Review – The Medici

The Medici: Power, Money and Ambition in the Italian Renaissance

by Paul Strathern, published 2017

The history of the Medici family might best be summarized with the phrase “from dust to dust.” As if to emphasize how they were destined for greatness and nobility, the family started out as a bunch of Tuscan hillbillies who could trace their lineage to a legendary knight of the Holy Roman Empire who settled near Florence in the 8th or 9th Century. From there and then, no one heard much of these people until some of the clan moved into Florence proper in the early 1300s and formed a small money-changing business.

Using conservative business practices and investing in roles of civic responsibility, eventually a Medici was elected to the position of gonfaloniere, the primus inter pares of the Florentine Republic. From this position the dice were carefully loaded in the favor of subsequent Medici generations by artfully forming governing coalitions that cemented their public position while creating leverage across their business and investment portfolio through the tactical use of subsidy, official privilege, insider information and regulatory capture wielded against competitors and opponents.

The story of the “overnight success” of the Medici begins here. The first great head of the Medici family and Medici bank, Giovanni de Medici, had jockeyed for favor with the newly appointed (anti-)Pope John XXIII in order to secure a role as the personal banker to the Papal Curia upon his ascendancy, which was then granted. For much of the 14th Century and Renaissance period in general, the papal revenues and banking needs were equivalent to managing the treasury function for the modern era’s most wealthy and complex multi-national corporations. To gain this trust was not only a measure of unique esteem valuable in and of itself, but a responsibility that carried with it priceless information and irreplaceable business franchises throughout European Christendom and even the Levant.

However, Pope John XXIII soon became embroiled in the Great Schism in which he and 2 other rival popes were called before the Holy Roman Emperor and summarily dismissed, to be replaced with his appointment, Pope Martin V. At his son Cosimo’s urging (whom he had sent to be his representative at the delegation attending the papal conference) the Medici’s continued to support the defrocked pope, even helping to pay his ransom for his release from imprisonment. Rather than being a financial disaster, this loyal support of the former pope led to a new lucrative banking relationship under Martin V, because in return for bartering his release the former Pope John XXIII agreed to support the nomination of Martin V and participate in the reconciliation of the Schism, leading to greater legitimacy for the new pope.

As a major political player on top of his business responsibilities, Giovanni left three apocryphal warnings for his descendants:

  1. focus on business, not politics
  2. do not be ostentatious
  3. don’t oppose popular will, unless it is aimed at disaster

It seems as if it should be unnecessary to say that in time this advice was forgotten and eventually, so, too, were the Medici.

But the dissolution of the Medici was a ways away yet. After Giovanni came Cosimo as head of the family and the Medici bank. He faced a disastrous and unpopular war between Florence and Lucca (backed by Milan) which threatened to ruin the Florentine treasury and which had pitted the various leading families against one another. Subscribing to Rule #3, Cosimo opposed the conduct of the war and worked to hide the bank’s assets outside of Florence to avoid expropriation in the war’s aftermath.

For these maneuvers and others, Cosimo was recalled to Florence and imprisoned in the bell tower of the Palazzo Vecchio by a faction led by the rival Albizzi who had plans to execute him for treachery. However, Cosimo’s far flung banking business and participation in the geopolitics of Western Europe had led him to a series of alliances and power relationships with foreign entities such as the Venetian Republic and the Papal States which he utilized to create a kind of diplomatic protection for himself, pressuring his enemies to choose exile over execution as his fate.

In the meantime, he used bribes and the threat of invasion of the city by his own mercenary forces outside its walls to add to the diplomatic pressure and engineer a favorable outcome for himself, all while behind bars.

Shaken but not stirred, Cosimo came to rule Florence through the intervention of the Pope and Venice, but vowed that “he would rule, but he would not be seen to rule” going forward. He had learned his lesson about bearing personal responsibility when it came to matters of state. Further, he was coming to understand that it was easier to wield power when others weren’t watching.

According to one supporter, “Whenever he wished to achieve something, he saw to it, in order to escape envy as much as possible, that the initiative appeared to come from others and not from him.” One policy he pushed for through his crony network was the use of the “catasto”, which had originally been levied to pay for the war, as a punitive tool to crush his political and business opponents through ruinous taxation. While he was forcing his enemies into exile to avoid financial ruin, purchasing and redistributing their former property to his supporters on a bargain basis, he simultaneously used inflated personal balance sheets to hide his income and appear to be bearing the heaviest personal tax burden on a relative basis.

But Cosimo was far from poor:

Between 1434 and 1471, Cosimo spent 663,755 gold florins supporting public works, by comparison, total assets of the Peruzzi bank at its height were 103,000 florins from Western Europe to Cyprus and Beirut.

If he was able to spend 6X the total assets of a well-known competitor at the height of its powers on public works, his total assets and wealth must have been a multiple of that amount. Normal banking and family secrecy aside, the Medici wealth at this time seems to have been nearly incalculable. It is no wonder, then, that one of Cosimo’s key strategies in building and wielding power was to always return favors with favors.

Following Cosimo, who was once to have said that “Trade brings mankind together, and casts glory on those who venture into it” his son Piero and Piero’s son, Lorenzo began to venture the family increasingly beyond the scope of banking and business and into the realm of politics and social standing via nobility. Depending upon how you interpret the events that followed, Piero and Lorenzo were either some of the most “magnificent” leaders of the Medici banking and political enterprises or they were equivalent to the decadent dissipators of the true talent and generational thrift of their greater ancestors.

Either way, the local power of the Medici in and around Florence was successively traded for inter-regional power and influence within the royal families of Europe. As the Medici gained a queen mothership in France, they lost their rule over the Florentine Republic to foreign invasion and intervention and increasingly squandered the capital of their banking and related enterprises. By the early 18th Century the Medici had failed to produce a male heir and had ceded their Grand Duchy of Florence to the Holy Roman Emperor and ceased to be a meaningful business or political entity forever.

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Of Enemies Abroad, And At Home

We are now being told that the election of Donald Trump represents a virulent strain of tyrannical fascism in American politics, which was before lying under the surface but is now unapologetically out in the open. Certain agitators and political commentators are claiming that they don’t feel safe in a world where Trump is president, implying that there may be physical threats against their life, property or lifestyle under his regime. The conclusion is that Trump is to blame for a politics of potentially open, physical violence across partisan lines.

But if this is what Trump represents, Trump is the necessary response to an earlier dynamic, not the initiator of it. You see, the Left has been successful in its quest to control politically-acceptable speech. The world of man can be controlled by arms, or by words and ideas. If certain words and ideas can not be uttered, then the people who believe in them have no choice but to take up arms in their support. What choice but violence does a person have to convince another of his views, if his views are considered unutterable in society?

We are also told that Trump is committing what amounts to treason in warring with political factions in his own country while buddying up to autocrats in other countries, such as Russia. If the right way, and the only way, to conduct a political strategy is to play by your opponent’s rules, then this criticism may have merit. But politics is war by other means, a game of domination and annihilation. If you are a globalist after global control, you might call a truce here and there with domestic factions to enhance your projection of power outside your borders.

But what if you are a “nationalist” or “patriot”, like Mr. Trump?

If your primary political concern is dominance within your own borders, it is clear who your enemies and your friends are. Your enemies are any domestic political factions which question, criticize or otherwise restrain your full use of power inside your borders. And your friends are any parties, inside or outside your borders, that can either help you defeat your domestic opponents in some way, or who can agree to some kind of truce that lets you focus on defeating your opponents at home.

Make no mistake about it– Mr. Trump is in a war for his political (and potentially even vital) life, such is the nature of politics which has no rules but that which each opponent might individually observe. And looking at the world as he claims to, it seems not only not treasonous, but completely rational, to find friends where they can be found in order to quell the domestic disturbance represented by the Democrats and the American Left. And we can sense the truth of this proposition in observing that while critics of Mr. Trump argue that he should make peace with his domestic opponents to fight external enemies, these critics are not suggesting these opponents make peace with Mr. Trump, nor are these opponents themselves voluntarily laying down arms against Mr. Trump for the time being to take them up against the Great Alien Menace. Actions speak louder than words here.

And what about the spat with the domestic spy agencies? Ignoring the fact that they were un-American and not to be trusted under the Bush regime, and were clearly un-American and autistically-focused on studying the communication patterns of those people they nominally serve under the Obama regime (and when did these people face election and change under any of the last three administrations?), they are supposed to be answerable to the Congress, which supervises them, and the President, who leads the nation they serve.

To raise the claim that Mr. Trump is playing a “dangerous game” in challenging their methods, claim and authority, is to belie the very corruption his opposition to these organizations so far engenders– this may be a hard metaphor for many to understand these days, but it would be as if the appointed chief executive of the owner of a company was playing a dangerous game in challenging the actions and attitudes of the company’s hired employees. This argument has the theoretical cause-effect relationship of American civics exactly reversed.

In case anyone needs reminding these days, why is it exactly that the American intelligence “community” (note: for their to be a community, there by definition must be some who are inside it and some who are outside, that is, citizens of the domain and barbarians at the gates…) is to be considered trustworthy?

Have they demonstrated gross competence at their appointed tasks? Anyone who has not forgotten the failures of September 11th, 2001, must puzzle at the question.

Have they any kind of record of their activities and thinking that is examinable by the public? No, only the Congress and the President have access to that information (if the intelligence agencies are honest in presenting it in the first place!) and there is a clear principal-agent problem in electoral politics presented by these defined secrets.

And what kind of people are they who join these secret cabals, whose jobs seem to consist of lying for a living, trafficking in arms and illicit substances and occasionally murdering people deemed to be strategic problems for themselves or the government they represent?

Well, just that– liars, murderers, professional criminals and reckless thrill-seekers.

A better question than “Why should they be trusted?” is “Why should they be tolerated in a society that claims to have an open government?” Speaking of tyranny and autocratic rule, is there any model more noble in form than the modern spook cartels?

The Greatest Time To Build A Fortune Is Now

From Is Value Investing Broken? by Geoff Gannon:

There’s a tendency for people – people of any time – to see the time they live in as unique, dangerous, different, unlike any other age. In some ways, they are always right. Some things really are different this time from all other times. But, mostly, they’re wrong. And what they are wrong about is reading a golden age of stability into the past. I was talking with a value investor once and this value investor said that sure Ben Graham’s ideas worked in Ben Graham’s times. But Ben Graham invested in simpler times.

Here are the times Ben Graham invested in: the 1910s through the 1950s. He invested during Two World Wars, the start of the Cold War, the atomic bombings of Nagasaki and Hiroshima by the U.S. and then the testing of nuclear weapons by other countries, The Great Depression, a big explosion (reportedly a terrorist bombing) on Wall Street, and the longest shut down of trading in Wall Street history that I can remember at least (right as World War One started). People talk about political risk today. Political risk in Ben Graham’s time meant Marxists and Fascists. Investors saw hyperinflation in Germany after the war and then they saw deflation after the 1929 crash. These were not simple times. If you go back and read the newspapers from the time – you can see how not simple they were.

Now, yes, they were different from today in some ways. Much of the period investors and economists in the U.S. study were more regulated than today. So, you either had the Gold Standard or Bretton Woods. You had much greater belief in planned and insular economies in a lot of countries. With the benefit of hindsight – and seeing the entire sweep of history – many of these decades seem simple to us. They rarely were. Try to find a decade without too much inflation, too much deflation, too much war, the mania of some bubble, or the bursting of that bubble. At any point in that past, people could have believed value investing was dead. And yet, buy and hold investors – business owners and the like – have been compounding fortunes in the U.S. from the 1800s through today. If there are companies that can make founders and their families billionaires – there are companies that can make shareholders very rich if they buy and hold.

We’ve Always Been At War With Eastasia: Trump & Putin Edition

I’ve noticed a trend in the media during this election cycle wherein Trump is attacked anytime he says anything kind or even less-than-hostile about Russia’s Vladimir Putin. As an Enemy of Democracy(tm) and Registered Strongman Dictator(tm), saying anything other than a poorly veiled threat to commit nuclear genocide in the Russian Federation via NATO is apparently a slanderous and indeed, traitorous, thing to say. After all, the Russian state is clearly bent on world domination, much like Hitler, as evidenced by its involvement in Syria, the Ukraine and the EU gas pricing fiasco. This interventionist approach to foreign policy is totally different from the US’s interventions in Iraq, Egypt, Libya, Syria, the Ukraine, and the EU gas pricing fiasco because… well, nevermind, we’ve always been at war with Eastasia and that’s really all one needs to know about these complicated matters.

Is this not the most transparently stupid journalistic approach to American diplomacy there is? The logical end goal of some conflict with an enemy is to defeat them, by force or by fraud, and thereby to convert them into a friend, or at least someone who is no longer hostile. Surely, military dominance and intelligence stratagems are the American state’s preferred means of obtaining this goal over the last 70+ years of history, but do they have to be? If Trump can disarm Putin through charisma, wouldn’t that be just as good so long as a stable peace and a non-hostile footing can be achieved going forward?

Must Putin be the enemy of the United States of America from here until eternity? Why can’t the US state solve its problems without bloodshed, and why do the media jump all over a leading candidate’s overtures with cries of “Treason! Treason!!” if he adopts a tone less bellicose?

Why, to ask is to answer it, dear readers. We know where (and why!) the real traitors lie.

Review – Restrepo

I watched a NatGeo documentary last night called “Restrepo.” It’s about the conditions and objectives of a small US Army platoon in the mountainous wilderness of Afghanistan.

Very little happens in this movie over its 1.5hr runtime. There is a lot of buildup and talk about how often the base is attacked, and this is depicted several times, but overall nothing happens. I don’t know if this was an intentional part of the plot (“the futility of the Restrepo mission”) or if it’s bad editing or belies a fraud about the claims being made in the film about what it is like for these troops, but it is not entertaining. And by that I don’t mean, “Gee, I wish there were more poor, dumb soldiers getting wasted in this real life documentary” but rather, “Gee, what am I getting out of watching this film?”

That being said, this is not good propaganda for the US government’s desire to nation-build overseas. Why does the military allow journalists and documentarians to embed with their troops? Restrepo is an offshoot of a slightly larger but still insignificant base tasked with enlarging the “security bubble” in the area so that a road can be safely built connecting two hapless economic regions into one, which is supposed to bring jobs, incomes and peace and happiness to the land. Every bit of tactical maneuver in war seems really stupid when studied by itself — “50 men gave their lives for a bridge that was ultimately destroyed by the enemy anyway, why did 50 men die for a bridge?” — but the Restrepo mission seems especially stupid not because these men are fighting and dying and accidentally murdering local civilians for an unbuilt road, but because the premise behind building the road is itself very stupid. Do the local Afghans even WANT this road? If they did, why didn’t they build it before the US Army showed up?

Is military Keynesianism a viable structure for developing foreign economies? Keynesianism doesn’t seem to work to develop domestic economies. And the military, professional murderers and demolishers, don’t seem to be the right people to task with building things, let alone people’s economies. Wouldn’t it make more sense to send overwhelming military force through the area, wipe out/expel the organized Taliban elements and then let civilian diplomats and construction contractors come through and negotiate new power structures and infrastructure plans?

The Korengal Valley itself, where the drama unfolds, is truly magnificent geography. It reminds me of the valleys I hiked on the Inca Trail in Peru on my way up to Macchu Picchu. In fact, the remoteness, the terraced cultivation and the “primitive” lifestyle and social organization of the Afghans looked nearly identical to what I saw in Peru. It seems like a perfectly nice place for the locals to live and you get the insane idea watching the movie that they never asked for the US Army to invade their territory and murder their wives and children in helicopter gunship assaults, and they’re not all that thankful for their service now that they’ve shown up. Would it be unpatriotic, dare I say even treasonous, to suggest that the Afghans are getting a raw deal here and it’s hard to wonder why they wouldn’t want to overtly or covertly support the Taliban in these circumstances?

That old quip about “I’m from the government, and I’m here to help you” runs hard through the film’s narrative. We see again and again the way the local commander makes big promises and doesn’t follow through– he murders a guy’s cow and offers no agreeable compensation, he disappears a local who he suspects of being an accomplice of the Taliban and then offers the vague assurance that he’s being treated nicely and will soon return though he doesn’t, and he responds to an attack by calling in a fire mission on a neighboring village that kills and maims several women and small children. I don’t care who someone is fighting for, if I had to hold the charred body of my innocent two year old in my arms and watch a bunch of crude monkeys rifle through the smoking remains of my home looking for contraband after such an incident, I think I’d lose my shit.

And what IS the best solution to murdering someone’s cow, anyway? If you could get your higher-ups to release the $400-500 cash to pay the guy back (I think the village elders took the US Army for a ride on that request, by the way, there is no way a cow is worth half a grand in the mountains of Afghanistan) doesn’t that incentivize them to let more of their cattle wander into your concertina wire whenever they lack liquidity? And if you can’t get that cash released, aren’t you guaranteed to keep pissing off the locals while insisting you’re there to win hearts and minds?

The long and the short of it is that imperialism is a terrible idea in the first place, but the United States government isn’t even good at imperialism. It is very half-hearted and half-assed in its attempts to brutalize and control foreign peoples and spends more time apologizing and groveling about its numerous mistakes than making any meaningful progress in terms of rapine and pillage. It makes you wonder the whole time how such a pointless and ineffectual system can sustain itself, until you realize that the people who are really getting mulcted in this process are the guileless American people “back home.”

And the poor, dumb US foot soldier is the tool used to tug at those people’s heart strings while picking their pockets clean. “Thank you for your service,” indeed.

The Nationalization of Commerce

To have production goods in the economic sense, ie, to make them serve one’s own economic purposes, it is not necessary to have them physically in the way that one must have consumption goods if one is to use them up or use them lastingly. To drink coffee I do not need to own a coffee plantation in Brazil, an ocean steamer, and a coffee roasting plant, though all these means of production must be used to bring a cup of coffee to my table. Sufficient that others own these means of production and employ them for me. In the society which divides labor no one is exclusive owner of the means of production, either of the material things or of the personal element, capacity to work. All means of production render services to everyone who buys and sells on the market.

~Ludwig von Mises, [amazon text=Socialism&asin=0913966630] [PDF], pg. 41

We often hear international events described in an economic context, such as a “war for oil.” So I often used to wonder why people thought it was important which country’s government controlled various resources around the globe. As the quote from Mises above demonstrates, one need not own or control a resource for one’s self to make economic benefit of it. Just like I can make beneficial use of the capital of Amazon by purchasing goods and services from it without owning Amazon’s capital myself, a country of people, like the US, can benefit from the oil “belonging” to another country, Iraq, without militarily dominating or conquering them.

In fact, the oil in Iraq isn’t of much value to the people in Iraq if they don’t sell it to other people outside of Iraq.  A place like Iraq is so rich in oil resources that there is far more oil there than the people of Iraq will ever conceivably need or use. Meanwhile, they’re relatively poor in other valuable goods, such as foodstuffs which can’t be grown in their arid landscapes, or manufactured computer electronics, which they might lack the local expertise or even capital structure to produce on their own. By trading their oil for these goods, they’re better off, their trading partners are better off, and each gets the benefit of the other’s “means of production” without politically controlling them.

So how can we make sense of things like a “war for oil”? If not the economics of the market, where do these claims for the need for national governments to control resources and commercial transactions stem from?

I can think of three related phenomena:

  • the need for tax revenues by States
  • the need for war material by States
  • the need for direct revenues by States

The first idea is probably the primary driver of the argument for control. Except in special cases, most States at most times are only capable of levying taxes on the assets and incomes of their own citizens. For example, the government of Spain can not tax the citizens of France. Now, they may attempt to enforce laws which allow them to tax the citizens or companies of France operating within their own political boundaries, ie, a French citizen working in Madrid, or a French company operating a factory in Valencia. But the Spanish government is unable to tax a French citizen working in Paris, or a French company operating in Singapore.

But all governments, all the time, desire more tax revenues rather than less. So how to generate tax revenue on economic activity occurring outside a State’s political boundaries? By affecting a change of control of the assets or income streams of “foreign” entities, either by treaty or by war, a State can come to mulct a greater sphere of economic activity than simply that which exists within its outstanding political boundaries.

An Iraqi oil company operating wells in Iraq does not generate tax revenues for the US Treasury. But a US oil company operating wells in Iraq does generate tax revenues for the US Treasury. While in a broad economic sense it doesn’t matter to a US citizen (or an Iraqi citizen) which company controls the oil well, in a political sense it matters a great deal because it means a difference in where the tax revenues go (we’re simplifying our analysis here by assuming a similar level of technical competence, reinvestment rate, tax rate, corruption/wastage rate, etc., regardless of which national operates the well). The need for greater tax revenues incentivizes all states to prefer economic assets and trade flows to be controlled by their own citizenry and companies.

The second idea is reserved for the specific instance of war and highlights the strategic value of the national identity of an entity exploiting a resource. For example, most civil aeronautics legislation in most countries of the world contains a clause which restricts the foreign ownership of “local” commercial airlines operating large passenger aircraft inside the country. An airline like Virgin America, whose routes are primarily between locations in the US, might be restricted from being majority owned by a foreign national entity. The reason for this is that in the event of war, it is of strategic value to the United States government to be able to “mobilize” commercial passenger aircraft and commandeer them for transporting troops, supplies, etc. If these aircraft were majority owned by a foreign national, they might be able to legally escape them from the United States, or bring suit by their government for an act of theft. It could even lead to a declaration of war by the foreign national government. The need for war material, then, means it is extremely important for a State to have these assets owned by their own nationals to avoid strategic complications during a war. Otherwise, what would it matter what percent of an aircraft is owned by a foreigner?

The final idea is simply a reframing of the first. In some countries, the tradition or institution of direct taxation is weak or non-existent, and the State funds itself by actively controlling economic assets and using the revenues to fund its general budget. For example, Venezuela has a national oil company, as does Saudi Arabia– a large part of the State’s budget comes from the oil revenues generated by direct control of these companies. In that case, the State has a strong incentive to try to directly control economic assets to fund its operations; instead of being concerned about its national companies exploring and operating oil wells in “foreign” jurisdictions, then, it itself is concerned with such activity.

I call these ideas the “nationalization of commerce”, because it helps to explain the political reasons why the national identity of various commercial entities is important, when clearly there is no economic reason. I believe the nationalization of commerce also helps us understand why it is so rare for a State to participate in a true free trade arrangement– agreeing to free trade means letting the market dictate which national commercial entities are most successful at owning and operating assets and determining trade flows, which means the States involved have to adjust to accepting whatever tax revenue might come of such patterns which might develop within their political boundaries, and nothing more.

Review – Father, Son & Co.

Father, Son & Co.: My Life at IBM and Beyond

by Thomas Watson, Jr., published 1990

The son of IBM’s founder, Thomas Watson Jr.’s “Father, Son & Co.” is many things: a collection of folksy business wisdom passed down by his father, memories and recollections of his participation as an airman in World War II and later a US diplomatic career in the USSR, a story about the challenges of growing a global business, lessons in leadership and team building, the pitfalls of transforming an business organization from small scale to large scale and, most importantly, a personal reflection on the value of family. It was most interesting and entertaining for me to read when it dealt with business and some of the personal issues of the author in trying to prove himself in the shadow of a legendary father; I found it less enjoyable and less authentic when the author dabbled in politics or retold sappy anecdotes about popular political figures of his era with whom he had had personal relationships.

The Business of IBM

The axis around which the story revolves is not Tom Watson, Jr., and it’s not Tom Watson, Sr. It’s the company which Senior grew and transformed into IBM, and which Junior effected the change over to actual computing technology in the 1960s, that the book is really about. But because Junior’s and Senior’s personalities, families, fortunes and lives were so wrapped up in the affairs of IBM, it becomes about all of those things in turn as well. That is somewhat surprising because the book is ostensibly a memoir by Junior, yet the gravity of IBM is hard to ignore in nearly every chapter of the book.

When Senior joined on with the company as general manager and, shortly thereafter, president, IBM (then Computing-Tabulating-Record Company) was an important concern but not necessarily a large one. Senior had a vision for it and something of an indomitable will, and he had experienced enough success and failure on his own in other ventures that he had an idea of what it would take to create the vision he had for the company. He built a large, organized and polished sales force, instilled high morale and unity of purpose by creating training programs, achievement awards, national sales team conventions and even company songs that everyone had to sing. He also, like many strong-willed founders, created something of a cult of personality around himself, putting his picture up at IBM offices and facilities, writing memos that were distributed widely to all staff and constantly visiting field offices and manufacturing facilities and “pressing the flesh” with company men and their wives and children, creating a kind of endearing aura of patriarchy.

In later years this intuitive, personality-driven approach was deemed problematic by Junior and other successor senior executives who believed that Senior had created a culture and cadre of Yes Men and hadn’t implemented enough standards and professional protocols that could create stability for growth. But for decades of the company’s history (essentially the first half, to date) this approach seemed to work, and fantastically so. Company publications like “Business Machines” and sales achievement distinctions like the “Hundred Percent Club” put the company’s focus on employee well-being and professionalism and incentivized outstanding achievement in the dawn of the era of lifetime commitment to big companies.

Something that shocked me as I read was how much of IBM’s growth could be attributed to solving statistical problems for the US and other national governments:

IBM more than doubled in size during the New Deal… Social Security… made Uncle Sam IBM’s biggest customer.

Wow! I suppose someone else could’ve come up with the technology as well, but it is kind of amazing to think that the evil New Deal and the disastrous Social Security pyramid scheme would have been too burdensome to administer without the existence of IBM tabulating machines which were a major time saver. It reminds me of Palantir Technologies, which helps the NSA, CIA and other foreign governments conduct surveillance work on target populations, another way to profit off of coercive interference in society’s affairs.

This trend didn’t stop with the New Deal but only started there. During WW2 the company converted many of their factories to help produce armaments (a fairly common industrial practice during the time, but still remarkable) and after the war one of the big incentives (and indeed, initial sources of research funding) for switching the company’s focus to electronic computing solutions were the ongoing “national defense” needs of the US military as the Cold War wore on.

Words of wisdom

I enjoyed the many old-timey nuggets of wisdom and rules about manners sprinkled throughout the book which were mostly remembrances of Junior of things Senior had said to him as he raised him or mentored him in the business. For example, Junior talks about the first time he road a cross-country train with his father on a business trip and the way his father taught him to clean up the wash basin in the bathroom of the railroad car to be considerate of others. “The person coming after you will judge you by how the place is left,” he tells him as he uses a towel to wipe down the basin before and after shaving in it. He talks about the importance of leaving the basin in a clean state so that the next person will have “the same chance you had”. There is a deep moral lesson here that goes well beyond the world of men shaving– this is a version of the Golden Rule, not just considering how upsetting it would be to have someone leave a place in a state of disarray for you, but then following that logic through to performing a service voluntarily for other people in trying to leave the world a little bit nicer than you found it.

In another instance, Senior lectures Junior about the practical reasons for treating even the “lowly” members of society in a kindly and generous fashion:

There is a whole class of people in the world who are in a position to poor-mouth you unless you are sensitive to them. They are the headwaiters, Pullman car conductors, porters and chauffeurs. They see you in an intimate fashion and can really knock off your reputation.

Those who enjoy shows like Downton Abbey are familiar with the idea that the “servants” of the world end up having an interesting amount of power and leverage over those they serve because they are so familiar with them they know their weaknesses, secrets and bad habits. There is something noble and self-aware in Senior’s advice here– a cultivated awareness of the reality of power and influence, mixed with a genuine empathy for treating even the relatively less fortunate with respect and concern. It might be read as “These people could really knife you if you don’t pay attention” but I think it is also honestly read as “Don’t forget these are people, too, and they want and need kindness regardless of their station in life.”

Another endearing moment comes when Senior teaches Junior about how he manages his executives:

“Well, I haven’t shaken up So-and-so for a while. So I’ll get him in and ask some questions about his department and in the process part his hair a little. He’ll get a pat on the back if I find something good or a kick in the tail if I find something bad.”

The imagery of “parting someone’s hair” says a lot about the relative authority of the two people in this “process” and while kicking someone in the tail sounds like bullying, it was clear that Senior gave quite a few pats on the back, as well, and when he dished out the ass-kickings, they might have been deserved– these were grown men dealing with a multi-million dollar business, after all, and if they weren’t bringing their problems to Senior’s attention but rather waiting for him to discover them, shame on them.

In teaching Junior about how to be an executive, Senior advised “what a chief executive does outside his business is just as important as what he does at his desk”, which was another idea I found interesting. I’ve been skeptical in the past of chief executives who seem to spend more time glad-handing than running the business. But I’ve come to appreciate that a lot of running a business simply is taking care of relationships– with customers, employees, vendors and even members of the local community. IBM’s business was dependent upon political grace, so there is perhaps a more sinister side to this advice from the standpoint of simply being a businessman but it was an interesting idea to ponder, nonetheless, that the chief executive’s identity and role extend beyond his office hours.

Senior was clearly a hard-driver and a hard-charger himself. So I was interested to hear about his daily routine:

He had his day set up so that he got up at seven, played tennis from seven-thirty to eight-thirty to stay in shape, got to work on time, did his work, went home, read great books for an hour, had dinner, listened to classical music for a while, and went to bed.

Senior ended up dying of starvation; his stomach was so scarred from stress-induced ulcers that it essentially closed up and wouldn’t let enough food in, and he didn’t want to go under the knife and so chose a fairly painful death by starvation (more on health issues in a moment). But despite this, he lived to age 82! I think that’s still considered a long time to live and I am always curious what a person’s habits were when I hear of such longevity, so it was pleasing to see that he put emphasis on daily physical activity as well as daily relaxing, contemplative activity (reading and music listening). Interestingly, breakfast didn’t seem to play a large part in his routine although Junior recounts many times when he had lunch brought in despite it being ignored in this telling.

A few other choice ideas, on restraint:

What you haven’t said, you can say anytime.

And on the value of friendship:

Don’t make friends who are comfortable to be with. Make friends who will force you to lever yourself up.

The son also rises

So, Senior had a knack for keen insight, but what about Junior?

While Senior was the builder, Junior was the administrator and manager. He seemed to take what he learned from Senior and build on it, so many of his notions seemed like continuations of the thoughts of Senior. For example, consider Senior’s advice about how chief executives should behave as Junior extemporizes about the relationships of businessmen:

A good businessman needs a lot of friends. Cultivating them is a laborious process, and how well you succeed is a direct result of how much effort and thoughtfulness you bring to bear.

He isn’t talking about friends in the business. He’s talking about friends outside of the business, which to me sounds like an echo of the idea that the chief executive’s job extends well beyond life in the office.

Similarly, he recounts a tale about the importance of making good introductions,

I stuck out my hand and said to him, “I’m Tom Watson Jr.”

Offering one’s name with a hand shake ensures that the other person is not put in the uncomfortable spot of being expected to remember people he’s only met once before, which engenders a sense of gratitude and respect immediately. Consider that this was the practice of an individual leading one of the largest and most well-known companies in the world and he still made the effort to be forward about his identity like this.

I also made a note of Junior’s characterization of the political structure of business:

The government has checks and balances, but a business is a dictatorship, and that is what makes it really move.

I think there is consensus building in business, too. It’s hard to keep a team cohesive and productive over a long period of time if people don’t feel like they contribute ideas and that those ideas get seriously considered. But I do understand the idea that ultimately decisions have to be made by somebody, that is, one person, and a business with a strong will behind it can make those decisions more effectively because everyone may be listened to but they don’t necessarily all get a vote. In the business world, people tend to vote by exit which is rarely an option in the world of politics.

The wealth of health

As mentioned earlier, Senior ended up choosing death by starvation when his health maladies caught up with him, though he made it to age 82. I noticed that both Junior and his younger brother (who headed up IBM’s non-US business) suffered heart attacks in their middle-age, attributed to the high stress of their positions.

Junior describes a life of almost continual travel and social functions, not just for himself but for his father and his brother. It was clear reading the book that the Watson clan and IBM executive leadership in general were part of the “global elite”, they knew dignitaries and heads of state from around the planet and were deeply connected to American political figures as well, a confusing blending of public and private prerogatives and relationships. There were many chapters where Junior described so many different locales and travels simultaneously that is almost seemed as if he was everywhere at once– at the very least he would spend long stretches of time away from home engaged in high level networking. It was a fascinating glimpse into “how the other half lives.”

But it was also terrifying from a health point of view. It is just hard to imagine this high-paced lifestyle allowing one to live with optimal health and longevity. Along with suffering a heart attack, his brother seemed to be frail enough to die from a “fall” at age 55. Junior ended up quitting his official business responsibilities following his heart attack which he reflects on with positivity in the book, saying it was a relief to have an opportunity to look critically at his life and get out while he still could. It seems to say a lot about the lifestyle he was living that he could so clearly connect his longevity to his work and chose the former over the latter.

Working with family

At the beginning of the book, Junior says that if you have the chance to go into business with your father, know that it will be difficult, but do it. I was fascinated by this strong suggestion given that he spends much of the rest of the book relating all the violent disagreements he had with his father, their latent power struggles, the continual struggles with self-esteem and even depression that he experienced living and working under the shadow of his successful father and so on.

There were many touching moments in the book where the reader is afforded a look at the parenting practices of Senior, who was truly from a pre-modern era. But there were also many that shocked my sensibilities of the proper relationship between parent and child, such as when Junior recalled how Senior handled tax documentation of his personal trust:

Each year his accountant would come around and have me sign income tax forms that were blank. He’d make an excuse that he hadn’t had time yet to fill them out. This kept up not only through college but ten years beyond, until I was a grown man with children of my own.

How would hiding this information from a child do anything but stoke their curiosity, fear and self-criticism? Why did this practice continue on even when he was a man with his own family (at which point he had long been a part of the business in a senior role)?

While the book offered many such puzzles and glimpses into family life for the accomplished Watsons, I couldn’t help but wonder how people who had achieved such greatness in so many areas had completely neglected to resolve interpersonal emotional conflicts and instead struggled with this source of unhappiness for decades. What is family for?

For me, reading about the early struggles and the early attempts at growth are always the most interesting parts of a story like Thomas Watson, Jr.’s, and IBM’s in general. I found myself less interested in what it was like being Bobby Kennedy’s friend, or getting tapped for the ambassadorship in Moscow. You can look at the history of the company and of the family and think, “It could’ve been anyone else, it’s not clear what they did that was special or unique beyond being lucky” but you can’t say they didn’t work hard, or purposefully. There’s no simple recipes or formulas for success in this book when it comes to business, family or life, but there are a number of things to think about, struggles that turn out to be common to all of us, great or small in our vision or accomplishments. I think that is where the value in this book lay for me.