Thursday, December 27, 2018

Daisey History Seven: Captains of Industry

Yeah, this is going to take longer than expected. Part of it is because the work load is tightening up, and part of it is because OTHER things are coming along that I should talk about (like, um, other plays and ... economic stuff).

In episode six we talked about how change really happens from below as opposed to being awarded from above. So now we flip to the other side with the seventh installment of Mike Daisey's "A People's History", switching from the renters seeking redress to the elites of the system, the giants of industry, the wealthy.

Carnegie. Industrialist. Philanthropist. Mutant.
Daisey comes in the basic assumption that "Rich People Are Bad" and he has more than enough examples of that. These elites come from success and just get richer. And there are a lot of good examples of this. JP Morgan was the son of a financier. Andrew Mellon was a banker's son.  Rockefeller's dad was literally a con man.

And then there is Andrew Carnegie, the exception that tests the rule. And it is pronounce Car-NEG-ee, as far as native of Pittsburgh are concerned. CAR-neh-gee is something New Yawkers talk about when talking about Carnegie Hall. Yes, some Pittsburghers call the museum complex that houses Car-NEG-ee's dinosaurs the CAR-neh-gee. But they're just wrong.

Andrew Carnegie is Horatio Alger as written by Stan Lee. He was an immigrant from Scotland. Came here as a child because his father's handmade lace business was destroyed by the arrival of high-production industrial methods. He comes to the States and became a bobbin boy, working at the very type of mills that destroyed his father. He got breaks - access to the libraries of the more successful (hence all the Carnegie Libraries around the country). He was diligent, and never forgot a fact, a name, or an opportunity. He claimed to be able to read a teletype by the sound it made making each letter. Yep, he's a mutant, suitable for Prof. Xavier's School for Exceptional and Privileged Children.

Instead of Money Comes from Money, I would propose that what really happens is "Learn the Game, Play the Game, Change the Game." And those born into positions of power are more capable of seeing the game and have access to it than most of the rest of our bunch. Because the nature of wealth does change over time, and we've seen agricultural fortunes flounder while industrialists come to the fore and then they are overtaken by financial managers and tech lords. But the wealthy, while not guaranteed success, have both table stakes to get into the game to begin with, as well as the cushion for when they fail. And they have the ability to, once they make their pile, pull up the ladder behind them to keep others from doing the same thing they did.

Nope. Not letting CaNEGie off the hook, here. Just looking for a broader pattern.

More later,

Wednesday, December 26, 2018

DOW Breaks 23,000! No, wait 22,000! No, wait ...

OK, this is interesting.

I love charts. This one, from Wikipedia,  is lying to you.
 Can you spot the problem?
So, for the most of the life of this blog, I have been following the Dow Jones Average, as it has become increasingly disconnected with most of our lives, if they were even initially. Literally an estimate of 30 large publicly owned companies,. It is a rogue's gallery of corporations, the big boy's table if the titans of industry, the whales of corporate life. It tends to be a little conservative, moving slowly over time to move aside old corps (like General Electric) in favor of newish blood (like WalMart and Apple). Amazon, it must be noted, is not on the list.

At best, it is a snapshot, but it is a snapshot that we all know about. We may be befuddled by S&P and NASDAQ and know that our retirement funds are in some business-level melange of stocks that may or may not be on these lists. But the Dow (named after a real person who created it), is something instantaneously recognized as the heartbeat of business.

And that heartbeat has picked up a bit of arrhythmia. Over the past fifteen years, this blog has seen the DOW soar upwards and crash mightily, only to regain its footing and push on to even greater heights. I use this as an example of American Optimism at its finest - if we all clap hard enough, Tinkerbell will pull herself off the tarpaulin and we will start again.

And the past ten years or so have been pretty indicative of this. It has been an even-growing increase in value ever since the last time a GOP administration crashed us into the pavement. And yeah, I'll put it on the various incumbent administrations for things, since they are more than willing to take the credit when things are going boffo. Until recently, the White House has been pointing at the DOW as indication of how strong the country is economically. Until it isn't.

The first year of an administration has to deal with the successes and failure of the previous admins, for good and ill. The Obama administration had to dig out from the Great Recession, and the current administration of Individual-One benefited from a strong economy coming in. This was made even better, as far as the big boys were concerned, by tax policies that put a lot of loose cash into their pockets.

And some of them used this sudden infusion to reward its workers, to update its equipment, and to compete better in the marketplace. But the vast bulk of them used it to buy back shares (making the shares controlled by the company worth more through scarcity) and to use the sudden liquidity to get rid of ailing sectors (closing down factories and costing jobs) and seeking better markets (closing down factories and costing jobs). And since there were no strings on the governmental largess, they took the money and ran.

And the market has seen amazing swings upwards and downwards, depending on the mood. It raced past 24k and 25k is long, looping arcs, and kissed 26,000 before retreating again. Now, the news is bad - trade wars, instability, the government being currently shut down, increased interest rates from the Federal Reserve, and, oh yeah, massive investigations of the inherent corruption of the current administration that could at any moment result in a congressional investigation of your particular industry. So things are not looking particularly rosy?

Well, then we the treasury secretary calling the major banks from his vacation and yelling at them - "Whatever you do, Don't panic!" So naturally things take another dive.

And what does this all mean? For those that have gold, it means they make less gold for a while, they hunker down, make safe bets, and wait for Tinkerbell to get back off the mat. For the rest of us, it means that things are probably only going to get dicier for a while. Factories get closed because there isn't enough demand, as opposed to just boosting the bottom line. Those mutual funds? Yeah, they're not going ever onward and upward. And more than a few rich people to come demanding other people pay to keep them rich.

Of course, with a volatile market, it could switch gears just as violently and return to "normal" (which is to say, going ever upwards). Or it could just sink again, returning to a more rational level.

Whatever happens, it will be interesting. Buckle in.

More later,

Saturday, December 22, 2018

And To All A Good Night ...

Grubbstreet wishes everyone a safe and sane holiday season, and a New Year filled with promise and hope.

Rest on the Flight into Egypt by Luc Olivier Merson (1879), MFA, Boston.
More later,

Monday, December 03, 2018

Theatre: North Side Story

In The Heights, Music and Lyrics by Lin-Manuel Miranda, Book by Quiara Alegria Hudes, Concept by Lin-Manuel Miranda, Directed by May Adrales. Seattle Rep through December 30.

So there is such a thing a performance being too large for the hall that contains it. I've always thought of the venerable Bagley-Wright Theater as being a large venue with a lot of space on stage. Yet, for In The Heights, it is seriously too small, both on stage and as far as sound quality is concerned.

Let me deal with this bad news first before pushing on to say how good the cast is. The sound quality from the performance pitched the on-stage band against the miked-up actors, and the result was an unsatisfying tie. Often the words got lost in the upswelling music, and the audience was at times blasted by the resulting combined volume. It took much of the opening number for my ears to adjust and actually hear the words. The touring stage was a great design of multiple levels and exits, but it cramps the forward part of the stage, and I found myself marveling at the dancers not getting in each others' ways as much as their superior choreography.

And yes, the dancing is fantastic, the music is ecstatic, and the actors are all superior both in acting ability and the power of their voices. There isn't a weak singer in the lot (By way of comparison, you can give the role of the tailor in The Mikado to someone who does not have a huge amount of vocal range). This is an incredibly amazing cast from the leads to the ensemble who do their darnedest to sell the story.

And the story is, well, it is not the selling point. I can't give you a good summary without tipping my hand to spoilers, as you can see where everything is going from the get-go. It takes place over the 4th of July weekend in Washington Heights, a strong Hispanic community at the northern tip of Manhattan. Poor but proud, its people are second and third generation, both American and loyal to their family heritages. They've made something of themselves, and can make a bit more, but it may mean moving away from the Heights.

There is the bodega owner that wants to go back to his family's homeland. There is the student coming back from college. There is the father who has hopes for his daughter. There are the girls who work in the beauty shop. There is the neighborhood matriarch. Everybody gets their moment, everybody gets their song, everybody aims for a showstopper. There are revelations. There are fireworks. There is a power black-out. There is a winning lottery ticket. And by the end of it all, every character has their arc resolved in time for the finale.

The stakes in all this, however, are pretty low, and it is more of a slice of life with strong Latin flavor and a hip-hop beat. The threats are pretty mild, and when one of them seems about to rear its head, it diffused and lets all the air out. There are no real surprises. As I said, so much of what is good about this performance are the performers. Ryan Alvarado, Sophia Macias, David Kaverman, Alyssa Gomez, Stephanie Gomerez, Tony Chirolders, Karmine Alers and Yassmin Alers (yes, sisters), heck yes, even Henry Gainsa as the Piragua Guy engaged in a life-and-death struggle with Mr. Softee. All great.

I want to say that this is riding on the coat-tails of Lin-Manuel (Hamilton!) Miranda - they promote that angle heavily, and it was his first work. But the original show (pre-Ham) pulled down all manner of awards both on and off Broadway, has had some serious national tours (It was here in Seattle at the 5th Avenue in 2010 - probably a better venue), and will become a movie in 2020. There is something here that engages and delights, but it doesn't have that much foundation to it. This is one of those plays where I look at 4 Tony Awards (as opposed to a single award for the clearly superior Come From Away), and wonder what I am missing about the tastes of Modern American Theatre.

More later,

Friday, November 30, 2018

Daisey History Six: Renters

Mr. Daisey has moved on to his next gig, but still, we persist.

Daisey's sixth entry into his  People's History talks about the imbalance between those with power and those without. He talks a great deal about his personal experiences renting in Brooklyn, but the historical entry come from the Anti-Rent War.

What, you've never heard of it? The ANTI-RENT WAR. 1830's? New York State? No?

Hey, it got a historical marker and everything!
Yeah, this falls in the hole between 1812 and 1860, but it is extremely instructive as to how change gets made from below, as opposed to being granted from above.

Not-so-short version: The Hudson River Valley ran for a couple centuries on a feudal-style manor system run by patroons, who were the major land-holders. The inhabitants were effectively tenant farmers, who did not have control over the land they farmed. The patroons held a lot of the power, including control of the local courts and law enforcement, getting a big chunk when leases were sold, and a serious taste of the gross productivity.

In 1839, the tenant farmers revolted and refused to pay. The ruling patroons sent in tax collectors - they were tarred, feathered, and run off. They sent in a posse of 500 men. THEY were surrounded and run off. An agent of the patroons was killed. Finally the State itself declared it was an insurrection, sent in the military, and made arrests. Eighty-four anti-renters were arrested, thirteen was convicted, two were condemned to the gallows.

But the anti-renters transformed into a political force in NY State, a faction that contributed to vote out the then-current governor for a more progressive one. The convicted anti-renters were pardoned, and the feudal patroon system itself was disassembled in the New York Constitution of 1846. So, ultimately, the anti-renters won. Long fight, but they won.

It is an interesting story, and generally forgotten.

And what's interesting is that there as SO MANY stories like this that are sidelined, sidebarred, forgotten. Whiskey Rebellion. Shay's Rebellion. Pullman Strike. Haymarket. Occupy. They get moved off to the side, treated as exceptions to the rule as opposed to how things really move forward around here. Particularly if they have long-term results as those involved get a place at the table.

Wikipedia, interestingly enough, soft-pedals the Anti-Rent War in its entry. They blame the previous patroon for the uprising, who was too easy on the tenants, so that his heirs roused their anger by adhering to the established feudal laws. It ignores the Panic of 1837, which put the economic pressure on the patroons to demand their money and on the inability of the tenants to pay. It mentions but does not explain the "Calico Indians" (not Native Americans, but rather white dudes dressed up as false Indians, much like the Boston Tea Party). There is a mention how the soon-to-be-ex governor tied to get disguises outlawed, echoing the modern complaints again the Black Block protesters. Oh, and two of the anti-rent ringleaders would go on to help found the Republican Party. Howboutthat?

Yet this is a pattern we see again and again - Rebellion, Violence, Repercussions. Accommodations, Change. It doesn't always go through the full cycle, and does not always represent forward progress. But it is a theme that is showing up again and again in these discussions. And perhaps the real narrative that we're looking at in our history.

More later,

Thursday, November 29, 2018

Furthermore: Messing with Texas

What most of us know about the Texas Revolution.

I'm going to be horribly behind on this, since Mike Daisey's A People's History wraps up this past weekend, and I am just five entries into the tapes. But, they have sparked a lot of thought on my part about our history and how it is told. And I end up with multiple truths. Here's an example.

From the history that Mike and I (back in PA) were taught, here's the story of Texas:

American settlers in Texas rebelled against an oppressive Mexican government, with a big fight at the Alamo. They formed their own nation, and nine years later joined the US.

That is true. This is what Mr. Daisey said on the tape:

Americans settled in Texas. Provocateurs from the US government among those settlers agitated for independence, with the support of the US. After they rebelled against the government in Mexico City, the US propped them up, and eventually brought them into the Union. When they entered the Union, the US Army occupied Texas and grabbed a huge amount of additional land, and formented the Mexican-American War.

This is also true, and has incredible echoes with the current situation in the Ukraine. But here's another version:

American settlers moved into Texas with their slaves. The Mexican government was cool with it, but a change in government both reduced the powers of the states of Mexico and banned slavery. Texas and other Mexican states rebelled. Texas gained its independence, but was not recognized by Mexico. When the US admitted Texas into the Union, the US grabbbed a huge amount of additional land. They did not take over Mexico itself in part because they didn't want a huge, Catholic, non-English-speaking, non-slave-holding population threatening their control.

This is also true. I can also give you a bit more including the Republic of the Rio Grande, a Mexican state just south of Texas that ALSO declared its independence but did not get anywhere with it. The history of Mexico is just one more of those empty spots in our history - they show up as opponents (because all wars must have one), but the US influence and meddling gets glossed over (Flash Fact: The word "filibuster" was once applied to American adventurers who were mucking about in Central America, toppling and setting up their own governments - it soon afterwards was applied to congresspeople taking the process of government hostage by refusing to cede the floor.).

But the point is (and I have one) that there is so much history, that the narrative that we choose gets pulled out of bits and pieces that we ourselves select. It is the editor and the storyteller that chooses which parts get left on the cutting room floor. So historical fact provides the raw material, from which we choose our stories. And how our stories get chosen is as important as the stories themselves.

More later,

Wednesday, November 21, 2018

Daisey History Five: Holes in History

Yeah, I'm still playing with the titles of this series, but never mind that. One thing that Mike Daisey reminds us of regularly in his A People's History (based on the Howard Zinn book of the similar name) is that he is not telling us anything that we don't already know. We know a lot of what he's telling us at a basic, down-in-your-bones level, but we don't bring it up, because its kinda dark and depressing and true. As a result, our history doesn't make a lot of sense, because we have a lot of holes in it.

We've hit some already. In his own narrative, Daisey hits Columbus, then bounces over to early English colonies (because, you know, the Spanish never had any claims on the eventual United States), then we blink over to the Revolution, then everything is rosy until we hit the Civil War. You can't talk about everything, and that's part of Daisey's point - it is all in the editing, and important swathes end up on the cutting room floor.

For my own upbringing, we didn't hit the Civil War to the level of detail his classes did, but we DID spend a lot of time on the exploration of America. Maybe it was the whole Space Program narrative of my youth, but we got deeply into the voyages of exploration for Cabot, DeSoto, LaSalle, Deleon, Cartier, and everybody else.  If you had a bunch of boats and went wandering through the American Heartland, you got a name-check in my history books. Sort of one big game of Sid Meiers Civilization at the point when you get caravels and can sudden roll out on the rest of the world. Now, my history books, like Daisey's, were a little emptier about talking about the people that these explorers met, lumping them all into "Indians" as opposed to nations and peoples and tribes. That's part of the erasure thing we were talking about earlier.

And yes, the period from the War of 1812 and the Civil War was always treated as "The run-up to the Civil War", since that is the big climax of the show up to then. But for those living though it, this period was "How the hell do we keep this together?"

If I look at the US in 1814 or so, I would say that the South is running things, and Virginia is running the South. Almost all the Presidents were Virginian. Most of the decisions were Virginian. The capital of the country, named after a Virginian, was built NEXT to Virginia, carving out part of MARYLAND for Virginia's benefit*. Things are so crappy for New England that during the War of 1812 there was talk of THEM seceding and making a separate peace with England.

So a lot of the history of that period boils down to "How Are We Going to Make Virginia Happy?" All the compromises, all the swapping of slave and free states, all of it, is how to preserve the southern slavery hegemony while keeping the non-slave-holders on board. Yet, by 1860, I have a powerful North, one that (obviously) would win a war against an agrarian South.

So how the heck did THAT happen?

Part of it may be raw geography. There was an article tracking the conservative south through its geological makeup - good for cotton, which meant it was a fertile land for big plantations, which brought in a lot of slaves, which created an entire African-American culture in the south, which had to be controlled by the slave-holders and former slave-holders, which got us to Jim Crow and then the Civil Rights Movement which got us to the current state of gerrymandering and voter suppression. It is a good story.

The North, however, benefited from the Industrial Revolution and the South did not. Why? The South had money. power and long-standing ties with Britain and the rest of Europe. Why are they shipping bulk cotton to Europe (and New England) as opposed to developing an industrial base themselves? They had the manpower in the slave population, and could utilize that base. They could have upgraded,

I have some theories. One of them involves the Fall Line. This is something I learned about in Social Studies in grade school. The South had the coast, then the Piedmont, then the Appalachians. The Fall Line is how far you can go upstream before falls or rapids stop further progress. So you can ship stuff down easily from there. Plus falls are great places to put mills that run off water because of the natural drop. As you go further north, that line gets closer to the coast, so the mills are practically on the coast itself, nearer the ports. So it may make sense to send cotton from you plantation to New England or Europe as opposed to building mills. Eventually, with electrification, the production of finished textiles moved into the south itself (see the movie Norma Rae), but by the Civil War, the south sent most of its raw material elsewhere.

I have yet to see a good history that explains the development of the industrial north as anything else than natural evolution.It is another type of erasure, another hole in history, but one that serves the established narrative by making it seem inevitable.

More later,

* UPDATE: That's only partially true, a reader noted. Virginia contributed a chunk of land across the river. However, most of the government buildings were on the Maryland side, so the Virginia side was not as developed. As it started looking that DC would ban the slave trade (a big business in nearby Alexandria, at the tip of the then-DC), Virginia agitated to get the land back. So while Virginia DID kick in for the site of DC, the government made them happy by giving it back. So the spirit of the comment stands, but not the facts as presented.