Tom Toles of the Washington Post attempts to depict the state of the relationship between the ratings agencies and Wall St. through a satirical representation. The carton is a drawing of a skating fat man dressed similarly to a typical garbage man and he has the word “WALL ST.” across his front. Over the fat man’s shoulder is a emptying garbage can. As he skates, he is leaving a trail of rubbish and food waste, fish carcasses, banana peels, and general debris. This is messing up the ice considerably. In spite of the Wall St. skater’s “trashy” performance, the judges (who have been labeled “RATINGS AGENCIES”) have awarded the poor performance a perfect score, 10’s across the board. This of course equates to the triple-A status which is the highest credit rating that a corporation can receive. The Wall St. skater is skating along with a smile on his face, stating, “I PAY THEIR SALARIES.”, which implies the reason for the perfect score, which is likely due to the fact that Wall St. is paying the judge’s (credit agencies’) salaries. Therefore, there is no validity in the Ratings Agencies’ scores due to conflict of interest. In the foreground of the comic picture there are tiny garbage men stating, “SOMEBODY ELSE PAYS TO CLEAN THE ICE.” Tom Toles has done a fine job of making his message clear through the use of labels and speech bubbles. We can easily assume the message is that the issuer is paying the rating agency in order to receive the triple-A rating. The little men, representing the tax payers, are left to figure out how to clean up the mess left behind.
I do not think that the imagery of the cartoon is strong enough for most people to figure out the intended meaning. The use of labels and speech bubbles is necessary to convey the meaning. Even still with the extra “hints” I would surely believe that most of the population wouldn’t understand the issue. The average person would have questions, for example, what or who is the ratings committee? What do the score cards and the three 10s represent? Why is Wall St. spreading trash? These are valid questions I do believe.
It can be argued that satirical cartoons cannot be understood unless one has an awareness of the topic issue portrayed. In general, many people do not have an awareness of financial current event issues, so they cannot be expected to understand the cartoon. However, people that do follow financial news issues would be able to understand the imagery and words associated with the cartoon fairly easily. Nonetheless, even then, the imagery alone does not adequately depict the intended meaning.
Most everyone realizes that a joke loses a lot of its humor when it necessitates an explanation to be understood. So, if you don’t get it, it’s not likely to be funny after it’s explained. With that stated, due to the political complexities involved and surrounding this cartoon, I will assume the main audience would be senators, bankers, the rating agencies, the Federal Government, the Securities and Exchange Commission, and other active employees in the financial industry. Right now, before new amendments are passed, when a bank issues a product it is assigned a credit rating from an agency they, the bank, have hired. If the bank doesn’t like the rating, the next go-round, they are likely to use a different rating agency, assuming they will get a better rating. (There are millions of dollars paid to these rating agencies.)
Tom Toles is surely hoping to provoke thought, which may lead to action. The country is aware of the banking crisis and many are outraged that it continues. Because of the inherent conflict of interest, there are accusations of foul play by the bankers. Multi-billion dollar losses have occurred to millions of Americans, pension holders, loss of health benefits, retirement fund have resulted from these inaccuracies in ratings. The action desired is to establish some way to monitor the method of assignments, or incentivize rating agencies to be accurate in their ratings.
Perhaps an argument could be made that this political satire cartoon by Tom Toles attempts to convey its message using false analogy. The cartoon gives Wall St. the characteristics of a fat man, ice skater, and sloppy garbage man. Wall St. certainly isn’t an ice skater. Since this is not accurate, it gives a false impression of what and who Wall St. is comprised. There is also the innuendo that Wall St. is paying the judges or the ratings agencies to produce a higher rating than a product is deserved. It is actually stated in the cartoon itself. An analogy is a comparison of two similar things. Ice skaters have nothing in common with Wall St. The two do not compare. False analogies are said to fail when we think critically. The comparison made by Tom Toles is however, acceptable given the subtleties and use of known phrases like, “skating”, “slippery”, “garbage”, “payoff”, and the use of “garbage“ being left behind the skater to be cleaned up by the little people. Most people do not trust big government and assume the little guy is always left to clean up and pay for the government’s [ice] escapades.
I believe that the cartoon does a fair job given the very limited space to communicate a very complicated agenda. Without saying much at all, there is a message that says a lot. Most rational people might want to look into this topic and research a bit further. Some cynics will feel the need to fire back and defend the position of Wall St. and other big firms. The goal, usually, of arguing is to convince others that your ideas have merit. In an effort to persuade others that your argument is valid the use of ethos, pathos and logos are quite often very useful. We might be avid fans of Tom Toles and his work. Given this association, we might be motivated to follow his agenda based on his character or position. This is the ethos means of persuasion. We apply a certain amount of credibility to an argument based on our feelings about the presenter. Tom Toles has done well with this particular cartoon to evoke a bit of emotion, or pathos as well. Many people have been hurt or financially injured recently and banks have been targeted as the source. A reader of the cartoon may feel validated in their anger after viewing the cartoon. A logical argument, or logos, could be presented through the cartoons use of common understanding of how the world works or is assumed to operate in big business. The logic demonstrated with this cartoon is that fact that an evaluator may be motivated to give a more positive rating if it is feared that without it, the rating agency may lose future business. So, the money being thrown around the ice and the phrase, “I pay their salaries.” certainly appeals to the logic of an inherent conflict of interests with the current relationship between the bankers and the raters.
It should be fairly noted that the cartoon does not hint or communicate the possible opposing argument, which might make the argument less stacked or one-sided. A possible argument would be the argument that even though the rating agencies are getting paid by the bankers most of those condemning this practice are receiving government money in one respect or another, or at minimum, a government paycheck.
Using more imagery may clutter the cartoon or possibly improve the clarity of the intended message. Maybe a thinking bubble with dollar signs in the rating agency judges’ thoughts would more clearly communicate their motivation is to be paid. Another might be a suggestion of what happens to the non-conformers; like one of the judges may have given a score less than 10 and so he is being dragged away. Another may be to make the little people less inconspicuous and they could actually be cleaning up the trash already in the image and it could be labeled to read “TAX PAYERS” in order to clarify that perception.
In spite of the agenda of any group, there is a conflict of interest affecting the credit rating industry. Issuers of securities are paying for credit ratings. They seem to be shopping around for agencies that will give them higher ratings while they are avoiding the rating agencies that are likely to give them a lower rating. The result is a fabrication and resultant of credit ratings receiving marks higher than what they deserve. This conflict of interest is blamed for costing investors billions of dollars. A fix to this is to assign independent third party ratings agencies who will assign unbiased ratings to the issuers of securities. Without this fix, the issuer is paying the rating agency in order to receive the triple-A rating. Status quo, the little man, a.k.a. the tax payer, is left to figure out how to clean up the mess left behind.
Toles, Tom. “Slippery Business” Cartoon. Washington Post 27 April 2010. 09 June 2010 .