A biography of America's first billionaire, John D. Rockefeller, Sr., drawing from Rockefeller's personal papers to provide information about his rustic origins, his creation of Standard Oil, his often controversial business tactics, and his personal relationships and attributes.
Commentators have evoked parallels between the Gilded Age and our current time—both are times of growing wealth inequality and monopolistic behavior. For these reasons, now is a fitting time to study the life of the most prominent Robber Baron.
This book methodically covers more than a century of American history—starting with John's father Bill, and ending with his grandchildren. Rockefeller has been considered the wealthiest person in modern history (with an estimated wealth of $300 - $400 billion).
There are also many differences between the Guilded Age and our time now. Standard Oil ran a profit starting in its first year, when there are many "Unicorns" (billion dollar startups) that still haven't turned a profit. Stock valuation is now far more important than dividends in the current business paradigm. Also, Rockefeller made much of his money in an era before income tax and gift tax.
Although Standard Oil defined modern corporate law, it did so by forcing political power to shift from the state to the federal level. You could say there are parallels today with political power shifting from the national to the global level (although I hope we're not about to instate some kind of one world government).
You may have heard of the anti-trust era inspired by Standard Oil. What many don't know is that it was illegal for corporations to own assets across state lines during the late 1800s, so Standard Oil flouted the spirit of the law from the beginning. In other words, the core premise of Standard Oil's monopoly was illegal from the start—it's just that government didn't have the power to enforce these laws against such a behemoth until the early 1900s. Additionally, even with Ida Tarbell's notorious revelations, it wasn't until much more recently the full scope of Standard Oil's collusion was realized.
To get a bit into Rockefeller's biography:
* John started lending money to his dad at the age of 15
* John was an accountant, first and foremost
* His father forbid him to attend college, so he started his career at 17
* He went into business with a $1,000 loan from his father (the equivalent of somewhere in the ballpark of $1m today).
* He was a Baptist and temperance advocate
* He founded the University of Chicago, a Baptist school
* His father had a second wife/family, and had been indicted on rape charges
* He partially retired by the age of 50 to devote his life to philanthropy
* He began his giving at 6% of income per year at the age of 17, and went up from there ($550 million over his lifetime—many billions in today's dollars)
* In his 60s he lost all of his hair
* He lived to the age of 97
Rockefeller had a superiority complex that did not help his public relations efforts. He went to church every Sunday. He didn't drink, smoke, dance, or even patronize the arts. Rather than a means, in Rockefeller's cosmology, money is an end. To illustrate this point, it is worth citing the comments of a colleague; "I think you like money better than anything else in the whole world, and I do not. I like to have a little fun along with business as I go through life" (page 65).
I find a number of wealth people today still fall into similar pitfalls. Can extreme wealth inequality ever be justified? This is a core ethical question behind individuals like Rockefeller and the paradigms they perpetuate.
Rockefeller was a pioneering philanthropist and a devout Baptist, but might we have been better off if this wealth had never pooled in the first place? This gets us into questions of the concentration of power (and the reliance on power for the psychology and self-esteem of the ruling class).
Although it might come as a surprise to us today, there was massive backlash against not only Rockefeller's capitalism, but also his philanthropy. Anarchist and a different breed of left-wing populism held far more political power during the Gilded Age (which doesn't bode well for the fascist-bent of political power today).
Lastly, I'll mention Rockefeller's line that he was about "cooperation over competition." Monopolies are never cooperative. Their context is competitive; they crush their competition. Rockefeller's use of the word "cooperation" is like saying the Jews "cooperated" with the Nazis—it is deeply offensive, and relies on coercion and massive imbalances of power. Living systems are never dominated by one way of doing things. Only authoritarian approaches ever achieve 100% adoption.
Audiobook note :excellent narrator
Rockefeller has a single-minded drive to make money, which lasts until the 1920s when he starts to loosen up and become more human suggesting an inner character development. In the 1870s, his upright religious persona bolstered his credibility with bankers allowing him to raise cash to consolidate the industry rapidly; at the same time he was gaming the system to his advantage. Put kindly, the mark of a great man is the ability to hold contradicting ideas at the same time. Not so kindly, he was more greedy and hypocritical then the rest.
I knew little about Rockefeller, and am glad to have learned so much. In balance, most of the money was put to good use - parks, health care, arts - that is the best we can hope for. Near the end, Chernow describes a scene with Rockefeller seeing no interest in yachts but weeping over the beauty of a rainstorm. Chernow didn't intend it but it's poignant - climate change will be his legacy for thousands or even millions of years.