1. Point of No Return

All too often, we at the Five Dumbest Things Research Lab get depressed about the ugliest aspects of American capitalism. The greed. The hypocrisy. The shamelessness.

Well, as we learned this week, American politics makes American capitalism look like a rerun of the Teletubbies.

That's our conclusion from a brief investigation of political donations by the troubled cable operator Adelphia Communications ( ADELQ), now operating under bankruptcy protection.

It all began when we went to the Web site www.opensecrets.org, operated by the Center for Responsive Politics watchdog organization. On the site, which tracks political spending as reported to the Federal Election Commission, we plugged in "Adelphia Communications" just to see what would pop up.

Well, here's what we found: Between July 1999 and April 2001, Adelphia made at least $109,000 in federal political donations, nearly 90% of that to Republicans.

Which got us thinking about the propriety of it all.

You see, when former Adelphia CEO John Rigas and other executives at the company were arrested last week, the government accused management and the Rigas family of a variety of misdeeds -- stuff like understating its debt to the public, submitting fraudulent financials to lenders, borrowing company planes for personal use and using company apartments rent-free.

All of those offenses began in 1999, says the government. By the third quarter of 2000, the government alleges, Adelphia got especially creative with its books.

So here we have Adelphia giving money at the same time executives were allegedly engaging in fraud.

Hmm. Let's run through some hypotheticals here. Let's say everyone is found guilty. Let's say the Securities and Exchange Commission makes good on its campaign to force all relevant Adelphia executives to cough up all the compensation they received while illegal behavior was taking place. Wouldn't that mean Adelphia's money is ill-gotten gains? Wouldn't politicians feel morally bound to return that money?

Well, no.

People complain about political gridlock in Washington, D.C., but on this point there was refreshing bipartisan support. None of the beneficiaries of Adelphia's erstwhile generosity -- Democratic or Republican -- have shown the slightest urge to give any money back. Not the Republican National Committee, which received at least $41,500 from Adelphia, according to opensecrets.org. Not the Democratic National Committee, which got $12,500. Not the National Republican Congressional Committee, which got $25,000, and whose spokesman audibly snickered at our political naivete. Not U.S. Sen. Rick Santorum, the Pennsylvania Republican whose "Victory Committee" received $10,000 from Adelphia in September 2000.

Now, here's the part to make you weep: the reason everyone gave for not returning money. Is it because Adelphia's executives are innocent until proven guilty? Does it have something to do with the conclusion reached by the Buffalo News last month that Adelphia's political contributions were relatively small?

No. It's because in D.C. the attitude is that it's too late. What we rubes learned was that inside the Beltway, if the election for which questionable money was donated already has taken place, an informal statute of limitations cleans the slate. And, as people made explicitly clear to us, that's even if the Rigases are found guilty of engaging in fraud at the time Adelphia made its donations. "The money's already spent," explained a Santorum spokeswoman. "So no, we wouldn't return it."

Which strikes us as hilarious and sad at the same time. And not just because of all the righteous indignation over suspect business ethics spewing out of D.C. in recent months. (After President Bush came out in favor of corporate responsibility earlier this month, Santorum himself chimed in with a press release reading, "Misleading the public must have consequences.")

No, what's so Dumb is the idea that spending money absolves people from having to return it. As in this imaginary scene when the feds tell John Rigas he owes them a few million and Rigas replies, "Sorry, I spent it on greens fees."

At that point, we're sure the SEC will tell Rigas, "Oh, well, that's different. Never mind."

2. Brand New Cadillac Indeed

This week's Intel ( INTC) Award for Glossing Over the Contradictory Subtext of a Cultural Icon in the Name of Advertising goes to -- drum roll, please! -- the Aston Martin Jaguar Land Rover unit of Ford ( F).

Yes, kudos to the car folks for using The Clash's 1979 hit "London Calling" as the theme of their new Jaguar commercials. Timed to an end-of-model-year sale, the ads feature Jaguars zooming down U.S. streets that morph into picture-perfect London street scenes. London's calling, people, and you'd better buy a Jag by Sept. 3 to get in the spirit.

Unfortunately, this is a wee Dumb for fans of the Clash, since the original song paints a view of London that's completely different, one that's dark, violent and apocalyptic. "War is declared, and battle come down," sings The Clash's Joe Strummer. "All that phoney Beatlemania has bitten the dust." It gets worse, what with Strummer declaring, "The ice age is coming, the sun is zooming in/Engines stop running and the wheat is growing thin."

Just the stuff you want to be singing about as you tool down the street in your new Jag: global warming and mechanical breakdown.

For the record, an Aston Martin Jaguar Land Rover Ford Lincoln Mercury AMC Gremlin Pacer Yugo spokesman says that when the company tested the commercials with potential customers familiar with the song, no one had a problem. "For them it brought back fond memories, because it was a song of their youth," he said.

By the way, why, you might ask, is this award named after Intel, of all companies? Well, just remember back to Intel's ads a few years back in which Intel technicians in clean-room suits danced around to the old Wild Cherry song "Play That Funky Music (White Boy)" -- a song about a white musician who plays funky music that in real life was sung by a white musician who plays funky music. When Intel used the song, they not only dropped the words "white boy" from the chorus but also made the traditional white clean room suit a symbol of unfunkiness to be shed in favor of a brightly colored suit. Which of course ran contrary to the meaning of the original song.

Well, as the SEC will soon tell John Rigas, "Never mind."

3. Top of the WorldCom, Ma!

In honor of this week's arrest of former WorldCom executives Scott Sullivan and David Myers -- the latest unwilling participants in what could be a weekly series of public humiliations -- we'll engage in a little more nostalgia. Specifically, this: an internal memo sent in January by then-CEO Bernie Ebbers.

    All Employees:

    ... In the wake of the Enron collapse and the bankruptcy filings by Global Crossing and others, rumors have been flying throughout many different industries of debt concerns and possible accounting issues, among others, that have cast an overall negativity throughout the market that has proved costly for many companies, including ours. It is unfortunate that unsubstantiated rumors can have such an impact on a company's stock price but it is the environment that we are in today so we have to deal with it.

    ... While we typically do not respond to rumors, I think it is important, considering the circumstances, that you have the real story.

    Rumor: S&P is going to downgrade WorldCom's debt rating.

    Response: We have spoken with S&P and they indicated that this presently is not being considered. In fact, S&P publicly dismissed the rumor as "nonsense."

    Rumor: WorldCom is going to be removed from the S&P 500.

    Response: To our knowledge, there is no precedent of a company with our profile being removed from the index.

    Rumor: WorldCom may file for Chapter 11 bankruptcy protection.

    Response: WorldCom has a solid customer base, good cash flow and $10 billion on hand.

    I know it is easy to get distracted at times like these, but I ask that each and every one of you remember what is important and, ultimately, what is going to dispel rumors like these better than anything else -- success in the marketplace. ...

    Thank you for your continued hard work.

    Bernard J. Ebbers

Well, never mind.

4. Mugging for the Camera

You know, we wasted too much of your precious time some weeks ago with a discussion of a tiny telecom company called CoreComm.

Here we go again.

See, we just noticed that CoreComm has recapitalized and changed its name to ATX Communications ( COMM).

Which gets us all nostalgic, since we like to remember CoreComm as the place where the Fun Team created Big Fun around the office by distributing CoreComm coffee mugs, then asking people to "secure" them.

Some Fun. Anyway, someone sent us a photo of the famous CoreComm mug to let us know it really existed and wasn't an elaborate hoax.

Well, here it is. That is all.

5. Maybe I'll Have Air-Popped Instead

Speaking of fun, we may have nuked our last batch of microwave popcorn here in the research lab's lunchroom.

As we read in the New England Journal of Medicine this week, assembly-line workers at a company that makes microwave popcorn have suffered an alarming rate of pulmonary maladies, including a pretty ugly condition called bronchiolitis obliterans. The culprit, says the NEJM, appears to be butter-flavoring ingredients.

The St. Louis Post-Dispatch reports workers have sued the privately held manufacturer plus the maker of the butter flavoring, International Flavor & Fragrances ( IFF).

In a June SEC filing, IFF said it believes the litigation is "without merit." The company's flavors, including the butter flavor, meet Food and Drug Administration requirements, says IFF. It appears that the plant in question did not follow appropriate safety procedures, suggests IFF. And IFF's own workers have handled the flavorings at issue without ill effects, says the company.

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