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A Death in the Family — and the Question Is: Whodunit? December 3, 2012

Posted by rogerhollander in Economic Crisis, Food, Labor.
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Published on Wednesday, November 28, 2012 by Creators.com

twinkies

Born in 1930 in Schiller Park, Ill., the deceased was 82 years old at the time of passing, which ironically was the day before Thanksgiving.

Having long enjoyed the sweet life, the end was a bit bitter, for the dearly departed’s estate had been mercilessly plundered in recent years by unscrupulous money managers. This left 18,500 surviving family members in dire straits. Indeed, the family contends that the octogenarian’s death was not due to natural causes, but to foul play — a case of corporate murder.

This is the drama behind the sudden death of Twinkies. Fondly remembered as “the cream puff of the proletariat” (and less fondly as a sugar-and-fat bomb that delivered a toothache in one bite and a heart attack in the next), this industrial concoction of 37 ingredients became, for better or worse, an icon of American food processing.

The father of the Twinkie was James Dewar, a baker at the old Continental Baking Co. who saw the goo-filled tube cake as a way to keep the factory’s confection machinery busy after strawberry shortcake season ended. Yes, the Twinkie was actually conceived as “food” for idle machines. How fitting is that?

But us humans happily swallowed this extruded marvel of comestible engineering. As a teenager, I probably downed my weight in Twinkies each year — and my long years on this Earth might well be due to the heavy dose of preservatives, artificial flavors and other chemicals baked into every one of those cellophane-wrapped two-packs that I consumed.

The Twinkie was the best-seller of Hostess Brands, a conglomerate purveyor of some 30 nutritionally challenged (but moneymaking) brand-name food products, ranging from Wonder Bread to Ho Hos. In the past year, Hostess racked up $2.5 billion in sales — yet it suffered a staggering $1.1 billion in losses. Thus, on Nov. 21, Ripplewood Holdings, the private equity outfit that had taken over the conglomerate in 2009, pulled the plug, solemnly announcing that Hostess simply couldn’t survive.

Why? Because it was burdened with overly generous labor contracts, the firm’s executives declared, adding that greedy union officials refused to save the company by taking cuts.

Wait a minute. They claim that the bereaved loved ones of the Hostess family killed the Twinkie? Holy Agatha Christie, that can’t be right.

Remember the horrible murders in 1978 of San Francisco Mayor George Moscone and Supervisor Harvey Milk? At the killer’s trial, his lawyer argued for leniency on the grounds that his client subsisted on a steady diet of junk food, which had addled his brain. This claim entered the annals of American jurisprudence as the “Twinkie Defense.”

Even less defensible is the campaign by Ripplewood financial manipulators to lay the death of Hostess at the feet of loyal, longtime employees who, after all, need the jobs. In fact, far from greedy, Hostess workers and their unions have been both modest and faithful. Their wages are decent but not at all excessive — only middle class. And the charge that unions would not make sacrifices to help the company is a flat-out lie, for they had previously given back $100 million in annual wages and benefits to help it survive.

The true perfidy in this drama is not in the union, but inside Ripplewood’s towering castle of high finance in New York City. After buying Hostess in a bankruptcy sale, these equity hucksters proceeded to feather their own nests, rather than modernize Hostess’s equipment and upgrade its products, as the unions had urged. For starters, these profiteers piled an unbearable debt load of $860 million on Hostess, thus diverting its revenues into nonproductive interest payments made to rich, absentee speculators. Also, they siphoned millions of dollars out of Hostess directly into their corporate pockets by charging “consulting and management fees” that did nothing to improve the snack-makers financial health.

But it was not until this year that their rank managerial incompetence and raw ethical depravity fully surfaced. While the Ripplewood honchos in charge of Hostess were demanding a new round of deep cuts in worker’s pay, health care, and pensions, they quietly jacked up their own pay. By a lot! The CEO’s paycheck, for example, rocketed from $750,000 a year to $2.5 million.

Like a character in a bad Agatha Christie whodunit, Ripplewood — the one so insistently pointing the finger of blame at others — turns out to be the one who killed the Twinkie. Along with the livelihoods of 18,500 workers

© 2012 Jim Hightower

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Jim Hightower

National radio commentator, writer, public speaker, and author of the book, Swim Against The Current: Even A Dead Fish Can Go With The Flow, Jim Hightower has spent three decades battling the Powers That Be on behalf of the Powers That Ought To Be – consumers, working families, environmentalists, small businesses, and just-plain-folks.

Walmart: The Stench of Bentonville Spreads to Mexico — and Back May 5, 2012

Posted by rogerhollander in Economic Crisis, Labor, Mexico.
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Published on Saturday, May 5, 2012, www.commondreams.org

 

by Jim Hightower

Wal-mart has long boasted of its “Always Low Prices,” but now it has confirmed that it also has “Always low morals.”

The bottom line has always been THE line for Wal-mart executives, and sinking to the ethical bottom to enhance that line has not only been tolerated, but legitimized as a proven path to executive promotion and riches. Squeezing suppliers, crushing competitors, exploiting employees, using enslaved workers in foreign factories and resorting to other brutish tactics to pound out another dollar in profit are central components of Wal-mart’s management ethos and business plan.

Now, we can add bribery to the list of accepted practices — so accepted that even getting caught at it doesn’t mean you get fired.

Walmart de Mexico is now the largest retailer and employer in that country, an exalted status that it gained the old-fashioned way: by doling out millions of dollars in corporate bribes. With sluggish sales and a tarnished brand in the U.S., the retailing giant has been pushing hard to expand internationally, and in amazingly short time, its Mexican branch became huge, with one out of five Walmart stores presently located there.

All it took, we now learn from an excellent investigative report by The New York Times, was the systematic spreading of muchos, muchos pesos to government officials across the country to gain needed permits quickly, dodge environmental restrictions and generally have the company’s path cleared for market domination.

Not only is this wrong, it is seriously criminal — a blatant violation of our Foreign Corrupt Practices Act. And, lest you think the corruption was the work of some lower-level manager gone rogue, the knowledge of this wholesale bribery scheme goes all the way to the top, including the current and one former CEO.

David Tovar, a Wal-mart PR agent, was rushed out as the scandal was gaining media coverage to assert, disingenuously, “We are committed to getting to the bottom of this matter.” Too late, sir.

Wal-mart already reached bottom.

Apparently, though, a skunk doesn’t smell its own stink — or at least it’s not offended by it.

Thus Wal-mart honchos are addressing the nauseating stench of this still-evolving bribery scandal as though it’s coming from somewhere else.

“We are deeply concerned by these allegations,” declared PR man Tovar, “and are working aggressively to determine what happened.”

Well, gosh, you could just walk aggressively over to the executive suite and ask CEO Mike Duke, board member Lee Scott and vice chairman Eduardo Castro-Wright. All three have first-hand knowledge of what happened, for they were butt-deep in it. You see, while Wal-mart’s massive bribery payments took place in Mexico, the corruption emanated from the very top of corporate headquarters in Bentonville, Ark.

It stems directly from Wal-mart’s ruling ethic of grabbing market share and profits at all costs, pressuring managers to achieve “very aggressive growth goals” by doing “whatever was necessary.” A decade ago, when Castro-Wright became head of Wal-Mart operations in Mexico, he decided that “necessary” included unbridled bribery. As early as 2005, this was known by the corporate chieftains in Bentonville, including then-CEO Scott. Also, Duke, who oversaw all international divisions at the time, was told in 2005 about corrupt payouts, which eventually totaled some $24 million.

So, did Scott and Duke rebuke the perpetrator? No. Instead, Scott rebuked those who’d brought the illegalities to his attention, chiding them for being too aggressive.

Fearing that exposure could hurt Wal-mart’s stock price, he killed the internal investigation by turning it over to — guess who? — Castro-Wright. Yes, the very same man pushing the bribery scheme! The bribes continued, and in 2008, Castro-Wright was promoted to vice chairman of the corporation. Scott has since retired with a golden pension and a multimillion-dollar fortune, and Duke was elevated to CEO, now drawing $18 million in pay.

It’s all part of Wal-mart’s business model — and it’s stinkier than a whole den of skunks could possibly be.

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Jim Hightower

National radio commentator, writer, public speaker, and author of the book, Swim Against The Current: Even A Dead Fish Can Go With The Flow, Jim Hightower has spent three decades battling the Powers That Be on behalf of the Powers That Ought To Be – consumers, working families, environmentalists, small businesses, and just-plain-folks.

Woody Guthrie at 100 March 7, 2012

Posted by rogerhollander in Art, Literature and Culture.
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Published on Wednesday, March 7, 2012 by Creators.com

  by  Jim Hightower

Where’s Woody when we need him?

In these times of tinkle-down economics — with the money powers thinking that they’re the top dogs and that the rest of us are just a bunch of fire hydrants — we need for the hard-hitting (yet uplifting) musical stories, social commentaries and inspired lyrical populism of Woody Guthrie.

Woody Guthrie (1912 – 1967)

This year will mark the 100th anniversary of the birth of this legendary grassroots troubadour, who came out of the Oklahoma dust bowl to rally America’s “just plain folks” to fight back against the elites who were knocking them down.

As we know, the elites are back, strutting around cockier than ever with their knocking-down ways — but now comes the good news out of Tulsa, Okla., that Woody, too, is being revived, spiritually speaking. In a national collaboration between the Guthrie family and the George Kaiser Family Foundation, a center is being built in Tulsa to archive, present to the world and celebrate the marvelous songs, books, letters and other materials generated from Guthrie’s deeply fertile mind.

To give the center a proper kick-start, four great universities, the Grammy Museum, the Smithsonian Institution and the Kaiser Foundation are teaming up to host a combination of symposiums and concerts (think of them as Woody-Paloozas) throughout this centennial year. They begin this Saturday, March 10 at the University of Tulsa, then they move on down the road to Brooklyn College and on to the University of Southern California and Penn State University.

If Woody himself were to reappear among us, rambling from town to town, he wouldn’t need to write any new material. He’d see that the Wall Street banksters who crashed our economy are getting fat bonus checks, while the victims of their greed are still getting pink slips and eviction notices, and he could just pull out this verse from his old song, “Pretty Boy Floyd”:

Yes, as through this world I’ve wandered, I’ve seen lots of funny men. Some will rob you with a six-gun, And some with a fountain pen.

And as through your life your travel, Yes, as through your life your roam, You won’t never see an outlaw Drive a family from their home.

Also, witnessing the downsizing of America’s jobs, decimation of the middle class and stark rise in poverty, Guthrie could reprise his classic, “I Ain’t Got No Home”:

I mined in your mines, and I gathered in your corn. I been working, mister, since the day I was born. Now I worry all the time like I never did before, ‘Cause I ain’t got no home in this world anymore.
Now as I look around, it’s mighty plain to see, This world is such a great and a funny place to be. Oh, the gamblin’ man is rich, an’ the workin’ man is poor, And I ain’t got no home in this world anymore.

Guthrie unabashedly celebrated America’s working class, seeing in it the commitment to the common good that lifts America up.

He drove The Powers That Be crazy (a pretty short ride for many of them back then, just as it is today). So they branded him a unionist, socialist, communist and all sorts of other “ists” — but he withered them with humor that got people laughing at them: “I ain’t a communist necessarily, but I have been in the red all my life.”

Going down those “ribbons of highway” that he extolled in “This Land Is Your Land,” Guthrie found that the only real hope of fairness and justice was in the people themselves: “When you bum around for a year or two and look at all the folks that’s down and out, busted, disgusted (but can still be trusted), you wish that somehow or other they could … pitch in and build this country back up again.” He concluded, “There is just one way to save yourself, and that’s to get together and work and fight for everybody.”

And, indeed, that’s exactly what grassroots people are doing all across our country today. From Occupy Wall Street to the ongoing Wisconsin uprising, from battles against the Keystone XL Pipeline to the successful local and state campaigns to repeal the Supreme Court’s atrocious Citizens United edict, people are adding their own verses to Woody’s musical refrain: “I ain’t a-gonna be treated this a-way.”

Where’s Woody when we need him? He’s right there, inside each of us.

Find more information on Saturday’s Guthrie Centennial Celebration here.

© 2012 Creators Syndicate

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Jim Hightower

National radio commentator, writer, public speaker, and author of the book, Swim Against The Current: Even A Dead Fish Can Go With The Flow, Jim Hightower has spent three decades battling the Powers That Be on behalf of the Powers That Ought To Be – consumers, working families, environmentalists, small businesses, and just-plain-folks.

Obama to Bring More Mercenaries to Afghanistan — Sound Familiar? March 28, 2009

Posted by rogerhollander in Iraq and Afghanistan, War.
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Excuse me for saying it, but Obama is about to sink us — and his presidency — into a mess.”

Jim Hightower, Creators Syndicate. Posted March 28, 2009.

As Obama begins winding down the war in Iraq, he is building up his own war farther east. Like Bush, he will depend on private military contractors.

Hi-ho, hi-ho, it’s off to war we go!

As President Barack Obama begins winding down the Bush war in Iraq, he is building up his own war farther east. We’re told that it will be a new, expanded, extra-special American adventure in Afghanistan, involving a vigorous surge strategy to “stabilize” this perpetually unstable land.

The initial surge will add 17,000 troops to the 36,000 already there. Then, later this year, there is to be a second troop surge of another 17,000 or so. This mass of soldiers is expected to be deployed to a series of new garrisons to be built in far-flung regions of this impoverished, rural, mostly illiterate warlord state that is ruled by hundreds of fractious, heavily armed tribal leaders. We’re not told how much this escalation will cost, but it will at least double the $2 billion a month that American taxpayers are already shelling out for the Afghan war.

The extra-special part of this effort is to come from a simultaneous “civilian surge” of hundreds of U.S. economic development experts. “What we can’t do,” said Obama in an interview last Sunday, “is think that just a military approach in Afghanistan is going to be able to solve our problems.” To win the hearts (and cooperation) of the Afghan people, this development leg of the operation will try to build infrastructure (roads, schools, etc.), create new crop alternatives to lure hardscrabble farmers out of poppy production and generally lift the country’s bare-subsistence living standard.

What Obama has not mentioned is that, in addition to soldiers and civilians, there is a third surge in his plan: private military contractors. Yes, another privatized army, such as the one in Iraq. There, the Halliburtons, Blackwaters and other war profiteers ran rampant, shortchanging our troops, ripping off taxpayers, killing civilians and doing deep damage to America’s good name.

Already, there are 71,000 private contractors operating in Afghanistan, and many more are preparing to deploy as Pentagon spending ramps up for Obama’s war. The military is now offering new contracts to security firms to provide armed employees (aka, mercenaries) to guard U.S. bases and convoys. Despite the widespread contractor abuses in Iraq, Pentagon chief Robert Gates defends the ongoing privatization push: “The use of contractor security personnel is vital to supporting the forward-operating bases in certain parts of the country,” he declared in a February letter to the Senate Armed Services Committee.

What the gentle war secretary is really saying is this: “We don’t have a draft, and I don’t see a lot of senators’ kinfolks volunteering to put their butts on the line in Afghanistan, so I’ve gotta pay through the nose to find enough privateers to guard America’s Army in this forbidding place.”

Meanwhile, here’s an interesting twist to Obama’s contractor surge: the for-hire guards protecting our bases and convoys will not likely be Americans. The Associated Press has reported that of the 3,847 security contractors in Afghanistan, only nine are U.S. firms.

Actually, being an American contractor is not a plus in the eyes of the Afghan people, for they’ve had bitter experiences with them. They point to DynCorp, a Virginia-based contractor that got nearly a billion dollars in 2006 to train Afghan police. The bumbling “Inspector Clouseau” of comic fame could’ve done a better job. At least he might have amused the people.

What they got from DynCorp was a bunch of highly paid American “advisors” who were unqualified and knew nothing about the country. Some 70,000 police were to be trained, but less than half that number actually went through the ridiculous eight-week program, which included no field training.

A 2006 U.S. report on the DynCorp trainees deemed them to be “incapable of carrying out routine law enforcement work.” Meanwhile, no one knows how many of the trainees ever reported for duty, or what happened to thousands of missing trucks and other pieces of police equipment that had been issued for the training.

The punch line of this joke is that DynCorp got another contract ($317 million) last August to “continue training civilian police forces in Afghanistan.”

Excuse me for saying it, but Obama is about to sink us — and his presidency — into a mess.

COPYRIGHT 2009 CREATORS SYNDICATE INC.

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