Monday, December 11, 2017

Echos Part 2: We're in the Money

Copyright, Joe Baker, 2017

A note to the reader: Since the middle of 2016, I’ve been struck by how many historical parallels connect our early 21st century with the 1920’s. This is not good news and is very much a cautionary tale. This is the second of four installments on those parallels and on what we ought to try to learn from them. You can read the first one here. I’ll be releasing the other two over the coming month. 

As always, I welcome your thoughts and comments. JB


Sometime around late 1930 or early 1931, my grandfather got the bad news.

He was about to have his work hours at the Pennsylvania Railroad cut in half. This would reduce his family income to a total of $7.00 every two weeks. He was actually grateful. It could have been worse. He was bilingual and literate, and therefore more valuable to the track maintenance operation than men with less education. Railroad employment, affected by the deepening Depression and by the advent of automobiles and trucks, dropped precipitously by about 40%. For many railroad workers, when they lost their jobs, they also lost their company housing.

People he had known for years simply vanished into Hooverville homeless camps. Families dissolved. People begged for food at the doors of railroad shanties along Shady Lane where he and his kids lived. Homeless men stole rides on boxcars in the Enola Yards where he worked, and tried to make their way to California and other places where seasonal work might be available. His kids gathered dandelions and poke weed for food, and scavenged coal along the tracks to heat the house. People stole food from market stalls, poached rabbits, deer and people’s chickens, and did much, much worse things to survive.

Some of them didn’t make it.

It’s hard to overestimate the gravity and depth of the Great Depression, and it’s just as hard for modern Americans to fully wrap their heads around it. I have the advantage of hearing about it first-hand on the couch in my Mother’s living room from my grandfather who somehow survived it. As bad as the 2008 crash was, it pales in comparison to what happened after the 1929 crash. The parallels and the differences are instructive. Both crashes have their roots in economic policies that were in place in the preceding decade. Their differences come mostly from how American political leadership reacted to each crash.

There’s a reason they called them the Roaring Twenties.


The 20’s featured one of the largest most prolonged periods of economic growth in US history. Much of it was driven by recovery from the First World War, by the rise of consumerism (especially the demand for automobiles, radios, and other modern wonders), and by one of the biggest expansions of public infrastructure in our history The first major automobile road network was begun in the 20’s, as was electrification and sewer and water systems. The first great skyscrapers and signature bridges drove the expansion of American cities. This was also an era of profound cultural revolution and progress in art, music, design and many social issues.

Sounds pretty good doesn’t it?

Beneath the glittering veneer, the economic and political underpinnings of the 20’s were toxic, and became steadily more so through the decade. Warren Harding’s campaign for the presidency in 1920 raised and spent over 8 million dollars, about four times what his Democratic opponent James Cox spent. Thomas Edison, Henry Ford and Harvey Firestone were big contributors as were less famous folks.

The 1919 Volstead Act (prohibition) created a lucrative black market in booze that injected an astronomical amount of black money into the economy. Lots of that money found its way into the political world. When Harding died in office in 1923, Vice President Coolidge took his place and was elected in a landslide the following year. Republican Herbert Hoover followed him in 1928. Harding, Coolidge and Hoover were the darlings of the moneyed class for very good reasons.

According to historian Robert McElvaine, these three administrations “produced the greatest concentration of income in the accounts of the richest 0.01 percent at any time between World War I and 2007.” In 1926 one of the largest tax cuts in American history was forced through by Treasury Secretary Andrew Mellon (then one of the richest men in the world), producing record bumps in income for the wealthy. Some of these rich investors, mine owners, railroad magnates and industrialists weren’t the best sort of people. They suppressed the unions that had arisen during and before the First World War, sometimes brutally. Their money and influence were completely interwoven with the Republican administrations of the period producing scandals like Teapot Dome and many less well-known instances of bribery and collusion.

While this made these wealthy elites reviled in some quarters, they were also much admired in others. The mythology and promise of the land of opportunity enthralled a lot of ordinary Americans who imagined themselves the next Andrew Carnegie. If they could just catch a break and work hard, they could rise to become rich and powerful. To that end, many of them turned to debt. The concept of blue collar and middle class families buying durable household goods like cars, furniture and appliances on-time was a product of the 1920’s. Some folks, greedily eyeing the expanding stock markets, borrowed capital to invest, not unlike the chronic gamblers who sometimes borrow from the casinos they play poker in. Banks loaned freely, and a nearly complete lack of federal regulation and oversight meant lots of them loaned much more than they had in reserve. Everybody was on the installment plan. The 20’s produced an unprecedented rise in personal/household debt and in institutional lending far over margin.

What the hell…Everybody was making money!

Of course, we all know what happened. When the crash came in 1929, President Hoover’s administration attempted to respond with appeals for voluntary belt tightening, individual responsibility, and cooperation between labor and management. He explicitly avoided any attempts at bailouts, direct assistance to individuals or states, or anything else that smelled of socialism. He preached optimism and faith in the country’s economic strength.

By 1932, unemployment reached about 25%. A climate disaster in the Midwest (extended drought) gutted agricultural production in the breadbasket, and the sky filled with dust. The economy did not really recover for a decade, when bond-financed war spending finally pushed production and the factories began running on all cylinders. It’s also worth noting that the Republican Party took even longer to recover.


And now we find ourselves with a conservative Republican majority in the US legislature with a strong distaste for any significant role for government, a Republican executive administration rife with corruption and lubricated with untraceable sources of money, a nearly complete absence of meaningful financial regulation, a white-hot stock market, rapid and dangerous climate change, and unprecedented levels of personal and institutional debt.

What could possibly go wrong?

Twain may or may not have said that “History doesn’t repeat itself, but it rhymes.” George Sanatayana certainly did say that “Those who do not remember the past are doomed to repeat it.”

Sunday, October 29, 2017

Echoes: A History Lesson (Part 1)

Copyright, Joe Baker, 2017

A note to the reader: Since the middle of 2016, I’ve been struck by how many historical parallels connect our early 21st century with the 1920’s. This is not good news and is very much a cautionary tale. This is the first of four installments on those parallels and on what we ought to try to learn from them. I’ll be releasing the other three over the coming month. As always, I welcome your thoughts and comments. JB

Part 1: The Immigration Act

The three kids; Nicky aged 16, Tony age 10 and Giulia, 8, stood wide-eyed on the deck of the steamer, holding their ears, transfixed by the cascade of fireworks above the great statue of the woman with the torch. They had arrived after a ten-day passage from Naples, unaccompanied by their mother who couldn’t get a visa, on May 26th, Memorial Day, 1924. They didn’t know what Memorial Day was.

The passage had been horrific. They were all sea-sick. Little Giulia had bawled the whole way across the Atlantic, and Nicky had to manage both her and her brother as she fought her own illness and terror. But now they had slipped into the lee of Ellis Island in New York Harbor, and the ship had stopped bucking and pitching, and the showers and flashes of red, green, blue and white bedazzled the sky above them. The two younger children were smiling from ear-to-ear. They assumed the occasion for the fireworks was to welcome them to their new country.

The oldest girl knew better.

The three unaccompanied children arrived in a country focused inward, a country wrestling with what it was.

The enormous economic and infrastructure expansion of the late 19th and early 20th century had created the world’s first real economic and military superpower in America. This creation was built with cheap immigrant labor. Starting with the immense waves of Irish in the mid-19th century, and swelling through the immigration stations at Ellis Island and at Angel Island in California at the turn of the century, immigrants from Europe, the Caribbean and Asia changed the country permanently. Roughly a third of modern Americans are descendants of the Ellis Island arrivals alone.

The wealth of the famous men who owned the railroads, coal mines, timber operations, steel mills, ship yards, ports and manufactories of the United States was incalculable, and was almost entirely the product of immigrant labor. The demand for this labor led late 19th and early 20th century industries, aided by the American government, to actively recruit immigrants in Italy and many other countries. At the time, many countries in Europe and Asia were mired in economic difficulties and ruled by corrupt and oppressive regimes. People were willing to risk everything to provide for their families, they would tear out their lives at the roots and work hard at low wages for a chance at a better life. There was a poem welcoming them at the base of the statue of liberty.

The father of the three kids on that steamer, 36-year-old Giuseppe DiRado, had been recruited in his small village in the Abruzzo by the Pennsylvania Railroad. He was invited here. He was at the docks in Jersey City waiting for them. While he was happy to see them, there were plenty of people who weren’t.

Resentment and repression of recent immigrants wasn’t anything new in the 1920’s. Each successive wave of immigrants depressed the wages of those who had arrived earlier. To a large extent, that’s why American industries recruited them: they kept the costs of production low and the profits high. It also didn’t help that their languages, religions, food, and appearances seemed alien. Anti-immigrant fervor was a favorite weapon of politicians reaching back to before the Civil War. It was an easy way to get supporters to the poles in support of candidates who promised to protect the jobs and rights of the native born against the depravity of the recent arrivals. It carried practically no political downside since the recent immigrants couldn’t vote. It could and did boil over into violence, the largest mass lynching in American history (11 men) was carried out by a New Orleans mob against Italian immigrants in March of 1891.

Anti-immigrant fervor in America reached an ugly peak in the 1920’s for a number of reasons. The end of the First World War brought a recession and layoffs. America’s involvement in the war, and the many casualties it produced, engendered a nativist and isolationist movement that sought to limit trade, foreign entanglements, and immigration. A reaction against Reconstruction in the post-Civil War South created the myth of a noble “lost cause”, a resurgence of the Klan, the rise of Jim Crow, and horrific racial violence. By the early1920’s, the Klan and similar organizations were establishing chapters in northern states like Indiana, Ohio and Pennsylvania, and the hatred they felt for African Americans was extended to immigrants, particularly Catholics and Jews. Immigrants were depicted as criminals, vectors for disease, and labor or anarchist extremists prone to violence. They were accused of taking good American jobs away from the more deserving. There were populist calls to curtail or eliminate immigration, especially immigrants from China, Japan, and Southern and Eastern Europe, and American politicians were only too happy to oblige.

On the very day those three kids arrived in New York harbor, Memorial Day of 1924, the Immigration Act, or Johnson-Reed, took effect. The new law imposed a total quota on immigration of 165,000—less than 20 percent of the pre-World War I average. It imposed limits on the number of immigrants from any particular nation on the percentage of each nationality recorded in the 1890 census—a directed effort to limit immigration from Southern and Eastern Europe, which mostly occurred after that date. In the first decade of the 20th century, an average of 200,000 Italians had entered the United States annually. With the 1924 Act, the annual quota for Italians was set at about 3,800.

Immigration from Italy, Poland, Russia, China and Japan plummeted. Since these immigrants were primarily employed in unskilled, low wage jobs, the predicted improvement in wages and job availability occurred only at the very bottom of the pay scale. Millions of people, especially Eastern European Jews, were now trapped in countries ruled by repressive, violent and populist regimes, and many of them perished.

The most monstrous burden of this new law was its effect on families, a burden set squarely on the backs of the three kids on the steamer.

Their parents had planned to request a visa for their mother the following year. The request was denied. They tried again in 26, with the same result. Maria Staniscia DiRado was not permitted to enter this country until 1934, ten years after her children.

Giulia, the 8-year-old, was my mother. She did not see her mother again until she was 18. She had nightmares and fits of depression from this separation until her death at the age of 88. I saw this with my own eyes. My mom was a kind soul who never hurt a fly. Children do not really ever recover from trauma like that. When she came here she was just a little kid, an innocent, and she didn’t deserve it.


Starting in the mid-20th century and continuing to the present day, the American agricultural industry has recruited labor from south of the border to support orchards, vineyards, produce operations and slaughterhouses from California to Pennsylvania. The industry has gotten behind legal guest-worker programs, advocated, for the most part unsuccessfully, for greater immigration quotas from Mexico, Central America and the Caribbean, and winked at illegal immigrants willing to work for low wages among the fruit trees and grapevines. Current immigration law has been in need of an overhaul since the 1960’s. For most immigrants south of our border, there isn’t really even a line they can get in to wait for legal permission to come in. To reach the work that can save their families from poverty, repression, and violence, their only recourse is to walk across the desert, or pay a coyote to smuggle them in, and many of them pay for it with their lives.

I live in one of the centers of apple production in the eastern US, and this lynchpin of the regional economy depends entirely on the labor of these immigrants. Like the Chinese railroad workers and Irish and Italian coal miners who came before them, these people, many of them invited or at least encouraged, have left their homes and taken enormous risks for the chance at a better life, and they have created modern American agri-business with their own hands. The work of their hands spills over in unimaginable abundance in the produce isles of every supermarket in America. Enormous fortunes have been built on their backs.

The current administration in Washington, supported by many legislators and voters, have proposed new and severe restrictions on legal immigration, a multi-billion-dollar barrier wall along the border, and the elimination of protections for immigrants brought here illegally as children by their parents. The current occupant of the White House characterized them as criminals, thieves and rapists stealing good American jobs. His supporters, many of them descended from the targets and victims of the Immigration Act, howled their angry approval.

As I write this, ICE raids are separating children from their parents. People are going into hiding, and crops are rotting in the fields and orchards in some places.


Stop me if you’ve heard this one before.

The political campaigns of 2016 promised something new. They have instead delivered something old, and very ugly. As it happens, the 1920’s share more than just bigotry and nativist exclusionism with the world we live in now.

To be continued…

Monday, October 16, 2017


Opening Evening
The weekend after Labor Day, I attended the 2017 Catskill Rodmakers Gathering. This is one of the largest annual gatherings of folks that build, use, swap and sell split cane fly rods and related tackle in the US. This was obviously a highly focused affair, and as a neophyte rod maker I absorbed more useful technical stuff in a couple days than I have in a couple years.

But that’s not what I want to talk about.

The real show wasn’t the tackle, or the amazing rod shop at the Catskill Flyfishing Center and Museum, or even the lovely Willowemoc and Beaverkill Valleys. As is often the case, it was the people. I thought I’d share some brief observations on the rodmakers, and some snapshots and video that I snapped while I was there.

The demographic is superficially about what you’d expect, mostly white men with hair my color, but that only scratches the surface. The crowd, some 120 or so folks, is a real mix of iconoclasts and traditionalists, old military and old hippies, carpenters, engineers, software entrepreneurs, musicians, mechanics, trout bums and one-percenters, cranks, philosophers, and great wits. There were folks from all over the Northeast and Middle Atlantic, the Southeast, Canada, and some representatives from the West and a couple other continents too. Among all those white shocks of hair and beards, there was a smattering of younger faces and even a few people with X chromosomes. They all seem to know and like each other and the glue that binds them is a love of craft that reaches back to the mid-19th century.

Let’s face it: you don’t have to build and/or fish with a cane rod in the 21st century. You want to.

For all these folks, it matters that the craft doesn’t die, and that the tradition continues. While the tradition unites them, some of them are pushing it in all sorts of interesting, even astonishing, directions, while others pay careful homage to the masters and to the tried and proven. It’s a lot like blues or jazz music: there’s a solid structure that defines it, but in no way limits it. These folks, most of whom are only part timers and many of whom rarely or never sell their work, are probably building the most beautiful and functional bamboo fly rods that have ever been made.

Woods and water also unite them. There was lots of talk of trout, steelhead and salmon, stripers and bonefish, smallmouth and bluegills, of rivers and ponds close by and on the other side of the world. Many of these folks live and have their shops in rural and/or wild little corners of the world.

They all fish a lot, nothin wrong with that.

I heard a lot of strong opinions about everything having to do with cane rod building and use. Some of these opinions were welded into immutable and time-tested dogma, usually the result of decades in the craft. Other folks seemed to always be searching for a new and better way. Everyone seemed to be interested in everyone else’s process and tricks, and there was broad generosity of spirit in the free sharing of techniques, sources, ideas, and materials.

My impressions keep returning to tradition: the beautiful rods, the lovely old reels and other tackle, the easy grace of fly casting, campfire smoke, the feel of dawn along a little river that’s been fished for generations. A balance of pragmatic craft and painstaking art, and often great beauty, permeated much of what I saw and heard. There was a feeling of timelessness and of welcome. I’m sure I’ll go back.

Here's some Pix:
Milling Machine

Rod Collection
Casting Competition

The Junction Pool

A Very Classy Rod Caddy

Hollow Built Spey Rod

Class in Session

Kathy Scott Teaching Furled Leaders

(Here's a couple videos: the milling machine in action and sawing strips with a band saw and jig)