Monday, October 26, 2009

"Brother can you spare a diamond?" Hard luck on the New York subways. Or, while the mayor plays with his campaign funds...

My pal Underbelly (that's his avatar, at right) recently visited New York from his small California home town, which he calls (I suppose with affection) Palookaville.

While here, he dared to ride the subway. Naturally, he was accosted by a well-spoken female panhandler. The experience left him scratching his head.

Hey Underbelly, this happens all the time on the subway here. Everybody and his drug addicted sister has a hard luck story. And while it’s illegal to pitch your tale of misfortune for money on public transportation, our mayor is too busy overturning election laws and spending $75 million or so on advertising aimed at convincing the voters he’s indispensable to bother enforcing the law.

Wait till you hear my own pitch!

Anyway, I get accosted by subway panhandlers so often that I’ve begun to fantasize about how I would make my own (illegal; they're all illegal) subway car pitch. It would be bullshit, of course, as are most of the subway panhandler pitches. But here’s what I’d say:

"Ladies and Gentlemen, may I have your attention please. Until the financial meltdown I was a hard-working trader and arbitrageuer at a hedge fund, earning $839,000 per year, plus an average $3 million annual bonus.

"Unfortunately, due to the trading errors of others, we experienced a meltdown and I was let go on short notice. Furthermore, for some political reason instigated by those frothing-at-the-mouth taxpayers and politicians, I was robbed of my bonus, which this year would have come to $3,200,795. Over three mil out of my pocket! That's highway robbery!

It's a total bleeping tragedy!!!

"Now you've got to understand what a tragedy this is to me and my family. I have a son at Yale, another at Princeton, and my third wife has a daughter from her first marriage at Brearley. I owe $145,000 in tuition, room and board payments alone, not to mention the kids’ allowances and clothing budgets.

"My second ex-wife and her bloodsucking matrimonial lawyer are hounding me for the balance of the alimony payments I owe her, and the tax bill is coming due on my beach house in Bridgehampton.

"We’ve already had to fire the maid who takes care of the Park Avenue apartment, the caretaker in Bridgehampton, and cancel our lawn maintenance and swimming pool care contracts out there. Did I mention that we had to let the cook go? Leuba has been with us for 12 years, but I had no choice. We even had to cancel our annual gala and dinner party for 150 of our closest friends and get out of the catering contract with Daniel Boulud.

Save me from a life of crime

"Ladies and gentlemen, I don’t want to turn to a life of crime. I don’t want to mug you on the subway the way other people do, or establish any Bernie Madoff or Allen Stanford-style retirement funds. But I’m down to my last five million and I have to tell you, it’s hard out here for an arbitrageur. All I’m asking is that you reach into your pockets and contribute to helping me get back on my feet.

"Anything will help. A hundred dollar bill or three, even a few fifty dollar bills. I am also accepting bearer bonds and coupons if you still have any, and I will even accept your check for over $500. I am also accepting your donations of statement quality jewelry. Just put it in this MacDonald’s coffee cup I’m shaking as I walk down the aisle.

"Thank you, Godbless. Thank you, Godbless. Thank you, Godbless. Than…what the hell is this? An effing quarter? What the hell do you think I am, anyway?"

Monday, October 19, 2009

Should junk mail writers be licensed? How about newspaper reporters?

There is a reason for government licensing of certain jobs and professions. You wouldn’t want just anybody to hang out a shingle, claim he’s an MD, and take out your appendix.

You wouldn’t want some unknowledgeable oaf to represent you in court on a capital charge. (Although it sometimes happens with court-appointed lawyers.) Or some amateur architect doing a redesign of your home that ends up accidentally removing a supporting wall.

The rule of thumb is pretty simple. When life, liberty or valuable property is at stake, or when the recipient of services is highly vulnerable to financial loss from fraud, the government has some business licensing who can do what.

But now along comes the Direct Marketing Association (DMA for short). No, they're not a government organization. They’re a private trade organization, and what they want to do is license junk mail writers who write for and have their work reviewed by the sophisticated direct marketers and ad agencies that hire them.

A trade association shakedown

The DMA doesn't actually call it licensing. They call it “certification.” But what it boils down to is trying to force a bunch of hungry free lance writers in effect bribe that noble organization, The Direct Marketing Association, with fees for courses in exchanging for plying their ink stained trade. In effect, it's a shakedown.

The awful news came out in the October issue of Inside Direct Mail, a junk mail business trade paper that unfortunately you cannot access on the Internet unless you pay money or happen to subscribe to the magazine. I get the magazine because (full disclosure) I earn part of my daily bread writing junk mail. I’ve won awards for it, some of them given out by the DMA itself, for the quality and effectiveness of my work. I’ve got a 25 years of experience in the business.

But no matter, if the DMA has its way. I cannot be a member of “an elite group of professionals,” unless I now pay the DMA each year to participate in the DMA’s “Certified Marketing Professional Program.”

This includes written tests and annual follow-up courses. This, among other things, is going to teach me the difference between writing for print, the web and twitter. Wow! As if I’d never written for (or heard of) any of them.

Sounds to me like it’s just a money-grabbing scheme for the DMA, which recently has been so financially hard up that it fired just short of 20 percent of its loyal staff, some of whom had been working there for years.

Evasive answers in techno-jargon

You can tell it’s all techno-baloney by the evasive answers and run-on technobabble used by Jodie Sangster, the DMA’s “Vice president of global compliance.” Whatever the hell that title means. (That’s her in the photograph.)

For example, from a column in Inside Direct mail called (ironically in this case) “Straight Talk,” comes this enlightening information:

Q:What can a direct mail copywriter, for example, learn from such a program?

Sangster: DMA’s vision is one of increasing the intelligence in all networks, as a way to strengthen every channel…[elipses are the magazine’s]…and improve the ability of marketers to integrate any and all in a one-on-one conversation with a customer.

She goes on from there, but I suspect that, like me, you’d prefer a more merciful means of getting put to sleep — perhaps by getting whacked over the head with a two-by-for.

Well, okay, nonsense can be charming, so here are one or two more jargon-filled sentences (some might use a stronger word, such as bullshit) from the Global Compliance ubersturmfuhrer:

We believe today’s multichannel direct marketing process lies close to the heart of the information-based economy we have developed in the U.S. As we leverage the DMA platform across a global market, many will capitalize on the knowledge and experience we have accumulated….”


Can you imagine trying to plow your way through two-pages of nonsense from this genius of prose exposition, who wants the right to grant certification to others to write a sales letter?

But wait, there’s more!

Now it looks as if the Federal Trade Commission wants take the first step toward licensing journalists. They don’t call it that any more than the DMA calls is that when they want you to pay them money for a course before you can write a line on an envelope and a sales letter.

But the FTC has set up a double standard for disclosure — one for bloggers, the other for journalists who write for what’s left of the print press and TV news. And this double standard has teeth that could bleed you dry: teeth like $11,000 fines.

The principle of the First Amendment was that anybody could print anything, so long as it wasn’t libelous or likely to cause a fire or a panic in a crowded theater. But never mind that.

Licensing has always had two purposes. The first is control of others. The second is to generate revenue for the licensor.

That kind of control — and maybe some fees to do some policing — makes sense when it comes to cutting open peoples’ heads and stomachs for medical purposes. It makes no sense at all when it comes to cutting people in our out of the right to report on facts, express opinions or make a living as a writer.

Friday, October 09, 2009

EXPOSED!!! The New York Crank pays a shameless bribe to a fellow blogger for a favorable review. Come and get me, you FTC imbeciles!

Now it can be revealed!

The New York Crank has shamelessly paid a bribe, documented by his check number 6133, shown above, to the proprietor of a blog called Underbelly, for a favorable review.

A memo notation in the lower left-hand corner of the check clearly states, “Bribe.”

This bribe was the consequence of a comment posted to Underbelly by The New York Crank recently. The Crank offered a five-cents bribe after reading a denial by Underbelly that stated. “I wish the record to show that nobody has ever offered me a plugged nickel to hype anything on this blog, and I am damn shirty about that, but not nearly as much as some of my colleagues are about the FTC rule.”

The FTC rule in question now punishes bloggers for things that print and broadcast journalists and pundits do every day, such as accepting books for review and not paying for them. Thus it sets up two separate classes of speech — the equivalent of journalism licenses. If you don't work for an organization the FTC recognizes, you don't have freedom of the press any more. Bye bye, First Amendment.

Underbelly's post was responding to a justifiably irate posting by Scott Stein of the blog “When falls the Coliseum.” It stated:

The official, considered opinion of the management of When Falls the Coliseum (me) is that the FTC’s position, particulary in regard to reviews of books and other entertainment products, is bullshit.

A fuller explanation of the Federal Trade Commission’s idiocy can be found in this excellent piece by Jack Schaffer in SLATE, called “The FTC’s mad power grab: The commission’s preposterous new endorsement guidelines.”


In compliance with the demands of the morons on the Federal Trade Commission, The New York Crank voluntarily offers these disclosures:

1. The Crank’s real name and address, Underbelly’s real name, and the account and routing numbers of the 5-cents bribe check reproduced above deliberately been obscured from the image of the check for security reasons.

2. On or about late October 1957, (nineteen hundred and fifty-seven) the person also known as “Underbelly” drove the person also known as “The New York Crank” (and their respective dates) from Yellow Springs, Ohio, to Circleville, Ohio, to see the Circleville Pumpkin Show. Gasoline at this time cost about 35 cents per gallon, and The Crank estimates that the round trip drive may have consumed as much as four (4) gallons. Maybe even five (5) gallons. The Crank accepted this ride free, and no cash was exchanged between the two parties. This may (or may not) have had some unconscious influence on either The New York Crank or Underbelly which might (or might not) have contributed to the decision to attempt bribing Underbelly or for Underbelly to accept same and write a favorable "Appreciation" of the New York Crank some 52 years later.

3. Approximately two years ago, Underbelly, The New York Crank and The Crank’s beautiful girlfriend enjoyed a T-bone steak dinner together in a not-bad Greenwich Village restaurant called The Knickerbocker. When the check arrived, Underbelly said, “I suppose I’m expected to kick in a third of this,” to which The Crank replied, “Yes.” Underbelly thereupon paid his share. This may (or may not) have affected Underbelly’s estimation of The New York Crank and the "Appreciation" of same on Underbelly's blog. The New York Crank has not accepted any gratuity, payments, emoluments or favors from the Knickerbocker. He did, however, leave an above-average tip.

4. No gerbils were stomped by women in high heels nor were any other animals harmed in the course of writing of this blog post or any other posts to The New York Crank. I am unable to make similar warrantees for what goes on at meetings of the Federal Trade Commission.

5. The names of the imbeciles who sit on the Federal Trade Commission are Jon Leibowitz, Pamela Jones Harbour, William E. Kovacic and J. Thomas Rosch. Three out of the four are holdovers from the Bush Administration, natch. Write to your Congressman and tell him or her what you think of these clowns.