Historical Interest

Out of our archives comes a very familiar account of corporate excess . . . from 1933.

It is easy now to indulge in sour morality. Three years ago it was a different story. Then it seemed that there could be no limit and no end. Our industry was 'depression-proof.' All the financial journals said so, and we believed it. 'It always gets dark at night,' we caroled. 'People must have light at night!' And with that as a slogan we went forth to sell more stock and build more power plants.

In these latter days, since the downfall, I know that there will be much talk of corruption and dishonesty. But I can testify that our trouble was not that. Rather, we were undone by our own extravagant folly, and our delusions of grandeur. The gods were waiting to destroy us, and first they infected us with a peculiar and virulent sort of madness.

Already, as I try to recall those times, I cannot quite shake off the feel that they were pages torn from the Arabian Nights. But they were not. The tinseled scenes through which I moved were real. The madcap events actually happened--not once, but every day. And at the moment nobody thought them in the least extraordinary. For that was the New Era. In it we felt ourselves the gods and the demigods. The old laws of economics were for mortals, but not for us. With us, anything was possible. The sky was the limit.

Looking back now, I see how naive were our godlike airs. Most of us were really simple folk, of humble origin. Going the circuit of our walnut desks, one would hardly have found a single executive who had not worked his way up from the ranks. They had begun in small towns as owners or operators of little companies. The companies had been bought up by Amalgamated International, and the owners annexed as super-executives. To maintain the power and glory of their new estate, they felt that it was their duty to carry on like Oriental princes.

At no time was the spectacle more imposing than at the annual conventions. Ah, those conventions! They were a Papal Mass, a Court Ball, and a Bacchanalian Revel rolled into one. Each year they were scheduled for some expensive resort. From the four corners of the country, special trains rolled in, laden with super-executives, super-executives' wives, and innumerable wardrobe trunks. The first day I stood behind a grove of potted palms in a hotel lobby and watched them register. A friend beside me pointed out the celebrities. Board Chairmen and Presidents without limit filed past, and the names of their companies read like the pages of Poor's Manual.

On the first day, the cards went out--for luncheons, dinners, and cocktail parties. London in season was as nothing compared to our convention. Each super-executive and wife had tried to get a suite of rooms more elegant than any their rivals had, to make their entertaining just a bit more splendid. In imagination I could see half a hundred wives plotting and planning weeks in advance with their super-executive husbands. 'We must not mind the expense, John, dear. We owe it to the company to make a better appearance than those Ackersons from Tulsa when he was chairman of your committee last year.' To such a proposition there could be only one answer. Advance reservations were wired to the hotel. New gowns were ordered for the wardrobe trunk. Conferences were held with head waiters and maitres d'hotel. And on the first day of the convention the cards went out.

Small wonder, then, that my head reeled with room numbers as I staggered around to pay court to the kings and queens of our industry. And, for that matter, small wonder that I staggered. When half a hundred Joneses set out to keep up with each other, the result is bound to be a Roman Holiday.

I presume the company described was Insull's Middle-West Utilities, which went spectacularly bankrupt in 1932, knocking out lights to thousands of homes, and eventually leading to the utilities regulations that still shape the corporate ownership of our power, gas and water systems.

I've been hearing a fair amount of loose talk about how the current retrenchment in consumer sentiment marks a permanent change in our consumption appetite, like the legendary tight-fistedness that characterized the Depression generations.  But that kind of compulsive hoarding was borne out of this kind of utter disaster--not merely the depth, but the length.  When folks lose their electricity for a couple of years, or see their entire life savings wiped out by a bank failure, perhaps we can start to talk about the return of a depression mentality.  Right now, I suspect that our happy, spendthrift selves are still waiting around in the wings, eyeing the Joneses suspiciously.