Charles Morris Uncovered “Tantalizing Nuggets” on Innovation and Entrepreneurship

In researching my Openness to Creative Destruction, I found two of Charles Morris’s books very useful, providing thought-provoking analysis and compelling examples. The two were The Dawn of Innovation and The Tycoons.

(p. A24) Charles R. Morris, a former government official, banker and self-taught historian of economics who as a prolific, iconoclastic author challenged conventional political and economic pieties, died on Monday [December 13, 2021] in Hampton, N.H.

. . .

Mr. Morris wrote his signature first book, “The Cost of Good Intentions: New York City and the Liberal Experiment” (1980), after serving as director of welfare programs under Mayor John V. Lindsay and as secretary of social and health services in Washington State.

The book was a trenchant Emperor’s New Clothes analysis of how the Lindsay administration’s unfettered investment in social welfare programs to ward off civil unrest had delivered the city to the brink of bankruptcy, and it pigeonholed Mr. Morris as a neoconservative.

But as a law school graduate with no formal training in economics, he defied facile labeling.

While his 15 nonfiction books often revisited well-trodden topics — including the Great Depression, the nation’s tycoons, the cost of health care, the Cold War arms race and the political evolution of the Roman Catholic church — he injected them with revealing details, provocative insights and fluid narratives.

“The Cost of Good Intentions” (1981) was less a screed about liberal profligacy as it was an expression of disappointment that benevolent officials had become wedded to programs that didn’t work. He concluded that the best and the brightest in the government, as well as complicit players on the outside, had figured that if a day of reckoning ever came, it would not be on their watch.

. . .

He would . . . belie Thomas Carlyle’s characterization of economics as “the dismal science” by injecting tantalizing nuggets.

Reviewing Mr. Morris’s “A Time of Passion: America 1960-1980” (1984) for The Times Book Review, Michael Kinsley wrote that “some of the most vivid moments in this book come when he stops the rush of history to describe incidents from his own time as a poverty-program and prison administrator.”

“He truly has been ‘mugged by reality,’ in Irving Kristol’s famous definition of a neoconservative,” Mr. Kinsley added, but concluded, “Overall, his book radiates a generosity and good will that set it apart from the typically sour neoconservative creed.”

. . .

“I think we’re heading for the mother of all crashes,” Mr. Morris wrote his publisher, Peter Osnos, the founder of PublicAffairs books, early in 2007, adding, “It will happen in summer of 2008, I think.”

Mr. Osnos recalled that after the book was published, “George Soros and Paul Volcker called me and asked, ‘Who is this Morris, and how did he get this so right, so early?’”

For the full obituary, see:

Sam Roberts. “Charles R. Morris, Author Who Disputed Economic Dogma, Dies at 82.” The New York Times (Wednesday, December 15, 2021): A24.

(Note: ellipses, and bracketed date, added.)

(Note: the online version of the obituary was updated Dec. 15, 2021, and has the title “Charles R. Morris, Iconoclastic Author on Economics, Dies at 82.”)

The books by Morris that I found especially useful were:

Morris, Charles R. The Dawn of Innovation: The First American Industrial Revolution. Philadelphia, PA: PublicAffairs, 2012.

Morris, Charles R. The Tycoons: How Andrew Carnegie, John D. Rockefeller, Jay Gould, and J. P. Morgan Invented the American Supereconomy. New York: Times Books, 2005.

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