Boston Brahmins Invested in Western Industrialization

(p. A13) One of history’s ironies is that, even though New England birthed the abolition movement, many of Boston’s most prominent families offered less than total support for freeing the slaves. Their prosperity required a steady supply of cotton to feed New England’s growing textile industry. Even after slavery ended in 1865, wealthy Bostonians were reluctant to abandon their traditional business. Henry Lee Higginson, 30 years old and freshly discharged from the Union Army, bought with his partners a 5,000-acre plantation in Georgia with the goal of turning a profit by growing cotton. But the 60 former slaves living on the plantation thought the wages and terms offered to be grossly inadequate; the land they had worked in chains for generations, they believed, should belong to them. The enterprise soon collapsed.

As similar episodes played out across the South, Boston’s business elites looked for new places to invest their money. “They began to reenvision American capitalist development, not in modifying and salvaging the arrangements of earlier decades but in a far more ambitious program of continental industrialization,” Noam Maggor writes in “Brahmin Capitalism.” “They retreated from cotton and moved into a host of groundbreaking ventures in the Great American West—mining, stockyards, and railroads.”

. . .

Especially representative of the Bostonians’ transformative influence was Higginson’s next enterprise. Far removed from Georgian cotton, his interests landed on a copper mine in northern Michigan’s remote Keweenaw Peninsula. Copper had been discovered there 20 years earlier, but extraction had been small-scale and labor intensive; the high cost per unit meant that mining was profitable only for veins that contained at least 40% copper. In a short time, high-yield mines in the area began to show signs of depletion. But with Higginson’s capital—alongside investments from other Brahmins—large-scale copper extraction could take place as a continuous operation, making mining profitable on belts that contained only 2%-4% copper. In this way, Higginson’s Eastern capital transformed Western mining and launched a career that would make him one of Boston’s leading financiers.

For the full review, see:

John Steele Gordon. “BOOKSHELF; Enterprising Bostonians; Contrary to stereotype, the Brahmins of New England crisscrossed the continent and took bold risks in search of higher yields.” The Wall Street Journal (Monday, June 26, 2017): A13.

(Note: ellipsis added.)

(Note: the online version of the review has the date June 25, 2017, and has the same title as the print version.)

The book under review is:

Maggor, Noam. Brahmin Capitalism: Frontiers of Wealth and Populism in America’s First Gilded Age. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2017.

Entrepreneurs Make Millions from Selling Cheaper Ice Cream

(p. A25) Curtis and S. Prestley Blake opened Friendly (the chain became Friendly’s in 1989) with a $547 loan from their parents in their hometown, Springfield, Mass., in the summer of 1935. With the Depression gripping the country, the brothers enticed customers by selling two scoops of ice cream for a nickel, about half the price their competitors charged (and the equivalent of about 95 cents today).

“Our customers didn’t have any money, and neither did we,” Mr. Blake told The Republican, a Springfield newspaper, in 2017.

Their shop was an instant success, with a line out the door on opening night. But it required constant labor.

. . .

Mr. Blake and his brother sold Friendly to the Hershey Foods Corporation in 1979 for about $164 million (nearly $580 million in today’s dollars).

For the full obituary, see:

Daniel E. Slotnik. “Curtis Blake Dies at 102; Built a Friendly Empire From Nickel Ice Cream.” The New York Times, First Section (Sunday, June 2, 2019): A25.

(Note: ellipsis added.)

(Note: the online version of the obituary has the date May 30, 2019, and has the title “Hong Kong Protesters Descend on Airport, With Plans to Stay for Days.”)

Stalin’s “Despotism in Mass Bloodshed”

(p. A13) In the aftermath of Lenin’s death in January 1924, Joseph Stalin—already secretary-general of the Communist Party—emerged as the outright leader of the Soviet Union. “Right through 1927,” Stephen Kotkin notes, Stalin “had not appeared to be a sociopath in the eyes of those who worked most closely with him.” But by 1929-30, he “was exhibiting an intense dark side.” Mr. Kotkin’s “Stalin: Waiting for Hitler, 1929-1941,” the second volume of a planned three-volume biography, tracks the Soviet leader’s transformation during these crucial years. “Impatient with dictatorship,” Mr. Kotkin says, Stalin set out to forge “a despotism in mass bloodshed.”

The three central episodes of Mr. Kotkin’s narrative, all from the 1930s, are indeed violent and catastrophic, if in different ways: the forced collectivization of Soviet agriculture; the atrocities of the Great Terror, when Stalin “arrested and murdered immense numbers of loyal people”; and the rise of Adolf Hitler, the man who would become Stalin’s ally and then, as Mr. Kotkin puts it, his “principal nemesis.” In each case, as Mr. Kotkin shows, Stalin’s personal character—a combination of ruthlessness and paranoia—played a key role in the unfolding of events.

For the full review, see:

Joshua Rubenstein. “BOOKSHELF; The Turn to Tyranny; We may never know what degree of personal obsession, political calculation and ideological zeal drove Stalin to kill and persecute so many.” The Wall Street Journal (Wednesday, Nov. 1, 2017): A13.

(Note: the online version of the review has the date Oct. 31, 2017, and has the same title “BOOKSHELF; Review: The Turn to Tyranny; We may never know what degree of personal obsession, political calculation and ideological zeal drove Stalin to kill and persecute so many.”)

The book under review is:

Kotkin, Stephen. Stalin: Volume 2: Waiting for Hitler, 1929-1941. New York: Penguin Press, 2017.

Gig Jobs Benefit Workers by “Cutting Out Corporate Bosses and Rent-Seeking Middlemen”

(p. C4) An astounding 94 percent of American jobs created between 2005 and 2015 were for “alternative work.” Slow and steady growth used to be a cardinal virtue for the big American corporation. Now leanness and flexibility are prized, and nobody is spared. “In the end,” Hyman writes, “even white men were not protected from this new reality.”

Hyman, a labor historian at Cornell, argues that the common explanation for what happened — mainly, that our current dispensation was foisted on us by technological and economic change — is self-serving and inadequate. He says that human choice, including a palpable shift in values, played an essential role. “Temp” traces how, for corporations and government policymakers alike, “the risk-taking entrepreneur supplanted the risk-averse, but loyal, company man as the capitalist ideal.”

. . .

His ending, about the gig economy, is weirdly upbeat. He believes that it’s still possible for work to be rewarding — maybe even more possible, now that apps and online platforms offer the promise of (leaving in place a few rent-seeking technocapitalist billionaires, of course). Individuals can sell their labor directly to one another.

For the full review, see:

Jennifer Szalai. “BOOKS OF THE TIMES; Gig Jobs Replace Gray Flannel Suits.” The New York Times (Thursday, Aug. 23, 2018): C4.

(Note: ellipsis added.)

(Note: the online version of the review has the date Aug. 22, 2018, and has the title “BOOKS OF THE TIMES; How the ‘Temp’ Economy Became the New Normal.”)

The book under review, is:

Hyman, Louis. Temp: How American Work, American Business, and the American Dream Became Temporary. New York: Viking, 2018.

“Results Are Often Suspiciously Consistent with the Political Dispositions of the Modeler”

(p. 14) For scholars and popular writers alike, the Great Depression has long been a kind of economic Rorschach test. Free marketers look at the economic disaster and blame the Smoot-Hawley tariff, which inaugurated a global trade war; monetarists attack the Federal Reserve for its tight-money policies; Keynesians berate Herbert Hoover for his attempts to balance the budget as the crisis worsened.

. . .

Generally, . . . , Morris is remarkably evenhanded, giving both sides of scholarly debates in deep detail. This is particularly the case in his coverage of the New Deal, where he weighs the practical effects of the dizzying array of policies begun by Roosevelt, from his devaluation of the dollar to the creation of the Civilian Conservation Corps. And Morris explains in accessible prose how economists have used modeling to study the New Deal (he wryly notes that this “is still a work in progress — if only because results are often suspiciously consistent with the political dispositions of the modeler”).

Continue reading ““Results Are Often Suspiciously Consistent with the Political Dispositions of the Modeler””

Aloysius Siow Offers Advance Praise for Openness to Creative Destruction

Art revives the lost art of business history in the tradition of Alfred Chandler to write a definitive history of American entrepreneurship. He uses economic theories to organize his encyclopedic knowledge of entrepreneurial success stories. Unlike books by successful entrepreneurs which recount why they personally succeeded, Art looks for themes which are common to these success stories. He provides modest policy suggestions to improve the environment for these entrepreneurs to thrive.

Aloysius Siow, Professor of Economics, University of Toronto.

Siow’s advance praise is for:
Diamond, Arthur M., Jr. Openness to Creative Destruction: Sustaining Innovative Dynamism. New York: Oxford University Press, forthcoming June 2019.

Bezos Richer than Rockefeller in Real Wealth

(p. A2) With a fortune exceeding $150 billion, Amazon founder Jeff Bezos was recently declared the richest person in modern history.
But is he?
The answer depends on how you account for the wealth of past contenders for the title.
There are at least five ways to do that, and each provides a different result, according to Samuel H. Williamson, an economist and president of the website Measuring Worth.
Real wealth, the most familiar yardstick, accounts for the relative purchasing power of a particular sum by adjusting it for inflation based on the Consumer Price Index.
Using that measure, the fortune of John D. Rockefeller, America’s first billionaire and Mr. Bezos’ stiffest competition among latter day aristocrats, would equal only $24 billion today.
Working in reverse, Mr. Bezos’ fortune would amount to about $6.5 billion in 1916, when Rockefeller’s riches first hit the $1 billion mark.

For the full commentary, see:
Jo Craven McGinty. “THE NUMBERS; Bezos vs. Rockefeller, a Rich History Lesson.” The Wall Street Journal (Saturday, Aug. 11, 2018): A2.
(Note: the online version of the commentary has the date Aug. 10, 2018, and has the title “THE NUMBERS; Is Jeff Bezos Really the Richest of Them All?”)