Thanksgiving Anno Dominus 2000
(First Aired Thanksgiving, 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 has that 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…it was not always so. 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 would proclaim 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 Massachussetts. 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 Massachussetts they proceeded to set up a 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 following…as we will do.) This can require a little ingenuity. Americans in France have to search for the ingredients. Pumpkins are hard to pronounce-citrouilles-and hard to find. Cranberry sauce is unknown.
But my mother discovered a store in Paris specializing in American groceries, named “the Real McCoy.” She hastened thither yesterday, and brought back canned pumpkin, cranberry sauce and peanut butter. Thanks to this outpost of American culinary supplies, we will be able to have a very typical Thanksgiving dinner went we slide our chairs up to the table on Sunday.
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 here in France. My wife, Elizabeth, descendant of the Puritan fathers…former resident of New York…a Yankee-in other words…and my mother – issuing from Southern Maryland tobacco farmers and the French bourgeoisie – will do their best.
And we will be thankful.
*** The Nasdaq fell for the 5th straight session – down 116 points. And the Dow fell too – dropping 95 points. This is bad news for the bulls. There is usually a rally just before Thanksgiving. But investors acted yesterday as if they had a turkey’s dread of the upcoming holiday.
*** The Nasdaq closed at 2,755 – 45% below the high set on March 10 of 5,048. Yahoo lost $3.50. CMGI hit a new low. AOL dropped almost $2. Oracle was off 6%. TheStreet.com Internet sector index fell 6.4%.
*** Gloat, gloat, gloat – Oh, what a delicious sensation… this schadenfroh! CacheFlow fell 50%. Novell dropped almost 20%. Intuit lost 9%. And Portal Software got whacked like a Thanksgiving turkey – with a 63% loss. Strip naked and roll around in it, take a deep breath and let it fill your lungs with it’s sweet fragrance…let it caress your body like a Thai bar girl after a night of drunken excess…
The market will make fools of us tomorrow…so let’s enjoy ourselves tonight!
*** Uh…well, the auto companies are idling plants…GM, and supplier Dana, just hit new 52-week lows. I mentioned both of these companies several months ago as examples of `darned cheap’ stocks. Did I forget to tell you that they might get darned cheaper?
*** There were twice as many declining stocks as advancing ones on the NYSE. On the Nasdaq the ratio was nearly 3 to 1.
*** All over the world – London, Paris, Frankfurt, Tokyo and Hong Kong – stocks fell. The world’s largest company – GE – fell below $50. Harley Davidson fell $2. Harley is a faddish stock that is almost certain to be chopped in two.
*** But not all the news from Wall Street is negative. “This year,” reports my friend John Mauldin, “Managed Care as a group is up 72%. Hospital Management is up 52%. Defense stocks are up 52%. Homebuilding (of all things!) is up 46%. Insurance (boring!) is up 40%. Oil and Gas (no surprise) is up 40%. Airlines are up 34%. Alcoholic beverages are up 32%. Drugs up 28%. Even Manufacturing is up a respectable 12%. (stats courtesy of www.yardeni.com)”
“So, what’s my point?” asks John, “Where’s the bear market? Only in a few over-heated sectors like technology and the Internet. Now we are seeing fiber optics and the related stocks come crashing down as well.”
*** John is right. Not all investors have suffered. But then, this bear market is probably just getting started.
*** And so far this week the best performing group is the XAU – the gold mining companies, easily one of the ugliest sectors of the market since 1993. The XAU index rose 7%, Monday-Wednesday. Newmont gained a dollar yesterday. ASA and Homestake both rose about 50 cents.
*** Natural gas rose to a 10-year high yesterday – up 2.4%. Inventories fell 3.4% last week, about 30% more than expected.
*** The economic news was mixed yesterday. Jobless claims jumped 2.1% last week. But surveys show that employers intend to add jobs in the first quarter…and retailers are struggling to find workers. At a recent job fair in Santa Monica 19-year-olds said they wouldn’t work for less than $10 per hour – anything below that “wasn’t worth it.”
*** Now that the old economy seems to be coming back into favor, will the old economic rules also make a comeback? “The American aversion to saving,” said Atlanta Fed boss Jack Guynn yesterday, “has the potential to take a toll on the national economy.” The saving rate in 1996 – among the lowest in the world – was just 4.8%. But savings almost disappeared completely this year…the rate dropping to 0.3%. “It’s the pool of savings,” Guynn observed, “that provides the general capital to finance the growth of the economy.”
*** “Around the world,” adds economist Paul Krugman, “bond investors have been fleeing from anything that looks even vaguely risky.” Interest rates for emerging market borrowers and junk corporate issuers “are at their highest levels in nearly a decade,” says Krugman. And the spread between Treasuries and junk is the highest since the Asian currency crisis of 1998. “These soaring rates on risky debt are,” Krugman concludes, “a prophecy of future troubles for the world economy.”
*** On October 18th, the Financial Times reported that Sprint became the first telecom to re-price its employee stock options. Options have been a favorite trick of `degenerate capitalism’ – shifting operating expenses to the balance sheet. Profits go up, but the company gets weaker.
*** Another phenomenon has been what the credit industry calls “cession,” – in which credit risk is passed from the person who generated it to a third party. A local banker might once have been able to judge for himself the likelihood that the farmer sitting in front of him would be able to repay his loan. But now loans are repackaged for the derivative market – and sold to an investor without a clue. It is fast money for the banker…and the credit risk is somebody else’s problem.
*** A website giving legal information on-line reports that bankruptcy became the leading subject of inquiry during the month of October. 35% of visitors asked questions relating to bankruptcy…as consumer debt hit $1.5 trillion.
*** The world’s first millionaires appeared in Paris 300 years ago, says Janet Gleeson’s book, The Moneymakers. Now there are 7 million millionaires in America alone. 600,000 Americans have more than $5 million. Getting rich is no longer a source of distinction.
“Money, money, money…it’s a rich man’s world,” proclaimed a song Maria and I heard on Thanksgiving eve – while eating at a creperie on the rue St. Honore. Maria takes a ballet class with Mia Fry not far from my office. So she stops in on Wednesday evening and we have dinner together.
Maria went to a party at a very rich friend’s country house last weekend. The friend is, I believe, one of dozens of Saudi princesses living in Paris and London. She is delivered to school, and picked up, by her family chauffeur. Even when she goes to the movies with her friends, the chauffeur takes them.
Wealth is relative, as we all know. Maria – comparing her lot to the Saudi royal family – feels poor. Our apartment is too small, she says, and there are too many of us in it. We don’t have a maid. Our car is not at all fancy. All of this seemed to come together early in the week. “I hate this place,” she said, with the ire of a 14-year-old after coming home on Monday.
But Maria’s father, who grew up in a house with barely- functioning plumbing, feels relatively rich. Though both of us live in the same family, we appreciate our financial circumstances in entirely different ways. I am content. She is not.
So Maria went off to the party hoping to meet a rich Saudi prince – or so she said. Alas, it was not to be. “It was fun,” she told me last night, “but there were only a few guys there – and they were a little dorky.”
Later, walking home, she took my arm.
“I don’t know why I was so cranky yesterday,” she said. “I don’t know whether we’re rich or poor, but I feel pretty lucky,” she said on Thanksgiving eve. “Gala’s parents are divorced. And Martine’s Dad is always gone away on business. At least you’re here…and you’re not too dorky.”
This, dear reader, was as close as a sentimental father can come to pure bliss – and on Thanksgiving eve.
More on Thanksgiving…written last year…below…
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