Tuesday, November 25, 2008

A Tale of Two Citi's

"It was the best of times, it was the worst of times; it was the age of wisdom, it was the age of foolishness; it was the epoch of belief, it was the epoch of incredulity; it was the season of Light, it was the season of Darkness; it was the spring of hope, it was the winter of despair; we had everything before us, we had nothing before us; we were all going directly to Heaven, we were all going the other way." — Charles Dickens

Charles Dickens made excellent rhetorical use of oppositions, or what my 11-year-old calls Oppositeville. Incommensurates are slammed up against each other, nullifying our usual categories of thought, leaving us with some vague sense of wisdom or profundity. It's a good trick. Time-tested. So good that the Citigroup used it in a long running ad campaign that touted what we sociologists like to call "expressive values" — the affective, sentimental, sensory, and emotional values that dance a counterpoint with capitalism's instrumental and rational values. (If you're wondering what the instrumental rationality of banking looks like, think of a bank foreclosing on a 90-year-old woman who lived in her home for some 38 years — nothing personal, nothing sentimental, just business as usual, that belies the Citi's ad campaign slogans of just a few years back:
  • Work like your life didn't depend on it.
  • Too much belt tightening leaves those funny little dents on your stomach.
  • If you think fun always requires money, think bubble wrap.
  • If you had all the money in the world, the rest of us would start using something else.
  • Money only rents happiness.
  • Your thoughts are worth way more than a penny.
  • Paying through the nose is a bad idea. Plus it sounds painful.
  • People with fat wallets are not necessarily more jolly.
  • You were born preapproved.
  • Live happily ever now.
The message: money doesn't matter as much as life — your life — was plastered on every bus stop and billboard and phone booth (back then we had phone booths — before everyone had their own privatized phone in the form of cellphone).

It's an appealing message, but not one we are likely to be hearing now — especially not that slogan "You were born pre-approved." And now the Citi is back, hat in hand asking not for our sentiments, but for our cents, 4 trillion cents and about another 40 trillion cents of loan guarantees, but whose counting?

Yesterday they got it — 40 billion bucks now as we bailed them out with cash and writedowns and a likely 360 billion in future loan guarantees, all from you and me — our taxpayer dollars (and our kids' and their kids' kids' dollars)
. The value of the company had sunk from 274 billion dollars a year ago to a mere 27 billion the day before yesterday. And we kicked in 40 billion dollars yesterday, when we could have bought the whole thing for $27 billion. And wasn't this the bank that about a month ago was bidding to buy up Wachovia? Can someone help me out here, as Rachel Maddox would say. Honestly, what is going on here?

Why is it that I cannot help but think that we are watching the largest transfer of wealth from working Americans to corporate America that we have ever witnessed?

Don't get me wrong — I'm not some free-marketer who thinks that the government should stand by idly while the economy crashes and burns — but something seems really wrong with this picture. Even Nobel-prize-winning economist Paul Krugman thinks something is fishy.

While we're trying to get to the bottom of this, if not to the bottom of the market, these are my pictures of the Citi campaign as it invaded my city of New York several years ago.

My personal favorite: If you had all the money in the world, the rest of us would start using something else. Maybe that is what's happening right now.
Soon barter will be back.

Tale of Two Citi's