The National  Memo Logo

Smart. Sharp. Funny. Fearless.

Monday, December 09, 2019 {{ new Date().getDay() }}

We Should Attach Strings To Corporate Bailouts

It’s the end of the world as we know it, and the banks and airlines feel fine because even in the midst of economic collapse, CEOs can sleep soundly at night, secure in the knowledge that the American taxpayer will bail them out. Again.

All they have to do is wait a respectable six to 12 months after the wire transfer clears to start giving themselves raises, renovating executive suites and buying back their stock.

That’s exactly what happened during and after the 2008-09 global economic crisis that followed the subprime mortgage meltdown. In 2008 alone, banks that received government bailouts spent $1.6 billion on executive salaries, bonuses and benefits including “cash bonuses, stock options, personal use of company jets and chauffeurs, home security, country club memberships and professional money management,” the Associated Press reported.

It has been two weeks since securities markets began a terrifying fall. Again, shamelessly acting under the assumption that we have completely forgotten what they did last time, corporate lobbying groups like Airlines for America are already asking for a $60 billion bailout. Some people in the media are asking the right questions. Steve Inskeep of NPR’s “Morning Edition” asked an AFA spokesman about the $10 to $15 billion in profits the airlines have been raking in annually. Didn’t they save any of that? According to Bloomberg, the idiots spent 96 percent of their cash to buy back their stock even as they accumulated a mountain of debt.

As a society, however, Americans ought to be asking a bigger question: Are we going to allow ourselves to be conned by these corporate jerks the way we have been in the past?

Clearly the United States economy cannot recover from the coronavirus shock without a viable transportation system. That includes airlines. Similarly, we can’t allow banks to fail. But we should not repeat the mistakes of the administrations of former Presidents George W. Bush and Barack Obama, who bailed out Wall Street at the expense of Main Street.

The federal government handed over $7 trillion interest-free, no strings attached, to the big banks in exchange for increasing liquidity in the credit markets — which they never did. It’s still too hard to get a mortgage or other type of loan. After 9/11, the feds gave $15 billion to the airline industry, which has since treated American Airline passengers like crap.

As with the bank bailout, much of the money was wasted and stolen.

As Bush said, fool me once, shame on — shame on you. Fool me — you can’t get fooled again. Or something like that.

I have little expectation that they will do this, but the Trump administration should target federal assistance toward ordinary citizens who are losing their jobs rather than corporations. Not only is this the right thing to do; you get twice the bang for your buck. If Obama had helped distressed and unemployed people pay their mortgages and rent, it would have kept them in their homes, propped up the underlying mortgages that tanked derivatives and, therefore, saved the banks indirectly. Reducing the number of evictions would have mitigated the real estate crash caused by the deterioration of vacant houses.

To their credit, White House officials seem to be considering direct payments to prop up the economy during the coronavirus crisis. There’s even talk of a $1,000-per-person-per-month guaranteed minimum income reminiscent of Andrew Yang’s proposal. Seems like a lot of money but not when you compare it to the defense budget. Maybe we can take a break from killing Muslims?

But I would be surprised if they were to do that. The political class is just not that into us.

Trump should offer distressed corporations two options in exchange for being rescued from the financial downturn caused by the coronavirus pandemic.

Option one: nationalization.

If we save your automobile company or your oil company or your airline, we own it. All your stock gets transferred to the property of the U.S. Treasury. If the bailout is partial, we take a proportionate share based on a discounted rate of your devalued stock prices. If you are a competent CEO, you get to stay, but obviously at a greatly reduced salary. Once you start to do better, we deserve your profits.

You’re welcome.

Option two: We get to tell you how to run your company.

I’m picking on banks and airlines because they are particularly mean to their customers, but you can extrapolate these principles to other lines of business.

If the U.S. taxpayer saves your bank, the U.S. taxpayer has the right to be treated like a human being when he or she does business with you. That means closing the gap between interest rates. It’s insane that banks pay out 0.5 percent interest on savings accounts while taking in 25 percent from credit cards. Before we dole out money to these institutions, they must promise in writing to do better.

Big bailouts come with big strings. Not one dime of taxpayer money should ever find its way into executive salaries. And no stock buybacks.

Think I’m being draconian? If so, think of all the times you have asked an institution like a bank or an airline to cut you a break. How many times did they say yes? They had all the power and used it to crush you. Thanks to the coronavirus, the tables are turned. We, the people, have the power over the money that these jerks need to survive.

Let’s leverage the hell out of it.

Ted Rall, the political cartoonist, columnist and graphic novelist, is the author of Francis: The People’s Pope. He is on Twitter @TedRall. You can support Ted’s hard-hitting political cartoons and columns and see his work first by sponsoring his work on Patreon.

Bernie Should Own The ’Socialism’ Label

Bernie Sanders is currently the front-runner for the Democratic presidential nomination. He and everyone else knows exactly how the Republicans will attack him if and when he becomes the nominee: old-fashioned redbaiting.

China became communist in name only during the 1980s; the Soviet Union shut its doors in 1991; the Cold War is dead; and 64% of Americans under age 50 have no memory of a socialist regime actually existing. Yet Trump and the GOP have already broadcast their plans to hang the “democratic socialist” label around Bernie Sanders’ neck.

Whether such archaic fearmongering — against long-dead adversaries — will be effective even with elderly voters is anyone’s guess. Considering the fact that 40% of Americans consistently tell pollsters they prefer socialism or communism to capitalism, branding Sanders as a nefarious democratic socialist might have the unintended effect of bringing out people who don’t normally vote to support an ideology they’ve never had the chance to get behind.

On the other hand, only 76% of Democrats say they would vote for a socialist.

One thing is for sure: The socialism thing will be Sanders’ biggest challenge. And so what? Every candidate enters the game with a handicap of some sort.

Elizabeth Warren has acquired a reputation for deception and opportunism. Amy Klobuchar plays a mean girl behind closed doors. Pete Buttigieg is gay; only 78% of voters say they’d consider a gay candidate. He’s also inexperienced. Joe Biden appears to have been suffering from dementia for years.

Political weaknesses are inevitable; what makes or breaks a candidacy is how his or her campaign chooses to address it. History’s answer is clear: Take it on honestly, directly and credibly.

Own your crap. American voters hate sneakiness and avoidance.

Bernie has no one but himself to blame for this potential electoral albatross. As Paul Krugman of The New York Times points out, the independent senator from Vermont is not really a socialist: “He doesn’t want to nationalize our major industries and replace markets with central planning.” He is a New Deal Democrat indistinguishable from old liberal figures like Hubert Humphrey and George McGovern. The economic model Sanders wants to establish isn’t the USSR, or even Yugoslavia, but the Scandinavian countries with their superior safety nets and enlightened penal systems. Capitalism as we know it would continue, albeit with reduced overall cruelty.

Bernie is a social democrat, not a democratic socialist. For some unknown reason, however, he chose to label himself as a democratic socialist. “It’s mainly about personal branding,” Krugman speculates, “with a dash of glee at shocking the bourgeoisie. And this self-indulgence did no harm as long as he was just a senator from a very liberal state.”

Now he’s going to have to explain himself and his beliefs to American voters who have been propagandized through education and the media to believe that socialism equals communism equals totalitarian dystopia.

If he’s smart — and there’s no reason to believe that he and his staff are anything but — he will own the phrase and address those concerns head on.

During the 1960 campaign, John F. Kennedy responded to worries about his being Roman Catholic and potentially taking orders from the pope. The speech allowed anti-Catholic voters to take a chance on him. “I believe in an America where the separation of church and state is absolute, where no Catholic prelate would tell the president (should he be Catholic) how to act,” Kennedy said.

Aware that he was going to run for president in a few years, Barack Obama discussed his drug use as a young man, specifically the fact that he had tried cocaine, in his memoir and in an interview published ahead of the race. By the time he ran in 2008, the coke thing was old news baked into the politics of the time.

“Democratic socialism” is a pretty meaningless term. Which is not necessarily bad. Because it doesn’t define an existing party or ideology in the real world, Sanders can imprint his own definition upon his awkward tabula rasa.

Like every crisis, this is an opportunity. Voters want to know what Sanders stands for. Their confusion about democratic socialism (confusion caused by Sanders’ weird word choices) is his chance to explain himself and his policies.

The one thing he should not and cannot do is to shy away from the S-word. No matter how much he protests, Republicans are going to call him a Marxist, a communist, a socialist, and worse. So there’s no point in protesting. “Yes,” he could say, “I am a socialist — a democratic socialist. A democratic socialist is a person who cares more about you as an ordinary American than about greedy billionaires and corporations who pollute your water and lay you off at the drop of a hat.”

Nothing neutralizes an attack more effectively than to cop to it.

If nothing else, even if he loses, Bernie could rehabilitate socialism as an acceptable economic alternative. In the long run, that would be a greater accomplishment than anything he could accomplish in eight years as president.

Ted Rall, the political cartoonist, columnist and graphic novelist, is the author of Francis: The People’s Pope. He is on Twitter @TedRall. You can support Ted’s hard-hitting political cartoons and columns and see his work first by sponsoring his work on Patreon.

Photo Credit: Gage Skidmore

What A Real Passenger Bill Of Rights Should Look Like

Reprinted with permission from Creators.

The violent ejection of a United Airlines passenger from a flight bound from Chicago to Louisville appears to have marked a long-awaited turning point. Dr. David Dao, 69, suffered a broken nose, lost two teeth and faces reconstructive sinus surgery. At last, America’s long-suffering flying public is crying as one; have you commercial airlines no shame?

Americans have been mad as hell. Now, it seems, they’re not going to take it anymore.

How will the politics of protecting travelers from rapacious — and sometimes brutal — air carriers play out? With the Republicans in control of all three branches of government, will this moment pass without significant legislative action as did the mass school shooting in Newtown, Connecticut? Or will Trump’s Congress be forced to act?

Thanks to nickel-and-diming us with $30 baggage and seat fees, the airlines are raking in billions. So they can easily afford changes that benefit consumers but cost their bottom lines.

Even the IRS is more popular than the airlines. So politicians aren’t taking any risks by taking them on.

Now is the time to act. Consumer advocates should set a high bar for their demands — and insist that Democrats get behind them. Dems should be able partner with Republicans on this one; “airlines suck” is bipartisan.

What would a genuinely kickass passenger bill of rights look like?

Americans sometimes point to Europe as an example. But the EU code is toothless.

Case study: A service truck ran into my plane before its scheduled morning takeoff. The plane was grounded indefinitely. Understandable. Less understandable was how they treated us: late that night, they flew us to the neighboring island, put us up in a filthy, dangerous motel and flew us to New York the next day — more than 24 hours later.

EU rules say I should have received 400 euros compensation for the delay. Citing the time-honored corporate doctrine of we don’t feel like paying just because, the jerks at Norwegian denied my claim. Norway’s national aviation authorities gave me the brush-off, referring me back and forth.

Airlines poll just behind price-gouging low-service cable companies as America’s most hated business sector. This is a disaster. Since radical problems require radical solutions, let’s think big.

Class Warfare: Trudging through first class to steerage isn’t just an insult to human dignity. In a country that overthrew aristocracy, special titles and privileges are anti-American. The airline class system incents efficiency experts to target the flying top 1 percent with beds at the expense of such amenities as room for the knees of the 99 percent. The Department of Transportation should ban class distinctions. Let all seats be created equal.

One Price Fits All: Obama-era DOT rules require airlines to clearly post fees for “extra” services like luggage. Two pieces, plus a purse or briefcase or small backpack, ought to be part of the flat fee everyone pays. The current system, in which the stripped-down Spirit appears as cheapest in listings but hits you up for $50 a bag and so winds up being the most expensive, is ridiculous.

NOverbooking: McDonald’s can’t sell the same Big Mac to two customers. How does it make sense to allow airlines to sell 140 tickets on a plane with 120 seats? That’s overbooking. If a paid passenger misses her fight, sell it to a standby if there is one. Otherwise let the seat fly empty and let us stretch a little.

Ban Surge Pricing: Sophisticated algorithms designed to maximize airline profits have frequent flyers sharing dubious tips (like which day is the cheapest to buy your ticket) and clearing their web browser cookies to stymie airlines whose prices mysteriously creep up after each search (buy now or else). Whether on Uber or United, surge pricing is creepy and annoying and requires too much work for flyers. Set a price and stick with it, dammit! SFO to JFK on Delta should cost the same regardless of the time of day or day of week.

No Preferential Seating: With the exception of families traveling with small children, the disabled and trying to keep groups together, seats should be assigned randomly without consideration for frequent flier status or anything else. Particularly disgusting has been the recent practice of airlines that only allow advanced assignments for premium extra-cost seats, fooling some victims into buying something they don’t need and stressing out everyone else.

Ergonomic Reform: Legroom, pitch and seat width in coach have been shrunken to the point that the average person is cramped and uncomfortable. For safety reasons alone — evacuating a stricken aircraft through narrow aisles and rows is slow and thus dangerous — the FAA should set significantly more generous minimum standards for seat spacing. A middle-seat passenger ought to be able to get out to go the restroom without forcing his neighbor on the aisle to stand up.

Last and perhaps least, my personal bugaboo: what’s up with those last rows in some planes, where the seats can’t recline? That’s just mean.

Ted Rall is author of “Trump: A Graphic Biography,” an examination of the life of the Republican presidential nominee in comics form. You can support Ted’s hard-hitting political cartoons and columns and see his work first by sponsoring his work on Patreon.

 

Confessions Of A Frequent Guest On Fox News

Reprinted with permission from Creators.
By Ted Rall

“Report the news. Don’t become the news.” Not that Fox News has ever adhered strictly to boilerplate advice from Journalism 101, but the craziness on Sixth Avenue has come to a serious boil lately.

TV news elder statesman Ted Koppel called Sean Hannity “bad for America.” Sean freaked out and attacked Ted. Sean reportedly pulled a gun on fellow Foxer Juan Williams.

Bill O’Reilly and Fox paid $13 million to settle sexual harassment complaints filed by five women. Again, management knew — but stood by Bill. Advertisers are pulling out.

Last year Fox boss Roger Ailes was forced out in the aftermath of a sexual harassment lawsuit filed by Gretchen Carlson, who is now at MSNBC. Fox paid her $20 million and apologized. Julie Roginsky recently filed another suit against Ailes.

I’ve never worked at Fox. But I used to spend enough time there to gain insight into a dysfunctional organization.

This was during the years immediately following 9/11. George W. Bush and his wars were popular, especially with Fox viewers. And I went after Bush more aggressively than anyone else. So they were constantly begging me to come on as a liberal punching bag.

It became routine: Fox News popped up on caller ID. Would you like to come on The O’Reilly Factor/Hannity and Colmes/later just Hannity to talk about it? Why yes, I would. Bill or Sean would yell at me (as Alan silently cowered). I’d shoot back a volley of snark in hope that some of it would get through my deliberately tamped-down mic.

Going on Fox felt like going to war. These were the darkest days of the War on Terror: 2002, 2003 and 2004. Republicans were right-wing Republicans and so were Democrats. Someone had to stand up against wars of choice and legalized torture. Someone had to fight for the Bill of Rights. I was insulted (Hannity: “you have no soul”) and lied to (O’Reilly in response to my argument that the U.S. couldn’t win in Afghanistan: “I’ll bring you back to follow up”). But it was worth it. I’d take any opportunity to represent for the Left.

Lord knows the Democrats weren’t doing it.

Some of their tactics were risible. They were so extreme that, over time, no one to the left of Reagan would agree to appear on the network unless they’d never heard of it.

Ergonomic warfare, for example. My teetering armless guest seat was placed several inches lower so that, at 6’2″, I was forced to gaze up as O’Reilly lorded over his desk (which I couldn’t reach so as to rest my hands) from his comfy Aeron chair. A minute into O’Reilly’s oral arguments-style volley of hostile questions, it took most of my concentration not to roll backwards off the set.

Maybe I’m old-fashioned, but isn’t someone who takes the time to come to your studio, slap on pancake makeup and suck up a barrage of nasty questions and comments entitled to hospitality?

That said, I kind of liked Bill. He was cordial during breaks. Once, while one of my cartoons was provoking death threats (granted, mostly from Fox fans), he expressed genuine concern for my personal safety. Off-camera, he didn’t come off as an ideologue. I got the impression that he was in it for the money.

Hannity was a classic Long Island mook.

Unlike O’Reilly, the thick-necked Hannity followed me around the studio, trash talking me with right-wing talking points while I searched for the restroom. “Save it for the show,” I advised him. What’s wrong with this guy? I thought. Give this to him: he’s for real. Hannity is a rabid culture warrior, a Goebbels for an America in free fall.

One episode turned me off Fox for good. Hannity’s producer invited me on to discuss a controversial “Doonesbury” cartoon. I was going to deliver my opinion and analysis as a political cartoonist, not talking about my own stuff. On the air, however, Hannity ambushed me instead with insults over a controversial cartoon I’d done months earlier about Pat Tillman, and which I’d already appeared on his program to defend.

I held up OK and kept my cool. But I was not happy. These appearances are discussed and agreed upon in detail: you’ll show the cover of my book at the beginning, you’ll identify me as “Syndicated Editorial Cartoonist,” you’ll be questioned about this and that. Switching to an entirely different subject violates the rules. At a well-run cable news network, punking a guest could lead to a warning or dismissal. Hannity’s crew just laughed.

Not long afterward, Sean’s producer called to apologize and begged me to return. I said I would if Sean would apologize on the air, the same medium where he’d tried to humiliate me. “He’s not likely to agree to that,” the producer said. I stayed home.

My Foxiest memories took place in make-up.

A rushed make-up assistant accidently scraped my open eye. Years later, my left eye tears up in windy weather. Riding a bike, it runs full on. Stuff happens.

I’m still waiting to come back on O’Reilly to talk about Afghanistan.

Ted Rall is author of “Trump: A Graphic Biography,” an examination of the life of the Republican presidential nominee in comics form. You can support Ted’s hard-hitting political cartoons and columns and see his work first by sponsoring his work on Patreon.