Many Happy Returns

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Now that the long election season is behind us, surely citizens of all political stripes can agree on one thing: At last we’ll get a respite from the bombardment of attack ads, lies and slimeball nastiness that poured out of too many campaigns and into our living rooms and in-boxes.

The worst ad that I saw was not one of those awful screeds claiming that “Barack Obama Is Secretly A Muslim Terrorist.” Instead, the winner of the 2008 Worst Award goes to a local candidate here in my city of Austin, Texas.

He’s a Republican who ran against the incumbent county tax assessor on a cut-taxes platform-which he took to a gory extreme. His ad depicted a man lying in a bathtub that was filled with ice and trickles of blood. He had just cut out one of his own kidneys, a narrator explained, because high taxes left him no choice but to sell his organs. The ad’s tagline was “Stop the bleeding.”

The kidney man lost his race, but such political yuck made me appreciate something that happened two days after the election. Out of Sussex County in Delaware, a bright glow of political sanity and even sweetness emerged. People there have a tradition, called “Return Day,” dating back to around 1792.

It’s a post-election celebration in which opposing candidates for state and local offices join the public to hear the town crier announce the official election results. The former rivals are paired up to ride to the event together in horse-drawn carriages and antique cars. After the reading of returns, Republican and Democratic leaders jointly lower a ceremonial hatchet into an ornate cabinet. This “Burial of the Tomahawk” officially ends the political season. Then everyone adjourns to a big festival, with food, music, and libations for all.

How civilized! Every place should have a Return Day.

EXPERIENCING THE ARMY

What’s the ultimate game? Why it’s war, of course! You literally get to kill the other team!

At least that seems to be the thinking behind the U.S. Army’s latest whiz-bang appeal to a new generation of potential soldiers raised on computer games. It’s called the Army Experience Center, and the first one has opened right across from the Dave & Buster’s food and fun outlet in a mall in northeast Philadelphia.

With more than 14,000 square feet of prime mall space, the experience center is bigger than three basketball courts. There are nearly 80 video gaming stations, all sorts of interactive exhibits, a replica command-and-control center, and-best of all-a bunch of high-tech simulators that let the kids get a feel for the military action of, say, a Blackhawk helicopter.

Yes, the virtual thrill of the kill coming to a mall near you. And, indeed, the army says it hopes to replicate the experience all across the country.

One enthusiastic Army general says that the center is “a learning laboratory.” And not to worry, say the recruiters, for the Army does have rules. For example, while the “laboratory” is open to all ages, kids can’t play the video games until they’re 13-only four years before they can legally enlist.

STEALTH INFLATION

Good grief! Whole industries are downsizing, paychecks are shrinking, home values are dwindling, and our 401(k)s are deflating. It can’t get any worse, can it?

Well, don’t look now, but they shrunk the toilet paper. Scott Paper is pleased to announce that its “new” toilet product has fully 1,000 sheets of tissue on each roll. Well, so did the old rolls. What’s really new-and what the company didn’t announce-is that each sheet has been shorted. The old version gave us 4 inches of tissue, but the new and “improved” Scott toilet paper has quietly been cut to 3.7 inches in length. That’s a decline of 300 square inches per roll! Yet the price remains the same.

All sorts of corporations are instituting stealth price increases these days by shrinking product content while holding up prices. Skippy peanut butter, for example, ought to change its name to Skimpy. The company is now providing two ounces less in each jar. It hides this consumer heist with a new jar that appears to be the same size as the old one, until you turn the jar upside down. Instead of a flat bottom, the jar has an inward dimple that reduces the volume inside.

Likewise, cereal makers are cutting content while maintaining prices, and they also are using deceptive packaging to keep consumers in the dark about what’s up. The new cereal boxes have the same height and width, and thus look the same as the old ones. But some cereal makers have cleverly reduced the depth of their cereal boxes, leaving you to pay more per ounce without knowing it.

One outraged consumer has launched a Web site chronicling these sneak attacks on our pocketbooks. Check it out at www.mouseprint.org.

For more information on Jim Hightower’s work-and to subscribe to his award-winning monthly newsletter, The Hightower Lowdown-visit www.jimhightower.com. His latest book, with Susan DeMarco, is Swim Against the Current: Even a Dead Fish Can Go With the Flow.