America's tycoons: Beloved or reviled

Cycle: In hard times, when savings, jobs and opportunities are lost, the public's historic distrust of the rich takes center stage in political and cultural arenas.

July 14, 2002|By Michael Hill | Michael Hill,SUN STAFF

The stock market is plummeting and Democratic candidates are letting the voters know that the rich and greedy businessmen - the friends of the Republicans - are to blame.

That might sound like today's headline, but it was also the story 70 years ago. The candidate was Franklin D. Roosevelt. The man playing the part of Enron's Kenneth Lay or the Arthur Andersen accountants or the WorldCom executives was Samuel Insull. He had made his millions in electric utilities in Chicago only to take thousands of stockholders down with him when the Depression collapsed his financial house of cards.

Americans have always had a love-hate relationship with wealthy businessmen, something that's evident in politics and popular culture.

"There is a very strong irony in American culture about the world of business," said Jack Boozer, a professor of communication at Georgia State University whose book on the depiction of business in Hollywood movies comes out this fall. "On the one hand, it is the world of opportunity, but when someone gets too high on their own horse, they tend to become more and more corrupted."

Though this conflict rises and falls with cyclical regularity, it goes back to the earliest roots of the country when Alexander Hamilton and his New York business friends who wanted a central bank were distrusted by Thomas Jefferson and his agrarian colleagues who thought that there was something wrong with making money off money.

"Americans tend to have ambivalent feelings toward business leaders whether the business cycle is up or down," said David Scilia, who teaches the history of business at the University of Maryland, College Park. "At the turn of this century, the image of businessmen was arguably the pre-eminent issue of that day. There were extraordinarily powerful robber barons - Carnegie, Rockefeller, those types. It was a new breed. No one had ever commanded so much wealth and corporate power and it made America quite uneasy."

This was the era of the Muckrakers, who took on business practices in books and newspapers; and of the Progressives, who brought in the first wave of business regulation during the presidency of Theodore Roosevelt, who said he wanted to save business from itself.

The ambivalent pendulum has swung many times in American history. A generation after the Founding Fathers, Andrew Jackson came to Washington on an agrarian populist wave.

"He was seen as a champion of the people, taking control back, fighting against the banking institutions that seemed aristocratic," said Ted Widmer, head of the Starr Center for the Study of the American Experience at Washington College in Chestertown.

Widmer says Jackson took a dislike to the Bank of Philadelphia, a big, private institution in Philadelphia. "It was quite an important institution and Jackson wanted to destroy it."

This was based, Widmer says, on a distrust of people who made money moving around pieces of paper. "This struck many in America as immoral."

Widmer says the issue of whether to renew the bank's charter polarized the country. Jackson killed the bank. And many historians say that helped lead to the Panic of 1837 and ensured that the next president, Martin Van Buren - who came into office espousing Jacksonian populism - served only one term. Another depression dealt the same fate to Herbert Hoover, the pro-business president defeated by Franklin Roosevelt in 1932.

Business has been on an up cycle for the past two decades, essentially since Ronald Reagan took office. Bill Clinton's resuscitation of the Democratic Party was based in large part on his ability to get rid of its anti-business image, indeed to make it the party of the new economy. It's not unusual for a kid who grew up in this era to have Bill Gates as his hero.

"We went through this before in the '20s," said Mark Blyth, a political scientist at the Johns Hopkins University. "That was the golden era of fetishization of business. We put them on the pedestal, `the captains of industry' and all that."

It was a time when Reader's Digest was handing out stock tips and Jesus Christ was lauded as the first salesman. The rhetoric, Blyth says, was eerily similar to that heard in the dot-com boom of the '90s. "It was the same sort of `new economy' speak," he said. "They didn't call it that then, but [it was] the same sort of talk of entering a new era where the confluence of technology and capital meant that the business cycle was abolished. The same type of hubris."

And, Blyth says, many of the same types of shady business and accounting practices that kept the stock prices high.

In times like these - or in the '20s - when more and more Americans have money in the stock market, the public asks few questions about business practices as long as that market is soaring, but goes looking for villains once the market tanks.

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