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The Last Time a Republican Reigned in Big Business - 1903

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Friday, June 26, 2009

BEAUTY IN MOTION

I suppose you might think she was just a model – I did - an image without a reality. But she was a self made woman, and her own invention - a latter day Maria Sharapova, in high button shoes; intelligent, talented, ambitious, an author, a dare devil, an adrenaline junkie and a hustler par excellence. You have to remember that she was a hustler to understand how she came to be the personification for a grape flavored syrup that, mixed with soda water, processed “a certain laxative effect”, and had a taste which “You have to sneak up on, to get it down.”She was the official “Vin Fiz” girl, and at the age of 36. And if that were her only claim to fame, hers’ would be a mundane tale indeed. But she was so much more than just a girl on a poster. She was Harriet Quimby, theatre critic, photojournalist, screenwriter, film actor, first licensed female pilot in America, the first woman to fly across the English Channel. And yes, she was even sexier in person than the girl on the poster. But who was she really?The sexy leather outfit was born out of necessity. The Wright Brothers were Midwestern stick-in-the-muds who did not approve of teaching women to fly and who strongly disapproved of anybody who did. And there were darn few people in the flying business in 1911 who did not pay attention to what the Wright brothers disapproved of. So when Harriet Quimby convinced John Moisant to give her flight lessons, he insisted on secrecy. Whenever they took off she wore a hooded leather suit to hide her femininity.It didn’t, of course. There was no way to hide that. But when the secret was out, instead of discarding the suit, the usually penurious Harriet turned it into a custom-made icon; “…thick wool-backed satin, without lining. It is all of one piece, including the hood”, as she described it. Or as a friend noted, “She had the most beautiful blue eyes, and when she wore that long cape over her satin, plum-colored flying suit, she was a real head-turner.”Plumb colored, then; but who was Harriet Quimby, really?Her family had owned a rock farm in upper Michigan in the 1870’s, and her mother, Ursula, had supplemented their income by selling “Quimby’s Liver Invigorator” by mail, complete with imaginary testimonials. In the 1880’s the farm went bust and the family moved to the central coast of California, and then in the 1890’s they had moved again to San Francisco. There her father, William, dispensed herbs and twenty-something Harriet invented herself as an “actress”, in the nineteenth century definition of that term, as a beautiful bobble on the arm of men who could afford her. People asked about her. Harriet's mother said she had been college educated "back east". But no college ever had a record of her attending. Still people wanted to know because she was famous. Her nude portrait even hung in the sophisticated “Bohemian Club”, until it was destroyed in the earthquake of 1906.But by then Harriet had reinvented her self again; writing articles for the “San Francisco Bulletin”, and, in 1903, moving east to New York City to become the theatre critic, feature writer and photojournalist for “Leslie’s Illustrated Weekly”. But who was Harriet Quimby, really?She wrote the odd and off-beat stories; “A Woman’s Moose Hunt” and “Hints to Stage Struck Girls”, “Household Hints”, the habits of Chinatown, the life of acrobats and comics and the evils of childhood labor. In a decade she wrote more than 250 stories, many under nom de plumes. She even wrote screenplay melodrama shorts for D.W. Griffith’s “Biograph Studios” in New Jersey; “Sunshine Through the Dark” (a blind princess has her sight restored by a poet’s kiss), “His Mother’s Scarf” (Two brothers battle over a girl), “The Broken Cross” (boy finds girl, tramp tricks boy, boy goes back to girl) and “Fisher Folks” (a crippled girl marries a fisherman, and heartache ensues.)None of these were cinema masterpieces, nor would make film history. But they paid the bills. And they gave Harriet a taste of the movie business. She even acted in one film for D.W. But who was Harriet Quimby, really?She was vivacious, ambitious, alive and enchanting. Bonnie Ginger, a friend and fan wrote, “Miss Quimby has…a low voice and a brilliant smile and she runs strongly to overhung bonnets and antique ornaments…She probably wears this sort of thing because she can do it so well”. Harriet lived in a suite at the Victoria Hotel, and kept a suite for her parents there as well. She bought a powerful yellow sports car (her one ostentatious purchase) and sped around town in it.When she completed her flight training, Harriet wrote that she “…walked over to one of the officials, looked him in the eye, and said ‘Well, I guess I get my license”. She did, Number 37. It was, she said, “Easier than voting”, which was quite a joke since women did not yet have the vote. “Was it worth the effort?”, she would write for Leslies, “Absolutely. I didn’t want to make myself conspicuous, I just wanted to be first, that’s all, and I am honestly and frankly delighted.” Was this who Harriet Quimby really was? As for the romance of flight, Harriet was brutally honest in describing the experience to her Lesilie’s readers… “Not only the chassis of the machine, but all the fixtures are slippery with lubricating oil, and when the engine is speeded a shower of this oil is thrown back directly into the driver’s face.” She plotted carefully to be the first woman to fly the channel, but on the morning after her flight word of the sinking of the Titanic dove her achievment out of the headlines. So she came home to participate in an air show in Boston, and it was there she took a passenger for a ride in her new French built two seat monoplane.Near the end of their flight for some reason the passenger stood up and leaned forward in his seat (seat belts being frowned upon as too restrictive). The plane hit an air pocket and he was pitched out of the plane.Harriet, unaware of the tragidy as the passenger had been sitting behind her, suddenly found the planes’ center of gravity had been drastically altered. She fought for control for a few seconds before she too was pitched out of the plane. The horrified crowd watched as the two bodies tumbled into the mudflats of Dorchester Bay, one in a plum colored flying suit.The passenger died of drowning. Harriet died on impact; July 1, 1912. The Vin Fiz girl was dead, They gathered up the wreakage of her plane, collected her body from the mud. But who had Harriet Quimby been, really?We will probably never know. She and her mother had concocted so many stories over so many years that they left the real Harriet in their shadow. And that seems to have been the way that the real Harriet Quimby wanted it.
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Thursday, June 25, 2009

PARCEL POST

I hate to tell you this, but, contrary to common knowledge, we are the ones living in a “simpler time”, not our parents or their ancestors. We have E-mail, and I-phones and twitter and face-book and every other pseudonymous instantaneous electronic communication device which, with apologies to Socrates, proves that a life under punctuated is a life not worth being self-obsessed about. Sharing every naval-infatuated idea has become de rigueur for the Obama generation. There is no longer room for confusion or miss-interpretation, only for over-interpretation. And that makes the world much simpler.For the first two million years of human evolution the limit to language was the sum of the speed of sound divided by the speed of walking, divided by the number, width and depth of rivers and oceans, and the height of mountains and width of deserts separating you from the persons you wished to speak to. Those kinds of obstacles and those kinds of delays made the world a very complicated place. When the Battle of New Orleans was fought on January 8, 1815, the War of 1812 had been over since the Treaty of Ghent had been signed on December, 24, 1814. That was three years you needed to refer to while talking about just one battle, because of the delays in communications. How much more complicated can you get than that?Mail was the first invention in long distance communications. Cyrus the Great of Persia invented pony express riders to carry “words” to bind his empire together. According to Herodotus these civil service riders were so dedicated that “Neither snow, nor rain, nor heat, nor gloom of night stays these courageous couriers from the swift completion of their appointed rounds”; which is not the official motto of the U.S. Postal Service. The U.S. Postal service has no official motto.The next major technical advance in communication didn’t come along until 1792, when Claude Chappe invented a ‘semaphone’ network in France. In his sales brochures he called it a “telegraph” (Greek for “far writing”). It required a series of towers spaced 20 miles apart, upon each of which were erected two moveable arms connected by a longer moveable arm. A Chappe telegraph operator repeated the 174 different combinations of arm positions to relay up to two words a minute. Although this was such a dependable system that the Swedes kept theirs running until 1880, Chappe never saw it turn a profit, for two reasons. First he threw himself down a well in 1805. And second, it never turned a profit. Worse yet, for Chappe’s family, he copyrighted every thing about his brilliant invention except the name.In 1837 a failed Calvinist minister, a proslavery Federalist, a pedantic anti-catholic and anti-Semitic conspiracy freak named Samuel Fineley Breese Morse, co-opted the name for his “electronic telegraph” which he copyrighted from top to bottom, including the name. The first recorded “Mores Code” telegraphed was “A patient waiter is no loser”, in 1838; the dot and dash equivalent of “The quick bown fox”, etcetera. The more famous message, “What hath God Wrought”, was telegraphed as a publicty stunt in 1844 and was suggested by Anne Ellsworth from my home town of Lafayette, Indiana. She was married at the time to Mr. Roswell, who gave his name to the New Mexico town where, in 1947, aliens attempted to communicate with humans. Their message appears to have been the alien equivalent of “Mayday, mayday, mayday.” So far nobody has answered that message. The ultimate expression of this more complicated communication is the traditional or “snail” mail service. The complexities involved stagger the imagination. You write a letter. You take the letter to a collection point, a post office or mail box. A representative of the United States Postal Service (your stand in) then physically carries the actual letter to your friend’s home. There, your friend reads your words from the very paper you once held. It sounds fraught with opportunity for delays and errors, and it is. And yet it has worked in America for two centuries. And what is most amazing is that we expect it to work, and complain when it doesn’t.As of 2008 the 656,000 employees of the USPS (as it likes to refer to itself) processed 667 million pieces of mail every day (7,700 every second). They generated $75 billion in fees and charges, which left them with a $2.8 billion loss. Still nobody (well, a few libertarian lunatics) are suggesting that snail mail delivery cease.The ultimate complication of this ultimate complication of expression was Parcel Post, in which individuals were encouraged to send not only words from one end of the nation to another, but goods as well. The service was started in 1912 as an attempt to encourage economic development in rural America.The first flaw in the plan became visible when Postal authorities deemed it permissible to mail live chicks (in special containers) for 53 cents apiece. Now farmers could order chicks from breeders and they would be delivered, cheaply and reliably, right to the farmer's front door. It was a great boon to the egg industry nationwide. But problems arose when some of the little cheepers in ever shipment died in their boxes en route, and the customers sought reimbursement from the Post Office. The rules denied the customer’s appeals, but they appealed anyway. What was not noticed at the time, was the fatal flaw in the logic of “live” parcel post.The path to Parcel Post ad nauseam was first visible on the morning of February 19, 1914, when Mrs. John E. Pierstroff of Grangeville, Idaho, loaded her four year old daughter, May Pierstroff(above), into the mail car of the Camas Prairie train bound for Lewiston, Idaho, 55 miles away. A few moments later Harry Morris, the conductor, stumbled upon the little girl sitting quietly atop a pile of mail bags. Morris checked the 56 cents postage on the tag tied to May’s coat, and since the mother was no where to be seen, allowed the girl to ride in the mail car to Lewiston. There, mail clerk Leonard Mochel delivered May to her destination, the home of Mrs. Vennigerholz, the girl’s grandmother.It was the beginning of a disturbing trend. Later that same year postal workers in Stillwell, Indiana accepted a parcel post box marked, “live infant”. They delivered the box to South Bend where the “package” was accepted and opened by the infant’s divorced father. Cost for the trip was 17 cents. The next year a Pensacola, Florida probation officer shipped six year old Edna Neff to her father in Christiansburg, Virginia. The postage was 15 cents.The public was unsettled by this mailing of children, since the percentage of child molesters amongst the population in 1914 was about the same as it is today. The negative publicity probably prevented another child mailing until 1919, when it appears a press agent for the Aluminum Company of America arraigned for the mailing of five year old Marmi Hood and four year old Evan Hedge to their respective fathers, who were locked down inside in the company’s plant in Alco, Tennessee, surrounded by union picket lines. After a two hour tearful visit, complete with news photographs, the children were “mailed Special Delivery” back to the Alco, Tennessee Post Office, where their mothers were anxiously waiting for them. Postage for the stunt both ways was $2.26 cents. On June 13, 1920 The US Post Office Department issued new rules, announcing that children would no longer be accepted as a parcel post. The coda to this regulation, and perhaps a comment on the continued poverty in rural America even during the “Roaring Twenties”, was the C.O.D. package mailed to an undertaker in Albany, New York. It arrived on November 20, 1922, and carried no “return address”. In the box was body of a child who had died of natural causes. She was buried “...through the kindness of individuals” under the name of “Parcella Post.” How could you call such a world "simpler" than ours? As you would expect from people living in such complicated times, the denizens of that ancient confusion were able to predict the problems and solutions faced by our current “simpler" electronic age. It turns out the philosophical antithesis to twitter was written in 1854, not long after the Mores telegraph hinted at the self obsessed simplicity which was to follow. It was written by that old foggey, Henry David Thoreau. “Our inventions are wont to be pretty toys”, wrote Henry David, “which distract our attention from serious things. They are but improved means to an unimproved end…We are in great haste to construct a magnetic telegraph from Maine to Texas; but Maine and Texas, it may be, have nothing important to communicate.” And, what with the current Texas Governor advocating the re-secession of Texas from the union of states, it would appear that our modern politicians are leading the way by getting simpler and simpler all the time.

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Monday, June 22, 2009

AFTER THE CRASH

I would like to introduce you to Mr. Andrew William Mellon, a scarecrow of a man whose life reads like a Balzac novel. He is virtually forgotten today, but he should be remembered. First, he is one of the men who brought you the Great Depression; second, he is the man who invented “trickle down economics”, which may yet bring you the next depression; third, his name has appeared on more dollar bills than anyone, with the possible exception of Alexander Hamilton; and fourth, his obsession with money was so great that its poison has leached into our own time, for Andrew William Mellon is the 'prater profectio' of the “vast right wing conspiracy.” Suffice it to say that if Freud had ever met Andrew Mellon, psychiatry would be a recognized science today.
Andew was lucky enough to be born in Pittsburg during the latter half of the ninteenth century – “hell with the lid off” - and to a Scrooge-like father who disapproved of those with..."festive dispositions”. His father was a successful banker, and when Andrew was 17 he loaned the boy enough cash - at reasonable interest rates - so that he could found his own lumber company, following the mantra, “What would father do?” After paying daddy back and making a small fortune of his own, Andrew sold out. He felt the market was about to take a downturn – which it promptly did. Andrew then joined with his father and brother in founding a bank, T. Mellon & Sons. In 1882 Andrew became the President and primary shareholder. Using it as a base, and his connections with the Pittsburg elite of Carnegie and Rockefeller, Andrew helped found ALCOA, B.F. Goodrich, Gulf Oil, Heinz Foods and dozens of other corporate giants of the dawning 20th century. And he took a share in the stocks of every one of them. Andrew was, by 1899, the fourth richest man in America. But he was still living with his parents and eating porridge for dinner. Did life have anything to offer Andrew other than an “Oedipal competition” with his father which he could never win? It did. But Andrew screwed it up.In 1900 the 45 year old Andrew tried to escape his desolate fate by marrying the vivacious 19 year old Nora Mary McMullen (above), "The prettiest woman in London", and heir to part of the Scottish Guinness Brewing fortune. But instead of Nora providing Andrew with a way out, he dragged her into his miserable life. She tried to make dirty, foul Pittsburg a home. The couple had a daughter in 1901 and a son in 1907, but Andrew became convinced that Nora was seeing a certain debonair and dashing cavalry Captain, George Alfred Curphey - who had already been named as co-respondant in the South African Vivian divorce case of 1907. Perhaps she was having an affair. But the microphones Andrew had hidden in their home failed to produce any evidence of it. So Andew smashed 12 of them with an axe. For a decade Nora pleaded with Andrew for a divorce, but Andrew wanted custody of the children. Finally, in 1912, he actually charged her with adultry in court papers. Nora strongly denied the accusation and a special master who carefully examined Andrew's evidence, rejected his claim. However , Nora had suffered enough. In exchange for a $2 million settlement and her freedom, Nora did not fight Andrew when he demanded primary custody of the children. But that merely meant that now the children would be just as miserable as Andrew was. By 1920 Andrew had become so brittle that one writer would described him as a “dried-up dollar bill waiting to be blown away”. And this was the man the new President, Warren G. Harding, named as his Secretary of the Treasury. And why not: if you believed in the power of unfettered capitalism, what better man to guard its future than one of the most devoted and disciplined unfettered capitalists in the world? After resigning from the sixty boards of company directors he sat upon, Andrew accepted the post. Of course he still maintained close contact with the family bank, now under his brother's stewardship.The entire modern Republican economic game plan was on display while Andrew Mellon ran Treasury through the terms of Presidents Harding, Calvin Coolidge and Herbert Hoover. Through the entire decade of the 1920’s the economy grew at 7% per year, while unemployment remained between just three and four percent.Mellon moved to quickly retire much of America's World War One debt, cutting it by $10 billion. He also pushed hard to cut the upper income tax rate from 77% to 24%, and cut taxes for middle class Americans at the same time, although by not nearly as much. He reduced the Estate Tax, (known in current Republican circles as the “Death Tax”). But more importantly, he moved to improve the “efficiency” of government. Remember this was when the largest civilian department in the government was the Post Office.In 1920 the federal government was spending $1,329.77 per person per year. By 1927, after seven years of Andrew Mellon 'efficency' at Treasury, that spending had fallen to $180.57 per citizen per year - for the Post Office, the Navy, the Army, for everything. So if Mellon was making government efficent by 1929, what went wrong? As one historian has explained, “Between 1923 and 1929 manufacturing output per person-per hour increased by 32 %, but workers’ wages grew by only 8 %. (Meanwhile) corporate profits shot up by 65 %" (Sound familar?) "… In 1929 60% of families were living on less than $1,500 a year….” And then the Revenue Act of 1926 , pushed hard by Andrew Mellon, cut the taxes of those making $1 million or more a year by more than 2/3rds. As a result, by 1929, the top 1/10th of 1% of Americans had an income equal to that of the bottom 42% of Americans. Another historian has observed that, "The Mellon tax policy, placing its emphasis on relief for millionaires…made the mal-distribution of income…even worse." By 1929 the American middle class was being squeezed out of existence. And since Federal budgets had been progressively cut year after year, the economic health of the nation became dependent solely on the swing of business cycles. But without consumers, there was not much of a swing. The M-1, the money supply in circulation, had contracted past the point where the economy could recover from the next stumble.Without cash moving through the system; “Industrial production fell by nearly 45% between the years 1929 and 1932. Home-building dropped by 80%...” The stock market simply followed suit. It fell from a high of 294 points in early October 1929, to 230 points at the end of the month. Does any of this sound familiar? One wag put it to verse; “Mellon pulled the whistle, Hoover rang the bell, Wall Street gave the signal, And the country went to hell.” Mellon saw what was happening, but favored what he called a “liquidationist” approach to the problem. (Sound familar, again?) Mellon believed that weak banks (like weak insurance conglomerates, weak car companies and weak brokerage firms today) should always be allowed to fail. Mellon called it “weeding out”. What that strategy produced in 1929, and in 2008, was panic selling, when over-confident investors suddenly realized that actually applying the rules of capitalism to them meant that, besides being the next winner, they might also be the next loser. Realizing this they then acted accordingly. They got out of the market. Fast. In the public’s mind, Mellon, who was by then 70 years old, had become the face of the “old system”. During 1930 and 1931 Herbert Hoover saw to it that Andrew Mellon spent much of his time out of the public purview, in Europe, with the thankless job of trying to get America's ex-allies to repay wartime debts. But since they were also suffering in a recession, they could not.It was during these years that the Hoover administration, still following Andrew Mellon’s theories, drove the economy from a recession into the depression, eventually dropping the market, on July 8, 1932, to an all time low of just 41 points. And rightly or wrongly, in the public’s mind, Andrew Mellon as well as Hoover bore the responsibility for the disaster.Capitalism had reached such a point of concentration of capital that while the millionairs still had plenty of money, there was no where for them to invest it. There was no consumer demand because the consumers had been "weeded out" of Mellon's system. What was needed was what Roosevelt called "priming the pump", but such ideas were anathama to Mellon's economic thinking, and anatham to Republicans today.Finally, in February of 1932, with Hoover looking for some way to get the disgraced economic mastermind out of the public eye before the November elections, Andrew agreed to step down from Treasury, and accept the post of Ambassador to England. He served for just one year, and performed such assignments as introducing Emilia Erhart to the King of England. And then he resigned.In 1937 the Roosevelt administration opened “The Mellon Tax Case”, investigating Andrew and his ties while serving at Treasury to the family bank. Eventually the Mellon Bank settled for $668,000 (the equivalent to $9,552,000 in 2007).But by then Andrew had died, on August 27, 1937. And though his estate had been hurt by the massive tax settlement, and even though Andrew had spent the last years of his life giving away much of the wealth he had accumulated, Andrew still held so much money that, in 2007 (seventy years later!) the various trusts that Andrew created saw that his grandson,... ...75 year old Richard Mellon-Scaife, was still collecting about $45 million a year from them. He used some of this unearned wealth to finance the impeachment campaign against President Bill Clinton in 1998, and the idea that Barak Obama doesn't have a valid U.S. birth certificate in 2008. It is as if this part of the family is still trying to prove that old man Andrew Mellon was right in 1929.As Honor de Balzac wrote in his novel, “Father Goriot”, “Behind every great fortune…is a crime that has yet to be discovered.”
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