public health and harvey wiley, the heritage foundation’s plutocratic marxism, chicago in the 1920s

If your day is not going all that well, think of it this way, at least you haven’t eaten any poisoned food. That is partly due to modern chemistry and food regulation. The idea that a nation’s food supply should be regulated was not always the norm. We have regulation today because people were poisoned by commonly available foods and because  of chemist Harvey Washington Wiley. Death in the Pot

Borax came first on the list, partly because it was so widely used by meat processors. Derived from the element boron, it slowed decomposition but could also react with proteins and firm them up, giving rotting meat a more shapely appearance. Borax had thus figured in the “embalmed beef” scandal of the Spanish-American War, in which officers in the U.S. Army accused their suppliers of shipping tins of refrigerated beef that was treated with “secret chemicals” and canned beef that was no more than a “bundle of fibers.” “It looked well but had an odor similar to that of a dead human body after being injected with preservatives,” an Army medical officer wrote of the refrigerated meat, adding that when cooked, the product tasted rather depressingly like boric acid.

The U.S. government had contracted with three private suplliers to provide beef to the Army during the Spanish-American War ( 1898) - Morris & Co, Swift & Co and Armour & Co. At the lowest possible price of course. Because cheap is always better is it not.Then Secretary of War Russell A. Alger had confidence that the companies would deliver goods of a reasonable quality and required no oversight. Why would three jewels of the free market engage in any behavior that would harm or possibly kill U.S. military personnel. Conservatives and libertarians would tell us there is no way business would behave in a negligent and irresponsible manner because it is not in their own rational self interests.That would make sense if people did indeed act in their own rational self interests.Those companies would think things through to their logical conclusion. If they hurt people their companies would be punished by the market place if not the criminal courts. Despite the meat scandal that continued up to and including supplying meat to the Army , all three companies survived and eventually merged. That new conglomerate bought many smaller meat processing businesses, stock yards and butchering plants, and had its own supply of railroad cars – all under the name National Packing Company. That company was broken up by regulators in 1912. Bad meat eventually killed more U.S. military than the Spanish during the war. One of the ingredients used to preserve the meat was borax.

But beyond the disgust element was another more important question concerning borax: was it actually safe to eat? This troubling issue was the reason why squad members were imbibing the compound at Christmas, the reason for the Poison Squad experiments themselves. Established by a famously outspoken, crusading chemist from the U.S. Department of Agriculture, Harvey Washington Wiley, the squads were also meant to answer another, larger question: were manufacturers actually poisoning the food supply?

Businesses had a near free hand to do so at that point. At the turn of the twentieth century, the federal government did not regulate food safety, did not require testing of food products in advance, and did not hold companies liable for resulting illnesses. Neither did it require food producers to inform consumers what materials actually went into a food product. Wiley actually had a range of alarming compounds on his test list beyond borax, including formaldehyde (used to slow the souring of old milk) and copper sulfate (used to restore color to canned vegetables).

The article’s larger thesis is the rampant poisoning that went on before the modern age of chemical testing and regulation,

Consider the horrifying example of Mary Ann Cotton, a British arsenic killer born in 1832, who was suspected of killing around twenty people—including three husbands, one lover, and most of her own children—probably by mixing arsenic into their morning cereal or evening soup. Many of her adult victims had made wills or life-insurance policies in her favor. Her children, she complained, were simply inconvenient. Unfortunately for Cotton, she had discussed the inconvenient nature of her youngest stepson, Charles, with a public official who was shocked when the boy suddenly died.

It does eventually get back to Wiley and his successes at changing the way the entire nation thought of food along with help from Collier’s Weekly and groups such as the National Consumer’s League. As enlightened as Wiley was his experiments had a down side. His “Poison Squads” were composed of healthy young male volunteers. When he tested  benzoic acid on a group of twelve, only three were still alive at the end.He honestly believed that since they were young and healthy they could consume some poison and perhaps get a little sick, but not die. By 1906 society seemed to be reaching a tipping point in looking out for public health, holding business responsible for their behavior and busting up monopolies – due to Wiley’s work as well as President Theodore Roosevelt’s progressive activism( which unfortunately did not extend to foreign policy) and the public’s shock on reading about the meat-packing industry in Upton Sinclair’s The Jungle. The U.S. Food and Drug Administration would not be created until 1930 (progress ain’t easy even with all the evidence on your side).

The Chicago Skyline 1920s Chicago, Illinois copyright by Corbis
The great and horrible thing about American English is that words can be incredibly precise and easily distorted. Sometimes one of the worse things that can be done to a public figure is to quote them accurately. Sometimes waiting for that gotcha quote  is a strain on some people’s patience so they just inject words they want to hear in place of what was actually said. That is my main issue with this fact-less story by a hack at the right-wing Heritage Foundation ( established by piss water maker Joseph Coors and Paul Weyrich) Morning Bell: Obama Aims for the Money You Don’t “Need”

That insight came during the President’s press conference on Monday in which he broached the subject of raising taxes as part of the debt limit deal:

And I do not want, and I will not accept, a deal in which I am asked to do nothing, in fact, I’m able to keep hundreds of thousands of dollars in additional income that I don’t need, while a parent out there who is struggling to figure out how to send their kid to college suddenly finds that they’ve got a couple thousand dollars less in grants or student loans.

If you read between the lines, which doesn’t take much decoding, President Obama effectively believes that any income you have which you don’t “need” belongs to the government, as writer John Steele Gordon explains in Commentary. And, Gordon writes, Obama’s statement “demonstrates an astonishing economic illiteracy”:

To be sure, someone earning a great deal of money has an income greater than what he spends. . . But, unlike Scrooge McDuck, the rich do not put the excess in a vast money bin and frolic about in it. They invest it. What a concept! Where does Obama think new capital comes from, the tooth fairy?( emphasis mine)

No no point in that speech did the President say or imply “effectively believes that any income you have which you don’t “need” belongs to the government”. It was clearly an anecdote meant to remind people – in this case the richest 4% of the country there are no, or rather there should be no free rides. Where did all their wealth come from. Hard work? Is Heritage, Mr. Brownfield and John Steele Gordon at Commentary that naive about the economy of this country or are they hoping their readers are. Did the president of Exxon really work hard and earn bonuses and salary of over $21 million. The top 25 hedge fund managers made  $22 billion in 2010( not bad considering Obama has turned America into a Marxist paradise according to commenter at the Heritage). Compensation in modern western free markets is based on one of three things or a combination of those criteria. Hard work – the four guys who shingled my uncle’s roof did more actual work/labor than the president of Exxon or the hedge fund managers do all year. Those corporate cronies earned their money by virtue of their intellect. In other words the smartest people in America  should be paid the most. Corporate presidents and hedge fund managers are smart, but not that smart. A few hedge funds analyst might have an IQ equal to some of the world’s best scientists or teachers or artists, but while scientists can make a good living they are not the most highly compensated people in America. That leaves these huge annual compensation packages as compensation for unique skills I know something about corporate management and some well paid executives, and contrary to legend it does not require extraordinary skills. To be successful does require one be fairly bright and have some skills. The largest part of the recipe for corporate success is pure luck. It helps a lot if you went to the right school, your parents were rich, someone in power liked you and made you their protegé. Most of the work done in America is done by people who make less than $25k per year. One percent of the population siting behind a desk does not create wealth. At least not in a vacuum. Somewhere along the line people have to create a demand for something, workers have to produce it and workers have to buy it. We’d be a very poor nation if we depended solely on the sale of luxury items like yachts and exotic sports cars. Executives and hedge fund managers are leeches at the top of an artificially created food chain. Sure they have skills and they perform tasks and should be compensated, but this nation’s workers compensate these people with 75% of the fruit of their work. This is upside-down Marxism, the collective of the plutocracy. To ask that they pay for the things that make their wealth possible is not stealing, its capitalism the way it is supposed to work. Taxes remain the only way to get a tiny fraction of the wealth siphoned off from people who actually perform valuable services like lay bricks, fill teeth, teach children, design programs, build satellites and mop floors – back to those people in the form of decent infrastructure, college loans, emergency medical techs, medical research and fire fighting. The Heritage Foundation seems to favor the plutocratic leech economy. Going so far as to claim that model is somehow virtuous. That any attempt by our Corporatist Democrat president to pay for the things everyone uses has Vladimir Lenin smiling in his grave. While the reality is that Adam Smith would see America’s corporate elite and their apologists as an extreme corruption of capitalism far beyond the flaws he was willing to accept in what he acknowledged what an imperfect system.

Related and worth a read, Rich People’s Taxes Have Little to Do with Job Creation – Conservative Arguments that Higher Income Taxes for the Wealthy Hurt Employment Don’t Hold Up to Scrutiny

Lower taxes on the rich do not create job growth