Friday, February 13, 2009

Giving America the Bird*

Citibank, the receiver of billions and billions, decides to spend $400 million to put its name on the new New York Mets baseball stadium. Ten times the number of seats in that stadium is equal to the number of people who lost their jobs in two days just last week. What are these corporate bozos thinking? I’ll tell you. They think it’s your fault we’re in this mess. They have absolutely no responsibility to help out. They were trained at America’s most prestigious business schools that the game is won by those who take the most and spend the most.

Bailout rule number one: If you take the money, anyway, you belong to America, and you answer to America. At the rate Citibank is making goofy decisions, a countdown clock on top executive departures has been running for some time.

Wells Fargo Bank, another receiver of tens of billions of dollars, what do they do? They decide to stage a junket to Las Vegas as a “thank you” to dozens of their hard-working high-ranking employees. Lots of great activities were planned including free helicopter rides, special parties, gifts, get-togethers, and a grand time for everyone. Once again America gets the bird. What is it about these corporate moguls that makes them think up these personal embarrassments—then carry them out only to be caught like deer in headlights? These behaviors also illustrate yet another artifact of America’s premier business education and business environment, serious integrity deficiencies and a fundamentally amoral approach to the world. For the foreseeable future, while their subsistence is in the hands of every American, Wells Fargo employees should be satisfied with a hand written thank you from their CEO, delivered personally, at work. Everybody stays home. Why on earth, in the middle of a financial disaster, would a major bank choose the oxymoronic symbolism of going to Las Vegas to gamble? Seems like they’ve done enough of that already.

Bailout rule number two: If you take the money you become a public institution, those methods and models must govern how you spend any money. If there is even the slightest hint of impropriety or inappropriateness, such actions should be promptly admitted, rescinded, and retracted, then avoided.

Service Employees International Union (SEIU), this big New York union is running aggressively negative ads against the state’s interim governor because he is, among other things, cutting health care subsidies and funding. What does SEIU want? Apparently, its hospital employees and other member workers feel that they should not have to share in the pain of New York’s financial recovery. I guess the rest of us have to pay their share. I wonder how many jobs could be preserved for the dollars the union is spending on television advertising to take on a temporary Democratic governor. Once again America gets the bird. The SEIU seems to have enough management problems and other leadership issues as well as membership divisions to keep themselves occupied without having to threaten the interim governor of the state or intimidate its legislature.

Bailout rule number three: When the public’s pain is great, those who serve in public will feel the pain first. Then everybody gets to suffer to some degree—big shots will be transformed into little shots, littler people will fall less hard but be hurt as well. Anyone who feels they are exempt betrays the American spirit we need to get through this mess.

Wall Street and the SEC: Arthur Levitt Junior, in The New York Times Sunday magazine (January 25, 2009), responded to questions. His answers illustrate the flawed, troubling relationship this regulatory agency has developed with those it is supposed to be watching.

NYT: As the chief of the SEC under Clinton, are you kicking yourself for not having caught Madoff at his game?

Levitt: I believe that our commission was the most investor-friendly in the history of America. Bernie Madoff was simply not on our screen, except as a leading market maker.

My question: If you are an investor, do you feel the SEC should be your friend or somebody with a big club and shotgun, monitoring, analyzing, and penalizing those who go out of bounds on Wall Street?

NYT: Did you happen to notice the photographs of him [Madoff], or his pose in front of a series of Roy Lichtenstein lithographs of bulls?

Levitt: You see a bull in every Wall Street office. People on the street tend to be aggressive, macho, positive.

NYT: Do you ever feel as if you should apologize?

Levitt: For what?

Bailout rule number four: It’s time to pull the bull out of Wall Street, banking, investing, and insurance regulators. Their allegiances have to be to Americans, directly. Those they regulate should fear them. Those they regulate who mess up should be punished, publicly and harshly. Regulators and the industries they watch better hope Americans stay out of the streets if troubled times persist. It wouldn’t be hard to guess where people would go if problems fail to be resolved and the bull continues.

America gets the bird again.

Who in your community is giving America the bird, right now? I’d like to know. Let’s light them up and expose them for who they are, and what they’re doing.

* The bird is the name of an internationally recognized and derogatory hand signal where the thumb and first finger, fourth, and fifth fingers are curled inward while the middle finger is extended.

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