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Corn: Are we learning the hard lessons of Sweetmilk?

POSTED: June 4, 2010 1:00 a.m.

Considering our recent financial catastrophe and the enormous import of the reform legislation currently under debate in congress, it is worth taking a moment to compare our situation to that of the legendary Sweetmilk, Ga.

It is said that in 1880, Sweetmilk was a bustling farm community in the Appalachian foothills. A couple of dozen families had taken up residence and the first generation of settlers had worked hard cultivating the land, raising children and helping each other through the winters as best they could.

Over time, the land, and their own hard work, benefited these families and the community saw fit to levy a tax to build and maintain two roads running through the county. These roads brought greater profits to the farmers, who could get their crops to market quicker and gain access to tools and supplies.

Though the settlers were mostly illiterate, they figured it a wise investment to build a school for their young ones and hire an educated person to teach full time. It was clearly a wonder to all when an entire generation was taught to read, write and calculate. Reading meant they could learn from all manner of useful books, and their arithmetic helped figure their families' expenses and better manage their affairs. It was seen as another welcome sign of progress when a bank and general store opened at the main intersection.

One day a man named Smiley Bottlenipper had an idea to open up a private game room for profit at the same intersection. Bottlenipper was not considered a reliable farmer, or neighbor for that matter, and was known to stay up late and go carousing in the next town over. Nevertheless, he found a pair of like-minded partners to help him build the little wooden storefront and open his gambling club.

At first, it wasn't easy to find new members, for local folks generally preferred to spend their evenings at home or at church after a hard day's work. But then a fellow from out of town went around town telling anyone who would listen that he'd just won $100 gambling over at Bottlenipper's. The owners verified the story and their business promptly took off. Pretty soon, most everyone in town was either gambling in the game room or quietly buying shares in the operation from the partners.

All the late-night activity started to upset the regular peace and sobriety of Sweetmilk. Work was neglected, fields were left unkempt, animals untended and the women complained mightily. Even the roads were let go in the general hysteria, because the county commission said it intended to use the tax money to open up more game rooms in the neighboring communities.

As far as the well-being of Sweetwater was concerned, Bottlenipper and his partners had everything pretty well figured out. In fact, they did so well with their business they went and bought out the bank, and started lending to themselves. They told folks they were using their deposits to buy materials for other game rooms in the works.

Then a lunatic drifted into town, who after losing quite a lot of money gambling, went into a rage and shot Jack Woodsap dead. It was quite the tragedy, since Woodsap was a stout man of good reputation and five young boys to feed at home.

The women in town had had enough. They ordered their men home at night, or else.

A couple of townsmen managed to sell their memberships at the club, but in a matter of hours no one would buy a membership and no one could sell the one he had. It was the oddest thing that a fine establishment like the game room could come to disrepute so quickly.

The next day the bank was closed, too, but it had a sign saying it would open the next day. That night, Bottlenipper and his partners slipped out of town and disappeared.

After this great rupture in the community, Sweetmilk endured a long period of hardship. Money was short for everyone. The general store made loans for awhile, but then had to close when no one could pay their debts. And many mothers cried when the school was shut down.

Is our situation today really so different? Our scam artists, however, have not fled for their lives. They are busy rewriting a bill labeled financial reform.

According to the Center for Public Integrity, the financial services industry has employed five lobbyists for every lawmaker to influence this legislation, and over the past 15 months have paid them $1.3 billion. Now it is not clear what all these well-paid professionals are seeking to write into law, but it is safe to say that they are not designing a fund for widows and orphans.

The truth is that the industry has spent its money well. It has successfully weakened the bill to the point where no major bank will be broken up. What's more, they can continue to gamble on risky investments and sell unregulated insurance, all while being underwritten by American taxpayers via the FDIC.

The bankers have their heads buried in the U.S. Treasury like so many hogs at the trough, using their great girth to sink hooves deep in the mud. The U.S. government may be beyond repair as many claim, but that is all the more reason for an educated public to stand up, recognize the massive looting going on, and demand a serious two page reform bill that puts the public good ahead of private pilfering.

Jesse Corn is a Gainesville native and a Forsyth County resident. His column appears biweekly on Fridays and on gainesvilletimes.com.



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