Tuesday, March 24, 2009

Can Catholicism Survive "PappaRatzi"?

If Pope Benedict (a.k.a. PappaRatzi) stays alive long enough, he can potentially do to the Roman Catholic Church what George W. Bush did to the Republican Party. It’s not that Benedict is the worst pope in church history. He’s certainly not that. It’s just that he’s manifestly stupid in a time when papal infallibility has been reduced to nothing but a joke, and modern media makes sure that everybody knows it.

First, he shot his own foot by backing Bishop Richard Williamson in spite of Williamson’s denial of the Holocaust. What made this particularly lame, even by papal standards, was the Pope’s claim that the word “Holocaust” was misinterpreted in the whole sordid mess. Here’s the thing. Benedict grew up in Nazi Germany and served in the German army to defend Nazism, so he was in a perfect position to know what the “Holocaust” meant— both as a word, as well as the world’s best known episode of genocide.

Now Benedict has gone to Africa and told the people there that condoms are sinful. In South Africa, one person in six has HIV. For people of child bearing age, the number is one in four. During the last 25 years, since HIV transmission has been well understood, only the use of condoms has proven effective in reducing HIV in third world populations where anti-retroviral drugs are not readily available. Now, Benedict wants to see an end to that. This is the last thing Africa needed— a senile, celibate, irrelevant old fool representing a body of more senile, celibate old fools known as Cardinals— all claiming to speak for God. Can Catholicism get any more pathetic?

Thursday, March 19, 2009

Why Anti-Capitalism is a Good Thing

Wars are fought with more than just guns and bombs. In addition to these tried and true instruments of destruction, economic and financial “meddling” to disrupt an enemy economy has always been recognized as another effective lethal weapon. During WWII, European countries on both sides of the conflict flooded each other with counterfeit money to devalue the currency of the opposing side. In the late 1980s, toward the end of the Cold War and after the early ascendency of computers, all Pentagon WWIII war gaming included plans to hack into the Soviet computers which controlled the Soviet economy. Even today, as we’ve chased down Al Quaeda enemies following 9/11, a major part of our anti-terrorist strategy has been to go after their funding. And now we’re dealing with the fallout of destruction caused by a relatively small number— fewer than 20,000— Wall Street insiders who put personal enrichment above loyalty to country or old-fashioned American patriotism. What these people did in the name of American capitalism was nothing less than an act of war, and if these guys had been foreign nationals, then a proper response by our government would have been to bomb the capital of their host country into oblivion.

I contend that the “financial products” bombs that have been dropped on America by Wall Street have caused broader and deeper misery across the nation than the death and destruction of 9/11. Any system can go too far in a negative direction, and capitalism is not immune to this, and right now American capitalism has gone too far and it’s more of an enemy than a friend. Yesterday, Rush Limbaugh was on a rant in defense of capitalism, accusing President Obama of trying to dismantle capitalism. With his $400 million dollar bankroll, Limbaugh can be counted on to be on the wrong side of any economic issue, and yesterday was no exception. If Obama is anti-capitalism at the present time, that’s a good thing— at least until the economy is fixed. Right now, the capitalists are America’s enemy.

Tuesday, March 17, 2009

Capitalism Needs a Death Penalty

The United States is among the most religious nations on the planet, but when it comes to money, our American culture is near the bottom in global metrics with its morality and ethics. This blog, however, isn’t about the disconnect between religion and basic human goodness. I’ve beat that subject to death. I’m writing today about free market capitalism, and my thesis is that it doesn’t work in America anymore because it doesn’t work in the absence of strong morality and ethics.

Growing up, I never understood why American intellectuals were so infatuated with communism during the Great Depression of the 1930s. That’s because I was looking back on that time from the 1950s, and during that decade our free market capitalism worked just fine. But now I’m old, and America’s economic system is broken again, and now I understand why the brighter people in our society don’t automatically accept the supremacy of the free market capitalistic system. It hasn’t worked well for our nation for ten years now.

There is, however, a place where free market capitalism works well, even today. That place is China. The system works there because it is combined with the liberal use of executions and the death penalty for unethical behavior, and that— in turn— deters the kinds of system failures that have brought down our economy. Consider China’s tainted milk scandal. Two milk company executives knowingly put out milk laced with bacteria to make a quick buck, and a number of Chinese children died from drinking that milk. After a brief hearing, the company executives were executed with a bullet in the back of the head. Four months after that, two American peanut company executives in Georgia knowingly put salmonella-tainted peanuts into the United States food chain because they knew they could do it with impunity. You don’t need to be a revisionist historian to see that those two fat goobers in Georgia would have made a different decision about the salmonella laced peanuts if they were living and working in China.

If Bernie Madoff had pulled his Ponzi scam in China, his name would have made the newspapers just one time— under obituaries. All of the current posturing and outrage over the $160 million in bonus money paid to AIG executives would be unnecessary in China. The idiotic affair would be settled quietly with one simple phone call from the government secret police. This isn’t to say that morality and ethics are better in China than in America. That’s probably not the case. It’s just that the system in China works as though everyone was ethical. Here’s the thing— in the absence of strong ethical standards, no sane person will ever turn down several million dollars because of the threat of a slap on the wrist.

Monday, March 16, 2009

Big Pharma—Too Big To Fail?

Last month it was Pfizer who climbed into bed with Wyeth, and two weeks ago Merck got so cozy with Schering that the two became one— presumably till death do them part. Now it’s Roche who has taken over Genentech, although by all accounts this was more of a rape than a marriage. We’ve seen this scenario before in the financial setting when banking giant, Citigroup, took over Smith Barney back in those days of ancient history when both firms were actually making good money. We’re now told that Citigroup is too big to fail, so it’s natural to wonder if the newly bloated Pharma giants might not be positioning themselves to also be considered, “too big to fail.”

Following each takeover or merger, the well-orchestrated Pharma PR machines went into high gear, spinning out the usual PR-isms about achieving “synergies” and realizing “economies of scale,” but what have been the observable results? The first noticeable change came in doctor’s offices where the number of Pharma salespeople making sales calls fell off dramatically. My own personal physician would sometimes see as many as eight salespeople in a single day (most sales calls were two-minute sample drops). That was a year ago. Recently, the number has fallen off to one or two in an average day, and sometimes none at all. In the 1990s, many young people graduating college looked on Pharma sales as a worthy career aspiration, but today, many of those who realized their dream with a job selling pharmaceuticals have recently learned how fallen leaves probably feel in front of a leaf blower. The industry which once fielded over 100,000 sales people now has about one-third of that number.

None of this is particularly unsettling unless you’re making your living selling drugs. The problem for the greater society is that the research departments in companies like Pfizer are undergoing the same atrophy that’s been seen in the sales divisions. This means that potentially fewer new medications will come into the field of medicine, and even fewer existing drugs will undergo needed improvements. DTC marketing, however, remains robust and will only continue to grow, so look for Pharma advertising on TV to become even more abundant and glitzy as drug firms use this avenue to pump up sales and profits.

Thursday, March 12, 2009

News Flash to Rome. News Flash to Utah

Among all the world’s great religions, only Buddhism has demonstrated that its people and spiritual leaders understand the role of public relations in shaping media attention. The diplomatic travels of the Dali Lama, and the global media focus on the harsh Chinese treatment of Buddhist monks over the issue of Tibet— these and other PR initiatives demonstrate that, when it comes to the media, the Buddhists “get it.”

In stark contrast, the Abrahamic monotheisms don’t seem to have a clue. Three years ago, the Muslims went ballistic (actually, the proper phrase is to say they went Jihadist) because a Danish newspaper (the media) published cartoons of Mohammad. In the mayhem over that episode, several infidels were killed, which is always a real crowd pleaser for Islam, but it didn’t go very far to win over new coverts.

Catholicism fights this media battle constantly, and never seems to get it right. Most Vatican press releases are reactive to bad news, like when another Archdiocese goes bankrupt paying off past victims of priestly sex abuse, or when some rogue Bishop denies the Holocaust. Even when Vatican news is proactive and celebratory, it’s usually to announce something silly, like a human interest story about some South American peasant woman who cooks a baked potato only to find that the skin has crinkled into a likeness of the face of the Virgin Mary. We’ve all seen that sort of thing coming from the Vatican PR machine. The latest media war being waged by The Church involves the upcoming Ron Howard/Tom Hanks film, “Angels and Demons,” from the Dan Brown novel. The film doesn’t open until May, but already the Vatican is up in arms because they’re afraid that moviegoers will come away with the impression that The Church was anti-science during the Renaissance. News flash to Rome— that’s not any secret or misconception, and it hasn’t been for 400 years.

And now it’s the Mormon Church with its panties tied into knots over something involving the media. An upcoming episode of the HBO series, “Big Love,” will show a depiction of a secret ceremony (not fictitious) inside a Mormon temple. Only Mormons are supposed to know about this secret ceremony, but now HBO subscribers can see it too, and worst of all, they will learn about it for free, without paying that famous Mormon tithe. News flash to Utah—“Big Love” is only a sitcom. It’s not a documentary.

Long ago, business, educational, and political groups learned that trained PR people, with expertise in media relations, could go a long way toward making life easier for them in today’s media-drenched world. The Abrahamic monotheistic religions of the world need to embrace this tactic, and do it soon, because as long as these religions keep doing stupid things, the media will keep making them look stupid.

Wednesday, March 11, 2009

Please— No More Optimism. Enough, Already

Only 52 days on the job, and already President Obama is taking heat for his public attitude about the economy. The rap on him is that he is insufficiently optimistic, and that he fails to reassure us with “happy talk,” and Tim Geithner comes in for the same criticism. The United States is entering another depression, but Americans still don’t get it. They still look for optimism and happy talk in their leaders, failing to understand that these are the very qualities that got us into this mess.

The blame for the economic meltdown has been pinned on “gimmick” financial concoctions like sub-prime mortgages, and credit default swaps, and bundling of toxic assets for foreign consumption, and sale-lease-backs, and derivatives, and CDOs (collateralized debt obligations), and the list goes on and on. The fact is that all of these “deals” were nothing more than the bricks and mortar of the failed economic structure, but the foundation underlying the whole process of economic decay was the mindset of the managers and directors and VPs who concocted these financial instruments in the first place. You can almost hear the echoes of their voices as they went about their work, saying things like, “The market rewards the risk takers,” and “Failure is not an option,” and “It’s just a matter of managing expectations.” They had prepped themselves by reading books authored by management gurus— books that preached the value of unbridled optimism, and that taught the techniques of happy talk. They had advanced through their careers under the mantel of human resource honchos who rewarded them for their optimistic outlook. These were not evil men. They were simply misguided optimists and happy talkers living in an era when these traits were ingrained in American management DNA, and when the genes for critical thought had long since disappeared through the process of natural selection.

And now, even as Americans head for the poor house, they still seem to want the same old fluff. God help us. Maybe Obama is that rare individual who knows only too well that his ideas can fail, and who is too honest to tell us otherwise. He displays something called, “critical thinking,” and fifty years ago it was a trait that was valued more than optimism. Maybe a good old-fashioned depression will bring it back into vogue.

Tuesday, March 10, 2009

Eliminate the Middleman

New research polling data shows that 15% of Americans now put themselves into the category of having “no religion.” Within theology-based categories, only the Catholic Church and the Baptists can claim larger memberships, although the evangelical fundamentalists are closing the gap rapidly with 12% of the population currently and their numbers climbing fast. As a member of the “no religion” group, it appears to me that many Americans are discovering for themselves what I discovered years ago— that spirituality and religion don’t necessarily go hand in hand, and that any person can believe in a higher power without going through a middle man.

I’ve always seen religious leaders functioning like used car salesmen, with God (or something like him) as the manager hidden in the back room. If this analogy is unclear, go rent the movie “Fargo,” and watch it. For those who worship within this system, their offerings of faith, devotion and (especially) money go into the church, and the church leader gives them feedback on how the higher power feels about their contribution. It never made any sense to me, and that epiphany came to me long before the news of Catholic pedophiles serving as priests and guys like Ted Haggard telling us what some higher power wants us to know.

I don’t know exactly what’s on God’s mind, and neither does the Pope or Ted Haggard. I recommend giving money directly to the local soup kitchen or homeless shelter rather than any church, and if we truly believe that we have a soul, then I recommend listening to that through quiet introspection rather than sermons. As for the religious leaders, let them join the rest of us in this economy and go about looking for a job.

Sunday, March 8, 2009

A Poster Icon for American Stupidity

I thought about weighing in on the current controversy surrounding Rush Limbaugh, but why bother? Thinking and writing about Rush is like wrestling with a pig— it makes me feel tired and dirty, and the pig likes it. He thrives on criticism. And here’s the sad and terrible thing about Limbaugh— he will never go away. Even after he dies, dittoheads will experience Limbaugh “sightings” in the same way that believers do with Elvis and The Virgin Mary.

The dittoheads don’t seem to realize that their hero is really just a comedian, like Jon Stewart, but without any sense of humor or appreciation of the comedy in the absurd, and for this reason I was going to nominate the average, cross-sectional dittohead as the iconic poster person for American stupidity. But then along came Nadya Suleman and Sandra Herold.

For those unfamiliar with these two names, Nadya Suleman is known as the “octomom.” Her claim to fame is that she expects society to pay the million-dollar medical bill for delivering her fatherless and ultimately-doomed octuplets which she brought into the world because she damn well felt like it. If that seems to qualify as stupid, Sandra Herold’s story is even worse. Her pet 200-pound male chimpanzee chewed the hands and face off a lady friend of Sandra Herold, literally eating her alive because she was perceived as a threat in a sex triangle. Sandra had taught the chimp to shower with her and sleep with her, and presumably share a cigarette after it was all over.

For most of a million years, human beings have practiced heterosex and homosex and procreation in a way that’s remained pretty much unchanged over time, and everybody seemed okay with that status quo until these two head-case women came along to prove that in 21st Century America, there is no limit to what stupid people can do.