"Whenever I go into a restaurant, I order both a chicken and an egg to see which comes first"

Tuesday, February 27, 2024

Blowhard - The Nature Of American Business And The Witch Trials Of Donald Trump

Hiram Pickens sold snake oil, laxatives, nerve pills, and aphrodisiacs - a patent medicine pharmacopeia of cure-alls, feel-goods, and balms which, laced with enough codeine, morphine, and alcohol to 'adjust' the system, loosen the ailment's hold, and give a sensational effect, had customers coming back for more. 


The snake oil business was a masterpiece of concoction, advertising, and human credulousness. Enough of Dr. Doolittle's Health Tonic, and aches and pains would miraculously disappear - the alcohol and barbiturates did the trick, the natural desire to believe what was bought was worth the money and the potent natural human tendency of self deception did the rest.  The huckster's silver tongue simply shined a bright, glittering light on dull lives and for a dime, the vision came true. 

Caveat Emptor - Let The Buyer Beware - was the meme of post-colonial America, a nation created on the presumption of individual, intelligent authority, the God-given right of independent enterprise, and the natural, ineluctable laws of competition and survival of the fittest.  The idea of today's all-important government, caretaker and guardian of the people was never considered.  At best it would be the arbiter of last resort, the administrator of Constitutional duties, and the armed protector of the nation.

The disagreement between Jefferson and Hamilton was profound.  While Jefferson trusted the intelligence and wisdom of the people, Hamilton knew they were uneducated rubes roaming unchecked and following their own self-interest with little interest in the commonweal.  A buffer, said Hamilton, between the mob and true governance was necessary, and the Senate was created.  As everyone knows, ignorance seeps through the cracks of any institution, and before long the Senate, America's Upper House was as infected with the same venality as the crowd banging on its doors. 

So the free-for-all in the public, matched by the same chaotic mess in Washington, was let ride. In fact, opined the political philosophers of the day, such raw competition, such untrammeled buying and selling was a good thing, winnowing the chaff from the wheat, culling the weak, and creating a stronger society.  

Snake oil sale was the best example of the new economic meme.  'A fool and his money are soon parted' said Thomas Tusser in 16th Century England and the aphorism took root quickly and easily in the New World. 'A sucker is born every minute', coined by P.T. Barnum in the mid-Nineteenth Century consolidated the American hold on buyer ignorance, and at all levels of economic enterprise - from the itinerant hawker to the barons of industry - the art of exaggeration, manipulation, and chicanery became the business model of the land.


Early Twentieth Century reformers were outraged and the predatory nature of American business, and they fought long, hard, and ineffectively for a modicum of protection; but the business model was too entrenched and too founded on human nature to be changed.  Human beings have bartered, exchanged, and sold on false premises since cowrie beads, and only the savvy buyer worked the system to his benefit.  

After Darwin the idea of caveat emptor became even more received wisdom - raw, unfettered competition, the tooth and claw approach to the marketplace, assured not only the survival of the fittest but the reign of the fittest. 

The great American capitalist empire was built on this principle; and there would be transcontinental railroads, steel mills, oil fields, refineries, and Wall Street without J.P. Morgan, J.D. Rockefeller, Andrew Carnegie, or Cornelius Vanderbilt.  Their inspiration was vast, their ambition unalloyed, and their persistence unstoppable.  Sure enough reformers were as insistent on halting the predation and bullish roughriding of the 'Robber Barons', this time with some success; and the foundation of the nanny state was laid. 


New York real estate was no different than steel, oil, or railroads, and the city was built on the same principles.  The market was not based on cooperation, consideration, and generosity but on exaggeration, arrogance, and absolute, unshakeable confidence.  Of course land and property values were inflated by sellers and downgraded by buyers, and only after the street fights and brawls were won and lost, was a final agreed-upon value reached. 

There is no such thing as absolute value in economics.  All is relative, and so it is with the selling price of real estate.  While metrics, big data, and sophisticated analytical tools have narrowed the playing field, buying and selling is still an open venture. How can cachet, name, clientele, and design have absolute value? How can the quality of a view be measured? Subjectivity, never an incidental factor in commercial exchange, is as important as facts and figures. 

Enter Donald Trump, real estate mogul, survivor par excellence of the mean streets of New York, king of vaudevillian exaggeration, master salesman, big top blowhard, canny negotiator, and fearless legal battering ram.  'So, sue me', the song of the streets is the first verse of a Trump epic.  He revels in it, plays it, loves it.  Threats, intimidation, and will are the twins of estimated value and subjective valuation.  Together, they are the invincible armaments of real estate warfare.  

Of course Trump exaggerated the value of his holdings, but in the give-and-take of the real estate market, no one cried foul.  Buyers thought they got a good deal, banks loved the borrowers, and Trump made millions.  All as it should be and always has been. 

The New York fraud trial, therefore, is nothing but a witch trial - a political move to discredit the former President during an election year; a transparent, bald-faced swipe at Trump's credibility while fining him crippling sums.  

All this of course is but a side show to the center ring - the electoral campaign and November 2024.  Trump has handily swept all the Republican primaries, is the presumptive Presidential candidate, and tops the incumbent, Joe Biden, in all recent polls. In fact, the more fake trials and false accusations there are, the higher his numbers.  His faithful cannot be budged from their support, and those on the cusp, shocked by the unconscionable political manipulation of the courts, have swung to his side. 

Donald Trump is a real American - low-brow, unashamedly bourgeois, crass, opinionated, and a bare-knuckled bar-fighter.  Americans have finally got one of their own, not the hi-falutin' Pablo Casals, Robert Frost Kennedys, not the insipid, faux inclusive, Biden, not the Eastern Establishment progressive fantasists, but an outsized Colossus.  Of course he is feared and hated, and that animus is all his opponents have.  They harp and whinge and whine to no avail.  Americans are sick and tired of a hectoring, self-righteous party that demeans, dismisses, and ignores them.  

Despite the show trials, the punitive awards against him, and the virulence of the progressive press, Trump is likely to regain the Oval Office, and the gobbling naysayers will be shut up once and for all. 

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