The New Robber Barons

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For Mihm this is indicative of the inability of individual enterprises to sacrifice their own efficiency for the good of the industry. In the long run, however, even the most stalwart Boston bankers were unwilling to pay dues to preserve the integrity of American currency. The Civil War and the period of vigorous federal activism it precipitated undermined counterfeiting and created a reliable currency by evoking confidence in the American nation state.

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Then Secretary of the Treasury, Samuel Chase, used patriotic imagery to make the greenback a symbol of the Union, in the process reducing popular support for counterfeiting. At the same time, William Wood formed the Secret Service to protect the sanctity of the greenback.


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Wood had little legal authority for his crusade, a fact which seems to have furthered his zeal in the war on counterfeiting. Chase was able to decouple the greenback from hard specie, a necessary task in the context of massive war spending, by backing it with something more substantial—confidence in the American nation. The Confederacy, conversely, never developed a stable and trusted currency, undermining its economic authority and contributing to its collapse. But the change was not born out of natural market conditions or the wise decisions of executives. There was no meaningful demand for the change until the Civil War forced an institutional crisis.

Even then, the political entrepreneurship of Samuel Chase and William Wood was required to affect the change.

Under normal circumstances, Americans would have been hesitant to accept a form of currency that was not backed by specie, but Chase had adeptly turned the greenback into a national symbol. The word first came into usage in maritime trade, where captains insured their goods against damage. Risk management was important, perhaps even essential, for underwriting the transatlantic slave trade, but the application of laws designed to insure inanimate commodities because precarious when slaves exhibited unique features — rebellion, for example.

Insurance increasingly covered complex and intangible objects as the perils of the sea became commonplace on land. Life insurance protected free labor, and banks marketed savings plans as all-purpose safety nets. Levy follows with chapters on farm mortgages and fraternal associations. The story of risk management reached its conclusion with the oligopolistic corporation, an entity that possessed the power to control economic downturns and to establish welfare provisions for its employees.

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The New Deal state ultimately obviated the better part of the economic insecurity Americans had been subject to, though, beginning in the s, a new epoch of speculative gambling began to take shape. Levy highlights the role that the court system played in shaping the insurance industry. Boston and Worchester R. In that decision Chief Justice Lemuel Shaw ruled against a worker suing for accident compensation and laid the foundation for the insurance industry. It loosed rules which made insurance valid only when applied to tangible commodities.

Within a few years, life insurance companies sprouted around the country to insure the labor of those engaged in dangerous professions.

Robber Barons

Fraternal orders had assessed contributions when their members needed assistance; reserve funds were kept by insurance companies for investment. The fraternals objected to what they perceived as speculative investments, potentially compromising the security of their funds, but the courts left them little choice in the matter.

Derivatives, as they are sometimes known, effectively consist of bets on fluctuations in commodity prices, but Holmes, with his pragmatic legal philosophy, recognized that they were able to protect farmers from changes in the price of their goods. In southern society, the slaves were supposedly provided for by their masters in instances of old age and debilitating illness.

Levy profiles Elizur Wright, a prominent abolitionist and leading figure in the actuarial science of probabilistic life insurance.

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It was an individual responsibility that both accorded with and facilitated free labor. Risk had its up-sides; taking a stake in the market meant the possibility of accruing enormous profits. Protecting oneself against catastrophe was the necessary consequence of engaging in that game of chance. Levy notes that risk is not coterminous with meritocracy, that it, in fact, undermined the Horatio Alger myth by suggesting that wealth is often accrued by sheer luck. Levy notes that the producerist tradition, because it valued the products of manual labor, treated profits from risk as unearned speculation, but he does not engaged with that conflict in a sustained way.

Levy dedicates a whole chapter to the yeoman farmer who traditionally hedged risk by investing in physical capital land and by reserving much of his property for subsistence production. That changed when mortgages forced farmers to produce for the market and to buy life insurance so that they could cover their debts should the worst befall them. The individual ownership of risk came under a more sustained and serious assault from the monopolistic firm.

Perkins believed that large corporations could better handle the risk of financial instability than average Americans and that, under the right circumstances, they could manage the economy to prevent downturns.

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Corporate greed and the new robber barons

Perkins was particularly influenced by the role he and J. Morgan played in stabilizing the economy during the panic of He worked in close coordination with Theodore Roosevelt to ensure that monopolies continued to have the market power to prevent downturns. In his own firms he designed welfare systems to protect workers against misfortune. He argues that the anti-foundationalism of American pragmatism owes its origins, in part, to the probabilistic theory of truth implicit in the actuarial tables of insurance companies. Louis Menand has demonstrated that pragmatism was influenced by probability theory, but Levy adds that the popularity of mathematical notions of truth owed their existence to the salience of risk in American culture.

The argument does not hold as well for William James, who was perhaps the most important popularizer of American pragmatism. Yet most of the computers and smartphones sold by Silicon Valley companies are still being built abroad — to mostly silence from progressive watchdogs. In the case of the cobalt mining that is necessary for the production of lithium-ion batteries in electric cars, thousands of child laborers in Southern Africa are worked to exhaustion.

Few seem to care that West Coast conglomerates such as Amazon, Apple, Google and Starbucks filtered hundreds of billions in global profits through tax havens such as Bermuda, shorting the United States billions of dollars in income taxes. Yet today, the riches of multibillionaires dwarf the wealth of their 19th-century predecessors. Most West Coast corporate wealth was accumulated by good old-fashioned American efforts to achieve monopolies and stifle competition. Yet there are no modern-day progressive muckrakers in the spirit of Upton Sinclair, Frank Norris and Lincoln Steffens, warning of the dangers of techie monopolies or the astronomical accumulation of wealth.

Conservatives have no problem with anyone doing well, so their silence is understandable. But in the Obama era, the nation received all sorts of progressive lectures on the downsides of being super-rich. The tech and social media industries pride themselves on their counterculture transparency, their informality and their s-like allegiance to free thought and free speech. Yet Google just fired one of its engineers for simply questioning the company line that sexual discrimination and bias alone account for the dearth of female Silicon Valley engineers.

What followed were not voices of protest. On matters such as avoiding unionization, driving up housing prices, snagging crony-capitalist subsidies from the government and ignoring the effects of products on public safety such as texting while driving , Silicon Valley is about as reactionary as they come.

Our new J. Executives in flip-flops and tie-dyes can get away with building walls around their multiple mansions in a way that a steel executive in a suit and tie might not. The new elite are overwhelmingly left-wing. They head off criticism by investing mostly in the Democratic Party, the traditional font of social and political criticism of corporate wealth.

In , for example, Obama won Silicon Valley by more than 40 percentage points.


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Of the political donations to presidential candidates that year from employees at Google and Apple, over 90 percent went to Obama. One of the legacies of the Obama era was the triumph of green advocacy and identity politics over class. No one has grasped that reality better that the new billionaire barons of the West Coast. As long as they appeared cool, as they long as they gave lavishly to left-wing candidates, and as long as they mouthed liberal platitudes on global warming, gay marriage, abortion and identity politics, they earned exemption from progressive scorn.

The result was that they outsourced, offshored, monopolized, censored and made billions — without much fear of media muckraking, trust-busting politicians, unionizing activists or diversity lawsuits. Show Caption.

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