Wednesday, October 27, 2021

Review of "John D. Rockefeller: Robber Baron or Industrial Statesman?, Problems in American Civilization," edited by Earl Latham

 Review of

John D. Rockefeller: Robber Baron or Industrial Statesman?, Problems in American Civilization, edited by Earl Latham

Four out of five stars

Reasonably balanced look at an industrial titan

 In a recent news report, it was stated that the net worth of Elon Musk is now greater than that of the entire Exxon Mobile company. As a student of technological advances, I have followed the career of Musk almost from the first time he appeared in a news report. The news report made me think of the life of John D. Rockefeller, a man whose role in the business world matches the title of this book.

 In many ways Rockefeller was an incredible businessman, seeing opportunities for consolidation and the associated elimination of inefficiencies. One hears similar statements in the modern world of the form, “ economy of scale,” where it is claimed that scaling up production will lower the per unit cost. To others, he was a ruthless businessman that did not hesitate to undercut the competition and even engaging in the hire of thuggish elements to help convince his competition to sell out to him.

 Composed of a collection of articles by various authors, this book presents both aspects of the life of John D. Rockefeller, from the tough businessman to the philanthropist that gave away money when he really did not have that much. What he did was reach a level of success so high that the political leadership felt the need to break up his company. In 1913, his personal wealth was equal to 3% of the US GDP.

The level of consolidation in the oil business that Rockefeller achieved is similar to what has happened in the technological arena. Pundits now talk about the power of the major technology companies and argue that they must be broken up. Yet, Elon Musk has also been the driving force for some of the major technical advancements in space exploration and electrical vehicles.

 The best segment of text in the book is on page 104 and was written by Allan Nevins. “The rise of the Standard Oil men to great wealth was not from poverty. It was not meteor-like but accomplished over a quarter of a century by courageous venturing in a field so risky that most large capitalists avoided it, by arduous labors, and by more sagacious and farsighted planning than had been applied to any other American industry.” As a reader of biographies of people like Bill Gates, Steve Jobs and Elon Musk, this paragraph sounds like all of them. Each of them took a nascent industry and did a great deal to make it a an economic superpower. Just like Rockefeller in oil.

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