Time Magazine surprised many by running an excellent series on "What Corporate Welfare Costs You" by Pulitzer prize-winning reporters Donald Barlett and James Steele. After depicting how typical households work two weeks a year to support $125 billion in subsidies and tax relief for "needy" corporations, editor-in-chief Norman Pearlstine stepped in to assure readers that Time was not "anti-business." In fact, businesses would be derelict in their duties, he argued, "if they did not seek to avoid taxes and gain special subsidies" (try that argument substituting welfare mothers for corporations) "Ending corporate welfare as we know it is essential," intoned Mr. Pearlstine, but "Rather than give corporations uneven and unfair exemptions, it may make more sense to simply do away with both corporate welfare and corporate taxation." This would create a "level playing field." Perfect. We solve the problem of partial corporate welfare by having... total corporate welfare. Hello, is anybody home? (Time, 11/9/98)
Old Wine in New Winebags
The Environmental Protection Agency has modified a new brochure on pesticides due to be distributed nationwide in grocery stores this January. Thanks to help from food and pesticide industry lobbyists, they have made some notable improvements in their prose style. For example, the old version presented "Tips to Reduce Pesticides on Foods" which the new version amends to "Healthy Sensible Food Practices." The old version suggested consumers consider buying food labeled "certified organic" while the improved version suggests the grocer "may be able to provide you with information about the availability of food grown using fewer or no pesticides." And where the old version lists actual health problems caused by pesticides, like birth defects, cancer and nerve damage, the RSV simplifies it all as "health problems at certain levels of exposure." Much clearer thanks to yet another example of successful cooperation. (NYT 12/29/98)
"Free at last, free at last..."
Status conscious movie go-ers are now being offered new choices in theater complexes run by Cineplex Odeon, United Artists and General Cinema in the cities of Chicago, Baltimore and Milwaukee. For an additional $8 or so they don't have to mix with the unwashed masses. They can now go directly to private viewing rooms, receive valet parking, be personally escorted by a concierge, order drinks from a waiter and use a private bathroom. The Wall Street Journal describes this trend as "a way to express the affluence." But unlike luxury boxes at sports stadiums where seats can approach the thousand dollar range, the movie theaters have, says the Journal, "discovered affordable snobbery." It allows people of simple means to express their social superiority, if only for a few hours. The Journal, of course, was able to find a telling phrase to describe this trend, referring to it as "the democratization of status." Finally, we get "democracy" liberated from the baggage of "all men are created equal." (WSJ 12/11/98)
Upstairs, Downstairs in Public Education
Elite public schools across the nation are saying good-bye to auctions and cookie sales as a means to raise funds. Public schools like Brookline High School in Boston are simply raising $10 million permanent endowments from wealthy parents and alumni. This turn to large endowments comes, says the Wall Street Journal, "in reaction to broad trends in school finance that have hit affluent districts like Brookline especially hard over the last decade." But the means chosen by these "hard hit" schools to grow money has raised issues of fairness. Why should some public schools have piles of resources while others starve? "The equity issue, it's always going to come up," says Robert Markey, director of the Boston Latin School (a public school with a $13 million endowment). "That's why," he tells the Journal, "we don't talk about it." And certainly, not in front of the servants... (WSJ 12/17)
Going Green Made Simple
Citizens for a Sound Economy, a free market advocacy group, has produced a Communications Guide for Republicans and businesses who want to talk to the public about their commitment to preserving nature. Rule #1: "Focus groups show that people are more likely to empathize with your approach to environmental issues if they believe you are 'on their side'." (Thus Weyerhauser became the "Tree growing company.") The Guide suggests giving reasons why you too want a good environment, such as having children, being an outdoor photographer or simply enjoying the beauty of nature. Lastly, CSE tells its audience not to use the word "reform." "Focus groups indicate people are more likely to respond positively to change when the word "modernizing" is used in describing our efforts on environmental protection." And I must admit my delight in discovering that private property rights groups have "efforts on environmental protection." We're one big happy family after all... (www.awg.org/home/clear/players/4_1_97.html)
Nuclear Power Gets Clean
Ads touting the virtues of nuclear power have been showing up in some of our finer magazines (like the New Republic). Many of you may know already that nuclear reactors are "consistently safe," "proven economical' and "reliable." But those of you who can't spell "Cherynoble" may not be aware of how "environmentally clean" nuclear fission is. Why is it so clean? Because, as the full page color ad informs us, "Nuclear power plants don't burn anything to produce electricity, so they don't pollute the air." But there's more. Nuclear power plants produce "no greenhouse gas emissions, so they help protect the environment." Therefore they are environmentally clean, thanks to the fact that nuclear radiation has ceased to count as a form of pollution. This news should relieve the minds of Hanford residents after recent reports of radiated ants and tumbleweed in their backyards. (NR 11/30/98)
Modern Day Trust Busters
A new champion has appeared to carry on the fight against monopoly control. None other than Ma Bell has taken the field against corporate mergers. AT&T has been funding "grass roots" organizations (while modestly not mentioning itself) opposed to the $56 billion merger of SBC Communications of San Antonio and Ameritech of Chicago. Recently AT&T executive James Cicconi revealed the conglomerate's dream of the future. "AT&T's vision is one of more competition and more consumer choice at every level with open competition at the local level that doesn't now exist." Mr. Cicconi's words were punctuated by news that AT&T was pursuing a $32 billion acquisition of TCI's cable network. More competition...ahem. (WSJ 12/21/98)
The Tree Hugging Dept.
A new environmental organization has moved to the forefront of groups trying to educate the public about global warming. While most groups stay fixated on negative consequences like flooding and disease, The Greening Earth Society has chosen to focus attention on the "positive aspects of a rising level of carbon dioxide" in the belief that "nature is growing stronger, bigger, greener and more resilient as a result of what we humans are doing to promote our own growth." The GES has special access to all the latest information because it shares offices and officers with the Western Fuel Association (and who should know more about global warming than coal producers). The Greening Earth Society arguably has one of the better environmental mottoes -- "humankind is a part of nature, rather than apart from nature." That's why they understand that using fossil fuels is "as natural as breathing." (That is, if you still can breathe.) (www.greeningearthsociety.org)
There's always great excitement when the news comes that Hallmark has unveiled a new series of greeting cards. But this year's announcement was more somber. Recognizing that the holiday season can be painful for those who have recently lost a loved one, Hallmark has responded with a series of Christmas "Messages of Comfort" for the grief-stricken. This was timely, for as the Wall Street Journal informs us, "Such people are a consumer niche that corporate marketers in the past have approached indirectly, if at all." Imagine being a consumer left alone with no corporations trying to sell to you? Pretty lonely. Fortunately, greeting card companies "now recognize the potential for such a category as tremendous." There be plenty of profit to be mined yet out of grief, I guess. In fact, says the Journal, "the category could hold potential for other industries, say travel." Maybe we should all start chasing Hearse's? (WSJ 12/24/98)
Raiding the Cookie Jar Dept.
There are some new candidates in the race for Best Rationalization for the $8.2 billion awarded to lawyers in the tobacco settlement. One of my personal favorites is by John Calhoun Wells, chair of the arbitration panel that determined the fees, who noted that without the lawyers "there would be no multi-billion settlement for the states..." I mean imagine the embarrassment to the states if no lawyers had shown up because, say, only a $billion had been offered. Attorney Joseph Rice, whose firm earned a cool $1billion for two years work, asks "Why should the lawyers who carried the burden and led the fight not be paid like a chief executive officer of a corporation?" And we all know how fair their compensation is. Then there is the elegant simplicity of Florida attorney Robert Kerrigan's answer after being awarded $200 million for his work: "It sounds fair to me." I'm sure it does. (AP 12/12/98, NYT 12/22/98)