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The Billionaires Playground - 1890 - The Last Time the National Wealth was this Unbalanced

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Friday, April 17, 2015

DEAD PRESIDENT

I would call it the worst Presidential inaugural speech in history – and just in part because it was also the longest. By my count it ran to 8,424 words (the first sentence was 98 words long!), and it took darn near two hours to deliver. When 68 year old William Henry Harrison started droning on, at around noon on Saturday March 4, 1841, it was barely 48 degrees, in a cold, cutting rain and wind. His audience of 50,000 were in agony, and he just kept talking. And at the end of the sixth paragraph the new President actually delivered his punch line – he would not run for re-election. From that moment he was a lame duck. He had voluntarily surrendered half of his political power, and he wasn't even half way through his inaugural speech. And he just kept talking! In fact it has been alleged that this speech actually killed the President.
“CALLED from a retirement which I had supposed was to continue for the residue of my life to fill the chief executive office of this great and free nation, I appear before you, fellow-citizens, to take the oaths which the Constitution prescribes as a necessary qualification for the performance of its duties; and in obedience to a custom coeval with our Government and what I believe to be your expectations, I proceed to present to you a summary of the principles which will govern me in the discharge of the duties which I shall be called upon to perform.”
William Henry Harrison Inaugural Address
After that it was all anti-climax. Harrison droned on and on about ancient Rome, and why the ancient Greeks had collapsed. He did not get around to discussing what he hoped to achieve while he was in charge until paragraph 17, just four paragraphs from his closing. This was not the speech most people huddled freezing in the bleachers had been expecting from the man his Democratic opponents had dubbed, “General Mum”, because he'd said almost nothing during the campaign. This was the “Tippecanoe and Tyler too” campaign, the log cabin and hard cider campaign of nothing but empty phrases, when Harrison had kept his mouth shut because the only time he had ever been in a log cabin was when he had visited his mistress Dilsia, in her slave quarters. The overly fecund Virginian had fathered six children with the unfortunate lady, and ten more with his legal wife. Did I mention it was snowing during his interminable speech? And raining? And cold? The second time George Washington took the oath, he disposed of his speech in 135 words, wham-ban, thank you, Ladies and Gentleman. But then Harrison had so much more to say about so much less than Washington did. 
“It was the remark of a Roman consul in an early period of that celebrated Republic that a most striking contrast was observable in the conduct of candidates for offices of power and trust before and after obtaining them, they seldom carrying out in the latter case the pledges and promises made in the former. However much the world may have improved in many respects in the lapse of upward of two thousand years since the remark was made by the virtuous and indignant Roman, I fear that a strict examination of the annals of some of the modern elective governments would develop similar instances of violated confidence.”
William Henry Harrison Inaugural Address
William Henry Harrison achieved a number of firsts as President. He was the first President to actively campaign for the office, and the first President to have received one million votes. All-though he won by only 147,000 popular votes his electoral college victory was a landslide. He was the first (and only) President to have been born in the same county as his Vice President (Charles City County, Virginia). He was also the first President to arrive in Washington via a steam locomotive. And he was the first president (that we know of) to have given away four of his own children (by Dilsia), to avoid being embarrassed by their existence. The unlucky youngsters were sold “down the river” to a planter in Georgia. What a nice guy. You know, if Harrison had not been such a lousy human being, I would be a lot sadder that he was also the first President to die while in office; 30 days, 12 hours and 30 minutes after starting his never ending inaugural address.
“Although the fiat of the people has gone forth proclaiming me the Chief Magistrate of this glorious Union, nothing upon their part remaining to be done, it may be thought that a motive may exist to keep up the delusion under which they may be supposed to have acted in relation to my principles and opinions; and perhaps there may be some in this assembly who have come here either prepared to condemn those I shall now deliver, or, approving them, to doubt the sincerity with which they are now uttered...”
William Henry Harrison Inaugural Address
What was wrong with this man? He had been running for President since November of 1811, when he had won the battle of Tippecanoe. But Democratic President James Madison had not even thanked him for removing the Indian threat to the western border on the eve of war with Britain. Yes, Harrison was a Whig, but it took another quarter of a century before his own party was willing to name him as their nominee. What was wrong with this patrician that so few of his contemporaries, of either party, were willing to trust him with power? About the only friend he had in Washington was Daniel Webster. The two men were close enough (thank God) that Harrison had allowed Webster to cut several minutes out of the never-ending speech – Webster claimed later that he had “killed 17 Roman Counsels” Can you imagine how many useless words Harrison would have used without Daniel Webster?
“... In other words, there are certain rights possessed by each individual American citizen which in his compact with the others he has never surrendered. Some of them, indeed, he is unable to surrender, being, in the language of our system, unalienable. The boasted privilege of a Roman citizen was to him a shield only against a petty provincial ruler, whilst the proud democrat of Athens would console himself under a sentence of death for a supposed violation of the national faith—which no one understood and which at times was the subject of the mockery of all—or the banishment from his home, his family, and his country with or without an alleged cause, that it was the act not of a single tyrant or hated aristocracy, but of his assembled countrymen....”
William Henry Harrison Inaugural Address.
He waited to take the oath until he had almost finished his speech. But as soon as he had been sworn in by Chief Justice Taney , he quashed his audiences' frigid hopes by starting to talk again, for two more rambling protracted paragraphs. It seems that William Henry Harrison, saw the anti-climax as his milieu.. Still, he felt fine after his speech. He even stayed around for the entire inaugural parade - the first President to watch the parade as opposed to marching in it. And this was the first inaugural parade with floats, little fake log cabins pulled by horses, sort of mobile homes. That night he attended all three of the inaugural balls – the official one, the Tippecanoe ball, and... and the other one. On Monday morning (March 6th) Harrison felt good enough to meet with his Secretary of the Treasury, Thomas Ewing to discuss the current national financial crises, which he had not mentioned in his endless speech. He mentioned everything else, just not that the banking system had collapsed. But, he seemed perfectly healthy, even after all that, which proves that this loquacious aristocrat was perfectly healthy until he fell under the care of a doctor.
I proceed to state in as summary a manner as I can my opinion of the sources of the evils which have been so extensively complained of and the correctives which may be applied. Some of the former are unquestionably to be found in the defects of the Constitution; others, in my judgment, are attributable to a misconstruction of some of its provisions...”
William Henry Harrison Inaugural Address
His fatal mistake was that on March 27 (three weeks after the endless speech)  he told Dr. Thomas Miller he felt “mildly fatigued and under the weather.” Dr Miller was dean of the George Washington Medical School, and he diagnosed the President as suffering from “bilious pleurisy”. Dr. Miller felt obliged to do something. So he slapped a mustard plaster on Harrison's stomach, and gave him a mild laxative. The next morning, Harrison felt worse. So Dr. Miller bled the President, until his pulse weakened. Then he subjected the 68 year old to another plaster, this time of laudanum, which caused the old man to fall asleep. While he was sleeping, Miller called in another doctor, and over the next few days these two healers gave the President opium, camphor, brandy, wine whey, and some petroleum. Oddly, after these treatments President Harrison felt so bad he was now certain he was dying. The doctors agreed, so they bled him some more. Anyone who inquired was told the President was “feeling better”,  right up until Harrison died, thirty minutes into April 4th, 1841, one week after falling into the hands of two of the most respected doctors in the nation. So it wasn't the endless speech that killed the old man after all, it was modern medicine.  And it was worth every penny of their fee.
“Fellow-citizens, being fully invested with that high office to which the partiality of my countrymen has called me, I now take an affectionate leave of you. You will bear with you to your homes the remembrance of the pledge I have this day given to discharge all the high duties of my exalted station according to the best of my ability, and I shall enter upon their performance with entire confidence in the support of a just and generous people.”
William Henry Harrison Inaugural Address
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Wednesday, April 15, 2015

AIR HEADS Part Four

I believe it was with apprehension that Cal Rogers set his “Vin Fiz Flyer" down on the Cicero airfield on the Sunday afternoon of 8 October, 1911. Cal was now officially 21 days out of New York City. He had flown just 1/3 of the distance to California. He had crashed six times, or about once every 166 miles.  At this rate he had to assume he would crash another six times before he reached the foot of the Rockies at Denver, Colorado. And he would either be spending Christmas somewhere in Utah, or dead. The Pony Express was proving faster than the" Vin Fiz Flyer". Upon landing in Chicago,  Cal immediately telegraphed William Randolph Hearst to request an extension of the time limit for the $50,000 prize offered by the mogul's newspapers. But Cal could not have known that W.R., as Mr. Hearst liked to be called, never had any intention of letting anybody actually win the prize money.
Like most self described “self made” millionaires (such as Donald Trump), William Randolph Hearst was the son of a millionaire. When W.R. was kicked out of Harvard, where the boy had struggled to survive on a $500 a month allowance (the equivalent of $11,000 a month, today), it seemed he was destined for failure – well, as much as the  pampered only son of a millionaire could fail - because the only thing bigger than the fortune which W.R. would eventually gain control of,  was his ego.
In 1887 W.R. took over the “San Francisco Examiner”,   which his father George Hearst  had won in a gambling debt.  W.R. then sank part of daddies’ fortune into making it the “Monarch of the Dailies”. He hired the best writers and editors that daddies’ money could buy, (such as Mark Twain and later Harriet Quimby) and built a publishing edifice based on the formula of sex plus comic strips equals sales. The first of the Sunday comics printed in color was Hearst's “The Yellow Kid” (above). Thus the origin of the description of W.R.'s style of newspaper as “yellow journalism”. And what was yellow journalism? A. J. Pegler, a Hearst writer, described it this way:  “A Hearst newspaper is like a screaming woman running down the street with her throat cut.” Think, Fox News with ink.
When daddy George Hearst, died in 1891, W.R. convinced his mother to sell off the mining properties on which the family fortune had been built. He used the cash influx to finance his acquisition of the “New York Morning Journal”, where W.R. repeated his "Examiner's" recipe of success - which he had learned, by the way, during a summer internship under Joseph Pulitzer. It makes journalism's "Pulitzer Prize" seem like a mea culpa, doesn't it?  And then W.R. began to buy newspapers, eventually 42 of them, with 30 million plus readers. Now he could syndicate his well paid writers and increase his advertising revenues, which he used to promote and publicize his runs for congress, and as governor and mayor of N.Y.C.  He failed to win any of those elections. But everything W.R. did (like Donald Trump) was ultimately to promote and publicize himself, including the Hearst Prize for the coast to coast air race.
W.R.’s interest in flying was typically mercenary. When his editors had approached him with the idea of offering a $50,000 prize for the first transcontinental flight, experts like Glenn Curtiss and Wilbur Wright, warned  that aviation was too young to achieve such a lofty goal.  In 1910 no plane could stay aloft longer than two hours at a time, and none could travel faster than fifty miles an hour. Airplanes were still made out of wood and wire, for crying out loud. But, on the plus side, offering the prize would fill W.R.'s newspapers day after day, with articles about how it could it be done, who could do it, who didn’t think it could be done, and how many would die trying to do it.
W.R. was awarded a medal from the Aeronautical Society of America for just offering the prize. And W.R. loved to get medals. But paying out the prize money would sell W.R.'s newspapers for one day only. And that was why the Hearst Prize had contained a time limit. It was set to expire on 17 October, 1911, before Hearst figured anybody could make it.  So, when Cal Rogers’ telegram arrived, begging for an extension, W.R. was in no rush to respond. Cal waited in Chicago for two days for the telegram from Hearst, and he began to suspect he had been had. So with just a week left before the deadline, he decided to force W.R's hand.  On Tuesday, 10 October, Cal flew across the flat lands to Springfield, Illinois, then on to Marshall, Missouri. As he arrived in Marshall,  far away from any cities fed by Hearst newspapers, Cal found a telegram from Hearst waiting for him. There would be no extension in the time limit.  Cal had now flown 1,398 miles since leaving New York, which gave him the record for longest flight. But there would be no pot of gold at the end of this rainbow, just a bottle of Vin Fiz - yuck.
A more mercenary element now influenced Cal’s romantic quest. When the city of St. Louis and its popular Hearst newspaper, withdrew its offer of a thousand dollars for landing there, Cal simply bypassed the town. Instead he flew on to Kansas City, landing in Swope Park.
Experience was forcing Cal to learn how to handle the money side of the race, as well  as how to handle his plane. His decided to turn south, to avoid taking the Rocky Mountains head on,  and to also avoid Denver and its Hearst newspaper. There were far fewer trees to run into on the Great Plains, which reduced certain dramatic elements in Cal’s landings and take offs. He was also making better time. There were fewer crashes and fewer late night repairs. Everybody on the crew was getting more sleep. And at about 9 a.m., on Thursday 19 October, 1911 the “Vin Fiz Flyer” crossed the Red River into Texas.
And on that same day the race that was no longer a race, became a again.
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Sunday, April 12, 2015

HUNTING THE BIG UMBER BIRD

I have to tell you a very dull story. It relates no shootouts, no hangings, no burnings at the stake. This story would make a really bad comic book, er, sorry, graphic novel. Heck, it would make an uninspiring regular novel. And as a television series it is just a non-starter. So it must not be important, huh. And because it lacks all of those dramatic threads to string you along, it will never make it on the news networks - which are in fact rarely new. But it really is an important story. And if I try and gin it up a little bit, you may agree. The facts, I assure you, are all accurate.
The central character is a guy named Charles Pollock. He lived in Boston in the 1890’s, a dull town in a dull time. And Charles worked in a bank; dull, dull, dull. But at least he was narcissistic. That made him a little interesting, if only to himself. Then, in 1894, dull dull Charles took a lawsuit all the way to the Supreme Court. It was that case which made Charles the hero of the modern anti-tax movement. And here let me suggest you imagine a really big explosion, a suicide bombing maybe, with piles of innocent people dead and dismembered laying all over the place, because, really, the anti-tax movement is just a loony tunes version of suicide bombing- you blow up yourself and everybody around you.
I don't like paying taxes. I never have, I never will. There are some things my taxes have helped pay for that I don't approve of; a couple of wars, subsidies to a few domestic monopolies and some foreign dictators, to name just a few. But the sin of those pales in comparison to the sin of not having a state to protect me and you.  And, call them libertarians or anarchists, those who oppose the power of the state to tax its citizens resemble, to borrow a description from Tom Wolf, “…the logician who flies higher and higher in ever-decreasing circles until, with one last, utterly inevitable induction, he disappears up his own fundamental aperture and emerges in the fourth dimension as a needle-thin umber bird.” (“From Bauhaus to Our House”) To whit:
The U.S. government has been taxing income since 1861, as permitted in the Constitution under Article 1, Section 2 ("Representatives and direct Taxes shall be apportioned among the several states…") and Article 1, Section 8 ("The Congress shall have Power To lay and collect Taxes,…"). But in 1862 Supreme Court Chief Justice Roger Taney, the author of the Dredd Scott decision which had helped to bring on the Civil War, became incensed that money was actually being taken out of his paycheck to help pay for the Civil War. Taney was a very strong believer in slavery and in being treated as somebody special.
And Taney’s objections to paying taxes for the Civil War also struck a cord with those who might not like slavery but who thought they were also special and did not deserve to be paying taxes. We're talking about rich people here, very rich people, who had no compunction about buying politicians to get what they wanted. Buying politicians is what is currently known as free speech, if your logic can somehow equate "buying" with "free" in the same thought without your head disappearing up his own fundamental aperture.
Anyway, in 1872 the rich people had the income tax laws repealed. Unfortunately for Taney he was already dead and he wasn't getting his money back. Or his slaves. For that he would have to wait until the "Inheritance Tax" could be redefined as the "Death Tax". But I'm getting ahead of myself..
For the next twenty years the Federal government struggled along supported by import duties alone, which amounted to less than 2% of the nation’s gross domestic product.  And yes, that is how we funded government before 1861. But before 1861 we were primarily an agricultural economy, where farm workers do not require much education, where populations were scattered and where all health problems were local, because transportation was by foot and horse. After 1861 we were a growing industrial economy, where transportation was mostly by railroads. Factory workers required a high school education (or better). They were concentrated in population centers, and railroads were making  public health a regional problem. In other words, economic conditions had changed.
Now, besides being unable to support an effective government, import duties (taxes on imports), raised the price of all consumer goods, imported and domestic. In fact, during the 1880's import duties added as much as 48% to the final price consumers paid, for milk, for steel, and for everything in between. This protected domestic companies and allowed them to keep their prices high enough to ensure high profits. Are your eyes glazing over, yet? Picture this; you walk into your local 'speak easy ' and discover that overnight the price of a beer has gone up 50%. You ask the owner what gives. He tells you that he has new suppliers, and the cost of beer from them is 50% higher than it was from the old suppliers. You ask why he switched suppliers, and he explains, "They made me an offer I couldn't refuse."
Congressman William Jennings Bryant of Nebraska labeled high tariffs “socialism for the rich”. “They weep more because fifteen millions are to be collected from the rich than they do at the collection of three hundred millions upon the goods which the poor consume.” But it ain't like they did it in secret.
Between 1871 and 1891 sixty separate bills were introduced in congress to reestablish an income tax. That's right, people were actually voting and fighting for the right to pay taxes. The Republicans, the party in power at the time, beat all of those efforts back. And then in 1893 a new tariff reform bill was introduced by Democratic Rep. William Wilson of West Virginia. Wilson's bill was primarily intended to lower the import duties on foreign iron ore, coal, lumber, wool and sugar. But the bill also included a minor amendment, introduced by Rep. Benton McMillan from Tennessee, which read, “That from and after the 1st day of January, 1895, there shall be levied, collected, and paid annually upon the gains, profits, and income of every person residing in the United States, derived from any kind of property, rents, interest, dividends, or salaries…a tax of 2 per cent on the amount so derived over and above $4,000” during any five year period Today, that amount, would be equal to almost $90,000, over any five year period, not likely to create a hardship for many, and a modest amount by any measure, except of course to those being asked to cough it up.
The pundits paid little attention to Mr. McMillan’s amendment because so many income tax measures had been introduced so many times before, and none of them ever came to anything. This was because the rich and powerful had a secret weapon, sort of a human Tommy gun, a Homo sapian Chicago typewriter, if you will.
His name was Senator Arthur Gorman of Maryland, and he was a tool of the rich and  powerful.  Gorman helped the opponents of the Wilson bill attach more than 600 amendments which reinstated almost all of the import duties the bill had attempted to lower. It was a legislative St. Valentine's Day Massacre on the floor of United States Capital building, right in front of God and everybody, as my father used to say.
With the “Tariff reduction” bill thus bullet ridden and bleeding on the floor, no one believed that President Grover Cleveland, who had campaigned on a lower tariff platform, would ever sign the misbegotten bill into law. And he didn’t. He simply let the bill become law without his signature. It didn't cost him anything. At least the tariffs had been marginally lowered. At least he could claim that he had done everything he could to lower prices for working class Americans, while, at the same time, not having to actually do anything to openly offend his rich campaign donors.
But imagine the mobster's shock the next morning to discover that Al Capone had beat the rap for murdering the Bugs Moran's gang, but he was going to jail anyway for income tax evasion. That was the shock felt among the rich and powerful. America had returned to a national income tax. And the response was just what you would expect it would be from the rich and powerful. They sued.
The fine print of the accidental income tax law required that all stock companies pay the income tax for individuals before distributing any dividends to them. Dividends were income. And when he received his notice from the Farmers' Loan and Trust Company (because he owned all of ten shares of stock in Farmers’ Loan and Trust) Mr. Charles Pollock was very angry. He was angry enough to hire high priced Wall Street top gun lawyer named Joseph Choate, who filed a lawsuit against the bank claiming the income tax was unconstitutional.
The Massachusetts courts disagreed, as did the Federal courts. They both upheld the law. But somehow Charles Pollock found the money to appeal his lawsuit all the way to the United States Supreme Court, which, to everyone’s surprise, agreed to hear the case immediately.
On April 8, 1895 the court ruled 5-4, in favor of Mr. Pollock. That slim majority was saying in essence that the source of income mattered; salary could be taxed, but income derived from property – rent, interest on savings or dividends paid on stock - were not “apportioned” by population, and thus the government was denied the power to tax it. It was splitting hairs on a bald man.
The dissenting opinions were intellectually devastating. Justice Brown wrote that “This decision involves nothing less than the surrender of the taxing power to the moneyed class…Even the specter of socialism is conjured up to frighten Congress from laying taxes upon the people in proportion to their ability to pay them.”
And Justice Harlan argued that the court's majority opinion, “…declares that our government has been so framed that,...those who have incomes derived from...bonds, stocks and investments...have privileges that cannot be accorded to those having incomes derived from the labor of their hands, or the exercise of their skill, or the use of their brains.” These were both powerful arguments. But then the greedy have always been willing to lose the intellectual arguments, as long as they get to keep their money.
Middle class Americans however were outraged. They were infuriated. They were fighting mad. And it would still take 11 years before the will of the people could overcome the power of the “moneyed classes”.
In 1909 President Howard Taft proposed a Constitutional Amendment (in part because he thought it would never pass) to allow a Federal Income Tax. On July 12, 1909 the 16th amendment passed the Congress and was submitted to the states, in part because the congress never thought the states would pass it. The amendment was brutally blunt and short. It reads in total, “The Congress shall have power to lay and collect taxes on incomes, from whatever source derived, without apportionment among the several states, and without regard to any census or enumeration.” Period. End of Amendment. There ain't no loop hole, rocky.
Alabama took less than a month to vote for the 16th amendment. Kentucky, South Carolina, Illinois, Mississippi, Oklahoma, Maryland, Georgia and Texas all passed it in 1910. Twenty-three more states followed in 1911, three more in 1912, and six more in 1913.
It was with the vote of the New Mexico legislature, on February 3, 1913, that made the 16th amendment the law of the land. Six states either rejected the amendment or never took it up, but that did not matter. The Constitution only requires that two-thirds of the states approve of an amendment to make it the law.
And so, when some lunatic or confidence man or woman tries to seduce you with a magical scheme to avoid paying taxes, you can now explain to them that, by placing the source of support for the government in the people’s hands, income taxes places the power there as well.
The relevancy of this tale of narcissism to your life may become clearer when you realize that on June 1, 1929 the Farmers Loan and Trust Company named in the lawsuit changed their name to City Bank Farmers Trust. And then in 1976 they changed their name again. This time they shortened it to Citibank.
This is the same Citibank that in 2009 swallowed some $320 billion of taxpayer (meaning your) bailout dollars. Oh, and as of 1894, Charles Pollock was an employee of Farmers Loan and Trust in their Boston branch. And it seems likely to me that he sued his own employer with their connivance. Looking at history it seems to me that the limits to which the rich will go to avoid paying their fair share of government remains endless, spinning arguments to confuse, obfuscate and always to deny, so that their wealth, safe and untouchable, emerges from the process like a big umber bird.  These people just think they are top of the world, ma!
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