• U.S.

THE PEOPLE: Scofflaws

4 minute read

Who cared about the black market? Not the U.S. people.

In New York City one day last week ten housewives, led by a public schoolteacher, made the rounds of their neighborhood meat and food dealers to ask their help in combating the black market. They got little comfort. At one store jeering employes told them: “Go home and wash your dishes.”

By last week the U.S. public, in most communities, had just about lost all of its wartime resistance against black marketing. Most people seemed to be resigned to widespread violations of the price-control laws. As they did in the Prohibition era, the people now winked and smiled at lawbreaking, helped the violators along by apathy or complacency, by scrambling to buy their wares at almost any price. The black market was just about out of hand—and off the American conscience.

It had moved out of the alley and into the regular avenues of trade. The pattern was uniformly ugly: the public not only tacitly approved of price cheating and shady dealings; it connived in them. In many a deal it was now the customer who suggested the “side money” bonus. Every community had its folklore and favorite practice:

In uninspected barnyard slaughterhouses, the seller might suggest to the buyer: “Bet you $100 you can’t hit the barn door with your hat at 100 yards.”

In hundreds of cities, renters of apartments, buyers of grain, textiles, beer, and almost every short article might propose the never-won wager: “Betcha I can spit farther than you can.”

In auto salesrooms the man who drops eight or ten $100 bills on the desk and quickly looks the other way was not uncommon.

On used car lots the over-ceiling premium bought a jack, an extra battery, a blanket—at $100 and up. In Oklahoma City, a dealer had a tired hunting hound which he habitually sold—along with a car. The hound dog always shuffled back to the lot.

In Cleveland an auto repairman upped his bill by charging for 167 hours of labor on a car he had in his shop for a week (total hours in a week: 168).

Almost everywhere nylon stockings, once the $10-a-pair symbol of affluence and influence, had become wampum.

Back of the Barn. The public swiftly caught on to every unethical trick. The man who wanted a new automobile in a hurry, but had no car to trade in, knew that some dealer would sell him a secondhand car at $800 and then take it back in trade at $400. The OPA was virtually helpless against the racket in autos. It caught some little fish (some of them several times), but snagged few really big ones.

Last week, however, it netted a whopper —the biggest used car ring. In 18 months it had handled about 5,000 cars, worth $4,000,000 at ceiling prices, sold them for $7,000,000. The technique: buying from individuals in auto-jammed Detroit, selling to the auto-hungry mid-South through auction outlets in sleepy Cairo, Ill., and sleepier Murray, Ky. The indicted ringleader: dark, stocky Ben Fishel of Cairo, whose business ran merrily on while he served in the Army.

All over the nation there was now little hesitancy—from sellers & buyers alike—in flouting the laws. In the South and Southwest it was lumber-running—on the highways outside San Antonio and Austin, Tex., there is lively bidding each night at $1,200 for big truckloads of lumber worth $720 at ceiling prices. In almost every rural area, war veterans with priorities bought new tractors, sold them back of’the barn at $500 profit. In Florida, cement building blocks (ceiling 17¢) had a current black-market price of 60¢.

In New Orleans last week an airplane arrived from North Dakota—and a famed restaurant had 760 Ibs. of butter at 90¢ a Ib. In Wisconsin it was cheese, butter, and hijacked beer which filtered through illegal channels. In New York City, men’s clothing dealers bought low-priced suits from an ethical low-priced retailer, substituted their own labels for his and sold the suits for twice what they had cost. In Colorado it was grain-running to sheep and cattle feeders. In Iowa it was almost anything the farmer’s heart desired for a couple of carloads of corn.

Across the land the scofflaw was king—and he had many subjects.

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