JUNE 2017

JUNE  2017
J.P. Morgan as a young man in his own words - "The Public Be Damned."

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Friday, October 19, 2012

AMERICAN NARCISSIST


I can see him clearly, as if he was standing next to me at this moment. And yet his image remains hazy. According to his drivers' license, he was five feet, nine inches tall, weighed 150 pounds and had gray hair. He was also described as “ ...a slight hollow-chested man”, of 46, with thin lips. And yet he remains an enigma. A neighbor, when shown several photographs of him, said, “ "I knew him well and he never looked like that.” And he was not just a physical enigma. Howard Kittle, the Clinton County agent and Farm Bureau manager, received a letter from him, and admitted that if anyone else had written it “I would have thought sure he was insane.'” But that was before - when he was an elected community leader, a trusted guardian of the communities' wealth and its future. After - the Clinton County Republican-News was forced to wonder, “Is the building of a modern institution which equips children to meet the problems of the world a burden - or is it a privilege?” You see, the man at issue was a anti-tax warrior and an American narcissist.
Bath in 1927 was a little farm town of about 300 people 10 miles northeast of Lansing, Michigan. “(It) had a ( grain) elevator, a little drugstore, and you knew everybody within 20 miles” said a life long resident. In 1922 rural Clinton County closed its scattered one room school houses. They used $8,000 of their own hard earned money to buy five acres of ground just south of Bath. They borrowed $35,000 to build a two story Consolidated School building. Here, classes would be divided by ages, to protect the younger children from bullies. With fewer teachers, higher standards could be required, even a college teaching degree. And amenities such as a library, lunch programs, athletics, music and art were added. And buses picked children up at their front doors and returned them safely home each night. It was the foundation for the secure world we grew up in. And it was not cheap.
The future always costs. You either invest in it, or if you refuse, it is much more expensive. In 1922 property taxes in Clinton county were $12.26 per thousand dollars of valuation ($160 today, or over $16%). In 1923 those taxes had gone up by half to $18.80 ($235 today). This was not the decision of a few liberals. This was debated for years within the community. And over time the decision was to invest in the future of Clinton County (in us), and spend the money. Three years later, eager to eliminate the debt quickly, the elected leaders of Clinton County paid off $7,200 of their obligation, and taxes topped out at one dollar higher (to $240 per thousand in today's dollars). It was expected taxes would now start to drop, but that did not take into account the rising inflation of the late 1920's, and the selfishness of one egomaniac who chose not to have a future.
I shall not use his name because of something Neil Kaye, forensic psychiatrist at Jefferson Medical College told Time Magazine in April of 2007. He said, “We glorify and revere these seemingly powerful people who take life. Meanwhile, I bet you couldn't tell me the name of even one of (serial killer) Ted Bundy's victims.” So let me just share headlines from the New York Times, dated Wednesday, May 18th, 1927, to explain what this man did. “Maniac blows up school, kills 42, mostly children; Had protested high taxes...He then kills himself and 3 others by Dynamiting Auto...Children Pinned in Debris. Others hurled against walls or out windows – Searchers still hunt for missing. Agonizing scenes in yard. Distraught parents find little ones dead beneath blankets...”. The early numbers were wrong, of course. The maniac killed eight adults and 34 children at the school, that day. The last little victim, nine year old Richard Fitz, would die of infection caused by his injuries, a week short of a year after the Bath School Disaster, and that was the name of one of his victims.
Just before he murdered the children, the maniac had bludgeoned his wife to death, restrained all his animals in a burning barn, killed every fruit tree on his farm, and burned all his expensive farm equipment. Interestingly, it was figured by the cleanup crews, that he could have paid off his mortgage and his property taxes by selling most of his well maintained farm equipment, which, according to his neighbors, he rarely used. Neighbor M.J. “Monty” Ellsworth wrote later, “He was at the height of his glory when fixing machinery or tinkering...He spent so much time tinkering that he didn't prosper.” The maniac also stood out, as a farmer, for his meticulous appearance. He changed his shirt quickly should a spot of dirt appear on it and was often seen sitting on his front porch, in a smoking jacket, puffing on a cigar. But his primary interest, his obsession, was in cutting taxes.
The maniac had been elected to the school board in 1924, two years after the new school had opened and the first election after the new higher tax rate had been announced. In 1925, after the death of Maude Detluff, the board's treasure, he had been appointed to fill that position. His book keeping was, like his appearance, meticulous. After his suicide, his books showed “a long and detailed explination” of a 22 cent discrepancy. But in the spring of 1926, when he ran for election to the job, the voters had rejected him. Once again, the majority approved investment in the future About this time the maniac stopped paying the mortgage or insurance on his farm.The previous owner, his wife's relatives, eventually began foreclosure proceedings His crops began to rot in the fields.
There is a story that decades earlier, a promising career as an electrician in St. Louis had been cut short by a fall and a serious head injury. So farming was the maniac's second choice. He married and moved to Clinton county right after the First World War. He might have over paid for his farm, because land prices were inflated at time. And his wife was afflicted with tuberculosis, a wasting disease. The Klu Klux Klan would even alleged his Catholicism encouraged him to destroy the school because it was not a Catholic school. But even if all of that were true, none of it would justify the cold blooded murder of 36 innocent children, and eight adults. And all the maniac was focused on was his high taxes.
Before the school was built, he had opposed it. Once it was decided to build it, he insisted it should be a 10 grade institution, instead of 12. He opposed the inclusion of a library, or athletics or music. And he lost each argument. Once the building was constructed, he had enough supporters to win election to the school board, where his obstinacy continued. He even opposed giving the superintendent a paid vacation each year, and then argued it should only be one week, not two. And as he lost each of these arguments, his obsession grew, day by day. Words used to describe him during this time were “surly”, “obstinate”, “impatient” “arrogant” “closed mouth”. Eventually he began to invest his money not on his farm, or his wife, but on explosives, and to sneak them into the basement of the school house, rig them with a timer and set them to explode early on a Wednesday morning, just after classes had begun.
The day after the bombing while still in shock and grief, the Clinton Country Republican ran an editorial, which explains, far better than I ever could, the connection between the maniac's crime and his anti-tax fever. “That he was insane there is little doubt. But he was not always insane. To start with he was merely antagonistic. Then he became radical.. He was the victim of the progress of his own lack of balance...What a terrible price to pay for narrow-mindedness. What an awful calamity for one peaceful little community to bear for one man's lack of ordinary American ideals...Never before have we known of aversion of the cost of education taking such terrible form. There are, however, many people who unthinkingly hamper and discourage the progress of good schools and other institutions for the welfare and happiness of the public. What are we going to do about it?”
It is almost a century later, and the question begs to be asked of the Tea Party and the radicals who have taken over the Republican Party - those who object to investing in the future because they do not believe they have one. What are we going to do about it?
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Wednesday, October 17, 2012

THROWING THE DIE

I know of only three ways to win at the game of Monopoly. First you buy or trade to get a monopoly of all four railroads and the three orange properties; St. James Place, Tennessee Avenue and New York Avenue. On average, players land on the oranges more often because they are just after the Jail. Then you build three houses on each, no hotels. This gives you a return on your investment about every ten times your opponents roll the die. The only way to give yourself a better chance of winning is to either become the banker and embezzle your way to victory, or get the other players to adopt a house rule that subtly favors you, and then apply it mercilessly. Real Wall Street bankers play this way all the time.
Surprisingly few people notice the fundamental capitalistic lesson in Monopoly, which is that you play it with dice. Chance always determines the short term outcome of events, much the same way that derivatives always explode, because sooner or later everybody rolls snake eyes. As proof of this consider what happened to the lady who invented the game of Monopoly. Her name was Elizabeth “Lizzie” Magie, a bright, well educated and determined Illinois Quaker lady, who in her late twenties was looking for a cause. See, Quakers had a long history as abolitionists, and the abolition of slavery after the Civil War, left them with an identity crises. “Lizzie”  found her new cause in the rantings of a self taught economist with two first names.
All you need to know about Henry George is that in the 1870's he owned a newspaper in San Francisco, and in 1886 he ran for mayor of New York City, coming in second but still beating Republican Teddy Roosevelt – in short, all his life George was a square peg in search of a round hole. He did not believe in free trade, he didn't like Asians, he liked paper money but he hated taxes - income taxes, sales taxes, and capital gains taxes. He sounds very Republican, doesn't he? Well, he was a Socialist- Catholic- Trade Unionist, who thought government should be supported solely by property taxes. But if you think a government supported only by property taxes is a good idea, I suggest you talk to any school board in America.
“Lizzie” Magie was a Henry devotee, and as the 19th century drew to a close, she was living in a interracial community of Brentwood, Maryland, and looking for some way to popularize her hero's ideas. Possessing that odd combination of whimsy and discipline required to design games, Lizzie came up with a joyless plaything she called “The Landlord's Game”. “Children of nine or ten,” she assured potential customers, “can easily understand the game and they get a good deal of hearty enjoyment out of it...The little landlords take a general delight in demanding the payment of their rent.”
Lizzie's innovation was that unlike previous Victorian board games, her's had no beginning or end. It was an endless loop. The four corners of her board were labeled Absolute Necessity - Coal Tax, Public Park, Jail and a globe encircled by a banner reading “Labor Upon Mother Earth Produces Wages”. Properties along the straightaways were four railroads, a Water Franchise, four Luxury Lanes, and Easy Street, Lonely Lane, Legacy, the Poor House and Lord Blueblood's Estate (No Trespassing, go to jail), and three other Absolute Necessities – Clothing, Shelter, and Bread. Every time you passed the Labor space you got a hundred bucks, and every time somebody landed on a property it went up for auction. In 1902, “Lizzie” took her new game to America's king of games, George S. Parker
When this George was sixteen he had invented a card game called Banking. Players borrowed money from the bank and the draw from the 160 card deck determined how successful they would be. George invested $40 to print up 500 decks of Banking cards, and sold 488 of them. With that $100 in profit he built an empire, hiring his brothers and issuing similar card games called Klondike Gold Rush and War in Cuba. So,  when Lizzie approached him, George found her a kindred spirit and offered a considered critique of “Landlords”. It stunk. “How do you end this game?” he asked, voicing a concern millions of players would repeat over the next 100 years. But he also urged her to get her game copyrighted, which Maggie did. She was granted U.S. Patent 748,626 on January 5, 1904. In 1906, the brothers hit it big with George's new card game Rook. Almost unnoticed, Lizzie packed her bags and moved to Chicago. And there she started her own game company.
She was supported by other Quakers and followers of Henry George, and in 1906, in Chicago, they formed the Economic Game Company, to publish and distribute the Landlord's Game, with a few modifications. She added a bank, wages, and public transportation in the center of the board. Lizzie kept in contact with the Parker Brothers, who, in 1910, published her her new card game called Mock Trial. Game design wasn't a living, but then Lizzie wasn't in it for the money. She was on a mission. Which is probably why what happened next had little to do with Lizzie.
In 1915 economists Scott Nearing was the most popular lecturer at the Wharton School of Business at Pennsylvania State University. Eventually the trustees would fire him for being a radical, but then eventually the American Communist Party would expel him the same reason. But before he was fired, Nearing introduced The Landlord's game to his students, and they set about spreading it from one fraternity brother to another. Future "new dealer" Rexfordd Guy Tugwell introduced a shortened version the game (called Monopoly Auction) to his classmates at Columbia graduate school of Economics. Another Nearing student, Daniel W. Lyman, started marketing his own shortened version of the game (called Finance) in Indianapolis, Indiana, where he labeled the rental properties with local street names and added Chance and Community Chest cards.
In 1929, school teacher Ruth Hoskins learned the game from her brother, who was friends with Daniel Lyman. Later that year she got a job teaching at the Friends (Quaker) School in Atlantic City, and she introduced the game to her students. When she drew up her version of the game board, she named the properties after streets her students lived on in Atlantic City. But unfamiliar with the area, she misspelled the name of a suburb, Marven Gardens (a combination of two town names – Margate City and Ventor City) as Marvin Gardens. And, since her Quaker students objected to auctions on religious grounds, the game was changed again, so that landing on a property gave you the sole right to buy it, for the price listed on the deed. Once again the game proved very popular.
Ruth's student who lived in Marven Gardens was Charles Todd. He had suggested naming the railroads after real lines. The game's B and O was the Baltimore and Ohio, while the Reading was the Philadelphia and Reading railroad. The Pennsylvania Railroad was for many decades the largest railroad in the world, and while The Short Line was not a specific road, it was the general title for any short commuter line. Just as the Great Depression began in earnest in 1932, Charles Todd introduced the game to two new friends who were in a very rough spot.
William Darrow had been a domestic heater salesman in Philadelphia, until the Depression wiped out his livelihood. His was now working at odd jobs, and his wife Esther was pregnant, and one look at the game Monopoly Auction, convinced William that this could be his salvation. Charles Todd would later testify that “Darrow asked me if I would write up the rules and regulations, and give them to Darrow.” Whereupon, Darrow asked for two or three copies, which Charles gave him. And with that, William Darrow was on his way to being a millionaire.
Charles drew up the game on oil cloth (copying Ruth's misspelling), his wife and son filled in the colors, and a graphic artist then added the icons of Jake the jailbird and Police Officer Edgar Mallory on the Go to Jail cards. The little rich guy with the top hat, Uncle Pennybags would come later, after Charles copyrighted the game under his own name in 1933 before selling it to Parker Brothers in 1936 as his own invention, which it was not.
The marketing department at Parker Brothers made Monopoly the most popular game in America, and made William Darrow a multimillionaire. He spent the rest of his life traveling the world in luxury. Of course, eventually the lawyers at Parker Brothers realized they had a problem with “Lizzie”. Remember her? But this also gave them power over Darrow. So, first they pressured him to give them the free and clear rights to publish the game outside of the United States,  in exchange for taking over all legal costs of defending William against copyright infringement. William Darrow caved under just a little pressure. All that remained was to get Maggie to sign over her rights to her Landlord's Game.
The new president of Parker Brothers, Robert Barton, later testified that he asked Lizzie if she would agree to some changes in her game. He testified later that her answer was “No. This is to teach the Henry George theory of single taxation, and I will not have my game changed in any way whatsoever." So being a good businessman, Barton stopped pushing, bought Lizzie's rights for a measly $500, and an agreement to publish her new version of The Landlord's Game. The third edition was shipped to stores all over the United States  in 1939, but Parker Brothers did nothing to promote it. After a few weeks all copies were called back to Parker Brothers and destroyed. By the time Lizzie realized she had been snookered, it was too late. And her game, and its twin named inspiration, were quickly forgotten.
In a way, she had just gotten a lesson in the game she had invented. And Parker Brothers had just gotten a great big Get Out of Jail Free card. And that is the real lesson in Monopoly.
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Sunday, October 14, 2012

GEORGIA PEACHES Part Five


I hope that on election day, Tuesday, 10 November, 1794, the members of the Georgia legislature did not realize the forces they were unleashing when they voted to return James Gunn to a second six year term in the U.S. Senate. But the entire rational for relying on politicians to select Senators, rather than voters, was that members of the legislature were better informed and more civic minded than hoi polli – a word from the ancient Greek democracies defining the general populace. However to even qualify as a voter you still had to be a white male property owner. So the distinguished members of the Georgia legislature were supposed to be the best of the best, brightest of the brightest, the most responsible of the responsible. Thus, I can only assume their willingness to return this amoral selfish bully to power was a conscious decision to sell their reputations to him - which they promptly did..
In the flunkies defense, it must be pointed out that Senator Gunn and his co-conspirators had been preparing for this moral yard sale for at least three years. Having bought up the Virginia Yazoo Company in late 1791, Gunn and his “Yankee” partners - Pennsylvanians Robert Morris, John Nicholson and James Greenleaf - had renamed it the "Upper Mississippi Company", to avoid the impression they were “foreign invaders”. Wade Hampton and his South Carolina Yazoo Company had gone even further, renaming their land grab "The Georgia-Mississippi Company". The Tennessee Company felt no such compunction to verbally pander for approval. But members of all three companies agreed to act as one, and cross traded in each others stocks. And as a joint committee of the Georgia legislature began to consider their bids, it was seen as politically expedient to form a fourth company, to be called "The Georgia Yazoo Company", from which land bribes might be more palatable to the locals. But the bylaws for this new bidder were written by Georgia judge Nathaniel Pendleton, who was an original shareholder in the "Virginia Company with Senator Gunn.
The partners even put it down on paper, agreeing in writing that it was “expedient to dispose of a considerable quantity” of the land they were offering to buy “to diverse persons...to effect the purchase”. In other words, the men behind all four Yazoo companies were willing to share what they were buying so cheaply from the citizens of Georgia, with the officials who were selling it to them so cheaply. In legal circles this is known as a kick back. And at the very center of this web of graft loomed the hulking frame of James Gunn.
After he was safely re-elected, Gunn warned Supreme Court Justice James Wilson, who owned 25,000 shares of the Upper Mississippi Company, “We have taken measures which will ensure Success. But...they are to be executed by men whose want of talents may ruin every thing.” And by talents he meant a willingness to be bought, and by a want of talent he meant a shred of integrity. Senator Gunn had already been handing out options worth 1,000 British pounds - called 'money shares -  on the Yazoo lands to merchants in Savannah, including Mayor Thomas Gibbons, who was supposed to be the richest man in Georgia. The printer of the Augusta Southern Centinal newspaper, Alexander McMillan, was given 28,000 acres of land in the Georgia Company grant, to ensure at least one favorable newspaper. The Treasurer for the state of Georgia, Philip Clayton, was given 112,000 acres, and two of Governor George Mathews' personal secretaries got options on even more land. Even Governor Mathew's son-in-law received a land donation, although he kept suffering integrity relapses. In fact, Gunn warned every politician in Georgia they would not share in the bounty if they “did not vote for the bill.”
Gunn offered the Columbia County representative, James Simm, 50,000 acres for every fellow legislator he could convince to vote for the sale. He offered state Representative Robert Flournoy and state Senator Henry Mitchell 75,000 acres each in the Georgia Company's grant. Once the joint committee recommended accepting the primary bids on Friday 28 November, 1794, and the matter went before the entire state Assembly and Senate, legislators were treated to the image of United States Supreme Court Justice James Wilson, standing in the lobby of the Georgia State Capital with “$25,000 in his hands as a ready cash payment.”
Richmond County Representative Robert Watkins received no shares for his support. But his brother Thomas got shares in the Upper Mississippi Company, and his other brother Anderson got shares in the Tennessee Company.  Representative Peter Van Allen opposed the sale, and Treasurer Clayton offered him 75 British pounds to just go home until the vote was over. That offer, Clayton told Van Allen, came from “General Gunn”.  A similar offer was made to Georgia state Senators John Sheppered and Henry Mitchell.  Another state Senator was offered $2,000 cash for his vote. And when he had the temerity to ask where the cash was coming from, Treasurer Clayton told him, “It is nothing to you.” Yet another state Senator was offered ten slaves for his vote. Representative Thomas Raburn was offered $600 for his - and he took it – and state Senator Robert Thomas received shares in the Georgia Company, which he later sold for $5,000 cash.
After a lot of behind the scenes pushing and shoving, the bill, nobly titled "An Act for appropriating a part of the un-allocated territory of this state for the payment of the late state troops, and...for the protection and support of the frontiers of this State, and for other purposes, " passed the Georgia Assembly by 19 to 9 on 2 January, 1795, and the Senate on 3 January by a vote of 18 to 10. Governor Mathews signed it into law on 7 January, 1795. There was only one member of the entire legislature who voted for the sale, who had not been personally bought off, and that was George Watkins, the man with two brothers, who had been. Had it all been worth it? Senator James Gunn and his conspirators had just bought 35 million acres of land, an area far larger then the original Yazoo Land Grants, and where the old grants had offered Georgia 24 cents an acre, these new grants promised to pay just 1 ½ cents an acre. It was a steal.  In every way you looked at it.
And there was more. Among other "goodies" hidden in the bill was the clause that “the lands....shall be free from taxation, until the inhabitants thereof are represented in the legislature...”  Translation; the speculators were not responsible for property taxes,  and thus they produced no income to the state until they were sold to the suckers,...er, farmers. That made the grants easier to resell, which had been the goal from day one. Three months after the bill was signed,  Wade Hampton sold the Upper Mississippi Company to three Boston speculators for $120,000 ($1.5 million today). However Senator Gunn was not so fortunate. The day after the sale became law, Senator Gunn was on his way back to Washington, D.C., Within two weeks Senator Gunn  resold his lands for a measly $25,000 profit ($300,000 today) . He complained he “should have made a handsome profit, but for the dishonorable interference of some of my associates.” The buyer was his own partner, James Greenleaf.
What drove Senator Gunn to hurry was that he was already being hanged and burned in effigy in several parts of Georgia. It was the already humbled David Ross who had warned him of this. The open bribery used in the Georgia legislature, Ross counseled, “will not a little embarrass the members, and, I fear, increase your difficulties.”
Ah, how true that would prove to be. If this had been a monster movie, the villagers were about to show up with their pitchforks and flaming torches.
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