Thanksgiving, Anno 1999

The Daily Reckoning Presents: A DR Classique, first run November 25, 1999

THANKSGIVING, ANNO 1999

I turned to my trusty assistant…Beirne White…this morning.

“Beirne,” I said gravely, “tell me about Thanksgiving in Mississippi.”

Beirne proceeded to tell me about a Mississippi bluesman named “Son” House, who lived to be 102 by doing what bluesmen tended to do…chasing bad luck, bad liquor, and bad women.

“What does that have to do with Thanksgiving?”

“Nothing,” he replied…whereupon he drew on the resources generously provided by Britannica.com, formerly of Chicago, lately of cyber space, to get me the research I requested.

Beirne hails from Mississippi. And while Mississippians will sit down with the rest of the nation…and tuck into their turkeys with equal relish…perhaps only substituting Bourbon Pecan pie for the sweet potato or pumpkin pie enjoyed in Maryland…somewhere deep in the most primitive part of his medulla oblongata, the part of the brain where race memories are stored, Beirne resists Thanksgiving. It is, after all, a Yankee holiday.

In the middle of the war between the states, both sides proclaimed days of “thanksgiving,” following the progress of the war as we now follow the progress of the stock market. After each of the first and second battles of Bull Run, which sent the Yankees fleeing back to Washington, the Confederates proclaimed days of thanksgiving.

But it was Lincoln’s day that stuck. Declared after the battle of Gettysburg – the last great Napoleonic charge of military history – Thanksgiving was set for the third Thursday in the month of November, commemorating the Northern victory.

Beirne doesn’t say so…but this fact must stick in his craw.

It doesn’t help that the original celebration took place in Massachusetts. And that it was hosted by a dour bunch of Puritans, who probably wouldn’t have been able to enjoy a good dinner if their lives depended on it. But they certainly had a lot to be thankful for. As the Wall Street Journal reminds us annually, they nearly exterminated themselves in typical Yankee fashion – by wanting to boss each other around. They had arrived in Massachusetts by accident and bad seamanship, intending to settle in the more hospitable climate of Virginia, which had been colonized more than 10 years before. Once in Massachusetts they proceeded to set up such a miserable community that surely most of them, had they lived, would have longed to return to England. The Soviets could have learned from their example and spared themselves 70 years of misery. Only after the “witch burners and infant damners” abandoned their communal form of organization, and allowed people to work for themselves, did the colony have a prayer of survival.

But victors write the history books. And now this precarious celebration by a feeble group of religious zealots has turned into the most American holiday.

After Appomattox, the South was helpless. Its natural leaders, the plantation aristocrats, were either dead, bankrupted and/or discredited. Many of them went to Northern cities, like New York or Baltimore, where, Mencken tells us, they “arrived with no baggage save good manners and empty bellies.” They enriched the North. But back home, they were sorely missed. “First the carpetbaggers,” says Mencken, “ravaged the land…and then it fell into the hands of the native white trash…” Scars of war can take a long time to heal. But 130 years later, the South is the most economically and culturally robust part of the nation.

Thanksgiving was declared a national holiday in 1931. Through the Depression, and then WWII, Thanksgiving grew in importance. In a country where roots meant almost nothing, where people were ready to pick up and move at the drop of a hat, where there were huge differences in what people thought and how they lived, Thanksgiving served to provide a unified, national myth…most popularly expressed in Norman Rockwell’s Thanksgiving cover for the Saturday Evening Post.

Roots mean more in Mississippi than they do in California. “No man is himself,” said Oxford, Mississippi’s most celebrated alcoholic, “he is the sum of his past.” Unlike so many other American writers of the 20th century, Faulkner stayed home. The forward to the “encyclopedia of southern culture” has a passage from Faulkner, saying: “Tell about the South. What’s it like there. What do they do there. Why do they live there. Why do they live at all.”

Even in Faulkner’s Mississippi…Thanksgiving is now part of everyone. Where Beirne goes…it goes too. And so, all over the world, Americans, gathering in small groups, like pilgrims on distant shores, celebrate the holiday (if not on the actual day…perhaps the weekend before or following…as we do.)

Art Buchwald has translated the Thanksgiving story for the French, deftly turning Captain Miles Standish into Le Capitaine Kilometre Deboutish. But no one has refashioned American Thanksgiving recipes for the metric measuring cups and local ingredients here in France. Americans have to use their yankee ingenuity to find substitutes. Pumpkins are hard to announce – citrouilles – and hard to find. Cranberry sauce is almost unknown. My wife, Elizabeth, descendant of the Puritan fathers and former resident of New York…does her best.

And we are thankful.

Bill Bonner
November 25, 1999

The turkeys did not fly on Wall Street yesterday. Stocks were down again – 75 points.

The U.S. Mint announced it was laying off 357 workers. Is the mint having trouble making payroll? No, instead, they’ve got the same problem as the telecoms – oversupply. “Tens of millions of dollars in unexpected coins [are] flowing into the economy,” says the Philadelphia Enquirer, “as people scrounge through drawers, old suits, jars and cans for coins.”

Paul O’Neill called it the “Golden Age for the U.S. economy.” It was supposed to be “the greatest period of wealth creation in history.” But all over the nation, people are lifting up seat cushions to search for stray coins. They’re finding so many that the mint has reduced its estimates of this year’s demand for pennies, nickels, dimes and quarters from $23 billion to $15 billion.

Business bankruptcies are running at a record rate, a Bloomberg article tells us…despite lower rates, business borrowing is still going down. “I’ve never seen businesses of this magnitude being rendered nonviable,” Jeff Werbalowky, co-head of restructuring at Houlihan, Lokey. “There’s been more money wiped out than I’ve ever seen in 20 years of restructuring work.”

And putting an international spin on it, “World plunges into recession for first time in 20 years,” says a headline in the UK Independent. And in Argentina, people have gotten so fed up they charged onto the floor of the stock exchange and shut down trading.

But the University of Michigan says Americans are regaining their confidence. The number of new unemployment claims fell for the 4th week in a row. And here’s something interesting – the Cleveland Fed says consumer price inflation rose at a 5% pace in October.

Wait…the Bureau of Labor Statistics said prices fell at a 4% annual rate last month. Go figure.

Eric was supposed to take the day off today. But, here at the Daily Reckoning, we never rest. Thingshappen every day…and they need to be reckoned with.

So here’s Eric’s report:

*****

Eric Fry, reporting from New York…

– It’s been a pretty rough year in New York City. No doubt, things could have been worse, but that’s little comfort to the thousands of families here who have lost loved ones.

-For the country at large, however, things aren’t too bad this Thanksgiving. We’ve got a recession that’s more pussycat than tiger…so far. And we’re finding out that Osama bin Laden is a pretty poor excuse for a hostile foreign power. He’s hostile all right, but he wields just enough power to ensure his demise.

– Stock market investors have a lot to be thankful for as well. Since September 21st, the Nasdaq has recovered 32%. Many of the nation’s favorite stocks have regained an even larger percentage of their prior losses. Cisco shares have rallied all the way back to one quarter of the value of their all-time high!

– All in all, we’ve got a lot to be thankful for this Thanksgiving. But yesterday, the Wall Street horn-of- plenty was bare. The Dow lost 67 points to 9,835, while the Nasdaq slid 5 points to 1,875.

– Friday we’ll find out if well-fed investors are also bullish investors.

– Perhaps we should also be thankful that we have a Federal Reserve Chairman who is so attentive to share prices – a guy who will do almost anything to make sure that stock prices do what they’re supposed to do – go up.

– “Never before, in its 88-year history, has the Federal Reserve made 10 consecutive cuts in the Discount Rate,” observes James Stack, editor of InvesTech Research.

– The stock market certainly seems to be enjoying the easy money provided by the Fed. Lower interest rates appear to be helping the economy to revive as well. But our nation’s savers aren’t the least bit happy about plummeting interest rates.

– Greenspan’s rate cuts are flushing retirees and other savers out of CDs and into the stock market like the U.S. special forces flush al Queda members out of their caves.

– If savers earn less on their savings, won’t that mean that they have less money to spend? Does anyone really know whether it helps our economy to lessen the burden of borrowers by impoverishing the savers? Just asking.

– Happy Thanksgiving!

*****

Back to Bill in Paris…

*** The Information Age is finally reaching down to the common man. I know this for a fact, because I saw a very common man – one of the many bums, “clochards” who inhabit the Paris metro – using what looked like a palm pilot last night.

*** Opposite us on the subway last night was a man of 45 or so – dressed in dirty blue jeans and running shoes, with three or four grimy jackets, one over the other. Around him were all his worldly possessions – a tattered bag, a scruffy leather backpack of some sort and a greasy knapsack, which he had propped up in front of him to give himself a makeshift desk. Upon this surface he had placed a mini-computer and was jabbing at the tiny keys with a pencil.

*** “He must be doing his accounts,” Elizabeth suggested. “Let’s see…revenue…16 francs and 20 centimes from begging…2 francs, 50 centimes found under seat cushions…13 serviceable cigarette butts… 27 “empty” bottles of wine with drinkable dregs…etc., etc.”

*** Maria is getting more and more invitations to try out for modeling jobs. One would have required her to go for a photo shoot in Mauritius. But we’ve insisted that the agency send a chaperone with her if she travels. I volunteered.

*** “Oh no,” said the 15-year-old to her mother as if she could not imagine anything more humiliating…”It’s bad enough that I have to have a chaperone. But my Dad!”

*** My feelings were hurt. But Maria explained later that it was nothing personal; I would “make everybody nervous,” she said.

*** Maria did not get the assignment.

*** The kids go to school as usual today. So, we celebrated our Thanksgiving last weekend. Our gardener raises turkeys – which range freely around the yard. He killed two of them for us. They were not as plump as the Butterballs you find in American grocery stores. But they were delicious…especially with a bottle of a 1993 Bordeaux Superieur I found in the wine cellar. More about the great American holiday, as celebrated overseas – below…