These are two comments from a thread at JWS yesterday:
We are living right now in a time when the worst elements of human nature are prevalent in our society, our culture.
Romney places business freedom on par with civil liberty. We tried his plan — in the 1890′s — and it didn’t work.
A capitalist with a moral compass recognizes there’s a difference between businessmen and robber barons.
I majored in history in college, and there are a couple things that really annoy me.
The first is false nostalgia – the idea that things (and people) used to be better than they are today. Human nature hasn’t changed in thousands of years. Read the Bible or the ancient classics and you’ll read about people killing and screwing and stealing. The United States is not only the richest country on Earth, we’re the richest nation in human history.
If history is any guide our current economic situation is only temporary. We live longer and healthier lives than our ancestors. War between nations is at an all-time low. Technology is at an all-time high.
That doesn’t mean things are perfect. But they have never been perfect and probably never will be perfect – or at least not anytime soon. Would you rather be living in 1912? 1012? 12 B.C.?
The other thing is people who think they know history but don’t. It’s like when someone says “Hillary ran a bad campaign” or “Sarah Palin cost John McCain the election.” They are misstating what really happened.
You could fill a library with stuff that people think they know that is wrong. Take the late 19th Century for instance – the so-called “Gilded Age.” If your knowledge of history is limited to K-12 textbooks and a college survey course or two, you might have the impression that the post-Civil War era was a dark age in US history.
In reality that period was a time of tremendous economic growth, industrialization, urbanization and technological change. First steam and then electrical power transformed industry. The development of a cheap steel making process made possible railroads, steamships and skyscrapers. In a short period of time the United States was transformed from an agrarian society to the world’s leading industrial power.
In order to supply factories with coal and iron ore the mining industry grew, digging deeper and deeper into the ground. The petroleum industry was created. The Midwest began cash-crop farming to feed the hungry workers in the cities.
Remember all those westerns where the cowboys were driving herds of cattle to rowdy towns like Abilene and Dodge City? Those cattle were driven overland to meet the railhead, then they were shipped to meatpacking plants in the Midwest and then the processed meats were shipped farther east to the cities.
As for the so-called Robber Barons:
The businessmen of the Second Industrial Revolution created industrial towns and cities in the Northeast with new factories, and hired an ethnically diverse industrial working class, many of them new immigrants from Europe. The super-rich industrialists and financiers such as John D. Rockefeller, Andrew W. Mellon, Andrew Carnegie, Henry Flagler, Henry H. Rogers, J. P. Morgan, Cornelius Vanderbilt of the Vanderbilt family, and the prominent Astor family would sometimes be labeled “robber barons” in reference to the perceived underhanded manner in which they attained their vast wealth. Many of these captains of industry, in addition to building the still fledgeling American economy, participated in immense acts of philanthropy (referred to by Andrew Carnegie as the “Gospel of Wealth”) and used private money to endow thousands of colleges, hospitals, museums, academies, schools, opera houses, public libraries, symphony orchestras, and charities. John D. Rockefeller, for example, donated over $500 million to various charities, slightly over half his entire net worth.
Many if not most of those men started off poor and built entirely new industries. While they were not paragons of virtue (who is?) the methods they used were generally legal and at the time were considered sound business practices.
But wait! There’s more:
Increased mechanization of industry is a major mark of the Gilded Age’s search for cheaper ways to create more product. Frederick Winslow Taylor observed that worker efficiency in steel could be improved through the use of machines to make fewer motions in less time. His redesign increased the speed of factory machines and the productivity of factories while undercutting the need for skilled labor. This mechanization made some factories an assemblage of unskilled laborers performing simple and repetitive tasks under the direction of skilled foremen and engineers. Machine shops grew rapidly, and they comprised highly skilled workers and engineers. Both the number of unskilled and skilled workers increased, as their wage rates grew. Engineering colleges were established to feed the enormous demand for expertise. Railroads invented modern management, with clear chains of command, statistical reporting, and complex bureaucratic systems. They systematized the roles of middle managers, and set up explicit career tracks. They hired young men at age 18–21 and promoted them internally until a man reached the status of locomotive engineer, conductor or station agent at age 40 or so. Career tracks were invented for skilled blue collar jobs and for white collar managers, starting in railroads and expanding into finance, manufacturing and trade. Together with rapid growth of small business, a new middle class was rapidly growing, especially in northern cities.
During the 1870s and 1880s, the U.S. economy rose at the fastest rate in its history, with real wages, wealth, GDP, and capital formation all increasing rapidly. For example, between 1865 and 1898, the output of wheat increased by 256%, corn by 222%, coal by 800% and miles of railway track by 567%. Thick national networks for transportation and communication were created. The corporation became the dominant form of business organization, and a managerial revolution transformed business operations. By the beginning of the 20th century, per capita income and industrial production in the United States led the world, with per capita incomes double that of Germany or France, and 50% higher than Britain.
Was everything about the Gilded Age good? Certainly not. But industrialization, capitalism and the so-called Robber Barons didn’t invent poverty either.