The Tribulations Of The Toads

by Gilles d'Aymery

July 1, 2002


Sometime in 1999, Merrill Lynch & Co., Inc., the Wall Street financial giant of (presently) Martha Stewart and ImClone fame, put out a glossy 8-page ad in various publications nationwide. The front page was entirely white with a small 1.5" x 1" cutout revealing a framed picture of the perfect couple in their mid- to late-forties; the husband was smiling with confidence and his wife was delicately resting her hand on his shoulder with an air of safety and comfort on her face. Under the cutout were these three words: "Your Life, Incorporated." Turning the page, the ad asked, "Corporations like to refer to themselves as 'families.' Shouldn't it be the other way around?" On the opposite page, at the top, was the framed picture of the couple, that which appeared through the cutout on the front. Under that picture were three rows of more pictures, covering the entire page like a family tree or organizational chart. Pictures of the kids when they were kids, then teens, then graduates, then married. The grandchild was pictured too; as well as grandma and the family spaniel. To add coziness to idylls, a beige and golden cushion was resting on a table at the bottom of the page. The remaining of the ad, again covering 8 pages, was about income, mortgage, 401 (k), IRA, retirement, college fund, ways to avoid the IRS, Visa card, tax deferment, cash management and more. Finally, on the back cover, another picture of the happy couple smiling at each other with the byline, "And now the most important benefit of 'Your Life, Inc.' Your life."

It went on:

"Money. Wealth. Net worth.
These aren't the true riches of life.
That being said, having enough of the above can go a long way toward the purchase of valuable commodities. Like security. Satisfaction. That ever-elusive peace of mind.
No matter what you want to achieve, we can help.
So here's to the future for you, and your loved ones, and their loved ones.
Here's to your life.

At the very bottom of that back cover were the Merrill Lynch logo (a bull, of course), the name of the firm and these two words: "HUMAN ACHIEVEMENT." (1)

This was in 1999. Security, satisfaction, peace of mind... Commodities to be purchased... Your Life, Incorporated... Ms. Stewart's dream life...

Since then we've witnessed the bridge-to-the-next-century melt-down, the digital new frontier burst into thin air like the empty balloon it really was, presidential election fraud, the communications and energy swindles....and....and 9-11.

Suddenly, security and peace of mind were no longer commodities that can be purchased, but ratcheted fears that only a strong hand could deal with. Our security translated into war against our enemies (a war that we are told will outlast our lifetime), humongous increases in defense spending, looming federal budget deficits, higher debt ceilings, frontal attacks on civil liberties, all in the name of freedom and democracy for sure.

To manage our lives like a business brings to mind names like Wal-Mart, Enron, Dynegy, Global Crossing, Tyco International, WorldCom, Qwest, Adelphia, Computer Associates, Xerox, Arthur Andersen, ImClone (remember, it was just about Enron six months ago, but the financial shenanigans are deep and the list will keep growing) -- entities that liked to "refer to themselves as 'families'" -- and the hundred of thousands of people laid off whose security was indeed a mere commodity to be discarded at will.

As Paul Krugman of The New York Times keeps repeating rather sheepishly, this "isn't a left-right issue; it's about protecting all investors from exploitation by insiders." See, the system works. It's a good system but for a few bad apples. It's a system that, according to Kevin Phillips, paid an average of $3.5 million to our "captains of industry" in 1981; $19.3 million by 1988; and $154 million by 2000; a mere 4,300 percent rise in earnings. Not bad. Krugman: "In 1980, chief executives at large companies, according to Business Week's estimates, earned 45 times as much as non-supervisory workers. By 1995, however, the ratio had risen to 160; by 1997, it had reached 305. C.E.O.'s wanted the good times rolling, and they did: by 2000, though profits hadn't really increased, they were paid 458 times as much as ordinary workers." Even Krugman is finally talking about the oligarchy and the plutocracy and using the terms. (2)

Krugman is correct. This is not a left-right issue. This is an American issue; a cultural issue. And the "insiders" Krugman refers to are at the helm of a runaway super-tanker. They navigate in the sanctified waters inhabited by "Your Life, Inc.," where the same individuals move effortlessly from Business to Government and back. It's about Cheney, Inc. and Bush, Inc. and Clinton, Inc... It's America, Inc.; a system that depends on consumption for two-thirds of its functioning. It's about having, not being; having, more of the same, bigger of the same. It is indeed a runaway super-tanker!

Take the size of houses in Washington D.C.'s suburbs like Potomac, MD. "The O'Neill Development Company, which has been building high-end houses here for three decades" used to build houses in the 80's that averaged 3,500 to 5,500 square feet. "By the early 90's, O'Neill was building houses with 4,500 to 6,500 square feet of space. Houses in the company's newest development range from 6,500 to 10,000 square feet." Bob and Wendy Banner and their two children live in an 8,500 square feet house there. "By the bigger-than-big standards of houses in the suburbs of Washington, the Banners are not living all that large, although their house does have six bedrooms, nine bathrooms, two home offices, a wine cellar, a media room and four 21-foot high 'Gone With the Wind' columns on the veranda. All for two adults and two children." The Banners have a household income of more than $500,000 a year. Says Mrs. Banner, 37, "We can afford it, so why not?" "If it doesn't make you house poor and if it gives you an oasis to come home to, why not?" (3)

Why not, indeed? Your Life, Inc. at work...

Multiply this down all the way through the three top quintiles of the US population and you may get an idea of the size of the super-tanker. She has gargantuan proportions and has essentially become unsteerable. Her needs for energy and raw materials are insatiable; her greed unfathomable; her contradictions ever expanding. The ship is taking water through the large cracks along her hull. We have a run on the dollars, a mounting trade deficit, Treasury bills and bonds that foreign investors are increasingly wary to buy. Inflation is on the horizon. The system is crashing down big time and before it's over the Savings and Loan swindle of the 80's will look like child's play, a mere economic misdemeanor, compared to what's coming our way.

Meantime, refusing to or incapable of truly addressing the fundamental, systemic problems of our society, we need diversion and culprits. That's where the "war on terrorism" becomes so handy -- not just oil and raw materials (which it also is) but a way to keep the super-tanker afloat by launching foreign adventures abroad, shooting morphine into the sick body through huge military spending increases -- always a short-term boost but a fatal medicine in the long-term -- and scaring people to death so as to desensitize their senses and keep them in check. Let's keep Bush Inc. and Cheney Inc. off the radar screen (Remember Halliburton? Remember the VP's $166,000 home electricity bill?); let's enjoy Clinton's $9.2 million speaking fees; let's build more supersized homes and bigger gas-guzzling SUVs; let's boost our consumption, credit card debts and sanitary landfills. The system is working fine, were it not for the evildoers and a few bad apples... Once we have slain the dragon, not in our lifetime, mind you, and cleaned the orchard everything will be fine and dandy. Be all you can be. We are the World!

Another Human Achievement would undoubtedly claim the likes of Merrill Lynch and the legions of Your Life, Incorporated!

Others will respectfully disagree.

· · · · · ·


1.  Your Life, Inc. and Your Life, Incorporated are service marks of Merrill Lynch & Co., Inc. © 1999  (back)

2.  Paul Krugman, "Plutocracy And Politics" and "Enemies Of Reform," The New York Times, Op-Eds of June 14, 2002 and May 21, 2002 respectively.  (back)

3.  Blaine Harden, "Big, Bigger, Biggest: The Supersize Suburb...," The New York Times, House & Home section, June 20, 2002  (back)


Gilles d'Aymery is Swans' publisher and co-editor.

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Published July 1, 2002
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