Tuesday, July 22, 2014

A TV commercial subtly suggests cannibalism, another makes fun of those with disabilities

By Marc Jampole

Two commercials currently on TV are making me—and probably most other viewers—squirm with discomfort. Both are meant to be funny, but once explained, the logic behind the humor may turn stomachs.

The first is a spot for Lay’s potato chips that opens with an animated version of the classic Mr. Potato toy getting home from work. He can’t find his wife anywhere. He hear a strange crackle and then another. He follows the sounds until he sees his wife hiding in a room with a bag of Lay’s potato chips, munching away. She is suitably embarrassed at what amounts to an act of cannibalism, but the commercial explains that the chips are so delicious that they are irresistible. The last shot shows Mr. & Mrs. Potato Head snacking on the chips, both with a look of mischievous glee on their face—they know they are doing a naughty thing, but it just doesn’t matter.

The scene is reminiscent of Jean-Luc Godard’s masterpiece, “Weekend,” at the end of which the main female character sucks on a bone from a stew prepared by the revolutionary who has forcibly made her his concubine. “What is it we’re eating?” she asks, to which the punky gangster answers, “Your husband.” She has the last line of the movie: “Not bad…” and then keeps gnawing on the bone.

Eating another being of your own species is generally considered to be an abomination. Although the Potato Heads are not humans, they are stand-ins for humans with human emotions and aspirations, just like the various mice, ducks, rabbits, dogs, foxes, lions and other animals we have anthropomorphized since the beginning of recorded history. From Aesop and Wu Cheng’en to Orwell and Disney, authors have frequently used animals as stand-ins for humans in fairy tales, satires and children’s literature.

So when Mrs. Potato Head eats a potato, it’s an overt representation of cannibalism—humans eating other humans. 

The advertiser is trying to make fun of transgression, to diminish the guilt that many on a diet or watching their weight might feel in eating potato chips, which after all, are nutritionally worthless.  But behind the jokiness of a potato eating a potato chip stands more than the idea that it’s okay for humans to eat them. The implication in having a potato playing at human eating other potatoes is that we are allowed to do anything transgressive, even cannibalism—everything is okay, as long as it leads to our own pleasure.  The end-game of such thinking is that our sole moral compass should be our own desires.

Thus the Lay’s Potato Head commercial expresses an extreme form of the politics of selfishness, the Reaganistic dictate that everyone should be allowed to pursue his or her own best interests without the constraint of society. Like the image of the vampire living on the blood of humans or of the “Purge” series of movies in which people are allowed any violent action one night a year, the Potato Head family eating other potatoes that have first been dried, processed, bathed in chemicals, extruded and baked symbolizes and justifies what the 1% continues to do to the rest of the population.  

And it’s a happy message, too!  We don’t get the sense that it’s a “dog-eat-dog world in which you have to eat or be eaten.” No, Lay’s presents the gentle Reagan version: you can do anything you like to fill your selfish desires (no matter whom it hurts).

The kooky image of potatoes as cannibals may be funny, but I can’t imagine anyone is laughing at the Direct TV series of commercials that present human beings as string puppets who trip over furniture and get caught in ceiling fans.

To sell the fact that Direct TV—a satellite television service—can operate without wires, these commercials start by depicting a normal-looking character complaining about wires in the entertainment system or expressing delight that he has Direct TV and therefore can go wireless. At this point in the several versions of the spot I have seen, we are introduced to another member of the family who is a string puppet. As the normal character stammers about how wireless is okay for people but not when it comes to TV, the string puppet bounces around, hands and fingers flapping, shoulders hunching together and legs and knees dangling, until it trips or gets hung up in the fan or something that is supposed to be funny happens. But it’s only funny if one enjoys the cruel humor of slapstick and if one forgets that the stringed puppet is supposed to be part of the family—in other words a real human being with a challenging disability.

Direct TV has a long history of commercials that make fun of its audience, such as the idiot who fails to inherit a mansion, yacht and major stock portfolio but cries for glee because his rich deceased relative has willed him the Direct TV package. But the string people in these new Direct TV spots are not buffoons, not stupid, not venial, not pompous or supercilious. No, the trait that the spot exploits for humor is that they are disabled.

The commercial tries to extract humor out of mocking people with disabilities. No wonder everyone with whom I have watched this spot has turned away with a disgusted expression.

Nothing connects these two commercials except the bad taste which led to their conception and broadcast.  The Direct TV commercial has no political or social subtext to it—it’s a juvenile effort to make a joke at the expense of people with physical challenges. The Mr. Potato Head cannibalism commercial, however, seems to offer a fable about the relationship between the haves and the have-nots, or in this case—those who eat and those who are eaten. The fabulist is interested in selling products and making consumers feel good about the process of consumption, even when it is transgressive.  Some may call it an overturning of traditional morality. I call it business as usual in a post-industrial consumer society. 

Monday, July 21, 2014

George Mason professor tries to play Washington Generals to Thomas Piketty’s Harlem Globetrotters

By Marc Jampole

Another transparently deceptive article on wealth inequality by George Mason economics professor Tyler Cowen has me wondering if Cowen has decided to play Washington Generals to Thomas Piketty’s Harlem Globetrotters.

The Harlem Globetrotters is an exhibition basketball team known for its entertaining feats of dribbling, passing and scoring, often to a catchy version of the 1920’s jazz standard “Sweet Georgia Brown.” The Globetrotters have rarely lost, thanks to the fact that they usually play the Washington Generals, an exhibition team put together for the sole purpose of serving the Globetrotters’ on-court foil.

Over the past several months, Cowen has published a number of articles that have tried to refute the main premise of Piketty’s Capital in the 21st Century, which is that inequality of wealth and income is growing in the world. His obviously fallacious reasoning makes me wonder if Cowen decided to play Washington General as his contribution to disseminating Piketty’s important theories. Just as the Generals’ weak defense have allowed such stars as Wilt Chamberlain, Connie Hawkins, Meadowlark Lemon and Curly Neal to wow spectators, so Cowen’s weak and typically devious arguments have made Piketty look good (as if the spot-on and factually-scrupulous Piketty needed any help!) 

First Cowen made a feeble attempt in Foreign Affairs to prove that wealth doesn’t tend to concentrate.  Instead of looking at the class of the wealthy, Cowen zeroed in on wealthy individuals, pointing out that old fortunes like the Rockefellers and the Astors get diluted over time. If he had instead looked at the wealthy as a class, Cowen would see that Piketty is right to conclude that inequality has increased because the numbers say it.  Call this flaw in reasoning a failure to think in terms of class.  

Cowen is at it again in a Sunday New York Times business article in which he claims that even though inequality is rising in many countries, it is easing globally. Cowen presents no statistics to prove the point, but gives a bunch of reasons why it must be true. Most of his reasons turn out to be trends that do act against greater inequality, but do not change the overall flow of wealth away from the poor and middle class and to the wealthy.  Yes, Cowen is right to say that international trade has improved the standard of living in developing countries, but the fact that there are more middle class people in China and fewer in the United States does not address the question of whether inequality is growing or not. 

In Capital in the 21st Century, Piketty provides statistics that demonstrate that the wealthiest are grabbing a greater share of the wealth and income pie than they used to in every single country of the world.  The most extreme difference in wealth and income between the top one percent and everyone else is currently in the United States. So the fact that there has been some movement up the economic ladder for some people in some non-western countries does not mitigate the overall picture of growing inequality in the world.

Cowen makes the same logical flaw in his New York Times piece as he does in the Foreign Affairs article: instead of looking at the totality of the statistics he looks at individual subsets from which he draws a generalized conclusion. In a metaphorical sense, Cowen’s reasoning is similar to a 2-3 zone defense with slow guards, which makes a basketball team vulnerable to both the three-point shot and drives to the basket. In other words, the careful reader or anyone who has read Piketty’s book observes Cowen trip himself up with his own words.

But the mainstream media loves deceptive arguments and outrageous statements if they support the free market or advocate against higher taxes. That explains why his mostly nonsense articles have found favor in The New Republic, Wall Street Journal, Forbes, Newsweek, Wilson Quarterly, Foreign Affairs and New York Times.  In fact, three years ago Business Week declared Cowen to be “America’s hottest economist.” That’s kind of like the newsletter of the corporation that owns the Washington Generals declaring the team the “best professional basketball team” of the century.

Except, of course, for all the others.

Friday, July 18, 2014

Former patriot of the year puts money ahead of country—but isn’t that the American way?

It turns out that Heather Bresch is as much a patriot as she was a student.

Ms. Bresch is chief executive officer of Mylan, Inc., a large maker of generic prescription drugs which recently announced that it is buying Abbott Labs for the purpose of moving to the Netherlands and enjoying lower taxes.

As Andrew Ross Sorkin detailed in a New York Times article titled Reluctantly, Patriot Flees Home,” Ms. Bresch was recipient of a “Patriot of the Year” award by Esquire Magazine, one of the literally thousands of bogus awards given by nonprofit organizations and the news media to corporate executives every year. Bresch won the Patriot Award not for acts of valor or self-sacrifice—but for having the connections to lobby for the Food and Drug Administration Safety and Innovation Act of 2012, which gives the FDA the authority to collect user fees for the drug and equipment reviews it conducts. 

Let’s grant Ms. Bresch the benefit of the doubt and assume that unlike virtually every other instance of an industry initiative to regulate itself, Bresch’ proposal was not a watered down version of what should have passed if Congress truly had in mind the best interests of the public.  But even making the incredulous assumption that she acted altruistically, Ms. Bresch has certainly not behaved as a patriot in her massive tax avoidance scheme.

A true patriot pays taxes—when represented, as Bresch so ably is, in part by her father, a Democratic Senator and former Governor of West Virginia.

A true patriot looks at the state of our roads, the state of our education system, the diminishing sums for medical and other research, the high price of college, the staggering poverty in the land of plenty and then does what he or she—or it if in the case of corporations—can do to help.  Instead Ms, Bresch and her company, like Pfizer, Abbvie, Tyco, Walgreens, Medtronic, Chiquita and dozens of other companies, decided to buy a smaller foreign competitor and renounce American citizenship to take advantage of a gaping loophole in the U.S. tax code.

Ms. Bresch is old hat at not being what she seems.  For years her resume said she earned a Masters of Business Administration from West Virginia University. In 2007, the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette called WVU on a routine fact check after seeing a news release announcing Bresch’ appointment as Mylan’s chief operating officer only to learn that Ms. Bresch did not in fact have a degree. What happened next bordered on low slapstick: WVU said Bresch had not earned her MBA, then called back days later to change its mind. In the interim, the university awarded Bresch a post facto MBA even though she was some 22 credits short of a degree that requires 48 credits. To do so, higher ups gave her grades for courses in which she had received “incompletes” and added six additional courses to her academic record.  The Post-Gazette had a field day reporting WVU cooking the academic books to award a bogus degree and the university’s subsequent weak attempts to cover it up. Heads rolled throughout the university.  

Forgotten in the academic scandal that dominated the news media in West Virginia and western Pennsylvania for months were two things:
1.      There must have been enormous political pressure on WVU for so many of its administrators to behave so unethically. It is unclear from where that pressure came, given that the Governor at the time was Heather’s daddy and the chairman of Mylan at the time was WVU’s largest donor.
2.      Bresch lied about having earned an MBA and continued to lie even after the Post-Gazette called her on it.  (Denying the truth may the modus operandi at Mylan. About two years later, then CEO Robert Coury insisted that an FDA investigation had ended even after the FDA said it was ongoing.) 

Sorkin, who neglects to mention Bresch’s past brush with resume-padding, expresses surprise that the “patriot” acted so unpatriotically, but it makes perfect sense to me.  In the United States, we learn that the most patriotic thing to do is to open or run a business. We also learn that a business is supposed to maximize profit for it shareholders in a legal manner, no matter how ethically repugnant it may seem. Lay off thousands of workers so that profit margins increase. Leave communities to chase cheaper labor and laxer environmental regulations. Suspend manufacture of needed pharmaceuticals because the profit margins are too narrow. Buy smaller foreign companies and move abroad to avoid taxes. All of it is ”just business,” in the words of fictional businessman Michael Corleone.

The syllogism is perfect:
·         Running a successful business is patriotic
·         Business rewards amoral if legal conduct, as long as it produces a profit
·         Abandoning the U.S. and denying its government of millions of dollars that could be used for safety, education, infrastructure investment, protection of the weak and security is good business.
·         Abandoning the U.S. is patriotic

Those who think I’m just joking haven’t followed the past 35 years of the federal government facilitating the globalization of large American businesses to the detriment of U.S. workers and communities. It’s this record that makes me doubt that Congress will hear the cries of “unfair” that many are making and change the law so that any country that makes money in the United States has to pay the U.S. tax rate no matter how the business structures itself or where it locates its headquarters.  

If you want to sell to U.S. consumers, you should have to pay U.S. taxes and at the same rate as domestic companies. That’s only fair, but fairness has nothing to do with business, nor, in the age of the politics of selfishness, does it have anything to do with either governance or tax policy.