"No matter how paranoid or conspiracy-minded you are, what the government is actually doing is worse than you imagine." - - - William Blum

March 18, 2009

A Primer on Robber Barons

As the hyperventilating political establishment goes bonkers over AIG's (shouldn't-be-surprising) rip-off of the U.S. public, it's good to review previous rip-off artists (courtesy of Knowledge News) and contrast them to today's apparently completely immoral and unethical leaders of private finance:

Meet the Robber Barons : John D. Rockefeller,Andrew Carnegie, Cornelius Vanderbilt, and J.P. Morgan

Friends, when the federal government has to bail out bankers, and then the bankers use the bailout on a bonus, people inevitably draw lines to history's "robber barons." But that's probably unfair--to the robber barons. Yes, some Gilded Age captains of industry defrauded investors as they gathered capital. And yes, they ruthlessly pocketed almost obscene amounts of cash. But they also built the entire industrial infrastructure of the post-Civil War United States.

Just look at the wealthiest and most powerful of the bunch: John D. Rockefeller, Andrew Carnegie, Cornelius Vanderbilt, and J.P. Morgan. By some measures, the first three remain the wealthiest Americans ever to live, amassing fortunes that, in today's dollars, would far surpass those of Bill Gates and Warren Buffett. Morgan never reached those heights, but he wielded Wall Street's purse.

John D. Rockefeller--Liquid Assets

John D. Rockefeller (1839-1937) preferred liquid assets--namely, oil. When prospectors tapped western Pennsylvania in the late 1850s, Rockefeller quickly put two and two together and realized that the real money was in refining. Then, he proceeded to put everything together, first buying up refineries, then buying up everything else involved in moving oil from rock to house.

By 1880, Rockefeller's Standard Oil Company controlled more than 90 percent of the nation's refining capacity. Ruthlessly efficient, "the Standard" could undercut any competitor's best price. Government trustbusters finally carved up the company in 1911, and Rockefeller became a full-time philanthropist, giving away more than $500 million.

Andrew Carnegie--Cold, Hard Cash

Andrew Carnegie (1835-1919) made cold, hard cash from steel. The son of a Scottish peasant, Carnegie was superintendent of a railroad by age 24. There, he realized that bigger rail cars would require new infrastructure--wooden bridges would have to be iron, and iron rails would have to be steel. By 1875, Carnegie owned a bridge works and a steel mill. By 1889, he had an absolutely iron grip on the American steel market.Carnegie planned, and pinched, every production cost, making his mills more efficient than practically any other factory of the era. He retired in 1901, when J.P. Morgan bought him out to make the largest corporation in the world: U.S. Steel. Carnegie's beliefs demanded philanthropy--"the man who dies rich," he wrote, "dies disgraced"--so he spent his retirement investing $350 million in cultural and educational institutions, including 2,800 libraries.

Cornelius Vanderbilt--Railroading

Cornelius Vanderbilt (1794-1877) ran railroads, and had a knack for railroading anyone who dared compete. Once, when two associates tried to wrest control of one of his companies, he vowed, "You have undertaken to cheat me. I won't sue you, for the law is too slow. I'll ruin you."Vanderbilt got his start in steamboats, first schlepping New Yorkers up the Hudson River, then rushing gold seekers from New York to San Francisco via Nicaragua. In both cases, Vanderbilt cut fares so low that his competitors literally paid him to go away. (He was probably the first to understand "bleacher" economics: that is, cheap seats but $5 hot dogs.)

He got into railroads at the time of the Civil War, buying up so much railroad stock that he owned 17 local lines, which he fused into the New York Central system running between New York and Chicago. Vanderbilt hadn't much use for philanthropy. He gave $1 million to the university that bears his name, but otherwise willed his fortune to his son.

J.P. Morgan--Backstage Baron

J.P. Morgan (1837-1913), financier extraordinaire, wielded robber-baron power at a fraction of the wealth (if you can call more than $100 million in Gilded Age dollars a fraction). In his era, Morgan was Wall Street. Insiders called him "Jupiter," chief of the financial gods. If Morgan said you could have money, you had money. If he put the market's purse away, you were halfway to running a fruit stand.

Though baronial by birth and nature, Morgan understood how to protect the golden goose. During economic crises in 1895 and 1907, Morgan rallied Wall Street and--in the absence of a central bank--personally guaranteed the financial liquidity of the United States.

Ruthless and Corrupt?

Certainly. Only way to get things done, said the barons. As one political lubricator put it, "If a [politician] has the power to do great evil and won't do right unless he is bribed to do it, I think .... it is a man's duty to go up and bribe..."

Railroad magnate E.H. Harriman once responded to a reporter's challenge by pulling a page from his pocket and detailing all the track he had laid and rates he had cut. The reporter pressed, "But the public assails and attacks you and impugns your motives and accuses you of all sorts of things. Doesn't the thanklessness of the job ever embitter you?" Slapping his sheet of statistics, Harriman barked, "That remains." Can today's bailed-out bankers say the same?

---Michael Himick

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