Billboards for the Democrats

If you live in a state with hotly contested elections, your mail was full of wretchedly negative and misleading flyers last month. But, around here at least, we rarely see political billboards. When I did see one, it was this:

Billboard for conservatives.jpg

and it made me wonder why the Democrats hadn’t used billboards to get out simple positive messages about issues where there was great potential public support.

Here are some I made up, just quick mock-ups of a campaign for single-payer health care, but they give you the idea. If Obama had gotten people thinking along these lines, instead of ceding the issue to the Republicans, we might have a true universal health care system by now.

Health care for all means healthier kids billboard.jpg

“The United States provides health care to all senior citizens although children are the least expensive and most cost-effective group to cover.”

Single-payer health care for all means not losing your home to catastrophic health costs billboard.jpg

“Half of all respondents (49%) indicated that their foreclosure was caused in part by a medical problem, including illness or injuries (32%), unmanageable medical bills (23%), lost work due to a medical problem (27%), or caring for sick family members (14%). We also examined objective indicia of medical disruptions in the previous two years, including those respondents paying more than $2,000 of medical bills out of pocket (37%), those losing two or more weeks of work because of injury or illness (30%), those currently disabled and unable to work (8%), and those who used their home equity to pay medical bills (13%).

Altogether, seven in ten respondents (69%) reported at least one of these factors.” [from abstract of Christopher T. Robertson, Richard Egelhof, & Michael Hoke, “Get Sick, Get Out: The Medical Causes of Home Foreclosures” Health Matrix 18 (2008): 65-105.]

Billboardready to learn.jpg

Growing numbers of uninsured children have made it harder for educators to focus on classroom achievement without first addressing the medical needs of their students who lack health insurance or dental coverage. Instead of notifying parents when their children are ill, school officials increasingly must help find health care, arrange transportation for sick children and often advise beleaguered parents about the health consequences of their inaction. Schools that don’t accept the extra responsibility can lose those students to prolonged absences that jeopardize their academic advancement.“

And children who lack health insurance are unlikely to get help for conditions that interfere with learning, such as learning disabilities or vision and hearing problems.

Billboard “Single-payer health care for all…ask someone who already has it!”.jpg

An article about how people get happier as they get older, says it’s partly due to “resources that contribute to happiness, such as access to health care, Medicare and Medicaid”.

Billboard Single-payer health care for all…a healthier workforce”

Inadequately treated health problems result in lower productivity, greater absenteeism and turnover, and become more severe over time. Concern about losing job-related health insurance causes individuals to stay in jobs for which they are unsuited when they could be more productive and successful at other work (a situation called “job lock”).

Billboard, Universal Health Care means no more bake sales for kids with leukemia.jpg

It’s shameful to see contribution jars and raffles in local stores collecting for sick people who would otherwise be untreated. Mostly these are for kids, since we are all more sympathetic toward sick children, but there are also spaghetti feeds and various benefits put on for adults who have brain tumors or other acute and potentially fatal illnesses. And every year at this time brings those holiday campaigns in the newspaper, raising money for individuals or families, and often there’s a medical need there. One of the ones I remember was a local young man who’d lost a leg to bone cancer when he was 11; now he was working full time at a job (with no insurance) that was mostly standing, and since he was off his mother’s insurance he could not get a replacement for his outgrown prosthetic leg.

“It’s estimated that 9 million children are completely uninsured. But the new study says 11.5 million more kids end up without medical care for part of the year. And another 3 million can’t get a ride to the doctor. That’s more than 23 million children.” (2008 figures)

And finally,

Billboard Universal health care, it just amkes sense, and it’s the right thing to do

I don’t have a picture for this one. What I’d like it to be is not yet invented, some visual-mental device that reflects back to the viewer’s brain an image of him/herself, struck by a wasting disease well before the age of 65 when Medicare begins.

I do have a few more bits of information about the effects of not being insured. “Two large national studies of hospital admissions found that when the uninsured are admitted to a hospital, it is for a more serious mix of diseases and conditions, based on expected mortality, than the privately insured.…A study in California found that uninsured newborns with medical problems had significantly shorter stays (by 1.8-5.9 days) and received significantly less care (measured by total hospital charges) than privately insured newborns for several specific medical diagnoses. Another study found that the uninsured are at much greater risk of substandard hospital care due to negligence or poor quality: 40.3 percent of adverse events among the uninsured were due to negligence, compared to 20.3 percent for the privately insured who experienced adverse events.“ [source]

So the uninsured person, who is likely to be sicker when arriving at the hospital, is twice as likely to be the victim of negligent care during the stay. (Maybe it’s a mercy that the stay itself will be shorter than for the insured patient.) And the uninsured receive less treatment, whether for injury in a car accident, heart attack, or being born prematurely. More of them die, than insured people with the same conditions.

It’s a national disgrace and a drag on the economy; it’s contrary to our ideals and a terrible waste of the possibilities of human lives; it condemns many, from birth or before, to short and painful lives. It’s not open to compromise, Mr. President. You should have stood up for it and the issue should have been fully discussed before the people. If you think our attention spans are too short for extended discourse, you’re welcome to my billboard ideas.

Advertising, banks, and Salome of the Seven Veils

We all have our own “If I ruled the world, this is how I’d fix it” fantasies. They don’t need to be reasonable, or part of a comprehensive strategy, so they’re self-indulgent and fun. I’d ban advertising as one of my first moves, or at least restrict it to words only: no pictures, no music or jingles, just cortex stuff. Miles per gallon, nutritional content, ease of installation, peppermint flavor. Well, the advertiser could wax poetic about how his product would transform your love life, turn commuting into a Le Mans experience, and make sadness and boredom as extinct as the dodo, but if the pitch is just in words printed in black and white, how many of our fellow citizens these days would bother to read it? And if they did, how convincing would it be?

Here’s an example of what vexes me about ads:

Ads and Banks.jpg

I photographed this ad in one of those gargantuan one-stop-shopping stores which also has a house bank. In fact, their bank used to be Washington Mutual, distinguished for being “the United States’ largest savings and loan association until it became the largest bank failure in U.S. history.” [Wikipedia]

As I recall, it was a WaMu ad way back in the early 90’s that told me all was not well with the American banking industry: it showed a car racing through one of those cones-in-a-line tests of driving skill, and posting a smoking-hot speed by the simple expedient of running over most of the cones. The voice-over and text said, “We break the rules for you”. Gives you a glow of confidence, like the surgeon rushing into your operating room bloody to the elbow, saying, “I didn’t bother washing up after that bowel resection, more important to get here in a hurry for your case!” It seemed obvious to me that this was not a good philosophy for a bank. But what did I know, since it actually worked great for all the big banks, until suddenly the bottom fell out. Who could have known? Then we bailed them out, so no harm done.

Take another look at the ad. Its ostensible purpose is to encourage us to put our money in savings accounts. Seriously? How likely is that? With savings interest rates running between 1.14% and 1.44%, and annual inflation at 2.63% (or more, if you are a living person rather than a statistical construct), we’ll all be rushing to get that deal. “Lose money while you save”, what a terrific idea. No, the real intent here is to convince us rubes that the bank is a serious trustworthy institution that cares about our welfare. The face of the woman is carefully chosen to be seductive yet serious. We don’t need the financial system reform bills that the administration has asked for, we can just rely upon the banks to do the right thing. The House bill barely passed back in December, on a party-line 223-to-202 vote, and the Senate is still trying to figure out how to get it past the Republicans.

Nor should we resent the past and present behavior of the banks and investment companies. Don’t be bothered that

The nation’s six largest banks — all committed to this balls-out, I drink your milkshake! strategy of flagrantly gorging themselves as America goes hungry — set aside a whopping $140 billion for executive compensation last year, a sum only slightly less than the $164 billion they paid themselves in the pre-crash year of 2007.

Those are the words of Matt Taibbi, who has done his homework, and reports in Rolling Stone on just how the big money guys managed to: make tons of money through dishonest dealing; leave us all holding the bag of devalued real estate, foreclosures, and lost jobs; get bailed out by our tax money; and then start the same process over again, generating new excessive profits from unsound and possibly illegal investment practices. Taibbi systematically details the various con games utilized by the financial institutions.

Maybe counter-ads are the answer. I could create ads instead of longing to ban them.

BanksTrust1.jpg

[painting by Laura Givens, entitled ‘Wild Abandon’]

Or, for consumers who like authority figures,

BanksBlofed1.jpg

[if you’re not up on old James Bond villains, that’s Donald Pleasance as Ernst Blofeld, SPECTRE leader who has sensibly turned international banker after the Cold War ended]

Or this,

BanksScrooge.jpg

On a more positive note, remember that there is an alternative to doing business with Scrooge, Blofeld, and Salome of the Seven Veils. Visit your local credit union. Ours offers overdraft protection (no $35 fees), various kinds of accounts, loans, and debit cards. Credit unions used to restrict membership to certain groups (teachers, employees of a certain company or industry, etc.) but now many exist to serve all the residents of a certain area. Executives don’t get million-dollar bonuses, and the emphasis is on local service and steady management.

A credit union is a cooperative financial institution that is owned and controlled by its members, and operated for the purpose of promoting thrift, providing credit at reasonable rates, and providing other financial services to its members. Many credit unions exist to further community development or sustainable international development on a local level… Credit unions are “not-for-profit” because they operate to serve their members rather than to maximize profits. [Wikipedia]

Find a credit union in your area in the phone book, or use this directory.

Even credit unions have to advertise. But I won’t quibble with this ad.

BankCreditUnionAd.jpg

More about credit cards, debt, pyramids, and eschatology

My recent post “Why I’m canceling my Bank of America credit card” brought a comment pointing out that cancelling credit cards can adversely affect one’s credit score, perhaps making it difficult to borrow for cars and houses. That may well be true, but it seems to spring from a view of credit and debt quite different from mine. Rather than dump this on the hapless commenter as a reply, I’ll say it here.

First, the companies have no incentive to restrict credit, and I expect they’ll soon be back to sending out credit apps to dogs and kindergartners. When the banks lose money through extending credit unwisely, they raise rates on the rest of us to recoup. Worst case, as now, the taxpayers bail them out, they buy each other up, write off debt, get tax breaks for losses. So I think people can safely cancel all but one or two cards, and still be able to use credit to make major purchases.

Second, I’m hoping that ordinary people, who DO have an incentive to learn from the present debacle, may start restricting their debt to large necessary items. Cars and houses usually do require going into debt. But I’m old enough to remember life without credit cards; my mom had a metal “charge-a-plate” for Macy’s, and there was layaway at some stores, but no credit cards. If you wanted something you saved up for it. If you couldn’t afford to go out to dinner, you didn’t go. To those accustomed to incurring chronic credit-card debt for indulgences, such a life may seem a bleak prospect. But actually I recall very few people growing despondent for want of cruises, concert tickets, and designer handbags.

Back in the 1980’s when I saw items at an Oregon department-type store bearing tags that said “Want me? Buy me!” and a credit card logo, I viewed it as a dangerous & selfish attitude to cultivate. Along with it came the re-definition of human beings as “consumers”.

The present economic system is a pyramid scheme because it is predicated on continual growth. We do not live in a world of infinite resources and space, therefore neither population nor consumption/production can continue to increase forever. Business interests, and even the administration, expect increased consumption to get us out of this depression. If it does, it can be only a temporary fix.

I know there are a lot of optimists out there who say not to worry about dismal stuff like the economy, climate change, and all that, because the world is going to end in 2012 (Mayan Calendar theory) or “soon” (some Christian fundamentalist theories). But I just can’t be that optimistic. Call me crazy, but what if we’ve got those Mayan numbers just a little bit wrong? Or some translator introduced an inaccuracy into the Book of Revelations? What if God has changed His mind, and now thinks it might be amusing to see how His little creatures manage with these challenges? We just can’t know. Better to keep our eyes on the ball, as it were (in this case the planet & its inhabitants) and not count on the Umpire calling the game on account of End of Time.

Back to the past: Return of the percolator

Over three decades our household has averaged a new coffee-maker every three or four years. We’ve had Braun, Gevalia, Black and Decker, Krups, and other brands I’ve forgotten. A couple of times we got the $90 model but mostly they’ve been about half that price. Either way, eventually they quit working and this big non-repairable piece of plastic and electronics goes into the garbage.

As years have passed they’ve gotten more complicated, and that seemed to be the downfall of last week’s purchase. It was a Krups with an added water filter (good for us, with mineral-rich well water, but also one more thing to have to find, buy, and replace––profit’s big on consumables, like printer cartridges!). It also had an extra idiot light feature: a “low water” display and override which would keep it from running if it thought there was not enough water. This was not a feature we wanted, in fact we did not discover it until it malfunctioned on the third day of use. Push ON and all that happened was a cryptic pattern flashing on the display.

In the morning, when you want your coffee, reading a coffee-maker manual is not on your list of desired activities. Before consulting the manual we tried the chimpanzee approach, pushing the four control buttons in various combinations. Luckily we did not happen to activate any of the more arcane features, which can only be guessed at, nor (since we live in such a remote location) did the machine’s electronic calls for help manage to bring its plastic comrades jetting to its aid in time to defend it from our mishandling. Nor did we fix it, even after we deciphered the display message. We plugged and unplugged it, emptied and refilled it, all to no avail. Then we called the Customer Service number and listened to music for 20 minutes before a polite woman with a southern accent came on, heard our story, and informed us that by unplugging it and plugging it back in, we had “done all the troubleshooting” that we could do and our next step was to pack it up and ship it to their service center. Or, she said, we “might be able” to return it to the point of sale for a “straight-across trade”. Yes, I said, thinking “But not for another one of your brand!”

By then, we had made our morning’s coffee using a kettle and a flat-bottomed gold filter set in a sieve over a large pyrex measuring container. It was good. Caffeinated, we discussed our next step. Something simpler, not plastic and electronic, would be good; perhaps it would even have been Made NOT in China. We decided on a percolator, since Dan said he’d seen one on the shelf when he chose the Krups, and I remarked that when I was a kid people had the same percolator for 20 years, perking on and on. We marvelled that the coffee-makers of our childhood were still being sold. Maybe we weren’t the only people tired of having to read a manual for something that should be simple, and tired of the (planned or unplanned) short life-span of the new coffee-makers.

For $45 we got a shiny stainless steel West Bend percolator. It has no controls. Fill with water (there is a clear water gauge on the side, one new feature); insert the tube up which the hot water flows; put coffee in metal basket, put on lid, place basket on tube, put coffee-maker lid on, plug in. Less than a minute later hot water is flowing up into the clear knob on top and down onto the coffee basket. There is no possible programming, no clock, and only one “feature”, a plastic light on the base. I thought the thing was already broken, when the light did not come on after the percolator was plugged in. But no: the light comes on when the coffee is done. It keeps the coffee hot until unplugged, so you have to remember to do that to avoid cooked-all-day coffee remains. Unlike all the coffee-machine carafes we have ever had, the percolator does not drip when you pour too fast. Also, it takes up less space on the counter.

And the coffee? We like it better than what we were drinking before. The perking noise is pleasant, unlike the hissing and puffing of the previous type. Only one part didn’t turn out as we hoped: it was “Made in China”. But we hope it’s the last coffee-maker we buy for a long long time.

Listen up, retailers and retail employees!

You know you can’t afford to lose customers these days. We’re having an economic situation/blip/slowdown/downturn/recession/crisis/depression, ah––cut to the end: when the train finishes pulling into the station, it’ll be “Economic Disaster”.

Businesses spend money and effort on advertising, but often are oblivious to how they treat the customers themselves. When I walk into the tiny local florist to send condolence flowers and the person greets me coolly, asks only “How much do you want to spend?”, has no prices posted on anything, and no pictures or samples to show me, does it seem likely I will return? If there’d been another similar business within 15 miles I’d have walked out and gone elsewhere.

This subject has been on my mind for a few years, because my experience at the florist is far from an isolated incident. I fantasized about making my million with a company issuing videos and doing workshops about how to treat customers. But that’s not likely, and American business needs this now, so I’m going to write a little about it. Maybe it’ll be worth more than the traditional value of free advice.

Keep in mind, much of what I will say may seem obvious. It is. But if you work with the public and you aren’t practicing this, you need to hear it. And more than just hear it; consciously work at it and get some sort of feedback on how you are doing. My plan for teaching “customer service” included video illustrations of right and wrong; role-playing; and finally videotaping “students” for them to see themselves, because in all aspects of life we need a mirror, an objective reporter, to show us what we really do and say, as opposed to what we believe we do and say. Think about how true that is of other people you know. And it is just as true of you. And me.

Attitude

If you are going to work with the public, in a gas station, a library, a restaurant, a retail store, behind any sort of service desk, accept these basic realities:

  • No customers, no job.
  • Every customer advertises you to people they know, with praise, condemnation, or silence.
  • Making a repeat customer is like gaining a new customer without the expense of buying ads or running special deals.
  • You’re “on” every minute.
  • Customers get to act tired, cranky, stupid, and demanding, but you do not. You must be polite, helpful, inoffensively cheerful, and competent.

These are habits of thought and action like any others, and you can learn them and make them mostly unconscious and routine. Even virtue, Aristotle said, is a habit.

If you absolutely can’t accept and act on these realities, then public service/retail is the wrong place for you. You won’t be effective or happy in your job. And eventually it may catch up to you, as your boss decides you don’t add anything to the business, or your own business fails.

Attentiveness and Greeting

If you’re otherwise engaged when a customer arrives, you must show that you know he or she is there. Maybe you’re on the phone or helping someone else when Joe walks up to the counter. Make eye contact with Joe, smile, return to what you are doing.

Don’t keep him waiting more than a couple of minutes unless it is clear to him that your current transaction has a clear end coming up, as for instance ringing up the customer ahead of him. (This doesn’t apply to a grocery checkout line, or other situations where customers know they are waiting and know their place in line. Although even there, send a smile to the customer who’s waiting behind that person sorting through a zillion coupons, and it will be appreciated.)

If your transaction may go on and on, use your judgment; probably you should say to the customer in front of you, “Excuse me just a moment,” turn to Joe, and say “Hi, can I answer a question for you?” He asks whether your store has Acme Widgets in stock, you tell him yes (and where they are) or no (adding, but if he can wait a moment, we have something very similar) then turn back to your current customer. Or if there is another employee available, get that person over to help Joe. Joe doesn’t walk out thinking you don’t care about his business, and you may have a customer.

On the other hand, don’t let attentiveness to the newly arrived customer make you abandon the one you were working with. Same with phone calls; that’s what the Hold button is for. Fairness is important to us humans, and the person who was there first can reasonably expect you to finish his or her transaction before going on to another. If Joe’s “quick question” turns into something longer, you must gently interrupt and promise to help him just as soon as you’ve finished with the other person’s business.

[Supervisors, take note: should your sales desk people really be answering all the incoming calls, too? You think you’re saving money but it means someone who is right there with money to spend has to wait while the clerk answers questions and routes calls.]

Do not do personal business in front of customers. Everybody needs to make a phone call at work sometimes, or talks to other employees during a slow period about non-work stuff, but make it a rule: never when a customer is present. Tell your babysitter you’ll call right back, quit discussing the weekend, the hot new clerk in Shipping, or the prospect of layoffs. Even if the call or conversation is really work-related (informing another staff member that the new shipment of extra-large widgets hasn’t arrived yet so we don’t have any on the shelves right now), the customer needs to come first. Make eye contact (as above) and end the other matter at once.

Each customer should feel that they have been noticed, that they will have your attention soon, and that during that time they will be your primary focus.

Helpfulness

All of us have had the experience, on the customer side of the counter, of being either smothered with attention or wandering lost and alone. We want someone to pick up on our signals and act appropriately.

As a salesperson (or library assistant, waitperson, etc.) you can learn to read minds. Yes, it can be done. Offer initial assistance, then ask if you can help; if the answer is “No, I haven’t quite made up my mind,” or the old standby “I’m just looking around,” then say “Just let me know when you’re ready” or “Let me know if I can help you find something.”

And then, you don’t forget about this customer. If I sit staring at the menu for ten minutes maybe I need to be asked, “Would you like to hear about our specials today?” or “Can I tell you more about any of these lunches?”––and not in a tone of “Would you please get on with it!” Restaurant staff are usually much better at this than retail staff, since turning the tables over in restaurants is so important. In a store, people searching the shelves or aisles in vain for what they need have a certain look, which you don’t have to be a master of human expression to recognize.

Make your interchanges genuine. What you say, how you say it, body language, all can have a positive or negative effect. One of my pet peeves is the “drive-by wait-person” who asks, while rushing past our table, “Everything okay here?” And if it’s not? If my hamburger is raw inside or I need more water, do I have the impression that this person has time to care? Waiting table can be a high-stress job with a lot of things to juggle at once, but if you’re going to talk to me, please stop, face me, make eye contact, and then talk.

At the store’s cash register, as you are asking me whether everything was okay, and did I find what I needed, same thing: make eye contact, take that extra 5 seconds to see me, and then listen and respond to what I say. I like it better, and you may get valuable information: there’s no ground beef left at the meat counter, I couldn’t find what I came in for and am heading elsewhere for my main purchase, the directional signage is wrong and I’m ticked off, somebody spilled coffee all over your bin of blue widgets.

When there’s “nothing to do”

Most jobs have slow times: no customers, no calls, waiting for a part to arrive or for someone else to do something. In work that’s mentally or physically demanding you need little bits of rest. But, especially in retail or public service, there really are things to do even when––especially when––the store or restaurant is quiet and the phone isn’t ringing. This is your chance to make the coming busy times easier for yourself, and improve the service you are able to offer. Some of it’s obvious: fill the condiment containers, put away the unsold merchandise that has made its way to the counter, check your supplies, replace the cash register tape, tidy things up. That’s the kind of thing a boss will be pleased not to have to remind you about.

There’s more that’s not as obvious: you need to know a lot about whatever goods or services you are in charge of, so look over the stock, check out the new stuff, notice that you now have some of those special items someone asked about last week, ask the cook about today’s soup (or even taste it!). Find the answers to questions you haven’t been able to answer, and next time you won’t have to consult someone else or confess ignorance. Have the answer that will help the customer, and result in a sale. “I need something for a baby shower, but she already has 2 kids.” “How do you use this chutney stuff, can I use it for a marinade?” “All these dry dog foods are confusing, what are the differences?” “Can I do my taxes online here at the library?” “What’s a good flowering plant for a shady location?” “I need some left-handed scissors.” This can be an enjoyable part of your job, learning more to help people toward what they are looking for.

And if your store hasn’t got those left-handed scissors, or your restaurant doesn’t have a wide vegetarian menu, you’ll earn the customer’s gratitude by being able to suggest an alternative, or even another place that has what’s needed. I had to return a plastic lap desk (for a laptop) to an office store because it just wasn’t adequate, and nothing else they had was any better. I won’t forget that the staff person recommended a big book store to me as a good place to look; I would never have thought of going there and was getting tired of the search. I followed the tip and found what I wanted. Now, I think of that office store as a more helpful place, and I’m more likely to go there instead of to their competitor. An interchange can be very successful (in terms of your business) even if it doesn’t result in a sale.

Personal Satisfaction

This is the part about what’s in it for you, if you change your attitude and behavior so customers leave feeling good about their experience in your workplace.

Now, it’s obvious that you are very likely to increase your own chances of success at work by doing this, whether you own your own business or are an entry-level employee someplace.

What if your boss is an SOB who only cares about the bottom line, treats customers and staff poorly, and is never going to die or retire in time for you to benefit? Sounds like a good place to move on from, and if you understand and can express good principles of customer service, you have an advantage in the coming job interviews. The surly or spaced-out shirker isn’t at the head of anyone’s hiring list.

Deciding to look for ways to be better at what you do is not equivalent to resigning yourself to being at your present job forever. Just the opposite, in fact; bad attitude and bad performance are not attractive to potential new employers. Nor are they conducive to promotion (except in the financial industry and high-level corporate management).

Beyond that though, is another realm of benefit entirely. It actually is true that if you work at doing your job well you are very likely to feel better about it. That is not a falsehood spread by the capitalist bosses, it’s a psychological fact. If you don’t think your own job is worth doing well, then you are telling yourself that every moment at work is a waste of time, something to be resented and avoided. In other words, “Over half of my waking life is worthless.” If you don’t have any sense of satisfaction except when you manage to work as little as possible, you go home feeling pretty crappy about all those hours and effort, and about yourself.

And now, a word to the “capitalist bosses”

Most of what I have written has been addressed more to employees, but it is employers who set the tone of their businesses, and they have a lot to lose if staff are providing poor customer service. If that is the case at the business you run, don’t blame your the people who work for you––train them, encourage them, and set a good example including in your behavior to the employees themselves.

This may only be possible in small businesses, since larger ones get drawn astray by greed, ego, and isolation of management from the product and customers. Management starts to think that the end product is money, and they start viewing everyone else in the world as either tools or fools. Employees are tools to be used, customers are fools to be scammed. But we always hear that small businesses generate most of the new jobs in the US, so if they can accept a model based on good products, good customer service, good treatment of employees, then that will be a significant change.

Our current economic debacle can be directly traced to poor practices on the part of those in charge, whether they were causing bad loans to be made, or failing to listen to consumers when designing cars. Greed is always a pyramid scheme: it pays off only if you bail out at the right time. A risky business model, that: it’s really just gambling (with other peoples’ money).

If you’re in business, you have customers. Act toward their greater satisfaction, strive to do what you do better than anyone else, take a long-term point of view, keep your debt down, and invest in your employees. You may not end up with the biggest widget company in the world, but you are likely to be still operating when the big guys have vanished in debt and disgrace.

Economic crisis: the farce goes on

We stopped the TV for a few minutes just now on CNBC’s “House of Cards”, a “special” about the mortgage bubble. The program is denouncing and exposing fraud and greed on the part of mortgage companies, brokers, and, yes, some homeowners.

Whew! Sure glad we’ve put all that behind us, now we just have to recover and clear up the mess.

Then there’s a commercial. Guess who one of the sponsors is? DiTech, whose obnoxious ads over the past few years lured in many a homeowner or would-be homeowner, for shady loans. They’re baaaack!

And DiTech is run by GMAC, the General Motors financing arm founded to provide loans to purchasers of their cars. Could the huge losses which DiTech/GMAC must have sustained possibly contribute to the financial pickle General Motors is now in? and for which they are asking a taxpayer bailout?

I’m shocked, do you understand, shocked!

rick-louie-gambling.jpg

Desperate retailers: come get free stuff!

JC Penney, one of America’s big traditional retailers, sent out “savings certificates” in early December offering $10 off a single in-store purchase of $10 or more. There were exclusions, including cosmetics, electronics, cookware, and small appliances, but even so there must be plenty of small items like gloves and sox, that would be less than $20, for a discount of >50%.

JC Penney has slipped in the Fortune 500 ratings of America’s largest corporations, from number 74 in 2005, to 126 in 2008.

The Top Ten for 2008?

1. Wal-Mart Stores

2. Exxon Mobil

3. Chevron

4. General Motors

5. ConocoPhillips

6. General Electric

7. Ford Motor

8. Citigroup

9. Bank of America

10. AT&T

AT&T has been buoyed by merging with Cingular and others, and by the success of the Apple iPhone. The oil companies are doing very well, but all the others on this list are reeling from the end of the finance bubble, except for the only retailer: Wal-Mart. It’s our giant conduit between the US and China—jobs go out, Chinese landfill fodder comes in. What do we fill those ships with for their return voyages? Oh yes, dollars and T-bills.

Developed nations circling the drain

In a related note, io9 summarizes a news item in the journal Foreign Policy:

Remember back when you knew you were in the so-called developed world because the economy was doing better than the so-called developing world? Well times are changing. Today the International Monetary Fund announced that, for the first time since World War II, the world’s developed economies would be shrinking by 0.3 percent in 2009 and America will decline by 0.7 per cent. American unemployment is at a 25-year high. When the globe emerges from this economic shakedown, membership in the “developed” club may have changed dramatically. [via Foreign Policy]

A few more cheery predictions:

Japan’s estimate [of growth, by the International Monetary Fund] was trimmed to 0.5% growth this year and a 0.2% contraction next, compared with the previous estimate for growth of 0.7% in 2008 and 0.5% in 2009.

Forecasts for emerging and developing economies were adjusted even more sharply, with the 2008 growth estimate falling to 6.6% from 6.9% and the 2009 forecast dropping to 5.1% from 6.1%.

“Among the most affected are commodity exporters, given that commodity price projections have been marked down sharply, and countries with acute external financing and liquidity problems,” the report said, while noting that China and other countries in East Asia are generally in better financial and economic shape.

China’s 2008 forecast was left unchanged at growth of 9.7%, while the 2009 estimate was cut to 8.5% from 9.3%. [Wall Street Journal blog, Nov. 6, 2008]