Americans Just Don't Do Outrage the Way They Used to

News at Home

Mr. Rockman, an assistant professor of history at Occidental College, is the author of the forthcoming Welfare Reform in the Early Republic and a writer for the History News Service.

Where's the outrage? Americans often seem immune to it. Public indifference to the Clinton impeachment trial in 1999 befuddled Congressional Republicans. Democrats now hope that public anger over Enron's collapse will revitalize campaign finance reform and deliver gains in the fall elections. Shredded documents, a stonewalling White House and congressional subpoenas may generate interest in this latest example of corporate corruption, but if sex didn't sell in 1999, will a scandal about bookkeeping do better today?

Recent American history suggests not. The savings-and-loan failures in the late 1980s didn't sustain public interest. Neither did Whitewater in the 1990s. Commentators can't decide whether Americans are too complacent, too desensitized or too patriotic right now to care. Nobody expects the kind of mass protests seen recently in Argentina over that nation's financial disintegration. Former Enron employees ransacking Houston as Argentineans did Buenos Aires? Non-union white-collar workers do not throw rocks.

But from a longer historical vantage we see that Americans have sought economic justice in the streets. In the era of John Adams (who is so popular now among hardcover book buyers), tar and feathers, burned effigies and demolished houses awaited schemers who defrauded the public. These punishments enforced a"moral economy" and served alongside statutes to govern the developing capitalist marketplace.When flour merchants drove up prices during the American Revolution, crowds of women broke into their storehouses. Marching men surrounded courthouses to prevent foreclosures on farms so recently defended against British tyranny. Bankers, merchants and lawyers received rough treatment for transgressing the boundaries of legitimate commerce.

But by the end of Adams's life in 1826, politicians and judges were freeing incorporated businesses from their obligations under the old moral economy. In this first era of deregulation, the mismanagement of textile factories, canals and railroads imperiled working families. With new laws more likely to protect perpetrators than victims, disgruntled workers called strikes and threw stones in cities from Albany to Zanesville.

Speculation and deregulation even led to full-fledged rioting. Thousands of Baltimoreans took to the streets in 1835 to protest the collapse of the Bank of Maryland. As common people were losing their life savings, bank executives built new mansions, hid their account books from investigators and found sanctuary under the law."Where is the Justice," asked one newspaper editor, as scheming financiers drove"their chariot-wheels over the widows and orphans whom they have plundered, without ever having made restitution?"

Like the Enron retirement plan, the Bank of Maryland in flush times had allowed working people to see their fortunes rise. But as with Enron, workers and executives were not equally leveraged when hard times arrived. Once it became known in March 1834 that the bank had issued fifty times more paper money than was warranted by its gold and silver, the savings of working-class depositors instantly became worthless.

The directors of the Bank of Maryland had lobbied hard for the banking deregulation that legalized the issuance of unbacked paper money. Their task was made easier by their friendship with a Maryland politico, Roger B. Taney. Just as Enron had the ears of Texans in Congress and the White House, the Maryland bank directors trusted Taney, installed in 1833 by President Jackson as secretary of the treasury, to pull the plug on the centralized Bank of the United States and distribute federal deposits to the administration's"pet banks."

When the bubble burst for the Bank of Maryland, the directors emerged unscathed. Like Enron executives who received"loans" as compensation and repaid in stock, the Baltimore directors borrowed extensively from the bank. The collapse prevented small depositors from reclaiming their gold and silver, but allowed directors to repay their own loans with worthless paper money. No punishment awaited the directors, who hid their books from investigators. Under the laws of deregulated banking, the directors bore no personal liability for customers' losses. In contrast, working-class depositors faced the immediate consequences of being broke: evictions, soup lines and even imprisonment for overdue debts as small as $10.

Public outrage boiled over in Baltimore, and defrauded depositors took to the streets. They targeted the property of the bank's directors and lawyers. Exquisite houses came down, imported furniture burned in the streets, and personal property was claimed as compensation.

Seventeen months elapsed between the bank's collapse and the riots in summer 1835. Do present-day Americans have that attention span? Ideally, Americans will remember long enough to help remove corporate money from politics and stem self-serving deregulation. But let's also hope that an outraged public recalls the lessons of earlier centuries when bilked Americans asserted their right to regulate the marketplace -- through their legislatures preferably, but by the strength of their numbers when necessary.

comments powered by Disqus

More Comments:

Jon Koppenhoefer - 2/14/2002

I cannot put in print the punishment I would visit on the robber barons of Enron. (And I didn't lose a dime when the stock went belly-up.) But it looks like the legal system won't even permit their victims to recover financial losses from the bastards who dumped their stock while pumping it to investors and employees. This is, after all, a 'free market democracy', and as such is loathe to discipline the wealthy for damn near anything they might have a mind to do to the weak or the poor. Leona Helmsley was only a very visible and irritating symptom of some rather ugly underlying causes.

My problem is that after that benign moron Gerald Ford pardoned Nixon in the biggest fix since Shoeless Joe helped Chicago throw the World Series, I've run out of steam. Nixon should have done time, but he didn't. "He's suffered enough," said the Senators and pundits, "by losing his Presidency."

Then came the self-righteous Carter, who indignantly barred our youth from competing in the Olympics because the Soviets had invaded AFghanistan. Imagine the pain, if you will, of being denied a chance to compete in the quadrennial Olympics because your President couldn't think of anything else to do in protest. I was outraged then and remain so now. Has Carter apologized for this outrageous decision?

Following this folly was the worst eight years of political life I've experienced: the Reagan nightmare, followed immediately by the four years of Bush the Elder, a man who sought Presidential office "because it's my turn." Once elected, following the race-baiting Horton ads of the dirtiest Presidential campaign between 1988 and 2000, of course, Bush the Elder hadn't the slightest idea what to do, having failed to master, you know, 'the vision thing'.

Clinton was my pick (twice) for President but the egomaniac's reckless behavior only invited the GOP--led by that jackass Gingrich--to witchhunt, moralize, and grandstand. It was enough to put me in a coma. These sons of bitches put government on ice for eight years, but the great fatuous gasbag William Bennett dared to ask "Where's the outrage" when Clinton was caught doing what a GOP President had done almost a century before: conduct an affair in the Oval Office.

I had exhausted my sense of outrage when Reagan's OMB called catsup a vegetable and David Stockman spearheaded the cynical budget ploy of using military spending increases to 'crowd out' social programs from the federal budgets. The Gipper left massive deficits anyway, crippling our ability to buy guns and butter for nearly two decades. And the spineless Democrats went merrily along, la la la.

Now Democrats had to defend Clinton against the excesses and hypocricy of the House impeachment cabal, led by the housewrecker Henry Hyde and the divorced Gingrich; the fornicator Burton, who calls his unacknowledged son 'the boy'; and the indignant Barr who says "abortion-is-murder" but who nonetheless bought one for his wife.

I was outraged then at Clinton for his callous disregard for his supporters and for what his self-indulgent skirt-chasing put the nation through, and at the GOP for its eager exploitation of the opening he gave them. They actually thought that the People would equate sexual indiscretion with Constitutional assaults committed by Nixon, et al.? They were wrong, but it took six years and $60 million.

What galls me the most is that Clinton was 'innocent' in the Whitewater mess but decided to play grab-ass AFTER the Starr investigators got into gear. What hubris! What incredibly bad judgment! It's like lighting a joint AFTER being pulled over for speeding. This man was President?? What a narcissist.

The GOP has tried to get even for Nixon's resignation since 1975, god bless them. Have they slaked their twisted thirst for 'justice'? I hope so. But is anybody the better for it? I'm not. And I was outraged throughout, but found no outlet for it.

And now we have the biggest fraud in American electoral history sitting in the Oval Office; draft-dodging Commander-in-Chief-for-Life; failed millionaire oilman, beneficiary of the richest old-boy network his Daddy could assemble; born-again Christian who mocks the clemency plea of a condemned felon; cheerleader of law and order who ignores both on a daily basis...I can't go on. Suffice to say I find the 'curiously simian' Bush Lite an offensive person from start to finish.

The quietly malevolent Cheney--another chickenhawk draft-dodger (5 deferments at the height of the Vietnam War? What a patriot!!!)--is only a damaged echo of his boss, perhaps a little more menacing, but at heart a crook, too. When Chehey lied that his Halliburton income was provided entirely through the private sector, he should have been called on it by Lieberman, the great Democratic presidential hope. But Lieberman just smiled and agreed, yes, Dick, you sure are right. It was not true and I knew it. I was outraged.

Outrage? I've got plenty to go around, but I've run out of legal ways to express it. I've written letters, spoken to relatives and friends, voted in every election held since 1972 when I proudly cast my vote against Nixon. My Congressman sends me canned correspondence thanking me for my input and offering to let me know if he hears of anybody offering legislation dealing with my concerns--as if his own hands are tied so he can't do it himself. This is democracy?

I can only look back on high school civics (or college, where I majored in political science) and laugh bitterly at the bullshit shoveled by the faithful to the ignorant. I continue to read everything I can get my hands on but nothing can shake my belief that the phrase 'capitalist democracy' is just another oxymoron like 'jumbo shrimp'.

I love this country and the ideals of its revolutionary founders. I wish we had the balls to follow in their footsteps, but I'm not optimistic about the means or the end. I may rail at the outrages of the GOP, but let's face it, almost as many people voted for Bush as for Gore in the last Presidential election, and--arguments about Nader's role notwithstanding--the difference between the frontrunners' totals isn't larger than 1/2 of 1%, the alleged 'margin of error' for most ballot-counting technologies used in 2000.

So the irony of my experience in America is that while Bush might be the most effective enemy of democratic rule I can remember since Reagan or Nixon, the People really did want him just about as much as the other guy who ran. This is the tragic truth of democracy that I live with every day. Outrage? It boils in me like a festering wound. But what good is it?