Political trials are always vain formalities; for the very passions that produce the accusation also lead to the condemnation. Such is the terrible logic of revolutions.
~Alexandre Dumas, Twenty Years After
Political trials are always vain formalities; for the very passions that produce the accusation also lead to the condemnation. Such is the terrible logic of revolutions.
~Alexandre Dumas, Twenty Years After
When looking for case studies of free market societies throughout history Singapore, a polity built from scratch in 1965, is an oft-cited example of how enlightened political leadership can stand back and let the market build a prosperous community for all. But was Singapore really guided by free market thinking at the executive political level? And should the free market in Singapore get the praise (or the blame) for subsequent economic developments? In consulting the autobiography of Lee Kuan Yew, Singapore’s first and longest-serving executive politician, an autobiography which covers the life and career of both Lee and the modern country of Singapore itself, the answer seems to carry a bit of nuance.
Chapter 1 Going It Alone
Singapore was a former British colony and military base/trading depot. It had no “hinterland” economy. It was dependent upon British military subsidies, the bases on the island costing nearly GBP$100M and losing these subsidies early on was a major fear of Lee’s.
Lee’s Top 3 Concerns after independence:
Chapter 2 Building An Army from Scratch
Rebuilding the military was a jobs program and an opportunity to create loyal party adherents and factional interest groups. Utilized conscription to build national unity and, modeled on Israeli military, be able to field a large fighting force in a short amount of time.
One official lamented that, “The Spartan approach to life does not come about naturally in a community that lives by buying and selling.” [The need for a military was to protect the political system from foreign dominance, not the commercial system.] “we were building up our defense forces to protect our fledging state.”
“Those who enlisted in the SAF as a full-time career would be guaranteed hobs in the government, statutory boards, or the private sector when they left full-time service to go into the reserves.”
Perceived and actual political threats from Malaysia and Indonesia and a desire to racially and ideologically unify the Singaporean citizenry and re-educate Chinese cultural norms led LKY to build SAF w/ Israeli training and partnerships with “Western democracies” for practice
Chapter 3 Britain Pulls Out
Contribution of British bases to the economy of Singapore in 1966, 20% of GDP.
LKY referred to by a British official “as good a left-wing and democratic socialist as any in this room” and “the government of Singapore… is the only democratic socialist government… in Southeast Asia” and “his housing programme… defies challenge in anything that has been done in the most advanced social democratic communities.”
Later, LKY “attended a Socialist International conference in Stockholm to keep in touch with British and European socialist party leaders.”
Singaporean government lost lots of money on the devaluation of the British pound, in which many of their reserves were held, and feared the departure of British troops in mainland Asia would shake investor confidence, particularly investors in Hong Kong, resulting in a desire to have an arms buildup for credible defense.
Chapter 4 Surviving Without a Hinterland
Recommendations of Dutch economist Dr. Albert Winsemius in 1965:
Sent trade delegation to Africa to try to drum up business but failed. Fears of unemployment since 1959 led to desire to industrialize. Formed Singapore Tourist Promotion Board to try to address unemployment.
To promote industrialization, “we protected locally assembled cars, refrigerators, air conditioners, radios, television sets and tape-recorders, in the hope that they would later be partly manufactured locally. We encouraged our own businesspeople who set up small factories to manufacture vegetable oils, cosmetics, mosquito coils, hair cream, joss paper and even mothballs!
Spent “vast sums” on infrastructure only to find the “Jurong industrial estate” mostly empty. Formed an Economic Development Board which got into JVs to recycle paper products with a businessman with no manufacturing experience, as well as ceramics without technical know-how. Also JVed with a Japanese shipbuilder but it did not prove profitable versus ship-repair, which was labor intensive.
“I was convinced our people must never have an aid-dependent mentality” yet formed the Bases Economic Conversion Department whose job was “to retrain and redeploy redundant workers, take possession of land and other assets the British were vacating, put them to the best use, and negotiate mitigatory aid.” Resulted in 1968 agreement for GBP$50M aid package to be spent on British goods and services, 25% being grants and 75% being loans.
Generated S$4-5M in annual USN ship repair business for the Singaporean government. The Singaporean government formed private entities to manage shipyards which later transformed into public companies.
Sought to “leapfrog” regional economies to become trading partner with developed world (America, Europe, Japan) to attract manufacturers to export to developed countries.
Formed Development Bank of Singapore, “DBS helped finance our entrepreneurs who needed venture capital because our established banks had no experience outside trade financing and were too conservative and reluctant to lend to would-be manufacturers”, ie, subsidized a top-down manufacturing-centric policy.
Keng Swee, first chairman of the Economic Development Board, “every time he drove by a school and saw hundreds of children streaming out, he felt downhearted, wondering how to find jobs for them when they left school.”
“The government played a key role in attracting foreign investments; we built the infrastructure and provided well-planned industrial estates, equity participation in industries, fiscal incentives and export promotion. We established good labor relations and sound macroeconomic policies, the fundamentals that enable private enterprise to operate successfully.”
Also, by end of 1970 had “issued 390 pioneer certificates giving investors tax-free status for up to five years, extended to 10 years for those issued after 1975”
“During this period, China was in the mad throes of Mao’s Culturual Revolution. Most investors thought Taiwan and Hong Kong too close to China and headed for Singapore.”
“By the late 1970s we had left our old problems of unemployment and lack of investments behind us. The new problem was how to improve the quality of the new investments and with it the education and skill levels of our workers.”
“After several years the EDB finally convinced Rollei, the German camera manufactuer, to relocate in Singapore. High German wages had made them uncompetitive.”
“We left most of the picking of winners to the MNCs that brought them to Singapore. A few, such as ship-repairing, oil-refining and petro-chemicals, and banking and finance, were picked by the EDB or Sui Sen, our minister of finance, or myself personally. Our ministry of trade and industry believed there could be breakthroughs in biotechnology, computer products, specialty chemicals and telecommunications equipment and services. When we were unsure how new research and development would turn out, we spread out bets.”
“Our job was to plan the broad economic objectives and the target periods within which to achieve them.”
“We did not have a group of ready-made entrepreneurs such as Hong Kong gained in the Chinese industrialists and bankers who came fleeing from Shanghai, Canton and other cities when the Communists took over. Had we waited for our traders to learn to be industrialists we would have starved.”
“The government took the lead by starting new industries such as steel mills (National Iron and Steel Mills) and service industries such as a shipping line, Neptune Orient Lines (NOL), and an airline, Singapore Airlines (SIA).”
Development Bank of Singapore, Insurance Corporation of Singapore, Singapore Petroleum Company; Chartered Industries of Singapore (CIS), a mint and a factory for small ammunition. Pg 67, conversion of “successful” public monopolies into private companies.
With economic consultation from a Dutch academic, Singapore embarked on economic experimentation which involved at various times a combination of tariffs and no tariffs, tax concessions for new MNCs, extensive investment in infrastructure and at times direct government investment in “from scratch” national industries, which despite being successful and profitable were mysteriously privatized at points. The Singaporean government benefitted from political tailwinds created by economic chaos in other parts of the world, but also attracted FDI by pledging not to interfere in business affairs for those relocating to Singapore (1973 oil crisis being a good example).
Chapter 5 Creating a Financial Center
To become a world financial center, Singapore’s government realized it needed to lift foreign exchange control restrictions on all currency transactions between Singapore and territories outside the sterling area.
“I had decided in 1965… that Singapore should not have a central bank that could issue currency and create money. We were determined not to allow our currency to lose its value against the strong currencies of the big nations… so we retained our currency board which issued Singapore dollars only when backed by its equivalent value in foreign exhcange. The MAS has all the powers of a central bank except the authority to issue currency notes.”
Why did Singapore need its own currency if it had no plans to expand its issuance?
“We attracted international financial institutions by abolishing withholding tax on interest income earned by nonresident depositors. All Asian dollar deposits were exempted from statutory liquidity and reserve requirements.”
“The foundations for our financial center were the rule of law, an independent judiciary, and a stable, competent and honest government that pursued sound macroeconomic policies, with budget surpluses almost every year. This led to a strong and stable Singapore dollar, with exchange rates that dampened imported inflation.”
“To meet the competition from international banks, the MAS encouraged the four largest local banks (known as the “Big Four”) to acquire and merge with the smaller local banks to become bigger and stronger.”
1985 “The SES [Stock Exchange of Singapore] was closed for three days while MAS officials… worked around the clock with the Big Four banks to arrange an emergency “lifeboat” fund of S$180 million to rescue the stockbrokers.”
Government of Singapore Investment Corporation formed to manage the Central Provident Fund, Singapore’s pension scheme.
“For over three decades, I had supported Koh Beng Seng on restricting the access of foreign banks to the local market. Now I believed the time had come for the tough international players to force our Big Four to upgrade their services or lose market share… the MAS liberalized access to the domestic banking sector by allowing qualifying foreign full banks to open more branches and ATMs. It lifted limits on foreign ownership of local bank shares.”
Singapore sought to be a global financial center, becoming a key chronological link in the chain between markets in SF, Tokyo and Zurich. Singapore went without a central bank but did establish a “monetary authority” and currency board similar to HK. Special rules and taxes were established to attract foreign financial capital, but a primary attractor was stability in an unstable region. The government managed a pension scheme and sovereign wealth fund which somehow earned above market returns with a conservative stance. The banking sector was partially deregulated and globalized after a period of productive controls.
Chapter 6 Winning Over the Unions
“I started my political life fighting for the unions as their legal adviser and negotiator.”
“I owed my position as prime minister largely to the trade union movement.”
“We banned all strikes in certain essential services”
Britain’s withdrawal of military announcement in 1968 led to Employment Act, Industrial Relations (Amendment) Act and Trade Unions Act amendment, “These laws spelled out minimum employment conditions and placed limits on retrenchment benefits, overtime bonuses, and fringe benefits. They set out uniform provisions for rest days, public holidays, working days, annual leave, maternity leave and sick leave. They restored to management the right to hire and fire, to promote and transfer, functions the unions had encroached upon during the years of industrial strife… we made it illegal for a trade union to take strike or industrial action without a secret ballot.”
1972, sets up National Wages Council “with representatives from unions, management and government”
“The NTUC [National Trade Union Council] expanded into health services, child care, a broadcasting station, a seaside resort hotel for workers called Pasir Ris Resort, and a country club, the Orchid Country Club with a golf course by Seletar reservoir. It also developed quality condimuniums its members could buy… To make them affordable, the government provided state land at nominal prices.”
LKY’s political career began as a union consultant and advocate. But when he came to power, he threatened unions with treason if they striked. A series of reforms were put in place which reduced union power and enhanced company/management power, but it all takes place within a system of “managed relations” where the government is a “stakeholder”. For some reason, the national union organization has made conglomerated investments in semi-private for-profit businesses and co-ops aimed at worker welfare, which the government has helped subsidize.
Chapter 7 A Fair, Not Welfare, Society
“We believed in socialism, in fair shares for all. Later we learned that personal motivation and personal rewards were essential for a productive economy. However, because people are unequal in their abilities, if performance and rewards are determined by the marketplace, there will be a few big winners, many medium winners and a considerable number of losers. That would make for social tensions because a society’s sense of fairness is offended.” [set this up as the leading quote for the essay?]
“A competitive, winner-takes-all society, like colonial Hong Kong in the 1960s, would not be acceptable in Singapore. A colonial government did not have to face elections every five years; the Singapore government did. To even out the extreme results of free-market competition, we had to redistrivute the national income through subidies on things that improved the earning power of citizens, such as education. Housing and public health were also obviously desirable. But finding the correct solutions for personal medical care, pensions, or retirement benefits was not easy. We decided each matter in a pragmatic way, always mindful of possible abuse and waste. If we over-re-distributed by higher taxation, the high performers would cease to strive. Our difficulty was to strike the right balance.”
CPF policies imposed a total savings rate of 50 percent of wages.
“I further amended the law to give the government the power to acquire land for public purposes at its value on a date fixed at 30 November 1973. I saw no reason why private landowners should profit from an increase in land value brought about by economic development and the infrastructure paid for with public funds.”
On the development of HDB and resettling of farmers and squatters: “Compressing 30 years into a few pages makes it all appear simple and straightforward. There were enormous problems, especially in the early stages when we resettled farmers and others from almost rent-free wooden squatter huts with no water, power or modern sanitation, and therefore no utility bills, into high-rise dwellings with all these amenities but also a monthly bill to pay. It was a wrenching experience for them in personal, social and economics terms.”
“As incomes increased, fewer patients chose the lower-cost wards, which had the highest government subsidies, and opted for wards with more comfort but lower subsidies. We considered but rejected a means test to determine which wards patients were entitled to use; it would have been difficult to implement. Instead we encouraed people to upgrade to the ward they could afford by making clear differences in comfort between different types of wards. It was in effect a self-administed means test.” so is the market!
“Government expenditure has averaged 20 percent of GDP, compared to an average of 33 percent in the G7 economies. On the other hand, our development expenditure has consistently been much higher than that of the G7 countries.”
“Our aim is to have partial or total cost recovery for goods and services provided by the state. This checks overconsumption of subsidized public services and reduces distrotions in the allocation of resources.”
The Singapore government was dominated by one party, PAP, for its modern history. They very openly bought botes with their welfare programs. But they sought to make many of these programs less generous to ensure their solvency. The government forced high rates of saving on workers which it deployed to finance infrastructure spending and welfare housing. Lower tax rates compared to other developed countries helped Singapore remain competitive. LKY is very clearly NOT a fan of the free market in this chapter.
Chapter 8 The Communists Self-Destruct
On fighting Malayan National Liberation Front/communist guerrillas: “Could we have defeated them if we had allowed them habeas corpus and abjured the powers of detention without trial? I doubt it.”
Singapore had two major political factions, the Communists and the PAP. After a series of political blunders and internal turmoil, the communists formally exited the electoral scene leaving the PAP to run unopposed for 30 years, allowing them long and consistent control over policy-making. They used “ends justify the means” and subverted sound legal principles to obstruct and detain communists.
Chapter 9 Straddling the Middle Ground
“while overall sentiment and mood do matter, the crucial factors are institutional and organizational networks to muster support… in our HDB new towns, there is a network that leads from the RCs to the MCs and CCCs on to the prime minister’s office…”
“The PAP had countered the opposition’s ‘by-election’ strategy with the electoral carrot that priority for upgrading of public housing in a constituency would be in accord with the strength of voter support for the PAP in that constituency.”
The PAP faced no serious political opposition and turned to various patronage and vote-buying schemes to solidify support. It seems the HDB housing projects also allowed the PAP to corral supporters and have a physically defensivle political communications network. Many political opponents made claims of corruption only to be sued, sometimes into bankruptcy, by LKY. The few times his own PAP members were charged with libel, they settled out of court. LKY employes specious reasoning to defend this authoritarian legal approach on the grounds that to let the charges go unmolested would threaten his political power– he has a pure, unviolated record of ethics in a region known for corruption!
Chapter 10 Nurturing and Attracting Talent
“Traditional methods of choosing marriage partners had been ruptured by universal education: The government had to provide alternatives to the family matchmakers of old.”
“I gave special income tax concessions to married women”
Stop-at-Two policy of the 1960s “Without that policy, family planning might never have brought population growth down, and we would not have solved our unemployment and schooling problems.”
“Difficulties over our talent pool were aggravated when the rich Western countries changed their policies on Asian immigration… [the US] decided to accept Asian immigrants, reversing more than a century of its whites-only policy.”
The Singapore government was obsessed with population management, first trying to limit births on Malthusian grounds, then trying to promote the marriage and childraising of educated parents on the grounds of skewing the IQ or “talent” pool. Many subsidies Singapore granted to educate its citizenry was “leaked” as people immigrated to other countries to pursue opportunity, partly in response to changing immigration policies elsewhere (such as the US in the 1960s). Now it has taken to liberalizing immigration for high IQ emigres, especially those with jobs, to try to increase the “talent pool.”
Chapter 11 Many Tongues, One Language
LKY enforced language laws on the population in a desire to achieve social harmony and globally integrated economic progress. He encountered much popular resistance but believes these policies proved prescient given global events. It also allowed for a more homogenized culture.
Chapter 12 Keeping the Government Clean
“Human ingenuity is infinite when translating power and discretion into personal gain.”
Singapore got high marks for honesty of government in a region where corruption is an ingrained part of culture. LKY attributes this cultural success to the ideological rigor, invasive investigative authority given to the anti-corruption bureaus and the willingess of government to pay high salaries to public servants to attract them away from the private sector [distortion]. But who watched the anti-corruption officers to ensure they weren’t on the take? And why would this be a corruption issue if government didn’t have the power over the economy? LKY again admits that the PAP bought political favors with public resources by engaging in welfare spending once in office.
Chatper 13 Greening Singapore
“Hundreds, eventually thousands, of pirate taxis clogged our streets and destroyed bus services… only after 1971, when we had created many jobs, were we able to enforce the law and reclaim the streets.”
“It was immensely better that we competed to be the greenest and cleanest in Asia. I can think of many areas where competition could be harmful, even deadly.”
“We phased out the rearing of over 900,000 pigs on 8,000 farms because pig waste polluted our streams.”
“After we had persuaded and won over a majority, we legislated to punish the willful minority… if this is a ‘nanny state’, I am proud to have fostered one.”
Much in the vogue in the 1970s, LKY got swept up in environmentalism and made it a major policy priority to “green” Singapore; this included building public utility infrastructure to control waste and pollution, but also involved “nudge” legislation to change or ban cultural habits deemed offensive or a nuisance. Agricultural practices were changed as were retail practices (pirate taxis, street hawkers). LKY put great emphasis on the “morale” of greening and its affect on visiting dignitaries and VIPs. There is no discussion of the cost of these programs or whether there were alternative approaches to accomplishing the stated goals: he embraced charges of “nanny statism.”
Chapter 14 Managing the Media
“Our journalists are exposed to and influenced by the reporting stytles and political attitudes of the American media, always skeptical and cynical of authority. The Chinese and Malay press do not model themselves on newspapers in the West. Their cultural practice is for constructive support of policies they agree with, and criticism in measured terms when they do not.”
“My early experiences in Singapore and Malaya shaped my views about the claim of the press to be the defender of truth and freedom of speech. The freedom of the press was the freedom of its owners to advance their personal and class interests.”
“That was exactly what we had the right to do, to seek a mandate to deal firmly with foreign, in this case colonial, interests in the press. It was our declared policy that newspapers should not be owned by foreigners.”
“I needed the media ‘to reinforce, not to undermine, the cultural values and social attitudes being inculcated in our schools and universities. The mass media can create a mood in which people become keen to acquire the knowledge, skills and disciplines of advanced countries. Without these, we can never hope to raise the standards of living of our people… Freedom of the press, freedom of the news media, must be subordinated to the overriding needs of Singapore, and to the primacy of purpose of an elected government.'”
“A few years later, in 1977, we passed laws to prohibit any person or his or her nominee from holding more than 3 percent of the ordinary shares of a newspaper, and created a special category of shares called management shares. The minister had the authority to decide which shareholders would have management shares.”
“We decided in 1986 to enact a law to restrict the sale or distribution of foreign publications that had engaged in the domestic politics of Singapore.”
Freedom of the press is clearly not a cherished ideal in Singapore, in so far as PAP-controlled government is concerned. The law allows various forms of censorship used to control “foreign influence” of the press but there is no discussion of whether this was also used to control domestic press.
Chapter 15 Conductor of an Orchestra
LKY built a national airline, but insisted it make a profit. He engaged in enormous airport building projects without explanation for why they were necessary. He used the unions to pressure foreign politicians. LKY banned jury trials in Singapore, he appointed lawyers, many friends from his school days, to many important ministries related to commerce. He regulated the housing system and enforced desegregation quotas which he knew depressed the capitalization of the housing stock and went against the ethnic groups’ desires to segregate. Is this multi-cultural harmony, based on edict?
At one point, he brags that Uganda has more female hotel managers than any other country in Africa. “We have got four managers, and another two assistant managers.” This is a strange thing for the president of an entire country to worry about—but Amin seems to feel that he has to worry about it: Only if he controls everything, and only if he can keep the country in line, will Uganda prosper. Success, Amin seems to believe, is a matter of will and of heeding his good advice. People just need to work harder—women need to get up at “about 5 o’clock in the morning”—and love their leaders. If something’s wrong, then, it’s because a citizen has personally failed, not because the system is screwed up. Amin had no ideology. (“We are not following any policy at all,” he says at one point.) Like so many Third World tyrants, he was not a fascist or a Communist. His idea of the world was purely personalistic. He was an Amin-ist.
[similar to the # of car competition between LKY and indonesian leader; also, the rejection of ideology by LKY, following his own intuition]
The ancients who wished to illustrate illustrious virtue throughout the Kingdom, first ordered well their own states. Wishing to order well their states, they first regulated their families. Wishing to regulate their families, they first cultivated their persons. Wishing to cultivate their persons, they first rectified their hearts. Wishing to rectify their hearts, they first sought to be sincere in their thoughts. Wishing to be sincere in their thoughts, they first extended to the utmost their knowledge. Such extension of knowledge lay in the investigation of things.
Things being investigated, knowledge became complete. Their knowledge being complete, their thoughts were sincere. Their thoughts being sincere, their hearts were then rectified. Their hearts being rectified, their persons were cultivated. Their persons being cultivated, their families were regulated. Their families being regulated, their states were rightly governed. Their states being rightly governed, the whole kingdom was made tranquil and happy.
From the Son of Heaven down to the mass of the people, all must consider the cultivation of the person the root of everything besides.
I was recently invited to give a talk to a group of local investors about Austrian economics. The presentation ran about 2hrs w/ questions. Below is the slide show I shared, which I believe also has slide notes attached that explain the contents of each slide. The material, while lengthy, is not comprehensive. This is supposed to be a holistic flyover. Also, while the intended audience were investors, really only the last few slides pertain to things investors would want to know and the majority of the presentation should make sense to anyone interested in learning more about (Austrian) economics.
In preparing this presentation, I found two resources helpful. One is a “top 10” list of what Austrian economics is about according to Eamon Butler from the UK. The second was from an article I searched for which I think I found on Mises.org called “What is Austrian economics?” which I then distilled down to the summary concepts from the larger narrative of the article.
What Is Austrian Economics?
by Doris Kearns Goodwin, published 2013
I picked up this title for two reasons. The first reason was to try to explore the phenomenon of “fake news” and the mainstream media’s war on Donald Trump’s presidency (and vice versa), to better understand the modern concept of the official press as an important check on government/regime power. The second reason was because at (now) 2,024 reviews on Amazon with an average 4.5-stars, this book seemed to promise it’d be a great, and long at 700+ pages of narrative text, story and I was looking for a great story, something that, whatever I thought of the point being argued, at least proved to be interesting and artfully constructed.
On the second point, I find myself frustrated. The research that went into this book is clearly exhaustive– the author speaks almost as much through verbatim quotes from primary source documents of the period (journal entries, private correspondence, public speeches, newspaper articles and editorials, memoirs, etc.) as she does in her own voice. This lends itself to creepy quirks of the book, such as the preponderance of quotes in which Theodore Roosevelt is found explaining himself in confidence via correspondence with Massachusetts Senator Henry Cabot Lodge, a character whose relationship with Roosevelt is never formally introduced or explained! It kind of makes Teddy seem like a tool of some higher, shadowy powers. Why was he constantly justifying himself to another politician when the author never bothered to tell us when and how they met?
But this doesn’t seem to make for a great story. The narrative is rather breathless and sycophantic in tone. Teddy, a progressive openly-hidden amongst Republican ranks, is one of the good guys, he never gives up and, progressivism being the inevitable enlightened state of the universe toward which historical events are constantly moving us all, he of course never meets any real resistance along the way and always wins in the end. And this is a good thing. We never see the author questioning him, catching him in contradictions (though there are many for the alert reader!) or asking how it is that this One, Good Man managed to succeed in a wholly corrupt system and reform it despite the various Interests who had so much at stake in stopping him.
For a critic of progressivism, there is no profundity to consider; for the advocate, no value in confirming what is already known. The story is boring.
As for the topic of “fake news” and watchdog journalism, that must’ve developed at some other time period. We learn again and again of how Roosevelt took various progressive journalists of the era into his confidence and made friends of them, and them of him, with many ebullient feelings being shared all around. We learn of his unique talent for cultivating relationships with these journalists who then heralded him and his policies for public consumption, and we also come to understand the important value this access represented to people who essentially are merchants of information those with access frequently come by. In some scenes, we see them conspiring so closely that it almost seems that the journalists are formulating policy, and the politician is writing the story.
In other words, we see a symbiotic relationship that serves power. Where’s the watchdog here?
One thing I wondered as I read this book was, “Was progressivism truly inevitable?” It’s hard to see how it could’ve been stopped, or what would’ve existed that was much different from it if it had been. Roosevelt’s insidious support for what every critic at the time could quite obviously see was socialism, from within the Republican party, which according to repeated insistence from the text had a stranglehold over the entire government, calls to mind the cliche, “With friends like these, who needs enemies?” It seems that there was a competitive advantage in politics in moving further and further to the left, no matter what party you came from, and the investigative journalists of the era (such as the evil Lincoln Steffens, who spent many years becoming “educated” in Europe about Marxism on his businessman father’s nickel) were only too happy to assist in readying the public for this ideological assault. When you read the accounts of the period of union workers intimidating “scab” worker families (women and kids), beating strike-breaking workers and even dynamiting non-union workers in public places, it kind of sounds like terrorism, something that seems like it would be a hard sell to good-hearted middle class Americans.
Yet, that is the side of history that won, and guys like Roosevelt and the investigative journalists helped make it happen.
It seems like it’s worth not forgetting that when listening to the media today tell us the important role it plays in preventing democracy from dying in darkness while it does the bidding of the Deep State.
by T.J. Stiles, published 2010
How and why did Cornelius Vanderbilt, steamship and railroad entrepreneur, become America’s “first tycoon” and in the process earn a fortune worth an estimated $100M in the 1870s? The simplest answer provided by this lengthy biography is that Vanderbilt was able to think about abstract entities such as corporations as representing competitive business opportunities in an age when most other people controlling them thought of them as profitable grants of privilege from the State (which they were). The result was that Vanderbilt thought strategically about his acquisitions in the sense of actively seeking to own things with identifiable competitive advantages (the best route, the lowest operating costs, network effects) which he would then exploit while slashing prices, while his competitors were stuck playing defense until they gave up and offered to buy him out in self-defense.
But the book really doesn’t offer enough specific and concrete evidence to validate this thesis, it’s really just a hunch and an attempt to read between the lines of what is offered. Like most biographers and historians, Stiles consistently fluctuates between the two extremes of failing to provide the necessary evidence to actually understand what was happening and why, and forcing a tortured narrative metaphor of “the capitalist as king/general” that ends up just confusing the issues. Vanderbilt is constantly in “rate wars”, is “battling” for control of companies and finds himself with an “empire” after yet another “conquest.” But we never hear this language in Vanderbilt’s own quotations (based upon written correspondence, newspaper interviews and courtroom testimony) which are numerous.
How Vanderbilt saw himself as a businessman and operator, and how Stiles chooses to depict him with his jarring anachronistic fadism are even more incongruous because Stiles himself spends much of the time arguing against his own descriptions! It is a puzzling choice. Perhaps books about old tyme capitalists don’t sell well without a not so subtle nod to the villainous Robber Baron laying in wait inside of all of them, but it’s a shame because the much more interesting story would’ve been the one told through Vanderbilt’s own eyes. Not to mention the fact that the Robber Baron myth is a lie perpetrated against Vanderbilt, not because he was a horrible monopolist but because he was such a pain in the ass to the horrible monopolists!
[The NYT] attacked him for, as he wrote elsewhere, “driving too sharp a competition” [… deriding] “competition for competition’s sake; competition which crowds out legitimate enterprises… or imposes tribute upon them” [… and called on] “our mercantile community to look the curse of competition fully in the face.”
Similarly, there are constant references to “the world Vanderbilt helped make” with reference to markets and businesses, the city of New York and the emergent nation of the United States of America. And while certainly the man’s actions and decisions were influential and impactful, Vanderbilt was not a statesman and never saw himself as anything more than an ambitious private citizen. There is not one example in the book of Vanderbilt plotting to remake the world in his own image. This is just another forced biographical trope that dopey readers, editors and authors seem to think makes a story ten times better to insist upon when the world just doesn’t have that many psychopaths in fact.
Other information missing from the story that seems essential to charting Vanderbilt’s rise: what he paid for various business assets and how he financed them, what he earned from them and what he paid in taxes, when he controlled an asset and when he was a minority partner, etc. Especially, we should like to know his leverage over time and how he was able to benefit from the various money panics that occurred repeatedly throughout his business career. One thing is for certain, he seemed to always be a buyer in such scenarios, never a seller, and he seemed comfortable being in control of his investments and making and enforcing operating policy, rather than being a mere financial speculator such as a partner like Daniel Drew might.
There are many charming bits of early American social and business vernacular we learn sprinkled throughout the book and its strength is in providing so many direct quotations from primary sources, especially the business media of the day, which really help to flavor the narrative and transport the reader to the place and time described. But this can also be a weakness, when the author ends up name-dropping a litany of capitalists involved in some deal or scheme and dribbling their worries and anxieties from private correspondence over several pages as the deal unfolds. I found it difficult to follow and mostly tuned out what I assume are supposed to be the action-packed moments of the story.
I first read this book shortly after it was published in 2010. I since decided to re-read it and while I wish I had had a bit more energy and focus when I did, I am glad of it. I took a new and different appreciation from some of the book’s events than I did on first pass, which suggests I’ve either improved my mental framework or at least changed it in meaningful ways over the last 7 years. Vanderbilt still comes across as a unique and heroic figure, a true titanic will. The narrative is as confused and cluttered as ever, and while I think there were the makings of a better, more concisely argued book here, and the author certainly has done his research, I am not convinced he did the right research or even fully understood what lessons he was taking away from it. The result is I’ve since downgraded the value of this particular work in my mind and think it belongs to a pretty standard class of historical biographies. Vanderbilt the man himself though is easily a five out of five as far as members of humanity are concerned!
I’ve got far more I’d be willing and able to discuss about this work and Vanderbilt as an example in private correspondence than I think I could fit into a short, coherent blog post, so really ruminating on this story will have to wait for another time and a different occasion.
Politics is the seedbed of social enmity, evil suspicions, shameless lies, morbid ambitions, and disrespect for the individual. Name anything bad in man, and it is precisely in the soil of political struggle that it grows in abundance.
This is from 2008, from the now defunct “Mencius Moldbug” blog:
In 1933, public opinion could still be positively impressed by group calisthenics displaying the face of the Leader, eagles shooting lightning bolts, etc, etc. By today’s standards, the public of 1933 (both German and American) was a seven-year-old boy. Today’s public is more of a thirteen-year-old girl (a smart, plucky, well-meaning girl), and guiding it demands a very different tone.
You are not a thirteen-year-old girl. So how did you fall for this bizarre circus? How can any mature, intelligent, and educated person put their faith in this gigantic festival of phoniness?
Think about it. You read the New York Times, or similar, on a regular basis. It tells you this, it tells you that, it reports that “scientists say” X or Y or Z. And there is always a name at the top of the article. It might be “Michael Luo” or “Celia Dugger” or “Heather Timmons” or “Marc Lacey” or… the list, is, of course, endless.
Do you know Michael or Celia or Heather or Marc? Are they your personal friends? How do you know that they aren’t pulling your chain? How do you know that the impression you get from reading their stories is the same impression that you would have if you, personally, saw everything that Michael or Celia or Heather or Marc saw? Why in God’s green earth do you see their “stories” as anything but an attempt to “manipulate procedural outcomes” by guiding you, dear citizen, to interpret the world in a certain way and deliver your vote accordingly?
The answer is that you do not trust them, personally. Bylines are not there for you. They are there for the journalists themselves. If the Times, like the Economist, lost its bylines and attributed all its stories to “a New York Times reporter,” your faith would not change one iota. You trust Michael and Celia and Heather and Marc, in other words, because they are speaking (quite literally) ex cathedra.
So you trust the institution, not the people. Very well. Let’s repeat the question: what is it about the New York Times that you find trustworthy? The old blackletter logo? The motto? Suppose that instead of being “reporters” of “the New York Times,” Michael and Celia and Heather and Marc were “cardinals” of “the One, Holy, Catholic and Apostolic Church?” Would this render them more credible, less credible, or about as credible? Suppose, instead, they were “professors” at “Stanford University?” Would this increase or decrease your trust?
For a hardened denialist such as myself, who has completely lost his faith in all these institutions, attempting to understand the world through the reports and analysis produced by the Cathedral is like trying to watch a circus through the camera on a cell phone duct-taped to the elephant’s trunk. It can be done, but it helps to have plenty of external perspective.
And for anyone starting from a position of absolute faith in the Cathedral, there is simply no other source of information against which to test it. You are certainly not going to discredit the Times or Stanford by reading the Times or going to Stanford, any more than you will learn about the historical Jesus by attending a Latin Mass.
A friend in the financial industry sent over an article that began,
Hedge funds run by women have outperformed a broad benchmark of alternative asset managers over the past five years, raising fresh questions about why there are so few female portfolio managers.
This is a great example of the “fake news” phenomenon and will serve to illustrate why news media is not and can not be objective in its presentation of facts.
First, news gathering and publishing is part of the discipline of history– it deals primarily with events and information that have already taken place, even while commenting on or attempting to predict events yet to happen. When you open up a newspaper, you are reading articles about things that happened in the past, albeit the recent past. The only difference between what you read in a history book and what you read in a newspaper is how much time has passed between your present reality and the events portrayed in the book or article. In a news article, that time period may be hours, days, weeks or even a few years; in a history book, it may be decades, is often centuries and is sometimes millennia.
Second, as a specimen of history, news gathering and publishing suffers from the same philosophical problem that history in general does, namely, developing a criterion for selecting meaningful facts and data to tell a particular story from the essentially infinite quantity of such facts and figures available. To write history, you first need a person (the author) who has a set of values or curiosity that dictate his desire to explore a particular historical topic. Once he has selected a topic, he has to come up with a theory about the topic and then use the theory to select from and interpret the available data to tell a story about the topic. The news journalist works the same way– start with a person, the journalist (or their editor, advertiser, owner or other primary influencer) who uses their values and judgment to determine what stories need to be told, then, using pre-existing theories of how the world works, select and interpret relevant data to tell the story that needs to be told.
History does not write itself, and neither does the news. Historians write history, journalists write the news, and some innate values and beliefs are necessary in each to cause sufficient motivation to inspire the act of writing and publishing in the first place. Given the motivation, pre-existing logical theories of cause and effect are necessary to determine which facts and data belong to the story and which do not and how they are relevant. At no point in this process up to this point, or after it, is any “objectivity” involved.
Returning now to the example of the story my financial friend shared with me, what can we make of it? A few questions and observations come to mind, using the framework above:
Of course, none of these are addressed in this news story. That is because the job of interpreting the news falls on the consumer of the news, not the news itself– for the news to attempt to interpret itself would be a highly problematic and morally suspect enterprise!
There is an ad pre-rolling on Youtube I have seen several times now that features Matt Damon for Stella Artois/Water.org pitching for some supposed concern they have for “solving the world water crisis.” Ignoring the fact that this phraseology makes it sound like a sudden act of nature and not a socio-cultural phenomenon that so many people around the world go without “clean water”, whatever the hell that means, this ad strikes me as utter bullshit worth commenting on for the following reason:
Damon says they SA/Water.org have partnered to bring clean water to “women and their families” in such stricken Third World environments. Why “women and their families”? Why wouldn’t it be “men and their families”? Don’t these women’s families include men? If so, why aren’t the men doing anything to provide the “women and their (the men’s) families” with clean water? Since women are just as capable as men (Feminist Truth), why aren’t women in these countries able to provide clean water on their own?
Why is clean water something that people in certain countries can do themselves, but in other places, we need Matt Damon and a beer company to shill so people will help out?
This is a fraud on a variety of levels, as indicated by the fact that Matt Damon is a part of the production.