It seems timely to resurrect this Americanism from the 1930s - one of many evocative words the
Americans are pretty good at adding words to the English language. We owe them pin-up girls, highbrows, killjoys, stooges, hobos, drop-outs, shills, bobby-soxers, hijackers, do-gooders and hitchhikers who thumb a ride.
The Americanisms are so much more concise and vivid. Instead of saying "sorry we're late but drivers ahead of us slowed us down when they craned their necks to look at a crash" you can say "we were held up by rubberneckers".
Words pop in and out of our language as social conditions change. The American gangster, which is still with us, has been around as a noun and a reality since 1896 according to my Shorter Oxford, but it seems to have dropped another Americanism from the 1930s and I think now is the time to revive it.
The word is bankster, derived by a marriage of banker and gangster.
It was coined, as far as I can deduce, by an American immigrant, a fiery Sicilian-born lawyer by the name of Ferdinand Pecora. He was the chief counsel to the US Senate Committee on Banking set up in the early 30s to probe the origins of the Crash of 1929.
He exposed quite a lot of the Wall Street practices that Harvard's Professor William Z Ripley had condemned in 1928. The believable Ripley called them - get ready for these Americanisms - "prestidigitation, double-shuffling, honey-fugling, hornswoggling and skullduggery".
The professor had vainly tried to warn President Calvin Coolidge that Wall Street was full of gas and was bound to blow up. To great discomfort all round, Pecora identified Coolidge himself, by then out of office, as one of those who'd been in on the honey-fugling.
The great banking house of JP Morgan had the president on a "preferred list" by which the bank's influential friends were given a chance to buy stock at half price. Shall we say, they made out like bandits?
Today the term bankster perfectly fits Bernard Madoff, whose crooked Ponzi scheme lost $50 billion of what the trade calls OPM - other people's money - invested with him.
But the revelations come thick and fast. People are now struggling for words to describe the latest example of
That was actually a shotgun marriage - in the
Then what? In the few days in December while he was still in charge, Mr Thain reportedly spent nearly $4bn on staff bonuses. That's peanuts on
But a week ago, CNBC's Charles Gasparino, in a detailed scoop on the Daily Beast website revealed that during the time Mr Thain was busy cost-cutting, he spent $1.1m doing up his office - $86,000 for a rug, $35,000 for something called a commode on legs.
Readers bayed for blood, posting comments such as: "Oh how I wish this was Revolutionary France and we peasants could storm the offices."
The anger about the greed that got us into our mess is, in my view, wholly justified. And now we hear that 10 of the big banks that got $148bn from Uncle Sam so they could make loans to get things humming again have actually reduced their loan totals by $46bn.
Mr Thain now is history, having resigned, but the great Bank of America, the biggest in the
Have money, will lend
The piquancy of all this is that if the term banker is ever to be restored to its former prestige, the public and Wall St might reflect on one highly relevant example of a banker who was not a bankster.
It is the story of Amadeo Peter Giannini, a big man on the side of the little man. When the transcontinental railway started services to
He was in the womb of his newlywed mother, 15-year-old Virginia. His father, having made money in the goldfields, had gone back to
Amadeo was born on 6 May, 1870. He grew up on a little farm, whose produce his mother and father sold in booming
Amadeo - or AP as he became known - grew into a tall, strong man, more than able to hold his own in the rough auctions for fruit and veg on the wharfs where traders met the farmers' boats. He helped to build a thriving business.
When he was 31 he sold his share, saying he had no interest in accumulating wealth. "No man owns a fortune," he said. "It owns him." It was the motto of his life.
He'd married and on the death of his father in law, was persuaded to take his vacant place on the board of a little bank in
From his work on the wharves, he'd become a shrewd judge of character, so he'd cheerfully lend money to pay doctor's bills for delivery of a baby if he judged the couple had integrity.
On Wednesday 18 April, 1906,
It must have been a debilitating moment the next day to find his baby bank a mass of charred rubble. The bigger banks, who had vaults too hot to open, had no records and were not lending.
AP instead went down to a wharf close to the smouldering North Beach, flung a plank across two barrels, and with his baritone booming across the desolation, started lending some of his $80,000 to rebuild San Francisco.
He looked for steamship captains he knew, shoved money into their hands, saying "go north and get lumber". AP radiated so much confidence, making a big show of jiggling his little bag of gold, hundreds who'd been hoarding cash and gold banked it with him.
By 1918 he'd established
He set out to build a nationwide banking system so that distressed areas could be helped by ones that were prospering. Wall St hated him. He beat off their attempts to destroy him. In the Great Depression, he took every opportunity in the New Deal legislation to get
He did it by putting the community first, himself last. He set up low interest instalment credit plans which enabled thousands to avoid the loan sharks and buy cookers and refrigerators and autos, and he built a whole new electrical industry with his loans.
He financed the
No man could do so much good without being maligned. It was said he wore the mask of populism to create a dangerous instrument of personal power and personal wealth.
The truth is that the man whose life was money had no interest in money. He refused to take increases in pay and spurned every bonus. He banned insider trading. Shortly after retiring in 1945, when he found himself in danger of becoming a millionaire, he set up a foundation and gave it half his personal fortune.
And the little bank for the ordinary man that he founded?
The Bank of
Story from BBC NEWS:
Published: 2009/01/30 17:11:35 GMT
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