Wednesday, November 23, 2011

Titan: The Life of John D. Rockefeller, Sr.

Some years ago I was introduced to the biographer, Ron Chernow, through his book on Alexander Hamilton. Surprisingly eloquent and able to articulate simply the most complicated financial issues facing a young America and that Secretary of Treasury, I was impressed enough by his writing and explanatory power to consider reading another of his biographies. Faced with a biography of George Washington, the House of Morgan (the rich Morgan bankers of the late 1800s), or John D. Rockefeller Sr., I decided to venture beyond my comfort zone.

The easy choice was Washington. As one of the few remaining founding fathers of whom I've yet to read a biography, Washington would have served that purpose nicely and easily for the political history buff that I am. But yet Rockefeller was who I settled on. Feeling it would be more personal than a biography on an entire family like the Morgan tome, I decided that Rockefeller would be my choice for the first business biography I've ever read. And even though I was out of my comfort zone in the arena of business dealings and the never-ending quest for profit, I managed to find the Rockefeller story an incredibly compelling one.

The Ramifications of Rockefeller

I'm not going to summarize Rockefeller's life. It was long, impressive, and involved a great number of crazy events, but you can read the book for that. Instead, I'm going to talk about what I drew from the man's career, experiences, and wealth that constantly grew for as long as he was alive.

Rockefeller was a man who was near obsessive-compulsive in the pursuit of perfection. This expressed itself in his personal life, but perhaps most clearly in the business realm which he dominated. From a lowly bookkeeper, Rockefeller ventured into the oil industry, carefully overwhelmed and co-opted rivals, took over railroads so as to lower the rates they wielded against him, and eventually became one of the richest men alive at the helm of a United States oil monopoly that was competitive and powerful at a worldwide level.

The problem was that, in the innocent aims of running a business to the best of his ability, Rockefeller inadvertently annihilated competitors, crushed the hopes of small business owners of many different products, and challenged American conceptions of capitalism. Through Rockefeller and the business trusts (conglomerate monopolies) of the time, we see how the chaotic nature and ups and downs of a free market economy actually resulted, not in healthy competition, but in vast alliances of business owners who sought to bring order to the system, even at the cost of any new entrants to the field.

The Sympathetic

Rockefeller, through the enormous trust he created in the Standard Oil Company, merely wanted to be the best at what he did. He was devoutly religious, held himself to a humble and Protestant lifestyle, and treated his employees and rivals with the utmost respect. He largely pursued his business goals in the interest of being successful within what American laws allowed. He viewed himself as a crusader seeking to bring a profitable order to the oil side of the market economy and more, benefiting everyone. He even became one of the biggest philanthropists of all time, giving away hundreds of millions of dollars to charities of all sorts across the world, making sure the whole time to avoid having his name attached to the givings, not wanting anyone to mistakenly believe that he gave to charity just to make himself look good.

But Ron Chernow also makes absolutely clear that Rockefeller seemed to be very good at not considering the social and political consequences of his actions. Every time, Rockefeller seemed honestly surprised when merchants and small business owners repeatedly tried to combine forces, just to have a chance at competition. Every time, Rockefeller felt put upon and unfairly mistreated when brought to court for deliberately seeking to undermine and overwhelm competitors of any kind. It is arguable that he never ever realized before his death how antithetical trusts and monopolies are to the United States and its economic system.

The Ugly

Tainting the reputation of this man further and removing him from the list of businessmen to aspire to was the fact that, for someone holding himself as a proper, moral, godly and giving man, perhaps Rockefeller's greatest talent was lying to himself about the nastiness and dubious legality of much that he had done to secure his incalculable wealth. Corporate espionage, price wars, efforts to cripple competitors by buying all of their tools before they could, monopolizing transportation so that competitors couldn't transport their goods anywhere, buying land so nobody else could use it but him... Rockefeller's rise with Standard Oil reads almost as a litany of dick moves for businessmen.

On top of that, Rockefeller was king of courtroom evasion, keeping everything a secret, and reading laws "creatively" so as to keep the trust going as long as possible, defying for a long time the will of the United States government and the will of the people from taking effect. Whenever I found myself sympathizing with Rockefeller, all I had to do was remind myself of these things and realize that, for all his personal desires and view of himself, Rockefeller was kind of an asshole.
They really had a thing for octopus motifs back then


And yet I sympathized with him nonetheless. Maybe it was the perception of the biographer running off on me, but I genuinely got the impression that Rockefeller believed more than anything in the world that everyone was against him simply because they wanted part of the pie. Any criticism he viewed as simply the reaction of greed, and jealousy that Rockefeller had achieved hard-earned success in a world where success of this magnitude is rare. To an extent, this had some validity. But it was an entirely self-centered view that seemed perpetually unable to understand the actual social ramifications of what he did, both with his monopolizing tendencies and unsavory business practices.

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