has the nerve to call it that.

Any experienced marketer knows that you can sell pretty much anything once. Make a big enough claim for the product and someone – maybe a lot of someones – will buy it. The hard part is getting them to buy from you more than once. To do that the claims you make have to have some resemblance to the product you’re selling. When it comes to civil war, the consumer should now really be aware. And expect an official announcement of this product launch very, very soon.