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Friday, January 29, 2010

ADDICTED TO POSION

I have given this a lot of thought, and have come to the firm conclusion that Mithradates Eurpator Dionysius, the sixth Great King of Pontus by that name, also known as the “King of Poisons”, the last man to stand between Rome and world domination, and also known as “The Good Father” to his people –or so we’re told - , was completely and absolutely demented, deranged, mentally unstable, maniacal, rabid, raving, preposterous, psychotic and certifiably legally nuts. Now, it isn’t that often you can make an unqualified observation like that about an historical figure. But, trust me, it is all true. Now, Mithradates was of course the King, so nobody pointed out at the time that he was as loony as a vegetarian working in a meat packing plant. But a lot of people must have been thinking it.
The Kingdom of Pontus was one of the jigsaw-puzzle of petty kingdoms that sprang up from Alexander the Great’s empire, after the famous ‘faygala’ died in 323 B.C.E. The politics of the time reflected the map; a hodge-podge of dozens of principalities whose kings (and queens) were each vying to be next to earn the title of ‘GREAT’. Given the eat-or-be-eaten diplomatic climate, any one of half a dozen kingdoms could have dominated Asia Minor, but Pontus was better situated than most. It hugged the mountainous northern coast of what is today Turkey, and was centered on the great port city of Sinop. The minerals in the mountains made the kingdom rich, which paid for the Pontic fleets which eventually turned the Black Sea into a Pontic lake.
As with most kings, Mithradates Europator’s biggest problem was his own family. In about 120 B.C.E. his father, Mithradates V, unexpectedly dropped dead, probably from poison, which was in all probability administered by his wife, Laodice. She was the daughter of another local King, and had already earned a reputation as a political cut throat. She was quickly named regent for the 13 year old Europator, his brother Chesthus, and their sister. There appear to have been other children from the King’s many wives, but these three were the only ones to survive. Which of the others were murdered by Laodice, and which were merely victims of the horrendous death toll common in the last century Before the Common Era, is unclear.
What we do know is that all his life Mithradates Europator was terrified of being poisoned. He would eat only freshly cooked food, and he even went so far as to begin a life long regimen of ingesting deadly substances with every meal, in order to build up his immunity to his enemies, including his own mommy dearest. The tale is so well known that my favorite poet, A.E. Houseman, was even inspired by it. “They put arsenic in his meat, And stared aghast to watch him eat. They poured strychnine in his cup, And shook to see him drink it up. They shook, they stared as white’s their shirt: Them it was their poison hurt. --I tell the tale that I heard told. Mithridates, he died old”
Sometime around 115 B.C.E, the 20 year old Mithradates Europrator stepped into his role as King, becoming Mithradates VI. And his first act was to execute his own mother. Call it self defense. Shortly thereafter his brother Chesthus disappeared; call that just being careful. That left only his sister, also named Laodice. Her, he married; a common practice in amongst Kings of ancient times, the better to keep the crown jewels in the family. And with the home front under control, Mithradates raised his ambition to the horizon.
First he crossed the Black Sea and conquered the Crimea Peninsula, later placing his son on the throne. And then he subjugated Armenia and Georgia, which bordered Pontus on the west. And then he crossed the mountains and defeated his neighbors to the south on the Anatolian plain. All of this energetic activity brought Mithradates to the attention of the Romans, and visa-a-versa. Mithradates took the immediate measure of the Roman Republic and decided he did not feel comfortable with thousands of Roman merchants and settlers living in his kingdom. They were the advance wave of Roman influence that always preceded the Roman armies. So, in a typical Mithradates’ solution, on an appointed day in 88 B.C.E., he ordered all the Latin speakers across Anatolia butchered, every man, woman and child. It is figured approximately 80,000 people were killed in a single day.
It was a body blow to the Roman Empire, bankrupting many of the rich nobility of the city. The Roman response was to dispatch the ambitious Counsel Marcus Aquilius to deal with this Asian troublemaker. However, rather than run up the expense actually fighting a war, Aquilius bribed Mithradates’ allies to betray him. But except for a few isolated incidences, the scheme failed. By Spring of 87 B.C.E. Mithradates controlled all of Asia Minor, even capturing Aquilius. Repaying the honor, Mithradates had molten gold poured down the Counsel’s throat. And that is what I would call a burning irony.
When the Romans failed to respond strongly, Mithradates saw an opening and accepted an invitation from Athens to send his armies into Greece. He portrayed himself as modern day Alexander come to save Hellinistic culture from the vulgar Romans. And finally the Romans decided to send in six legions, under the command of Lucius Cornelius Sulla, an ambitious and hungry general. Sulla sacked Athens, filling the streets with blood, and then defeated a much larger Pontic army, driving Mithradates back across the Aegean Sea. And in 86 B.C.E. Sulla followed. But just when it looked like Mithradates would be cornered and killed, Sulla offered a truce, with generous terms. Now why would he do that?
The answer was, of course, that Sulla was more interested in capturing Rome than he was in capturing Mithradates. And he did just that, killing every significant member of the Roman nobility who opposed him, except for one; Julius Gaius Caesar. And Mithradates was busy as well. Beaten and driven out of Greece, he found himself more popular than ever, as the man who had stood up to the Romans. Wrote the Roman Senator Cicero, “Somehow, Mithradates accomplished more by being defeated than if he had been victorious!” Rulers lined up to serve in what would come to be called the Second Mithradatic War. In 83 BCE a new Roman general, Lucius Lincinius Murena, invaded Pontus. But Mithradates fought him to a stand still, and forced the Romans to make peace, yet again.
The Republic and Mithradates suffered each other for over a decade of uneasy peace, because they were both busy with internal politics, meaning plots and assassinations. But in 72 B.C.E., when the Gladiator Spartacus inspired a slave revolt in Italy, Mithradates saw yet another opening, and attacked the Roman forces again. And again the Romans dispatched a second class general, and again Mirthradates was able to sting him into retreat. So finally, in 66 B.C.E., Rome sent forth Gnaeus Pompeius Magnus, known as Pompey the Great, to deal with Mithradates once and for all.
Pompey earned his title by doing just that. He captured Sinop, and drove Mithradates out of his own kingdom, chasing him through Armenia and Azerbaijan. For a time it appeared that Pompey had Mithradates pinned against the high Caucasus Mountains. But rather than pressing his advantage until he had killed Mithradates, Pompey declared victory and moved on conquer new lands. (Sound familiar?) But our hero refused to die and slipped across the high passes before appearing again in his son’s kingdom in the Crimea.
But his son was more interested in holding onto his own kingdom, than in supporting his father’s dreams of revenge on Rome. And in 65 B.C.E., Mithradates was at last  forced to admit the end had come. He gave poison to all his loyal wives and children, and then tried to drink the drink himself. But all those years of building immunity now came back to bite him.
The Roman writer Cassiuus noted, “"Mithridates had tried to make away with himself…(but) the poison, although deadly, did not prevail over him,” Mithradates then tried to disembowel himself but “the force of the sword blow was lessened on account of the weakness of his hand, caused by his age and…as a result of taking the poison.” So a trusted servant had to finish off his master. “Thus Mithridates, who had experienced the most varied and remarkable fortune, had not even an ordinary end to his life.”
The genius of Pompey was displayed when he had Mithradates’ body brought back to Sinop, and placed in the family tomb in a great funeral. There was now no doubt that the old trouble maker was truly dead, and that Rome had finally vanquished him. But in a way, Mithridates, also won. In dealing with the crises produced by Mithradates, the Roman Republic had been forced repeatedly to turn to a talented and ambitious man, first Sulla, and then Pompey, and eventually Julius Caesar. It was a habit the Romans found adictive.
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Wednesday, January 27, 2010

OUT OF A CLEAR BLUE SKY

 
I have long believed that the world can be divided into two groups; those who believe that the world is screwed up because a secret cabal is running things for their own advantage, and those who believe the world is so screwed up that obviously nobody is in charge. In the former category are those who are still convinced that somehow President Roosevelt was in some way responsible for the surprise attack on Pearl Harbor on December 7, 1941. To quote one neo-conspiracy theorist, “Interestingly, that ‘surprise attack’ was preceded by an astonishing number of unheeded warnings and missed signals…” This neo-knowledgeable speaker was then Deputy Secretary of Defense Paul Wolfowitz, in a speech at West Point, on June 2, 2001, some three months before 9/11.
At 7:48 a.m. on December 7, 1941, out of a clear blue sky, 353 Japanese bombers, torpedoe planes and fighters of the first wave began their attack on Pearl Harbor. The United States Pacific fleet was caught flat footed, unprepared, with our war planes on the ground. How could we have been caught so unprepared if not by a conspiracy?
But at the exact moment that Japanese bombs were exploding amongst American planes on Ford Island, it was 3:00 a.m. at the US Army Air Force base at Clark Field in the Philippines. The Japanese had planned a dawn attack here as well, but fog kept their planes on Formosa on the ground. The Japanese attack on Clark Field did not begin until 12:30 p.m. local time, nine long hours after the radio alert from Hawaii had warned American commanders (including General Douglas MacArthur) that the war had already begun. And yet the Japanese were able to destroy half of all United States war planes in the Philippines on the first day of the war, on the ground. How was this possible? Was the conspiracy that betrayed America so large it included the anti-New Dealer General MacArthur?
At 9:15 a.m. on February 19, 1942 – 74 days after the Pearl Harbor attack – a Coastwatcher on Melville Island, just off the North coast of Australia, looked up into a clear blue sky and reported a large number of planes heading for the harbor at Darwin, Australia. The report was dismissed, as was a report at 9:37 a.m. from Father John McGrath on tiny Bathhurst Island of “An unusually large air formation bearing down on us from the Northwest”. The commander of the attacking Japanese forces would later write, “…No planes were in the air. A few attempted to take off as we came over but were quickly shot down, and the rest were destroyed where they stood.”
Just an hour later, as the first wave of Japanese planes banked to return to their carriers, they left behind 8 ships sunk in Darwin harbor. They had damaged a dozen other ships (including a hospital ship), destroyed the limited harbor facilities, as well as destroying 10 P-40 fighters, one B-24 bomber, 3 C-45 transports, 3 PBY flying boats and 6 Lockheed Hudson Australian Bombers, as well as knocking out Darwin’s electricity and fresh water systems, and killing at least 243 military personnel and civilians and wounding 200 more. The Darwin raid has been called “Australia’s Pearl Harbor”. How were the Japanese able to achieve another surprise attack after so many warnings?
At 6:20 a.m. on the morning of April 18, 1942 (now 102 days since the Pearl Harbor attack) Japanese Vice Admiral Boshiro Hosogaya, commander of the Japanese Fifth Fleet aboard the heavy cruiser Kiso, was awakened to read an urgent message from picket boat Number 23, the Nitto Maru. The message read; “Three enemy carriers sighted -Position 650 nautical miles east of Inubo Saki.” The Nitto Maru failed to respond to calls for further information. The vice-admiral alerted the command of the Combined Fleet headquarters. He advised them that with the known range of American carrier based bombers, the Americans would not be within range to attack the home islands for another 24 hours. The combined fleet immediately sent the following message to all commands; “Tactical Method 3 against United States Fleet.” In response elements of the First and Second Fleets sortie-ed out of their bases at Yokosuka and Hiroshima and began searching for the American carriers. Japanese aircraft carriers as far away as the Indian Ocean began to steam at all possible speed toward home waters. They would not be in time.
Just after noon Tokyo time, that same morning, Argentinean attaché Ramon Lavelle thought he heard explosions and ran onto the roof of his embassy. “I…saw four American bombers flying over the rooftops. They couldn’t have been more than 100 feet off the ground….All Tokyo seemed to be in a panic…I could see fires starting near the port…” One of the attackers would later write, “...the Japanese apparently were entirely unprepared for the attack…farmers in the field looked up and went back to work undisturbed; villagers waved from the streets; a baseball game continued its play; and in the distance training planes took off and landed apparently unaware of any danger present."
Ten targets were struck in Tokyo by the B-25 medium range land based bombers, and one each in four other Japanese cities. A carrier under construction was hit by a single bomb. One bomb even landed inside the grounds of the Imperial Palace. Of the attackers, one B-25 received some minor damage from anti-aircraft fire, and another had to dump its bomb load into the sea when it was attacked by fighters. The two American carriers that had launched The Doolittle Raid, and all escorting ships, escaped unharmed. It would be weeks before the American public was informed of the attack, but the Japanese responded immediately by diverting fighter squadrons and anti-aircraft units back to the home islands, and with more extreme measures. Long before another American bomb landed on Japan, 10% of Tokyo had been plowed under to form fire brakes across the city. But enen this sacrifice proved ineffectual in the B-29 fire raids of 1945.
The common thread connecting these three nations from December 1941 to April 1942 was the assumption that war could be restrained by the plans of politics or strategy. But all wars appear out of a clear blue sky, even to those who start them. And no strategy survives the first contact with the enemy. So all wars are a form of compulsory education for those foolish enough to think they have nothing more to learn. And the three lesson that war teaches are always the same. The only sin in war is losing. The only assurance of losing is arrogance. And arrogance always leads to war.
There are no vast, grand conspiracies that produce wars. There is only common human arrogance, and usually a surplus of that.
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Sunday, January 24, 2010

A GREAT CRIME


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. You see, 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, at a time that the city was earning the title, “hell with the lid off”. Andrew was born to a Scrooge-like father who disapproved of those with..."festive dispositions”. The dour Thomas Mellon was an Irish immigrant, a successful lawyer and businessman who bought up huge chunks of downtown Pittsburg. When Andrew was 17 he loaned the boy enough cash - at reasonable interest rates - so that he could found his own lumber company.

All his life Andrew followed the mantra, “What would father do?” And it served him well in the lumber business. After paying daddy back Andrew felt the housing market was about to take a downturn, and, doing what Daddy would do, he sold out - just before the panic of 1873. He made a small fortune. Andrew then joined with his father and brother in founding a bank, "T. Mellon and 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, Standard Oil, General Motors, Heinz Foods and dozens of other corporate giants of the dawning 20th century. And Andrew 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, "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 an infamous South African Vivian divorce case of 1907.

Perhaps Nora 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 continued to 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 roaring twenties 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.

Under Mellon, it was a good time to be a multi-millionair. He pushed hard to cut the upper income tax rate from 77% to just 24%. He also cut taxes for middle class Americans at the same time, although by not nearly as much. He also 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 so 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 two thirds. 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 the business cycles, investment and profit taking. But without consumers, there would be not much of a swing left. 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, when the maket crashed in October of 1929; “Industrial production fell by nearly 45% between the years 1929 and 1932. Home-building dropped by 80%...” The stock market 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. This was the same strategy that was followed again in 2008 when Lehman Brothers was allowed to collapse.

Back in 1929/1930 Mellon believed that weak banks should always be allowed to fail. Mellon called it “weeding out”. You could almost hear him repeating the mantra, "What would Father do?" What that strategy produced in 1930, and in 2008, was panic selling. With a start, over-confident investors suddenly realized that actually applying the rules of capitalism meant that, besides being the next winner, it was actually more likely that they might also be the next loser. And 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 their 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 approach, 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. Andrew went back to the corporate boardrooms and the family bank.

In 1937 the Roosevelt administration opened “The Mellon Tax Case”, investigating Andrew and his ties to the family bank while serving at the Treasury. Eventually the Mellon Bank settled for $668,000 (the equivalent to $9.5 million today). But by then, Andrew had left the field of battle.

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 to it that his grandson...

...75 year old Richard Mellon-Scaife, was still collecting about $45 million a year from them. Richard used some of this unearned wealth to finance the impeachment campaign against President Bill Clinton in 1998, and in 2008 to publicize the idea that Barak Obama doesn't have a valid U.S. birth certificate. It is as if this part of the family is still trying to prove that old man Andrew Mellon was right way back 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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