Banks can't pony up enough dough to save themselves, commuters can barely afford gas.
But the celebrity weeklies? Looking at the bidding wars brewing over celebrity baby pictures, you'd think they had more money than they know what to do with.
According to French newspaper Nice Matin, Angelina Jolie and Brad Pitt have sold the first photos of the latest members of their brood -- twins Vivienne Marcheline and Knox Leon -- to an unnamed U.S. magazine for $11 million. The paper says the star couple will donate the money to charity.
That would be a record in the celebrity baby photo wars, a business that's been booming in the United States, despite the economic downturn. Earlier this month, TMZ.com reported that Matthew McConaughey and girlfriend Camila Alves pawned off the first photos of their newborn son Levi to OK! magazine for $3 million.
In March, Jennifer Lopez, who hasn't had a hit record or movie in several years, sold her baby photos for up to $6 million to People magazine, according to Advertising Age. Before that, People paid an estimated $1.5 million to singer Christina Aguilera for exclusive shots of her new son, Max.
Do the huge payouts translate to big sales? To a degree: Even after People raised the price of the issue featuring Jolie and Pitt's daughter, Shiloh, by 50 cents, it sold 2.2 million copies.
"It does help magazines," said Samir Husni, who chairs the journalism department at the University of Mississippi. "There is an old saying: Give me a picture of a baby, a beautiful woman, chocolate or a dog, and I will sell a magazine."
But with the publishing industry in peril, even the magazine that scores the photos of Vivienne and Knox may lose in the end. Celeb weeklies can't afford not to battle over baby pictures, but they can't afford to pay stars millions of dollars, either.
"If you're in that world, these are have-to-have pictures. Your street cred is based on whether or not you get them," said Abe Peck, professor emeritus-in-service at Northwestern University's Medill School of Journalism. "And the publication that gets those photos of Brad and Angelina's twins, they'll get a big spike. They will get more subscriptions. And there's more money out there with Internet ad revenue. But still, I just can't see the economics working out -- even if you sell a million more copies, you're not going to recoup those losses."
Representatives from People, Us and OK! declined to comment on how much they've paid for celebrity baby photos and whether they were involved in bidding over the shots of the newest Pitt-Jolies.
Are Brad & Angie Exploiting Their Brood?
So, maybe the magazines play the bidding game because they have to. But why do celebrities? Is it expected or exploitative for famous parents who face aggressive media coverage of their every move, to peddle photos of their children to the highest bidder?
Some ethicists and child psychologists are disturbed by the practice, which treads the nexus of money, parenthood and fame.
"If your own parents are literally selling you out, where can one feel safe?" asked Bruce Weinstein, a syndicated ethics columnist. "What's especially troubling is that the person who's the subject of these photos isn't able to give informed consent. I could imagine that person being really troubled by it."
Weinstein isn't swayed by the rationale offered by celebrities, that it's a way for them to control the inevitable media maelstrom. "If you look at what happened with Britney Spears or Angelina Jolie, [selling the photos] didn't quell the feeding frenzy. Whether People or OK! gets first dibs, people still want to take photos of the child."
And he isn't impressed by the fact that some stars have contributed some of the baby bonanza to charity, such as Jolie and Pitt, who gave $2 million of a reported $4 million windfall to Global Action for Children and Doctors Without Borders.
Weinstein cited a quote from St. Paul's letter to the Romans -- "We are not to do evil that good may come from it" -- to explain his argument.
"If you're already starting from extreme wealth, that argument doesn't hold much water," he said. "They're already in a position to give money to charity."
Child psychologist Sam Hackworth says the practice could be troubling, depending on the circumstances and the ego of the parent.
"If kids understand that the parent did it to control the photos, they can see that as a rational reason," said Hackworth. "But if it was clearly just to make money, if a child's older and realizes that the only way we've maintained this lifestyle is because you sold my photos, that could be troubling."
David T.S. Fraser, a privacy lawyer in Nova Scotia, Canada, says that, while he sympathizes with celebrities who are trying to deal with out-of-control paparazzi, the practice of selling baby photos actually seems to have the opposite effect.
"If anything, it probably feeds the market for these photos," he explained. "The other magazines will want to compete and could be even more aggressive."
Fraser also questioned why celebrities, who desired to control the coverage of their children, demanded money.
"The selling of the photos is also a little suspect -- why not just hand them out?" he said. "There's a disconnect between controlling the release and profiting from it. It's almost as if they're being pimped out. You can certainly see why people would think that the kids are being exploited for profit, or otherwise."
Some stars are taking Fraser's cue. According to the Sydney Morning Herald, Nicole Kidman rejected multiple multimillion-dollar offers for the first photos of her daughter with Keith Urban, Sunday Rose, saying that if she does release pictures, she'll do it for free.
While that squashes an ethical dilemma for the Kidman-Urbans, according to Peck, it's not going to slow the trend of celebrities hawking photos of their newborns for a paycheck. As long as there are celebrities willing to sit for photo ops with their kids, magazines willing to write checks, and most importantly, readers willing to buy copies of those photos, there will be bidding wars, and they'll get more intense.
"The bottom line is the public wants to see this stuff," Peck said. "In a better world, maybe someone would pay $20 million for photos of Nelson Mandela's grandchildren."