Friday, May 29, 2020

Quote of the Day (Finley Peter Dunne, on Miracles and Wall Street)

“Miracles are laughed at by a nation that reads thirty million newspapers a day an’ supports Wall Street.”—Irish-American journalist and humorist Finley Peter Dunne (1867-1936), Mr. Dooley's Philosophy (1900)

I wish Finley Peter Dunne had tried a lighter touch in his use of dialect. Between all the exaggerated misspellings and contractions, it becomes difficult to read his pieces at any length. In the case of this quote, for instance, the auto-correct function of my word processing program kept changing what I typed so much that I finally gave up. 

Maybe it did you a favor, Faithful Reader. At his best, this Chicago newspaper columnist could be among the most bitingly funny of American writers. Assessing Theodore Roosevelt’s memoir The Rough Riders, for instance, Martin Dooley, the bartender and mouthpiece for Dunne’s jibes, noted that it might have better called Alone in Cuba.  More than a few people have quoted his phrases while being blissfully unaware of the original source (e.g., “Politics ain’t beanbag” and “afflict the comfortable and comfort the afflicted”).

But the quote above really made me nod in agreement. More than a century removed from the robber barons—the fat cats that T.R. lambasted as “malefactors of great wealth”—America is still trying to make sense of Wall Street.

One American who tried but failed was H.R. Haldeman, best known to history as among the palace guard who abetted Richard Nixon in covering up Watergate—and who went to jail for the offense. As the President’s Chief of Staff and a former ad man, Haldeman had zero sympathy for anti-capitalist sentiments. But even he threw up his hands at the bipolar tendencies of The Street.

Fifty years ago this week, for instance, the nation’s weak economy, combined with growing unrest of the Vietnam War, led to a market crash, from a prior high of around 1,000 to 630. (How quaint, those numbers seem now!) Then, just the mere announcement of a dinner at the White House, in which the President and his economic advisers explained administration policy to Wall Street and industry leaders, was enough to produce a 31-point gain, the largest in history to that point.

You can practically see Haldeman shake his head as his notes in the diary he faithfully kept as Nixon’s Chief of Staff, “Really neurotic.”

And don’t even get me started on how the market has performed since the pandemic outbreak. I don’t think I understood Missouri Senator Thomas Hart Benton’s great quote in John F. Kennedy’s Profiles in Courage—“I despise the bubble popularity that is won without merit and lost without crime”—until I understood how much “bubble,” in all its irrationality, has been associated with Wall Street. Nearly two months ago, for instance, U.S. stocks rallied at the thought that the pandemic might be slowing.

You might think, as the death toll reaches 100,000, that investors might be a bit more careful this time. No such luck. With an announcement looming that U.S. jobless claims would pass 40 million, Wall Street rallied again over the belief that reopened markets would set everything right again.
Well, let’s see how that turns out, okay?

(The image accompanying this post is a cartoon, “Wall Street bubbles - Always the same," which appeared in the May 22, 1901 issue of the British satirical magazine Puck. The cartoon shows American financier J. P. Morgan as a bull, blowing soap bubbles for eager investors. Several bubbles are labeled, "Inflated values." The image is available from the United States Library of Congress's Prints and Photographs division, under the digital ID cph.3g07880)

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