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100 Events That Changed Business: 1900-2000

50. The Agricultural Adjustment Act is signed: May 12, 1933.

President Franklin Roosevelt signs the Agricultural Adjustment Act in an effort to end the terrible poverty that has visited farms in the wake of the Great Depression. The act, which creates price supports and controls on crop production, succeeds, at the cost of turning those hardy Jeffersonian farmers into dependents of the federal government long after the Depression has passed.

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49. Levittown opens: October 1947.

William Levitt builds suburbia, and they come. The houses are small and uniform, but for GIs just back from the war and families used to grimy tenements, they're heaven. And they're cheap, running $8,000 to $10,000 each. Levitt sells 300 homes in his Long Island, N.Y., development in the first weekend and 17,000 in four years, marking Levittown as an enormous financial success and speeding a suburban explosion that extends from New York to Los Angeles.

Sadly, Levitt doesn't let equal rights get in the way of his quest to build the perfect tract house. His early contracts explicitly bar homeowners from allowing their properties "to be used or occupied by any person other than members of the Caucasian race."

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48. Hospital Corp. of America is founded: 1968.

Doctors don't make enough money.

Dr. Thomas F. Frist Sr., his Air Force surgeon son and Jack Massey (former head of Kentucky Fried Chicken) start HCA in 1968 to rectify that sorry state. Eventually HCA, the first investor-owned hospital chain, would merge with Columbia to form Columbia/HCA Healthcare. It would become the largest operator of hospital chains in the country, until it is brought low in a major Medicare bilking scandal.

The door to for-profit health care businesses is opened, not to close again. The health maintenance organization comes a few years later, when President Richard Nixon, worried about health-care inflation, persuades Congress to provide grants encouraging the establishment of HMOs. The law also opens the corporate door for HMOs by requiring any company offering health-care insurance to its workers to offer an HMO option.

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47. The savings-and-loan crisis peaks: 1988.

S&Ls were never such a good idea. Using short-term liabilities (depositors' savings accounts) to finance long-term assets (mortgages) is a roadmap for disaster, and the inflation of the 1970s provides the necessary gas for the ride to receivership. By the early 1980s, 73 S&Ls go under, costing the federal fund that insures S&Ls close to $2 billion.

Unfortunately, rather than dealing with the crunch, your friendly representatives in Washington choose to look the other way and loosen regulations. With little to lose, the S&Ls pile on bad loan after bad loan, hoping to lend their way to profitability. Losses increase further because S&Ls, which for two generations had been run by the dumbest guys in the banking business, are suddenly given the chance to make all manner of commercial loans. A Texas office park here and a Florida hotel there, and we're suddenly talking real money.

By 1988, it's clear that the deregulation of the early '80s was a huge mistake, and hundreds of S&Ls (and commercial banks, which are facing their own problems) will have to be shut down. In 1988, 190 S&Ls fail, at a total cost of more than $46 billion, far outstripping the reserves in the federal insurance fund. U.S. taxpayers make up the difference. In all, taxpayers pay $132 billion to fix the S&L crisis -- instead of the $20 billion or so resolving it in the early '80s would have cost.

Still, things could have been worse. While the crisis would be expensive, it would be largely resolved by the early '90s, and the U.S. financial industry would be healthy going forward. The Japanese can only look on enviously.

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46. AT&T is dismantled: Jan. 1, 1984.

Forced by the Justice Department and Judge Harold Green to give up its monopoly status, American Telephone & Telegraph splits up into a long-distance company (today's AT&T) and the regional Bells. The move opens up competition in the long-distance market, thereby introducing the term "slamming" into the English lexicon and giving new endorsement opportunities to washed-up celebrities everywhere.

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45. Reagan fires federal air traffic controllers: August 1981.

President Ronald Reagan fires 11,000 members of the air traffic controllers' union, demonstrating that the power once wielded by labor unions in America has waned. Of course, years of deindustrialization and repeated scandals involving organized crime had already greatly weakened the nation's once-mighty union movement.

For most of the next two decades, unions would remain on the defensive. But by the late 1990s, a new wave of union leaders would step up spending on recruitment in an effort to avoid marginalization. In 1998, union membership would grow by 101,000 workers, the largest increase in five years.

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44. U.S. immigration peaks: 1907.

Call 'em strivers searching for a better life. Or, if you prefer, just call 'em cheap labor. Either way, immigrants have provided a vital spark to the U.S. economy throughout this century. Their influence peaks before World War I, when a flood of immigrants from Eastern and Southern Europe powers the growth of New York and the other new metropolises of the Northeast and Midwest, helping turn the U.S. into the world's foremost industrial nation. Immigration tops out in 1907, when more than 1 million European immigrants pass through New York's Ellis Island.

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43. FDR signs the GI Bill of Rights: June 22, 1944.

The GI Bill makes college and advanced training possible for millions of vets, dramatically increasing the education level and skills of the U.S. labor force. The DeVry Institute would pick up the slack 40 years later.

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42. The Jungle is published: 1906.

Though it's a maudlin novel and a Zola rip-off, Upton Sinclair's muckraking contribution has an almost immediate impact. The government would pass that year the Meat Inspection Act and the Pure Food and Drug Act, which would pave the way for the Food and Drug Administration but strangely have no effect on the advent of Velveeta.

The Jungle marks the peak of the first wave of muckraking journalism, which galvanizes public outrage over the excesses and lawlessness that mar American business at the turn of the century. By World War I, pressure from the muckrakers, and their political counterparts, the Progressives, would have led to government protection of natural resources, the creation of public utility commissions and the enactment of labor laws.

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41. Coca-Cola becomes a global brand: World War II.

Coca-Cola President Robert Woodruff decides he'd like to sell the world a Coke and starts with the U.S. armed services for a plug nickel a bottle. World conquest and a succession of schmaltzy commercial jingles swiftly follow.

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