The Daily Reckoning PRESENTS: When people think of Thanksgiving, they
think of Pilgrims and Indians, sitting down at the same table to give
thanks…but in this DR Classique, first run on Thanksgiving Day, 1999,
Bill Bonner gives us a lesson in the real history behind the holiday…
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 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
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 Daily Reckoning
November 23, 2006
Editor’s Note: Bill Bonner is the founder and editor of The Daily
Reckoning. He is also the author, with Addison Wiggin, of The Wall Street
Journal best seller Financial Reckoning Day: Surviving the Soft Depression
of the 21st Century (John Wiley & Sons).
In Bonner and Wiggin’s follow-up book, Empire of Debt: The Rise of an Epic
Financial Crisis, they wield their sardonic brand of humor to expose the
nation for what it really is – an empire built on delusions. Daily
Reckoning readers can buy their copy of Empire of Debt – now available in
paperback – just click on the link below:
On this day, Americans sit down to dinner, bow their heads and give
thanks. It is a holiday in the Homeland. But here at The Daily Reckoning
headquarters in this foreign city…far from hearth and home…we have
neither leaders nor followers. So, we continue our vigil before the great
Public Spectacle alone.
Yes, dear reader, we reckon today as everyday. And what we reckon with is
a form of temporary insanity that takes over the multitudes from time to
time. Sometimes it expresses itself in politics; sometimes in finances;
sometimes in fashion and culture. We look around this morning and where do
we see this collective insanity?
‘All of the above,’ comes the answer.
In politics, there is the War on Terror. Many Americans are convinced that
Muslims want to cut their throats. They’ve never actually met one with a
bloody knife, of course. But they read the papers; they know what’s up.
In lowbrow popular culture…grown men wear short pants…we used to call
them ‘pedal pushers’…and young boys wear their pants below their
underwear. At the other end of the culture curve, hedge fund managers bid
millions for works of ‘art’ that would make a serious man choke himself
laughing. No kidding. We watched a report on the BBC last night. The art
market has never been more flush…and never more in need of flushing.
Today’s new art collectors are far more aggressive than previous
generations, said the experts. They hire specialists to create
multi-million dollar portfolios of what looks for all the world like junk.
Twisted bits of metal. Fabric samples. Paintings done with rollers…or
grotesque representations of the human form. Klimt’s “Portrait of Adele
Bloch-Bauer II” left the auction house on November 8th, after some addled
art lover paid $87.9 million for it.
The Frieze in London brought in more than 60,000 gawkers when it put on a
show of contemporary art recently. Sales of the stuff reached about $65
“By investing in artists at the beginning of their careers,” explains an
article in The Business, “it is possible to acquire a major work. There is
also the warm glow of having given an artist crucial support before
everyone else jumped on the bandwagon.”
How does the ‘investor’ know there will be a bandwagon? What makes him
think he can make money by buying bits of inanimate trash? What does this
But then, the writer for The Business takes leave of his senses
“The art world has finely tuned antennae for those who put financial
considerations before an interest in art. Any art buyer is expected to
make a personal as well as a financial commitment; even the most
hard-nosed dealer resents seeing artworks only appreciated in terms of
Here, we had to stop writing; we were laughing too hard. Getting a grip on
ourselves, we continued
“…Artists hate it when their works are sold like commodities.”
What planet does he come from? Artists are delighted if anyone buys their
stuff at all. “Appreciated only in terms of accruing value?” They should
be overjoyed if it’s appreciated in anyway at all.
Agnes Gund, a famous collector, once noticed that her cat had appreciated
a sculpture by Mary Frank, by using it as a litter box. Most contemporary
artists would be lucky even to get that kind of attention. And as for
financial appreciation – well, ha ha ha…
Meanwhile, in the world of finance, we are spoiled for choice.
Yesterday, we mentioned Google. The stock shot up over $500. At that
price, an investor has a choice. He can earn the ‘risk free rate of
return’ from Treasuries – which, for the purpose of sticking with round
numbers, we will say is 5%. Or he can buy a stock – Google – with an
earnings yield of 1.8%…and enough risk to satisfy a teenaged skydiver.
We learned a few days ago that Sam Zell had sold out. It was the biggest,
most important property transaction since the Louisiana Purchase, said the
papers. Today, we discover a bit more about the terms and conditions of
sale. The buyers, a subgroup of BlackRock, Inc., paid $5.4 billion for a
couple of big properties in New York City. The old rule of thumb was that
New York property would cost its owners about 10% per year – in taxes,
maintenance and operational expenses. So, at today’s ‘risk free rate of
return’ a buyer needs to get 10% to cover his cost…and another 5% or so
to come out even with Treasury bonds. But the BlackRock group didn’t even
come close. Five percent of $5.7 billion is $270,000 million. But the
projects’ estimated rental income is only about $170,000 per year. In
other words, investors aren’t even covering their interest cost – to say
nothing of their operating expenses. What are they thinking? The same
thing Google buyers are thinking…and ‘art’ investors are thinking…that
bear markets may have existed in the past, but they won’t exist in the
future. Yes, property, stocks, the economy…even bonds and the
dollar…may have fallen in the past, but never will they do so again.
Everything only goes up, forever and ever…Amen.
But it is Thanksgiving…and we are thankful to BlackRock, Google, Klimt
and all the others who make our world so entertaining. We have been living
in Europe for more than ten years. But we are still proud to be an
American. Because in America, there is still a fool on every corner, a
clown in every public office, and every village has not one, but several,
Chuck Butler, reporting from the EverBank world currency trading desk in
The dollar was sold, but again we are trading in such tight ranges these
days, I think I would prefer to watch paint dry, rather than watch these
tight ranges go on, day after day, after day.”
For the rest of this story, and for more market insights, see The Daily Pfennig
And more views:
*** Kevin Kerr, continuing the conversation on investing in
“Commodities and natural resources have been the butt of jokes and
misconceptions…but in the last few years, they are finally getting the
respect they deserve. Traditional investors and advisors are rushing into
resource stocks, ETF’s, futures and options hoping to find the high growth
that traditional blue chip equities and high tech no longer deliver.
Recent mega mergers in the resource sector, as well as between key
commodity exchanges and IPO’s for some of the major exchanges has spurred
interest from investors around the globe.
“Even with all the advances, some still think that trading in the futures
markets is nothing more than gambling – and that’s a real mistake. The
fact is, traders need to diversify. And if the next several years are as
bumpy for stocks and bonds as some analysts expect, commodity futures and
options might provide the kind of returns investors need.
“But don’t get me wrong – I’m not saying that futures trading is
risk-free. Risks – and even losses – are a part of every kind of trading.
Stock… real estate… even the U.S. dollar are full of risk.
“Yes, commodities carry risk… but they are not intrinsically risky. What
makes them risky is the same thing that makes them attractive – LEVERAGE.
You can trade futures on very, very low margin.”
*** What else have we to be thankful for? We were thinking of Donald
Rumsfeld, instigator of what is becoming America’s biggest foreign policy
blunder ever – the war in Iraq. “Civil War,” proclaims a headline in the
Independent. Even Tony Blair, partner in crime with the Bush
administration, admits that the war was a disaster.
But back to Rumsfeld. Richard Nixon tagged him back in the ’70s as a
“ruthless little b**tard.” Since then, the man has bumbled from one
preposterous disaster to another…from Latin America to the Middle
East…selling arms to our enemies and promoting terrorism among our
friends – and if we remember correctly, this is the guy who begged
President Ford to send weapons of mass destruction to Iraq and even
nuclear technology to Iran! And then, finally, thirty years later, he
takes his retirement after getting the nation into such a tight spot it
might not be able to wiggle out for many years.
Surely he has cursed American politics for far too long. But thank God he
*** Yesterday, we went up to Yorkshire. It was the first time we had
visited the area. But we hope it won’t be the last. The Yorkshire dales
are very pretty…with huge rolling hills, crossed with long dry-stone
walls and punctuated by cute little towns built of yellow and gray stone.
What took us to Yorkshire was business. We have an office up near Skipton.
There, an office park has been built on a huge estate, which has been in
the same family for hundreds of years. What a marvelous place to work! You
look out your window to see sheep grazing on the hillsides…and peacocks
wandering about the grounds. The buildings are mostly converted barns,
stables, and workshops – all built in stone and well-modernized, leaving
roof beams and old floors still visible.
For lunch, we went to a nearby inn…the kind of place you think about as
British, but rarely see in today’s London. Wood paneled walls, fires in
the fireplace, Scottish plaids on the cushion and chairs (we were only a
couple hours from the Scottish border). What’s more, the food was
exceptionally good. Visitors rarely praise English food; it is not very
fine cuisine, but it is tasty…filling…and well-suited to a rainy
November day in the dales.
*** “This business of Henry and the English teacher doesn’t seem to be
going away,” said Elizabeth on the phone yesterday. “He got two hours of
detention for it…and then his math teacher got on his case as well. They
both say he’s insubordinate. Do you remember what happened? The teacher
told him that ‘figure of speech’ was not proper English. Now, Henry thinks
he shouldn’t have to take English anyway. And then, the teacher is French
and though she speaks English very well, she’s just not a native speaker,
so of course she makes errors from time to time. Henry’s really the only
native English speaker in the class and when he challenged her on that
‘figure of speech’ thing, I think she just got a little mad. Of course,
Henry was right, but he has to try to be a bit more diplomatic. The
teacher might be a little worried about her own competence and she might
not want Henry undermining her authority in the classroom.
“But now, it’s gotten to be a problem because Henry sees it only as a
black and white matter. He’s right; she’s wrong. He’s digging in his
heels. I know how upset about it he is because it’s distracting him from
his math, which is very hard now.
“I don’t know what to do. Henry doesn’t want me to do anything. But I hate
to see a big blow-up in school leaving a cloud over him in his last couple
of years. He’s such a good student, normally…if a little mischievous
from time to time. I think I’m going to have to see the headmaster and
explain the situation.”
We listened. But Father Knew Not Best.
“Just don’t let it become a bigger issue,” was our advice. “You know, by
going in and saying something to the English teacher such as: ‘Here’s a
figure of speech, you horse’s derriere.’ I think, somehow, that that
wouldn’t help matters.”