Monday, October 20, 2014

Entrepreneurs, Predators, Robber Barons and Martians

I had reason the other day to re-read Malcolm Gladwell's "The Sure Thing: How Entrepreneurs Really Succeed" in the January 18, 2010 New Yorker (here).  I admire Gladwell but also have come to distrust him just a little, since his MO is to take academic papers and dumb-them-down for a general audience.  Sometimes he puts an odd twist on a topic--I assume--to create greater appeal for the masses.  It can be a twist that doesn't always seem to square with a more careful reading of the original research.

This bit of discomfit led me back to the source for his article, Michel Villette and Catherine Vuillermot's book From Predators to Icons: Exposing the Myth of the Business Hero.  Villette is a sociologist at AgroParisTech and Vuillermot a business historian at L'Universite de France Comte.  Written in 2005, the book was translated into English in 2009, presumably when Gladwell bumped into it and wrote his review.  The authors conclude that the captains of industry--and they study 32 of the richest men in the world--made their fortune neither by taking risk nor innovating, but by taking advantage of (often low-risk) market weaknesses and vulnerabilities. (In fact, the original French title was Portrait of the Businessman as Predator.)  The authors conclude that a successful businessman does whatever it takes competitively to dominate a market and then "once his fortune is made and he invests some of his profits in foundations that reflect the social values of his time, he is forgiven for everything, even if his early career was punctuated by numerous predatory acts."  Think Carnegie and libraries, Stanford and education, Gates and vaccines.

Monday, October 13, 2014

The Lessons of History: A Few Takeaways

History has had its share of prolific authors, sometimes astoundingly so.

Sir Herbert Butterfield (1900-1979), the Cambridge professor and philosopher of history, published 22 books on history, the history of history, and the histories of science, religion and international relations.  Fellow knight Sir Arthur Bryant's (1899-1985) vast output included eight "lesser" books and a regular column for the Illustrated London News while he completed his three-book opus on Samuel Pepys; this was followed by 19 books between 1931 and 1944 and 13 more from 1950 to 1975.  

In this country, Allan Nevins (1890-1971) authored over 50 books including a Pulitzer Prize-winning biography of Grover Cleveland and an eight-volume series on the Civil War.  Men like Sir Winston Churchill, George Bancroft and Theodore Roosevelt turned out copious amounts of superb historical writing in between running countries and saving Western Civilization.  There are many other historians who are awe-inspiring in both their literary volume and its quality.

Few, however, equal the breadth and prodigious output of Will (1885-1981) and Ariel (1898-1981) Durant.  Their 11-volume Story of Civilization was researched, written and published over a period of forty years and is still the most successful historiographical series ever. (For those of you seeking a writing project, the last completed volume was The Age of Napoleon.  The Durants left behind notes for The Age of Darwin and an outline for The Age of Einstein which would bring the series up to 1945.  That would leave only The Age of Aquarius and, perhaps, The End of the Civilization As We Know It and we'd be fully caught up to 2050.)

Fortunately, Will and Ariel also left behind The Lessons of History, a 167-page summary of their magisterial series.  Lessons, which distills decades of thought and thousand of pages to their essence, can be read in an evening or two.  

Below, I've highlighted a few of the Durants' conclusions that resonated with me--though some challenging and not what we necessarily want to hear--and help to explain what we see everyday as our own history unfolds in real time.

Tuesday, October 7, 2014

Ground Zero of the American Industrial Revolution: Slater Mill


Last year, the Committee on the Theft of American Intellectual Property released a report that estimated annual theft of American IP at about $300 billion, an amount comparable to the current level of U.S. exports to Asia.  This unintended foreign subsidy was termed the "greatest transfer of wealth in history."

While it's perhaps only small comfort, history suggests that Americans themselves are some of the best in the world at corporate espionage and theft, and have been since the American Revolution.  (Wouldn't it be interesting to net out the purloined IP we gather in each year, just to see what our "balance of theft" looks like?)  Among the very first beneficiaries of stolen technology, and still one of the most important in American history, was the Slater Mill in Pawtucket, Rhode Island.

Slater Mill is a kind of "ground zero" for the American edition of the Industrial Revolution, the first place where English factory technology--the latest system for mechanized textile production--was firmly planted in the New World.  Financed by William Almy and his father-in-law, Moses Brown--and just up the road a piece from the Brown family's namesake university--Slater Mill was the first successful cotton factory in the United States.

This is the Blackstone River, which has several names as it flows from Worcester to Providence.  The yellow structure to the left is Slater Mill with the Pawtucket Falls in the foreground.  The Art Deco building (dating from 1933) in the center of the picture is the Pawtucket City Hall.  I managed a 90-minute visit to the Mill site a couple of weekends ago.