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The Rise of the Billionaires Leaves the Middle Class Stranded

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Wednesday, May 06, 2009

SCATHING BEAUTIES

I find it depressing that there have been only two choices for defining women for so long; Madonna or whore. The exception, of course, is Madonna, who has made a career out of playing the whore. But the social definition of womanhood for the last two hundred years has remained Queen Victoria. She took the throne in 1837 and made such an impression that ever since women have been forced into one of two boxes marked either “saint” (like Victoria) or “tramp” (un-like Victoria). Aphrodite was not so neatly compartmentalized, and neither were the Vestal Virgins of ancient Rome. And no more, it seems, is Miss USA. Could we have reached a tipping point in the evolution of the feminist movement?The Assyrians first recorded a female deity associated with Aphrodite more than 4,000 years ago. The Phoenicians liked her so much they transported her to Greece via Cyprus and from there the Romans adopted her, although they changed her name to Venus. She was the goddess of love, both of the mind and of the body, but mostly of the body. During the festival of Aphrosdisia, when ritual prostitution was practiced, having sex with the high priestess of the temple was a sacred act; which must have made their church fundraisers a lot more popular than a Lutheran ice cream social. It may sound odd to modern ears, but parents in ancient Greece would have been proud to learn that their daughters had been accepted into the priesthood. At least the were learning a marketable trade.At the other ancient extreme were the Vestal Virgins of Rome, charged with maintaining the ritual “fire of Vesta” which protected the city. But even they were only required to remain virgins for thirty years. In return they got the best seats at the coliseum and they were the only women in Rome who could own property and vote. On the down side, if convicted of a sexual indiscretion they would be thrown in a tomb with some water and pomegranates and left to starve to death in the dark.In 394 A.D. the newly Christianized Emperor Theodosius I odered the Vestals out of their temple and put out their light. But that was not quite the end of them. At some point Theodosius’ niece, Serena, slipped into the deserted temple and stole a necklace from a statue of Rhea Silvia, the mother of Romulus and Reamus. Out of nowhere an old virgin appeared and, in a scene any graduate from a Catholic school can imagine, laid such a curse on Serena that she had nightmares for years. Worse, the curse seems to have taken. In 409 A.D. Serena was sacrificed in a desperate attempt to placate the angry Vesta. It did not work, and shortly thereafter the Goths burned Rome to the ground. It may be sacrilegious to point out, but Rome had never been so completely destroyed before the Christians came along.And then came Victoria; the epitome of virginal motherhood, who gave birth to 9 children and outlived her husband by 40 years. In fact she was spoiled, stubborn and demanding and as governed by superstition as she was by religion. As Queen she fashioned herself after Heathcliff from Emily Bronte’s “Wuthering Heights”, but I find her more like Lady Honoria from Dickens’ “Bleak House”, arrogant, conceited and obsessed with her own reputation. When Prince Albert died in 1861 Victoria’s widowhood established Victorian morality as the cultural norm; absolute and contradictory, just like its namesake. The only problem was most women are not widows.But recent events seem to offer a hint that perhaps custom is shifting, and the mileposts of this shift may be the outcome of scandals involving two Miss USA winners, one in 2006 and the second in 2009.
The Miss USA pageant was created in 1950 to fill the desperate need of not enough women wearing swimsuits and high heels in public. Specifically the problem was neo-feminist Miss Yolande Bethbeze who refused to pose in a bathing suit after winning the Miss America pageant that year.
In response to this “Women have brains and are not simply sex objects” foolishness, Miss USA contestants are not required to display a talent of any kind, and to wear swimsuits as often as possible, preferably while wearing high heels.
It was thus inevitable that billionaire pseudo-personality and creepy old toupee head Donald Trump would buy the pageant in 1996; which, a decade later, would make 17 year Dallas teenager Tara Conner, Donald’s problem. Tara Connor won the Miss USA tiara on April 21, 2006. By December the grinding schedule of personal appearances and swimsuit wearing combined with Tara’s approaching 18th birthday, drove her to partieee.
On December 14th the New York Daily News, that bastion of morality on the Hudson, published a photo of an obviously plastered Tara Connor swapping spit with Miss Teen USA, Katie Blair. There were also reports that Tara had been sneaking men up to her apartment in the Trump Tower, specifically Katie’s boyfriend. This raised the question of Tara’s virginity, and Katie’s too. The idea that teenagers, with their young firm bodies and raging hormones might be stupid enough to drink and be sexually adventurous was so unprecedented that Mr. Trump felt his personal tower had been belittled.
Miss Connor had her tiara publically removed and was forced to enter rehab and make a public apology for endangering Mr. Trump’s investment in her. And she was prohibited from ever again appearing mostly naked in public while representing Donald Trump’s tower.There were tears and drama and cleansing of the soul and forgivness from the father confessor, The Donald.
Clearly, Miss USA might look like a high priced hooker, but professionally she was to remain a virginFlash forward to 2009 when, Miss California, Carrie Prejean, was asked on stage if same-sex marriage should be legalized. She still had to display no talent, and in fact showed no talent in answering this question. And that, some have alledged, is why she lost the competition. But I can not imagine such a question being asked of a Miss USA five years ago. I can not imagine such a question being asked of Yolande Bethbeze . I cannot imagine why anyone would want the answer to such a question from someone whose work clothes consist of a wearing a bikini and high heels. The response from Donald Trump would be just as valid. And I certainly don't consider him qualified to pass judgement on gay marraige, either.In fact I was more interested in the Donald’s reaction as expressed on “The View”, where the tower himself said the controversy was actually a good thing for his tower; “No one is talking about the young woman who won. Nobody knows who she is.”
She is Kristen Dalton of North Carolina and she is now the paid Vestal Virgin of Mr. Donald Trump. The toupee went on to say, “We went back and added up the scores, and she (Carrie Prejean) would not have won anyway.” Does that remark seem a little “catty” to you? Cause it sure does to me.It seems to me that somewhere history has taken an unexpected turn, at least in America, and a turn which would have amused Aphrodite and maybe Queen Victoria, too. Somehow it seems that where we were talking about women, we are suddenly talking about gay men. And does that mean that talking about the sexual definition of straight men can be that far beyond? But that should not be a surprise. We have been talking about tramps and Queens, and we all fit into those categories, one way or another - often at the same time.

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Sunday, May 03, 2009

ONE-OH-THREE; CREATIVE BOOK KEEPING

I think it was no coincidence that Herman Melville’s last novel, “The Confidence-Man: His Masquerade”, was published on April Fools Day, 1857. And in that strange and odd little book is one of the most troubling and depressing lines ever written by an American; “…in new countries, where the wolves are killed off, the foxes increase.” It is an idea which can give you nightmares if you think about it too much.Anthony De Angelis had little physical resemblance to either a wolf or a fox. Truly dangerous humans have that unpleasant ability to not look dangerous, nor to think themselves as such. Norman C. Miller noted that “Under (Anthony’s) folksy exterior…lie the vast self-confidence and the fierce ambition of a Caesar.” And one time analyst for CNBC Ron Insana described Anthony in his book “The Message of the Markets”, “As his bank account grew fatter, (Anthony) grew too - to a remarkable 240 pounds that hung heavily on his 5'5" frame.” All his life Anthony had a ravenous appetite.For five years Anthony deceived the inspectors from American Express Warehousing with a simple slight of hand to produce fraudulent inventories for his Constable Hook tank farm. He had then used the phony receipts as collateral for advances from the brokerage houses of Ira Haupt and Williston & Beane for purchases of vegetable and fish oil futures. That drove the price of the oils up, which drove the price of the futures up again. But somehow Anthony was always behind the curve. He even began to claim product in some 30 tanks on Constable Hook which he did not own, some of which actually held fuel oil and some of which did not even exist.
When the inspectors asked to see the new tanks Anthony’s boys drove them around Constable Hook until they were confused enough to verify tanks they had already inspected. It was the old shell game played out on an industrial scale. Allied eventually claimed to have more salad oil stored at Constable Hook than existed in the entire United States; but Anthony was still running to catch up.In early November of 1963 Anthony found himself facing a $120 million bill for delivery of 1.2 billion pounds of soy bean oil he had no place to store. Not that it mattered, because he didn’t have the cash to pay for delivery, and could not raise it. And when Anthony explained his problem to the employees of Ira Haupt they immediately did two things; first they got on the phone and began desperately trying to find someone to buy 1.2 billion pounds of oil. They failed. And secondly they took a hard look at Allied’s accounts, and what they saw did not make them happy. Their firm was on the hook for $18.6 million in futures contracts that Anthony De Angelis could not meet. Anthony was bankrupt. And if he was out of business so was Haupt, and so was Williston & Beane and maybe so was American Express.At last the brokerage houses sent their own inspectors out to Constable Hook. They had AMEX receipts for $45.6 million of vegetable oil which were supposedly stored there. They dropped their own tape measures into the tanks and read the tape themselves. What they found was about $1 million of oil.
On November 19, 1963 Anthony De Angelis filed for bankruptcy, but when he was unable to come up with a $20,000 bond for court costs, the judge denied Allied Crude Vegetable Oil Refining Corporation even the protection of Chapter 11. The entire company and all assets were sold at public auction for $3.5 million. Authorities put the total Anthony owed at $175 million.Some 51 companies had made loans to Anthony or one of his companies for oil he did not have. Sixteen companies were forced into bankruptcy. J.R. Williston barely survived. Ira Haupt did not. American Express survived because of their profitable credit card business, and because an Oklahoma stock fund manager bought 5% of the company for just $20 million, a bargain even in 1963. The profits from this deal made Warren Buffet his first million dollars. The entire stock market was saved from a disaster caused by Anthony's scam because the assassination of President John Kennedy gave the NYSE an excuse to close early that Friday afternoon, November 22, 1963. All over Wall Street the captains of industry breathed a sigh of relief and then tried to figure out how to avoid a similar disaster next time they fell for a confidence man.And Anthony De Angelis; what ever became of Anthony? On June 4, 1965 a judge gave Anthony a choice; tell the F.B.I. what became of all the money or serve ten years in prison for four counts of fraud and conspiracy. Anthony revealed a $500,000 Swiss bank account, but he also took the Fifth Amendment 58 times. He was sentenced to ten years in Federal Prison at Lewisburg, Pa.In 1970 Congress finally created the Securities Investor Protection Corporation, another one of those government/private corporations Wall Street is convinced are misbegotten. It gave investors in the stock market the same protections available for banking customers for their savings or checking accounts. No investor lost another dime in a Wall Street brokerage house failure...until the geniuses of finance decided again that they were too smart to fall for a confidence man, and tore down the regulatory walls in the 1990’s.In July of 1972 Anthony De Angelis was released from Lewisburg. He had lost 170 pounds while in jail and credited prison with saving his life because of it. But the Anthony who came out of jail was still looking to wheel and deal. Almost immediately Anthony got involved with a scam involving the Ozark County Cattle Company of St. Joseph, Missouri. Anthony complained that he preferred jail. “There you had peace. It was tranquil. You come outside and try to make a living and all the big guys try to shoot you down.” Anthony was arrested and sent back to jail. He was not heard from again until 1992 when the following story ran on the Associated Press wire:“Rochester, New York. Anthony De Angelis, the infamous commodities swindler of the 1960s, was sentenced to 21 months in prison…Federal judge Michael Telesca also fined the 78 year old Mr. De Angelis and sentenced him to three years probation, during which he is banned from the food processing industry….(and)must make restitution to Maple Leaf Foods (after he used a forged check to purchase $1.1 million worth of meat from them)…Based on his criminal history the judge said Mr. De Angelis uses his wit, charm and business ability to manipulate situations that suit him best. Although he has been a great teacher while incarcerated…he has been a very poor pupil in learning to change his ways…”.Said Anthony, after the collapse of his Salad Oil empire in 1963, “It's not beyond the realm of possibility for me to make up these losses. If given the opportunity, I could make a million or five million dollars a year, simple as anything."“He had neither trunk, valise, carpet-bag, nor parcel. No porter followed him. He was unaccompanied by friends. From the shrugged shoulders, titters, whispers, wonderings of the crowd, it was plain that he was, in the extremest sense of the word, a stranger.”
“The Confidence-Man: His Masquerade” Herman Melville. 1857
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