But first:

Rick Boyd: ‘You often mention that you purchase items with a credit card so as to earn frequent flyer miles. This is starting to sound like a good idea to me, but I don’t have a clue as to how to get a card that offers these miles as an inducement. How can I find such a card?’

American Express has its “Membership Rewards” program any cardholder can sign up for. The miles can be transferred to your frequent flier accounts at several airlines, though not, notably, American or United. Still, between Delta, Continental, US Airways, Southwest, Virgin Atlantic and some others – and those airlines’ own travel partners – you should be able to get just about anyplace. Diners Club is good on all the major U.S. airlines. Otherwise, check the website of the airline you most frequently fly and get its Visa or MasterCard. With any of these, though, there is likely to be an annual card fee. So you have to factor that into your thinking. And of course you must never, never, ever do this if you run balances and rack up interest, because the interest charges (18% or whatever) will dwarf the value of the miles (2% or so).

And now, 3 greed-related items:

1. From the Borowitz Report:

The Taliban is out — and Starbucks is in.

That’s the word from Kabul, Afghanistan, where, moments after the repressive Taliban government fled the city, the trend-setting coffee purveyors from Seattle were open for business.

Some observers questioned whether Starbucks would succeed in a place where, in earlier eras, both the Soviet Union and Great Britain had failed.

But no worry: in its first day of business, Starbucks was a big hit, with the first “barristas” in Kabul working ’round the clock to serve their new customers, many of whom had just had their beards shaved off at the newly-opened Supercuts next door.

The demand for their product was so strong, in fact, that by the end of the day two more Starbucks stores had opened, all within three blocks of each other. . . .

☞ Listen: Greed is good! Or at least enterprise, ambition, desire and invention are good. We assign a pejorative connotation to the word greed, suggesting that it is lust-for-money that has lost its sense of proportion and decorum. But it’s largely a matter of degree. Starbucks does a good job. More power to them.

But what do you make of this next one?

2. By Matthew Miller:

(But Has $300 Million to Drown Sorrows)

Scientists thought it impossible, but we may finally be getting a precise measure of the outer boundary of corporate shame. It goes like this: If you’re a CEO who’s already made $300 million from stock options by cooking the books, then when the hoax is exposed and your wrecked firm is taken over, a further $60 million severance payout makes even you blush.

That’s one lesson to draw from the meltdown at Enron, the high-flying energy firm that turns out to have been a house of cards. The business headlines make it sound as if CEO Kenneth Lay’s decision to waive his contractually guaranteed $60 million severance is the act of a statesman, but a closer look suggests it’s a signal of shame.

Lay led Enron as it grew from a pipeline operator over the last decade to become the nation’s largest energy trader, a business Lay basically invented. But Lay’s innovations apparently included some creative accounting, through which Enron overstated its earnings in the last five years by nearly $600 million, an inflation that helped boost Enron stock. These were the same years when Lay exercised stock options that gave him the bulk of the $300 million he’s earned at the helm.

While Lay has presumably tucked most of those millions away in other safe investments, Enron employees whose stock sits in 401(k) plans have seen its value drop by 90 percent as the firm’s woes have emerged.

This gap between the boss and the rest no doubt helps explain the revolt that took place the other day as terms of Enron’s humiliating sale to smaller rival Dynegy were being finalized.

When word of Lay’s severance package swept through the firm, ‘quite a bit of concern was raised,’ said a corporate spokesman. Translated, that means Enron’s top traders – the men and women responsible for the bulk of the firm’s profits – screamed bloody murder about the idea that the boss would make out like a bandit even as the company went down the tubes.

And so Lay backed down. Unfortunately, however, Lay’s ethic of entitlement is the norm in corporate America, as showcased in an underappreciated Fortune magazine June cover story on ‘The Great CEO Pay Heist.’

Fortune reporter Carol Loomis [‘the estimable Carol Loomis,’ if I may interject a personal comment – A.T.] spoke to seven heavyweights who serve on the compensation committees of big company boards of directors – many of them CEOs themselves. She promised them anonymity in exchange for candid views on the state of CEO pay. Listen to what they said – and remember, these aren’t left-wing radicals talking, but major corporate leaders:

— ‘The scandal of what goes on … is how much is paid in the many, many instances when it isn’t at all deserved.”

— “People (board directors) understand … they have to go along with (what) management (proposes for its own pay), because if they don’t they won’t be part of the club. You sort of get rolled by the system even if you try to do well.”

— “There’s no one representing the shareholders. It’s like having labor negotiations where one side doesn’t care. That would be a travesty, and this is too.”

— “It’s basically what’s called a ‘corrupt system’ … where non-evil people do evil things. That’s the real problem. If there are corrupt people, you can do something about it. If it’s a corrupt system, its very difficult … stockholders are going to continue to get screwed.”

— “There’s something intrinsically wrong with some of these amounts of money. I don’t know that anything will stop that except self-control. But to ask for self-restraint flies in the face of human nature.”

So forget about today’s war profiteers. As the Enron case shows, it’s the regular old peacetime profiteering that’s so demoralizing and corrosive for capitalism.

And don’t hold your breath for reform. “Government isn’t going to change anything,” said one of Fortune’s cynical insiders. “We’re not going to turn into Cuba. When you’ve got some smart lawyer (advising management) … working against two members of Congress … it’s no contest.”

Columnist Matt Miller is a senior fellow at Occidental College in Los Angeles.  His e-mail is mattino@worldnet.att.net.

☞ Speaking of which, at least tangentially, Richard Factor writes: “I’m curious.  If they WANT to sell I-Bonds, why the $30K annual limit?”  Good question!  Imagine a horde of bank and brokerage firm lobbyists (banks and brokerage firms make nothing when you buy savings bonds), and you may have the answer.


3. Here is Paul Krugman tying a lot of pieces together in yesterday’s New York Times. I hope you find time to click the link.

It is, as may possibly have been mentioned in this space once before (so many columns, who can keep track?), a grand time to be rich and powerful in America.*

*As has also been noted before, I’m not against the rich and powerful.  I love ‘em!  I just see no reason to tip the balance more heavily in their favor.  The Republicans have given new meaning to the word “brazen” on this score.


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